Yearly Archives: 2014

Tapering Tantrum

EDITORIAL NOTE: We’re right now plying the azure waters off Richard Branson’s Necker Island. The following edition of the Market Structure Map ran May 29, 2013, ahead of last year’s NIRI National Conference (if you’re heading to NIRI in Las Vegas this year, don’t miss my fireside chat about Flash Boys and Broken Markets with famed HFT expert and frequent CNBC guest Joe Saluzzi of Themis Trading. More on that next week!). The Fed continues to be de facto captain of risk assets and the wind beneath their wings. It behooves us all in the IR profession to realize we’re in the process of undergoing separation anxiety. It just hasn’t manifested yet.

 

“If something cannot go on forever, it will stop.”

This witty dictum by Herb Stein, father of Ben Stein (yes, from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, The Wonder Years, Win Ben Stein’s Money and TV in general), is called Stein’s Law. It elucidates why stocks and dollars have had such a cantankerous relationship since 2008.

Last Wednesday, May 22, Ben Bernanke told Congress that the Federal Reserve might consider “tapering” its monetary intervention called quantitative easing (QE) “sometime in the next several meetings.” You’d think someone had yelled fire in a crowded theater. The Nikkei, Japan’s 225-component equity index, plunged 7%, equal to a similar drop for the Dow Jones Industrial Average at current levels. On US markets, stocks reversed large gains and swooned.

Why do stocks sometimes react violently to “monetary policy,” what the heck is “monetary policy,” and why should IROs care?

Let’s take them in reverse order. Investor-relations professionals today must care about monetary policy because it’s the single largest factor – greater than your financial results – determining the value of your shares.

By definition, “monetary policy” is the pursuit of broad economic objectives by regulating the supply of currency and its cost, and generally driven by national central banks like the Federal Reserve in the United States.

Stay with me here. We’ll get soon to why equities can throw tantrums. (more…)

Autocallable

It’s time we had The Talk.

Candid discussions can be uncomfortable. They broach subjects we prefer to avoid. But we can’t ignore the facts of life.

One such fact is Contingent Absolute Return Autocallable Optimization Securities. We’re more comfortable talking about diarrhea, right? Bring them up at a party and the crowd disperses. Try talking to your teenager about them and she’ll roll her eyes and turn up One Direction in her ear buds.

Why the public disdain? Look at the name. Need we say more? They’re wildly popular though with issuing banks including JP Morgan, UBS, Barclays, Morgan Stanley, RBC and others – just about anyone who offers “structured products.”

This particular version of structured product (“a financial instrument crafted by a brokerage to achieve a particular investment objective for clients ranging from short-term yield to long-term risk-mitigation” is how we’d describe them) achieved both infamy and scrutiny after Apple shares slumped in latter 2012. Big banks had sold hundreds of millions of dollars of Contingent Autocallable Securities paying a yield of about 10% and tied to the performance of Apple shares. Buyers got stuck with shares that had dropped 30% in value and lost principal to boot.

I’ll give you my simplest understanding of how these instruments work and why you should care from the IR chair. It’s a debt instrument and it’s unsecured. It tends to pay high interest, like 10% annualized in a basis-points world. Whether it pays out turns on two things: How long you hold it, and whether the underlying equity to which it’s paired declines below a trigger price.

There are two problems for IROs. First, because regulators consider it debt, if it “converts” there’s no equity trade. These things are not responsible for big percentages of volume so there’s no vortex looming in your share-counts. But still, decisions and strategies impacting shares are resulting from instruments you can’t track. (more…)

Who Is Selling

“Who’s selling?”

It was 2001. I’d look up and there’d be the CEO leaning in the door of my office. This was back when my buns rode the gilded surface of the IR chair. I’d look at my computer screen and our shares would be down a percent or so.

“Somebody, apparently,” I’d say. “Let me make a few calls.”

Today we have Facebook, Twitter, Pandora, iPhones, and Tesla. None of these existed in 2001. The Intercontinental Exchange, formed a year earlier to trade derivatives, now owns the NYSE. What’s remarkable to me is that against this technological wave many issuers, not counting the growing horde with Market Structure Analytics, are still making calls to get answers.

Why wouldn’t everybody be modeling market behavior and measuring periodic change? But that’s another story.

So. What if nobody’s selling and your price is down?

Impossible, you say. For price to decline, somebody has to sell.

