Volume and Interest

In the five trading days ended Oct 17, 49.1% of average daily stock volume was short.

“Wait, what?” you say.  “Half the stock market is short?”

Yes, that’s right.  Short volume last topped 49% marketwide in mid-April. The market glided gently downward from there to May options-expirations. Speaking of expirations, we’re in them for October this week, so it’s a good time to talk about shorting.

Short volume hit a last marketwide low July 12 at 43%, which roughly corresponded to the high point of the Brexit Bounce.  At Nov 30 last year short volume was 42.9% and December and January were horrific for markets.  And on Jan 7, 2016, short volume was 52%. A month later the market bottomed and soared till April.

If short-volume history is a guide, the market is nearing a temporary bottom. It’s unwise to use a single data point, and we don’t (we use six key measures, plus a small supporting cast, as you clients know). The flow and behavior of money count, and we track both.

“Back up,” you say.  “You lost me at ‘short volume.’ What do you mean by that?”

Short volume is trading derived from borrowed shares.

“I read back in August on Zero Hedge that nobody’s short stocks. Trading from borrowed shares is 2% of the S&P 500, near a three-year low.”

You’re talking about short interest, the long-in-the-tooth risk-assessment tool derived from a 1975 Federal Reserve rule called Regulation T. Shorting and derivatives exploded after the US scrapped the gold standard and the Feds wanted to track margin accounts.

“Are we talking about the same short interest? The amount of total shares outstanding or float that’s borrowed and sold and not yet covered?”

Yes. Forty-one years later it’s still a standard market-risk measure. Yet it’s largely useless predictively. It didn’t shoot up until well after Bear Stearns foundered. In late 2007 it was 1.6%.

“So you’re saying it’s a crappy measure. What’s short volume then?”

Short volume is the amount of daily trading volume that’s borrowed. If a stock trades a million shares a day and short volume is 53%, then 530,000 shares of it were borrowed.  With over 40% of all market volume coming from Fast Traders wanting to own nothing, a great deal of this is short-term trading.

“Okay, I’m following. But what’s it tell me?”

Short volume signals several things but in sum it’s what you think: High short volume, lower price.  Why? Shorting is at root the continual adding of supply to the market. So if demand doesn’t keep up, price falls.

Here’s more:

High short volume means weak expectation for gains. No matter what company fundamentals are, if more volume comes from borrowed shares than owned shares, Fast Traders weighing tick data with high performance machines predict investors would rather lend shares for a return than spend money buying and holding them.

High short volume points to rotation. If the machines want to be short, they’re betting holders are selling and trying to hide it by passing shares through multiple brokers. The converse is true too: If you’ve been short and shorting falls, rotation is probably done.

Persistent high shorting reflects uncertainty about corporate strategy.  Not to pick on Tesla (because it’s not alone by any stretch) but its 200-day average short volume is 55%. Investors say it’s a trading vehicle, not an investment opportunity.  By contrast Qualcomm’s 200-day average is 42%. The two have inverse performance the past year.

Tangentially, high short volume CAN mean ETFs are seeing outflows. Exchange Traded Funds don’t directly buy or sell stocks but they create big volume because ETFs track other measures, such as indexes, that are in turn composed of other issues, such as stocks.

Traders measure deviation between ETFs and these other things and arbitrage (profit on price-differences) the spreads.  When investors sell ETF shares, ETF market makers or authorized participants (parties designated to create and redeem ETF shares) might short components to raise cash in order to buy ETF shares and retire them to rebalance supply.

In sum, short volume is a sensor situated near the beating heart of the money behind price and volume. And while algorithms driving trades today are designed to deceive, they can often be unmasked through short volume (with a couple other key measures).

For the rest of this week though, don’t be surprised if the market shows us not a beating heart but expirations-related palpitations.

Do The Math

Anybody ever said to you, “Do the math?”

Yesterday on CNBC’s Squawk Box legendary hedge-fund manager and founder of Omega Advisors Leon Cooperman said the world is crazy.  That’s anthropomorphizing the planet but I agree. He was referring to the math behind negative interest rates, which means paying people to borrow money.  That’s crazy all right, but happening.

He also said, paraphrasing, that if the population of the country grows by 0.5% and productivity increases by 1.5%, that’s 2% economic growth.  Add in 2% inflation and you have 4% “nominal” growth, meaning the numbers add up to that figure.

He said if the S&P 500 trades at 17 times forward earnings, that puts the S&P 500 at roughly 2150, about where it is now, so the market is fully valued but not stretched.

Why should you care in the IR chair? Macro factors are dominating markets, making a grasp on economics a necessary part of the investor-relations job now.

