Impassively Up

A picture is worth a thousand words.

See the picture here, sparing you a thousand words (for a larger view click here). It explains our rising stock market.  Look at the line graphs.  Three move up and down, reflecting normal uncertainty and change. Just one is up like the market.  Passive Investment.

Stock market behaviors

At ModernIR, we see the market behaviorally. There are four big reasons investors and traders buy and sell, not one, so we quantify market volume daily using proprietary trade-execution metrics to see the percentages coming from each and trend them.

Were the market only matching risk-taking firms with risk-seeking capital, valuing the market would be simpler. But 39% of volume trades ticks, gambling on fleeting price-moves. About 12% pairs stocks with derivatives, down from over 13% longer term.

Less than 14% of trading volume ties directly to corporate fundamentals. So rational thought isn’t pushing stocks to records. In a sense that’s good news because most stocks don’t have financial performance justifying the 20% rise for the S&P 500 the past year.

Alert reader Alan Weissberger sent data from the St Louis Federal Reserve (click the “1Y” button at top right) showing falling corporate profits the past year. To be sure, profits don’t always connect to markets or the economy. There were rising corporate profits during the 1970, 1991 and 2001 recessions.

And corporate profits were plunging in 2007 when the Dow posted its second-fastest 1,000-point rise in history (the one from 22,000-23,000 just now is the third fastest, and both trail the quickest, in 1999 when profits were likewise falling).

Now, I’ll qualify: This picture reflects a model. Eugene Fama, the father of the Efficient Market Hypothesis, said models aren’t reality.  If they explained everything then you would need to call them reality.

But the market as we’ve modeled it with machines that bring a taciturn objectivity to the process has been driven by the sort of money that views fundamentals impassively.

You might think it surreal that 36% of volume derives from index and exchange-traded funds and other quantitative investment. Yet it makes logical sense. Blackrock and Vanguard have taken in a combined $600 billion this year says the Wall Street Journal and the two now manage nearly $12 trillion that’s largely inured to sellside analysts and your earnings calls, public companies.

And the number of public companies keeps falling, down a third the past decade. I suspect though no one has offered the math – I will buy a case of our best Colorado beer for the person with the data – that total shares of public companies (all the shares of all the companies minus ETFs and closed-end funds) has also fallen on net, 2007-present.

There you have it.  Money that simply buys equities as an asset class sliced in various ways is doing its job.  But it becomes inflation – more money chasing fewer goods. Wall Street calls it “multiple expansion,” paying more for the same thing (current Shiller PE is the highest in modern history save the dot-com bubble).

And because passive money like Gene Fama’s models doesn’t ask whether prices are correct and merely accepts market prices as they are, there’s no governor, no reasoning, that prompts it to assess its collective behavior. So as other behaviors drop off, passive money becomes the dominant force.

In that vein, look at Risk Mgmt. It reflects counterparties to investors and traders using options, futures, forwards, swaps and other derivatives to protect, substitute for or leverage stock positions. The falling percentage suggests the cost of leverage is rising.

It fits. A handful of banks like Goldman Sachs dominate the business. Goldman’s David Kostin publicly expressed concern about market values. Kostin says the stock market is in the 88th percentile of historical valuations. If banks think downside risk is higher, the cost of insuring against it or profiting on rising markets increases.

Where in the past we worried about exuberance, we should be equally wary of the impassive face of passive investment that doesn’t know it’s approaching a precipice.

I don’t think a bear market is near yet but volatility could be imminent. By our measures the market has not mean-reverted since Sept 1. It suggests target-date and other balanced funds are likely overweight in equities. When it tries to rebalance, we could have severe volatility – precisely because this money behaves passively. Or impassively.