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Monday, August 31, 2009

Soaring Prices for AIG, Fannie and Other Financial Stocks Sending Mixed Messages to Investors

William Patalon III
Executive Editor

Three of the financial institutions that were key catalysts to the global financial crisis – and that owe the federal government billions of dollars as a direct result of those problems – have seen their shares triple in price so far this month.

That could signal that a big rebound in bank-sector earnings is just around the corner. Or it could be merely a speculative “short squeeze” that all but confirms that these stocks are basically worthless.

Shares of busted insurer American International Group Inc. (NYSE: AIG) have soared from $13.14 to $50.23, as of Friday’s close, a gain of 282.3% so far this month. Shares of mortgage giants Freddie Mac (NYSE: FRE) and Fannie Mae (NYSE: FNM) posted similar gains, MarketWatch.com reported. Fannie’s shares advanced from 58 cents to $2.04, an increase of 251.7%. Freddie’s shares zoomed from 62 cents to $2.40 each, a gain of 287.1%.

AIG actually gained for a ninth straight day Friday, reaching a 10-month high, as short-shelling speculators got squeezed and were forced to buy back the shares they’d sold short, traders told MarketWatch. AIG has 21% of its “float” – shares available to the public sold short, the sixth-highest proportion in the Standard & Poor’s 500 Index, according to Bloomberg News.

But the gains might also sign that the banking sector is poised for a major profit rebound, according to some new analyst research.

"Dating back to 1995, bank-sector outperformance has typically preceded [earnings-per-share] growth outperformance by one to two quarters," Stifel Nicolaus & Co. (NYSE: SN) analysts wrote in a market-research note last week. “With sector earnings growth expected to exceed that of the general market in mid-2010, we question whether we will see another leg down in this rally before year-end. On the other hand, perhaps we should question the current growth expectations for the sector?”

Trading in financial-services stocks has dominated the stock-market volume this month. So-called “day traders” have gravitated to once-questionable financial stocks and helped fuel those stunning gains – and huge volumes.

Citigroup Inc. (NYSE: C), for instance, has seen daily trading volume topping 1 billion shares this week. The stock closed above $5.05 on Thursday and $5.23 on Friday. That represents a 439% gain from its 52-week low of 97 cents a share.

Financial stocks have led the market’s slingshot higher from the early March lows. Trading has been fierce in beaten-down shares of some companies that participated in the bailout, such as AIG, Citi and Bank of America Corp. (NYSE: BAC).

The New York-based AIG is trying to sell assets to repay government loans after accepting $182.5 billion in U.S. bailout money. AIG recently reported a profit for its second quarter – after having posted six straight quarters in the red. It engineered a so-called “reverse stock split,” in which AIG gave investors one new share for every 20 they turned in. The company did this to avoid a delisting action. That enhanced the short squeeze, since there were fewer shares available to for short-sellers to repurchase and “cover” their bets.

Despite the torrid run that AIG’s shares have been on, the insurance company’s bonds still trade at levels indicating the company’s shares may be worthless, Peter Boockvar, an equity strategist at Miller Tabak & Co., told Bloomberg.

“The value of the company is still the same,” Boockvar said. “AIG bonds tell you that the equity is possibly worth nothing and that they may not be able to pay back the government.”

AIG’s $3.24 billion of 8.25% bonds due in 2018 are quoted at 79 cents on the dollar, to yield 12.2%, Bloomberg reported. The insurer’s $4 billion of 8.175% percent bonds due in 2058 are quoted at 49.5 cents on the dollar to yield 16.7% Bloomberg said.

The Financial Select Sector SPDR Fund (NYSE: XLF), an ETF tracking the financial stocks in the Standard & Poor’s 500 Index, has rallied nearly 30% over the past three months and handily outpaced the market.

Market Matters

While the past few months have been anything but dull for the markets (euphoric may be more appropriate), investors enjoyed a few slow days of peace and quiet.

Another stimulus program came to a close as “Cash for Clunkers” ended with a last-minute flurry of activity. Analysts claimed that more than 700,000 cars were bought over the past month and August auto sales should rise on a year-over-year basis for the first time since mid-2007.



While dealerships enjoyed a nice rebound in activity (even if just temporarily), banks continued to experience challenges as the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. (FDIC) reported that 416 institutions were on its “problem” list at the end of the second quarter, up from 305 on March 31, and also conceded that its insurance-fund reserves were dwindling.

