Defend Yourselves

You need to defend yourselves as public companies.

This clarion lesson comes from last week’s trading halt at the NYSE though we think the exchange handled the outage correctly. Humans want pictures of perfection like Saturday’s Balloon Rodeo in Steamboat Springs. But don’t expect serendipity in securities markets. Your equity is the backbone of your balance sheet, basis for incentives, currency for investments. Know how it trades.

The root of the NYSE’s July 8 200-minute trading penalty box is the Flash Crash, a May 6, 2010 plunge and recovery in equities that spanned about a thousand Dow Jones Industrials points in twenty minutes.  During that maelstrom, trades executed at stale prices because timestamps on orders didn’t keep pace with market activity.

Now five years later, the exchanges are aiming for a July 27 deadline on two updates to timestamps mandated by Finra and the SEC. The new timestamps will calibrate to 100 microseconds are less, with one coming from orders occurring at exchanges, and the other timestamp for ones flowing through broker-operated dark pools relying on proprietary data feeds.  The thinking here is better timestamping will improve market-function and offer better future forensics. For instance, was there separation between exchange and dark-pool prices as occurred in the Flash Crash?

You don’t have to know this in the IR chair. But what if the CEO or CFO asks? It’s the market for your shares. There’s a great deal more to it than your story, a point made stark in a moment.

The NYSE claimed it had been testing timestamps and made a mistake in a deployment. Why test new code when the Chinese market is imploding, Greece is teetering on the Eurobrink and volatility is exploding in US equities – all of it interconnected through indicative value-disseminations for global indexes and ETFs that depend on timestamps?

Be that as it may, the NYSE handled the problem appropriately by stopping trading, cancelling orders and focusing on getting operations fixed in time for the closing auction. That in itself points to the larger lesson, which we’ll articulate in a moment. We heard lots of talking heads say “our fragmented market is a plus in crises because people could continue trading.”

The outage in fact demonstrated the opposite. We measured in NYSE data that day an 18% reduction in Fast Trading generally for NYSE issues, and commensurately higher investment behavior. In other words, with trading halted for half the day, speculators were less able to interfere with real investors’ moves.

By extension, we can infer with data support that much of what occurs intraday is effort by arbitragers to spread prices among securities that must track benchmarks – market indexes – by the time trading concludes.

Guess who supports that effort? The exchanges.  I’m not castigating here. But if you’re depending on information from an exchange (or its partner) to understand your trading, you had better darned well know how the exchange operates.  When the Nasdaq charges traders to buy shares at its primary market and pays them to sell at the BSX platform, it’s helping traders multiply prices and spreads. Do you see? Paying traders to engage in opposite actions incentivizes arbitrage. All exchanges pay traders for activity that’s got nothing to do with investment.

I’ll rephrase:  The exchanges fragment markets purposely in order to sell data and create transactional opportunities. It would be akin to your real estate agent encouraging others to bid against you as you’re trying to buy a house.

The NYSE’s trading halt proved that a fragmented market harms investors and helps arbitragers, because when it was closed for three hours there was less fragmentation and more investment – but lower volume. Volume often confuses busy with productive.

Don’t track volume without also metering what sets your price! Yet that’s not the Big Lesson for public companies.  No, it’s that the single most important pricing event of the day is the closing auction. And the audience depending most on it is the one tracking benchmarks (not taking risks like active stock-pickers).  Blackrock and Vanguard – the Asset Allocators collectively and by extension.

The number one force in your market is tracking broad measures, not weighing your earnings. This money is perpetually owning and yet constantly trading to match index-movement. You must quantify the price-setting actions of this colossal demographic group. If you don’t, the intelligence you’re offering management about what’s driving your price is almost certain to be incorrect.

Defend yourselves with an objective view.  It’s part of the job. Counting on exchanges is yesterday’s way.