back to article Nasdaq's 32-bit code can't handle Berkshire Hathaway's monster share price

Here's a programming gremlin that caught our eye this week: a share price exceeded the 32-bit unsigned integer limit of a stock exchange's code. Berkshire Hathaway is an investment group known not just for being run by billionaire tycoon Warren Buffett, but also because its BRK.A stock is ridiculously priced: at time of …

  1. chivo243 Silver badge

    +1 for the Headline and all to funny tag line!

    Glad I wasn't drinking tea... Buffet overflow!

  2. alain williams Silver badge

    Use of floating point numbers ?

    Storing financial quantities in floating point will only give you a head ache; eg do not store a bank balance in pounds. Store it as an integer number of pennies (or whatever the smallest currency unit is). If you store in floating point you might get a rounding error of a penny and the auditors will go bananas looking for someone bacon or salami slicing.

    Having said that: I do see people manipulating prices in Javascript where numbers are stored as double floating point (IEEE754); but the maximum integer value that can be safely held is 9,007,199,254,740,992 ~= 9×1015 - which can easily hold a BRK.A.

    You might need to do some calculations in 1/100 of pennies - to keep the VAT people happy.

    1. Yet Another Anonymous coward Silver badge

      Re: Use of floating point numbers ?

      But then you have to explain to auditors why 1/3 + 1!3 + 1/3 doesn't add to 1.

      While they are being paid $10,000/day not to believe you

      1. Brewster's Angle Grinder Silver badge

        Re: Use of floating point numbers ?

        Maybe electronic trading allows fractions of a penny or a cent. But you can't get 1/3 of a penny out of a cash till. Sooner or later you have to make a decision about how to round to integer currency units - be it one penny of 2.220446049250313e-16 of a penny.

        And while 1/3 + 1/3 + 1/3 happens to work 1/6+ 1/6 + 1/6 + 1/6 + 1/6 + 1/6 != 1.0 Should you truly need to work with rationals, use a class that implements them.

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          "you have to make a decision about how to round to integer currency units"

          Usually these decisions are already made for you - there are specific rules you have to abide to.

          1. Claptrap314 Silver badge

            Re: "you have to make a decision about how to round to integer currency units"

            And by "rules", he means "treaties" or "laws"--occasionally "contracts". You really, REALLY have to get your tests right on these things...

            1. Anonymous Coward
              Anonymous Coward

              Re: "you have to make a decision about how to round to integer currency units"

              And it's a good job these rules do exist, otherwise it's a flawed system whereby money could be created out of thin air via rounding errors. One person's view of a debit in their currency would be different to the recipient persons view of the corresponding credit in their currency, given the agreed rate of exchange. That would mean there was an exploitable flaw, which would be exploited, effectively causing inflation which was not the result of the central banks printing more notes.

              Ultimately its all about confidence in the global money system. Everyone needs to know that when someone has spent a dollar that the accounts show that a dollar was spent, and that they cannot persuade someone else they've spent only 99c.

              1. CrackedNoggin Bronze badge

                Re: "you have to make a decision about how to round to integer currency units"

                > And it's a good job these rules do exist, otherwise it's a flawed system whereby money could be created out of thin air ...

                Today's WSJ -

                > Cryptocurrencies now equal the value of U.S. dollars in circulation.

              2. Anonymous Coward
                Anonymous Coward

                Re: "you have to make a decision about how to round to integer currency units"

                "it's a flawed system whereby money could be created out of thin air"

                What do rounding calculations have to do with the pitfalls of central banking?

        2. Muppet Boss

          Re: Use of floating point numbers ?

          >Maybe electronic trading allows fractions of a penny or a cent. But you can't get 1/3 of a penny out of a cash till.

          This is why it is called electronic trading, they don't need cash tills.

          1. doublelayer Silver badge

            Re: Use of floating point numbers ?

            Eventually, you have to spend the money on something. They will do that rounding if you move money from their system onto anything else. Physical cash is not the only place where there are precision limits.

          2. Yet Another Anonymous coward Silver badge

            Re: Use of floating point numbers ?

            At least trading in 1/8s meant you could all this in binary

            1. Anonymous Coward
              Anonymous Coward

              Re: Use of floating point numbers ?

              Half farthings? Bring back the Guinea! Clone Victoria!

              1. Doctor Syntax Silver badge

                Re: Use of floating point numbers ?

                The much maligned Imperial system of weights and measures had little islands of binary sanity. Apart from ha'pennies and farthings in currency there were pounds and ounces (binary ratios are particularly suitable for weighing) and stones, quarters and hundredweights. It was just the bridge between pounds and stones which was irrational.

                1. Anonymous Coward
                  Anonymous Coward

                  Re: Use of floating point numbers ?

                  12 inches = 1 foot

                  3 feet = 1 yard

                  22 yards = 1 chain

                  10 chains = 1 furlong (factor of 10?? Surely some mistake)

                  8 furlongs = 1 mile

                  16 ounces = 1 pound

                  14 pounds = 1 stone

                  8 stones = 1 hundredweight

                  20 hundredweights = 1 ton

                  12 pennies = 1 shilling

                  20 shillings = 1 pound

                  21 shillings = 1 guinea

                  All looks perfectly logical to me.

