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Darkness by Design: The Hidden Power in Global Capital Markets

Darkness by Design: The Hidden Power in Global Capital Markets

by Walter Mattli
Darkness by Design: The Hidden Power in Global Capital Markets

Darkness by Design: The Hidden Power in Global Capital Markets

by Walter Mattli


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An exposé of fragmented trading platforms, poor governance, and exploitative practices in today's capital markets

Capital markets have undergone a dramatic transformation in the past two decades. Algorithmic high-speed supercomputing has replaced traditional floor trading and human market makers, while centralized exchanges that once ensured fairness and transparency have fragmented into a dizzying array of competing exchanges and trading platforms. Darkness by Design exposes the unseen perils of market fragmentation and "dark" markets, shedding critical light on how the redistribution of power and influence has created new winners and losers in capital markets. Essential reading for anyone with money in the stock market, this compelling book challenges the conventional view of markets and reveals the troubling implications of unchecked market power for the health of the global economy and society as a whole.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780691216867
Publisher: Princeton University Press
Publication date: 06/08/2021
Pages: 264
Product dimensions: 6.12(w) x 9.25(h) x (d)

About the Author

Walter Mattli is professor of international political economy and a fellow of St. John's College, University of Oxford. His books include The New Global Rulers: The Privatization of Regulation in the World Economy (Princeton).

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From New York to London, from Chicago to Tokyo, and from Frankfurt to Sydney, capital markets the world over have undergone revolutionary changes during the past two decades. The frenzied activity of traders buying and selling stocks and other financial instruments on the trading floors of the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE), the London Stock Exchange (LSE), and the Chicago Board of Trade — traditional icons of global capitalism — has been replaced by algorithmic trading and supercomputers tucked away in gigantic nondescript "datacenters" in out-of-the-way places such as Mahwah, New Jersey; Aurora, Illinois; and Basildon, outside London. Trading has become extraordinarily complex and opaque, with trading speeds no longer measured in minutes or seconds but in time units beyond human perception: milliseconds (thousandths of a second), microseconds (millionths), and even nanoseconds (billionths). By way of comparison, a millisecond is to a second as one second is to 11.6 days; and a nanosecond is to a second as one second is to 31.7 years. The blinking of the human eye takes about 400 milliseconds, and a nerve impulse reaches the brain in about 80 milliseconds — near eternities compared with the speed of modern communications and trading.

Technological advances have scaled up imperceptible and previously irrelevant time differences into operationally manageable and enormously profitable business opportunities for those with sufficient high-tech trading tools. These tools include the fastest private communication and trading lines, the most powerful computers, and sophisticated algorithms (algos) that are capable of speedily analyzing incoming news and trading data and determining optimal trading strategies in microseconds. High-tech trading also relies on possession of gigantic collections of historical and real-time market data. One Chicago-based market operator is said to possess a collection that contains "the rough equivalent of approximately 100 times the amount of data included in the Library of Congress." The storage, management, organization, and analysis of such big data require enormously costly and complex systems that only a small number of large operators can afford.

But there is another central factor that has contributed to the extraordinary complexity of capital markets: market fragmentation. At the dawn of the twenty-first century, the NYSE was the world's preeminent equity market, listing companies from all over the globe. Today, the NYSE is no longer dominant; its overall share of the domestic market dropped from 80 percent to about 24 percent over the past decade. Trading in U.S. equity markets is now split between 12 public (also called "lit") exchanges and many more off-exchange trading venues, including about 40 so-called dark pools (see below) and over 200 internalizing broker-dealers. This fragmentation is a feature not only of equity markets but also of other markets, including options markets and foreign exchange markets. And the trend is global — fragmented capital markets are a growing reality in Europe as well as parts of Asia.

In this hyperfast fragmented global marketplace, algos battle algos for trading dominance (i.e., preferential execution position), and the most sophisticated trading supercomputers deal not only in securities but increasingly across asset classes, including futures, fixed income, currencies, and commodities, and across hundreds of markets and dozens of countries. A retired regulator with a distinguished 15-year record at the helm of two major financial regulatory organizations recently confessed to me that he no longer understands how these complex capital markets really work. The average investor is even more in the dark about these markets. When an investor sends an order to buy or sell a stock by the click of the mouse, the order may take a lightning journey through a maze of dark pools and exchanges before being filled. How does the investor know that on the journey to execution the order was treated fairly and was filled at the best available price? Adding to market complexity is the extraordinary explosion in order traffic — from millions of orders daily 10 years ago to many billions today.

