Market Facts

Volatility derivatives expire today as the Federal Reserve gives monetary guidance. How would you like to be in those shoes? Oh but if you’ve chosen investor-relations as your profession, you’re in them.

Management wants to know why holders are selling when oil – or pick your reason – has no bearing on your shares. Institutional money managers are wary about risking clients’ money in turbulently sliding markets, which condition will subside when institutional investors risk clients’ money. This fulcrum is an inescapable IR fact.

We warned clients Nov 3 that markets had statistically topped and a retreat likely would follow between one and 30 days out. Stocks closed yesterday well off early-Nov levels and the S&P 500 is down 100 points from post-Thanksgiving all-time highs.

The point isn’t being right but how money behaves today. Take oil. The energy boom in the USA has fostered jobs and opportunity, contributing to some capacity in the American economy to separate from sluggish counterparts in Asia and Europe. Yet with oil prices imploding on a sharply higher dollar (bucks price oil, not vice versa), a boon for consumers at the pump becomes a bust for capital investment, and the latter is a key driver in parts of the US that have led job-creation.

Back to the Fed, the US central bank by both its own admission and data compiled at the Mortgage Bankers Association (see this MBA white paper if you’re interested) has consumed most new mortgages coming on the market in recent years, buying them from Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac and primary dealers.

Why? Consumption drives US Gross Domestic Product (GDP), and vital to recovery in still-anemic discretionary spending is stronger home prices, which boost personal balance sheets, instilling confidence and fueling borrowing and spending.

Imagine the consternation behind the big stone walls on Maiden Lane in New York. The Fed has now stopped minting money to buy mortgages (it’ll churn some of the $1.7 trillion of mortgage-backed securities it owns, and hold some). With global asset markets of all kinds in turmoil, especially stocks and commodities, other investors may be reluctant successors to Fed demand. Should mortgages and home-values falter in step with stocks, mortgage rates could spike.

What a conundrum. If the Fed fails to offer 2015 guidance on interest rates and mortgage costs jump, markets will conclude the Fed has lost control. Yet if a fearful Fed meets snowballing pressure on equities and commodities by prolonging low rates, real estate could stall, collapsing the very market supporting better discretionary spending.

Now look around the globe at crashing equity prices, soaring bonds, imploding commodities, vast currency volatility (all of it reminiscent of latter 2008), and guess what?  Derivatives expire Dec 17-19, concluding with quad-witching. Derivatives notional-value in the hundreds of trillions outstrips all else, and nervous counterparties and their twitchy investors will be hoping to find footing.

If you’ve ever seen the movie Princess Bride (not our first Market Structure Map nod to it), what you’re reading seems like a game of wits with a Sicilian – which is on par with the futility of a land war in Asia. Yet, all these things matter to you there in the IR chair, because you must know your audience.  It’s comprised of investors with responsibility to safeguard clients’ assets.

You can talk yourself blue about why your shares deserve to be carved out as prime turf apart from this seismic turbulence. Until risk and currency-instability clarify, investors won’t listen. Your effort will be better spent setting realistic expectations for management. The problem is intertwined global currencies, where a move here has an equal and opposite reaction there (witness dollars and rubles).

Markets could soar this week, depending on what the Fed does. As in October when markets abruptly stabilized at options-expirations, we’ve come again to the cliff. Do we stop, or go over (our data signal more risk yet)?

The answer lies beyond business fundamentals. That’s just a fact.

Ups and Downs

Suppose you were an elevator operator.

In 2013, the conservative Weekly Standard reported that the most senior member of the Senatorial coterie of button-pushers on the Hill pocketed about $210,000 in compensation, on par with investor-relations professionals.

The elevators have been automated in the Capitol since the 1960s, meaning anyone from Chuck Schumer (D-NY) to Senator-elect Bill Cassidy (R-LA) could push his own button and power a ride. When government-shutdown loomed in 2011, elevator operators were classed nonessential. But still they push and ride.

We’re not criticizing the Senate lift staff.  The people’s work has got to get done and our men and women leading the nation cannot be bothered with pushing their own buttons. But Ronald Reagan’s wry observation that the nearest thing to eternal life on earth is a government bureau comes to mind. In some office towers now, elevators are so automated that it’s impossible to disembark save at your predetermined destination. The elevator is alpha and omega.

So clearly, elevator-operation isn’t a growth industry. If that’s what you’ve been doing you’ll have to improve your skills and knowledge.  Jim Ziemer, who started as a warehouse freight elevator-operator retired as CEO of Harley-Davidson in 2009. There’s how you deal with ups and downs.