                  1. Pen-y-gors

                    Re: Use of floating point numbers ?

                    And 1 furrowlong (furlong) x 1 chain (or cricket pitch) = 1 acre

          3. JDX Gold badge

            Re: Use of floating point numbers ?

            >>Maybe electronic trading allows fractions of a penny or a cent. But you can't get 1/3 of a penny out of a cash till.

            >This is why it is called electronic trading, they don't need cash tills.

            But nobody would set a price as a fraction in the first place.

      2. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Use of floating point numbers ?

        I thought (having seen Superman 3) that the result of 1/3 + 1/3 +1/3 not adding to 1 meant the conversation that needed to be had with auditors was how you afforded the Ferrari outside on your salary

        1. G.Y.

          1/10 Re: Use of floating point numbers ?

          1/10 + 9/10 is just as bad. And many customers have 10 fingers on their hands, think base 19 should just work.

      3. gnasher729 Silver badge

        Re: Use of floating point numbers ?

        So how would you fix the problem. Pennies in integers? Explain to me why 33 +33+33 is not 100.

        1. Anonymous Coward

          Re: Use of floating point numbers ?

          "Explain to me why 33 +33+33 is not 100."

          Because that sum is absolutely and precisely 99. You don't deploy any imprecision in your statement apart from some dodgy spacing.

          If you had gone for 33.0 + 33.0 + 33.0 != 100.0 that might have required a PhD (*) to explain away satisfactorily (not me, I'm an IT bod) but 33 + 33 + 33 = 100 is so obviously wrong you can use your fingers to determine its falsehood. That's the real point here - you used integers ie thingies that have a fixed value with no error lines or slight indiscretions. 1, 2, 3 etc are absolute things and are different to 1.0, 2.0, 3.0. The second lot are numbers with a described precision. 1.0 is really something that slides between 1.00 to slightly less than 1.05. The slightly bit is quite important and so is what I've called "slides" which isn't a formal description of anything ... but I'm not a mathematician.

          (*) Maths is a bit odd: A couple of Hungarian chaps proved that a sphere can be turned into two spherical cows with some judicious sleight of sphere. The is called a paradox despite the fact it has been formally proven. We are weird, not cows and spheres. OK I lied about the cows bit. Maths is still odd.

      4. G.Y.

        Re: Use of floating point numbers ?

        In binary FP, 0.1+0.9 (&suchlike) is not guaranteed to be 1.0

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Use of floating point numbers ?

      JS has had arbitrarily long integers - Bigint - as a primitive since 2019, and is now supported across all Browsers.

      Before that the only numeric primitive was "Number" which silently switched between integer and 64 bit floating point when integer could not be represented - kind of a nightmare.

    3. Pen-y-gors

      Re: Use of floating point numbers ?

      Very true. I used to work for a Life Assurance company who had a lot of pre-decimal policies on the books. Values were stored as integer farthings (for you youngsters out there, that's a quarter of an old penny, i.e. 960 to the pound)

  3. Brewster's Angle Grinder Silver badge

    12.1 - 12 - 0.1 != 0

    Nasdaq chose not to store prices using a floating-point number format normally encountered in applications...and instead chose to multiply quotes by 10,000 and store them as 32-bit unsigned integers.

    The advice from lawyers tends to be don't use a lawyer unless you absolutely have no choice. As someone who works with floats, my answer is the same. You could store an integer in a float; that would give you 53 bits. (1 implied, and 52 bits of data.) But why bother if it fits in a 32 bit int?

    1. Claptrap314 Silver badge

      Re: 12.1 - 12 - 0.1 != 0

      Apparently you long longer work with ints?

      The questions are about performance and rounding behavior. The only way to get fixed point rounding in floating point is to use denormals--and hope that once the tea is ready, that you haven't hit that one case in 2^104 that they got wrong.

  4. Strahd Ivarius Silver badge

    if we had kept good old COBOL for anything related to money, this wouldn't have been an issue!

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Really! Bloomberg terminals would be about a week behind by now....

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Very dim and distant memories seem to tell me that Data General Basic supported a much larger number range than if you used string variables instead of normal ones .... and things like

      LET A$ = B$ + "1"


    3. doublelayer Silver badge

      And if they said uint64 instead of uint32, the system would have worked. Or if they used one of the many languages which have an integer class which can resize itself when it needs to. Or if they tested some big numbers, because this is not really that big a number. Cobol also has big integer functionality, but so does basically everything in existence today. You still have to remember to use it or work in a language which doesn't give you a choice not to. Cobol isn't a panacea to this problem.

    4. TeeCee Gold badge

      Better still, RPG.

      That's the standard way of doing things. Huge integer, with the decimals implied by the currency.

      The problem currency used to be the Turkish Lira. A million of the things bought a 5 minute taxi ride from the office to the hotel. Hotels would need to swipe my credit card several times, as both Visa and Mastercard could only handle up to a (US) billion in one transaction.