Let me tell you about two clients releasing earnings last week.

But first, say I’m a high-frequency trader and you’re reporting. I rent (borrow) 500 shares of stock trading at $25 apiece. Say the pre-open futures are negative. At the open, I explode ahead of all others by three microseconds to place a market order to sell 500 shares. My order plunges the market 8%. I immediately cover. And for the next six hours I and my HFT compatriots trade those 500 shares amongst ourselves 23,000 times. That’s volume of 11.5 million shares.

The huge move in price prompts swaps counterparties holding insurance policies for Blackrock and Vanguard into the market, spawning big block volumes of another 6 million shares. Now you’ve traded 17.5 million shares and your price, after dropping 8%, recovers back 3% to close down 5% on the day.

So who’s selling? Technically I, an HFT firm, sold 500 shares short at the open. I probably paid a $200 finance fee for them in my margin account.

You’re the IRO. You call your exchange for answers. They see the block data, the big volumes, and conclude, yup, you had some big-time selling. Conventional wisdom says price moves, massive volume, block trades – that’s institutional.

You’re getting calls from your holders saying, “What’s going on? I didn’t think the numbers looked bad.”

Your CEO is drumming fingers on your door and grousing, “Who the HELL is selling?!”

Your Surveillance firm says UBS and Wedbush were moving big volumes. They’re trying to see if there are any clearing-relationship ties to potential institutional sellers.

The truth is neither active nor passive investors had much to do with pressure or volume, save that counterparties for passive holders had to cover exposure, helping price off lows.

Those clients I mentioned? One saw shares drop 9% day-over-day. In the data, HFT was up 170% day-over-day as price-setter, and indexes/ETFs rose 5.3%. Nothing else was up. Active investment was down. Thus, mild passive growth-selling and huge HFT hammered price. Those shares are already back in line with fair value because the selling was no more real than my 500-share example above (but the damage is done and the data are now in the historical set, affecting future algorithmic trades).

In the other case, investors were strong buyers days before results. On earnings, active investment dropped 15%, passive investment, 8%, and HFT soared 191%. These shares also coincidentally dropped 9% (programmers of algorithms know limit up/down triggers could kill their trading strategies if the move is 10% at once).

They’re still down. Active money hasn’t come back. But it’s not selling. And now we’re seeing headlines in the news string from law firms “investigating” the company for potentially misleading investors. Investors didn’t react except to stop buying.

This is the difference between calling somebody and using data models. Don’t fall in love with models (this is not a critique of Tom Brady, mind you). But the prudent IRO today uses Market Structure Analytics.

Rotation

You’ve heard of 99-year leases?

Karen’s grandfather has had an exceptional lease on life. We were in Nashville last weekend as he marked the calendar a 99th time. Remarkably, in his lifetime headlines have been made by WWI, inventor Nikola Tesla, the Great Depression (he was a divinity student at Yale then) and Adolph Hitler.

Speaking of a lease, in a sense that’s what short volume is. We’re not talking about short interest, periodic reads on short positions outstanding. That metric today struggles for statistical significance. Short volumes marketwide the past 20 days averaged 44%. In our client base, the highest daily average was 63%, the lowest, 28%.

Recently, a noted client received public attention from a prolific Short (an investor who in the old-fashioned way borrows and sells shares to raise cash on a belief exposure can be covered later at a lower cost for an arbitrage profit between selling and buying). In weeks leading up, our client’s volume marked short instead of long (a trade is one of those two, or exempt from the rules, the latter true for less than 1% of all trades so 99% of volume is long or short) rose from 39.9% short daily to 71.9% the day before the news.

It’s hard to fathom so large a portion of daily volume short – leased, or borrowed. Yet consider other assets. Most Americans borrow to buy cars and houses and major appliances. We borrow to buy dinner by paying with credit when we eat out. Banks borrow to make loans today (not generally true before the Fed). Governments borrow for everything. In buying $3 trillion of Treasury bonds and mortgage-backed securities, the Federal Reserve borrowed from Americans’ future earnings and productivity. Borrowing is rampant (and no harbinger of health, but that’s another story).

Stocks are the same save that the ratio still favors owning over renting (at 44% to 56% the divide is no chasm). Tracking borrowing alone tells one little except that your stock’s health is dependent on or derived from borrowing. (more…)

Binary IR

There’s a joke software engineers tell. There are 10 kinds of people in the world. Those who can count in binary and those who can’t.

