Feedback

You’ve got to know what to measure.

Every time I interact with anybody from an airline to my company’s communications providers, I get a survey. “How’d we do?”

It drives me crazy. It’s like Claymation customer service:  Move something, take a picture.  Move something, take a picture. You’ve seen clay animation?  Wallace & Gromit popularized cartoonish clay caricature (and cheese!). Each picture contributed to forming movement and emotion. Every snapshot is feedback that when viewed together become the story. It works in cartoons but isn’t a good customer-service model.

We’re inundated with market information in the investor-relations profession.  The feedback loop is so intensive that it can somewhere morph from meaningful to white noise. You don’t know what you’re measuring or hearing. The sequence of snapshots doesn’t translate to meaningful film. There’s no narrative in the data.

Back when I was in the IR chair, I’d hear all the time that we’d broken through moving averages.  Initially, I exclaimed, “Oh!” and added, “Thank you!” It was only later that I realized moving averages told me little and certainly weren’t entertaining like Claymation. What should I tell management?  “Unfortunately, there’s been a breakdown in our moving averages, prompting a sharp shift in perception.”

Really?

Here’s another metric that confuses busy with productive. We have clients with high short interest. The measure derives from a 1974 regulation from The Federal Reserve to track borrowing in marginable securities accounts as part of aggregate money supply.

Borrowing is a good measure of risk. To that end, if you’re interested in a riotous three-minute explanation of what’s wrong in Europe, click here (it’s a video clip so be appropriately prepared).

But what if we’re not measuring borrowing correctly? Short volume, or trading with borrowed shares instead of owned shares, is roughly 43% of the total market. This measure wasn’t created by the Fed in 1974. It’s current. It’s Claymation. We’ve studied short interest and short volume and found that the former often is inversely correlated with price-movements, suggesting that it’s a lagging indicator of risk (and thus a lousy one). Not so with short volume.

The ownership measure extant today, 13Fs, was created in 1974 as well. It’s deplorable as feedback on institutional behavior, coming 90 trading days after it might have occurred. Today, over $1.7 trillion of assets are held by Exchange-Traded Funds that post ownership positions daily, yet trades clear “T+3,” or potentially four days out.

Do you think about these things in the IR chair? Perception is, “Our price continuously reflects rational thought.” Reality is something else, demonstrably and statistically.  Speaking of which, I’m hoping to take the NIRI Arizona chapter on a rollicking safari through market structure today. Process is more influential than purpose.

What you don’t want to do with your IR forensics is confuse busy with productive. You can track vast seas of data that neither offer narrative nor animate it.  What’s the right feedback mechanism? Reality! What is money doing right now and what’s the likely impact in the future, and what’s that mean to actions in my IR program and what I communicate to management?

There’s a simple answer every day.  If you don’t have it yet, we’ll show you the clay.  It’s really quite fun!

Sizing Ticks

Ticks are blood-sucking insects, about how regulators have viewed spreads between stock prices.

Country singer Brad Paisley sings that he’d like to walk you through a field of wildflowers and check you for ticks. As a kid in tick country on Oregon’s Snake River breaks, I pulled plasma-bloated fatsos off my skin and watched my grandmother touch match-reddened tweezers to protuberant tick buttocks on my grandfather’s scalp.

Now the Securities and Exchange Commission is studying ticks. It’s in regulatory parlance SEC Release No. 73511, File No. 4-657.  You can comment by email at rule-comments@sec.gov, or on the website, here (include “File No. 4-657” in any case).

Fittingly, we’re in New York this week where ticks began, a timely escape from the season’s first deep freeze in Denver.  Your stock trades in penny increments, or ticks, thanks to rules created by the SEC in the 20th century.

The belief then was that brokers were charging too much with wide spreads in securities that jobbed small investors. Shrink ticks to desiccated carcasses and mom and pop would win went the reasoning. Fifteen years after slimming ticks, the SEC has ordered a study on widening them. The SEC didn’t say it made a mistake last century. It just told exchanges, “See if there’s a better way.”