Goldman Sachs Group Inc. (NYSE: GS) was in the news again as controversy has continued to surround the investment giant since the AIG bailout and Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc. (OTC: LEHMQ) failures. Regulators are investigating its weekly “trading huddles,” where its analysts allegedly gave short-term stock tips to select clients and traders, though most other customers were not privy to such insight.

Dell Corp. (Nasdaq: DELL) posted lower quarterly profits, though
the result still beat Street expectations and management projected stronger performance in 2010 when businesses get back in technology buying mode. Intel Corp. (Nasdaq: INTC) boosted its revenue projections for the next few months, another sign that chip demand is increasing and the business climate continues to improve.

The Dow Jones Industrial Average roared to eight straight days of higher closes, before hitting a stumbling block on Friday (though no one may have noticed as volume was so light) and the days of triple-digit moves ended (for a week at least).

The other indexes traded relatively flat during the week and even the positive news from Intel did little to generate any investor enthusiasm in the tech-heavy Nasdaq Composite Index. Fixed income fared better than most would have expected, considering another $109 billion in government debt hit the street.

Oil surged to a 10-month high before a larger-than-expected inventory report indicated that crude demand remained weak despite expectations of an economic recovery just around the corner. In fact, natural gas plunged to a seven-year low.

In perhaps the biggest news of the week, U.S. Federal Reserve Chairman Ben S. Bernanke will manage to avoid becoming a part of the so-called “jobless recovery” when he was nominated for another term as central bank chair by U.S. President Barack Obama.

While Bernanke certainly has his critics among grandstanding politicos from both sides of the aisle, few Fed watchers expect Congress to hold up his confirmation. For now, continuity seems to be the best thing.

The economic data of the week was relatively favorable with signs of renewed strength in both housing and manufacturing. New home sales jumped for the fourth consecutive month and the S&P Case-Shiller Index even depicted higher home prices last quarter for the first time since 2006. Durable good orders surged in July on increased demand within the transportation sector as both General Motors Co. (OTC: MTLQQ) and Chrysler Group LLC put bankruptcy in their rearview mirrors and boosted production, while other companies also benefited from the “Cash for Clunkers” program.

When second-quarter gross domestic product (GDP) was announced as a decline of 1%, many analysts expected a downward revision (perhaps significant) in the months that followed. Well, the initial revision again showed a 1% decline, a negative showing, but one that many economists believe will be the last contraction in overall activity for a while.

The U.S. consumer remains one big wildcard for the strength of the economy moving forward. Though the Conference Board reported a better-than-expected increase in its August consumer confidence report, the Reuters/U of Michigan sentiment index offered a contrasting view as it fell to its lowest level in four months. Personal spending in July got a nice boost from the increase auto sales (“Cash for Clunkers” strikes again), though the income component of the release was unchanged and concerns about the labor picture continued to hinder consumer activity.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Desperate for Capital, the FDIC Backs Away From Tougher Rules Governing Private Equity Purchases of Failed U.S. Banks

By Shah Gilani
Contributing Editor
Money Morning

A new Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. (FDIC) plan to offload busted banks to vulture investors strikes an uneven balance between private equity players and public taxpayers and may inadvertently sow the seeds for another round of bank failures.

The FDIC currently insures bank depositors up to $250,000 – up from $100,000 prior to the financial crisis. So far this year, 81 banks have failed, costing the FDIC an estimated $21.5 billion.

And the situation is almost certainly going to get worse.
A Growing List of Troubled Banks

The FDIC reported yesterday (Thursday) that the number of distressed banks rose to the highest level in 15 years during the second quarter, thanks to an economic malaise that’s saddling banks with a growing level of bad loans.

The number of troubled banks rose to 416 at the end of June from 305 at the end of March. The FDIC hasn’t had that many banks on its “problem list” since June 1994, when there were 434, the agency said. Assets at these troubled institutions totaled $299.8 billion – the worst level since the end of 1993, according to the FDIC.

The FDIC’s insurance fund, as of March 31, was down to its last $13.5 billion. Bank failures in the second quarter cost the insurance fund an estimated $9.1 billion. These hits were mostly offset by an emergency special assessment of $6.2 billion and an additional $2.6 billion raised as part of the regular quarterly assessment on FDIC-insured banks.