  5. Flocke Kroes Silver badge

    Good news

    Years ago IBM spotted that using binary floating point when scaled integers are required caused problems. They came up with a way of storing numbers internally in decimal instead of binary. You can quickly try it out by firing up python3 and typing:

    from decimal import Decimal
    Decimal(2) / Decimal(7) == Decimal(1) / Decimal(7) * Decimal(2)
    2 / 7 == 1 / 7 * 2
    And you get the result False for Decimal and True for binary floating point. It is almost as if using Decimal when you need integers is just as broken as using binary floating point when you need integers. All that work implementing decimal arithmetic and it still does not solve the problem of programmers using floating point where scaled integers are required.

    (In python3 int / int -> float. If you want C flavoured division, use the // operator.)

    1. Pigeon

      You nearly got me there

      1 / 7 is not a fair test, since it is an irrational number. I would not be so quick to dismiss python on this basis. 1/10 is a more realistic test.

      I think perl6 does some floating point nearly-equally thing with floating point. It calls them Rats. Cobol is probably ok if you put the full stop in after the definition section.

      1. yetanotheraoc Silver badge

        Re: You nearly got me there

        Is 1/10 really rational in binary?

        1/10 = 2(-4) + 2(-5) + 2(-8) + 2(-9) +2(-12) + decimal 0.00146484375, and it's not converging. Eventually the machine will not be able to represent the decimal remainder in binary, so math.(1/10) != machine.(1/10).

        I don't think 1/7 is any different in that sense.

      2. Flocke Kroes Silver badge

        Re: IBM thoroughly got you there

        1/7 is a rational number because it can be expressed as a fraction of two integers. It is a recurring decimal (and a recurring binaral). 1/10 is not a recurring decimal but is a recurring binaral. Decimal arithmetic should get the right answers with rationals that happen to be non-recurring decimals - but even then there will be some limit (probably around 10^-28 for the implementation in python3). It should be straightforward to find examples involving 1/10 where binary arithmetic shows a small rounding error. I selected the example because a rounding error shows up in Decimal but cancels out in binary. With a little effort, it should be easy to find an example for which the rounding error shows up in binary but not decimal even with a recurring decimal.

        IBM's original implementation required 4 bits per digit. That was so painful to work with ancient CPUs actually had instructions to add and subtract bytes containing two such digits. Later implementations stored three digits in 10 bits which was more space efficient but even worse to calculate with. Modern implementations use two binary integers that are interpreted as a*10^b instead of the usual a*2^b used by normal floating point numbers. That works well for multiplies but gets awkward with adds and subtracts.

        Using decimal arithmetic does not actually solve problems that require scaled integer arithmetic. It just changes which examples show rounding errors.

        1. Claptrap314 Silver badge

          Re: IBM thoroughly got you there

          It also creates an insane number of corner cases that have to be handled properly. I was at IBM when that joker started pushing base-1000 floating point. Nasty. Ten years after the Pentium bug, and the arrogant fool would not even listen to the fact that without formal proofs, it was a disaster in the making.

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Good news

      Wasn't that why the IEEE 854 standard was derived from 754 - floating point formats for non-binary radices (though seems it got folded back into 754 in 2008 with 754 suppoting binary and decimal radices)

      1. Claptrap314 Silver badge

        Re: Good news

        Those "standards" were a much political documents as technical. Once you had 754, (with or without the glossed-over undefined states), extending it to non-binary was pretty much fixed.

        Having realized that they could, they never bothered to ask if they should.

        They should not.

  6. rdhma

    One solution would be for Nasdaq to require a stock split once the price exceeds $largenumber.

    Buffet doesn't like stock splits, believing that they encourage short-term dabbling in the market, while he is a long-term investor.

    1. Neil Barnes Silver badge

      He's older than my late father... he may be leaving it a bit late to take his profits!

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      I agree with Mr Buffet on a lot of things. In general, his view on stock splits is one of them. People get strange views of stock prices being "cheap". If you don't understand why a split doesn't really make a stock "cheaper" look at it this way: suppose I'm selling 100# bags of potatoes for $10 each. Does the intrinsic value of yhe potatoes change if I "split" and start selling them in 10# bags for $1 each? No, they're the same price per unit of potato. It works the same way for businesses. A business is worth $x, a stock is a portion of ownership. Cutting smaller portions is like selling smaller bags of potatoes.

      Of course, BRK is also the classic counter-example. They're selling 432,000# bags of potatoes. Once the unit size becomes too large to handle, you have practical issues to consider.

      Stocks on the low side can have similar issues. "Cheap" stocks aren't suddenly good performing ones if you do a reverse split and tack a couple zeros on to the price. OTOH, if the price is under $1, maintaining a bid/ask spread is harder to do.

    3. a_yank_lurker

      Stock splits have had a contentious history. In the Robber Baron era over here stock splits were generally considered almost a form of fraud and was called 'watering' the stock.

    4. Claptrap314 Silver badge

      It's now about liquidity

      I've been close enough to the cool kids to overhear some conversations about this.

      Suppose you are a market maker. Suppose you have two orders to process. One is for 1000 shares of a company priced at $1. The other is for one share of a company priced at $1000. Which to do service first?

      In case you do know not, market makers make their money based on the difference between what the seller is asking and what the buyer is offering. It is not unreasonable to make $20 off the $1 company. It is much harder to make $20 off the $1000 company.

