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Humans of New York

The latest Michael Lewis: Flash Boys

Flash Boys
by Michael Lewis

Here's a shocker: I enjoyed Michael Lewis's latest investigation into financial malfeasance, Flash Boys.

You'd think a book about an acronym as bland as HFT (high frequency trading, as in trading a lot of stocks a million times and very very fast, in order to make money) would not be all that fast-paced. But you would not be reckoning on Michael Lewis: he has, and has always had, a real touch with writing about boring and often very complex financial machinations and making them somewhat comprehendable to people whose eyes tend to go blank when they hear phrases like "trading derivatives."

Lewis first became interested in this subject when he followed the case of Sergey Aleynikov, a Russian computer programmer who worked for Goldman Sachs but, after leaving them to take a new job, was charged with (and convicted of) stealing their proprietary computer code. This led Lewis to investigate exactly how the stock market is manipulated in a multitude of different ways, all day every day, and millions of times a second.

That is not a typo. A microsecond is one-millionth of a second, and it is a unit of time (along with milliseconds and nanoseconds) in which high frequency traders deal. I won't go into all the details--if you want a better synopsis of the book, listen to a brief Michael Lewis interview about it--but I will say I really, really enjoyed it. And it was kind of a hopeful story, for a change: he found some people who were using their smarts to try and plug loopholes and make the market "make sense." Much of the narrative focuses on Brad Katsuyama, a high-level finance professional and Canadian who tried to figure out why the market fluctuations he was seeing didn't make sense, and what I enjoyed most about this book were the descriptions of the smart and different people Katsuyama found to help him understand things like HFT and dark pools. I particularly liked gaining little insights like the fact that there are a lot of Russian programmers in the finance world because Russians have become extremely good at looking for and finding loopholes in systems--simply from living in their country, where it is often necessary to game the system just to get by.

It's not a long book and I was a bit dissatisfied with the ending--I think even Michael Lewis is starting to phone them in a bit--but it was still a good read, and you don't really need much financial background to understand it.