In this book the author argues that post-crisis Wall Street continues to be controlled by large banks and explains how a small, diverse group of Wall Street men have banded together to reform the financial markets. A report on a high-tech predator stalking the equity markets, this book is about a small group of Wall Street guys who figure out that the U.S. stock market has been rigged for the benefit of insiders and that, post-financial crisis, the markets have become not more free but less, and more controlled by the big Wall Street banks. Working at different firms, they come to this realization separately; but after they discover one another, they band together and set out to reform the financial markets. This they do by creating an exchange in which high-frequency trading, source of the most intractable problems, will have no advantage whatsoever. The characters are each completely different from what you think of when you think "Wall Street guy." Several have walked away from jobs in the financial sector that paid them millions of dollars a year. From their new vantage point they investigate the big banks, the world's stock exchanges, and high-frequency trading firms as they have never been investigated, and expose the many strange new ways that Wall Street generates profits. The author shines a light into the darkest corners of the financial world, where anyone in contact with the market, even a retirement account, is part of the story. But in the end, this is the story of people who have somehow preserved a moral sense in an environment where you don't get paid for that; they have perceived an institutionalized injustice and are willing to go to war to fix it.
I then went back home and told my Dad the whole story. He practically screamed at me: "You told them the price at the other store???" Despite the risk, we got back in the car and raced to the first store. Ach, that bottle had been marked up to $40! But we bought it anyway with great anticipation. We opened it up for dinner that night. Ah, it turns out that the vintage tables for Bordeaux wines are reasonably accurate and definitely worth consulting! We learned what a "disastrous" vintage is all about. Vinegar!
But I also got to learn about front-running and market dynamics!
Michael Lewis has given us a great page-turner here and a very informative and important one, too. Lesson one is that market structure matters. Every market has a structure, a set of rules and mechanisms by which buyers and sellers find each other and negotiate prices. There is the mythology of a free market, as if there were a real price that existed apart from these rules and mechanisms, and the job of the market is to discover this real price. But that is just mythology. The price is created through the rules and mechanisms of the market. The mythology has a use, though, to deflect attention from the importance of the rules - because the rule makers would rather leave hidden the great power their role gives them.
Lesson two is how the exploitation of rule-making power has played out in the stock market over the last decade or so. This information is very well hidden, and Lewis lets us know that the evidence he has gathered is very fragmentary.
This book is just a snapshot, one little scene in the history of finance. But it is surely a rather typical scene. It's a great way to get a glimpse of how the world works. Well, not the world, but a very important slice of it.
Unfortunately, that simple, straightforward world no longer exists and the change has been much to the detriment of individual investors. In Flash Boys, Michael Lewis chronicles the ascent of high frequency trading (or HFT) systems, wherein how rapidly someone can submit their trading order to a market—or, even worse, receive information from that market about other people’s orders—matters a lot. In a HFT-oriented world, the ask price we see might not be a real offer but an illusion intended to elicit a commitment from us so that a high frequency trader can then use that information to beat us (i.e., front run us) to the trade. By the time our order is executed, we find that the price we pay has moved higher than the original quoted offer. In short, HFT has rigged the game against those of us trading at “normal” speeds.
Flash Boys is a typical Lewis treatment in that the author takes a main theme and explores it through a lot of institutional details and several interlocking human stories. In this case, the “star” of the book is Brad Katsuyama, a trader at a small investment bank who figured out HFT after finding himself on the wrong side of too many trades. (Interestingly, instead of exploiting what he learned as a trader, Katsuyama left the bank to launch the IEX, a stock exchange that attempts to protect investors against HFT.) Although well written and insightful, this book is not quite as compelling as the best of Lewis’ other work (e.g., Liar’s Poker, Moneyball, The Big Short), perhaps because the subject matter itself is more arcane and inaccessible. Further, there are other volumes, such as Scott Patterson’s Dark Pools, that cover the same topic in a lucid manner. Nevertheless, Flash Boys is a solid effort and will be an eye-opening experience for readers who already think they know how stock markets function.
“Flash Boys: A Wall Street Revolt” by Michael Lewis is both an infuriating and uplifting true story about the U.S. stock market corruption in the twenty-first century and a handful of extraordinary individuals who, instead of benefiting from the rigged system like everyone else on the Wall Street, are willing to go to war to fix it. Inspired by an obscure trial of Russian computer programmer Sergey Aleynikov who worked for Goldman Sachs, Lewis investigates the shadiest corners of the U.S. financial world - a secret fiber-optic cable route, high-frequency trading, front-running and dark pools - all the while weaving an inspiring tale of brilliance, dedication and morality.