The FDIC just took another hit due to the recent failure of Colonial Bank, which cost the fund an estimated $2.8 billion, and the failure last week of Guaranty Bank, which cost an estimated $3 billion. FDIC Chairman Sheila C. Bair is determined to not have an insolvent FDIC turn to the U.S. Treasury Department to draw on a $500 billion line of credit set up for just this purpose, although that move is clearly inevitable.

In a fatalistic twist of irony, however, the FDIC’s demand for another special assessment in the fourth quarter and another expected special assessment in the first quarter of 2010 may tip several more banks into failure.

Although there seems to be a desperate need for private equity capital to come running to the rescue, the reality unfortunately isn’t that simple.
A Disappointing Decision

As most all consumers and investors know, the FDIC only covers insured deposits. However, the ongoing cost of a busted bank becomes higher for the FDIC if the agency cannot merge that failed institution with a healthy player, or can’t sell it outright. When The FDIC can’t find a willing partner or buyer, the agency must instead manage the “unwinding” of every failed bank’s stockpile of illiquid and toxic assets. With so many more banks in trouble and so many fewer banks willing to acquire additional suspect assets, private equity firms have offered to step up and buy failed banks these professional investors believe can be turned around.

On July 9, the FDIC published and sought comments on its “Proposed Statement of Policy on Qualifications for Failed Bank Acquisitions.” The controversial proposed policy statement suggested tough terms and conditions under which the federal agency would be willing to sell failed banks to non-traditional buyers – specifically, private equity firms.

A total of 61 comments were filed during the 30-day comment period – most of them from private-equity firms, their lawyers, financial-services trade associations and lobbyists. There were also comments from academics, four U.S. senators and six individuals. The FDIC also received 3,190 form-letter comments in support of the controversial proposal.

The FDIC issued its final decision on the matter on Wednesday. The new version was much weaker, once again underscoring the federal government’s proclivity for weakening banking regulations – a willingness we’ve repeatedly warned will have dire consequences for the U.S. financial system, as well as for the broader economy.

These alterations are setting the stage for an escalation in bank failures. The real losers will once again be the U.S. taxpayers, who will end up footing the bill for the FDIC’s failure to take a tough stand.

How much weaker were the new regulations, when compared with the earlier proposals? In one instance, instead of the initially proposed requirement that new investors maintain a 15% Tier 1 common equity capital ratio – three times what traditional bank holding companies are required to maintain – the new entry hurdle is only a 10% ratio.

Private equity firms will be spared the requirement of other bank holding companies and will not be called upon as a “source of strength,” should their investment in a bank need shoring up.

Bank holding companies have to make their resources available if their banking operation requires support. But private equity companies don’t want to expose their vast pools of capital to any one investment. Just as Cerberus Capital Management LP refused to put any more money into its failed Chrysler LLC investment – leaving taxpayers to bail it out – firms are loathe to be put into a position to support a bank holding with anything more than what was deemed as a suitable capital investment at the outset.

The FDIC granted other compromises granted in favor of private equity buyers. For instance, the agency spared them from having to cross-guarantee their portfolio-bank investments – unless they owned at least 80% of two or more banks.
Getting “Real” About Private Equity

Private equity interests certainly didn’t get everything they wanted. For one thing, the final policy statement prohibits “insider” and “affiliated” loan transactions and strips firms of using a controversial “silo” structure to obfuscate ownership and control positions.

The final policy statement reads like the painful enunciation of a split decision in a controversial heavyweight title fight. The valiant efforts Bair, the FDIC chairman, to keep the howling wolves of private equity at the door and out of the banking henhouse were ultimately undermined by the rapidly dwindling coffers of the Deposit Insurance Fund, which brought the FDIC to its knees. The compromises in the final policy statement grant the private-equity crowd a lot of what it was lobbying for while only momentarily sparing the FDIC the embarrassment of being knocked out.

But make no mistake. That day of reckoning is on its way. And not even the entrepreneurially gifted private-equity set will be able to keep that from happening.

Let’s be clear: We’re not saying that the private-equity sector is made up of angels (angel investors, yes, but outright angels, no way). Indeed, as we’ve demonstrated in past columns, the private-equity set is actually a group of uber-capitalists who are hell-bent on turning their gargantuan ambitions into extraordinary wealth – and who aren’t above shopping for regulators or hardballing Congress to get what they want.

Private-equity players demanded – and got – the FDIC to agree to share whatever losses they might incur, whereby the government (meaning taxpayers) must bear the brunt of the losses incurred when risky loan pools are acquired.

