- tell everyone who is looking to sell Facebook that he’s got a buyer, to try to find the best price possible, and
- tell no one else, so that no one steps in front of me to buy some of those shares and push up the price I have to pay.
And it would be great if he did that. But we live in a fallen world where brokers sometimes fail to find every last seller for big orders and thus miss out on getting potentially better prices for their clients, and sometimes disclose big orders to others on the same side who end up front-running them, and mostly manage to do both. This problem is unavoidable – unless he knows everything about the portfolios and desires and honesty of everyone else in the world, even the most honest broker can’t get the order exposure decision perfectly right – though its impact can be reduced by using brokers who are smart and honest rather than the reverse.
In this fallen world, though, it’s hard to know whether your broker is honest, because you can’t always tell what he’s up to when he discloses an order. If I tell him I want a million shares of Facebook and he calls up Fidelity and says “I need a million shares of Facebook, you selling?” and Fidelity then buys Facebook in front of my order, I’ll usually never know if he called Fidelity because he genuinely though wrongly thought Fidelity would sell me some shares, or because he’s friends with Fidelity and wanted to help them front-run me.
But sometimes you can tell! When a bunch of brokers “placed phone receivers up to their respective squawk boxes and transmitted squawks [about pending client orders for specific blocks of securities] over open phone lines directly to [day trading firm A.B.] Watley, where traders then placed trades in the squawked securities before the brokerage firms executed the squawked customer orders,” and when “in exchange for providing access to the direct feeds of squawks, Watley placed ‘wash trades’ with the [brokers] in which Watley traders simultaneously bought and sold the same security at the same price through different accounts,” you can be pretty pretty sure that they were up to no good.
Apparently not sure beyond a reasonable doubt though. Read more »