Yearly Archives: 2020

Dark Edges

The stock market’s glowing core can’t hide the dark edges – rather like this photo I snapped of the Yampa River in downtown Steamboat springs at twilight.

Speaking of which, summer tinkled its departure bell up high.  We saw the first yellowing aspen leaves last week, and the temperature before sunrise on the far side of Rabbit Ears Pass was 30 degrees, leaving a frosty sheen on the late-summer grass.

The last hour yesterday in stocks sent a chill too. Nothing shouts market structure like lost mojo in a snap.  I listened to pundits trying to figure out why.  Maybe a delay in stimulus.  Inflation. Blah blah.  I didn’t hear anyone blame Kamala Harris.

It’s not that we know everything.  Nobody does.  I do think our focus on the mechanics, the machinery, the rules, puts us closer to the engines running things than most observers.

And machines are running the market.  Machines shift from things that have risen to things that have fallen, taking care to choose chunks of both that have liquidity for movement. Then all the talking heads try to explain the moves in rational terms.

But it’s math. Ebbs and flows (Jim Simons, the man who solved the market at Renaissance Technologies, saw the market that way).

Passives have been out of Consumer Staples. Monday they rushed back and blue chips surged. The Nasdaq, laden with Tech, is struggling. It’s been up for a long time. Everybody is overweight and nobody has adjusted weightings in months. We can see it.

By the way, MSCI rebalances hit this week (tomorrow on the ModernIR Planning Calendar).

This is market structure. It’s morphed into a glowing core of central tendencies, such as 22% of all market capitalization now rests on FB, AAPL, AMZN, NFLX, GOOG, MSFT, AMD, TSLA and SHOP.

That’s the glowing core.  When they glow less, the dark edges grow.

Then there’s money.  Dough. Bucks. Specifically, the US dollar and its relationship to other global currencies. When the dollar falls, commodities surge. It’s tipped into the darkness the past month, marking one of its steepest modern dives.  Gold hit a record, silver surged, producer prices dependent on raw commodities exploded.

Then the dollar stopped diving. It’s up more than 1% in the last five days. And wham! Dark edges groped equities late yesterday. Gold plunged. Silver pirouetted off a 15% cliff.

August is traditionally when big currency-changes occur. Aug last year (massive move for the dollar versus the Chinese Renminbi Aug 5, 2019). Aug 2015. Aug 2018. Currencies rattle prices because currencies underpin, define, denominate, prices.

Back up to Feb 2020.  The dollar moved up sharply in late February, hitting the market Monday, Feb 24, as new options traded.  Pandemic!

Options expire next week.  The equivalent day is Aug 24, when new options will trade. Nobody knows when the dark edges will become cloying hands reaching for our investment returns or equity values.

In fact, Market Structure Sentiment™, our algorithm predictively metering the ebb and flow of different trading behaviors, peaked July 28 at 7.7 of 10.0, a strong read.  Strong reads create arcs but say roughly five trading days out, give or take, stocks fall.

They didn’t. Until yesterday anyway. They just arced.  The behavior giving equities lift since late July in patterns was Fast Trading, machines chasing relative prices in fractions of seconds – which are more than 53% of total volume.

Then Market Structure Sentiment bottomed Aug 7 at 5.3, which in turn suggests the dark edges will recede in something like five trading days.  Could be eight. Might be three.

Except we didn’t have dark edges until all at once at 3pm ET yesterday.

Maybe it lasts, maybe it doesn’t. But there’s a vital lesson for public companies and investors about the way the market works.  The shorter the timeframe of the money setting prices, the more statistically probable it becomes that the market suddenly and without warning dives into the dark.

It’s because prices for most stocks are predicated only on the most recent preceding prices.  Not some analyst’s expectation, not a multiple of future earnings, not hopes for an economic recovery in 2021.

Prices reflect preceding prices. If those stall, the whole market can dissolve into what traders call crumbling quotes.  The pandemic nature of short-term behavior hasn’t faded at the edges. It’s right there, looming.  We see it in patterns.

If something ripples here in August, it’ll be the dark edges, or the dollar. Not the 2021 economy.

Boxes and Lines

 

In the sense that high-speed transmission lines connecting computerized boxes are the stock market, it’s boxes and lines.

Also, stock exchange IEX, the investors exchange, hosts a podcast called Boxes and Lines that’s moderated by co-founder Ronan Ryan and John “JR” Ramsay, IEX’s chief market policy officer. I joined them for the most recent edition (about 30 mins of jocularity and market structure).

In case you forget, the stock market is not in New York City.  It’s in New Jersey housed in state-of-the-art colocation facilities at Mahwah, Carteret and Secaucus.  It’s bits and bytes, boxes and lines.

It’s superfast.

What’s not is the disclosure standard for institutional investors.  We wrote about the SEC’s sudden, bizarre move to exclude about 90% of them from disclosing holdings.

The current standard, which legitimizes the saying “good enough for government work,” is 45 days after the end of the quarter for everybody managing $100 million or more.

We filed our comment letter Monday.  It’ll post here at some point, where you can see all comments. You can read it here now.  Feel free to plagiarize any or all of it, investors and public companies. Issuers, read our final point about the Australian Standard of beneficial ownership-tracing, and include it with your comments.