Whether Mr. Cooperman would elaborate similarly or not, I’m going to do some math for you.  Inflation means your money doesn’t go as far as it did – things cost more.  If a widget costs $1 and the next year $1.02, why? Prices rise because the cost of making widgets is increasing.

Making stuff has two basic inputs:  Money and people. Capital and labor.  If you must spend more money to make the same stuff, then unless you can raise prices or reduce the cost of labor, your margins – which is productivity or what economists call the Solow residual – will shrink.

There’s no growth if you’re selling the same number of widgets, even if revenues increase 2%. And if prices rise, there is on the fringe of your widget market some consumer who is now priced out. That’s especially true if to retain margins you cut some labor costs by letting the receptionist go.  One more person now can’t buy widgets.

And so sales slow.

The Federal Reserve is tasked with keeping unemployment low and prices stable (a bad idea but that’s another story). Its strategy is to increase the supply of money, the theory being more money prompts hiring and rising prices are better than falling prices (errant but again for another time).

One simple way to see if that’s occurring is to look at currency in circulation on the Fed’s balance sheet.  There is now $1.5 trillion of currency in circulation, up $82 billion from a year ago.  Our economy is growing at maybe 1.5%.

In 2000, US GDP growth (right ahead of the bursting Internet bubble) was 4.1%.  In 2000, currency in circulation was $589 billion, down $30 billion from 1999 when currency in circulation grew by $100 billion over the previous year. It increased $35 billion in 1998, $31 billion in 1997.

For 2013, 2014 and 2015, currency in circulation grew $74 billion, $80 billion and $97 billion, and since July 31, 2008, before the financial crisis, currency in circulation is up $645 billion, more than total currency circulating in 2000.

Back to economic basics, what happens to the cost of stuff if money doesn’t go as far as it used to?  Prices rise.  Okay, the Fed is achieving that aim. Its plan for remedying the recession was to get prices rising.

But rising prices push some people out of the market for things.  And if to make things you’ve got to put more money to work, then something has to give or productivity declines.

It’s declining.

And if stuff costs more, people who aren’t making more money can’t buy as much stuff.  What you get is weak wages, weak growth, weak productivity. Check, check, check.

Haven’t jobs numbers been solid? We have 320 million people in this country of which 152 million have jobs. If 1% leaves every year for retirement, having kids, going to school and so on, 200,000 jobs each month is 1.5% economic growth at best.

And that’s what we’ve got.

If you want a realistic view of the economy, do the math.  At some point the rising cost of things including stocks and bonds will push some consumers out of the market.  The only head-scratching thing is what math the Fed is doing, because its math is undermining, jobs, economic growth and productivity.  It seems crazy to me.

Two Faces

In Roman mythology, Janus is the two-faced god of beginnings and endings.  In Denver, Janus is the god of investing. In the news, Janus is merging with UK money manager Henderson.

The move reflects the two faces of the stock market, beginnings and endings and gates and doorways, like the figure from Rome’s old religion.  Today’s market is the inverse of the one prevailing when Tom Bailey launched Janus from a one-room Denver office in 1969, choosing the front-range town over New York to avoid Wall Street GroupThink.

For the next three decades, Janus boomed through a culture of camaraderie built around proprietary financial modeling to find the most dynamic, well-run companies. Janus was a stock-picker of the highest caliber with a penchant for bucking the crowd and going long, big.  Star fund manager Tom Marsico epitomized the Janus style with his Focus Fund backing typically 20 stocks.

Janus embraced the New Economy and chased technology. Though Marsico left in 1997 in a dispute with management, Janus, which was then owned by Kansas City Southern before spinning out publicly as part of Stilwell Financial, became the best mutual-fund company in the business, peaking at $330 billion of assets in 1999.

Then the Internet Bubble burst. In latter 2000 as tech stocks cratered, Janus was losing $1 billion a day in asset-value. In 2001, the firm cut half its staff and saw assets under management dip below $200 billion. The name Stilwell, a moniker fashioned to honor rail tycoon Arthur Stilwell, went away and the two-faced god returned as a public firm.

But the US stock market emerged from the 20th century fundamentally altered, a National Market System. Well, there is no “market system.” It’s one or the other. A market is organic commercial interaction – a dynamic environment where shrewd analysis and the search for the best is a recipe for the success that bred Janus. A system is a process and method. Success in a system turns on stripping out cost and following a model.

The National Market System today is a process and method. GroupThink. Exactly what Janus eschewed. Blackrock and Vanguard have roared past yesterday’s stock-picking heroes like Janus by stripping cost out and tracking averages, thriving at GroupThink.

