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Adaptation From Flash Boys Offers Inside Look at High-Frequency Trading 246

Posted by samzenpus
from the rigged-game dept.
Lasrick (2629253) writes "This NYT adaptation from the book provides an in-depth and infuriating look at how the stock market is rigged. Brad Katsuyama of the Royal Bank of Canada couldn't understand why stock he was trying to buy would suddenly vanish: 'Before RBC acquired this supposed state-of-the-art electronic-trading firm, Katsuyama's computers worked as he expected them to. Suddenly they didn't. It used to be that when his trading screens showed 10,000 shares of Intel offered at $22 a share, it meant that he could buy 10,000 shares of Intel for $22 a share. He had only to push a button. By the spring of 2007, however, when he pushed the button to complete a trade, the offers would vanish.' The ensuing investigation by Katsuyama led him to design a program that actually slowed down the trades. But Katsuyama's investigation revealed so much about how the system is rigged."
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Adaptation From Flash Boys Offers Inside Look at High-Frequency Trading

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  • Honestly, anyone in any position who remains there long enough, starts working the system to their advantage. It's pretty much theft by feat.

    Does something need to be done about it? Absolutely!

    Will anything be done about it? Yes, furious sweeping of fact beneath the carpet and a complete astroturfing by those who have a vested interest in the status quo.

    We'll look into it, Congress. There's nothing to see here. Move along.

  • by alen (225700) on Monday March 31, 2014 @02:18PM (#46623633)

    how exactly is this rigged for the longer term investor?

    hedge funds have always been about finding some unknown niche with tiny profit potential and making it up on volume with borrowed money

    • by the eric conspiracy (20178) on Monday March 31, 2014 @02:29PM (#46623749)

      > how exactly is this rigged for the longer term investor?

      It isn't. Long term investors are looking for price changes from 20-200% between trades. HFT is making money in the .1% range which is basically in the noise band.

      Even then a reasonably intelligent investor has some tools he can use to protect himself from the worst front running - pay attention to the spreads and use limit orders.

    • how exactly is this rigged for the longer term investor?

      Well, it leads to greater price variability, meaning that margin calls are more likely to occur, if you trade on margin. And harder to have pre-programmed sell orders at certain thresholds.

      But at a more macro level, the total profit from the trades remain the same. The HFTs are making more money. Therefore, the long-term trader is making less.

    • by PRMan (959735)
      They see your trade request and then buy it out from under you on a faster link. By the time you get to the exchange, the stocks are no longer there because somebody "just bought it". But now they are willing to sell it to you at a slightly higher rate.
      • What you describe is illegal, if you have any evidence of this feel free to forward it to the SEC. Once an order hits the exchange it is on equal footing in regards to being matched with any offers. Some aspects of HFT work by anticipating demand and hitting the exchange before others, this has always been the case since markets were invented.
        • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

          by Charliemopps (1157495)

          What you describe is illegal, if you have any evidence of this feel free to forward it to the SEC. Once an order hits the exchange it is on equal footing in regards to being matched with any offers. Some aspects of HFT work by anticipating demand and hitting the exchange before others, this has always been the case since markets were invented.

          You didn't read the article did you? This is exactly what they are doing.

          • by jbmartin6 (1232050) on Monday March 31, 2014 @05:01PM (#46625371)
            I read the article, and I believe you have misunderstood it. When an order enters an exchange, it will be matched with any offers that are already in the system. There is no opportunity to see that order, then run ahead of it to buy shares *on that exchange* and then use them to fill that order. If you offer to buy X at $100, and there are existing offers to sell X at $100, you will be matched with them based on whatever matching rules the exchange uses. There is no legal opportunity for someone to "beat" you to those sell offers and then turn around and try to sell the shares to you at a higher price before your order has a chance to be filled. What the article talks about is working across many different exchanges, which is a different story. i.e. seeing activity on one exchange and anticipating the same activity in a different exchange before you get to it.
            • I mostly agree with you, although the article does also mention the murkiness surrounding the "dark pools" that banks run your order through first, where they could have the opportunity to trade against you, before forwarding to exchanges. The big exchanges might be vulnerable only to the multi-exchange exploit that is the meat of this article, but the "dark pools" are implied to have their own, different shadiness going on. Sadly, this piece doesn't explore that enough -- possibly because insufficient ligh

              • I agree that would be an interesting story. Trading against your own customers in the way you describe is illegal, which of course does not mean it cannot happen. or there might be a way to legally achieve the same effect.
    • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

      by BradMajors (995624)

      High frequency trading is actually good for the small investor and gets them better pricing. What the article is about is the inability of institutional investors to make large trades without moving the market.

