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Thursday, June 03, 2010

Optimism in the world of financial services regulation

Posted by Giles Nelson

It seems that we’re finally making some progress on making the financial markets function more safely. 

After the “flash-crash” of 6 May, US equity market operators have agreed to bring in coordinated circuit-breakers to avoid a repeat of this extreme event. There is widespread agreement on this. Industry leaders from brokers and exchanges yesterday made supportive statements as part of submissions to the SEC.

Regulators are going public with their use of real-time monitoring technology. Alexander Justham, director of markets at the Financial Services Authority, the UK regulator, told the Financial Times that the use of complex event processing technology will give the FSA “a more proactive machine-on–machine approach” to market surveillance (the FSA is a Progress customer). Other regulators are at least admitting they have a lot of work to do. Mary Schapiro, the SEC chair, believes that the technology used for monitoring markets is “as much as two decades behind the technology currently used by those we regulate”. Scott O’Malia, a commissioner at the Commodity Futures Trading Commission admitted that the CTFC continues to receive account data by fax which then has to be manually entered. 

The use of real-time pre-trade risk technology is likely to become much more widespread. “Naked” access, where customers of brokers submit orders directly to the market without any pre-trade checks, is likely to be banned. This is an important change as late last year Aite Group, an analyst firm, estimated that naked access accounted for 38% of the average daily volume in US stocks. The SEC is also proposing that regulation of sponsored access is shorn up – currently it has evidence that brokers rely upon oral assurances that the customer itself has pre-trade risk technology deployed. The mandated use of pre-trade risk technology will level the playing field and will prevent a rush to the bottom. Personally I’ve heard of several instances of buy-side customers insisting to brokers that pre-trade risk controls are turned off as they perceive that such controls add latency and therefore will adversely affect the success of their trading.

The idea of real-time market surveillance, particularly in complex, fragmented markets as exist in the US and Europe is gaining credence. The SEC has proposed bringing in a “consolidated audit trail” which would enable all orders in US equity markets to be tracked in real-time. As John Bates said in his previous blog post, it’s likely that the US tax-payer will not be happy paying the $4B the publically funded SEC estimates that such a system would need to get up and running. Perhaps the US could look at the way the UK’s FSA is funded. The FSA reports to government but is paid for by the firms it regulates.

As I mentioned in my last blog our polling in April at Tradetech, a European equities trading event, suggests that market participants are ready for better market monitoring. 75% of respondents to our survey believed that creating more transparency with real-time market monitoring was preferable to the introduction of restrictive new rules.

CESR, the Committee of European Securities Regulators, is currently consulting on issues such as algorithmic trading and high frequency trading. It will be interesting to see the results of their deliberations in the coming months.

I’m so pleased the argument has moved on. This time last year saw a protracted period of vilifying “high frequency trading” and “algo trading”. Now, there is recognition of the benefits as well as the challenges that high frequency trading has brought to equity markets and regulators seem to understand that to both prevent disastrous errors and deliberate market manipulation occurring it is better for them to get on board with new technology rather than try to turn the clock back to mediaeval times. 

New approaches are sorely needed. Yesterday saw the conclusion of another investigation into market manipulation when the FSA handed out a $150,000 fine and a five-year ban to a commodity futures broker.


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Peter Lin

Honestly 150,000 in fines is nothing for the large firms. I've seen fines over 100 million between 2003-2007. Just look at the fines Fidelity, putnam, wellington, bears stearn and others paid a few years back. The hedge funds I've heard about generally laugh at fines less than 1 million. Even a 10 million fine isn't considered a big deal. Look at the history of pre/post trade compliance over the last 2 decades in the US and you'll multi-million dollar fines is the norm, not the exception.

New restrictive rules are needed along with real-time monitoring by the SEC. The easiest way to fund the technology upgrade is to look at existing violation. There's no need to tax the people to fund it. Companies are already paying huge fines every year for violations. Don't take my word for it, ask anyone in the compliance department at fidelity, putnam, wellington, state street and many others.

Giles Nelson

I agree that $150K isn't a lot for a firm, but this fine was given to an individual.


Financial Services Authority says bank trading needs tougher rules, from beefing up the current framework to fundamental change. This would end the distinction between trading and bank books. According to FSA compliance all the rules laid should be strictly followed by banks.

Account Deleted

This blog is very informative. I’m glad that I found your post. The FSA is in charge of monitoring securities exchanges within the UK, thus can avoid market fraud and illegal trade. More Power to your blog!

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