Yearly Archives: 2019

Exchanging Data

Do we need another stock exchange?

I’ve been asked this question repeatedly since Bank of America Merrill Lynch, Charles Schwab, Citadel Securities, E*TRADE, Fidelity Investments, Morgan Stanley, TD Ameritrade, UBS, and Virtu Financial agreed Jan 7 to collaborate on seeking approval for a 14th official US stock market.

The answer? It depends on who “we” is, or are.

Adam Sussman of block-trading firm Liquidnet wrote that it’s an effort to lower trading costs which, thanks to high prices from exchanges for data feeds, have gone the opposite direction of trading commissions.

As to further fragmentation – more venues, less aggregation of buyers and sellers – Sussman says amusingly (the whole piece is funny) that “fragmentation is like having kids – after you have three of them, you just go numb to the pain.”

Michael Friedman, formerly of proprietary trading shop and technology vendor Trillium Management, said at TABB Forum (registration required) that these trading firms representing perhaps more than half of all volume resent how the exchanges keep raising prices for market data that brokers themselves create.

Before the exchanges IPO’d – all but IEX are now owned by public shareholders – they were member-owned, and members didn’t pay for data. Coincidentally the new market is called MEMX, or Members Exchange, anachronistically hailing a different era.

Friedman artfully unfolds market structure, explaining how a bid to buy shares at $9.08 at the NYSE cannot execute if the Nasdaq has a bid to buy at $9.10 because buyers willing to pay more are given legal priority and the trade must route out to the Nasdaq.

What if these firms were to route all the best trades – ones wanting to be the highest bid to buy or offer to sell – to themselves?  They could conceivably ravage market-share among big exchange groups until costs fell to a new equilibrium.

I think there are two other big reasons for this new cooperative.

One is easy to understand. Brokers are required to prove to customers that they provide “best execution,” or trading services that are at least as good as the average.  Paradoxically, that standard is predicated on averages for customer trades in the market – which concentrate heavily into the largest firms, including several MEMX backers.

If the order flow is consistently better than the average, it’s conceivable these firms could use their own data for free to meet best-execution requirements, a tectonic fist-bump amidst market rules.

So how would they boost odds that their data are better?  Look at who’s involved. They are mostly retail brokerage firms, or firms buying retail flow.

At Fidelity, about 97% of the firm’s retail orders are “nondirected,” lacking instructions about where the trades should occur. And well over 50% of those orders are sent to Virtu and Citadel.

Schwab says 99.6% of its trades are nondirected and 70% of them go to Virtu, Citadel and UBS.

And guess what?  Retail orders are permitted under rules to, in the jargon of market structure, “price-improve” trades.  The NYSE says its Retail Liquidity Program “can be used by retail firms directly as well as by the brokers who service retail order flow providers.”

Interactive Brokers, a firm for sophisticated retail traders and hedge funds, says retail orders with a limit, or set price, can be hidden from display at exchanges in increments of a thousandth of a dollar better than the displayed one, and the orders will float with a changing bid to buy or offer to sell.

That is, if the best bid to buy everyone sees is $9.08, a hidden limit order can be set at $9.081 and bounce like a bobber, staying always a fraction of a penny better than visible prices.

Under market rules, stocks cannot quote in increments below a penny. But they sure can trade in smaller increments, and they do all the time.

By aggregating retail order flow that market rules give a special dispensation to be better than other orders the members of MEMX believe they can not only match more orders but create the best market data.

How is it possible? Regulators wanted to be sure the little guy wouldn’t get screwed, so they give retail trades preference. They never dreamed innovative high-speed traders would buy it, or take advantage of rules permitting these trades to have narrower spreads.

It may work.

The problem is that the advantage MEMX hopes to leverage is a regulatory one that gives special access to one kind of activity.  (Editorial note: As we’ve written repeatedly, it’s just as Exchange Traded Funds have proliferated not by being better but through unique regulatory advantages giving them a private, wholesale block market with no transparency).

What’s it mean to investors and public companies? Investors, you could be picked off because MEMX could have compounded capacity to price-improve non-displayed orders. Public companies, something other than capital-formation is driving markets, which is not in your best interest.

