Wednesday morning, Knight Capital Group launched a new trading algorithm on Wall Street and lost 440 million dollars of their clients’ (and their own) money in thirty minutes. The headlines in the New York Times are as one expects: “Trading Program Ran Amok,” “A Financial Plan For the Truly Fed Up,” “Frankenstein Takes Over The Market,” and so forth. The articles and commentary proceed to decry the “rapid-fire” nature of programmed trading, also citing other market computer stumbles in recent months: the failure of NASDAQ computers on the day of the Facebook IPO, and the recent heavy losses at JP Morgan.
These alarmist responses to algorithmic trading do the citizenry a disfavor because they foster basic misunderstanding of economics. The articles in the New York Times may be merely a populist ploy to sell more newspapers, but if they are truly misunderstandings, they are understandable ones: economics is complex. Economics is complex because human societies are complex.
But economics involves some very basic, fundamental human actions: production; trade; choice. And all of these actions rely on algorithms. Certainly production, from time immemorial, has been driven by algorithms: the ancient Egyptians created a calendar to alert them in time for planting; they created pumps and trenches to channel the Nile floods; they created hierarchies to manage water distribution.
The Egyptians are but one example: all the tools and algorithms created throughout human history to leverage land and labor more effectively are the capital of capitalism. The capital of economics.
So when writers in the New York Times state that “The machines are now in charge,” they are a bit late to the party. Millennia late, even. Because the algorithms have always been here. They’re called Capital.
Algorithmic trading? Welcome to capitalism, version one million.