Political Sentiment

There’s one left.

This week brings the last pre-election monthly options-expirations cycle. It’s the final time to take or manage risk with options that expire after votes are cast. It might be instructive about trading bets. Options expire Thu-Fri this week, and through Oct 21.

In Oct 2016, Market Structure Sentiment peaked the 3rd at 6.6/10.0.  The market was over 49% short. Sentiment leaked down to 4.0 (you longtime readers know the market trades between 4.0 on the low end and 6.0 on the high end most times, and coloring outside those lines often signals temporary bottoms and tops) by Oct 21.

But demand was weak. Sentiment is a supply/demand gauge. It must stay above 5.0 to rise, more demand than supply (above 5.0, stocks rise, and below 5.0, they fall, a mathematically consistent truth, subject to periodic variance). In 2016, Halloween was the top, a tepid 5.0, a bare mean reversion.

It’s the market equivalent of trying to jump the bridge in a Yugo (a humorous blast from the past for all you too young to know it).

Stocks began Nov 2016 with a feeble wheeze and rolled over into the election.  We thought the bull market might end.  Stocks were trading lower than in June 2015.  Sentiment double-dipped down to 3.6 Nov 9, the day after the election.

And then, boom!  Sentiment hit 7.7 Nov 25, the best read since July 2016 after Brexit shocked stocks and juiced them like a pro-cycling blood-doper. Short volume dropped below 45%.

Brexit is an apt comparative too, an unexpected outcome. Market Structure Sentiment bottomed June 23, 2016, the date of the vote, at 4.2 (it rose to 8.2 by July 20).

So, what’s it mean?  Market bottoms signal gains ahead.  Did investors secretly think Brexit would happen and Trump would win?  Both events brought party times for equities, undeniably.

Or is it the opposite?  Investors were so dour about Brexit and the 2016 election – purely in terms of market outcomes – that the nadir for quantitative reads on supply and demand fell exactly in step with both events.

I don’t know.

But I’d argue from vast seas of data spanning 15 years that enthusiasm leaks.  It’s like an ambush (admittedly a dubious analogy but follow me here) where those lying in wait are so gleeful about holding what they call in poker the nuts – the winning hand – that somebody amped on adrenaline accidentally squeezes off a round and spoils the surprise.

Frankly we see it all the time in deal situations and Activism.  Somebody just can’t help herself and takes out a long swap or something. It’s not illegal to bet on information others don’t have.  It’s only illegal to sell it.  The point is, we often catch clues about ebullience in the unmistakable humanity of front-running.

With that yardstick, the absence of any giddy bursts of early gunfire, you’d conclude investors thought Brexit would catch a toe and plunge into the pond. And a Clinton administration would land with a thud on The Street.

So.

What do the data say now?  We’ve written repeatedly – especially in our private Market Desk notes (if you want those, subscribe to our analytics and become part of the Market Structure club) – that there’s another Big One coming.  A sprawling splat for stocks. The data say so.

There was one coming in Oct 2016 too, that the apparent benighted election of Donald Trump cast in glorious light – extending the bull market all the way to Covid.

And right now, the signals say the Big One most don’t see coming is after the election. On that loose read, you could say the market is betting on a Biden regime (because it would arguably be less business-friendly than the current one, regardless of one’s sociological persuasions around candidacy).

However, shorting is very low – below 43% marketwide.  The stumbling, bumbling, weaving pattern predicting a splat for stocks into Tue Nov 8, 2016 already happened.  Between Sep 9-Oct 1, 2020, Market Structure Sentiment peaked, then fell near 4.0, crawled back to 4.9, rolled back down the hill, Sisyphean, to 3.4 about Oct 1.

And then delivered the best gains for stocks since the week ended June 5, 2020.

Right now, it’s 7.3, steamy, nearing a top.  That kind of verve tends not to precede demolition to shareholder value. I’d bet stocks will decline to a bottom by roughly Oct 22 and rebound into Election Day.

I’m not saying that’ll happen.  And humans were wrong about Brexit, wrong about 2016.  And they could as well be wrong again here.  But that data would suggest an expectation the election won’t be bad news for stocks.

That might be bad news in other ways. And the data haven’t come in yet. We’re speculating. And we’ll keep you posted in Market Desk notes, clients (send us a note and become a client and you too can read the quantitative tea leaves!).

Now, back to the political-ad beatings.

Vahlcue

You’re wondering what the heck “vahlcue” is. It was up almost 4% in the last hour yesterday as stocks tipped off the diving board.

Meanwhile, cue fall.  The photo at right reminds us that today is a consequence of yesterday. Autumn follows summer. In the Flat Tops near Steamboat, fall flames as summer smolders out.

