Exploring “Latency” Arbitrage

June 3, 2010 · 2 Comments

By David Gaffen and Scott Patterson (WSJ)

Some hedge funds are using a trading strategy called “latency arbitrage” to take advantage of differences in the speed of price quotations at U.S. exchanges and dark pools — a practice that reminds some investors of past abuses such as mutual-fund market timing.

“High frequency” quantitative hedge funds at firms such as Citadel Group, D.E. Shaw Group and Renaissance Technologies have direct feeds to U.S. exchanges. These feeds cut the delay on quotes down to milliseconds. During the last two years, many funds have paid for “proximity hosting,” the installation of their servers in the same data centers as the exchanges, to shave more “microseconds,” or millionths of a second, off that latency.

Latency, in electronic trading, is the amount of time a quote or an order spends in the ether, and it’s where many funds are eyeing an edge.

“The fastest one wins,” said a technology officer at a major hedge fund who was sounding out exchanges with an eye to setting up a latency-arbitrage strategy. He said the first step is to maximize the speed of market-data software and exchange connections, and the second is to find the “golden egg” – a venue or counterparty whose information is slower. The only risk, he said, was that “everybody’s getting faster.”

Now that software can trade in and out of stocks at light speed, a fund can exploit lags of milliseconds between different exchanges. Until the Securities and Exchange Commission clamped down on “SOES bandits,” small-time traders and firms were making thousands of dollars a day on lags of a few seconds between exchanges in the late 1990s.

Institutional traders now may be making millions by being a few milliseconds ahead, and some believe the SEC should clamp down again. In one form of latency arbitrage, funds can synthesize quotes from all exchanges and simulate the “National Best Bid and Offer.” The SEC expects brokers to use the NBBO – the highest bid and lowest offer on a given stock across all exchanges – as a price guideline and requires them to have it available to clients.

Exchanges disseminate continuous updates of the NBBO on stocks in separate feeds to the price quotations. Many dark pools, the anonymous stock-trading electronic venues that don’t publish bids and offers, price stocks at the midpoint of the NBBO because they want to give clients some benchmark for their pricing. The delay between the appearance of bids and offers on the direct feeds and the processing of the NBBO at dark pools presents arbitrage opportunities.

If a fund’s computers are fast enough, they can estimate where the midpoint of the NBBO will be fractions of a second faster than dark pools, which allows them to know where the price is going in that pool.

Many quantitative funds, which rely on computer models for trading, have the ability to get in and out of large stock positions in milliseconds, which means buying a stock at current prices at an exchange and selling it in a dark pool after an uptick you know is coming is a cinch.

“You have tomorrow’s newspaper today,” said Richard Gates, a portfolio manager for TFS Market Neutral fund in West Chester, Pa., who looked into a latency-arbitrage strategy after a broker outlined the success other funds had with it. “You’re looking at stale prices. Those are the types of investment strategies that arbitrageurs and hedge-fund managers drool over.”

But Mr. Gates compares latency arbitrage to “mutual fund market timing,” a practice banned in 2003 in which some traders were given tipoffs as to where prices were going.

Regulators acknowledge exchanges transmit quotes through direct feeds more quickly than through the NBBO tape but don’t believe the lag is significant enough for major arbitrage opportunities. One regulator said any “simulated” NBBO would always be a rough estimate because all exchanges disseminate their quotes at slightly different speeds.

In an e-mail seen by Dow Jones, a dark-pool operator estimated the NBBO feed it uses to price stocks was delayed 10 to 15 milliseconds – enough time for a fund to estimate the NBBO using its own feeds and place an order.

Redline Trading Solutions, a financial software firm, claims one of its products can consolidate quotes from direct feeds in a way that sounds like a simulated national best-bid and offer in “single-digit” microseconds.

For the scale of Mr. Gates’ fund, direct feeds to the exchanges proved cost prohibitive. But for larger funds, Mr. Gates said it would be foolish not to engage in latency arbitrage. And he said dark pools, whose profitability is linked to their volumes, may be tempted to turn a blind eye to the activity as long as other clients don’t complain.

Critics all the practice the modern day equivalent of looking at share prices listed in tomorrow’s newspaper stock tables today.

“It is a rigged game,” Sal Arnuk, co-founder of brokerage firm Themis Trading, said Wednesday at a Securities and Exchange Commission roundtable discussion in Washington, D.C.,

Some investors are searching for ways to protect themselves. Rich Gates, co-founder of TFS Capital LLC, started becoming concerned about latency arbitrage in early 2009 after a Wall Street bank pitched the trade to his firm.

In hundreds of tests, TFS has found that some of its trades were getting picked off by firms exploiting the time-delay wrinkle. That was costing the firm money.

To learn more, TFS, which manages about $1.1 billion in mutual funds and hedge funds, devised a method to essentially bait firms into engaging in the trade. In effect, TFS proved that some traders were wise to a movement in a stock’s price before it happened.

On a March afternoon, a TFS trader sent an order to a broker to buy shares of Nordson Corp., a maker of fluid dispensing equipment. The trader sent an instant message to the broker: “please route to broker pool #2,” a request to send the order to a specific dark pool.

The trader told the broker not to pay a price higher than the midpoint between what buyers and sellers were offering, which at the time was $70.49.

Several seconds after the dark pool order was placed, the market price didn’t change. Then the TFS trader set a trap: he sent a separate order into the broader market to sell Nordson for a price that pushed the midpoint price down to $70.47.

Almost immediately, TFS was sold Nordson for $70.49—the old, higher midpoint—in broker pool No. 2, which didn’t reflect the new sell order. TFS got stuck paying two cents more than it should have, suggesting that some seller knew the higher price was a good deal to nab quickly.

Such trades are “unusually suspicious,” said Mr. Gates.

Most dark pool operators say they police investors for improper activities. Liquidnet, which runs a dark pool, had suspended 125 members through 2009 for suspicious trading since its launch in April 2001, the firm says.

Categories: Value Investing
Tagged: WSJ, high frequency trading, latency arbitrage, TFS market neutral

2 responses so far ↓

  • Ankit Gupta // June 4, 2010 at 8:35 am | Reply

    If I understand this correctly, funds are basically using speed to make money – is this such a big deal? Hasn’t it always been like t his? The quicker you get things done, the more you can get paid?

    This is no different than someone running faster than someone else to get a trade in before the other guy. If you had physical booths where stock was bought and sold, and you saw someone walking over to buy, you could run ahead and buy it so that they can buy from you and you can make a few pennies.

    I don’t think people like these things because it sounds evil or greedy, but I actually think it’s great. The more people we have doing this, the more competition we’ll see over peanuts and in the end, we’ll end up with a more efficient market. Sure, right now only specialized firms are using datacenters across the street with a direct line into the exchange, but given time, more and more people will move into these. This means that eventually, the prices of executing trades from these low latency locations will come down and more people will be able to use them. Eventually, brokers like Scottrade, Etrade, etc. will be executing trades at faster rates, otherwise someone else will and consumers will go there.

  • Steve // June 4, 2010 at 12:02 pm | Reply

    The problem is that the darkpools are supposed to give mid-point pricing. But, they give you mid-point pricing as of 10 milliseconds ago….and you are more likely to get filled when that stale price is worse the the current one!

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