Maybe if enough of us do it, the SEC will see its way toward this superior bar.

Without reading the letter or knowing the Australian Standard you can grasp a hyperbolic contradiction. The government’s job is to provide a transparent and fair playing field.  Yet the same SEC regulates the stock market located in New Jersey. Boxes and lines.

FB, AAPL, AMZN, NFLX, GOOG, GOOGL, MSFT, AMD, TSLA and SHOP alone trade over 2.5 MILLION times, over $80 billion worth of stock. Every day.

And the standard for measuring who owns the stock is 45 days past the end of each quarter.  A quarter has about 67 trading days, give or take.  Add another 30 trading days.  Do the math.  That’s 250 million trades, about $7.9 trillion of dollar-flow.  In 10 stocks.

Why should the market function at the speed of light while investors report shareholdings at the speed of smell? Slower, really.

Do we really need to know who owns stocks?  I noted last week here and in our SEC 13F Comment Letter both that online brokerage Robinhood reports what stocks its account holders own in realtime via API.

That’s a communication standard fitted to reality. True, it doesn’t tell us how many shares. But it’s a helluva better standard than 97 days later, four times a year.

Quast, you didn’t answer the question.  Why does anyone need to know who owns shares of which companies? Isn’t everybody entitled to an expectation of privacy?

It’s a public market we’re talking about.  The constituency deserving transparency most is the only other one in the market with large regulatory disclosure requirements: Public companies.

They have a fiduciary responsibility to their owners. The laws require billions of dollars of collective spending by public companies on financial performance and governance.

How incoherent would it be if regulations demand companies disgorge expensive data to unknown holders?

As to retail money, the Securities Act of 1933, the legislative basis for now decades of amendments and regulation, had its genesis in protecting Main Street from fraud and risk.  The principal weapon in that effort has long been transparency.

Now, the good news for both investors and public companies is that you can see what all the money is doing all the time, behaviorally. We’ve offered public companies that capability for 15 years at ModernIR.

Take TSLA, now the world’s most actively traded – we believe – individual stock. SPY trades more but it’s an ETF.  Active money has been selling it.  But shorting is down, Passive Investment is down 21% the past week.  TSLA won’t fall far if Passives stay put.

That’s market structure. It’s the most relevant measurement technique for modern markets. It turns boxes and lines into predictive behavioral signals.

And investors, you can use the same data at Market Structure EDGE to help you make better decisions.

Predictive analytics are superior to peering into the long past to see what people were doing eons ago in market-structure years. Still, that doesn’t mean the SEC should throw out ownership transparency.

Small investors and public companies are the least influential market constituents. Neither group is a lobbying powerhouse like Fast Traders.  That should warrant both higher priority – or at least fair treatment. Not empty boxes and wandering lines.

PS – Speaking of market structure, if you read last week’s edition of the Market Structure Map, we said Industrials would likely be down. They are. And Patterns say there’s more to come. In fact, the market signals coming modest weakness. The Big One is lurking again but it’s not at hand yet.

Plains Crossings

The Comanches ruled the Llano Estacado once.

We crossed it twice this week, driving in a day to Austin from Denver, and the next day back to Denver.  South of Lubbock you plunge off the Llano into Abilene and Sweetwater, and it looks like this.  You see why Quanah Parker was lord of the Plains.

The Texans call it the “LAN-oh.” I prefer the Spanish pronunciation, the YAH-no Esta-CAH-do.  Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove, an unforgettable western if you’re looking for something to do in the Pandemic, immortalized its expanse.

What’s the Llano got to do with market structure?

It’s a math problem today, crossing the Llano.  You can calculate speed, fuel, stops, food, rest. Things can go wrong of course. Weather is a deterrent.  We’ve had to shelter the car under hotel awnings, trees, scrub mesquites outside the Boys Ranch, during hailstorms and downpours on our many jaunts betwixt Texline and Lampasas.

I love the open space. There’s peace in floating clouds and volcanic vistas, the row crops, the long ribbon of tarmac, the rain at the horizon. But geography is reduced to math, albeit in majestic fashion.

It’s a way to understand both investing and investor-relations in the modern era.  Crossing the Staked Plains for Larry McMurtry’s rugged characters in Lonesome Dove wasn’t math but art, in the same way that picking stocks was a matter of understanding what others missed, or how investor-relations was relationships and wordsmithing.

Now investing is like driving I-27 from Amarillo to Lubbock, IR is market intelligence. It’s a schedule and a map.

It’s not that art doesn’t matter.  What I love about the run from Amarillo to Raton, NM is how the cowboys must’ve seen it in 1880.  You can feel what they felt, hearts full of the infinite, nobody telling you what to do or where to go.

You’re also aware that at 75 mph you should be in Raton by 2:45p.

I can tell you we see it in stock-trading patterns behind price and volume.  The patterns of Active money vary – like chasing Blue Duck across the Llano (read Lonesome Dove).

The patterns of Passive money are a schedule proceeding from the beginning of the month when the inflows or outflows from 401ks come or go, to mid-month options-expirations where derivatives are leveraged directionally or used as substitutes, to month-end when the path across the month is adjusted to the plan.

It’s cruise-control on the Llano.

