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The Next Generation of Quantitative Trading

The Next Generation of Quantitative Trading

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The Next Generation of Quantitative Trading
The Next Generation of Quantitative Trading

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Propeller-Head Ubiquity, Part 1: The Next Generation of Quantitative Trading
Paul Rowady, TABB Group
20 June 2014
Traditional, high-turnover quant equity strategies are saturated. As competition has heated up
and the arms race of latency-sensitive infrastructure relative to the perceived theoretical alpha
has shifted, quant firms have been seeking new sources of performance.
TABB Group has been closely studying and commenting on the evolution of quantitative trading for many
years. And though the fruits of quantitative research methods have permeated a vast spectrum of trading
strategies within the past several years, high-turnover versions of quant strategies traditionally attracted the
most attention. They still do. This is primarily because of their awe-inspiring departure from anything related
to human-scale methods as well as tales – and growing evidence – of their staggering risk-adjusted returns (and
absolute profits). Paradoxically, extreme success always defies attempts to remain hidden, providing attractive
scaffolding for pundits, media and students of the markets on which to build their narratives.
In June 2011, TABB Group published “Quantitative Research: The World After High-Speed Saturation.” (Ed.
Note: TABB also produced related videos as well – they can be found here and here.) Our hypothesis at that
time was that the “latency arms race” would result in fewer players capturing more theoretical capacity in core
markets, asset classes and products – a phenomenon we called the “tip of the spear” – thereby forcing all high-
speed quant players (that were committed to remaining in the game) into new or additional regions, asset
classes, products, and/or slower turnover frequencies. In other words, ultrahigh-speed trading in US equities
had become saturated around that time, and that players would need to diversify. Here’s an excerpt:
“If last year’s [2010] Securities Industry and Financial Markets Association (SIFMA) technology
conference was any indication, the saturation of latency eradication systems was palpable, indicative
of the changes we face today. A handful of firms—wearing both sell-side and prop jerseys—are
successfully defending the limited capacity in high-frequency and micro-market structure arbitrage
strategies in the US. With the prohibitive costs of incremental speed and dwindling volumes,
punctuated by regulatory zeal, the average quant team must face up to the inevitable: change or die.
Alpha is elusive, ephemeral and enigmatic. There is no guarantee of persistence.
“For many of the players, the required measure of change will be too much to handle. Over the past
year, two prominent option-focused prop shops have yielded to the superior speed and prowess of
their competitors and taken their balls home. In one of these cases, you couldn’t possibly have thrown
more bleeding-edge, out-of-this-world low-latency technology at the problem. The impediments were
beyond hardware, but more likely related to a lack of quantitative creativity. Undoubtedly, others will
For those willing to brave the journey ahead, there are plenty of juicy opportunities to explore, some
of which will certainly surpass the capacity and profit potential of current microstructure arbitrage
trades. “But hunting for new sources of alpha requires new gear. Surrounding and feeding this new
gear is a requirement for new skills. Quants need to cultivate a new zest for solving even messier data
challenges; they also need to develop a passion for the financial equivalent of a deep anthropological
The need for speed will never end. Only the disproportionate focus of the recent past will be
reallocated. “Cross-asset, cross-regional, multi-temporal, asymmetric versus symmetric trades, and
even enhanced front-to-back automation will all benefit from this reallocation. Welcome to the age of
multidimensional arbitrage.”
In March 2014, we conducted a survey to help update our understanding of the pulse of the quantitative trading
landscape. Based on our understanding of quantitative history – and coupled with these latest survey results,
TABB Group is updating its vision and hypothesis for the quant landscape: First, saturation has spread beyond
US equities into other regions, products and asset classes. Today, fewer players are capturing more of the
available theoretical capacity for global high-speed alpha. Second, the future for quantitative methods has
never been brighter. Our multi-dimensional alpha concept is still intact. But the bridge from here to there will
require new skills and the digestion of a lot more data. Quantitative methods will permeate more of the
traditional investment strategy spectrum to the point of “propeller head ubiquity.” Oddly enough, ubiquity will
serve to shroud quants in a cloak of invisibility. Automated methods will become indistinguishable from
everything else. The only question now, is: On what timeline?
Although the metaphor might not be entirely accurate, we can’t help but think of the Roadrunner and Wile E.
Coyote – with the quants starring as the Roadrunner and the rest of us observers – for better or worse – as Wile
E. Since mid-2011, the lather over high-frequency trading (HFT) has only grown, especially recently with the
publication of Michael Lewis’s “Flash Boys.” Beyond the ebbs and flows of the media circus, however, there
are many more tangible clues that have added up over the interim period that have provided rare glimpses into
the revenue breakdowns of leading proprietary quant shops – and that further serve to support or alter our
original hypotheses: that those firms engaged in the highest-turnover strategies, and primarily those focused on
US equities, would need to look elsewhere; to focus in other regions, asset classes, and products – and,
ultimately across all of these, including slower turnover frequencies. We have called that new era, multi-
dimensional alpha
Since mid-2011, the regulators, too, seem to be more “on their game’ when it comes to high-speed trading in
comparison to many other topics. The January 2013 rollout of the Market Information Data and Analytics
System (MIDAS) by the US Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) is quintessentially indicative of the
idea that Wile E. may finally be gaining ground on the Roadrunner (see Exhibit 1).
Exhibit 1: MIDAS - Order Book Reconstruction Visualization Tool

