Eroding Banks

“Other than that, everything’s okay.”

My friend Gary, a smart guy with an MBA from the University of Chicago, uses that line to herald dire situations. It’s from the old UK sitcom starring John Cleese, Fawlty Towers. In one episode, Cleese the restaurateur receives a visit from a health inspector, who excoriates him for a host of violations and threatens to shutter the restaurant. After an uncomfortable silence, Cleese says, “Otherwise everything’s okay?”

Large banks including Morgan Stanley, UBS, Credit Suisse, Deutsche Bank, Citigroup and Bank of America are down about 30% this year.  A great deal has been made of reasons. Sovereign wealth funds, big holders in most, are sellers. Exposure to oil debt. Growth and recession fears crimping expectations for loans. Low or spreading negative rates further restraining interest income.

All perhaps valid.  We’re looking at banks for a different reason. Investor-relations practitioners must understand (really, everyone should) the form and function of the stock market to know what to expect from it. Nine banks are behind 50% of equity-market volume now including the six above plus Goldman Sachs, Barclays and JP Morgan.

Add nine other firms whose principal focus is high-speed trading (I wrote for CNBC last week on the origin of fast markets) and we’ve tallied 90% of market volume, recently averaging 9.7 billion shares daily. Just 25 firms including trading platforms individually handle 0.5% or more of daily volume. Using one anecdote, in 2010 there were about 240 participants executing CSCO trades (different from advertising volume). Today, barely a hundred. There are ever fewer entrances and exits.

Why? Rules require brokers with customers to meet standards of trade-execution or be fined by regulators. Standards reflect averages created by brokers executing trades. Over time, smaller brokers unable to meet them route orders to bigger ones and the market becomes ever more concentrated.

Trillions flowed to stocks through indexes and Exchange Traded Funds (ETFs) after the financial crisis as they rose and rose. Investors supposed diversifying – indexing the market – would reduce risk. But everybody is doing it, so it’s uniformity. ETFs dominate volume ranks (only BAC, a bank, can keep up with the likes of QQQ, SPY, XLF, VXX, GDX, EWJ and other ETFs for daily volume).

Who are the authorized participants, the firms furnishing and removing shares of these ETFs to match inflows and outflows?  The same big banks. Often large investors rely on options or futures to track indexes and hedge risks. The same big banks are major derivatives counterparties.

Speaking of which, add hundreds of trillions of dollars in currency and interest-rate swaps that financial market-participants use to keep pace with ever-changing global money. Counterparties?  The same banks.

The same banks dominate the IPO market, fixed-income underwriting, loan-syndication and equity research. Where the global financial marketplace once was a huge tent with sides furled, today it’s a giant gymnasium with nine exits.

If the money that tracked the market on the way up decided to depart on the descent, and the risk associated with moving was transferred to derivatives and the trades handed off for execution, the weight of the building would poise over each exit, the big banks.

And who buys? Unless active stock pickers show up en masse the parties that must purchase are these big firms providing prime brokerage (trading capital and management services). So they’re executing trades, backing derivatives, redeeming ETF shares, committing capital around imbalances as money departs.

It’s easy to imagine liabilities accumulating. Banks have strict rules for value-at-risk that diminish capacity for after-market support as equity capital sinks. Periodically, capital rules will force shedding of risk – which may have contributed in part to technology carnage Feb 5 as weekly options expired.

Unless we visualize the trusses, plumbing, wiring of the market, we’ll be baffled when the structure creaks.  On June 10, 2015 we warned clients in a note that a down market dependent on derivatives would reveal risk through the failure of one or more big counterparties the same way it did during the mortgage-related financial crisis.  We singled out Deutsche Bank.

Lest you fear, markets are resilient and nothing serves better to correct error than failure.  Besides, other than that everything is okay.

Receding

The X-Files are back on TV so the pursuit of paranormal activity can resume. Thank goodness, because the market appears to be paranormal (X-Files theme in background).

Volatility signals behavioral-change, the meaning of which lies in patterns. Sounds like something Fox Mulder would utter but we embrace that notion here at ModernIR. It’s not revolutionary, but it is universal, from ocean tides to personalities, weather forecasts to stock-market trading.  Volatility, patterns.

Stocks are volatile. Where’s the pattern?

Let’s find it. A headline yesterday splashed across news strings said CEOs have “unleashed recession fears” on earnings calls. Fact Set’s excellent Earnings Insight might buttress that assertion with data showing S&P 500 earnings down 5.8% so far, revenues off 3.5%. It marks three straight quarters of declines for earnings, the worst since 2009, and four in a row for revenues, last seen in late 2008.

What happened then was a recession. That’s a pattern, you say.