For Active investors and public companies, one thought should rise like Mount Capulin in New Mexico: You mean, I can check the SCHEDULE to see where the money is?

Exactly.

All analogies break down, sure. Sometimes the schedule fails.  We’re talking here about central tendencies, guideposts.

For instance, say you’re buying Industrials stocks.  If you’re using EDGE, you’ll see that Industrials are more Overbought than at any time over the past year.  The odds of more big gains have diminished. Shorting is low – they’re not about to fall apart. But why risk your capital?

Sure, there are outliers, exceptions. The latter always come with risk – like speeding down the straightaway.

Now suppose you’re the investor-relations officer for an Industrial component reporting results this week along with about 35% of all public companies.  Two weeks ago the sector rose almost 5% on derivatives into options-expirations. Last week the group added another 2% on Passive flows. (They’re related, you know. Passives knew and bought options and futures, which ETF market-makers can legally do, before the money came.)

But the sector is 8.5/10.0 Overbought into window-dressing, the third and last phase of Passive money crossing the monthly Llano.

Money is likely to rebalance away from Industrials. So it won’t matter how good your results are.  Focus on value messages, value money.  Stock-pickers wanting entry points should be your target. You can’t control Passives. You can only surf them.

This is the stock market now. You can do it the hard way, play Lonesome Dove from your trading turret, your IR chair. Or you can plot a course. Either way you’re crossing the plains.

The Daytraders

 

A year ago, Karen and I were flying to Fiji, 24 hours of travel from Denver to LA, to Auckland, to Nadi.

We took a ferry out of Denarau Island into Nadi Bay and north toward the Mamanuca Islands, all the way past the castaway home for television’s Survivor Fiji to our South Pacific gem, Tokoriki.

It’s not that I wish now to be a world away.  We can ride bikes past this gem, Catamount Lake, any crisp Steamboat morning (while the fruited plain radiates, it’s 45 degrees most days at 630a in northern Colorado).

It’s the shocking difference a year makes. Everybody’s trading. Instead of going to Fiji or whatever.

Schwab and Ameritrade have a combined 26 million accounts. Fidelity has 13 million in its brokerage unit. E*Trade, over 5 million.  Robinhood, the newest, has 13 million users.

Public companies wonder what impact these traders have on stock prices.  The old guard, the professional investors, seem to be praying daily that retail daytraders fail.

In some sense, the Dave Portnoy era (if you don’t know Barstool Sports and Davey Daytrader – perhaps our generation’s most adroit marketer – you must be a hermetic) has pulled the veil off the industry. It appears the pros know less than they led us to believe.

The pros say just wait.  The wheels are going to come off the retail wagon in a cacophony of sproinging springs and snapping spokes.

Of course, as Hedgeye’s Keith McCullough notes, if the wagon splinters, we’re all in the smithereens because there’s just one stock market.

We wrote in our widely read June 10 post, Squid Ink, about what happens to the millions of online retail trades.  They’re sold to what we call Fast Traders, machines that trade everything, everywhere, at the same time and thus can see what to buy or sell, what to trade long or short.

How does this flow that Citadel Securities, the biggest buyer of retail trades, says is now about 25% of market volume, affect the stock market, public companies and investors?

Two vital points about market structure here.  First, market-makers like Citadel Securities enjoy an exemption from rules governing stock-shorting.  Second, Fast Traders run trading models that predict in fleeting spaces how prices will behave.

Put these two factors together and you have the reason why stocks like TSLA can double in two weeks without respect to business fundamentals – or even the limitations of share supply.

If three million accounts at Robinhood want fractional exposure to TSLA, the problem for Fast Traders to solve is merely price and supply.  If you go to the grocery store and they don’t have shishito peppers, you go home without shishitos.

If you’re a retail trader wanting TSLA, you will get TSLA, and the price will rise, whether any shares exist or not.  Fast Traders will simply manufacture them – the market-maker SEC exemption on shorting.

The market-maker will cover before the market closes in 99% of cases.  So the market-maker isn’t short the stock anymore.  But maybe TSLA will have 25% more shareholdings than shares outstanding permit.

Worse, it’s impossible to understand supply and demand. If market-makers could only sell existing shares – back to shishito peppers – TSLA would skyrocket to $5,000 and plunge to $500.  Frankly, so would much of the market.

Which is worse?  Fake shares or fake prices?  Ponder it.

And machines will continuously calculate the supply or demand of shares of a stock versus others, and versus the exchange-traded derivatives including puts, calls and index futures (oh, and now Exchange Traded Funds which like prestidigitated shares have no supply limitations), to determine whether to lift prices.

As we said in Squid Ink, we believe Fast Traders buying order flow from retail brokers can see the supply in the pipeline.

Combine these features. Fast Traders see supply and demand. They relentlessly calculate how prices are likely to rise or fall. They manufacture shares to smooth out imbalances under SEC market-making exemptions.

And the market becomes this mechanism.

Risks? We’ve declaimed them for years.  The market will show a relentless capacity to rise, until something goes wrong. And then there won’t be enough stock to sell to meet redemptions, and prices will collapse. We’ve had tastes of it.  There will be more.

But it’s not the fault of the daytraders.

