Dollars and Sense

I looked back at what we wrote Dec 2, 2008. It was two weeks before Madoff (pronounced “made off” we’d observed bemusedly) became synonymous with fraud. Markets were approaching ramming speed into the Mar 2009 financial-crisis nadir.

In that environment on this date then, we introduced you to Ronin Capital, a Chicago proprietary trader. It had exploded through the equity data we were tracking. Today it’s a top-twenty proprietary trader in equities but not the runway model.

Yet it’s thriving. It has 350 employees. Its regulatory filings show $9.5 billion of assets including financial instruments valued at $6.4 billion, with government securities comprising $4.5 billion, derivatives about $1.1 billion, and equities about $700 million.

As the Federal Reserve contemplates a rate-increase in two weeks, Ronin Capital is a microcosm for the whole market. Its asset-mix describes what we see behaviorally in your trading, clients: Leveraged assets, dollars shifting from equity trading to derivatives, producing declining volumes and paradoxically rising prices. In a word, arbitrage.

The Fed Funds rate is the daily cost at which banks with reserves at the Fed loan them to each other.  The Fed last raised it June 29, 2006 to 5.25%, marking a pre-crisis zenith. As the housing market trembled, the Fed backpedaled to 4.25% by December 2007. On Dec 16, 2008 the Fed cut to 0.00%-0.25%, where it remains.

Since the Fed began tracking these rates following departure from the gold standard in 1971, the previous low was 1% in June 2003 as the economy was trudging up from the 9/11 swale. The high was 20% (overnight!) in May 1981.  It’s averaged about 5%.

Now for almost ten years – the life of the benchmark US Treasury – there has been no rate-increase. Since 2008, it’s been close to free for big banks to loan each other money. Backing up to Nov 30, 2006, the Fed’s balance sheet showed bank reserves at $8.9 billion, lower than (but statistically similar to) $11.2 billion at Nov 29, 1996. But at Nov 27, 2015, the Fed held $2.6 trillion of bank reserves, an increase of 29,000%.

Lest you seethe, this money was manufactured by the Fed and paid to banks that bought government debt and our mortgages.  It didn’t exist outside the Fed.

The construction of the financial instruments held by Ronin Capital describes how these polices have affected market activity.  First, the pillar of the asset base is government debt, the most abundant security in the world (a commodity – something available everywhere – cannot be the safest asset, by the way).  Governments need buyers for debt so rules manufacture a market. All the big banks hold gobs of government debt.

Second, Ronin holds equity swaps, equity options, options on futures, and currency forward contracts which collectively are 34% greater than underlying equity assets. We infer that Ronin makes money by leveraging into short-term directional trades in options and currencies. It’s worked well. It did in real estate too ten years ago, until mortgage-backed derivatives devalued as appreciation in the underlying asset, houses, stalled.

Ronin Capital, big banks, derivatives, currencies, equities and interest rates are interlaced. When money lacks inherent worth, speculation increases. Government debt is today’s real estate market underpinning massive leverage in today’s mortgage-backed securities, the sea of derivatives delivering short-term arbitrage profits.

To see the potential Fed rate increase Dec 16 as but a step toward normalization is to misunderstand the foundation of capital today. Raising rates to 0.25%-0.50% is good. But it’s at least 29,005% different from raising rates to 5.25% in 2006.

You don’t have to grasp all the mechanics, IR professionals. You do have to understand that if fundamentals have been marginalized by arbitrage the past seven years, wait till the calculus in arbitrage changes.  It’s happening already. We saw a steep drop in shorting the past two weeks. Sounds good, right? But it means borrowing is tightening.

Don’t blame Ronin Capital for adapting.  In fact, forget blame, though it’s apparent where it lies. Let’s instead think about the implication for our task in the equity market. It’s about to get a lot more interesting, and not because of fundamentals.

The good news is that it’s never been more vital to measure your market structure and report facts to management. This is when IR careers are made.