About High Frequency Trading (Straight from the Horse’s Mouth)

A high frequency trader’s take on …HFT:

For almost 5 years, I was a trader at GETCO, which was the premiere, dominant HFT firm. They recruited me from MIT and I didn’t know what to expect when I joined the ~100 person company. Lucky for me, I found the work enormously satisfying and can’t imagine a more fun time.

From an intellectual perspective, the problems are as satisfying and difficult as you could find anywhere else. There is as much math, game theory, economics, technology, computer science, and engineering as you want there to be. The technology is cutting edge. HFT is the driver of a lot of technological advances. It also generates and requires a lot of data.

From what I’ve read about different industries, HFT is most like working on Google search: finding signals to predict what users are searching for is similar to finding signals to predict where the market is going. Addressing both problems requires a lot of technological resources, hard thinking, superior software and infrastructure, and intense computational power. Even compared to working at a fast paced tech startup, my impression is that much of the work at many tech startups doesn’t require a lot of deep thinking. Unlike many banking or consulting jobs, in HFT you don’t make power points or talk to clients.

HFT is extremely entrepreneurial because the problem of “make money trading” is ill defined: no one is telling you what to do because there’re many ways to approach the problem and a lot of things to consider. You don’t have to put in face time or wear a suit: it’s all about results. And you can’t fake your results or BS your way through your job- everyone can see how much money you’re making.

Before joining GETCO, I read Liar’s Poker, and I never saw any of that macho, elitist world. Rather than being a BSD, I think trading is about humbleness and curiosity, a willingness to test your ideas and accept the feedback markets give you. It’s human nature to surround yourself with yes-men who validate your ideas, but trading is about testing your best ideas the most and figuring out when they don’t work. The competition and low barrier to entry gives the best ideas a chance to succeed- it’s the most “fair” an environment I could imagine. If your ideas work, then they’ll make money. If they don’t work, then it doesn’t matter how senior or how good a reality distortionist you are- you’ll lose money. Only in HFT does someone right out of undergrad who has no network have the same opportunity as everyone else to be the top trader.

Unlike my friends in academia, who labor over a huge problem for years with no end in sight, HFT gives immediate feedback. Your models are either making money or they’re not. If you fall behind, it’s obvious within weeks, whereas in many other industries it could take years for obsolescence to become clear. I like to see the direct results of my work, and for me being able to test out my ideas quickly is one of the most satisfying parts of HFT. If you’re wrong, then you find out right away and you can test a new theory- you’re not left wondering if what you did matters or not, whether you’re right or wrong: the idea either translated into more money or it didn’t.

Trading is a constant challenge because the changing markets ensures there’s always interesting, hard problems to work on. I find this satisfying because I can get bored easily. I like doing experiments, I like getting results quickly, I like being quantitative and technical, and I like always learning something new. What’s more satisfying than that?

HFT is extremely competitive. As much as high frequency traders like to distinguish themselves from other people in finance, even from other kinds of traders (we’re not click traders or flow traders!  Like anyone outside finance knows the difference…) and view themselves as nerdier and a band apart, the fact is that the entire industry is relatively cutthroat because it’s dealing with huge sums of money and has an industrywide culture of secrecy and competition. Everyone is your direct competitor, sometimes even people within your own company. This can be stressful, but I find it exciting and motivating.

HFT has a bad reputation in the media, unsurprising considering the news is financially incentivized to misinform, generate controversy, and provoke valence emotions such as anger and outrage. Trading is complex and many people don’t know very much about finance but our financial system touches everyone’s lives so it’s often in the media.

As a result, HFT suffers from a complexity valley: if people don’t know anything about it, when they hear about it in passing, they don’t understand it and they don’t think much of it; if people think about it a medium amount and read news articles about it, when they are armchair philosophizing they hate it; when people actively participate in algorithmic trading and electronic markets, they get obsessed with it and want to integrate it with every aspect of their existing trading. Why would you persist in forcing a human to do what humans aren’t the best at doing, namely fast, complex computations, aggregating and analyzing terabytes of data, submitting and processing numerous data feeds simultaneously?

Most important topics fall into the complexity valley category, but because getting to the other side of the valley takes longer than 140 characters, all of politics and many important economic and social problems have degenerated into soundbites designed so that everyone can have an opinion. Who wants to read an article only accessible if you’ve put in your 10,000 hours? Those articles don’t get hits or retweets; it’s easier and more profitable to write something blatantly false or misleading so everyone can dive in with their gut judgment.

