Yearly Archives: 2020

Hacky Sack Stocks

“We track everything in our facilities, down to the number of gloves we use. Why wouldn’t we track everything in the market? Our primary purpose is creating

shareholder value.”

So said one of the investor-relations rock stars of the modern era over dinner with executives on a non-deal roadshow.

I learned about it by phone this week. In a non-Pandemic year I visit as many clients as I can.  I don’t miss the airports. I do miss the faces.

In 2020, I’m calling clients, the old-fashioned way to hear these fabulous examples of great IR leadership.

What did the execs think of the answer?  They loved it so much that this person is now in charge of corporate development and other business initiatives.

This IRO introduced market structure to the board of directors.  Nobody had.  They recognize now that story is just one driver of shareholder value, and not the biggest.

Now, maybe you quail at the thought of getting more responsibility by demonstrating value and leadership.  I get it. Most of us are pretty busy already.

But if adding value for your organization is on your list in 2021, IR professionals, here’s a simple way.  Teach your board and executives the basics of the market. Who else is going to do it?

Another person doing a great job teaching execs how the market works is hacky sack expert Clay Bilby, who found a creative use for the ModernIR stress ball from the NIRI Annual Conference box of goodies.

Which reminds me of a story. It’s holiday season, and it’s been a long year!  We could all use a good story, right?

So our friends Peter and Bruce are the faces and feet behind the World Footbag Association here in Steamboat Springs.  Peter said, “Did I tell you about the time I slept with Kevin Costner?”

After we recovered from the surprise, we said no, we had not heard that story. Turns out Peter was hired to teach Kevin Costner how to kick a hacky sack around for the movie Silverado.  There’s a scene in this western packed with Hollywood stars where Costner is in a jail cell.

The plan called for Costner to whack the hacky sack around in his boots behind bars. They worked and worked on it, but according to Peter, Kevin Costner doesn’t have the hacky sack gene.

Weary from the effort and waiting for other scenes to be shot, Kevin says to Peter, “Hey are you tired?  I’m beat.  I’ve got a trailer here.  You want to catch a nap?”

Peter said, “I could use a few winks.”

And so they went to Costner’s trailer and crashed for a couple hours. And that’s how Peter slept with Kevin Costner.

Alas, the hacky sack scene landed on the cutting floor.  But the story lives on.

In a way, your stock is a hacky sack.  It gets kicked all around the stock market, through 15 exchanges and over 30 alternative trading systems because it must constantly move to wherever the best price resides.  That’s the law. Regulation National Market System.

It’s why more than 53% of trading volume in the S&P 500 the past week through yesterday – during huge index rebalances and options-expirations – was Fast Trading. The hacky sack players of the stock market, kicking the bag all over the place.

And they were the top price-setter the past five days.

Investment driven by fundamentals (Active), and flows from indexes, Exchange Traded Funds and quant funds (Passive) actually declined 6% last week, a key reason the market has been down.  More hacky-sacking, less investment, stocks fall.

In fact, if supply and demand were perfectly balanced, stocks would decline.  Why? Because the bid to buy will always be lower than the offer to sell, and 53% of the market’s volume comes from hacky sackers paid about a half-penny at a time to kick it around.

Also rising to over 18% of volume in the S&P 500 last week were trades tied to derivatives (Risk Mgmt). That is, 18% of the time last week in a given stock such as TSLA, a trade occurred because somebody had to buy or sell stock tied to puts or calls.

Add those up. It’s 71% of market volume.  The remaining 29% was investment, about 9% tied to stock-picking, 20% following indexes, models.

That’s market structure. It’s no harder than hacky sack.  Unless you’re Kevin Costner. And we’ll coach you. Just ask.

Resolve to make 2021 the year when your board knows what market structure is.  But before that, we hope your holiday season, however you mark it, is full of joy and gratitude, peace and reflection, and cheer.

We feel those feelings for all of you.  Happy Holidays!  We’ll see you on the other side.

Deal Art

The Federal Reserve’s balance sheet is 185 times leveraged, and DoorDash’s market cap is $50 billion.  I’m sure it’ll all work out.

Image courtesy Amazon and Showtime.

In some ways the Fed is easier to understand than DoorDash. It’s got $7.2 trillion of liabilities and $39 billion of capital.  Who needs capital when you can create money? The Fed is the intermediary between our insatiable consumption and the finite time we all offer in trade for money.

Speaking of money, DoorDash raised over $2.4 billion of private equity before becoming (NYSE:DASH).  For grins, recall that INTC’s 1971 IPO raised $6.8 million.  Thanks to the Fed’s approach to money, it would be worth at least seven times more today.

Really, it says the 1971 dollar is about $0.14 now.  I suspect it’s less still, because humans find ingenious ways to offset the hourglass erosion of buying power running out like sand.  (And INTC’s split-adjusted IPO price would be $0.02 per share rather than the $23.50 at which they then were offered.)

