The “New” Exchanges: Fast, Faster, Fastest

With exchanges desperate to retain and attract more liquidity, speed-enhancing technology becomes the key to success -- and survival, says TABB Senior Analyst Kevin McPartland.

High frequency traders are not the only ones trying to get faster.  The last few years have seen exchanges enter an arms race for speed that rivals the most sophisticated trading shops in the world.  The focus on reducing latency and increasing bandwidth is so extreme that we are watching the definition of “Exchange” transform right before our eyes.  Not because physical trading floors in city centers have been replaced with massive data centers in out of the way industrial areas, but because the exchange business model has fundamentally changed from one that is transaction based to one that is technology driven.

The reasons why are quite simple.  Execution fees have been driven down by competition largely brought on by field-leveling regulations (read Reg NMS and MiFID) enabling competition and in turn making technology the real differentiator.  The exchanges are desperate to both retain and attract more liquidity, but with execution fees often below zero and market monopolies consigned to history only a serious investment in technology will ensure life throughout the next decade.  And investments in technology are certainly being made.

The most serious technology investments have been made by the world’s largest equity exchanges.  NYSE Euronext purchased Wombat and NYFIX among others to create the newly branded NYSE Technologies, NASDAQ merged with OMX to create an exchange technology provider with global reach, LSE recently purchased MillenniumIT to rebuild its matching engine and be its technology arm, and the Deutsche Boerse has long been a technology provider in its own right.  Chi-X, the largest multi-lateral trading facility (MTF), has a separate technology arm in the form of Chi-Tech.  Most recently, the Tokyo Stock Exchange (TSE) launched its long awaited Arrowhead platform with hopes of entering the low latency trading world.  The CME, BATS, and numerous others have also invested heavily in ensuring they have the latest and greatest technology.  Some are working to maintain their dominant market position and the others are continuing their quest to take liquidity from the incumbents.

Exchange differentiation under the new paradigm is not easy.  Twenty years ago NYSE traded NYSE listed securities and OTC securities were traded via NASDAQ; shares in UK based companies were traded on the LSE, shares in German companies were traded on Deutsche Boerse, and so on.  Now, especially for US and European equities, shares of anything can be traded virtually anywhere.  I’m over simplifying of course, but with globalization flattening the world of stock exchanges, regulations keep everyone on a level playing field and with all measuring speed in microseconds the only obvious differentiator left is the name of the venue. Even if we assume traders naturally migrate where liquidity is deep and spreads narrow, only through an understanding of exchange technology can one rationalize what causes that situation to occur.

It is a poorly kept secret that high frequency trading firms and proprietary trading desks at investment banks co-locate to shave off microseconds.  This practice is at the heart of exchange client connectivity.  These high speed orders are generated within the servers of proprietary trading desks and hedge funds and sent via a high speed network into the exchange’s matching engine, all literally residing under one roof.  This practice generates the majority of order volume in the US and increasingly in Europe.

Large agency orders from traditional buy side sources are also important to an exchange’s success, but it is more often the job of the broker to ensure connectivity to the data center for their client flow.  Simply put, the sell side handles inter-data center connectivity and exchanges handle intra-data center connectivity.  TABB Group estimates that North American spending on market connectivity sits at just over $2 billion annually, with 70% of that number coming from the sell side.

That leaves the exchange to ensure the pipes coming into their matching engine are big enough to handle the volume and fast enough to get orders to the market before prices change sending traders elsewhere.  To do so, exchanges have put a heavy focus on the physical networks (reducing hops, upgrading to newer standards such as 10GE, etc.), messaging middleware and message format to ensure orders travel to the matching engine as efficiently as possible.  Some (such as NYSE and the LSE) have taken this entirely into their own hands by owning and operating their data centers, whereas others (such as BATS and Chi-X) prefer to build an ecosystem in a shared services data center, choosing to keep their technology expenditures literally close to the exchange itself.

It is interesting to note that despite the drastic reduction in latency in the past decade, FIX continues to be the protocol of choice for most order routing.  Of course FIX has undergone change since the mid-90’s, but its core remains the same with simple key-value pairs.  But in a nod to its original designers, those messages remain relatively small by today’s data standards leaving them suitable for high speed trading.

Once the orders are received, exchanges must then do what they are famous for – match buyers and sellers.  If you were lucky enough to spend time on the floor of the NYSE pre-Y2K you fundamentally understand what order matching entails.  Things today are no easier or harder than they were before; they are simply automated and fast – really fast.  Matching engines from BATS, DirectEdge and NASDAQ all hover around 200 microseconds.  NYSE will sit at a similar level when its Universal Trading Platform (UTP) is fully implemented.

We’ve become jaded over the past few years about what fast really is.  What the exchanges have done with matching is nothing short of extraordinary.  The human negotiation process seems straight forward, but programming a machine to handle the subtleties of a trader’s mind is quite complex.  This process, now simply referred to as order matching, includes much more than just matching the next buyer and seller of the same security at the same price.  Risk checks, micro-second precision time stamps, order type and a number of other factors must all be considered before a trade is executed.  And what really makes this process extraordinary is that the major exchanges have whittled this process down to a few thousand lines of machine code that match orders in millionths of a second and do so millions of times a day for hours on end.

Finally, executed orders become market data quotes that must be distributed to the world.  TABB Group estimates that 60% of the $2 billion spent in North America on connectivity is for gathering market data.  Furthermore, as trading has become increasingly automated and latency sensitive, the use of traditional market data aggregation platforms has declined in lieu of leased lines which now account for 43% of connectivity spend.  Many of the same aspects apply to market data distribution as to client connectivity.  Those exchanges that can get market data back to their clients fastest will attract more traders, more volume and hence higher profits.

Interestingly, although each of these three components is core to the value proposition of the major global exchanges, NYSE Euronext (via NYSE Technologies), NASDAQ OMX, Chi-X (through Chi-Tech) and a few others are all willing and hopeful to sell the technology they use in-house to other global exchanges.  Besides the obvious driver for more revenue, the thought is that if a global network of exchanges can be created all running the same technology, that technology will become a standard, making global liquidity more available regardless of your physical location.

The trading floor model is tried and true.  A few such floors still exist, and a smaller few are still thriving.  However it is hard for investors, traders and exchange shareholders not to see that technology is bringing efficiency to the market that just makes dollars and sense.  The exchanges of tomorrow will make most of their money not as execution venues, but as data and technology infrastructure providers.  Connectivity and order matching functionality is already expanding to include pre-trade risk, latency monitoring, cross-product execution and numerous other forward looking initiatives.  This exchange metamorphosis has become truly global with national exchanges world wide looking to technology to get an edge on the world stage.  So I wonder, how long until Microsoft sees NYSE Euronext as a competitor – the Bing Stock Exchange anyone?

This article is also published in the Electronic Trading Journal, FIXGlobal, Vol. 3 Issue 1 - March 2010.  View this article in PDF format.

TabbFORUM is an open community that provides a platform for capital markets professionals to share their ideas and thought leadership with their peers. The views and opinions expressed are solely those of the author(s). They do not necessarily reflect the opinions of TABB Group, its analysts, TabbFORUM and its editors, or their employees, affiliates and partners.


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