It’s remarkable testament to the state of the market that being average is the key to being best. And how did we get a market where average is king? Process and method. Rules.

The Order Handling Rules in 1997 decreed that stock markets must display prices set by Electronic Communications Networks, which obliterated a fixture of exchanges back to the 1792 Buttonwood Agreement that brokers not undercut each other on price.  Regulation ATS required all trades to occur through brokers or exchanges, putting the brokers who created exchanges into competition with their progeny. Decimalization in 2001 wiped out the market-making spread necessary for investment banks to fund small-cap stock research (small-cap IPOs plunged by 90%).

Then Regulation National Market System, a product of Congressional legislation, crafted a single marketplace functioning like a data network around the best national bid or offer. A network of linked nodes isn’t competition. It’s a system. The process and method for navigating the network determines success. Machines navigate it best, so the biggest source of volume today is Fast Trading, which writes no research, carries no inventory, underwrites nothing.

In the decade ended Dec 31, 2015 spanning the creation of the National Market System, 98% of all stock-pickers have failed to beat the average – the S&P 500.  The reason isn’t prowess from passives but how indexes and ETFs strip out cost and construct portfolios around the average prices that now securities regulators require (“Best Execution”).

If you’re looking for outliers like Janus, this market is the wrong one for you (and if you seek that money as the investor-relations profession does, it’s stacked against you too). So money is rushing with great sound and fury from them and into indexes and ETFs.

Mergers are driven by effort to strip out cost.  Henderson is paying $2 billion for Janus to form a manager with $300 billion of assets – smaller than Janus in 1999. Ironically, the amount Henderson is paying equals the investment outflows from the two in 2016.  Janus CEO Dick Weil will co-head the company with Henderson CEO Andrew Formica and will move from Denver to London.

Regulators: Is there not one of you paying attention? You did this. You are wrecking the market for stock-picking, for small-caps, for American capitalism. Now you’ve driven Janus out of Denver.  We don’t need a two-faced market where just one smiles.  Keep this up and you’ll foster the mother of all backlashes.

Three Acts

Spain rocks.

We’re back from pedaling the Pyrenees and cruising the rollers of the Costa Brava on bikes, where the people, the food, the wine, the scenes, the art, the land and the sea were embracing and enriching.

To wit, we traversed 200 miles, thousands of feet of climbing and even walked some 40 miles around Barcelona and Girona and I still gained weight. But I wouldn’t trade a bite of Jamon Iberico or sip of rich red Priorat (I’ll let you look those up!).

After a night home we’re now in Chicago where I’ll speak today to the Investor Relations council for MAPI, the manufacturers’ association, on market structure, and tomorrow we’re in Austin for the NIRI Southwest Regional Conference where we sponsor and I’ll aim to rivet attendees with how IR should navigate modern markets.

Speaking of which, a perspective as September concludes this week that’s shaped by two weeks away and abroad might best work as journal entries:

Journal Entry #1:  CBOE to buy Bats Global Inc.

Years ago I sat in front of Joe Ratterman’s desk in the unassuming Lenexa, KS, BATS offices and talked about things ranging from market structure to Joe’s fondness for aircraft.  Joe is now chairman and should be able to afford a bigger plane.

But the thing to understand here is how the combination is a statement on markets. Derivatives and equities are interwoven with other asset classes. It’s what the money is doing. The market is a Rubik’s Cube where moving one square impacts others and strategies for traders and investors alike manifest in complex combinations (you clients see this all the time in our Patterns view in your Market Structure Reports).

The IR job is about building relationships with long-term money, sure. The challenge is to understand the process and method through which money moves into and out of shares. Without knowledge of the process and method, comprehension wanes – and it’s incumbent on IR to know the market. Investors and traders are not mere buyers or sellers now. Profit and protection often lie in a third dimension: Derivatives.

Journal Entry #2: The Tick Size Study. 

We reflected back to 2014 last week and revisited our comments from December that year. The exchanges at the behest of the SEC are at last embarking next month on a study of bigger spreads for buying and selling small-cap stocks to boost trading activity.

It’s a fundamentally correct idea except for one problem. And you’d think, by the way, that the Federal Reserve could grasp this pedestrian concept. Where spreads are narrow, products and services commoditize and activity moves to the path of least resistance. You understand? Low interest rates shift focus from long-term capital investment to short-term arbitrage.  Low market spreads do the same to stocks.

But the problem is the National Market System. It’s an oxymoron. Something cannot simultaneously be a market – organic commercial interaction – and a system – a process or method.  There’s either a market, or a process and method. The SEC wants to tweak the process and method to revitalize organic commercial interaction. Well, if organic commercial interaction is better, why not just eliminate the system?  The Tick Size Study is a good idea trapped within a process and method that will likely desiccate it of benefit.

