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Scrutiny of high-frequency trading invokes earlier scandals

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(Bloomberg) — Scrutiny of high-frequency trading is stirring memories among investment veterans of earlier scandals when the government targeted price-fixing and fraud in U.S. equity markets.

Michael Lewis’s book “Flash Boys” and probes by the New York attorney general and Federal Bureau of Investigation are spurring outcry from D.C. to Newport Beach, Calif., as investors and politicians ask whether exchanges are rigged. Nasdaq OMX Group Inc. and IntercontinentalExchange Group Inc. have fallen at least 8.8 percent in 2014 after each posted their best annual gains since 2007 and 2006, respectively.

The pitch rose at the end of last week as Pacific Investment Management Co.’s Bill Gross warned on Bloomberg Radio with Tom Keene that speed traders give the equity market a “negative cast” and investor Mario Gabelli said on Bloomberg Television that it rips off consumers. The week topped off on April 4 when U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder promised an investigation into whether HFT violates insider-trading laws.

All the attention reminded hedge fund manager Buzzy Geduld, 70, of an earlier era when allegations of misconduct by Nasdaq traders and New York Stock Exchange floor specialists shook public confidence.

Spokesmen for Nasdaq OMX and IntercontinentalExchange’s NYSE declined to comment on parallels between HFT and earlier investigations.

Advocates for HFT say its ability to reduce the so-called market spreads lowers costs to investors and shows how much better markets are today compared with the past.