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Big screens and little screens

Published in Automated Trader Magazine Issue 33 Q2 2014

Most high frequency traders probably don't know the name Scott Rudin, but perhaps they should. In Hollywood, Rudin is a very big deal. According to a flurry of press reports, Rudin and Sony Pictures have been looking to acquire the rights to 'Flash Boys' by Michael Lewis.

Big screens and little screens

It should come as no surprise that the book is being discussed as a Hollywood prospect. Lewis is a bankable name in the industry. His books 'The Blind Side' and 'Moneyball' were turned into movies that went on to become huge hits and snag Oscar nominations. Both of those films were produced by Rudin.

Nor should it be a surprise that Lewis's non-fictional account of a trader's efforts to get to the bottom of the HFT industry is considered filmable. 'Moneyball' was also non-fiction but was easily adapted to the big screen. Of course having Brad Pitt as the lead didn't hurt.

But when it comes to the little screen -- or rather, the thousands of little screens that market participants rely on to trade the markets -- 'Flash Boys' generally has been thought of as a work of fiction.

Lewis has an amazing ability to find interesting people and write about their lives in compelling ways, all the while discussing complicated issues. Yet it is this dramatic flair which has also led to some criticism of 'Flash Boys'. The financial blogger Felix Salmon, in a book review for Slate, notes the author's penchant for "oppositional narrative" and the way that Lewis explicitly talks about "good guys and bad guys".

Lewis appeared at a recent London School of Economics event and Peek Ahead went along to see the celebrated author first hand. The good guy/bad guy references came up time and again. He described 'Flash Boys' hero Brad Katsuyama as a fearless truth-teller in a den of iniquity. "It so screws up the system to have an honest man on Wall Street," he said.

But one could hardly call Lewis a raging anti-capitalist. He has worked in the markets (albeit the markets of the 1980s), and he appreciates complexity. In fact, he told the LSE audience he thinks automatic trading has brought great benefits and he doesn't think of high frequency traders as villains. He said he just sees a distinction between fast trading and scalping.

His book launch timing could not have been better. The SEC, FBI and Department of Justice have all decided to examine HFT practices, and Lewis has explicitly spoken about his work as evidence of the need for change.

Whatever the result of Lewis's reform efforts, if the film does get off the ground, we can at least expect it to be entertaining given that Rudin is an Oscar-winning producer who is equally adept at making blockbusters and art-house films. And therein lies the problem for an HFT industry that is already worried about the attention Lewis has generated. What could be worse for those who want to defend the status quo? How about Brad Pitt as a mild-mannered Canadian equities trader and Angelina Jolie as a fiery chair of the SEC?