By Dave Lindorff
When I lived in Hong Kong back in the "90s, I was surrounded by gamblers. Everyone, from wealthy bankers to stuggling street vendors, bet on everything from the horses to the stock market--and they were all well aware that there was not much difference between the two. Horse-racing was a guessing game for the masses, and a rigged deal for those in the know. But so was the stock market, with the prices of key stocks controlled by oligarchs who could pass inside information to key associates, and, increasingly, by Chinese government authorities who could make decisions that would pump up the shares of Chinese firms listed on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange--the so-called "Red Chips."
Americans are learning that our vaunted financial markets are no different.
Look at what happened on May 6, when the equities markets plunged by 10 percent in minutes, and some big companies, including Procter & Gamble, one of the companies in the 30-stock Dow Industrials Index, fell by over 30 percent briefly.
The reason for this "flash crash," as it is now being called on Wall Street, is not some keyboard mistake by a fat-fingered or coke-addled trader, but the automated computerized trading that has come to dominate the industry. That, and quite possibly a deliberate scheme to trigger that automated trading (See Pam Martens, a Wall Street veteran who, writing in Counterpunch says, "Over my 21 years on Wall Street, I never saw anything as remotely so suspicious as the trading activity on May 6 or as nonresponsive as the SEC's investigation to date." )
You see, the average day-trading schmuck sitting in his underwear at a keyboard linked to TD Ameritrade, or the working stiff who has her retirement savings entrusted to some financial adviser at her local credit union, doesn't have a chance. It's not just that the big investment houses are all betting on horses that they know are going to win (or lose), which has always been the case. The big brokerages and investment banks and hedge funds are also all now using supercomputers to front-run all the investments that we make or that our brokers are making on our behalf.
And even if the government wanted to put a stop to this kind of inside advantage and to the potential for manipulating the market (which it doesn't), it couldn't.
You can't undo the technology that has been introduced into the system. Two-thirds of the trades on financial markets aren't even done on exchanges anymore. They're done electronically, off the exchanges, and out of site of regulators.
You can bet that some people, and some companies, made an absolute killing on last week's "crash." When shares in P&G, which earned a net profit of $13 billion on $79 billion in sales last year, fell from $60 to less than $40 in minutes, you know there were computers at Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley and Citibank that were scarfing them up down there at the bottom and riding them back up before most people could even type in the stock's two-letter stock symbol.