Hard to argue your reasoning. We’re also told it’s oil pulling markets down. China’s slowing growth is pulling us down.  Slowing growth globally is the problem, reflected in Japan’s shift to negative interest rates. First-read fourth-quarter US Gross Domestic Product (GDP) last week was a wheezing 0.6%.  Slowing is slowing us, is the message.

But what’s the pattern?  One would expect a trigger for a recession so where is it?  In 2008, banks had inflated access to real estate investments by securitizing mortgage debt on the belief that demand was, I guess, infinite. When infinity proved finite, leverage shriveled like an extraterrestrial in earth atmosphere. Homes didn’t vanish. Money did. Result: a recession in home-values.

It spread.  In 2007, the gap between stock-values and underlying earnings was the widest until now, with the S&P 500 at 1560 trading more than 10% higher than forward earnings justified. Oil hit $150.

But by March 2009 oil was $35 and the S&P 500 below 700. To reverse this catastrophic deflation in asset prices, central banks embarked on the Infinite Money Theorem, an effort to expand the supply of money in the world enough to halt the snapping mortgage rubber band.  Imagine the biggest-ever long-short pairs trade.

It worked after a fashion. By the end of 2009, a plunging dollar had shot oil back to $76.  The S&P 500 was over 1100 and rapidly rising earnings justified it. Trusting only broad measures, investors in pandemic uniformity stampeded from stock-picking to index-investing and Exchange-Traded Funds (ETFs).

The Infinite Money Theorem reached orbital zenith in Aug 2014 when the Federal Reserve stopped expanding its balance sheet.  The dollar shot up.  Oil began to fall. By Jan 2015 companies were using the words “constant currency” to explain why currency-conversions were crushing revenues and profits.  In Aug 2015 after the Chinese central bank moved to devalue the yuan, US stocks caterwauled.

On Nov 19, 2015, the Fed’s balance sheet showed contraction year-over-year. Stocks have never returned to November levels. On Dec 16, 2015, the Fed lifted interest rates.  Stocks have since swooned.

Pattern? Proof of the paranormal?  No, math. When a trader shorts your stock – borrows and sells it – the event raises cash but creates a liability. Borrow, sell shares, and reap cash gain (with a debt – shares to return).  When central banks pump cash into the global economy, they are shorting the future to raise current capital.

How?  Money can’t materialize from space like something out of the X-Files. The cash the Fed uses to buy, say, $2 trillion of mortgages is from the future – backed by tax receipts expected long from now. That’s a short.

We’re getting to the root.  Say the global economy fell into a funk in 2008 from decades of overspending and never left it. Let me explain it this way.  One divided by one is one.  But one divided by 0.9 is 1.11.  The way the world counts GDP , that’s 11% growth.  But that growth is really just a smaller denominator – a weaker currency.

Now the dollar is revaluing to one and maybe more (it did the same in 2001 and in 2008). Why? Since the financial crisis trillions of dollars have benchmarked markets through indexes and ETFs.  In 2015, $570 billion flowed to Blackrock and Vanguard alone.  All that money bought rising markets until the excess money was used up by assets with now sharply higher prices.

The denominator is reverting and the economic growth we thought we had is receding back toward its initial shape, such as $35 oil (with stretch marks related to supply/demand issues). That’s what’s causing volatility. This is the pattern.  It’s colossally messy because the dollar is the world’s reserve currency and thus affects all other currencies (unevenly).

Volatility signals behavioral-change, the meaning of which is in patterns. This is it. A boomerang (read Michael Lewis’s book by that title for another perspective).  The dollar was made small to cause prices to grow large and create the illusion of growth in hopes it would become reality.  At the top of the orbit nothing had really changed and now that seven-year shadow on the planet is receding.

We’ll be fine. We humans always are.  But this is no short-term event. It’s a huge short.

Pricing Models

The 1,200 NYSE stocks supported by Barclays were the last redoubt of the old market-making guard.

Yesterday, New York City-based Global Trading Systems (GTS) said it will buy the Designated Market Maker (DMM) unit from Barclays at the NYSE. GTS joins KCG Holdings, IMC Financial Markets and Virtu Financial Inc. (which may have to call itself VFI to keep acronym pace) as the quad core making markets and setting prices for NYSE stocks trading at the home exchange.

Barclays likely exited the DMM business because it couldn’t compete. For one, banks are under regulatory pressure to quit trading for their own accounts. Second, rules on the floor prohibit DMMs from using customer orders to price the market. Barclays has customers. The rest were free from the task of sorting those from proprietary trades.

