Hot Air

Balloons rise on hot air. Data suggest there’s some in stocks.

Lipper says about $25 billion left US equities in October, $15 billion if you weed out inflows to Exchange Traded Funds (ETFs). Bond flows by contrast were up $21 billion. So how did stocks rise 5%?

In September 2019 when the S&P 500 closed roughly unchanged for the month, the Investment Company Institute reported a net increase in ETF shares of over $48 billion, bringing total YTD ETF creations and redemptions to $2.96 trillion.

For what?  More money has gone than come in 2019, so why more ETF shares?

And should we be concerned that stocks are rising on outflows?

Drawing correct conclusions about stocks depends on a narrative buttressed by data.  If we stay “stocks are up on strong earnings,” and earnings are down, it’s incorrect.

With about 80% of S&P 500 components having reported, earnings are down (FactSet says) about 3% year-over-year, the third straight quarterly contraction. Analysts currently expect Q4 2019 earnings to also contract versus 2018.

I’m not bearish. We measure behavioral data to see WHY stocks act as they do, so we’re not surprised by what happens.  It was simpler when one could meter inflows and outflows to explain ups and downs. More buyers than sellers. Remember those good old days?

Some $70 billion has exited US equities in 2019 yet stocks are at records. If holdings are down while stocks are up, the simplest explanation left to us now is it’s hot air – balloons lifted on heated atmosphere.

What’s heating the air? Well, one form of inflow has risen in 2019: The amount of ETF shares circulating. It’s up $200 billion.

The industry will say it’s because more money is choosing ETFs.  Okay, but is a dollar spent on ETFs hotter than one spent on underlying stocks, or mutual funds? There shouldn’t be more ETF shares if there are less invested dollars.

And if ETFs are inflationary for equities, how and why?

The reason investors are withdrawing money from stocks is because the market cannot be trusted to behave according to what we’re told is driving it. Such as people withdraw money and stocks rise.

Now ahead in the fourth quarter, if indeed rational money is forward-looking, we may see rising active investment on an expected 2020 pickup in earnings.

But measuring the rate of behavioral change from Jan-Nov 2019, the biggest force is ETFs. It’s not even close.  That matches ETF-creation data.

The inflationary effect from ETFs is that the market is hitting new highs as earnings decline and money leaves stocks.

The bedrock of fundamental investment is that earnings drive the market. Apparently not now.  What’s changed? ETFs.

How do they create inflation? Arbitraging spreads between stocks and ETFs has become an end unto itself. The prices of both are thus relative, not moored to something other than each other. And with more ETF shares chasing the same goods, the underlying stocks, the goods inflate.

We see it in the data. Big spreads periodically develop between stocks and ETFs, and stocks rise, and spreads wane, and stocks fall. In the last six weeks, correlation between the movement of stocks and ETFs has collapsed to 39% from over 91% YTD.

That’s not happened since we’ve been tracking the data. If ETFs are substitutes, they should move together (with periodic gaps), not apart. That they are indicates a fever-pitch in the focus on profiting on stock-ETF spreads.

That’s hot air.  The chance to trade things that diverge in value.

The problem with inflation is deflation, and the problem with rising on hot air is falling when it cools. We’re not predicting a collapse. But the risk in a market levitating on hot air is real.

Knowing the risks and how they may affect your stock, investor-relations people, or your portfolio, investors, is pretty important. We have the data to demystify hot air.