Research / BFI Working PaperJun 25, 2020

Quantifying the High-Frequency Trading “Arms Race”: A Simple New Methodology and Estimates

Matteo Aquilina, Eric Budish, Peter O’Neill

We use stock exchange message data to quantify the negative aspect of high-frequency trading, known as “latency arbitrage.” The key difference between message data and widely-familiar limit order book data is that message data contain attempts to trade or cancel that fail. This allows the researcher to observe both winners and losers in a race, whereas in limit order book data you cannot see the losers, so you cannot directly see the races. We find that latency-arbitrage races are very frequent (about one per minute per symbol for FTSE 100 stocks), extremely fast (the modal race lasts 5-10 millionths of a second), and account for a large portion of overall trading volume (about 20%). Race participation is concentrated, with the top 6 firms accounting for over 80% of all race wins and losses. Most races (about 90%) are won by an aggressive order as opposed to a cancel attempt; market participants outside the top 6 firms disproportionately provide the liquidity that gets taken in races (about 60%). Our main estimates suggest that eliminating latency arbitrage would reduce the market’s cost of liquidity by 17% and that the total sums at stake are on the order of $5 billion annually in global equity markets.

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