GTS is a high-frequency trading (HFT) firm like its floor brethren. KCG alone has an agency brokerage business with customers, but it’s the progeny of a marriage between Knight Securities and seminal HFT firm GETCO (the Global Electronic Trading Co., the first curiously anonymous massive volume-maker to grab our attention ten years ago).

DMMs pay roughly $0.03 per hundred shares to buy stock, and earn about $0.30 a hundred to sell it. It works poorly for a conventional broker-dealer like Barclays matching buyers and sellers, or crossing the transaction. Proprietary traders find it a money-minting model.

Lest you Nasdaq companies feel special, you’re no different. Prices at the Nasdaq are set by incentives and dominated by HFT too.  Real buyers and sellers rarely price shares – a fact we establish with Rational Price, our fair-value measure, which changes infrequently.

Virtu and IMC Financial Markets, like GTS, say they’re automated market-makers, an innocuous term implying a robotic form of erstwhile human effort. But GTS isn’t matching buyers and sellers.

In its own words: “Today HFT makes up approximately 51% of trades in U.S. equities, and technology-driven innovations continue to transform the investment and financial sectors in profoundly positive ways. At GTS, our advanced algorithms and ultra-fast computers execute thousands of transactions in fractions of a second.  This automation provides liquidity in all the markets we trade and enables our trading venues to provide lower transaction costs.  GTS is proud to be one of the industry innovators contributing to the evolution of the modern market.”

You see? Not a word about match-making. GTS hopes to convince us that its brilliant technology is profoundly positive when in fact it’s exploiting our ignorance.

Various markets for thousands of years have experienced arbitrage – capturing spreads that develop because of inefficiencies in pricing, supply, demand and information. Take theater tickets. Scalpers arbitrage supply and information asymmetries. They are intermediating intermediation. What if we were all forced to buy tickets from scalpers – somebody wanting to profit from owning nothing? Scalpers should be a small part of a market, not 51%.

There are four primary problems with a market priced by HFT:

Risk. If regulators think proprietary trading is risky, why then is 100% of the DMM model proprietary trading?  Why are regulators propagating rules that fashion a market inhospitable to firms taking companies public and supporting them with research and true market-making (carrying inventory, serving customers)?  Following the August 24 trading debacle, JP Morgan changed DMMs from KCG to Barclays because, rightly or wrongly, it lost confidence.

Volatility.  HFT claims to smooth volatility with rapid-fire transactions. That’s muddying the definition. Volatility means “tending to vary often.” Things vary often when they’re broken into fragments and bounced around. That’s intraday volatility, or the spread between high and low daily prices. Tally yours for a month. For AAPL over 20 trading days ended Jan 25, it’s 55.8% – or in dollars, $56.39. That’s the sum of spreads between highs and lows. The Fed shoots for a 2% annual inflation target (wrong but a separate story). AAPL changes more than that each day.

HFT isn’t intermediation but arbitrage. Intermediating by definition is fostering agreement or reconciliation. It involves a vested interest in outcomes. Customers are a tacit requirement. HFT firms have no customers and care not about direction. They create fleeting price-changes for profit.  That’s not market-making.

HFT distorts supply, demand and price. Deduct half your volume because it’s HFT (and over 48% of volume is borrowed so add that to the risk equation). But it set prices and created impressions of supply and demand.  These firms commit little capital, manage no investment portfolios and execute no trades for investors. They’ve devised proprietary pricing models that find short-term inefficiencies (fractions of seconds at once in equities, currencies, commodities and derivatives). They obscure the truth in effect, and in a crisis of magnitude, discovering that most of the prices and half the volume are arbitrage could have devastating consequences for multiple asset classes simultaneously.

Solutions? In Swiftian spirit, there’s the Berkshire-Hathaway Option.  If every US-listed company would reverse-split its shares to $200,000 each, the cost would force arbitragers out. Our serene market would lack arbitrage and intermediation and trade about 1.5 million shares daily. Of course traders, brokers and exchanges, even the regulators (the SEC budget depends wholly now on Section 31 trading fees), would go broke.

Moral of the story? If intermediaries are half our market, it’s a poor one. That should make us mad (why doesn’t it?). It matters not what altruistic oratory streams from the community of high-speed traders. Calling arbitrage market-making will not magically make it so, nor will a better deal materialize from a multitude of middle men.

Volatility

You’ve heard the saying that’s it all in your perspective. It applies to volatility.

Volatility is up 150% since the post-financial-crisis nadir of 10.32 for VIX Volatility in mid-2014. The “Fear Index” closed yesterday over 26, the highest since August 2015 when it topped 28 (way below 43 in 2011 and nearly 80 in 2008). VIX expirations are hitting today.

