Bait and Switch

If I could explain monetary policy using mainly actual English words, would you still rather slit your wrists than read it?

Tough one, huh. As you consider it, people everywhere are wondering if the Federal Reserve will lift interest rates in June. You’ve no doubt heard the chatter at the grocery store and in line at Starbucks.

No? Well, since the Fed looms over the stock market like a thunderhead on the plains, we better weigh it too. Whatever the Fed decides, it’ll be contradictory.

Here’s why. Suppose you got a credit card with a low introductory rate meant to encourage you to use it. You rack up bills at Nordstrom and Amazon. To thank you for doing as it hoped – spending – your card company raises the rate.  Now you’re paying a lot more interest.  So you spend less, to the dismay of Nordstrom and Amazon.

The Fed is the credit card company and you and your spending beneficiaries are the economy. But where the credit-card company wants future income via interest on your spending, the Fed hopes sustained teaser rates will drive permanent growth by causing businesses to hire people and make more stuff.  Ah, but teaser-rate spending is temporal.

The logical hard-drive crash gets worse. The Fed follows how much you make and spend. To track inflation, it meters the latter with what’s called “Personal Consumption Expenditures” (PCE). But PCE is also the largest part of how we measure economic growth. How can it be both?

Good question – and one I’ve not heard an economist ask a central banker. But it implies that much of GDP is just higher prices. Your money doesn’t go as far as it did.

Think about it. The Fed on one hand targets inflation around 2% (PCE is 1.6%), trying to create it with teaser-rate credit-card spending. But if it passes 2%, then the Fed wants to slow it down – and yet personal consumption is key to economic growth.

The credit card company must say when your teaser rate ends.  The Fed?  It’s kept everyone guessing, periodically yanking us this way or that, for seven years. Perhaps the reason the Fed is in a logical do-loop is because measuring consumption as both growth and inflation is an impossible balancing act.

Economic growth was 0.5% in the first quarter, and PCE is 1.6%.  If prices are rising faster than economic growth, isn’t that actually contraction?  Rising debt and rising prices are the enemies of prosperity because they diminish the capacity of consumers to buy things. Yet the Fed encourages rising debt and rising prices.

No wonder the stock market is consumed with arbitrage. And now, US consumers have as much debt as in 2007 but can afford it less because money doesn’t go as far.

What should the Fed do? Raising rates is baiting and switching. Not raising is robbing savers (and inflation steals from everyone). The Fed should not have offered a seven-year teaser rate without telling anyone. But the damage is done. Let’s stop.  Purchasing power is the engine of wealth, so we need monetary policy that preserves the value of money – the opposite of current programs. Let’s reverse course.

Hard? Yes. But it beats a do-loop of rising prices and rising debt.

Janus ETFs

Everybody adapts, including institutional investors like Janus.

Rattle off a top-ten list of the best active stock pickers visited by teams of company execs and investor-relations pros trundling through the airports and cities of America, and Denver’s Janus likely makes the cut.

Ah, but.  In 2014 Janus bought VelocityShares, purveyor of synthetic exchange-traded products.  Just as a drug manufactured in a laboratory rather than from the plant that first formed its mechanism of action is a replica, so are these lab-made financial instruments. They replicate the act of investment without actually performing it.

It’s neither good nor bad per se, as I explained yesterday to the NIRI San Diego chapter. But synthetics are revolutionizing how public stocks trade – without owning public stocks. Describing its effort at adaptation, Janus says on its website that it’s “committed to offering distinctive strategies for today’s complex market environment. Leveraging almost a half century of investment experience, we are now pleased to make our expertise available through Exchange Traded Funds.”

Janus says it’s intending to offer a range of returns beyond simple capital-appreciation, including “volatility management” and “uncorrelated returns.” Janus’s VelocityShares directed at volatility aim to produce enhanced or inverse returns on the VIX, an index called the “fear gauge” for reflecting volatility in forward rights to the S&P 500.

But traders and investors don’t fear volatility. They invest in it.  On Monday May 16, four of the top 20 most actively traded stocks were exchange-traded products leveraging the VIX.  Those offered by Janus aren’t equity investments but a debt obligation backed by Credit Suisse. Returns derive from what is best described as bets using derivatives.

