Search Results for: ETFs

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…)

Data to Know

What should you know about your stock, public companies? 

Well, what do you know about your business that you can rattle off to some inquiring investor while checking the soccer schedule for your twelve-year-old, replying to an email from the CFO, and listening to an earnings call from a competitor?

Simultaneously.

That’s because you know it cold, investor-relations professionals.  What should you know cold about your stock?

While you think about that, let me set the stage. Is it retail money? The Wall Street Journal’s Caitlin McCabe wrote (subscription required) that $28 billion poured to stocks from retail traders in June, sourcing that measure from an outfit called VandaTrack.

If size matters, Exchange Traded Fund (ETF) data from the Investment Company Institute through May is averaging $547 billion monthly, 20 times June retail flows. Alas, no article about that.

You all who tuned to our Meme Stocks presentation last week (send me a note and I’ll share it) know retail money unwittingly depends on two market rules to work.

Illustration 91904354 / Stock Market © Ojogabonitoo | Dreamstime.com

This is good stuff to know but not what I mean. Can you answer these questions?

  • How many times per day does your stock trade?
  • How many shares at a time?
  • How much money per trade?
  • What’s the dollar-volume (trading volume translated into money)?
  • How much of that volume comes from borrowed stock every day?
  • What kind of money is responsible?
  • What’s the supply/demand trend?
  • What are stock pickers paying to buy shares and are they influencing your price?

Now, why should you know those things?  Better, why shouldn’t you know if you can? You might know the story cold. But without these data, you don’t know the basics about the market that determines shareholder value.

Maybe we don’t want to know, Tim.

You don’t want to know how your stock trades?

No, I don’t want to know that what I’m doing doesn’t matter.

What are we, Italians in the age of Galileo? What difference does it make what sets price?  The point is we ought to know. Otherwise, we’ve got no proof that the market serves our best interests.

We spend billions of dollars complying with disclosure rules. Aren’t we owed some proof those dollars matter?

Yes.  We are.  But it starts with us.  The evidence of the absence of fundamentals in the behavior of stocks is everywhere.  Not only are Blackrock, Vanguard and State Street the largest voting block for public companies and principally passive investors, but the majority of trading volume is executed by intermediaries who are not investors at all.

Stocks with no reason to go up, do.  And stock with no reason to go down, do.  Broad measures are not behaving like the stocks comprising them.  Over the whole market last week, just two sectors had more than a single net buying day:  Utilities and Energy. Yet both were down (0.9%, 1.3% respectively). Somehow the S&P 500 rose 1.7%.

You’d think public companies would want to know why the stock market has become a useless barometer.

Let me give you two examples for the questions I asked.  Public companies, you should be tracking these data at least weekly to understand changing supply/demand conditions for your shares.  And what kind of money is driving shareholder-value.

I won’t tell you which companies they are, but I’ll tweet the answer tomorrow by noon ET (follow @_TimQuast).  These are all 5-day averages by the way:

Stock A: 

  • Trades/day:  55,700
  • Shares/trade: 319
  • $/Trade: $4,370
  • Dollar volume:  $243 million
  • Short volume percent: 51%
  • Behaviors:  Active 9% of volume; Passive, 36%; Fast Trading, 32%; Risk Mgmt, 23% (Active=stock pickers; Passive=indexes, ETFs, quants; Fast Trading=speculators, intermediaries; Risk Mgmt=trades tied to derivatives)
  • Trend: Overbought, signal predicts a decline a week out
  • Active money is paying:  $11.60, last in May 2021, Engagement is 94%

Stock B:

  • Trades/day:  67,400
  • Shares/trade: 89
  • $/Trade: $11,000
  • Dollar volume:  $743 million
  • Short volume: 47%
  • Behaviors:  Active, 8% of volume; Passive, 24%; Fast Trading 49%; Risk Mgmt, 19%
  • Trend: Overbought, signal predicts declines a week out
  • Active money is paying:  $121, last in June 2021, Engagement is 81%

The two stocks have gone opposite directions in 2021.  The problem isn’t story for either one. Both have engaged investors. Active money is 8-9%.

The difference is Passive money. Leverage with derivatives.

