Algorithmic trading: evolutionary tourney?

The use of artificial intelligence (AI) in the form of machine learning techniques and algorithmic trading in the finance industry has in recent years become widespread. The preference for quantitative techniques is not a new development in the finance industry: a strong respect for quantitative methods has long been in place. However, the recent massive uptake in the use of AI through these algorithmic decision making tools for high frequency trading is a relatively new development.

Locally, these developments have contributed to improved industry productivity at a rate considerably greater than other industries in Australia. They have also resulted in increased profits to investment vehicles. However, they are not without pitfalls and cautions. The inability of machine learning models to predict “fat tail events” or regime change in the data generating process is well known. The dependence of these models on a consistent solution space over time is another weakness that should be acknowledged.

Failure to understand critical features of these models and algorithms may lead to substantive losses through naïve application. A subculture within the industry that breeds similarity between models may possibly make this a systemic failure at some point in the future.

While these models offer excellent improvements in wealth generation and productivity in this industry, (Qiao & Beling, 2016) they are not a substitute for human decision making, only an assistance to it. Failure to acknowledge this distinction may lead to adverse outcomes on a very wide scale.


Algorithmic trading and use of decision analytics in financial market transactions is now very widespread, with many investment houses reducing the number of “stock pickers” they employ in favour of purely quantitative algorithmic approaches to trading (The Economist Intelligence Unit, 2017). The use of these algorithmic decision making tools is common in markets such as foreign exchange (Chaboud, et al., 2014) and commodity markets, as well as listed stock exchanges.

As part of an overall move towards digitization, these AI tools have resulted in increasing profits for investment houses in recent years (The Economist Intelligence Unit, 2017). Indeed, in part contributed to by these AI methodologies, the productivity growth of the finance industry in Australia alone is outpacing the aggregate productivity levels of the economy by a very considerable amount over the last fifteen years, shown in Figure 1 (Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2016).


Productivity chart

Figure 1: Productivity, Finance Industry and 12 Industry Aggregate Productivity. Data: ABS (2016), chart: Author


Algorithmic trading as an evolutionary tourney?


The methodology used to employ algorithmic trading is a combination of predictive modelling techniques and prescriptive decision frameworks (Qiao & Beling, 2016). The decision tools implemented by the automated algorithms consist of optimisation and simulation tools (Qiao & Beling, 2016).

Predictive methods vary, but include forecasting using machine learning methods such as neural nets, evolutionary algorithms and more traditional econometric modelling such as the AutoRegressive Conditional Heteroskedastic (ARCH) modelling frameworks. One example is Laird-Smith et al.’s use of regression techniques to estimate a systemic error capital asset price model (Laird-Smith, et al., 2016). Other techniques include using sentiment analysis on unstructured corpi generated by journalists to estimate the effects of feedback into the market and the interaction between market and sentiment (Yin, et al., 2016). Yin et al. (2016) note the strong correlation between news sentiment and market returns which can be exploited to improve investment outcomes.

The move towards algorithmic trading has been highly successful. Improved outcomes are observable both systemically, in the form of increased liquidity and price efficiency (Chaboud, et al., 2014) and at the firm level with improved profit margins (The Economist Intelligence Unit, 2017).

However, the complexity of machine learning models underpinning these systems make them difficult to compare and critically analyse, requiring novel techniques to do so such as Parnes (2015). Many of these algorithms are proprietary and closely guarded: it is not possible to outsiders to analyse them, except by observing trading behaviours ex post.

There are also some negative outcomes which bear consideration. Chaboud (2014) note that behaviour of algorithmic traders is highly correlated. While it is noted that this correlation does not appear to cause a degradation in market quality on average, these AI algorithms have in the past resulted in unexpected and costly mistakes, such as the automated selling program that initiated the ‘flash crash’ of 2010 (Kirilenko, et al., 2017).

In broader terms, it is now well known that machine learning algorithms are biased in unexpected ways when the training data from which they are generated is biased. For instance, an algorithm that decides on offers of bail to people awaiting trial in the U.S.A. was shown to disadvantage bail seekers of colour compared to those who were white despite the fact that race was not a feature selected for use in the algorithm (Angwin, et al., 2016). Algorithmically generated decision making can also lead to unforeseen and unwanted outcomes. Facebook was recently revealed to be selling advertisement space targeted at users categorised with anti-Semite topics (Angwin, et al., 2017). These algorithmically-generated targeting categories were unknown to the company until they were discovered by journalists.

