Quant Trading Comes to Main Street

Updated: Jun 18, 2013 1:00 PM UTC

FORTUNE--Automated trading has always been the preserve of the Wall Street elite. Banks and hedge funds used supercomputers armed with powerful algorithms programmed by PhD brainiacs to trade hundreds of stocks and currencies, making boatloads of money in a matter of seconds. Now, the same technology is coming to Main Street.

A Manhattan startup called EquaMetrics wants to bring automated trading to anyone with a laptop. Co-founder Chris Ivey considers it the next evolution in retail investing. Back in the 1980s and ‘90s, companies like Charles Schwab and E-Trade brought stock trading to the masses. Then, in the early 2000s, regular investors gained the ability to trade options through sites like Thinkorswim. Today, Ivey expects algorithmic trading to make the same transition that stocks, bonds and options did before it. “We’re talking about Wall Street stuff and giving it to Main Street,” says Ivey, 26, a recent Harvard graduate who founded the company with a classmate in 2011. He later hired Wall Street veterans, including the founder of a hedge fund brokerage and a currency trader who’s a professionally ranked poker player, to build the service.

EquaMetrics’ app is simply designed and since its software firepower comes from the cloud, it doesn’t require anything more than the typical PC. You can drag and drop colored tiles to assemble your own algorithm. Day traders can choose between 30 variables to build their formulas. The options are built on so-called technical indicators, metrics that reflect trading patterns as opposed to stock fundamentals such as the price-earnings ratio. After you’re done, you run the program to buy and sell stocks and currencies.

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The web application is relatively inexpensive: it costs $99 a month or $250 a month, depending on how many algorithms you want to run. That’s a steal compared to the alternative of hiring a quantitative programmer for $200,000 a year. EquaMetrics gives you the stuff a programmer could produce. Then it’s up to you to assemble your own strategy.

Ivey knows how his web app might be perceived. Wall Street regularly blows itself up with automated trading. And he wants to give it to the masses?! The 2010 Flash Crash resulted from a mutual fund firm’s algorithm gone wild. Knight Capital lost $440 million on a buggy algo last summer. Computerized trading has also been blamed for the volatile markets of the past few years. Certainly, individuals are plenty capable of doing that to themselves, albeit on a smaller scale.

Ivey offers two defenses. First, EquaMetrics isn’t offering high frequency trading, which is the business of Knight Capital and involves buying and selling hundreds of times per second. In fact, EquaMetrics allows traders to assemble strategies that scan stocks or currencies no faster than once a minute. (Ivey’s own best performing programs kick in just once a day.) Second, the company isn’t targeting widows or laypeople looking to play with their retirement accounts. Though there’s no minimum to invest, early EquaMetrics clients are either sophisticated traders who buy and sell on technical indicators, or institutional investors who want to assemble an automated trading system but can’t afford to hire a quantitative programmer.

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The EquaMetrics office, in the Flatiron neighborhood of Manhattan, feels straight out of Silicon Valley. There’s modern furniture, business plans written in dry erase marker across windows, and a floor so squeaky you can hear employees’ every step.

Ivey runs a demo for me. He sets a program to trade Google stock when it reaches a so-called Golden Cross, a technical trading pattern that is usually a bullish sign. He backtests the strategy. A second later the results appear: in the past two years, the strategy traded only three times. The good news: those trades earned you $73,000 if you were trading 1,000 shares.

When EquaMetrics opens its application to the public today, currency traders will be the most likely early users. Technical trading is popular in currency markets where hundreds of relationships exist between currencies and markets and interest rates and the whims of traders. (EquaMetrics partners with brokerages FXCM and Interactive Brokers to execute its clients’ trades. The company itself isn’t a broker.)

The next step for EquaMetrics is giving users the ability to setup algorithms using fundamental investing techniques. There could be an army of investors who want to emulate, say, value investing legend Benjamin Graham’s screen for picking stocks, but who don’t have the time or discipline needed to follow the strategy. Automated computer trading might be the solution.

Whether Main Street ever falls in love with this kind of trading is uncertain. What is clear: automated trading is no longer only Wall Street’s game.