In June 2014, the Securities and Exchange Commission (“SEC” or “Commission”) issued an order directing the national securities exchanges and the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (collectively, the “Participants”) to act jointly in developing and filing with the Commission a national market system plan to implement a tick size pilot program (“Order”).1 On November 7, 2014, the SEC published for comment the Participants’ proposal to establish a national market system plan (“Plan”) to implement the Order.2 After considering the 77 comment letters submitted in response to the proposal, the SEC amended the Plan in several ways, and approved the Plan in its modified form on May 13, 2015.3 The Plan describes a two-year pilot program to widen the minimum quoting and trading increments for some stocks with smaller capitalizations (“Pilot”). The Plan sets forth proposed procedures for selecting a representative group of stocks of small capitalization companies (“Pilot Securities”) and subjecting groups of those Pilot Securities (“test groups”) to various requirements with regard to quoting and trading increments. As set forth in more detail in the Plan, Participants will be required to adopt rules to ensure that Pilot Securities in the test groups are quoted and traded in permitted increments.4 Similarly, Participants and members of Participants (i.e., broker-dealer members of the exchanges and FINRA) will be required to establish, maintain and enforce written policies and procedures reasonably designed to comply with the quoting and trading increments for the Pilot Securities and other requirements of the Plan. The Pilot is required to be implemented within one year from the date of publication of the SEC’s approval order—that is, by May 13, 2016.

The Plan is a response to concerns that the existing minimum pricing increments (exchange-traded stocks priced equal to or greater than $1.00 per share trade in minimum increments of a penny) may be detrimental to small and mid-size companies. The Plan is intended to assist the Commission, market participants, and the public in assessing the impact of different increment conventions on the trading and liquidity of stocks of small capitalization companies, and whether “wider minimum tick sizes for small capitalization stocks would enhance market quality to the benefit of market participants, issuers, and US investors.”5

This alert summarizes key aspects of the approved Plan, in a Q&A format. 

1. How has the SEC modified the originally proposed Plan?

Based on its analysis of the proposed Plan and the input of commenters, the SEC made the following changes to the Plan as originally proposed:

  • extended the operative period of the Pilot (“Pilot Period”) from one year to two years;
  • lowered the market capitalization threshold criteria for identifying Pilot Securities from $5 billion to $3 billion or less;
  • modified the trade-at prohibition by: (a) amending the definition of trade-at to clarify that the provision will be operative only during Regular Trading Hours;(b) removing the venue limitation7 in the exception to the trade-at prohibition that applies in circumstances where the order is executed by a trading center that is displaying a quotation, via either a processor8 or an SRO quotation feed9, at a price equal to the trade-at protected quotation but only up to the trading center’s full displayed size; and (c) lowering the thresholds in the definition of “Block Size” from an order of at least 10,000 shares or with a market value of $200,000 to an order of at least 5,000 shares or a market value of at least $100,000;
  • modified the data elements related to Market Maker10 profitability data by: (a) removing the data element in Appendix C that would have required realized trading profits to be calculated net of fees and rebates; and (b) requiring further aggregation of the Market Maker profitability data made publicly available;
  • required Participants to provide an assessment regarding the impact of the Pilot on Market Maker profitability; and
  • modified the time when Participants must submit their assessments to the SEC.

2. What securities will be affected by the Plan?

Pilot Securities will include NMS stocks that are common stock of an operating company (“NMS common stock”) and that meet the following criteria during the relevant measurement period, that is, the US trading days during the three calendar months ending at least 30 days before the start of the Pilot:

  • a market capitalization of $3 billion or less on the last day of the measurement period;
  • a consolidated average daily volume of one million shares or less during the measurement period;
  • a measurement period volume-weighted average price of at least $2;
  • a closing price of at least $2 on the last day of the measurement period; and

a closing price of not less than $1.50 on every trading day during the measurement period. 

Pilot Securities with prices that fall below $1.00 during the Pilot will remain in the program. The Pilot will exclude any NMS common stock that has its initial public offering within six months of the start of the two-year Pilot Period, because there would be insufficient baseline data against which to compare the Pilot performance of these stocks.