Source: Securities and Exchange Commission
Unlike in the cartoons, however, TABB Group believes that Wile E. does periodically catch up to the
Roadrunner – that the observers and analysts can eventually attain enough insight into how certain
microstructure arbitrage strategies work. That part is really the story of alpha decay and natural information
leakage and why purveyors of these strategies need a continuous flow of new ideas. Because of this dynamic,
our original prediction on the growth of multidimensional trading was right, at least in part. Are we at the end
of the high-speed arms race? Could we have finally reached the theoretical capacity at the “tip of the spear”?
Could there be only one firm capturing all of it? And if so, what’s next?
2014 Quant Survey
TABB Group’s March 2014 survey of market participants targeted mainly quants, but generally any informed
observer of the evolution of quantitative trading strategies. Exhibit 2, below, is a breakdown of firm types from
the survey.
Exhibit 2: Survey Methodology – Breakdown of Firm Types (N = 51)

Source: TABB Group
However, before we dive in to the newest clues of the evolution of quantitative trading, it would make sense to
showcase the prism through which we are observing this landscape. It turns out that, though broad in terms of
the possibilities, the scope of those possibilities is finite. Most quant strategy discovery begins with identifying
sources of theoretical capacity.
Quantitative Theoretical Capacity Framework
At its base, this story is about automating that which formerly has been done manually. First, tasks in a
workflow become automated, and then significant components – if not, the entirety of the workflow – become
automated. Following full workflow automation is refinement, optimization, and higher-performance
automation. In some product classes, we are clearly at the stage of highest performance automation; and where
microscopic shifts in market structure implementations can open and close arbitrage opportunities in an instant.
Where do quants look for alpha? The optimal target must exhibit a convergence of factors, but generally comes
down to two: liquidity and level of automation. (A third factor – complexity – makes the scenario even more
ideal, but we will get to that later.) Those products that are liquid and highly automated represent a breeding
ground for high Sharpe Ratio (SR) strategies. This means that smaller players can leverage a small amount of
capital for high returns with low risks (see Exhibit 3).
Exhibit 3: Quantitative Strategy Framework

Source: TABB Group
The fact that quant equity strategies can have little or no exposure at the end of a day makes all the difference
in the world; since holding positions overnight creates margin requirements and an exceedingly more complex
level of portfolio construction, going home flat is a huge deal.
But as competition has heated up and the arms race of latency-sensitive infrastructure relative to the perceived
theoretical alpha has shifted, quant firms have been seeking new sources of performance. This means
migrating beyond the high-capacity/highest-Sharpe Ratio products (blue zone, above) closer to the fringes of
capacity and SR (green zone, above). Generally, this means new regions, products and asset classes.
This was the claim we made in mid-2011 – and more specifically in mid-2013 – that quant firms would need to
look in new product classes, asset classes, and regions. Turns out the Roadrunner was already a few steps
ahead of us.
In the next installment in this series, we showcase and respond to the findings of the March 2014 quant survey.
In Part 3, we highlight publically available data from two leading high-speed trading firms that ultimately
complement the survey findings. And Part 4 summarizes TABB Group’s latest views on quantitative trading
and methods.

