Tim Harford discusses high speed trading and its potential problems:
“High-frequency trading” is a rich environment of algorithms, of predators and prey, all trying to make money by trading financial products at tremendous speed. But the basic proposition is simple to state. When the price of a share rises in New York, the price of related contracts will rise in Chicago just as soon as the news arrives. But if everyone else gets the news on the regular cable, and you’re renting space on the faster cable, you can see into everyone else’s future by (say) 0.7 milliseconds, plenty of time to buy soon-to-rise assets and then, less than a thousandth of a second later, to sell them again.
You don’t have to be a socialist to find this kind of thing discomfiting. There are three concerns. The first is that scarce resources are being spent on high-speed connections that have no social value in what is at best a zero-sum game. The second is that high-frequency traders may be making money at the expense of fundamental investors. The third problem is that such trading appears to introduce systemic risks. The “flash crash” of May 2010 is still poorly understood, which should ring alarm bells — especially since the need for speed means most high-frequency algorithms are simple and therefore stupid.
What, then, should be done? Rather than trying to slow down the algorithms, why not slow down the market? Most financial exchange markets run continuously, effectively assuming that traders can react instantaneously, withdrawing out-of-date offers and replacing them with up-to-the-picosecond prices. It’s this flawed premise — that all trades could be instantaneous — that means that no matter how fast the computers get, there will always be an incentive to go faster still.
A simple way for an exchange to improve matters would be to run an auction once a second, batching together all the offers to buy and sell that have been submitted during that second. Unsuccessful bids and asks would be published and would remain on the books for the next auction, unless withdrawn. One auction a second ought to be enough for anyone; it would deliver a stream of well-behaved data to regulators — currently unable to figure out what is going on — and it is plenty of time for a computer to weigh its options.
Steve Chapman on a recent proposal that will penalize the non-violent for violence in their community:
For urban politicians, gun control is like the bar in Cheers — a place of refuge they can seek out whenever things aren’t going well. Things aren’t going well on the crime front in Chicago, with homicides up 25 percent this year. So what else can our elected leaders do but promise action against guns?
Action against the possession and use of guns by violent felons would be a good idea, but the proposal offered by Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle is something else: a penalty on nonviolent citizens who bear no blame for the carnage.
Preckwinkle suggested a tax on sales of firearms and ammunition, with the goal of defraying the costs that gunshots create for the county hospital and jail. Her spokesperson couldn’t say what the tax rate would be or how much revenue it would yield but said the fee would be “consistent with our commitment to pursuing violence reduction in the city and in the county.”
[. . .]
The levy was dubbed a “violence tax,” which is exactly what it isn’t. It would not target criminals who have malice in mind, but would fall entirely on the law-abiding.
Anyone convicted of a felony, after all, is ineligible for an Illinois Firearm Owner’s Card, which is legally required to buy guns or bullets. Under federal law, felons are barred from owning guns. So ex-con gang members would not pay the tax, because they make all their purchases in the illegal market. It would hit only those gun owners who have used their firearms responsibly.
Writing at Marginal Revolution, Alex Tabarrok wonders “Why haven’t the $500 bills been picked up?”:
High speed rail, especially California’s project, looks to me to be monorail economics, a costly boondoggle whose appeal lies not in rational calculation [...] but in the desire of some politicians (and voters) to feel visionary and sexy. In theory, CA HSR might work but the inevitable reviews, delays, lawsuits and special interest payoffs make the prospects of a beneficial project look dim, demosclerosis kills.
Slow speed rail, however, i.e. freight transport, isn’t sexy but Warren Buffett is investing in rail and maybe we should as well. In particular, there are basic infrastructure projects with potentially high payoffs. Congestion in Chicago, for example, is so bad that freight passing through Chicago often slows down to less than the pace of an electric wheel chair. Improvements are sometimes as simple as replacing 19th century technology with 20th century (not even 21st century!) technology. Even today, for example:
…engineers at some points have to get out of their cabins, walk the length of the train back to the switch — a mile or more — operate the switch, and then trudge back to their place at the head of the train before setting out again.
In a useful article Phillip Longman points out that there are choke points on the Eastern Seaboard which severely reduce the potential for rail:
…railroads can capture only 2 percent of the container traffic traveling up and down the eastern seaboard because of obscure choke points, such as the Howard Street Tunnel in downtown Baltimore. The tunnel is too small to allow double-stack container trains through, and so antiquated it’s been listed on the National Register of Historic Places since 1973. When it shut down in 2001 due to a fire, trains had to divert as far as Cincinnati to get around it. Owner CSX has big plans for capturing more truck traffic from I-95, and for creating room for more passenger trains as well, but can’t do any of this until it finds the financing to fix or bypass this tunnel and make other infrastructure improvements down the line.
Chicago is where rail traffic goes to get delayed:
When it comes to rail traffic, Chicago is America’s speed bump.
Shippers complain that a load of freight can make its way from Los Angeles to Chicago in 48 hours, then take 30 hours to travel across the city. A recent trainload of sulfur took some 27 hours to pass through Chicago — an average speed of 1.13 miles per hour, or about a quarter the pace of many electric wheelchairs.
With freight volume in the United States expected to grow by more than 80 percent in the next 20 years, delays are projected to only get worse.
The underlying reasons for this sprawling traffic jam are complex, involving history, economics and a nation’s disinclination to improve its roads, bridges, and rails.
Six of the nation’s seven biggest railroads pass through the city, a testament to Chicago’s economic might when the rail lines were laid from the 1800s on. Today, a quarter of all rail traffic in the nation touches Chicago. Nearly half of what is known as intermodal rail traffic, the big steel boxes that can be carried aboard ships, trains or trucks, roll by, or through, this city.
This is very amusing, unless you’re a taxpayer:
The latest in lunacy in high-speed rail lunacy: at Joel Kotkin’s newgeography.com Wendell Cox reports that the U.S. Transportation Department is dangling money before the government of Iowa seeking matching funds from the state for a high-speed rail line from Iowa City to Chicago. The “high-speed” trains would average 45 miles per hour and take five hours to reach Chicago from Iowa City. One might wonder how big the market for this service is, since Iowa City and Johnson County have only 130,882 people; add in adjoining Linn County (Cedar Rapids) and you’re only up to 342,108 — not really enough, one would think, to supply enough riders to cover operating costs much less construction costs.
The federal government must be getting desperate to find some state willing to take this deal . . .
Chicago is contemplating one of the more effective ones:
Breaking down communities by creating incentives for friends and neighbors to betray one another is a much more effective tool in developed nations with less salient cultural cleavages a ruler can exploit. Creating distrust in society increases the public’s demand for government and reduces our ability to create (market and non-market) voluntary institutions to compete with government. If we think our neighbors are out to get us, we’re less likely to want to deal with them on a voluntary basis and more likely to demand they be controlled by government. Destroying community is good for government.
The Chicago city government seems to have realized this. It is considering a “Tax Whistleblower Program” which would pay people to rat on “tax cheats.” Grassers will most likely be paid a percentage of back taxes collected. The city officials are claiming that it’s “just another way of bringing people into compliance.” No doubt it will be an effective one too, since community can be a fragile thing.
All it takes is one neighbourhood busybody being financially rewarded for squealing on the guy down the street. Everything tends to snowball as trust evaporates and everyone starts to view their neighbours as potential threats.