Journal Entry #3:  The Market.

It too is matriculating in a process and method.  We had the Great Recession, as those who take credit for halting say.  The process and method for constraining it (for now) could be called the Great Intervention.  The third step is the Great Risk Asset Revaluation, currently underway.

In August 2014 the Fed’s balance sheet stopped expanding as the Great Intervention that followed the Great Recession halted.  In latter 2014 the stock market stopped rising. So long as the Fed’s balance sheet increased, the supply of money via credit did too, and that money chased a decreasing supply of product – stocks (because public companies are buying back more shares than they issue, collectively).  There are today fewer public companies than in 2008.  Stocks are trading roughly where they did in December 2014.

Something to ponder:  Generally when growth stocks experience slowing revenues (see Twitter for instance) or earnings, shares fall. The stock market has been in a year-long recession for both. Never in modern history has the economy not also been in recession when that occurred, nor has the market failed to retreat. That it hasn’t is testament to the inertia – a tendency to remain in a uniform state of motion – created by Intervention.

It’ll stop. And stop it must.  We’ll never have a “normal” market until then, so see it cheerfully and not with fear (inertia can last a long time too). Catch you in October.

Balancing Act

If you want to know what a business is capable of doing, look at its balance sheet.

If you want to know what the Federal Reserve is capable of doing too, look at its balance sheet. Having scrutinized it, Karen and I are leaving today to ride bikes in the Pyrenees and will return if the Fed survives.

Just kidding.  Except for the Pyrenees. We’ll report back on Catalonia in a couple weeks.

Meanwhile, there is again a glaring focus on the Fed as markets shudder. Clients know our Sentiment Index had a “four handle” at 4.9/10.0 Sept 8, the first negative read since early July. Volatility bloomed. As with weather, the market reflects preceding patterns.

It’s the same with the Fed’s balance sheet. Monday with Rick Santelli on CNBC’s Squawk on the Street I attempted to describe in a handful of seconds that the Fed can breathe in and breath out and impact rates and market stability.

Simplifying, the Fed has two levers for pushing rates up and down. When the Fed buys assets like mortgages or Treasuries from the big banks supporting our payments system (called the primary dealers), the supply of money expands, which makes credit cheaper and pushes down rates.  These are bank reserves.

On the opposite side, the Fed can borrow money from banks, tightening supply and prompting an increase in borrowing costs.  These are called Reverse Repurchase Agreements (RRPs).

We described last week how both changed little over the two decades preceding 2008. Tweaking one or the other was simple and economical. Need to tighten 2-3%? Boost RRPs by $10 billion.

But now bank reserves are $2.3 trillion, 26,000% more than historical levels. RRPs are 1000% higher than history at $300 billion. The three-to-one ratio the Fed long maintained is now one-to-26.

These facts produce a paradox that traps the Fed. Twenty-five basis points, the increase expected when or if the Fed moves, is no biggie against $10 billion of reserves.  But the Fed pays interest on reserves (and RRPs). Now 50 basis points, the rate would jump 50%.

The interest expense alone boggles the mind. Plus, the government will lose money. A rider on the December transportation-funding bill passed by Congress requires the Fed to send earnings on its massive portfolio over $10 billion to the US Treasury general fund.

Do you see? The data driving the Fed aren’t economic but financial. It’s about the Fed’s balance sheet. And government coffers, dented if the Fed starts paying more interest.

They may still hike but it’s a hindrance. And there’s more. The same giant banks providing margin accounts to traders and derivatives to institutional investors are partners called primary dealers helping implement Fed policy. When the Fed moved $100 billion to RRPs out of excess reserves Sept 1 at the same time that its balance sheet shrank slightly, the impact rippled through all the banks financing hedges and margin-trading.

That ripple is the current tsunami hitting the stock market. The Fed has already unwound these RRPs, returning $100 billion to excess reserves. But the damage was done. The Fed tried similar tactics in December last year when it hiked for the first time since 2006, and markets caved in January and the Fed had to pump up excess reserves by $500 billion – much more than it had moved out of the money supply – before markets stopped falling.

And the Fed oversteered.  Markets shot like a rocket into May, flummoxing all. Our Sentiment pegged the positive needle for weeks.

The same happened around the Brexit vote. The Fed was in the process of tightening by lowering excess reserves and lifting RRPs.  The markets imploded. In two weeks, the Fed reversed. The market shot up, once more prompting global head-scratching.

