Algorithmic Trading

This article was originally published in Postnoon on August 24th, 2012

From time to time, Algorithmic Trading (AT) or High Frequency Trading (HFT) hits the headlines, mainly due to regulatory concerns. The main concerns of the regulators being transparency, fairness and systemic stability.

A couple of days back, they were back in the news as the Delhi Highcourt issued notices to the regulator, Securities Exchange Board of India (SEBI), the exchanges: NSE and BSE, the Finance Ministry and the RBI. The notices were sent as a result of the plea of Intermediaries and Investor Welfare Association, which has alleged that AT “discriminates between rich and influential brokers and common investors/retail investors and creates inequality and finally casts a deceptive data to common investors and retail investors while trading in shares and securities on online trading platforms of BSE and NSE”.

Let’s look at what is AT in today’s article.


According to wikipedia, AT, also called automated trading, black-box trading, or algo trading, is the use of electronic platforms for entering trading orders with an algorithm deciding on aspects of the order such as the timing, price, or quantity of the order, or in many cases initiating the order without human intervention.

A special class of algorithmic trading is (HFT), in which computers make elaborate decisions to initiate orders based on information that is received electronically, before human traders are capable of processing the information they observe.


  • Very high speed of trading due to the use of high speed computers
  • Use of algorithms to process data feeds and take decisions to buy and sell automatically
  • Use of co-location services


The International Organization of Securities Commissions (IOSCO), reported in July 2011 that AT also contributed to the flash crash of May 6th, 2010 in the US when the benchmark index,  Dow Jones Industrial Average crashed and then quickly recovered.

In India too, in the last couple of years, there have been instances where the markets have lost a large amount of money in a very short span of time and then recovered quickly. Once such instance happened during the Muhurat Trading on Diwali day of 2011.

These events brought to light the highly correlated nature of trading strategies using AT. This means that the markets can quickly become one sided. AT also results in very high short term volatility which could be detrimental to retail, non algorithmic traders.


AT enhances the speed of information dissemination and its supporters claim that it helps in making the markets more efficient. Large and multiple trades can be processed and carried out quickly. Complicated strategies can be implemented through algorithms. 75% to 80% of total trades in US and UK can be attributed to AT.

These are also the very reasons why the Intermediaries and Investor Welfare Association has accused the regulators of being “silent spectators”. AT gives unfair advantages to institutions or brokers who have of co-location facilities and high speed computer prowess which are not available to the common man or ordinary retail investors.

SEBI, exchanges and the Ministry clearly need to put some thought into the advantages of speed over fairness to all.

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