I’m delighted for those Palo Alto entrepreneurs at DASH who early on both wrote the code and delivered the food. And the movie Layer Cake declared that the art of the deal is being a good middleman.  DASH is a whale of a fine intermediary.

As is Airbnb.  The rental impresario is worth $75 billion. Not bad for sitting in the middle.  ABNB is already in six Exchange Traded Funds despite debuting publicly just Dec 10.

Funny, both these intermediary plays are most heavily traded by…intermediaries.  Both in early trading show 70% of volume from Fast Traders, machines intermediating market prices.  More than 50% of daily volume in each thus far is borrowed too.  That is, it’s not owned, but loaned.

ABNB is trading over 22 million shares daily, over 330,000 daily trades, and 54% of volume is borrowed. DASH is averaging 110,000 trades, 9.4 million shares of volume.  And through yesterday, 57% of those shares, about 5.4 million daily, were a bit like the money the Fed creates – electronically borrowed from nowhere.

How? High-speed traders constructing the market’s digital trusses and girders daily like Legos get leeway as so-called market-makers to trade things that might not exist in the moment, if the moment demands it for the sake of stability.

Do you follow?  When the Fed buys our mortgages, it manufactures money. It’s an accounting entry.  Trade banks $200 billion of electronic bucks residing in excess reserves for the mortgages the banks want to sell, which in turn become digital assets on the Fed’s balance sheet. The country didn’t raise that cash by borrowing or taxing.

Pretty cool huh?  Wish you could do that?  Don’t try. It’s fraud for the rest of us.

Anyway, traders can do the same thing, earning latitude to make liquidity from stock marked “borrowed,” so long as the books are squared in 35 days.

And here’s the kicker.  ETFs are intermediary vehicles too.  Man, this art of the deal thing – being a good middle…person – is everywhere.

ETFs take in assets like ABNB shares, and issue an equal value of, say, BUYZ, the Franklin Disruptive Opportunities ETF.  They manage the ABNB shares for themselves (tax-free too). And you buy BUYZ in your brokerage account instead.

Got that?  ETFs don’t manage any money for you. Unlike index funds.  They sell you a substitute, an intermediary vehicle, called ETFs.

Franklin used to be an Active manager. Key folks there told me a couple years ago that unremitting redemptions from active funds had forced them into the ETF business.

One of them told me, paraphrasing, it’s a lot easier running ETFs. We don’t have to keep customer accounts or pick stocks.

You need to understand the machinery of the markets, folks. And the Grand Unified Theory of Intermediation that’s everywhere in our financial markets nowadays.

It’s the art of the deal.  And reason not to expect rational things from the stock market.

If 70% of the volume in ABNB and DASH is resulting thus far from machines borrowing and trading it, and not wanting to own it, valuations reflect the art of the deal, intermediation. Not prospects (which may be great, but the market isn’t the barometer).

Same thing with ETFs.  The art of the deal is exchanging them for stocks.

The Fed? The more it buys, the more valuable debt becomes (and the less our money is worth). So that’s working too.  Cough, cough.

Here’s your lesson, investors and investor-relations folks. You cannot control these things. But ignore them at your peril (we always know the facts I shared about DASH and ABNB). All deals with intermediaries need three parties to be happy, not two.  And one always wants to leave.

Fearless

How does the stock market work?

That’s what somebody was asking at the online forum for my professional association, NIRI.

By the way, the NIRI Annual Conference is underway.  I enjoyed yesterday’s sessions and seeing the faces of my colleagues in the virtual happy hour.  We’ve got two more days.  Come on! We’ll never have another 2020 Covid-19 Pandemic Annual Conference.

So, I’m not knocking the question. The discussion forum is a candid venue where we talk about everything but material nonpublic information.

Investors and traders, how do you think the stock market works?

My profession exists because there are companies with stock trading publicly. Otherwise, there’s no reason to have an investor-relations department, the liaison to Wall Street. IR people better know how the stock market works.

So it gets better. The question that followed was:  What is IR?

Is that infrared? No, “IR” is investor relations. Liaison to Wall Street. Chief intelligence officer. The department that understands the stock market.

So, why is my profession asking how the stock market works? And why, since we’ve been a profession for over a half-century, are we asking ourselves what our job is?

I think it’s because we’re uncertain. Fearful. Grasping for purpose.

We shouldn’t be. The IR job is knowing the story, governance, key drivers in the industry and sector, and how stock-market mechanics affect shareholder value. Internal politics. External rules. Communications best practices.  We are communicators, data analysts.

That’s it.

So how does the stock market work? Section 502 of the Economic Growth, Regulatory Relief, and Consumer Protection Act of 2018, which became law in May that year, required the SEC to give Congress an answer.

