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.

Root Cause

Karen and I are in the Windy City visiting the NIRI chapter and escaping gales on the Front Range that were delaying flights to Denver and blowing in spring snow due Friday while we’re in Palo Alto for the Silicon Valley NIRI Spring Seminar (we sponsor both chapters). Hope to see you!

I’m going to challenge economic orthodoxy. Whatever your reaction as an adult to hearing the term “Santa Claus” (follow me here; it’s a mechanism, not commentary on religion or culture), you know the imagery of adolescent expectations is a myth. Even so, parents perpetuate it generationally.

Today we’ll unravel the Saint Nicholas Theory of economics. Because at root equities reflect economics even when the barometer is errant. Economic orthodoxy – conventional wisdom on economies – says we need rising prices. For businesses selling things it’s called “pricing power,” the capacity to increase the cost of goods and services. The Federal Reserve and other global central banks have an “inflation target,” and bureaucrats wearing half-glasses at droll news conferences pore over boorish scripts about “structural malaise” and the exigency of combating deflation.

Few know what they’re saying except we gather they think prices should rise. Yet we consumers stop spending when things cost too much. If our spending is the engine of the economy – what economists call consumption – how is it that rising prices are going to drive more of it? In fact when stuff’s not selling, businesses hold sales. They cut prices.QuastCurve

Big Economic Idea No. 2 (we all know from childhood what “number two” means) is that access to credit – borrowed money – is the key to more consumption. If the economy slows, the problem, we’re told, is we need more spending. Central banks the world round want you whipping out a credit card lest the global economy slip into falling prices.

This is Santa Claus Economic Theory. It says spending drives the economy, which grows when prices rise. There is only one reliable way to drive up prices: Inflation.  Milton Friedman taught us “inflation is always and everywhere a monetary phenomenon.” While prices temporarily increase when more buyers chase fewer goods (say, Uber at rush hour), costs will revert when supply and demand equalize. So inflation – rising prices – is sustainable only if the supply of money increases faster than economies produce things.

Money as we presently know it can only expand one way:  Through debt. If the Federal Reserve wants to increase currency in circulation, it buys debt from the Treasury with cash it manufactures (backed by you and me).  Likewise, when you use a credit card, you create money. A bank isn’t reaching into dInflationeposits to pay a bill you incurred. The bank creates electronic funds.  When you pay your bill, that electronic money disappears.

Stay with me. We’ve almost arrived at the bizarre and impossible logic that animates the entire global monetary system, as I’ve illustrated with three charts here.  Today Janet Yellen will try to convince us we need inflation.  Rising prices. What drives prices up? More money. How does the global monetary system create money? Through debt.  So we’re left to conclude that prosperity can only happen if debt and spending perpetually rise. Because if you pay off debt, money is destroyed and prices fall.

Two weeks ago I was on CNBC with Rick Santelli declaiming how rising debt and rising prices are the enemies of prosperity, and purchasing power is the engine of growth. Purchasing power is when your money buys more than it did before, not less.  Example:  Uber.  It used to cost $100 for a cab to the Denver airport. Uber is about $40. Guess what? Cabs are coming down.  Purchasing power is improving.

Central banks are perpetuating a myth that will destroy the global economy, and I’ve proved it with three charts. The first – call it the Quast Curve – shows what happens to the US economy if the value of the money denominating goods and services is consistently diminished over time.  Growth rises but then collapses (eerily, in this model it topped in the 1960s before we left the gold standard and hit zero around 2008). USDebt

What will follow from the Quast Curve is rising debt and rising prices, illusions of growth – exactly what images two and three show. As money buys less and less, prices go up, and consumers have to replace the missing money with debt, a terminal cycle.  It’s now on the balance sheet of the Federal Reserve.

Real economies are simple. If money has stable value, and enterprising humans create things that improve lives, costs should stay steady or decline, not rise, which increases purchasing power and wealth rather than debt.  It’s infinitely sustainable.  Economist Herb Stein said if something cannot last forever it will stop.  You never want an economy built on things that will stop. What should stop instead are bad policies.