Would that be helpful to boards and executive teams?  Send this Market Structure Map to them.  Ask if they’d like to know how the stock trades.

Everybody else in the stock market – traders, investors, risk managers, exchanges, brokers – is using quantitative data.  Will we catch up or stay stuck in the 1990s?

We can help.

Rustling Data

The Russell Reconstitution is so big everybody talks about it.  And yet it’s not. 

The Nasdaq touted its role facilitating this year’s Russell reset, saying, “A record 2.37 billion shares representing $80,898,531,612 were executed in the Closing Cross in 1.97 seconds across Nasdaq-listed securities.”

Impressive, no question.  That’s a lot of stuff to happen in the equivalent of the proper following distance when driving 65 mph (a rule often ignored, I’ve observed).

I’d also note that the Closing Cross is not the “continuous auction market” required by SEC rules but a real auction where buyers meet sellers. Regulators permit these to open and close markets.

The Nasdaq said, “Russell reconstitution day is one of the year’s most highly anticipated and heaviest trading days in the U.S. equity market, as asset managers seek to reconfigure their portfolios to reflect the composition of Russell’s newly-reconstituted U.S. indexes.”

The press release said it was completed successfully and the newly reconstituted index would take effect “Monday, June 29, 2020.”

Somebody forgot to update the template.

But that’s not the point.  What the Nasdaq said is untrue.  The Russell rebalance June 25, 2021 was not “one of the heaviest trading days in the US equity market.”

It was 159th out of 252 trading days over the trailing year, using the S&P 500 ETF SPY as a proxy (we cross-checked the data with our internal volume averages for composite S&P 500 stocks, and against other major-measure ETF proxies).

SPY traded 58 million shares June 25 this year but has averaged over 72 million shares daily the trailing twelve months.

Whoa.

Right?

This is market structure. If a stock exchange doesn’t know, who are you counting on for facts about the stock market?

CNBC June 29, 2021

I snapped the photo here hurriedly of the conference-room TV at ModernIR yesterday with CNBC’s Sara Eisen and former TD Ameritrade Chair Joe Moglia. But look at what they call in video production the lower third, the caption.

That’s what hedge-fund legend Lee Cooperman said in the preceding segment. “Market Structure is totally broken.”  Eisen and Moglia were talking about it.

When I vice-chaired the NIRI Annual Conference in 2019, I moderated the opening plenary session with Lee Cooperman, Joe Saluzzi, co-author of the book “Broken Markets” (you should read it), and Brett Redfearn, head of the SEC’s division of Trading and Markets (now head of capital markets for Coinbase).

The market may not appear broken to you. But you should know that market-structure events occur about 70 times per year. And the Nasdaq ought to know if the Russell Reconstitution is really a heavy trading day. It’s their business.

Just as it’s your business, investor-relations professionals, to know your market. The equity market.

Just the preceding week, June quad-witching owned the Russell Reconstitution like Mark Cavendish sprinting at the Tour de France.  Worse, actually, though few cycling moments match seeing The Manx Missile win his 31st stage after having left the sport.

It was a beatdown.  SPY volume June 16-18 averaged 97 million shares, 67% higher than the Russell rebalance, peaking the 18th at 119 million shares. 

And June 30, 2020, the final trading day of the second calendar quarter last year, SPY traded more than 113 million shares, nearly twice this year’s Russell volumes June 25.

June 30 is today. 

In fact, the last trading day of each month in the trailing twelve averaged 99 million shares of SPY traded.

What do those dates and June 16-18 have in common?  Derivatives.  Each month, there are six big expirations days: The VIX, morning index options, triple- or quad-witching, new options, the true-up day for banks afterward, and last-day futures.

This final one is the ultimate trading day each month featuring the lapsing of a futures contract used to true up index-tracking. The CBOE created it in 2014 for that purpose. Russell resets may be using it instead.

What’s it say that derivatives expirations are 67% more meaningful to volume than an annual index reconstitution for $10 trillion pegged dollars, or that average daily volume in SPY, the world’s largest exchange-traded derivative – all ETFs are derivatives, substitutes for underlying assets – exceeds volume on a rebalance day?