It did, in this 100-page report released in Aug 2020. The government always takes longer to describe things than the private sector.  No profit motive, you know. But still. Do we think the SEC is making stuff up?

They’re not. I’m a market-structure expert. The SEC presents an exceptionally accurate dissection of how the stock market works, the effects of algorithms, the inherent risks in automated markets.

Did you get that, IR people?  The SEC understands the market. Traders do. Investors do. Shouldn’t we?  It’s the whole reason for our jobs.

If you’re offended, apologies. It’s time for our profession to be a little more David, a little less Saul.  A little more huck the stone at Goliath, a little less cower in the tents.  I studied theology, so if my analogy baffles, see the book of I Samuel in the bible, roughly the 17th chapter.

It’s literature for atheists and believers alike. It’s about knowing what you’re doing, fearlessly.

Here’s the stock market in 120 words, boiled down from 100 SEC pages:

There is a bid to buy, an offer to sell. These are set in motion each trading day by computers. The computers reside in New Jersey. Half the daily volume comes from these computers, which want to own nothing and make every trade. The equations computers use are algorithms that buy or sell in response to the availability of shares, and almost half of all volume is short, or borrowed. Stock exchanges pay computerized traders to set prices. About 40% of volume is Passive or model-based investment, and trades tied to derivatives like options. About 10% is buy-and-hold money. The interplay of these behaviors around rules governing stock quotes, trades and data determines shareholder value. And it’s all measurable.  

If you want to see these ideas visually, here they are.  IR people, it’s a mantra.

What do you tell your executives?  They need to hear these 120 words twice per month. Once a week would be better.  Visually. What part of your board report reflects these facts?

“I don’t describe the stock market.”

Oh? Stop fearing. We’ll help. What do those 120 words above look like through the lens of your stock? Ask. We’ll show you.

Let’s stop wondering how the stock market works and what IR is. IR is the gatekeeper between shareholder value and business execution.  Math. Physics. A slung stone. A board slide.

Let’s be IR. Fearless.

Are You 2.0?

Are you 2.0?

I know.  You’re tired of clichés.

Especially in a pandemic that birthed a lexicography – social distancing, mask-up, nonessential, emergency executive orders, comorbidity.

After all that, you don’t want to hear you’re 1.0, not 2.0.

On the other hand, I’m notorious for not wanting to upgrade. I’ll stay 1.0 rather than risk 2.0 jacking up the performance of some app.  An update downloads, and now I can’t connect to the printer.  Been through that?

So has the investor-relations profession.

Aside:  Investors, you’re getting a ringside seat. IR, as we call it, is the liaison between public companies and Wall Street. A painful evolution from 1.0. to 2.0 is underway.

In the 1970s you had a rotary phone on your desk and you called investors. IR 1.0 is telling the story.

The IR profession formalized by association in 1969 with the advent of the National Investor Relations Institute (NIRI).  I’m currently on the national board representing service providers. A year from now, I’ll hand off that baton to our next emissary.

IR Era 1.0 lasted from 1969 till 2005 when Regulation National Market System changed the market. Telling the story was the chief function of IR for more than 35 years.

If you don’t know Reg NMS, read this.

Continuing, I had the honor of vice-chairing the 50th Anniversary NIRI Annual Conference in 2019, in Phoenix.  Back when people innocently shook hands, hugged, packed conference halls.  We had famed stock-picker Lee Cooperman, market-structure expert Joe Saluzzi of Themis Trading, SEC head of Trading and Markets Brett Redfearn.

We were standing there looking at IR 2.0. Man, that was fun.

I doubt we’ll dispute rotary phones are obsolete.  Sure, we’ve got ringtones that sound like them. But punching buttons is easier.

Speaking of easy, attending the NIRI 2020 Annual Conference is easier than a button. And it’s upon us.  We’ve spent a long time apart.  Socially distanced, I guess. While that continues at the AC, we can still be virtually together. I’ll be there.

Come join me!  It’s simple. Go here and register (you’d spend a lot more on hotel rooms – and we had sponsored your keys at the Miami Fontainebleau, by the way. Sigh. Ah well.) and instead of checking in to a room, check out the schedule.

Come see our Express Talk. See our two-minute video called, “What Do I Do With It?” See the 2021 IR Planning Calendar to help you navigate the minefield of derivatives expirations when you report results (don’t blow a limb off your story. So to speak.).

I just watched our Express Talk.  I look rough in the first clip – like I’ve been through a Pandemic. I’m cleaned up in the next, even wearing a tie. Then I’m settled in by clip three to share what matters about IR 2.0.

Come view them. Support our community.  After all, 2020 is going to end, despite indications at times this year that it never would. We’re almost there!

Back to IR 2.0.  Understand this: Our profession is a data enterprise now. Not a phone-dialer, meeting-setter.  There’s financial data (your story), ESG data (governance), Alt data (what the buyside is really tracking, like jobs, credit card transactions, port-of-entry satellite views).