Looking at performance for active investment managers can make one wonder if IR is in the elevator-operator employment classification. The Wall Street Journal’s Jason Zweig wrote recently that 91% of active managers through September this year had underperformed the broad market (for years active managers have lagged but that’s a separate market-structure discussion).  IR spends most of its time and budget courting owners who can’t hold a candle to indexes and ETFs (in a sense, elevators that don’t need active managers as lift-operators). (more…)

Lava Cools

Euclid could have been a hedge-fund manager.

The Greek mathematician and father of differential geometry defined our understanding of three-dimensional shapes in roughly 280 BC. Thanks to Euclid we know what a cube is, and that right angles are all equal.

In 1982, mathematician James Simon started a money-management firm that would seek superior returns not by studying business strategies and financial statements but instead through adhering to mathematical and statistical methods, especially differential geometry. Today secretive Renaissance Technologies, called RenTech by most, manages $37 billion, mainly for its principals. Jim Simons retired in 2009 with an estimated personal fortune of $12.5 billion. Math works.

In 1999, two years after the SEC passed rules on handling trades and set regulations for alternative trading systems that today we call “dark pools,” Richard Korhammer and his engineering colleagues started a direct-access platform they named Lava Trading, a subtle nod to differential geometry and the construction of surfaces. Everything, including equity markets has a surface, and in stocks it’s the top of the book. But below it, in what’s not displayed, is where the action lies.

In 2003, Lava filed a patent on its technique for aggregating market data and placing some trades while hiding others – the top of the book versus the rest of the orders. Differential geometry. The firm became the market-share leader in direct access, a way to describe how investors could skip the stock exchanges to trade with each other.

In 2004, Citigroup spearheaded a dark-pool invasion by big brokers, buying Lava Trading for some $500 million and making it an independent unit. LavaFlow Inc. became known for its market-participant ID (MPID), a four-letter identifier traders use to see who’s driving orders.  Goldman Sachs’s primary MPID is GSCO.  Morgan Stanley’s, MSCO.

Lava’s was FLOW, and FLOW was everywhere. It’s still big. For the week ended Nov 10, FINRA ranked LavaFlow sixth among dark pools behind Credit Suisse, UBS, Deutsche Bank, and the star of Michael Lewis’s hit market-structure tell-all, Flash Boys, IEX.  Combine FLOW with Citi’s two other dark pools and Citi ranked third.

But Citi is chilling LavaFlow, hardening the surface, shutting it down.  In July this year, the SEC fined LavaFlow a record $5 million for permitting a smart order router, computer code that makes buy/sell decisions with high-speed data, to use confidential customer information in trading decisions.

The SEC said these orders totaled 400 million shares over three years. Citi dark pools match that much every two weeks so the allegations concerned roughly 1% of it, a rounding error.

Pulling out of a market where you’re ranked 3rd of 36 seems extreme. But it reflects facts that you must know in the IR chair. First, the stock market isn’t a “market” anymore, and brokers know it. A market by definition is aggregated buy/sell interest, and the stock market today is the opposite of that.

Number two, rather than admit the rules they made in 1997 birthed dark pools and shattered the stock market, regulators are going to regulate dark pools out of existence, and Citi sees it coming. If you think that’s good, remember how we got here to begin.

Third and perhaps most important, Citi ranks second in another market: Derivatives. Bloomberg reported in September this year that Citi has grown its derivatives business nearly 70% since the nadir of the financial crisis and now serves open derivatives contracts worth $62 trillion, second behind market-leader JP Morgan ($68 trillion). It’s the largest counterparty for interest-rate swaps, the biggest derivatives segment.  In derivatives, Citi IS the aggregator.

It fits what we see in equities. When energy stocks took a breathtaking hit the past few trading days following OPEC’s decision to maintain production levels, the behavioral shift was in hedging. The magnitude of movement in prices says it wasn’t driven by real ownership but notional value.

Notional value can reflect tremendous demand or its utter absence in the space of heartbeats because it’s not actual ownership.  We saw stocks drop 30% or more in two days without any meaningful movement in investment behavior.

This is what institutions are doing. It reflects the uncertainty of everything, everywhere. A great deal more money than most realize is putting and taking interest in stocks through derivatives like swaps. That fact is increasingly setting your share-price.  For Citi, the money is in this aggregation, not in equity fragmentation.

Happy Thanksgiving from Austin, TX!  Many of you are out too, seeing family for the holiday. Looking back at 2014, this Market Structure Map from Aug 27 was one of the year’s most widely read. Curiously, some of the same economic data points including the FHFA house-price index and the Case-Schiller Home Price Index were out this week again. 

If we know how many mortgage applications were filed last week, public companies should know what set their stock prices last week too. Every public company deserves good information about the equity market, and it’s not cooler to “just run the business and ignore the stock.” That would be like “just drive the car and ignore the fuel gauge.” Catch you after Thanksgiving!  -TQ

 

Aug 27: Beyond Curiosity

 

Let’s talk about houses.