In the stock market, cue volatility.  Pursuing “vol,” as the traders call it, is big business. It’s everything that depends on an implied price, such as the VIX index tracking implied volatility over the next 30 days in the S&P 500.  It’s priced from options on the index, which in turn is comprised of futures.

Got that?  Volatility is the implied price of an implied price, gleaned from other implied prices.  All instruments derived from implied prices are ways to trade volatility – gaps between rising and falling prices.

Cue intro music.

The Nasdaq, in concert with the Chicago Mercantile Exchange (CME), launched the VOLQ this past Monday, Oct 5, another way to play volatility.

I assume it’s pronounced “vahlcue.”

VOLQ is a futures contract reflecting the implied volatility of the Nasdaq-100, the NDX. It employs a methodology developed by Nations Indexes, innovator in volatility products that isolates the implied volatility of at-the-money options.

Ready to run a power drill through the palm of your hand to stay awake?  If you want intricate details about how it works and how it’s calculated, you can read more.

I’ve got a specific purpose.

VOLQ, like the VIX, is a futures contract derived from options on underlying stocks – three steps from the asset.  It’s a particular set of both put and call options designed to get to the volatility of instruments priced the same as the futures contract, called at-the-money options.

Have you moved on from drilling a hole in your hand to braining yourself on a brick wall?

Here’s the point. Derivatives have proliferated in the stock market. All derivatives are a right but not an obligation.  As such, the propensity to quit them is much higher than one finds in the actual asset.

Famed hedge-fund manager Lee Cooperman, whom I interviewed in the plenary session of the 2019 NIRI Annual Conference, back when humans gathered innocently, lamented in a CNN interview that stock indexes shouldn’t gap 50 points in a matter of minutes.

He blamed trading machines, the rapid-fire intermediaries setting prices. And he’s right.  But the more trading chases products that are rights but not obligations, ways to pursue changing prices, the more heightened the risk of sudden lurches.

Why? All layers of options and futures are forms of implied supply or demand.  But the moment prices move, those layers become ethereal, dissolving in an instant like those animated transitions you can put in you Powerpoint slide deck.

And the more people pursue the gaps rather than the assets, the greater the assets can be blighted by sudden lurches.  Realize VOLQ is just another clip for the automatic weapons in the Nasdaq’s volatility arsenal that already includes e-Minis and micro e-Minis on the Nasdaq 100.

The first e-Mini S&P 500 futures contract began trading in 1997 and was 20% the size of the standard contract.  Micro e-Minis are a tenth of the e-Mini, 2% of the original contract.  And you can trade options on Micro e-Mini futures too.  We wrote about them in August.

Markets keep migrating away from size, away from the core asset, toward tiny, uncommitted bets and hedges comprised of multi-layered derivatives.

It’s great for the firms selling the products.  But it makes volatility accessible to the masses.  And the masses don’t understand it. And the more the masses are exposed to things that vanish, the more given to wild swings become the underlying assets.

Sure, derivatives can work well.  VOLQ was the right play today.  Traders can hedge exposure to sudden market moves, play the probability of profits in snap swings.

But the consequence is a market that cannot be trusted.

Market Structure Analytics help one survive it. Everybody should have baseline market-structure metrics.

The market is likely to rebound, data say. But this lurch manifested a week ago – much of implied volatility is predicated on weekly options – when the sector data looked ragged to us.  Sure enough it was.  Blame volatility and its instruments. Cue the exit music.

Gaffes and Spoofs

You all remember the Fat Finger?

It’s a gaffe, trading-style.  In one 2014 instance, if the record can be believed, somebody in Japan accidentally tried to buy $700 billion of stocks including more than half the total outstanding shares of Toyota.

The trades occurred outside hours and were cancelled but the embarrassment lingers.

Do you know of Harouna Traoré?  A French day trader learning the ropes, Mr. Traoré plunked down twenty thousand euros at online platform Valbury Capital and, thinking he was in simulation mode, began trading futures contracts.

Racking up a billion euros of exposure and about a million euros of losses before he realized his error, the horrified trader said, according to CNBC, “I could only think of my family.”  But the intrepid gaffer – so to speak – soldiered on, turning one billion and losses into five billion and profits of about twelve million euros.

I don’t know how it turned out but not well, it appears. The Chicago Mercantile Exchange sanctioned Mr. Traoré in June 2020 for exceeding credit thresholds, and banned him from trading for two years.

The Fat Finger has become reliably rare in US markets, thanks to security protocols.  It’s improbable we’ll again see a Knight Securities buy $4 billion of stock in 45 minutes and be forced to liquidate to Getco as happened in 2012 (Getco is now Virtu).

That’s the good news. The bad news is bizarre moves in equities such as we’ve seen in 2020 are therefore not due to gaffes.

But they could be spoofs, legal or otherwise.  JP Morgan yesterday agreed to a $920 million fine related to spoofing in futures contracts for metals and US Treasurys.  I can’t recall a larger trading fine.

