Wednesday, September 10, 2008

UAL Stock Takedown

Going down I think this story about UAL is fascinating. Apparently, an old story (2002) about United Airlines (ticker UAL) filing for bankruptcy got enough hits on a Florida newspaper's website to have it appear in their list of top stories of the day - generated automatically by the web server. Then because it appeared in this list, it was picked up by Google News as an important story of the day - again, this happened automatically by the Google news computer program. Then because it appeared in Google News, UAL was sold and sold short by automated trading programs - again, without human intervention.

The UAL stock price plunged, and then later when the truth came up, mostly recovered. So far, it appears that this snafu was just coincidence. For some reason, this old article got some hits, and the ball started rolling from there. But obviously, it could be used to manipulate stock prices - in a new way, and there aren't too many of those. It certainly shows up the flaws in using computers to process what ought to be done by humans.

UPDATE: Today's WSJ says that the whole thing was triggered by ONE HIT on the old article. It was during the middle of the night, when there was little traffic but it was enough to put the story in the top 10 of the hour and start the whole debacle rolling.


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