Nerd jokes (no offense, technology friends!) are often neither immediately nor apparently funny. But the point is binary understanding, a sort of either/or perspective.

Suppose you were planning a vacation. After much research, you decide like Tiger Woods that you’re going to Cayo Espanto, off Belize. You reserve its luxurious accommodations, arrange for transit from the mainland, plan for time out of the office, purchase clothing and other supplies, even get your scuba certification so you can plumb the depths of the Great Blue Hole off Lighthouse Reef while there. Last, as an afterthought, you look for airline tickets.

And there are none.

If you’re Tiger Woods, you don’t need no stinking airline tickets (grammatically impaired colloquialisms are never accidental here). All analogies break down somewhere. But you get the point, right. Reserving rooms and laying plans before determining if the trip is possible is getting the horse and cart confused. And there is requisite order to the effective horse-and-cart combination.

Which brings us to investor relations and market structure. IR has always considered its objective to be singular. In geopolitical parlance, Message enjoys regional hegemony. There are no other considerations. (more…)

Monoliths and Microseconds

“People are getting screwed because they can’t imagine a microsecond.”

Well, how about $1 trillion? Can we imagine that?

If you want context for the quote, read Michael Lewis’s book, Flash Boys (No. 1 now in NY Times nonfiction). Equally relevant and lost in the shadows of microseconds is the magnitude of the monolithic.

There’s a company you’d know that in the past 20 trading days has had intraday volatility of 108%. That is, summing daily spreads between high and low prices – somebody paid both – equals 8% more than a share costs. The entire value of the company in effect turned over the past month, plus an 8% commission. (Do you know your intraday volatility?)

Divided by 20, that 5.4% daily. Compare to overnight borrowing rates near 0.15% for banks, and 30-year mortgages at 4.4%. Yet beneath its skin, behavioral changes for this stock are miniscule. The average recent daily fluctuation in bottom-up investment – the money you talk to – is less than 2.3%.

There was one monolithic change. On March 24, demand from indexes/ETFs dropped 15%. Just once. Since that day, gradual price-erosion tallies eerily to a 15% decline. A one-day shift in asset-allocation cost 15% of market cap over the following month.

Yesterday we ran a dozen models for public companies reporting results today, weighing demographics and sentiment to project price-reactions. Outcomes are an amalgam of purposes. Without data, it’s impossible to know that price-moves reflect rational thought. If share of market did not change for investors, they didn’t set price, didn’t alter their views.

The Fed in 2013 bought $1 trillion worth of US Treasurys and mortgage-backed securities, pinning interest rates on ten-year US bonds near 1.7% until word leaked in May that it might stop. Between May-Dec 2013, Treasury yields rose 75% and average 30-year mortgage rates jumped 30%. (more…)

Fires, Crashes and Kill Switches

Suppose the engine of your vehicle was on fire.

The logical response would be to shut it off. But what if you were traveling at highway speed and killing the fuel supply meant you had no power breaks or steering? What if your vehicle was a jet fighter?

There are ramifications.

Last Thursday and Friday stocks plunged. Monday and Tuesday this week, shares soared. I doubt most of us think that people were selling in a stampede last week and then woke up Monday and went, “Shazzam! What have we done? We should be buying!”

Context matters.

This week offers an event in similar rarified air as blood moons in the northern hemisphere. Good Friday closes markets to end the week. Between are the usual three sets of expirations: volatility derivatives, index futures, and the remaining host of options and futures set for monthly expiry (with earnings now too – another reminder for you learned IROs to avoid that mash-up if at all possible). (more…)

The Recovery

It’s all in the recovery.

That’s the philosophy put forth by a friend of mine for dealing with unpleasant facts.

I think the chief reason for the recent swoon in stocks was not anemia in the job market but a sort of investor outrage. You can’t troll a trading periodical or blog or forum without wading through rants on why Michael Lewis, author of the bombshell book Flash Boys on high-speed trading, is either guilty of torpid whimsy (a clever phrase I admit to swiping from a Wall Street Journal opinion by the Hudson Institute’s Christopher DeMuth) or the market’s messiah.

What happens next? Shares of online brokerages including TD Ameritrade, E*Trade and Schwab have suffered on apparent fear that the widespread practice at these firms of selling their orders to fast intermediaries may come under regulatory scrutiny.

