A controversial new book came out in late March that lambastes so-called “high-frequency trading” on the major stock exchanges and claims that such computerized trading robs retail investors of good executions and profits on their stock orders. The book, “Flash Boys: A Wall Street Revolt,” was written by former bond salesman turned author, Michael Lewis, who appeared on CBS’ 60 Minutes on March 30. Since then, his book has stirred up quite the controversy among stock market investors.
Mr. Lewis has joined other critics who say that the booming high-frequency trading field, in which computers buy and sell stocks at lightning speed to take advantage of minute changes in prices, has essentially rigged the market against small investors. Lewis and other critics charge that high-frequency traders are essentially “front-running” investors’ orders – a practice that is otherwise illegal.
Today, I will make the counter-argument that high-frequency trading is actually good for retail investors in that it greatly increases trading volume, narrows “bid-ask” spreads and enhances trade execution for most of us. I’ll cite a recent example wherein the Toronto Stock Exchange restricted high-frequency trading and overall market volume plunged by 30%, thus resulting in worse trade executions for most individual investors.
As a result of the latest high-frequency trading controversy, these groups are being investigated by the FBI, the SEC, the New York Attorney General and of late, the Justice Department, and I’m all for that. There probably are some abuses that need to be eliminated. Yet I hope the regulators will not make the assumption that all high-frequency trading is bad for retail investors, as Mr. Lewis concludes.