Flash boys : a Wall Street revolt

by Michael Lewis

Hardcover, 2014

Status

Available

Publication

New York : W.W. Norton & Company, [2014]

Description

The explosive story of how one group of ingenious oddballs and misfits set out to expose what was going on. It's the story of what it's like to declare war on some of the rishest and most powerful people in the world.

User reviews

LibraryThing member kukulaj
When I was in college I was a bit fascinated by fancy wines. On a trip back home, I was browsing around in a wine store and noticed a bottle of Chateau Lafite-Rothschild, 1968, for a very reasonable price, perhaps $12 or in that zone. I then visited another shop run by the same people, and got to chatting with the guy behind the counter. He said that it would be impossible to buy a Lafite-Rothschild for anything below maybe $100. I said, hey, no, you have a bottle for sale in your other store for only $12!

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.
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LibraryThing member browner56
When most of us began trading stocks for our personal savings or retirement accounts, we probably thought that the quoted price was the only one at which we could buy or sell as many shares as we wanted. With a little experience, however, we soon learned that there are really two prices for every stock at any point in time—a bid price for selling and an offer/ask price for buying—and that the spread between the bid and ask prices represented the compensation to the dealer (i.e., exchange floor specialist, computer-driven market marker) who maintains the trading inventory. Still, we assumed a “what you see is what you get” environoment regarding the price at which transactions were executed, regardless of whether we were buying or selling. And, for most of the last century, that was a fairly reasonable assumption about how security trading actually worked.

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.
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LibraryThing member DougJ110
This book is much like "Liar's Poker," "The Big Short," and "The New New Thing." The most interesting thing about these afore mentioned books were their quirky characters. What killed my interest in "Flash Boys," was the lack of interesting people. This book involved a lot of detailed descriptions, of the stock market abuses, and not many interesting stories of the people involved in the plot. On its own, this book might hold up, but compared to other similar Michael Lewis books, it falls flat.… (more)
LibraryThing member AgneJakubauskaite
WHAT IS IT ABOUT?

“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.

THUMBS UP:

1) Illuminating.
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.

2) Well-explained.
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.

3) Compelling.
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.

2) Complicated.
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.
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LibraryThing member dougcornelius
I admit to being a Michael Lewis fanboy. I consider him one of the best business writers. He has a knack for using characters as a lens to explain an issue.

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.
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LibraryThing member TulsaTV
Fascinating and clearly told story.
LibraryThing member starkravingmad
Another very enjoyable narrative on a true story by the master of this genre - Michael Lewis. He has a very unique way of making the very technical and "geekish" absolutely approachable - and entertaining.
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.… (more)
LibraryThing member annbury
This is yet another terrifically readable -- more accurately compulsively readable -- book by Michael Lewis on a yet another corrupt aspect of our corrupt financial system. That sounds dreary and judgmental, but the book isn't in the least dreary. It is an engrossing story of how a few investors noticed odd patterns in the pricing of the stocks they bought, tried to find out what caused those patterns, discovered an elaborate and almost entirely invisible system whereby one set of Wall Streeters ripped off another, and set out to change the system. The characters, I thought, were extraordinarily interesting. Some reviews call them dull, but as a long time Wall Streeter I find people who are motivated by something other than personal gain wildly exotic, and very interesting. The writing, as usual, sparkles, and as usual makes clear that which is almost impossibly complex. It is a very enjoyable read, and a very instructive one.

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.
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LibraryThing member JosephKing6602
Very compelling stuff! You can read the technical side of this book on several different levels. I learned a lot about the concepts...but at the most complex levels, I often found myself getting lost. However, I could gain an intuitive understanding of the issues. The author should be commended for writing in such a way that keeps the 'layman' engaged in the story. Now, I know that I must "leave stock-trading t'o the professionals'...… (more)
LibraryThing member VGAHarris
Best reserved for those who have a good command of the intricacies of finance and computers.
LibraryThing member Daniel.Estes
Michael Lewis has a literary knack for taking a completely incomprehensible topic, the inner-workings of the 21st century stock market for example, and explaining it in a way such that I now have a better understanding of how much I still don't know. This was true for when I read The Big Short (2010) and it's true again for Flash Boys: A Wall Street Revolt.… (more)
LibraryThing member MartinBodek
I continue to be fascinated by the market events surrounding the subprime mortgage crisis - mostly because I feel it's important to know the details, in the face of having difficulty grasping them, despite my efforts. My own comprehension inability motivates me to understand it better. I believe no one has done a better job of chronicling Wall Street's shenanigans and foibles - while making it interesting - than Michael Lewis. He's written - and I've read - many books on the leadup itself, the culture in general, and doomsday. I was curious to know about what's been happening inside the market in the aftermath, so I dispatched him to do the research, to which he agreed, and produced this gem. It begins with a mystery to be unraveled, and continues with a fascinating dissection of truly interesting personalities, driven by the thirst to know, rather than by the reaping of profit. That's what makes this book a winner. Enveloped in the details is this demanding thirst to understand, with which I identify. The details of how the market works were lost on me often, but the Flash Boys obsessiveness with unwrapping the enigma held me rapt. For a flourish, Lewis ends the book by showing that there is yet another mystery that needs unraveling. I've never salivated so much for a sequel.… (more)
LibraryThing member ohernaes
Makes a compelling case for the waste of resources in zero-sum games and manipulation of parts of the finance sector. Great read like most of Lewis' books, but much is hard to evaluate, and I feel that there is still much that I do not know.
LibraryThing member figre
I am torn on this book. On the one hand I want to give it 10 stars out of five, sixteen thumbs up, the official seal of excellence and wonderfullness in all things writing related. Yet, by the end of the book I felt something was missing. I felt there was some expected resolution that was missing. Where was the end of the story? Was this a happy tale or a sad one? What was the upshot of it all?

