The nearly 1,000-point drop that the Dow Jones industrial averages experienced last Thursday was apparently caused by a ham-handed trader hitting the wrong button.
At least, that's what we are being told about the record drop, which rocked not just Wall Street but international financial markets. The Washington Post reports that: "Rumors about the cause of the chaos were rampant on Wall Street and in Washington. Some traders speculated about human error, such as an electronic trade of stocks entered with the wrong amount. Regulators offered little clarity, saying they would investigate."
If this is the case, here's a modest proposal:
When someone buys an airline ticket or a file containing a song online, they're asked whether they are sure they want to make the purchase.
Sometimes, they are even asked if they approve the amount that is to be spent.
That's an extra step. But it insures that human beings don't lock in mistakes that could ricochet electronically across global markets that can inflate or collapse an economic system in a second.
Shouldn't stock traders have to do the same thing? Perhaps they could be asked to tick the appropriate box beneath the question: "Did you mean million, billion or trillion?"
Of course, the argument will be made that Wall Street is all about speed -- making big trades in the blink of the eye.
But if the system runs so fast -- and in so many different directions -- that no one is guarding against mistakes, the volatility becomes a threat not merely to the success or failure of particular traders or stocks. It threatens the stability of the U.S. economy and global markets.
The federal Securities and Exchange Commission has encouraged the development of far too many smaller trading platforms with far too few protections against mistakes and unnecessary volatility.
That has created a loose, under-regulated system that does not function well.
"How did this happen? asked veteran trader Ted Weisberg, the president of Seaport Securities, after Thursdays machinations. "The bottom line is the government created a trading mechanism with a lot of different marketplaces. Now they probably have 40 or 50 different venues where stocks trade. I don't know what their rules are. The public doesn't understand. This is another perfect example of the government changing the ground rules and we end up with unintended consequences."
The point is well taken.
This is a case where, it appears, the government has provided insufficient regulation.
The current "rules," such as they are, were put in place by former President George Bush's SEC chair, Christopher Cox, in 2007.
Cox, a free-market fabulist who muddled and mangled the work of the SEC at virtually every turn prior to the 2008 financial crisis, is long gone.
But his wrongheaded rules remain.
And they are ill-thought, irresponsible and disaster-prone.
James Angel, a professor at Georgetown University's McDonough School of Business, says Thursday's market collapse should be seen as a preview of what happens when controls are relaxed.
"We are dangerously unprotected from a real-time meltdown," says Angel.
Congress and the SEC should recognize that danger and change the rules Cox crafted.
Sensible regulation of how stock and commodity traders do business should insure that the system is neither "too big to fail" nor "too fast to catch a mistake."