Political Entrepreneurs

The Economic Engine of Political Change

Institutional Detail on the Armchair

May 6th, 2014 by Edward Lopez

Armchair theory can sometimes look naive from the perspective of institutional detail. Case in point, my recent post on high-frequency trading in which I speculate

how best to allocate the privilege that HFTs enjoy of proximity to exchange servers and access to dark pools. In other words, what do the HFTs pay for their advantage? And who is receiving these payments? Clearly there are capital investments (a form of private sector rent seeking). But I wonder if there are forms of licensing or other “rental” agreements in place that the exchanges use to retain some of the profits earned by HFTs. If I were on the board of an exchange, I would be asking this question every minute of every day. Clearly I lack the detailed institutional knowledge to push the point further.

Tyler Cowen has just posted some of the relevant institutional details, as supplied by an anonymous “loyal reader” of Marginal Revolution.

Colocation is a practice, whereby any market participant can pay the exchange a fee which allows them to locate their trading computers in the same building as the exchange itself ( the matching engine ).

[snip]

Exchanges sell access to direct data feeds to all investors.  When high frequency traders subscribe to a real time direct feed in the colocated facility and they observe the order book as well as trades, they have no idea who is trading – a customer, a big bank or another HFT firm.  They see the same exact trades in this feed as all other market participants.   Many, if not most,  HFT firms do not deal in any way with customers whatsoever.  The ones that do are supposed to have a clear separation (a Chinese Wall) between customers and proprietary trading, so no customer information can flow through to the prop desk – the same thing is true of big banks and other broker/dealers.

It’s an interesting post for going into detail about how HFT works — and how it doesn’t. There is also a nice distinction between algorithms that operate on public information versus insiders who observe customer order flow and act profitably on that private information. A rationale is also offered for dark pools being regulated out of existence by requiring all equity trades to be done on public exchanges. Last but not least, it sheds some light on my naive post by describing how exchanges sell access rights.

Madmen, Intellectuals, & Academic Scribblers

The Economic Engine of Political Change

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From the Pages of Madmen, Intellectuals, and Academic Scribblers (p.189, ch.7)

The most successful entrepreneurs know what they do well, they know the market and the opportunities within it, and they choose those activities that create the most value. This is true in economic as well as political markets.

Madmen, Intellectuals, & Academic Scribblers

The Economic Engine of Political Change

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From the Pages of Madmen, Intellectuals, and Academic Scribblers (p.178, ch.7)

[W]hen the right elements come together at the right time and place and overwhelm the status quo, it is because special people make it happen. We call them political entrepreneurs.

Madmen, Intellectuals, & Academic Scribblers

The Economic Engine of Political Change

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From the Pages of Madmen, Intellectuals, and Academic Scribblers (p.176. ch.7)

While we started this book with Danny Biasone saving basketball, we end it with Norman Borlaug saving a billion lives. These stories are not that different. Both faced vested interests, which were reinforced by popular beliefs that things should be a certain way—that is, until a better idea came along.

Madmen, Intellectuals, & Academic Scribblers

The Economic Engine of Political Change

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From the Pages of Madmen, Intellectuals, and Academic Scribblers (p.174, ch.6)

Because there was a general belief that homeownership was a good thing, politicians found the public with open arms.... Everybody was winning—except Alfred Marshall, whose supply and demand curves were difficult to see through the haze of excitement at the time, and except Friedrich Hayek, whose competition as a discovery procedure was befuddled... In short, once politicians started getting credit for homeownership rates, the housing market was doomed.

Madmen, Intellectuals, & Academic Scribblers

The Economic Engine of Political Change

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From the Pages of Madmen, Intellectuals, and Academic Scribblers (p.166, ch.6)

Everyone responded rationally to the incentives before them. In short, the rules that guided homeownership changed over time, which in turn changed the incentives of these actors. And bad things happened.

Madmen, Intellectuals, & Academic Scribblers

The Economic Engine of Political Change

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From the Pages of Madmen, Intellectuals, and Academic Scribblers (p.153, ch.6)

They understood the economics. The ideas had already won in ... the regulatory agency itself. All that remained to be overcome were some vested interests and a handful of madmen in authority.

Madmen, Intellectuals, & Academic Scribblers

The Economic Engine of Political Change

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From the Pages of Madmen, Intellectuals, and Academic Scribblers (p.146, ch.6)

If the idea for auctions of spectrum use rights had been part of the public debate since at least 1959, why didn’t the relevant institutions change sooner? What interests stood in the way?

Madmen, Intellectuals, & Academic Scribblers

The Economic Engine of Political Change

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From the Pages of Madmen, Intellectuals, and Academic Scribblers (p.121, ch.5)

When an academic scribbler comes up with a new idea, it has to resonate well with widely shared beliefs, which in turn must overcome the vested interests at the table. Many forces come together to explain political change, even though it may seem like coincidence of time and place.

Madmen, Intellectuals, & Academic Scribblers

The Economic Engine of Political Change

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From the Pages of Madmen, Intellectuals, and Academic Scribblers (p.120, ch.5)

It’s the rules of the political game that deserve our focus, not politicians’ personalities or party affiliations.

Madmen, Intellectuals, & Academic Scribblers

The Economic Engine of Political Change

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From the Pages of Madmen, Intellectuals, and Academic Scribblers (p.119, ch.5)

In short, ideas are a type of higher-order capital in society. Like a society that is poor in capital and therefore produces little consumer value, a society that is poor in ideas and institutions will have bad incentives and therefore few of the desirable outcomes that people want.

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