Malignant Acceleration in Tech-Finance. Some Further Rumination on Regulations. Thought of the Day 72.1

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Regardless of the positive effects of HFT that offers, such as reduced spreads, higher liquidity, and faster price discovery, its negative side is mostly what has caught people’s attention. Several notorious market failures and accidents in recent years all seem to be related to HFT practices. They showed how much risk HFT can involve and how huge the damage can be.

HFT heavily depends on the reliability of the trading algorithms that generate, route, and execute orders. High-frequency traders thus must ensure that these algorithms have been tested completely and thoroughly before they are deployed into the live systems of the financial markets. Any improperly-tested, or prematurely-released algorithms may cause losses to both investors and the exchanges. Several examples demonstrate the extent of the ever-present vulnerabilities.

In August 2012, the Knight Capital Group implemented a new liquidity testing software routine into its trading system, which was running live on the NYSE. The system started making bizarre trading decisions, quadrupling the price of one company, Wizzard Software, as well as bidding-up the price of much larger entities, such as General Electric. Within 45 minutes, the company lost USD 440 million. After this event and the weakening of Knight Capital’s capital base, it agreed to merge with another algorithmic trading firm, Getco, which is the biggest HFT firm in the U.S. today. This example emphasizes the importance of implementing precautions to ensure their algorithms are not mistakenly used.

Another example is Everbright Securities in China. In 2013, state-owned brokerage firm, Everbright Securities Co., sent more than 26,000 mistaken buy orders to the Shanghai Stock Exchange (SSE of RMB 23.4 billion (USD 3.82 billion), pushing its benchmark index up 6 % in two minutes. This resulted in a trading loss of approximately RMB 194 million (USD 31.7 million). In a follow-up evaluative study, the China Securities Regulatory Commission (CSRC) found that there were significant flaws in Everbright’s information and risk management systems.

The damage caused by HFT errors is not limited to specific trading firms themselves, but also may involve stock exchanges and the stability of the related financial market. On Friday, May 18, 2012, the social network giant, Facebook’s stock was issued on the NASDAQ exchange. This was the most anticipated initial public offering (IPO) in its history. However, technology problems with the opening made a mess of the IPO. It attracted HFT traders, and very large order flows were expected, and before the IPO, NASDAQ was confident in its ability to deal with the high volume of orders.

But when the deluge of orders to buy, sell and cancel trades came, NASDAQ’s trading software began to fail under the strain. This resulted in a 30-minute delay on NASDAQ’s side, and a 17-second blackout for all stock trading at the exchange, causing further panic. Scrutiny of the problems immediately led to fines for the exchange and accusations that HFT traders bore some responsibility too. Problems persisted after opening, with many customer orders from institutional and retail buyers unfilled for hours or never filled at all, while others ended up buying more shares than they had intended. This incredible gaffe, which some estimates say cost traders USD 100 million, eclipsed NASDAQ’s achievement in getting Facebook’s initial IPO, the third largest IPO in U.S. history. This incident has been estimated to have cost investors USD 100 million.

Another instance occurred on May 6, 2010, when U.S. financial markets were surprised by what has been referred to ever since as the “Flash Crash” Within less than 30 minutes, the main U.S. stock markets experienced the single largest price declines within a day, with a decline of more than 5 % for many U.S.-based equity products. In addition, the Dow Jones Industrial Average (DJIA), at its lowest point that day, fell by nearly 1,000 points, although it was followed by a rapid rebound. This brief period of extreme intraday volatility demonstrated the weakness of the structure and stability of U.S. financial markets, as well as the opportunities for volatility-focused HFT traders. Although a subsequent investigation by the SEC cleared high-frequency traders of directly having caused the Flash Crash, they were still blamed for exaggerating market volatility, withdrawing liquidity for many U.S.-based equities (FLASH BOYS).

