Search Results for: VIX

The Days Count

A lot has happened on Nov 17. 

Queen Elizabeth took the throne in 1558. Napoleon beat the Austrians outside Venice (and declared Piazza San Marco the “world’s most beautiful drawing room”) in 1796. On this date in 1855, David Livingstone saw Victoria Falls.

Illustration 114575762 / Napoleon Bonaparte © Boldurevaol | Dreamstime.com

General Ambrose Burnside on Nov 17 set out for Fredericksburg and a December 1862 battle costing the Union 12,500 casualties. A year later on this date, President Lincoln began drafting the Gettysburg Address.

On Nov 17, 1917, Lenin instituted a “temporary” end to the freedom of the press. In 1922, on Nov 17, the Ottoman Empire ended.  The same day in 1928, Boston Garden opened, and Notre Dame lost a home game for the first time in 23 years.

You get the point.  Every day counts.

Today, VIX options reset and Broad Market Sentiment peaks – or so the math suggests.  I don’t expect it’ll be more than just another November expirations period lasting three days, followed by a weekend, and then new options trading next Monday.

But you never know what momentous event is waiting for us tomorrow.  I see Goldman Sachs expects the S&P 500 to reach 5,100 next year, up 9% from now. It’s been a long time since we’ve talked about our expectations for the market. And Goldman Sachs took the pressure off for everybody.

So, what do we expect?  Every day counts.  Broad Sentiment, our 10-point meter for supply and demand, tells us when the four big reasons for buying and selling wax and wane. Traders and investors aren’t all doing the same thing. They’re buying Story, Characteristics, Price, and Association with a Derivative.

And derivatives are expiring. The PROBABILITY in the near-term is that Derivatives and Prices will trump the other two purposes. As to direction, a rising market tends to breed bull bets into expirations.

Which can mean bull bets end when new options trade.  I can’t say for sure.  But that’s the central tendency and has been for the whole time we’ve measured data, back to the advent of Regulation National Market System in 2007, the math from which makes possible observing discrete behaviors.

I thought you were going Big Picture, Tim. 

We don’t predict what the market will do – at least accurately – more than five days out.  Price is the single biggest motivation in the stock market. Take WMT, which reported great results yesterday, and fell.

Why? Because 9% of WMT trading volume is focused on Story. The remaining 91% coalesces around the other three, including 63% on Price or Derivatives. Not results.

Every public company should know that. If you can, why wouldn’t you? It’s math.

Now, broadly, my expectation is that sooner or later a stock market stuffed with derivatives and transitory prices will descend into smoking ruin.  But probably not tomorrow.

It’s also my expectation that the embrace of the ethereal – cryptocurrencies, dollars you manufacture like Happy Meals, NFTs, social tokens, the metaverse, ETFs, options, on it goes – is a sign people have lost touch with reality.

That generally doesn’t work out either.

So, we have to make each day count.  Public companies, spending all your time and dollars on Story when the market isn’t is confusing busy with productive – and leaving a lot of value for your executive team and Board lying on the table.

You have a chance to change the IR profession, you folks doing it now.  That reminds me, I’m in Boston Thursday for a trading panel. The moderator, a longtime quant sellside strategist, said 75% of the buyside uses alt data now — stuff well beyond the story you tell, the financial data you supply.

They’ve moved on.

We can keep doing what we always have while the world changes around us. Or adapt. You choose. Two trees. Obscure theological reference.

And traders, if 91% of the money is doing something else besides studying financial performance, the central tendency is that something besides financial performance will determine outcomes. I give you meme stocks, for instance.  Supply and demand create them. Not Story.

(Editorial note: Traders, try Market Structure EDGE, winner for 2021 Best Day Trading Software at the Benzinga Global Fintech Awards last week).

To wrap, I’ll say this.  Inflation boosts asset prices but is always followed by Deflation. This is a physical fact like Cause, and Effect.  The unknown, the element of uncertainty in the equation, is the gap between them.

So. If you can measure supply and demand, do it. If you can measure behaviors, do it.  You reduce the risk of being caught unaware.  In short, make every day count.

Resistance and Support

Bucket-list seeing Colorado aspens in autumn. It will remind you that the planet is a living canvas and that everything is going to be okay.

Colorado aspens at Muddy Pass summit. Karen Quast

Now, what about the stock market?  I said last week in the Market Structure Map:

“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.”

Well son of a gun.

New options traded Monday and the market took a vicious thwap to the noggin. Why? No, not Chinese real estate.  Or this thing, or that thing.  There was a buffet of options spread out for consumption and the crowd that showed up to feast was sparse like a pandemic trade show.

