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ETFs and Arbitrage

The biggest risk to an arbitrager is a runaway market.

Let me frame that statement with backstory. I consider it our mission to help you understand market behavior. The biggest currently is arbitrage – taking advantage of price-differences. Insert that phrase wherever you see the word.  We mean that much of the money behind volume is doing that.  Yesterday eleven of the 25 most active stocks were Exchange-Traded Funds (ETFs). Four were American Depositary Receipts (ADRs).

Both these and high-frequency trading turn on taking advantage of price-differences. Both offer the capacity to capitalize on changing prices – ADRs relative to ordinary-share conversions, and ETFs relative to the net asset value of the ETF and the prices of components. In a sense both are stock-backed securities built on conversions.

For high-speed traders, arbitrage lies in the act of setting prices at different markets. Rules require trades to match between the best bid to buy and offer to sell (called the NBBO). Generally exchanges pay traders to sell and charge them to buy.

In fact, the SEC suspended an NYSE rule because it may permit traders to take advantage of price-differences (something we’ve long contended). We’ll come to that at the end.

Next, ETFs are constructed on arbitrage – price-differences. Say Blackrock sponsors an ETF to track a technology index. Blackrock sells a bunch of ETF shares to a broker like Morgan Stanley, which provides Blackrock with either commensurate stocks comprising the tech index or a substitute, principally cash, and sells ETF shares to the public.

If there’s demand, Morgan Stanley creates more ETF shares in exchange for components or cash, and then sells them. Conversely, if people are selling the ETF, Morgan Stanley buys the ETF shares and sells them back to Blackrock, which pays with stocks or cash.

The trick is keeping assets and stock-prices of components aligned. ETFs post asset positions daily. Divergences create both risk and opportunity for the sponsor and the broker alike. Blackrock cites its derivatives-hedging strategies as a standard risk associated with ETF investing. I’m convinced that a key reason why ETFs have low management fees is that the components can be lent, shorted, or leveraged with derivatives so as to contribute to returns for both the sponsor and the broker.

On the flip side, if markets are volatile as they have been post-Brexit and really since latter 2014, either party could lose money on unexpected moves. So both hedge.

For arbitragers, a perfect market is one with little direction and lots of volatility. Despite this week’s move to new market highs, there remains statistically little real market movement in the past two years. If a market is up or down 2% daily, does it over time gain, lose or stay the same?

Run it in Excel. You’ll see that a market declines over time. Thus arbitragers short securities using rapid tactics to minimize time-decay. If you want a distraction, Google “ETF arbitrage shorting” and read how traders short leveraged ETFs to make money without respect to the market at large.

In fact, this is the root problem: Taking advantage of price-differences is by nature a short-term strategy. Sixteen of the most actively traded 25 stocks yesterday (64% of the total!) were priced heavily by arbitrage, some by high-speed traders and some by investors and the market-makers for ETFs.

Offering further support for arbitrage ubiquity, the market is routinely 45-50% short on a given day. Short volume this week dipped below 45% for the first time since December, perhaps signaling an arbitrage squeeze and certainly offering evidence that arbitragers hate a runaway market.

If the market rises on arbitrage, it means parties SUPPLYING hedges are losing money. Those are big banks and hedge funds and insurance companies. Who’d take the market on a run to undermine arbitrage that’s eating away at balance sheets (big banks and hedge funds have suffered)?  Counterparties.

In our behavioral data Active investment is down and counterparties have been weak too, likely cutting back on participation. That comports with fund data showing net outflows of $70-$80 billion from US equities this year even as the market reverts to highs. The only two behaviors up the past 50 trading days are Fast Trading (arbitrage) and Asset Allocation (market-makers and brokers for ETFs and other quantitative vehicles). Yet more evidence. And both are principally quantitative.

Assemble these statistics and you see why the market seems oblivious to everything from US racial unrest, to a bankrupt Puerto Rico, to foundering global growth and teetering banks.  The market is running on arbitrage.

What’s the good news, you ask?  The SEC is aware of rising risk. It suspended an NYSE rule-filing on fees at the exchange’s Amex Options market after concluding the structure may incentivize arbitrage.  The SEC is scrutinizing leveraged ETFs and could end them.

But most important is the timeless self-regulation of knowledge. If we’re all aware of what’s driving the market then maybe the arbitragers will be their own undoing without taking the rest of us with them.

Janus ETFs

Everybody adapts, including institutional investors like Janus.

Rattle off a top-ten list of the best active stock pickers visited by teams of company execs and investor-relations pros trundling through the airports and cities of America, and Denver’s Janus likely makes the cut.

Ah, but.  In 2014 Janus bought VelocityShares, purveyor of synthetic exchange-traded products.  Just as a drug manufactured in a laboratory rather than from the plant that first formed its mechanism of action is a replica, so are these lab-made financial instruments. They replicate the act of investment without actually performing it.