      Certainly, back before we had even had mechanical calculators, stock splits would have looked very much like a government inflating its currency. But today, EVERY stock history tool adjusts for the splits. Companies want their share price to be in a certain range to maintain a certain level of liquidity.

      Buffet, of course, has no concerns about that. To him, the paperwork is an unnecessary expense. You want to play? Anny up your half million.

    5. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      NASDAQ irrelevant

      As a Berkshire stockholder (class B, which is BRK.B, not class A), Berkshire isn't a NASDAQ stock its a NYSE stock so NASDAQ rules don't matter. The reason Buffet doesn't split the A class is because he doesn't want a lot of speculation and stocks are traded at the instituional level in blocks of 100 shares. When you as a individual investor buy an number of shares that isn't a multiple of 100, the brokerage may have to buy the remainder of the block if they can't make the trade internally to the brokerage. (The stocks in the brokers clients accounts are held in street name in the brokerages name, and the rest is internal accounting. So a big broker can often make the stock or mutual fund trades internally thus pocketing the spread themselves.)

      Anyway, with the very large shareprice and the behind the scenes bl9ck level trading involved, the liquidiry is reduced so you keep the speculators out and skew the shareholder population towards owners who are long term investors. If you want the churn your account and invest in Berkshire, buy the B shares as the are only a couple of hundred dollars each.

  7. captain veg Silver badge

    Way back when, Microsoft released version 3.11 of Windows, also known as Windows for Warehouses because it brought no new features for anyone not connected to a networks, which was most people at the time. There was much merriment that the Windows Calculator app asserted that 3.11 - 3.1 = 0. This wasn't fixed, IIRC, until Windows 98.


    1. John Miles

      There was a plain version of Windows 3.11 which was just a bug fix release - there was also a version 3.1 for Work Groups - but most people would have probably got Windows 3.11 for Workgroups as I believe that was default for OEMs

  8. Mike 137 Silver badge

    What planet?

    "A solution would be to use 64-bit unsigned integers"

    There are other solutions too, including quite a choice of arbitrary precision math libraries out there - (a simple example is Java's BigDecimal) - that don't suffer from the inaccuracies of conventional IEEE floating point. This ain't a hard nut to crack.

    1. Sandtitz Silver badge

      Re: What planet?

      "There are other solutions too"

      I'd go for unsigned 33-bit number. Should be enough for the foreseeable future.

    2. Claptrap314 Silver badge

      Re: What planet?

      It's not hard to crack, but it's even easier to smash. Arbitrary precision is REALLY slow. It also has to deal with a bunch of edge cases that the 64 bit int folks have paid PhD mathematicians to generate formally checked proofs to catch.

      And you really, REALLY don't want the successor of the Pentium bug messing up stock quotes.

  9. kmceject

    This has happened with them before

    Working at a Market Data Provider in the 80s and 90s we used all sorts of compression and limitations to keep our data feed fast, since we were sending ticker info out at the warp speed of 38.4kb async. (Inputs from the exchanges were a maximum of 19.2kb and we had about 15 different exchanges at the time as I recall.) The limit for a price dollar was 2 bytes but one bit was reserved so we had a price limit of $32768. Our stream used lots of bit masking where certain bits were used for various details. The encoding allowed us to take an 80 byte message from the exchange to put out the same data in about 14 bytes.)

    One day the developers of that code started to panic when they realized that Berkshire Hathaway was reaching that limit. They had to spend days trying to figure how to change the code to allow for a different bit to be used for that flag bit and how to get that code out to the customers so they could read the new encoding. We didn't make it for all the customers because it required mailing a disk to them with the new software.

    1. -tim

      Re: This has happened with them before

      Back in the day of fractional prices the old 16 bit systems would have a scale for each stock so that BRK.B would be traded in 1/2 while IBM would have been traded in 1/8 or 1/16ths.

      BRK.B did hit the 32767 1/2 wall for a while.

  10. AndrueC Silver badge

    Floating point calculations in programs are a horror just waiting to trip you up when you least expect it. It's rather ironic that computers are actually pretty bad(*) at performing floating point calculations. The one thing everyone expects them to do and they are bad at it...

    (*)There are of course ways to mitigate the problem but you have to choose to use them. I suspect most programmers don't even know there's a problem. They think that 1/10 is easy to calculate :)

    1. Spoobistle

      Well, floating point representations were designed to allow scientists and engineers to use widely ranging quantities without having to think about scaling in each expression. Remember, at that time the alternatives to the (digital) computer doing it were the human computer with a slide rule or log tables! Or of course electronic or mechanical analog computers.

      1. Claptrap314 Silver badge

        Recall also that on the 360, 1.0 + 1.0 = 4.0. I assume that they fixed it at some point.

        Floating point is good for graphics. If you are disciplined, it is acceptable for statistics. After that? Stay away.

        I built a floating point emulator. Spent 4 years doing FPU validation and another 6 doing CPU validation. Stay away.

        1. gnasher729 Silver badge

          I built a floating-point emulator that would perform Java-compatible FP on CPUs without FPU. Ran half the speed of a Pentium 3 FPU on the same processor. Took two weeks. And passed Sun’s tests. Really not difficult.

          1. Ken Moorhouse Silver badge

            Re: Took two weeks.