The prospectus for the most active version is 174 pages, so it’s hard to decipher the nature of wagers. It says: “We expect to hedge our obligations relating to the ETNs by purchasing or selling short the underlying futures, listed or over-the-counter options, futures contracts, swaps, or other derivative instruments relating to the applicable underlying Index…and adjust the hedge by, among other things, purchasing or selling any of the foregoing, at any time and from time to time, and to unwind the hedge by selling any of the foregoing, perhaps on or before the applicable Valuation Date.”

Got that?  Here’s my attempt at translation: “We’ll do the exact opposite of whatever return we’ve promised you, to keep from losing money.”

During the mortgage-related financial crisis there was a collective recoil of horror through media and into Congress that banks may have been betting against their clients. Well, come on.  It’s happening in equities every day!  Exactly how do we think somebody who says “sure, I’ll take your bet that you can make double the index without buying any assets” can possibly make good without farming the risk out to someone else?

In the mortgage crisis we learned about “credit default swaps” and how insurers like AIG were on the hook for hundreds of billions when real estate stopped rising. Who is on the hook for all these derivatives bets in equities if stocks stop rising? It’s the same thing.

Last Friday the 13th, five of the top 20 most actively traded instruments on the Nasdaq and NYSE were synthetic exchange-traded products attempting to produce outsized returns without correlating to the market. That’s 25% of the action, in effect.

For stock-picking investors and public companies it means a significant contingent of price-setting trades in the stock market are betting on moves uncorrelated to either fundamentals or markets. You’ll find no explanation in ownership-change.

What do you tell management and Boards about a market where, demonstrably, top price-setting vehicles like TVIX owned by conventional stock-pickers aren’t buying or selling stock but betting on tomorrow’s future values using derivatives?

In fact, everyone is betting against each other – traders, banks, investors. I take you back to the mortgage-backed securities crisis. The value of underlying assets was massively leveraged through derivatives the values of which bore no direct connection to whether mortgages were performing assets.  That by any definition is credit-overextension. A bubble.  A mania. Then homes stopped appreciating. The bubble burst two years later.

Look at stocks. They’ve not risen since Nov 2014. Is anyone out there listening or paying attention to the derivatives mess in equities?

Correlating Volatility

“Measure the performance of equity securities in the top 85% by market capitalization of equity securities listed on stock exchanges in the United States.”

I made it a sentence here but I clipped that phrase from a Blackrock iShares “minimum volatility” Smart Beta Exchange Traded Fund (ETF) prospectus and Googled it, and got back pages of references.  Apparently many indexes and ETFs meant to diversify and differentiate investments are built on the “top 85% by market capitalization.”

That by the way is about 700 companies. There are now over 700 ETFs in the US stock market and about 3,700 total public companies when you strip out funds and multiple classes of stock.  That’s a 1-to-5 ratio.  If many ETFs track indexes comprised of just 20% of the stocks, would that not produce high correlation?

Answer:  Yes.

I ran correlation for five ETFs from Blackrock, First Trust, Schwab, Vanguard and Invesco (USMV, FVD, SCHD, VIG, SPLV) over the past three months and it was about 90%.  Now, all five seek similar objectives so correlation isn’t surprising. But in truth they’re brewing a mixture of the same stocks.

We had the chance to participate in a wine-blending last month in Napa. The group was tasting mixtures of a core set of grapes.  What if we make it 94% Zinfandel, 3% Petit Syrah and 3% Malbec?  How about 7% Malbec, 3% Petit Syrah, 90% Zinfandel?

The same thing is happening with ETFs. They’re blending the same grapes – stocks.  What if we weight a little more than the index in WMT and a little less in AMZN?

It’s still the same stocks. And it’s earnings season.  Think about the impact of high correlation when in nearly all cases save an outlier handful ETFs track underlying indexes with defined composition.

Say you report results and your stock plunges (we’ll come to why in a moment). Even minute weighting in a falling stock can skew the ETF away from the benchmark, so the authorized participants for the ETF sell and short your shares, raising cash to true up net asset values and ridding the ETF of the offending drag.

At some future point now that your shares are sharply discounted to the group and the market, arbitragers will find you and the authorized participants (brokers creating and redeeming ETF shares to ensure that it tracks its benchmark as money flows into and out of the investment vehicle) who shorted will cover, and suddenly you’re the star again.

Neither up nor down did the behavior of your stock reflect fundamental value or rational thought. It’s high correlation, which rather ironically fosters mounting volatility. We’re seeing a notable increase in instances of large moves with earnings.  And your shares don’t drop 15% because active investors saw your numbers and decided, “Let’s destroy our portfolio returns by buying high and selling low.”