It’s neither good nor bad per se, as I explained yesterday to the NIRI San Diego chapter. But synthetics are revolutionizing how public stocks trade – without owning public stocks. Describing its effort at adaptation, Janus says on its website that it’s “committed to offering distinctive strategies for today’s complex market environment. Leveraging almost a half century of investment experience, we are now pleased to make our expertise available through Exchange Traded Funds.”

Janus says it’s intending to offer a range of returns beyond simple capital-appreciation, including “volatility management” and “uncorrelated returns.” Janus’s VelocityShares directed at volatility aim to produce enhanced or inverse returns on the VIX, an index called the “fear gauge” for reflecting volatility in forward rights to the S&P 500.

But traders and investors don’t fear volatility. They invest in it.  On Monday May 16, four of the top 20 most actively traded stocks were exchange-traded products leveraging the VIX.  Those offered by Janus aren’t equity investments but a debt obligation backed by Credit Suisse. Returns derive from what is best described as bets using derivatives.

The prospectus for the most active version is 174 pages, so it’s hard to decipher the nature of wagers. It says: “We expect to hedge our obligations relating to the ETNs by purchasing or selling short the underlying futures, listed or over-the-counter options, futures contracts, swaps, or other derivative instruments relating to the applicable underlying Index…and adjust the hedge by, among other things, purchasing or selling any of the foregoing, at any time and from time to time, and to unwind the hedge by selling any of the foregoing, perhaps on or before the applicable Valuation Date.”

Got that?  Here’s my attempt at translation: “We’ll do the exact opposite of whatever return we’ve promised you, to keep from losing money.”

During the mortgage-related financial crisis there was a collective recoil of horror through media and into Congress that banks may have been betting against their clients. Well, come on.  It’s happening in equities every day!  Exactly how do we think somebody who says “sure, I’ll take your bet that you can make double the index without buying any assets” can possibly make good without farming the risk out to someone else?

In the mortgage crisis we learned about “credit default swaps” and how insurers like AIG were on the hook for hundreds of billions when real estate stopped rising. Who is on the hook for all these derivatives bets in equities if stocks stop rising? It’s the same thing.

Last Friday the 13th, five of the top 20 most actively traded instruments on the Nasdaq and NYSE were synthetic exchange-traded products attempting to produce outsized returns without correlating to the market. That’s 25% of the action, in effect.

For stock-picking investors and public companies it means a significant contingent of price-setting trades in the stock market are betting on moves uncorrelated to either fundamentals or markets. You’ll find no explanation in ownership-change.

What do you tell management and Boards about a market where, demonstrably, top price-setting vehicles like TVIX owned by conventional stock-pickers aren’t buying or selling stock but betting on tomorrow’s future values using derivatives?

In fact, everyone is betting against each other – traders, banks, investors. I take you back to the mortgage-backed securities crisis. The value of underlying assets was massively leveraged through derivatives the values of which bore no direct connection to whether mortgages were performing assets.  That by any definition is credit-overextension. A bubble.  A mania. Then homes stopped appreciating. The bubble burst two years later.

Look at stocks. They’ve not risen since Nov 2014. Is anyone out there listening or paying attention to the derivatives mess in equities?

ETFs and Divine Creation and Redemption

There’s a saying: It’s easier to keep the cat in the bag than to get it back in there once you’ve let it out. Nobody is likely to stuff the Exchange Traded Fund (ETF) cat back in the bag.

Because ETFs are miraculous.

The biblical story of creation is that something came from nothing. Same with the Christian concept of redemption – being bought for a price without rendering equal worth in kind.

Today, we’ll share with occupants of the IR chair the divine story of how ETFs work.

Before ETFs were closed-end mutual funds. Closed end funds (CEFs) are publicly traded securities that IPO to raise capital and pursue a business objective (like any business), in this case an investment thesis. Traded units have a price, and the net asset value rises and falls on the success of managers in achieving objectives. The rub with CEFs is that share value can depart from net asset value – just like stocks often separate from intrinsic business worth.

The investment industry, with support from regulators, devised ETFs to magically remedy through Creation and Redemption this fault of nature. ETF kingpin iShares, owned by Blackrock, illustrates here, with a clever floral analogy (thank you Joe Saluzzi at Themis Trading who alerted us to it). You don’t have to buy individual flowers and face market risks because iShares puts them in a bouquet for you. Great idea. (more…)

Clear the Room

Winter is coming.

But autumn is mighty fine this year in the Rockies, as my weekend photo from Yampa Street in Steamboat Springs shows.

Winter follows fall and summer. Other things are less predictable, such as economic outcomes and if your Analyst Day will do what you hope (read from last week).

Here, two of my favorite things – monetary policy, market structure – dovetail.

Steamboat Springs. Photo by Tim Quast.

If you want to clear the room at a cocktail party, start talking about either one.  In fact, if you’re trapped talking to somebody you’d rather not, wanting a way out, say, “What’s your view of the fiat-currency construct?”  or “What do you think of Payment for Order Flow?”