A comprehensive examination of the functioning of these capital markets of today is opportune and should matter to all of us — for the health of these markets affects our savings and pensions and ultimately has profound implications for the general welfare as well as for equality and justice in society.

Some argue that the recent transformations have introduced, on the whole, greater efficiency through enhanced market competition, resulting in narrower spreads and reduced commissions, for the benefit of investors. Others, however, are sceptical. In a 2014 U.S. survey, a striking 70 percent of financial industry participants said that today's capital markets are not fair to investors; only 18 percent felt they were fair. Many other recent surveys show a persistent majority of buy-side market participants (i.e., asset managers and managers of hedge funds, pension funds, and trusts) expressing negative views on overall market quality.

Telltale signs that all is not well occasionally make the newspaper headlines, including the Flash Crash of May 2010, when the U.S. equity markets dropped 9 percent in value, for no obvious reason, only to fully recover within 30 minutes, or the similarly dramatic and mysterious flash crash of the British pound in October 2016. Less noticed, however, are so-called mini flash crashes — large erratic price swings in individual stocks over milliseconds — which are a daily occurrence in today's fragmented markets. According to one source, about 18,500 mini flash crashes occurred between 2006 and 2010 in U.S. stock exchanges alone.

These unfavorable opinions of the market and worrisome recent events need explanation. Are they linked to the recent changes that have taken place in the markets? Economists traditionally view markets as simple coordination systems that facilitate the efficient exchange of goods and services between buyers and sellers. This view is a helpful starting point for understanding how markets operate, but it is incomplete for understanding why they change and who benefits or loses from changes in market structure. In this book I explain the dramatic recent transformations and events in capital markets and assess how they affect core public policy objectives such as investor protection, as well as market transparency, fairness, and efficiency. I do this by offering a new analytical lens through which to view these events and transformations, based on a reconceptualization of markets.

Markets are more than simple coordination systems or "disembodied" meeting places of demand and supply. They are organizations governed by their own rules and regulation. Moreover, markets are deeply political organizations or governance systems where contending groups of members or stakeholders are frequently embroiled in intense battles to shape market rules and structure according to their own narrow preferences. These contending groups are not necessarily equal in power, and sources of power may quietly change over time, thereby altering bargaining power. In short, power politics must be at the heart of any analysis of markets. Power is central to explaining markets both in the sense that general power politics arguments about who wins or loses apply to market settings, and in the sense that markets themselves are political institutions governed by power relations.

Furthermore, just as with any political system, some markets are well governed and others are poorly governed. A main challenge in capital markets is not primarily the expense and hazards of forging contracts between buyers and sellers, it is opportunistic behavior key market operators — so-called market makers who stand between buyers and sellers (see chapters 3 and 4 and glossary). Their vantage point at the center of the market gives them access to privileged information about order flow, prices, and market trends that they may be tempted to use for private gain at the expense of their clients. Good market governance seeks to anticipate and preempt such opportunistic behavior. More broadly, good governance is about managing conflicts of interest for the long-term benefit of all in society. It ensures fair, orderly, and efficient markets. Bad governance is about exploiting conflicts of interest for a quick profit, thereby surreptitiously transferring wealth from the weak in society to the powerful. If designed smartly, these exploitative schemes are practically invisible and silent, and can last for many years.

Good governance does not mean that everything is always perfect. Accidents and lapses do happen, and individual bad apples or occasional criminal gangs can cause damage to society. However, good governance is a system where the "governors" and stakeholders have a strong incentive to punish bad apples and criminals, as well as to invest in norms, rules and regulations, and policing and compliance systems in order to deter opportunistic or parasitical behavior by a few and safeguard and protect the interests of the many. For a capital market, reputation can be a powerful incentive for good governance.

Bad governance, by contrast, rewards bad behavior. Deception, lying, obfuscation, and misrepresentation are pervasive in bad governance. The creation of exploitative schemes by particularly powerful actors to benefit themselves is rational in a system of bad governance because the chances of getting caught are tiny and the reputational or material consequences of such behavior are largely insignificant while the profits from such schemes are high.