            You're talking about the development time, rather than the elapsed time to do a calculation?

            1. Claptrap314 Silver badge

              Re: Took two weeks.

              Have one -->

              I was talking to a lead dev for the Athalon microprocessor about the speed of integer divide. I proposed using the FPU algorithm. He misunderstood me, and computed the time to ship the data across the part to the FPU, convert it, do the divide, convert the result to int, and ship it back, "No, that would be a bit slower."

              Emulation tends to be SLOW.

          2. Claptrap314 Silver badge

            You understand that the original Pentium passed the Berkley tests, right?

            The comment about writing the emulator is not about being some sort of hot-shot programmer. Indeed, at the time, I was clawing my way up from hackerdom.

            The comment was about learning IEEE-754 forwards and backwards. About understanding the full implications of each "may" and "should" in the document verses what Intel had actually done. And, implicitly, about understanding exactly what floating point representation is, and therefore what it is not. Which is a meaningful credential to present when talking about how floating point should or should not be used.

      2. Tom 7 Silver badge

        O analogue computers half ones programming time was scaling everything to get it to fit in a useful part of the computers range and then scaling it back to the real world. Even 32 bit FP numbers made life so much easier for many of us.

        1. Claptrap314 Silver badge

          Right up until the rounding error that you didn't realize was going to blow up on you was realized.

          "Easier"--certainly. "Better"--you might not even know.

  11. John G Imrie

    What ever happened to binary coded decimals?

    1. Flocke Kroes Silver badge

      They are a pig for the CPU to calculate with. Better to use integers and remember to add decimal point in the right place when you print the result just as you would with BCD.

  12. Stevie


    Christ on a fucking bike!

    You NEVER use floating point for any kind of currency calculations.

    Anyone in the banking industry would know this from the secret-to-most uckfup in the early 90s when some Clever Young Things, filled with the spirit of No More Cobol (which, of course, has a special scaled decimal currency type - "computational" - though that isn't spelled out in the code and the CYTs apparently never cracked a manual), did just that.

    The reason that CYTs still *do* that is because newer IT manuals almost universally discuss FP with the same throwaway sentence used in the article and *never* go into why the Azathoth-damned type is approximate.


    1. a_yank_lurker

      Re: Bah!

      The problems with floating points is widely known if you bother look around. I have 35 year texts that discuss fp problems in calculations. But I wonder how many 'programmers' bothered to consider these issues when writing their code for their Pile it Higher and Deeper feces. Which raises the question how many computer analyses are actually correct.

    2. Martin Gregorie

      Re: Bah!

      I agree that the finance industry would never consider using floating point for storing values in any currency. Been there, done that: the rule is to hold integral values of the smallest unit used in that currency, so GBP amounts are held in pence, dollar values in cents and Indian Rupees still seem to be stored as paise (100 paise to the rupee even though the physical currency no longer has any currency smaller than a rupee.

      However, COBOL's numeric COMPUTATIONAL qualifier (COMP is also valid) isn't special for currency.

      All it means is that the value in a variable may contain only a sign and a string of digits, and COMP may be omitted if the variable's PICTURE contains only the characters S and 9. (unless its an edited value when +-9Z. are all usable) and it will always be handled as an integer value with the decimal point being treated as implied and/or used to align values with differing numbers of digits beyond the decimal point.

      This causes issues for newbie programmers because if you have two values stored as PIC "999.99" COMP and you try to divide 7.00 by 2.00 you will get 3.00 and a remainder of 1.0 because integer division.

      You can also add the 'SYNC' qualifier, which causes the computer's 'natural' storage to be used for that variable. That would be a 24 bit signed integer on an ICL 1900 mainframe, a 16 or 32 bit signed integer on a 32 or 64 bit Intel-based machine. OTOH if you were running on a low end IBM S/360 such as a model 30 you'd be using Packed BCD (Packed Binary Coded Decimal) which stored digits as 4 bits, packed two per byte, and had special instructions for dealing with larger packed BCD values stored as strings of bytes.

      COBOL can also handle floating point values (COMP-1 or COMP-2 type variables, but that's outside scope for this discussion, since only a numpty or an inexperienced BASIC programmer would ever consider using floating point values to store monetary values.

      1. J.G.Harston Silver badge

        Re: Bah!

        I'm sure I remember it being described in my ZX Spectrum user manual, so surely today's toilet-roll graduates were taught it.

        1. Dan 55 Silver badge

          Re: Bah!

          Oddly enough Sinclair Basic floats are stored at a higher precision than C floats (five bytes vs four).

          1. Ken Moorhouse Silver badge

            Re: Sinclair Basic

            I would be very wary of any calculation emitted from a Sinclair computation. On the Sinclair Scientific calculator someone did the arc sine of a number greater than 1. It gave an answer, rather than the anticipated error.

            1. Dan 55 Silver badge

              Re: Sinclair Basic

              By the time they got to the Spectrum it apparently wasn't that bad, at least as far as floating point was concerned.

            2. Tom 7 Silver badge

              Re: Sinclair Basic

              The Sinclair calculator was shit - it was however an utter masterpiece in squeezing the maximum useful functionality from a piece of silicon at the time.

      2. Stevie

        Re: Bah!