That your executive teams and boards better know. They deserve to know. If you give them anachronistic data unreflective of facts, it’s no help. Imagine if Lee Cooperman is right, and our profession fails our boards and executive teams.

No practice has a higher duty to understand the equity market than the investor-relations profession.  If you’re not certain, ask us for help. We’ll arm you so you need never worry again about fulfilling it.

Blunderbuss

Do stores sell coats in the summer? 

No, they sell bathing suits. They match product to consumer.  Do you, investor-relations professionals?

I’ll tell you what I mean.  First, here’s a tease:  I recorded a panel yesterday with the Nasdaq’s Chris Anselmo and Kissell Research Group’s Dr. Robert Kissell on How New Trading Patterns Affect IR.

It airs at 4p ET June 22 during the 2021 NIRI Annual Virtual Conference.  Root around in the couch cushions of your IR budget and find some coins and join us.  We’ll be taking questions live around the panel.  Sling some heckling if you want!  It’s a great program.

Now, back to matching product to consumer.  The IR outreach strategy for maintaining relationships with investors often resembles a blunderbuss. Unless you went to elementary school when I did and saw pictures of pilgrims sporting guns with barrels shaped like flugelhorns, you probably don’t know what I’m talking about.

You threw some stuff in the barrel and loaded it with powder and ignited it and hoped some of what belched out went in the general direction you were pointing.

Illustration 165213327 © Dennis Cox | Dreamstime.com

If you don’t have anything better I guess it works. But the IR profession shouldn’t be blunderbussing wildly around.

I get it, Tim.  Be targeted in our outreach.

No, I mean sell your product to consumers who’ll buy it.  Your product is your stock.  Your story is a narrative that may or may not match your product.

Huh?

Stay with me.  I’ll explain.  This is vital.   

Think of it this way. REI is an outdoors store.  It’ll sell you cycling stuff and camping gear in the summer, and skiing gear and coats in the winter.  The data analytics they use are pretty simple: The season changes.

In the stock market, the seasons are relentlessly changing but the temperature doesn’t rise and fall in predictable quadrants to tell you if igloos or swimsuits are in. But the BEHAVIORAL DATA wax and wane like many small seasons.

The Russell 2000 value index is up 30% this year. The Russell 2000 growth index has risen just 3.8%.  Is value more appealing than growth?  No, as both Benzinga and the Wall Street Journal reported, GME and AMC rank 1-2 in the index.

The crafters of the indices didn’t suppose that movie theaters in the age of Covid or a business built on selling games that have moved online were growth businesses.

They’re not. But the products are. These are extreme cases but it happens all the time.

CVX, market cap $210 billion, is in both Value and Momentum State Street SPDR (S&P Depositary Receipts) Exchange Traded Funds. It’s got both characteristics AT DIFFERENT TIMES.

AAPL, in 299 ETFs, is used for focus value, dividend strategies, technology 3x bull leveraged exposure, high growth, luxury goods, risk-manager and climate-leadership investing, among a vast array of other reasons.

Look up your own stock and see what characteristics are prompting ETF ownership.  That’s data you can use.  Don’t know what to do? Ask us. We’ll help.

How can ETFs with diametrically opposed objectives use the same stocks? That’s something every investor-relations professional needs to know. ETFs control $6 trillion in the US alone. They’re not pooled investments and they don’t hold custodial accounts like mutual funds.

Should the IR profession understand what the money is doing in the stock market?

Set that aside for now. There’s an immediate lesson to help us stop behaving like blunderbusses.  Stocks constantly change. I think rather than targeting specific investors, you should build a big tent of folks you know.

And you should RECONNECT with them in highly specific, data-driven ways.  If you just call investors you know to follow up, you’re doing IR like a cave man. Stop doing that.

The deck is already stacked against investors focused on story.  They need all our help they can get! I’ve explained it many times.  Rules promote average prices and harm outliers.  Passives want average prices. Stock pickers want outliers.

If we want investors interested in our stories to succeed, use DATA to help them.

Like this. We met with a Financials component yesterday.  The data show a big surge in Passive money in patterns.  You won’t see it in settlement data.  It never leaves the custodian because it the same money moving from indexes to ETFs and back.

But ModernIR can see it in near realtime.

