Beyond HFT

Last week I attended the Tokyo Financial Information Summit, put on by Interactive Media. The event was interesting from a number of perspectives. This event focuses on the capital markets; attendees are usually domestic sell side and buy side firms and vendors, including global firms active in Japan. This year there was good representation from around Asia ex-Japan as well; possibly attracted by the new volatility in Japan’s stock market. The new activity in the market was set off by the government’s Abenomics policies aimed at reinvigorating the Japanese economy. But I suspect the fact that Japan’s stock market is traded on an increasingly low latency and fragmented market structure gives some extra juice to the engine. Speaking of high frequency trading, Celent’s presentation at the event pointed out that HFT volumes have fallen from their peak (at the time of the financial crisis) and that HFT revenues have fallen drastically from this peak. In response to this trend, as well as the severe cost pressures in the post-GFC period, cutting-edge firms seeking to maintain profitable trading operations are removing themselves from the low latency arms race. Instead, firms are seeking to maximize the potential of their existing low-latency infrastructures by investing in real-time analytics and other new capabilities to support smarter trading. HFT is not dead, but firms are moving beyond pure horsepower to more nuanced strategies. Interestingly, this theme was echoed by the buy and sell side participants in a panel at the event moderated by my colleague, Celent Senior Analyst Eiichiro Yanagawa. Even though HFT levels in Japan, at around 25 – 35% of trading, have probably not reached their peak, firms are already pulling out of the ultra-low latency arms race–or deciding not to enter it in the first place. The message was that for many firms it is not advisable to enter a race where they are already outgunned. Instead they should focus on smarter trading that may leverage the exchanges’ low latency environment, but rely on the specific capabilities and strategies of a firm and its traders. Looking at this discussion in a global context, it seems interesting and not a little ironic that just as regulators are preparing to strike against HFT, the industry has in some sense already started to move beyond it.

Putting the best foot forward, by choice

The recent City Day organized by SunGard in Mumbai provided interesting insights into India’s equity trading industry. Mr. Damodaran, ex-head of SEBI, the capital market regulator put India’s liberalization and globalization into perspective by pointing out that often in its recent history India has been forced to take actions that are seen to be desirable in hindsight. In 1990-91, it was the precarious forex reserves situation that forced India to open up its economy. Moving on two decades down the line, one hopes that electronic trading in the form of Direct Market Access (DMA), Smart Order Routing (SOR) and algorithmic trading would be something that our capital markets adopt out of choice and because they see the merit in doing so, as opposed to either being forced to do it, or even worse, not doing it at all and facing the possibility of extinction once the global broker-dealers enter the market in a big way. A trend that usually follows the widespread adoption of electronic trading is the concentration of trading, especially in one financial center across a region. In Europe, London happened to be the center that benefited most from the introduction of these technologies. Similarly, markets such as Japan, Korea, Taiwan, Singapore and Hong Kong are adopting high frequency trading in a big way. India cannot afford to be left behind in this context. The same goes for the leading brokerages in the Indian markets. It takes a trading desk between six months to a year to fine-tune its electronic trading capabilities. The longer the delay in getting the buy-in to do so, the lower the chance of success and indeed survival. The buy-side also has to be decisive and quick in its approach. Moving on to some of the other presentations in the event, there were useful inputs given into the issues that are cropping up in terms of the infrastructure for electronic trading. While NSE has a fast matching engine, the rest of the infrastructure has a long way to go. As pointed out, in Indian centers outside Mumbai the contrast between Indian and international capabilities is even more stark and communication networks have been found lacking. Data quality is also something that brokers, especially the smaller ones are struggling with. In this scenario, it is important that India opens up its markets to globally renowned vendors, while at the same time encouraging its local IT firms to also compete in the market. The Indian market is large enough for a number of firms to participate and be able to meet the various requirements for electronic trading.