        On real computers the "SYNC RIGHT" gets automatically added because the mill expects that. You can override it of course, but it is scarcely worth the trouble unless really starved for memory/disk space or have single word fields with multiple short values packed in them (The UNIVAC 1100 family has a 36 bit word that can be chopped in a number of ways, so using Cobol's SYNC is often a waste of effort better spent in the Data Division where fewer runtime errors will be waiting to silently bite us, for example).

        What makes COMP a 'currency type' is that it is a binary numeric representation with a *decimal* scale factor. This means that arithmetic works as long as you know how the language arithmetic operators/verbs do, and have a grasp of implied intermediate value field types. Screwing up DIVIDE is a different order of problem, nothing to do with the declared variable picture clauses.

        COMP-? declarations are different beasts, retrofits that are implementation dependent. I well remember a newly hired boss giving me gyp about using report writer because "it doesn't handle packed decimal", until I pointed out that packed decimal was an IBM conceit and we were in the world of Univac, where report writer worked just fine.

        I can do COMP-? discussions all day because I once made my money converting such fields for running on other hardware than they were originally intended (lots of contracts with people doing government work), and somewhere I have a Univac Cobol Supplemental manual, long out of print, that details all the bizarre COMP variants for working especially with IBM->UNIVAC conversions (tape formats being top of the list. IBM x-track, y-parity, that sort of thing).

        And yes, a bunch of clever young things really did nerf Wall St bizzes plural in the early 90s by deploying float types to record and calculate currency amounts. It was quite the secret scandal.

      3. Old Used Programmer

        Re: Bah!

        Actually... If there is going to be any actual computation, a COBOL programmer would probably use PIC 999V99 COMP-3. You'd only stick the actual decimal point in for the DISPLAY variable when you output it in human readable form.

    3. Claptrap314 Silver badge

      Re: Bah!

      I take it you've actually worked with floating point, then...

    4. yetanotheraoc Silver badge

      Re: Bah!

      "Anyone in the banking industry would know this"

      I work in the banking industry and I can assure you there are many who do not know this. In our group I can count on one finger the number of people who know Excel has a Currency data type.

  13. Morten Bjoernsvik

    python to the rescue

    python is actually very much used in banking nowadays mainly because it has arbitrary numbers builtin without any fuzz:

    >>> int64bit = 2**63-1

    >>> bigger = int64bit**10

    >>> type(bigger)

    <class 'int'>

    >>> bigger


    1. Claptrap314 Silver badge

      Re: python to the rescue

      Did the kettle whistle by the time that completed?

      Arbitrary precision is slow. REALLY slow. It also contains a TON of corner cases, so unless the folks that put that library together truly are top notch, it will almost certainly have some errors. Somewhere.

      I spent a decade doing microprocessor validation. Trust me.

      Fixed point computations have their algorithms proven by PhD mathematicians. Those proofs are formally checked. The algorithms are expressed in a language that gets compiled into gates. And model equivalence checkers are used to ensure that the compilers did not mess it up.

      1. thames

        Re: python to the rescue

        It's perhaps fortunate then that Python was created by a PhD mathematician. It uses Karatsuba arithmetic, which has been around since the early 1960s.

        Python is also the only language that I am familiar with that does modulo operations in the mathematically correct manner in all cases. Every other language that I have tested (as well as spreadsheets) will produce mathematically incorrect answers under some circumstances because it was "faster" (because the CPUs produce incorrect answers). Python's creator insisted on mathematical correctness over performance in that case, so I'm pretty sure he did the same with other integer operations.

        As a typical example, the sum of a large integer array in pure C is roughly 7 times faster than in Python (the exact amount in C will vary by integer size and type). In Python however the sum will never overflow while with C you are pretty much guaranteed to have an integer overflow even with a relatively "small" array.

        You can do integer operations in Python without ever having to check for overflow. In typical languages using native integers people don't often check for overflows either, but then we get constant security notices about vulnerabilities due to unchecked integer overflows.

        I can pretty much guaranty that the majority of programmers don't even know how to check for integer overflow correctly. There are many corner cases that will vary depending on operation and integer type. Several years ago I had reason to find all the integer overflow cases for all the integer types and operations, and I could not find a comprehensive single source for this. Not that it matters of course, since as I said the average programmer never checks anyway.

        If you really need maximum numerical performance in Python, then you are almost certainly using a numerical library anyway, the most common ones are written in C or Fortran and operate on native integers or floating point numbers in native arrays. The libraries can take care of the details.

        If however you just need to add two numbers together, then just do it in Python and you can be assured that the result will never overflow without you having to add multiple lines of code around each operation to prevent it. If you are just adding a couple of numbers the performance overhead is insignificant in practical terms.

        With Python, pragmatism is the preferred course of action.

        1. Version 1.0 Silver badge

          Re: python to the rescue

          It's like using an Abacus ... just because you are using an accurate tool or language, doesn't mean that you are writing accurate code.

      2. doublelayer Silver badge

        Re: python to the rescue

        It's Python. It's slower than native code, definitely. It is likely to be accurate though, so if you need very large numbers with arbitrary precision and you're willing to deal with the performance problem, that's a way to do it. Like most other systems, you have to know what you're doing while using it, since Python also has floats which work equally badly as everybody else's floats so you need to know when not to use them. A lot of possibilities would have avoided this bug. It just takes some consideration about possible inputs so the programmers store things in a type which can handle them.

