Kuttner on Stopping Wall Street's Speed Freaks

Robert Kuttner brings up the obvious solution to the problem of Goldman Sachs - or any other firm - reaping "profits" from computer-directed milli-second trading -- called High-Frequency Trading -- which as far as I'm concerned, is front-running, plain and simple.

Consider for a moment some first principles. The legitimate and efficient function of financial markets is to connect investors to entrepreneurs, and depositors to borrowers. There is no legitimate reason whatever for this to be done by the millisecond. At bottom, the process is pretty simple. The intermediary--the bank, savings institution, or investment bank makes its fees for making a judgment about risk and reward. How likely is the loan to be paid back? How high an interest rate should it charge? How should a new issue of securities be priced? The investor decides whether to indulge a taste for risk or for prudence.

But the hyperactive trading markets and creations of recent decades such as credit default swaps and high speed trading algorithms add nothing to the efficiency of financial markets. They add only two things--risk to the system, and the opportunity for insiders to reap windfall profits.

Therefore, whether or not Goldman's lawyers have figured out how it can engage in High Frequency Trading and stay within the law, there is a strong case that this entire brand of financial engineering should be prohibited. The whole game should be slowed down. Bona fide investors should get in line under the rule of first come, first served. Anything else should be considered illegal market manipulation. No dummy transactions. There is absolutely no gain to economic efficiency from having prices of securities change in milliseconds, and much gain to the opportunities for manipulation. . . .

. . . it is a mark of Wall Street's stranglehold on politics that the most sensible of remedies seem impossibly radical. One very good way to damp down the dictatorship of the traders, and raise some needed revenue along the way, would be through a punitively high transactions tax on very short term trades. Genuine investors should get favored fax treatment. Pure traders should be taxed, and very short term manipulation taxed into oblivion.

If the financial crisis has proven anything, it is that capital markets have become an insiders' game in which trading profits crowd out the legitimate business of investment. The whole business-models of the most lucrative firms on Wall Street are a menace to the rest of the economy. Until the Obama administration recognizes this most basic abuse and shuts it down, it will be more enabler than reformer.


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