Spoofing is the deliberate act of entering orders to trade securities and then cancelling them, creating, at least momentarily, the artificial appearance of supply or demand.  Dodd-Frank outlawed spoofing after tumult in the 2008 crisis, and regulations for commodities and stocks have subsequently articulated guidelines.

Investors and public companies alike don’t want fake liquidity in markets. As gaffes do, it’s what causes unexpected lurches in prices – but on purpose.

We can all sleep well, then?

Nope.

Turns out there is illegal spoofing, and legal spoofing.  The SEC’s Midas data platform shows trade-to-cancel ratios for stocks in various volume and market-cap tranches.  Generally, there are about 15 cancellations for every executed trade in stocks.

In Exchange Traded Funds (ETFs), the ratio explodes. The gaps or so severe between quartiles and deciles that an average is difficult to find. But the rate ranges from about 100 to nearly 2,000 cancellations for every completed trade.

Well, how is that not spoofing?

Answer: If you use order types it’s legal. It means – broad definitions here – that Fill or Kill (do it at once or don’t do it at all), Limit/Stop-Loss, All or None (no partial fills, the whole thing or nothing), Iceberg (just a little showing and more as the order fills) or Passive (sitting outside the best prices) orders are sanctioned by the government.

Tons are cancelled. Layer your trades with a machine instead, and it’s illegal.  Spoofing.

Wait a minute.

Order types through a broker are trades in the pipeline. Systems know they’re there. Risk-management protocols require it.  If the orders are at retail firms that sell their trades, then the high-speed buyer sees every layer before it reaches the market.

See the issue?

The market is stuffed with legal cancelled orders – that somebody else can see before the trades execute and who will therefore clearly know what the supply/demand balance is, and what gets cancelled.

I’m not sure which is worse, a fat finger, or this.  The one is just an accident.

Now, why should you care?  Because stocks are awash in compliant spoofs.  Regulators are trying to sort, one from the other, the same kind of activity, except one lets somebody else know ahead of time that it’s there. And that’s fine.  Sanctioned.

If you trade on inside information, data you obtained that others don’t know, in exchange for value, it’s illegal. Well, trades sold to high-speed firms are exactly that, if only for a fraction of a second.

If ETFs are peppered with cancellations at rates dwarfing trades, and money is piling into ETFs, would it be good for the public to know? And why mass cancellations?

Because ETFs are legally sanctioned arbitrage vehicles. That’s another story.

The good news is we track the behavior driving arbitrage.  Fast Trading.  We know when it’s waxing and waning. It imploded into today’s futures expirations – where much spoofing occurs, legally – and just as Market Sentiment turned dour.

I hope there are no gaffes.  Spoofs will abound.  Authorities will pat themselves on the back.  It’s a weird market.

***

By – Tim Quast, President and Founder, ModernIR

In Control

What can you control?

Courtesy IEX

It’s a question largely abandoned in the modern era under the assumption humans can control everything.  Arrogance often precedes experience-induced humility.

But we’re talking specifically about the stock market.  Public companies. Share-performance.  Investor relations. What’s within your sphere of influence?

There’s a big difference between your capacity to drive shareholder value rationally in a quantitative market – and the value you provide internally to your board and executive team about what depends on story, and what turns on the product, your shares.

I’ll talk in practical terms about it Thursday at the NIRI Chicago 2020 IR Workshop, the first virtual edition. Join us for the event! I’m on about 1:30pm ET Thursday the 24th.

Market structure plays a key role.  Supply and demand affect stocks the same way they do products in any market. Yet the supply of product – shares – is almost never a consideration for public companies and investor-relations professionals, who suppose that telling the story to more investors will create volume and drive the price up.

Our friends at IEX here explain the difference between volume and liquidity (and we described liquidity and volatility last week). The more parties between the sources of supply and demand, the more volume compounds (especially with derivatives, leverage via borrowing, Exchange Traded Funds).

But volume doesn’t create more supply of the product.  This by the way is how stocks soar and lurch today (we touched on it last week).

SHOP, the big Canadian e-commerce company, saw shares plummet about 30% in a week on a share-offering. The stock then skyrocketed yesterday.  Shares were trading near $1,140 to start September, fell to $850 after the news, and were near $960 yesterday.

Rational thought?

No, supply and demand. SHOP is the 7th most liquid stock in the US market (a reason why we cluster it with close cousins the FAANGs). In fact, supply is so tight in SHOP that it depends on borrowed stock.

Most times stocks with high short volume – borrowed shares – underperform the market.  Shorting adds supply to the market.  If demand falls, short volume weighs on price.

Short volume is at a basic level rented inventory. Traders who deal shares in fractions of seconds rent stocks to sell to others, profiting on the differences in price.  At some point before the close they buy it back and return it, aiming to make more getting between buyers and sellers – see the IEX video – than they spend renting stocks and covering that borrowing.