I’ve been seeing Mohamed El-Erian, whom I admire, chief economic advisor to Allianz and former right hand to Bill Gross at PIMCO, also now gone from the bond giant, on the business TV circuit saying central banks are ending programs designed to dampen financial volatility.

I think he’s got a point, and he means they’re starting to broaden trading ranges in everything from interest rates to currencies (as if we want them setting prices). But volatility is price-uncertainty reflecting evolving valuation.  Conventional measures often fail to reveal change because behaviors in markets morph while the metrics used to understand them don’t.

Figure 1

Figure 1

I can prove it.  In the first chart here (Figure 1), a small-capitalization technology stock on the Nasdaq hasn’t moved much in the year ended Dec 16, 2015 (I’ll explain that date shortly) but the stock rose from a 200-day average price of $20.67 to a five-day mean of $21.05, up 1.8%.  Not too great – but the Russell 2000 Index was off 1.3% in the year ended Dec 16, 2015. Perspective matters.

Now notice:  Daily volatility, or the difference between highest and lowest prices each day, is greater than the change in average price in all four periods.  Think about that. The price changes more every day than it does in moving averages for months and quarters.

Now see Figure 2 showing short volume Dec 1, 2015-Jan 15, 2016 for the same stock. The upper half is long volume (owned shares), the bottom short volume, or rented stock. The blue line is closing price. The data further back show short volume over the trailing 200 days averaged 60.2% daily.

Figure 2

Figure 2

Combine the charts. The stock moved less than 2% on average over the entire period but 60% of the shares trading every day were borrowed, and the spread between high and low prices was nearly 3% every single day.

Do you understand? On the surface this stock is not volatile. But up close it’s torrid – on rented shares. For a solid year, traders have kept this stock in stasis by borrowing and trading, borrowing and trading, because the cost of borrowing was substantially lower than daily price-movement. That’s market-neutral arbitrage.

Everything changed recently. Short volume in Figure 2 plunged Dec 22, 2015.  On Dec 16 (here’s that date now) the Federal Reserve bumped short-term rates to 0.25-0.50%. On Dec 17-18 vast swaths of interest-rate swaps tied to options-expirations lapsed. On Dec 21, the new series of options and futures (and interest-rate swaps) began trading. And on Dec 22, our small-cap’s short volume imploded, finally landing at 33% Jan 11, down from 71% Dec 10, a decline of 54%.

We’ve slung numbers here, I know. But the conclusion is simple. Whatever traders were doing in this small-cap, the Fed’s rate-hike ended it.  We think that’s good. But markets have been addicted for years to cheap credit, which includes borrowing shares for next to nothing, which shifts attention from long-term owning to short-term renting. That changed when the Fed bumped rates. And equites corrected.

There’s another lesson by extension.  What sets your stock’s price may be radically different than you think.  We’ve offered one example that shows short-term borrowing fueled persistent volatility trading masked by apparent long-term placidity. When interest rates crept up minutely, the strategy stopped working.

What’s your stock show?  Price-performance isn’t story alone, perhaps even over the long run, as we’ve just shown. There’s so much to see when measurements reflect current behavior (as ours do). Volatility is price-uncertainty that thanks to policies promoting short-term behavior is now concentrated intraday.  Sorting this out will take time. We won’t change seven fat years with a lean month. The good news is it’s all measurable.

Weighing Options

There’s no denying the connection between tulips and derivatives in 1636.

The Dutch Tulip Mania is often cited as the archetype for asset bubbles and the madness of crowds. It might better serve to inform our understanding of derivatives risk. In 1636, according to some accounts, tulip bulbs became the fourth largest Dutch export behind gin, herring and cheese. But there were not enough tulips to meet demand so rights were optioned and prices mushroomed through futures contracts. People made and lost fortunes without ever seeing a tulip.

While facts are fuzzy about this 17th century floral fervor, there’s a lesson for 2016 equities. Grasping the impact of derivatives in modern equities is essential but options are an unreliable surveillance device for your stock.

I’ll explain. ModernIR quantifies derivatives-impact by tracking counterparty trade-executions in the percentage of equity volume tracing to what we call Risk Management. We can then see why this implied derivatives-use is occurring.

For instance, when Risk Management and Active Investment are up simultaneously, hedge funds are likely behind buying or selling, coupling trades with calls or puts. If Risk Management is up with Fast Trading, that’s arbitrage between equities and derivatives like index options or futures, suggesting rapidly shifting supply and demand (and therefore impending change in your share-price). Options won’t give you this linkage.

Dollar-volumes in options top a whopping $110 billion daily. But 70% of it is in ETFs.  And almost 48% ties to options for a single ETF, the giant SPY from State Street tracking the S&P 500.