The importance of the “Flash Boys” cannot be emphasized enough as Lewis sheds some light on the issues of the U.S. financial world that are affecting millions of people but have been known and understood by only a few. What is more, the author not only points out the problem and the culprit but he also offers an effective solution and a glimpse to a promising future.
Concepts discussed in the “Flash Boys” are technical and quite complex; however, Lewis explains most of the things very clearly and uses a lot of illustrative examples so that even the readers without any previous knowledge of or interest in the stock market (yup, that’s me!) can understand and appreciate the book.
Who would have thought that a business book can also be quite entertaining and full of colorful characters? The protagonists in “Flash Boys” are nothing short of the Avengers: each of them is a genius in his own way and all together they make one heck of a team. Thanks to Lewis’s skillful narration, the characters seem genuine and easily relatable, and their stories are personal and very engaging (I especially loved the chapters on Aleynikov).
COULD BE BETTER:
1) Too long.
Although “Flash Boys” is an engaging read and its message is extremely important, it clearly has too many pages as the second half of the book is a little bit repetitive and the story starts to drag.
Sometimes I would be confident that I got the concept right, and then a couple of pages later the author would use different words to describe the same thing throwing me off completely. Admittedly, the subject is complex; thus, reading “Flash Boys” requires your full attention to keep all the facts straight.
3) Disappointing epilogue.
It’s a shame to end such an important story with such a weak and vague epilogue. It is neither a satisfying summary nor a clear future direction; it’s not even a worthy chapter on its own, let alone a proper ending of the book. If you have a chance, read “Flash Boys” in a paperback because the paperback edition, unlike the hardcover, has a GREAT afterword that shows the impact this book had after its publication. Honestly, the afterword makes the whole book better.
VERDICT: 3.5 out of 5
“Flash Boys: A Wall Street Revolt” by Michael Lewis is a game-changing business book containing engaging stories and compelling characters. Despite the complexity of the subject, most of the concepts are well-explained (though it could have been done in less pages) and the new afterword in the paperback edition more than makes up for the vague and unsatisfying epilogue.
It seems that Lewis decided to write a book about the story of Goldman Sachs programmer Aleynikov, accused of stealing code. When he realized that wasn't book length material, plus the latter was writing his own memoir, he pivoted to the story of the IEX exchange, founded to fight the ills of high-frequency trading (HFT) and lack of transparency on Wall Street. Lewis had to make a valiant effort to glue these two separate together, which added more padding. Even so, he had to add even more padding, because the IEX story also isn't book length. So he repeats his explanations of the evils of HFT over and over and over....
Nonetheless, the book is short enough, the topic important enough, the people and story are interesting enough, and Lewis is a good enough writer to make this book well worth the read.
Lot's of people (particularly from the finance industry) have all kinds of other criticisms, which I'm sure you will find in other reviews):
1. Lewis over-simplifies or distorts in his explanation of HFT
2. His need to portray the story as good vs evil further over simplifies a complex topic
3. Wall Street serves a useful purpose and books like these will lead to more useless regulation of a vital industry
Since I am neither an economist nor a Wall Street expert, I can't fully judge the validity of the first criticism. But there is enough evidence to show that the gist of Lewis' accusations are totally accurate. A truly free market, in the Adam Smith sense of that institution, requires a free flow of information to all participants. Wall Street banks in general, and HFT traders in particular, make every effort possible to restrict access to information and to game this proprietary information to generate unproductive rent.
As to the second criticism, while the rent-seeking of the banks and HFT traders isn't necessarily "evil," it is certainly harmful to the overall productivity of the economy. Moreover, given that economies are inherently unstable, the added instability of HFT is NOT a good thing. This is the gist of the book's criticism of HFT.
By contrast, IEX' aim is to create transparency in the markets, which every person who thinks capitalism is a good system should support unconditionally. That IEX and its founders are the heroes of the book, actually directly undermines the third criticism: Lewis is specifically advocating a market solution (IEX) to the problem, not more regulation (which he points out often makes the problem worse). While heavily critical of banks and the SEC, this book is hardly a Marxist tract.
