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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…)

Suppy Chain Trouble

If you go to the store for a shirt and they don’t have your size, you wait for the supply chain to find it.  There isn’t one to buy. Ever thought about that for stocks?

I just looked up a client’s trade data. It says the bid size is 2, the ask, 3.  That means there are buyers for 200 shares and sellers of 300.  Yet the average trade-size the past 20 days for this stock, with about $27 million of daily volume, is 96 shares.  Not enough to make a minimum round-lot quote.

That means, by the way, that the average trade doesn’t even show up in the quote data. Alex Osipovich at the Wall Street Journal wrote yesterday (subscription required) that the market is full of tiny trades. Indeed, nearly half are less than 100 shares (I raised a liquidity alarm with Marketwatch this past Monday).

Back to our sample stock, if it’s priced around $50, there are buyers for $10,000, sellers of $15,000. But it trades in 96-share increments so the buyer will fill less than half the order before the price changes. In fact, the average trade-size in dollars is $4,640.

The beginning economic principle is supply and demand. Prices should lie at their nexus. There’s an expectation in the stock market of endless supply – always a t-shirt on the rack.

Well, what if there’s not? What if shares for trades stop showing up at the bid and ask?  And what might cause that problem?

To the first question, it’s already happening. Regulations require brokers transacting in shares to post a minimum hundred-share bid to buy and offer to sell (or ask). Before Mr. Osipovich wrote on tiny trades, I’d sent data around internally from the SEC’s Midas system showing 48% of all trades were odd lots – less than 100 shares.

Do you see? Half the trades in the market can’t match the minimum. Trade-size has gone down, down, down as the market capitalization of stocks has gone up, up, up.  That’s a glaring supply-chain signal that prices of stocks are at risk during turbulence.

Let’s define “liquidity.”

I say it’s the amount of something you can buy before the price changes. Softbank is swallowing its previous $47 billion valuation on WeWork and taking the company over for $10 billion. That’s a single trade. One price. Bad, but stable.

The stock market is $30 trillion of capitalization and trades in 135-share increments across the S&P 500, or about $16,500 per trade.  Blackrock manages over $6.8 trillion of assets. Vanguard, $5.3 trillion. State Street. $2.5 trillion.

Relationship among those data?  Massive assets. Moving in miniscule snippets.

Getting to why trade-size keeps shriveling, the simple answer is prices are changing faster than ever.  Unstable prices are volatility.  That’s the definition.

I’ll tell you what I think is happening: Exchange Traded Funds (ETFs) are turning stocks from investments to collateral, which moves off-market. As a result, a growing percentage of stock-trades are aimed at setting different prices in stocks and ETFs. That combination is leading to a supply-chain shortage of stocks, and tiny stock-trades.

ETFs are substitutes dependent on stocks for prices. The ETF complex has mushroomed – dominated by the three investment managers I just mentioned (but everyone is in the ETF business now, it seems) – because shares are created in large blocks with stable prices. Like a WeWork deal.

A typical ETF creation unit is 50,000 shares.  Stocks or cash of the same value is exchanged in-kind. Off-market, one price.

The ETF shares are then shredded into the stock market amidst the mass pandemonium of Brownian Motion (random movement) afflicting the stocks of public companies, which across the whole market move nearly 3% from high to low every day, on average.

Because there are nearly 900 ETFs, reliant on the largest stocks for tracking, ever-rising amounts of stock-trading tie back to ETF spreads. That is, are stocks above or below ETF prices? Go long or short accordingly.

Through August 2019, ETF creations and redemptions in US stocks total $2.6 trillion.  From Jan 2017-Aug 2019, $10.1 trillion of ETF shares were created and redeemed.

ETFs are priced via an “arbitrage mechanism” derived from prices in underlying stocks. Machines are chopping trades into minute pieces because the smaller the trade, the lower the value at risk for the arbitragers trading ETFs versus stocks.

ETFs are the dominant investment vehicle now. Arbitrage is the dominant trading activity. What if we’re running out of ETF collateral – stocks?