Big Blanket

The US stock market trades about $500 billion of stock daily, the great majority of it driven by machines turning it into trading aerosol, a fine mist sprayed everywhere. So tracking ownership-changes is hard. And unless we speak up it’s about to get a lot harder.

In 1975 when the government was reeling like a balloon in the wind after cutting the dollar loose from its anchoring gold, Congress decided to grant itself a bunch of authority over the free stock market, turning into the system that it now is.

How?  Congress added Section 11A to the Securities Act, which in 2005 became Regulation National Market System governing stock-trading today – the reason why Market Structure Analytics, which we offer to both public companies and investors, are accurately predictive about short-term price-changes.

And Congress decided to create a disclosure standard for investors, amending the Securities Act with section 13F. That’s what gave rise to the quarterly reports, 13Fs, that both investors and public companies rely on to know who owns shares.

I use the phrase “rely on” loosely as the reports are filed 45 days after the end of each quarter, which means the positions could be totally different by the time data is released. It’s a standard fit for the post office. Mail was the means of mass communication in 1975.

Currently, the standard applies to funds with $100 million or more in assets. Many managers divide assets into sub-funds to stay below that threshold.  So most companies have shareholders that show up in no reports. But at least they have some idea.

Well, out of the blue the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) has decided to lift the threshold to $3.5 billion to reflect, I guess, the collapse of dollar purchasing power.

But nothing else changes!  What would possess a regulatory body ostensibly responsible for promoting fairness and transparency to blanket the market in opacity while keeping in place time periods for reporting that have existed since 1975?

I’m reminded of a great line from the most quotable movie in modern history, Thank You For Smoking: I cannot imagine a way in which you could have $#!!@ up more.

Public companies have been asking the SEC for decades to modernize 13F reporting. Dodd Frank legislation passed in 2010 included a mandate for monthly short-position reporting. It’s not happened because the law put no timeframe on implementation.

But how stupid would it be to require monthly short-position reporting while letting long positions remain undisclosed till 45 days after the end of each quarter?

Much of the world has stricter standards of shareholder disclosure.  Australian markets empower companies and stock exchanges to require of investors full disclosure of their economic interest, on demand.

Our regulators appear to be going the opposite direction.

Australia offers an idea, SEC. If you’re going darken the capital markets with a new (non) disclosure standard, then how about empowering companies to demand from holders at any time a full picture of what they own and how they own it?

Investors, I get it. You don’t want anyone knowing what you have.  Well, it seems to work just fine in Australia, home to a vibrant capital market.

And let’s bring it around to market structure.  There is a woefully tilted playing field around ETFs.  A big investor, let’s say Vanguard, could give a billion-dollar basket of stocks to an Authorized Participant like Morgan Stanley off-market with no trading commissions and no taxes, in exchange for a billion dollars of ETF shares.

None of that counts as fund-turnover.

It could happen by 4p ET and be done the next day.  No trading volume. And then Vanguard could come right back with the ETF shares – again, off-market, doesn’t count as fund-turnover – and receive the stocks back.

Why would investors do that? To wash out capital gains. To profit on the changing prices of stocks and ETFs. This is a massive market – over $500 billion every month in US stocks alone.  It’s already over $3 TRILLION in total this year.

What’s wrong with it?  All other investors have to actually buy and sell securities, and compete with other forces, and with volatility, and pay commissions, pay taxes, alter outcomes by tromping through supply and demand.  Oh, and every single trade is handled by an intermediary (even if it’s a direct-access machine).

So how is that fair?

Well, couldn’t all investors do what Vanguard did?  No. Retail investors cannot.  Yes, big investors could take their stock-holdings to Morgan Stanley and do the same thing. But trading stocks and ETF shares back and forth to profit on price-changes while avoiding taxes and commissions isn’t long-term investment.

That the ETF market enjoys such a radical advantage over everything else is a massive disservice to public companies and stock-pickers.

And after approving the ETF market, you now, SEC, want to yank a blanket over shareholdings to boot?  Really?  Leave us in 1975 but 35 times worse?

Market Structure Analytics will show you what’s happening anyway. And nearly in real time. But that’s not the point. The point is fairness and transparency. Every one of us should comment on this rule.

Mr. Smith’s Money

The price-to-earnings ratio in the S&P 500 is about 23.  Is it even meaningful?

Some say a zero-interest-rate environment justifies paying more for stocks. That’s compounding the error. If we behaved rationally, we’d see both asset classes as mispriced, both overpriced.

All investors and all public companies want risk assets to be well-valued rather than poorly valued, sure. But Warren Buffett wasn’t the first to say you shouldn’t pay more for something than it’s worth.

What’s happening now is we don’t know what anything is worth.

Which reminds me of Modern Monetary Theory (MMT).  The words “money” and “theory” shouldn’t be used in conjunction, because they imply a troubling uncertainty about the worth of the thing everyone relies on to meter their lives.

That is, we all, in some form or another, trade time, which is finite, for money, which is also finite but less so than time, thanks to central banks, which create more of it than God gave us time.

Every one of us trading time of fixed value for money of floating value is getting hosed, and it’s showing up in the stock and bond markets.

Let me explain.  Current monetary thinking sees money as debits and credits.  If gross domestic product is debited by a pandemic because people lose their jobs and can’t buy stuff, the solution is for the government to credit the economy with an equal and offsetting amount of money, balancing the books again.

