“HFT Firm Athena Engaged In Massive Closing Price Manipulation, Called It “Gravy” – Zero Hedge

Posted on :Oct 17, 2014

By: Tyler Durden

Zero Hedge

October 17, 2014

And to think it was only yesterday when the WSJ unleashed this epic puff piece about HFT shop Hudson Trading with the following malarky:

In their minds, they are making the markets more efficient through their trading… Critics of high-frequency trading are not likely to be easily won over, however. It’s going to take a lot of frank discussions between firms like Hudson River Trading and the market commentators who see them as parasites.
Sadly, what makes it complicated is that they are parasites, the only question if they are law-abiding parasites or criminal parasites. Enter the daily exhibit of yet another HFT firm busted for rigging everything it touches.

Today’culprit: Athena Capital, which did what every other algorithmic, HFT firm does – rig the market of course, but at least it had a sense of humor about it: Athena called the market-rigging algorithm that “manipulated the closing prices of tens of thousands of stocks during the final seconds of almost every trading day during the Relevant Period” by the very amusing name “Gravy.” But remember: HFTs are really your friend – they just provide liquidity and stuff.

From the filing:

Athena, an algorithmic, high-frequency trading firm based in New York City, used complex computer programs to carry out a familiar, manipulative scheme: marking the closing price of publicly-traded securities. Through a sophisticated algorithm, Athena manipulated the closing prices of thousands of NASDAQ-listed stocks over a six-month period.

Between at least June through December 2009 (the “Relevant Period”), Athena made large purchases or sales of the stocks in the last two seconds before NASDAQ’s 4:00 p.m. close in order to drive the stocks’ closing prices slightly higher or lower. The manipulated closing prices allowed Athena to reap more reliable profits from its otherwise risky strategies. Internally, Athena called the algorithms that traded in the last few seconds “Gravy.”

By using high-powered computers, complex algorithms, and rapid-fire trades, Athena manipulated the closing prices of tens of thousands of stocks during the final seconds of almost every trading day during the Relevant Period.

Although Athena was a relatively small firm, it dominated the market for these stocks in the last few seconds. Its trades made up over 70% of the total NASDAQ trading volume of the affected stocks in the seconds before the close of almost every trading day.

Athena’s manipulative trading focused on trading in order imbalances in securities at the close of the trading day. Imbalances for the close of trading occur when there are insufficient on-close orders to match buy and sell orders, i.e., when there are more on-close orders to buy shares than to sell shares (or vice versa), for any given stock.

Every day at the close of trading, NASDAQ runs a closing auction to fill all onclose orders at the best price, one that is not too distant from the price of the stock in the continuous book. Leading up to the close, NASDAQ begins releasing information, called Net Order Imbalance Indicator (“Imbalance Message”), concerning the closing auction to help facilitate filling all on-close orders at the best price. At 3:50:00 p.m., NASDAQ issues its first Imbalance Message.

Athena’s general strategy for trading based on Imbalance Messages worked as follows: Immediately after the first Imbalance Message, Athena would issue an Imbalance Only on Close order to fill the imbalance. These orders are only filled if there is an imbalance in a security at the close. Athena would then purchase or sell securities on the continuous book on the opposite side of its on-close order, until 3:59:59.99, with the goal of holding no positions (being “flat”) by the close. It called this process “accumulation,” and the algorithms that accumulated these positions were called “accumulators.”

Athena was acutely aware of the price impact of some its strategies, particularly its last second trading Gravy strategies. Athena used these strategies and its configurations to give its accumulation an extra push, to help generate profits.

For example, in April 2009, an Athena manager (“Manager 1”), after analyzing trading in which Gravy accumulated only approximately 25% of its accumulation, and, thus, had no price impact on the stock, emailed another Athena manager (“Manager 2”) and Athena’s Chief Technology Officer (“CTO”) suggesting that they: “make sure we always do our gravy with enough size.” (emphasis added). In fact, Athena traded nearly 60% of its accumulation in the final 2 seconds of the trading day.

With the helping hand of its Gravy strategy, Athena refined a method to manipulate the daily process, known as the “Closing Cross,” that NASDAQ uses to set the closing price of stocks listed on the exchange. Manipulating the closing process can increase market volatility (thereby frustrating the very purpose of the closing auction) and throw off critical metrics linked to the closing price of stocks. A stock’s closing price is the data point most closely scrutinized by investors, securities analysts, and the financial media, and is used to value, and assess management fees on mutual funds, hedge funds, and individual investor portfolios.

Athena, however, did not want to push the price of the stocks it traded too much because it created certain trading risks, but also because Athena was concerned about scrutiny from regulators as result of its last second trading. NASDAQ issued an automated Regulatory Alert for “Scrutiny on Expiration and Rebalance Days,” which provided that “Suspicious orders or quotes that are potentially intended to manipulate the opening or closing price will be reported immediately to FINRA.” Athena’s CTO forwarded this alert to Manager 1 and Manager 2 and wrote: “Let’s make sure we don’t kill the golden goose.”

Gold Goliath is not your typical gold dealer.

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