The IR department should be calling core GROWTH names, even though it’s a value story.  That wave of Passive money is going to lift the stock. Growth money buys appreciation. Value money buys opportunity.

You want to move from blunderbuss to data expert in modern markets?  Ask us.  You don’t have to be way behind like the Russell indices.  You can be way ahead, like a modern IRO.

Get rid of that blunderbuss, pilgrim.   

Something Wicked

When I was a kid I read Ray Bradbury’s novel, Something Wicked this Way Comes, which plays on our latent fear of caricature. It takes the entertaining thing, a traveling carnival, and turns it into 1962-style horror.

Not 2021-style of course. There’s decorum. It stars a couple 13-year-olds after all.

The stock market also plays on our latent fear of caricature.  It’s a carnival at times.  Clowns abound.  As I said last week, companies can blow away expectations and stocks fall 20%.  That’s a horror show.

Courtesy The Guardian

Devilish winds have been teasing the corners of the tent for a time.  We told our Insights Reports recipients Monday about some of those.

The Consolidated Tape Association, responsible for the data used by retail brokers and internet websites like Yahoo! Finance and many others last week lost two hours of market data.  Gone.  Poof.

Fortunately, about 24 hours later they were able to restore from a backup.  But suppose you were using GPS navigation and for two hours Google lost all the maps.

So that was one sideshow, one little shop of horrors.  I don’t recall it happening before.

Twice last week and six times this year so far, exchanges have “declared self-help” against other markets.

It’s something you should understand, investor-relations professionals and traders.  It’s a provision under Regulation National Market System that permits stock exchanges to stop routing trades to a market that’s behaving anomalously, becoming a clown show.

Rules require all “marketable” trades — those wanting to be the best bid to buy or offer to sell — to be automated so they can zip over to wherever the best price resides. And exchanges must accept trades from other exchanges. No exceptions.  It’s like being forced to share your prices, customers, and even your office space with your competitors.

The regulators call this “promoting competition.” Sounds to me like a carnival.

But I digress. Exchanges must by law be connected at high-speed, unless declaring self-help.

An aside, I’ll grant you it’s a strange name for a regulatory term.  Self-help?  Couldn’t they have come up with something else?  Why not Regulatory Reroute? Data Detour?

Anyway, last week the trouble occurred in options markets.  First the BOX options market went down. It’s primarily owned by TMX Group, which runs the Toronto Stock Exchange.

Then last Friday CBOE — Chicago Board Options Exchange, it used to be called — failed and the NYSE American and Arca options markets and the Nasdaq options markets (the Nasdaq is the largest options-market operator) declared self-help. They stopped routing trades there until the issue was fixed.

Now maybe it’s no big deal.  But think about the effect on the algorithms designed to be everywhere at once.  Could it introduce pricing anomalies?

I don’t know.  But Monday the Nasdaq split the proverbial crotch of its jeans and yesterday the so-called “Value Trade” blew a gasket.

I’m not saying they’re related. The market is a complex ecosystem and becoming more so. Errors aren’t necessarily indicative of systemic trouble but they do reflect increasing volumes of data (we get it; we’re in the data business and it happens to us sometimes).

And we’d already been watching wickedness setting up in our index of short-term supply and demand, the ten-point Broad Market Sentiment gauge.  It’s been mired between 5.8-6.1 for two weeks.

When supply and demand are stuck in the straddle, things start, to borrow a line from a great Band of Horses song, splitting at the seams and now the whole thing’s tumbling down.

And here’s a last one:  Exchange Traded Funds (ETFs) have been more volatile than the underlying stocks for five straight weeks, during which time stocks had risen about 5% through last Friday. Since we’ve been measuring that data, it’s never happened before.

Doesn’t mean it’s a signal. It’s just another traveling freak show. Clowns and carnivals. ETFs are elastic and meant to absorb volatility. Stocks are generally of fixed supply while the supply of ETFs fluctuates constantly.  You’d expect stocks most times to thus move more, not less.

I think this feature, and the trouble in options markets, speaks to the mounting concentration of money in SUBSTITUTES for stocks.  It’s like mortgage-backed securities — substitutes for mortgages.  Not saying the same trouble looms.  We’re merely observing the possibility that something wicked this way is coming.

