Global finance


The real revolution on Wall Street


High tech meets high finance


Events on Wall Street have become so strange that Netflix is said to be planning a show to immortalise them. But what should be the plot? One story is of an anti-establishment movement causing chaos in high finance, just as it has in politics. Another is how volatile shares, strutting online traders and cash-crunches at brokerage firms signal that a toppy market is poised to crash. Both gloss over what is really going on. Information technology is being used to make trading free, shift information flows and catalyse new business models, transforming how markets work (see article). And, despite the clamour of recent weeks, this promises to bring big long-term benefits.


Don’t expect screenwriters to dwell on that, obviously. Their focus will be the 8m followers of WallStreetBets, an investment forum on Reddit, who have invented a new financial adventurism: call it swarm trading. Together, they bid up the prices of some obscure firms in late January. This triggered vast losses at hedge funds that had bet on share prices falling (see Buttonwood). And it led to a cash squeeze at online brokers which must post collateral if volatility rises. Since January 28th the most prominent, Robinhood, has raised $3.4bn to shore itself up.


Part of the reason for this is that government bail-outs have put a floor under risky debt. Banks have so much spare cash—JPMorgan Chase’s pile has risen by $580bn in the pandemic—that they are turning depositors away. Instead of using the lockdown to learn Mandarin and discover Tolstoy, some people have used their stimulus cheques to daytrade. Although the whiff of mania is alarming, you can find reasons to support today’s prices. When interest rates are so low, other assets look relatively attractive. Compared with the real yield on five-year Treasuries, shares are cheaper than before the crash of 2000.


Yet the excitement also reflects a fundamental shift in finance. In recent decades trading costs for shares have collapsed to roughly zero. The first to benefit were quantitative funds and big asset managers such as BlackRock. Now retail investors are included, which is why they accounted for a quarter of all trading in January. Meanwhile, information flows, the lifeblood of markets, are being disaggregated. News about firms and the economy used to come from reports and meetings governed by insider-trading and market-manipulation laws. Now a vast pool of instant data from scraping websites, tracking industrial sensors and monitoring social-media chatter is available to those with a screen and the time to spare. Last, new business models are passing Wall Street by. spacs are a Silicon Valley rebellion against the cost and rigidity of ipos. Robinhood, a tech platform from California, executes trades through Citadel, a broker in Chicago. In return for free trading, users’ trades are directed to brokers who, as on Facebook, pay to harvest the data from them.


Far from being a passing fad, the disruption of markets will intensify. Computers can aggregate baskets of illiquid assets and deploy algorithms to price similar but not identical assets, expanding the universe of assets that can be traded easily. A sharply rising proportion of bonds is being traded through liquid exchange-traded funds, intermediated by a new breed of marketmakers, such as Jane Street. Contenders such as Zillow are trying to make housing sales quick and cheap, and in time commercial-property and private-equity stakes may follow.

这次市场颠覆决非短暂的狂热,未来将会愈演愈烈。计算机能够汇集一篮子非流动资产,利用算法给相似但不完全相同的资产定价,从而不断增加易于交易的资产种类。通过易变现的交易所交易基金进行交易的债券比例急剧上升,由一种新型造市商作为中间商,例如Jane Street公司。Zillow这样的竞争者正在设法使房地产交易变得既快捷又便宜,商业地产和私募股权可能迟早也会效仿。

On paper this digitisation holds huge promise. More people will be able to gain access to markets cheaply, participate directly in the ownership of a broader range of assets and vote over how they are run. The cost of capital for today’s illiquid assets will fall. It will be easier to match your exposure to your appetite for risk.


Although that is thankfully not an option in America, the regulators’ toolkit does need to be upxed. It must be made clear that speculators, amateur and professional, will still bear losses, even if they attract sympathy from politicians. Irrationality thrives in online politics because it imposes no direct cost. By contrast, in markets losses act as a disciplining force. If today’s frothiest assets collapse, the bill could be perhaps $2trn: painful but not catastrophic in a stockmarket worth $44trn.


Don’t forget season two