Is Computer Trading Causing Market Spikes? Some analysts say high-frequency trading done on supercomputers is a key reason for increased volatility in the stock markets. Critics of the practice say lightning-quick trades that outpace human decision-making are no way for the markets to operate.
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Is Computer-Driven Trading Causing Market Spikes?

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Is Computer-Driven Trading Causing Market Spikes?

Is Computer-Driven Trading Causing Market Spikes?

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  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/139799416/139799389" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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ROBERT SIEGEL, host: From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, host: And I'm Melissa Block. Stock prices lost ground today, but the losses were small compared to yesterday and the stomach-churning drops of last week. The Dow Jones Industrial Average was down one-and-a-half percent today, after slightly larger declines in Europe. The sell-off comes amid worries about a global economic slowdown. As NPR's Jim Zarroli reports, many experts believe the decline has been aggravated by the explosion of something called high-speed trading.

JIM ZARROLI: Joe Saluzzi of Themis Trading has been watching the turmoil on Wall Street over the past few weeks with huge volumes of shares being bought and sold and triple digit swings in the Dow nearly every day. And Saluzzi says many of the trades are coming from one source.

JOE SALUZZI: Some people are estimating that 75 percent of the volume is high-speed trading. Well, that only leaves 25 percent of real investors, what we call real, which are institution and retail.

ZARROLI: High-speed traders use supercomputers to find discrepancies in stock prices. Then, they use the data they collect to rapidly buy and sell shares, sometimes in tiny fractions of a second. Critics like Michael Greenberger, former member of the Commodity Futures Trade Commission, say high-speed trading distorts the market. You need expensive supercomputers to play and only the richest traders can afford them.

MICHAEL GREENBERGER: Most rational people have to believe it is not a healthy way for the market to operate, where you're trying to game the market by getting in ahead of human decision-making.

ZARROLI: But critics also say there's another problem. High-speed traders can pile on a stock trade, making price swings bigger than they normally would be. Again, Joe Saluzzi.

SALUZZI: High-frequency trading will amplify a move, whether it's to the upside or to the downside.

ZARROLI: High-speed trading was blamed for the so-called flash crash in May 2010, when the Dow lost and then regained hundreds of points within minutes. And Michael Greenberger says high-speed traders could be responsible for some of the volatility now being seen in the markets.

GREENBERGER: There is a conventional wisdom that the high-speed trading is aggravating the downside and the upside in this volatility.

ZARROLI: Greenberger says there's no way to know this for sure; analyzing market swings is enormously difficult and takes more resources than overstretched federal regulators have right now. James Angel, associate professor of business at Georgetown University, says high-speed traders have become a kind of convenient scapegoat in volatile times like these. But he doesn't believe they have the kind of power people ascribe to them.

JAMES ANGEL: Most of the time, they are darting in and out with small amounts of money for fairly small profits. They are not the people moving $40 billion in and out.

ZARROLI: Angel says what's driving the market swings right now are very real fears about Europe's debt problems and the slowing global economy. High-speed trading may be playing a role in that, but it's not clear how big, he says. What's clear is that high-speed trading is a relatively new phenomenon that is reshaping the markets and regulators don't yet understand the real impact it's having. Jim Zarroli, NPR News, New York.

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