Since the mid-2000s, the average trade size in the U.S. stock market had plummeted, the markets had fragmented, and the gap in time between the public view of the markets and the view of high-frequency traders had widened. The rise of high-frequency trading had been accompanied also by a rise in stock market volatility – over and above the turmoil caused by the 2008 financial crisis. The price volatility within each trading day in the U.S. stock market between 2010 and 2013 was nearly 40 percent higher than the volatility between 2004 and 2006, for instance. There were days in 2011 in which volatility was higher than in the most volatile days of the dot-com bubble. Although these different incidents have different causes, the effects were similar and some common conclusions can be drawn. The presence of algorithmic trading and HFT in the financial markets exacerbates the adverse impacts of trading-related mistakes. It may lead to extremely higher market volatility and surprises about suddenly-diminished liquidity. This raises concerns about the stability and health of the financial markets for regulators. With the continuous and fast development of HFT, larger and larger shares of equity trades were created in the U.S. financial markets. Also, there was mounting evidence of disturbed market stability and caused significant financial losses due to HFT-related errors. This led the regulators to increase their attention and effort to provide the exchanges and traders with guidance on HFT practices They also expressed concerns about high-frequency traders extracting profit at the costs of traditional investors and even manipulating the market. For instance, high-frequency traders can generate a large amount of orders within microseconds to exacerbate a trend. Other types of misconduct include: ping orders, which is using some orders to detect other hidden orders; and quote stuffing, which is issuing a large number of orders to create uncertainty in the market. HFT creates room for these kinds of market abuses, and its blazing speed and huge trade volumes make their detection difficult for regulators. Regulators have taken steps to increase their regulatory authority over HFT activities. Some of the problems that arose in the mid-2000s led to regulatory hearings in the United States Senate on dark pools, flash orders and HFT practices. Another example occurred after the Facebook IPO problem. This led the SEC to call for a limit up-limit down mechanism at the exchanges to prevent trades in individual securities from occurring outside of a specified price range so that market volatility will be under better control. These regulatory actions put stricter requirements on HFT practices, aiming to minimize the market disturbance when many fast trading orders occur within a day.

Regulating the Velocities of Dark Pools. Thought of the Day 72.0

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On 22 September 2010 the SEC chair Mary Schapiro signaled US authorities were considering the introduction of regulations targeted at HFT:

…High frequency trading firms have a tremendous capacity to affect the stability and integrity of the equity markets. Currently, however, high frequency trading firms are subject to very little in the way of obligations either to protect that stability by promoting reasonable price continuity in tough times, or to refrain from exacerbating price volatility.

However regulating an industry working towards moving as fast as the speed of light is no ordinary administrative task: – Modern finance is undergoing a fundamental transformation. Artificial intelligence, mathematical models, and supercomputers have replaced human intelligence, human deliberation, and human execution…. Modern finance is becoming cyborg finance – an industry that is faster, larger, more complex, more global, more interconnected, and less human. C W Lin proposes a number of principles for regulating this cyber finance industry:

  1. Update antiquated paradigms of reasonable investors and compartmentalised institutions, and confront the emerging institutional realities, and realise the old paradigms of governance of markets may be ill-suited for the new finance industry;
  2. Enhance disclosure which recognises the complexity and technological capacities of the new finance industry;
  3. Adopt regulations to moderate the velocities of finance realising that as these approach the speed of light they may contain more risks than rewards for the new financial industry;
  4. Introduce smarter coordination harmonising financial regulation beyond traditional spaces of jurisdiction.

Electronic markets will require international coordination, surveillance and regulation. The high-frequency trading environment has the potential to generate errors and losses at a speed and magnitude far greater than that in a floor or screen-based trading environment… Moreover, issues related to risk management of these technology-dependent trading systems are numerous and complex and cannot be addressed in isolation within domestic financial markets. For example, placing limits on high-frequency algorithmic trading or restricting Un-filtered sponsored access and co-location within one jurisdiction might only drive trading firms to another jurisdiction where controls are less stringent.

