Teasing Us All

A line in the 1973 song Lord Mr. Ford goes, “All the cars placed end to end would reach to the moon and back again, and there’d probably be some fool pull out to pass.”

Such is the delicate balance of global finance and economics that if somebody wheels out of line like the UK did from the European Union last week, a pileup ensues.

We should wonder why the heck everything is so fragile, especially stocks. Humans were engaged in commerce long before bureaucratic bodies decreed a need for pacts and zones. The USA was trading globally back when everyone funded government with the very tariffs now vilified. We did better then, the May trade deficit of $60 billion says.

To contend that global trade will suffer setbacks if the UK leaves the EU is like saying every pro athlete must have the same agent. There must be something else here.  Sherlock Holmes, that fictional feature of Scotsman Arthur Conan Doyle’s imagination, said that after eliminating the impossible, what remains, no matter how implausible, is the answer.

For instance, when you eliminate the impossible about the stock market, the implausible remaining fact is that it’s mostly priced by arbitragers. That was the case Monday in the data, where the Dow Jones Industrials shed 260 points on arbitrage (last Friday though, macro money via indexes and ETFs panicked at the disco). Naturally arbitragers reversed course yesterday. If traders drive the market down and nobody sells, they conclude money is hoping for a bounce – so they offer one.

The market has devolved into a series of reactions to expectations versus outcomes. No wonder.  So have political and monetary policies. As the Brexit recedes and something else arises (perhaps a reactionary Japanese currency-devaluation rattling US stocks again) we’ll continue to bounce from rail to rail down the road, occasionally keeping it between the lines, because policy-makers are managing to minutia.

Ever got a credit card with a teaser rate?  The low promotional cost is intended to prompt a reaction from you.  The card company wants consumption to follow.  Who benefits? You could say, “I got some stuff I wouldn’t otherwise be able to afford.”

True enough. But should you buy things on credit you can’t afford, and if you do, would you expect to be more prosperous as a result or less so?  We’ll come to it in a moment.

The beneficiary is the credit-card company, which hopes to drive revenue in the present through transactions, and revenue in the future if or when the interest-rate normalizes.

Central banks since 2009 have been engaged in a grand teaser-rate experiment. In effect the Fed and others offered the planet a low introductory rate. Who benefits?  We humans got stuff we couldn’t otherwise afford such as mortgages (bought by the Fed to boot), new cars and refrigerators. But does spending borrowed money lead to future prosperity?

If you’ve ever had a financial planner or a grandparent, you know that the secret to future prosperity is the exact opposite – saving money now instead of spending it.

What I would like to know, Janet Yellen, Larry Summers, Austan Goolsbee, Greg Ip, Steve Liesman, Jon Hilsenrath and the rest of you super-smart economists is if we know that saving today is the key to future prosperity, why are you supporting monetary policy that encourages spending now for future prosperity?  Both things can’t be true.

Think about the Federal Reserve and interest rates. We’re all waiting for the impossible.  If we’ve had a low introductory rate for seven years prompting everyone from companies to consumers to spend and borrow today, how in the world could it be true that normalizing rates would promote economic growth?

The problem, however, isn’t normal rates but the original policy of a years-long teaser rate getting people to spend. It’s why everything is so fragile. Markets and economies are perched on a temporary condition: An introductory rate.

Who in our analogy is the credit-card company benefiting from our spending? Governments.  They measure consumption – spending – as economic growth.  If there is economic growth, governments can claim to have solved problems and then can continue to promise citizens more stuff in the future, which will require yet more economic growth to fund it. This way they stay in charge and get everybody doing the same things.

The Brexit is a crack in the grand teaser-rate plan. That’s why it’s rattling markets. Teaser rates that promote spending do not create actual growth and will not produce prosperity. Yet the savings and thrift that do are not only discouraged but inhibited.

If we’ve all figured that out, expect a rough time in coming months for stocks because the truth at first hurts. If we haven’t, then the implausible will continue until it becomes impossible. Or somebody else wheels out of line.