In SHOP, the demand has been so great that even high shorting isn’t dragging the price down. They’re an outlier, and edge case (and that data clearly indicate they can afford to continue issuing stock, by the way). There’s more to be made trading SHOP every day than the cost of constantly covering borrowed shares.

Disrupt that supply chain with a stock offering and the whole SHOP market for shares shudders.

That’s why it’s essential for investor-relations professionals to help executives and boards understand what’s controllable.  If your market capitalization is less than roughly $4 billion, you’re outside where 95% of the money plays, which is in the Russell 1000.

You can either get bigger and get into the top thousand, come up with something that makes you a screaming growth play that’ll compound your trading and limited liquidity into $4 billion of market cap – or set realistic internal expectations for your team.

Data can help you make a difference with your liquidity. Use it to time your outreach to investors. Aiming to attract buyers when it’s 62% short – unless you’re SHOP – is wasting time. Wait till liquidity improves.

I’ll use a great example to kick off the Chicago discussion tomorrow. And if you’re on hand live and we have the data, I’ll tell you your liquidity ranking.

Bottom line, IR should be captaining liquidity. You’re the chief intelligence officer. Supply and demand determine your price. Know your liquidity.  Ask us, and we’ll help.

Volatile Liquid

There’s a beer in this for you.  A glass of rosé from Provence if you prefer.

What’s the most liquid stock in the US market?

I’m writing this after the virtual happy hour for the NIRI Big I Conference (it’s a strong event, and you can catch Day Two and our wrap-up today that I’ll take part in), which of course makes one think of beverages. Liquid. Virtual drinks are no match for the real thing, nor is false liquidity in stocks.

Let’s lay the groundwork.  Stock exchanges describe market quality as low spreads.  Spreads have never been tighter, they say, and costs for trading were never lower.

Heck, you can trade for free. That’s about as inexpensive as it gets. So, is a low-cost, low-spread stock market a quality and liquid place?

Depends what you mean.  The market doesn’t fail often. Yes, we’ve recorded nearly 13,000 volatility halts since Mar 9.  Remember all the marketwide pauses that month? Still, it didn’t quit operating.

The Nasdaq just corrected – dropped 10% – in three days. And rebounded as fast. It highlights the importance of the definition of “quality.”

Which leads back to liquidity, and by extension, volatility. All three words ending in “y” are related.

Let’s begin with what liquidity is not.  Volume. Liquidity, bluntly, is the amount of a thing that will trade before the price changes. Put an offer on a house.  What’s the spread between the price you’d pay, and the last that somebody else paid?

I’ve just debunked the idea that low spreads reflect quality.  For the seller, a high spread is a reflection of quality.

Low spreads help parties with short horizons.  If my investment horizon is 250 milliseconds, a spread of a penny is wildly attractive. How many pennies can I make, in how many different issues, every quarter-second?

But if my horizon is more than a day, a wider spread reflects higher quality.  How come stock exchanges don’t mention that?

Let’s go one step further. To me, the measures we traditionally look to for guidance about market quality need revamping. For instance, beta, a measure of volatility, has the same flaws as our current economic measures of inflation.  Beta measures how a stock moves from close to close in relation to the market.

Terrible measure of market quality.  WMT, for instance has a beta score of 0.19, 20% of the volatility of the market. Yet its intraday volatility the past 20 days is 2.9%. The S&P 500 is 2.7% volatile over the same time (intraday high and low).

WHEN an investor buys during the day could in theory be nearly 3% different from somebody else’s price.  And WMT, contradicting beta, is not a fifth as volatile as the market but 7% more volatile.

The truth is low spreads PROMOTE frequent price-changes, which is the definition of volatility. The parties driving low trading spreads are ensuring volatility. Creating it.  And telling us it signals market quality.

They mean well. But good intentions pave roads to oblivion.

(Editorial note: Inflation isn’t the rate at which prices increase. It’s whether you can buy things.  All over the economy, people now buy on credit. Debt has exploded. That’s the evidence of inflation. Not the Fed’s equivalent of beta.)

And liquidity isn’t volume. That’s confusing busy with productive. Volume is stuff changing hands. Liquidity is how MUCH of it changes hands.  The most liquid stock in the market is AMZN (not counting BRK.A, a unique equity), at $70,000 per trade.

The mean component of the S&P 500 trades about $17,000 at a time.  But here’s the kicker. Just 50 companies, 10% of the index, trade MORE than $17,000 per trade. That’s the list from AMZN to DPZ. Everybody else trades less.

Including now, AAPL. It used to be in the top ten. Now it’s 146th post-split, trading about $12,000 per transaction on average.  TSLA was top five but post-split is now 49th at $17,600, well behind 32nd-ranked MSFT at $20,100.