In the last week through Monday, Asset Allocators (indexes and ETFs) and Fast Traders (arbitragers speculating on intraday price-changes) were top price-setters.  Both are quantitative, or machine-driven, behaviors. One is deploying money following a model and the other is betting with models on divergences that will develop during that process.

Both create mass volatility around surprises in earnings reports. Fast Traders are the athletes of the stock market racing to the front of the line to buy and sell. Asset Allocators are lumbering, oblivious to fundamental factors and instead following a recipe.

You report.  Active investors stop their bits and pieces of buying or selling to assess your fundamentals. Sensing slight change, Fast Traders vanish from order books across the interconnected web comprising today’s stock market.  Asset Allocators tracking benchmarks stop buying your shares because you’ve now diverged from the broad measure.

This combination creates a vacuum.  Imagine selling your house and there was a bidding war for it and suddenly all the bidders disappeared. You’d have to cut your price. What changed?  The number of potential buyers, not the value of the house.

This is the problem with how a combination of Fast Traders and Asset Allocators dominate the market now.  Fast Traders set most of the prices but want to own nothing so the demand they create is unreliable and unstable.  Asset Allocators are trying to track benchmarks – that depend on Fast Traders for prices. Throw a wrench into those delicate gears with, say, a surprise in your quarterly earnings, and something will go awry.

Speaking of which, our Sentiment Index just turned Negative for the first time since February and yet the market soared yesterday.  From Feb 8-11, futures contracts behind some of the most actively traded ETFs in the market, concentrated in energy, rolled. The dollar had just weakened. Stocks roared.

The same futures contracts just rolled and the ETFs rebalanced (May 6-11). Counterparties covered. The dollar is rising. We may be at a tipping point again for stocks. Derivatives now price the underlying assets.

Split Millisecond

You’ve heard the phrase split-second decision?

For high-speed traders that would be akin to the plod of a government bureaucracy or the slow creep of a geological era.

Half a second (splitting it) is 500 milliseconds. One millisecond equals a thousand microseconds. One microsecond is a thousand nanoseconds, and a microsecond is to one full second in ratio about what one second is to 11.6 days.  Fortunately we’re not yet into zeptoseconds and yoctoseconds.

IEX, the upstart protagonist in Michael Lewis’s wildly popular Flash Boys, has now filed to become a listing exchange with the NYSE and the Nasdaq.  Smart folks, they looked at the screaming pace of the stock market and rather than targeting the yoctosecond (one trillionth of a trillionth of a second), said: “What if we slowed this chaos down?”

It was a winning idea, and IEX soared up the ranks of trading platforms.  Oh, but ye hath seen no fire and brimstone like that now breathed from high-speed traders and legacy exchanges.  You’d have thought IEX was proposing immolating them all on a pyre.

Which brings us back to one millisecond.  IEX devised a speed bump of 350 microseconds – less than half a millisecond – to slow access to its market so fast traders could not race ahead and execute or cancel trades at other markets where prices may be microseconds different than IEX’s.

Speed matters because Regulation National Market System (Reg NMS) which ten years ago fostered the current stock market of interconnected data nodes and blazing speed said all orders to buy or sell that are seeking to fill must be automated and immediate.

Of course, nobody defined “immediate.”  Using only common sense you can understand what unfolded.  If the “stock market” isn’t a single destination but many bound together by the laws of physics and technology, some humans are going to go, “What if we used computers to buy low over there and sell high over here really fast?”

Now add this fact to the mix. Reg NMS divided common data revenues according to how often an exchange has the best available price. And rules require brokers to buy other data from the exchanges to ensure that they know the best prices.  Plus, Reg NMS capped what exchanges could charge for trades at $0.30 per hundred shares.

Left to chance, how could an exchange know if it would earn data revenues or develop valuable data to sell? Well, the law didn’t prohibit incentives.

Voila! Exchanges came up with the same idea retailers have been using for no doubt thousands of years going back to cuneiform:  Offer a coupon.  Exchanges started paying traders to set the best price in the market.  The more often you could do that, the more the exchange would pay.

Now those “rebates” are routinely more than the capped fee of $0.30 per hundred shares, and now arguably most prices are set by proprietary (having no customers) traders whose technology platforms trade thousands of securities over multiple asset classes simultaneously in fractions of seconds to profit from tiny arbitrage spreads and rebates.  Symbiosis between high-speed firms and exchanges helps the latter generate billions of dollars of revenue from data and technology services around this model.

