A Letter from Japan

Gen Utsumi, a longtime member of the Japanese electronic trading community, talks about how the events of 11 March 2011 may indicate the future direction of electronic trading in Japan.

Gen UtsumiWhen I was a teenager, I loved computers. Back then it was really exciting to wait for the release of a new personal computer every year. My first PC was the NEC PC-6001MK2 which was the first Japanese PC with synthetic voice speaking ability – it had 64KB of memory and a cassette tape player. For more than 20 years, the world of computers was a very exciting place. There were always new technologies evolving in the industry and so many talented people shared that excitement.

Now, computers are even more advanced, but people are not as excited as before. The computer industry seems to have matured. Could we say the same for electronic trading?

Nine years ago, when I started to sell FIX engines in Tokyo, ‘STP’, ‘Electronic Trading’ and ‘FIX’ were the buzzwords. Having a FIX interface was an exciting thing and sometimes when an exchange introduced their FIX interface based on real needs, they also used it as a marketing tool. Electronic trading was a frontier of the financial industry and I met a lot of people with ‘frontier spirit’. Once an electronic  trading link was established via FIX or other means, new services and strategies started to emerge, such as Proprietary Trading Systems, algorithms, Smart Order Routers (SORs) and dark pools.

These, along with technological advancement, brought a wave of colocation and low-latency products and the race is still going on. Now it seems that having ‘microsecond’ latencies is not surprising anymore. Would latency be exciting again if it were in nanoseconds? My guess is, probably not. While there are still ways to make money in electronic trading, the industry seems to have matured.

Allow me to make another analogy: Japan. Japan has also matured socially and economically. Infrastructure is well established yet Japan’s boom period has long since passed. General sentiment is gloomy due to government resignations, a low birth rate, low economic growth, huge government debt, and reduced trade profits because of global competition.

Then the earthquake hit on 11 March 2011. Surprisingly, people were relatively calm in Tokyo, considering the magnitude of the event. There were many rumors circulating regarding the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant, but people continued doing business as normally as possible. I will not repeat the grave details here, but I would like to point out that many people are starting to say that this event was a sign of change.

Now three months later, there are signs of recovery here and there. With disaster of this scale, it is obvious that help from the government is not sufficient to respond to the needs of all those people affected. Refugees are being supported by volunteers, families, neighbors and friends. There are over 2,000 refugee camps and some camps are better equipped than others.

One particular refugee camp I know is getting considerable support including food, trucks, bicycles and other living needs as well as comics for the kids – all of which are brought in by supporters. People visit the camp every weekend from Tokyo and the people in the camp welcome those supporters whole-heartedly. There was a strong mutual ‘trust’ established between the people in the camp and their supporters. The camp next to it is not doing so well; they accept donations and goods at the gate, but they do not welcome volunteers and supporters to visit their camp. There was no ‘trust’ here.

Before the earthquake Japan seemed to be heading towards isolation, but after earthquake, the Japanese people are once again beginning to bond and support one another in order to survive. Japan, after the years of stagnancy, may have found a new direction.

Back to electronic trading. We are now electronically and globally connected as you can see from the growth of the FIX Protocol, yet there is uncertainty about exchange mergers, the proliferation of HFT, dark pools, SORs and algorithms. Now what?

No matter how systematically connected you are, how technologically advanced your systems are or how profitable your business is this quarter, in this world of uncertainty, ‘trust’ matters. Since we are electronically connected, we may be at the phase to establish ‘trust’ relationship as individuals. This is a lesson in risk management that the Japanese people are learning the hard way.

March 11 in Numbers

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