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Can Bart Chilton Fix High-Speed Trading's Image Problem?

Can Bart Chilton lend high-speed traders some much needed credibility?
Bart Chilton
Bart ChiltonPhotograph by Ryan Lowry

This spring, high-frequency traders were facing yet another assault on their livelihoods, and they needed to do something fast. For months their business had been under increasing pressure, much of it from within their own ranks. Profits were down dramatically as competitors piled into the market. They’d been blamed—unfairly, many of them believed—for the “flash crash” in 2010, when the stock market fell 600 points in less than five minutes after one trader’s mistaken order triggered a wave of automated selling. Now they confronted an even graver threat: the media blitz surrounding Michael Lewis’s Flash Boys. In the book, Lewis argues that high-frequency traders take advantage of other investors and that because of them the stock market is “rigged.”

The publicity rollout for the book was masterful. A segment aired on 60 Minutes, the same day an 11,000-word excerpt appeared on the cover of the New York Times Magazine. Author interviews with Jon Stewart and Charlie Rose quickly followed. There was wall-to-wall CNBC coverage, with Lewis filling the screen. At one point the author got into a near-brawl with a fellow panelist, prompting a new cascade of articles, which competed for attention with dozens of book reviews. Lewis’s surrogates, some of them characters in his book, had their own hectic schedule of media appearances. They were all broadcasting the same message: High-frequency traders were out of control and possibly about to bring down the global financial system. “High-frequency trading reminds me a little of the scam in Office Space,” said Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) during one of the multiple congressional hearings that followed the book’s publication. “It also means a tilt in the playing field for those who don’t have the information or don’t have the access to the speed or who aren’t big enough to play in this game.”