Enter the SEC in March this year.  The Commission said in effect, “We think one millisecond is immediate.” Implication: IEX’s architecture is fine.

But it’s more than that. Legacy exchanges and high-speed traders reacted with horror and outrage. Billions of dollars have been spent devising systems that maximize speed, prices and data revenues.  The market now depends for best prices on a system of incentives and arbitrage trades clustered around the capacity to do things in LESS than a millisecond. The evidence overwhelms that structure favors speed.

Is a millisecond vital to capital formation? I’ve been running this business for eleven years and it’s taken enormous effort and dedication to build value. I would never let arbitragers with no ownership interest price in fractions of seconds these accumulated years of time and investment.

So why are you, public companies? Food for thought. Now if a millisecond is immediate, we may slam into the reality of our dependence on arbitrage.  But really?  A millisecond?

Dollar Ratios

My friend’s dad joked that kids are the most destructive force in the universe.

For stocks, the most powerful (and sometimes destructive) force is the movement of the dollar. The Federal Reserve and the Bank of Japan both meet today so it could soar or swoon. Since the buck holds sway, we should all of us in the capital markets from investors to issuers understand how and why.

Stocks react to the dollar because they’re opposite sides of the ledger. Debits and credits.  If money buys less, a debit, then what preserves value (stocks) increases in price, a credit.  So a “strong dollar” means more value resides in the currency and less in stocks.  A weak dollar is the opposite, and value transfers at higher risk into stocks to offset diminishing purchasing power – the quantity of things money buys.

It’s about ratios.  In the past, countries would scrounge around for a gob of gold. Then they could issue paper currency at a ratio. Played poker?  Chips are an asset-backed currency. Pay money, get chips.  Want more chips? Pay more money. The ratio is always the same so chips have fixed value and supply varies with the number of players.

Not so with money.  If Europe has spent more than it makes, its debts depressing the economy (like credit card debt constrains discretionary income), the European Central Bank can manufacture more money – bump up the chip stack without paying.  Remember our ratios?  Increase the supply of euros and prices of risk assets that preserve value, like stocks and bonds, rise to compensate.

Follow that reasoning. When money declines in value, stuff costs more. When stuff costs more, the revenues of the businesses supplying the stuff increase.  And since consumption – buying stuff – is the core way we count “economic growth” today, economies grow when prices rise.

Get it?  Yeah, it’s balderdash that selling the same unit at a higher price is growth. But that’s how governments now measure it. All central banks including the Federal Reserve thus have inflation targets. They are trying to create growth, without which most governments go broke.

Think I’m making this up?  Follow the math. You can’t print a batch of Benjamins. That’s counterfeiting. So how do central banks create money?  They issue money against the most widely available commodity in the world today:  Debt.

When you buy dinner on a credit card, the bank doesn’t reach into somebody’s savings account to pay the restaurant. It creates money. Pay the balance and that money vanishes.

Remember the ratios? Burn money and there are fewer dollars, which means the dollar rises in value, and prices fall, and economies contract (not really but that’s how we count now), and stocks swoon. Create money and the opposite occurs – everything rises.

Investor-relations people, you know the term “multiple-expansion?” It describes stocks that cost more without any change to underlying fundamentals.  This is a product of money-creation. In effect, central banks are trying to induce us all to pay more for things than they’re worth.  Value investment is the opposite: buying at a discount.

For perspective, JP Morgan is leveraged about 8 to 1.  Citigroup, about 7 to 1.  The Fed? With capital of $40 billion and liabilities of $4.54 trillion, its leverage ratio is 113 to 1.  Where money before depended on assets, like gold, now it’s backed by liabilities – debt.

The European Central Bank is buying eighty billion euros of debt a month to create money. What happens to debt? Its value skyrockets and interest rates plunge. It’s the opposite in the real world. You’re in hock, you pay the vig.  Bigger debts, more cost.

Japan is way beyond that, financing the government by directly trading yen for government debt, and now it’s buying exchange-traded funds, shifting to equities with infinite supply (ETFs can theoretically create as many shares as demand requires – but inevitably leverage increases). Japan is even contemplating paying banks and businesses to borrow. Why? Because debt creates money and more money keeps prices from falling.

The effort fails because consumers buy more when prices fall and less when they rise. So the very attempt to drive economic growth is in fact undermining it. Plus, the soundness of our currencies today depends on the capacity of governments to pay on their debts.

