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Turning Our Stock Market Over To Robots Probably Won't End Well

First, a shameless plug: Please go read my latest piece at AlterNet about America's most revolting breakfast foods. From Reese's Puffs to Hardee's Monster Biscuit, these are the most comically unhealthy breakfasts you'll ever find. Now, onto the

First, a shameless plug: Please go read my latest piece at AlterNet about America's most revolting breakfast foods. From Reese's Puffs to Hardee's Monster Biscuit, these are the most comically unhealthy breakfasts you'll ever find.

Now, onto the more serious business of robots taking over the entire world through the stock market.

60 Minutes ran an excellent piece last night about high-frequency trading:

For those of you who don't know, an estimated 70% of trades on the stock market today are generated by high-frequency trading algorithms that scan market data for inefficiencies, anomalies and the like and buy or sell stocks based on the probability that they'll go up or down in a very short period of time. So let's say Microsoft's stock has been trading down 25% on the day. An algorithm detects that this is unusually low and snatches it up, then trades it three minutes later after its price has appreciated.

The key here is that the algorithms get pricing data milliseconds before human traders do and place orders accordingly. This helps them skim pennies off of stocks millions of times a day, which adds up to big long-term gains at the end of the year.

Let's make this simple by using a sports analogy, or rather a virtual sports analogy. If you've ever played fantasy football, you know that you set your lineup of players roughly one hour before game time and you aren't allowed to change it once the games start. But let's say you're playing in a league that lets you change your roster during games. And let's say a rival player is watching games on an old analog set while you're watching it on Direct TV. As you're following games you notice that your rival is signing and dropping players five seconds before they score a touchdown. Because he doesn't have the five-second delay that you have, he's able to grab players off the waiver wire who have just scored right before the system records the score officially. And at the end of the day, you check your league to learn that your rival has accumulated 5,469 fantasy points in one week alone.

All of which is a roundabout way of saying, "Our markets are completely insane." When 70% of trades are made by algorithms that don't have any sense of a stock's underlying value and are only skimming pennies off the top, we have no idea if price changes are the result of real-world events or if they're just being driven by computers trading with themselves. And what's more, if a firm enters a trade that sets off several algos' alarm bells it can result in a massive flash crash like the one that happened in May.

I'm not sure of very much in this life, my friends, but I feel pretty confident that turning our stock market over to robots will probably end badly for most of us.

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