The Fed cannot seem to calibrate its levers without overshooting or undershooting and in any case creating chaos in stocks and bonds. There is no better evidence of the folly in the size of its balance sheet.

Is there a way out? Sure. The Fed could write off 80% of its balance sheet and put us back to pre-crisis leverage.  But interest rates would explode and the entire globe would fall into depression because that would be a restructuring, a technical default.

Is there another way out?  Yes. Normalize rates and take our chances. But that demands a fortitude that’s missing in the sort of jittery lever-yanking one can observe on the Fed’s balance sheet.

The Blue Whale

Last week US jobs were weak and the market welcomed the news.   

We tend to laugh or snort when stocks do the opposite of what they should. But if the market is powered by an economy that’s weaker than expected, why should it rise?

And if you’re an investor-relations professional or in the investment business, you need to understand these outcomes even if you’d prefer to go to the dentist for molar removal.

“It’s the Fed,” you say, rubbing your jaw. 

All right, it’s the Federal Reserve.  What does that mean?

“I’m not sure,” you say.

“What do you think it means?”

“That when The Fed raises rates the economy is better and borrowing will cost more.”

Stop. What?

Study the data pouring forth from the government and the private sector and you’ll see that when you’re doing better, borrowing costs…wait for it…LESS.  

Yes, a strong credit score – a good personal economy – means you pay less to borrow than those with weak personal economies.  Miss a payment and the rate slams UP.

“Yeah, but what the Fed was trying to do was get people to spend,” you explain. “They keep rates low to juice the economy with consumption, and when it starts to overheat and there’s too much borrowing, then they slow it down by raising rates.” 

Okay. I follow that.  But why is it a good idea to get people to spend if borrowing too much money is what created the financial crisis?  And where’s the growth by the way?

“Look,” you say.  “I’ve got a dental appointment I need to get to.” 

The Fed has got everyone thinking it’s the Millennium Falcon in Star Wars and the economic data are TIE Fighters to line up in the sights and then…boom!  We hike rates. 

That’s as absurd as fueling economic recovery with a seven-year teaser rate prompting people to borrow and spend.

Forget that. Here’s the real dilemma for the Fed. Last Thursday before the jobs data the Fed’s balance sheet shrank to the smallest level since I believe Oct 9, 2014 when it was $4.496 trillion.  It was $4.503 trillion, down about $20 billion week over week.  And Reverse Repurchases exploded to $442 billion, $100 billion more than a week earlier.

That’s tightening.  With an “RRP,” the Fed borrows from banks to take money out of the counted supply.  When bank reserves rise because the Fed buys debts, the money supply increases.  It’s like fishing line. Let some out, reel some in.

So maybe the Fed wants to raise rates and then if the dollar spikes and assets like stocks and bonds fall, it can reverse these and flood markets with money. After all, when the Fed hiked by 25 basis points last December, stocks and bonds nearly imploded. Remember January 2016?

But here’s the problem.  Prior to 2008, bank reserves ran about $10 billion (and didn’t change in a decade).  RRPs ran about $35 billion, twice the size of reserves, and changed maybe $3 billion over a whole year.  Moving rates 100 basis points was no biggie, like hauling in a minnow on your steelhead fishing line.

Now the Fed has $442 billion of RRPs and it’s paying about 25 basis point of interest on them.  Bank reserves that pre-crisis were $10 billion are today $2.3 trillion, 26,000% higher.  Now the Fed has a fly rod with test line and it’s trying to land a blue whale.

It’s potentially catastrophic. If the Fed raises to 50 basis points, unless there’s a better place for bank reserves to go, money could stampede to RRPs, causing the dollar to skyrocket and stocks and bonds (and oil) to implode – as they nearly did in January. 

The Fed doesn’t HAVE to take the money it borrows via RRPs, but it says about $2 trillion of Treasuries (collateral) are eligible. The Fed can tighten confidently only if there’s enough demand from the economy to keep the blue whale away. 

Look around. The Bear Stearns Moment of the Week is the bankruptcy of Hanjin Shipping.  It’s among the ten biggest shipping companies in the world, moving the goods of global commerce. When Bear Stearns and Lehman failed we discovered the world had a financial crisis. When Hanjin folds, you have a budding economic crisis. 

So that’s the truth. What matters isn’t if there are 150,000 jobs (which isn’t enough to offset the traditional attrition rule-of-thumb of 1% of the workforce so don’t be fooled) but what the blue whale will do.  Disturb it and things start coming apart.

The Fed doesn’t want to do that, but it can’t figure out how to get the blue whale off the hook either.  And this you see is a much bigger deal than if you make your numbers. The market wants to know the Fed will keep feeding it line. Or a line. 