And there’s Market Structure. This is the only measure that’ll tell you what sets price. If Activism threats exist. When Passive money rotates. If it’s about your story. How to run buybacks. What happens when you spin off a unit. The best time to issue stock. How deal arbs bet on outcomes (and if they think you’re about to do a deal). What drives shareholder value.

I’ll repeat that.  It’s the only measure that tells you what drives shareholder value. Headlines and financials don’t. Buyers and sellers of stock do.

Do you want to pick up the phone and call people?  Or do you want to advise the executive team and the board?

Okay. IR 2.0 is not for everyone. Some of us just belong in IR 1.0. Give me a desk and a phone and let me call people and convince myself that it matters.

Have at it.

But that’s yesterday. It’s an infinitesimal speck (like a virus) of today’s job. And even dialing should be guided by data, measured by data.

It’s almost 2021. I know the mullet is trying to make a comeback. I know I listen to 80s music.  But that’s no reason to do the IR job like it’s 1984.  Don’t do that. It’s not a good look.

Come see ModernIR and the rest of the vendor community (there are 22 others with us in the virtual exhibit hall) at this year’s disruptive event, the NIRI Annual Conference. See you there.

And let’s start 2021 with good hair and good data.

Mean Plus

The stock market is high on tryptophan, hitting records.

Right ahead of Thanksgiving, 2020 looks to deliver the best November in 30 years.  We’re grateful!  You don’t expect it in a pandemic

Courtesy shutterstock

.  You’d think amid a plague we’d find bitcoin trading near $20,000.  Oh, sure enough.  Check.

Where is all the money coming from that’s pounding things to heights right along with real estate, speculative Electric Vehicle stocks from China with no revenue (NYSE:LI), and Elon Musk’s net worth (he is, however, putting people on the space station and recovering first-stage rockets for repeated use by landing them on a barge called “Of Course I Still Love You”)?

Here’s where it gets interesting.

Data from Morningstar, which reports monthly on fund flows, show US equity outflows in October near a monthly record of $46 billion, and over the trailing twelve months (TTM) topping $265 billion.

Active stock-pickers in US stocks have seen outflows of about $270 billion the past twelve months, including $35 billion in October.  The spread in Active versus totals reflects a small net TTM gain for Passive equity funds.

Bonds crushed it, adding over $500 billion TTM taxable and municipal assets.  But the biggie is the swing from Active to Passive across stocks and bonds, in total a $600 billion delta, with about $300 billion into Passive funds and out of Active ones.

Morningstar, always most conservative in gauging Active versus Passive assets, showed the latter overtaking the former in 2019.

Stripping data down, we’ve added a couple billion dollars, net, to US stock funds and hundreds of billions to bond funds, and the stock market is setting records.

You can’t say stocks are soaring on a flood of money. The data don’t support it.  Nor can one say it’s “stock-picking.” Those assets are down another $300 billion the past year, a 12-year-long trend.

So what’s doing it?  Clearly, something else.

To mark Thanksgiving last year, we presented Sentiment data in a piece called Blurry.  As we observed then, stocks have spent the majority of the past half-decade above 5.0 on our 10-point Market Structure Sentiment scale, averaging about 5.4.  That’s a GARP – growth at a reasonable price – market.

And son of a gun, Growth has outperformed Value.

In 2020, stocks have spent 62% of the time over 5.1/10.0 (GARP), and about a third of the time above 6.0/10.0, “Overbought” from a market-structure view.

Demand has exceeded supply. Yet we’ve just seen from Morningstar that money is flat in US equities. The inflows near $300 billion rushed not to stocks but bonds.

One thing so far is sure. Passive money will pay more for stocks than Active money. There are more Passive assets than Active ones now. Any net inflows go to Passive funds.  The average price for all stocks in the S&P 500 was about $127 a year ago. Today it’s about $146, up 15%.

Well, it can’t be stock-picking, can it.  And it’s thus circumstantially evident that Passive Investment is the reason why Growth has beaten Value.

It also explains the market’s relentless propensity to remain over 5.0.  That’s the mean.  Passive money tracks the mean. And, Passive assets are growing – so the outcome is Mean Plus, let’s call it.  A little better than the mean.

ModernIR data show two more factors contributing to these outcomes.  Fast Trading, machines pulverizing trade-size as intermediaries, are 54% of volume the past 200 days.

If your aim running algorithms is changing prices all day and finishing flat, and the market is 5.4/10.0, and Passive money is trying to peg the benchmark, what do you get?

A market that relentlessly rises.

It’s Mean Plus till the next time something like a Pandemic or a currency crisis, or something we haven’t thought of yet, rattles that cage.

