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Robots FAQs

What are web robots?

Human users of the web use browsers like Internet Explorer. They read what is presented and act by clicking somewhere on the screen. Those clicks send information back to the web server computers which cause the web server computer to do stuff — usually send back more information. On BullionVault the user's click sometimes means 'trade some gold'.

A web robot - or "bot" - is a computer program which effectively does the job of the human clicker automatically. Bots - for example - are often used by internet search engines (they call their bots "spiders"). Spiders are computer programs which look for hypertext links and follow them visiting hundreds of websites. They can do this far quicker than people can, and they can organise the information they find there into indexes which the search engines use.

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What are trading bots?

Trading bots are web robots which automatically execute trading activity on an internet trading site.

They are a bit like search engine spiders, but instead of visiting hundreds of different sites they tend to be dedicated to a single web site. Someone - usually someone who knows quite a lot about computers - will have worked out what their computer sends to the web server when they click in Internet Explorer, and they will have programmed their computer to act like a fairly dumb but very fast human web-surfer on that site.

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What do they do?

Trading bots monitor any combination of data which can be sent to and from the web client [you] by the appropriate web server [us]. They ask for data, and work with it, and make decisions based upon it, and then automatically issue orders back to the server by sending messages in the same form that would be sent on the click of your mouse in Internet Explorer.

Bots have no privileges over ordinary users of the system — i.e. no extra data. They have to log in like normal users, request and review the information available to them, and make their trading decisions on a combination of web site data and whatever other information their designers make available to them.

From the BullionVault server's perspective in all material respects the account of a bot works exactly like the account of a human. When the server is processing orders it is not able to differentiate between those sent in by a bot and those sent in by a human being. In fact a bot is in many ways a proxy human being, because it belongs to a real human being and manipulates positions of gold and money in the accounts which belong to him too.

So everything the bot does it does on behalf of a real person. It just does it quickly, and (unless the bot developer is very careful) sometimes not very intelligently. Computer programs are often like that.

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What are the advantages and disadvantages of running a bot?

Bots have two big advantages over humans and one big disadvantage.

The first advantage they have is speed. They can issue instructions much faster than people can.

The second advantage is running cost. They can work all day - without costing a penny in salary.

The disadvantage they have is that they have no judgement. They cannot understand the TV news, or the financial pages. For example they would have enormous difficulties in understanding how labour disputes in South African mines might be relevant to the gold market, or how reported terrorist activity might affect investor sentiment, or how Gross Domestic Product data in the US might depress a currency and impact prices that way.

Not only do they have great difficulty in interpreting what these data might mean, but they have very limited ability to pick up the information at all. They do not have the all-purpose sensory apparatus that people have. Without it they have no ability to interpret an analogue video signal displayed on a TV monitor, or even (far easier, but still mind-bogglingly difficult) the meaning in a digital news-feed.

Bots cannot really begin to comprehend the many subtleties in free format information which affect markets.

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Who uses bots?

In theory anyone can use a bot. But in practice they usually need a pretty good understanding of internet computing.

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Does BullionVault use bots?

Yes. We believe in bots and ours work just like any other designer's bots, experiencing the same risks and exploiting the same opportunities.

To ensure fairness our bots see absolutely nothing extra from the exchange; they run on separate machinery from the exchange; and they connect to it across the internet via exactly the same protocols and networks as other bots and human users of the exchange.

BullionVault bots manage our own inventory of bullion and cash. Our bots can make prices all day long. They are not necessarily good or bad traders, but they are fast and incredibly cost effective.

We set them up to execute different types of trading strategy.

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What sort of trading patterns might bots do?

Here are some examples of what programmers might get bots to do:-

Take a small turn

This type of bot seeks to put up both a purchase price and a sale price in the same market. The designer's intention is to buy from a seller at a lower price and sell to a buyer shortly afterwards at a slightly higher price. The two trades are likely to be executed at slightly different times, so the designer is at risk for that period. Where the bot sells into a rising market it loses out. If it buys into a falling market it loses again. But if the market is fairly stable the bot can make a profit. It will make an even bigger profit if the market rises after the bot buys.

