February 17, 2021

Big Cheese Grater

Good offense beats good defense.

These five words are the heartbeat of the Saban Dynasty in football at Alabama – and the reason for the Gamestop trade in the stock market.

Promise, this piece isn’t about sports. It’s about how retail traders killed institutions.

It takes some history. Go back to 1995, and the spread charged by brokers executing your trade was about 13%, or an eighth of a dollar.  That’s on top of the commission you paid.

Along came Electronic Communications Networks (ECNs) offering to match trades at a fraction of that spread automatically using computers.  They took 50% of trading from exchanges.

The exchanges responded in three ways.

Follow me here. I’m explaining why GME went up 1,000% and why retail money is running circles around institutions.  Everybody in the markets should understand it.

Back to the exchanges.  They first cried foul to regulators and sued ECNs.  Then they bought the ECNs (ECNs Brut, Island and Archipelago became technology engines for the Nasdaq and the NYSE).

And they adopted two ECN pillars:  They began paying high-speed traders to set prices, and they invested in algorithmic technology to help big institutional customers fill trades in a stock market infested with small orders and fast trades.

Step forward.  The SEC sniffed the wind and first required stocks to trade at a penny spread and then forced all the markets together under Regulation National Market System, thinking it would address what the ECNs had highlighted: The market wanted smaller intermediary spreads.

Still with me?  GME went up 1,000% because of what we’re talking about here, and institutions have been left out in the cold (public companies, you need to know this!).  I’m getting to it. Don’t quit!

Back to our story, institutional investors and the brokers helping them execute trades invested billions of dollars in computerized trading systems that would split up big orders – like a million shares – into tiny 100-share trades that, and this is key, wouldn’t chase after deviations in price.

I liken it to seeing the market as a cheese grater and institutional orders as a block of cheese. Technologists figured that a stock market forced into tiny spreads and trades would mean constantly changing prices. So why not fashion algorithms that would position the block of cheese of buys and sells like tiny trades – all the teeth on the grater?

Genius!

And so exchanges crafted order types to help big brokers and their customers match the cheese of orders to the grater of the market.

It was a compromise, not an act of service.  After all, exchanges continued to pay traders to be the best bid or offer – the going rate is around 25 cents per hundred shares still – so the cheese graters for big institutions would sit unseen behind the displayed prices for stocks, grating away and filling trades at midpoint prices.

And then along came the Reddit mob.

The unwitting genius behind the crowd is that it doesn’t know market structure. It just followed greed, a human impulse. That is, the aim of the Reddit gang is to run prices up. The aim of the Big Cheese Grater is to fill orders as prices run up and DOWN.

The whole structure of the stock market, with blessing and help from regulators, encourages prices to move both up and down.

It all fits together.  Traders will always make 100 shares of every stock available if prices move up and down.  If prices move up and down, exchanges make billions selling data. And Fast Traders, the supply chain of the stock market, need prices to move up and down to profit going long and short.

Good offense beats good defense.

Buys are offense. Algorithms are defense. And the former flat out OWNED the latter, because the Reddit traders, without understanding what they were doing, chose only offense. They demonstrated a nervy willingness to chase prices higher that utterly demolished algorithms designed, like cheese graters, to capture up-and-down moves.

Intermediaries wanting to make $0.003 per trade didn’t care if the cheese grater malfunctioned. So they fed the mob frenzy what it wanted. Higher prices.

And this can happen every day, any day. In anything.

The problem for public companies is your big investors need to put $2 billion into the market within a price-range to get a return. A retail trader just needs 10% on 100 shares.

You see? It’s a problem 30 years in the making. Now it’s here.

What fixes it? That’s a topic for another day. But it’s coming. It’s Regulation National Market System II.  We’ll see it within two years.

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