October 26, 2012

What's wrong with our markets? Rogue algorithms force exchanges to break trades. Old code causes the near collapse of a global broker. Glitches scuttle one IPO and create millions of dollars in losses for another. This isn't supposed to happen! What is going on?

Have we forgotten how to write code, or have the markets become too complex for our testing scripts? Perhaps the rush to turn over code is so intense that we're bypassing best practice for software development procedures. Have we outsourced one too many technologists? Or were we just incredibly lucky up to this point that we only recently started having these problems?

In fact, we haven't seen these types of software problems since the mid-1980s, when three or four multibillion-dollar technology fiascos temporarily shuttered several businesses and cast egg on several CIOs' faces.

But what should we learn from these events? Instead of adding more regulation, or the SEC hiring super techs to audit every line of code, maybe we should just go to Staples and buy 10 million Easy Buttons reconfigured to stop the trading process at the mere hint of a problem.

OK, perhaps Easy Buttons aren't the answer. But I do think the answer lies in fixing our flawed software development, quality assurance and turnover process. We can speak of Six Sigma, process improvement, total quality control or whatever buzzword we want to use, but ultimately, it seems like quality in the software development process is getting lip service at many an IT organization.

TABB Group estimates IT spending for the U.S. securities industry has declined to $21.4 billion this year and is on its way to $19.8 billion in 2013. This is down almost a third from the peak spend of almost $29 billion in 2007. Now this savings doesn't come from just cutting people. It comes from the increasing cost-and-power dynamic of new technology, the shift away from proprietary platforms, the migration of support services to lower-wage economies (both domestic and overseas) and the consolidation of some major industry players during the credit crisis.

The problem, it seems, at least from the outside, is that our demand for computational and processing services has outstripped our ability to develop software at a service level we've come to expect and demand. Besides getting our business analysis, software development, testing, QA and turnover processes right, we need to think about how we manage technology overall. And we have to consider the possibility that we can't do it all. We may have to rethink how applications fit together, the level of complexity built into our software, how we maintain our systems, and then how we jam new functionality into an increasingly old, kludgey patchwork of legacy technologies.

[High-Speed Trading Slows Down]

This problem won't get better soon, nor will it fix itself. The markets and trading technology will only get more complicated. Not only are financial products getting more complex, but the financial world continues to expand across products, asset classes and geographies. This is occurring at a time when the industry's appetite for IT spending continues to be constrained. Many firms are rationalizing their heterogeneous software platforms into global platforms that can be used across many products and trading strategies. However, this just makes technology platforms more complex and fragile because the systems need to accommodate a wider array of challenges. Consolidating multiple instruments, calculations and regulations into a single platform is much easier said than done.

We need to be careful as we move into 2013. Technology budgets will most likely be down again, and the pressure to do more with less will be greater than ever. The need to manage an increasingly complex array of tasks with an even smaller budget will force firms to rethink their entire processing strategies.

We need to remember this: However strong the pressure to trim budgets, rationalize infrastructure and streamline processes, the industry still needs to get it right. Firms need to have the processes in place to ensure that software is bug-free, tested and deployed appropriately. Otherwise, regulators and legislators will step in and do our jobs for us. While that may sound like an easy way to get extra budget, it will certainly come with a boatload of challenges that will not only make the business more difficult, but it will also make our lives as technologists much more complicated before they get better.

Larry Tabb is the founder and CEO of TABB Group, the financial markets' research and strategic advisory firm focused exclusively on capital markets. Founded in 2003 and based on the interview-based ...