Be a passive buyer

This bot designer wants his gold holding to increase and looks to acquire gold passively — up to a limit price — by quoting the best bid price. In this way he may pick up slightly cheaper stock from aggressive sellers. He will profit from his passive strategy if he is able to buy all the gold he wants at a price below the current offer price. Generally the strategy will work if the price does not rise materially while he is buying, and it will lose less money than an aggressive buyer in a falling market. It will be less successful if the price rises rapidly, because it would have served the bot designer better to buy aggressively, not passively.

Be a passive seller

This bot already has a gold holding but wants a lower one and looks to sell gold passively — down to a limit price — by quoting the best offer price. In this way he may sell slightly dearer gold to aggressive buyers. He will profit from his passive strategy if he is able to sell all the gold he wants at a price above the current bid price. Generally the strategy will work if the price does not fall materially while he is selling. It will be less successful if the price falls quickly, because it would have served the bot designer better to sell aggressively, not passively.

Track the market

This is a type of bot which BullionVault runs when the world's gold market is shut. It is completely dumb and passive and there to be abused by intelligent human investors! Its job is to act as a weathervane for sentiment so that the exchange can be the only place which continues to offer accurate trading gold prices when the rest of the world is closed for business. To do this it sits there offering to buy and sell a small amount of gold. When someone comes in and deals the bot responds by moving its price in the direction of the deal. So if buyers arrive the bot resets its price up, and with sellers the bot resets its price down. It could be very easy to lose lots of money on this strategy. If a price is moved up too quickly it provides a previous buyer with the opportunity to sell straight back to the bot for a profit. Conversely if the price is moved too slowly any newsworthy event will be followed by repeated trades in the same direction at unnecessarily poor prices.

Because of this the bot will often stand off after each trade to see how stupid it has just been (which it measures by looking at any flood of orders arriving). However the result of this is that it is able to maintain a gold price throughout the weekend — which makes the exchange more useful to its customers.

Currency arbitrageur

This is a complicated bot which must monitor not only gold prices but also currency prices. Its job is to trade whenever a price differential offers what appears to be instant profit arising from currency translation. This usefully keeps liquidity in the market by acting as a middleman between - for example - a willing dollar seller and a willing euro buyer. This type of bot needs to maintain a float in several currencies - and gold - just to stay active.

Technical trader

Some people think that markets behave in patterns which can be inferred from charts of prices. These people look for key trigger points in prices. By detecting within their programs a pattern which they like they can cause their bots to issue orders automatically.

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So are they good for everyone?

This is a difficult point, but on this site we come down firmly in favour of bots because in our opinion they greatly increase the liquidity and greatly reduce the cost of participation in the market for everyone.

Yes, they can irritate people. But then so can human traders (if you have ever seen a couple of city traders in a bar at the end of a good day you'll have an idea what we mean!). Nevertheless, unlike city traders bots are incredibly low maintenance. Any revenue a trader or programmer makes from a bot is all profit, and without a human trader's salary the overheads reduce to almost zero.

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Why do bots sometimes irritate people?

The most likely way a bot will cause irritation is by leap-frogging a human user to the best price. Suppose the market starts at $410-$412. A bot wants to take a turn. So it makes a price of $410.1 to $411.9. It makes the price in a kilo and sits there monitoring the order board.

Now a human comes in to buy gold, and wanting a bargain he bids the highest — which is $410.2 (he could have just paid $411.9, but that would have cost a few extra dollars). Now the bot works out at what spread it can still make a profit at and computes that it can bid $410.3 - which takes it about a tenth of a second.

So it does, and the human feels cheated because he feels he should have been on the order board at the best price for at least a few moments.

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If they can be irritating why do you allow them?

There is another way to look at this. What is happening is that the humans and bot buyers are competing to offer the best price to prospective sellers. That is exactly how efficient markets should operate. We believe that because the bot costs nothing to run the result is that the spread — the difference between buying and selling prices quoted on the exchange — is generally much lower.