I’ve read File No. 4-657 from introduction to footnotes and definitions.  We’ve summarized before but hitting highlights, the exchanges have proposed three clusters and a control group comprising effectively all the 1,750-ish small-caps in the market. Stocks will quote in five-cent spreads but trade anywhere between, or trade in five-cent spreads, or trade at five-cent spreads with a “trade-at” rule, this latter blasted by brokers because it prohibits undercutting prices at exchanges. (more…)

Legging It

What are the implications?

Posing that question is a great conversation-starter unless you’ve just asked your teenage son about a substance you’ve found in his room that is not (currently in your state) sanctioned by the government, or if your party is on the long end of an election night.

What if stock orders are implied?  The Fear Gauge, the VIX, a derivatives contract from the Chicago Board Options Exchange, gives traders and risk managers the implications of volatility in the S&P 500.  But that’s not what we mean. Let’s keep going.

The stock market has become so complicated that few can describe how it works now. Many investor-relations professionals and public-company executives say “we just ignore the stock,” implying it’s cooler to act like you’re above it all (even though knowing nothing about any other market you’re responsible for would get you canned).

Chuckles aside, the implication is that it needs simplification. Public glare prompted the NYSE to pronounce earlier this year that it would prune its order types (yet it just launched a new one designed to help high-speed traders sell shares at the NYSE).

Aside: I’m speaking today at the NIRI Kansas City chapter about how the market became something nobody recognizes.

If you buy something at Amazon, the order type is the form you complete with your payment instructions and address that causes what you bought to show up on your doorstep.  This works well. (more…)

The Audience

“I’m going to write a four-letter word meaning intercourse,” my speech-class colleague Jim announced, striding to the chalk board. It was 1986.

Stunned, the rest of us stared open-mouthed.  The chalk clicked.  Jim stepped back and with a flourish gestured at what he’d written.

“Talk,” he declared.

Freshman college speech burned into my mind the importance of knowing your audience.  Seated there in the IR chair, who’s yours?

As you tee up an answer, let me tell you a story. It must’ve been a long last Sunday at Goldman Sachs.  Late Oct 26, with fanfare and after machinating immense quantities of data or perhaps just looking at sliding oil prices since August, the firm pronounced a new view for the energy sector. Oil, it said, would be priced lower than previously thought.

I’m poking fun, yet it was anything but for many in the energy sector Monday as the Goldman Tsunami appeared to crash over its investing audience, driving some energy and chemicals companies down 4-5% on a flat market day.

Okay, stop for a moment. It’s not your sector so you want to move on to your Twitter feed. Right? Stay put.  The same may apply to you and your peers.

Back to our story, the conclusion one would infer is that having waited for the vaunted Wall Street firm to speak, investors, teeth gnashing, doused themselves with ashes, donned sackcloth, and punched out of petroleum. (more…)

Perspective

It’s not what you think.  Heard that phrase before?

Last Wednesday, Oct 15, apparently everybody trading equities believed the world was dissolving in an apocalyptic stew of Ebola, European recession, unused petroleum, Chinese debt and Mideast terror. The DJIA at one point dropped 460 points.

Son of a gun. By Friday, October 17 we were back to milk and honey and Captain Crunch! The DJIA rose 263 points. Human nature is fickle. But this juxtaposition stretches credulity. It’s also a lesson on market structure.

In 2013, according to the Investment Company Institute, net US inflows to mutual funds were $152 billion, of which $52 billion went to target-date hybrid funds (mixes of bonds and equities based on one’s age), and about $53 billion to index funds, 82% of which track major market measures like the S&P 500. Exchange-traded funds garnered another $180 billion, mostly equity instruments that track funds tied to indices.

If two-thirds of the net new cash followed asset-allocation vehicles and a greater sum still sought ETFs, which post daily market positions, the likelihood that most of your price-movement reflects fundamentals is low unless you have an activist (event-driven money can catalyze bipolarity in market behavior – higher highs and lower lows).

