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High frequency fuzzy math

One of the many mysteries swirling around high-frequency trading is just how profitable the lightning-fast buying and selling of stocks, options and commodities really is.

The Tabb Group, a financial services industry research firm, recently estimated that the 300 securities firms and hedge funds that specialize in rapid-fire algorithmic trading took in some $21 billion in profits last year. But when pressed on how it arrived at this figure, Tabb representatives won’t say.

My colleague Felix Salmon, on his Reuters blog, says the Tabb figure “is not obviously unreasonable,” but he would like to know more about how the firm got the figure. So would I, and until Tabb comes forward with more information, I’m not sure how reliable a statistic it is to keep quoting.

Of course, the dozen or so Wall Street firms and hedge funds that are the leaders in high-frequency trading — either serving as a market maker or trading for their own account — aren’t much help either. Most prefer to say simply nothing on the subject, leaving us in a very dark pool on the issue of high-frequency profits.