© 2009-2014 by The TABB Group, LLC and contributors | info@tabbgroup.com | +1-646-722-7800

Propeller-Head Ubiquity, Part 2: Special Sauce and High-
Turnover Diversification
Paul Rowady, TABB Group
27 June 2014
As quant firms have been forced to expand the search for theoretical alpha to new asset classes,
regions and products, the ingredients of their ‘special sauce’ may be shifting too. And the search
may be getting harder and harder.
This is Part 2 of a 4-part series on the next generation of quantitative trading. View Part 1.
The components of competitive advantage – or “special sauce,” in the vernacular – for quantitative trading
firms are among the most intensely discussed and often misunderstood topics on the global markets landscape.
To better understand these competitive ingredients, TABB Group conducted a survey in March 2014. Our line
of questioning divided the “sources of competitive advantage” framework into four components: human
capital, software and processing, data, and hardware and infrastructure.
When asked to rank these components, survey participants were clear in their opinions overall. Human capital
– translated by TABB as developer, analytical and management skills – is the most important ingredient for
special sauce in quantitative trading/methods; and, surprisingly, hardware and infrastructure – the stuff that is
perceived to deliver the speed – was ranked last. Software and processing vs. data as competitive components
were ranked almost evenly (see Exhibit 1).
Exhibit 1: All Survey Participants - Sources of Competitive Advantage (n=27)

Source: TABB Group
These rankings were different from what we expected. However, looking more deeply into the results,
proprietary trading firms expressed differing opinions from the broader sample – and ones more in-line with
our original expectations (see Exhibit 2).
Exhibit 2: Proprietary Trading Firms - Sources of Competitive Advantage (n=14)

Source: TABB Group
When these results are taken in conjunction with the results from the expected change (1-2 years from now) in
sources of competitive advantage (see Exhibit 3, below) and overlaid with our experience with quantitative
trading strategies, we reach the following conclusions:
 Hardware: Hardware and infrastructure is a declining source of competitive advantage for a
vast majority of quant players. TABB Group has been calling this the democratization of
infrastructure for the past year or more. Going forward, quantitative firms will 1) off-load
more of their infrastructure needs, and 2) simultaneously migrate more infrastructure to
one focused more on computational engines able to execute more complex calculations at
much higher speeds than today.
 Human Capital: TABB believes that human capital should always be ranked highest relative
to the other components of competitive advantage, independent of trading strategy or
stage of workflow. Human capital is the one source of special sauce that is least susceptible
to democratization. This is where we found the strongest shift in opinions in the survey
data. Furthermore, TABB believes that certain players’ high ranking of hardware and
infrastructure is actually a misinterpretation of the value of their human capital. With
proprietary infrastructure remaining a key competitive advantage by a declining list of firms,
persistence of this special sauce can only happen by virtue of the skills and creativity of their
 Data: Though we might have expected a different outcome from these results, it is true that
data – or at least, raw market data – is the most democratized of the four components in
our framework. For certain asset classes and products in the most developed regions, both
historical and real-time market data is incredibly clean. Scrubbing unclean market data used
to be a competitive advantage. Now it is not. Along the road ahead, new strategies will
require a mix of new and different data sources.
Exhibit 3: All Survey Participants – Expected Change in Sources of Competitive Advantage (n=27)

Source: TABB Group
Low-Hanging Fruit
TABB Group has been monitoring closely the diversification of high-turnover – and the broader spectrum of
quantitative – trading strategies for many years. Our claim in 2011 that ultrahigh-speed trading in US equities
was saturated is further borne out in our most recent findings. The difference between 2011 and now, however,
is this: While US equities were saturated – where leading quant firms were often consuming the alpha of other
slightly slower quant firms – other regions, asset classes and products were not nearly as saturated.
The question now is whether any of these lower-hanging opportunities still exists within the scope of
ultrahigh-turnover strategies. Or has saturation proliferated into other assets, products and regions? The answer
to these questions will have a strong impact on the next generation of quantitative research and the
development of new automated trading strategies.
Asset Class Diversification
Survey participants’ rankings of current and future comparisons by asset class support TABB Group assertions
that there continues to be a need for diversification into additional asset classes, particularly fixed income (see
Exhibit 4).
Exhibit 4: Quantitative Strategy Rankings – Current and Future Comparison by Asset Class