In all fairness to private equity firms, acquiring banks also have loss-sharing agreements with the FDIC. But they are regulated entities and private equity firms are not. Nor will private equity firms willingly become regulated in order to buy banks.

And there are actually some advantages in having private equity investors acquire failed banks – including a host of issues that critics describe as “self-serving,” grousing that the private-equity benefits come only at a cost to taxpayers.

Given the new set of rules, private equity firms can swoop in and pick up failed banks by banding together and dividing the equity commitment and investment liability assumed upon purchase. If there is no recourse against other private equity firm assets or even any cross-guarantees against other acquired banks, unless they are 80% owned, the consortiums cannot be called upon and certainly not relied upon to be a “source of strength” for their depository, taxpayer-backed portfolio banks.

Regardless of any rules on self-dealing, as sure as “bank” is a four letter word, private equity firms will find a legal way to lend from their taxpayer-backed banks to leverage their other portfolio companies and extract their usual exorbitant fees. If they don’t lend to their own portfolio companies, they will surely lend to other private equity firms’ portfolio companies in a modified version of the “club deals” that bind them together. These firms have a mutual interest in generating deal fees and in controlling their lucrative franchises.
A Glimpse of What’s to Come

The problem with banks is that they became too leveraged. When they couldn’t amass assets on their books, against which they had to set aside “reserves,” they established “off-balance-sheet” vehicles to acquire leveraged pools of assets. They were leveraged inside and out.

But now the originators of the leveraged-buyout business model want to control taxpayer-backed banks, to apply another round of leverage to already crippled banks in order to squeeze out all the profits possible. Although this comes at a cost to duped and already drained taxpayers, regulators, legislators and the American public would be foolish to expect anything else from the private equity crowd. If the FDIC thinks it has a problem now, wait until the next implosion of leveraged banks happens.

In a comment letter to the FDIC on the original policy proposal, the Private Equity Council, an industry advocacy group, without recognizing the irony of its comment, suggested that mandating higher capital ratios for private equity buyers of failed banks would actually increase the risk at those banks because their owners would essentially have to employ more leverage to generate sufficient returns to meet the higher capital standards – while still generating returns high enough to satisfy the investors in their private-equity funds.

If that’s not an advance look at the next round of financial-sector problems we could be facing, we are deluding ourselves.

Private equity should be allowed to buy banks, but should also be held to a higher standard. They have a proven record of success at leveraging companies when they have access to cheap funding, and they also have a record of spectacular failures that resulted from their leverage. The last thing that American banks need – especially right now – is a hyper-aggressive management that leverages them to the hilt in order to generate “acceptable” rates of return for a select group of private investors.

Unfortunately, we’ve once again placed ourselves in a position where the viable solutions to the problems that were created will end up causing an entirely new set of problems – problems that always seem to provide a benefit to the old crony network while leaving the battered U.S. taxpayer as the ultimate victim.

We have no one to blame but ourselves.

More town hall meetings and more vocal opposition to being duped and used by Wall Street would be a good place to start.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Why Asia Will Supplant Detroit as the Global Center of the Auto Industry

By Martin Hutchinson
Contributing Editor
Money Morning

Asia is poised to become the “new” Detroit.

Here in the United States, at a cost of a mere $3 billion, the “Cash-for-Clunkers” program appears to have given new hope to the U.S. auto industry.

But that new hope is destined to be short-lived.

It’s true that - in terms of value delivered for the money invested - “Cash for Clunkers” has eclipsed every other stimulus program that has been tried. But the program has a projected lifespan of only three months, meaning it can’t reverse the powerful global forces that are destined to turn the U.S. auto market from leader to laggard on the global stage.
Financial Crisis Fallout Reshapes Sector

Thanks to the financial crisis whose impact continues to be felt, worldwide automobile demand had dropped on an overall basis since 2008.

But regional differences are already emerging.

In the United States, for instance, the benchmark seasonally adjusted annual sales rate (SAAR) finally jumped up past the 11-million mark in July after failing to eclipse the “breakeven point” of 10 million vehicles in any prior month this year. But the actual year-to-date sales of 5.81 million vehicles through July was still 33% below the 8.55 million that had been sold by that point in 2008, and is 67% below the all-time annual record of 17.4 million achieved in 2000 and 65% below the decade average of 16.4 million.