The IEX Machete

We humans don’t like change.

We become accustomed to uncomfortable shoes, kinks in the neck each morning, the monotony of sameness. Were we recorded we’d likely be surprised to hear ourselves making excuses for why what we don’t like must continue. The USA’s Declaration of Independence lamented how people are disposed to suffer ills rather than change them.

The rise of IEX, the Investors Exchange, embodies that ethos. Late last Friday the enterprising folks canonized by Michael Lewis in his book Flash Boys won longsuffering reward when the Securities and Exchange Commission granted the alternative trading system status as a US stock exchange able to host listings.

We’ve become disposed to suffer ills. It’s been 45 years since companies wanting to list shares publicly with a US national stock market had more than two choices (OTC Markets Group and NYSE MKT, I’m not slighting either of you here). That’s remarkable in a country that prides itself on entrepreneurialism and innovation, and testament to both the byzantine form the market has taken and the entrenched nature of the competition.

Comments on IEX’s exchange application are supportive save for vitriol from would-be peers reminiscent of the invective and condescension of some activist investors (think Icahn and Ackman).

Contrast with the behavior of golfing professionals at last weekend’s US Open. Dustin Johnson won his first major despite a controversial penalty, and his fellow competitors rallied behind him despite what we could call “losing market-share.”  Contender Bubba Watson on CNBC’s Squawk Box said he was with fans shouting “Dus-tin! Dus-tin!”

That’s mature professionalism. By contrast, IEX joins the green jackets of the stock-exchange business to derogations from peers. They’ve lobbied for every penalty stroke.

We mean no offense to the incumbents. But it’s embarrassing. Our stock market obsessed with speed and crammed with arbitrage and mostly inhospitable to the active “long-only” (few now are purely long) investors companies spend all their time and resources courting is meaningfully a product of legacy exchanges. We’ve been sold a bill of goods.

The Duopoly is loath to admit IEX or share the power they’ve exercised over the listing process. Why? If innovation and choice are byproducts of free markets, incumbent opposition should raise eyebrows (kudos to the SEC for reinforcing the mechanism of a free and open market that exists for issuers and investors). They’ve chosen easy regulatory monopoly instead, and it’s made them arrogant.

Without restraint through competition and transparency, the market has become a tangle of vines smothering differentiation between companies and promoting arbitrage over investment. The proof is in plunging ranks of public companies, confusion everywhere about what’s setting prices (we’ve cured that malady by the way), and a general migration of stock-prices toward means without regard to fundamentals (those who blame regulation I get it, but the market itself is the problem).

We’ve lost sight of original purpose. So welcome to the jungle, IEX.  We could use a sharp machete.

Vinnie the Face

How do you know macroeconomists have a sense of humor?  They use decimal points.

While you ponder, it’s that time again when the Federal Reserve meets to wring its figurative hands over decimal points, VIX expirations hit as volatility explodes anew, and Brits consider telling Europe to pound sand.  Wait, that last part is new.

And by the way, what’s with these negative interest rates everywhere?

I’d prefer to tell you how computerized high-speed market-makers have made “the rapid and frequent amending or withdrawing of orders…an essential feature of a common earnings model known as market making,” according to Dutch regulators studying fast trading (that nugget courtesy of Sal Arnuk at Themis Trading). If you as a human do that, they throw you in jail for spoofing. If it’s a machine programmed by humans, all’s well.

We’ll instead talk macro factors today because they’re dominating. Negative interest rates, the Brexit, currencies, stocks, share a seamless narrative.

First, the Brexit looms like a hailstorm in Limon, Colorado, not because the UK and Europe are terminating trade. No, nerves are rattled because it represents a fracture in the “we’re all in this together” narrative underpinning global monetary policy. All that’s needed – infinitely – if everybody lives within their means are currencies that don’t lose value over time. There’s not a single one like that right now.

Suppose on your street some neighbors were prosperous and others deep in financial trouble, and block leaders built a coalition around a mantra: The only way for us all to prosper is if the neighbors with money give some to the neighbors without.

