If you’ve been tuned into financial news lately, you’ve no doubt heard about High-Frequency Trading (HFT). HFT is not new. In fact, it’s been around for over 20 years. Investopedia defines HFT as:

A program trading platform that uses powerful computers to transact a large number of orders at very fast speeds. High-frequency trading uses complex algorithms to analyze multiple markets and execute orders based on market conditions.

So why is it news now? Last week, a 60 Minutes interview with Michael Lewis suggested that the stock market was “rigged” by high frequency traders. I want to provide my thoughts, as Merriman’s Chief Investment Officer and as a hedge fund manager, on how HFT is affecting Merriman client portfolios. While we will monitor developments over time, the bottom line is that we believe HFT has minimal impact on our client portfolios.

Here’s why:

HFT firms are the new market markers in the stock market. Market makers, who’ve been active in markets ever since stock exchanges have existed, act to provide liquidity to stock trading by offering to buy stock at the bid price, and sell stock at a slightly higher ask price. While providing liquidity to the market, market makers have always strived to maximize their profits at the expense of institutional investors and the average person buying and selling stock in their brokerage account.

The transaction cost to investors can be viewed as an expense (paid to market makers) for providing liquidity, and has never and will never impact the fundamental value of the stock market. The cost only comes to bare when buying or selling a stock.

Two forces help protect us from market makers making excessive profits.  The first force is the competition among market makers.  As with any business, large profits attract competitors. iStock_000024621112SmallCompetition among market makers drives transaction costs lower as they fight amongst each other to provide this service. The battle among market makers is very similar to an ever increasing arms race, where whoever has the best technology wins. Over the last 10 years, computers have replaced the Wall Street traders and NYSE specialists – who in the old days were just as keen to profit from investors.

The second force limiting market maker profits are the countermeasures institutions use to trade large blocks for their clients. Attentive investors should be monitoring their trading and adjusting their investing/trading approach to minimize transaction costs. HFT is just the next story in the everlasting interaction between market makers and institutional investors. While the SEC and other government agencies will eventually catch on to illegal trading activities, the smartest investors generally take a buyer-beware approach to their trading.

In our MarketWise portfolios we take into account the sensitivity to trading costs when selecting investment managers. Dimensional Fund Advisors is obsessive in monitoring their trading costs and minimizing turnover. Their approach is to trade like a market maker by buying and selling stocks with limit orders and they are agnostic about what stocks they buy or sell (as long as a stock fits that fund’s investment approach). This trading approach is much less sensitive to HFT. Stock-picking active managers, and index funds, are typically demanders of liquidity when they trade stocks, which is much more susceptible to exploitation from market markers whether using HFT or via the old specialist system on the NYSE.

In our TrendWise portfolios, we also carefully track our ETF transaction costs to ensure that our approach is as cost -efficient as possible. And finally, individual investors, trading small quantities of stock in their own accounts, have benefited greatly from HFT as bid-ask spreads have narrowed significantly over the last decade or so.

If you have any additional questions about HFT or its impact on your portfolio, please don’t hesitate to speak directly with your advisor.