In these regulatory endeavours it will be vital to remember that all innovation is not intrinsically good and might be inherently dangerous, and the objective is to make a more efficient and equitable financial system, not simply a faster system: Despite its fast computers and credit derivatives, the current financial system does not seem better at transferring funds from savers to borrowers than the financial system of 1910. Furthermore as Thomas Piketty‘s Capital in the Twenty-First Century amply demonstrates any thought of the democratisation of finance induced by the huge expansion of superannuation funds together with the increased access to finance afforded by credit cards and ATM machines, is something of a fantasy, since levels of structural inequality have endured through these technological transformations. The tragedy is that under the guise of technological advance and sophistication we could be destroying the capacity of financial markets to fulfil their essential purpose, as Haldane eloquently states:

An efficient capital market transfers savings today into investment tomorrow and growth the day after. In that way, it boosts welfare. Short-termism in capital markets could interrupt this transfer. If promised returns the day after tomorrow fail to induce saving today, there will be no investment tomorrow. If so, long-term growth and welfare would be the casualty.

Momentum of Accelerated Capital. Note Quote.

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Distinct types of high frequency trading firms include independent proprietary firms, which use private funds and specific strategies which remain secretive, and may act as market makers generating automatic buy and sell orders continuously throughout the day. Broker-dealer proprietary desks are part of traditional broker-dealer firms but are not related to their client business, and are operated by the largest investment banks. Thirdly hedge funds focus on complex statistical arbitrage, taking advantage of pricing inefficiencies between asset classes and securities.

Today strategies using algorithmic trading and High Frequency Trading play a central role on financial exchanges, alternative markets, and banks‘ internalized (over-the-counter) dealings:

High frequency traders typically act in a proprietary capacity, making use of a number of strategies and generating a very large number of trades every single day. They leverage technology and algorithms from end-to-end of the investment chain – from market data analysis and the operation of a specific trading strategy to the generation, routing, and execution of orders and trades. What differentiates HFT from algorithmic trading is the high frequency turnover of positions as well as its implicit reliance on ultra-low latency connection and speed of the system.

The use of algorithms in computerised exchange trading has experienced a long evolution with the increasing digitalisation of exchanges:

Over time, algorithms have continuously evolved: while initial first-generation algorithms – fairly simple in their goals and logic – were pure trade execution algos, second-generation algorithms – strategy implementation algos – have become much more sophisticated and are typically used to produce own trading signals which are then executed by trade execution algos. Third-generation algorithms include intelligent logic that learns from market activity and adjusts the trading strategy of the order based on what the algorithm perceives is happening in the market. HFT is not a strategy per se, but rather a technologically more advanced method of implementing particular trading strategies. The objective of HFT strategies is to seek to benefit from market liquidity imbalances or other short-term pricing inefficiencies.

While algorithms are employed by most traders in contemporary markets, the intense focus on speed and the momentary holding periods are the unique practices of the high frequency traders. As the defence of high frequency trading is built around the principles that it increases liquidity, narrows spreads, and improves market efficiency, the high number of trades made by HFT traders results in greater liquidity in the market. Algorithmic trading has resulted in the prices of securities being updated more quickly with more competitive bid-ask prices, and narrowing spreads. Finally HFT enables prices to reflect information more quickly and accurately, ensuring accurate pricing at smaller time intervals. But there are critical differences between high frequency traders and traditional market makers:

  1. HFT do not have an affirmative market making obligation, that is they are not obliged to provide liquidity by constantly displaying two sides quotes, which may translate into a lack of liquidity during volatile conditions.
  2. HFT contribute little market depth due to the marginal size of their quotes, which may result in larger orders having to transact with many small orders, and this may impact on overall transaction costs.
  3. HFT quotes are barely accessible due to the extremely short duration for which the liquidity is available when orders are cancelled within milliseconds.

Besides the shallowness of the HFT contribution to liquidity, are the real fears of how HFT can compound and magnify risk by the rapidity of its actions:

There is evidence that high-frequency algorithmic trading also has some positive benefits for investors by narrowing spreads – the difference between the price at which a buyer is willing to purchase a financial instrument and the price at which a seller is willing to sell it – and by increasing liquidity at each decimal point. However, a major issue for regulators and policymakers is the extent to which high-frequency trading, unfiltered sponsored access, and co-location amplify risks, including systemic risk, by increasing the speed at which trading errors or fraudulent trades can occur.

