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Disrupting Wall Street

I've been in Austin at SXSWi for the past few days putting on our first Google Firestarters here (more on that soon) and so have been attending some of the sessions whilst I'm here. Someone said to me before I came out that it was better to go to the smaller, off-topic (i.e. non branding/marketing/content) panels and talks rather than the more obvious, larger keynotes and they were right. In the past few days I've enjoyed talks on everything from extreme bionics (from the amazing Hugh Herr), the future of cities, the use of drones to survey for unexploded ordnance in Laos, and NASA's Head of Science speaking about the accomplishments of the Hubble telescope.

The first talk I went to though was by Brad Katsuyama, who runs IEX, the company that features in Michael Lewis' best-selling book Flash Boys (and also in this video). Brad and his colleagues realised that algorithmic, high frequency trading practices (where speed of buying and selling is everything, and which seek to capitalise on micro-second differences in trades) were creating unfair advantage and effectively meant that the markets were rigged in favour of the big Wall Street banks. So they developed a technology that nullified that edge and set up an entirely new exchange where high frequency trading would have no advantage whatsoever. Disruption is an overused word but IEX is truly disrupting the way that current exchanges (including the New York Stock exchange) are working and they are fixing institutionalised injustice with a new and fair exchange set up around the needs of investors, not banks or middlemen.

Brad talked about the continuous cycle in the industry of regulation, then companies finding loopholes in that regulation which they then exploit, resulting in scandals, which results in more regulation, more loopholes and so on. The net effect of this cycle is a drain on talent (put off by the scandals) and an impediment to innovation (through increased regulation). His point was that innovation can end the cycle in a more productive way than regulation. It's a market solution rather than a legislative one, but potentially one that is far more constructive. And for me it was a completely different and inspiring way of thinking about solutions to embedded inequity in the industry. Fascinating.

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