That’s weak implied demand. So stocks fell. Again, read last week’s blog. About 20% of market capitalization ties to rights to buy or sell that reset monthly.  If demand drops even a half-percent it can rock equities.

Who’s using those?  Hedge funds.  Traders.  Funds substituting derivatives for equities (permissible up to about 10% of assets).

Shouldn’t we wonder WHY fewer guests came to the options banquet? Yes, but in advance! If you’re casting about AFTER it happens, you’re making it up, like resistance and support. We talked for three weeks about the big risk into Monday.

The point isn’t being right. The point is correct data.  

What’s more, investors didn’t sell. Active Investment was down about 17% marketwide Monday. And the last-hour recovery that clawed back 30% from the lows came on quant money and machines.

I was talking with the investor-relations officer for a Nasdaq-traded Consumer Discretionary company.  I said, “What do you do for answers about why your stock moves differently from your peers?”

She said, “I call the Nasdaq.  The guy there tells me what our levels of resistance and support are.”

There are over $63 trillion in worldwide regulated (following standardized government guidelines like the Investment Company Act of 1940) investment funds, says the Investment Company Institute in its 2021 Factbook.

None of that money makes decisions using levels of support or resistance. So why would that be the explanation, if the job of the investor-relations officer is to help the board and executive team understand what drives shareholder value and how to succeed in the public equity markets?

Just askin’.

To be fair, this IR officer is now a client. It’s telling though, isn’t it, that for many in the investor-relations profession a telephone is the chief source of data. And the data provider says, “You broke through your support levels.”

Uh huh.

It’s true machines will calculate how to price bids and offers by sifting the surrounding data.  From that data come levels of support and resistance. The trouble is those machines don’t want to own anything.

Our friend in Consumer Discretionary saw shareholder value plummet 23% from the end of August to September options-expirations. Principal cause, Derivatives.  Active and Passive Investment patterns shrank over that time.

It had nothing to do with story.  In fact, that company’s Engagement score – quantitative measure of influence from Active stock-pickers – is 91%. Superb.  At this moment, the stock is exactly in line with what stock-pickers are willing to pay. That’s measurable.

And it wasn’t levels of support or resistance. Yes, over that time the machines manufacturing most prices averaged 55% of the stock’s volume and owned no shares at day’s end (and 60% of volume was short to boot – borrowed or manufactured).

To me, support and resistance are like the daytime temperature. Today’s high and low temperatures reflect seasons and weather-fronts, not support and resistance.  The seasons and weather-fronts of the stock market are patterns of changing behavior.

Last week, the S&P 500 saw a 1% drop in demand for derivatives – we call that a 1% decline in Risk Mgmt – when options-expirations should have driven an increase in demand.

Against falling demand (Sentiment) and rising supply (Short Volume) marketwide, we thought, “The market could take a Mike Tyson to the chin.”

Indexes reweighted too, and Passive investment was down 5% in the S&P 500.  Suggests weaker flows to Tech since that’s where all the market cap is.

What now? The Fed meets at 2p ET today.  Our 10-point index of short-term supply and demand called Broad Sentiment is 4.4, and 4.0 is a bottom. Probably stocks recover.

If the bottom turns to mush, people will be saying, “The market’s next level of support is…”

And that won’t be it. The data say we’ve been in a long slowdown from momentum since April. The consequences can show up all at once.  I doubt it’s right here, right now. But it’s possible. 

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.

 

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.

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.

March 17: The machination of machines!

Couldn’t blame you if you missed it.

 

For many, these past few weeks and the ones coming up are the busiest on the IR calendar. Board presentations, ASMs, virtual analyst conferences and investor days. You just finish year-end events and Q1 reporting is rushing at you.

 

Maybe you missed last week’s Market Structure Map. Tim Quast did an excellent job sharing our most-up-to-date view on how the Market works. If you missed it you can find it at: modernir.com/msm – it’s worth revisiting and sharing with your entire IR team, including the senior-most members of your investor and media facing IR team.

 

If you are a regular reader, you may have already considered putting constraints on no-longer preeminent sell-siders (data show their primary audience – yes, including still important long-term institutional holders – Active Investment in our parlance – consistently reflects less than 9.5 percent of all trading Market wide.

 

…with all respect and due appreciation to Python (Monty) Pictures.

No today, even after the recent storied, but largely isolated uptick in retail day trader influence – its machines, acting far faster with mathematical indifference driving the pricing for nearly, if not all equities. These Fast Traders – collocated to exchange computers running increasingly tactical algorithms (53 percent of all trading in the S&P500® last week) are no longer simple amplifiers of nuanced investor behavior, they search the web for data and reference points, trading both agnostically to whether it moves your equity price up or down and increasingly with intent to seemingly do just that.

