On program trading:
I want to direct the attention of those in the US finance industry to a white paper written by Themis Trading, called "Toxic Equity Trading Order Flow on Wall Street." Basically, they outline why volume and volatility have jumped so much since 2007; and it's not due to the credit crisis. They estimate that 70% of the volume in today's markets is from high-frequency program trading. They outline how large brokers and funds can buy and sell a stock for the same price and still make 0.5 cents. Do that a million times a day and the money adds up. Or maybe do it 8 billion times. It requires powerful computers, complicity of the exchanges (because the exchanges get paid a lot), and highly proximate computer connections. Literally, the need for speed is so important that to play this game you have to have your servers physically at the exchange. Across the river in New Jersey is too slow. Forget Texas or California. This is a game played out in microseconds.
The retail world doesn't get to play. This is a game only for big boys who can afford to pay for the "arms" needed to fight this war. But the rest of us pay for the game, as that half cent is like a tax on transactions, not to mention the increased daily volatility, which skews pricing. Think it doesn't affect you? That "tax" is paid by mutual funds, your pension fund, and every large institution.
Frankly, this is outrageous. The more I read the madder I got. And it is going to get worse as computers get faster and software more intelligent. We need rules to level the playing field. Themis suggests one simple one: just make it a rule that all bids have to be good for at least one second. That would cure a lot of problems. One lousy second! In a world of microseconds, that is an eternity.
Goldman Sachs went after an employee who stole some of their latest and greatest software this last week. The US assistant attorney general said in the courtroom that the software had the potential to manipulate the market. Imagine that. I am shocked. There is gambling going on in the back room? Gee, commissioner, I had no idea.
The comment that the stolen Goldman Sachs software "had the potential to manipulate the market" raises a fairly obvious question: did this software only have the potential to manipulate the market in the former employee/thief's hands (i.e., did it not have the same potential in the hands of Goldman Sachs employees?)? On to Mauldin's Japan comments.
"Land of the Setting Sun":
Japan's population is shrinking, and the number of workers per retiree is rising. Japan has the highest ratio of debt to GDP in the developed world. And that debt is growing by 7-8% a year, and does not include local debt. Interest rates cannot go lower. Savings are falling rapidly and will not be able to cover the need for new debt issuance, by a long shot. Within a few years, because of the aging of the population, savings will go negative. Social security payments are rising. GDP is shrinking, and export trade is off about 30-40%, depending on the industry. Machine tools are down 80%!
If rates were to go up by 1%, let alone 2%, over time Japan's percentage of tax revenue dedicated to interest payments would double to 18% and then to 40% and then just keep going up. It is conceivable that it will take 100% of tax revenues in less than ten years, at the current trajectory. Why? Because Japan is going to have to start to compete with the rest of the world to sell its bonds. Who but the Japanese would buy a Japanese bond at 1.3%? From a country that is rapidly going to 200% of debt-to-GDP? Doesn't really seem like a smart trade to me. And as the data shows, the ability of the Japanese consumer to buy more debt is rapidly waning.
The Japanese government is coming to a crossroads with no good exits.