(Prior to the global financial crisis and accompanying recession - which prompted the U.S. auto industry to restructure and shift its breakeven point down to 10 million vehicles - the breakeven point was actually 16 million vehicle sales in a year. Below that point, several or all of the U.S. “Big Three” would be spinning their wheels in red ink.)

It’s a much different story abroad, however, where several markets are in a long-term growth mode. In India, for example, sales were up 31% on a year-over-year basis, while auto sales in China were an astonishing 70% above those of a year ago. Even if U.S. auto sales continue to improve, China’s automobile market may outsell its U.S. counterpart for a full year for the first time ever.

Granted, India’s auto market - around 2.5 million cars and light trucks a year - is still much smaller than either China or the United States. However, its growth makes it comparable to the Japanese or German markets, the next largest automobile markets after its U.S. and China counterparts.

Thus, global automobile sales are undergoing a major reorientation towards Asia and away from the United States and Europe. This will inevitably have a huge effect on the structure of the sector.

That’s why Asia will become the new Detroit - the future center of the automaking world.
Gone For Good?

In the United States, General Motors Corp. and Chrysler Group LLC have lost market share because of the government takeover. They are unlikely to get it back in spite of the debt costs they have relinquished through bankruptcy.

For Chrysler, the partnership with Fiat SpA (OTC ADR: FIATY) is unlikely to help much. Fiat is among the weakest of the European companies, and has not been competitive in the United States since the 1980s. The U.S. market is undoubtedly moving toward smaller automobiles. That trend is being “fueled” by the new Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards for 2015 and probably by higher fuel taxes for environmental and budget reasons. Nevertheless, it seems unlikely that the Chrysler/Fiat partnership will have the models to compete.

General Motors has the model range to compete in the United States. However, GM is doing much better in China, thanks largely to its joint venture with Shanghai Automotive Industry Corp., which expects to sell 1.4 million vehicles in 2009. Since GM is also selling Opel, its European operation, GM will find itself driven primarily by the demands of the Chinese market. Given the growth of that market, it will probably make the most economic sense for GM to become Chinese-owned. Politics may delay this, but probably only for a few years.
The United States’ One “Better Idea”

Ford Motor Co. (NYSE: F) has picked up market share in the United States from GM and Chrysler’s problems. It should benefit both from "Cash for Clunkers," and from the early stages of the U.S. market recovery. If GM and Chrysler continue to have difficulties, Ford may be in a good position here in the large U.S. market - as the most-effective manufacturer of the large automobiles that Americans continue to prefer - no matter what the government tells Ford to do.

Nor is that Ford’s only competitive advantage going forward. Ford Europe is big and viable enough to allow Ford to remain credible as a producer of smaller cars, primarily in the higher price brackets.

Outside the United States, European manufacturers will find themselves increasingly confined to the luxury end of the market. However, as global incomes rise and the newly wealthy become brand-conscious - particularly in the emerging economies of Asia - that upscale portion of the auto market should continue to be strong.

Japanese and Korean manufacturers will continue to dominate their domestic markets. And such companies as Honda Motor Co. Ltd. (NYSE ADR: HMC), Toyota Motor Corp. (NYSE ADR: TM) and Kia Motors Corp., will also do well in the United States and Europe, and in countries where they have been able to establish viable local manufacturing operations, and lower labor costs.

But it will be the players from China and India who are destined to be the big market-share gainers on a global basis.
The New Leaders

For U.S. investors, India’s Tata Motors Ltd. (NYSE ADR: TTM) is the best known of the newly emerging global auto elite. Tata’s $2,500 for-the-masses “Nano" car has been well received. Over the long term, the Nano may expand the entry-level portion of the worldwide auto market, forcing other manufacturers to produce equivalent low-price models.

Indeed, the introduction of $2,500 cars may greatly expand the market’s size in India and other emerging markets, much as Ford’s Model T did after its introduction in 1908, or the Volkswagen AG (OTC ADR: VLKAY) VW Beetle did in the 1950s and 1960s.

Tata looked to be in financial difficulty after it bought the loss-making Jaguar and Land Rover brands in 2008 at the top of the market. However, the $300 million loan for its Jaguar Land Rover Unit announced on Aug. 10 gives Tata the room it needed to maneuver. Market growth in India, combined with the strength of its Tata Group parent now suggest that Tata Motors has the strength to survive without dismemberment.