I’ve told you before about the daily noon ET CNBC segment Karen calls the “What Do You Think of THIS Stock?” show.  Guests yammer about stocks.

Some weeks ago the host said, “What do you think of Payment for Order Flow?”

Silence.  Some throat-clearing.

Nobody understands it!  These are market professionals. Decades of experience. They don’t know how it works.

Not our topic. But so I don’t leave you hanging, PFOF is as usual with the stock market an obfuscating way to describe something simple.  Retail brokers sell a product called people’s stock trades so those people can trade stocks for free.

This is why you’re brow-beaten to use limit orders at your online brokerage.  Don’t you dare put in a market order! Dangerous!  Not true. Fast Traders, firms wanting to own nothing by day’s end and driving 53% of market volume, eschew limit orders.

They know how the market works. Brokers want you to use limit orders because those get sold. Most market orders don’t.

Pfizer wants everybody to be vaccinated and retail brokers want every trade to be a limit order, because both get paid. Same thing, no difference.

Now, back to the point.  If you tell your corporate story to a thousand investors, why doesn’t your price go up?  Similarly, why can’t we just print, like, ten trillion dollars and hand it out on the street corner and make the economy boom?

Simple. Goods and services require two things:  people and money. Labor and capital. Hand out money and nobody wants a job. Labor becomes scarce and expensive.

And if you hand out money, you’re devaluing the currency.  Money doesn’t go as far as it used to.  You need more to make the same stuff.

The irony is that handing out money destroys the economy.  You can’t make stuff, deliver it, ship it, pack it, load it, unload it, move it – and finally you can’t even buy it because you can’t afford it.

Got it?

The best thing we could do for the economy is put everything on sale.  Not drive prices up and evacuate products from shelves.  But that requires the OPPOSITE action so don’t expect it.

What does market structure have in common with monetary policy?

Too many public companies think you just tell the story to more investors and the stock price goes up.  We’re executing on the business plan. The trouble is too few know.

Wrong.  That’s a controllable, sure.  But it’s not the way the market works. AMC Theaters is a value story.  It was a herculean growth stock in early 2021 and along with Gamestop powered the Russell 2000 Value Index to crushing returns.

I was looking at data for a large-cap value stock yesterday.  The Exchange Traded Fund with the biggest exposure is a momentum growth ETF. It’s humorous to me reading the company’s capital-allocation strategy – balance-sheet flexibility with a focus on returning capital to shareholders – and looking at the 211 ETFs that own it.  It’s even in 2x leveraged bull ETFs (well, the call-options are, anyway).

Your story is a factor.  But vastly outpacing it are your CHARACTERISTICS and the kind of money creating supply, and demand. If you trade $1,500 at a time, and AMZN trades $65,000 at a time, which thing will Blackrock own, and which thing will get traded and arbitraged against options and futures?

Your CFO needs to know that, investor-relations people. And we have that data.

That large-cap I mentioned? We overlaid patterns of Active and Passive money.  Active money figured out by May 2021 that this value company was a growth stock and chased it. They were closet indexers, the Active money. PASSIVE patterns dwarf them.

And when Passive money stopped in September, the stock dropped like a rock.

It wasn’t story. It was supply and demand.

Same with the economy. Flood it with cash, and it’s hard to get that cat back in the bag once you’ve let it out.  You cannot reverse easy monetary policy without harsh consequences, and you can’t shift from momentum to value without deflation.

The good news is when you understand what’s actually going on, you can manage the controllables and measure the non-controllables. Both matter.  Ask us, and we’ll show you.

Analyst Day

Why do you hold an Analyst Day? 

Traders and investors, these are what Joel Elconin on Benzinga Premarket Prep this past Monday called “the dog and pony show.”

For the investor-relations profession, the liaison to Wall Street, it’s a big deal, ton of work. We choreograph, prepare, script, rehearse, plan. We’re laying out Management’s strategic vision.

And it’s successful if…what?  The stock jumps?

Analyst Days: Productive, or just busy? Illustration 130957015 © Turqutvali | Dreamstime.com

Before Regulation National Market System in 2007 transformed the stock market into the pursuit of average prices, triggering an avalanche of assets into index funds and ETFs, you could say that.

Even more so before decimalization in 2001 transformed “the spread,” the difference between the prices to buy and sell, into the pursuit of pennies. It’s now devolved to tenths of pennies in microseconds.

The point is, a good Analyst Day meant investors bought the stock. Same with earnings. News. 

Let me take a moment here.  In addition to ModernIR, the planet’s IR market-structure experts and the biggest provider of serious data for serious IR professionals at US-listed companies, Karen and I run a trading decision-support platform called Market Structure EDGE.

Using data from that platform, I bought 200 shares of a known Consumer Discretionary stock this week using an algorithm from my online firm, Interactive Brokers. The order was split into three trades for 188 shares, 4 shares, and 8 shares, all executed at BATS, owned by CBOE, the last trade at a half-penny spread.

