Flash Crash: A Trading Savant, a Global Manhunt, and the Most Mysterious Market Crash in History

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Liam Vaughan’s newest book explores the “Flash Crash” that took place on May 6, 2010. In the span of five minutes, S&P fell 5% and a trillion dollars of valuation was wiped out. Within around 20 minutes, the markets picked back up and resumed to normalcy. The crash was later attributed to Navinder Sarao, or Nav, a London day trader who lives with his parents and trades from his bedroom. In this interview, Liam joins Tiger and Michael to talk about this fastest drop in market history, Nav’s journey and involvement in the crash, the moral-ethical implications of his arrest, and some fundamental issues of financial markets and emerging tech that allowed such havoc to unfold. Why should we care about an event that only lasted 20 minutes – shorter than 1/5 of the length of this podcast interview? Was the Flash Crash a Black Swan, perfect storm type of event, or an indicator of something larger such as an unstable trading ecosystem as we move towards automation? What are the definitions of these techniques like “spoofing,” “scalping,” or “high-frequency trading” that seemed to have contributed to an ever more automated financial market and the Crash? “Nav had fine-tuned the system to the point where he could more or less nudge one of the world’s biggest markets around at will.” Do we now live in a world where it’s indeed possible for a single person, with enough drive and the help of a computer program, can cause such destructive effects on the global economy from their bedroom? If so, what does this mean for national security and general societal stability? Are things really that fragile? Nav is an extremely complex figure. In many ways, he has a number of admirable qualities - determination, single minded focus, mathematical brilliance and utter fearlessness - and yet many of his actions have been described as fraud. Even the way that he is named - by the nickname “Nav” or as the "Hound of Hounslow" (a clear reference to the Wolf of Wall Street) - seems in a somewhat positive or even charismatic manner. How should we view him? Does Liam admire him, see him as a man who committed criminal actions, or think of him as some combination of the two? Futex, the firm Nav got his start at, was part of a new era of trading taking place in the digital realm as opposed to in-person trading pits. Nav’s strengths - single minded focus, mathematical brilliance, agility, and extreme risk taking - were particularly suited to this new digital trading and were emblematic of the new generation of traders. How has this broader change in personality type of traders impacted the world of finance? The fact that PhD mathematicians and data scientists are basically making more money than MBAs and corporate finance executives must reveal something quite profound about the direction our world is headed towards, right? Is there anything that we could do to deter this kind of behavior for future traders? Regulators seem to be always behind the financial practitioners because the best talents are much more financially incentivized to work for a quant trading firm than for the SEC or CFTC. Is there any way to fix this dead loop and reinvigorate talents within government agencies?

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