It would explain much: shrinking trade-sizes because there is no supply to be had. Rising shorting as share-borrowing is needed to create supply. Price-instability because much of the trading is aimed at changing the prices of ETFs and underlying stocks.

Now, maybe it’s an aberration only. But we should consider whether the collateralization feature of ETFs is crippling the equity supply-chain. What if investors tried to leave both at the same time?

All public companies and investors should understand market liquidity – by stock, sector, industry, broad measure. We track and trend that data every. Data is the best defense in an uncertain time, because it’s preparation.

Spread Spoofing

I’ve never bet on sports, but the bulk of wagers is on the spread – whether the outcome will be above or below a range.

In the stock market spreads rule too, and data suggest market-makers are gambling on which things will move. The most shocking spread is the one between assets flowing to Exchange Traded Funds and the dollar-volume of ETF shares.

Wall Street Journal writer Akane Otani reported last weekend (subscription required) using data from Strategas that US equity ETFs saw about $36 billion of inflows to date this year, the majority into low-volatility strategies favoring defensive plays like large-caps and Utilities.

To accommodate these flows, ETF shares must be created. Data from the Investment Company Institute through August 2019 (the latest available) show a staggering $2.6 trillion of ETF shares have been created and redeemed this year.

Put another way, actual increases in ETF assets are 1.4% of total ETF share-transactions.  Talk about a spread.

I wonder what effect that’s having on the stock market?

First, let’s understand “creations” and “redemptions.”  We’ve written about them before and you can read our ETF white paper for more.  ETF shares are manufactured by brokers, which receive that right from Blackrock and other ETF sponsors in (tax-free) exchange for stocks and cash of equal value.

Say investors are buying Utilities ETFs because they want to avoid volatility. Communication Services sector stocks like Facebook and CBS are 84% more volatile on average over the past 50 trading days (we study that data) than Utilities stocks like Southern Co. and Duke Energy.

Brokers will find (buy, borrow, substitute) Utilities stocks worth, say, $12 million, and receive in trade from an ETF sponsor like State Street (XLU is the Utilities sector ETF) authority to create $12 million worth of ETF shares to sell to the eager investing public.

The data are saying the process of creating and redeeming ETF shares is vastly more peripatetic behind stocks than the actual dollars coming from investors.

Why? We’ll come to that.

Continuing the explanation, ETF shares are created off the market in giant blocks typically numbering 50,000 or more. The price does not move.  These shares are then sold in tiny trades – about 130 shares at a time – that move wildly, as do the prices of stocks exchanged for ETF shares.

There is, as the statistics folks would say, mass Brownian Motion (random movement) amid stocks – and the pursuit of profits via instability is leviathan.

We’ve done the math. An average of $325 billion of ETF shares are created and redeemed every month.  Barely more than a tenth of that has been invested in equity ETFs en toto in 2019.

What’s going on? What we’ve been telling financial reporters and the SEC for the last three years – to withering recrimination from ETF sponsors and resounding silence from the press and regulators.

ETF shares are being created and redeemed so short-term money can profit on the spreads that develop between stocks and ETFs (ironically, the same parties doing this are decrying short-termism).

Create ETF shares, and prices of ETFs will deteriorate versus stocks. Redeem (remove them) and prices firm. Contraction/expansion is relentless and way bigger than flows.

That’s not investing.  It’s gambling on (and fostering) spreads.  The math on its face says nearly 99% of creation/redemption volume is a form of gambling, because it doesn’t match investment-flows.

No doubt now there’s epithet-riddled screaming and shouting occurring across ETF trading rooms and ETF boardrooms.  Perhaps some part of the spread is legitimate.

But I’ll say again, regulators:  You owe the investing public a look into why trillions of dollars of ETF shares are created to serve billions of dollars of investment-flows. And we don’t know who the parties to creations and redemptions are, or what’s being exchanged.

It feels like spoofing – issuing and canceling trades to distort supply and demand. What effect is it having on the prices of stocks that both public companies and investors think reflect investment behavior?