The bottom line: Tata and its India-based competitors - Maruti Suzuki India Ltd. (Mumbai: MSIL) and Mahindra and Mahindra Ltd. (London: MHID) - as well as such top China carmakers as Chery Automobile Co. Ltd. (still publicly owned), Geely Automobile Holdings Ltd. (OTC: GELYF) and Great Wall Motor Co. (OTC: GWLLF), are thus the companies that will see most growth in the automotive market of the decade to come.

By 2020, the global auto sector will look nothing like it does today. Given that most of the muscle will be in Asia, investors shouldn’t be surprised.

Friday, August 14, 2009

High Frequency Trading: Wall Street’s New Rent-Seeking Trick

Martin Hutchinson
Contributing Editor
Money Morning

Goldman Sachs Group Inc. (NYSE: GS) disclosed recently that it had 46 “$100 million trading days” in the second quarter of 2009. That was a record number, even for one of the biggest players on Wall Street.

When the U.S. economy is facing collapse and merger and acquisition volume is way down, it seems odd that investment banks like Goldman had record quarters.

Well, here’s the secret: They’ve found a new way to skim more of the cream off the top of U.S. economic activity. It’s called “High-Frequency Trading” (HFT).

High-frequency trading uses the speed of supercomputers to trade faster than a human trader ever could. Human owners of the supercomputers program them to take advantage of information milliseconds faster than other computers, and whole seconds faster than ordinary human traders. This is not a minor development; HFTs now represent about 70% of the trading volume in the U.S. equity market.

HFT computer servers are able to beat other computers because they are located at the exchanges. They take crucial advantage of the finite speed of light and switching systems to front-run the market. They also gain information on orders and market movements more quickly than the market as a whole. They operate not only on the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE), but also on the electronic trading exchanges such as the NYSE hybrid market.

According to a paper “Toxic equity trading order flow on Wall Street” by the brokerage Themis Trading LLC, there are a number of different types of HFT. Liquidity rebate traders take advantage of volume rebates of about 0.25 cents per share offered by exchanges to brokers who post orders, providing liquidity to the market. When they spot a large order they fill parts of it, then re-offer the shares at the same price, collecting the exchange fee for providing liquidity to the market.

Predatory algorithmic traders take advantage of the institutional computers that chop up large orders into many small ones. They make the institutional trader that wants to buy bid up the price of shares by fooling its computer, placing small buy orders that they withdraw. Eventually the “predatory algo” shorts the stock at the higher price it has reached, making the institution pay up for its shares.

Automated market makers “ping” stocks to identify large reserve book orders by issuing an order very quickly, then withdrawing it. By doing this, they obtain information on a large buyer’s limits. They use this to buy shares elsewhere and on-sell them to the institution.

Program traders buy large numbers of stocks at the same time to fool institutional computers into triggering large orders. By doing this, they trigger sharp market moves.

Finally, flash traders expose an order to only one exchange. They execute it only if it can be carried out on that exchange without going through the “best price” procedure intended to give sellers on all exchanges a chance at best price execution. The Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) has now promised to ban this technique, and flash trading on the Nasdaq will stop on September 1.

This toxic trading has caused volume to explode, especially in NYSE listed stocks. The number of quote changes has also exploded and short-term volatility has shot up. NYSE specialists now account for only around 25% of trading volume, instead of 80% as in the past.

The bottom line for us ordinary market participants is that insiders are using computers to game the system, extracting billions of dollars from the rest of the market. While it is illegal to trade on insider knowledge about company financials, these people are trading on insider knowledge about market order flow. That’s how Goldman Sachs and the other biggest houses make so much from trading. By doing so they are rent-seeking, not providing value to the market.

There are two ways to stop this: Ideally, the SEC will employ both. First, they can introduce a rule that all orders must be exposed for a full second. That will reduce the volume of HFT, but still doesn’t truly protect non-computerized outsiders.

The second, and better, solution is to introduce a small “Tobin tax” on all share transactions. It could be tiny; maybe 0.1 cents per share. (The SEC would also need to ban “exchange rebates” to traders.) Such a tax would make the worst HFT types unprofitable without imposing significant costs on retail investors. It would also provide funds to help run the vast apparatus of regulation and control that seems to be necessary to run a modern financial system.

Goldman Sachs, and other financial institutions of its ilk, have imposed huge costs on the U.S. public with their “too big to fail” status. Now they are adding to the problem by scooping out money from the stock market through HFT. It’s about time the government imposed some taxes to stop the worst of these scams and recover the public some of its money.