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HFT trading captures a range of activities, referring to all computer-managed trading systems which operate with very short holding periods, generate a very high number of quotes for each order that's transacted, and need to locate their servers close to public sources of data because they operate in milliseconds or microseconds.
HFT operators claim they enhance market liquidity. Ultra-fast traders, by this account, are helpful intermediaries, smoothing market movements by buying and selling when other investors are not interested. But watchdogs on both sides of the Atlantic worry that HFT creates a false impression of liquidity. The business, they say, takes a standard traders' practice, testing the market with expressions of interest that are not necessarily sincere, to a new level.
To this debate, an enormous amount of sound and fury has been added in the past year, by claims that HFT is, in fact, thoroughly disruptive. Accusations have even been made that HFT is effectively insider dealing.
In March the European Parliament voted to regulate financial markets and curb high frequency trading. In May, ESMA launched its detailed consultation on the working rules for MiFID II which suggests the tough definition that traders who send an average of two orders per second to European markets may be considered high frequency and that being designated an HFT trader in one market would apply to all markets. Meanwhile in the US, SEC Chair Mary Jo White has recently promised that the regulator would be ‘addressing high frequency trading and promoting fairness’.