Splits don’t foster liquidity. They breed volume. And price-changes. Volatility. We’re not anti-split. We’re anti-volatility, which increases risk for investors and the cost of capital for companies.

Why does the market promote one at the expense of the other? It’s a question owed an answer. All investors, every public company, should know liquidity. We have the data.

Minnows

Softbank bet big on call-options and Technology stocks are sinking.

So goes the latest big story. Business-reporting wants a whale, a giant trade that went awry.  A cause for why Tech stocks just corrected (off 10%).

In reality the market today rarely works that way.  Rather than one big fish there are a thousand minnows, swimming schools occasionally bringing the market down.

We wrote about this last week, regarding short volume. You should read it. We highlighted a key risk right before the market fell.

The same things driving stocks up unassailably toward the heavens, which should first have gotten our attention, often return them to earth. But we humans see no flaws in rising stocks.

Back to Softbank. If you’ve not read the stories, we’ll summarize. CNBC, the Wall Street Journal and other sources have reported on unconfirmed speculation the big Japanese private equity firm bet the equivalent of $50 billion on higher prices for Tech stocks.

Maybe it’s true.  Softbank owned about $4 billion of Tech stocks in the last 13Fs for the quarter ended June 30 (the filings the SEC wants to make less useful, by the way).

Rumor is Softbank levered those holdings by buying call options, rights to own shares at below-market prices if they’re worth more than a threshold level later, on big Tech stocks like MSFT and AAPL.

Here’s where the story ends and market structure begins. The truth is the market neither requires a leviathan to destabilize it, nor turns on this colossus or that. It’s minnows.

It’s always thrumming and humming in the lines and cables and boxes of the data network called the stock market.  And everything is magnified.

A single trade for a single stock, coupled with an order to sell options or buy them, sets off a chain of events.  Machines send signals like radar – ping! – into the network to learn if someone might take the other side of this trade.

Simultaneously, lurking mechanical predators are listening for radar and hearing the pings hitting a stock – MSFT! Wait, there are trades hitting the options market.  Get over to both fast and raise the price!

Compound, compound, compound.

Prices rise.  Retail traders say to themselves, “Let’s buy tech stocks!  Wait, let’s buy options too!”

And the same lurking machines buy those trades from the pipelines of online brokerage firms, assessing the buy/sell imbalance. They rush to the options market to raise prices there too, because once the machines own the trades from retail investors, they are no longer customer orders.  And the machines calculate demand and run prices up.

And index futures contracts rise, and the options on those. Then index funds using options and futures to true up index-tracking lift demand for options and futures, magnifying their own upside.

Read prospectuses, folks. Most index funds can spend up to 10% of assets on substitutes for tracking purposes, and a giant futures contract expires the last trading day of each month that helps indexed money square its assets with the benchmark.

And then the arbitragers for Exchange Traded Funds drive up the prices of ETF shares to keep pace with rising stocks, options, futures.

And there are options on ETFs.

Every price move is magnified by machines.  Up and up and up go stocks and people wonder does the stock market reflect reality?

The thing about prices is you never know precisely when they hit a zenith, the top of the arc. The last pump of your childhood legs in the playground swing, and that fleeting weightlessness.

And then whoosh!  Down you come.

Did Softbank make money or lose it?  I don’t know and it makes no difference. What I just described is relentlessly occurring every fraction of every second in the stock and options markets and there comes a moment of harmonic convergence after long arcs up and down, up and down, like children on swing sets.

It’s a thousand cuts, not a sword. Schools of minnows, not a whale.  The problem isn’t Softbank. It’s a market that depends on the machine-driven electromagnification of every action and reaction.

The reason we know is we measure it. For public companies, and investors. You can wait for stories after the fact surmising sea monsters swam through. Or you can watch it on the screen and see all the minnows, as we do (read last week’s MSM).

What’s next? The same thing. Again.

The Little Short

In Michael Lewis’s The Big Short, a collection of eccentrics finds a flaw in real estate securities and shorts them.  The movie is great, the book even better.

Somebody will write a book about the 2020 stock market (anyone?) flaw.

The flaw? Depends who you ask. Writing for Barron’s, Ben Levisohn notes ZM is worth more in the market on $660 million of sales for the quarter than is IBM on $18 billion.

TSLA is up a thousand percent the last year, sales are up 3%. NVDA is trading at a hundred times quarterly revenue. AAPL is up 160% on 6% sales growth.

I know a lot about fundamental valuation after 25 years in investor relations. But 20 of those years were consumed with market structure, which our models show mechanically overwhelms fundamentals.

Why is market structure irrational?

Because most of the money in the market since Reg NMS isn’t rational. And still investor-relations professionals drag me to a whiteboard and sketch out how the performance of the stock – if it’s up – can be justified by prospects, or if it’s down is defying financials.