    • Because the mutual fund or index you're invested in is buying and selling all the time. The HFTs are basically taxing every trade. Not just a few tenths of a percent per year... it's per TRADE which is daily. They are reducing the overall profitability of the entire market. Just how badly you'd be affected would relate to how often your funds make trades.

  • ACM issue on HFT (Score:5, Informative)

    by peter303 (12292) on Monday March 31, 2014 @02:22PM (#46623681)
    Last August the ACM had a whole issue [acm.org] on detailed technical aspects of all parts of trading. I dont recall talk a part on front-trading. But how to shave off yet another few microseconds. Fascinating.
  • Forbit all HFT (Score:4, Interesting)

    by photonic (584757) on Monday March 31, 2014 @02:23PM (#46623691)
    HFT should be banned, there is nothing these robo-traders contribute to society except for profit for themselves. The argument that they provide for liquidity of the market, or whatever, would not change if everyone would be trading at second scale instead of microsecond scale. My proposal (as someone how knows nothing about stock markets): make it a level playing field and only allow trading at say exact 30 second intervals or so, which should be synced world-wide. In this way, the big firms would only have an advantage over the small guy when new information becomes available in the last half second before the deadline, instead of on every instance of new information. After everyone has placed their orders for the current round, the stock market then takes a few seconds to update all stock prizes, after which everyone has 'infinite time' to compute his action for the next round.
    • Thirty seconds is too generous, if such a system would be implemented it should be sixty seconds.

      • Why sixty and not thirty? Why not 120?

        • Thirty seconds is too short and would open the doors for debate, just like we're doing now. Why not 15 seconds? Or how about 45?

          By setting it at one minute, there's less chance of arguing about it. And in our modern, Internet time, two minutes is just too long.

          • by JWW (79176)

            If you read the article, they leveled the playing field by adding just a 350 microsecond delay.

        • You can't wait that long for your next trade, man. What are you talking about 120 second trading? You have to do it at least every 60 seconds. You can't even break a sweat trading at 120 second intervals!!!!!!!! (not quite as funny as 6 minute abs).
        • by ceoyoyo (59147)

          Because then we could have a movie called "Gone in 60 seconds."

    • Re:Forbit all HFT (Score:4, Insightful)

      by stewsters (1406737) on Monday March 31, 2014 @02:36PM (#46623805)
      That sounds good, but what will happen is that the big trading firms will build software to give each other hints as to when they will be buying and selling the the next 30 seconds. There will still be algorithmic trading, it will just have to move toward out of channel cooperation rather than pure speed.
    • Re:Forbit all HFT (Score:5, Interesting)

      by NoNonAlphaCharsHere (2201864) on Monday March 31, 2014 @02:39PM (#46623837)
      Better yet, how about a tiny tiny tax on each trade? We bitch and moan about deficit this and tax-the-rich that, how about we tax the fuckers who are causing the problem for the behavior that's causing the problem? If financial markets weren't such a short-term crapshoot, and we really DID care about "long-term" capital gains, we wouldn't have the boom-and-bust economy we've been living in.
      • Gross receipts tax. 2% on any receipts - profit/loss/gain - doesn't matter.

      • Re:Forbit all HFT (Score:5, Insightful)

        by Aviation Pete (252403) on Monday March 31, 2014 @04:53PM (#46625283)

        Better yet, how about a tiny tiny tax on each trade?

        That ist exactly what needs to be done. In engineering terms: Increase damping. This will reduce oscillations and calm things down.

        • bingo! mod parent up - damping is what is needed in a lot of socially engineered systems, just as in mechanical systems sometimes damping is required for socally engineered systems to operate effectively - without damping, we get a lot of the problems we see in our society like CEO salaries, or unlimited political donations.... the problem is the people who profit from these out of whack systems fight like hell to make the system even less damped...
    • Re:Forbit all HFT (Score:5, Insightful)

      by Soulskill (1459) Works for Slashdot on Monday March 31, 2014 @02:46PM (#46623895) Homepage

      Every time I learn more about HFT, I become more convinced that it has to be regulated, and soon. They're only going to get more efficient at extracting money out of these markets without introducing any actual value, and that can't be sustainable in the long run.