When people as esteemed as Mark Cuban and magazines as excellent as the Economist (probably the best magazine out there period) write things that demonstrate how shockingly confused they are about automated trading, I wonder what hope there is for the rest of the world. But in some ways this negative media attention bonds your team because you’re the only ones that understand reality. I try to distance myself from news so I can afford to find bad articles funny instead of infuriating.

The opacity and intense secrecy contributes to making your work unrelatable to most people. This can make for awkward party conversation, either because someone asks you if they should buy gold vs AMZN, or why you caused the flash crash, or why you shrank their grandmother’s pension fund. When most of the world including some of the most educated people with PhDs can’t tell you why the stock market exists or how it’s important to a first world economy, it’s not a surprise that many people can’t tell you what automated market making is or how it helps consumers. When people ask what your work is and you say you’re an algorithmic trader, they already hold an erroneous (I’ve never met someone not in finance who had anywhere near an accurate view of what HFT involves), oftentimes negative, view of the field.

These concerns revolving around relating to other people outside your team, such as being able to explain your work to your mom or tell her how much you’re making, require you to be comfortable doing what you want to do, being self motivated and driven. When you go into finance, some of your friends will joke about selling out, and you have to not particularly care what others think. Otherwise you should be a children’s cancer doctor or something where it’s more glaringly obvious how you’re contributing to the world (assuming you care that people think you’re adding value to the universe).

Something I abstractly consider is the escalating speed race demanding increasingly large costs for infrastructure. Philosophically there could be some question of whether even the most technically advanced naturals care about the difference between 1 vs 2 microseconds. Furthermore, it’s the type of thing that a simple change in exchange microstructure could render irrelevant, so this aspect of the industry could change a lot as the industry evolves and grows. I don’t view this as satisfying or not- it’s just something characteristic of a business as new as HFT for which regulations and best practices are still being created.

Sounds very thoughtful…

PLUG Must Be the Envy of All $500-$1,000 million Market Cap Company CEOs

The trading dynamics of PLUG continues to fascinate me (and fortunately, PLUG has been good to me). Let me pose a simple series of questions/thoughts to illustrate why PLUG continues to fascinate and perplex me:

  • Historically significant news is not being released daily, yet PLUG’s shares trade as if this were the case (recently, PLUG has traded 30-100%+ of its market cap… DAILY).
  • I know many $500-1,000 million market cap stocks that might trade 5-15 million $ daily (i.e. trades 1%-3% of market cap daily).
  • It usually is a highly rare event for a company’s stock to trade over 20-30% of its market cap.
  • It is a very, very, very, very, very rare event for a company’s stock to trade 50-100%+ of its market cap.
  • I’ve never seen a legitimate company’s stock (of material size) trade like this before.
  • If I’m a CEO of a $500-$1,000 million market cap company, I would not understand why another company’s shares trades 30-100+% of its market cap 5-15 trading days consecutively, especially absent commensurate news/developments

Here is how PLUG has traded since I first wrote about it (fyi, I’m following PLUG, and writing about it, largely because I’m quite fascinated by what i see as a obviously anomalous activity… the kind of activity that, if I a regulatory body, I would flag immediately and investigate within 48-72 hours):

PLUG – 30%-100%+ of its Market Cap Traded EVERY DAY recently. Why? NOT due to news.
Date Open High Low Close Volume Adj Close Value Traded
3/28/2014 6.85 7.15 6.68 6.9 26101500 6.9  $        180,100,350
3/27/2014 6.55 7.19 6.21 6.89 45187800 6.89  $        311,343,942
3/26/2014 7.63 7.86 6.26 6.45 1.19E+08 6.45  $        769,179,915
3/25/2014 5.93 8.48 5.8 8.48 1.37E+08 8.48  $    1,161,942,320
3/24/2014 6.1 6.23 5.56 5.69 26559500 5.69  $        151,123,555
3/21/2014 6.09 6.12 5.33 5.94 52721500 5.94  $        313,165,710
3/20/2014 6.1 6.33 5.91 5.97 27852300 5.97  $        166,278,231
3/19/2014 6.19 6.57 5.99 6.21 52422400 6.21  $        325,543,104
3/18/2014 6.49 6.59 5.82 5.96 56945500 5.96  $        339,395,180
3/17/2014 7.18 7.34 6.27 6.51 58073600 6.51  $        378,059,136
3/14/2014 7.48 7.99 6.58 6.71 75379800 6.71  $        505,798,458
3/13/2014 7.58 8.48 6.96 8 1.31E+08 8  $    1,050,784,800
3/12/2014 5.82 7.4 5.32 6.8 1.41E+08 6.8  $        961,299,000
3/11/2014 11.44 11.72 5.95 6.03 2.44E+08 6.03  $    1,473,620,445
3/10/2014 9.23 11.41 8.57 10.31 2.12E+08 10.31  $    2,183,221,887
3/7/2014 6.79 8.35 6.53 8.27 1.26E+08 8.27  $    1,039,927,690
3/6/2014 6.45 6.69 6.02 6.36 47838600 6.36  $        304,253,496
3/5/2014 6.96 7.01 6.45 6.75 56042600 6.75  $        378,287,550
3/4/2014 6.46 7.09 6.24 6.69 1.21E+08 6.69  $        812,396,136
3/3/2014 4.6 5.83 4.5 5.82 84414000 5.82  $        491,289,480
2/28/2014 4.51 4.84 4.45 4.67 37353600 4.67  $        174,441,312
2/27/2014 4.38 4.57 4.25 4.37 21812200 4.37  $          95,319,314
2/26/2014 4.49 4.64 4.25 4.41 52906000 4.41  $        233,315,460