Let me explain. Twice yesterday I encountered an issue, not a new one though. We were discussing it on a conference call too, preparing for a market-structure session Sept 9 at the NIRI Southwest Regional Conference here in Denver – which if you care about market structure is not to be missed. A highlight, Rajeev Ranjan, central banker with the Chicago Federal Reserve and former algo trader, will explain why the Fed cares whether high-speed traders are gaming equities and derivatives.

Anyway, what issue am I talking about?  I continue to hear executives and investor-relations officers say, “I don’t see why short-term trading matters when we’re focused on long-term investors.”

I hear some of you groaning.  “Quast,” you moan. “We don’t want to keep hearing the same stuff.”  I get that. If you already know the answer, you can cut out of the Market Structure Map early today.  Catch you next week.

The rest of you, if you’ve got a tickling there in the back of your head like a sneeze forming in the nose that you really don’t want the CFO to ask you why market structure matters, then let’s talk about houses.

Big money tracks residential real estate – houses. Just this week we had or will have reports on new home sales, the Federal Home Financing Administration’s housing index, the Case-Shiller Home Price Index, mortgage applications, and pending home sales. Decisions about construction, banking, credit-extension and more depend on these data.  They’re part of certain GDP components. (more…)

Feedback

You’ve got to know what to measure.

Every time I interact with anybody from an airline to my company’s communications providers, I get a survey. “How’d we do?”

It drives me crazy. It’s like Claymation customer service:  Move something, take a picture.  Move something, take a picture. You’ve seen clay animation?  Wallace & Gromit popularized cartoonish clay caricature (and cheese!). Each picture contributed to forming movement and emotion. Every snapshot is feedback that when viewed together become the story. It works in cartoons but isn’t a good customer-service model.

We’re inundated with market information in the investor-relations profession.  The feedback loop is so intensive that it can somewhere morph from meaningful to white noise. You don’t know what you’re measuring or hearing. The sequence of snapshots doesn’t translate to meaningful film. There’s no narrative in the data.

Back when I was in the IR chair, I’d hear all the time that we’d broken through moving averages.  Initially, I exclaimed, “Oh!” and added, “Thank you!” It was only later that I realized moving averages told me little and certainly weren’t entertaining like Claymation. What should I tell management?  “Unfortunately, there’s been a breakdown in our moving averages, prompting a sharp shift in perception.”

Really?

Here’s another metric that confuses busy with productive. We have clients with high short interest. The measure derives from a 1974 regulation from The Federal Reserve to track borrowing in marginable securities accounts as part of aggregate money supply.

Borrowing is a good measure of risk. To that end, if you’re interested in a riotous three-minute explanation of what’s wrong in Europe, click here (it’s a video clip so be appropriately prepared).

But what if we’re not measuring borrowing correctly? Short volume, or trading with borrowed shares instead of owned shares, is roughly 43% of the total market. This measure wasn’t created by the Fed in 1974. It’s current. It’s Claymation. We’ve studied short interest and short volume and found that the former often is inversely correlated with price-movements, suggesting that it’s a lagging indicator of risk (and thus a lousy one). Not so with short volume.

The ownership measure extant today, 13Fs, was created in 1974 as well. It’s deplorable as feedback on institutional behavior, coming 90 trading days after it might have occurred. Today, over $1.7 trillion of assets are held by Exchange-Traded Funds that post ownership positions daily, yet trades clear “T+3,” or potentially four days out.

Do you think about these things in the IR chair? Perception is, “Our price continuously reflects rational thought.” Reality is something else, demonstrably and statistically.  Speaking of which, I’m hoping to take the NIRI Arizona chapter on a rollicking safari through market structure today. Process is more influential than purpose.

What you don’t want to do with your IR forensics is confuse busy with productive. You can track vast seas of data that neither offer narrative nor animate it.  What’s the right feedback mechanism? Reality! What is money doing right now and what’s the likely impact in the future, and what’s that mean to actions in my IR program and what I communicate to management? (more…)

Sizing Ticks

Ticks are blood-sucking insects, about how regulators have viewed spreads between stock prices.

Country singer Brad Paisley sings that he’d like to walk you through a field of wildflowers and check you for ticks. As a kid in tick country on Oregon’s Snake River breaks, I pulled plasma-bloated fatsos off my skin and watched my grandmother touch match-reddened tweezers to protuberant tick buttocks on my grandfather’s scalp.

Now the Securities and Exchange Commission is studying ticks. It’s in regulatory parlance SEC Release No. 73511, File No. 4-657.  You can comment by email at rule-comments@sec.gov, or on the website, here (include “File No. 4-657” in any case).

Fittingly, we’re in New York this week where ticks began, a timely escape from the season’s first deep freeze in Denver.  Your stock trades in penny increments, or ticks, thanks to rules created by the SEC in the 20th century.