Although there have always been occasional trading errors and episodic volatility spikes in markets, the speed, automation and interconnectedness of today‘s markets create a different scale of risk. These risks demand that exchanges and market participants employ effective quality management systems and sophisticated risk mitigation controls adapted to these new dynamics in order to protect against potential threats to market stability arising from technology malfunctions or episodic illiquidity. However, there are more deliberate aspects of HFT strategies which may present serious problems for market structure and functioning, and where conduct may be illegal, for example in order anticipation seeks to ascertain the existence of large buyers or sellers in the marketplace and then to trade ahead of those buyers and sellers in anticipation that their large orders will move market prices. A momentum strategy involves initiating a series of orders and trades in an attempt to ignite a rapid price move. HFT strategies can resemble traditional forms of market manipulation that violate the Exchange Act:

  1. Spoofing and layering occurs when traders create a false appearance of market activity by entering multiple non-bona fide orders on one side of the market at increasing or decreasing prices in order to induce others to buy or sell the stock at a price altered by the bogus orders.
  2. Painting the tape involves placing successive small amount of buy orders at increasing prices in order to stimulate increased demand.

  3. Quote Stuffing and price fade are additional HFT dubious practices: quote stuffing is a practice that floods the market with huge numbers of orders and cancellations in rapid succession which may generate buying or selling interest, or compromise the trading position of other market participants. Order or price fade involves the rapid cancellation of orders in response to other trades.

The World Federation of Exchanges insists: ― Exchanges are committed to protecting market stability and promoting orderly markets, and understand that a robust and resilient risk control framework adapted to today‘s high speed markets, is a cornerstone of enhancing investor confidence. However this robust and resilient risk control framework‘ seems lacking, including in the dark pools now established for trading that were initially proposed as safer than the open market.

Quantum Informational Biochemistry. Thought of the Day 71.0

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A natural extension of the information-theoretic Darwinian approach for biological systems is obtained taking into account that biological systems are constituted in their fundamental level by physical systems. Therefore it is through the interaction among physical elementary systems that the biological level is reached after increasing several orders of magnitude the size of the system and only for certain associations of molecules – biochemistry.

In particular, this viewpoint lies in the foundation of the “quantum brain” project established by Hameroff and Penrose (Shadows of the Mind). They tried to lift quantum physical processes associated with microsystems composing the brain to the level of consciousness. Microtubulas were considered as the basic quantum information processors. This project as well the general project of reduction of biology to quantum physics has its strong and weak sides. One of the main problems is that decoherence should quickly wash out the quantum features such as superposition and entanglement. (Hameroff and Penrose would disagree with this statement. They try to develop models of hot and macroscopic brain preserving quantum features of its elementary micro-components.)

However, even if we assume that microscopic quantum physical behavior disappears with increasing size and number of atoms due to decoherence, it seems that the basic quantum features of information processing can survive in macroscopic biological systems (operating on temporal and spatial scales which are essentially different from the scales of the quantum micro-world). The associated information processor for the mesoscopic or macroscopic biological system would be a network of increasing complexity formed by the elementary probabilistic classical Turing machines of the constituents. Such composed network of processors can exhibit special behavioral signatures which are similar to quantum ones. We call such biological systems quantum-like. In the series of works Asano and others (Quantum Adaptivity in Biology From Genetics to Cognition), there was developed an advanced formalism for modeling of behavior of quantum-like systems based on theory of open quantum systems and more general theory of adaptive quantum systems. This formalism is known as quantum bioinformatics.

