Syed Shah usually buys and sells stocks and currencies through his Interactive Brokers account, but he couldn’t resist trying his hand at some oil trading on April 20, the day prices plunged below zero for the first time ever. The day trader, working from his house in a Toronto suburb, figured he couldn’t lose as he spent $2,400 snapping up crude at $3.30 a barrel, and then 50 cents. Then came what looked like the deal of a lifetime: buying 212 futures contracts on West Texas Intermediate for an astonishing penny each.
What he didn’t know was oil’s first trip into negative pricing had broken Interactive Brokers Group Inc. Its software couldn’t cope with that pesky minus sign, even though it was always technically possible — though this was an outlandish idea before the pandemic — for the crude market to go upside down. Crude was actually around negative $3.70 a barrel when Shah’s screen had it at 1 cent. Interactive Brokers never displayed a subzero price to him as oil kept diving to end the day at minus $37.63 a barrel.
At midnight, Shah got the devastating news: he owed Interactive Brokers $9 million. He’d started the day with $77,000 in his account.
“I was in shock,” the 30-year-old said in a phone interview. “I felt like everything was going to be taken from me, all my assets.”
To be clear, investors who were long those oil contracts had a brutal day, regardless of what brokerage they had their account in. What set Interactive Brokers apart, though, is that its customers were flying blind, unable to see that prices had turned negative, or in other cases locked into their investments and blocked from trading. Compounding the problem, and a big reason why Shah lost an unbelievable amount in a few hours, is that the negative numbers also blew up the model Interactive Brokers used to calculate the amount of margin — aka collateral — that customers needed to secure their accounts.
Thomas Peterffy, the chairman and founder of Interactive Brokers, says the journey into negative territory exposed bugs in the company’s software. “It’s a $113 million mistake on our part,” the 75-year-old billionaire said in an interview Wednesday. Since then, his firm revised its maximum loss estimate to $109.3 million. It’s been a moving target from the start; on April 21, Interactive Brokers figured it was down $88 million from the incident.
Customers will be made whole, Peterffy said. “We will rebate from our own funds to our customers who were locked in with a long position during the time the price was negative any losses they suffered below zero.”
Besides locking up because of negative prices, a second issue concerned the amount of money Interactive Brokers required its customers to have on hand in order to trade. Known as margin, it’s a vital risk measure to ensure traders don’t lose more than they can afford. For the 212 oil contracts Shah bought for 1 cent each, the broker only required his account to have $30 of margin per contract. It was as if Interactive Brokers thought the potential loss of buying at one cent was one cent, rather than the almost unlimited downside that negative prices imply, he said.
“It seems like they didn’t know it could happen,” Shah said.
But it was known industrywide that CME Group Inc.’s benchmark oil contracts could go negative. Five days before the mayhem, the owner of the New York Mercantile Exchange, where the trading took place, sent a notice to all its clearing-member firms advising them that they could test their systems using negative prices. “Effective immediately, firms wishing to test such negative futures and/or strike prices in their systems may utilize CME’s ‘New Release’ testing environments” for crude oil, the exchange said.
Interactive Brokers got that notice, Peterffy said. But he says the firm needed more time to upgrade its trading platform.