Just Data

If stocks rise when VIX options expire, is it good or bad?

It’s data. That, we know.  If you’d never considered a relationship between stocks and options, welcome to market structure.  It’s something every public company, investor, trader, should grasp. At least in big brush strokes.

So here goes.

“Market structure” is the mechanics of the stock market. The behavior of money behind price and volume, we say. You’ll hear the phrase from people like SEC chair Gary Gensler and Virtu CEO Doug Cifu. Those guys understand the stock market.

By the way, if you missed our piece on Payment for Order Flow, an arcane element of market structure that now plays a central role for prices marketwide, read it here.

So, options-expirations.  Here’s the calendar.  Options are expiring all the time but the juggernaut are the monthly ones.  VIX options expired yesterday. That’s the so-called “Fear Gauge,” and we’ve written before about it.  It’s the implied volatility of the S&P 500.

It’s a lousy risk meter.  By the time it moves it’s too late. Its gyrations are consequences, not predictors. ModernIR (and sister company EDGE for trading decision-support) has much better predictive tools.

The VIX is really about volatility as an asset class (and it’s trillions of dollars now, not just VIX but volatility instruments).  You can buy things that you hope rise, short things you think might fall – or trade the gaps between, which in some ways is the least risky thing because it’s always in the middle.

In any case, the assets backing volatility are the same things that rise or fall. Stocks.  So a jump in demand for volatility hedges can cause stocks to rise. 

Yesterday stocks rose with VIX resets. 

And when it falls, it can mean the opposite. As it did August 18 when the VIX last lapsed and renewed.  A big pattern of Passive buying preceded it.  Then wham! Down day with the VIX reset.

Then growth stocks, momentum stocks, Big Tech, the FAANGs, etc., shot up.  That’s because money reduced its exposure to volatility hedges and increased its bets on “risk,” or things that might rise.

So.

Did that just stop?  No, it stopped last week.  What’s more it’s apparent in the data. 

Let me explain. Backing up, from Aug 6-17 – right before August expirations – there is a MASSIVE pattern of Passive money.  After that pattern, the market shot up. Except for one day, Aug 18. VIX expirations.

It indicates that ETFs took in large quantities of stocks, then created ETF shares and sold them to investors, which drove the market up. And the money spent on hedges was shifted to chasing call-options in “risk-on” stocks.

And yes. We can see that in any stock, sector, industry, peer group.

Back to the present, index-rebalances are slated for this Friday, quarterlies for, among others, big S&P Dow Jones benchmarks.  There are three MILLION global indexes now.

The data suggest those rebalances finished between Aug 26-Sep 10. Money didn’t wait to be front-run Friday. There’s another massive Passive pattern during that time.  The image here shows both patterns, the one in August, and this September version (through Sep 14, right before VIX expirations).

We can infer, albeit not with absolute certainty, that the trade from August has reversed.  ETFs are shedding stocks and removing growth-portfolio ETF shares.  Hedges are going back on.

Does that mean the market is about to tip over like so many have been predicting?

Rarely does a market implode when everybody is expecting it. In fact, name a time when that was true. Sure, somebody always manages to make the right call. But it’s a tiny minority.

Whatever happens, it’s going to surprise people. Either the pullback will be much worse than expected, or all the hedges that are going on as we proceed into September expirations will blunt the downside and reverse it when new options trade next week.

By the way, market woe sometimes comes on new options.  Sep 24, 2015.  Feb 24, 2020.  I could list a litany. Those are dates when new options traded. If nobody shows up for new options, the 18% of market cap that rests on rights but not obligations to do something in the future – derivatives – stuff can tumble.

Hedging in the SPX is about 19% of market cap right now.  ETF flows are down about 5% the last week versus the week before.  Our ten-point scale of Broad Sentiment has fallen from a peak Sep 7 of 6.1 to 5.1 Sep 14, still trending down. Any read over 5.0 is positive. It’s about to go negative.

Predictions? I bet we rebound next week. BUT if Monday is bad, the bottom could fall out of stocks.  And you should always know what’s coming, companies, investors and traders. It’s just data.

 

Growth vs Value

Are you Value or Growth?  

Depends what we mean, I know. S&P Dow Jones says it distinguishes Value with “ratios of book value, earnings and sales to price.”

It matters because Growth is terrorizing Value.  According to data from the investment arm of AllianceBernstein, Growth stocks outperformed Value stocks by 92% between 2015-2020.  Morningstar says it’s the biggest maw on record, topping the 1999 chasm.

If you’re in the Growth group, you’re loving it.  But realize.  By S&P Dow Jones’s measures, anybody could be a Value or Growth stock at any time.  It’s all in the metrics.

The larger question is why the difference?  AllianceBernstein notes that the traditional explanation is earnings growth plus dividends paid.  That is, if your stock is up 50% more than a peer’s, it should be because your earnings and dividends are 50% better.

If that were the case, everybody would be a great stock-picker. All you’d need do is buy stocks with the best earnings growth. 

Well, turns out fundamentals accounted for just ten percentage points of the difference.  The remaining 82% of the spread, as the image here from AllianceBernstein shows, was multiple-expansion.  Paying more for the same thing.

Courtesy AllianceBernstein LP. https://www.alliancebernstein.com/corporate/en/insights/investment-insights/whats-behind-the-value-growth-performance-gap.html

Put differently, 90% of the time Growth stocks outperform Value stocks for no known reason. No wonder stock-picking is hard.

