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Little slip, big mistake

It's easily done - a typing error slips through unobserved on your computer as you tap frantically on your keyboard. But such errors can cost thousands, even millions of dollars, if you're a bond trader. And traders say the risks of expensive and embarrassing mistakes occurring are made even greater by the lack of standardization among electronic trading platforms.

Jim Claire, director of fixed income trading at First Union National Bank, complains of a mishap that will be familiar to many traders: "We had one trader try and buy $100,000 of bonds, and instead he bought $100 million by mistake," he says. "We had to ring up the trader at the other end, who didn't even know about the deal yet because it's auto-execution on their end as well. By the time we sorted it out the market had moved and we lost maybe $50,000 in opportunity cost."

Traders are vulnerable to such mistakes because of the number of different platforms they use and the lack of standardization among them. Claire says: "We use six different platforms, each with their different practices. For example, if you want to buy $1 million of bonds on one platform, you write 1, while on some you write 1000, and on others you write 1m or 1mm.

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