Our exact line Monday at five o’clock a.m. Mountain Time was: “There’s a lot of chaos in the data.”

Son of a gun.

I don’t know if we’re about to see a disaster amongst the trapezes, so to speak, a Flying Wallendas event under the Big Top of our high-flying equity market.  The data tell me the probability still lies some weeks out, because the data show us historically what’s happened when Sentiment hits stasis like it’s done.

But. Something is lurking there in the shadows, shuffling and grunting.

And none of us should be caught out. We have data to keep you ahead of wickedness, public companies and traders. Don’t get stuck at the carnival.

Roped Together

This Cinco de Mayo we’re grateful for tequila.

Especially if you’re a Tech investor. Why are companies crushing earnings and revenue being pulverized by an imperious market?

It’s easiest to say expectations for the future have diminished and so market capitalization will too.  That doesn’t reflect how the market works.

In fact, there’s inherent contradiction between that orthodox view of equities and the way money now behaves.  Morningstar shows that more than a third of all institutional assets are in large-cap blend Passive funds.  Total domestic ETF assets have increased by $1.5 trillion in the past year, says the Investment Company Institute.

Well, what’s that money do?  We all understand the idea of following the money.  That is, if you want to understand what’s driving behavior, track where the money goes.

For instance, prices of things consumers buy for both daily and discretionary reasons have risen.  Personal income is up 21%.  That’s following the money. The more there is, the more stuff costs.

Until everything resets.

See the image here.  The Tech sector dwarfs other parts of the S&P 500 at 28%.  Data we track show Passive and Active Investment – combined indexes and ETFs and stock-picking flows – were up about 5% in the sector last week as stocks fell 5%.

That means investors were selling Tech.

No mystery there, you might think. But stocks can fall on the absence of buying as much as the presence of selling. And Tech has come down further since, though the pattern of selling by investment behaviors is receding.

Here’s the point.  The stock market’s value nears $50 trillion.  Tech is about $15 trillion. And it’s even more when you consider that the largest companies – Google, Apple, Amazon, Facebook, Tesla, Microsoft – are spread over three sectors, not one, the big green box on the left of the image.

If 5% of that money leaves during month-end window-dressing it’s destabilizing not just to a handful of stocks but to the sector, the whole market.  The big green box is about $24 trillion.  All of that can oscillate if money shifts to say, Financials (up 2% last week) or Energy (up 5%).

I’ll give you another observation from the data.  This one requires understanding something. ETFs – Exchange Trade Funds – are not fiduciaries. They don’t manage your money.  If you buy Blackrock ETFs, you don’t have an account at Blackrock.

And Blackrock can do what you can’t.  Blackrock can dump its Tech stocks all at once via the “redemption basket” – the garbage to take out – while simultaneously asking for only appreciating stocks in the “creation basket,” the grocery cart from brokers.

So Blackrock could shed its falling Tech stocks for ETF shares and then trade the ETF shares for Financials, Homebuilders, Energy stocks, Real Estate stocks.  It thus avoids the falling stocks and rides the rising ones. 

But that’s a very short-term trade.  There’s not enough stock in those sectors and industries to remotely account for the 52% in the giant swaths of the market populated by Big Tech.

So either the whole market tips over. Or suddenly Tech will look good again. There’s no way to meet the demands of large-cap Passive target-date funds with heavy weightings in equities without Tech.

We told clients this in the Friday Market Desk note out Apr 23:

You recall when those two Bear Stearns mortgage-backed securities funds went under in 2007?  We all went, “Huh. Wonder what happened there.”  Then we followed the Dave Barry Car Mechanic Manual:  When your car starts knocking, turn up the radio.

We didn’t understand that those funds and Bear Stearns and Lehman and the whole housing industry were roped together and pulling each other off El Capitan. I’m not saying we’re roped here.  But it’s possible.  

We’re all roped to Tech.  Tied to its weight.

I also trotted out an old theology term from my college days studying that discipline: Laodicea. I said the market was neither cold nor hot, and it was the kind that could spew us out.  You can look it up in the last book of the bible, Revelation, chapter 3.