      • by photonic (584757)
        The question is if it is not too late to introduce regulations. These leeches probably made enough money to corrupt Congress for the next 100 years.
      • Without introducing any value? According to whose opinion, yours? We are very fortunate (in the US at least) that we are not yet entirely enslaved to one person's opinion as to what is valuable. Obviously, the exchanges see value in it or they wouldn't be supporting it.
        • You ignore that although we do not let just a single person define what is beneficial, we have built our current civilization via the means to discover benefit and disregard harm. It is not the people who decide what's valued, but Humanity as a whole: Nature itself provides the environment which contains the facts of all actions. We need only look through the unbiased lens of reality that our method of science affords. We can come to know what is beneficial or not without guessing, but there are those who

    • 30 seconds?

      Twice a day batch matching of buyers and sellers. You put in your offer, and if it matches at noon or 4 PM you get the trade. Offers are time-stamped and processed in order for priority.

    • Sounds, from TFA, like IEX already has a working system built by building in delays into their system between making a trade order and its actual execution. The delay is still a few milliseconds, but it's enough for HFT to be pretty much dead as a concept with their clients.

      Their problem is that banks are hesitant to give up what was a lucrative source of revenue and use the system, but those same banks are finding it increasingly harder to resist pressure to clean up their acts and do it.

    • by Krishnoid (984597)

      The argument that they provide for liquidity of the market, or whatever, would not change if everyone would be trading at second scale instead of microsecond scale.

      Let's even say that high-frequency trading does provide liquidity. From my incomplete understanding of this, all you have are offers on a screen which are withdrawn before anyone can execute on them. It seems more like high-frequency "neener-too-slow" without any actual trades taking place.

    • HFT should be banned, there is nothing these robo-traders contribute to society except for profit for themselves.

      Exactly! But instead of banning, it should just be taxed. They are basically imposing a tax on society that makes them filthy rich while providing no benefit to society. Yet these are the same people who scream bloody murder whenever someone proposes a bona fide tax on stock transactions. If they insist on acting like spoiled young brats then we need to treat them as such.

      At its heart, this corruption is similar to the *IAA corruption. In both cases technological advances that should have made the

    • by Tom (822)

      I'm with you on the basic principle.

      I don't think yours or any simple solution will work. The reason is that the markets are largely controlled by people who are interested mostly in exploiting the rules, so they will find ways to do it, because it's a multi-billion dollar industry.

      Basically, the casino is being controlled by the cheaters, not the honest gamblers.

    • contribute to society except for profit for themselves

      Your opinion, fortunately we aren't slaves to one person's opinion as to what is valuable "to society". I am sure all the employees, their families, children, dogs, etc. of the HFTs, producers of all the networking and computing gear they use, the buildings and home they inhabit, the doctors they visit, and so on, might disagree with you about the lack of contribution to society.

      • by photonic (584757)

        contribute to society except for profit for themselves

        Your opinion, fortunately we aren't slaves to one person's opinion as to what is valuable "to society". I am sure all the employees, their families, children, dogs, etc. of the HFTs, producers of all the networking and computing gear they use, the buildings and home they inhabit, the doctors they visit, and so on, might disagree with you about the lack of contribution to society.

        That is a bad argument: People making money with organized crime spend money on employees, family and goods too, but that does not make it a good thing. If the HFT people would not be skimming billions of dollars from the market, millions of people might have received 100$ more since their pension fund would have done slightly better, and they would have spent it the same. What did the HFT contribute to society to rip off all those people?

    • by Minwee (522556)

      My proposal (as someone how knows nothing about stock markets): make it a level playing field and only allow trading at say exact 30 second intervals or so, which should be synced world-wide. In this way, the big firms would only have an advantage over the small guy when new information becomes available in the last half second before the deadline, instead of on every instance of new information.

      It's not a bad idea on its own, but it runs into the laws of physics with all the force of a coyote chasing a roadrunner.