Market structure, rules governing how stocks trade, is agnostic about WHY stocks trade. The flaw is process has replaced purpose. Money inured to risk and reality can do anything. Just like government money from the Federal Reserve.

And yet that’s not what I’m talking about today.  The market is the Little Short.  Nobody is short stocks. I use the term “nobody” loosely.

Let me give you some history.

First, ignore short interest. It’s not a useful metric because it was created in 1975 before electronic markets, ETFs, Reg NMS, Fast Traders, exchange-traded derivatives, blah, blah. It’s like medieval costumes in Tom Cruise’s redux of Top Gun. It doesn’t fit.

After the financial crisis, rules for banks changed. The government figured out it could force banks to own its debt as “Tier 1 Capital,” and the Fed could drive down interest rates so they’d have to keep buying more.

Voila! Create a market for your own overspending. The Basel Accords do the same thing.

Anyway, so big banks stopped carrying equity inventories because they couldn’t do both.  Meanwhile the SEC gave market-makers exemptions from limitations on shorting.

Presto, Fast Traders started shorting to provide securities to the market. And that became the new “inventory.” Ten years later, short volume – borrowed stock – averages 45% of trading volume.

It was over 48% this spring.  And then it imploded in latter August, currently standing at 42.6%. The FAANGs, the giant stocks rocketing the major measures into the stratosphere, show even more short paucity at just 39%.

Realize that the market was trading $500 billion of stock before August, about 12 billion shares daily. So what’s the point? Short volume is inventory today, not mainly bets on declining stocks. It’s the supply that keeps demand from destabilizing prices, in effect. A drop from 48% to 43% is a 10% swoon, a cranial blow to inventory.

Higher short volume restrains prices because it increases the available supply. If demand slows, then excess supply weighs on prices, and stocks decline. We’ve been measuring this feature of market structure for a decade. It’s well over 80% correlated.

So the absence of inventory has the opposite impact on prices. They rise.  If the whole market lacks inventory, stocks soar. And the lowest inventory right now is in the FAANGs, which are leading the stampeding bulls.

Thinking about prices as rational things is wholly flawed. It’s not how the market works, from supply-chain, to routing, to quotes, prices, execution.

We thought temporal tumult in behaviors two weeks ago would derail this market. It didn’t. Or hasn’t yet. The big drop in shorting followed, suggesting those patterns included largescale short-covering by market-makers for ETFs.

When the market does finally reverse – and it will, and it’s going to be a freak show of a fall too, on market structure – low short volume will foster seismic volatility. Then shorting will explode, exacerbating the swoon as supply mushrooms and prices implode.

The good news is we can measure these data, and the behaviors responsible, and the impact on price. There’s no need to ever wonder if your stock, public companies, or your portfolio, traders, is about to step on a land mine.  We’re just waiting now to see how the Little Short plays out.

Indexed

Is it good to be part of the collective?

From Karl Marx to Friedrich Hayek, polemics ring like swords and plowshares on anvils.

But that’s not what we mean.

When Vanguard in 1975 created the 500 Fund, many called it “Bogle’s Folly,” suggesting founder Jack Bogle’s plan to buy and hold a collection of stocks on the notion that the wisdom of crowds was better than that of individuals was daft. If you have time, this is a great read.

Today the Admiral Shares version (the original fund closed to new investors and Vanguard points them to its Exchange Traded Fund VOO tracking the S&P 500, with $560 billion of assets) manages over $530 billion of indexed money tied to the S&P 500.

Jack Bogle was not daft. Passive money dominates, and it exploded after Regulation National Market System, the stock market’s equivalent of the IRS code, ordered stocks to trade at an average price by imposing the National Best Bid or Offer (the NBBO).

Now Dow Jones S&P is reshuffling the Dow Jones Industrial Average (DJIA), removing XOM, RTX and PFE and replacing them with HON, CRM and AMGN.

Aside: I’m representing our trading decision-support firm, Market Structure EDGE, at the Benzinga Trading Boot Camp this Friday at noon ET. It’ll be a good 30-min look at market structure.

Back to the narrative, if you follow the money and it’s benchmarked, then indexing should be good for investors, good for public companies. By extension, getting booted from the collective is bad. Indeed, the issues ousted were down, the ones added were up, though changes don’t occur till Aug 31.

It’s worth noting that a key futures contract used to true up S&P 500 exposure and hedge general market moves expires the last trading day of the month, which is Aug 31. All six stocks are in the S&P 500 and AMGN is in the Nasdaq 100 too.

And all are in many ETFs. RTX populates the fewest (150), AMGN the most (285) with the rest scattered between. XOM is in 269 despite declining 72% year-to-date. Why would the collective choose XOM when it’s down? And Energy is just 3% of the market?