I think there’s too much commitment to equities by large-cap diversified Passive target-date (that’s a mouthful) funds for us to fall from El Capitan.  Yet.  There will be a day when the flows stop, and Blackrock can’t trade anything for Tech shares.

That’s when, as the head of campus security back in my collegiate days in tornado country would say, “You go grab little brother Willie off the porch.”

Swapping Volatility

Google chose as motto “don’t be evil.” “Beware derivatives” isn’t a bad motto either.

If you’ve read the MSM long, you know we’ve beaten the drum like Boneshaker (when you hear the sound of the drum, here we come) over the risk in derivatives.

Oh please, Quast.  Can’t we talk about something more interesting, like the molecular structure of Molybdenum?

Do you want to know what’s coming, public companies and investors?  We’ve now been warned twice.  I’ll explain.

Before that, this: Recall that we said the market could take a beating this week because of derivatives. A raft of major banks have reported combined damage in the billions from bad derivatives bets by one hedge fund, Archegos Capital.

And VIX bets hit today.  Volatility bets blew up another fund.  Warning Signal No. 2.

Gunjan Banerji wrote about it yesterday in the WSJ (subscription required), admirably explicating the complexities of variance swaps.  The Infinity Q Diversified Alpha Fund shut down.

Diversified Alpha, a mutual fund marketed as a hedge fund for the masses, had roughly $1.75 billion of assets at last word.  The fund aimed in part at volatility strategies.  It said:

“The Volatility Strategy seeks to profit from the mispricing of volatility related instruments across equities, currencies, bonds, interest rates, and commodities markets. These instruments include options, variance swaps, correlation swaps, and total return swaps. The Strategy invests across a wide range of time horizons and takes long and short positions in the underlying volatility instruments.”

The fund went broke betting on volatility – mispricings.  That’s two in short succession.  Diversified Alpha filed its plea with the SEC Feb 21 to halt redemptions. Right after February expirations. Archegos Capital went belly-up with March expirations.

Much of the money in equities trades mispricings. That’s what ETFs do (ETF vs a basket). It’s what Fast Traders do (one price vs another). It’s what derivatives traders do (stocks vs options).  Those behaviors are roughly 80% of US equity volume.

These disasters you describe, Tim, are isolated to leveraged outfits.

Nope.

Here’s the SAI for the Blackrock Technology Opportunities Fund. I have read a great many SAIs, a reason I’ve in the past highlighted risks, especially for Exchange Traded Funds.

On page 3 is this: Only information that is clearly identified as applicable to the Fund is considered to form a part of the Fund’s SAI.

Then follows a table, with X’s by what applies.  See page 4, the derivatives section. Derivatives for hedges and speculation apply.  Credit default swaps, interest-rate swaps, total return swaps, options on swaps, on it goes.

I’m sure it’s a small part of this fund’s assets, used within rules to true up tracking or remediate some of the unremitting volatility that’s been seeded in all financial instruments by vast artificial quantities of money and low interest rates. But read the SAI on your favorite fund. What’s it say?

By the way, volatility in stocks has plunged by 50% the past couple weeks. Almost like a tide going out ahead of a tsunami. Behind it in other data we track are vast swings in standard deviation between the prices of sector stocks and the ETFs tracking them.

That is, if we compile moves of all sector stocks and the average is a 1.8% decline and the composite average for sector ETFs is 0.1%, standard deviation is 625%.

It suggests to me that ETFs are substituting stuff that moves less than stocks – like swaps or IOUs of some sort, or cash – to get away from the error-inducing volatility in stocks.

But that could blow up derivatives predicated on a statistical equity basket. What the hell is going on?  Exactly.  That’s what I want to know. Something is wrong, and we’re seeing little fissures, seeping steam, wisps of ash.

We’ve long been concerned about these risks. But they’re like the way Ernest Hemingway described how one goes broke (a line I’ve used often): very slowly then all at once.

I’m not wringing my hands. Forewarned is forearmed. Investors and traders, it’s wise to get out of the pool around these things, which we observe in the data, and report.

And for public companies, it’s high time to make sure your executive teams realize risk resides beyond “alternative investments.” It’s everywhere. All around us. 