As Bloomberg reported January 8, SPY is a leviathan instrument. Its net asset value would rank it among the 25 largest US equities, ahead of Disney and Home Depot. It trades over 68 million shares daily, outpacing Apple. It’s about 14% of all market volume.  Yet trading in its options are 48% of all options volume – three times its equity market-share.

Why? Bloomberg’s Eric Balchunas thinks traders and investors are shifting from individual equity options where demand has been falling (further reason to question options for surveillance) into index options. SPY is large, liquid and tied to the primary market benchmark.

Bigger still is that size (pun intended) begets size, says Mr. Balchunas. Money has rushed – well, like a Tulip Mania – into ETFs. Everyone is doing the same thing. And just a handful of firms are managing it.  Bloomberg notes that Blackrock, Citigroup, Goldman Sachs and Citadel are the biggest holders of SPY options. Three of these are probably authorized participants for ETFs and the fourth is the world’s largest money manager and an ETF sponsor.

Mr. Balchunas concludes: “The question is how much more liquidity can ETFs drain from other markets—be they stocks, commodities, or bonds—before they become the only market?”

SPY options are an inexpensive way to achieve exposure to the broad market, which is generally starved for liquidity in the underlying assets. As we’ve written, ETFs are themselves a substitute for these assets.

The problem with looking at options to understand sentiment, volatility and risk is that it fails to account for why options are being used – which manifests in the equity data (which can only be seen in trade-executions, which is the data we’ve studied for over ten years).  If Asset-allocation is up, and Risk Management is up, ETFs and indexes are driving the use of derivatives. These two behaviors led equity-market price-setting in 2015. If you were reporting changes in options to management as indications of evolving rational sentiment, it was probably incorrect.

In the Tulip Mania, people used futures because there was insufficient tulip-bulb liquidity. The implied demand in derivatives drove extreme price-appreciation. But nobody had to sell a bulb to pop the bubble. It burst because implied future demand evaporated (costing a great lost fortune).

Options expire tomorrow and Friday, and next Wednesday are VIX expirations (two inverse VIX ETNs, XIV and TVIX, traded a combined 100 million shares Tuesday). Vast money in the market is moving uniformly, using ETFs and options to gain exposure to the same stocks. This is why broad measures don’t yet reflect the underlying deterioration in the breadth of the market (the Russell 2000 this week was briefly down 20% from June 2015 highs).

And now you know why. People tend to frolic in rather than tiptoe through the tulips. Be wary when everybody is buying rights.

Swimming

Happy New Year!  There comes a time in life when, to quote a friend most adept at wordsmithing, “One hallmark of a great vacation is lying face-down in salt water, with snorkel and face mask, watching the peaceful, sparkling life of the reef.”

We love it any time and December took us to St Martin and a catamaran and a pleasant journey around Anguilla and down to St Barts, the sea waves a solace for body and soul.  If you’ve not yet been where the tradewinds are constant friends, go. It’ll remind you to appreciate life, and time.

As the Chambers Brothers would say, the time has come today (taking eleven minutes to make that musical argument in 1968, the year after my birth) to think about what’s ahead. I wrote a CNBC oped yesterday describing the risk in ETFs that your executives should understand as 2016 unfolds. A goodly portion of the nearly $600 billion of 2015 inflows to passive investment giants Vanguard and Blackrock went to these instruments, portions of which are likely laying claim to the same assets owned by active investors and the indexes ETFs track.

That’s no threat when more money is arriving than leaving, but as Warren Buffett once observed, you only find out who’s been swimming naked when the tide goes out (or something near that).

I don’t know if 2016 will be the Year of Swimming Naked.  Looking back, in Dec 2014 we wrote you readers who are clients: “There is risk that a strong dollar could unexpectedly reduce corporate earnings in Q414 or Q115, stunning equities.  The dollar too is behaving as it did in 2010 when a major currency was in crisis (the Euro, with Greece failing).  Is the Japanese yen next?  The globalization era means no nation is an island, including the USA.”

Money kept flowing but 2015 wobbled the orbits of multiple currencies. Switzerland dropped its euro peg, the euro dropped to decade lows versus the dollar (which hit 2001 highs), the yen became Japan’s last desperate infantryman for growth, and the Chinese yuan repeatedly rocked markets, most recently Monday.

These factors matter to the investor-relations profession.  Picture a teeter-totter.  Once, money was a stationary fulcrum upon which commercial supply and demand around the globe moved up and down.  Today, central banks continuously slide the fulcrum to keep the teeter-totter level. Into the markets denominating the shares of the companies behind commerce pours money following models: indexes and ETFs.

