Inquiry Stokes Unease Over Trading Firms That Shape Markets
Its superfast, supersecret oil trading software was called the Hammer.
And if the Commodity Futures Trading Commission is right, the name fit well with an intricate scheme that allowed commodity traders in Chicago working for Optiver, a little-known company based in Amsterdam, to put their orders first in line and subtly manipulate the price of oil to the company’s advantage.
Transcripts and taped conversations of actions that took place in 2007, included in the commission’s case, reveal the secretive workings of high-frequency trading, a fast-growing Wall Street business that is suddenly drawing scrutiny in Washington. Critics say this high-speed form of computerized trading, which is used in a wide range of financial markets, enables its practitioners to profit at other investors’ expense.
Traders in the Chicago office of Optiver openly talked among themselves of “whacking” and “bullying up” the price of oil. But when called to account by officials of the New York Mercantile Exchange, they described their actions as just “providing liquidity.”
In July 2008, the commission charged Optiver with manipulating the price of oil; negotiations over a settlement continue.
In the cutthroat world of high-frequency trading, success is a function of speed, secrecy and often a bit of intrigue. Few have been more adroit at these arts than Optiver.Optiver describes itself as one of the world’s leading liquidity providers, a trading firm that uses its own capital to make markets. It seeks to profit on razor-thin price differences — which can be as small as half a penny — by buying and selling stocks, bonds, futures, options and derivatives. (Derivatives represent about 65 percent of its business, equities 25 percent, and commodities and others make up the remaining 10 percent.)>>>MORE