Wild day on Wall Street leaves electronic exchanges under scrutiny

On a day when the Dow Jones dropped by nearly 1,000 points at one point, Katie Couric speaks with journalist John Psaropoulos live via satellite from Athens about the impact of Greece's financial woes.
By David Cho and Jia Lynn Yang
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, May 7, 2010; 3:44 AM

Stock markets went haywire on Thursday. Shares were already falling over fears of fiscal problems in Europe when something, perhaps a structural flaw in U.S. markets, dragged prices into a historic and breathtaking plunge.

In the span of minutes, the Dow Jones industrial average plummeted nearly 1,000 points from its previous close -- a record -- and whipsawed back up, creating one of the wildest trading days ever. The Dow still closed down more than 3 percent, and more unrest may be in store for Friday as market officials and regulators try to sort through the aftermath.

Rumors about the cause of the chaos were rampant on Wall Street and in Washington. Some traders speculated about human error, such as an electronic trade of stocks entered with the wrong amount. Regulators offered little clarity, saying they would investigate.

Some price swings of stocks defied logic. The shares of Accenture, a consulting firm, fell from $40 to a single penny and then back to $40 again. Procter & Gamble traded at $54 on the New York Stock Exchange. But at the same time, Nasdaq was reporting that the company's shares were selling for $39.

Thursday's dramatic gyrations added fuel to the biggest policy debate in Washington: how to regulate Wall Street. That billions of dollars in stock-market value could be wiped out so abruptly, with such a lack of certainty about the cause, is a reminder of the high stakes involved in a system that is little understood by average investors.

The confusion also highlighted the evolution of stock trading, which some market officials say has happened too fast without adequate safeguards. The NYSE has "circuit breakers" in place to pause the trading of stocks during a panic. But investors can also trade stocks on 10 electronic platforms that have sprung up in the shadows of the NYSE in recent years and generally do not stop unrestrained selling.

Senior executives of the NYSE said the Securities and Exchange Commission has given the exchange's competitors too much freedom, not ensuring that these smaller trading platforms have necessary protections.

Lou Pastina, the NYSE's executive vice president of operations, said the system set up by the SEC exacerbated problems on Thursday. When the sell-off started, the NYSE paused the electronic trading of several stocks and moved to traditional auctions of stocks with a middleman. The goal was to stem the panic and find rational buyers.

While these stocks were paused on the NYSE, sellers moved to other electronic exchanges such as Nasdaq and Instinet. So many sell orders came in at once that some stock prices listed on those platforms fell to near zero. Shortly after, trading of those stocks started up again on the NYSE at the paused prices, leading to wide disparity in prices among exchanges.

"How did this happen? You've got to ask the SEC," said Ted Weisberg, president of Seaport Securities and a trader for more than 40 years. "The bottom line is the government created a trading mechanism with a lot of different marketplaces. Now they probably have 40 or 50 different venues where stocks trade. I don't know what their rules are. The public doesn't understand. This is another perfect example of the government changing the ground rules and we end up with unintended consequences."

The SEC declined to respond to those comments, saying in a statement that it would "review the unusual trading activity that took place briefly this afternoon."

"We are also working with the exchanges to take appropriate steps to protect investors pursuant to market rules," the statement said.

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