Accepting the need for Electronic Trading

In its recent history,the Asian market has been characterized by the adoption of technology in a much more compressed time-frame as compared to its counterparts in the western world. This has been true of the industrial as well as the services sector, where it is also holds true for electronic equity trading. Asia is well poised for a rise in the share of electronic trading in the next few years. Markets such as Japan, Australia, Singapore, Hong Kong and India are seeing a lot of investment happening that is related to Direct Market Access (DMA), Smart Order Routing (SOR) and High Frequency Trading (HFT). The associated infrastructure such as market data services, co-location and so on are also being paid attention to, as is the requirement for helpful regulation. However, in some markets, the regulators are not very confident about and supportive of the needs of greater electronic trading. This is partly because of the financial crisis and rising requirements for risk management, and also due to the flash crashes that have occurred in the NYSE and OSE markets. We expect the regulatory framework to become more flexible in most markets, but there is still an important element that needs to be addressed across the board in the Asia-Pacific. That is the role of smaller brokerages and the buy-side. Unlike larger brokerages, these are still reluctant to adopt electronic trading and to make the investments required to have the same. While attitudes and capabilities do not change overnight, I believe that market investors in Asia need to be made aware of some harsh realities. To start with, the way HFT and algorithmic trading evolved in the US and European markets, there was very little time for market participants to react to and adopt such trading. The change happened so quickly that a number of brokerages and buy-side firms were unable to cope and had to operate in a more constrained fashion or even shut down. The incentive that HFT provides for those trading larger volumes means that the smaller players are at a relative disadvantage. This increases even more if they are slow to react and do not adopt electronic trading. So it is not just the speed of trading that is important to succeed, it is also the speed of thought. Hence, smaller brokerages and buy-side firms in Asia should be more positive and not be afraid of investing in DMA, SOR or HFT. The gains from these might not be apparent immediately, but if the lessons from the western markets teach us anything, it is that the quick and nimble-footed firms were the most successful during the rise of electronic trading. With the trading infrastructure in Asia changing so rapidly, there is little reason to believe things are going to be different here.

Electronic and cross-border trading in Asia

I recently participated as a moderator in two panel discussions on the South East Asian markets in the SunGard City Day held in Singapore on 14th July, the topics being electronic trading and cross-border trading respectively. An important point that came out of the discussions was that Asia-Pacific cannot be seen as one market, unlike the European Union. It comprises of various national markets at different stages of development. Japan, Australia, Singapore and Hong Kong are the leading markets in the region. By comparison, markets such as Indonesia, Malaysia and China are lagging behind. The difference can be seen in terms of infrastructure, e.g., the differences in the latency of the exchanges, as well as the number of products that can be traded on them. In the leading markets, the circumstances are becoming more conducive to high-frequency trading and the operation of alternative trading systems, including dark pools. Co-location services are being provided by the exchanges and the regulators are reducing the barriers on off-exchange transactions, such as the limits on the size of transactions and the time limit within which a transaction has to be reported. A crucial factor in the adoption of greater electronic and algorithmic trading will be the willingness of the buy-side to develop the infrastructure for the same. An interesting example that was quoted in the event was that a buy-side trading desk took three months just to fine-tune the latency of their connectivity to the exchange. What this highlights is the fact that while many in the local sell-side and increasingly the buy-side are convinced of the need to have algorithmic trading, it will take time to put the necessary systems in place. Also, the local players are not sure about whether they can afford the level of investment (and the time taken) required to create the trading infrastructure. Hence, the barriers to adoption of technology are more practical than theoretical, unlike earlier. In fact, most of the panelists stressed that there has been a sea-change in the mindset of the domestic market participants in the last 2-3 years and they are much more open to having algorithmic trading and dark pools now. It is further expected that once ADR/GDRs can be traded in these exchanges, the level of algorithmic trading will go up, with the greater presence of exchange-traded funds also playing a similar role. However, the level of off-exchange trading in the next 3-4 years is expected to go up to 5% at the most, up from the current 1% but much below the 30% levels seen in Europe. Cross-border trading in the ASEAN region has picked up in the last few years. Regulation has also paved the way for this, e.g., in Malaysia, regulation has recently allowed up to 30% of the NAV of a firm to be used in trading assets abroad. Even before the recent ASEAN linkage between six countries was announced, cross-border trading was a prevalent phenomenon. The linkage is expected to increase the level of electronic trading and also make it cheaper and more efficient. The next step should be to develop the post-trading infrastructure and linkages between the central securities depositories.