IEX exchange readies for mainstream debut
After winning SEC ok, new financial market plans to bring "fairer" trading to regular investors
(Photo: Michael Struening, for USA TODAY)
NEW YORK — At the start and end of each trading day, an IEX Group staffer rings a silver-colored bell near the work stations and computers that function as the nerve center for the new stock exchange that's among the most anticipated launches in recent Wall Street history.
The ritual, unlike the highly public bell-ringing ceremonies at the long-established Nasdaq Stock Market and New York Stock Exchange, has been an inside-the-company-family event for IEX's approximately 70 employees.
But starting Friday, the financial world will be watching as IEX launches the first phase of its transition to a full-fledged stock exchange — with promises of slower trading speeds to provide what the company bills as fairer trading for all investors.
"The last couple of months have been spent talking to our clients, and our team internally, testing the system and ensuring that we're ready to go," said IEX Group co-founder and CEO Brad Katsuyama during an early August interview at the company's lower Manhattan headquarters. "So far, so good."
Katsuyama, 37, gained fame as the hero of "Flash Boys," the 2014 best-seller in which author Michael Lewis argued the U.S. stock market has been "rigged" in ways that favor high-frequency trading. In June, the former Royal Bank of Canada senior trader capped a contentious battle by winning Securities and Exchange Commissionapproval of IEX as an automated trading center.
Now a potentially even harder struggle begins as the company competes for broad public usage.
IEX, short for Investors Exchange, until now functioned as a dark pool, a private trading venue that doesn't publish price quotes and discloses transaction details only after execution. From Aug. 19th through Sept. 2nd, roughly 8,000 stock symbols will be migrated in, and the new exchange will publicly post best bids and offers for trading.
IEX currently has a 1.7% to 1.8% share of the trading market. That's less than one-fifth the share Bats Global Markets held when it won approval as a stock exchange eight years ago. Growing to a 7% to 8% market share within two to three years "is totally plausible," said Katsuyama.
"Even at 7% of the market we'd still be doing good," he said, adding that IEX has been profitable for more than a year and has raised more than $100 million in capital as the company pursues gradual but steady expansion.
At least one market expert questions whether the new market can hit an aggressive growth target.
"It's a niche exchange," projected to appeal mainly to large institutional investors like pension funds as they execute large trades, said Larry Tabb, CEO of the Tabb Group, a financial markets research firm. However, Tabb said an eventual 4% to 8% market share is "probably a do-able number."
The SEC approval boosted IEX's plans by decreeing that brokers should send trading orders to the new exchange when it has the best available price among all U.S. financial markets. IEX opponents had argued against such an order.
IEX and its backers are also betting a key facet of the company's business model — an electronic speed bump — will attract investors fed up by the complexity and ever-increasing speed of today's U.S. financial trading market. High-frequency traders using powerful computers with sophisticated trading algorithms now dip in and out of stocks in less than the blink of an eye, buying and selling before others have a chance to react to the latest market changes.
The high-speed traders reap tiny profits on each transaction. But their high-volume trading adds up to millions of dollars, even as their transactions change stock prices before the trading orders of average investors can be executed.
“In many ways, clients are missing money that they don’t even know they are entitled to," said Katsuyama.
In contrast, brokers who send trading orders to IEX would send transactions to the new exchange by connecting electronically through a so-called point of presence in Secaucus, N.J. There, the messages would enter a box of coiled optical fiber cable that would force the transmissions to travel the physical equivalent of 38 miles. Only then will the instructions be forwarded to the IEX trading system in Weehawken, N.J. for execution.
In all, the system will delay each trading order by 350 microseconds, each one-millionth of a second. Though tiny, the speed bump will neutralize high-frequency traders' speed edge by giving the IEX system enough time to get updated on the latest prices in all financial markets before executing new trading orders.
Along with the speed bump, IEX will offer five types of trading orders, a fraction of the number in other U.S. stock exchanges. And it won't pay rebates to traders who route orders to the new exchange, forgoing what's become a profitable revenue stream.
"It creates a fairer experience for the greatest number of people," said Katsuyama.
IEX hopes to convince brokers for small investors and other retail traders to route transactions to the new exchange. The company also expects institutional investors who have used the IEX dark pool to shift some or all of that business to the new public market.
However, Bill Harts, CEO of the Modern Markets Initiative, a high-frequency trading industry group and frequent IEX critic, questioned whether the new exchange's order execution quality — getting the best price in the shortest time — will be meet big traders' expectations.
"I don't see that happening," said Harts. "How will they get their execution quality up to a level where the large retail brokerage firms would feel comfortable sending significant volumes of orders there?"
IEX cited the Teacher Retirement System of Texas, a public pension fund with approximately $130 billion in assets and more than 1.4 million active and retired public school employees. The fund backed IEX's SEC battle by writing that "the enhanced quality of executions we receive in IEX can equate to millions in savings for our beneficiaries."
At the same time, IEX is vying with other exchanges for companies' stock listings. While voicing optimism, Katsuyama would only confirm earlier media accounts thatWynn Resorts, the Las Vegas-based casino company headed by IEX investor Steve Wynn, is expected to shift its listing from Nasdaq to the new exchange.
If IEX succeeds, it could revolutionize U.S. equities trading.
"What we're trying to do is shift behavior. And we're trying to educate," said Katsuyama. "It's the same kind of things we've been saying all along. Simplify the markets. Give people an equal chance to compete."