Exactly. Goldman Sachs and JP Morgan earn a huge chunk of their profit from high-frequency trading. This profit must come at an expense of someone else (like regular stock holders). In my mind, this is legal theft.
I see this mantra repeated often around here, but I'm not so sure it's entirely true. First, what is a "regular stock holder"? On one end, there are small-time, buy-and-hold investors such as myself; on the other end, there are big institutional investors who manage massive portfolios for pension funds, insurance companies, mutual funds, etc. And there's everything in between. From one end of the spectrum to the next, you have very different trading profiles, and thus are affected very differently by high-frequency trading.
For someone like myself, I make maybe a few dozen (relatively) small buys per year. These buys are usually in the neighborhood of 100 shares. If a high-frequency trading program jumps in and effectively front-runs me to to make a few pennies, I don't really care. Overpaying by a penny or two per share means nothing given my buy and hold (long term) strategy. I'm already out $9.99 per trade in commissions to my broker. I'm looking at a horizon of at least ten years, when these relatively small additional costs shouldn't matter.
On the other end of the spectrum is the big institutional investor, like the pension- or mutual-fund manager. This person's job is to constantly rebalance the portfolio to meet some pre-defined metrics; he's generally actively trading huge amounts on a daily basis. While he certainly wants to get the best price possible when he trades, it's practically impossible for him to do that given the volumes in which he deals. Unless he has a highly specialized trading algorithm---that is, something just as sophisticated as the high-frequency traders---he can't help but signal his intentions to the market. Telegraphing his intentions is what makes him a "victim" of the high-frequency traders.
I'm not a fund manager, but my assumption is that, like me and my small buy-and-hold strategy, he also doesn't care about having a small percentage skimmed off of each transaction. To me, it's like buying a big-ticket item, such as a car. Say you budget $27k to buy yourself a new car. Now, some enterprising company goes out and manages a massive, real-time database of every car available for sale in the country. This company can use this database to find you the exact car you want, right now for $27,250. If you're willing to spend $27k, do you really care if you pay an extra $250? And for that $250, you get precisely what you want, and don't have to wait. Compared to going to a dealer, who, if you're lucky, might have what you want at your price... but chances are, the dealer will have something close to what you want, and you'll have to negotiate the price. Or maybe the dealer can get you exactly what you want, but you'll have to wait while he works the intra-dealer process to provision the car. Or maybe he can get you exactly what you want, for even less than $27k, but you'll have to wait for the car to be manufactured. A car buyer can face all these scenarios, but I believe the fund manager most closely mimics the first: that is, he knows exactly what he wants, and he wants it right now.
My prediction is that we'll see the high-frequency trading landscape continue to evolve. Like anything, there will come a day when that kind of business and the skills required to do it are commoditized. And when it reaches that point, it will be much less lucrative. I think we'll see traders of all profiles using ideas and techniques from the high-frequency world in their own trading, meaning that the very people high-frequency traders take from will become direct competitors. The small-time trader like me will implicitly use such techniques, though they will be invisible, as it will actually be implemented by my discount broker (perhaps they'll offer me the BestPrice(tm) service, which just uses high-frequency methods to get me a better price). The big institutional investor will build out his own algorithmic trading system with better "stealth" tactics, and also competes directly with the high-frequency types. I think we are heading towards a truly automated financial landscape. The "market" will consist of a bunch of little competing programs, and we'll see near-100% of all trades being not just electronic, but initiated by an algorithm rather than a human.
The ethics of all this I think is the same as with all technology. In the USA, doctors usually have high salaries. Even mediocre doctors probably fall into the "upper middle class" category, and some exceptional and specialist docs trickle into the "wealthy" category. And I think most folks would agree that an honest doctor's benefit to society is fairly tangible---they're helping you and your loved ones stay healthy. So perhaps they deserve their big paychecks. I also think conventional wisdom holds that jobs like nurse and teacher have tangible benefits to our society, though these are typically "middle class" or even "living wage" positions. But if you can consistently detect a mis-priced asset, or a major market move, and express this as a computer program, you'll find yourself securely grounded in the "very wealthy" class. But where's the tangible benefit to society?
Sometimes I take the socialist viewpoint that this is a major failing of capitalism: wealth isn't distributed according to benefit to society. Of course "benefit to society" is subjective, but our current system says detecting mis-priced asset is more valuable than saving a human life. On the other hand, perhaps that asset mis-price detection is truly more valuable than saving a life, we just don't yet have the ability to demonstrate it.
But ultimately, I think it's just human nature. Whenever there's a technology revolution in any industry, we always see questions of "is it too soon to use this?" For example, vaccines in medicine. As someone expecting his first child any day now, I found that there's a huge body of conflicting information (some of it downright scary) regarding infant vaccination. Just like with high-frequency trading, it seems to be a very polarizing topic, with staunch opinions on either side. I find that in situations like this, the truth is usually somewhere in the middle. And I like to think that my take on high-frequency trading is the middle ground---that it's ultimately neither good nor bad for markets, or even the economy as a whole. There's a lot of money to be made in it while it remains a fad. But as the techniques mature and become commoditized, it will be less glamorous and likewise less controversial. Human history is filled with stories of people making fortunes by being early adopters and implementers of technology. I'm not sure mankind has ever seen a new technology that didn't have a silver lining. Algorithmic finance falls into the same category---great for some, but others see the warts. When high-frequency trading as an industry matures---when finance is overwhelmingly algorithmically driven---it will be the "norm" and the warts will have smoothed over someone or at least accepted.