Michael Lewis’s new book “Flash Boys: A Wall Street Revolt” tells the true (and, unfortunately, legal) story of Wall Street technology companies who discovered ways to see demand milliseconds before others and successfully job the system. These companies would pay for physical access and proximity to the powerful financial exchanges where they would await incoming orders, read them, buy ahead of the unwitting customer and resell the shares at a profit. The exchanges, the banks, the brokers and everyone else in the system either didn’t know what was happening or willfully turned a blind eye: after all, the system was working and making everyone a lot of money. The only losers were those who couldn’t be seen; the consumers and pension funds whose portfolios were less valuable because of this hidden tax.
As Mark Twain said, “History doesn’t repeat itself. But it does rhyme.”
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The online advertising business is going through its own version of the same saga. For every display ad that can’t be seen, every video that auto-plays when it wasn’t supposed to, every fraudulent ad call that leaks into the system from the hackers den in Eastern Europe or the houseboat anchored off Boca, our credibility and forward progress take a hit. And don’t think these issues are confined to the pages of insider industry websites and the stages and breakout rooms of ad tech conferences. Just last Saturday The New York Times published “The Great Unwatched,” which served up the issue with healthy doses of outrage and shock.
“Flash Boys” features both villains and an underdog band of heroes who expose the problem and create a new era of transparency and an emerging standard for how trading is supposed to work. So far, we seem content to chalk our “Flash Nerds” problems to a murky cabal of distant ne’er-do-wells. In The New York Times article it was noted that TubeMogul “…reported that it had discovered three new botnets that were generating 30 million fake video views a day, earning as much as $10 million a month. TubeMogul said the culprits were well concealed and likely operating overseas.” It’s convenient and a little exotic to once again blame it on Moscow, but it’s also disingenuous.
Edmund Burke once wrote, “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.” I’m not completely comfortable couching this issue in the language of good and evil, even though there is in fact a good deal of stealing going on. But I do think there are far too many good men and women doing nothing. A robust level of demand has brought on good times for an intricate, overlapping system of middlemen and technocrats; a ton of pressure is put on buyers and sellers to “just get the deals done.” Yes, I know it’s all so much more technically complicated than this, but please don’t tell me that it’s so screwed up that a given company or CEO can’t say “We will always behave this way” or “We will never do that.”
Soon, I hope, there will be white hats and black hats passed out. Whether you’re identified as a hero or a villain may be less about your overt actions and more about what you are willing to accept.