That saying is a famous Euripides attribution, the Athenian playwright of 2500 years ago. The Greeks were good thinkers and their rules of logic prevail yet today.
Let’s use them. Blue chips dropped over 600 points Monday and gained 200 back yesterday. We’re told fear drove losses and waning fear prompted the bounce.
What do you think the Greeks would say?
That it’s illogical? How can the same thing cause opposing outcomes? That’s effectively the definition of cognitive dissonance, which is the opposite of clear thinking.
The money motivated to opposite actions on consecutive days is the kind that profits on price-differences. Profiting on price-differences is arbitrage.
Could we not infer then a greater probability that arbitragers caused these ups and downs than that investors were behind them? It’s an assessment predicated on matching outcome to motivation.
Those motivated by price-changes come in three shades. The size of the money – always follow the money, corollary #1 to questioning everything – should signal its capacity to destabilize markets, for a day, or longer.
There are Risk Parity strategies. Simon Constable, frequent Brit commentator on markets for the Wall Street Journal and others, suggested for Forbes last year following the February temblor through US stocks that $500 billion targets this technique designed to in a sense continually rebalance the two sides of an investing teeter-totter to keep the whole thing roughly over the fulcrum.
Add strategies designed to profit on volatility or avoid it and you’ve got another $2 trillion, according to estimates Mr. Constable cites.
The WSJ ran a story May 12 (subscription required) called “Volatility in Stocks Could Unravel Bets on Calm Markets,” and referenced work from Wells Fargo’s derivatives team that concluded “low-vol” funds with $400 billion of assets could suddenly exit during market upheaval.
Add in the reverse. Derivatives trades are booming. You can buy volatility, you can sell it, you can hedge it. That’s investing in what lies between stocks expected to rise (long bets) and stocks thought likely to fall (short bets).
This is the second class: Volatility traders. They are trying to do the opposite of those pursuing risk-parity. They want to profit when the teeter-totter moves. They’re roughly 60% of daily market volume (more on that in a moment).
The definition of volatility is different prices for the same thing. The definition of arbitrage is profiting on different prices for the same thing.
The third volatility type stands alone as the only investment vehicle in the history of modern capital markets to exist via an “arbitrage mechanism,” thanks to regulatory exemptions.
It’s Exchange-Traded Funds (ETFs). ETFs by definition must offer different prices for the same thing. And they’ve become the largest investment vehicle in the markets, the most prolific, having the greatest fund-flows.
EDITORIAL NOTE: I’m hosting a panel on ETFs June 5 at the NIRI Annual Conference, one of several essential market-structure segments at the 50th anniversary event. You owe it to your executive team to attend and learn.
Size matters. Active Investment, getting credit for waxing and waning daily on tidal trade fear, is about 12% of market volume. We can’t precisely break out the three shades of volatility trading. But we can get close.
Fast Trading, short-term profiteering on fleeting price-changes (what’s the definition of arbitrage?), is about 44% of volume. Trades tied to derivatives – risk-parity, bets on price-changes in underlying assets – are 19%. Passive investment, the bulk of it ETFs (the effects of which spill across the other two), is 25%.
One more nugget for context: Options expire May 16-17 (index, stock options expirations), and May 22 (VIX and other volatility bets). Traders will try to run prices of stocks to profit not on stocks but how puts, calls and other derivatives increase or decrease far more dramatically than underlying stocks.
The Greeks would look at the math and say there’s an 88% probability arbitrage is driving our market.
Euripides might call this market structure a tragedy. But he’d nevertheless see it with cold logic and recognize the absence of rational thought. Shouldn’t we too?