PFOF: Payment For Order Flow

Payment for order flow consists of a “kickback” or commission that the broker routing customers to a market maker (in charge of enabling the bid and ask price) will pay a commission to the broker as a sort of market-making fee.

How does the payment for order floe work?

In an interview to Bernie Madoff back on May 2000, asked why his firm was “paying brokerages to ship trades your way” Madoff explained:

 It’s a relatively small part, maybe 20 percent, of our business today. Payment for order flow was only an issue as it related to best execution. Does inducing someone to send an order to you present a problem as far as getting the right price goes? Quite honestly that depends on the firm. You’re all fiduciaries. As long as you operate in the proper fiduciary capacity, and you’re dealing with a reputable firm, it wasn’t a problem.

At the question “Will payment for order flow ever disappear?” Madoff replied:

No. I think it will get lower and lower as the spreads get lower and lower with decimals. No one tells a firm how they can advertise. If I want to hire salesmen to generate order flow, no one is going to object. I don’t have them. So if I want to use Fidelity’s salesmen and pay part of my trading profits in the form of a rebate, why shouldn’t I be allowed to do it? It was characterized as this bribe and kickback and something sinister, which was very easy to do. But if your girlfriend goes to buy stockings at a supermarket, the racks that display those stockings are usually paid for by the company that manufactured the stockings. Order flow is an issue that attracted a lot of attention but is grossly overrated.

The Robinhood Saga

Robinhood is an app that helps to invest in stocks, ETFs, options, and cryptocurrencies, all commission-free. Robinhood earns money by offering: Robinhood Gold, a margin trading service, which starts at $6 a month, earn interest from customer cash and stocks, and rebates from market makers and trading venues.

The payment for order flow issue got a major interest in 2021, as meme investors targeted various stocks, and some of them were backed by hedge funds, which were squeezed out.

Robinhood stopped trading these stocks, and the suspect from some was that the platform was acting in favor of these players instead of its retail investors. And some claimed this might be due to the fact Robinhood earns money also through payments for order flow.

Indeed, brokerage firms like Robinhood pass along their customers’ trades to other market makers are compensated on top of the spread between the bid and ask price with a fee for each trade as a “market maker fee” (the largest market maker for options in the US is called Citadel Securities – owned by Citadel LLC, which during the short squeeze from Redditors bailed out the hedge fund Melvin Capital).

Meme stocks are securities that go viral online and attract the attention of the younger generation of retail investors. Meme investing, therefore, is a bottom-up, community-driven approach to investing that positions itself as the antonym to Wall Street investing. Also, meme investing often looks at attractive opportunities with lower liquidity that might be easier to overtake, thus enabling wide speculation, as “meme investors” often look for disproportionate short-term returns.

Understanding The Issue

The CEO of Robinhood highlighted that the main issue with payment for order flow was the limitation posed by Rule 612:

In general, the Rule prohibits market participants from displaying, ranking, or accepting quotations, orders, or indications of interest in any NMS stock priced in an increment smaller than $0.01 if the quotation, order, or indication of interest is priced equal to or greater than $1.00 per share. 

As Robinhood’s CEO highlighted:

Back in 2005, when Rule 612 was adopted, the consensus was that price increments of $0.0001 were economically insignificant. Supporters of the rule argued that sophisticated investors may use these smaller increments to step ahead of retail investors by trivial amounts. Some also argued that technology hadn’t advanced enough to properly handle an enormous increase in on-exchange quoting.

Read Also: Robinhood Business ModelReddit Business ModelTwitter Business ModelDogecoin.

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