Algos Gone Wild: Utilities ETFs ‘Flash Smash’

August 1st at 11:46am by John Spence

Markets were abuzz Wednesday morning on volatile action and reports that computer-driven trading algorithms were causing some individual stocks to go haywire. The turmoil spilled over into some ETFs tracking the utilities sector.

For example, Vanguard Utilities ETF (NYSEArca: VPU) briefly spiked as high as $84.92 a share Wednesday morning after closing at $80.67 a share on Tuesday, a 5% rise.

About a half-hour after Wednesday’s open, a series of bids “diverged substantially from the national best ask, pushing up prices,” reports Eric Platt at Business Insider.

At last check, 5.67 million shares of VPU traded in late-morning action. The utilities ETF’s three-month average volume is 73,481 shares. In other words, trading volume in VPU was about 77 times the usual pace.

A Vanguard spokesman in a telephone interview said the quick move higher in VPU didn’t appear to be driven by client-driven demand specific to the ETF. The firm is still trying to see if any other ETFs have been affected by Wednesday’s market turmoil.

Utilities Select Sector SPDR (NYSEArca: XLU) also saw volatile trading on Wednesday morning. The ETF spiked on heavy volume before settling back down near the opening price.

Paul Weisbruch at Street One Financial said the utilities ETFs were impacted by extreme moves in some of the funds’ underlying stocks on heavy trading volume.

“Some moved the holdings aggressively higher, and VPU and XLU trailed after the fact, as you would expect after a mispricing in the underlying basket,” Weisbruch said.

The New York Stock Exchange said it is reviewing trades in 148 symbols after “unusual activity,” Reuters reports.

“I think that has disrupted all the normal activities — stocks are moving all over the place, they are weird, they are trading like millions of shares, 100 shares at a time, so something went haywire somewhere,” said Stephen Massocca, managing director at Wedbush Morgan, in the story.

“It appears to be dozens if not hundreds of stocks that have gone extremely high volume and extremely rapid movement,” added Joe Saluzzi, co-manager of trading at Themis Trading.

Vanguard Utilities ETF

Utilities Select Sector SPDR

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