It altruistic. It’s also untrue.  That will ensure nobody prospers. The EU strategy has been to get countries like the UK to agree to principles that let wastrel nations offload their profligacy on responsible ones.  It doesn’t matter how one views it ideologically. What matters is the math and the math doesn’t work.

The UK is threatening to quit the block coalition on a belief that the best way to ensure that the UK prospers is to stop taking responsibility for others.

Negative interest rates tie to the EU strategy. Contrary to what you hear from droning economists and central bankers, low interest rates aren’t driven by low growth prospects. If growth prospects are low and therefore risky, capital costs should be high.  Low growth is a product of lost purchasing power, defined as “what your money buys.” If what your money buys diminishes, you’ll be buying less, which leads to low growth.

The reason money buys less is because governments are filching from their citizens by trading money for debt, and falling behind on their payments.

I’ll explain in simple terms.  If you miss a credit card payment, your creditor doesn’t receive money it’s owed. Driving interest rates to zero is tantamount to skipping payments because it reduces the amount owed.  Interest is money owed.

Suppose you told your credit card company, “I will pay you only 1% interest.” That would be nice but generally debtors don’t get to set the terms.

The world’s largest debtors are governments, and they do get to control the terms.  What’s more, they alone create money. Heard of the California Gold Rush, the Alaska Gold Rush?  Why none now?  Governments outlawed the use of gold as money. Gold is valuable, yes. But it’s not legal tender. So you can’t mine for legal tender anymore.

It’s a great gig if you can get it, spending all you want and borrowing and telling creditors what you’ll pay, and then whipping up a batch of cash to buy out your own debt.

Except even governments can’t just prestidigitate cash like a single item in a double-entry ledger. It used to be central banks offset created cash with things like gold.  Now, the entire global monetary system including the dollar, euro, UK pound, Japanese yen, Chinese yuan, etc., is backed by debt.

What does that mean?  To create money, central banks manufacture it and trade it for debt. Why? Because much of what is measured as growth today is really just rising prices. So if prices stop rising, growth stalls, and economies slip into recession and then governments have an even harder time funding bloated budgets.

More money chasing goods drives up prices. So central banks attempt to encourage spending and borrowing by creating money to buy the debts of their governments and now private companies too. The idea is to relieve banks and businesses of debts, thus enabling them to borrow and spend more, which, the thinking goes, will produce growth.

This cycle creates extreme demand for debt, which becomes so valuable that the interest rates on it turn negative.  What happens to ordinary people who borrow and spend beyond their means is the opposite. The cost of debt keeps rising until you’re paying Vinnie the Face the 20% weekly vig in an alley as he smacks a baseball bat in a hand.

So you see, it’s all related. The strangest part is that all financial crises are products of overspending.  Yet governments and central banks cannot manufacture money to save us from our largess unless we rack up debts they can buy with manufactured money.

It’s like an episode of CNBC’s American Greed in which people engage in bizarre and irrational behavior to perpetuate fraud. The world’s money is entirely dependent on more debt. It manifests for you and me in how little our money buys now.  That’s stealing as sure as someone reached in your wallet and took money out. I was just commiserating with a client about the cost of NIRI National.  Our money doesn’t go as far as it did.

What’s it mean for the equity market? It fills up with arbitragers, who see uncertainty as opportunity rather than threat.  They’re not trading fundamentals but fluctuations. They can sustain stocks for a while. But sooner or later Vinnie the Face shows up with a bat.

Busily Productive

“We try not to confuse busy with productive.”

Thus spake the head of investor-relations for an Israeli tech company years ago, and as we wrap the 2016 NIRI National Conference here in June-gloomy but ever awesome San Diego, I recall it anew.

IR for those of you who don’t know is the job that sits at the confluence of the inflow of capital to companies with shares trading publicly and the outflow of information to the buyers and sellers of shares. With investing gaining popularity in the 1960s, companies organized the effort of courting the former and formalizing the latter, and IR was born.