Summarizing, the world is indebted so it needs money. Central banks supply money by exchanging it for debt.  Creating money paradoxically reduces the capacity of consumers to buy things because prices rise. So they have to go into debt.  The cycle repeats like two parties munching opposite ends of a strand of spaghetti.

Back to stocks. When they vary inversely with the dollar it’s contraction or expansion of multiples, not real growth.  And that means consumers are losing purchasing power.  Since consumption drives economies now, it inevitably leads to slower growth.

And that’s what the planet’s got. Circular reasoning obfuscates facts.  The solution is a stable currency so all of us can understand fair value for stocks and everything else. But we’ll start with identifying the destructive force – and it’s not the kids.

Stuck Throttle

Imagine you were driving and your throttle stuck.

Our market Sentiment gauge, the ModernIR 10-pt Behavioral Index (MIRBI) has manifested like a jammed accelerator, remaining above neutral (signaling gains) since Feb 19. At Apr 15 it was still 5.4, just over the 5.3 reading at Feb 19, which proceeded to top (Positive is overbought, roughly 7.0) four consecutive times without ever reverting to Neutral (5.0) or Negative (below 5.0). That’s unprecedented.

Speaking of stuck throttles, I first drove a John Deere tractor on the cattle ranch of my youth at age seven.  It was a one-cylinder 1930s model B that sounded like it was always about to blow up or stall. My dad let me drive it solo and I was chortling down our long driveway with the throttle set low and the clutch shoved forward.  I was approaching an irrigation ditch. I yanked at the clutch (on these old tractors, it’s a long lever, not a pedal). Nothing.  I shouted to my dad that I couldn’t budge it, looking wildly at the ditch.

“Turn the wheel!” he yelled.

Disaster averted. I felt sheepish for not thinking of it. But it illustrates the dilemma a stuck throttle (or a stiff clutch) presents.  No matter that sense of stolid progress, something with a mind of its own will run out of road.

Another time decades later I had driven myself from Cancun through the jungle of Quintana Roo west of Belize to a resort called the Explorean Kohunlich (awesome place). After two beautiful days, I hopped in the rental car and headed north.  I became gradually aware that the little Chrysler was bogging down. I mashed the throttle and yet the car wheezed and slogged. Then it died.

Took me two hours to hike back to Kohunlich.  “Mi coche expiró en la selva,” I explained in my ill-fitting Spanish. Your car died in the jungle? Yup. It all worked out to another day in paradise. Nothing lost.

Gained: Two contemporary lessons about the stock market.  Stocks should generally describe fundamentals. If they don’t, we’re all lacking “price discovery,” the jargoned term meaning a good understanding of valuations.  It’s as vital to companies as investors, else how do any of us know if shares are fairly valued?

No matter what some say, global economic fundamentals are like a wheezing car with the throttle mashed flat. In the US right now, economic growth projects below 1% for the current quarter, and inflation is over 2%, so consumers are losing purchasing power. And consumption is our engine (purchasing power is the key to growth).

Across the planet, from Europe to Asia to the emerging markets, debt-to-GDP ratios are up and economic growth is down.  So why has the market been a tromped throttle on an unprecedented positive run? Meaning resides in patterns and correlations. It’s the central lesson of data (which we study for a living).

And there is one.  Emerging-market central banks have sold foreign currency reserves at unprecedented rates (matching our Sentiment), and the US Federal Reserve has pushed hundreds of billions of dollars into bank reserves (by buying debt from them) in recent months.  And the dollar has fallen sharply off December highs. When other central banks sell dollars, it weakens our currency, and when our Fed buys assets from banks, it weakens our currency.  And when the dollar falls, stocks, commodities, and oil rise.

On one hand central banks have mashed the monetary accelerator to the floor and still everything is wheezing and coughing and slowing down.  It’s taken unprecedented effort to create this gaseous cloud.

But it’s on the other hand a two-by-four jammed on the equity market throttle, sticking it in Positive and disconnecting it from reality, and sending it screaming up the road out of control.  It’s entertaining, and good for our portfolio values, all of us, and it makes the pundits breathlessly rave about returns to all-time market highs.

But the throttle is stuck.  I’m reminded of a funny bit from a set of paraprosdokian sentences, witty combinations of unexpected or opposing ideas, sent to me by good friend Darwin:  “I want to die peacefully in my sleep like my grandfather. Not screaming and yelling like the passengers in his car.”