Take Vertex (VRTX) and Fortinet (FTNT), among the two very best and worst stocks of the past year.  I don’t know fundamentally what separates them. One is Tech, the other Healthcare.

I do know that running supply/demand math on the two, there’s a staggering behavioral difference.  FTNT spent 61 days the past year at 10.0 on our ten-point scale measuring demand called Market Structure Sentiment.  It pegged the speedometer 24% of the time.

VRTX spent five days at 10.0.  Two percent of the time.  You need momentum in today’s stock market or you become a Value stock.

We recently shared data with a client who wondered why there was a 20-point spread to the price of a top peer.  We ran the data.  Engagement scores were about the same – 85% to 83%, advantage to our client. Can’t say it’s story then.

But the peer had a 20% advantage in time spent at 10.0.  The behavioral patterns were momentum-style. Our client’s, GARP/Value style.

Okay, Quast.  Suppose I stipulate to the validity of your measure of supply and demand, whatever it is.  Doesn’t answer the question. Why do some stocks become momentum, propelling Growth to a giant advantage over Value?

I think it’s three things. I can offer at least some data, empirical or circumstantial, to support each.

Let’s call the first Herd Behavior.  The explosion of Exchange Traded Funds concentrates herd behavior by using stocks as continuously stepped-up collateral for ETF shares.  I’ll translate.  ETFs don’t invest in stocks, per se.  ETFs trade baskets of ETF shares for baskets of stocks (cash too but let’s keep it simple here). As the stocks go up in value, ETF sponsors can trade them out for ETF shares. Say those ETF shares are value funds.

The supply of Value ETF shares shrinks because there’s less interest in Value.  Then the ETF sponsor asks for the same stocks back to create more Growth ETF shares.

But the taxes are washed out via this process. And more ETF shares are created.  And ETFs pay no commissions on these transactions. They sidestep taxes and commissions and keep gains.  It’s wholly up to traders and market-makers to see that ETF shares track the benchmark or basket.

The point? It leads to herd behavior. The process repeats. Demand for the same stuff is unremitting.  We see it in creation/redemption data for ETFs from the Investment Company Institute. ETF creations and redemptions average over $500 billion monthly. Same stuff, over and over. Herd behavior.

Second, there’s Amplification.  Fast Traders, firms like Infinium, GTS, Tower Research, Hudson River Trading, Quantlab, Jane Street, Two Sigma, Citadel Securities and others amplify price-moves.  Momentum derives from faster price-changes, and Fast Traders feed it.

Third is Leverage with derivatives or borrowing.  Almost 19% of trading volume in the S&P 500 ties to puts, calls and other forms of taking or managing risk with derivatives. Or it can be borrowed money. Or 2-3x levered ETFs. The greater the pool of money using leverage, the larger the probability of outsized moves.

Summarizing, Growth beats Value because of herd behavior, amplification of price-changes, and leverage.

By the way, we can measure these factors behind your price and volume – anybody in the US national market system.

Does that mean the Growth advantage is permanent?  Well, until it isn’t. Economist Herb Stein (Ben’s dad) famously said, “If something cannot last forever, it will stop.”

And it will. I don’t know when. I do know that the turn will prompt the collapse of leverage and the vanishing of amplification. Then Growth stocks will become Value stocks.

And we’ll start again.

Gensler’s Gambit

Suddenly it’s September.  Statistically, the worst month for stocks.

Illustration 172906555 © Corneliakarl | Dreamstime.com

It’s then no surprise that SEC Chair Gary Gensler would start hucking Molotovs at market structure.  If you’re gonna do it, why not when stocks might be rocky? Gives you air cover.

For those who missed it, Gensler told Barron’s the SEC could consider banning what’s called Payment for Order Flow (PFOF).  I’ll explain.

You might also have seen that new stock exchange MEMX (Members Exchange) has asked the SEC to let stocks quoting with a one-cent spread to trade in half-cents.

What do these things mean to you, traders and investors and public companies? 

I’m glad you asked!

First, let’s understand the current rules. PFOF exists because of rules. Ironic, right? SEC rules require all stocks to trade at a single best price marketwide.  What’s more, brokers who execute the trades are required to meet “Best Execution” standards that, simplified, are a percentage of time at the best prices to buy or sell.

Well. Retail trades are small. Prices constantly change. It’s a pain trying to comply with SEC rules when handling gobs of tiny trades.

So firms like Robinhood sell their orders to others with sophisticated systems for complying with the rules. Regulators keep making exceptions to accommodate the vital role these so-called “market-making” firms play in the SEC’s grand scheme for a continuous auction where everything exists in 100-share increments.

We’ll get to what it all means.  Now, half-pennies?  Not what meets the eye.  Regulation National Market System prohibits QUOTES in sub-penny increments for stocks with prices above $1. That’s the Sub-Penny Rule.

But stocks TRADE all the time in sub-pennies.  Of my last ten trades using decision-support from our sister company (vote for us in the Benzinga Fintech Awards!) Market Structure EDGE, five were in tenths of pennies.

Examples of that, I bought 75 shares and then 25 shares of AAPL (there aren’t 100 shares at a single venue at the market’s best price – yup, truth), both at half-penny spreads.  I sold FB for a two-tenths spread.  But brokers, not exchanges, matched these.