Why is this germane to an Analyst Day?  Stick with me, and you’ll see.

Would you go to a store looking for carrots and buy 10 of them at one, then drive to another for 2, and a third for 4?  Idiocy. Confusing busy with productive. So, why is that okay in a market worth $50 trillion of FIDUCIARY assets?

The stock I bought is a household name.  Ranks 463rd by dollars/trade among the 3,000 largest stocks traded in the US market, which are 99.9% of market capitalization. It’s among the 500 most liquid stocks.

Your Analyst Day is a massive target.  And over 90% of volume in the market has a purpose other than investment in mind. My trade in three pieces meant the purpose for the other side was to profit by splitting an order into tiny parts. That’s not investment. It’s arbitrage.

Investor-relations people, you are the market maestros. Your executives and Board count on you to know what matters.  Did it occur to you that your Analyst Day is a giant plume of smoke attracting miscreants? Does your executive team understand that your Analyst Day could produce a vast plume of arbitrage, and not what they expect?  If not, why not?

Look, you say. I run an Analyst Day. Are you saying I shouldn’t?

I’m saying that whether you do or not should be data-driven.  And evaluating the outcome should be data-driven too.  As should be the planning and preparation.

As should the understanding from internal audiences that at least 70% of the volume around it will be profiteers chasing your smoke plume, just like they gamed me for about 2.5 cents.

It’s not the 2.5 cents that matters. It’s the not knowing supply or demand. It’s the absence of connection between price and reality. 

By the way, Rockwell Medical is the current least liquid stock in the National Market System. You can trade $250 of it at a time on average, without rocking the price.  Most liquid? AMZN, at $65,000 per trade (price $3,275, trades 190,000 times per day, 18 shares at a time).

IR does not derive its value from telling the story. Its value lies in serving as trusted advisor for navigating the equity market.  Making the best use of shareholder resources. Understanding the money driving price and volume. You are not a storyteller.  You are the Chief Market Intelligence Officer. 

Think of the gonzo state of things.  I know what revenue every customer generates in our businesses, and what the trends are, the engagement is, the use of our data, what people click or don’t.  Yet too many public companies are spewing information to the market with NO IDEA what creates volume, why they’re traded, what sets price.

Is that wise?

So, what SHOULD we be doing?  The same thing we do in every other business discipline.  Use software and analytics that power your capacity to understand what drives returns. Do you understand what creates your price and volume?

Back to the Analyst Day. Don’t hold one because tradition says so. Do it if you benefit from it!  If your investors are fully engaged, you’re wasting their time and yours. That’s measurable.  You should know it well beforehand.

If they aren’t, set a goal and measure market reactions.  Realize that arbitragers will game your smoke plume.  That’s measurable too. Know what Active stock-pickers pay.  Know when Passives wax and wane. Know what’s happening with derivatives, and why.

Everything is measurable. But not with 1995 tools. Don’t do things just because you always have. Do them because they count.

That’s the IR profession’s opportunity, the same as it is everywhere else.

Bare Windows

It’s window-dressing. 

That saying suggests effort to make something appear better than it is.  And it’s a hallmark of stocks in today’s Relative Value era where the principal way we determine the worth of things is by comparing them to other things (true of stocks, and houses, art, cars, bonds, etc.).

ModernIR clients know we talk about “window dressing” at the ends of months and quarters.  It gets short shrift in the news but the PATTERNS of money that we observe cast long shadows over headlines.

Every month, managers who send investors performance statements want stuff to look as good as it can.  Things get bought and sold.  Then the headline-writers root around for some reason, like the Fed chair testifying to Congress.

Even bigger is the money tracking benchmarks. Every month, every quarter, that money needs to get square with its targets.  If Tech is supposed to be 24% of my holdings, and at quarter-end it’s 27%, I’m selling Tech, and especially things that have just gone up, like SNAP.

So SNAP drops 7%.  What did your stock do yesterday?  There’s a reason, and it’s measurable in behavioral patterns. Market structure.

The reason yesterday in particular was so tough is because it was T+2, trade date plus two more days, to quarter-end. If you need to settle a trade, effect a change of ownership, and it’s a big basket you’re working through, you’ll do it three days from quarter-end to make sure all positions settle in time.

With tens of trillions of dollars benchmarked to indexes around the globe, it’s startling to me how little attention is paid to basic mechanics of the market, such as when index money recalibrates (different from periodic rebalances by index creators).

And realize this.  In the last month, half the S&P 500 corrected – dropped more than 10%. About 90% of the Russell 2000 did.  No wonder small caps were up sharply Monday.  Most indexes were underweight those. But they’re less than 10% of overall market cap (closer to 5% than 10%). Truing up is a one-day trade.

