Firms race to transmit Wall Street data at nearly light speed
NEW YORK — Ari Rubenstein, a “Star Trek” fan who counts physics as a hobby, wants to boldly go where Wall Street has never gone before: the speed of light.
Rubenstein heads Strike Technologies, a New York company that’s part of a budding cottage industry racing to build networks of ultra-fast microwave radio transmitters linking the world’s financial hubs.
It could be the final frontier in the financial industry’s tech arms race as the fastest traders scramble to get even faster, and as regulators mull over ways to prevent technology breakdowns on Wall Street. Industry insiders say that some firms are toying with lasers and high-altitude balloons.
Strike, whose ranks include academics as well as former U.S. and Israeli military engineers, hoisted a 6-foot white dish on a tower rising 280 feet above the Nasdaq Stock Market’s data center in Carteret, N.J., just outside New York City.
Through a series of microwave towers, the dish beams market data 734 miles to the Chicago Mercantile Exchange’s computer warehouse in Aurora, Ill., in 4.13 milliseconds, or about 95% of the theoretical speed of light, according to the company.
Fiber-optic cables, which are made up of long strands of glass, carry data at roughly 65% of light speed.
Promoters of the technology say it could afford all investors an equal footing. If everyone — retail brokerages, public pensions, hedge funds — knows simultaneously where stock and futures markets are moving, the firms with the deepest pockets won’t necessarily have an edge, they say.
“Unless somebody comes up with superluminal particles or something like that, nothing is going to be faster than this,” said Rubenstein, president and chief executive of Strike’s parent company, market-maker Global Trading Systems. “We’re going to democratize the industry.”
The Nasdaq-CME hookup marks the first time two major U.S. exchanges have offered market data via a microwave link to trading shops on Wall Street.
NYSE Euronext Inc., parent of the New York Stock Exchange, is following suit and plans to roll out a similar U.S. service “in the near future,” a spokesman said.
The exchange operator has already let firms set up microwave links from its data center outside London to German markets in Frankfurt.
Still, some regulators worry whether Wall Street technology gives high-speed firms a leg up on less sophisticated investors who can’t trade as quickly.
“I’m concerned that the advent of super-fast technology has made markets more of a playground for the wealthiest traders out there,” said Bart Chilton, a member of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission.
Mary Jo White, chairwoman of the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, has said the agency is studying high-frequency trading’s effects on the market.
“We know there’s an advantage of speed for high-frequency traders, but what is not well known … are the impacts of high-frequency” traders, White said at a financial industry conference in New York this month. “Are they helping? Are they harming? Are they doing both?”
Although this might seem like how Captain Kirk might day-trade, microwave technology is decades old.
Once used for military radar during World War II, microwave signals have found everyday uses for consumers over the last decade, said Harish Krishnaswamy, a professor of electrical engineering at Columbia University who has advised financial firms on the topic. Home-entertainment setups, automobile crash-avoidance systems and cellular networks use similar types of radio signals.
The systems are not without their drawbacks. Bad weather can disrupt microwave transmissions, but operators can amp up the signals.
“You can overcome rain with more power,” Krishnaswamy said. “You can always try and blast through.”
Microwave transmissions are just the latest Wall Street tool used to sell or buy before someone else. It’s a centuries-old pursuit — some people used carrier pigeons to fly orders to markets before the advent of the telegraph and telephone.
Before the rise of telecommunications, Wall Street firms would regularly hire quick-footed young traders to run orders from brokerage houses to exchange floors, said Charles Geisst, a Wall Street historian at Manhattan College.
“You just want to be in front of the other guy,” Geisst said.
Wall Street’s race to be faster has concerned some regulators who worry increased speed has made markets unsafe.
One stomach-churning market breakdown came in 2010 with the “flash crash,” in which the Dow Jones industrial average lost nearly 1,000 points before quickly recovering.
Last year, Knight Capital Group, a major Wall Street brokerage, had a near-death experience when a computer program sent a slew of errant high-speed trades into the stock market.
The company lost $440million and avoided bankruptcy after being acquired by a rival.
Chilton, the CFTC commissioner, said talk of microwave signals’ use in trading “blew me away” when he learned of it. Although he has stopped short of calling for slowing down markets, he has called for safeguards to prevent meltdowns.
“When things go wrong, they go wrong in a huge hurry,” he said. “As a regulator, we will never be able to keep up with these super-fast traders.”
Strike, for its part, also offers software for high-frequency trading that aims to prevent super-fast computer programs from throwing a wrench into the financial markets.
“Any exchange blowups, private firms, public firms blowing up — that’s terrible,” Rubenstein said. “We all should care about market stability and how to avoid problems.”
Wall Street firms are nevertheless plowing forth with plans for new microwave links.
Rubenstein’s company is planning other “long-haul” links, including one between Mahwah, N.J. — home to the NYSE’s data center — and Chicago.
McKay Bros., an Oakland firm that linked up financial data centers near New York City and Chicago a year ago, is also planning to build a microwave connection from Mahwah.
Some large investment firms have established their own microwave links from Washington, D.C. They zap valuable government data — like the U.S. Labor Department’s monthly unemployment report — to Chicago and New York, industry insiders say.
Tech firms, meanwhile, are trying to hone microwave technologies to make signals even faster.
Improvements probably will shave off more time in coming months, said Bob Meade, co-founder of McKay Bros.
“You’ll keep approaching the speed of light over time,” Meade said. “At some point, it will be so little that it doesn’t matter.”