The doozy is this: I bought NVDA at a six-tenths penny spread through the Nasdaq’s “Retail Liquidity Program” where a high-speed trader like Virtu sold it to my broker, Interactive Brokers, at a price a scooch (say three-tenths) better than the best offer and was also paid about three-tenths of a penny by the Nasdaq for doing it.

All this fits together. Don’t worry if you’re feeling confused. I’ll sort it out for you.

MEMX wants a piece of the half-penny business brokers are getting. It could double MEMX’s market-share. It’s not virtuous.

Now let’s understand PFOF. The SEC wanted a perfect Shangri-La for the little guy. Where anybody can buy or sell 100 shares of everything.

Except that’s impossible.

Brokers said, “We can’t do it. You’ll have to permit us to create shares for instances when there are no real sellers for buyers, and vice versa.”

The SEC agreed. Thus, market-makers like Citadel Securities are exempt from Reg SHO Rule 203b(2) mandating that stocks must be located before they can be shorted.

That’s another story.

Since there was no incentive for market-makers to buy and sell, the SEC gave them a guaranteed spread, permitting broker-operated Alternative Trading Systems called dark pools (where my trades matched) to execute trades BETWEEN the best bid and offer.

Volume shifted off exchanges to dark pools. Conceding, the SEC approved Retail Liquidity Programs letting exchanges pay for trades that originate with retail investors.

And they allowed exchanges to pay traders incentives called “rebates” to set the best bid to buy and offer to sell. I’m hitting only high points.  Now 85% of trades are midpoints at exchanges too.

But this gave rise to PFOF. Enterprising firms realized that if exchanges would pay them for trades, they could buy trades too. And execute them at fractions of pennies of profits both directions.

And brokers like Schwab, E*Trade, Ameritrade, Fidelity, Robinhood, realized they had this…thing.  Retail flow. By selling it, they offloaded compliance. And they could now give trades away to boot to foster more of them.

Gary Gensler is threatening to chop the legs off this stool the SEC created.

Look. I don’t like this market because it’s not free. But the problem isn’t PFOF by itself. It’s a contrived, rules-driven market that promotes arbitraging time and price as an end unto itself.  And now $50 trillion of market cap dances, pirouettes, on tiny split-penny trades.

Kick a leg out and it’ll be a disaster.  Re-think Reg NMS, and disconnect markets, and stop paying traders to change prices, and we could bring back lumpier and committed investment. Right now, we have exactly what the rules encourage.

I have low expectations.  And this is why you need Market Structure Analytics, traders and public companies. We understand it all. 

Where’s It Going?

Where’s what going?

Time? Hm.

Money?  Well. Yes.

It abounds and yet it doesn’t go far.  Why that’s the case is another story (I can explain if you like but it usually clears a room at a cocktail party).

First, if you were spammed last week with the MSM, apologies! It was inadvertently set on full-auto.  And one other note, our sister company Market Structure EDGE  is up for several Benzinga Fintech Awards.  As in American politics, you may vote early and often (just kidding!). No, you can vote daily though till about Oct 22, 2021.  We hope you’ll help! Click here, and turn it into a daily calendar reminder.

Today we’re asking where the money gushing at US stocks and bonds like a ruptured fire hydrant is going. Morningstar says it’s $800 billion into US securities the last twelve months through July.

That’s minus a $300 billion drop in actively managed equity assets. Stock-pickers are getting pounded like a beach in a hurricane. Public companies, you realize it?

That’s not the point of this piece. But investor-relations professionals, realize the money you talk to isn’t buying. It’s selling.  There are exceptions and you should know them.  But don’t build your IR program around “targeting more investors.” Build it on the inflows (your characteristics), not the outflows.  If you want to know more, ask us.

So where did the $800 billion go? 

About $300 billion went to taxable bond funds.  Not for income. Appreciation. Bonds keep going up (yields down, prices up). They’re behaving like equities – buy appreciation, not income.

The rest, about $500 billion, went to US equities.  We’re going to look at that. 

$500 billion seems like a lot.  Ross Perot thought a billion here, billion there, pretty soon you’re talking real money. For you who are too young to know it, Google that.

But today $500 billion ain’t what it was. And frankly, five hundred billion deutschemarks wasn’t much in the Weimar Republic either.  The problem wasn’t inflation. The problem was what causes inflation: too much money.

Ah, but Weimar didn’t have derivatives. Silly fools.

For perspective, more than $500 billion of Exchange Traded Funds (ETF) are created and redeemed in US equities every month.  Stocks trade more than $500 billion daily in the US stock market.

And the money supply as measured by the Federal Reserve’s “M2” metric reflecting the total volume of money held by the public, increased by $5 trillion from Feb 2020 to July 2021.  That’s a 32% increase. About like stocks (SPY up 33% TTM).

Wait. The stock market is up the same as the money supply? 

Yup.

Did everybody sell stocks at higher prices?

No. Everybody bought stocks at higher prices.

Okay, so where did the stock come from to buy, if nobody sold?

Maybe enough holders sold stocks to people paying 33% more to account for the difference. Good luck with that math. You can root it out if you want.

But it’s not necessary.  We already know the answer. The money went into derivatives. 

The word “derivative” sounds fancy and opaque and mysterious. It’s not.  It’s a substitute for an asset.  You can buy a Renoir painting. You can buy a Renoir print for a lot less. You can buy a stock. You can buy an option on that stock for a lot less.

