Recent Developments in High Frequency Trading Law
Last year the Federal Court of New York was stormed by investors alleging that exchanges, banks, and broker dealers created an unfair marketplace through high frequency trading ("HFT"). All suits were inspired by Michael Lewis allegations, author of the best-seller "Flash Boys: A Wall Street Revolt", who argued that the stock market is rigged in favor of exchanges, big banks and high-frequency traders.
By dismissing a three class-action on April 30 – Lanier v. BATS Exchange Inc et al, Nos. 14-cv-03745, 14-cv-03865 (S.D.N.Y. 2015) – Judge Katherine Forest of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York placed her imprint into the debate to know whether the Security Exchange Commission ("SEC") is the only competent entity to receive a complaint involving exchanges.
Harold Lanier, the aggrieved investor who initiated the suit claimed that several major U.S. exchanges, including among others, NASDAQ, NYSE and BATS, scammed ordinary investors by selling faster access to market data to high-frequency traders and therefore broke their initial duty as market regulators. Furthermore, the claimant added that they violated the nondiscrimination and fairness provisions enclosed in the subscriber agreements issued by the exchange which details both parties' commitments.
The plaintiff rightfully called into question the competence of the SEC as it formerly approved the practices of HFT. But according to the Federal Judge, the Exchange Act provides that any conflict should be brought before the SEC, as a two-tiered procedure is already in place in case of a violation of its rules by an exchange. In any case, if the aggrieved party seeks to go further, only Federal Court of Appeals can review the SEC order. The Judge contested anyway that the allegations of the agreement violation were sufficient to state a claim.
The market regulators "absolute immunity" question is nonetheless still unanswered as the case has not been followed up. Defendants argued that, as self-regulatory organizations, they should benefit an absolute immunity from civil lawsuits intended to get damages in connection with their regulatory responsibilities. Hence only the SEC should hear investors' complaints.
Pension Funds Joined the Battle
The class action led by the City of Providence and Rhode Island – City of Providence, Rhode Island et al v. BATS Global Markets Inc et al, Nos. 14-cv-02811, 14-MD-2589 (S.D.N.Y. 2015) – is however still ongoing as the motions to dismiss laid recently were set aside by Federal Judge Jesse Furman. The State-Boston Retirement System and three other funds located in Stockholm, Alexandria and the Virgin Islands joined the battle. Here, in addition to public exchanges such as BATS, CHX, NASDAQ and NYSE, Barclays LX dark pool is also targeted by the plaintiffs.
As dark pools are private exchanges without either quotations or subscribers noticeable, only large investors can deal on these platforms. Alternative trading systems are more and more coveted by investors and their part of the market doubled in the last five years. Nowadays around a third of the trades are being conducted through dark pools in the United States.
Although individual investors should not have access to these venues, mutual or pension funds might. Therefore, individuals can be harmed indirectly in dark pools which are much more vulnerable to HFT predators than public exchanges. The plaintiffs will nonetheless have to demonstrate clear and specific damages to win their case, which in this complex and obscure market, will need a very high level of expertise.
Hazy Dark Pools
In July 2014, individual investor Barbara Strougo brought her grievances to the New York District Court – Strougo v. Barclays, No. 14-cv-05797 (S.D.N.Y. 2015) – against Barclays and its executives of covering up aggressive high frequency trading operations on their Barclays LX dark pool. In addition to that, she claimed that Barclays gave crucial non-public information to hostile traders.
In essence, Rule 10b-5 of Securities Exchange Act of 1934 deems illegal any behavior aimed to deceive people involved in securities transactions in an exchange. Would this mean that investors should be entitled to know the presence of HFT when trading in the venue? Indeed, if the exchange owner is aware about HFT predators, not to disclose it would be breaking the law. Knowing the potential risks of his or her investment is a fundamental right to any investor.
The rules that regulate dark pools depend whether they are registered as national securities exchanges or broker dealers and also about their activities and trading volume. If recognized as broker dealers, they perform under a different set of regulations than public exchanges and the Exchange Act is not applicable in the same way. As a result, the SEC review does not apply and complainants can head straight to district court.
Barclays' dismissal bids were turned down by the Federal Judge as questions about the integrity of its alternative trading system are still unanswered. The Judge expressed her concern about specific misstatements – i.e., touting the safety of the LX platform while, on the other hand, allowing aggressive behavior.
Barclays maintains that it would deny access to any trader who operates aggressively on its platform but the plaintiff assure that the platform was infested by high speed traders who used their technology to make profit at the expense of common investors.
David Against Goliath
While big financial companies struggle against investors to defend themselves and try to minimize the impact of HFT on the market, Goldman Sachs is determined not to let go off anything against one of its former computer programmer. Serge Aleynikov left his employer to join startup Teza Technologies, bringing with him the trading algorithm he had set up while working there. The stolen code in question was initially an open source code barely modified under the pressure of the bank to reach quick results.
Notwithstanding that Mr. Aleynikov had been cleared of all federal charges after having spent one year behind bars, Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus R. Vance Jr. took over the case and filed and a new suit against the programmer – New York v. Sergey Aleynikov, No. 004447/2012 (N.Y.C. Crim. Ct.).
Here again, on the first step of the judicial procedure, Mr. Aleynikov was found somewhat guilty of stealing the codes –i.e., the jury, confused faced of the complexity of the matter, reached a mitigate decision founding him not guilty of unlawful duplication of computer-related material, guilty of unlawful use of secret scientific material and deadlocked on another unlawful use charge. Even though the conviction stands, he is unlikely to serve any more time in prison.
Although outlandish, the Aleynikov case is not isolated in the High Frequency Trading history. Other programmers were arrested by Mr. Vance to whom intellectual property theft should be seen as physical property theft.
The District Attorney to say: "When an employee takes software to create his own company, anybody would classify that as "stealing" or "theft"; under existing state law, however, stealing valuable printer toner out of an office supply closet is a more serious offense than stealing valuable computer source code."
Jason Vuu, Glen Cressman and Simon Lu, all in their mid-twenties, were arrested and prosecuted on similar counts – People v. Simon Lu et al., No. 03869/2013 (N.Y.C. Crim. Ct.). Vuu and Cressman were former employees of the Dutch trading house Flow Traders. All three ducked prison for pleading guilty and were fined and put under probation.
Kang Gao, former analyst for hedge fund Two Sigma Investments was however sentenced ten months in jail – New York. v. Kang Gao, No. 00640/2014 (N.Y.C. Crim. Ct.) –, a time that he had already served waiting for his judgement.