The benefits and perils of using artificial intelligence to trade stocks and other financial instruments

Artificial Intelligence-powered tools, such as ChatGPT, have the potential to revolutionize the efficiency, effectiveness and speed of the work humans do.

And this is true in financial markets as much as in sectors like health care, manufacturing and pretty much every other aspect of our lives.

I’ve been researching financial markets and algorithmic trading for 14 years. While AI offers lots of benefits, the growing use of these technologies in financial markets also points to potential perils. A look at Wall Street’s past efforts to speed up trading by embracing computers and AI offers important lessons on the implications of using them for decision-making.

Program trading fuels Black Monday

In the early 1980s, fueled by advancements in technology and financial innovations such as derivatives, institutional investors began using computer programs to execute trades based on predefined rules and algorithms. This helped them complete large trades quickly and efficiently.

Back then, these algorithms were relatively simple and were primarily used for so-called index arbitrage, which involves trying to profit from discrepancies between the price of a stock index – like the S&P 500 – and that of the stocks it’s composed of.

As technology advanced and more data became available, this kind of program trading became increasingly sophisticated, with algorithms able to analyze complex market data and execute trades based on a wide range of factors. These program traders continued to grow in number on the largey unregulated trading freeways – on which over a trillion dollars worth of assets change hands every day – causing market volatility to increase dramatically.

Eventually this resulted in the massive stock market crash in 1987 known as Black Monday. The Dow Jones Industrial Average suffered what was at the time the biggest percentage drop in its history, and the pain spread throughout the globe.

In response, regulatory authorities implemented a number of measures to restrict the use of program trading, including circuit breakers that halt trading when there are significant market swings and other limits. But despite these measures, program trading continued to grow in popularity in the years following the crash.

a bunch of black and white newspaper front pages are layered on top of each other with words like panic and crash and wall street

This is how papers across the country headlined the stock market plunge on Black Monday, Oct. 19, 1987.
AP Photo

HFT: Program trading on steroids

Fast forward 15 years, to 2002, when the New York Stock Exchange introduced a fully automated trading system. As a result, program traders gave way to more sophisticated automations with much more advanced technology: High-frequency trading.

HFT uses computer programs to analyze market data and execute trades at extremely high speeds. Unlike program traders that bought and sold baskets of securities over time to take advantage of an arbitrage opportunity – a difference in price of similar securities that can be exploited for…

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