The FBI has disclosed a year-long investigation into the questionable practices of high-frequency trading less than 24 hours after the rest of the world discovered how suspect the practice can be.
The Wall Street Journal reports the Federal Bureau of Investigation opened an investigation into high frequency trading on Wall Street about a year ago. "Trading ahead of other investors based on information about orders that other investors can't see could violate insider-trading laws," an FBI spokesperson explained to the Journal. The FBI joins investigations into high-frequency trading by the Securities and Exchange Commission and the New York Attorney General's office. CBS News and various others have confirmed the existence of the FBI's investigation.
In a report on 60 Minutes last night, based on an excerpt from his latest book published in The New York Times Magazine on Monday, author Michael Lewis explained a not-so-frequently discussed Wall Street practice of electronically trading shares at a rapid pace to take advantage of the daily ebbs and flows of the market, commonly known as high-frequency trading. The practice is the focus of Lewis' latest book, Flash Boys: A Wall Street Revolt. In theory, traders react to moves made by others in the market, buying and selling stock accordingly as prices go up and down. But some, like the Royal Bank of Canada, accuse high-frequency traders of using advanced computer algorithms and ultra-high speed data network to manipulate stock prices through the millisecond advantages they have over humans, and even other computer networks. The practice even allows for a technique called "front-selling," where traders place an order to purchase a stock, and HFT computers using their speed advantage to start buying the same stock before the original order is even processed. The legality of this practice was questionable well before the FBI investigation.
But the FBI hopes to crack down on exactly this kind of behavior. Per the Journal:
The FBI says it has dedicated a large number of agents to the investigation. They are looking at proprietary-trading outfits as well as fast-trading operations at brokers who buy and sell orders on behalf of clients, such as mutual funds and pension plans. FBI officials are looking into whether some brokers trade on information about clients orders before executing on behalf of the client and whether brokers use information about after-hours trading to beat the market when it opens the next morning.
"There are many people in government who are very focused on this and who are concerned about it and who think it breaks the law," an FBI spokesman said.