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A Comprehensive Guide to Dark Pool Investing


There’s one main reason someone would choose to conduct dark pool trading: It allows them to initiate trades without influencing the stock market. In turn, dark pool investing is a straightforward solution specifically for large-scale investors. That means you probably won’t need to get involved with it, since your trades are unlikely to affect the entirety of the market.

Do you have questions specifically about your investment portfolio? Talk to a financial advisor today.

What Is Dark Pool Investing?

Dark pools, otherwise known as Alternative Trading Systems (ATS), are legal private securities marketplaces. In a dark pool trading system, investors place buy and sell orders without disclosing either the price of their trade or the number of shares.

Dark pool trades are made “over the counter.” This means that the stocks are traded directly between the buyer and seller, oftentimes with the help of a broker. Instead of relying on centralized pricing, such as with a public exchanges like the NYSE, over-the-counter traders reach their price agreements privately.

There are three common types of dark pools: broker-dealer owned, agency broker or exchange-owned and electronic market makers. The first type is set up by broker dealers for their clients and may include proprietary trading. These prices come from their own order flow. The second acts like an agent rather than a principal and there is no price discover as the prices come from exchanges. The last type is available through independent operators and there is no price discovery.

Dark pool exchanges keep their confidentiality because of this over-the-counter model, in which neither party has to disclose any identifying or price information unless specific conditions compel them to. For example, a public institution might have to publish this information due to disclosure laws that have nothing to do with the dark pool.

Why Dark Pools Exist

Dark Pool Investing

Chiefly, dark pools exist for large scale investors that don’t want to influence the market through their trades. The influence they could potentially have on the market is often known as the Icahn Lift, named after legendary investor Carl Icahn. The story goes that Icahn can influence the price of a stock just by purchasing it. The “lift” comes when other investors see Icahn’s interest and jump in, causing the stock price to rise. He’s often seen as a one-man bull market.

This happens to large scale investors, too. When an institutional investor wants to shift assets, it risks creating a price swing due to other investors who see the interest or disinterest and react accordingly. This isn’t always a good thing.

Consider a trader known for takeover bids. If they begin buying shares of stock in a company, other traders might assume that they plan an acquisition. That could set off a rush to buy the stock, sending its price through the roof and making the takeover far more expensive.

Or consider a company in the middle of a good-faith share buyback. The board is not looking to enrich itself, just restructure the company. Yet as the company begins to buy all of its own shares off the market, the price will spiral, pushing expenses, and potentially debt, higher.

A public exchange would publish all of this information through its central marketplace. Investors would immediately know about the takeover or share buyback in progress and would trade accordingly. On a dark pool, these parties can keep things quiet a little longer and hopefully avoid spiraling prices.

Example of How a Dark Pool Can Be Helpful

Let’s assume a mutual fund wants to sell 1.5 million shares of a company. It’s very unlikely that the fund will sell all of these shares at once. Instead it will have to sell in parcels, finding a buyer for 10,000 shares, then 1,500 shares, and so on and so forth.

Once the market gets word that the mutual fund is liquidating its shares, the price will quickly drop. The sudden rush of available stock will push its price down. And if this is a particularly high-end fund, the public loss of confidence might depress the stock price further. This means that every new buyer will pay less and less for each parcel of the mutual fund’s stock.

Word of this would get out immediately on a public exchange. Through a dark pool, the mutual fund can try to sell off its shares without alerting the market and causing a run on the company’s stock.

Dark Pools and You

There’s no practical chance that an average retail trader will shift the market. Unless you manage a substantial portfolio, your influence on the market most likely isn’t going to drastically influence other investors. Technically, you buying a company’s stock will affect share prices, but practically, it won’t be to any measurable degree.

As a result, a retail investor typically has little use for dark pool investments. This is true despite the surge in popularity that dark pool trading has enjoyed in recent years.

Dark pool investing has become one of the overwhelmingly most popular ways to trade stocks. In April 2019, the share of U.S. stock trades executed on dark pools and other off-market vehicles was almost 39%, according to a Wall Street Journal report.

Traders who have interest in exploring anonymous, dark pool trading can do so relatively easily. The SEC has registered more than 50 different ATS services. Each of these offer products depending on your needs and investor profile.

However, it is generally inadvisable to do so. As a retail investor not only will you have relatively little use for the anonymity that a dark pool exchange provides, you may also expose yourself to several risks not present on a public exchange.

Inaccurate Prices

All over-the-counter trades involve a certain amount of risk that you will pay too much or too little. Although, in the case of dark pool trading, you can mitigate that by aligning your trades with the publicly available data. However, traders on a dark pool are typically acting in advance of the market. The stocks that you buy or sell today could swing wildly in price quite soon.

Information Asymmetry

The average size of a dark pool transaction has dropped to little more than 180 to 200 shares per transaction. This is a far cry from the original intent of ATS. Nevertheless, dark pool exchanges are good for institutional investors looking to act in advance of market knowledge. These traders typically have far more experience than a retail investor. In fact, they often have information about the product they are buying or selling that you don’t. Acting in this market means taking a significant risk that this information will prove valuable.

Bottom Line

Dark Pool Investing

Dark pool investing isn’t usually something the average retail investor will take part in. However, it may be useful for institutional investors and companies. When large scale investors plan to buy or sell a substantial amount of stock, it could influence other investors to do the same. This would, in turn, affect the entire market significantly. Dark pool trading helps prevent that from happening. However, there is still significant risk that comes with this type of investing.

Tips for Dark Pool Investors

  • If you’re interested in dark pool investing, consider working with a financial advisor to ensure it’s the right move for you. Finding a qualified financial advisor doesn’t have to be hard. SmartAsset’s free tool matches you with up to three financial advisors who serve your area, and you can interview your advisor matches at no cost to decide which one is right for you. If you’re ready to find an advisor who can help you achieve your financial goals, get started now.
  • Before considering dark pool investing, be sure to consider all of the investment types out there. From stocks to bonds to mutual funds, there’s sure to be one that’s right for you.

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