I’ll wager there’s an answer.  Do you want to take the over or under?

Six See Eleven

What do you do in Steamboat Springs when autumn arrives at the Botanic Park? Why, have a Food & Wine Festival of course!

Meanwhile the derivatives festival in equities continues, thanks to the SEC, which through Rule 6c-11 is now blanket-exempting the greatest financial mania of the modern era, Exchange Traded Funds (ETFs), from the law governing pooled investments.

I’ll explain what this means to companies and stock-picking investors.

Look, I like Chairman Clayton, Director Redfearn, and others there.  But the SEC isn’t Congress, legislating how the capital markets work (one could argue that the people never delegated that authority to government through the Constitutional amendment process at all. But I digress).

The point is, the SEC is supposed to promote free and fair markets – not one purposely tilted against our core audience of stock-pickers.

The problems with ETFs are they’re derivatives, and they foster arbitrage, or profiting on different prices for the same thing. If arbitrage is a small element – say 15% – it can highlight inefficiencies. But thanks to ETFs, 87% of volume (as we measure it) is now directly or indirectly something besides business fundamentals, much of it arbitrage.

Do we want a market where the smallest influencer is Benjamin Graham?

ETFs in fact can’t function without arbitrage. ETFs have no intrinsic value.  They are a traded substitute for a basket of underlying stocks that depend on prices of those stocks for a derivative price applied to the ETF shares. So, unless brokers trade both ETF shares and stocks simultaneously, ETF prices CAN collapse.

That was an outlier problem until ETFs became the fastest-growing financial instrument of all time outside maybe 16th century Dutch tulip bulbs.

But collapse is not the core threat from ETFs. Arbitrage distorts the market’s usefulness as a barometer of fundamentals, warps the market toward speed, and shrivels liquidity.

How and why are these conditions tied to ETFs and arbitrage?  I’m glad you asked!

The motivation for arbitragers is short-term price-changes.  The motivation for investors is long-term capital formation. These are at loggerheads.  The more arbitrage, the faster prices change.  Price-instability shrinks the size of trades, and liquidity is the amount of something that can trade before prices change. It’s getting smaller as the market balloons.

If money can’t get into or out of stocks, it will stop buying them and start substituting other things for them. Voila! ETFs.

But.

We’ll get to that “but” in a minute.

ETFs are a fantastic innovation for ETF sponsors because they eliminate the four characteristics that deteriorate fund-performance:

Volatility. ETF shares are created off-market in big blocks away from competition, arbitrage, changing prices, that war on conventional institutional orders.

Customer accounts. ETFs eliminate asset-gathering and the cost of supporting customers, offloading those to brokers. Brokers accept it because they arbitrage spreads between stocks and ETFs, becoming high-frequency passive investors (HFPI).

Commissions. ETF sponsors pay no commissions for creating and redeeming ETF shares because they’re off-market.  Everyone else does, on-market.

Taxes. Since ETFs are generally created through an “in-kind” exchange of collateral like cash or stocks, they qualify as tax-exempt transactions.  All other investors pay taxes.

Why would regulators give one asset class, which wouldn’t exist without exemptions from the law, primacy? It appears the SEC is trying to push the whole market into substitutes for stocks rather than stocks themselves.

The way rules are going, stocks will become collateral, investments will occur via ETFs. Period.  If both passive and active investors use ETFs, then prices of ALL stocks will become a function of the spread between the ETFs and the shares of stocks.

Demand for stocks will depend not on investors motivated by business prospects but on brokers using stocks as collateral. Investors will buy ETFs instead of stocks.

If there is no investment demand for stocks, what happens when markets decline?

What would possess regulators to promote this structure? If you’ve got the answer, let me know.

And if you’re in IR and if you play guitar (Greg Secord? You know who you are, guitar players!), start a rock band. Call it Six See Eleven. Book some gigs in Georgetown. Maybe Jay Clayton will pop in.