Look, all of us want rising markets. It’s great for net worth.  But as we’ve been saying to public companies, you can’t continue to make My Story the principal explanation.  Somewhere in your quarterly board deck there’s got to be more than that.  I’ve just given you some good data.

Energy companies, this is what’s happened to you.  Back up 20 years and you were 15% of the market, even as we imported fuel.  Today amid US energy independence you’re 2.5% of the market.  AAPL is worth more than the whole sector. And AAPL is the most loved of all ETF stocks.

Investors, it’s why market structure matters.  It’s a Mean Plus market for now. We’re grateful this Thanksgiving for it.  But we might say a prayer for protection from its consequences too.

What’s Going On

The most valuable thing is knowing what’s going on.

The country is closing amid Covid cases. Simultaneously, the Shiller PE ratio of earnings in the S&P 500 is 33, a level exceeded in history only at the bursting of the Internet Bubble in 2000.

What’s going on? (The picture here is Howelsen, our beloved Steamboat local ski hill since 1907…a way away from it.)

Stocks are screaming. In contrast, a country jumping in the mummy bag and zipping up suggests sharp impending economic contraction.

Right?

We’re a service society. That is, the bulk of jobs are in doing something for somebody. Bartending to window-washing. Yoga classes to yardwork. Street-sweeping and sanitation, and shearing hair and shearing sheep, and stocking shelves and fixing Internet problems.

Yes, there’s a big spike on the graph from “Information” or whatever you call it.

As income from hairdressing and table-waiting takes a hit, the stock market jumps to eternal highs.  It’s the sort of thing that leads to class envy.

Don’t fall for that.  Follow me here.

Payroll-protection-plan checks are gone, and the mayor or health department or somebody has said you can’t have more than 25% occupancy, everybody working dawn till dusk blending schedules. To make money.

My own stylist says hours are long, pay is down, and taxes are due because there’s not enough for the taxman and the mortgage.

And two weeks ago into the election there was a surge for stocks.

We told you it would happen, nothing to do with the National Haircutting Rate, the Countrywide Window-Washing Ratio. Or whatever.  We call it Sentiment, the way machines set prices.

It’s now topped, smoking cinders falling away.

Jim Cramer said on CNBC, “They just don’t want to sell, Mike.” (Mike Santoli in this case.)

I love Cramer’s iconoclastic verve. He never loses his confidence.

“The open-up trade is back on!” he shouts now to David Faber, who is stoic with a blink and a wan smile.

Who in the markets doesn’t love CNBC?

But they don’t know what’s going on.

Is the Shiller PE right?  Should we wring our hands?

How many body punches from government can the American Economy – hairdressers, restaurateurs, yoga instructors, window-washers, landscapers, on it goes – take before we snap enough ribs to drop to our knees?

It’s like everyone in government is playing craps around that possibility, party affiliation doesn’t matter.

And up goes the market.

Investor-relations professionals tell the c-suite, “We are delivering returns to our investors on superior financial results.”

Everyone shuffles uncomfortably.

Let’s stipulate that if your earnings are accelerating faster than your peers, your stock might do better, even if hairdressers are struggling to pay taxes and other bills.

Couldn’t we all screen for that and make those stocks the most valuable?

Yes. And no.  Yes, you can.  No, it doesn’t work.

A quant fund could screen for all the stocks with 25% annual EPS growth.  That’s got nothing to do with what you do, public companies. Just what you produce. And what if those funds decide to trade your options?

And earnings don’t guarantee stock-appreciation because the market has limited supply. Is GE a great company, BYND a lousy stock?  Explain, please?

I’m making the same point I’ve been making here at the Market Structure Map since 2006, when the whole market was ceded to machines by a rule called Regulation National Market System.

Stop telling your c-suite and Board that you’re flying or falling because of “operating margins.” It’s not true.

The world is math. You need to know what’s going on.

Investors, it’s the same for you. You believe, “Home Depot will be higher because people are buying home-improvement products at record levels.”

That’s not what’s going on.

As for society, we’re deciding if we’ll be a liberal democracy or not. Stock prices won’t decide it.  Knowing what’s going on will.

We can help. Some. (We can help you with knowing what’s going on, IR folks and traders. We have thoughts on society too. But that takes a group effort.)

 

 

On the Skids

If electoral processes lack the drama to satisfy you, check the stock market.

Intraday volatility has been averaging 4%. The pandemic has so desensitized us to gyrations that what once was appalling (volatility over 2%) is now a Sunday T-shirt.

Who cares?

Public companies, your market-cap can change 4% any given day. And a lot more, as we saw this week.  And traders, how or when you buy or sell can be the difference between gains and losses.

So why are prices unstable?

For one, trade-size is tiny.  In 1995, data show orders averaged 1,600 shares. Today it’s 130 shares, a 92% drop.

The exchanges shout, “There’s more to market quality!”

Shoulder past that obfuscating rhetoric. Tiny trades foster volatility because the price changes more often.