This is our world, IR folks. Fundamentals cannot trump passive investment or the perpetual motion of the money fulcrum. So we must adapt.  Our most important job is to deliver value to management in the market as it is, not as it was. Running a close second is to achieve the IR goal: To the degree we can influence the outcome, aim to maintain a fairly valued stock and a well-informed market – which decidedly doesn’t mean a rising stock.

Both what you can control and whether your stock is fairly valued in a dynamic market where price-setting is more quantitative than qualitative are measurable. But not with valuation models from when the preponderance of money setting prices was taking 10Ks home at night to find the best stocks.  IR must be data-driven in the 21st century.

As 2016 begins, are tides in or out? Our sentiment measures suggest a harsh January. The cost of transferring risk through derivatives is rising. The appreciation of stock-prices necessary to sustain the value of derivatives dependent on them is stalling. And currencies – the fulcrum for prices – show worrisome seismological instability.

Now maybe both January and the year will be awesome, and let’s hope so!  Whatever comes, great IR professionals stand out against a changing backdrop by providing management data points about the stock and the market that deliver calm confidence.

Reflection

Most of you are out this week, but you’ve got phones.

Unless you’re disconnected from them like we were (by choice) a couple weeks back in the Caribbean, you’ll see this post. Send it to your CEO and CFO.

Whatever the theme for the year – “it ended flat,” “The Fed led,” “August Correction,” “Flash Boys,” “The Year of the ETF” – we’ll wrap it by pointing you to our friends at Themis Trading for a final lesson on market structure.  Read “Yale Investment Chief: America’s Equity Markets are Broken,” (if you’re not reading the Themis blog you should be) and reflect:

-The $25 billion Yale endowment fund favors private investments where horizons are longer and less liquid. Think about how often you’ve heard you need “more liquidity.”

-“Market fragmentation allows high-frequency traders and exchanges to profit at the expense of long-term investors.”

-“Market depth is an illusion that fades in the face of real buying and selling.”

-“Exchanges advance the interests of traders by sponsoring esoteric order types, which for hard-to-understand reasons receive the approval of the SEC.”

-And if you’ve not yet done so, read Flash Boys

Then read this editorial in the New York Times.

On January 6, we’ll talk about 2016.  Happy New Year!

Best Of: The Vacuum

Editorial Note: Happy Holidays! We’re back from travels but will share our findings in the first Market Structure Map of the new year. Ahead of Christmas, we’re re-running the most-read MSM of 2015. Market structure should rank among your top priorities, IR professionals. You can target investors and tell your story till your fingers are worked to bone and it won’t matter if the structure of the market sets your price. Seek first to understand. Read on (first published Dec 9): 

Looking around at the market, we decided the only thing to do is go to St. Maarten.  Safely at sea, we’ll wait out options-expirations and the Fed meeting next week and return Dec 21 to tell you what we saw from afar.

What’s up close is volatility. Monday in US equities 100 stocks were down 10% or more. And NYSE Arca, the largest marketplace for ETFs, announced that it would expand the ranges in which securities can trade following a halt.  Where previous bands were 1-5% depending on the security’s price, new rules to take effect soon double these ranges.

Energy, commodity and biotech stocks led Monday decliners and we had clients in all three sectors down double digits. Yet just 15 ETFs swooned 10% or more. How can ETFs holding the same stocks falling double digits drop less? The simplest explanation is that the ETFs do not, in fact, own the underlying stocks.

We return to these themes because they’re why markets are not rational. Your management teams, investor-relations professionals, should understand what’s made them this way.

Suppose ETFs substitute cash for securities. How does net asset value in the ETF adjust downward to reflect pressure on the indexes ETF track if the ETFs hold dollars instead?  This would seem good.  But it enriches ETF authorized participants, brokers ordained to maintain supply and demand in ETFs, who the next day will sell ETF shares and buy the underlying stocks (just 12 stocks were down double-digits yesterday).

What we hear from clients is, “The action in my shares seems irrational. I don’t understand how we could drop 15% on a 5% decline in oil.” It’s bad enough that oil dropped 5% in a day.  And lest you think your sector is immune, what’s afflicting energy could shift any time to other sectors. How? Four factors:

Arbitrage. The stock market today appears to be packed with more arbitrage – by which we mean pursuing profits in short-term divergences – than any other market in history. There’s index arbitrage, ETF arbitrage, sector arbitrage, derivatives arbitrage, multi-asset-class arbitrage, currency arbitrage, latency arbitrage, market-making arbitrage, long-short arbitrage and rebate arbitrage. A breathtaking amount of price-activity in the market can disappear the moment gaps present too great a risk for short-term traders.

