Monday, October 11, 2010

Glenn Loury on Peter Diamond

Glenn Loury has kindly forwarded me a letter he wrote earlier this year in appreciation of Peter Diamond, one of the co-recipients of this year's Nobel Memorial Prize in Economics. The tribute was written for the occasion of Diamond's retirement, and seems worth publishing today:
April 20, 2010
Prof. James Poterba, Chair
Department of Economics
Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Dear Jim:

It is a pleasure to contribute a brief note of tribute to Peter Diamond, on this occasion of celebration for his work as scholar and teacher.

Peter was an inspiration and role model for me during my student years at MIT. My encounters with him -- in the classroom and in his office -- left an indelible impression. I recall going over to the Dewey Library shortly after arriving in Cambridge, in the summer of 1972, and digging out Peter's doctoral dissertation. This was a mistake! Peter's reputation as a powerful theorist had been noted by my undergraduate teachers at Northwestern. I wanted to see how this reputed superstar had gotten his start. Just how good could it be, I wondered? I had no idea! What I discovered was an elegant, profound and exquisitely argued axiomatic treatment of the general problem of representing consumption preferences over an infinite time horizon, extending results obtained by his undergraduate teacher and the future Nobel Laureate, Tjallings Koopmans.

I prided myself on being a budding mathematician in those years. Yet, Peter's effortless mastery in that dissertation of the relevant techniques from topology and functional analysis, and his successful application of those methods to a problem of fundamental importance in economic theory -- all accomplished by age 23, younger than I was at the moment I held his thesis binder in my hands! – was simply stunning. This set what seem to me then, and still seems so now, to be an unapproachable standard. I was depressed for weeks thereafter!

Even more depressing was what I discovered as I got to know Peter better over the course of my first two years in the program: that mathematical technique was not even his strongest suit! An unerring sense of what constitute the foundational theoretical questions in economic science, and a rare creative gift of being able to imagine just the right formal framework in the context of which such questions can be posed and answered with generality -- this, I came to understand, is what Peter Diamond was really good at.

And so, I learned from him in those years what turned out to be the most important lesson of my graduate educational experience -- that, in the doing of economic theory and relative to the behavioral significance of the issue under investigation, technique is always a matter of secondary importance -- neither necessary nor sufficient for the production of lasting insights. I learned this from the careful study of Peter's seminal contributions to growth theory, the theories of taxation and social insurance, the theories of choice under uncertainty and the allocation of risk-bearing, the theories of legal rules and institutions, and the theory of unemployment. I also learned this from Peter's elegant and comprehensive lectures on the work in these areas of himself and that of other scholars. And so I came -- slowly and fitfully, because I was rather attached to the joys of doing mathematics for its own sake -- to see the world the way that Peter Diamond saw it. And, in the process, I became a much better economist.

Peter graciously agreed to be the second reader on my dissertation, even though I was writing outside of his areas of specialization at the time, and my intellectual indebtedness to him only increased over the course of my last two years at MIT. It has by now become rather clear that I shall never be able to discharge that debt.

So, thanks Peter, for your extraordinary generosity as a teacher, and for your unmatched example as a scholar.

Glenn C. Loury
Merton P. Stoltz Professor of the Social Sciences
Professor of Economics and of Public Policy
Brown University
The following passage from the letter is worth repeating:
And so, I learned from him in those years what turned out to be the most important lesson of my graduate educational experience -- that, in the doing of economic theory and relative to the behavioral significance of the issue under investigation, technique is always a matter of secondary importance -- neither necessary nor sufficient for the production of lasting insights.
I have had very little time for blogging recently, thanks to two new courses, but if I can find the time I'd like to write a post on Diamond's classic 1982 paper on search, and the wonderful coconut parable he used in order to illuminate the theory.

Tuesday, October 05, 2010

Hot Potatoes

RT Leuchtkafer follows up on his earlier remarks with a comment in the Financial Times:
After a detailed four-month review of the flash crash, looking at market data streams tick-by-tick and down to the millisecond, the SEC concluded that a single order in the e-mini S&P 500 futures market ignited an inferno of panic selling. It was over in about seven minutes, and $1,000bn was up in smoke.
Within hours of the SEC’s report, the CME Group, owner of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, issued a statement to point out that the suspect e-mini order was entirely legitimate, that it came from an institutional asset manager (that is, the public), and was little more than 1 per cent of the e-mini’s daily volume and less than 9 per cent of e-mini volume during and immediately after the crash.
How did this small bit of total volume cause such a conflagration?
You do it with computers. Specifically, you do it with unregulated computers. You pay rent so your machines sit inside the exchanges, minimising travel time for your electrons. You pay licence fees so your computers eat their fill of super-fast proprietary data feeds, data containing a shocking amount of information on everyone’s orders, not just on your own.
And when your computers spot trouble, such as a larger than expected sell-off, they dump inventory and they shut down – because they can.
No one knows what a “larger than expected sell-off” might be, but on May 6 a single hedge that added just an extra 9 per cent of selling pressure was enough to cause chaos.
When that happened, the SEC’s report says, high-frequency traders “stopped providing liquidity and began to take liquidity”, starting a frenzied race for anyone willing to buy. The report likened the panic to a downward-spiralling game of “hot potato” where, as HFT firms bought beyond their risk limits, they pulled their own bids and frantically sold to anyone they could, which were often just other HFT firms, who themselves quickly reached their risk limits and tried to sell to anyone they could, and so on – into the abyss. Fratricide ruled the day. Firms then fled the market altogether, accelerating the sell-off.
Punch drunk, markets rebounded when other market participants realised what had just happened and jumped into the market to buy.
Fair enough, some might say. Markets do panic, and sometimes for no reason. But the larger HFT firms register as formal marketmakers, receiving a variety of regulatory advantages, including greater leverage. All of this extends their enormous reach and power. In the past, they fulfilled certain obligations and observed certain restraints as a quid pro quo for those advantages, a quid pro quo intended to keep them in the market when markets were under stress and to prevent them from adding to that stress. Over the past few years, however, decades-long obligations and restraints all but disappeared, while many advantages stayed.
Computing power also opened marketmaking to a field of unregistered, or informal, high-frequency marketmakers, what investor and commentator Paul Kedrosky termed the “shadow liquidity system”. Exchanges will pay you to do it, too, just as they pay formal marketmakers, and require little in return.
The result is a loose confederation of unregulated, or lightly regulated, high-frequency marketmakers. They feed on what many consider confidential order information, play hot potato in volatile markets, and then instantly change the game to hide-and-seek if even a single hedge hits an unseen and unknowable tipping point.
The only quibble I have with this analysis is that too many different classes of algorithmic trading strategies are being bundled together under the HFT banner. In particular I would like to see a distinction made between directional strategies that are based on predicted short term price movements, and arbitrage based strategies that exploit price differentials across assets and markets. Both of these can be implemented with algorithms, rely on rapid responses to incoming market data, and involve very short holding periods. But they have completely different implications for asset price volatility. It is the mix of strategies rather than the method of their implementation that is the key determinant of market stability.