How central are Morgan Stanley, JP Morgan, Credit Suisse, Deutsche Bank, banks losing on Archegos, to financial markets from IPOs to Treasury Open Market operations?  Derivatives to equity and ETF trading?

It may be the cost of paying ourselves to sit out a Pandemic is the stability of our financial markets. We’re inflating everything including derivatives.  We can survive it.  In fact, it would do us good to roll around in the dirt and develop some resilience.

Whatever happens, we’ve got the data.  We warned EDGE users to be out by last Friday. We can tell you, public companies, if these instruments are large in your price. 

Everybody is swapping volatility. Beware.

Which Way

In Lake Jackson, TX, you can take This Way or That Way.

No, really.  I snapped that shot Friday at the corner of This Way and That Way in LJ.  And yes, that rhymes.  And yes, it’s a metaphor for the stock market.  It goes this way and that way.

So the market goes this way and that.  So what?

Every time I hear that refrain, and I do hear it routinely from investor-relations professionals, I know how Copernicus felt. You tell people nothing is what it seems and the response is, yeah so what?

The single most important principle for life, business, investing, trading, pick your thing, is to exist in reality.  Everything rests on it.  Otherwise, we’re living in a fantasy, as Leo Sayer sang (okay, that was a love song but you get the point).

Traders never say, “Why should I care about that?” One EDGE subscriber sent me a note yesterday saying, “Thank you for your Monday morning briefings on Benzinga – we are learning things we have never learned before so it’s important!”

Investors by contrast sometimes say they don’t care because “our horizons are longer.”

That’s ironic to me because long horizons in the stock market are frankly abysmal, a reason why companies are growing privately and exiting publicly. Yes, the Nasdaq is up 40% over the past year, more from the depths of the Pandemic correction.  Even so it’s a 9% annualized return, minus taxes, commissions, inflation, the past 20 years.

Take out the trailing 12 months and you’re negative on your Nasdaq investment those two decades. I wrote last week about the effects of volatility. This is it.  Reality.

You probably feel like the people Copernicus told: “Do you want us to kill you now or kill you later?  Pick one.” 

Because what good is reality to me if it harms my interests?  That is, the IR profession would seem to depend on a) returns from equity investments, and b) the superiority of what you DO in the IR chair.

It used to be phone calls we made depended on what somebody was doing in the operator’s chair.  Travel used to depend on somebody who could drive a team of horses.  Streetlights used to depend on somebody coming by and lighting them.

Pick your comparative.

Do we think we’re telephone operators in this profession?  We better shut up about how the market works and hope nobody figures it out, because we might be obsolete?

Engineers aren’t obsolete, though we’ve had them through technological epochs. Same with mathematicians, chemists, physicians, scientists, accountants.  The rules and the technology and the application of skills change, but the centrality of value doesn’t.

You can’t cling to operating the switchboard like that’s the future.  

The IR profession exists to ground public companies in the reality of the equity market. 

I’ll repeat it.  Our profession exists to ground executives in financial reality.

That includes understanding how long-only money evaluates your financials.  But it also includes why Gamestop goes up 1,000% on nothing rational.

It includes why Direct Listings are cutting out investment banks.  It includes knowing why the Buyside widely pans the Sellside today, and why sellsiders want IR jobs.

It includes understanding how ETFs work.  When Passives rebalance and why. How derivatives are used.  What fosters volatility.  What liquidity means.  How characteristics drive quantitative investing. Behavioral factors that should shape equity offerings and buybacks.

How to position your company in front of “The Money,” whatever The Money is doing, because you understand what The Money does.

Like engineers and accountants and scientists, that kind of value never fades no matter which way the money is going – this way, or that.

Speaking of which, Broad Market Sentiment is peaking.  Options for April begin expiring Thursday.  The cycle stretches through next Wednesday with VIX expirations and new ones trading in between.

Big prime brokers have taken a beating.  Hedge funds are going to pay more to borrow money and take risk, and banks will be more reticent on the other side of trades after Archegos Capital.

What might happen?  Well, the market will go this way, or that.  But we have a pretty good read on the risk and probabilities, because we know what The Money is doing.

And we can help you know which way it’s going.  This way, or that way.