Culmination

Outcomes are culminations, not events.

Denver bid farewell this week to retiring Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning who for eighteen years accumulated the byproducts of focus, discipline and work, twice culminating in Super Bowl victories.

The idea that outcomes are culminations translates to the stock market. What happens today in your stock-trading is a product of things preceding today’s culmination just as our lives are accumulations of decisions and consequences.

Rewind to Feb 11, 2016. The S&P 500 hit a 52-week low of 1829. Recession fears were rippling globally. European banks were imploding, with some pundits predicting another 2008 crisis. China was lowering growth views and weakening its currency to pad the landing (word since is some 5-6 million workers will be laid off through 2017).

In apparent response, the US stock market soared, recovering to November levels. If the market is a proxy for the economy, it’s a heckler hurling eggs. Wiping away yolk, pundits said markets expecting monetary tightening from the Federal Reserve saw stasis instead. Recession fears were overblown and an overly reactive market rebounded.

But headlines don’t buy or sell stocks, people and machines do.  Markets move on money. This is what we’ve learned from more than a decade of market lab work, repeating behavioral measurements with software, servers, algorithms and models.

Follow the money.  The most widely traded equity in the world, SPY, is a derivative. It’s an Exchange-Traded Fund (ETF) tracking the S&P 500.  Nearly 50% of all options volume ties to it.  In 2016 so far almost every trading day at least 12 of the 25 most actively traded stocks were ETFs.

Why do we say ETFs are derivatives? Because derivatives extend access to assets, exactly the thing ETFs do. They’re securities trading on underlying stocks without owning them. The sponsor owns assets, yes. But ETF investors hold only a proxy.

ETFs depend on arbitrage. Rules the SEC approved for ETFs effectively sanction use of information the rest of the market doesn’t know about demand by the big brokers who produce ETF shares for trading.  These brokers are continually shorting index components and derivatives or ETF shares to close the gaps that form between the value of the ETF and what it represents (stocks, sectors, commodities, bonds, indices).

In the stock market, the price-setters are primarily short-term traders (high-frequency firms) arbitraging small price-divergences in many things simultaneously. ETFs are stocks that provide exposure to other stocks, sectors, commodities, bonds and indices. For arbitragers, they’re a massive additional layer of arbitrage permutations:  How might this financial ETF vary with that energy futures contract, and this basket of energy stocks?

What develops in this market is a disregard for fundamental factors. Prices are mathematical facts. Spreads drive directional-change. The market’s purpose devolves from economics to how to price a stock, sector, commodity, bond, futures contract, option or index relative to things associated with it or its value at a point ranging from fractions of seconds to next month before a derivatives contract expires.

It’s not investment but arbitrage of such scale and size that few recognize it. Yesterday, the most actively traded stock was the VelocityShares 3x Long Crude ETN linked to the S&P GSCI Crude Oil Index Excess Return (UWTI).  Yes, that its name! It’s an exchange-traded product backed by Goldman Sachs, and it dropped 13.3%. Offsetting, the eighth most active stock was DUST, the Direxion Daily Gold Miners Index Bear 3x Shares, which rose 13.7%.

Neither DUST nor UWTI owns tangible assets. Their returns depend on derivative contracts held by banks or other counterparties. Now step back. Look at stocks. They are moving the same way but over longer periods. Market moves are a culmination of whichever directional trade is winning at the moment, plus all the tiny little arbitrage trades over ETFs, stocks, commodities, bonds and indices, tallied up.

There are two links back to fundamentals. First, banks back this market. Some of them are losing badly and this is what European bank trouble last month signaled. And this IS a consequence of Fed policy.  By artificially manipulating the cost of capital, the Fed shifted money from scrutinizing economics to chasing arbitrage opportunities.

When arbitrage has exhausted returns, the market will change direction again. It’s coming soon.  The bad news is the market has not yet considered economic threats and is ill-equipped to do so.