Each primary listing exchange will make publicly available for free on its website a list of those Pilot Securities listed on that exchange and included in the control group and in each test group. The list will be adjusted for ticker symbol changes and relevant corporate actions.11

3. How will Pilot Securities be allocated to different groups for testing?

The Pilot will be structured around four groups of securities—three test groups of 400 securities each and a control group of the remaining securities. After the complete list of Pilot Securities is determined, the Participants will select, by means of a stratified random sampling process, the Pilot Securities to be placed into the three test groups. Those Pilot Securities not placed into the three test groups will constitute the control group. To effect the stratified random sampling, Pilot Securities will be categorized based on price, market capitalization and trading volume, with each of those categories further subdivided into low, medium or high subcategories, for a total of 27 categories. A random sample of Pilot Securities from each of the 27 categories will be placed into the three test groups, in a number proportional to the category’s size relative to the population of Pilot Securities. A primary listing market’s stocks will be selected from each category and included in the three test groups in the same proportion as that primary listing market’s stocks comprise each category of Pilot Securities.

4. What restrictions on quoting and trading will the Plan impose?

The Pilot will restrict quoting and trading increments for securities in the three test groups, as discussed below. To provide a baseline to analyze the economic effects of the wider quoting and trading increments required by the test groups, securities in the control group may be quoted and traded at any price increment currently permitted.

A. Test Group One

Securities in the first test group will be quoted in $0.05 minimum increments, but may continue to trade at any price increment currently permitted. Participants would adopt rules prohibiting Participants or members of Participants from displaying, ranking, or accepting from any person any displayable and any non-displayable bids or offers, orders or indications of interest in any Pilot Security in this test group in price increments other than $0.05. However, orders priced to execute at the midpoint and orders entered into a Participant-operated retail liquidity program may be ranked and accepted in increments of less than $0.05.

B. Test Group Two

Pilot Securities in this test group will be subject to the same quoting requirements as Test Group One, along with the applicable quoting exceptions. In addition, securities in the second test group may only be traded in $0.05 minimum increments, subject to certain exceptions. Participants will adopt rules prohibiting trading centers operated by Participants and members of Participants from executing orders in any Pilot Security in this test group in price increments other than $0.05. The $0.05 minimum trading increment also will apply to brokered cross-trades.12 

Pilot Securities in this test group may trade in increments less than $0.05 under the following circumstances:

  • Trading may occur at the midpoint between the national best bid and the national best offer (“NBBO”), or the midpoint between the best protected bid and the best protected offer;
  • Retail Investor Orders13 may be provided with price improvement that is at least $0.005 better than the best protected bid or the best protected offer; and
  • Negotiated Trades14 may trade in increments of less than $0.05.

C. Test Group Three

Securities in the third test group will be subject to the same quoting and trading restrictions as those in Test Group Two, along with the applicable exceptions. In addition, with certain exceptions, Test Group Three securities would be subject to a “trade-at” prohibition. Under the trade-at prohibition, the Plan will (1) prevent a trading center that was not quoting from price-matching protected quotations and (2) permit a trading center that was quoting a protected quotation to execute orders at that level, but only up to the amount of its displayed size. Accordingly, the Plan provides that Participants will adopt rules prohibiting trading centers operated by Participants and members of Participants from executing a sell order for a Pilot Security at the price of a protected bid or a buy order for a Pilot Security at the price of a protected offer for these securities during Regular Trading Hours.

Trading centers will be permitted to execute an order for a Pilot Security at a price equal to a protected bid or protected offer under the following circumstances: 

  • the order is executed by a trading center that is displaying a quotation, via either a processor or an SRO quotation feed, at a price equal to the traded-at protected quotation but only up to the trading center’s full displayed size;
  • the order is of Block Size (that is, an order of at least 5,000 shares or with a market value of at least $100,000);
  • the order is a Retail Investor Order executed with at least $0.005 price improvement;
  • the order is executed when the trading center displaying the protected quotation that was traded at was experiencing a failure, material delay, or malfunction of its systems or equipment;
  • the order is executed as part of a transaction that was not a “regular way” contract;
  •  the order is executed as part of a single-priced opening, reopening, or closing transaction by the trading center;
  • the order is executed when a protected bid was priced higher than a protected offer in the Pilot Security;
  • the order is identified as an Intermarket Sweep Order;
  • the order is executed by a trading center that simultaneously routed Trade-at Intermarket Sweep Orders15 to execute against the full displayed size of any protected quotation in the Pilot Security that was traded at;
  • the order is executed as part of a Negotiated Trade;
  • the order is executed when the trading center displaying the protected quotation that was traded at had displayed, within one second prior to execution of the transaction that constituted the trade-at, a best bid or best offer, as applicable, for the Pilot Security with a price that was inferior to the price of the trade-at transaction;
  • the order is executed by a trading center which, at the time of order receipt, the trading center had guaranteed an execution at no worse than a specified price (a “stopped order”), where: (a) the stopped order was for the account of a customer; (b) the customer agreed to the specified price on an order-by-order basis; and (c) the price of the trade-at transaction was, for a stopped buy order, equal to the national best bid in the Pilot Security at the time of execution or, for a stopped sell order, equal to the national best offer in the Pilot Security at the time of execution; or
  • the order is for a fractional share of a Pilot Security, provided that such fractional share order was not the result of breaking an order for one or more whole shares of a Pilot Security into orders for fractional shares or was not otherwise effected to evade the requirements of the trade-at prohibition or any other provisions of the Plan.