It’s better to have a market with its own throttle controlled by facts and fundamentals than one flattened by a bail of depreciating currency. Because we don’t want it dying in the jungle.

Making Water

If someone says he’s going to make water, it means one thing.  If he says he’s providing liquidity, it means another.  We should clear (and perhaps clean) that up.

In the stock market, some firms call themselves “liquidity providers.” The term suggests they’re creating something somebody else needs (here we depart sharply from making water). Liquidity by definition is the availability of assets to a market. Providing assets is important, helpful and benign, it would seem.

Hudson River Trading, one of the biggest liquidity providers (the terms high-frequency trader and liquidity-provider can be interchangeable), said in its last 13f it had 64 positions, the largest at $32 million in the exchange-traded S&P 500 fund SPY, leading a baker’s dozen ETFs topping its holdings. The biggest stock position was XOM at $1.5 million or 19,000 shares. A retail investor could own as much. Hudson River trades thousands of securities and millions of shares daily. If one could see its short positions, I bet the two would about cancel out. Effectively, zero assets.

If liquidity is availability of assets, how do you deliver assets when you don’t own any?

The NYSE enlists the help of a group it calls Supplemental Liquidity Providers (scroll to see them). SLPs, the exchange says, “trade only for their proprietary accounts, not for public customers or on an agency basis.” In its fee schedule the NYSE says it pays SLPs $0.06-$0.30 per hundred shares.

Did you catch that? The NYSE pays firms to supply liquidity but only proprietary trades – their own orders – qualify. The traders it’s paying are just like Hudson River. If the NYSE isn’t paying them to bring assets, the only other thing they can offer of value to the exchange is prices.  And setting prices is really arbitrage.

The Nasdaq does the same thing.  It pays traders around $0.31 per hundred shares to “add liquidity.” We’ve written for years about the system of incentives in the stock market. It’s called the “maker-taker model” because buying and selling are treated differently, not as the same activity.  Search our blog for “maker taker” for more and read this one.

Are there auto parts liquidity providers?  Grocery liquidity providers? There are automobile distributors, yes, who buy inventory wholesale from manufacturers. But they sell to the public and fold service, financing and support into the customer experience.

Broker-dealers like Citigroup or Raymond James that sell shares to investors write research, commit capital, provide trading services and account management, underwrite offerings, syndicate financings.  You won’t know the names of many equity liquidity providers. Most offer no services and have no customers.

What’s the value?  Little for you, issuers and investors. They are price-setters for exchanges, which in turn are data-sellers. Best prices are valuable data. The REST of the market participants with customers (humans and software systems alike register as brokers) must by law buy data about the best prices to make sure customers get them.

It’s perverse. Exchanges pay traders with no purpose save arbitrage – which call themselves liquidity providers – to set prices for anyone who actually IS a real buyer or seller. Sound to you like making water into the wind? Yup. But to quote humorist Dave Barry, we’re not making any of this up.

Chasing Gaps

Have you ever set an important goal?

Whatever your objective, you must plan how to arrive at your final destination as though it were a journey and you were constructing a map or set of directions. And then you persevere, letting nothing deter your purpose.

We don’t all achieve our goals and any extended effort carries risk. You can fail. Your directions could be wrong. You may have underestimated the obstacles between aspiration and destination.  Or you stop caring. Right?

What if success instead constituted correctly tabulating the difference between planned and actual progress? Boy that would be a lot less stressful. And you would have an arbitrage formula!

Every week governments the world round disgorge data on employment, the real estate market, manufacturing, exports, imports, budgets, capital spending, commodities, corporate profits, relative values of currencies, economic growth and more.

Yesterday, markets in the US considered the balance of international trade, The Institute for Supply Management’s non-manufacturing index (fairly strong) and the Purchasing Managers Index of services (modest but new orders were abysmal). Today’s data smorgasbord features mortgage applications, oil inventories and the Federal Reserve’s Open Market Committee ledger called the FOMC Minutes about what central bankers said at the March meeting.

Economists and investors troll the data for indications of future economic growth or contraction. They’re looking for progress toward purpose. Arbitragers react to it differently, trading the spread between expectations and outcomes.

Fundamental investment dominates? If only. We measure market behaviors. Active investment is barely more than a third of the daily volume of arbitrage.

