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Preventing a ‘Flash Crash’

by Elaine Schwartz    •    Aug 21, 2010    •    279 Views

Do you remember the ‘flash crash‘? On Thursday, May 6, for close to 20 minutes, markets everywhere wildly fluctuated.  It began at 2:23 when certain stock prices started moving oddly. With Apple trading at approximately $250 a share, at 2:44, the stock plunged $23 while at another moment one share was selling for $100,000. At 2:47, Accenture PLC shares dove to 1 cent from $40 a share. During that day, the Dow Jones Industrial Average opened at 10,862, dropped to 9869.62, and then closed at 10,520. Some say it felt like a roller coaster.

Financial markets are not supposed to feel like roller coasters. Instead, at the NY Stock Exchange, for example, different “specialists” oversee the buying and selling of different firms’ stocks. Historically, the specialists’ job was to maintain an “orderly market” by buying or selling the stocks themselves when price was not gradually moving up or down. So, if everyone wanted to sell a stock and there was no one to buy it, the specialist (in theory) stepped in to buy it temporarily so that price could change smoothly. 

Now though, with computerized trading, worldwide markets selling the same companies’ stocks and bonds, and a group of firms called “quants‘ that speed trade based on complex computer models, it appears to be impossible for one group to maintain an orderly market. Yes, much of the time, markets tend toward rational ups and downs. However, during the ‘flash crash’, they did not.

The Economic Lesson

Why should we care?

Accenture says it all. If one stock, for no apparent reason, can drop from $40 to 1 cent in seconds, then investors will be less willing to allocate their savings to stocks. However, our market economy needs dependable financial markets for savers and businesses. We need to invest in order to save for college, for retirement, for emergencies. Correspondingly, businesses need investors’ money as start-ups, when they expand, and for everyday operations.

Knowing that the continued possibility of a ‘flash crash’ diminishes investor confidence, a final report from the SEC and Commodities Futures Trading Commission should be completed during the next several months.

Please note that for Accenture PLC and other firms that experienced an erratic stock fluctation on May 6, those trades were canceled.

 

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