Computer scientists at Stanford University and Google have created technology that can track time down to 100 billionths of a second. It could be just what Wall Street is looking for.
System engineers at Nasdaq, the New York-based stock exchange, recently began testing an algorithm and software that they hope can synchronize a giant network of computers with that nanosecond precision. They say they have built a prototype, and are in the process of deploying a bigger version.
For an exchange like Nasdaq, such refinement is essential to accurately order the millions of stock trades that are placed on their computer systems every second.
Ultimately, this is about money. With stock trading now dominated by computers that make buying and selling decisions and execute them with blazing speed, keeping that order also means protecting profits. So-called high frequency trading firms place trades in a fraction of a second, sometimes in a bet that they can move faster than bigger competitors.
The pressure to manage these high-speed trades grows when the stock market becomes more volatile, as it has been in recent months, in part to prevent the fastest traders from taking unfair advantage of slower firms. High frequency traders typically account for more than half of daily stock trading volume in the United States, according to data from the Tabb Group.
“The financial industry has easily become the most obsessed with time,” said Balaji Prabhakar, a Stanford University electrical engineer who is one of the designers of the new synchronization system.
Because the orders are placed from locations around the world, they frequently arrive at the exchange’s computers out of sequence. The new system allows each computer to time stamp an order when it takes place.
As a result, the trades can be sorted and executed in correct sequence. In a networked marketplace, this precision is necessary not only to prevent illicit trading on advance information known as “front-running,” but also to ensure the fair placement of orders.
The importance of technical advances in measuring time was underscored by European regulations that went into effect in January and that require financial institutions to synchronize time-stamped trades with microsecond accuracy.