You follow?  If the price was $50 per share for 1,600 shares 25 years ago, and today it’s $50 for 130 shares, then $50.02 for 130 shares, then $49.98 for 130 shares, then $50.10 for 130 shares – and so on – the point isn’t whether the prices are pennies apart.

The point is those chasing pennies love this market and so become vast in it. But they’re not investors.  About 54% of current volume comes from that group (really, they want hundredths of pennies now).

Anything wrong with that?

Public companies, it demolishes the link between your story and your stock. You look to the market for what investors think. Instead it’s an arbitrage gauge. I cannot imagine a more impactful fact.

Traders, you can’t trust prices – the very thing you trade. (You should trade Sentiment.)

But wait, there’s more.

How often do you use a credit or debit card?  Parts of the world are going cashless, economies shifting to invisible reliance on a “middle man,” somebody always between the buying or selling.

I’m not knocking the merits of digital exchange. I’m reading Modern Monetary Theory economist Stephanie Kelton’s book, The Deficit Myth.  We can talk about credit and currency-creation another time when we have less stuff stewing our collective insides.

We’re talking about volatility. Why stocks like ETSY and BYND were halted on wild swings this week despite trading hundreds of millions of dollars of stock daily.

Sure, there were headlines. But why massive moves instead of, say, 2%?

The stock market shares characteristics with the global payments system.  Remember the 2008 financial crisis? What worried Ben Bernanke, Tim Geithner and Hank Paulson to grayness was a possibility the plumbing behind electronic transactions might run dry.

Well, about 45% of US stock volume is borrowed. It’s a payments system. A cashless society. Parties chasing pennies don’t want to own things, and avoid that by borrowing. Covering borrowing by day’s end makes you Flat, it’s called.

And there are derivatives. Think of these as shares on a layaway plan.  Stuff people plan to buy on time but might not.

Step forward to Monday, Nov 9. Dow up 1700 points to start. It’s a massive “rotation trade,” we’re told, from stay-at-home stocks to the open-up trade.

No, it was a temporary failure of the market’s payments system. Shorting plunged, dropping about 4% in a day, a staggering move across more than $30 trillion of market-cap. Derivatives trades declined 5% as “layaways” vanished.  That’s implied money.

Bernanke, Geithner and Paulson would have quailed.

Think of it this way. Traders after pennies want prices to change rapidly, but they don’t want to own anything. They borrow stock and buy and sell on layaway.  They’re more than 50% of volume, and borrowing is 45%, derivatives about 13%.

There’s crossover – but suppose that’s 108% of volume – everything, plus more.

That’s the grease under the skids of the world’s greatest equity market.

Lower it by 10% – the drop in short volume and derivatives trades. The market can’t function properly. Metal meets metal, screeching. Tumult ensues.

These payment seizures are routine, and behind the caroming behavior of markets. It’s not rational – but it’s measurable.  And what IS rational can be sorted out, your success measures amid the screaming skids of a tenuous market structure.

Your board and exec team need to know the success measures and the facts of market function, both. They count on you, investor-relations professionals. You can’t just talk story and ESG. It’s utterly inaccurate. We can help.

Traders, without market structure analytics, you’re trading like cavemen. Let us help.

By the way, the data do NOT show a repudiation of Tech. It’s not possible. Tech sprinkled through three sectors is 50% of market-cap. Passive money must have it.

No need for all of us to be on the skids.  Use data.  We have it.

-Tim Quast

Serenity

Moab, UT — photo courtesy Tim and Karen Quast, Oct 2020

On Nov 4, 2020, words commonly associated with a 12-step program come to mind.

Protestant theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, who received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1964, sometime in the 1930s during the Great Depression is said to have coined the words we today call the Serenity Prayer.

Ostensibly it might at the earliest have emphasized courage: Give us courage to change what must be altered, serenity to accept what cannot be helped, and the insight to know the one from the other.

It’s a good life rule, a thoughtful notion after elections. And a way to see the stock market.

For public companies, there are things one can change, influence, based on how the market works.  And things you have to accept.  You cannot control the fact that 85% of volume is motivated by something other than your skill at running a business.

You CAN control what, investor-relations professionals, your board and executives understand about the way the market works.  You can know when to accentuate and accelerate your contact with holders because the data indicate conditions are favorable for them. You can avoid wasting time when conditions signal trouble for your stock and the whole market.

I’ve written about it for years, so I ask that you serenely indulge my penchant for repetition.

The stock market ebbs and flows.  It will add to and remove from your shareholder value, and it will do that no matter how much time and money you spend on telling your story and propagating data on your environmental, social and governance achievements.

Why?  Because that’s the gravity of the stock market. It has immutable forces, like this planet, that remain in place and in effect no matter who’s in charge.