This is effectively MMT.  You MMTers, don’t send me long dissertations, please. I’m being obtuse for effect.

The problem in the equation is the omission of time, which is the true denominator of all valuable things (how much times goes into the making of diamonds, for instance? Oil?). Monetarists treat time as immaterial next to money.

If it takes John Smith 35 years to accumulate enough money to retire on, and the Federal Reserve needs the blink of an eye to manufacture the same quantity and distribute it via a lending facility, John Smith has been robbed.

How? Mr. Smith’s money will now be insufficient (increasing his dependency on government) because the increase in the availability of money will reduce the return Mr. Smith can generate from lending it to someone else to produce an income stream.

Mispriced bonds.  They don’t yield enough and they cost too much.

So by extension the cost of everything else must go up.  Why? Because every good, every service, will need just a little more capital to produce them, as its value has been diminished.  To offset that effect, prices must rise.

And prices can’t rise enough to offset this effect, so you pay 23 times for the earnings of the companies behind the goods and services when before you would only pay 15 times.

And this is how it becomes impossible to know the worth of anything.

And then it gets complicated.  Read a balance sheet of the Federal Reserve from 2007.  The Fed makes up its own accounting rules that don’t jive with the Generally Accepted Accounting Principles that all public companies must follow.

But it was pretty straightforward.  And there were about $10 billion of excess bank reserves on a monthly average, give or take.

Try reading that balance sheet today with all its footnotes.  It’s a game of financial Twister, and the reason isn’t time or money, but theory.  A theory of money that omits its time-value leads people to write things like:

The Board’s H.4.1 statistical release, “Factors Affecting Reserve Balances of Depository Institutions and Condition Statement of Federal Reserve Banks,” has been modified to include information related to TALF II LLC. The TALF II LLC was introduced on the H.4.1 cover note on June 18, 2020 https://www.federalreserve.gov/releases/h41/current/.

The theory is that if you just keep footnoting the balance sheet to describe increasingly tangled assets and offsetting liabilities, so long as it zeroes out at the end, everything will be fine.

Except it leaves out Mr. Smith and his limited time on the earth.

Oh, and excess bank reserves are now nearly $3 trillion instead of $10 billion, proof money isn’t worth what it was.

This then breaks down fundamental constructs of valuation.  And it’s why we offer Market Structure Analytics.  While fundamentals can no longer in any consistently reliable way be used to discern what the stock market is doing, Market Structure Analytics lays reasons bare.

For instance, Market Structure Sentiment™ ticked up for TSLA July 2. Good time to buy. It’s got nothing to do with fundamentals.  FB Market Structure Sentiment™ ticked up June 23. Good time to buy. In fact, it’s a 1.0/10.0 right now, but it’s 57% short, so it’s got just limited upside.  Heard all the negative stuff that would tank FB? Fat chance. Market structure rules this Mad Max world.

Public companies, if you want to understand your stock, you have to use tools that take into account today’s madness. Ours do.  Same for you, traders. Sign up for a free 14-day trial at www.marketstructureedge.com and see what drives stocks.

How does it all end? At some point Mr. Smith will lose faith, and the currency will too.  We should stop the madness before then.

Trading Fast and Slow

 

Happy 2nd Half of 2020!  I bet we’re all glad we’re halfway there. Karen and I would’ve been in Greece now sailing the Ionian islands, luxury catamaran, sunset off starboard, Hurricane in hand.

Instead my checklist leaving the house has expanded from wallet, phone, keys, to wallet, phone, keys, mask.  No vacation for you. Just a Pandemic and executive orders.

A CEO of a public company said, “Why does my stock trade only 60 shares at a time, and how do I fix it?”

I was happy the team at ModernIR had highlighted shares-per-trade (one of several liquidity metrics we track).  Every public-company CEO should understand it.

After all, your success, investor-relations folks selling the story to The Street (and investors, whether you can buy or sell shares before the price changes), depends on availability of stock. Not how great your story is.

Because there’s a mistaken idea loose in the stock market. We understand supply is limited in every market from homes for sale to shishito peppers at the grocery store. Yet we’re led to believe stocks are infinitely supplied.

This CEO I mentioned asked, “So how do I fix it?”

This isn’t AMZN we’re talking about, which trades less than 30 shares at a time, but that’s over $70,000 per trade.  AMZN is among the most liquid stocks trading today. The amount you can buy before the price changes is almost eight times the average in the whole market.

AAPL is liquid too, not because it trades almost $16 billion of stock daily but because you can ostensibly buy $35,000 at a pop, and it trades more than 400,000 times.

Back to our CEO, above. The company trades about 3,000 times per day, roughly $3,000 per trade.  Liquidity isn’t how much volume you’ve got. It’s how much of your stock trades before the price changes.

That matters to both the IR people as storytellers and the investors trying to buy it.

I’ve shared several vignettes as I experiment with our new decision-support platform democratizing market structure for investors, called Market Structure EDGE. I couldn’t buy more than 10 shares of AAPL efficiently. My marketable order for JPM split in two (96 shares, 4 shares), and high-speed traders took the same half-penny off each.

