CFTC struggles to keep pace with technology issues

For years, the Commodity Futures Trading Commission has been working on a paper outlining how it should cope with the latest developments in the technological revolution transforming the investing landscape.

Absent from the report: any mention of Twitter or other social media.

The lapse became obvious after last week’s fake Associated Press tweet about explosions at the White House briefly rocked the financial markets, highlighting once more how the government is struggling to keep up with evolving technology in the trading world. As regulators see it, every time they try to get a handle on one technology issue, another pops up and throws them for a loop.

“Part of the problem is things keep changing,” CFTC Commissioner Bart Chilton said in an interview Monday. “We were not focused on social media.”

On Tuesday, the CFTC will discuss the AP Twitter hack at a previously scheduled, all-day meeting with a group of traders, academics and other market participants who regularly advise the agency on technology issues.

The half-hour discussion was tacked on to the schedule at the last minute, and as of late Monday there were no scheduled speakers.

Many experts who track the CFTC say the last-minute nature of the discussion suggests that the CFTC is nowhere close to taking a position on the social-media issue.

By contrast, the Securities and Exchange Commission gave its blessing this month to companies that want to use Facebook, Twitter and other social media to unveil market-sensitive information about their operations — as long as they’ve told investors where to look for it.

Both agencies have said that they plan to review the phony AP tweet, which is standard practice whenever there’s a sharp market move. Hackers calling themselves the Syrian Electronic Army asserted responsibility for the hack.

Chilton said the CFTC is specifically looking into trading activity involving its 28 primary futures contracts, including those in the financial, energy, precious-metals and agriculture sectors. It will focus on the five minutes before and five minutes after the fake tweet, with an eye on any anomalous trading activity within those times, he said.

Meanwhile, the agency is pressing to get its technology paper out by June, Chilton said.

He said he discussed with CFTC Commissioner Scott D. O’Malia whether to release the report, which will focus on a range of market technology issues, the day before the AP hack occurred.

“If we hadn’t waited,” Chilton said, “there wouldn’t be yet another issue to add to our myriad of issues in that paper.”

Dina ElBoghdady covers housing policy for The Washington Post.

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