      The NYSE market feed alone, not including any of the related markets, peaks at somewhere around one gigabit per second [nyxdata.com] nowadays, and is projected to push over four Gb/s by this summer.

      Even if you assume that 90% of that traffic can be removed by dividing trading up into 30 second slices, you're still looking at more than twelve gigabits of market data that need to be somehow blasted out

    • There is a new alternative exchange, IEX, that has built in delays intended to drive away some (but not all) forms of HFT.

  • duh. (Score:4, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Monday March 31, 2014 @02:39PM (#46623841)

    The stock market long ago ceased being about owning pieces companies with companies paying out dividends. It's the same bet that prices are going up that it was in 1929, the HFT's have just figured out how to micro-jack the prices. There is a simple simple fix. Stocks are made non-fungible and you must own for 24 hours before you can trade. This puts pricing back onto a time scale over which the actual productivity or fickle fortunes of a company can change. The economic production of a real company doesn't change on the millisecond time scale.

  • Limit order? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by jgotts (2785) <[moc.liamg] [ta] [sttogj]> on Monday March 31, 2014 @02:50PM (#46623933)

    Nobody trades like this, and nobody traded like this in the early 2000s. That trading style has been obsolete for 20 years, and predates HFT. You don't see something, decide you want that, and then hit Enter or click your mouse button.

    In this example, you decide the maximum price you want to pay in advance, and you enter a limit order. If you're selling you decide upon your minimum selling price, and in the same way you enter a limit order. You've locked in your profit, regardless of timing.

    If you're setting up some sort of combination, you enter the triggering parameters in advance, and you don't even need to see what was being done on screen.

    People say that computers are trading with each other. That is false. That's like saying that Microsoft Word writes documents. Trading companies, their traders, and their programmers write trading software and adjust parameters. 30 years ago, the "software" was held in the traders' minds, and the execution was done via outcry. The underlying mathematics is the same, and traders don't have to hold these calculations in their minds.

    The problem here is this. Extremely rich companies can have the fastest links to the exchanges, but this is no different from the olden days where the oldest and richest companies had the smartest and most well-connected traders. The tools of the trade are slightly different, but rich and successful companies will leverage their money to be the most successful, or else they will be replaced by somebody else.

    My own background is that I wrote a derivative trading system between 1999-2006 for a tiny company that ultimately didn't make it because we couldn't compete against the big boys. This angst about HFT is largely technophobia. The traders trade, they learn the software, and they often don't understand how it works. To programmers like me, the algorithms are a black box, but the traders do understand the mathematics pretty well. When you have traders coming out against HFT, you have traders who couldn't understand the software or were burned because their companies weren't rich enough.

    People who have never worked in this field who are against HFT really don't understand computer-based trading very well, from either a programmer's perspective or a trader's perspective. Keep in mind that the job of a computer is to make mundane things happen more quickly, so we can focus on more human things. You want your 401K to execute as accurately-priced trades as possible. HFT ensures that both styles of trading benefit.

    • Re:Limit order? (Score:4, Informative)

      by gurps_npc (621217) on Monday March 31, 2014 @03:28PM (#46624251) Homepage
      Did you read the article? It doesn't sound like you did?

      Because nothing you said focused on the problems the article discussed.

      One of them was the ability for people to see your trade and then cancel their own order, all before your trade was executed. All made possible because the HFTers were located fiber-optic-distance closer to the exchange servers

      Limit orders work fine for small investors, but don't work on high trade situations - you end up ensuring that you get the worst possible price. That is, you only get executed after the price has moved in the wrong direction.

      • by khallow (566160)

        One of them was the ability for people to see your trade and then cancel their own order, all before your trade was executed.

        No. The trade was over multiple markets. The HFT trader(s) was hitting all the markets at once, faster than RBC's trade order could get to the slower markets. There is no way to see a trade before it executes otherwise.

        Limit orders work fine for small investors - you end up ensuring that you get the worst possible price.

        They work fine for those HFT traders too. And because they are limit orders, you don't end up getting burned by a large market move just before your order hits - which actually is a serious problem in the very scenario that the article described.

        That is, you only get executed after the price has moved in the wrong direction.

        They don't trade any slower than market trades

    • by m.dillon (147925)

      Ah, you don't understand the scale. Yes, people still do trade like this (manually, that is, though with some computer support for convenience). For very large orders it's still highly effective.

