Author Michael Lewis is out with a jarring claim: The stock market is "rigged."
The man behind the new book "Flash Boys" appeared on CBS' "60 Minutes" Sunday to explain why, and has a lot of people talking Monday morning.
"[The] stock market's rigged. The United States stock market, the most iconic market in global capitalism is rigged," he told Steve Kroft. "By a combination of these stock exchanges, the big Wall Street banks and high-frequency traders."
Confused? Kroft goes on to explain:
Michael Lewis is not talking about the stock market that you see on television every day. That ceased to be the center of U.S. financial activity years ago, and exists today mostly as a photo op. This is the stock market that Lewis is talking about; the one where most of the trades take place now, inside hundreds of thousands of these black boxes located at more than 60 public and private exchanges, where billions of dollars in stock change hands every day with little or no public documentation. The trades are being made by thousands of robot computers, programmed to buy and sell every stock on the market at speeds 100 times faster than you can blink an eye. A system so complex, it's all but invisible.
Still confused? Business Insider helps:
The basic mechanism that he describes is this: You place an order for a stock, say Microsoft. That order goes to something called the "BATS exchange" at which point high-frequency traders pick up on your order, and then race to the exchange with an order for Microsoft faster than you can get there. They buy the Microsoft and bring it back to you at an inflated price.
Technically, Lewis says, all of this is legal. But, he says, ordinary investors are getting "screwed."
CNBC's Bob Pisani, however, says the interview didn't bring up one of the biggest issues:
The odd thing about the interview is that they did not bring up the hottest topic around high-speed trading: that high-speed traders have access to a "proprietary feed" that allows them to have a trading advantage over those who rely on the "public feed."
There is indeed a "proprietary feed" which has been provided to anyone willing to pay for it, with the blessing of the SEC, for many years.
The core argument is that those who access this proprietary feed can calculate the most current bids and offers (known as the National Best Bid and Offer, or NBBO) quicker than those who get the public feed (known as the Securities Information Processor, or SIP). That can indeed provide a trading advantage.
Still, he says the difference in stock price for private vs. public traders amounts to cents:
What's the bottom line? If you are a long-term buyer, under some circumstances – particularly during times of high volatility – high-speed traders are indeed trying to scalp a penny on your trade.
Would I like to see fewer of these price dislocations? I sure would. Do I think this is some outrageous act of highway robbery?
Well, I'm not so sure.
For what it's worth, the econ site Zero Hedge has been ringing the alarm bell for some time on this.
You can watch the full "60 Minutes" piece below:
For an excerpt of the book, you can visit the New York Times.
This post has been updated.