'Lightning fast' future traders working in nanoseconds
When it comes to technology for trading, it seems there just aren't enough metaphors to describe how fast different pieces of software and hardware can let you buy and sell in financial markets.
At the more restrained end of the scale, firms say their technology allows "lightning fast" trading; more excitable companies talk about trading "at the speed of light".
But these claims are not just hyperbole. In June, for example, a firm called Fixnetix developed a microchip that can execute trades in nanoseconds.
The iX-eCute chip is able to process trades in 740 nanoseconds. To put that in context, one nanosecond is a billionth of a second.
In this environment, doing something in "the blink of an eye" is far too slow.
"Today, traders have to shop around for the best price, and they need technology to help them do this," says Matteo Cassina, president of Citadel Execution Services Europe.
"The principle is similar to online shopping in the consumer world, where computer algorithms seek out the best prices on holidays or travel insurance, for example."
Need for speed
Traders want cheap, hassle-free access to markets through reliable technology, as well as analytical tools to help identify when they should be buying or selling.
David Cooney, chief executive of New Zealand-based MahiFX, says this help requires analysis of lots of raw data - and here technology can be a great leveller.
"The raw data itself can be overwhelming so they also require help to interpret it and make it meaningful," he says.
"Until now, access to large amounts of [such] data was just available to the trading elite like hedge funds and investment banks with very expensive tick databases."
These issues apply equally to the stock exchanges themselves, which are feverishly competing for business.
Deutsche Bourse recently asked Juniper Networks to install 10 gigabit ethernet connections to power its new service for the Eurex derivatives and Xetra cash markets.
The new technology will contribute significantly to liquidity in these markets while also adding stability and reliability, says Dr Frank Herkenhoff from Deutsche Bourse.
The rapid advance of trading technology raises two key questions. First, what does this mind-boggling speed mean for risk management, particularly in light of the ongoing financial crises?
Those selling the technology are, unsurprisingly, quick to offer reassurances.
"Clearly there is a huge demand, especially in these volatile markets to grasp opportunity and make more money, but it's really about the management controls that are in place to allow that to happen in a controlled way," says Tim Furmidge, head of trading systems product management at telecoms giant BT.
"That's where the high-speed networks come in, where the intelligence comes in, so you have the visibility of everything that is going on in the marketplace - and you can record, archive and retrieve those interactions to prove you were compliant [with new regulations]."
These restrictions focus on automation, auditability and transparency, as well as limits and controls, explains Gavin Little-Gill, global head of asset management product strategy at Linedata.
"Firms will require additional data capture at the point of trade, effective automation and controls throughout the trading process, as well as transparency and reporting around trading activity and exposure reporting," he says.
"Traders are going to need the tools that facilitate the entire life cycle of a trade, not just the execution."
Hugh Hughes, chief executive of Fixnetix, emphasises that his firm's ultra-fast trading capabilities come with 20-plus customisable risk checks built in.
The second issue is whether developments like algorithmic trading mean people are being increasingly removed from the equation.
Kevin Acott, managing director EMEA at IPC Systems, thinks human input will remain key.
"Although the final execution may be electronic, a huge amount of voice interaction is required in the lead up to the deal, particularly at a time when margins are getting smaller, trades are becoming more and more complex, and regulation and compliance issues are more stringent than ever before," he says.
"Recent market volatility has also put the spotlight on the importance of voice trading," he adds.
"In uncertain times, it is clear that person-to-person communication is crucial to this essentially relationship-driven business, notably when it comes to risk identification."
Hirander Misra, strategic advisor to Plus Trading Solutions, says we shouldn't be worried about a takeover by the machines just yet.
"The future of trading is definitely more electronic but it is not a case of man versus machines like the film Terminator - a human being is still required to monitor and tweak the algorithms that drive electronic execution," he says.
On the move
In fact those in the marketplace argue that the trading environment is becoming richer in terms of human interaction.
Firms are developing systems that allow traders to combine multiple sources of information, including social media such as Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn, with their personal technology.
"Traders themselves are saying: 'We're not just always at our desks, we need to be more mobile, we need to have this capability on our smartphones and on our tablets when we're moving around as well,'" says Simon Pritchard, senior product manager, global banking & financial markets, at BT.
Indeed, in a development that harks back to the "good old days" of face-to-face trading, some firms are heralding video communication as a key development in the world of trading.
Last year Morgan Stanley launched a new trading platform which includes a video wall so clients can watch what the company's traders, analysts and sales people are saying about the markets each day before the market opens.
BT is now offering traders the ability to look their colleagues in the eye in offices round the world using video.
The company is also investing heavily in cloud technology to improve its network offering, which currently extends to more than 60 countries.
The company says this means clients can move into new regions and set up new trading floors very quickly without the infrastructure they would have had to put in in the past.
It also means they can get out fast if necessary, without leaving lots of equipment behind.
In turn these firms need considerably less space in which house their technology, while making up to 50% energy savings, BT says.
With the technology developing almost as fast the trades it facilitates, it would be a fool's game to claim to know for certain what the future holds for trading.
For now all we can say for certain is in this world it is survival of the fastest.