Source: TABB Group
Our survey finds clear expectations for increased focus on FX and fixed income, which have the greatest
potential (comparative theoretical capacity to equities notwithstanding) among all asset classes. However, in
the case of fixed income, we are concerned that the pace of transformation to more automated trade workflows
is slower than expected – or desired. The pace of adoption of electronic execution of a broad spectrum of fixed
income products (cash and derivatives) may not supply enough opportunities when compared to the demand
for new high-turnover strategies.
Product Class Diversification
Product class diversification is primarily focused on cash, futures and single-stock options, where “cash”
represents cash equities and equivalents, like exchange-traded funds (ETFs) and exchange-traded products
(ETPs), but does not include cash bonds and is presumed not to include spot FX (even though technically it is
the ultimate cash product) – and where futures represent multi-asset exposures. Since options on futures
typically have low liquidity, the options category here relates primarily, if not totally, to single-stock options
(see Exhibit 5, below).
As with expected asset class diversification (above), survey participants also expect the focus on the more
mature products in quant strategies to decline, although for different reasons. The issues in cash equities are
well noted herein. Newer products, such as swap futures, are worthy of experimentation across the expanded
spectrum of rates products, but their current low level of liquidity and concentrated adoption may not justify
the investment right now. Cleared swaps are similar in terms of potential for experimentation, but the timing
might not yet be good – and the average trade sizes are still way too large for most quant shops.
The one exception in core cash equity strategies has been the intense interest in and addition of ETFs and
ETPs, which have highly similar characteristics to equities with the added potential for “index arbitrage-like”
Exhibit 5: Quantitative Strategy Rankings: Current and Future Comparison by Product Class

Source: TABB Group
Single-stock options markets are not only fiercely competitive with a number of seasoned incumbents; they
also represent uniquely complex computational challenges. As a result, it will be fascinating to see how well
high-frequency quant firms born in the equities arena enter and grow in the options arena. Other than fixed
income, options also may offer compelling potential, but they represent markets that are very difficult in which
to compete and harvest alpha.
TABB Group believes that this is a space that could see some (M&A) transactions. So far, leading equity-
centric HFT quants have been able to migrate smoothly into futures products, competing well with futures-
centric firms such as Infinium Capital, Jump Trading, and Chopper without the need to partner. It remains to
be seen whether the same dynamic will play out in options. Maybe this is what Virtu is really after with its IPO
– a better currency for transactions. That said, the jury is still out on how well New York-Chicago mergers
actually work in practice.
Regional Diversification
Regional diversification is a classic move to extend the theoretical capacity of core alpha. The original options
market-making powerhouses of the 1970s and 1980s, inclduing O’Connor & Associates, first took their special
sauce from Chicago to New York, Philadelphia and San Francisco. From there, they sought to “O’Connorize”
derivatives markets in London, Tokyo, Sydney and elsewhere. It’s a fairly well-worn path.
So, too, have noted quant firms – especially high-turnover quant firms – marched from Chicago, New York,
Amsterdam and a few other locations to set up shop outside of their home turf. Though often proving
successful in highly developed markets, liquidity, and therefore, theoretical capacity, falls off dramatically
from there. So, while there are numerous other markets where core quant strategies will work well, the level of
profitability may not justify the technology investment in the current environment. Survey responses suggest
that there is movement of focus from developed markets to developing and emerging markets (see Exhibit 6).
Exhibit 6: Quantitative Strategy Rankings: Current and Future Comparison by Region

