Saturday, May 29, 2010

The Quants

Once in a while, a book about trading written for the general public contains some useful nuggets even for professionals.  Fortune's Formula was one. It introduced me to the world of Kelly's formula, Universal Portfolios, and the maximization of compounded growth rate. The Quants, by WSJ reporter Scott Patterson, is another. (Hat tip to my partner Steve for telling me about it.)

What is the most important take-away in The Quants? No, it is not that you should learn to become a master poker player or chess player before hoping to make it big, though you would think that given Patterson's exhaustive coverage of poker games played by the top quants. Among my own professional acquaintances, trader-poker-players are still a minority.

The most important take-away is what ex-employees said about Renaissance Technologies: "there is no secret formula for the fund's success, no magic code discovered decades ago by geniuses .... Rather, Madallion [Fund]'s team of ninety or so Ph.D.'s are constantly working to improve the fund's systems, ..."

In other words, though you may not have 90 Ph.D.'s  at your disposal, you can still work on continuously improving/refining your strategies, improving the engineering of your trading environment, and increasing the diversity of your strategies. And though you may still not archive 60-70% annualized returns every year, you will nevertheless enjoy stable returns year after year.

By the way, it is good to see my ex-colleagues Lalit Bahl, Vincent and Stephen Della Pietra mentioned in the book, all of whom left IBM to join Renaissance many years ago, and who are extraordinarily nice and friendly guys, quite in contrast to the norm on Wall Street.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

A HFT primer

As a follow-up of my previous discussions on high frequency trading, I have invited guest blogger Jennifer Groton to share with us a quick survey of various common HFT strategies used by equities and FX traders.


High frequency trading strategies are under fire.  The recent trading spike in our national exchanges was duly noted as a short-circuit waiting to happen and drew immediate industry criticism of auto-trading robots. Before a witch-hunt ensues, perhaps a review of the common HFT strategies in stocks and Forex is in order. 

High-frequency firms employ a wide variety of  low-margin trading strategies that are implemented by professional market intermediaries who have invested heavily in technology. These firms claim that they make markets more efficient by enhancing liquidity and transparent price discovery to the benefit of investors.  The Forex market’s unique combination of high liquidity and low volatility make it an ideal environment for deploying HFT strategies, although many of the ideas and technology are from the equity markets.  The basic strategies fall into three categories: market-making, trending or predictive, and classic arbitrage.

Market-making strategies tend to focus on a single stock or currency pair.  Many firms in this area have been described as engaging in "rebate-capture trading", a reference to the credits that firms get for providing liquidity on most market centers.

The second group consists of mean-reversion and trending strategies. These utilize technical indicators for stocks or forex indicators for currencies, and seek to generate more return from individual trades.

The last group may involve a cross-section of trades from multiple markets.  The classic arbitrage strategy is a form of the “carry trade” that uses the prices of a domestic bond, a bond denominated in a foreign currency, the spot price of the currency, and the price of a forward contract on the currency.  If the market prices are sufficiently different from those implied in the model to cover transactions costs, then four transactions can be made to guarantee a risk-free profit.

High frequency trading is attributed with generating over 70% of the volume of trades on our equity markets.  Similar statistics are not available for forex markets, but speculating disguised as commercially necessary trades have been reported to be over two-thirds of the volume.  Liquidity and pricing transparency are the benefits offered by its advocates, but regulators and other market participants who disagree with this positive assessment are presently discounting these benefits.  Transaction taxes and time limits on orders have been proposed to mitigate the perceived risk created by HFT firms, but the wheels of Washington move slowly, even in crisis.  For the time being, there is no indication that their participation will be discontinued.   

Saturday, May 08, 2010

Are flash orders to be blamed for Dow's 1,000 points drop?

Before the smoke is clear, fingers are already pointing at flash orders. See these two NYT pieces here and here. Our reader Madan has convinced me previously that flash orders can indeed be used to  front-run other traders, but until more evidence comes in, I am yet to be convinced that they are the main culprit. Couldn't old-fashioned automated momentum programs accomplished the same thing after an initial erroneous transaction price and/or quote was reported? Perhaps you know of discussions elsewhere on the blogosphere that bring more light to the issue?

Sunday, May 02, 2010

An additional ETF pair

Many of you know that there are a number of dependable commodity-related ETF pairs that remain cointegrated ever since I mentioned them in 2006: IGE-EWC, IGE-EEM, IGE-EWA, EWA-EWC, etc. (Their latest zScores are available here to my book's readers and to Premium Content subscribers.) A recent visit to a client in South Africa prompted me to add a new one: EWA-EZA.

It is worth noting that for those country ETF pairs that cointegrate, their underlying currency cross-rates are often stationary as well. Now, there are several advantages in trading currency cross rates instead of ETF pairs. When trading a stationary cross rate, you can enter a limit order to enter and exit, but trading pairs of ETF's involve market orders on at least one side. Also, ETF's can sometimes be hard-to-borrow, and their margin requirements are much more onerous than that of currencies. However, the one major disadvantage in trading cross rates is that they are not always available on your brokerage. For example, based on the cointegration of EWA and EZA you would think that trading AUDZAR would be quite profitable. And you would be right, theoretically, except that AUDZAR is not available for trading on Interactive Brokers. If you know of a good Forex brokerage that have many emerging markets cross-rates for trading, especially those of Latin American countries, please let the rest of us know!