In markets where traders cost a lot to keep running no-one can afford to offer very tight spreads. On the other hand in markets where traders are cheap to run they will compete vigorously - after all, a yield of even a few dollars a day from a computer program is better than no dollars at all.

This means the market will tend to have lots of automated bot traders on very tight profit margins, so investors will benefit from being able to buy and sell on narrow spreads - without losing a material slice of their capital. It has been a long time since that was possible in the gold market.

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Can I run a bot?

Yes! You certainly can, and the BullionVault market encourages you to. But you must first accept that running bots requires skill and judgement. Trading fast and furiously — which is what bots are good at — favours people with certain characteristics and almost all will make both trading strategy and programming logic mistakes at one time or another. It is important to be able to retain composure when that inevitably happens.

In particular don't forget that with the speed of a bot a software bug could cause it to run out of control and issue lots of dumb orders which cost you money. Unfortunately software bugs never work the other way around! So if you can't accept full responsibility for your bot's strategic and programming errors don't run bots.

On the other hand if you're careful to program your bot to (i) check its own performance, (ii) to stand back when it is unsure of its ground, (iii) to take down orders which it's finished with (iv) to test, test and test again (on tiny trading sizes) (v) to be acutely aware of versioning - i.e. changes we may make to the way our servers behave and (vi) lots of other things, then your own bot may offer you a steady return.

Never forget that your primary protection in using bots is financial. Your bot can never cost you more than is held in the account(s) on which it operates in your name. Don't leave lots of value in a bot operated account - because while it's there it can be lost if your bot goes crazy.

Please note that the Order History page will only display the last 18 months' orders if you use a bot.

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Does BullionVault help me build my bot?

Although we don't want bots to be the exclusive preserve of low level internet programmers and gurus the position is very difficult for us. If we provide users with tools to build bots - even the same tools we use ourselves - not you, but some other bot-builder, will misuse what we provide, lose money, and decide to hold us responsible. So we cannot help you build your bot.

Nevertheless, if you are looking at some BullionVault data - like the order board, or your open orders, or your account positions, or one of the other representations of figures and numbers on the system - you may wish to get it in a nice easy form to work with. This probably means you want the raw data without the HTML formatting.

For this there is an XML interface, which is an alternate representation of the same underlying Java data structures which you normally see via HTML. We provide this XML version to enable people to develop reporting tools if they want to.

If you email us at making it very plain that you accept full responsibility for your use of it then we will tell you more about the XML interface.

Please be aware you are not entitled to assume that the data you see - either via XML or on the standard human interface - will always be working in the way they currently work. Any data and formats may change without notice to you, so you should build in checks to your own program logic to make sure your program has fully validated such information as it may use from these sources.

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What are the financial consequences of running bots?

Here are some financial consequences of bot operation to consider:-

  1. Risk of loss: Firstly you or a bot can trade an account on BullionVault until it has no remaining value. So your programming errors could conceivably cost the content of your account (but no more). You can limit this risk by keeping your bot's account relatively low on funds. Aside from that you can control it by good design and programming of a trading strategy.
  2. Commission: All account holders operate under the same commission rules. The more you trade each year the less commission you pay as a % of your total trading activity on BullionVault's order board and the rules are the same for all customers. This structure is designed to be scrupulously fair to everyone and to encourage active traders while still offering a great deal to one-time investors. New accounts on BullionVault start by paying commission of 0.5%, which is low by financial market standards, but not low enough to enable profitable bots. Our most active customers — many of which are bot users — pay the same 0.5% when they start trading, but of course only up to the stated trading thresholds for order board trades. Just like for normal 'people' customers when their turnover goes up they can get down to commissions of only 0.05%.
  3. Computer charges: No computer servers can support infinitely large data volumes. So greedy bots which — possibly through poor design — consume too much server power by asking for data refreshes too often are monitored by us. If they start to diminish the service offered to other users they may be either charged for computer usage or disconnected.
  4. Tax: it is possible that if you trade heavily and make an income your profit will be taxable.

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