Yearly Archives: 2012

The Dark Arts

No, our title does not refer to Surveillance.  Despite the Thomson/Nasdaq deal last week.

Yesterday mavens of equity markets converged on Capitol Hill to debate trading woes. Apparently the Senate, unsatisfied with just one geological trope (“Fiscal Cliff”), must examine “Dark Pools.”

If you missed the news, we’ll summarize. On the Hill, leaders from the big exchanges argued that operators of trading facilities that don’t post prices and which may select which parties can participate in buying and selling are harmful to investors who want to know the true price and supply of stocks.

As you may know, “dark pools” are markets where equity traders may find shares without having to post a price, thus avoiding actions that might move market pricing or draw attention to orders. The price for shares in dark pools is determined by whatever price is best at the exchanges.

Exchanges naturally feel a bit like Best Buy in an internet world. You’re using our liquidity and our prices to determine what you can get at another market.

For their part, dark-pool operators including Credit Suisse (runs the world’s largest dark pool, Crossfinder) and ITG (operates POSIT) countered that markets are ill-served by an exchange oligopoly that writes its own rules, regulates itself and earns some $450 million in shared data revenue off the consolidated tape that is in effect a government-granted monopoly.

It’s akin to knowing that no matter what you do, if you match up trades at a certain pace you’ll earn a profit on data because it’s guaranteed – almost like rate-of-return utilities. Dark pools think that’s a whopping tradeoff for setting prices everybody else uses.

Joe Mecane, head of NYSE equities, made the point of the day though. The nature of markets fostered by rules has “created unnecessary complexity and mistrust of markets,” Mecane said. He wants Congress to simplify it. (more…)

Who Owns My Shares

Why don’t trading and ownership match?

Sometimes you must change your point of view – put on the Magic Market Structure Spectacles – to see the truth. Say twenty-five institutions own 75% of your shares. From one month to the next there is little change in names or holdings. The remaining 25% of shares must be changing hands every few hours. Right?

In one of the better movies Nicolas Cage made before he became desperate to pay his back-taxes, his character Benjamin Franklin Gates in National Treasure found Ben Franklin’s spectacles and decoded a treasure map on the back of the United States Constitution.

That was in 2004. They were still using flip phones. In the stock market, Regulation National Market System hadn’t yet transformed trading. Yet eight years later with smart phones in most hands, IR teams and executive suites are still looking at ownership data to understand share-prices.

Grab your Magic Market Structure Spectacles. A midcap stock the past 20 trading days averaged 3.1% intraday volatility – the gab between highest and lowest price during the day. The spread in daily closing prices is half that, at 1.6%, and only if you apply absolute value. Net the ups and downs in closing prices and the cumulative price-difference in 20 days is 7%.

Now, add up intraday volatility. Anybody want to take a stab at it? Think of a number. Got it? Okay, the envelope, please. And the winner is…62%.

Yes, you read that right. Total intraday volatility is 62% in a single month when the apparent change in price is just 7%. What does that mean to “market neutral” money that hedges assets every day and trades for yield?

A treasure trove. Yet for that same stock we found Rational Prices (where active investors outraced everybody else to buy shares) on just 14.7% of trading days. (more…)

Stocks and the Fiscal Cliff

CNBC has a Fiscal Cliff countdown clock.

You can’t click a TV remote or a web page without somebody declaring that Congress’s inability to compromise on tax rates and spending cuts before December 31 will incinerate equities.

It’s predicated on sound logic. Higher taxes on investment behavior are likely to impact that behavior negatively. Motivation.

We here in Denver before we found the Holy Grail – Peyton Manning – hailed Tim Tebow, who famously sent a one-word tweet after Eli Manning’s Giants topped the Patriots in last year’s Super Bowl: Motivation.

If what one expects will happen isn’t aligned with motivation, then what one expects is unlikely to occur. That’s true in police work, business, life-goals – nearly everything. Including the stock market.

Suppose I expect that because you are a football fan you’re likely to be at Hanson’s Pub near 6:30 p.m. Mondays in Denver for the weekly NFL game. If “you” means my wife, who likes “Johnny Football” Manziel at her Alma Mater Texas A&M but doesn’t give a hoot about the NFL, my expectation won’t match reality. Monday Night Football does not motivate her.

What motivates the market? Many pundits (not all!) conclude that markets will behave badly unless a deal is in the works. That would be true if money in the markets were all rational. But statistically, Rational Investment – money following fundamentals – is only 15% of daily volume across the major US markets. Technically, we peg it at 14.2% the past 200 days, a bit more in the past five (exactly 15%). (more…)

Look Around

It’s good to know what’s around you.

En route back from Austin to Denver we traversed the hinterlands including eight miles of dirt track to visit the evocative scene of the 1864 Sand Creek massacre of peaceful Cheyenne and Arapahoe north of Lamar, CO. There’s an eerie stillness yet.

A technology client in a five-day period showed a 14% increase in midpoint price on a 4% rise in Rational investment and a 3% uptick in Speculative trading. It’s not evocative, I agree. You see all those percent signs and you want to watch cartoons or have a cocktail hour. Or drive a deserted road. Any escape from dreaded math!