Meanwhile, your best defense is a good offense, public companies and investors. Know how the market works. Know what the money is doing. Prepare for Six See Eleven.

Bad News

Markets swoon and again comes a hunt for why, because news offered no warning. The news has bad data, which makes for bad news. ModernIR warned. More shortly.

Meanwhile in Steamboat Springs the slopes are painted the palette of Thanksgiving, and a road leads to paradise.

We were in New York with the United Nations last week. Well, not with them. Navigating around them. On foot. We walked fifteen miles over two days of meetings. Trump Tower looked like a siege camp, loaded dump trucks lining the front and frantic 5th Avenue closed to traffic and so quiet you could stroll to the middle and snap a photo.

Wednesday we railed with Amtrak into Washington DC’s Union Station, and Thursday and Friday we trooped with the NIRI contingent up Capitol Hill. Strange time. The halls of congressional buildings Longworth and Rayburn vibrated in partisan division.

NIRI is flexing muscle, however. We had 50 people scattered through more than 30 legislative visits, and the SEC told us, “You’ve brought an impressive number!”

Numbers matter.  We keep that up and we might change the world. So next year, come along! NIRI CEO Gary LaBranche and team deserve all credit for ratcheting up our reach to regulators and legislators.

Now to the data that makes the news look bad. Last week in our piece called Curtains, we explained how market structure leads headlines around by the nose. Yes, news may be the feather that tilts a domino. But it’s not The Big Why.

Structural conditions must first permit daily chatter to move markets. Thus news one day is “stocks are down on trade fears,” and when they rebound as quickly, they’re “up on easing trade fears.”

We’re told the Dow Industrials dropped 340 points yesterday because the ISM Manufacturing Index dipped to a decade low. That index has been falling for months and slipped to contraction in late August. Yet the S&P 500 rose last month.

Anyone can check historical data. The ISM Index routinely bounced from negative (more than now) to positive during the go-go manufacturing days of the 1950s when the USA was over 50% of global output. It was lower routinely in the booming 1980s and 1990s. It was lower in the post-Internet-bubble economic high.

Lesson? Manufacturing moves in cycles. Maybe the data mean the cycle is shortening, as it did in past boom periods. You can see the long-range data here, courtesy of Quandl.

There’s rising and worrisome repetition of news that’s wrong about what’s behind market-moves. Many trust it for reasons, policy, direction. Decisions thus lack footing.

A year ago, ModernIR warned clients about collapsing ETF data in latter September related to the creation of the new Communication Services sector. The market rolled over. Headlines blamed sudden slowing global growth.

Since that headline splashed over the globe, US stocks have posted the best three quarters since 1997. But not before pundits blamed the 20% drop last December on impending recession and monetary policy.

Stocks surged in January 2019, regaining all the media blamed on what never happened.

Why don’t we expect more from the people informing capital markets? Shouldn’t they know market structure? If you get our Sector Insights reports (ask us how), you know what the data said could happen.

For the week ended September 27, selling outpaced buying across all eleven sectors two-to-one. Not a single sector had net buying. Staples, the best performer with gains of 2.7%, got them on outliers only. The sector had one buying day, four selling days, last week.

We asked: Could all that selling land with a splat in early October?

Remember, liquidity is so paltry – now 20% worse than in Sep 2018 – that what got on the elevator (so to speak) last week got off this week, leading the news, which watches the wrong data, to incorrect conclusions.

We saw a bigger behavioral change for ETFs last week than in late Sep 2018. I’ll ask again: If the data signal selling, or buying, and the data predicts where news reacts, why isn’t everyone, especially pundits, watching that data?

Are you?

If you’ve never seen market structure analytics, ask us. It’s the vital predictive signal now. That’s good news rather than bad.

Curtains

Curtains are window-dressing. Curtains loom. But not the way you think. I’ll explain.

Before that, here in New York it’s Indian Summer, and Karen snapped this midtown shot after we stopped in at The Smith before two busy days of client visits. Next up, Washington DC with the NIRI contingent at Congress and the SEC, as I wrote last week.

