Putting the Brakes on High-Frequency Trading with Physics

In the middle of the East Coast’s slow broil in the summer of 2018, a curious phenomenon surfaced. As a tropical air mass settled in and smothered the metropolitan New York area, a certain breed of stock speculator began feeling the financial heat as the microwave signals linking together various data centers and exchanges began to slow down. These high-frequency traders rely on getting information a fraction of a second before other traders see the same thing and take advantage of minuscule price differences to make money hand over fist.

While you won’t catch us shedding many tears over the billions these speculators lost during the hot spell, we did find the fact that humidity can slow microwave propagation enough to make this a problem for them a fascinating subject, enough so that we covered it in some detail at the time. While financial markets come and go and the technology to capitalize them changes at a breakneck pace, physics stays the same, and it can make or break deals with no regard to the so-called fundamentals.

So it was with great interest that we happened upon Tom Scott’s recent video outlining how one new stock exchange is using physics to actually slow down stock trades, in an attempt to gain a competitive advantage over the other exchanges. In light of the billions lost over the summer to propagation delays amounting to a mere 10 microseconds, we couldn’t help but wonder how injecting a delay 35 times longer using a “magic shoebox” was actually good for business. It turns out to be an interesting story.

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Feeling the Heat of High-Frequency Trading

It’s high summer here in North America, and for a lot of us, this one has been a scorcher. Media reports have been filled with coverage of heat wave after heat wave, with temperature records falling like dominoes.

But as they say, it’s not the heat, it’s the humidity, and that was painfully true in the first week of July as a slug of tropical air settled into the northeast United States. With dewpoints well into the 70s (25°C plus) and air temperatures pushing the century-mark (38°C), people suffered and systems from transportation to the electrical grid strained under the load. But as punishing as such soupy conditions are for people, there are other effects that are less well known but of critical importance to financial markets, where increased humidity can lead to billion-dollar losses for markets. Welcome to the weird world of high-frequency trading.

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HFT On HF, You Can’t Beat It For Latency

If you are a radio enthusiast of A Certain Age, you may well go misty-eyed from time to time with memories of shortwave listening in decades past. Countries across the world operated their own propaganda radio stations, and you could hear Radio Moscow’s take on world events, the BBC World Service responding, and Radio Tirana proudly announcing that every Albanian village now had a telephone. Many of those shortwave broadcast stations are now long gone, but if you imagine the HF spectrum is dead, think again. An unexpected find in an industrial park near Chicago led to an interesting look at the world of high-frequency trading, or HFT, and how they have moved to using shortwave links when everyone else has abandoned them, because of the unparalleled low latency they offer when communicating across the world.

Our intrepid tower-hunter is [KE9YQ], who was out cycling and noticed a particularly unusual structure adorned with a set of HF beams. These are the large directional antennas of the type you might otherwise expect to see on the roof of an embassy or in the backyard of a well-heeled radio amateur, and were particularly unusual in this otherwise unexciting part of America. There followed an interesting process of tracking down the site’s owners via the FCC permits for its operation, leading to the deduction of its purpose. With other antenna-hunters on the lookout for corresponding sites elsewhere in the world, it seems that this unusual global network hiding in plain sight could soon be revealed.

Unsurprisingly we’ve not covered many shortwave HFT stories. There are however other higher-latency ways to cross the world on HF.

Via SWLing Post, and thanks [W6MOQ] for the tip.