The economic implications of employing algorithmic decision making methods are enormous, not only in private financial circles, but in government as well (Dilmegani, et al., 2014). It is clear that employing this form of AI will continue well beyond the finance industry, whether or not bias or negative unexpected outcomes is eradicable. However, being aware of and actively testing for the existence of these possibilities is critical going forward.

In the finance industry, each algorithmic trader has a similar fitness function by which it is judged, fine-tuned and updated: the ability to profitably trade in the market. In this sense, in a market dominated by algorithmic trading AI is effectively a tourney in which the fittest agents survive and the weakest are abandoned and replaced with better models. However, the resultant similarity after many trading generations, already noted in the popular press (Maley, 2017) may expose the system to crisis during an unpredictable event if a majority of algorithmic traders react similarly in unforeseen ways that have negative consequences.

The high speed at which these high frequency trading algorithms execute trades could lead to far greater damage in the future than the ‘flash crash’ documented by Kirilenko et al. (2017). While optimal performance of algorithmic trading agents will likely include a ‘Deadman’s switch’- a command which will halt further trading in the event of a predetermined event (such as a crash)- the efficacy of these measures have not been tested systemically during a financial crisis.



Algorithmic trading is a branch of artificial intelligence that has contributed to the generation of wealth and increased productivity in the finance industry, algorithmic decision making should be seen as an aid to human decision making and not a replacement for it.

While gains to be made from the technology are substantial and ongoing in fields beyond finance, the possibility of a lack of variability among algorithmic traders and the proprietary and hidden nature of these models which are difficult to explain and interpret may lead to adverse consequences if applied naively.



Angwin, J., Larson, J., Mattu, S. & Kirchener, L., 2016. Machine Bias. [Online]
Available at:
[Accessed 6 September 2017].

Angwin, J., Varner, M. & Tobin, A., 2017. Facebook’s Anti-Semitic Ad Categories Persisted after Promised Hate Speech Crackdown. [Online]
Available at:
[Accessed 23 September 2017].

Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2016. 5260.0.55.002 Estimates of Industry Multifactor Productivity, Australia, Canberra: Australian Bureau of Statistics.

Chaboud, A. P., Chiquoine, B., Hjalmarsson, E. & Vega, C., 2014. Rise of the Machines: Algorithmic Trading in the Foreign Exchange Market. The Journal of Finance, Volume 69, pp. 2045-2084.

Dilmegani, C., Korkmaz, B. & Lunqvist, M., 2014. Public Sector Digitization: The Trillion-Dollar Challenge. [Online]
Available at:
[Accessed 6 September 2017].

Kirilenko, A., Kyle, A., Samadi, M. & Tuzun, T., 2017. The Flash Crash: High-Frequency Trading in an Electronic Market. The Journal of Finance, Volume 72, pp. 967-988.

Laird-Smith, J., Meyer, K. & Rajaratnam, K., 2016. A study of total beta specification through symmetric regression: the case of the Johannesburg Stock Exchange. Environment Systems and Decisions, 36(2), pp. 114-125.

Maley, K., 2017. Are algorithms under estimating the risk of a Pyongyang panic?. [Online]
Available at:
[Accessed 6 September 2017].

Parnes, D., 2015. Performance Measurements for Machine-Learning Trading Systems. Journal of Trading, 10(4), pp. 5-16.

Qiao, Q. & Beling, P. A., 2016. Decision analytics and machine learning in economic and financial systems. Environment Systems & Decisions, 36(2), pp. 109-113.

The Economist Intelligence Unit, N. I., 2017. Unshackled algorithms; Machine-learning in finance 2017. The Economist, 27 May.Volume 72.

Yin, S., Mo, K., Liu, A. & Yang, S. Y., 2016. News sentiment to market impact and its feedback effect. Environment Systems and Decisions, 36(2), pp. 158-166.


Bonds: Prices, Yields and Confusion- a Visual Guide

Bonds have been the talk of the financial world lately. One minute it’s a thirty-year bull market, the next it’s a bondcano. Prices are up, yields are down and that’s bad. But then in the last couple of months, prices are down and yields are up and that’s bad too, apparently. I’m going to take some of the confusion out of these relationships and give you a visual guide to what’s been going on in the bond world.