Attracting investors and communicating effectively will remain a bedrock of our profession until the second-to-last public company is consumed by the one giant firm owning everything and in turn owned by one exchange-traded fund leviathan (let’s hope that future never arrives!).

Most IR spending goes to telling the story and targeting investors, the historical yin and yang of IR.  But how are your shares priced?  Do you know?  Is our profession confusing busy with productive?

Let’s review. IR targets investors suited to the story.  We track corporate peers to find areas needing improvement and ways in which we outperform.  I did this too as a telecom IRO (investor relations officer). Your investment thesis defines unique exceptionalism.

Yet trades are measured by averages, indexes and ETFs hew to the mean, and high-speed traders setting prices want to own nothing.  While you’re trying to rise above, all the algorithms are bending your price back to the middle. It’s one reason why indexes beats stock-pickers: Market structure punishes outliers while active money seeks them.

The only NIRI session I was able to attend this year (we’re busying seeing customers, colleagues and friends during the conference) was a tense paneled polemic (moderated adroitly by one of our profession’s scions, Prudential’s Theresa Molloy) with IEX, hero of Flash Boys with a June 17 SEC deadline on its exchange application, and incumbents the NYSE and the Nasdaq.

Without offense to our market-structure friends at the exchanges, it’s stunning how the legacy firms lobby to preserve speed. Here’s what I mean. When the NYSE and the Nasdaq savage IEX for suggesting that slowing prices down by 350 microseconds is unfair, they are bleating a truth: Their dominance depends on privileges for fast traders.

I’ll reiterate how the market works:  Exchanges don’t aggregate supply and demand, they fracture buying and selling by running multiple markets rather than one. Suppose Nordstrom at the mall split into three stores located at either end and in the middle, with different products in each.  It would inconvenience shoppers, who would have to buy clothes one place and then troop to the far end for shoes. But if Nordstrom was selling data on customer patterns in the mall, it would be a great strategy.

Exchanges pay fast traders to set prices.  Prices are data.  Exchanges make billions selling data.  When IEX says it won’t influence the movement of money by paying for prices but instead will match buyers and sellers fairly and charge them both the same price – which none of the other exchanges do – the truth should be obvious to everyone.

It’s this:  Exchanges are deliberately spreading buyers and sellers apart to sell data. Fast traders are paid by exchanges to create great clouds of tiny trades reflecting narrowly separated prices – the exact opposite of the efficiency of size.

Exchanges sell that price data back to brokers, which are required to give best prices to customers, which they can only demonstrate by buying price data and making sure they match trades at averages of these prices, which means the prices are going to be average, which means the entire market is defined by fast traders and averages.  No wonder Blackrock is enormous. The structure serves it better than stock-pickers – IR’s audience.

This is a racket.  You IR folks are running your executives around the globe at great cost telling the story, targeting investors, tracking ownership-change. Yet the market is built on artificial prices intended to generate data revenue. Structure trumps story.

Stop confusing busy with productive.  Again, telling the story will never go away. But learn what sets your price.

We’ve solved that problem for you.  We announced our Market Structure Analytics Best Practices Guide last Friday, and our new Tableau-powered Market Structure Report.  Five Best Practices. Six Key Metrics. Do these and you’ll be a better IR practitioner in the 21st century – and maybe we’ll cease to be gamed when CEOs understand the market. Five Best Practices (drop me a note for our Guide):

Knowledge. Make it your mission to know how the stock market works.

Measurement.  Measure the market according to how it works, not using some metric created in the 1980s. We have six metrics. That’s all you need to know what matters.

Communication.  Proactively inform your management team about how the six metrics change over time so they stop believing things about the market that aren’t true.

A Good Offense.  Use metrics to drive relationships on the buyside. More meetings confuses busy with productive; develop a better follow-up plan.

A Good Defense.  Since markets don’t work anymore, Activism – a disruption of market structure – is perhaps the most popular active value thesis now.  Activists have had 35 years to learn how to hide from Surveillance.  They don’t know how starkly Market Structure Analytics capture their movements.