I argue that markets vary in the quality of their governance. If markets can manifest either good governance or bad governance, the question is what explains the difference? What explains when reputational concerns will trump power and create an incentive for the formation of good governance systems? What explains when and why power can trump reputational concerns?

I show that good capital market governance prevailed, on the whole, during most of the twentieth century (see chapter 3). Over the past decade and a half, by contrast, bad governance has been on the rise (see chapters 4 and 5). Market makers have fewer obligations, market surveillance is neglected or impossible, enforcement is rendered ineffective, and new technologies are no longer used primarily to improve market governance but to offer lucrative preferential market access to select clients, often in undisclosed or hidden ways. Specifically, although some of the evidence remains partial, I show that information asymmetries and secrecy — often deliberate governance-design strategies — have enabled a small but powerful group of unscrupulous market operators to milk conflicts of interest at the expense of the unsuspecting investing public.

Powerful actors claim to "innovate" to achieve greater market competition for the benefit of all in society. In reality, the modern fragmented markets that they have constructed (see chapter 2) tend to undermine competition. Fragmentation produces many "shallow" pools of liquidity (see glossary) — a proliferation of public exchanges, broker-dealer dark pools, and other private off-exchange trading places — that enable the powerful to more easily extract private rents on the back of hoodwinked investors.

Latent in the minds of many victims of these strategies is a belief that "modern" markets are technologically determined and that technological progress must be good. But new technology is neither bad nor good per se. Its social value is solely determined by the incentives or motives of the users of this technology. I show that in the old system of centralized markets, the dominant exchange had a strong reputational incentive to use technology for the benefit of all investors; in today's fragmented markets, by contrast, costly new technology is often used by powerful market operators in quiet and nearly invisible ways to maximize their profits at the expense of ordinary investors.

This book thus offers a new — and sobering — perspective on why capital markets have fragmented, as well as when and why algorithmic capital markets (i.e., "instantaneous" electronic trading) may fail the public.

A Deeply Puzzling Market Transformation

For over two centuries, securities markets in all major countries tended toward greater concentration. Concentration of trading in one large organized public market or trading "pool" seemed natural and inevitable in the wake of improvements in information and communication technologies. Consider, for example, the case of the United States: in the first half of the nineteenth century, securities trading was largely local, and all large cities, including Boston, Philadelphia, New Orleans, Chicago, and San Francisco, had their own exchanges. The size of these exchanges reflected the size and wealth of the local population; the NYSE was only marginally larger than the Boston or Philadelphia exchange. It derived its slight edge from its location in the most populous U.S. city and in the center of a prosperous region. With its large port, New York was a principal channel of international commerce, and the opening of the Erie Canal in 1825 helped it become a major hub of interregional trade. As a result, the local catchment area of the NYSE comprised the largest number of affluent investors.

With the advent of the ticker-tape machine, enabling the speedy diffusion of NYSE stock prices throughout the country, and continuous improvements in telegraph technology during the second half of the nineteenth century, the catchment area of the NYSE expanded rapidly. Increasingly, major companies in Boston, Baltimore, Philadelphia, and other cities sought listings on the large NYSE, and the bulk of share trading gradually moved to New York.

The reason for the expansion is so-called user-network effects. The greater the number and variety of users of a given exchange market, the more attractive the market is to new or potential users, since new buyers or sellers are more likely to find a counterparty to a transaction in a large market than in a small one. A central market naturally has the highest concentration of orders: it has the greatest trading depth (volume of bids and offers) as well as breadth (range of tradable securities); in other words, it has the highest liquidity. In addition, highly liquid markets both reduce investment risks, by making it easy to quickly enter or exit a trade, and lower the cost of trading, since competition among buyers and sellers narrows the spread — that is, the price difference between the best bid and offer. Unsurprisingly, therefore, "liquidity begets liquidity. It [is] a fundamental law of markets, like gravity. The bigger the flow of trades, the stronger the pull." And NYSE's pull proved irresistible. Centralization of the securities market was accomplished by the end of the nineteenth century: about two-thirds of all domestic trading now took place on the NYSE, while the rival exchanges in Boston and Philadelphia saw their shares reduced to 6.5 percent and 3.5 percent, respectively.

