The dramatic speed of financial transactions can be matched only by the intensity of the controversy surrounding it, especially when it comes to high-frequency trading.
In markets for stocks, futures and foreign exchange, transactions take place in milliseconds to microseconds (or even nanoseconds). Markets for fixed-income securities including corporate bonds and over-the-counter derivatives such as interest-rate swaps are also catching up quickly by adopting electronic trading.
To many, the “Flash Crash” of May 2010 was a wake-up call for reevaluating market structure. A series of technology glitches proved to be highly costly for some brokers, proprietary firms and marketplaces in terms of both profits and reputation. The SEC launched investigations into HFT firms and their strategies. French regulators introduced a financial transaction tax. Author Michael Lewis wrote “Flash Boys.” The list goes on.
With this fallout comes important economic questions: What are the costs and benefits to investors for speeding up trading? Is there an “optimal” trading frequency at which the financial market should operate? And does a faster market affect one group of investors more than another?
Financial shadows are dangerous. Even more dangerous are interactions between poorly understood shadows and essential financial intermediation activities. And most dangerous is when officials and private sector executives encourage a class of transactions that supposedly provide modest risk mitigation, while really building a disguised form of systemic risk on a grand scale.
It was not mounting losses at Countrywide, the failure of Lehman Brothers or the imminent collapse of AIG that spelt disaster in September 2008. It was the connections between those lightly regulated businesses and Citigroup, Bank of America, Goldman Sachs, Société Générale, Barclays, UBS and Deutsche Bank.
Where is the next generation of systemic risk hiding in plain sight? Look carefully at central clearing counterparties, or clearing houses, which are expanding due to the post-crisis requirement that standardised swaps – derivative transactions, including credit default swaps, that have standard terms along important dimensions – be cleared centrally.
What’s the one thing Pope Francis, Barack Obama, Marco Rubio, and Warren Buffett all agree on? America needs to change the way it sets wages to overcome its economically and politically unsustainable levels of income inequality.
The question is how? Let’s start with some lessons from history and see how we can apply them to today’s economy and society.
For 30 years after World War II, wages and productivity in the U.S. moved up in tandem, creating a growing middle class and ensuring baby boomers could realize their American Dream. We called that the “post-war Social Contract.” Then in the 1980s, the social contract fell apart, starting 30 years of stagnant wages, growing inequality, and political polarization.
The post-war Social Contract was possible because the New Deal established a floor on minimum wages and protected workers’ rights to organize and engage in collective bargaining. Then in the mid-1940s as the domestic economy grew on the basis of purchasing power pent up during the war, United Auto Workers’ President Walter Reuther and General Motors (GM) CEO Charles Wilson negotiated what was called the “Treaty of Detroit,” specifying that wage increases would be set to match growth in the cost of living and productivity. The strength of unions then helped spread this “pattern” bargain across American industry.
Benchmarks are heavily wired into modern financial markets. For example, trillions of dollars in bank loans and several hundred trillion dollars (notional) of derivatives transactions depend on daily announcements of LIBOR. The WM/Reuters foreign exchange fixings dominate the currency markets, in which there are over $5 trillion of transactions per day. Benchmarks are the basis for trade of a wide range of commodities such as gold, silver, oil, and natural gas. They have also been the focus of scandals (Brousseau et al. 2013).
In November, we began distributing $100 in Bitcoin to every undergraduate student at MIT. A large share of the 4,500 eligible students participated in the project.
Bitcoin is an innovative payment network that allows for instant peer-to-peer transactions with zero or very low processing fees on a worldwide scale. The objective of the study is to observe the diffusion of Bitcoin, a software-based, open-source, peer-to-peer payment system on the MIT campus.
The initiative began in April 2014 when students Jeremy Rubin and Dan Elitzer organized the idea, raised the funds from donors, and launched the MIT Bitcoin Project. I started working with these students when it quickly became clear that the project had to become a full research study and had to meet the rigorous requirements of academic research at MIT.
Observing the ways students will innovate because of their newfound Bitcoin cash should be fascinating: MIT students are tech savvy, not set in their ways, generally a bit cash strapped anyway, and often open to new innovations. In the same way that MIT gave students early access to computing resources through the Athena project in 1983, this project intends to give participants early access to a digital currency.
Christian Catalini is the Fred Kayne (1960) Career Development Professor of Entrepreneurship and Assistant Professor of Technological Innovation, Entrepreneurship, and Strategic Management at the MIT Sloan School of Management.