The American lawyer who orchestrated a successful class action suit against the tobacco industry 20 years ago has turned his sights on the stock exchanges caught up in the controversy over high-frequency trading.
HFT is the process by which professional traders are able to put orders in to the stock market more quickly than the majority of investors. Putting in these earlier bets on the market, it is alleged, allows professionals to make quick profits at the expense of savers and investors in pension funds.
The practice is being tested in a class action suit filed in a New York court last month by a number of US legal firms including Michael Lewis, the lawyer who led a class action suit brought by the state of Mississippi in 1994.
The team of lawyers he assembled at that time led to $368.5bn (£220bn) being paid out by 13 tobacco companies to cover the cost of treating illnesses related to smoking in almost 40 US states.
In an interview in Weekend magazine, Lewis – who is not related to the author of the same name whose book Flash Boys exposed high-frequency trading to the public – describes his court action as "a small skirmish against the larger backdrop of the vast accumulation of wealth and political power".
The case in the Southern District of New York is filed against 13 stock exchanges and subsidiaries on behalf of Harold Lanier "individually, and on behalf of all others similarly situated". "This is a case about broken promises," the 40-page document begins. It is signed by eight legal firms.
In the interview, Lewis says that the information being provided by exchanges "was not timely or accurate, and wasn't fairly distributed", and alleges that they were in breach of contract.
"The illusory market – the market that the investor sees when he looks at his monitor – is anywhere from 1,500 to 900 milliseconds old. That doesn't sound like much, because the blink of an eye is 300 milliseconds. But that's a long, long time in the world of HFT."
The case was filed on 22 May, and is one of what is expected to be a large number of legal cases related to HFT. The 13 exchanges involved are yet to file a formal response in the court. In April, Providence, the capital of the US state of Rhode Island, filed a case targeting a number of exchanges charged with fraud.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010