There’s an animation sequence I’ve seen that starts with what appears to be mountains or desert from great height. Then our vantage point pans back and we see with surprise that it’s something else entirely: the brown pupil of a person’s eye.  We sweep back and the person is standing on a shoreline. Then back we scan across forests, mountains, rivers, countries and then continents until we’re in space seeing below us a lovely cobalt sphere, and we pan further, and it’s the blue pupil of a giant being. (more…)

Volatile

There’s no one-word description. The Ides of October arrives serene and tranquil in Denver, the Rockies dusted with recent snow, the sky intensely blue, deciduous trees on the boulevards colored like Jackson Pollock movements on a Wayne Thiebaud landscape.

By contrast, the equity market recalls the scrolling text concluding Clint Eastwood’s Oscar-winning Unforgiven:  “…of notoriously vicious and intemperate disposition.”

One-word summary: “Volatile.”

Why? Ideas abound. Teetering global growth. The threat of an African pandemic. Mideast conflict. Breaking Bad is off the air.  With the Chicago Board Options Exchange’s measure of implied S&P 500 volatility, the VIX, trading over 20 now and up 71% the past month, wringing hands accompany the ringing of opening market bells.

The VIX stood at 12.8 Sept 11, when the ModernIR 10-Point Behavioral Index (MIRBI) dipped below neutral (5.0) for the first time since Aug 4.  Back then, the MIRBI bottomed Aug 8 and turned positive Aug 14. This time, it’s still negative a full month later, marking the longest dour MIRBI attitude we’ve documented since developing the index roughly four years ago.

The MIRBI measures how money moved the past five trading days versus the five before that, in four demographic clusters (Active money, Asset-allocation, Fast Money, Hedging). This continuous sentiment conveyor belt is thus an excellent barometer of the totality of contemporaneous market behavior. It’s neither qualitative nor technical. It’s almost never wrong on market-direction because ups and downs demand the absence or presence of money – which is what it measures (and can change in a blink).

The big question: Why did all the money turn negative? (more…)

Casting About

I remember the day my elementary school friend pierced his ear. By accident.

We were nine-year-olds fishing eastern Oregon’s Burnt River on my dad’s cattle ranch. Young John gave his line a mighty cast. We awaited the expected kerplunk in the water.  Nothing.  Assuming he’d caught a branch in the trees behind us, he yanked the line and let out a yelp. He’d caught himself. The hook had punched right through his earlobe. I admit, I laughed.

The old way for getting answers to moves in your shares also involves a casting process. If your stock moves up or down sharply, you cast about.

Early in the IR chair I did it too. If the CEO rang and said, “Quast, what the heck’s going on?  Why are we down three percent?” I would react by calling others, who would cast about for reasons. The exchange or my market intelligence sources would say variously, “We’re hearing rumors there’s a seven-digit seller,” or “UBS is big on the sellside so we think it’s retail,” or “you broke through your 20-day and 50-day moving averages and the quants are pressuring shares,” or “Smithers on the sellside at Gaujem & Flippitt has got a bearish sector note out today.”

Some or all of it could be causal, and some or all is irrelevant. There’s no statistical link. What if your stock is down today because of something occurring last week?

If it rains today in your city, it’s unlikely that anybody is ringing weatherpersons and saying, “Hey, what’s going on?  What’re you hearing to explain this rain?” Meteorologists have models that while imperfect provide generally accurate predictive views of tomorrow’s weather.  We check forecasts before we travel, right?  Last week Karen and I were glad to know flying into Dallas that the bad weather would hit Thursday and not Friday. (more…)

Peer Review

Autumn the past two weeks splashed brilliantly over the Colorado Front Range. It puts everything into perspective.

I recall as a kid my mother saying in retort to my reason for some dunderheaded act, “You did it because ‘everybody else was doing it?’”

Investor-relations professionals have long tracked what everybody else is doing, comparing the company’s trading with a set of peers. Clustering similar things is a time-tested statistical maxim. We practiced it on the ranch of my youth at the auction yard, sorting groups of our steers on display for potential buyers uniformly by color, weight, shape. One weak link could throw off the average per-pound price.

What makes a peer?  Similar characteristics. Yesterday I sent a screenshot to an IRO (investor relations officer, for you newbies) showing startling comportment between her shares and another stock. One is a home-furnishings retailer, the other a technology high-flyer in cloud architecture.

