Big Pillow Fight

I hope you enjoyed summer vacation from the Market Structure Map!

We skipped last week while immersed in NIRI National, the investor-relations profession’s annual bash, this year at the Wynn in Las Vegas, where at the ModernIR booth these passersby in feathers joined us for a photo (and Sammy Davis, Jr., whom I’d mistakenly thought had expired some time ago).

Speaking of feathers, a “big league” (bigly?) pillow fight has erupted over the SEC’s proposed Access Fee Pilot Program – we’ll explain – and the exchanges are stuffing the digital airwaves with nasal-clogging goose down over it.  How to blow the air clear?

Before we answer, you may be thinking, “Tim, didn’t you write about this June 6?” Yes. But I’ve had relentless questions about what the exchanges are saying.

The IR industry’s biggest annual event last week had nothing on market structure. Never has there been a session at NIRI National called “How Stocks Trade Under Reg NMS.”  You can earn an Investor Relations Charter designation, our version of the CFA, without knowing how stocks trade, because the body of knowledge omits market structure.

As one IR officer said to me, “It’s become acceptable today to not know how our stock trades, and that ought not be.”

No wonder our profession has officially taken a neutral position on something the listing stock exchanges generally oppose, and investors support – this latter lot the audience for IR, and ostensibly the buyers and sellers exchanges are knotting in matrimony.

Do you see?  We’re told the stock market matches investors with investments. Yet exchanges and investors have opposing views, and public companies, the investments of the market, are neutral. What could be more bizarre?

Well, okay. There are beings walking the hallways of casinos on the strip more bizarre than that. But follow me here.

As we explained last week, this trading study is intended to assess how fees and incentives affect the way stock-prices are set and how trades are circulated around the data network that our stock market has become today.

In 2004, when the current market structure was still being debated, the NYSE’s then CEO said trading incentives should be prohibited. The Nasdaq thought requiring a national best price would lead to “flickering quotes” and “quote shredding,” terms that describe unstable prices resulting purely from effort to set the price.

Step forward.  The exchanges are paying some $3 billion of combined (that includes amounts from CBOE, operator of four erstwhile BATS equity markets) incentives aimed at setting prices, and we have flickering and shredded quotes all over the market as evidenced by the SEC’s own data (Midas) on ratios of quotes to trades.

And both exchanges want these conditions to persist because both make money selling data – which is the byproduct of a whole bunch of prices.

This is the key point: Exchanges pay traders to set prices. Picture a table with marbles on it.  Exchanges are positioned at the corners. Consider incentives called trading rebates a weight that exchanges can lean on the corners to cause marbles to roll toward them.  The more rolling marbles, the more data revenue they capture.  So you see why exchanges want those payments to continue – and why they are pressing issuers hard for support.

Investors are the marbles. The incentives cause marbles to roll AWAY from each other, the opposite of what investors want. They want orders with big size and stable prices, a big marble pool.

The problem for issuers is that prices are set to create data revenues, not to match investors.  The culprit is a market that behaves like a flat table with marbles on it, when a market ought to encourage the formation of a big pool of marbles.

That the SEC wants to examine an aspect of this structure is itself encouraging, however.

Regulation National Market System, the Consolidated Tape Association Plan, and exchange order types coalesce to create the market we have now. We understand them.  Do your trusted sources of market information explain these things to you?  You cannot interpret the market without first understanding the rules that govern its function.

I don’t blame our friends at the exchanges for clinging to current structure. They have their own revenue streams in mind. Human beings are self-interested, the cornerstone of international relations from the beginning of time. But you should not count on unbiased information about your trading to come from trading intermediaries.

You can count on unbiased analytics from ModernIR, because we are the IR profession’s market structure experts.  If you want to see how your stock trades, ask us.