We could define arbitrage as the difference between planned and actual progress – how something is faring relative to goal, or expectation.  In practical terms, arbitrage funds seek spreads between the current price of stocks and their forward value reflected in a futures contract.  If a stock is considered undervalued now but likely to rise later (call that a goal), a trader will buy the stock and sell a futures contract for commensurate shares.

The less predictable the future is, the shorter the arbitrage timeframe. Weekly options and futures tied to equities, exchange-traded funds and indexes used to be a rounding error. Today they’re 35% of the options market. Trading in options has a notional value five times that of stock-market dollar-volume daily. Nearly 50% of options trace to one security: SPY, the giant S&P 500 ETF.

If the S&P 500 is the goal, the path, the standard, then options reflect the difference between the goal and the expectations, the progress. You see?

Alas, a marketplace with relentless data minutia and nearly infinite ways to bet money on the difference between goal and progress shifts the purpose of the market from goal-achievement to chasing gaps. Why focus on the long term with its pervasive risk and uncertainty when it’s cheaper and less risky to speculate on whether the PMI Services number will be up or down and how new short-term expectations will affect markets?

Now add this in:  Yesterday the Bank of Japan talked the yen down by suggesting it might take interest rates further negative. The Reserve Bank of Australia warned about currency strength, tantamount, too, to talking money down. The Reserve Bank of India cut rates to a five-year low. Money denominates stocks, bonds, derivatives, commodities. Moving money-values constantly shifts focus from the future to a pairs-trade.

Markets are packed with speculators because we’re obsessed with information that deviates the purpose of capital markets from goals to whether something has departed from a benchmark. It institutionalizes averages and promotes arbitrage – chasing gaps.

We could change it by stilling the tides of data and currencies. Prospects for that goal? Currently a number approaching zero. I believe I’ll take out a short futures position.

Bad Forecast

There’s a mistake in last week’s Market Structure Map. We never made it to Boston!

The forecasters missed it and snow walloped us with a ferocity that shut Denver International Airport by air and land and we were stranded for nine hours before daring “impassable” Pena Boulevard and four-wheeling home.  We felt like Loggins and Messina: Please come to Boston in the springtime and she (Mother Nature) just said no.

Speaking of ferocity, yesterday Janet Yellen yelled the dollar down a percentage point. One would expect to see in response stronger equity indexes (SPY rose the inverse of the dollar’s move) and emerging markets (EEM up 1.4%), gold bear bets crushed (DUST dropped 16%), gold bull bets up (GDX up 5.7%), growth stocks up (IWM up 2.8%) and VIX volatility trades taking a beating (VXX off 5.7%, UVXY off 10.7%).  The only thing that didn’t rise that should have is oil – but all the leveraged oil exchange-traded products, which dominated equity volumes Jan 7-Mar 11, have vanished from the most active stocks. Oil trading-stocks like MRO and WLL did jump.

Save for the two stocks – which are influenced heavily by arbitrage – these are all derivatives. ETFs are proxies for assets – instruments derived from but not comprised of stocks. Assets didn’t change hands, just paper. We could call ETFs stock currencies. They are flexible, mutable simulations of investment behavior.

Similarly, monetary policy has become a flexible, mutable simulation of economic behavior. The supply of dollars didn’t alter. Currency relative-values are metered through futures contracts, which are derivatives. Futures on bucks devalued, so relative dollar-value dropped.  Economic growth or contraction was not changed by Yellen’s speech.  You can’t talk tires and trucks and jobs into existence.

Compare to stocks. What’s changed since Jan 20 or Feb 10? Money simulating investment behavior through ETFs and options and futures were a whistling inhalation that then reversed and exhaled and the bellows of derivatives blew and a fiery market manifested, charging up about 12%.

If anything, fuel for the market has diminished. The Atlanta Fed’s model for first-quarter economic growth is at 0.6%, less than half a revised 1.4% for Q4 (compared to the first read of 0.9% that’s a 56% revision, worse than a coin flip or a weather forecast). Earnings expectations are meager.

But the strong dollar is crushing others. Brazil is on the brink of collapse. China could run out of cash in a year. It’s convenient to cast blame for money manipulation but dollars are the reserve currency, the Big Kahuna. The Fed has thrown the world akimbo and infected equities with its policy susurrations.

Economies and markets work when currencies don’t move and supply and demand do. Instead the rest of us humans not in charge of monetary policy are like kids stuck in a room with a bipolar parent off the meds. After all, functionally the Fed tightened policy last week by reducing excess reserves and borrowing from banks through reverse-repurchase agreements. Which is it, Ms. Yellen?