On the surface, no distinguishing features say these two are peers. But machines calculating probabilities see patterns, not sectors. In human physiology, beneath the skin we’re all the same. We’re peers though we may not look alike. In the stock market, physiology is comprised of rules, prices, supply and demand.

It calls into question comparing how you trade versus peers. Yesterday one of our household-name clients asked, “We’re trailing our peers, so how can the cause be macro?” The data were overwhelming: No movement in rational behavior, massive change for indexes/ETFs and hedging. Our client is the “category killer” in that group, the one every index, every ETF, will own – or sell. Macro selling won’t hit peers the same, and either way, pressure wasn’t fundamental.

That’s no absolute either. Another category-killer in a different industry outperformed its peers because safe-harbor money was buying only the biggest. Plus, algorithms executing the same instructions in an industry group can produce different effects on components. (more…)

Double Standard

Humans are often entertained by illustrations of absurdity through reality.

For instance, Treasury Secretary Jack Lew months ago said he’d like to address tax inversions but lacked authority.  Yesterday, Treasury imposed rules to limit inversions. My reading of Section Two of the U.S. Constitution reveals no lawmaking authority vested in the executive branch.

I could compile a book of examples. I won’t.  Instead, I’ll offer one for the IR chair and the public-company executive suite. In 1975, Congress added Section 13f to the Securities Act to “increase the public availability of information regarding the securities holdings of institutional investors.” I was eight years old then and had no idea I’d spend my adult life working in the capital markets with thus far no update to the provision.

NIRI CEO Jeff Morgan said in his weekly note to members yesterday that the Board had held its annual meeting with the SEC to discuss disclosure. “I am not sure we came to any concrete agreement on how we might traverse down the road to improving disclosure,” Jeff wrote.  He was talking about the burden of it.

In August 2000, the SEC imposed Regulation Fair Disclosure (Reg FD) to “promote the full and fair disclosure of information by publicly traded companies and other issuers.” Following and vastly increasing disclosure-costs was The Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002 (SOX as we call it), passed by the U.S. Congress to protect shareholders and the general public from accounting fraud and errors and to improve accuracy in corporate disclosures. I remember that my company spent about $2 million as a small-cap NASDAQ-traded firm with $200 million in revenues complying with Section 404 and other requirements the first year.

I recall an ensuing variety of rules through the Financial Accounting Standards Board and SEC Staff Accounting Bulletins, all adding time, effort, cost and disclosure. (more…)

Risk

We figured if The President goes there it must be nice.

Reality often dashes great expectations but not so with Martha’s Vineyard where we marked our wedding anniversary. From Aquinnah’s white cliffs to windy Katama Beach, through Oak Bluffs (on bikes) to the shingled elegance of Edgartown, the island off Cape Cod is a winsome retreat.

Speaking of retreat, my dad, a Korean Police Action era (the US Congress last declared war in 1943, on Romania. Seriously.) veteran, told me his military commanders never used the word retreat, choosing instead “advance to the rear!”

Is the stock market poised for an advance to the rear? Gains yesterday notwithstanding, our measures of market sentiment reflected in the ten-point ModernIR Behavioral Index dipped to negative this week for the first time since mid-August. Risk is a chrysalis formed in shadows, studied by some with interest but generally underappreciated.

It happened in 2006 in housing, when trader John Paulson recognized it and put on his famous and very big short. Most missed the chrysalis hanging rather elegantly in the mushrooming rafters of the hot residential sector.

It happened in the 17th century Dutch tulip bubble, an archetype for manic markets.  Yet then tulips and buyers didn’t suddenly explode but just the money behind both, as ships from the New World laden with silver and gold flooded Flanders mints with material for coin. Inflation is always and everywhere a monetary phenomenon.

It’s hard to say if mania is here hanging pupa-esque on the cornices of the capital markets. Most say no though wariness abounds. Mergers are brisk and venture capital has again propagated a Silicon Valley awash in money-losing firms with eye-popping values. Corporate buybacks will surpass $1 trillion in total for 2013-2014, capital raking out shares from markets like leaves falling from turning September trees. (more…)