Let’s stop being pawns. Without public companies the market does not exist. That’s serious leverage.  Maybe it’s time to starting using it.

Ring of Fire

Yesterday China’s stock-futures market Flash-Crashed 10% and recovered in the same single minute.

For those new to market structure, the term “Flash Crash” references a hyperbolic rout and recovery in US equities May 6, 2010 in which the Dow 30 erased a thousand points and gained most of that back, all in 20 minutes. It’s vital to understand the cause, whether you’re the investor-relations officer for a public company or an investor.

China blamed a futures trade for prompting Tuesday’s fleeting plunge. A year ago, China’s stock-futures market had exploded into the planet’s busiest. Then as its equity market was imploding last summer, the government cracked down on futures trading. China also moved to devalue its currency in August last year, ahead of a dizzying Aug 24 plunge in US equities that saw trading in hundreds of Exchange Traded Funds (ETFs) halted as share-prices and fund asset-values veered sharply apart.

Trading in 2016 Chinese stock futures is a shadow of its 2015 glory but yet again sharp volatility in derivatives followed a currency move. Monday as the USA marked Memorial Day the People’s Bank of China pegged the yuan, China’s currency, at the lowest relative level versus the dollar since the Euro crisis of 2011, which also brought rocking volatility to US stocks.  A similar move Aug 12 preceded last summer’s global stock-market stammer.

Every time there’s an earthquake in Japan or Indonesia, it seems like another follows in Chile or New Zealand.  What geologists call the “Ring of Fire” runs from Chile and Peru up along the west coast of the United States and out through the Aleutian Islands of Alaska and down past Japan and Southeast Asia to the South Pacific and New Zealand.

The more things interconnect, the greater the risk. Tectonic connections are a fact of life on this planet, and we adapt.  But we’ve turned global securities markets into a sort of ring of fire as well. In geology, we link tectonic events and observable consequences. In global securities markets, we don’t yet give the magma of money its due.

Globalization helped to intertwine the planet, sure. But it’s not the fault line. All the money denominating everything from your house to Chinese futures is linked via the dollar, the globe’s “reserve currency,” meaning it’s the House Money, the one every country’s central bank must have. If for instance a country’s currency is falling, it can sell dollars and other currencies and buy its own to improve the ratio and thus the value.

Two consequences arise that feed directly back to US public companies and investors.  Suppose the world’s markets were all tied together with a single string and each market had a little coil to play out. That’s currency. Money.  If one market is doing well, the others may be tempted to tug on the string in order to be pulled along, or to let out some string to change the balance of investment flows.

The process becomes an end unto itself.  The connecting currency string is tugged and played in an effort to promote global equilibrium in prices of assets and performance of economies. So arbitrage develops, which is investing in the expectations of outcomes rather than the outcomes themselves. Focus shifts from long-term returns to how things may change based on this economic data point or that central-bank policy shift.

The fissures that develop can be minute monetary arbitrage imbalances like China’s futures flash crash yesterday.  Or much larger and harder to see, like trillions of dollars in ETFs focused on a stock market trading 15% over long-term valuations that rest on economic growth half that of historical averages.

Before the May 2010 Flash Crash, the Euro was falling sharply as Greece neared collapse.  Before 2011 market turmoil globally, the Euro was again shuddering and some thought it was in danger of failing as a currency (that risk remains).  In Japan, the stock market is up 80% since the government there embarked in 2012 on a massive currency expansion. Now this year, the government having paused that expansion, it’s down 10%.  Has the market corrected or is it inflated?  Is the problem the economy or the money?

On the globe’s geological Ring of Fire, unless we achieve some monumental technological advance, living on it comes with risk and no amount of adjustment in human behavior will have an iota of impact. It’s tectonic.

In the stock market, fundamentals matter. But beneath lies a larger consideration. Markets are linked by currencies and central banks toying with strings.  The lesson for public companies and investors alike is that a grand unifying theme exists, like the physical fact of a Ring of Fire: Watch the string.

And there was a tremor in China again.

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.