Update: Leuchtkafer writes in to say:
I should have been clear in the piece I was talking specifically about market making strategies. 
I appreciate the clarification, and agree with his characterization of the new market makers

Friday, October 01, 2010

RT Leuchtkafer on the Flash Crash Report

The long-awaited CFTC-SEC report on the flash crash has finally been released. I'm still working my way through it, and hope to respond in due course. In the meantime, here is an email (posted with permission) from the very interesting RT Leuchtkafer, whose thoughts on recent changes in market microstructure have been discussed at some length previously on this blog:
It's natural for any critic to focus on what he wants in the report, and I'm no different.

From the report, in the futures market: "HFTs stopped providing liquidity and instead began to take liquidity." (report pp 14-15); "...the combined selling pressure from the Sell Algorithm, HFT's and other traders drove the price of the E-Mini down..." (report p 15)

And in the equities market: "In general, however, it appears that the 17 HFT firms traded with the price trend on May 6 and, on both an absolute and net basis, removed significant buy liquidity from the public quoting markets during the downturn..." (report p 48); "Our investigation to date reveals that the largest and most erratic price moves observed on May 6 were caused by withdrawals of liquidity and the subsequent execution of trades at stub quotes." (p 79)

It's also natural - if ungraceful - for a critic to say "I told you so." OK, I'm no ballerina, and I told you so (April 16, 2010):

"When markets are in equilibrium these new participants increase available liquidity and tighten spreads. When markets face liquidity demands these new participants increase spreads and price volatility and savage investor confidence."

"...[HFT] firms are free to trade as aggressively or passively as they like or to disappear from the market altogether."

"...[HFT firms] remove liquidity by pulling their quotes and fire off marketable orders and become liquidity demanders. With no restraint on their behavior they have a significant effect on prices and volatility....they cartwheel from being liquidity suppliers to liquidity demanders as their models rebalance. This sometimes rapid rebalancing sent volatility to unprecedented highs during the financial crisis and contributed to the chaos of the last two years. By definition this kind of trading causes volatility when markets are under stress."

"Imagine a stock under stress from sellers such was the case in the fall of 2008. There is a sell imbalance unfolding over some period of time. Any HFT market making firm is being hit repeatedly and ends up long the stock and wants to readjust its position. The firm times its entrance into the market as an aggressive seller and then cancels its bid and starts selling its inventory, exacerbating the stock's decline."

"So in exchange for the short-term liquidity HFT firms provide, and provide only when they are in equilibrium (however they define it), the public pays the price of the volatility they create and the illiquidity they cause while they rebalance."

Finally, the report should put paid to the notion that HFT firms are simple liquidity providers and that they don't withdraw in volatile markets, claims that have been floating around for quite a while.

What happens next?
In a follow-up message, Leuchtkafer adds: 
I'd like to note there were many other critics who got it right, including (most importantly) Senator Kaufman, Themis Trading, David Weild, and others. They all deserve a shout out.
To this list I would add Paul Kedrosky.
Firms that began to "take liquidity" during the crash would have suffered significant losses were it not for the fact that many of their trades were subsequently broken. I have argued repeatedly that this cancellation of trades was a mistake, not simply on fairness grounds but also from the perspective of market stability:
By canceling trades, the exchanges reversed a redistribution of wealth that would have altered the composition of strategies in the trading population. I'm sure that many retail investors whose stop loss orders were executed at prices far below anticipated levels were relieved. But the preponderance of short sales among trades at the lowest prices and the fact that aberrant price behavior also occurred on the upside suggests to me that the largest beneficiaries of the cancellation were proprietary trading firms making directional bets based on rapid responses to incoming market data. The widespread cancellation of trades following the crash served as an implicit subsidy to such strategies and, from the perspective of market stability, is likely to prove counter-productive. 
The report does appear to confirm that some of the major beneficiaries of the decision to cancel trades were algorithmic trading outfits. But I need to read it more closely before offering further comment.