Monday, June 9, 2008

Dark Pools: A Regulatory Tangle

An increasing vocal chorus is asking when regulators are going to step into Dark Pools. The Dark Pool market represents the wild frontier in equity trading. Dark pools now represent over 10% of stock market volume and over 20% of all trades in NYSE stocks.

In years past, ECNs represented the upstarts that were edging in on the business of the exchanges. The proliferation of electronic exchange networks fractured the market and siphoned trades off the major markets. ECNs were seen as a threat to the orderly operation of the market according to many older-schoolers. Over the past years the ruckus died down as many ECNs were merged out of existence; many being acquired by the very exchanges that squealed about the menace they posed. One glaring example is the Archipelago ECN, famous for making fun of Wall Street exchange floor market makers, being acquired by the NYSE.

In comparison the major exchanges seem to be awfully quiet today about all the trading volume appearing on Dark Pool networks. These exchange mechanisms were created by major brokerage firms to move large blocks of stock.

One primary concern is the lack of transparency in the market. Exchanges and ECNs provide details of every trade. These venues allow all the participants in the market to discover pricing and be fully included in the overall market. The hidden fractioning of price information with Dark Pools has led to gaming of the market within Dark Pool networks, as traders utilize the mechanism as a profit driving instrument rather than simply as a tool to execute large orders without moving price.

Regulators appear to be absolutely confused in regards to the proper way to address the Dark Pool phenomenon. At most they mention the subject in speeches without outlining any policy or actions. The lack of action is disturbing considering the requirement for proper transparency in the markets in order to maintain the confidence of the investing public.

With the increasing number of Dark Pools, there is the expectation that consolidation is coming. The proliferation of dark pool networks has led brokerages to offer interfaces that link dark pool and “light pool” networks, or offer access to multiple dark pools. These offerings have simply increased the gaming of the system and the utilization of algorithmic trading over the networks.

At some point the news media will start focusing on the abuse of Dark Networks causing regulators angst, and leading Congress to demand more transparency for the investing public. This day may not be far off --- as the Dark Networks continue to quickly grow in market share and an increasing number of trades are hidden from investors.