        1. Claptrap314 Silver badge

          Re: python to the rescue

're saying that programmers need to think? Huh.

  14. Lucy in the Sky (with Diamonds)

    The ghost of Bernie Madoff

    Let us not forget, that the chairman of NASDAQ was Bernie Madoff. Perhaps this 32bit integer was the real reason how he made his money. Notice, how he has conveniently passed away three weeks before this news broke…

  15. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

    stopped BRK.A's data going out before it oveflowed

    "stopped BRK.A's data going out before it oveflowed"

    I know they are highly regulated and the fines for non-compliance can be high, not to mention the reputational hit if they get it wrong, but wouldn't it be nice if other parts of the IT industry were watching for and fixing this type or error before it affects their users? Kudos to them for spotting it in time that the error didn't make it out into the wide world, although ideally they should have spotted it AND FIXED it before they needed to hide it.

    1. doublelayer Silver badge

      Re: stopped BRK.A's data going out before it oveflowed

      This isn't striking me as a particularly intelligent action on their part. I would have imagined big numbers to be an important test case for the code before it got used at all. Even at the stage of throwing random data at the code to watch it work I think they could have found that. If they just theorized a test stock which increased in value geometrically, they could have tested the limits in a few seconds.

      1. Claptrap314 Silver badge

        Re: stopped BRK.A's data going out before it oveflowed

        They knew the limits when they first wrote the code. They probably even had an alert in place to automatically email everyone from the CTO down when that limit was being approached.

        Real code in the real world has limits. Real businesses have to make real business decisions about which limits are the appropriate ones for the job at hand.

        As mentioned above, arbitrary precision is dirt slow, and error prone. Almost certainly the wrong solution for order processing.

        1. Ken Moorhouse Silver badge

          Re: They knew the limits when they first wrote the code.

          "640K ought to be enough for anybody."

          1. Claptrap314 Silver badge

            Re: They knew the limits when they first wrote the code.

            Bumping my head on the TRS-80's 16k limit changed the way I programmed (well, hacked) for a decade and a half. (Until I was programming professionally.) :D

            But in this case, no. By the time electrical computers came out, there had already been multiple instances of galloping inflation and hyperinflation in history. It was a deliberate decision to not accept the ongoing cost of supporting a hyperinflation scenario.

            1. Ken Moorhouse Silver badge

              Re: there had already been multiple instances of galloping inflation and hyperinflation

              None of them involving stock exchanges controlled by computers though.

              It's not just the maximum monetary value capable of being stored in a field, it is also the rate at which it changes which is of note. There has to be a "revalue" mechanism in place geared to massive daily changes. Charts used to show share prices and indices will have to be revamped to take inflation rate into consideration, and this would be dependent on the points at which revaluations occur through trading hours.

              1. Claptrap314 Silver badge

                Re: there had already been multiple instances of galloping inflation and hyperinflation

                You do know that there were factories that shut down every hour to allow their workers to spend their wages, correct?

                The decision not to support a hyperinflation scenario was deliberate.

                1. Ken Moorhouse Silver badge

                  Re: The decision not to support a hyperinflation scenario was deliberate.

                  I would be interested to read up on when and how such decisions were made. Can a link be supplied please?


                  I'm aware that factories were shut down at intervals. I'm also aware that the LSE, for example, has mechanisms for imposing brief pauses in trading to cope with trading anomalies through the day. These may relate either to individual shares, or to the market as a whole. Being a Control System - a very complex one, things that throw the volatility of it out of kilter due to price gearing and the velocity of change would necessitate extra, clearly defined shutdowns. These would need to have greater visibility and be clearly understood by traders, otherwise grave instability will occur.

                  At the moment ad hoc price monitoring extensions are communicated through the regulatory news system, but how much extra load can be put on that system? How would the "depth" of the market cope with these unpredictable demands?

  16. TDog


    When I worked for an organisation that shall be nameless I was cross attached to a team of permies who were having issues with summing SWIFT values (VB6), I was told it was a problem they had been working on for several weeks - and could be expected to be there for quite a long time till the tests worked.

    As you can probably immediately guess I was there for about 15 minutes; 1 minute to read the code (well only about the first 100 lines), 11 minutes to stop laughing and 3 minutes to explain that floats were not appropriate for financial transactions. When I returned to my other team we then spent about 4 hours trying to estimate how much money had been wasted through their ignorance, and what the consequences would be had they proceeded.

    In all fairness their testing was good enough to identify the issue - they were just woefully ignorant of data structures.

    1. newspuppy

      Re: HMRC - Data Structures...

      This is all too large a problem these days with the Clever Untested New Technology masters..

      Schools skip over the basics and throw on the frameworks and languages.. and the new tech masters have no idea what goes on behind the interpreter/compiler curtain.

      From data structures, compilers, interpreters,, to algorithms, to how the high level code actually maps to a real machine.... nothing is known... and they get themselves into trouble... as the answers to problems they must deal with in real life are not found in the back of the book or in last year's classwork.

