NEW YORK — For a few surreal minutes, a mere 12 words on Twitter caused the world’s mightiest stock market to tremble.
No sooner did hackers send a false Associated Press tweet reporting explosions at the White House on Tuesday than investors started dumping stocks — eventually unloading $134 billion worth. Turns out, some investors are not only gullible, they’re impossibly fast stock traders.
Except most of the investors weren’t human. They were computers, selling on autopilot beyond the control of humans, like a scene from a sci-fi horror film.
“Before you could blink, it was over,” said Joe Saluzzi, co-founder of Themis Trading and an outspoken critic of high-speed computerized trading. “With people, you wouldn’t have this type of reaction.”
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For decades, computers have been sorting through data and news to help investment funds decide whether to buy or sell. But that’s old school.
Now “algorithmic” trading programs sift through data, news, even tweets, and execute trades by themselves in fractions of a second, without slowpoke humans getting in the way. More than half of stock trading every day is done this way.
Markets quickly recovered after Tuesday’s plunge. But the incident rattled traders and highlighted the danger of handing control to the machines. It also raised questions about whether regulators should be doing more to monitor the relationship between social media and the markets.
Irene Aldridge, a consultant to hedge funds on algorithmic programs, said glitches and plunges may be inevitable with trading programs that just count the number of positive and negative words, without any filter.
“You can’t ban Twitter,” said Aldridge, author of “High-Frequency Trading,” a guide to algorithmic trading.
Just how exactly the trading unfolded Tuesday is still a bit of mystery.
Some experts say the computers took their cue from humans, picking up on a pause in buying as traders read the phony tweet. In Wall Street’s insanely fast trading world, humans holding back for even a second could have signaled to computers that buyers were drying up and that prices could fall, and so the computers should sell fast.
Others, like Saluzzi, think computers may have sold on the tweet itself. That’s possible because trading programs are increasingly written to read, and react to, news from social-media outlets like Twitter.
Experts say the fake tweet seemed designed to catch a computer’s attention.
Rich Brown, head of Elektron Analytics, a Thomson-Reuters unit that sells news feeds that computers can read, said the words “explosions” or “Obama” alone wouldn’t have triggered selling. But add “White House,” and it’s a combination even the slowest computer couldn’t miss.
Brown said his service doesn’t include Twitter in its feeds because there’s too much useless “noise” in the deluge of tweets and, given the 140-character limit to tweets, often too little context.
Before the fake tweet appeared Tuesday, it looked like any other good day on Wall Street. Unexpectedly strong earnings reports from Netflix and DuPont sent the Standard & Poor’s 500 stock index up 1 percent at 1,578, with three hours to go in the trading day.
Then, at 1:08 p.m. EDT, a tweet appeared on the hacked AP Twitter account stating two explosions at the White House had injured President Obama. Stocks immediately started falling and kept tumbling for two minutes. AP quickly announced its account had been hijacked and the report was false. Prices began to climb again.
A group called the Syrian Electronic Army said it was responsible for the hack. But the claim has not been corroborated. The FBI has opened an investigation, spokeswoman Jenny Shearer said.
Whoever was responsible, the damage was big. The Dow lost 143 points, or 1 percent, in two minutes. In the frenzied selling, oil prices dropped, gold rose, the dollar rallied and the price of Treasurys, seen by many investors as a hiding spot, shot higher, briefly knocking yields to their lowest level of the year.
Some Wall Street pros were surprised that a single tweet could move markets so much.
Julian Brigden, managing partner of Macro Intelligence 2 Partners, said the drop suggested an “unstable” trading environment dominated by investors too quick to buy or sell without any thought.
“To me, it’s indicative of a very dangerous market,” he said.
Regulators have been studying the problems posed by automatic computer trading for years. Last month, the Securities and Exchange Commission proposed tighter oversight of automatic trading. Stock exchanges would be required to test their trading systems routinely, and report to the SEC about problems that could damage trading, like hacking.
“The exchanges love speed,” said Bart Chilton, a member of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, a regulator that has been reviewing high-speed programs. “I’m not so sure that fast is always better.”