Posts Tagged ‘marketmakers’

Madoff’s Other Legacy

Madoff’s Other Legacy

By Justin Fox, courtesy of TIME

courtesy of TIME

One day in fall 2007, I found myself on the 19th floor of the Manhattan skyscraper known as the Lipstick Building, listening to Bernie Madoff explain to me how he made money. This was in preparation for a discussion called the Future of the Stock Market that I was moderating; Madoff was a participant. (It’s a big hit on YouTube — just Google "Madoff video.") Sadly, he didn’t happen to mention the now infamous Ponzi scheme he was running two floors below us. At issue was his legit business, a brokerage that had long been one of the biggest marketmakers (the firms responsible for keeping trading going) on the Nasdaq exchange.

"You’ve heard of payment for order flow, right?" Madoff asked. "Huh?" I responded. Madoff explained that Bernard L. Madoff Investment Securities had pioneered the practice of paying customers to trade through it, thereby siphoning business away from the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE). The firm was able to use its sophisticated computer systems and trading algorithms to earn enough off the spreads between what it bought and sold stocks for to more than offset the amount it paid customers.

This was my first glimpse into the strange modern methods of making money from making markets in stocks. Madoff’s version of it was actually outdated by the time he explained it to me. With the government-ordered advent of decimalization in 2000 (stocks were previously traded in eighths of a dollar) and the rise of nimble competitors, the big spreads that Madoff Securities once feasted on were already a thing of the past.

Bernie MadoffSince 2007, the evolution has accelerated. Less than a third of the trading in NYSE-listed stocks is now done through the NYSE — and only a tiny fraction of that by the floor traders, who now function mainly as a colorful backdrop for CNBC broadcasts. Virtually all stock-trading is electronic, and somewhere from 45% to 70% of trading volume is done by high-frequency traders who make their money by the millisecond.

In the past few weeks, all this has become controversial. Flash orders — a feature offered by some exchanges that allows high-volume traders the advantage of posting orders for up to half a second and then removing them — have drawn the ire of the authorities. Related revelations about the high-speed, almost fully computerized…
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