Macro Firms Have Struggled Overall this Year

According to https://twitter.com/ldelevingne , here http://www.cnbc.com/id/101523064

Macro firms have struggled overall this year.

Prominent examples, according to people familiar with the performance and a report by HSBC Alternative Investment Group, include:

  • Brevan Howard Fund (down 2.56 percent through February)
  • Caxton Global Investment (down 3.51 percent through March 17)
  • Fortress Macro Fund (down 7.10 percent through March 14)
  • MKP Opportunity (down 4.77 percent through March 25)
  • Tudor Global Fund (down 3.51 percent through March 14)

David Einhorn, Greenlight Capital, MU, and … GMCR .

I have not been following the Micron Technology/Seeking Alpha/Greenlight Capital/David Einhorn drama closely. However, one specific statement written by Eli Hoffmann of SA (who I believe is nothing short of a gentleman and scholar) got my attention (as it pertains to Green Mountain Coffee Roasters “GMCR”) :

So why did they [Greenlight Capital] drop the case? It seems they were able to contact the author, who convinced Greenlight that he had built his thesis by joining the dots on publicly-available information.

Source: http://seekingalpha.com/article/2106353-seeking-alpha-and-david-einhorn-the-real-story

I do not know nor hold an opinion of the veracity of the above claim(s), though apparently Einhorn appears to http://seekingalpha.com/article/2106353-seeking-alpha-and-david-einhorn-the-real-story#comment-31860863 .

However, I do know this: I for one, correctly guessed that Greenlight Capital was short GMCR in 2011 (before Einhorn revealed it publicly in the Fall), based on my own “joining the dots on publicly-available information.” Here’s how I did it:

  • I was short GMCR and a few other stocks in 2011.
  • I read Greenlight Capital’s Q2 2011 letter to investors. http://www.gurufocus.com/images/pdf/Qlet2011-02.PDF
  • The last paragraph on page 3 got my attention: “the consumer cyclical short that hurt us most in the first quarter…”
  • I had felt Greenlight’s pain. Their description of this ‘consumer cyclical short’ was uncanny. I ‘felt’ and observed exactly what they were talking about.
  • A friend and I discussed the letter. We wondered which company Einhorn was referring to. I guessed GMCR. My friend guessed another company.

I had never discussed GMCR with Greenlight Capital, Einhorn, or any of their associates, affiliates, etc. GMCR eventually became my largest and most concentrated short position, ever, in my life when the stock was trading between 90-116/share in 2011. (it also ended up being my most profitable). I had shorted GMCR for many reasons, but my belief that Greenlight was short GMCR (as well as a few other factors) gave me the conviction to “go for the jugular”, and size with concentration.

When Gaapuccino came out in the Fall… I was in for a pleasant surprise, as well as validation of my belief Greenlight was short GMCR. Luck was on my side.

I do not know nor hold an opinion as to how ‘VALUABLE INSIGHTS’ discovered Greenlight was long, and/or interested in going long (and publicly disclosing) its MU long position, a la their GMCR short position. I for one, however, did not share my GMCR findings publicly… I only shared with my friend.

I guess what I’m getting at is: I sense plausibility re: ‘Valuable Insights’. Probability? No clue, as I do not know the facts. (nor do I care)

Global Macro: Very Difficult (if not Impossible), Very (Most) Important, and… Critical in Coming Years

Claim: I believe global macro-related considerations are the most important when it comes to the art of investing/speculating. Macro matters, and everything falls short of macro.

I also believe global macro will become more obviously important in coming years. This recent (and relatively mild) Ukraine/Russia situation is an opportunity for everyone to prepare for what is to come.