The mathematical relationship between bond prices and yields can be a little complicated and I know very few people who think their lives would be improved by more algebra in it. So for our purposes, the fundamental relationship is that bond prices and yields move in opposite directions. If one is going up, the other is going down. But it’s not a simple 1:1 relationship and there are a few other factors at play.

There are several different types of bond yields that can be calculated:

  • Yield to maturity: the yield you would get if you hold the bond until it matures.
  • Yield to call: the yield you would get if you hold the bond until its call date.
  • Yield to worst: the worst outcome on a bond, whether it is called or held to maturity.
  • Running yield: this is roughly the yield you would get from holding the bond for a year.

We are going to focus on yield to maturity here, but a good overview of yields generally can be found at FIIG. Another good overview is here.


To explain all this (without algebra), I’ve created two simulations. These show the approximate yield to maturity against the time to maturity, coupon rate and the price paid for the bond. For the purposes of this exercise, I’m assuming that our example bonds have a face value of $100 and a single annual payment.

The first visual shows what happens as we change the price we pay for the bond. When we buy a bond below face value (at, say $50 when its face value is $100), yield is higher. But if we buy that bond at $150, then yield is much lower. As price increases, yield decreases.

The time the bond has until maturity matters a lot here, though. If there is only a short time to maturity then the differences between below/above face value can be very large. If there are decades to maturity, then these differences tend to be much smaller. The shading of the blue dots represent the coupon rate that might be attached to a bond like this- the darkest colours will have the highest coupon rate and the lighter colour will have the lowest coupon rates. Again, the differences matter more when there is less time for a bond to mature.

Prices gif

The second animation is a representation of what happens as we change the coupon rate (e.g. the interest rate the debtor is paying to the bond holder). The lines of dots represent differences in the price paid for the bond. The lighter colours represent a cheaper purchase below face value (better yields- great!). The darker colours represent an expensive purchase above face value (lower yields-not so great).

If we buy a bond cheaply, then the yield may be higher than the coupon rate. If we buy it over the face value, then the yield may be lower than the coupon rate. The difference between them is less the longer the bond has to mature. When the bond is very close to maturity those differences can be quite large.

Coupon Gif

When discussing bonds, we often mention something called the yield curve and this describes the yield a bond (or group of bonds) will generate over their life time.

If you’d like to have a go at manipulating the coupon rate and the price to manipulate an approximate yield curve, you can check out this interactive I built here.

Remember that all of these interactives and animations are approximate, if you want to calculate yield to maturity exactly, you can use an online calculator like the one here.

So how does this match the real data that gets reported on daily? Our last chart shows the data from the US Treasury 10-year bills that were sold on the 25th of November 2016. The black observations are bonds maturing within a year, the blue are those that have longer to run.  Here I’ve charted the “Asked Yield”, which is the yield a buyer would receive if the seller sold their bond at the price they were asking. Sometimes, however, the bond is bought at a lower bid, so the actual yield would be a little higher. I’ve plotted this against the time until the bond matures. We can see that the actual yield curve produced is pretty similar to our example charts.

This was the yield curve from one day. The shape of the yield curve will change on a day-to-day basis depending on the prevailing market conditions (e.g. prices). It will also change more slowly over time as the Federal Reserve issues bonds with higher or lower coupon rates, depending on economic conditions.

yield curve

Data: Wall Street Journal.

Bond yields and pricing can be confusing, but hopefully as you’re reading the financial pages they’re a lot less so now.

A huge thanks to my colleague, Dr Henry Leung at the University of Sydney for making some fantastic suggestions on this piece.


Yield to Maturity: A Basic Interactive

The yield to maturity concept describes the approximate rate of return a bond generates if it’s held until redemption date. It’s dependent on a few things including the coupon rate (nominal interest rate), face value of the bond, price of the bond and the time until maturity.

It can get a little confusing with the mathematics behind it, so I’ve created a simple Shiny App that allows you to manipulate the inputs to observe what happens. Bear in mind this is not a financial calculator, it’s an interactive for educational purposes. It’s also the approximate not exact yield to maturity of a bond which is fine for our purposes.

I’ve mapped the yield up to 30 year redemption and assumed a face value of $100. Coupon rate varies between 0% and 25%. Current price of the bond can vary between $50 and $150. Mostly, the yield curve is very flat in this simplified approximation- but observe what happens when there is only a short time to maturity (0-5 years) and rates or price are extreme. You can find the interactive directly here.



Remember, this is just an approximation. For a more accurate calculation, see here.