 

Similar algorithmic behaviors now amplify the trading of the contextually correct, but perhaps inferentially misleading Passive Investment segment (last week: 20 percent of all Market trading). Regular readers know our growing focus on ETF-related trading that has now come to dominate this category.

 

Certainly many traditional index funds and indexed asset allocators continue to hold major positions in our companies, but any material trading is typically around known re-balancing events – like the twice annual S&P Global™ indices re-weighting, next, after this Friday’s close.

 

ETF plan sponsors on the other hand have grown increasingly “active” in their trading behaviors. Strategic sector weighting shifts, tax-related selling, and the use of machine-driven trading seemingly more common. Their influence frequently lifts Passive Investment to the Key Behavior in client’s Market Structure reports.

 

The Market has traded with some volatility recently in anticipation of monthly option expirations – not at all unusual; our calendar of such events should be a key input in your Investor Relations planning efforts and is available here – call us to learn how to avoid calendar missteps.

 

Today begins the cycle of monthly option expirations. First the widely followed CBOE Volatility Index (VIX) index. Thursday, AM-settled options expire, mostly index products. Friday brings the main events. March single stock options, single stock futures, stock index options and stock index futures all expire Friday – a so called, “quadruple witching” day. This happens just once a quarter.

 

A wide gamut of Market participants including – model-driven ETF sponsors, Hedge Funds, derivative traders, etc., with expiring options or futures positions must decide how to redeploy funds this week.

 

Little to do with fundamental business performance or valuations, the increased volume and volatility of these routine Market events queue exaggerated machine trading and can meaningfully impact the trading and response to your Investor Relations outreach and messaging. Good news often gets lost. The impact of less good news – often amplified. Its important to know what’s making the difference. Ask us how.

 

PD Grueber

Vahlcue

You’re wondering what the heck “vahlcue” is. It was up almost 4% in the last hour yesterday as stocks tipped off the diving board.

Meanwhile, cue fall.  The photo at right reminds us that today is a consequence of yesterday. Autumn follows summer. In the Flat Tops near Steamboat, fall flames as summer smolders out.

In the stock market, cue volatility.  Pursuing “vol,” as the traders call it, is big business. It’s everything that depends on an implied price, such as the VIX index tracking implied volatility over the next 30 days in the S&P 500.  It’s priced from options on the index, which in turn is comprised of futures.

Got that?  Volatility is the implied price of an implied price, gleaned from other implied prices.  All instruments derived from implied prices are ways to trade volatility – gaps between rising and falling prices.

Cue intro music.

The Nasdaq, in concert with the Chicago Mercantile Exchange (CME), launched the VOLQ this past Monday, Oct 5, another way to play volatility.

I assume it’s pronounced “vahlcue.”

VOLQ is a futures contract reflecting the implied volatility of the Nasdaq-100, the NDX. It employs a methodology developed by Nations Indexes, innovator in volatility products that isolates the implied volatility of at-the-money options.

Ready to run a power drill through the palm of your hand to stay awake?  If you want intricate details about how it works and how it’s calculated, you can read more.

I’ve got a specific purpose.

VOLQ, like the VIX, is a futures contract derived from options on underlying stocks – three steps from the asset.  It’s a particular set of both put and call options designed to get to the volatility of instruments priced the same as the futures contract, called at-the-money options.

Have you moved on from drilling a hole in your hand to braining yourself on a brick wall?

Here’s the point. Derivatives have proliferated in the stock market. All derivatives are a right but not an obligation.  As such, the propensity to quit them is much higher than one finds in the actual asset.

Famed hedge-fund manager Lee Cooperman, whom I interviewed in the plenary session of the 2019 NIRI Annual Conference, back when humans gathered innocently, lamented in a CNN interview that stock indexes shouldn’t gap 50 points in a matter of minutes.

He blamed trading machines, the rapid-fire intermediaries setting prices. And he’s right.  But the more trading chases products that are rights but not obligations, ways to pursue changing prices, the more heightened the risk of sudden lurches.

Why? All layers of options and futures are forms of implied supply or demand.  But the moment prices move, those layers become ethereal, dissolving in an instant like those animated transitions you can put in you Powerpoint slide deck.

And the more people pursue the gaps rather than the assets, the greater the assets can be blighted by sudden lurches.  Realize VOLQ is just another clip for the automatic weapons in the Nasdaq’s volatility arsenal that already includes e-Minis and micro e-Minis on the Nasdaq 100.

