Evolving Equity Markets Require Constant Attention

Commissioner Luis A. Aguilar[1]

Oct. 27, 2015

I want to extend a warm welcome to the members of the Equity Market Structure Advisory Committee (“Committee”).  I appreciate the work that you do and, in turn, how this work informs the Commission’s efforts to fulfill its mission.  I also want to welcome everyone in the audience, whether participating in person or via the internet.

Well, if we needed more proof of the importance of this Committee, we’ve gotten it.  Although, it’s been only five months since this Committee’s first meeting, we have already witnessed two major market disruptions.  The first was a software glitch in July that halted trading at one major exchange for several hours.[2]  That event highlighted a glaring shortcoming in our current market infrastructure, specifically, the fact that the primary exchanges still have no back-up plan for their opening and closing auctions.[3]  This was especially disconcerting because in November 2013, the exchanges issued a public statement acknowledging the importance of developing backup plans for their critical functions—including their opening and closing auctions.[4]

After the July 8th event, the exchanges announced that they are again revisiting this issue,[5] but it is unfortunate that they hadn’t acted sooner.  The aggressive pace at which our markets have been evolving in recent years—the exponential growth in the number and variety of ETFs is just one example—suggests that a proactive approach is preferable to a reactionary approach.  I urge the staffs of the exchanges and the Commission to work toward developing a robust contingency plan for the exchanges’ vital infrastructure.  I also urge this Committee to consider whether other aspects of our market structure need to be buttressed with contingency plans.

The second noteworthy market disruption occurred on August 24th, when we witnessed how acute volatility can wreak havoc with our equity markets in unforeseen ways.  On that day, delays in the openings of certain stocks caused a spike in volatility, which led to the temporary loss of $1.2 trillion in market value.[6]  The effects were especially pronounced for exchange traded products, many of which traded at sharp discounts to the indices they were designed to track before returning to more normal levels.[7]  These events laid bare certain flaws in our current market structure that require urgent attention.  A particularly acute problem involves the process for reopening trading after a halt is imposed under the limit up/limit down rules. 

Trading was halted 1,278 times on August 24,[8] with trading in 257 securities being halted multiple times.[9]  The reasons for this are inter-related and complex, but some experts have suggested that we need to examine the exchanges’ re-opening auctions to ensure that trading can resume as efficiently as possible during periods of intense market stress.[10]  This is a particularly challenging issue in today’s markets, where algorithmic trading is now responsible for more than half of daily trading activity.[11]  These algorithms may not be programmed to deal with rare events like re-opening auctions or extreme spikes in volatility,[12] and this may be one reason that re-opening auctions on August 24th struggled to attract liquidity.  Finding ways to address this new market paradigm is one of the questions this Committee will need to address.

Of course, the events of August 24th raised a number of other issues as well, many of which I addressed in my remarks at the SEC’s Investor Advisory Committee meeting just two weeks ago.[13]  I hope that the members of this Committee will work with the members of the Investor Advisory Committee’s subcommittee on market structure to bring their collective expertise to bear on these pressing issues.

Before turning to the issues on today’s agenda, I note that the composition of this Committee has received a degree of attention in recent weeks from a variety of sources.[14]  I won’t speak to the relative merits of these comments, but I will note that, at the first meeting of this Committee, I expressed the concern that this Committee’s composition did not reflect all of the viewpoints that are relevant to the issues under consideration.[15]  To that end, it is necessary for this Committee to proactively solicit regular input from other groups with a stake in the quality, fairness, and resiliency of our equity markets, particularly retail investors and issuers.  In a similar vein, I encourage anyone with views on these important topics to submit a comment to the Committee via the Commission’s website, or to request an opportunity to appear before the Committee.

Today, the Committee will be taking up two important issues, the use of the so-called maker-taker pricing model, and the regulatory status of trading centers.  Prior to this Committee’s first meeting in May, I publicly released a statement that discussed in detail many of the issues surrounding certain key aspects of our equity market structure, including the maker-taker system and competition for order flow.[16]  One of the areas I analyzed involved the relative merits and drawbacks of the maker-taker model.  In the end, I concluded that the Commission should implement a pilot program in which maker-taker rebates would be suspended for the most liquid stocks.[17]

In addition, a more recent study has provided even more evidence that the conflicts of interest created by the maker-taker pricing model can cause investors to receive less than optimal executions of their trades in some instances.[18]  In light of this, I encourage the Committee to recommend to the Commission that it begin work on a maker-taker pilot program similar to the one described in my May 11th statement.  This program should be less complex than the current tick pilot program. 

The maker-taker pricing system and the regulatory status of trading platforms are clearly pressing issues that demand the Committee’s prompt attention.  But since this may be the last time I have an opportunity to address the Committee as a Commissioner, I would like to take the opportunity to pose some longer-term questions that I hope the Committee will consider as it holds additional meetings: