What Is Spoofing in Trading?

By Samuel Becker · October 03, 2023 · 6 minute read

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What Is Spoofing in Trading?

In the financial space, the term “spoofing” refers to an illegal form of stock market and exchange trickery that is often used to change asset prices. Given that the stock markets are a wild place, and everyone is trying to gain an advantage, spoofing is one way in which some traders bend the rules to try and gain an advantage.

Spoofing is also something that traders and investors should be aware of. This tactic is sometimes used to change asset prices — whether stocks, bonds, or cryptocurrencies.

What Is Spoofing?

Spoofing is when traders place market orders — either buying or selling securities — and then cancel them before the order is ever fulfilled. In a sense, it’s the practice of initiating fake orders, with no intention of ever seeing them executed.

Spoofing means that someone or something is effectively spamming the markets with orders, in an attempt to move security prices.

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What’s the Point of Spoofing?

Because stock market prices are determined by supply and demand — for instance, the more demand there is for Stock A, the higher Stock A’s price is likely to go, and vice versa — they can be manipulated to gain an advantage. That’s where spoofing comes in.

By using bots or an algorithm to make a high number of trades and then cancel them before they go through, it’s possible for spoofers to manipulate security prices. For a trader looking to buy or sell a certain security, those valuations may be moved enough to increase the profitability of a trade.

Spamming the markets with orders creates the illusion that demand for a security is either up or down, which is then reflected in the security’s price. Because it would require an awful lot of “spoofed” orders to move valuations, spoofers might rely on an algorithm to place and cancel orders for them, rather than handle it manually. For that reason, spoofing is typically associated with high-frequency trading (HFT).

Is Spoofing Illegal?

If it sounds like spoofing is essentially cheating the system, that’s because it is. In the United States, spoofing is illegal, and is a criminal offense. Spoofing was made illegal as a part of the Dodd-Frank Act, which was signed into law in 2010. Specifically, spoofing is described as a “disruptive practice” in the legislation, straight from the U.S. Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC), which is the independent agency responsible for overseeing and policing spoofing on the markets:

Dodd-Frank section 747 amends section 4c(a) of the CEA to make it unlawful for any person to engage in any trading, practice, or conduct on or subject to the rules of a registered entity that —

(A) violates bids or offers;

(B) demonstrates intentional or reckless disregard for the orderly execution of transactions during the closing period; or

(C) is, is of the character of, or is commonly known to the trade as ‘spoofing’ (bidding or offering with the intent to cancel the bid or offer before execution).

Additionally, there are laws and rules related to spoofing under rules from the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), and the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA), too.

Example of Spoofing

A hypothetical spoofing scenario isn’t too difficult to dream up. For instance, let’s say Mike, a trader, has 100,000 shares of Firm Y stock, and he wants to sell it. Mike uses an algorithm to place hundreds of “buy” orders for Firm Y shares — an algorithm that will also cancel those orders before they’re executed, so that no money is actually spent.

The influx of orders is read by the market as an increase in demand for Firm Y stock, and the price starts to increase. Mike then sells his 100,000 shares at an inflated price — an artificially inflated price, since Mike effectively manipulated the market to increase his profits.

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Consequences of Spoofing

Because spoofing is a relatively easy way to manipulate markets and potentially increase profits, it’s also a fairly common practice for some traders and firms, despite being against the law. That transgression can cost spoofers if and when they’re caught.

For example, one financial institution was fined nearly $1 billion by the SEC during the fall of 2020 after the company was caught conducting spoofing activity in the precious metals market.

But it’s not just the big players that can be on the receiving end of a smack down by the authorities. During August of 2020, an individual day trader was caught manipulating the markets through spoofing activity — actions that netted the trader roughly $140,000 in profits. The trader was ultimately ordered by the CFTC to pay a fine of more than $200,000.

Despite the cases that make headlines, it’s generally hard to identify and catch spoofers. With so many orders being placed and executed at once (especially with algorithmic or computer aid) it’s difficult to identify fake market orders in real time.

How to Protect Against Spoofing

There are a number of parties that are constantly and consistently trying to gain an edge in the markets, be it through spoofing or other means. For investors, it’s worth keeping that in mind while sticking to an investing strategy that works for you, rather than investing with your emotions or getting caught up in the news cycle.

In a time when a single social media post or errant comment on TV can send stock prices soaring or into the gutter, it’s critical for investors to understand what’s driving market activity.

The Takeaway

Spoofing is meant to gain advantage in the markets, but as such it’s illegal and penalties can be steep. Beyond the spoofers trying to manipulate the market, spoofing has the potential to affect all investors.

If spoofers are manipulating prices for their own gain, that can cause traders and investors to react, not realizing what is going on behind the scenes. While this is more of an issue for active investors or day traders, it’s something to be aware of.

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You may also be interested in:

Market Manipulation: An Overview for Retail Investors

Wash Trading: What Is It and How Does It Work?

What Is a Dark Pool in Trading?

Photo credit: iStock/visualspace

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