What about Vanguard, Blackrock and other massive passive investors? Asset managers favor a structure built around high-speed intermediation because it transforms relentless ebbs and flows of money in retirement accounts from an investing liability to a liquidity asset. Asset management is about generating yield. Liquidity is fungible today, and it’s not just Schwab selling orders to UBS, Scottrade marketing flow to KCG and Citi or E*Trade routing 70% of its brokerage to Susquehanna.

It would require more than a literary suspension of disbelief to suppose that while retail brokers are trading orders for dollars, big asset managers are folding proverbial hands in ecclesiastical innocence. The 40% of equity volume today that’s short, or borrowed, owes much to the alacrity of Vanguard and Blackrock. The US equity market is as dependent on borrowing and intermediation as the global financial system is on the Fed’s $4 trillion balance sheet.

Hoary heads of market structure may recall that we wrote years ago about a firm that exploded onto our data radar in 2007 called “Octeg.” It was trading ten times more than the biggest banks. Tracing addresses in filings, we found Octeg based in the same office as the Global Electronic Trading Co., or GETCO. Octeg. Get it? (more…)

Flash Boys

I don’t skateboard. But the title of Michael Lewis’s new book on high-speed trading, Flash Boys, made me think Lewis could’ve called it DC-town & Flash Boys.

Legendary skateboarder Stacy Peralta directed the 2001 documentary Dogtown & Z-boys chronicling the meteoric rise of a craze involving slapping wheels on little boards and engaging in aerobatic feats using public infrastructure such as steps and handrails. From Dogtown, slang for south Santa Monica near Venice Beach, Peralta’s Sean-Penn-narrated film tracked the groundbreaking (and wrist-breaking) 1978 exploits of the Zephyr skateboarding team, thus the “Z-boys.”

Skateboarding has got nothing to do with trading, save that both are frantic activities with dubious social benefit. We’ve been declaiming on these pages for more than a half-decade how fast intermediaries are stock-market cholesterol. So, more attention is great if the examiner’s light shines in the right place.

If you missed it, literary gadfly Lewis, whose works as the Oscar Wilde of nonfictional exposé include Moneyball (loved the movie), Blindside, Liar’s Poker and the Big Short, last week told 60 Minutes the US stock market is rigged.

The high-frequency trading crowd was caught flat-footed. But yesterday Brad Katsuyama from IEX, a dark pool for long investors that rose out of RBC, dusted it up on CNBC with Bill O’Brien from BATS/Direct Edge, an exchange catering to fast orders.

Which brings us to why Lewis might’ve called his book DC-town & Flash Boys. The exploitation of speedy small orders goes back to 1988. In the wake of the 1987 crash, volumes dropped because people feared markets. The NASD (FINRA today) created the Small Order Execution System (SOES – pronounced “soze”) both to give small investors a chance to trade 100 shares electronically, and to stimulate volume. Banditry blossomed. Professionals with computers began trading in wee increments. Volume returned. The little guy? Hm.

Regulators have always wanted to give the little guy opportunity to execute orders like the big guys. It’s admirable. It’s also impossible. Purchasing power is king. Attempt to make $1 and $1,000 equal in how trades execute, and what will happen is the big guys will shift to doing things $1 at a time. The little guy will still lose out but now your market is mayhem confusing busy with productive.

These benighted gaffes seem eerily to originate in Washington DC. Michael Lewis says big banks, high-speed traders and exchanges have rigged markets. We agree these three set prices for everybody. But they’re following the rules. (more…)

What Really Matters

Last week whilst (as the Brits would say) tooling on cruiser bikes past beanie baby tycoon Ty Warner’s palace on the Santa Barbara bluffs, we sighted paradise. This week we’re in Boston where we sponsor the NIRI chapter. Hope to see you there.

What if we did nothing?

In the investor-relations chair, in the 4:39 pm lull (or whenever you catch your breath), have you thought it? Suppose you held no earnings calls, went to no sellside conferences, engaged in no outreach. Would anything change?

Cold fear-sweat pops from your pores.

Don’t worry! This is just a simulation. But it would be telling to observe the impact of stopping whatever you do, for a quarter – to see who’s paying attention. I’m reading John Steinbeck’s East of Eden on my Kindle Paperwhite. It’s another I’d meant to read but hadn’t. One character is talking and seeing a lack of attention from his companions. Without varying tone he inserts two sentences of gibberish. They don’t bat an eye. (more…)