The Consolidated Audit Trail: Stitching Together the US Securities Markets

| FinReg

By Shagun Bali and Alexander Tabb, TABB Group

Originally published on TABB Forum 

The complexity of our market structure and underlying technologies surpasses our current ability to monitor, analyze and reconstruct market events. If the US wants to maintain its predominate position as a global finance center, the SEC and the SROs need the ability to proactively review and analyze events that occur within the markets as whole. 

Today’s market structure is not just complex and fragmented, it is dynamic, with trading activity shifting across multiple exchanges, asset classes and hyper-connected marketplaces. Though equities, OTC equities, options and futures all comprise market events, each is an independent market with its own ecosystem and regulatory infrastructure. But while each asset class is unique unto itself, they are inextricably linked. Unfortunately, the complexity of our market structure and the underlying technologies surpasses our current ability to monitor, analyze and reconstruct the events that shape our economic destiny. Recognizing these gaps, the SEC mandated the Self-Regulatory Organizations (SROs) to develop the CAT NMS Plan and propose the Consolidated Audit Trail, which would create a unified system to enable market reconstruction and analysis.

The need for the CAT is made somewhat self-evident by the markets’ inability to reconstruct some of the near-catastrophic events that have occurred in the past few years. The Flash Crash and the Madoff scandal, for example, seriously undermined invetsors’ confidence in the US markets. While the markets have been able to regain much of their swagger since, another such event with similar outcomes and indeterminate causes could be disastrous. The mere fact that neither the SEC or the SROs were able to reconstruct accurately the eventsthat led up to these disasters is unacceptable in today’s data-centric world. If the US wants to maintain its predominate position as the leading global economic center, the SEC and the SROs need the ability to proactively review and analyze events that ocur within the markets as whole.

The CAT will be the ”go to” system for regulators and exchanges to examine and analyze market activity in its totality. While it would not directly prevent future flash crashes from occurring, it would indirectly prevent these and other potentially disastrous events by enabling rapid reconstruction and analysis of market events, which in turn would protect the markets as a whole. The CAT initiative is the SEC’s main tool in its strategy to become more proactive and preventative and to take a more comprehensive and timely approach to market events.

Though initiated by the SEC, the CAT now is in the hands of the SROs. The SROs have downsized the bidding list and are in the process of selecting the CAT processor and finalizing the technical details. In July 2014, the SROs announced the final short-list of CAT bidders that included the following firms/consortiums:

  • AxiomSL & Computer Sciences Corporation (CSC)
  • CATPRO Consortium: HP, Booz Allen, Buckley Sandler, J. Streicher Analytics
  • EPAM Systems & Broadridge
  • FINRA
  • SunGard Data Systems Inc. & Google
  • Thesys Technologies, LLC

There is no doubt that a program such as the CAT is what the industry needs. But the SEC does not have the budget or the political support in Congress to take on a project this large and/or complicated. As a result, the SEC put forward Rule 613, placing the CAT squarely in the laps of the SROs. By letting an industry consortium take over responsibility for the CAT, the SEC has been able to advance its needs for a sophisticated analytical tool without imposing a new bureaucracy on the markets that would require taxpayer dollars. However, the phrase “Too many cooks spoil the stew” comes to mind when summarizing the CAT process at present.

For their part, the SROs have been working with the broker-dealers, since they are the ones that are going to pay for the CAT. But each participant within the community has its own views concerning the CAT. It would appear that getting everyone in sync is surely as daunting as building the CAT itself. Consequently, the continually moving goalposts and additional requests for more information from vendors, along with the exemptive relief request filed in January 2015, mean the process still has a long way to go before it is finished.

Though the community at large is supportive of the initiative, there is a considerable amount of mistrust over the lack of transparency in the process. The biggest questions still unanswered include who exactly is going to foot the bill through the development phase, and how broker-dealers are going to pay for the CAT.Complying with OATS reporting system has been painful enough for the industry; market participants do not want to go bankrupt with the implementation of the CAT.

From TABB Group’s perspective, the CAT is a necessary tool for the 21st Century. The SROs and exchanges need timely access to a more robust and effective cross-market order and execution audit trail. However, the SROs need to tighten up the process and set definite targets against which they can deliver in a timely fashion.

In theory, this should not pose a problem; but in reality, the SROs are not a unified group, and as such, they bring their own challenges to the table – which in turn makes the task even more daunting. The current challenge with the CAT program is that nobody wants to take responsibility for this massive undertaking. Though the SROs did not initiate the CAT, if this project does not deliver what it promises, the SROs will be first in a long line of participants that will take the blame for its failure.

The CAT is the largest data undertaking ever proposed for the US securities market. Clearly, there is a lot at stake here. A lot of time and effort have gone into getting the market to approve and support this critical initiative. Now it’s in the hands of the 10 SROs to make sure that if Humpty Dumpty falls off that wall, we can accurately reconstruct what occurred and ensure it doesn’t happen again. 

Tags: FinReg, Blog , Regulation