Back to curtains, the news cycle forces us to address it. Democrats hope developments are curtains for President Trump. The market fell today. One could say Democrat glee clashes with market euphoria. Impeachment talks snowballed and down went stocks.

Short-term traders can push the snowball where it may want to go, sure. But the DATA changed more than a week ago. Market Structure Sentiment™ topped between Sep 12-17. This is not mass psychology. Our Sentiment index measures whether the probability of prices to rise has peaked or bottomed.

The great bulk of stock orders – around 96% – feed through algorithms and smart order routers. When those systems using extremely high-speed techniques find diminishing probability that trades will fill at the rate, price, and cost desired, they stop buying.

We translate that condition into a sentiment measure on a ten-point scale. For single stocks it’s 10/10 Overbought. For the total stock market or key benchmarks within it (S&P 500, reflecting about 88% of market capitalization, Russell 1000 comprising 95% of market cap), 7.0 is Overbought, and topped. Readings below 4.0 are Oversold and bottomed, meaning machines can fill orders better than models show.

The stock market measured this way rather than by fundamentals, headlines, blah blah, was topped more than a week ago and thus unlikely to rise further.

On Monday, Sep 23, new options and futures on everything from individual stocks to currencies and US Treasurys and indexes began trading.  We feared that disruptions in the overnight lending market coupled with big currency volatility would alter demand.

What’s more, as we’ve written, there was no momentum to value shift by INVESTORS in the first part of September. It’s happening now only because business journalists have written about it so relentlessly that people are beginning to believe it.

What manifested in the data was a massive short squeeze on Exchange-Traded Fund (ETF) market-makers, caught out by a surge in Fast Trading of VALUE stocks (and corresponding rejection of growth stocks) propelled by one stock, AT&T, where Activist investor Elliott showed. Machines duped humans. Spreads gapped, a squeeze formed.

What’s that got to do with curtains? I’m getting to it.  Stay with me.

Short-covering is a margin call. Margin calls drive up the cost of borrowing (it rippled through the overnight lending market, forcing the Federal Reserve to intervene), which meant the next time around, leverage would cost more.

That recalibration occurred yesterday, and behavioral change in ETFs exploded to near 30% – a black swan, three standard deviations from norms. You didn’t see it in price and volume. You can’t see it that way.

But with Sentiment topped, the market was destined to give us a swoon.  What if there’d been no news on impeachment? Which thing would have been blamed instead?

Behavioral change in markets is CAUSING pundits to cast about for reasons and incorrectly assign motivation.

Window-dressing, when passive money adjusts assets to reflecting benchmarks, has got to get done the next few days. Volatility skews benchmark-tracking.  Fear feeds through markets to investors. The cost of hedging continues rising.

And there’s a vital futures contract for truing up index-tracking that expires the last trading day of each month. That’s next Monday.

The needs of passive money, leviathan in stocks now, means the patterns of window-dressing stretch long either side of the last trading day. We’re seeing them already (and if you want to know what they say, use our analytics!).

What this means for both investors and public companies is that you must track the underlying data if you want to know what’s coming. It’s there. And we have it.

Headlines are being driven by data-changes behind stocks rather than the other way around (we warned you, clients, in a special private note Monday before stocks opened for trading that we feared just this outcome).

Curtains – window-dressing, the movement of money – are more important than the window, the headlines used to justify unexpected moves.

So every public company, every investor, should put MORE weight on the data than the headlines. We’ve got that data.

Reality Disconnect

In 1975, there were no electronic exchanges in the United States.  Now the average S&P 500 component trades electronically 17,000 times daily in 134-share increments totaling a mean of $500 million of stock.

Yet public companies still have a 1975 standard of shareholder disclosure from the SEC, called 13F filings, referencing the section of the Securities Act with instructions for investment advisors of specified size to report positions 45 days after each quarter-end.

It’s a reality disconnect. Retaining this standard says to executive teams and boards for public companies that “regulators and legislators want you to believe this is what’s driving your share-value.”