      Unfortunately, most of the 'teachers' are themselves incompetent, and are teaching as they are unable to get a job themselves..... Of course this generalisation is not accurate, as there are some great teachers....

      1. swm

        Re: HMRC - Data Structures...

        When I was teaching computer science I lobbied for a course in numerical analysis. No one was interested.

        1. Claptrap314 Silver badge

          Re: HMRC - Data Structures...

          Wrong department--I took that in the mathematics department.

    2. gnasher729 Silver badge

      Re: HMRC

      Double or extended precision is entirely appropriate - if you know what you’re doing. If you can estimate worst cases for rounding errors and compensate for them.

      If you were nowhere near finished after reading “the first hundred lines” of code then they didn’t know what they were doing. And that would be the problem, not floating point.

  17. Tom 7 Silver badge

    BRK is a 6502 CPU assembly code mnemonic for a breakpoint,

    Which is really handy for helping people learn how assembly code works and is a fantastic programming aid to preventing the articles aspersion!

  18. Ken Moorhouse Silver badge


    One of the things I ponder about is if hyperinflation were to hit the dollar or the pound. Would financial systems be able to cope? This story indicates that this hasn't been thought through on a wider scale.


    Just imagine if someone started a rumour that Berkshire Hathaway were a takeover target.

    1. Tom 7 Silver badge

      Re: WhatIf...

      You dont get hyperinflation today. Your turn of the markets until the market stops being the market.

    2. Claptrap314 Silver badge

      Re: WhatIf...

      64 bit ints can handle hyperinflation for quite a while. Way, way past any currency reevalutations, in fact.

      1. Old Used Programmer

        Re: WhatIf...

        I'm not so sure about that... The post-WW1 hyperinflation in Germany eventually ended with a 10^12:1 revaluation. That's about 2^36. So if 32 bits isn't enough now, 64 bits won't be enough in that scenario.

  19. Ken Moorhouse Silver badge

    One solution to fractions...

    Is to have a fractional number datatype in SQL. I thought a manufacturer had implemented this, but there's a lot of "noise" when googling for it.

    1. Ken Moorhouse Silver badge

      Re: One solution to fractions...

      I remember now where I read this...

      Joe Celko mentions it in his book Data and Databases: Concepts in Practice, section 6.9.1.


      It can be done by having three internal fields for each display field (integer, numerator, denominator) separately maintained, and aggregated when needed for reports and display.

      1. Claptrap314 Silver badge

        Re: One solution to fractions...

        It's REALLY slow, however, and doesn't do you much good when computing standard deviations, for instance.

        1. Ken Moorhouse Silver badge

          Re: computing standard deviations

          I would think that calculations such as standard deviations would not require the exact same precision that a financial transaction needs.

          The idea of storing a third, a third and a third as numerator/denominator is there is no rounding if adding them together, the database engine would sum the numerators to give three thirds, which would collapse down to adding one in the numeric field.

          As you know rounding can lead to bias in how numbers are aggregated, which banker's rounding attempts to address in a fair way, but it is still a compromise.

  20. martinusher Silver badge

    No, not 32 bit 'code'

    What you're really saying is that the stock price couldn't be represented as an unsigned long because of overflow so needs to be stored in an unsigned long long. These standard types exist regardless of the system memory or machine instruction width. The actual value isn't really an unsigned long, either, its a messed up version of fixed point arithmetic using a 10 base multiplier. In real fixed point artihmetic the multiplier is 2^n, that is a shft of 'n' bits with those bits representing the fractional part and the rest of the number space the integer. There are libraries and macros that help with keeping track of fixed points -- typically you'll declare a unique type that will be a 'Q20.12', 20 bits for the integer and 12 for the fraction. The notionation depends on the libary, AFAIK its not standardized.

    So why not just use floating point? Two issues -- its imprecise and relatively slow. Its convenient and good enough for a lot of calculations but when you're running serious real-time you need the speed and predictability of integer arithmetic.

    BTW -- If you're doing work with very large or small numbers then the preferred format is BCD. Numbers are represented by strings of indefinite length and are of arbitary precision. Operations are necessarily slow but will be precise. As you develop the calculations its possible that floating point may be usable for some or all of it but you still need to use BCD to check that any errors that creep in are tolerable.

  21. Pen-y-gors

    Or do weird things

    Working for insurance company, in the dim and distant, when storage cost money.

    So, how did we handle UK decimal currency in PL/1?

    We defined a signed fixed (11,1) (packed decimal) field which took 6 bytes, and then moved the amount in pennies into it, so we got 001234567890C in hex. So £123.45 was x'000000123450C'

    Then, we defined a 5-byte character field on top of that, using a pointer.

    Then we moved the five bytes into the record for storage, to save the waste of space of the last x'0C'.

    Reverse process when reading.

    It got worse. Disk storage was expensive. We had one file which was a Regional(1) dataset (if I remember rightly from 30+ years ago). These had no key, but were accessed by location on disk. The file held 10,000,000 one-byte records, one for each policy number. The first two bits of the byte held two status indicators, the last 6 bits held an integer that was the policy type (10-63).

    Ah the good old days.

  22. W.S.Gosset

    "Buffett overflow error"

    MASSIVE props for this pun -- truly outstanding

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