Machines Hijack Our Stock Market: Opinion

Daniel Dicker

NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- Our markets have been hijacked and are not so slowly coming apart. That's what I conclude from seeing what are being optimistically called trading "glitches" at Knight Capital Group KCG .
But Knight's problems with its latest software are certainly not the first sign of an electronic market run amok. We've seen it over and over again: the Flash Crash in 2010; high-speed "mistakes" in initial public offerings (including Facebook's FB ); and countless small electronic missteps over the past three years.
All of this has sapped investors' confidence about the fairness of our stock and commodity markets.
They're not sure why or how, but investors suspect that the game is rigged and are more and more refusing to be a part of it. The monthly outflows from stock mutual funds and indices show how deep their distrust has become.
It's not just the regular retail investor who has been marginalized in this rise of the machines. A generation of traders, mostly of my generation, have been slowly and nickeled and dimed out of a career that used to allow their wits and courage to generate a living. Now all of their historic advantages are instead delivered inexorably to those diabolical black boxes, leaving nothing -- not a crumb -- for a smart kid looking to work hard and be his own boss as a trader, a job I was lucky enough to have for more than two decades.
The big boys are feeling it, too. It's no coincidence that monster hedge funds run by the likes of George Soros, Stanley Druckenmiller, John Arnold and Louis Bacon have decided to return money to investors, becoming smaller, entirely private or totally retired and gone. Sure, the markets aren't delivering the "easy" returns of the 1990s, but mostly they're a lot less reliable, courtesy of machines that generate thousands of trades an hour for reasons no human can possible understand or process.
I'm no Luddite -- I hear the inexorable march of technology. But I also think it's time to try and put at least a part of that genie back into the bottle from whence it came. A transaction tax is a great first step toward doing that.
The idea is simple: Charge a miniscule extra fee on every trade executed at every registered exchange. Such a simple charge would make much algorithmic "churning" of volume uneconomic, while bringing institutional and retail trade back to the major exchanges and away from the electronic communication network "dark pools." You'd begin to relevel the playing field for retail and private investors, generate confidence by returning fairness to the stock markets, greatly reinvigorate employment in the financial markets and gain a nice source of unexpected revenue, too.
Besides the black box owners, only the exchanges wouldn't like it: They've spent the last five years encouraging the machines -- even spending money to buy algorithmic volume generation and giving preferential access to the biggest "market makers" such as Citadel, Goldman Sachs GS and Knight. The exchanges don't care about fairness -- they only care about volume growth.
But trying to reverse the tide on algorithmic trading will help the exchanges in the long run, like a bartender cutting off the chronic drunkard before he goes over the edge. As more and more machines remove more and more humans, these glitches, failed offerings, flash crashes and investor recoil will doom the proper operation of the stock markets for everyone, and bankrupt the exchanges in the process.
It's time to put people first and reverse the trend on the machines, reinvigorating what once was an industry that showcased the best of American capitalism and individual grit.
At the time of publication, Dicker had no positions in any of the stocks mentioned.
This article is commentary by an independent contributor, separate from TheStreet's regular news coverage.

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