Hollow Men, Hollow Markets, Hollow World
April 2, 2014
I’m sitting in the British Airways lounge at Heathrow terminal 5, or in other words in my usual office, and trying to catch up on my reading. I was particularly intrigued by my good friend and economic philosopher Ben Hunt’s latest Epsilon Theory post, which he calls “Hollow Men, Hollow Markets, Hollow World.” As he points out, an increasingly smaller portion of trading in the markets is between individuals looking to actually own a fractional portion of a public company for the long term. Instead, trading is gravitating to machines competing with each other in milliseconds and for a profit of milli-cents.
I get the rationale behind the supposed benefits of high-speed trading; but I have to confess, I just don’t buy it. If it was just another way to truly profit from normal commercial activity, I would pretty much have a hands-off attitude. But from everything I can see, high-speed trading is sucking billions of dollars out of the market that would otherwise go to individuals and institutions who are actually there to serve what was once the purpose of Wall Street: to provide new companies with capital and individuals with the chance to participate in the growth of the country. High-frequency trading is a zero-sum game. It takes money from “us” and gives it to funds with instant access to the exchanges.
The fact that high-frequency trading does not work half a mile across the Hudson River because even that short distance slows down the transactions too much, is testimony to the fact that something is truly out of whack. When the speed of light is a barrier to entry, you know we have entered a new era. I am not one to stand in front of the accelerating wave of technology and cry “Stop!” I am rather simpleminded, and it seems to me that if you simply instituted a rule that all buy and sell offers have to at least exist for an outrageous amount of time like one half second, that it would at least begin to level the playing field. The fact that large institutions are gravitating to exchanges where high-frequency trading is not allowed is evidence that the deck is stacked against the smaller investor. A point here and a point there, and pretty soon you’re talking real money.
But in today’s OTB, Ben Hunt doesn’t really focus all that much on high-frequency trading but rather on the fact that so much of economics and investing itself is hollow. Our job, he says, is to find the signal amidst all the noise. This is an Outside the Box that you will need to think through as opposed to merely read.
They will be calling my flight to South Africa in a few minutes. I’ve been thinking back over the ten times or so that I’ve flown to South Africa in the last 20 years. I first went there in the apartheid era. The moods in the country seem to shift with each visit. I can remember talking with people who were sure that South Africa would become the next Zimbabwe. “Apocalypse Now” could certainly describe the mood of those times. And then there are times when there is an optimism so intense it is hard not to get infected. I wonder how South Africa will feel this time.
Continue reading here.