Inconvenience

Follow the money. Or the currency.

Yesterday markets soared on queue with a Chinese currency devaluation in the form of lower bank reserve requirements (which increases money and reduces its value). For those who at the words “currency devaluation” feel like collapsing into catatonia, resist the urge. There’s a lesson ahead.

WSJ Intelligent Investor columnist Jason Zweig described Feb 19 how active investors are using Exchange Traded Funds (ETFs). He wrote, “Picking stocks has become so hard that some stock pickers have given up pretending to try.”  One manager told Mr. Zweig he keeps 50% of his assets in ETFs because with 90% of active money trailing the averages, “half of my fund will beat 90% of managers over time.” The winning half is polling the crowd.  It’s more convenient.

The crowd today is comprised of leviathan passive investment typified by the $8 trillion held at Blackrock and Vanguard.  But that’s not what moves daily.  It’s inconvenient for Blackrock and Vanguard to maneuver massive assets like a race car through less than ten big banks executing most trades now for large institutional investors.

But investing is supposed to be inconvenient. Value that lasts should take time. Warren Buffett is 85 and began investing in his teens.  The average holding period for Berkshire Hathaway shareowners is 27 years based on annual turnover. Rome wasn’t built in a day.

Yet today’s market sells convenience. Leveraged ETFs – those using derivatives like swaps to outperform underlying benchmarks – seek one-day outperformance. From Direxion, a sponsor: “The use of derivatives such as futures contracts, forward contracts, options and swaps are subject to market risks that may cause their price to fluctuate over time. The funds do not attempt to, and should not be expected to, provide returns which are a multiple of the return of the Index for periods other than a single day.”

In yesterday’s big market move, over half of the 25 most actively traded securities were ETFs, most of them trading more than stocks like Pfizer and GE.  Several were 3x leveraged ETFs – that is, trades designed for a single day to beat a broad measure by 200%. If your stock was up twice as much as the market, there’s your probable answer.

ETF sponsors hold assets, and big brokers called Authorized Participants create ETF shares for trading or remove them from the market to match inflows and outflows and fluctuations in underlying stocks and indices. That’s a derivative. What’s traded isn’t the asset but a proxy. A key reason why stock pickers struggle is because long-term investments are inconvenient, and the many parties in the market chasing one-day moves or short-term divergences drown out fundamental differences in businesses.

There’s a triune reason for volatility that’s getting bigger, not smaller.  First, the whale in the market is money tracking benchmarks like the S&P 500. Clustered next around the benchmarks are options and futures and ETFs. The ETF SPY yesterday traded nearly ten times the dollar-amount ($26.3 billion) of the nearest active stock (VRX, $2.7 billion). And last, every ETF has what’s in effect counterparties –authorized participants maintaining coherence between ETFs and indexes (to us it’s sanctioned arbitrage since the APs know which direction money is moving and can go long or short advantageously, which is ethically questionable). So also do counterparties back the options, futures and swaps fueling leveraged ETFs and trading schemes and index-tracking by big funds.

Line these up.  Money is tracking indexes. Leveraged ETFs are trying to beat them. Counterparties are supplying options and futures to achieve those returns. Every day it changes and the movements are like a freight train on a twisting track, picking up speed, as each gets a day or two out of step with the others.

At what point does it rupture? Making homes too easy to buy through loose credit led to mushrooming mortgage-backed derivatives and later mass demise. Making money too easy for governments to get through central banks is behind the creaking mountain of global debt that the private sector long ago largely stopped buying (so it’s instead held by central banks that pledged the full faith and credit of the same citizens refusing to buy in private markets).

We’d benefit from old-fashioned inconvenience. Investments taking more than a day to produce a return. What’s valuable – time, money, risk, production, thrift, prudence, diligence – shouldn’t be marginalized into a derivatives trade.  Alas, we humans seem to recognize mistakes only in hindsight.