So ignore the criticisms of people who make money off our ignorance, and read this book!
The issue in Flash Boys is high frequency trading. Or high speed trading. Or electronic trading. It's a bit of a confusing mix. Uncharacteristically, Lewis seems to stumble a bit around what the problem is. I think that is in part because the problem is complicated in a technical, legal and financial directions. Many of the people involved don't fully understand it. Those that do fully understand it don't want to explain it. They are too busy making money exploiting the issue.
Based on the speed you receive information, you can trade on that information and make money if you find out faster and trade faster than others. That has been true since markets existed.
For stock exchanges, the days of floor pits and individuals yelling buy and sell orders are long gone. It all happens in server stacked on top of each other with an algorithm matching buy orders and sell orders. There are multiple exchanges where trades can take place. That's good for competition and innovation.
But those exchanges are located in different places. Not necessarily far apart, but milliseconds or microseconds apart. Just far enough that watching trades happen in one exchange can give a strong indication about what will happen in another exchange a bit further away. High speed traders exploit that information and make money. Lots of money if they are fast enough.
Lewis explores the issue in great detail and provides a good understanding. He uses Brad Katsuyama, a trader at the Royal Bank of Canada, as the focal point of his story.
The most disappointing part of the book is that it ends without resolution. The problems with high speed trading are still in the system and its hurting investors not involved in high speed trading.
But I get ahead of myself.
In this book, Michael Lewis has done his usual fantastic job of taking a convoluted and complicated story and making it something most of us can grasp. (Heck, he's the only person who ever made me feel like I had a chance to understand all those bad risk debts that were bundled. Read The Big Short. You won't be disappointed) In this case, he is exploring the world of high-frequency traders and how, by the use of milliseconds, they are able to insert themselves in transactions in such a way that even the most savvy of traders (this includes Wall Street Banks who are supposed to know better) wind up paying more than they need to.
Well, that's my quick synopsis, and it doesn't do the topic justice. How could it? Again, this is an incredibly complex topic that is still hotly debated among Wall Street types, financiers, and Congressmen.
And that is probably why the final result of the book is so dissatisfying. Unless you are writing about history that happened decades ago, the final chapters have not been written. And in this case, it is happening as we speak.
And so we see the way things are currently occurring. And we see a group of individuals who do not like the way it goes – who feel that people are being cheated. And we see that group start their own Exchange to help cut out the new middlemen they claim are making things worse. And we see others argue that this approach is completely wrong.
What we don't see – what we can't see yet – is the resolution.
And that means we really can't see who is good or bad because, even though the story is written to show the problems with the high frequency traders, the information that primarily comes out is from those who are opposed to those traders.
I am not saying I think it makes sense for these people to inject themselves in the trades in a way that costs me more money. But I am saying we only see one side of the story. That side of the story is probably true. But it is part of the dissatisfaction – the lack of resolution – when the reader is not he or she has sufficient information to reach solid conclusions.
And yet, not one sentence of anything I have written above is meant to drive you away from this book. It is Michael Lewis. It is Michael Lewis at his best as he tries to explain the business world. And it is an important book about an important issue – one you need to read up on and understand.
GFC has got nothing on the potential for this.
It may not be dreary, but it is judgmental -- so judgmental that some reviewers accuse Lewis of a one sided approach. That may well be: I'm not an expert in HFT (very few people are) so I can't really judge. But even if it is one sided, there are times when a one sided approach is justified. HFT is just one of the many distortions in our current financial system, and by no means the most egregious. It does distort markets, and does skim off a bit from many investors trades, but the cost of HFT to the system as a whole is measured in factions of a percent. The cost of other recent financial innovations, in contrast -- collateralized debt obligations, for example -- ran into the trillions of dollars, and is still running hard. What makes HFT important is the fact that it is an examplar of how the few rip off the many. And it is an examplar that has emerged primarily after 2007-2008 crisis, suggesting that the game goes on as before.
Can anything be done about this? One of Lewis' key points is that HFT emerged as a result of a regulation intended to make trading fairer and more transparent. There is absolutely nothing new in this. Ever since money existed, smart people have been figuring out how to extract money from the system, and governments have been trailing in their wakes, trying to put in rules to prevent them from doing so. But the fact that human nature leads to financial corruption, and that regulators will always be a step or two behind the financiers, doesn't mean that corruption should be accepted, and efforts to regulate abandoned. Financial manouvers like HFT cost all of us, ultimately, for the benefit of a very true. Regulation, and criminalization, are needed. Lewis' book has already prompted government enquiries, and for that reason alone it is a success.