Risk-transfer. There is insurance for everything, and that includes equity-exposure. Rules against risk-taking have sharply reduced the number of parties capable of providing insurance. When these big counterparties begin to experience losses, they dump assets to prevent further loss, exacerbating price-pressure. And what if they quit entirely?

Derivatives. Any instrument that substitutes for ownership is credit, and that’s what derivatives are. ETFs do it.  Options and futures do.  Swaps.  Currencies.  What things trade more than all the rest?  These.  The market is astonishingly reliant on credit.

Illiquidity.  There may be no harder-edged jargon than the word “liquidity.” It means ready supply of something. If you need it right now, can you get it, and how much, and at what cost? The stock market with $25 trillion of value is extraordinarily short on the product that this value seems to reflect, because of the three other items above.

Who’s to blame? In Bell, CA, the municipal government became profligate because the people it served stopped paying attention. The market is yours, public companies. That it’s stuffed with arbitrage is partly our fault. Companies spend millions on enterprise-resource planning software to track every detail. Yet the backbone of the balance sheet is public equity and an alarming number have no idea how it’s really priced or by what. To that end, read our IEX exchange-application letter.

The IR profession can correct this problem by leading the effort to end the information vacuum. It starts with understanding what in the world is going on out there, and it continues through insisting that management learn something about market structure.  A task: Follow the cash. When your listing exchange next reports results, read them and see how it makes money.

BEST OF: From Jan 7, 2015 – Adapting

EDITORIAL NOTE: We’re getting far away from today’s Federal Reserve decision colliding with options expirations (VIX today, with more expirations tomorrow and Friday), escaping to the elbow of the Caribbean, the divide between windward and leeward on a catamaran around St Maarten. Happy Holidays! As the year concludes, I think this view from back in January about a rising dollar and the IR job now resonates. Read on retrospectively: 

From Jan 7, 2015: Adapting

Happy New Year!  We trust you enjoyed last week’s respite from the Market Structure Map.  Now, back to reality!

CNBC is leaving Nielsen for somebody who’ll track viewer data better.  Nielsen says CNBC is off 13% from 2013. CNBC says Nielsen misses people viewing in new ways. Criticize CNBC for seeming to kill a messenger with an unpopular epistle but commend it too for innovating. Maybe Nielsen isn’t metering the right things.

I’m reminded of what we called in my youth “the cow business.” The lament then was the demise of small cattle ranches like the one on which I grew up (20,000 acres is slight by western cow-punching standards). Cowboying was a dying business.

And then ranchers changed. They learned to measure herd data and use new technologies like artificial insemination to boost output. They adapted to the American palate. Today you can’t find a gastropub without a braised short rib or a flatiron steak. On the ranch we ate short ribs when the freezer was about empty.  But you deliver the product the consumer wants.

Speaking of which, a Wall Street Journal article Monday noted the $200 billion of 2014 net inflows Vanguard saw to its passive portfolios, which pushed total assets to $3.1 trillion. By contrast, industry active funds declined $13 billion. That’s a radical swing.  The WSJ yesterday highlighted gravity-defying growth for Exchange-Traded Funds, now with $2 trillion of assets.

The investor-relations profession targets active investors. Yet the investor’s palate wants the flank steak of, say, currency-hedged ETFs (up about $24 billion in 2014) over the filet mignon of big-name stock-pickers. IR is chasing a shrinking herd.

Let’s learn from CNBC and ranchers, and adapt.  All the investing and trading activity in your stock – not just active holders – reflects how you’re viewed. You don’t have to cultivate the crop to tally its yield. Remember that old adage that you “manage what you measure?” Above-market inclusion in indexes and ETFs acknowledges your appeal to the investor’s palate, as does below-market levels of hedging. Are you leaving this luscious low data fruit hanging by ignoring it or failing to measure it? It’s yours!

You can target more investors, sure. Can you separate your company from the nearly $8 trillion of indexed assets held by Vanguard and Blackrock when that money buys or sells? Periodically. Then you’ll revert to the mean. This is a mathematical fact not much different than Eugene Fama’s theory on the cross-section of expected stock returns defining strategies at Dimensional Fund Advisors.

If you tell management that 40% of holders are low-turnover investors, you should also be telling them that last week indexes/ETFs drove 31% of volume and this week their market-share rose to 35%. The former owns shares but the latter sets price. Measuring data is far easier than repetitively pushing the targeting stone up the ridge after it rolls down. Sisyphus exhausted the notion of futility in Hellenic Corinth. Let’s learn from history.