The first e-Mini S&P 500 futures contract began trading in 1997 and was 20% the size of the standard contract.  Micro e-Minis are a tenth of the e-Mini, 2% of the original contract.  And you can trade options on Micro e-Mini futures too.  We wrote about them in August.

Markets keep migrating away from size, away from the core asset, toward tiny, uncommitted bets and hedges comprised of multi-layered derivatives.

It’s great for the firms selling the products.  But it makes volatility accessible to the masses.  And the masses don’t understand it. And the more the masses are exposed to things that vanish, the more given to wild swings become the underlying assets.

Sure, derivatives can work well.  VOLQ was the right play today.  Traders can hedge exposure to sudden market moves, play the probability of profits in snap swings.

But the consequence is a market that cannot be trusted.

Market Structure Analytics help one survive it. Everybody should have baseline market-structure metrics.

The market is likely to rebound, data say. But this lurch manifested a week ago – much of implied volatility is predicated on weekly options – when the sector data looked ragged to us.  Sure enough it was.  Blame volatility and its instruments. Cue the exit music.

Mini Me

Minis abound.

You can trade fractions of shares.  Heck, the average trade-size is barely 100 shares, and 50% of trades are less than that.  Minis, as it were.

There are e-mini futures contracts on the S&P 500 index, and the newer micro e-mini futures product is the CME’s most successful, says the derivatives market operator.

Starting Aug 31 there will be micro options on e-mini futures for the S&P 500 and the Nasdaq 100. As of Aug 10, there are mini CBOE VIX volatility futures too, with a 10th of the face value of the conventional contract (expiring Aug 19).

One can spend less to have exposure to stocks and market-moves. The same notion animated a push toward decimalization before 2001 when it was implemented.

Decimals didn’t kill the stock market but they gutted analyst-coverage. Spreads – that is, the difference between the cost to buy and sell – funded research. In the 1990s there were on average 60 underwriters per IPO, and there were hundreds of those.

Today, there are five underwriters on average, the data show, and IPOs don’t keep pace with companies leaving markets through deals.  The Wilshire 5000, which in 1998 had 7,200 components, today has 2,495, factoring out micro-caps comprising just basis points of total market-capitalization.

Half the companies in the Wilshire 5000 have no analysts writing, while the top few hundred where trading supports it are festooned with quills – pens – like porcupines.

I think the inverse correlation between markets and the proliferation of minis bears some connection. It’s not the only thing, or perhaps even the biggest. But there’s a pattern.

And you should understand the market so you know what to expect from it. After all, who thought the March bear turn for stocks would be the shortest in history?

No one.  Including us.  Market structure, the way the ecosystem functions, explains it far better than fundamentals. But read to the end. We’ll say more.

Are the minis playing a role?

Look I’m not knocking fractional shares or tiny derivatives.  Rather, let’s think about the ramifications of growing layers separating trading from underlying assets.  Consider:

  • You can trade the stocks of the Nasdaq 100, the largest hundred at the exchange.
  • You can trade them in fractions without paying a commission.
  • You can trade the QQQ, the popular Exchange Traded Fund (ETF) that tracks the performance of the 100. ETFs as we’ve explained repeatedly are substitutes for stocks, not pooled interest in owning them.
  • You can trade e-mini futures contracts on the Nasdaq 100.
  • And now you can trade micro options on the e-mini Nasdaq 100 futures.
  • And you can trade options on the QQQ, and every component of the Nasdaq 100.
  • And you can trade the S&P 500 with exactly the same kinds of instruments, and SPY, the ETF.

It’s ingenious product-creation, and we’re not criticizing the innovators behind them.  It’s that I don’t think many people ask what effect the pursuit of mini increments of investment will have on market-behavior and prices, things that matter particularly to public companies depending on the market as a rational barometer.

And investors join public companies in caring how markets work.  Derivatives are becoming an ever-larger part of market volume. They’re layers of separation from underlying assets that become ends unto themselves, especially as increments shrink.

Why trade the stocks? Trade the rights on how they may behave – in tiny slices.

It disguises real supply and demand, which drives markets up relentlessly. Until that stops. Then markets collapse violently. These are chronic conditions in markets with too many derivatives.

Just saying.

Speaking of the market, it did as we wrote last week, with Market Structure Sentiment™ bottoming Aug 7, presaging gains a week out. Now options are expiring (including the VIX today), and Sentiment is topping, and behavioral volatility is massive, larger than we’ve measured at any point in the pandemic.

Maybe it’s nothing. Sometimes those data pass without a ripple. The FAANGs look good (low shorting, bottomed Sentiment). But we may be at the top of the Ferris Wheel after all those minis drove us this short, sharp way back up.

Seen and Unseen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Index rebalances.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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