Market Serfdom

Last week a stock strategist said passive investment is worse than Marxism.

That’s a way to get attention at risk of offending Marxists. It did (get attention). CNBC covered it. Jason Zweig did too in the Wall Street Journal weekend edition.

It’s relevant to investor relations because passive investment is sweeping the planet. We call it “the elephant in the room” because public companies sometimes seem paralyzed as mass capital inured to the sellside and results and road shows floods stocks.

The shift is huge. Mr. Zweig noted that in the past year $300 billion left active stock-picking portfolios as $400 billion flowed to indexes and exchange-traded funds.  Over the trailing decade, data from the Investment Company Institute show it’s trillion of dollars routing from active funds to passive vehicles.

You’ve seen the Betterment ads?  This “robo advisor” let’s investors precisely tailor exposure to various assets the same way architects use CAD systems to design structures.

At Sanford Bernstein in London, senior analyst Inigo Fraser-Jenkins released a report borrowing economist Friedrich Hayek’s phrasing called “The Silent Road to Serfdom: Why Passive Investing Is Worse Than Marxism.” I thought immediately of “The Princess Bride” as I’d never encountered anyone named Inigo save Montoya (Mandy Patinkin) in that film pursuing the six-fingered man.

Mr. Fraser-Jenkins, erstwhile head of quantitative strategy at Nomura, thinks the six-fingered threat from passive investment is its lack of judgment for committing capital.

Brilliant point. The equity capital market formed so people with money could take risks on businesses that might improve the human lot.  The brokers pooling capital then supported these endeavors with research so investors could make informed decisions.

Enter Blackrock and Vanguard. No, they’re not Trotsky and Lenin papered in currency. But they’re massive through efficiency, market rules, monetary policy (a system, not good judgment, makes it work), not prowess or wisdom.

Mr. Zweig says Vanguard reported owning 6% of all US shares. Assume Blackrock is about 7%. Combined, they’re 10-15% holders of everything. Dictators.

“What happens when everybody indexes?” John Bogle, Vanguard founder, said to Mr. Zweig.  “Chaos, chaos without limit. You can’t buy or sell, there is no liquidity, there is no market.”

Mr. Bogle adds that we’re a long way from there.  Indexes would have to grow to 90% of the market from between 5-10% now. Oh? We’ll come back to this point to conclude.

When money is directed by a model to equities, there’s a shift in purpose from giving to taking.  How? Models take a piece. Investors commit.

The market first formed so entrepreneurs needing risk-taking capital could find it. A market priced around the willingness of investors to accept risks combined with the capacity of businesses to deliver results is the heartbeat of efficient capital-allocation.

Models don’t care about that relationship. They take, then leave. So invention happens on private equity, which removes from the American capital model its defining egalitarianism for the masses and instead concentrates it in ever fewer hands.

Your job just took on added importance, IR pros. You alone can track the impact and evolution of asset-allocation. Move beyond telling the story to measuring quantitative investment. It’s the job of IR to apprise executives and boards of important facts about the equity market.  It’s our market. No index will tell you something is amiss.

So The Elephant slouches toward serfdom.

In that shadow, any company considering itself a yield investment has Big Data looming tomorrow after the close. Most REITS will separate into a new industry classification from Financials.  That’s like a massive index-rebalance playing out over coming weeks.

Concluding, Mr. Bogle is wrong about how much bigger indexing can get before markets are paralyzed.  We’re now pushing limits. Indexes and ETFS are currently 32-33% of daily volume, combined (our measures). At 40% there will be no room for anything but machines. Stocks are needed to satisfy stock-pickers, fast traders, counterparties for derivatives and trading leverage. It’s already so finely balanced that most stocks don’t trade more than 200 shares at once.

You’re the frontline, IR. This is your fight. Report on it (we can help). Solution? Remove rules making averages the goal. Stock-picking would soar anew.  Else? Serfdom.

A Year Ago

In Luckenbach, Texas, ain’t nobody feeling no pain. We were just there and I think the reason is the bar out the back of the post office.

A country song by that name about this place released in 1977 by Waylon Jennings begins by asserting that only two things make life worth living, one of which is strumming guitars.

In equities, what makes life worth living is certainty.  TABB Forum, the traders’ community, had a piece out yesterday on the big decline in listed options volume, off 19% from last July to a 14-month low. TABB attributed the drop to falling demand for hedges since the Brexit, the June event wherein the UK voted to leave the European Union and exactly nothing happened.

The folks at Hedgeye, responding to a question about whether volume matters anymore since it’s dried up as stocks have risen to records said, paraphrasing, big volume on the way down, low volume on the way up, is as valid as it ever was for investors wary of uncertain markets and means what you think it does. You should be selling on the way up so you don’t have to join those people distress-dumping on the way down.