Suppose you want to buy the stocks in the S&P 500 but you don’t want the trouble and expense of buying 500 of them (a Renoir). You can buy a swap (a print, No. 347 of 3,900), pay a bank to give you the returns on the index (minus the fee).

Or you can buy SPY, the S&P 500 ETF.  You think you’re getting a Renoir.  All those stocks. No, you’re getting a print somebody ran on an inkjet printer.  It looks the same but it’s not, and it’s not worth the stocks beneath it.

Image courtesy ModernIR, Aug 25, 2021.

See this image?  There is demand.  There is supply. The former greatly exceeds the latter like we’ve seen the last year during a Covid Pandemic (chew on that one for a bit), so excess demand shunts off to a SUBSTITUTE. Derivatives. ETFs, options, futures.

That’s what’s going on. That’s where the money went. Look at GME and AMC yesterday. Explosive gains on no news. Why? Banks squared derivatives books yesterday after the August expirations period. Demand for prints (options), not paintings (stock), vastly exceeded supply.

So banks bought the underlying paintings called GME and AMC – and sold traders ten times as many prints. Options. Derivatives. It’s implied demand. The stocks shot up.

Bad? Well, not good. The point isn’t doom. The point is understanding where the money is going. Every trader, investor, public company, should understand it. 

It’s all measurable if you stop thinking about the market like it’s 1995. It’s just math. About 18% of the market is in derivatives.  But about 75% of prices are transient things with no substance.  Prints, not paintings.

Public companies, know what part of your market is Renoir, what part is just a print.  Traders, do the same.

We have that data.  Everybody should always know where the money is going.

Suddenly

Things are getting worrisome. 

It’s not just our spectacular collapse in Afghanistan less than a month before the 20-year anniversary of Nine Eleven.  That’s bad, yes.  Inexcusable.

Illustration 179312099 / Ernest Hemingway © Lukaves | Dreamstime.com

It’s not the spasmodic gaps in supply chains everywhere – including in the stock market. 

It’s not bond yields diving as inflation spikes, which makes sense like accelerating toward a stop sign.

It’s not the cavalier treatment of the people’s money (do you know we spent $750 million of US taxpayer dollars on the Kabul embassy, the world’s largest, then left the keys on the desk?).

It’s all of it.  Stuff’s jacked up, and it should bother us.

Karen and I went to a concert at Strings, the performing arts venue in Steamboat Springs.  If you want to feel better about yourself, go to the state fair.  Or an Asleep at the Wheel concert in Steamboat.

People are showing up with walkers, oxygen tanks, doddering uncertainly up the walkway.  I’m joking!  Mostly.  You get the point. (Lord, I apologize for my poor taste.)

And Asleep at the Wheel is awesome. I grew up on Hotrod Lincoln and The House of Blue Lights.

Anyway, covid mania continues so the hall serves no food or drink inside.  We’re dependent on food trucks outside for snacks.

None showed up.

There was a big bike ride this past weekend, three thousand gravel riders.  The food trucks were there. But there’s not enough staff working to cover more than one base. We and the oldsters were out of luck for tacos and cheesesteak.

But we were told they’d be there, and they weren’t. That kind of thing happened in Sri Lanka when I lived there for a year in college. But not in the World’s Superpower.

It gets worse.

The bartenders were shaking their heads. They couldn’t restock beforehand because the supplier was closed.  No staff.  A major liquor store – the biggest in the region with normally 3-4 registers running simultaneously – had to close because they had no staff to run the shop.

If you can’t stock your bar, you’re in trouble of collapsing as an empire. I say that in the barest jest only.

Back to the stock market.  The supply chain for stocks is borrowed shares. I’ve explained it before.  Dodd Frank basically booted big brokers from the warehouse business for equities.

Used to be, if you were Fidelity you called Credit Suisse and said, “I need a million shares of PFE.”

Credit Suisse would say, “We’ve got 500,000. We’ll call Merrill.”

And the wholesale desk there, the erstwhile Herzog Heine Geduld, would round the other half up.

Not so in 2021.  The banks now are laden to creaking with “Tier One Capital” comprised mostly of US Treasuries.  You’re the government and you need a market for debt, you just change the rules and require banks to own them, and slash interest rates so fixed income funds need ten times more than before.

Elementary, Watson.

What’s more, the stock market is a continuous auction. Everything is constantly for sale in 100-share increments. 

Except there aren’t 100 shares of everything always available. Certainly not 100,000 shares. So the SEC requires – they mandate it – brokers to short stock, create it in effect, to keep the whole continuous auction working.

Well, it’s getting wobbly.  There are sudden surges and swales in short volume now.  And the average trade size in the S&P 500 is 104 shares. Lowest on record.  Almost half that – 44% currently – is borrowed. In effect, the supply chain in the stock market is about 60 shares.

Depending on that tenuous thread is about 75% of three MILLION global index products.  Thousands of ETFs.  And $50 TRILLION of market cap.

The 1926 Ernest Hemingway book The Sun Also Rises has an exchange between two characters.  One asks the other how he went broke.

“Gradually,” he said. “Then suddenly.”

Afghanistan’s sudden collapse was 20 years in the making.  The same thing is happening around us in a variety of ways, products of crises fomenting in our midst that we ignore or excuse.

So what do we do about it?

The societal question is tough.  The market question is simple: Understand the problem, engage on a solution.