Because ETFs use stocks as collateral. Market-makers trade XOM for S&P 500 ETF shares because they profit on the spread. Sponsors trade it back for appreciated ETFs but supply less than they received. Both parties win, and the sponsor earns ETF fees to boot.

Few know what I just described. It’s the principal objective of the parties trading ETF shares wholesale. If you want to understand, ask me.

CRM is in 208 ETFs and up 29% this year and Tech is 27% of the DJIA. In fact, Tech is the trigger here. AAPL announced a 4-for-1 stock-split that will drop it sharply in the price-weighted DJIA. To offset that effect, Dow Jones is rejiggering.

You still with me?

AAPL’s coming stock-split whacks the DJIA from 27% Tech to 20%, so CRM joins, getting the index back to 23% (thanks to CNBC’s good take for that insight).

CRM instantly becomes #6 in the DJIA, AMGN #3 (is it now overexposed to Healthcare, with UNH #1 after the AAPL split?), HON #11.

In a sense, these moves are risk-management for the index creator. Depend too much on one stock and your index can get shellacked. Out over the skis in a sector? Pick somebody who gets you lined up with gravity.  CRM is in because it puts Tech in a reasonable range again in the index.

It’s a profound point, frankly. The index is less about the economy, more about the collective. Not that there’s anything wrong with that – unless you think the index is about the economy.

Now, what should we conclude about getting indexed, or not? It matters little if you’re big. All six of these issues will continue to be ETF fodder. None has an Engagement score over 75% though. It means the story struggles to stand clear from the collective in each case.

For public companies, it shifts the IR job from only the story, to measuring and reporting on the demographic effects of the money. It’s powerful. We have that data.

And investors should use market structure, not just fundamentals. If you want to know more, tune to Benzinga Premarket Prep today (Aug 26) at 835a ET (there’s a replay).  I’ll be talking about our sister company, Market Structure EDGE.

Mini Me

Minis abound.

You can trade fractions of shares.  Heck, the average trade-size is barely 100 shares, and 50% of trades are less than that.  Minis, as it were.

There are e-mini futures contracts on the S&P 500 index, and the newer micro e-mini futures product is the CME’s most successful, says the derivatives market operator.

Starting Aug 31 there will be micro options on e-mini futures for the S&P 500 and the Nasdaq 100. As of Aug 10, there are mini CBOE VIX volatility futures too, with a 10th of the face value of the conventional contract (expiring Aug 19).

One can spend less to have exposure to stocks and market-moves. The same notion animated a push toward decimalization before 2001 when it was implemented.

Decimals didn’t kill the stock market but they gutted analyst-coverage. Spreads – that is, the difference between the cost to buy and sell – funded research. In the 1990s there were on average 60 underwriters per IPO, and there were hundreds of those.

Today, there are five underwriters on average, the data show, and IPOs don’t keep pace with companies leaving markets through deals.  The Wilshire 5000, which in 1998 had 7,200 components, today has 2,495, factoring out micro-caps comprising just basis points of total market-capitalization.

Half the companies in the Wilshire 5000 have no analysts writing, while the top few hundred where trading supports it are festooned with quills – pens – like porcupines.

I think the inverse correlation between markets and the proliferation of minis bears some connection. It’s not the only thing, or perhaps even the biggest. But there’s a pattern.

And you should understand the market so you know what to expect from it. After all, who thought the March bear turn for stocks would be the shortest in history?

No one.  Including us.  Market structure, the way the ecosystem functions, explains it far better than fundamentals. But read to the end. We’ll say more.

Are the minis playing a role?

Look I’m not knocking fractional shares or tiny derivatives.  Rather, let’s think about the ramifications of growing layers separating trading from underlying assets.  Consider:

  • You can trade the stocks of the Nasdaq 100, the largest hundred at the exchange.
  • You can trade them in fractions without paying a commission.
  • You can trade the QQQ, the popular Exchange Traded Fund (ETF) that tracks the performance of the 100. ETFs as we’ve explained repeatedly are substitutes for stocks, not pooled interest in owning them.
  • You can trade e-mini futures contracts on the Nasdaq 100.
  • And now you can trade micro options on the e-mini Nasdaq 100 futures.
  • And you can trade options on the QQQ, and every component of the Nasdaq 100.
  • And you can trade the S&P 500 with exactly the same kinds of instruments, and SPY, the ETF.

It’s ingenious product-creation, and we’re not criticizing the innovators behind them.  It’s that I don’t think many people ask what effect the pursuit of mini increments of investment will have on market-behavior and prices, things that matter particularly to public companies depending on the market as a rational barometer.

And investors join public companies in caring how markets work.  Derivatives are becoming an ever-larger part of market volume. They’re layers of separation from underlying assets that become ends unto themselves, especially as increments shrink.