For public companies, yesterday’s trading is an archetype of the modern era.  Our growth clients with higher Risk Management (derivatives) sharply outperformed the market. Tech soared (lumped with growth and a recent laggard). But utilities jumped too.

It’s not rational. The whole market depends on derivatives. The ultimate planetary derivative is money – currency. Central banks have taken to manipulating it in unfathomable ways to create the appearance of things they desire.

I don’t know how it ends but from a structural standpoint in the stock market, the influence of derivatives has reached a fever pitch. It happened in real estate too.

False Passive

Karen and I are in Boston seeing friends at the NIRI chapter (we sponsor) and our trip today like last week coincides with snow in Denver. Next winter if the slopes turn bare, we’ll schedule a couple flights to bring in the blizzards.

Last week trooping through Chicago where you had to lean to stay upright in the wind, an investor-relations officer told me, “Passive money can’t be setting prices because it’s, well, passive. It can only follow active money.”

Sometimes I’m so close to the trees of market structure that I forget about the forest everyone else is seeing. Statisticians warn about false positives, false correlations, false precision. The descriptor “passive” for investment behavior following models inaccurately portrays what the money is doing. We call it “Asset Allocation” behavior.

To understand this money let’s first review how the stock market works:

It’s a data network comprised of visible nodes called exchanges and invisible ones called formally alternative trading systems and colloquially “dark pools,” stores for stocks where you must be a member to buy. Exchanges are required to serve all customers, who must either be a broker or use one.

All markets share customers and prices. You cannot continue to serve a customer in one market including a dark pool at a price worse than what’s available elsewhere. Thus, trades must match between the network-wide best price called the NBBO – national best bid/offer (best price to buy or sell).

Orders wanting to price the market must be automated so they can rapidly move from one node to the next, or the data network can’t function.

-Because of this structure, exchanges offer trading incentives called “rebates” to more frequently have the best price on the network. They pay high-speed traders about $0.29/100 shares to bring orders to their markets and set prices.

-The NYSE, the Nasdaq and BATS Global Markets operate multiple exchanges, rather than one that would aggregate buying and selling, so as to increase the amount of time each group has the best price, which means fast traders create many prices. By our measures, fast traders are eight times as likely to set prices, but with just 100 shares.

Exchanges want to set prices because any broker or market center handling customer orders must give customers the best prices so all are required to buy expensive pricing data, which is how exchanges make money.

Now you understand the stock market. Onto this network come seas of money from Blackrock and Vanguard and a raft of exchange-traded funds. For two decades investors have been choosing passive investment in accelerating fashion. It’s how Blackrock and Vanguard are the world’s biggest investors ($8 trillion of assets) and ETFs host $3 trillion while turning holdings at 2,500% (making buy-and-hold a parody).

Passive money is governed by the model it tracks, the prospectus describing the fund, and inflows and outflows. Tack on the explosive popularity in recent years of “smart beta” money tracking mathematical measures to capitalize on trends or market inefficiencies and you have a recipe for perpetual motion.

To that end, indexed money by rule must peg its benchmark – the measure metering its performance. Indexes use options and futures to mirror the benchmark so counterparties for options and futures are in and out of the market. That sets prices.

The majority of trading in ETFs is a form of arbitrage. ETFs don’t buy or sell stocks. ETF sponsors privately transact with authorized participants in large blocks. In the market, people are trading ETF shares that simply represent assets held by sponsors. Market-makers are shorting or going long components to capture inefficiencies, and fast traders are repricing components, indexes, options and futures for spreads.

All of this is setting your price. If money flows into SPY, the world’s most actively traded stock with $25 billion of volume daily, arbitragers, market-makers and authorized participants must respond. This trade splashing through your peer group may move members disparately at times because of liquidity, options, futures, shorting.

A paradoxical cycle forms. Indices fluctuate because of arbitrage in ETFs predicated on them, which prompts indexed money to adjust, which must happen because rules for indexes demand it.

The sheer size of this money has pervasive market impact, often blotting out effort by active investors to buy or sell growth and value opportunities (uniform rules and uniform trade-executions overwhelm outlier orders, key to why stock pickers rarely beat indexes).

There’s little that’s passive about passive investment. Call it Asset Allocation. But it lacks emotion, reason and common sense. That’s why markets are unresponsive to terror attacks or flagging economies but wedded to monetary policy. It’s about the model.