The present quantum-like model of biological behavior is of the operational type (as well as the standard quantum mechanical model endowed with the Copenhagen interpretation). It cannot explain physical and biological processes behind the quantum-like information processing. Clarification of the origin of quantum-like biological behavior is related, in particular, to understanding of the nature of entanglement and its role in the process of interaction and cooperation in physical and biological systems. Qualitatively the information-theoretic Darwinian approach supplies an interesting possibility of explaining the generation of quantum-like information processors in biological systems. Hence, it can serve as the bio-physical background for quantum bioinformatics. There is an intriguing point in the fact that if the information-theoretic Darwinian approach is right, then it would be possible to produce quantum information from optimal flows of past, present and anticipated classical information in any classical information processor endowed with a complex enough program. Thus the unified evolutionary theory would supply a physical basis to Quantum Information Biology.

Belief Networks “Acyclicity”. Thought of the Day 69.0

Belief networks are used to model uncertainty in a domain. The term “belief networks” encompasses a whole range of different but related techniques which deal with reasoning under uncertainty. Both quantitative (mainly using Bayesian probabilistic methods) and qualitative techniques are used. Influence diagrams are an extension to belief networks; they are used when working with decision making. Belief networks are used to develop knowledge based applications in domains which are characterised by inherent uncertainty. Increasingly, belief network techniques are being employed to deliver advanced knowledge based systems to solve real world problems. Belief networks are particularly useful for diagnostic applications and have been used in many deployed systems. The free-text help facility in the Microsoft Office product employs Bayesian belief network technology. Within a belief network the belief of each node (the node’s conditional probability) is calculated based on observed evidence. Various methods have been developed for evaluating node beliefs and for performing probabilistic inference. Influence diagrams, which are an extension of belief networks, provide facilities for structuring the goals of the diagnosis and for ascertaining the value (the influence) that given information will have when determining a diagnosis. In influence diagrams, there are three types of node: chance nodes, which correspond to the nodes in Bayesian belief networks; utility nodes, which represent the utilities of decisions; and decision nodes, which represent decisions which can be taken to influence the state of the world. Influence diagrams are useful in real world applications where there is often a cost, both in terms of time and money, in obtaining information.

The basic idea in belief networks is that the problem domain is modelled as a set of nodes interconnected with arcs to form a directed acyclic graph. Each node represents a random variable, or uncertain quantity, which can take two or more possible values. The arcs signify the existence of direct influences between the linked variables, and the strength of each influence is quantified by a forward conditional probability.

The Belief Network, which is also called the Bayesian Network, is a directed acyclic graph for probabilistic reasoning. It defines the conditional dependencies of the model by associating each node X with a conditional probability P(X|Pa(X)), where Pa(X) denotes the parents of X. Here are two of its conditional independence properties:

1. Each node is conditionally independent of its non-descendants given its parents.

2. Each node is conditionally independent of all other nodes given its Markov blanket, which consists of its parents, children, and children’s parents.

The inference of Belief Network is to compute the posterior probability distribution

P(H|V) = P(H,V)/ ∑HP(H,V)

where H is the set of the query variables, and V is the set of the evidence variables. Approximate inference involves sampling to compute posteriors. The Sigmoid Belief Network is a type of the Belief Network such that

P(Xi = 1|Pa(Xi)) = σ( ∑Xj ∈ Pa(Xi) WjiXj + bi)

where Wji is the weight assigned to the edge from Xj to Xi, and σ is the sigmoid function.

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Reclaim Modernity: Beyond Markets, Beyond Machines (Mark Fisher & Jeremy Gilbert)

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It is understandable that the mainstream left has traditionally been suspicious of anti-bureaucratic politics. The Fabian tradition has always believed – has been defined by its belief – in the development and extension of an enlightened bureaucracy as the main vehicle of social progress. Attacking ‘bureaucracy’ has been – since at least the 1940s – a means by which the Right has attacked the very idea of public service and collective action. Since the early days of Thatcherism, there has been very good reason to become nervous whenever someone attacks bureaucracy, because such attacks are almost invariably followed by plans not for democratisation, but for privatisation.

