Algorithms Take Control of Wall Street

Last spring, Dow Jones launched a new service called Lexicon, which sends real-time financial news to professional investors. This in itself is not surprising. The company behind The Wall Street Journal and Dow Jones Newswires made its name by publishing the kind of news that moves the stock market. But many of the professional investors subscribing to Lexicon aren’t human—they’re algorithms, the lines of code that govern an increasing amount of global trading activity—and they don’t read news the way humans do. They don’t need their information delivered in the form of a story or even in sentences. They just want data—the hard, actionable information that those words represent.

Lexicon packages the news in a way that its robo-clients can understand. It scans every Dow Jones story in real time, looking for textual clues that might indicate how investors should feel about a stock. It then sends that information in machine-readable form to its algorithmic subscribers, which can parse it further, using the resulting data to inform their own investing decisions. Lexicon has helped automate the process of reading the news, drawing insight from it, and using that information to buy or sell a stock. The machines aren’t there just to crunch numbers anymore; they’re now making the decisions.

That increasingly describes the entire financial system. Over the past decade, algorithmic trading has overtaken the industry. From the single desk of a startup hedge fund to the gilded halls of Goldman Sachs, computer code is now responsible for most of the activity on Wall Street. (By some estimates, computer-aided high-frequency trading now accounts for about 70 percent of total trade volume.) Increasingly, the market’s ups and downs are determined not by traders competing to see who has the best information or sharpest business mind but by algorithms feverishly scanning for faint signals of potential profit.

Algorithms have become so ingrained in our financial system that the markets could not operate without them. At the most basic level, computers help prospective buyers and sellers of stocks find one another—without the bother of screaming middlemen or their commissions. High-frequency traders, sometimes called flash traders, buy and sell thousands of shares every second, executing deals so quickly, and on such a massive scale, that they can win or lose a fortune if the price of a stock fluctuates by even a few cents. Other algorithms are slower but more sophisticated, analyzing earning statements, stock performance, and newsfeeds to find attractive investments that others may have missed. The result is a system that is more efficient, faster, and smarter than any human.

It is also harder to understand, predict, and regulate. Algorithms, like most human traders, tend to follow a fairly simple set of rules. But they also respond instantly to ever-shifting market conditions, taking into account thousands or millions of data points every second. And each trade produces new data points, creating a kind of conversation in which machines respond in rapid-fire succession to one another’s actions. At its best, this system represents an efficient and intelligent capital allocation machine, a market ruled by precision and mathematics rather than emotion and fallible judgment.

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