The CEO we’re talking about meant, “What can we do differently to make it easier for investors to buy our shares?”

The beginning point, at which he’d arrived, which is great news, is realizing the constraints on liquidity.

But. If you have the choice to buy something $3,000 at a time – oh, by the way, it’s also more than 4% volatile every day – or buying it $70,000 at a time with half the volatility, which “risk-adjusted return” will you choose?

And there’s the problem for our valiant CEO of a midlevel public company in the US stock market today. Fundamentals don’t determine liquidity.

To wit, TSLA is more liquid than AAPL, over $42,000 per trade.

Forget fundamentals. TSLA offers lower risk.

Ford and GM trade around $4,000 per transaction, a tenth as liquid as TSLA.  Heck, NKLA the maker of hydrogen trucks with no products and public via reverse merger is twice as liquid as our blue-chip carmakers of the 20th century.

Prospects, story, don’t determine these conditions. These vast disparities in liquidity invisible to the market unless somebody like us points them out are driven by DATA.

The reason liquidity is paltry in most stocks is because a small group of market participants with deep pockets can buy better data from exchanges than what’s seen publicly.  I’ll explain as we wrap the edition of the MSM in a moment.

The good news is the SEC wants to change it.  In a proposal to revamp what are called the data plans, the SEC is aiming to shake up the status quo by among other things, putting an issuer and a couple investors on the committee governing them.

I’ve been trying for 15 years to achieve something like this, and so has NIRI, the IR professional association (they longer than me!). I should retire! Mission accomplished.

Heretofore, the exchanges and Finra, called “Self-Regulatory Organizations (SROs),” have been able to create their own rules. In a perfect world full of character, we’d all be self-regulatory. No laws, just truth.

Alas, no.  The exchanges provide slow regulatory data to the public and sell fast data for way more money to traders who can afford it.

By comparing the slow data to the fast data, traders can jump in at whatever point and split up orders and a take a penny from both parties.

This happens to popular brokerage Robinhood’s order flow by the way.  Those retail customers get slow data, and the traders buying the trades use fast data.

That’s not the problem. The problem is that by buying Robinhood’s order flow at slow-data prices, and selling it at fast-data prices, T Rowe Price’s trades get cut out, front-run, jumped past.

Your big investors can’t buy your stock efficiently (passive money doesn’t care as it’s just tracking a benchmark).

That’s why our CEO’s company trades 60 shares at a time.

For stocks like AMZN the difference between fast and slow is small because they’re the cool kids. And size grows. For the rest, it’s the crows in the cornfield.

You can talk to investors till you turn blue. It won’t solve this problem. The only thing that will is when investors join with public companies and get behind eliminating Fast Data and Slow Data and making it just Data.

We’ve got a shot, thanks to this SEC, and the head of the division of Trading and Markets, Brett Redfearn.  We should all – public companies and investors – get behind it. If you want to know how, send me a note.

Power of Two

We’re coming to the end of two Coronavirus quarters. What happens now?

In a word, July.  As to what July brings, it’s summer in the northern hemisphere, winter down under.

It’s also the end of a remarkable period in stocks. I don’t mean rising or falling, volatility, the invincible-Alexander-the-Great-Macedonian-phalanx of the stock market (your history tidbit…you can look it up).

By “end” we don’t mean demise.  Though a demise is probably coming. More on that later. We mean the end of epic patterns.

We wrote last week about index-rebalances delayed since December.  In patterns observable through ModernIR behavioral analytics, the effort to complete them stretched unremitting from May 28 to June 18.

Yes, June 19 was a muscular volume day with quad-witching and we saw BIG Exchange Traded Fund (ETF) price-setting that day in many stocks. (Note: ETFs are substitutes for stocks that are easily traded but entitle owners to no underlying assets save the ETF shares.)

But the patterns strapping May to June like a Livestrong bracelet (wait, are those out?) ended almost everywhere June 18.  The effort reflected work by about $30 trillion, adding up money marked to MSCI, FTSE Russell and S&P Dow Jones, to match underlying construction.

Funds moved before rebalances. And the biggest components, ETF data indicate – really, they dwarf everything else – are AAPL and MSFT. Patterns show money piled like a rugby scrum into AAPL call options in early June, and then plowed headlong into AAPL equity between June 12-18.

It’s good business if you can get it, knowing the stock will inevitably rise because of its mass exposure to indexes and how its price then when last money square-danced into an Allemande Left with indexers in December 2019 was about $280.

How many of you remember when AAPL was down to about 5% of the computing market, most of that in academia, and it looked like MSFT would steamroll it right out of business?  And then MSFT was yesterday’s news, washed up, a boomer in a Slack world.

Today both say, Ha! Suckers!

MSFT patterns are like AAPL’s but less leveraged, explaining the divergence in performance over the past year. AAPL is up 84%, MSFT about half that.  You can see here how both have performed versus the Tech-heavy QQQ (Nasdaq 100 from Invesco) and the SPY, State Street’s proxy for the S&P 500.

AAPL and MSFT have pulled the market along like Charles Atlas (and his doppelganger) towing a Pennsylvania railcar (more arcane and anachronistic history for you).

That ended, at least for now.  The Russell reconstitution continues through Friday but in patterns at this point it appears money has already changed mounts, shifted chairs.

