Yearly Archives: 2015

Crumbling Quotes

Terra firma. In Latin, “solid earth.”

Two thousand years ago people thought Latin would be the lasting language of commerce. History disproved that thesis, but the notion of a firm foundation remains. In stock-trading, however, the ground relentlessly crumbles as prices shift in illusion.

The significance of this condition goes beyond whether investors are getting fair prices. Iconoclastic IEX, the alternative trading system and prospective exchange introduced popularly in Michael Lewis’s book Flash Boys, has a solution. More on that in a moment.

Many don’t think there’s a problem. Costs are low, we’re told. Apparently stocks trade easily. But the success measures themselves are incorrect. Clear supply and demand, identifiable participants, differentiated price, service and products – these are hallmarks of free-market function. The buyers and sellers who benefit from low spreads are those whose minds are always changing.

The stock market today forces competitors to share products and to match each other’s prices. Most observable prices come from parties aiming to own nothing by day’s end. Quotes reflect seismographic instability. Nobody knows real supply or demand because 42% of traded shares are borrowed and by our measures 85% of market activity is routinely motivated by something besides rational thought. Half the volume flows through intermediaries who take great pains to remain anonymous. Imagine walking into a shopping mall full of storefronts without signs. You’d feel like you were frequenting something illegal, chthonian.

The eleven registered exchanges and 40 alternative systems comprising the National Market System are in competition with each other no differently than Nordstrom and Saks, but no law requires Nordstrom to point customers down the concourse because a marquee posting best prices says it must. In free markets, humans compete on merit. If you want a good deal cut out the middle man. (more…)

Adapting

Happy New Year!  We trust you enjoyed last week’s respite from the Market Structure Map.  Now, back to reality!

CNBC is leaving Nielsen for somebody who’ll track viewer data better.  Nielsen says CNBC is off 13% from 2013. CNBC says Nielsen misses people viewing in new ways. Criticize CNBC for seeming to kill a messenger with an unpopular epistle but commend it too for innovating. Maybe Nielsen isn’t metering the right things.

I’m reminded of what we called in my youth “the cow business.” The lament then was the demise of small cattle ranches like the one on which I grew up (20,000 acres is slight by western cow-punching standards). Cowboying was a dying business.

And then ranchers changed. They learned to measure herd data and use new technologies like artificial insemination to boost output. They adapted to the American palate. Today you can’t find a gastropub without a braised short rib or a flatiron steak. On the ranch we ate short ribs when the freezer was about empty.  But you deliver the product the consumer wants.

Speaking of which, a Wall Street Journal article Monday noted the $200 billion of 2014 net inflows Vanguard saw to its passive portfolios, which pushed total assets to $3.1 trillion. By contrast, industry active funds declined $13 billion. That’s a radical swing.  The WSJ yesterday highlighted gravity-defying growth for Exchange-Traded Funds, now with $2 trillion of assets.

The investor-relations profession targets active investors. Yet the investor’s palate wants the flank steak of, say, currency-hedged ETFs (up about $24 billion in 2014) over the filet mignon of big-name stock-pickers. IR is chasing a shrinking herd. (more…)