The NYSE maintained its dominant position for over 100 years. Then, quite suddenly, the apparent iron law of liquidity begetting liquidity no longer seemed to apply, and market centralization was replaced by fragmentation. NYSE-listed stocks trade today in dozens of separate markets (see figure 1.1). It is important to emphasize that this development was by no means limited to the U.S. equity market. Elsewhere, too, market centralization was replaced with a common pattern of market fragmentation. Figure 1.2 illustrates this graphically, by plotting the Fidessa Fragmentation Index (FFI) for stocks included in four geographically diverse equity indices: the ASX 200 (Australia), DAX (Germany), FTSE 100 (United Kingdom), and OMX C20 (Denmark). Summarized briefly, the FFI represents the number of trading venues an investor is likely to have to visit to achieve best execution for an order — accounting for both the number of venues on which a given security is traded and their relative market share — such that a higher FFI score indicates greater market fragmentation. It is a commonly used aggregate-level measure of market structure. The picture that emerges from these statistics is clear: from a starting point of relative centralization in 2008, all four indices experienced a significant shift toward greater fragmentation over the subsequent decade. While this development was comparatively moderate in Australia, it was all the more pronounced elsewhere, with FFI scores effectively doubling over the period. This mirrored the pattern observed in the United States with the fall from dominance of the NYSE. Across the globe, then, a new reality of market fragmentation rapidly emerged. What explains this deeply puzzling transformation of market structure?


Excerpted from "Darkness by Design"
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Copyright © 2019 Princeton University Press.
Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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Table of Contents

Figures and Tables ix

1 Introduction 1

A Deeply Puzzling Market Transformation 7

Power Politics and Market Governance 13

2 The Puzzling Transformation of Capital Market Structure: From Gradual Concentration to Sudden Fragmentation 23

The Evolution of the Market Organization and Its Body Politic 24

The Transformation of Power Relationships among Members 30

The Impact of Power Asymmetry 43

Implications 49

Appendix 51

3 Good Governance in Centralized Markets: The Old NYSE 55

The Market Makers: Functions and Obligations 59

Market Surveillance 63

Rule Enforcement 72

Market Performance and Quality 76

Moving into the Twenty-First Century 89

4 Stratification in Modern Trading: The Haves and Have-Nots 93

Speed 94

Globalization, Financial Innovation:, and Stratification 99

5 Bad Governance in Fragmented Markets 107

Weakened Market-Making Obligations 111

Information Asymmetry: Trading Data 114

Information Asymmetry: Market Microstructure 120

Darkness 125

Failing Market Surveillance 137

Implications 146

Appendix 148

6 Conclusion: The Way Forward 155

Market Transparency 156

Leveling the Playing Field 162

Proper Accountability for Market Disruption and Bad Governance 164

Consolidation 165

Acknowledgments 171

Appendix: Market Governance: A Theoretical Background Note 175

A Political Organization Approach in Relation to Other Theories 175

Behavioral Assumption: Opportunism 181

Glossary 185

Notes 191

Bibliography 225

Index 241

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

"Walter Mattli's excellent book looks at the technological revolution that led to the fragmentation of today's security exchanges and trading floors. Innovations such as algorithmic trading and dark pools present significant challenges to market participants on issues ranging from efficiency and transparency to fairness and investor protection. Mattli's brilliant analysis is an eye-opener for everyone interested in the future of these markets."—Effi Benmelech, Northwestern University

"Walter Mattli takes us into a world of lit markets and dark pools, of stuffing and spoofing, and of trading speeds that make the blink of an eye seem interminable. He reveals how modern asset markets are actually governed—and how power is accumulated, used, and abused. Readers of this book will find it difficult to think about financial markets the same way ever again."—Jeffry Frieden, Harvard University

"In this masterful book, Walter Mattli delivers a tour de force that is deeply researched, crisply written, and timely. Darkness by Design is a must-read for regulators, policymakers, and anyone interested in how securities markets work."—Yesha Yadav, Vanderbilt Law School

“This important book traces how broker-dealers began to grow, converted to public companies to increase capital, gained financial and political influence, formed new coalitions that demanded changes in governance to benefit themselves, and produced the conflict-ridden, unequal system we have today. The story Mattli tells reads almost like a Shakespearean plot.”—Kenneth W. Abbott, Arizona State University

“Provocative and engaging.”—Stephen H. Haber, coauthor of Fragile by Design: The Political Origins of Banking Crises and Scarce Credit

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