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Algos gone wild

The many proponents of high-frequency trading keep saying there’s no reason to be concerned about a rogue algorithim sparking a 1987 market-style crash. HFT supporters keep saying show us a case where a rogue algo even caused a minor hiccup in the market.

Well, Bernard Donefer, a professor at CUNY’s Baruch College in New York City and a critic of highly-automated trading programs, says the world already has gotten a glimpse at the kind of mayhem a rogue or simply a misfiring algo can cause.

Donefer, in a soon to be published research paper, blames high-frequency traders and an algo gone wild for a bizarre $9 drop in United Airlines’ stock on Sep. 8, 2008. The sudden plunge in UAL shares wiped out $1 billion in market value in just 12 minutes, after a six-year-old headline about the airline filing for bankruptcy erroneously hit some news wires.

The airline’s stock quickly recovered after it was determined that the bankruptcy story was an old, old story. But Donefer argues the percipitous drop in UAL shares “was mostly the result of the interplay between the algorithms that search and compile information from the Web and the ones that Wall Street firms and hedge funds use to make trades automatically.”