Public companies, it’s you and your shareholders sitting at the head of this welling risk.  We owe it to them to understand what’s going on. Know the risk of fragility in your shares’ supply chain. That’s a start. We have that data.

Solving the whole problem will require a well-informed, prepared constituency that cares.  Or all at once it’s going to implode. Not hyperbole. A basic observation.

Starting Point

The starting point for good decisions is understanding what’s going on. 

I find it hard to believe you can know what’s going on when you’re authorizing trillions of dollars of spending.  But I digress.

Illustration 22981930 / Stock Trading © John Takai | Dreamstime.com

Investor relations professionals, when was the last time you called somebody – at an exchange or a broker – to try to find out what’s going on with your stock? I can’t recall when the Nasdaq launched the Market Intelligence Desk but it was roughly 2001.

Twenty years ago.  I was a heavy user until I learned I could dump trade-execution data from my exchange into my own Excel models and see which firms were driving ALL of my volume, and correlate it to what my holders told me.

That was the seed for ModernIR. 

Today, market behaviors and rules are much different than they were in 2001. Active money back then was still the dominant force but computerized speculation was exploding.  What started in the 1990s as the SOES Bandits (pronounced “sews”) – Small Order Execution System (SOES) – was rapidly metastasizing into a market phenomenon.

Regulation National Market System took that phenomenon and stamped it on stocks. What was a sideshow to ensure retail money got good deals now IS the stock market.

Nearly all orders are small.  Block trades are about a tenth of a percent of total trades.  For those struggling with the math, that means about 99.9% (not volume, trades) aren’t blocks.  The trade-size in the stocks comprising the S&P 500 averaged 108 shares the past week.  All-time record low.

Realize, the regulatory minimum for quoting and displaying prices is 100 shares.  Trades below that size occur at prices you don’t even see.  I have a unique perspective on market machinery.  I’ve spent 26 years in the IR profession, a big chunk of that providing data on market behaviors to public companies so they know what’s going on (the starting point for good management).

Now I run a decision-support platform too for active traders that gives them the capacity to understand changing supply/demand trends in stocks – the key to capturing gains and avoiding losses when trading (we say take gains, not chances).  And I trade stocks too.  I know what it means when my NVDA trade for 50 shares executes at the Nasdaq RLP for $201.521.

Yes, a tenth of a penny.  It means my broker, Interactive Brokers, routed my trade to a Retail Liquidity Program at the exchange, where a Fast Trader like Citadel Securities bought it for a tenth of a penny better than the best displayed price, and was paid about $0.015 for doing so.

For those struggling to calculate the ROI – return on investment – when you spend a tenth of a penny to generate one and a half pennies, it’s a 1400% return.  Do that over and over, and it’s real money.  Fast Trading is the least risky and most profitable business in the stock market.  You don’t have to do ANY research and your investment horizon is roughly 400 milliseconds, or the blink of an eye.  Time is risk.

For the record, NVDA trades about 300,000 times per day. Do the math. 

Which leads to today’s Market Structure Map singularity – infinite value.  Trades for less than 100 shares sent immediately for execution – that’s a “market order” – must by law be executed.  The Securities Exchange Commission has mandated (does the SEC have that authority?) a “continuous auction market” wherein everything is always buying or selling in 100-share increments or less.

So algorithms almost always chop trades into pieces smaller than 100 shares that are “marketable” – meant to execute immediately.  And retail traders are browbeaten relentlessly to never, ever, ever enter marketable trades.  Only limit orders. That ensconces information asymmetry – an advantage for machines.  Every time I send a marketable trade for execution, I have to check a box acknowledging that my trade is “at the market.”

That’s the truth.  Algorithms pulverize orders into tiny pieces not to make them look like tiny trades, but because tiny trades are required by law to execute.  Large trades are not.  Limit orders are not.  Those both may or may not match.  But tiny trades will. There’s one more piece to that puzzle – the market-making exemption from short-locate rules.  For more on that, go to the youtube channel for sister company EDGE and watch my presentation on meme stocks at The Money Show.

Moral of the story:  The entire structure of the stock market is tilted toward the people and the machines who actually know what’s going on, and away from those who don’t.

Now.  What do you know about the stock market, investor-relations professionals?  You are head of marketing for the stock.  Got that?  Do you know how the stock market works?

If you don’t, you need us.  We know exactly how it works, and exactly what’s going on, all the time.  You should have that information in your IR arsenal. 

Nothing is more important. It’s the starting point.

Passive Pitfalls

We’re back!  We relished upstate New York and Canandaigua Lake. 

If you’ve never been to Letchworth and Watkins Glen parks, put them on your list.  See photo here from the former, the Upper Falls there. Alert reader Deb Pawlowski of Kei Advisors, a local resident, said in pragmatic investor-relations fashion, “Beautiful area, isn’t it?”

Boy, indeed.

Letchworth State Park – Tim Quast

And it was month-end.  Companies were demolishing earnings expectations, a thousand of them reporting last week, sixteen hundred more this week.  Most big ones pile-driving views and guidance saw shares fall.

But how can that be?  Aren’t markets a reflection of expectations?

Tim.  Come on.  You buy the rumor, sell the news.

If that’s how you’re describing the market to your executive team and board…um, you’re doing IR like a caveman.  Rubrics and platitudes ought not populate our market commentary in this profession.

