Liar’s Poker

We’re back! We recommend Barbados but we didn’t see Rihanna.

We also endorse floating around the Grenadines on a big catamaran turning brown and losing track of time. We had rum off the shore of Petit Tabac where Elizabeth set Captain Jack Sparrow’s rum store afire.

Meanwhile, back in reality the dollar rose and interest rates fell, and Italy slouched into confusion, and Argentina dodged a currency crisis for now, and Venezuela…well, Venezuela is like that rum fire Elizabeth set in Pirates of the Caribbean.

I at last read Liar’s Poker, Michael Lewis’s first book (and also Varina, by Charles Frazier, a lyrical novel that sighs like wind through live oaks, imagining life in the eyes of Mrs. Jefferson Davis).

With the boat and the sea taking us far from cell towers, we hit the power buttons and blinked out and I with cold Carib at hand, the beer of the Caribbean, sailed through Mr. Lewis’s time at Salomon Brothers in the bond frenzy of the 1980s.

Mr. Lewis explains how a Federal Reserve decision in Oct 1979 by then chairman Paul Volcker to fix the supply of money and float interest rates stuffed the turkey for Salomon. Overnight, bonds moved from conservative investments held to produce income, to speculative instruments driven by bets on big swings in prices.

For Salomon, the money was in toll-taking. They bought bonds from those selling at incorrect prices and sold them to others willing to buy at incorrect prices. They kept a middleman’s sliver. Do it enough and you’re rich. If you’ve not read the book, do so. There’s verisimilitude for today’s stock market.

The Fed abandoned floating interest rates in 1982, reverting to influencing the Fed Funds rate as it still does today (setting interest rates and flexing the money supply). But speculation on price-changes is now rampant, having spread into everything from currencies to equities.

It matters because anytime supply and demand are not the principal price-setters, a market cannot be depended on to offer reliable fundamental signals. The US stock market thanks to Exchange Traded Funds now may be the most arbitraged in human history.

You might be thinking, Tim, did time on the boat not dump your ETF cache? Also, why do I care?

I return to the ETF theme because investors and public companies continue to assign the market disproportionately fundamental interpretations. You should care because Salomon is gone, swept away on the tides of history because it didn’t keep up. Are we keeping up?

The motivation behind the two parties to every ETF creation and redemption – and neither one of them is you – is capturing a price-spread.  It’s not investment.  Yes, you as an investor may buy ETFs as an investment. But the parties creating and redeeming them are doing so to make money on how prices change.

That’s arbitrage. And what determines the value of investments isn’t who holds them but who buys or sells them (this is the flaw in thinking your stock reflects value assigned by buy-and-hold investors).

In a way, it’s what Mr. Lewis describes in Liar’s Poker, where Salomon merchandised the market’s ignorance about what priced bonds.

How many people understand that ETFs are not managing the money they spent buying ETF shares? ETFs have everyone believing they’re buying a pooled investment when it’s not. Whose fault is it?  Don’t we all bear a responsibility to understand what we’re buying, or what’s affecting the value of our traded shares, companies?

ETFs are the dominant stock financial vehicle of this very long bull market. What matters to those behind trillions of dollars of ETF share-creations and redemptions isn’t the objective of the ETF – but how the prices of ETFs change versus the underlying assets used to collateralize their creation.

Thus a fundamental tremor like trouble in Italy becomes volcanic, spewing molten lava all over stocks. The true driver is arbitrage. Bets. Liar’s Poker. Let’s not be fooled again.