We’d prefer a fair, level playing field serving investors and issuers, not rules permitting exceptions traders can game.

Leveraged Market

Paul Rowady writing at Alphacution says 67% of securities in US stock markets are derivatives dependent on an underlying 33%, made up of company stocks. It’s leveraged.

We can talk about ramifications at the end. To begin, the point is to understand, investors and investor-relations professionals, what it means to how stocks perform.

A derivative is a security that gets its value from an underlying asset. Mr. Rowady is referring to the proliferation of stock and index options and exchange-traded funds (ETFs) predicated on stocks.

It seems helpful to understand the linkage between how the market falls or rises, and how instruments that are derived from shares comprising market capitalization contribute to these cycles.

With derivatives outnumbering stocks two-to-one, the market behaves in a sense like a 2x leveraged vehicle, such as QLD, the ProShares Ultra QQQ ETF, which aims to correspond to two times the performance of the Nasdaq 100.

I’m oversimplifying. For a pure comparison, all the derivatives would have to be long, and they’re not of course, and there’s wide disparity in performance among securities across the market.

Follow me here.  Leveraged markets compound performance both directions. Take QLD. Suppose its underlying asset, the Nasdaq 100 represented by QQQ, is up 5%. QLD would rise 10%. Say for simplicity QQQ trades at $100. QQQ closes at $105, QLD at $110.

QQQ then retreats 5% the next trading day, back to $100. QLD closes at $99, 10% below $110. Compound that daily 5% up-and-down pattern over 30 days and QLD loses 50% of its value while QQQ is still worth $100.

Borrowing is leverage.  If I buy 100 shares of AAPL and borrow $15,000 or so to buy another 100 shares, and AAPL drops 8%, I’m down not 8% but the compounding effect of losses on the asset serving as collateral. I may be forced to sell core portfolio positions to cover my losses on borrowings.

Routinely, brokers are borrowing stocks to supply to ETF sponsors like Blackrock for the right to create ETF shares. We’ve studied shorting in ETFs and component stocks and have found them inversely correlated – validation.

Borrowed stock here isn’t a bet on declines but a defined value. If I exchange $1 million of borrowed stock for the right to create ETF shares that then fall to $950,000, I’ve lost 5% of my money.

I’ve got an obligation to cover borrowings even though I’ve lost money creating and selling ETF shares.  I may be forced to sell something else to align value at risk with internal compliance requirements.

This isn’t a dissection of detailed trading practices but rather a reflection on what can happen in volatile markets when leverage is pervasive. At Jan 7, 48% of all stock-trading volume was short – borrowed. That’s 1x leveraged. On top of the derivatives-to-stock ratio.

When considerations of losses or gains on leverage are ubiquitous, the market isn’t a reliable barometer for how the economy is faring, what investors think of trade practices or government shutdowns, or how your business is performing fundamentally.

The good news is it’s measurable! IR pros, we track every day what behavior is long or short, the role of Risk Mgmt reflecting leverage, and what trends signal. Investors, Sector Insights meter Sentiment, behaviors, shorting, intraday volatility and other factors by industry group.

Investors, you can turn market structure to your advantage (ask us about Market Structure EDGE). IR people, you can proactively inform management – a key action as chief intelligence officers for the capital markets. Ask us how to learn more.

Is there systemic threat in leveraged markets? Of course. We wrote about how stocks have taken on characteristics of a credit market, and credit is always leverage, which grows where interest rates are low and money is artificially plentiful. The reset at the end of the gravy train tends to wipe out leverage.

When? Who knows?  Debt deflations that follow credit booms begin with outlier failures that cause people to say, “Huh. Wonder what happened there?”  Let’s watch trends.

Down Maiden Lane

For the Federal Reserve, 2018 was the end of the lane. For us, 2019 is fresh and new, and we’re hitting it running.

The market comes stumbling in (anybody remember Suzy Quatro?). The Dow Jones dropped 6% as it did in 2000. The index fell 7% in 2001 and 17% in 2002. The last year blue chips were red was 2015, down 2%.