Nonetheless, it is precisely this situation that has produced a certain paralysis of the Left in the face of one of its greatest political opportunities, an opportunity which it can only take if it can learn to speak an anti-bureaucratic language with confidence and conviction. On the one hand, this is a simple populist opportunity to unite constituencies within both the public and private sectors: simple, but potentially strategically crucial. As workers in both sectors and as users of public services, the public dislike bureaucracy and apparent over-regulation. The Left misses an enormous opportunity if it fails to capitalise on this dislike and transform it into a set of democratic demands.

On the other hand, anti-bureaucratism marks one of the critical points of failure and contradiction in the entire neoliberal project. For the truth is that neoliberalism has not kept its promise in this regard. It has not reduced the interference of managerial mechanisms and apparently pointless rules and regulations in the working life of public-sector professionals, or of public-service users, or of the vast majority of workers in the private sector. In fact it has led in many cases to an enormous proliferation and intensification of just these processes. Targets, performance indicators, quantitative surveys and managerial algorithms dominate more of life today than ever before, not less. The only people who really suffer less regulation than they did in the past are the agents of finance capital: banks, traders, speculators and fund managers.

Where de-regulation is a reality for most workers is not in their working lives as such, but in the removal of those regulations which once protected their rights to secure work, and to a decent life outside of work (pensions, holidays, leave entitlements, etc.). The precarious labour market is not a zone of freedom for such workers, but a space in which the fact of precarity itself becomes a mechanism of discipline and regulation. It only becomes a zone of freedom for those who already have enough capital to be able to choose when and where to work, or to benefit from the hyper-mobility and enforced flexibility of contemporary capitalism.

Reclaiming Modernity Beyond Markets Beyond Machines

Potential Synapses. Thought of the Day 52.0

For a neuron to recognize a pattern of activity it requires a set of co-located synapses (typically fifteen to twenty) that connect to a subset of the cells that are active in the pattern to be recognized. Learning to recognize a new pattern is accomplished by the formation of a set of new synapses collocated on a dendritic segment.

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Figure: Learning by growing new synapses. Learning in an HTM neuron is modeled by the growth of new synapses from a set of potential synapses. A “permanence” value is assigned to each potential synapse and represents the growth of the synapse. Learning occurs by incrementing or decrementing permanence values. The synapse weight is a binary value set to 1 if the permanence is above a threshold.

Figure shows how we model the formation of new synapses in a simulated Hierarchical Temporal Memory (HTM) neuron. For each dendritic segment we maintain a set of “potential” synapses between the dendritic segment and other cells in the network that could potentially form a synapse with the segment. The number of potential synapses is larger than the number of actual synapses. We assign each potential synapse a scalar value called “permanence” which represents stages of growth of the synapse. A permanence value close to zero represents an axon and dendrite with the potential to form a synapse but that have not commenced growing one. A 1.0 permanence value represents an axon and dendrite with a large fully formed synapse.

The permanence value is incremented and decremented using a Hebbian-like rule. If the permanence value exceeds a threshold, such as 0.3, then the weight of the synapse is 1, if the permanence value is at or below the threshold then the weight of the synapse is 0. The threshold represents the establishment of a synapse, albeit one that could easily disappear. A synapse with a permanence value of 1.0 has the same effect as a synapse with a permanence value at threshold but is not as easily forgotten. Using a scalar permanence value enables on-line learning in the presence of noise. A previously unseen input pattern could be noise or it could be the start of a new trend that will repeat in the future. By growing new synapses, the network can start to learn a new pattern when it is first encountered, but only act differently after several presentations of the new pattern. Increasing permanence beyond the threshold means that patterns experienced more than others will take longer to forget.

HTM neurons and HTM networks rely on distributed patterns of cell activity, thus the activation strength of any one neuron or synapse is not very important. Therefore, in HTM simulations we model neuron activations and synapse weights with binary states. Additionally, it is well known that biological synapses are stochastic, so a neocortical theory cannot require precision of synaptic efficacy. Although scalar states and weights might improve performance, they are not required from a theoretical point of view.