I got a kick out of that. Sure enough, checking I found that SPY, the world’s most active stock (an ETF) traditionally trading $25 billion daily is down to $11 billion.  Whether it’s August is less relevant than volume.

On August 24 a year ago, the market nearly disintegrated on a wildly delirious day.  August options-trading set a near-period record.

Now what’s that mean to investor-relations folks trying to understand stock-valuation and trading? We’ve long said that behavioral volatility precedes price-volatility. You can apply it anything. As an example, if housing starts plunge, that’s behavioral volatility.  If a movie starts strong and viewership implodes the second week, that’s behavioral volatility.  Both point to future outcomes.

We track market behaviors. They tend to turbulence anyway around options-expirations, which occurred in the past week, and August 2016 was no exception.  On Aug 19, triple-witching, Asset Allocation (investment tracking a model such as indexes and ETFs) surged nearly 11%, Risk Management – counterparties for derivatives – by 3%.

It’s the double-digit move that got our attention.  Double-digit behavioral change is a key indicator of event-driven activity, or trading and investing following a catalyst such as Activism or deal-arbitrage.  It’s very rare in the whole market.

We also tracked a whopping jump since Aug 15 in Rational Prices, or buying by fundamental money.  When it’s coupled with hedging, it implies hedge-fund behavior.  In effect, the entire market was event-driven under the skin yet not by news. Nor did it manifest in prices or volume (Activism also routinely does not).

We’ve got one more data point for this puzzle. Volatility halts in energy, metals and emerging-markets securities have returned after vanishing in June and July.  Remember, market operators have implemented “limit-up, limit-down” controls to stop prices from moving too much in a short period.

So though the VIX is dead calm other things are moving.  Short volume marketwide is nearly identical (44%) to where it was in latter November preceding December volatility and the January swoon.

We conclude that currency volatility may surge, explaining volatility halts in commodities.  Hedge funds are shifting tactics. The dearth of options trading may rather than mean a lack of hedging instead signal the absence of certainty.

Pricing options accurately requires knowing prices of the underlying securities, plus volatility, plus time.  Volatility isn’t the faulty variable. It’s got to be either the prices of the underlying or the uncertainty of time.

Now it may be nothing. But our job here is to help you understand the market’s contemporary form and function. If behavioral volatility precedes change, then we best be ready for some.  We may all want to pull on the boots and faded jeans and go away.

But hang onto your diamond rings (and that’s all the obscure country-music humor I’ve got for today!).

Low Spreads

What keeps stocks going is low volatility.

By seeking only to earn the spread on each transaction and not bet on the direction of markets, you can make money close to 50 percent of the time.

This one sentence from a profile of high-speed firm Virtu by Bloomberg’s Matt Leising to me summarizes the US stock market and its durability.

Computers focus on the difference in cost to buy or sell a very small thing – a handful of shares. They don’t weigh the viability of the entity reflected in the shares or any measure humans use to determine fair value. Thus, what difference does it make whether so-called fundamentals support the price? We’re asking the wrong question.

In the world apart from stocks, European growth is abysmal. Emerging economies are sputtering. The US economy is growing about 1% and juxtaposed with a long slide in productivity, falling revenues in the S&P 500 and five quarters of earnings contraction.

Since 1954, according to Financial Advisor magazine, twelve earnings recessions have met ten actual ones, and stocks have always fallen, the least, 7%, in 1967, and the most, 57%, in 2008-9.  In this one, the stocks of businesses making what drives consumption and employing the consumers and earning the profits that fund the investments core to economic growth are thus far up.

Why is it different this time? One could say “central banks.” Yes, today’s foremost Enron-like off-balance-sheet entities, central banks, have conspired to force people to overpay for most things in the name of helping us all. But they’re a supporting cast.

The main actors are nearer. This era in stocks, thanks to regulations implemented in 2007, is the first to depend almost entirely in the very short-term for prices from computerized systems tracking spreads in prices.

What motivates machines are small spreads. Virtu, with but one losing day from 2009-2014 often pockets peanuts. In one instance from the story, Virtu traded gold ETFs and futures 26 times and earned $36.

But Virtu trades securities from Africa to London sometimes five million times in a day. Its software sits in more financial markets (Bloomberg says 230 globally) than its employee headcount (148 as of Dec 2015).

I hear good things about Virtu from people I respect.  The point here isn’t to judge Virtu or fast trading but to explain why the market cannot, for now, be measured fundamentally. Last week, silver ETFs were top performers and gold and steel ETFs lagged most. It was excruciating hearing analysts trying to explain it rationally.