But it’s telling you as plainly as historical evidence what’s happening. It’s laden to dripping with news you can use. Rational investment occurred. Speculators picked up on it and moved the price. And look how important rational investment is – just a few percentage points can change everything. There’s no better or more immediate proof of the need for IR and sweating the small stuff. One call here, one meeting there, and the whole structure of your equity market transforms.

Think about what web advertisers do with data. Every click, visit, or search is a data point that paints a three-dimensional picture of you, the consumer, and which then lines the margins of your browser with things you might use. And cookies might send you emails offering travel deals, an Overstock auction, or affordable life insurance.

Another client gained 5% around Thanksgiving, on a 7% increase in Program trading – and we even know the brokers responsible for it, and how much they were up or down compared to the preceding period. We use an algorithm for that. We marked Rational and Speculative trading as shares of market this week versus last and both were down. Hedging was the measurable, mathematical price-setter. (more…)

Sizing it Up

We’re in Texas for Thanksgiving and it was 85 degrees yesterday as we idled in heavy I-35 traffic halfway to Fort Worth.

I have to share a funny line you might use if your Thanksgiving guests linger long. My step father-in-law said, “As my dad used to say to my mother, ‘honey we’d better head to bed. These people might want to go home.’”

We considered running a “best of” Market Structure Map from last year or the year before at this time, but markets were in a tizzy over the Euro and Greece. I know, it’s redundant.

So here’s one to ponder, IR folks. Traders Magazine reported Nov 19 that the Nasdaq is ending a bid at its PSX market to draw larger stock trades by ranking size over arrival time.

It was a bold move. In markets dominated by statistical arbitrage and tiny trades, what about a place where size trumps speed? Launched in September 2010, it lasted two years. Size didn’t matter – and yet 50% of trades in the largest 1,300 stocks occur in the dark, folks from the exchanges now say.

It’s disappointing. You want to see a market for investors work. As a guy running a shop performing statistical analysis on trading activity, I’ll tell you why I think it failed. There’s just not enough investment. The bifurcation between dark and lit markets occurring in large stocks is more about statistical arbitrage than finding size. We have a market suited to trading, not investing.

You can’t change out the spark plugs, or whatever, and fix a broken chassis. You can’t get the football team and the volleyball players onto the same playing surface for two entirely different games. Well, you can. But somebody’s going to leave in a hurry. (more…)

Correlation

“Why is our stock underperforming the peer group?”

Ever got that question from your CFO or CEO?

We hear it too. Speaking of questions, if you’re in Atlanta come throw them at the panel on High Frequency Trading for NIRI’s chapter breakfast, Friday Nov 16 at Maggiano’s in Buckhead. I’ll be there, and even better, so will the Nasdaq’s Jay Heller and the NYSE’s Rich Barry. We believe our story will rival this David Petraeus thing.

Just kidding. Back to the start, the answer most times lies in fine shades of difference. If program trading for funds and models in your stock is just 1% lower than the average in your peer group, spread over a month you might trail it by 10%.

The good news for IR folks, it’s not because you’re falling down on the job. It’s just math – which you might shake by targeting potential holders with shorter horizons and more aggressive trading proclivities.

Left unattended, these patterns tend to intensify. Mathematical models, identifying discrepancy, reweight allocations and the pattern reverses. It then repeats in shrinking cycles until something rattles the whole market and things reset.

Speaking of resets, high correlation, or uniform trading patterns, is a harbinger of looming group stampedes. Now, don’t worry. We don’t hear a thundering herd. We just see curious and repeating correlations.

Correlation in US stocks hit a record 88% in 1987 during the market crash. Before it happened, correlation soared to 81%, about the same level we saw in 2008 when Lehman left for the big brokerage in the sky and markets went the other direction. (more…)

The Vessel

Will markets collapse?

We’re a day late this week, steering clear of election bipolarity marked by the vicissitudes of demography and the barest palimpsest of republicanism, a diaphanous echo of Madison and Jefferson and Hamilton, names people now think of as inner city high schools.

Back to markets. We’ve seen a curious change. A year ago, the top refrain from clients was: “What is our Rational Price?” For those not in the know, we calculate where active investors compete against market chaos to buy shares.

That’s not the top metric now. It’s this: “What’s your take on macro factors?” Management appears to have traded its focus on caring for trees for fearing the forest – so to speak. If so, the clever IRO will equip herself with good data.

We’ve been writing since early October about the gap between stocks and the US dollar. The dollar denominates the value of your shares. As the currency fluctuates in value, so do your shares, because they are inversely proportional.

In past decades since leaving the gold standard in 1971, those fluctuations have generally proven secondary to the intrinsic value of your businesses. But that changed in 2008. Currency variance replaced fundamentals as principal price-setter as unprecedented effort was undertaken by governments and central banks globally to refloat currencies.

Imagine currencies as the Costa Concordia, the doomed luxury liner that foundered fatally off the Tuscan coast. Suppose global forces were marshaled to place around it Leviathan generators blowing air through the ships foundered compartments at velocity sufficient to expectorate the sea and set the ship aright.