The marvel is the magnitude of the effects of these events, and the power of two – AAPL and MSFT.

You’re thinking, “What about the rest of the FAANGs?”

MSFT isn’t one but we include it, and oftentimes now TSLA and AMD.  FB, AMZN, NFLX, GOOG – incisors dripping less saliva than AAPL – are massive, yes. But they don’t pack the ETF power of the two.

Let me give you some data. There are 500 Financials stocks, about 400 Healthcare, around 300 Consumer Discretionary.  Tech is around 200.  Most of these sectors are Oversold, and there’s a lot of shorting. The FAANGs are Overbought and more than 50% short, collectively.

The few outweigh the many.

And meanwhile, Market Structure Sentiment™ is both bottomed and lacking the maw it signaled. Either we skip across the chasm for now, or it trips us soon (stocks love to render fools of soothsayers).

The salient point is that the market can’t be trusted to reflect views on Covid19, or trade with China, or the election in November, or economic data, or actions of the Federal Reserve (curiously the Fed’s balance sheet is tightening at the moment). It’s right now defined by the power of two.

Two legs.

We humans stand fine on two. Can the market?  We’re about to find out.  And the degree to which your shares are at risk, public companies, to those two legs, and your portfolio, investors, is measurable and quantifiable. Ask us, and we’ll show you.

Seen and Unseen

The stock market is a story of the seen and the unseen.

Ethereal, hieratic, a walk by faith not by sight kind of thing?  No, not that.

And by the way, I’ve not forgotten about the rest of the story, as Paul Harvey (millennials, look him up) would say, the good developments for investors and public companies I mentioned some time back. I’ll come to it soon. This week there’s urgency.

A tug of war rages between bulls and bears. Some say stocks are wildly overpriced. There’s record bearishness on stocks in surveys of individual investors. Yet people are daytrading like it’s 1999.  And record stockpiles of cash like tumbleweeds on Kansas fences strain at the bounds, and the bulls say, “Just you wait and see when that money rolls into markets!”

All of this is seen stuff. Things we can observe.  As are promising clinical developments in steroids that might help severe coronavirus sufferers.  Rebounding retail sales. The Federal Reserve taking tickets at the market’s door.

None of those observable data points buy or sell stocks, though.  People and machines do.  In my Interactive Brokers account as I continue testing our new Market Structure EDGE decision-support platform for traders, I sold a thousand shares of AMRN yesterday.

It took me several hours, nine trades, all market orders, not limits. I’m cautious about limit orders because they’re in the pipeline for everyone intermediating flow to see.  Even so, only three matched at the best offer. The rest were mid-pointed in dark pools, and one on a midpoint algorithm priced worse, proof machines know the flow.

In a sense, 70% of the prices were unseen. Marketable trades have at least the advantage of surprise.  Heck, I’m convinced Fast Traders troll the quotes people look up.

Now, why should you care, public companies and investors?

Because the unseen is bigger than the seen. This cat-and-mouse game is suffusing hundreds of billions of dollars of volume daily.  It’s a battle over who knows what, and what is seen is always at a disadvantage to those with speed and data in the unseen.

There are fast and slow prices, and the investing public is always slow.  There are quotes in 100-share increments, yet well more than 50% of trades are odd lots less than that.

There are changes coming, thankfully. More on that in a couple weeks.  What’s coming this week is our bigger concern, and it’s a case of seen versus unseen.

Today VIX options expire (See ModernIR planning calendar).  There are three ways to win or lose: You can buy stocks in hopes they rise, short them on belief they’ll fall – or trade the spread. Volatility. It’s a Pandemic obsession. Inexperienced traders have discovered grand profits in chasing the implied volatility reflected in options.  I hope it doesn’t end badly.

Volatility bets will recalibrate today. The timer goes off, and the clock resets and the game begins again.

Thursday brings the expiration of a set of index options, substitutes for stocks in the benchmark.  Many option the index rather than buy its components.

Friday is quad-witching when broad stock and index options and futures expire (and derivatives tied to currencies, interest rates, Treasurys, which have been volatile).

The first quad-witch of 2020 Mar 20 marked the bottom (so far) of the Pandemic Correction. And wiped out some veteran derivatives traders.  We’re coming into this one like a fighter jet attempting a carrier landing, with the longest positive stretch we’ve ever recorded for Market Structure Sentiment™, our 10-point gauge of short-term tops and bottoms.

It’s at 8.2. Stocks most times trade between 4.0-6.0. It’s screaming on the ceiling, showering metal sparks like skyrockets.

And beneath lurks a leviathan, not unseen but uncertain, a shadowy and shifting monster of indefinite dimension.

Index rebalances.

IR Magazine’s Tim Human wrote on ramifications for public companies, an excellent treatise despite my appearance in it.

Big indexers S&P Dow Jones, Nasdaq and MSCI haven’t reconstituted benchmarks this year. The last one done was in December.  Staggering volatility was ripping markets in March when they were slated and so they were delayed, a historical first, till June.

Volatility is back as we approach resets affecting nearly $20 trillion tracking dollars.

And guess what?  The big FTSE Russell annual reconstitution impacting another $9 trillion is underway now in phases, with completion late this month.