Everybody wants to know as the new year begins what’s coming.  Why has the market been so volatile? Is a recession at hand? Is the bull market over?

We only know behavior – what’s behind prices. That’s market structure.

Take volatility. In Q4 2018, daily intraday volatility marketwide (average high-low spread) averaged 3.7%, a staggering 61% increase from Q3.  Cause? Exchange-Traded Funds. It’s not the economy, tariffs, China, geopolitics, or Trump.

Bold assertion?  Nope, math.  When an index mutual fund buys or sells stocks, it’s simple: The order goes to the market and gets filled or doesn’t.

ETFs do not buy or sell stocks. They move collateral manually back and forth wholesale to support an electronic retail market where everything, both ETF shares and stocks serving as collateral for them, prices in fractions of seconds. The motivation isn’t investment but profiting on the difference between manual prices and electronic ones.

When the market goes haywire, that process ruptures. Brokers lose collateral exchanged for ETF shares, so they trade desperately to recoup it. There were over $4.1 trillion of ETF wholesale transactions through Nov 2018.

The other $4.1 trillion that matters is the Fed’s balance sheet. If the bull market is over, it’ll be due to the money, not the economy. We have been saying for years that a reckoning looms, and its size is so vast that it’s hard to grasp the girth (rather like my midsection during the holidays).

On Dec 18, 2008, the Federal Reserve said its balance sheet had been “modified to include information related to Maiden Lane II LLC, a limited liability company formed to purchase residential mortgage-backed securities (RMBS) from…American International Group, Inc. (AIG).”

The biggest Fed bank sits between Liberty Street and Maiden Lane in New York. Maiden Lane made the Fed over the next six years owner of seas of failed debts.

Ten year later, on Dec 27, 2018, The Fed said its balance sheet had been “modified to reflect the removal of table 4 ‘Information on Principal Accounts of Maiden Lane LLC.’ The table has been removed because the remaining assets in the portfolio holdings of Maiden Lane LLC have been reduced to a de minimis balance.”

There were at least three Maiden Lane companies created by the Fed to absorb bad debts. At Dec 2018, what remains of these bailouts is too small to note.

Wow, right? Whew!

Not exactly. We used the colossal balance sheet of US taxpayers – every Federal Reserve Note in your wallet pledges your resources to cover government promises – to save us.  We were able to bail ourselves out using our own future money in the present.

We’ve been led to believe by everyone except Ron Paul that it’s all worked out, and now everything is awesome.  No inflation, no $5,000/oz gold.  Except that’s incorrect.  Inflation is not $5,000/oz gold.  It’s cheap money.  We’ve had inflation for ten straight years, and now inflation has stopped.

Picture a swing set on the elementary-school playground. Two chains, a sling seat, pumping legs (or a hand pushing from behind). Higher and higher you go, reaching the apex, and falling back.

Inflation is the strain, the pull, feet shoved forward reaching for the sky.  What follows is the stomach-lurching descent back down.

We were all dragged down Maiden Lane with Tim Geithner and Hank Paulson and Ben Bernanke. They gave that sling seat, the American economy, the biggest shove in human history. Then they left. Up we went, hair back, laughing, feet out, reaching for the sky.

Now we’re at the top of the arc.

The vastness of the economic swing is hard to comprehend. We spent ten years like expended cartridges in the longest firefight ever to get here. We won’t give it up in a single stomach-clenching free-fall.

But the reality is and has always been that when the long walk to the end of Maiden Lane was done, there would be a reckoning, a return to reality, to earth.

How ironic that the Fed’s balance sheet and the size of the ETF wholesale market are now roughly equal – about $4.1 trillion.

It’s never been more important for public companies and investors to understand market structure – behavior. Why? Because money trumps everything, and arbitraging the price-differences it creates dominates, and is measurable, and predictable.

The trick is juxtaposing continual gyrations with the expanse of Maiden Lane, now ended. I don’t know when this bull market ends. I do know where we are slung into the sling of the swing set.

It’s going to be an interesting year. We relish the chance to help you navigate it. And we hope the Fed never returns to Maiden Lane. Let the arc play out. We’ll be all right.