Use data.  Everybody else does (except certain medical-science organizations, but let’s just step lightly past that one for now).

Last week across the components of the S&P 500, Active Investment was up 0.0%. Unchanged.  Passive Investment – indexes, Exchange Traded Funds, quants, the money following a road map – fell 7%.  The use of derivatives, which should be UP during month-end when indexes use futures and options (quarterly options and monthly futures expired Jul 30) to true up tracking instead fell 2%.

No biggie? Au contraire.  A combined 9% drop in those behaviors is colossal. In fact, Passive money saw the steepest drop Jul 30 since Aug 3, 2020.

I’ll come back to what that means in a moment. 

Finishing out the Four Big Behaviors behind price and volume, the only thing up last week besides short volume, which rose to 45% Friday from a 20-day average of 44% of S&P 500 volume, was Fast Trading. Machines with an investment horizon of a day or less. Up 4%.

Think about all the economic data dominating business news.  The Purchasing Managers Index came in at 55 versus expectations of 56. Jobless claims unexpectedly jumped above 400,000.  Inflation came in hotter than expected at a seasonally adjusted 5.4%, annualized. Egads!

As Ronald Dacey in the Netflix series Startup would say, “You feel me?”

I’m just saying data abounds and so do reactions to it. Yet we talk about the stock market like it’s got no measurable demographics or trends driving it.

Well, of course it does!  Why is there not a single report Monday – except mine on Benzinga’s “Market Structure Monday” segment on the Premarket Prep Show – driven by data?

By the way, on Monday Aug 2, Passive Investment surged more than 14%. New month, new money into models.  The reason the market didn’t goose into the rafters was because it filled the giant Friday Passive hole I just described.

Broad Market Sentiment at Aug 2 is 5.4 on our 10-point market-structure scale of waxing and waning demand. That’s exactly what it’s averaged for more than ten years.  The market is not a daily barometer of reactions to data.  But it IS a reflection of what money is observably doing.

And what it’s observably doing to the tune of about 90% of all market volume is not picking stocks. The money follows models.  The money speculates. The money transfers risk. Because time is risk. The riskiest of all market propositions is buying and holding, because it leaves all the price-setting to stuff that’s much more capricious.

The least risky thing to do in the stock market is trade stuff for fractions of seconds, because your money is almost never exposed to downside risk. This is how Virtu famously disclosed in its S-1 that it made money in 1289 of 1290 days.  Stock pickers just want to be right 51% of the time.

What’s the lesson? Everything is measurable and trends manifest precisely the way money behaves.  It’s darned well time that boards and executive teams – and investors – understand the market as it is today.

Oh, and why is the Jul 30 drop in Passive money, the biggest in a year, a big deal? Because the market corrected in September 2020. The so-called FAANG stocks (FB, AAPL, AMZN, NFLX, GOOG/L) fell 35% in three days.

There is Cause. Then a delay. Then the Effect.  There is DEMAND and SUPPLY.  If DEMAND declines and SUPPLY rises, stocks fall.  In fact, those conditions uniformly produce falling prices in any market.

We measure it. Sentiment is demand. Short Volume is supply. 

So. The stock market is at 5.4. Right at the average. But if the supply/demand trends don’t improve, the market is going to correct.  Can’t say when. But the data will give us a causal indication.

If you want to know, use our analytics. We’ll show you everything!

Optional Chaos

So which is it?  

Monday, doom loomed over stocks. In Punditry were wringing hands, hushed tones. The virus was back. Growth was slowing. Inflation. The sky was falling!

Then came Tuesday. 

Jekyll and Hyde? Options expirations.  Only CNBC’s Brian Sullivan mentioned it. As ModernIR head of client services Brian Leite said, there wasn’t otherwise much effort to explain where the doom went. One headline said, “Stocks reverse Monday’s losses.”

WC Fields said horse sense is the thing a horse has which keeps it from betting on people. We could have used some horse sense.  I Tweeted this video.

Anyway. What must you know, investors and public companies, about why options cause chaos in stocks? (I’m explaining it to the Benzinga Boot Camp Sat July 24, 30 minutes at 1220p ET.  Come join.)

It’s not just that options-expirations may unsettle equity markets. The question is WHY?

Let me lay a foundation for you. Global Gross Domestic Product (GDP) is about $85 trillion. The notional value – exposure to underlying assets – of exchange-traded options and futures is about the same, $85 trillion give or take, says the Bank for International Settlements. The BIS pegs over-the-counter derivatives notional value at $582 trillion.

So call it $670 trillion. All output is leverage 8-9 times, in effect.

Now, only a fraction of these derivatives tie to US equities. But stocks are priced in dollars. Currency and interest-rate instruments make up 90% of derivatives.

All that stuff lies beneath stocks. Here, let’s use an analogy. Think about the stock market as a town built on a fault line.  The town would seem the stolid thing, planted on the ground. Then a tectonic plate shifts.

Suddenly what you thought was immovable is at risk.

Remember mortgage-backed securities?  These derivatives expanded access to US residential real estate, causing demand to exceed supply and driving up real estate prices.  When supply and demand reached nexus, the value of derivatives vanished.

Suddenly the market had far more supply than demand.  Down went prices, catastrophically. Financial crisis.

Every month, what happened to mortgage-backed securities occurs in stocks. It’s not seismic most times. Stocks are assets in tight supply.  Most stocks are owned fully by investors.  Just three – Blackrock, Vanguard, State Street – own a quarter of all stocks.