Serenity comes from recognizing what you can and cannot change. And being proactive in response to both.

These principles apply to investors and traders too.

Here’s an example.  If you followed simple principles of market structure to buy and sell MSFT between Feb 1, 2020, before the Pandemic slammed us, and Nov 2, 2020, you could have made 46%.

Buying and holding MSFT has produced a 17% return – a redoubtable outcome under any circumstances.  SPY, proxy for the S&P 500, was up 2% over that span.  It covers 191 trading days.

But our 46% return in MSFT came in just 107 trading days. The other 84 days we could have owned something else to add to our returns.

How and why? The market ebbs and flows.  MSFT spent 134 days at or above 5.0 on a supply/demand scale, and 57 days below it.  Owning MSFT when it was over 5.0 produced the gains. Selling it when it dipped back below 5.0 avoided the losses.

That had nothing to do, really, with MSFT’s success as a business. It’s supply and demand.  The product is stock.

Since Sep 1, MSFT is down 11% because it’s spent about as much time below 5.0 as above it.

For you ModernIR clients, that over 5.0/under 5.0 scale we’re talking about is Market Structure Sentiment™, your gauge of the balance of supply and demand for your stock (and we go further and show you the kind of money that’s responsible).

Is the story MSFT tells any different now?  No.  It’s market structure. It’s the gravity of the stock market – the ebb and flow of supply and demand.

I’m not suggesting you stop doing the things you do to drive shareholder value.  I am suggesting that without an understanding of market structure, those dollars and efforts can be Sisyphean.

Same for you, traders and investors. I can prove six ways to Sunday, as the saying goes, that buying and holding is inferior to using market structure to help you keep gains and avoid losses.

It’s just intelligent use of technology.

Sometimes the beginning point for better ways of doing things is the Serenity Prayer. You first must recognize what you can and cannot change – and you have to accept what that realization means.  Then you find the courage to change what you can.

With the election behind us now, Market Structure Sentiment™ is about 4.0. It was on the same trajectory we measured in Nov 2016, and with the Brexit vote in June 2016.  The pressure on stocks was machines, and the surge ahead of it was short-covering.

Now we begin the next chapter.  See you next week.

-Tim Quast

Placid

The data are more placid than the people.

When next we write, elections will be over. We may still be waiting for the data but we’ll have had an election. Good data is everything.  Story for another time.

The story now is how’s money behaving before The Big Vote? Depends what’s meant by “behave.” The Wall Street Journal wrote for weeks that traders saw election turmoil:

-Aug 16:  “Traders Brace for Haywire Markets Around Presidential Election.” 

-Sep 27: “Investors Ramp Up Bets on Market Turmoil Around Election.”

-Oct 3: “Investors Can Take Refuge from Election Volatility.”

Then the WSJ’s Gunjan Banerji wrote yesterday (subscription required) that volatility bets have turned bearish – now “low vol” rather than higher volatility. Markets see a big Biden stimulus coming.

It’s a probable political outcome.

However.

The shift in bets may be about prices, not outcomes.  When there is a probability somebody will pay you more for a volatility bet than you paid somebody else for it, bets on volatility soar.  It hits a nexus and reverses. Bets are ends unto themselves.

On Oct 26, S&P Global Market Intelligence offered a view titled, “Hedging costs surge as investors brace for uncertain election outcome.”

It says costs for hedges have soared. And further, bets on dour markets are far more pronounced in 2021, implying to the authors that the market fears Covid19 resurgence more than election outcomes.

Two days, two diametric opposites.

There’s the trouble. Behaviors are often beheld, not beatified.

One of our favorite targets here in the Market Structure Map, as you longtime readers know, is the propensity among observers to treat all options action as rational. The truth is 90% of options expire unused because they are placeholders, bets on how prices change, substitutes. They don’t mean what people think.

S&P Global says the cost of S&P 500 puts has risen by 50% ahead of the election. Yet it also notes the open interest ratio – difference between the amount contracts people want to create versus the number they want to close out – is much higher in 2021 than it is around the election.

The put/call ratio can be nothing more than profiting on imbalances. And what behavior is responsible for an imbalance, valid or not? Enter Market Structure Analytics, our forte.  You can’t look at things like volume, prices, open interest, cost, etc., in a vacuum.

Let me explain. Suppose we say, “There is a serious national security threat from a foreign nation.”

Well, if the foreign nation is Switzerland, we laugh. It’s neutral. Has been for eons.  If it’s China or Iran, hair stands up.

Context matters. I said the behaviors were more placid than the people. I mean the voters are more agitated than the money in US equities.

Standard deviation – call it degree of change – is much higher in the long-run data for all behaviors, by 20% to more than 130%, than in October or the trailing 30 trading days back before September options-expirations.

Meaning? Eye of the beholder. Could be nothing. Could mean money sees no change.