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.
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LibraryThing member nosajeel
Extremely engaging and well written, it raises a number of important issues, but it also has a bad habit of dividing the world up into good and bad in a manner that makes the story a better read but is ultimately unconvincing.
LibraryThing member rivkat
The story of an outsider who figured out some of the ways in which big banks and high-frequency trading firms were screwing ordinary investors (e.g., your retirement account, if you have one, and mine) and did a little bit about it. Frustrating in that regulators don’t know and don’t care, and the one person who goes to jail in the book is a Goldman Sachs employee who doesn’t seem to have done anything wrong (he was just reconvicted on state charges, making the story even sadder). What’s amazing was how compartmentalized so much of this was, such that the people building the technology didn’t know what it was being used for. Here’s a quote from one: “I felt like the getaway driver .… Each time, it was like, ‘Drive faster! Drive faster!’ Then it was like, ‘Get rid of the airbags!’ Then it was, ‘Get rid of the fucking seats!’ Towards the end I’m like, ‘Excuse me, sirs, but what are you doing in the bank?’” And yet there was information if you knew where to look—people would disclose on their LinkedIn pages that they were specialists in manipulating particular exchanges, “like saying on your LinkedIn profile, ‘I have all the skills of a robber and I know this one house intimately.’” Key deals are done with no documentation—sound like anything else the banks have done recently? Although this particular story ends well, with the new exchange succeeding in getting a ton of business protecting investors, it’s hard to believe the manipulations have ended.… (more)
LibraryThing member timleggett
This is a very fascinating book, it not only applies to the stock market. Who knows what other industries this sort of thing happens in. Forex in my opinion and probably a lot of everyday things we take for granted.

GFC has got nothing on the potential for this.
LibraryThing member Eyejaybee
I used to think I had a fair understanding of the ways of money and banking mechanisms (I was, after all a tax inspector for several years, and then helped to design tax efficient investment packages). This book did, however, swiftly disabuse me of that delusion, and Michael Lewis has pulled off a major coup by making his expose of the machinations of the Wall Street brokers, and in particular the High Frequency Traders, simultaneously very informative and entertaining.

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.
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LibraryThing member pbirch01
On an episode of This American Life, Ira Glass was introducing Lewis by saying other financial reporters should just give up - that there was no way any of their reporting could top that of Lewis. I think this book is a great example of that type of reporting.
LibraryThing member RGaryRasmussen
Writing this review in September 2016, the abusive practices of some big Wall Street banks and, it seems, many high frequency trading companies is no longer news. But it was to me. And I'm both appalled and outraged, if not completely surprised.

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.
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LibraryThing member Eyejaybee
I used to think I had a fair understanding of the ways of money and banking mechanisms (I was, after all a tax inspector for several years, and then helped to design tax efficient investment packages). This book did, however, swiftly disabuse me of that delusion, and Michael Lewis has pulled off a major coup by making his expose of the machinations of the Wall Street brokers, and in particular the High Frequency Traders, simultaneously very informative and entertaining.

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.
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LibraryThing member DavidWylie
Probably the most disappointing Michael Lewis yet. Rather, the only disappointing Michael Lewis yet. The con is explained in 20 pages and repeated over and over to make a book. Credit due for shedding light on the nefarious practices of HFT firms but this would have worked better as a long form article.
LibraryThing member JonArnold
I’ve worked my way through the films of David Lynch, read a fair chunk of Stephen King, watched the creepier moments of The X-Files and even, for real horror, kept watching the nightly news. But nothing’s quite as disturbing as Michael Lewis’s books about the world of high finance. Because his books confirm that the history of Wall Street (and other financial institutions) tell you things aren’t as bad as you thought. They’re worse. And Lewis is such a good writer, with a gift for clarifying complex concepts and finding a story of hope at the heart of darkness, that he can sweep all the smoke and mirrors which have hidden that fact away.

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.
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LibraryThing member Darwa
this book has been in the news constantly this week and it has been extremely interesting reading the biased responses from all involved parties.
Everyone who owns stock at any level should read this book!
LibraryThing member yvonne.sevignykaiser
52 Books 52 Weeks (Week 15 for 2014)

Fascinating look at hyper trading in the stock market. How it was accomplished quietly behind the scenes.

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