How stocks behave fits the low-spread phenomenon. The market is a daily life cycle from highs to lows and recoveries and vice versa. It’s a product of tiny spreads and small changes. Narrow gaps mean limited risk as automated trading systems search for ways to set prices between buyers and sellers.

Of course there must be buyers and sellers. The epic symbiosis of our era is high-speed trading and Asset Allocation. This is investing via apportionment such as indexes, exchange-traded funds and quantitative models. This money doesn’t assess prices but follows the map, bread crumbs dropped in enticing meager increments by machines.

Watching the steady march, stock-pickers then reach a nexus of fear and greed, taking the baton and carrying on even as the most ebullient bulls put pensive scratching fingers to noggins. Yesterday we tallied new Rational Prices indicating buying by Active money in nearly 20% of our client base. Fund managers are paid to invest and do, despite wariness.

Low volatility means not the absence of risk but that machines are in charge. Shares falter only when spreads become unmanageable as on May 6, 2010, August 24, 2015, and other manic gap episodes. Big gaps form on distortion among traded asset classes such as stocks, bonds, currencies, commodities and derivatives.

What causes unexpected distortions? If we knew, I’d be writing to you from Monaco. Here outside Austin as we visit family this week, I can only theorize from a decade modeling market behavior.  Distortions today form when the value assigned to any asset class in the future is wrong.  Derivatives are the weak link.

Options expirations for August start tomorrow. Sentiment is positive and stocks are rising, which means they’ll probably fall afterward. But there’s little risk. The machines are in charge. Volatility is low.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I want to get off the bridge over these placid waters.

Light Speed

Alert reader Raj Mehan at Steelcase forwarded a piece from the Wall Street Journal about traders now aiming with machines to execute stock-market transactions near light-speed.

Why the rush?  Companies take flak for “short-termism” that’s a quarter long and yet regulators and traders and academics extol the virtues of fast trading, claiming it makes markets liquid and efficient.

Just this week I was speaking with a CFO for a public company who yawned at the idea he should care about what priced his stock. “It’s interesting but what difference does it make?”  I’m paraphrasing a longer exchange. It’s a vital point of contention, right?

We’ll come to that in a moment. Watching the Olympics this week – exhilarating as ever – the race for speed in the water is stupefying.  Seeing Katie Ledecky crush the field by five seconds for a gold metal gives you goose bumps no matter your country. And the objective of swimming-speed is winning.

It is for traders too. In the WSJ article by Vera Sprothen, folks from high-speed trader DRW Holdings LLC (stands for Donald R Wilson) said competition in financial markets is accelerating the race. A nanosecond is a billionth of a second. Routers can send and receive stock-exchange data in 85 nanoseconds, which is how much time elapses when a bullet fired from a gun travels a half-inch.

Imagine. You fire at a shooting-range target and before the bullet gets there somebody trades your stock several hundred times.

If I’m making a big-ticket purchase the last thing I want is – snap! – to do it faster. Many of you are investor-relations professionals. Do some investors study your business for a year or two before deciding to buy your shares? When I was an IRO, that was common.

Weighty decisions are not made for light speed.  Therefore, traders are not making weighty decisions. Committing capital over time is a risky gambit. Capital deployed the amount of time needed for a bullet to travel a few feet isn’t so fraught.

It’s also not investment. Understand: The stock market in the USA and ever more around the world too is one in which the first trade to arrive prices the stock for everyone. Many stock-trades are paired with other things such as options or currencies or commodities.  Price one superfast, and race over faster than a speeding bullet to something else, and you can make money by taking advantage of price-differences. That is by definition arbitrage.

The efficiency of markets is best assessed by determining how much arbitrage occurs. There’s a lot of arbitrage in booking a hotel room on line. There’s no arbitrage in buying a cup of coffee at Starbucks (unless somebody at the Univ of Chicago wants to study that question and prove me wrong).

In the stock market, almost half of all volume is arbitrage. It may be the most colossally inefficient capital market ever created by human beings. Back up 20 years and it wasn’t. Just 15% of trading could be attributed to arbitrage, and 85% to investment.  Speed and price-differences now consume it.

Which brings us back to our apathetic CFO. If you don’t care about the market for the backbone of your balance sheet enough to understand it, you should be a private company where there’s less arbitrage.

For IR pros in the 21st century, it’s a huge opportunity. Not only is there confidence in knowing how the market works, but somewhere today there’s an IRO who will, having learned, help change the market tomorrow.

Problems are solved after we first understand them.  Most prices for stocks should not be set at the speed of light. Yet that’s happening.