So just as real estate was securitized, so are stocks, into options, futures, swaps.  While these instruments have a continuous stream of expiration and renewal dates, the large portion ties to a monthly calendar from the Options Clearing Corp (our version is here).

Every month there’s a reset to notional value. Suppose just 1% of the $50 trillion options market doesn’t renew contracts and instead shorts stocks, lifting short volume 1%.

Well, that’s a potential 2% swing in the supply/demand balance (by the way, that is precisely last week’s math).  It can send the Dow Jones Industrials down a thousand points.  Hands wring.  People cry Covid.

And because the dollar and interest rates are far and away the largest categories, money could leave derivatives and shift to the assets underpinning those – BONDS.

Interest rates fall. Bonds soar. Stocks swoon.  People shriek.

Marketstructureedge.com – Broad Market Sentiment 1YR Jul 21, 2021

Options chaos.  We could see it. The image here shows Broad Market Sentiment – DEMAND – for the stocks represented by SPY, the State Street S&P 500 Exchange Traded Fund (ETF).  Demand waxes and wanes.  It was waning right into expirations.

In fact, it’s been steadily waning since Apr 2021.  In May into options-expirations, Sentiment peaked at the weakest level since Sep 2020. Stocks trembled. In June at quad-witching, stocks took a one-day swan dive.

Here in July, they cratered and then surged.  All these are signals of trouble in derivatives. Not in the assets.  It’s not rational. It’s excessive substitution.

We can measure it at all times in your stock. Into earnings. With deals. When your stock soars or plunges.

In 1971, the USA left the gold standard because the supply of dollars was rising but gold was running out. The derivative couldn’t be converted into the asset anymore. The consequence nearly destroyed the dollar and might have if 20% interest rates hadn’t sucked dollars out of circulation.

High interest rates are what we need again. During the pandemic the Federal Reserve flooded the planet with dollars. Money rushed into risk assets as Gresham’s Law predicts. And derivatives.

When the supply/demand nexus comes, the assets will reprice but won’t vanish. The representative demand in derivatives COULD vanish.  That’s not here yet.

The point: Derivatives price your stock, your sector, your industry, the stock market. Adjustments to those balances occur every month.  We can see it, measure it. It breeds chaos. Pundits don’t understand it.

It’s supply and demand you can’t see without Market Structure goggles. We’ve got ‘em.

Supply and Demand

Happy Bastille Day!  Also, Goldman Sachs made $15 per share, 50% over expectations. The stock declined.

JP Morgan earned $12 billion on revenue of $31 billion, doubling views. Shares fell.

Why are banks making 36% margins when you can’t earn a dime of interest?

I digress.

Illustration 98288171 / Goldman Sachs © Alexey Novikov | Dreamstime.com

I told the Benzinga Premarket Prep show July 12 on Market Structure Monday (which we sponsor) that falling demand and rising supply in the shares of JPM and GS predicted the stocks would probably perform poorly despite widespread views both would batter consensus like Shohei Ohtani on both sides of the plate (baseball humor for you).

Sure, you could say everybody already knew so they sold the news. This is the kind of copout we get from people who want to tell us stocks are always expectations of future outcomes while simultaneously telling us “they were down because growth wasn’t quite good enough to get past the whisper number.”

That is BS.  Plain and simple. 

ModernIR can measure supply and demand in JPM and GS and observe that demand is falling and supply is rising.  Even amid the farcical characteristics of the modern stock market, that means prices will fall.

We can meter these conditions in your stock too, by the way.

The best thing about the stock market today is how well it reflects supply and demand.  Currency markets don’t. The Federal Reserve continuously jacks with currency supplies in such manipulative ways that almost no economic measure, from growth to inflation, can be believed.

But in the stock market, the math is so sacrosanct that it’s impervious to the ubiquitous interference by Congress and regulators with the mechanisms of a free, fair and open market. No matter how bureaucrats assail the battlements, nothing disguises the stark supply/demand fluctuations apparent in the data.

Wow, mouthful there, Quast.

I know it. I’m not kidding.

Look, regulators REQUIRE brokers to buy and sell stocks even when there are no buyers and sellers.  That’s called a “continuous auction market.”  That’s what the US stock market is.

Contrast that with an art auction.

Stay with me. I have a point.

The first requirement of an art auction is actual ART.  Even if its pedigree is suspicious, like Nonfungible Tokens (NFT).  There’s still art for sale, and an audience of bidders pre-qualified to buy it.  No shill bidders allowed.

Nothing so provincial impairs the stock market. While you can make stuff up such as always having 100 shares of everything to buy or sell, even if it doesn’t actually exist, you STILL HAVE TO REPORT THE MATH.

Think I’m joking about shares that don’t exist?  Educate yourself on the market-maker exemption to Reg SHO Rule 203(b)(2). Or just ask me. 

Anyway, everything is measurable. Thanks to rules dictating how trades must be executed. In GS trading the day before results, Short Volume (supply) was rising, Market Structure Sentiment (demand) was falling.

Unless stock-pickers become 300% greater as a price-setter than they’ve been in the trailing 200 days – a probability approaching zero – the stock will decline.

I don’t care how good your story is.  Story doesn’t change supply or demand. Only ACTIONS – to buy or sell or short or leverage – do.