Tech is a different story. Five stocks are almost 25% of the S&P 500 (AAPL, AMZN, GOOG, FB, MSFT).  And technology stocks woven through Consumer Discretionary and Communication Services stretch the effects of Tech north of 40%, approaching half the $50 trillion of US market cap.

The wonder is we don’t take it on the chin more often. I think the reason is derivatives. There’s a tendency to rely on substitutes rather than go through the hassle of buying and selling stocks.

As I’ve explained before, this is both the beauty and ugliness of Exchange Traded Funds (ETFs). They’re substitutes. They take the place of stocks, relieving the market of the…unpleasantness of moving real assets.  ETFs are just bits of digital paper that can be manufactured and destroyed at whim.

Remember, ETFs were created by commodity traders who thought, “Wouldn’t it be cool if we didn’t have to get out the forklift and move all that stuff in the commodity warehouse? What if we could just trade warehouse RECEIPTS instead of dragging a pallet of copper around?”

This time the forklifts are out.  It’s been coming since April.  See the image here? That’s Broad Sentiment, our 10-point index of waxing and waning demand for S&P 500 stocks, year-to-date in 2021, vs SPY, the S&P 500 ETF.  SPY is just 2.8% above its high point when Sentiment lost its mojo in April.

Broad Sentiment, courtesy MarketstructureEDGE.com

From Mar 2020 to Apr 2021, we had a momentum market juiced by time and money. There were surfeits of both during the pandemic. People gambled. Money gushed. Stocks zoomed.

But as with all drugs, the effect wears off.  Sentiment peaked in March. Strong stocks notwithstanding, we’ve been coming off a drug-induced high since then.

And the twitches have begun. You see it first in derivatives.  Every expirations period since April has bumped – before, during or right after.  I’ve circled them on the image. It means the cold shakes could come next.  Not saying they will. All analogies break down.

Back to window-dressing.  When it gets hard to dress up the room no matter what curtains you hang, it means something.  Here we are, on the doorstep of Q4 2021.  It’s possible the market, or a benchmark or two, might’ve turned negative for the third calendar quarter yesterday (I’m writing before the market closes).

The RISK can be seen by observing movement in Passive money.  Because it’s the biggest thing in the market.  The windows are bare this time. If we were smart, we’d take a good look around.

But that’s probably too optimistic.  Governments and central banks will try again to slap on the coverings, dress it up, make it look better than it is.

Just Data

If stocks rise when VIX options expire, is it good or bad?

It’s data. That, we know.  If you’d never considered a relationship between stocks and options, welcome to market structure.  It’s something every public company, investor, trader, should grasp. At least in big brush strokes.

So here goes.

“Market structure” is the mechanics of the stock market. The behavior of money behind price and volume, we say. You’ll hear the phrase from people like SEC chair Gary Gensler and Virtu CEO Doug Cifu. Those guys understand the stock market.

By the way, if you missed our piece on Payment for Order Flow, an arcane element of market structure that now plays a central role for prices marketwide, read it here.

So, options-expirations.  Here’s the calendar.  Options are expiring all the time but the juggernaut are the monthly ones.  VIX options expired yesterday. That’s the so-called “Fear Gauge,” and we’ve written before about it.  It’s the implied volatility of the S&P 500.

It’s a lousy risk meter.  By the time it moves it’s too late. Its gyrations are consequences, not predictors. ModernIR (and sister company EDGE for trading decision-support) has much better predictive tools.

The VIX is really about volatility as an asset class (and it’s trillions of dollars now, not just VIX but volatility instruments).  You can buy things that you hope rise, short things you think might fall – or trade the gaps between, which in some ways is the least risky thing because it’s always in the middle.

In any case, the assets backing volatility are the same things that rise or fall. Stocks.  So a jump in demand for volatility hedges can cause stocks to rise. 

Yesterday stocks rose with VIX resets. 

And when it falls, it can mean the opposite. As it did August 18 when the VIX last lapsed and renewed.  A big pattern of Passive buying preceded it.  Then wham! Down day with the VIX reset.

Then growth stocks, momentum stocks, Big Tech, the FAANGs, etc., shot up.  That’s because money reduced its exposure to volatility hedges and increased its bets on “risk,” or things that might rise.

So.

Did that just stop?  No, it stopped last week.  What’s more it’s apparent in the data. 

Let me explain. Backing up, from Aug 6-17 – right before August expirations – there is a MASSIVE pattern of Passive money.  After that pattern, the market shot up. Except for one day, Aug 18. VIX expirations.

It indicates that ETFs took in large quantities of stocks, then created ETF shares and sold them to investors, which drove the market up. And the money spent on hedges was shifted to chasing call-options in “risk-on” stocks.

And yes. We can see that in any stock, sector, industry, peer group.

Back to the present, index-rebalances are slated for this Friday, quarterlies for, among others, big S&P Dow Jones benchmarks.  There are three MILLION global indexes now.

