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Risky Business

By Columns

The majority of stock trades in the United States are not made by humans, but rather, on high- speed computers. In the time that it takes you to blink, a computer is able to buy and sell thousands of different securities at any given time.

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I’m talking high-frequency trading. It’s a topic we’ve been covering extensively here on “The Willis Report.” Many are calling for the Securities and Exchange Commission to act now to protect small investors. That’s right; you, the one with the 401-K, IRA, or 529 college savings plan for your kids.

You’ll remember the Flash Crash of 2010, which sent the DOW plunging 1000 points within a matter of minutes. You’ll also remember this past summer, when Knight Capital Group lost $440 million for one trading glitch. It’s absolutely frightening.              

The biggest issue here is not a single company losing hundreds of millions of dollars. It’s about the loss of confidence it’s causing among small investors. A recent poll found that only 15% of small investors have faith in the markets.

Just yesterday, a new case was equally as disturbing. It involved dark pools; the shadowy private stock exchanges that exist out of the public limelight where the majority of trading is done these days. One of these dark pool operators, EBX of Boston, was fined by regulators for allowing the back office operator of the pool access to details of customer orders. And I mean details; buy orders and sell orders.

Just the thing that could be used to make a mint!

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The owner of the firm behind the dark pool known as Citigroup; the owner of the dark pool itself, and some of the biggest mutual fund operators in the country like Bank of America are just a few. Others are Fidelity Investments and Credit Suisse. That means it’s possible, though we certainly don’t know for sure, that your trade for a fund could have been impacted by this cheating.

EBX agreed to pay an $800,000 fine for failing to protect customers’ confidential trading information.

It’s not enough.

It’s time regulators stepped in to reign in these abuses once and for all. The industry needs to get its act together because high- frequency trading is doing more than putting your money at risk; the entire global financial system stands in harm’s way.