This math should be the principal consideration for every public company. Were we all in the widget business, selling widgets, we wouldn’t say, “I hope the CEO’s speech will juice widget sales.”

Now maybe it will!  But that’s not how you run a widget business.  You look at the demand for widgets and your capacity to supply widgets to meet demand. That determines financial performance. Period.

The stock market is the same.  There is demand. There is supply. Both are measurable. Both change constantly because the motivation of consumers differs. Some want to own it for years, some want to own it for 2 milliseconds, or roughly 0.05% of the time it takes to blink your eyes.

Both forms of demand set price, but one is there a whole lot more than the other. If the only behavior you consider is the one wanting to own for years, you’re not only a buffoon in the midst of courtiers. You’re wrong.  And ill-informed.

Thankfully, we can solve that social foible. And sort the data for you.

The stock market is about supply and demand. Earnings season is upon us again.  The market will once more tell us not about the economy or earnings, but supply and demand.

Ask us, and we’ll show you what your data say comes next.

Data to Know

What should you know about your stock, public companies? 

Well, what do you know about your business that you can rattle off to some inquiring investor while checking the soccer schedule for your twelve-year-old, replying to an email from the CFO, and listening to an earnings call from a competitor?

Simultaneously.

That’s because you know it cold, investor-relations professionals.  What should you know cold about your stock?

While you think about that, let me set the stage. Is it retail money? The Wall Street Journal’s Caitlin McCabe wrote (subscription required) that $28 billion poured to stocks from retail traders in June, sourcing that measure from an outfit called VandaTrack.

If size matters, Exchange Traded Fund (ETF) data from the Investment Company Institute through May is averaging $547 billion monthly, 20 times June retail flows. Alas, no article about that.

You all who tuned to our Meme Stocks presentation last week (send me a note and I’ll share it) know retail money unwittingly depends on two market rules to work.

Illustration 91904354 / Stock Market © Ojogabonitoo | Dreamstime.com

This is good stuff to know but not what I mean. Can you answer these questions?

  • How many times per day does your stock trade?
  • How many shares at a time?
  • How much money per trade?
  • What’s the dollar-volume (trading volume translated into money)?
  • How much of that volume comes from borrowed stock every day?
  • What kind of money is responsible?
  • What’s the supply/demand trend?
  • What are stock pickers paying to buy shares and are they influencing your price?

Now, why should you know those things?  Better, why shouldn’t you know if you can? You might know the story cold. But without these data, you don’t know the basics about the market that determines shareholder value.

Maybe we don’t want to know, Tim.

You don’t want to know how your stock trades?

No, I don’t want to know that what I’m doing doesn’t matter.

What are we, Italians in the age of Galileo? What difference does it make what sets price?  The point is we ought to know. Otherwise, we’ve got no proof that the market serves our best interests.

We spend billions of dollars complying with disclosure rules. Aren’t we owed some proof those dollars matter?

Yes.  We are.  But it starts with us.  The evidence of the absence of fundamentals in the behavior of stocks is everywhere.  Not only are Blackrock, Vanguard and State Street the largest voting block for public companies and principally passive investors, but the majority of trading volume is executed by intermediaries who are not investors at all.

Stocks with no reason to go up, do.  And stock with no reason to go down, do.  Broad measures are not behaving like the stocks comprising them.  Over the whole market last week, just two sectors had more than a single net buying day:  Utilities and Energy. Yet both were down (0.9%, 1.3% respectively). Somehow the S&P 500 rose 1.7%.

You’d think public companies would want to know why the stock market has become a useless barometer.

Let me give you two examples for the questions I asked.  Public companies, you should be tracking these data at least weekly to understand changing supply/demand conditions for your shares.  And what kind of money is driving shareholder-value.

I won’t tell you which companies they are, but I’ll tweet the answer tomorrow by noon ET (follow @_TimQuast).  These are all 5-day averages by the way:

Stock A: 

  • Trades/day:  55,700
  • Shares/trade: 319
  • $/Trade: $4,370
  • Dollar volume:  $243 million
  • Short volume percent: 51%
  • Behaviors:  Active 9% of volume; Passive, 36%; Fast Trading, 32%; Risk Mgmt, 23% (Active=stock pickers; Passive=indexes, ETFs, quants; Fast Trading=speculators, intermediaries; Risk Mgmt=trades tied to derivatives)
  • Trend: Overbought, signal predicts a decline a week out
  • Active money is paying:  $11.60, last in May 2021, Engagement is 94%

Stock B:

  • Trades/day:  67,400
  • Shares/trade: 89
  • $/Trade: $11,000
  • Dollar volume:  $743 million
  • Short volume: 47%
  • Behaviors:  Active, 8% of volume; Passive, 24%; Fast Trading 49%; Risk Mgmt, 19%
  • Trend: Overbought, signal predicts declines a week out
  • Active money is paying:  $121, last in June 2021, Engagement is 81%

The two stocks have gone opposite directions in 2021.  The problem isn’t story for either one. Both have engaged investors. Active money is 8-9%.

The difference is Passive money. Leverage with derivatives.

Would that be helpful to boards and executive teams?  Send this Market Structure Map to them.  Ask if they’d like to know how the stock trades.

Everybody else in the stock market – traders, investors, risk managers, exchanges, brokers – is using quantitative data.  Will we catch up or stay stuck in the 1990s?

We can help.