Keeping Up (Barely) with the Market's Wild Volatility

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Peter Macdiarmid / Getty

A broker calls for prices at the London Stock Exchange.

Last year, when finance professor Robert Schwartz decided to put together a conference on volatility in the markets, nobody knew just how timely it would be. In the past few weeks, triple-digit swings in the Dow Industrials have become a matter of course, as seasick investors watch stocks bound up and down, pounded by the day's news, and often, it seems, for no discernable reason at all. In the first few minutes of trading on Friday, stock indexes dropped 5% as the double whammy of deleveraging and a worldwide economic slowdown continued to buffet company shares.

If you think you've been on a roller coaster ride watching your brokerage account, spend some time with the professional traders, platform operators, and stock exchange executives who deal with stock prices on a minute-by-minute basis. At Thursday's volatility conference, held at City University of New York's Baruch College, some of the people closest to the market swapped stories of operating in such a harried environment. "Everything happens so quickly now, you don't have time to digest it," said Tim Mahoney, CEO of Bids Trading, an order execution firm, speaking from the dais. "I'm grateful to be here and not on the desk," joked George Bodine, the director of trading at General Motors Investment Management. "It gives me one day of reprieve."

Overwhelmed by investors responding to every little tick of the market, companies that clear trades are easily seeing ten times the usual number of messages that signal the price at which investors want to buy or sell. Traders with algorithm-based strategies are jockeying for space at the computer servers closest to stock exchanges in order to shave milliseconds off their trades. This is what the market has come to: the distance an electron travels makes a difference.

The academics in the room tried to provide some historical perspective. Robert Engle, a finance professor at New York University, put up a chart showing how volatility has played out over the past 80 years. Two bulges were large enough to rival the amount of volatility we're seeing today, representing the stock market crashes of 1929 and 1987. The difference between the two: while the market quickly calmed down after 1987, it took years to regain a sense of normalcy after 1929. "We don't know if this is a '29 or '87 type of spike," Engle said. "We're all trying to figure that out."

In the meantime, traders are dealing with price swings the best they can. Blocks of shares bought and sold have grown smaller, as traders shy from committing too much of a position at one time, lest they pass up a better price later. As margin calls and redemptions from mutual and hedge funds drive trading particularly wild in the opening and closing minutes of most sessions, algorithm-based traders are rewriting programs to squeeze their moves into increasingly narrow bands of time. "It may be good, it may be bad, but I don't thank any of us can stop it," said Robert Almgren, co-founder of Quantitative Brokers.

Though stock exchanges are trying to, at least at the margin. Reto Francioni, CEO of Deutsche Borse, a stock exchange in Frankfurt, described how volatility disruptions now kick in hundreds of times a day. When a stock's price jumps outside of its proscribed range, word goes out and trading switches over to an auction format for about five minutes to give all the market participants a chance to regroup, process any new information they might have — and to prevent the volatility from feeding on itself. "When markets aren't acting rationally, it's healthy to slow them down," said Richard Rosenblatt, CEO of the trading shop Rosenblatt Securities.

And yet ultimately volatility might simply be part of working through the effects of the credit crunch. The world is undergoing a great deleveraging and all that unwinding has ramifications. At the same time, the onslaught of market moving news — economic data, corporate earnings, governmental action — keeps coming. There is a massive uncertainty in the air, and in a market it is perfectly logical — perhaps even necessary — for uncertainty to be reflected in asset prices. Uncertainty, as reflected in volatility, is legitimate information, too. In a panel discussion about volatility's implications, Morgan Stanley executive director Robert Shapiro took a step back and asked: "Why is volatility inherently bad?" Maybe it's not. But it is kind of ugly.

(See pictures of the week here.)