      Small orders you can just throw onto an exchange because it's hard to front-run a small order. Large orders... you can't do that without seriously compromising your trade.

      -Matt

    • by TubeSteak (669689)

      The problem here is this. Extremely rich companies can have the fastest links to the exchanges, but this is no different from the olden days where the oldest and richest companies had the smartest and most well-connected traders.

      You couldn't be more wrong.
      Buying the fastest link is an exploit in the trading system.
      Having traders (smart or not) is part of the trading system.

      People who have never worked in this field who are against HFT really don't understand computer-based trading very well, from either a programmer's perspective or a trader's perspective.

      With all due respect, why should we care about "a programmer's perspective or a trader's perspective."

      I care about competitive markets.
      Without competitive markets, it's just more of the shitty behavior we've been trying to eliminate through regulation.
      Consider that many big trading houses have never lost money.
      Does that strike you as something that happens in a c

    • If you're setting up some sort of combination, you enter the triggering parameters in advance, and you don't even need to see what was being done on screen

      But I would certainly like to know if the stock was selling for less than my buying price or more than my selling price...or if the price of the stock changed halfway through execution of my carefully planned order which is what is happening here. People who make tons of money doing that see all sorts of benefits from it, everyone else who's not in on the take rightfully considers it a scam.

      HFT ensures that both styles of trading benefit.

      ...for a small fee...that no one asked for.

    • There seemed to be a lot of silly things you said. I just want to focus on:

      You want your 401K to execute as accurately-priced trades as possible.

      Except, I really don't. For one thing, I'm selfish and want to buy things for the lowest price and sell them for the highest. For another, I dispute the very concept of an "accurately-priced trade". Or rather, that you can define a trade as being precise down to a cent. I mean, I know that we pragmatically have to define a price-point, but it doesn't seem to

  • by ggraham412 (1492023) on Monday March 31, 2014 @02:52PM (#46623957)

    Before you post an anti-HFT screed to Slashdot, ponder the question: Does the speed or frequency of the trading affect whether or not somebody is front running you? If the problem is that someone saw your order and acted on it before it went to execution, then the issue is with the absolute ordering of the events and not with the speed or frequency. There were front runners in the market long before electronic HFT trading came along.

    A better term for what you're probably outraged about is flash trading [wikipedia.org].

    • by tacokill (531275)
      If the problem is that someone saw your order and acted on it before it went to execution...
      I am not sure where you get your information but the above is exactly what front running is. It's taking knowledge of the book of orders and using it as an advantage to middle your way between a buy/sell. Charlie wants to buy from Alice at $1.00. Bob overhears Charlie's intentions, rushes to buy the stock from Alice at $1.00 and then promptly tries to resell it to Charlie for $1.01. That's front running.
      • I agree on that definition of front running. However, my point was that front running is not synonymous with HFT. I think this is an important point; already the calls are going out to slow down HFT trading in response to the discovery of front running per the original post.

        I'm saying it won't help. You could require that all orders get submitted to BATS on post-it notes stuck to the backs of snails, but if someone is looking at the snails before the match engine and biasing the market around the orde

  • by HerculesMO (693085) on Monday March 31, 2014 @03:13PM (#46624109)

    In IT, of course...

    And one thing I've learned is that financial firms generally speaking, don't beat the market. If you look at the S&P 500 as a baseline index for the health of the economy (and it might not be perfect, but it's a good measure), 80% of firms CANNOT beat the S&P in the same timeframe. If the S&P loses, those private firms lose too.

    And even if they did... maybe 1-2% over? Which you won't get, because that's what they charge in FEES to manage their funds.

    So basically HFT exists, because people still have the idea that investing with Morgan Stanley or somebody is a great idea, and so MS have a huge amount of equity to derive ridiculous profits on for who else -- themselves. Add to that the fees they charge to manage the funds they offer, and the marginal rates of return that investors get well... you know how it goes.

    Hopefully my job interviews pending will pan out and I'll get out of finance for good; but sadly the money is what has kept me there, especially with the student loans... yet another benefit from our wonderful financial industry.

