Tuesday, September 11, 2012

The emperor's new clothes

Somebody has to say this. Like the kid from the proverbial Hans Christian Andersen's tale, who exclaims that the emperor is actually naked, I will go ahead and say it. Stock markets have become a weapon of mass destruction.

The original purpose of stock markets was to become efficient allocators of capital. Capital was always scarce and economics needed a mechanism where capital would be pooled from investors and allocated to the most efficient users of capital. Voila, the stock market was born. It is important to remember why this mechanism was created in the first place.

One of the most important benefits that stock markets provided was liquidity. Investors needed liquidity to be able to withdraw their investment without affecting the company that they invested in. Contrast this with property markets which are not very liquid - try selling a property, especially in India. Liquidity was , and is, provided in stock markets by speculators. They performed the useful function of ensuring liquidity and hence were tolerated even though speculation climbed to above 90% of all trades in stock markets.

But witness what has happened in the last 10 years. Most of the trading is now done by computers against computers. By automatic trading ; not by human decisions. A concept called High Frequency Trading has come into being. Big trading firms have invested in creating a competitive advantage where their automatic trading computers can gain a few nano seconds advantage over competition. I am not exaggerating  - a few nano seconds advantage. A millisecond is considered an eon in high frequency time. Two critics of the way stock markets function today - Sal Arnuk and Joseph Saluzzi have been laughed at for proposing a solution that firms honour the prices they offer for a share for at least 50 milliseconds.

Software is vulnerable, as all of us know. Knight Capital, an American Equity broker, started using a new software programme to execute its trades on 1 August. Within one hour of the market opening errant trading had cost the firm $440m. It virtually went bankrupt and only escaped from near death at a huge cost and will never be the same again. Such events are now becoming not uncommon. In May 2010, The Dow Jones Industrial Average plunged 1000 points in minutes and for a brief period Accenture was trading at 1c a share !

Such high frequency trading is not performing any usual social function. They are not based on a company's future or a view on the economy. This is pure gambling based on tiny changes in price. The amounts of money are so huge - several times the GDP of the world, that a catastrophic systemic failure is a real real risk. It almost seems to be a question of when, and not if.

I submit that the original purpose of stock markets has got grossly distorted and weakened. Before a meltdown occurs, it is important to go back to the roots - stock markets have to be reborn as efficient allocators of capital and not a Las Vegas on steroids. Its better to do this before the calamity hits, rather than after.

I say this loud and clear. Almost everybody on Wall Street, Dalal Street, etc etc, is stark naked. Unfortunately, that is not a pleasant sight - potbellies, warts and all. What does it say about our society, when its best brains are running naked and looking as ugly as hell. This naked horde might do well to remember , as The Economist points out, the advice of Warren Buffett, the most successful investor in history who says that his ideal holding period for shares is for ever.