The data suggest those rebalances finished between Aug 26-Sep 10. Money didn’t wait to be front-run Friday. There’s another massive Passive pattern during that time.  The image here shows both patterns, the one in August, and this September version (through Sep 14, right before VIX expirations).

We can infer, albeit not with absolute certainty, that the trade from August has reversed.  ETFs are shedding stocks and removing growth-portfolio ETF shares.  Hedges are going back on.

Does that mean the market is about to tip over like so many have been predicting?

Rarely does a market implode when everybody is expecting it. In fact, name a time when that was true. Sure, somebody always manages to make the right call. But it’s a tiny minority.

Whatever happens, it’s going to surprise people. Either the pullback will be much worse than expected, or all the hedges that are going on as we proceed into September expirations will blunt the downside and reverse it when new options trade next week.

By the way, market woe sometimes comes on new options.  Sep 24, 2015.  Feb 24, 2020.  I could list a litany. Those are dates when new options traded. If nobody shows up for new options, the 18% of market cap that rests on rights but not obligations to do something in the future – derivatives – stuff can tumble.

Hedging in the SPX is about 19% of market cap right now.  ETF flows are down about 5% the last week versus the week before.  Our ten-point scale of Broad Sentiment has fallen from a peak Sep 7 of 6.1 to 5.1 Sep 14, still trending down. Any read over 5.0 is positive. It’s about to go negative.

Predictions? I bet we rebound next week. BUT if Monday is bad, the bottom could fall out of stocks.  And you should always know what’s coming, companies, investors and traders. It’s just data.

 

Growth vs Value

Are you Value or Growth?  

Depends what we mean, I know. S&P Dow Jones says it distinguishes Value with “ratios of book value, earnings and sales to price.”

It matters because Growth is terrorizing Value.  According to data from the investment arm of AllianceBernstein, Growth stocks outperformed Value stocks by 92% between 2015-2020.  Morningstar says it’s the biggest maw on record, topping the 1999 chasm.

If you’re in the Growth group, you’re loving it.  But realize.  By S&P Dow Jones’s measures, anybody could be a Value or Growth stock at any time.  It’s all in the metrics.

The larger question is why the difference?  AllianceBernstein notes that the traditional explanation is earnings growth plus dividends paid.  That is, if your stock is up 50% more than a peer’s, it should be because your earnings and dividends are 50% better.

If that were the case, everybody would be a great stock-picker. All you’d need do is buy stocks with the best earnings growth. 

Well, turns out fundamentals accounted for just ten percentage points of the difference.  The remaining 82% of the spread, as the image here from AllianceBernstein shows, was multiple-expansion.  Paying more for the same thing.

Courtesy AllianceBernstein LP. https://www.alliancebernstein.com/corporate/en/insights/investment-insights/whats-behind-the-value-growth-performance-gap.html

Put differently, 90% of the time Growth stocks outperform Value stocks for no known reason. No wonder stock-picking is hard.

Take Vertex (VRTX) and Fortinet (FTNT), among the two very best and worst stocks of the past year.  I don’t know fundamentally what separates them. One is Tech, the other Healthcare.

I do know that running supply/demand math on the two, there’s a staggering behavioral difference.  FTNT spent 61 days the past year at 10.0 on our ten-point scale measuring demand called Market Structure Sentiment.  It pegged the speedometer 24% of the time.

VRTX spent five days at 10.0.  Two percent of the time.  You need momentum in today’s stock market or you become a Value stock.

We recently shared data with a client who wondered why there was a 20-point spread to the price of a top peer.  We ran the data.  Engagement scores were about the same – 85% to 83%, advantage to our client. Can’t say it’s story then.

But the peer had a 20% advantage in time spent at 10.0.  The behavioral patterns were momentum-style. Our client’s, GARP/Value style.

Okay, Quast.  Suppose I stipulate to the validity of your measure of supply and demand, whatever it is.  Doesn’t answer the question. Why do some stocks become momentum, propelling Growth to a giant advantage over Value?

I think it’s three things. I can offer at least some data, empirical or circumstantial, to support each.

Let’s call the first Herd Behavior.  The explosion of Exchange Traded Funds concentrates herd behavior by using stocks as continuously stepped-up collateral for ETF shares.  I’ll translate.  ETFs don’t invest in stocks, per se.  ETFs trade baskets of ETF shares for baskets of stocks (cash too but let’s keep it simple here). As the stocks go up in value, ETF sponsors can trade them out for ETF shares. Say those ETF shares are value funds.

The supply of Value ETF shares shrinks because there’s less interest in Value.  Then the ETF sponsor asks for the same stocks back to create more Growth ETF shares.

But the taxes are washed out via this process. And more ETF shares are created.  And ETFs pay no commissions on these transactions. They sidestep taxes and commissions and keep gains.  It’s wholly up to traders and market-makers to see that ETF shares track the benchmark or basket.