5. Did the Participants provide examples of the operation of the trade-at prohibition?

To illustrate the operation of the trade-at prohibition, the Participants included the following examples in the Plan:

Example 1

The NBBO for Pilot Security ABC is $20.00 × $20.10. Trading Center 1 is displaying a 100-share protected bid at $20.00. Trading Center 2 is displaying a 100-share protected bid at $19.95. There are no other protected bids. Trading Center 3 is not displaying any shares in Pilot Security ABC but has 100 shares hidden at $20.00 and has 100 shares hidden at $19.95. Trading Center 3 receives an incoming order to sell for 400 shares. To execute the 100 shares hidden at $20.00, Trading Center 3 must respect the protected bid on Trading Center 1 at $20.00. Trading Center 3 must route a Trade-at Intermarket Sweep Order to Trading Center 1 to execute against the full displayed size of the protected bid, at which point Trading Center 3 is permitted to execute against the 100 shares hidden at $20.00. To execute the 100 shares hidden at $19.95, Trading Center 3 must respect the protected bid on Trading Center 2 at $19.95. Trading Center 3 must route a Trade-at Intermarket Sweep Order to Trading Center 2 to execute against the full displayed size of the protected bid, at which point Trading Center 3 is permitted to execute against the 100 shares hidden at $19.95.

Example 2

The NBBO for Pilot Security ABC is $20.00 × $20.10. Trading Center 1 is displaying a 100-share protected bid at $20.00. Trading Center 2 is displaying a 100-share protected bid at $20.00. Trading Center 2 also has 300 shares hidden at $20.00 and has 300 shares hidden at $19.95. Trading Center 3 is displaying a 100-share protected bid at $19.95. There are no other protected bids. Trading Center 2 receives an incoming order to sell for 900 shares. Trading Center 2 may execute 100 shares against its full displayed size at the protected bid at $20.00. To execute the 300 shares hidden at $20.00, Trading Center 2 must respect the protected bid on Trading Center 1 at $20.00. Trading Center 2 must route a Trade-at Intermarket Sweep Order to Trading Center 1 to execute against the full displayed size of Trading Center 1’s protected bid, at which point Trading Center 2 is permitted to execute against the 300 shares hidden at $20.00. To execute the 300 shares hidden at $19.95, Trading Center 2 must respect the protected bid on Trading Center 3 at $19.95. Trading Center 2 must route a Trade-at Intermarket Sweep Order to Trading Center 3 to execute against the full displayed size of Trading Center 3’s protected bid, at which point Trading Center 2 is permitted to execute against the 300 shares hidden at $19.95.

Example 3

The NBBO for Pilot Security ABC is $20.00 × $20.10. Trading Center 1 is displaying a 100-share protected bid at $20.00. Trading Center 1 is also displaying 300 shares at $19.90 on an SRO quotation feed. Trading Center 2 is displaying a 100-share protected bid at $19.95. Trading Center 2 is also displaying 200 shares on an SRO quotation feed at $19.90 and has 200 shares hidden at $19.90. Trading Center 3 is displaying a 100-share protected bid at $19.90. There are no other protected bids. Trading Center 2 receives an incoming order to sell for 700 shares. To execute against its protected bid at $19.95, Trading Center 2 must comply with the trade-through restrictions in Rule 611 and route an intermarket sweep order to Trading Center 1 to execute against the full displayed size of Trading Center 1’s protected bid at $20.00. Trading Center 2 is then permitted to execute against its 100-share protected bid at $19.95. Trading Center 2 may then execute 200 shares against its full displayed size at the price of Trading Center 3’s protected bid. To execute the 200 shares hidden at $19.90, Trading Center 2 must respect the protected bid on Trading Center 3 at $19.90. Trading Center 2 must route a Trade-at Intermarket Sweep Order to Trading Center 3 to execute against the full displayed size of Trading Center 3’s protected bid, at which point Trading Center 2 is permitted to execute against the 200 shares hidden at $19.90. Trading Center 2 does not have to respect Trading Center 1’s displayed size at $19.90 for trade-at purposes because it is not a protected quotation.

