Book review: Flash Boys, by Michael Lewis
Michael Lewis (Allen Lane)
Everything changes in the blink of an eye, they say. That's about 300 milliseconds.
Which is an eternity in the world of high frequency trading in which the capacity to make millions is made in the nano-seconds between offer and sale.
Nanoseconds have to be bought too, of course. Some buy space right next to the stock exchanges servers. One entrepreneur blasted through every obstacle to make his line between Chicago and New Jersey ramrod straight. Snooze for a microsecond, you lose.
High frequency trading rigs the market, destabilises the market and, in one case, "flash crashes" the market because it is computers making tens of thousands of automatic deals in the sliver of space beyond the reach of human cognition.
So it was little wonder that old-school humans spotted that the markets they were seeing on their screens were not a true representation of what was going on.
Trading occurred behind the scenes, along optic fibres, out of view. Investors were paying inflated prices. Markets were being made deliberately volatile. Money was put out of play. Another banking scandal but one too complex to gain much traction in the real world.
Michael Lewis's incredible-but-true story uncovers the secrets of this dark, dark trade and follows the tale of Brad Katsuyama, a rare creature in Wall Street - someone who wanted to bring honesty to a system that was addicted to its unfair advantage. He was taking on the Wall Street billionaires and the status quo.
As he sought out the quants, the wonks and the eccentrics to help him understand what was going on, he devised a scheme to build an honest exchange, where deals were open and no-one had an advantage. The result acts as a counterweight to the cynicism that the finance industry has, rightfully, earned.
His story is compelling, incredible and Lewis does that wonderful thing of adding astonishment to something already in plain sight.