  • by m.dillon (147925) on Monday March 31, 2014 @03:24PM (#46624187) Homepage

    Best article on HFT that I've ever read. Explains in fine detail how institutional players get fleeced by high frequency traders. Took a while to read the whole thing, but well worth the time.

    One thing to note to all of us retail investors, though... our tiny orders aren't really getting fleeced, and with spreads on most stocks of only $0.01 our trading overheads are miniscule compared to 20 years ago. Standard brokerage fees trump (by several orders of magnitude) HFT losses for people like us.

    -Matt

    • Finally, someone who actually read the article. The article is about the problem of doing large block trades.

      Small investors are not getting fleeced. HFT helps them get better prices.

  • The word we are looking for is: front-running.

    When HFT firms get a look at the order book prior to the orders being executed and then go out and buy the order book only to turn around and sell it to the original buyer for a penny more......that's front-running. The technology and algorithms are incidental. It's been going on as long as there have been brokers and people buying/selling stock on behalf of other people. The difference this time is that this shit is being encouraged instead of discourage
    • "When HFT firms get a look at the order book prior to the orders being executed" That is illegal already.
      • by tacokill (531275)
        I may not be using the correct vocabulary. I am not in the industry. Whatever they are seeing, they are seeing information about the orders before the orders are executed.

        Obviously what they are doing is not illegal as they are still doing it. They are very good at gaming the system.
  • Tax every trade (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Squidlips (1206004) on Monday March 31, 2014 @03:56PM (#46624589)
    That will slow down the trading and encourage long-term investment....
  • by abies (607076) on Monday March 31, 2014 @04:24PM (#46624955)

    I'm bit suprised at bad reputation HFT has at Slashdot. In many ways, it is very interesting subject for geeks - how often do you have to care about speed of light and benefits of straight-line microwave link over curvature-of-earth fiber... but most importantly, without HFT, you were able to win the market by either social networking (moving at the border of legalities regarding front running, insider trading etc), sheer amount of money or dumb luck. With HFT, you can win because you have best programmers.

    I personally enjoy battle of programmers throwing algorithms against each other a lot more than shady agreements done by cabal of elitist traders agreeing over the phone whom to s***w over today. Maybe because I'm a programmer and I haven't managed to get into cabal of elite traders. I would expect most of Slashdot crowd to be on same side?

    Or is it because somebody here had this wrong idea that before HFT a random person actually meant something on the market and was not being abused by Powers and that only after advent of HFT, poor private investors lost possibility to game the market? That 'technical analysis' actually meant more than 'how to win the lottery' systems?

    This is war. Computers are rifles. Enemies are other big banks/hedges funds. Money is gunpowder. Stocks are bullets. And people... people are empty cases which get discarded from side of your rifle. And yes, HFT means that machine guns are now in play instead of bolt action rifles, but does it really matter matter to ejected cartridge...

    • by wonkey_monkey (2592601) on Monday March 31, 2014 @06:08PM (#46625973) Homepage

      I'm bit suprised at bad reputation HFT has at Slashdot.

      [...]

      This is war.

      Asked and answered, perhaps?

      I, for one, feel that the human race has far better things it could be doing with its time instead of obsessing over increasing some numerical values to the detriment of other numerical values.

      But then, that's a bit like my (admittedly ill-informed) thoughts on money, sometimes. We invented it, and yet somehow we no longer seem to be in control of it, and it's got us dancing to its tune. Never mind Skynet; what happens when the money markets decide they no longer need us?

    • by Nidi62 (1525137)

      I'm bit suprised at bad reputation HFT has at Slashdot. In many ways, it is very interesting subject for geeks - how often do you have to care about speed of light and benefits of straight-line microwave link over curvature-of-earth fiber... but most importantly, without HFT, you were able to win the market by either social networking (moving at the border of legalities regarding front running, insider trading etc), sheer amount of money or dumb luck. With HFT, you can win because you have best programmers.

      I personally enjoy battle of programmers throwing algorithms against each other a lot more than shady agreements done by cabal of elitist traders agreeing over the phone whom to s***w over today. Maybe because I'm a programmer and I haven't managed to get into cabal of elite traders. I would expect most of Slashdot crowd to be on same side?

      Probably because, with HFT, its not so much about how good your program is, but rather how close you are to the exchange. HFT is more a battle of real estate agents than it is programmers.

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