Thus steadied on air, the ship is readied for sail again, surrounded by a flotilla of mighty blowers filling the below-decks with air and keeping the sea back from fissures in the ravaged hull by sheer force. Passengers are loaded aboard for good times and relaxation and led to believe that all is again as it was. As seaworthy as ever.

That’s where we are. We are coming off the peak now of our fourth stocks-to-dollars inflationary cycle since 2008. In each case, markets have retreated at least 10%. The cycles are shortening. And despite retreat we right now retain the widest gap between the two since July 2008, right before the Financial Crisis.

Why does the pattern keep repeating? Because central banks keep juicing the blowers as the vessel wilts and founders. That’s what you saw yesterday after the election. The Euro crisis, having gone to the green room for a smoke is back center stage as it a year ago. Money – air – leaves variable securities for the dollar. As air leaves, stocks falter.

We don’t say these things to be discouraging. It is what it is. The wise and prudent IRO develops an understanding of market behavior – so the wise and prudent IRO will be cool in the IR chair and valuable to management and able to retain sanity and job security in markets depending on giant turbines.

If you’re relying on the same information you did in the past, you’re ill-prepared. We are in a different world now.

The Auction

Boo!

What a Halloween week. To our many friends, clients and colleagues on the Atlantic seaboard assailed by Hurricane Sandy, we in Denver are rushing sunshine your direction.

Exchanges are hoping for sunshine too as trading resumes. It hinges on opening auctions. That gives us the creepy-crawlies, as though black cats were crisscrossing ahead as we ducked from ladder to ladder to avoid the falling sky.

Why? BATS Exchange saw its IPO torpedoed when the opening auction went awry. Flaws in the Facebook opening auction at the Nasdaq delayed quotes, and the fiasco lingers in recriminations and lawsuits. Knight Capital Group had bad software derail an algorithm hitting opening auctions.

We should note “closing auctions” too, since trading days begin and end with them. Some, like the Nasdaq, call them the opening and closing “cross” – not as though it’s catechism but because of what happens.

As Sandy stomped through Long Island Sound, the big equity exchanges including NYSE, Nasdaq, Direct Edge and BATS, were plotting how to get a good auction going today to restart markets dormant since Friday.

Now, stay with me. We have one aim: To explain why the Halloween auction is vital – and risky – and why auctions are both linchpins to price-discovery and the market’s Achilles Heel. (more…)

Relativity and Dollars

How do you prove relativity?

When Einstein proffered the preposterous suggestion that all motion is relative including time, people clearly had not yet seen Usain Bolt. Or what happens to stocks after options-expirations when the spread between the dollar and equity indexes is at a relative post-crisis zenith.

Let me rephrase that.

As you know if you get analytics from us, we warned more than a week ago that a reset loomed in equities. Forget the pillars on which we lean – Behavior and Sentiment. Yes, Sentiment was vastly neutral. Behavior showed weak investment and declining speculation –signs of dying demand – all the way back in mid-August.

Let’s talk about the dollar – as I’m wont to do.

There is a prevailing sense in markets that stocks are down because earnings are bad. No doubt that contributes. But it’s like saying your car stopped moving because the engine died, when a glance earlier at the fuel gauge on empty would have offered a transcendent and predictive indicator.

Stocks are down because money long ago looked a data abounding around us. From Europe clinging together through printed Euros, to steadily falling GDP indicators in the US and China, to the workforce-participation line in US employment data nose-down like it is when economies are contracting not recovering, there were signs, much the way a piercing shriek follows when you accidentally press the panic button on your car’s key fob, that stuff didn’t look great.

We know institutional money didn’t wake up yesterday, rub its eyes, and go, “Shazzam! Earnings are going to be bad!” (more…)

Instant Replay

Let’s go to the tape.

That’s what we hear in sports now, especially football. Send it to the replay booth. Forget the referee’s call. We’ll check frame-by-frame and – yes, see, right there, his pinky finger holding the ball broke the goal line. TD!

I’m not suggesting instant replay is bad. We want accuracy. But revisiting calls changes the game. There’s a flow and rhythm disrupted by continual play-stoppages. There’s inherent sterility. We introduce a standard of perfection into an atmosphere dependent on imperfection. The game is played by imperfect humans and officiated by other imperfect ones.

With instant replay, the league is decreeing that officiating must be the one perfect element. To effect perfection, somebody loses. Players and the game are deprived of pace. We relieve participants of the opportunity packaged in every missed call to exercise character and behave gracefully. After all, life is neither perfect nor fair.

It’s a tradeoff.

We’ve got the same one in the markets. In fact, as I write, my email dinged with another trading halt, the second inside seven minutes (for NPSP and SCOG). No wait, we just had two more, for symbols SCLP and SGGG. These were all T2 or T12 halts at the Nasdaq, indicating market pauses to assess information, rather than single-stock circuit breakers as we saw multiple times the past five days under trading-halt codes T5-T7.

And yesterday as money gleefully cashed in derivatives ahead of options expirations today-Fri (rarely a good leading indicator for equities), stocks moved wildly all over the place – but just inside circuit breakers. (more…)