As compared to "Moneyball" and "The Blind Side", "Flash Boys" comes up a bit short on interesting and compelling characters, but that could simply be the difference between the world of sports and the world of finance.
His account describes in detail the quest on Wall Street during the opening years of the current decade to cut down the length of time lost to broking houses communicating with the traders. Even a few milliseconds proved significant, the Royal Bank of Canada discovered, as this allowed rogue traders to get ahead of proposed transactions and manipulate prices to their advantage. The book details the investigations led by the RBC to discover how this was happening, and then how to eradicate it.
In an America reeling from the financial crash of 2008 it might have seemed difficult to imagine how investment bankers might further damage their already low reputation. The exposure of this story did, however, manage to achieve that without too much trouble.
Lewis takes the reader through some very technical material, both relating to the intricacies of high finance and the computer software and hardware that enabled the shenanigans, but he makes every step clear and lets the story unfold at its own pace.
My only quibble is that the story seems unfinished. Wish I could know that the abuse is over, the guilty are all in prison, and the regulators are doing their job.
Many thanks to the author for opening my eyes! Thanks too to Brad for his courage and honesty.
The story at the heart of the book is one about the search speed from investment banks and stock exchanges, to be able to trade on the market in microseconds, milliseconds and nanoseconds. Without a human angle it’d be an arid tale, even with the angle of high frequency traders using the speeds of signal between different exchanges to rig the market and make vast profits for adding no real value. The hero of the book is Brad Katsuyama, who at times appears to be the only honest broker and who figures out how high frequency traders (HFTs) make their profit. He’s the underdog hero of so many of Lewis’s books, the insider who figures out the system’s corrupt and, eventually, how to at least ameliorate that corruption. It follows him through an Ocean’s 11 ‘getting a gang together’ story, which uses team members he assembles to explore aspects of the collision between Wall Street and technology that’s occurred through the last decade. This is half the secret of Lewis’s excellence; his ability to explain aspects of the situation by putting human faces on them (the other half being that, as an ex-insider, he understands the markets and their language). For much of the book it’s a disheartening journey through the more venal aspects of human nature; how investment banks and stock markets were affected by technology; how the history of Wall Street is simply one of being one step ahead of the regulators; how banks and markets exploited new technology and regulations, then exploited programmers and coders, and how the only Goldman Sachs employee jailed after the financial crash was arrested for a common practice of emailing essentially valueless code to himself. Lewis lays out the importance of even nanoseconds in the HFT strategy of exploiting investors, how even in the digital era physical location had become vital. He explains clearly and concisely how the exploitation of traders developed through a combination of ‘dark pools’ (essentially trades conducted opaquely in a closed market within a bank itself) and orders sent by traders reaching different exchanges at different speeds thanks to their hardware and location.
Lewis follows Katsuyama from the realisation of this to his creation of a new, fairer stock market designed to protect investors. It’s at times one man (well, several men eventually) against a system invested in institutional corruption and there are times you marvel – their throwing in six figure jobs for low-paying jobs to create this new exchange for example. Tellingly, when selling the concept of a new exchange Katsuyama has to sell it to investors at ‘long-term greedy’ rather than, as conceived, essentially altruistic. Wall Street does not understand altruism, except to exploit it.
Flash Boys is ultimately compelling because it sounds a note of hope; not all bankers are greedy, not all markets can be rigged. But it’s clear that whatever the victory won, it’s only a temporary one. Human nature, particularly where money is to be made, means people and institutions will seek and find loopholes and exploit them. And there won’t always be Katsuyamas around to realise what going on and be motivated to speak out. As with Moneyball, The Blind Side and The Big Short it’s a heartening underdog tale but, assuming stock markets still exist in a century, the Michael Lewis of that era is almost certainly going to be writing a similar story. It’s human nature, unchanging and eternal in an ephemeral world. And human nature, as here, is the most uplifting and terrifying element in existence.
Everyone who owns stock at any level should read this book!
Fascinating look at hyper trading in the stock market. How it was accomplished quietly behind the scenes.