Markets swung rapidly on the 2 p.m. announcement last Wednesday, with stocks, bonds, and the price of gold all skyrocketing. Somebody placed massive orders for gold futures contracts betting on exactly that outcome within a millisecond or two of 2 p.m. that day — before the seven milliseconds had passed that would allow the transmission of the information from the Fed’s “lock-up” of media organizations who get an early look at the data and the arrival of that information at Chicago’s futures markets (that’s the time it takes the data to travel at the speed of light. A millisecond is a thousandth of a second). CNBC’s Eamon Javers, citing market analysis firm Nanex, estimates that $600 million in assets could have changed hands in that fleeting moment.
There would seem to be three possibilities: 1) Some trader was extraordinarily lucky, placing a massive bet just before a major announcement that would make that bet highly profitable. 2) There was a leak, either by a media organization with early access to the data or even someone at the Fed. Or 3) The laws of physics have been violated as the information traveled from Washington to Chicago faster than the speed of light.
You can see why Option 2 looks the most plausible.
Presumably there will be a hard look into what exactly happened, and in particular whether some technical glitch allowed some high frequency trading firm to get the data a few milliseconds early, or some unethical behavior. But in the meantime, there’s another useful lesson out of the whole episode.
It is the reality of how much trading activity, particularly of the ultra-high-frequency variety is really a dead weight loss for society.