Tuesday, March 08, 2011

Flash crash thinking

An old friend asked me if the flash crash had been caused by "spoofing" of the exchanges with very large flows of order entry/order cancel commands. My feeling was that this was not the case and a quick search on google picked up a confirmation in this article: The Microstructure of the ‘Flash Crash’: Flow Toxicity, Liquidity Crashes and the Probability of Informed Trading” This article supports the explanation that the main cause of the flash crash was simply the lack of liquidity because the market makers had become too edgy due to too much new information coming in to the market. It is an excellent article and brings back the notion that some systems are only sustainable with enough "friction", or said differently, by being under-optimal with regards to certain ways to look at them.

When a group of people need to work together, they nominate a chief, or at least they give specific roles and ownerships to members of the group. These people get an "unfair" advantage as their ownership will most often provide benefits, even if they is not trying to use them for their own gain. Ideally for the group, processes are in place that limit personal advantages. And these advantages cannot be completely removed as that would take away the leverage that allows the overall process to happen AND BE SUSTAINABLE!

The current northern African revolutions are a good example of the whole trickiness of this type of "social process". If people remove all their leadership they end up in chaos. And yet they are upset with the unfair advantages that the leaders have had and therefore want change.

Market makers that cannot make a profit on the bid and ask spread must make a profit on "another spread". This can be a volatility spread, or more generally on an "information spread". Information spread is, for example, "I don't know and you don't know", going to "Now I know, and you don't"; Or it could be "I expect parameter P3 to change in my model, you don't". When a market maker can no longer find a profit making spread, he will limit his exposure; especially when this exposure leads to continuous losses caused by others having their own "better" information spread (often at the limit of inside trading).

The sad conclusion is that market makers become less of a sure thing when rules that diminish their "advantage" are imposed by the exchanges, the SEC or the ESMA. Mathematically you can see this as moving from a continuous to a non-continuous regime. Call it a "percolation" of the market making process past a critical level. The big problem is that in the non-continuous regime, one where parts of the markets simply stop, as no prices are quoted, is "a nightmare". And many people simply ignore it as "impossible". The truth is that it is much more a possibility now than it ever was and that seems to be what the flash crash was all about.

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