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When Milliseconds Can Mean Riches or Roadkill

Friday, 7 Jun 2013 | 3:40 PM ET
Milliseconds & Money: A Snarky Fast Lane Ride
Friday, 7 Jun 2013 | 12:00 PM ET
CNBC looks at just how fast high-speed trading really is. Guess what? It's really fast. Fastball fast. Hummingbird fast. And it gives traders a significant advantage.

We've all heard the old saying, "Slow and steady wins the race." That may be true in the world of unicorns and fairies, but not on Wall Street, where the little guy can get run over by split-second computerized trading.

The latest example was a 15-millisecond head start, which resulted in $28 million of program trades before any "human" investors were even out of the blocks.

CNBC has learned that Monday's ISM manufacturing data was inadvertently distributed early by Thomson Reuters to a select group of high-frequency traders. It seems a "minor clock synchronization issue" was to blame—the financial world's equivalent of that infamous Super Bowl "wardrobe malfunction."

(Read More: Unraveling Monday's Early Data Release to Traders)

So just how fast is 15 milliseconds? It makes blinking your eye seem like a laborious process. We've done the math and you better back up a dump truck for all your cash.