And you know what?  Among the most valuable constituents in your equity market are speculators.  They’re not noise, they’re a sensor telling you many things investors can’t or won’t about risk and uncertainty (or event-driven behavior).  Measure them!  Own the data.  Use the data to define IR success in a way that reflects investment behavior now.

Moral of the story:  When history moves on, move with it. Tomorrow’s IR relevance rests not in doing more of the same old thing but in adapting to the world as it is (too bad the Federal Reserve and climatologists don’t learn this lesson).

Last, a word on markets:  Have you ridden a teeter-totter with somebody heavier than you?  If they slide forward and you shift back, you can balance unequal things.

Let’s tweak that analogy now. Suppose the fulcrum – the bar in the middle – moved instead, adjusting with you to stabilize imbalances. That’s the Federal Reserve. When it began buying mortgage-backed securities in January 2009, the Fed skewed the fulcrum, causing things like stocks, bonds, real estate and oil to perform much better than any of these would have if the fulcrum had remained fixed.

The fulcrum is the dollar.  It’s now moving back toward center. So far, only oil has revalued to reflect the real-world position of the fulcrum. But everything else must follow.  We’ve been saying this since September.

We think a great many do not appreciate the importance of the fulcrum – the dollar – in how everything is priced. Unless we switch to goats or camels as the medium of commerce, we should expect what mathematically follows the reversal of sustained currency-depreciation.

The Vacuum

Looking around at the market, we decided the only thing to do is go to St. Maarten.  Safely at sea, we’ll wait out options-expirations and the Fed meeting next week and return Dec 21 to tell you what we saw from afar.

What’s up close is volatility. Monday in US equities 100 stocks were down 10% or more. And NYSE Arca, the largest marketplace for ETFs, announced that it would expand the ranges in which securities can trade following a halt.  Where previous bands were 1-5% depending on the security’s price, new rules to take effect soon double these ranges.

Energy, commodity and biotech stocks led Monday decliners and we had clients in all three sectors down double digits. Yet just 15 ETFs swooned 10% or more. How can ETFs holding the same stocks falling double digits drop less? The simplest explanation is that the ETFs do not, in fact, own the underlying stocks.

We return to these themes because they’re why markets are not rational. Your management teams, investor-relations professionals, should understand what’s made them this way.

Suppose ETFs substitute cash for securities. How does net asset value in the ETF adjust downward to reflect pressure on the indexes ETF track if the ETFs hold dollars instead?  This would seem good.  But it enriches ETF authorized participants, brokers ordained to maintain supply and demand in ETFs, who the next day will sell ETF shares and buy the underlying stocks (just 12 stocks were down double-digits yesterday).

What we hear from clients is, “The action in my shares seems irrational. I don’t understand how we could drop 15% on a 5% decline in oil.” It’s bad enough that oil dropped 5% in a day.  And lest you think your sector is immune, what’s afflicting energy could shift any time to other sectors. How? Four factors:

Arbitrage. The stock market today appears to be packed with more arbitrage – by which we mean pursuing profits in short-term divergences – than any other market in history. There’s index arbitrage, ETF arbitrage, sector arbitrage, derivatives arbitrage, multi-asset-class arbitrage, currency arbitrage, latency arbitrage, market-making arbitrage, long-short arbitrage and rebate arbitrage. A breathtaking amount of price-activity in the market can disappear the moment gaps present too great a risk for short-term traders.

Risk-transfer. There is insurance for everything, and that includes equity-exposure. Rules against risk-taking have sharply reduced the number of parties capable of providing insurance. When these big counterparties begin to experience losses, they dump assets to prevent further loss, exacerbating price-pressure. And what if they quit entirely?

Derivatives. Any instrument that substitutes for ownership is credit, and that’s what derivatives are. ETFs do it.  Options and futures do.  Swaps.  Currencies.  What things trade more than all the rest?  These.  The market is astonishingly reliant on credit.

Illiquidity.  There may be no harder-edged jargon than the word “liquidity.” It means ready supply of something. If you need it right now, can you get it, and how much, and at what cost? The stock market with $25 trillion of value is extraordinarily short on the product that this value seems to reflect, because of the three other items above.

Who’s to blame? In Bell, CA, the municipal government became profligate because the people it served stopped paying attention. The market is yours, public companies. That it’s stuffed with arbitrage is partly our fault. Companies spend millions on enterprise-resource planning software to track every detail. Yet the backbone of the balance sheet is public equity and an alarming number have no idea how it’s really priced or by what. To that end, read our IEX exchange-application letter.

The IR profession can correct this problem by leading the effort to end the information vacuum. It starts with understanding what in the world is going on out there, and it continues through insisting that management learn something about market structure.  A task: Follow the cash. When your listing exchange next reports results, read them and see how it makes money.