The company itself blamed an ‘IT glitch’ for automatically placing huge volumes of trades which sent the Wall Street share prices of 148 companies into a state of wild fluctuation. Details of the ‘glitch’ have yet to be revealed, but as an ex computer programmer, ‘IT Glitch’ is not a term I can relate to.
On this occasion, the computers may have done some silly things, but they were only acting on the instructions of their programmers – the glitch is ultimately a human one. The human telling the computer what to do got it wrong – and the result of what was probably a very small error was the collapse of a company which lost £283 million in 45 minutes.
The response of the company’s CEO was remarkably sanguine – “Technology breaks”, he said. It’s the reaction of a gambler, and like most gamblers, he and his company are unlikely to change their ways.
The fact that so much money can be won or lost in such a short period should worry us more than it appears to do in practice. Much of the ‘trading’ on world stock exchanges is now automated. Computers running sophisticated algorithms decide when to buy and when to sell; trading the same stocks over and over, thousands of times a minute, trying to leverage tiny differences in price by sheer volume and frequency of trading.
Different computers using different algorithms compete with each other in tiny fractions of a second. It’s even got to the point where the computer centres are being moved to be nearer to the exchanges – the time lost by a message travelling at the speed of light over a distance of just a few miles can put them at a disadvantage in this particular casino.
Whether the stocks and shares being bought and sold between the varying computer programs actually exist or not is an interesting but largely irrelevant question from the perspective of those involved. All of this has nothing to do with the business of ensuring that companies employing real people to produce real goods in the real world have access to the capital they need, nor with investing in pension and insurance funds.
It’s a casino, pure and simple. And if there’s one thing worse than a compulsive gambler, it’s a gambler who has a ‘system’ with which he thinks he can break the casino.
With the exception of the shareholders in one particular company, who have seen the value of their shareholding plummet, we’ve got away with it this time. There’s no guarantee that the next ‘glitch’ won’t have much more impact on us. The best way of doing that is to put these people in real casinos, and leave them only their own money to play with.