How the SEC Helps Speedy Traders (Columbia Law School)

November 2014

KEYWORDS:

Authors:

Robert J. Jackson Jr. and Joshua Mitts

Organizations:
  • Columbia Law School

Summary:

We show that the Securities and Exchange Commission’s system for disseminating market-moving information in securities filings gives some investors an advantage over others. We describe two systems — the SEC’s file transfer protocol (FTP) server and public dissemination service (PDS) — that give certain investors access to securities filings before the general public. While contemporaneous work on this issue is limited to insider filings, we show that both the FTP and PDS gaps are pervasive across all types of filings, including Form 8-K, which includes market-moving information such as corporate earnings. We show that FTP access gives investors a mean (median) 85 (11)-second lead time, and PDS gives investors a mean (median) 77 (10)-second lead time, before the filing is available on the SEC’s website.

We also provide evidence suggesting that investors had the opportunity to take advantage of this lead time to earn trading profits. In particular, we show that traders could earn economically and statistically significant returns by trading on either the FTP or PDS gaps. Moreover, even investors who waited as long as ninety seconds to execute trades on the FTP or PDS gaps could earn meaningful returns using this strategy. We also identify abnormal trading volume in the moments after PDS subscribers receive SEC filings.

Finally, our direct access to both FTP and PDS also allow us to document the changes to those systems that the SEC implemented after the public revelation of this issue in October 2014. We show that the SEC imposed a significant delay on the PDS service after the existence of the informational advantage was revealed. We also, however, show that, as of November 2014, PDS subscribers still receive some 37% of filings before the general public. We argue that lawmakers should consider reforms that would help the SEC develop a centralized information-dissemination system that is better suited for the high-speed dynamics of modern markets.