The point? It leads to herd behavior. The process repeats. Demand for the same stuff is unremitting.  We see it in creation/redemption data for ETFs from the Investment Company Institute. ETF creations and redemptions average over $500 billion monthly. Same stuff, over and over. Herd behavior.

Second, there’s Amplification.  Fast Traders, firms like Infinium, GTS, Tower Research, Hudson River Trading, Quantlab, Jane Street, Two Sigma, Citadel Securities and others amplify price-moves.  Momentum derives from faster price-changes, and Fast Traders feed it.

Third is Leverage with derivatives or borrowing.  Almost 19% of trading volume in the S&P 500 ties to puts, calls and other forms of taking or managing risk with derivatives. Or it can be borrowed money. Or 2-3x levered ETFs. The greater the pool of money using leverage, the larger the probability of outsized moves.

Summarizing, Growth beats Value because of herd behavior, amplification of price-changes, and leverage.

By the way, we can measure these factors behind your price and volume – anybody in the US national market system.

Does that mean the Growth advantage is permanent?  Well, until it isn’t. Economist Herb Stein (Ben’s dad) famously said, “If something cannot last forever, it will stop.”

And it will. I don’t know when. I do know that the turn will prompt the collapse of leverage and the vanishing of amplification. Then Growth stocks will become Value stocks.

And we’ll start again.

Where’s It Going?

Where’s what going?

Time? Hm.

Money?  Well. Yes.

It abounds and yet it doesn’t go far.  Why that’s the case is another story (I can explain if you like but it usually clears a room at a cocktail party).

First, if you were spammed last week with the MSM, apologies! It was inadvertently set on full-auto.  And one other note, our sister company Market Structure EDGE  is up for several Benzinga Fintech Awards.  As in American politics, you may vote early and often (just kidding!). No, you can vote daily though till about Oct 22, 2021.  We hope you’ll help! Click here, and turn it into a daily calendar reminder.

Today we’re asking where the money gushing at US stocks and bonds like a ruptured fire hydrant is going. Morningstar says it’s $800 billion into US securities the last twelve months through July.

That’s minus a $300 billion drop in actively managed equity assets. Stock-pickers are getting pounded like a beach in a hurricane. Public companies, you realize it?

That’s not the point of this piece. But investor-relations professionals, realize the money you talk to isn’t buying. It’s selling.  There are exceptions and you should know them.  But don’t build your IR program around “targeting more investors.” Build it on the inflows (your characteristics), not the outflows.  If you want to know more, ask us.

So where did the $800 billion go? 

About $300 billion went to taxable bond funds.  Not for income. Appreciation. Bonds keep going up (yields down, prices up). They’re behaving like equities – buy appreciation, not income.

The rest, about $500 billion, went to US equities.  We’re going to look at that. 

$500 billion seems like a lot.  Ross Perot thought a billion here, billion there, pretty soon you’re talking real money. For you who are too young to know it, Google that.

But today $500 billion ain’t what it was. And frankly, five hundred billion deutschemarks wasn’t much in the Weimar Republic either.  The problem wasn’t inflation. The problem was what causes inflation: too much money.

Ah, but Weimar didn’t have derivatives. Silly fools.

For perspective, more than $500 billion of Exchange Traded Funds (ETF) are created and redeemed in US equities every month.  Stocks trade more than $500 billion daily in the US stock market.

And the money supply as measured by the Federal Reserve’s “M2” metric reflecting the total volume of money held by the public, increased by $5 trillion from Feb 2020 to July 2021.  That’s a 32% increase. About like stocks (SPY up 33% TTM).

Wait. The stock market is up the same as the money supply? 

Yup.

Did everybody sell stocks at higher prices?

No. Everybody bought stocks at higher prices.

Okay, so where did the stock come from to buy, if nobody sold?

Maybe enough holders sold stocks to people paying 33% more to account for the difference. Good luck with that math. You can root it out if you want.

But it’s not necessary.  We already know the answer. The money went into derivatives. 

The word “derivative” sounds fancy and opaque and mysterious. It’s not.  It’s a substitute for an asset.  You can buy a Renoir painting. You can buy a Renoir print for a lot less. You can buy a stock. You can buy an option on that stock for a lot less.

Suppose you want to buy the stocks in the S&P 500 but you don’t want the trouble and expense of buying 500 of them (a Renoir). You can buy a swap (a print, No. 347 of 3,900), pay a bank to give you the returns on the index (minus the fee).

Or you can buy SPY, the S&P 500 ETF.  You think you’re getting a Renoir.  All those stocks. No, you’re getting a print somebody ran on an inkjet printer.  It looks the same but it’s not, and it’s not worth the stocks beneath it.

Image courtesy ModernIR, Aug 25, 2021.

See this image?  There is demand.  There is supply. The former greatly exceeds the latter like we’ve seen the last year during a Covid Pandemic (chew on that one for a bit), so excess demand shunts off to a SUBSTITUTE. Derivatives. ETFs, options, futures.