It took me several hours of careful effort to get the same average price on a thousand shares of one stock.  How about trillions of dollars spanning 99.9% of US market cap?

It may go swimmingly.  It’s already underway in fact. We can track with market structure sonar the general shape of Passive patterns. They are large and dominant even now.  That also means they’re causing the volatility we’re experiencing.

The mechanics of the market affect its direction. The good news is the stock market is a remarkably durable construct.  The bad news is that as everyone fixates on the lights and noise of headlines, the market rolls inexorably toward the unseen. We’re shining a light on it (ask us how!).  Get ready.

Squid Ink

Is retail money creating a Pandemic Bubble? Sort of. Really, it’s Fast Traders turning those orders into clouds of squid ink.

There are 47 million customer accounts at Schwab, Fidelity, Ameritrade, E*Trade and Robinhood.  These big online brokers sell their flow to Citadel, Two Sigma, Susquehanna’s G1X options platform, Virtu, UBS, options trader Wolverine, and others.

Nearly all of the orders are “non-directed,” meaning the broker determines where to send them.  Also, more than three paragraphs of market structure goop and people grab a bottle of tequila and go back to day-trading.

So, let me explain.

Do you know CHK?  A shale-oil play, it’s on the ropes financially. In May it was below $8. Yesterday CHK was near $70 when it halted for news. Which never came, and trading resumed. (Note: A stock should never, ever be halted for news, without news.)

It closed down hard near $24. Rumors have flown for weeks it’ll file bankruptcy.  Why was it at $70? People don’t understand that public equity often becomes worthless if companies go bust. Debtholders convert to equity and wipe out the old shareholders.

Hertz (HTZ) went bankrupt May 26 and shares closed at $0.56.  Monday it was over $5.50, up about 900%. HTZ debt is trading at less than 40 cents on the dollar, meaning bondholders don’t think they’ll be made whole – and they’re senior to equity.

This is bubble behavior. And it abounds. Stocks trading under $1 are up on average 79% since March, according to a CNBC report.

ABIO, a Colorado biotech normally trading about 10,000 shares daily with 1.6 million shares out made inconsequential reference to a Covid preclinical project (translation: There’s nothing there). The stock exploded, trading 83 million shares on May 28, or roughly 50 times the shares outstanding.

Look at NKLA.  It’s been a top play for Robinhood clients and pandemic barstool sports day-trading. No products out yet, no revenue. DUO, an obscure Chinese tech stock trading on the Nasdaq yesterday jumped from about $10 to $129, closing above $47.

Heck, look at Macy’s.  M, many thought, was teetering near failure amidst total retail shutdown. From about $4.50 Apr 2, it closed over $9.50 by June 8.

W, the online retailer that’s got just what you need, is up 700% since its March low despite losing a billion dollars in 2019.

When day traders were partying like it was 1999, in 1999, stocks for businesses with no revenues and products boomed.  Then the Nasdaq lost 83% of its value.

About 95% of online-broker orders are sold to Fast Traders – the Citadels, the Two Sigmas, the Virtus.  They’re buying the tick data (all the prices) in fractions of seconds. They know what’s in the pipeline, and what’s not.

Big online brokers sell flow to guarantee execution to retail traders.  I shared my experience with GE trades. The problem is retail prices are the ammunition in the machine gun for Fast Traders. They know if clips are being loaded, or not. And since retail traders don’t direct their trades (they don’t tell the broker to send it to the NYSE, Nasdaq, Instinet, IEX, etc., to hide prices from Fast Traders), these are tracer rounds stitching market prices up and down wildly.

The Fast Traders buying it can freely splatter it all over the market in a frenzy of rapidly changing prices, the gun set on Full Automatic.

This is how Fast Traders use retail trades to cause Wayfair to rise 700%. The order flow bursts into the market like squid ink in the Caribbean (I’ve seen that happen snorkeling), and everyone is blinded until prices whoosh up 30%.

A money manager on CNBC yesterday was talking about the risk in HTZ. She said there were no HTZ shares to borrow. Even if you could, the cost was astronomical.

Being a market structure guy with cool market structure tools (you can use them too), I checked HTZ.  Nearly 56% of trading volume is short. Borrowed. And the pattern (see here) is a colossus of Fast Trading, a choreographed crescendo into gouting squid ink.

How? Two Sigma, Hudson River Trading, Quantlab, etc., Fast Trading firms, enjoy market-making exemptions. They don’t have to locate shares. As high-speed firms “providing liquidity,” regulators let them do with stocks what the Federal Reserve does with our money. Digitally manufacture it.

Because they buy the flow from 47 million accounts, they know how to push prices.

That’s how ABIO traded 83 million shares (60% of the volume – nearly 50 million shares – was borrowed May 28, the rest the same shares trading many times per second).

It’s how CHK exploded up and then imploded as the manufactured currency vanished. And when stocks are volatility halted – which happened about 40 times for CHK the past two trading days – machines can game their skidding stop versus continuing trades in the ETFs and options and peer-group stocks related to the industry or sector.

This squid ink is enveloping the market, amid Pandemic psychology, and the economic (and epic) collapse of fundamental stock-pricing.

Dangerous.

You gotta know market structure, public companies (ask us) and investors (try EDGE).