6. What data will be collected and published under the Plan?

Throughout the Pilot Period, Participants will collect a variety of data (“Trading Center Data”) with respect to Pilot Securities,16 including the following:

  • daily market quality statistics categorized by security, order type, original order size, hidden status, and coverage under Rule 605 of Regulation NMS;
  •  specified data regarding market orders and marketable limit orders;
  • daily Market Maker registration statistics; and
  • daily Market Maker participation statistics.

In addition, members of Participants will be required to collect and provide to their designated examining authority the data in the first two bullets above, as applicable, subject to certain terms and conditions in the Plan. Participants and members of Participants operating a trading center also will be required to collect this data starting six months prior to the commencement of the Pilot, and for six months following the termination of the Pilot. Participants and the designated examining authorities will make the data publicly available for free on their websites, and will report the data to the SEC on a monthly basis. The data will be provided on a disaggregated basis by trading center. The data made publicly available will not identify the trading center that generated the data.

Market Makers will be required to provide to their designated examining authority specified data regarding daily Market Maker trading profits with respect to Pilot Securities on a monthly basis.17 Each Market Maker also will be required to provide its designated examining authority such daily data for dates starting six months prior to the Pilot Period through six months after the end of the Pilot Period. On a monthly basis, each designated examining authority will aggregate such data related to Market Makers categorized by the control group and each test group and make the aggregated data publicly available on its website for free. The data made publicly available will not identify the Market Makers that generated the data or the individual securities. Each designated examining authority also will report such data to the SEC, provided, however, that the data reported to the SEC will include the profitability statistics categorized by security.

7. What policies and procedures will Participants and members of Participants be required to have under the Plan?

The Plan requires Participants and members of Participants to establish, maintain and enforce written policies and procedures that are reasonably designed to comply with the quoting and trading increments for the Pilot Securities. Each Participant is required to develop appropriate policies and procedures that provide for collecting and reporting to the Commission the Trading Center Data. In addition, each Participant that is the designated examining authority of a member of a Participant operating a trading center must require such member to develop appropriate policies and procedures for collecting and reporting to the designated examining authority the Trading Center Data related to (1) market quality statistics and (2) market and marketable limit order data. Each Participant that is the designated examining authority of a member of a Participant operating a trading center is required to develop appropriate policies and procedures for collecting and reporting such Trading Center Data to the Commission.

In addition, each Participant that is a designated examining authority of a Market Maker must require such Market Maker to develop policies and procedures for collecting Market Maker profitability data and reporting it to the designated examining authority. Each Participant that is the designated examining authority of a Market Maker must develop appropriate policies and procedures that provide for collecting and reporting such data to the Commission on an aggregated basis. The designated examining authority also is required to develop policies and procedures reasonably designed to ensure the confidentiality of the non-aggregated data it receives from Market Makers.

8. How will the pilot be assessed?

No later than eighteen months after the start of the Pilot Period, the Participants will provide to the Commission and make publicly available a joint assessment of the impact of the Pilot. The assessment will be conducted using data generated during the first twelve months of the Pilot Period, or a subset of which that represents the impact of the Pilot. Such assessment will include:

  • an assessment of the statistical and economic impact of an increase in the quoting increment on market quality, the number of Market Makers, Market Maker participation, Market Maker profits, and market transparency;
  • an evaluation of whether any market capitalization, daily trading volume, or other thresholds can differentiate the results of the above assessments across stocks;
  • an assessment of the statistical and economic impact of the above assessments for the incremental impact of a trading increment and for the joint effect of an increase in a quoting increment with the addition of a trading increment;
  • an assessment of the statistical and economic impact of the above assessments for the incremental impact of a trade-at prohibition and for the joint effect of an increase in a quoting increment with the addition of a trading increment and a trade-at prohibition; and
  • an assessment of any other economic issues that the Participants believe the Commission should consider in any rulemaking that may follow the Pilot.

Further, Participants may individually submit to the Commission and make publicly available additional supplemental assessments of the impact of the Pilot.