Source: TABB Group
As we look back across developments in asset classes, products and regions, we can’t help but wonder if the
saturation we saw in 2011 in US equities has spread across the full spectrum of high-turnover strategies. If
high-turnover strategies for cash equities, futures and options in developed markets are pretty much at the point
where leading HFT firms are consuming the alpha of other HFT firms, then that is likely a signal that the pure
speed game is just about played out for new and most existing high-speed firms.
High-Hanging Fruit
Shifts in quantitative trading strategies can be detected by shifts in the types of data being consumed. The
slower the turnover, the more other types and sources of data are required beyond tick-level market data. These
sources can be broadly bucketed into categories such as market data, reference data, fundamental data,
commentary (including traditional news, industry research, and social media), and the derived data – or
analytics – that flow off the back of all that raw data. The ranking of data categories reflects the amalgamation
of quantitative strategy needs (see Exhibit 7).
Exhibit 7: Rank of Data Source Types (n=27)

Source: TABB Group
These reactions are supported, in part, by additional findings from the survey. While there are still firms
seeking more speed, the desire to slow things down is non-trivial. Nearly 20% of respondents claimed their
average turnover frequency (TOF) was slowing. With this fact in mind, we would then expect portfolio
construction to shift from more asymmetric – where positions are independent – to more symmetric – which
relies on portfolio construction, rebalancing and maintaining market neutralities – since asymmetric strategies
most often rely on speed. This is also evident in the findings, where symmetric strategies represented at least
29% of the responses (see Exhibit 8).
Exhibits 8: Quantitative Strategies: Changes in Turnover Frequency and Portfolio Construction
Changes in Turnover Frequency

Nature of Portfolio Construction

Source: TABB Group
We confess that there are some notable flaws in these findings, as well – which have more to do with survey
construction. For instance, “faster” – in the “Changes in TOF” chart above – could mean several things,
including slower strategies becoming faster, but not at the same scale as the micro-second crowd. Bottom line:
It seems odd to say, but if the latest generation of high-turnover strategies represented the equivalent of low-
hanging fruit, then the next generation of quant strategies will need to pick the fruit from much higher up in the
proverbial tree.

© 2009-2014 by The TABB Group, LLC and contributors | info@tabbgroup.com | +1-646-722-7800

Propeller Head Ubiquity, Part 3: A Rare Glimpse into Prop
Trading’s Strategies and Profitability
Paul Rowady, TABB Group
08 July 2014
It is extremely rare for the public to get a glimpse into the profitability, revenue segmentation, or
strategy breakdown of a proprietary trading firm. But in the past two years, the public has been
gifted unprecedented transparency into two of the world’s foremost quantitative prop trading
powerhouses: GETCO and Virtu.
This is Part 3 of a 4-part series on the next generation of quantitative trading. View Parts 1 and 2 here.
It is an extremely rare event when the public gets a glimpse into the profitability, revenue segmentation, or
strategy breakdown of a proprietary trading firm. In recent memory, it is not since the attempted IPO of
Chicago proprietary options trading firm Peak 6 in October 2001 that we have had such a look.
However, in the past two years, the public has been gifted unprecedented transparency into two of the world’s
foremost quantitative prop trading powerhouses: GETCO and Virtu – the first as a result of GETCO’s merger
with Knight Capital, and the second as a result of Virtu’s ongoing IPO trajectory (which, as many know, has
since been delayed). Both events and the associated filings gave us a taste of all three of the above:
profitability, revenue segmentation, and high-level strategy breakdowns.
Both the words and the numbers in these filings tell a story that TABB Group has been following for years. In
the GETCO – now KCG – data (below), we can see how a high dependence on “Americas” trading (most
likely focused on US equities market making) in the 2009 (and earlier) period led to regional diversification,
mainly to Europe first and then Asia-Pacific (APAC), which in this case includes Singapore, Hong Kong,
Japan, and Australia (see Exhibit 1, below).
Exhibit 1. GETCO Form S-4 (12 Feb 2012): Trading Revenues (2007 – Sep 2012, $millions)