That’s what’s going on. That’s where the money went. Look at GME and AMC yesterday. Explosive gains on no news. Why? Banks squared derivatives books yesterday after the August expirations period. Demand for prints (options), not paintings (stock), vastly exceeded supply.

So banks bought the underlying paintings called GME and AMC – and sold traders ten times as many prints. Options. Derivatives. It’s implied demand. The stocks shot up.

Bad? Well, not good. The point isn’t doom. The point is understanding where the money is going. Every trader, investor, public company, should understand it. 

It’s all measurable if you stop thinking about the market like it’s 1995. It’s just math. About 18% of the market is in derivatives.  But about 75% of prices are transient things with no substance.  Prints, not paintings.

Public companies, know what part of your market is Renoir, what part is just a print.  Traders, do the same.

We have that data.  Everybody should always know where the money is going.

Suddenly

Things are getting worrisome. 

It’s not just our spectacular collapse in Afghanistan less than a month before the 20-year anniversary of Nine Eleven.  That’s bad, yes.  Inexcusable.

Illustration 179312099 / Ernest Hemingway © Lukaves | Dreamstime.com

It’s not the spasmodic gaps in supply chains everywhere – including in the stock market. 

It’s not bond yields diving as inflation spikes, which makes sense like accelerating toward a stop sign.

It’s not the cavalier treatment of the people’s money (do you know we spent $750 million of US taxpayer dollars on the Kabul embassy, the world’s largest, then left the keys on the desk?).

It’s all of it.  Stuff’s jacked up, and it should bother us.

Karen and I went to a concert at Strings, the performing arts venue in Steamboat Springs.  If you want to feel better about yourself, go to the state fair.  Or an Asleep at the Wheel concert in Steamboat.

People are showing up with walkers, oxygen tanks, doddering uncertainly up the walkway.  I’m joking!  Mostly.  You get the point. (Lord, I apologize for my poor taste.)

And Asleep at the Wheel is awesome. I grew up on Hotrod Lincoln and The House of Blue Lights.

Anyway, covid mania continues so the hall serves no food or drink inside.  We’re dependent on food trucks outside for snacks.

None showed up.

There was a big bike ride this past weekend, three thousand gravel riders.  The food trucks were there. But there’s not enough staff working to cover more than one base. We and the oldsters were out of luck for tacos and cheesesteak.

But we were told they’d be there, and they weren’t. That kind of thing happened in Sri Lanka when I lived there for a year in college. But not in the World’s Superpower.

It gets worse.

The bartenders were shaking their heads. They couldn’t restock beforehand because the supplier was closed.  No staff.  A major liquor store – the biggest in the region with normally 3-4 registers running simultaneously – had to close because they had no staff to run the shop.

If you can’t stock your bar, you’re in trouble of collapsing as an empire. I say that in the barest jest only.

Back to the stock market.  The supply chain for stocks is borrowed shares. I’ve explained it before.  Dodd Frank basically booted big brokers from the warehouse business for equities.

Used to be, if you were Fidelity you called Credit Suisse and said, “I need a million shares of PFE.”

Credit Suisse would say, “We’ve got 500,000. We’ll call Merrill.”

And the wholesale desk there, the erstwhile Herzog Heine Geduld, would round the other half up.

Not so in 2021.  The banks now are laden to creaking with “Tier One Capital” comprised mostly of US Treasuries.  You’re the government and you need a market for debt, you just change the rules and require banks to own them, and slash interest rates so fixed income funds need ten times more than before.

Elementary, Watson.

What’s more, the stock market is a continuous auction. Everything is constantly for sale in 100-share increments. 

Except there aren’t 100 shares of everything always available. Certainly not 100,000 shares. So the SEC requires – they mandate it – brokers to short stock, create it in effect, to keep the whole continuous auction working.

Well, it’s getting wobbly.  There are sudden surges and swales in short volume now.  And the average trade size in the S&P 500 is 104 shares. Lowest on record.  Almost half that – 44% currently – is borrowed. In effect, the supply chain in the stock market is about 60 shares.

Depending on that tenuous thread is about 75% of three MILLION global index products.  Thousands of ETFs.  And $50 TRILLION of market cap.

The 1926 Ernest Hemingway book The Sun Also Rises has an exchange between two characters.  One asks the other how he went broke.

“Gradually,” he said. “Then suddenly.”

Afghanistan’s sudden collapse was 20 years in the making.  The same thing is happening around us in a variety of ways, products of crises fomenting in our midst that we ignore or excuse.

So what do we do about it?

The societal question is tough.  The market question is simple: Understand the problem, engage on a solution.

Public companies, it’s you and your shareholders sitting at the head of this welling risk.  We owe it to them to understand what’s going on. Know the risk of fragility in your shares’ supply chain. That’s a start. We have that data.

Solving the whole problem will require a well-informed, prepared constituency that cares.  Or all at once it’s going to implode. Not hyperbole. A basic observation.