Monday, April 28, 2014

Aereo versus ABC

Reading Freakonomics on the web and this morning their article is about Aereo, the antenna rental business in New York. The following is a quote from their article:

Aereo’s business model is clever and, potentially, very disruptive. As they have done since the dawn of television, the major networks – ABC, NBC, CBS, and FOX – broadcast their signals over the air. You can receive these signals with a digital antenna – the modern equivalent of rabbit ears – and millions of Americans who don’t subscribe to cable or satellite still do.
Click here for the full article.
I find this facinating as a child of the 1950 when TV was just moving from a rich man’s toy to everybody’s got one with antennas on every rooftop.
The broadcasters gave away the program to anyone and everyone to get the advertising base and into as many living rooms as possible. The original model was similar to print with the largest advertising fees going to the station with the largest reader / viewer base. Part of the reason that some TV show stars make huge salaries after the show catches on.
There was a theory from radio that was applied to TV broadcasts - “the right of capture”. The concept being that since there was a limited number of frequencies that the broadcasters could use and they were licensed by the government to use it, anyone with the appropriate receiver could “capture” the signal and listen or watch it.
Obviously no one knows how the Supreme Court will decide but the precedent of deciding that I cannot pay someone for the use of an antenna in a better location than my own rooftop (or a set of rabbit ears) will be the first wedge in removing all free broadcasts. Once the concept of my not being allowed to put up (or pay some one to put up) a remote antenna is accepted how long until putting one up on my house (or even using set-top rabbit ears) becomes illegal too.
The cable companies rebroadcast programs and pay a fee to the program’s owners but they get their signal directly from the broadcaster and we expect a much higher level of signal quality using that system. With Aereo’s antenna farm, I might expect a lower level of signal and so only be willing to pay less. And that seems to be Aereo’s business model.
ABC seems to be changing their business model from broadcasting the signal over the airways for free to the viewer and charging the advertisers for access to those viewers to one of charging the viewer for part of their costs and only charging the advertisers for part.
If the supreme court does decide in favor of ABC it should increase ABC’s income by the amount antenna farms have to pay for the right to retransmit the programing.

OK, now we should see the cost of the broadcast license increase since the public owns the airways and with those extra fees it just made that license a more valuable commodity.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

High Frequency Trading

High-frequency trading is when financial institutions, traders or brokers use sophisticated computer algorithms and high speed data networks to make lightning fast trades. The objective is to make a very small (sometimes only a penny or two) on a large number of trades because the algorithm spots trends before humans and can buy or sell faster.

Anyone reading business magazines is familiar with the concept and accepts it as part of the stock trading process. My question is what value does the stock market add to our society?

Stocks are a form of ownership in a company and business sell their stock to raise capital for buying real estate to house their operations, to buy equipment to improve productivity or maybe just so the owners can recover some of the money they already spent to create the company.

That’s the theory but very little of the stocks being traded today were sold by the company itself, most being re-sold by people who originally bought it when the company first sold it. Perhaps it has been bought and sold many times since the company it represents first sold it to raise capital.

So, how does stock in the secondary market benefit that original company or society in general? If I invest in a company and get stock shares instead of just an IOU then I can sell those shares to someone else when I need or want my cash back. The stock market acts just like a supermarket by putting all the different stocks in one place where buyers can find the ones they want.

That’s the value to the investor but what is the value to society? If I invest in a company and have to wait for them to buy back those stocks or for them to pay dividends I might have my money tied up for a lot longer than I might want and I might not invest at all.

The ability to cash out by selling on the secondary market makes the investment more attractive and helps companies that need the cash to create and make product that people want easier.

OK, I get that. But what value do these “high frequency traders” add?

The honest answer is very little since they are buying a stock for $10.03 and selling a minute later at $10.10 they have not added any value to the process. Yes the seller got a buyer at 10:01 AM. Without that HFT in the process they would have still sold the stock at 10:02 but for $0.07 cents per share more.

Most sellers aren’t selling huge numbers of shares so the seven cents is unimportant but the HFT is dealing thousands of shares and if they only touch 1,000 shares that means they pick up a $70 profit. Now seventy bucks is nothing but suppose they do that with 100,000 in 1 minute ($7,000) and repeat that every minute with yet another stock on and on?

Remember that this is a computer program that never get’s tired or takes a break. They really aren’t adding any value to the process but they are adding cost to the market and driving up the price by that fraction.

When the government imposes a tax we expect that we are paying for some service that adds value to our lives – sometimes it actually works out that way. Same for fees that airlines or banks charge – sometimes we actually get some additional service for that money. The fraction that HFT adds to the cost of stocks acts as a tax or fee, increasing costs but returns no addition value to the seller, to the buyer or to society at large.