You can’t believe what the market is telling you on a given day, let alone over a quarter. We’ll come to that.

In 1975, there were no Exchange Traded Funds, no Fast Traders.  The first index fund open to the public launched Dec 31, 1975, from Vanguard, with $11 million of assets.

Today, index investing has surpassed active stock-picking in the US for assets under management. ETFs are the phenomenon of the era, with growth surpassing anything modern markets have ever seen. There is one ETF for each Russell 1000 stock now.

Total US market capitalization is more than $30 trillion, and 1% of it trades every day – over $300 billion of stock. By our measures, ETFs are responsible for roughly 60% directly or indirectly. ETFs are priced by arbitrage. Arbitrage blurs delineation between Fast Traders and ETF “market-makers.” Both make trade decisions in 10 nanoseconds.

None of this money we’ve just highlighted pays attention to earnings calls or reads 10-Ks and 10-Qs or press releases.  It’s rules-based investing. Asset allocation. Trading.

As money has shifted tectonically from Active to Passive, regulatory and disclosure costs for public companies – to serve Active investors – have gone the opposite direction.

We estimate costs related to quarterly and annual reporting, associated public reviews and audits, and Sarbanes-Oxley and Dodd-Frank and other regulations total $5-6 billion annually. For the roughly 3,400 companies traded nationally, investor-relations budgets consumed by communications tools, travel, reports and services are $3-4 billion.

Unless the point of regulation is busywork, the rules are confusing busy with productive. As the money ceases to listen – there’s been a diaspora of sellside analysts from Wall Street to the IR chair because the buyside has gone passive – the chatter from companies has exponentiated.

The Securities Act says no constituency of the national market system including issuers is to be discriminated against. Failing to modernize data to reflect reality is a disconnect.

Summing up, public companies, beset by a leviathan load of regulatory costs for investors, which are moving in math-driven waves and microseconds, wait to see what funds file 13F records of shareholdings 45 days after the end of each quarter.

There’s more.  The average stock has four distinct trading patterns per month, meaning traders unwind and return, funds rebalance, derivatives bets wax and wane, in 20 trading days. Not over a quarter.

About 45% of all trading volume is borrowed. Another 45% comes from Fast Trading machines (with heavy overlap as machines are automated borrowers) that close out 99% of positions before the trading day ends.

All told, 87% of market volume comes from something other than stock-picking. The disclosure standard supposes – because it dates to 1975 – that all volume is rational.

The reality disconnect is so bad now that machines look like humans. As we wrote last week, the whole of financial punditry has been caught up in a vast reputed momentum-to-value shift.

Except it didn’t happen.

Sure, momentum stocks plunged while value stocks surged.  Yet as this story from Marketwatch yesterday notes (I’m a source here too), AAPL is a core component of flying value indices.  Isn’t AAPL a growth stock?

Here’s the kicker.  The principal reason for swooning momentum and soaring value was a rush by Fast Trading machines that spread through markets, and a corresponding short-squeeze for ETF market-makers, which routinely borrow everything but were caught out in ripping spreads between ETFs and component stocks.

What if today’s Federal Reserve monetary policy decisions reflect belief money has shifted to value?  What if investment decisions are incorrectly recalibrated?  What if observers falsely suppose growth is slowing and crow anew about impending recession?

The market is disconnected from 13Fs. How about modernizing them, regulators? I’ll be going to Capitol Hill and the SEC with the NIRI delegation next week to make this case.

Meanwhile, be wary of markets. The Fed was intervening yesterday and likely cuts rates today by 25-50 basis points, just as volatility expirations hit now, and before a raft of stock, index, ETF, currency, Treasury and interest-rate derivatives expire through Friday. And Market Sentiment is topped.

Maybe it’s nothing. But if the market rolls, there are data-driven reasons.  And it’s about time disclosures took a leap forward past the reality disconnect for public companies.

Rotation

There’s a story going around about an epochal rotation from momentum (growth) to value in stocks. It may be a hoax.