Why trade the stocks? Trade the rights on how they may behave – in tiny slices.

It disguises real supply and demand, which drives markets up relentlessly. Until that stops. Then markets collapse violently. These are chronic conditions in markets with too many derivatives.

Just saying.

Speaking of the market, it did as we wrote last week, with Market Structure Sentiment™ bottoming Aug 7, presaging gains a week out. Now options are expiring (including the VIX today), and Sentiment is topping, and behavioral volatility is massive, larger than we’ve measured at any point in the pandemic.

Maybe it’s nothing. Sometimes those data pass without a ripple. The FAANGs look good (low shorting, bottomed Sentiment). But we may be at the top of the Ferris Wheel after all those minis drove us this short, sharp way back up.

Dark Edges

The stock market’s glowing core can’t hide the dark edges – rather like this photo I snapped of the Yampa River in downtown Steamboat springs at twilight.

Speaking of which, summer tinkled its departure bell up high.  We saw the first yellowing aspen leaves last week, and the temperature before sunrise on the far side of Rabbit Ears Pass was 30 degrees, leaving a frosty sheen on the late-summer grass.

The last hour yesterday in stocks sent a chill too. Nothing shouts market structure like lost mojo in a snap.  I listened to pundits trying to figure out why.  Maybe a delay in stimulus.  Inflation. Blah blah.  I didn’t hear anyone blame Kamala Harris.

It’s not that we know everything.  Nobody does.  I do think our focus on the mechanics, the machinery, the rules, puts us closer to the engines running things than most observers.

And machines are running the market.  Machines shift from things that have risen to things that have fallen, taking care to choose chunks of both that have liquidity for movement. Then all the talking heads try to explain the moves in rational terms.

But it’s math. Ebbs and flows (Jim Simons, the man who solved the market at Renaissance Technologies, saw the market that way).

Passives have been out of Consumer Staples. Monday they rushed back and blue chips surged. The Nasdaq, laden with Tech, is struggling. It’s been up for a long time. Everybody is overweight and nobody has adjusted weightings in months. We can see it.

By the way, MSCI rebalances hit this week (tomorrow on the ModernIR Planning Calendar).

This is market structure. It’s morphed into a glowing core of central tendencies, such as 22% of all market capitalization now rests on FB, AAPL, AMZN, NFLX, GOOG, MSFT, AMD, TSLA and SHOP.

That’s the glowing core.  When they glow less, the dark edges grow.

Then there’s money.  Dough. Bucks. Specifically, the US dollar and its relationship to other global currencies. When the dollar falls, commodities surge. It’s tipped into the darkness the past month, marking one of its steepest modern dives.  Gold hit a record, silver surged, producer prices dependent on raw commodities exploded.

Then the dollar stopped diving. It’s up more than 1% in the last five days. And wham! Dark edges groped equities late yesterday. Gold plunged. Silver pirouetted off a 15% cliff.

August is traditionally when big currency-changes occur. Aug last year (massive move for the dollar versus the Chinese Renminbi Aug 5, 2019). Aug 2015. Aug 2018. Currencies rattle prices because currencies underpin, define, denominate, prices.

Back up to Feb 2020.  The dollar moved up sharply in late February, hitting the market Monday, Feb 24, as new options traded.  Pandemic!

Options expire next week.  The equivalent day is Aug 24, when new options will trade. Nobody knows when the dark edges will become cloying hands reaching for our investment returns or equity values.

In fact, Market Structure Sentiment™, our algorithm predictively metering the ebb and flow of different trading behaviors, peaked July 28 at 7.7 of 10.0, a strong read.  Strong reads create arcs but say roughly five trading days out, give or take, stocks fall.

They didn’t. Until yesterday anyway. They just arced.  The behavior giving equities lift since late July in patterns was Fast Trading, machines chasing relative prices in fractions of seconds – which are more than 53% of total volume.

Then Market Structure Sentiment bottomed Aug 7 at 5.3, which in turn suggests the dark edges will recede in something like five trading days.  Could be eight. Might be three.

Except we didn’t have dark edges until all at once at 3pm ET yesterday.

Maybe it lasts, maybe it doesn’t. But there’s a vital lesson for public companies and investors about the way the market works.  The shorter the timeframe of the money setting prices, the more statistically probable it becomes that the market suddenly and without warning dives into the dark.

It’s because prices for most stocks are predicated only on the most recent preceding prices.  Not some analyst’s expectation, not a multiple of future earnings, not hopes for an economic recovery in 2021.

Prices reflect preceding prices. If those stall, the whole market can dissolve into what traders call crumbling quotes.  The pandemic nature of short-term behavior hasn’t faded at the edges. It’s right there, looming.  We see it in patterns.

If something ripples here in August, it’ll be the dark edges, or the dollar. Not the 2021 economy.