Finance and Economics Professor Daniel Weaver participated in a panel discussion hosted by The Wall Street Journal on the subject of financial markets. The following are exchanges between WSJ and Prof. Weaver.
WSJ: What does high-frequency trading mean? What are these firms doing, and to what extent have they replicated the role of floor traders?
Prof. Weaver: The average high-frequency trader's profit is 10 cents on 100 shares traded. When you have a machine, it becomes scalable and very profitable to make very small profits per trade.
WSJ: How does it affect individual investors?
Prof. Weaver: Whether or not there is more volatility in the marketplace is the issue. It's not clear whether more volatility is being caused by high-frequency traders. Certainly there are tighter spreads, more liquidity. But there's more price impact, and there may be more volatility in the market as well.
WSJ: Should retail investors be concerned?
Prof. Weaver: They should stay away from short-term trading strategies. They are going to go up against computers and lose. But put it in perspective. IBM shares traded at about $80 on Feb. 28, 2006. If you ended up paying an extra 25 cents a share due to volatility, then you paid an extra 25 cents per share. Over the next five years IBM doubled, which impacts returns much more than the 25 cents. Investors should worry about the long-term price appreciation of stocks, not small volatilities.
WSJ: What about the impact high-frequency trading has on exchanges' trading networks?
Prof. Weaver: We have to worry about stresses on the system. The Tokyo Stock Exchange had to shut down twice in the past six years because their systems could not handle the volume of traffic. As high-frequency traders scale up, we're going to need more improvements to the structure of exchange backbones. If we don't have that, we could have a crash precipitated just because the exchanges couldn't handle the message traffic.
WSJ: Electronic traders are often portrayed as secretive and predatory. What can they do to improve their public image?
Prof. Weaver: If they have nothing to hide, then show us the data. It'll have to be coded so that we can't identify any individual firm and replicate their trading activities. But there are ways, which Nasdaq has done, to release the data without the high-frequency-trading firms fearing that their trading strategies can be discerned by looking at the data.
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