High Frequency Trading in Brazil: Mirage or Miracle?
Christian Zimmer, Head of Quantitative Trading and Research, and Hellinton Hatsuo Takada, Quantitative Trader, of Itaú Asset Management reveal the truth about high frequency trading in Brazil.
Conference panels, discussions and articles on High Frequency Trading (HFT) generally start with its definition. The term HFT is like ‘Cleopatra’ – sexy and mysterious and everyone is keen to know more about it. But the term HFT speaks for itself, so is it wasting time to go over it again?
Probably, because the term ‘high’ only has meaning relative to an external point of reference, just like cold, hot, sweet or other adjectives. This subjectivity is all the more interesting, as it is extremely difficult to measure an investor’s brief holding period in most financial markets and, therefore, determine if it really is ‘high’. Unlike in the US, where the exchanges do not register the origin of the trade, Brazilian regulation allows BM&FBOVESPA to identify the final client on every trade. Consequently, it is much easier to measure the holding period of an investor for each asset. Also, this rule is the means by which the exchange determines whether an investor’s trade is classified as a ‘day trade’ and is thus eligible for reduced fees.
Naturally, BM&FBOVESPA does not classify a trader opening a position in the morning and closing it at the end of the day as a high frequency trader. There should be far more trading than this to qualify as HFT. But how much more? It depends on the exchange’s criteria and reference point for ‘high’.
Figures for HFT published by BM&FBOVESPA in their April 2011report show 3.9% of the BM&F segment is high frequency and 5.9% of the BOVESPA segment. Consequently, the reduced fees are presented to the Brazilian trading community as less of an issue, as they say there is evidence of HFT taking hold. But HFT volume is not really increasing and is still far off the US figures which are often cited at around 60-70%. After carefully observing BM&FBOVESPA market prices, it is easy to conclude that it would take some time (possibly hours) to have a change in the prices sufficiently large enough to pay the transaction costs.Remember that HFT strategies are very sensitive to transaction costs.
Our suggestion is to step away from making subjective references to ‘high frequency’. Instead, one should look at the underlying trading strategies. The incentives an exchange should create to attract flow must be adjusted to the strategies that are really needed. Each strategy deserves a different set of policies and this will help the diversification of the traders’ strategies.
A trader using a market maker strategy can live with exchange fees as long as the bid-ask spread is sufficiently high. If the spread narrows, the costs become crucial and the exchange must lower the fees in order to keep this client in the market. On the other hand, a directional trader has different issues; if the fees are high, a trader must wait longer for a relevant price move so that they can capitalize on their position. Contrary to the market maker, the directional trader loves to see narrow bid-ask spreads. There would be no need to lower fees when the spread is close. The same is true for the statistical arbitrage traders.
When looking at the third party analyses of HFT in the international markets, we often see that the most common strategy is the market maker approach. This fact is strongly influenced by market fragmentation, which we do not have in Brazil. Fragmentation creates new intermarket trades, which could qualify as arbitrage trades, but not necessarily as market maker trades. Fragmentation also makes exchanges and other venues compete for the customers that provide liquidity and, as a result, give incentives to market makers. As mentioned above, Brazil does not have a fragmented market and BM&FBOVESPA does not see it necessary to ask for more liquidity. At least not as long as international capital flows are strong and increasing. Liquidity is needed in second tier shares and below.