A top government economist has concluded that the high-speed trading firms that have come to dominate the nation’s financial markets are taking significant profits from traditional investors.
The chief economist at the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, Andrei Kirilenko, reports in a coming study that high-frequency traders make an average profit of as much as $5.05 each time they go up against small traders buying and selling one of the most widely used financial contracts.
The agency has not endorsed Mr. Kirilenko’s findings, which are still being reviewed by peers, and they are already encountering some resistance from academics. But Bart Chilton, one of five C.F.T.C. commissioners, said on Monday that “what the study shows is that high-frequency traders are really the new middleman in exchange trading, and they’re taking some of the cream off the top.”
Mr. Kirilenko’s work stands in contrast to several statements from government officials who have expressed uncertainty about whether high-speed traders are earning profits at the expense of ordinary investors.
The study comes as a council of the nation’s top financial regulators is showing increasing concern that the accelerating automation and speed of the financial markets may represent a threat both to other investors and to the stability of the financial system.
The Financial Stability Oversight Council, an organization formed after the recent financial crisis to deal with systemic risks, took up the issue at a meeting in November that was closed to the public, according to minutes that were released Monday.
The gathering of top regulators, including Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner and Ben S. Bernanke, the Federal Reserve chairman, said in its annual report this summer that recent developments “could lead to unintended errors cascading through the financial system.” The C.F.T.C. is a member of the oversight council.
The issue of high-frequency trading has generated anxiety among investors in the stock market, where computerized trading first took hold. But the minutes from the oversight council, and the council’s annual report released this year, indicate that top regulators are viewing the automation of trading as a broader concern as high-speed traders move into an array of financial markets, including bond and foreign currency trading.
Mr. Kirilenko’s study focused on one corner of the financial markets that the C.F.T.C. oversees, contracts that are settled based on the future value of the Standard & Poor’s 500-stock index. He and his co-authors, professors at Princeton and the University of Washington, chose the contract because it is one of the most heavily traded financial assets in any market and is popular with a broad array of investors.
Using previously private data, Mr. Kirilenko’s team found that from August 2010 to August 2012, high-frequency trading firms were able to reliably capture profits by buying and selling futures contracts from several types of traditional investors.
The study notes that there are different types of high-frequency traders, some of which are more aggressive in initiating trades and some of which are passive, simply taking the other side of existing offers in the market.
The researchers found that more aggressive traders accounted for the largest share of trading volume and made the biggest profits. The most aggressive scored an average profit of $1.92 for every futures contract they traded with big institutional investors, and made an average $3.49 with a smaller, retail investor. Passive traders, on the other hand, saw a small loss on each contract traded with institutional investors, but they made a bigger profit against retail investors, of $5.05 a contract.
Large investors can trade thousands of contracts at once to bet on future shifts in the S.& P. 500 index. The average aggressive high-speed trader made a daily profit of $45,267 in a month in 2010 analyzed by the study.
Industry profits have been falling, however, as overall stock trading volume has dropped and the race for the latest technological advances has increased costs.
Mr. Kirilenko, who is about to leave the C.F.T.C. for an academic position at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, presented a draft of the paper at a C.F.T.C. conference last week. He said that the markets were a “zero sum game” in which the high-speed profits came at the expense of other traders.
Mr. Kirilenko warned that the smaller traders might leave the futures markets if their profits were drained away, opting instead to operate in less transparent markets where high-speed traders would not get in the way.
“They will go someplace that’s darker,” Mr. Kirilenko said at the conference. That could destabilize futures markets long used by traders to hedge risk.
A spokesman for the C.F.T.C. said the agency had no comment on the study. But the paper was immediately hailed by Mr. Chilton, who is a Democrat and a critic of recent shifts in the markets.
Mr. Chilton said that the study would make it easier for regulators “to put forth regulations in a streamlined fashion. It’s a key step in the process and it should fuel-inject the regulatory effort going forward.”
Terrence Hendershott, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, said there was a limit to the importance of Mr. Kirilenko’s work because it focused on profits and did not address the benefits high-speed traders bring.
Mr. Hendershott and many other academics have found that the competition between high-speed traders has helped lower the cost of trading for ordinary investors. But Mr. Hendershott said that limited data available to researchers had made it hard to determine whether the benefits outweighed the costs.
The speed and complexity of the financial markets jumped onto the agenda of regulators after the so-called flash crash of 2010, when leading stock indexes fell almost 10 percent in less than half an hour, before quickly making up most of the losses.
In its first annual report, in 2011, the Financial Stability Oversight Council noted the concerns raised by the flash crash, but not in great detail. This year’s report included a much fuller discussion of the risks posed by the increasing speed and complexity of the financial markets and called for regulators to look for more ways to limit the risks.
Regulators have said that devising new rules has been hard, in part because the trading world has become so complex, making it difficult to determine the total effect that all the innovations have had on traditional investors. Mr. Kirilenko said in an interview Monday that his study was intended to address that.
“We’re not estimating,” he said. “Our data is excellent.”