Rather than rigorously support my belief, I include a series of thoughts that have led me to the above beliefs. I welcome (and invite) variant views:

  • Macro considerations (for example, interest rates, tax policies, currency, cross border capital regulations, financial institution regulations, corporate regulations, war, retirement/savings regulations, demographics, etc) can render company-specific fundamental analysis  irrelevant.
  • No investment/trading strategy is more scale-able than global macro – if you want to build a $1, $10, $100, $1,000, $10,000 million position in a security… which markets might allow you to do so without moving said markets?
  • The rules of investing/trading have, can, do, and will change.
  • Understanding the movement of capital (inter and intra country) is inextricably tied to understanding the market mechanism. The market is always and everywhere a voting machine. Valuations (i.e. opinions) are not realized in a vacuum, but via the weighted average vote of market participants (although in some cases, i.e. acquisitions, a single ‘voter’ can set a valuation. But that still is a vote)

There is a time for peace… there is a time for war. There is a time for plenty. There is a time for famine.  There is a time for calm… and there is a time for turbulence.

I believe that understanding the true causes of the relative strength of US capital markets vs. EM capital markets in recent history is key to understanding what will likely happen in coming years. Be prepared.

Important Consideration for the next 2 years:

2 forces that fuel upside risk in US equities next 1-2 years:

  • Domestically, Capital fleeing Fixed Income (equity deemed more attractive). Both current and marginal capital flows.
  • International Capital fleeing EM to US.

US equity markets have been due for a correction, but nevertheless face upside pressure from those two forces. I believe we see much higher and much lower within the next 2-3 years.

Plug Power: Some Historical Perspective and Recent Anomalous Trading Activity

“Life is beautiful…but luck must be on your side.” – Tivadar Schwartz

I study rare events. Some believe it is my stock in trade. Enter Plug Power (“PLUG”). Someone pitched me PLUG as a short several weeks ago, when it was trading between $3.00-$4.00 per share. For various reasons, I was displeased with the short case and passed on it. I did not transact in PLUG or related securities until the last couple trading days.

Luck was on my side. The stock went straight up over the last few weeks, hitting a high of $11.72 per share yesterday morning…before crashing down mid-day, and closing at ~$6.00/share. PLUG fell nearly 50% from peak to trough, yesterday.

On Monday, I claimed, “If you look at $PLUG historical daily traded value since 1999, you’ll see why I suspect recent criminal/illegal behavior.” I may be wrong, I may be right. I would like to elaborate on my opinion (which I stand by), and explain the underlying reasoning behind it.

Unusual and Historically Anomalous Volume

Note the following:

  • PLUG’s 3 largest volume days in its HISTORY (since 1999!) occurred in the last 3 trading days;
  • The value traded exceeded its market value in these 3 days.
  • The price of PLUG rose 25%, 30%, and 9% (intra-day yesterday) on these days, even as volume rose to historical levels. The 25 % and 30% rise ranked in the top <1% daily price increases in PLUG’s entire history.
  • Suspiciously, PLUG share price rise these last 3 days occurred without any headlines, developments, etc. Any positive news (e.g. Walmart blah blah blah) occurred many days ago. So no news, yet historical volume, and historical price increases?
  • Nearly half of the largest volume/value traded days of the top 1% largest volume/daily traded occurred in 2014. (that is, if you rank PLUG’s daily trading by largest volume days, 42% of the 1%

PLUG Historical volume

If the above set of facts do not disturb you, consider the following: if you and I were playing poker, and I went all-in (bet my entire stack of chips) 3 consecutive times, and each time I won because my hand was a royal flush… which explanation is more plausible:

(a) The probability of such an event is blah blah blah


(b) He is cheating

Note how I never have opined on the company’s business, accounting, etc. I simply am pointing out mathematically questionable volume and trading activity. The above behavior can only be explained by the behavior of stock promoters, unscrupulous shareholders, and maybe unscrupulous quant/high frequency entities.

I may update this post later with more. Note that this post is not opining on the near or long-term trajectory of the shares discussed.

‘The only capital I can rely on is in my head’

“My father returned from these adventures a changed man. Gone were the ambitions. He was happy to be alive. His ambition was to enjoy life. He liked to live well but he did not want to amass wealth. He considered material possessions an encumbrance which could drag you down or even on occasion cost you your life. He is the only man I know who systematically decumulated his assets. He balanced the gap between his earnings as a lawyer and our rather comfortable way of life by selling off pieces of real estate. As a result he had little left to lose in the war. ‘The only capital I can rely on is in my head,’ he used to say making a pun on the word capital which in Latin also means head.” – George Soros’ foreward to Masquerade: The Incredible True Story of How George Soros’ Father Outsmarted the Gestapo translated from the original Maskerado in Esperanto by Tivadar Soros


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