I’ll explain in a bit. First the facts. It began Monday when without warning the iShares Edge MSCI USA Value Factor ETF (VLUE) veered dramatically up and away from the iShares Edge MSCI USA Momentum Factor ETF (MTUM).

CNBC said of Monday trading, “Data compiled by Bespoke Investment Group showed this was momentum’s worst daily performance relative to value since its inception in early 2013.”

The story added, “The worst performing stocks of 2019 outperformed on Monday while the year’s biggest advancers lagged, according to SentimenTrader. This year’s worst performers rose 3.5% on Monday while 2019’s biggest advancers slid 1.4%, the research firm said.”

A tweet from SentimenTrader called it “the biggest 1-day momentum shift since 2009.”

It appeared to continue yesterday. We think one stock caused it all.

Our view reflects a theorem we’ve posited before about the unintended consequences of a market crammed full of Exchange Traded Funds, substitutes for stocks that depend for prices on the prices of stocks they’re supposed to track.

To be fair, the data the past week are curious. We sent a note to clients Monday before the open. Excerpt:

“Maybe all the data is about to let loose. It’s just. Strange.  Fast Trading leading. ETFs more volatile than stocks. Spreads evaporating. Sentiment stuck in neutral. More sectors sold than bought….Stocks should rise. But it’s a weird stretch ahead of options-expirations Sep 18-20.  It feels like the market is traversing a causeway.”

That stuff put together could mean rotation, I suppose.

But if there was a massive asset shift from growth to value, we’d see it in behavioral change. We don’t. The only behavior increasing in September so far is Fast Trading – machines exploiting how prices change.

What if it was AT&T and Elliott Management causing it?

If you missed the news, T learned last weekend that Activist investor Elliott Management had acquired a $3.2 billion stake in the communications behemoth and saw a future valuation near $60.  On that word, T surged Monday to a 52-week high.

T is the largest component of the MSCI index the value ETF VLUE tracks, making up about 10% of its value.  ETFs, as I said above, have been more volatile than stocks.

Compare the components of MTUM and VLUE and they’re shades apart. Where T is paired with VLUE, CMCSA ties to MTUM, as does DIS.  MRK is momentum, PFE is value. CSCO momentum, INTC, IBM value. PYPL, V, MA momentum, BAC, C, value.

Look at the market. What stuff did well, which did poorly?

The outlier is T. It’s a colossus among miniatures. It trades 100,000 times daily, a billion dollars of volume, and it’s been 50% short for months, with volatility 50% less than the broad market, and Passive Investment over 20% greater in T than the broad market.

T blasted above $38 Monday on a spectacular lightning bolt of…Fast Trading. The same behavior leading the whole market.  Not investment. No asset-shift.

What if machines, which cannot comprehend what they read like humans can, despite advances in machine-learning, artificial intelligence (no learning or intelligence is possible without human inputs – we’re in this business and we know), improperly “learned” a shift from growth to value solely from T – and spread it like a virus?

Humans may be caught up in the machine frenzy, concluding you gotta be in value now, not realizing there’s almost no difference between growth and value in the subject stocks.

Compare the top ten “holdings” of each ETF. Easy to find. Holdings, by the way, may not reflect what these ETFs own at a given time. Prospectuses offer wide leeway.

But let’s give them the benefit of the doubt. What’s the difference between MRK and PFE? V, MA, and PYPL and C, BAC and, what, GM and DIS?

Stock pickers know the difference, sure.  Machines don’t. Sponsors of ETFs wanting good collateral don’t.  Except, of course, that cheap collateral is better than expensive collateral, because it’s more likely to produce a return.

Such as: All the worst-performing stocks jumped. All the best-performing stocks didn’t.

What if this epochal rotation is nothing more than news of Elliott’s stake in T pushing a domino forward, which dropped onto some algorithm, that tugged a string, which plucked a harp note that caused fast-trading algorithms to buy value and sell momentum?

This is a risk with ETFs. You can’t trust signs of rotation.

We have the data to keep you from being fooled by machine-learning.