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High Frequency Traders (HFT) Driven by Spread Squeeze

For decades an order to buy or sell a security went to a person in a trader's jacket standing on the floor of an exchange, often at the NYSE in Lower Manhattan. If you wanted to sell stock in General Electric, for instance, these so-called specialists would find a buyer. If they couldn't find one, they bought it themselves.

In exchange for their services, the specialists pocketed some of the difference between the price at which you were willing to buy and the price at which a GE holder was willing to sell.

This system came under attack in the early 1980s from Nasdaq, a rival marketplace for stocks, which began using computers to make trades. The pitch was it could match buyers and sellers faster than humans, and for less money.

Then, starting in the late '90s, the NYSE specialists got hit again, this time with a series of blows: new rules encouraging computer matching of buyers and sellers, a shift to quote stock prices in minute increments of decimals instead of fractions, and a decision to cut the minimum spread that specialists or other middlemen could grab for themselves from 6.25 cents per share to a penny.

''It used to be an oligopoly, an old boy's club,'' said Irene Aldridge, head of an HFT shop called Able Alpha Trading and author of ''High-Frequency Trading.'' ''But now it's a completely level field.''

Critics of high-frequency trading say all this talk about narrowing spreads for ordinary investors distracts from a key problem: Split-second trading without human supervision is a recipe for disaster

May 16, 2010
Secretive Speed Traders in Spotlight After Crash
Filed at 12:33 a.m. ET

NEW YORK (AP) -- If you saw a penny on the sidewalk, would you pick it up?


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