Source: KCG, TABB Group
TABB Group believes that it is further evident from this data that overall profitability was highly correlated to
volatility first (2009-2011) and competition second (2012). With aggressive globally coordinated central bank
interventionism strategies ramping up in the post-global-financial-crisis (GFC) period of late 2008 and early
2009, strategies that were dependent on (higher) volatility suffered as global markets became awash with
volatility-crushing “quantitative easing” (QE). Note the positive impact on revenues in 2011, which TABB
Group attributes to a correlation to the then-looming threat of a US default and the resulting spikes in volatility
in the third quarter of that year.
Furthermore, TABB believes that the nearly $300 million in revenue declines between the 9 months ending
September 2011 and September 2012 were due to something more: competition. But we need not necessarily
speculate on causes – and changes in tactics. Notable highlights from the GETCO/KCG filing deliver the
 “Declines [in]…revenues were impacted by lower overall market volumes, reduced levels of
volatility, increased competition and a higher percentage of internalization in U.S. cash
equity markets;” and
 “Headcount increases related to early investments in the Global Arbitrage, Mid-Frequency
and Options trading businesses.”
 And, “Colocation and data line expenses … increased to $81.4 million in 2011 from $55.2
million in 2010. The increase in colocation expense was primarily due to the build out of new
colocations in Mahwah, New Jersey, Basildon, United Kingdom, and Tokyo, Japan, as well
as higher vendor rates for data and services.”
Bottom line:TABB Group believes that the market ecosystem was no longer supporting the same level of
theoretical capacity for all high-turnover participants, and the competition was becoming increasingly fierce.
Finally, although the reasons may have had more to do with operational retrenchment in the wake of the
GETCO-Knight merger in mid-2013 than the threat of competition, we note that the KCG annual report for
2013 shows non-US revenues declining dramatically, from 46.5% of total KCG revenues for 2011 (which is an
almost exact regional split of the GETCO-only numbers) to 18.9% of total revenues for 2013. Whether for
enhanced operational integrity or the threat of increasing competition or some combination of these and other
factors, we believe that there was a retrenchment to the core regional strategy in 2013.
But then, we turn to Virtu. The Virtu data, made public just this past March 2014, continues the narrative (see
Exhibit 2, below). This is an example of a firm with a more diversified portfolio of strategies – even if they are
all variants of high-turnover, latency-sensitive strategies.
Exhibit 2. Virtu S-1 (10 Mar 2014): Total Adjusted Net Trading Income (000’s, USD)

Source: Virtu, TABB Group
It is because of this diversification that revenues continued to increase for Virtu in the post-GFC period,
particularly in the past three years when many high-frequency players were suffering declines, changing
strategy mix, or exiting altogether. Interestingly, with declining rates of growth in its core Americas equities
strategies and flat-ish growth in its global commodities futures strategies, Virtu continued to more than make
up for lost ground due with success in areas such as FX, non-US equities, options and fixed income (see
Exhibit 3, below).
Exhibit 3. Virtu S-1 (10 Mar 2014): Total Adjusted Net Trading Income (000’s, USD)

Source: Virtu, TABB Group
With growing competition and strategy maturity in global equities and futures strategies, the target for further
high-turnover strategy growth will need to be in fixed income, including the ongoing Dodd-Frank led
transformation in the swaps market. (But will this be enough to overcome declines in other products, assets,
and regions?)
Also, bear in mind that this diversification is likely to be difficult in options strategies – which primarily means
single-stock options strategies. While Virtu may have discovered a unique and persistent speed advantage
across products, regions, and asset classes (an incredible feat representing the pinnacle of what TABB Group
believes is its core value proposition), it will be met with formidable competition in options, with firms such as
Wolverine, Susquehanna, Ronin, IMC, Optiver and a few others.
As a result of all this, TABB Group believes that the timing of Virtu’s filing is indicative, if not prophetic, of
more persistent market shifts. Whether Virtu ever goes public (given the current delay), there is some rather
stark writing on the wall: Chances are that the expected gains in high-turnover fixed income strategies will not
make up for the stagnation or declines in just about everything else for the foreseeable future.
Virtu has taken diversification in high-turnover (market-making) quant strategies to new levels. According to
its recent S-1 filing, Virtu “makes markets … in more than 10,000 securities and other financial instruments on
more than 210 unique exchanges, markets and liquidity pools in 30 countries around the world” (see Exhibit 4,
below). Chances are that this is the most comprehensive list of venues – less the full list of specific dark pools
– where high-frequency trading is even possible on the face of the planet today.
Exhibit 4. Virtu S-1 (10 Mar 2014): Liquidity Venues

Source: Virtu, TABB Group (** estimates)

© 2009-2014 by The TABB Group, LLC and contributors | info@tabbgroup.com | +1-646-722-7800

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