Remember, there are four reasons, not one, for why money buys or sells. Investment, asset-allocation, speculation, taking or managing risk. None of these shares an endpoint.

Active money is the most agitated and even it is subdued. But it’s sold more than bought since Sep 2.  I think it means people read the stuff other people write and become fearful. It’s not predictive.

The other three behaviors show diminished responsiveness.  Yes, even risk management.

I could read that to mean the machines that do things don’t see anything changing.  The machines may be right in more ways than one! The more things change, the more they stay the same.

One thing I know for sure. I’ve illustrated how headlines don’t know what’s coming.  It’s why investor-relations and investment alike should not depend on them.

The data, however, do know.  And every investor, every public company, should be metering behavior, be it volatile or placid. We have that data.  I just told you what it showed.

Now, we’ll see what it says.

Oh, and this is placid to me, the Yampa River in CO, anytime of the year, and this is Oct 27, 2020.

What’s In It

We rode the Colorado National Monument this week with our good friends from Sun Valley. There’s a lesson in it about life and stocks both.

We would’ve been riding bikes in Puglia with them now, if not for this pandemic.  Oh, and part of the lesson learned is in Telluride.

Stay with me.  I’ll explain.

So we learned Sun Valley is comprised of four towns.  Sun Valley, Ketchum, Hailey and Bellevue. Each has its own mayor, own government.  It could be one united town, but no.

There’s a point.  While you ponder that, let me give you some background.

Karen and I wandered from Denver to Glenwood Springs (rode bikes, ate great food, soaked in hot springs, at this energetic little burg favored by Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday), and on to Grand Junction (pedaled the Monument and bunked at the lovely Hotel Maverick on the campus of Colorado Mesa University).

We then migrated to Moab and hiked Canyonlands and cycled the Potash Highway where evidence remains of a civilization once living in paradise on the Colorado River (if your etched recreations of yourselves in sandstone reflect jewelry and wildly stylish hair, you’re well up the actualization hierarchy from basic sustenance).

We next traversed the remote stretch from there to Telluride, a dramatic geological shift. The little city in a box canyon lighted by Nikola Tesla and robbed by Butch Cassidy is a swanky spot at the end of the road.  Wow.  I get it.  Oprah. Tom Cruise. Ralph Lauren. It looks like their town.

Or towns, rather.  Because here too as in Idaho there are cities a couple miles apart with two mayors, two governments. There’s Telluride, CO, in the valley. There’s Mountain Village, CO, up above (where no expense has been spared – you cannot find a tool shed that’s a shack).

And that’s the lesson. People talk about coming together.  Sun Valley can’t.  Telluride can’t.  Could it be humans are motivated by their own interests?

And how about money behind stocks?

More on that in a moment.

NIRI, the association for investor-relations professionals, has a 50-year history.  I’m on the national board representing service providers.  We were blindsided by the SEC this summer, which abruptly proposed changing the threshold for so-called 13Fs, named for the section of the Securities Act creating them.

Our profession depends on those filings to understand shareholdings.

The SEC said funds with less than $5 billion of assets would no longer have to file.  There goes insight into 90% of funds. The SEC never asked us.

You’re thinking, “There’s a hammer here, and a nail. Perhaps I’ll just pound it through my hand rather than continue reading.”

Don’t quit! You’re getting close.

Tip O’Neill and Ronald Reagan made deals. You youngsters, look it up.  There were “pork barrel politics,” a pejorative way to describe a quid pro quo.  Wait, is that a double negative?

Let me rephrase. Politicians used to do deals.  Give me something, I’ll give you something.  You can decry it but it’s human nature.  We don’t “come together” without a reason.

Sun Valley. Telluride. They haven’t yet found a reason to unite.

NIRI could learn. We can talk for ten years about why we deserve better data. There’s nothing in it for the other side. I bet if we said to the bulge bracket, the Goldman Sachses, the Morgan Stanleys, “You lose your corporate access until you help us get better data.”

Now both have skin in the game. Stuff gets done.

Most of us outside Jesus Christ, Mother Theresa, Martin Luther King, Jr and Mahatma Gandhi are motivated by what benefits us.

Shift to stocks.  Money with different purposes and time-horizons drives them.  The motivation for each is self-interest, not headlines or negotiations between Nancy Pelosi and Steven Mnuchin.

Let’s call it, “What’s In It for Me?” All the money is motivated by that.  Humans are similarly animated.  For most of the money in the market, what’s in it is a short-term return.

If you want to understand what motivates the money, you must understand self-interest.  You can learn it in Sun Valley or Telluride.  You can learn it watching politics. And it applies to stocks. Money wants returns. When that opportunity wanes, it leaves.

That’s it. No more complex. And ModernIR measures that motivation.  Ask us, and we’ll show you what’s in it for the money behind your shares.  Too bad we can’t figure it out in politics. It’s not that hard.