High frequency trading lobbyists stand ready to spend BIG

Despite Washington's relatively demure reaction—thus far, at least—to Michael Lewis' book "Flash Boys," the high frequency trading industry is unlikely to rest on its Beltway laurels.

And that can only mean one thing: cha-ching!

If HFT firms will spend hundreds of millions of dollars to build new fiber optic lines that gain them milliseconds of an advantage, how much will they spend for the federal government's hands off?

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High Frequency Trading lobbying efforts are growing in Washington D.C.
Andrew Harrer | Bloomberg | Getty Images

We're about to find out. Lobbyists are planning for a boost in business.

"I think people understand that you need to do hiring before the s--t really hits the fan," said one DC lobbyist who works on behalf of the HFT industry, speaking on the condition he not be identified. "It has started—the debate—it is just in the early innings and so people are ramping up, have ramped up, will continue to."

Even before the book's release, the industry was steadily boosting its Capitol Hill connections.

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Earlier this year, a handful of HFT firms pooled together to form the Modern Markets Initiative, a Washington advocacy group that employs two well-heeled Beltway consultants from both sides of the political divide: Republican Kevin Madden and Democrat Erik Smith.

In 2013, two of the group's founding members spent, between them, over a million dollars lobbying Congress, according to filings with the U.S. Senate. Quantlab Financial, LLC reported $550,000 in lobbying expenses while Hudson River trading reported $480,000.

"In Washington, we have a saying: If you're not at the table, you're on the table," said Georgetown finance professor James Angel, a former chair of the Nasdaq Economic Advisory board who now serves on the board of directors for the Direct Edge stock exchange. "Whenever you have a push, you have a push back, clearly with high speed traders being tarred as suspects of the day, it is natural for them to respond to this."

So far, HFT firms have been successful in persuading legislators to take a wait-and-see approach, even in the wake of the 2010 flash crash. Legislation to impose a tax on securities trades, which the industry vigorously opposed, died in committee that year.

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Sources on all sides of the the HFT debate took note this week about how quiet the nation's Capitol continues to be on the issue, despite the cacophony on Wall Street and murmuring around the country. To watchdogs, this is partial proof of how effective the HFT firms have been in greasing the political skids in Washington.

"That is the key point," said Melanie Sloan, executive director for CREW, the Congressional watchdog group. "I am sure everybody would rather they don't talk about it. As soon as Congress is talking about it, that is bad news."

Last summer, CREW produced a report, "Rise of the Machines," which found that high frequency trading firms had increased their federal campaign contributions, between 2008 to 2012, by 673 percent—and that the firms' lobbying expenditures jumped 93 percent in that same period.

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"It is really a hearts and minds battle for people," said Angel. "Securities regulation is highly political: The securities regulators are based in Washington and they respond to Congress. and when stuff hits '60 Minutes'."

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The lobbyist who spoke to said he expects that by the time Congress comes back from recess, the issue will die down—at least momentarily.

"Wait until the SEC puts out some papers, and then people will coalesce around that," the lobbyist said. "There will be winners and losers—and that is when people hire lobbyists."

—By Daniel Libit, special to