The belief then was that brokers were charging too much with wide spreads in securities that jobbed small investors. Shrink ticks to desiccated carcasses and mom and pop would win went the reasoning. Fifteen years after slimming ticks, the SEC has ordered a study on widening them. The SEC didn’t say it made a mistake last century. It just told exchanges, “See if there’s a better way.”

I’ve read File No. 4-657 from introduction to footnotes and definitions.  We’ve summarized before but hitting highlights, the exchanges have proposed three clusters and a control group comprising effectively all the 1,750-ish small-caps in the market. Stocks will quote in five-cent spreads but trade anywhere between, or trade in five-cent spreads, or trade at five-cent spreads with a “trade-at” rule, this latter blasted by brokers because it prohibits undercutting prices at exchanges. (more…)

Legging It

What are the implications?

Posing that question is a great conversation-starter unless you’ve just asked your teenage son about a substance you’ve found in his room that is not (currently in your state) sanctioned by the government, or if your party is on the long end of an election night.

What if stock orders are implied?  The Fear Gauge, the VIX, a derivatives contract from the Chicago Board Options Exchange, gives traders and risk managers the implications of volatility in the S&P 500.  But that’s not what we mean. Let’s keep going.

The stock market has become so complicated that few can describe how it works now. Many investor-relations professionals and public-company executives say “we just ignore the stock,” implying it’s cooler to act like you’re above it all (even though knowing nothing about any other market you’re responsible for would get you canned).

Chuckles aside, the implication is that it needs simplification. Public glare prompted the NYSE to pronounce earlier this year that it would prune its order types (yet it just launched a new one designed to help high-speed traders sell shares at the NYSE).

Aside: I’m speaking today at the NIRI Kansas City chapter about how the market became something nobody recognizes.

If you buy something at Amazon, the order type is the form you complete with your payment instructions and address that causes what you bought to show up on your doorstep.  This works well. (more…)

The Audience

“I’m going to write a four-letter word meaning intercourse,” my speech-class colleague Jim announced, striding to the chalk board. It was 1986.

Stunned, the rest of us stared open-mouthed.  The chalk clicked.  Jim stepped back and with a flourish gestured at what he’d written.

“Talk,” he declared.

Freshman college speech burned into my mind the importance of knowing your audience.  Seated there in the IR chair, who’s yours?

As you tee up an answer, let me tell you a story. It must’ve been a long last Sunday at Goldman Sachs.  Late Oct 26, with fanfare and after machinating immense quantities of data or perhaps just looking at sliding oil prices since August, the firm pronounced a new view for the energy sector. Oil, it said, would be priced lower than previously thought.

I’m poking fun, yet it was anything but for many in the energy sector Monday as the Goldman Tsunami appeared to crash over its investing audience, driving some energy and chemicals companies down 4-5% on a flat market day.

Okay, stop for a moment. It’s not your sector so you want to move on to your Twitter feed. Right? Stay put.  The same may apply to you and your peers.

Back to our story, the conclusion one would infer is that having waited for the vaunted Wall Street firm to speak, investors, teeth gnashing, doused themselves with ashes, donned sackcloth, and punched out of petroleum. (more…)

Perspective

It’s not what you think.  Heard that phrase before?

Last Wednesday, Oct 15, apparently everybody trading equities believed the world was dissolving in an apocalyptic stew of Ebola, European recession, unused petroleum, Chinese debt and Mideast terror. The DJIA at one point dropped 460 points.

Son of a gun. By Friday, October 17 we were back to milk and honey and Captain Crunch! The DJIA rose 263 points. Human nature is fickle. But this juxtaposition stretches credulity. It’s also a lesson on market structure.

In 2013, according to the Investment Company Institute, net US inflows to mutual funds were $152 billion, of which $52 billion went to target-date hybrid funds (mixes of bonds and equities based on one’s age), and about $53 billion to index funds, 82% of which track major market measures like the S&P 500. Exchange-traded funds garnered another $180 billion, mostly equity instruments that track funds tied to indices.

If two-thirds of the net new cash followed asset-allocation vehicles and a greater sum still sought ETFs, which post daily market positions, the likelihood that most of your price-movement reflects fundamentals is low unless you have an activist (event-driven money can catalyze bipolarity in market behavior – higher highs and lower lows).

There’s an animation sequence I’ve seen that starts with what appears to be mountains or desert from great height. Then our vantage point pans back and we see with surprise that it’s something else entirely: the brown pupil of a person’s eye.  We sweep back and the person is standing on a shoreline. Then back we scan across forests, mountains, rivers, countries and then continents until we’re in space seeing below us a lovely cobalt sphere, and we pan further, and it’s the blue pupil of a giant being. (more…)

Volatile

There’s no one-word description. The Ides of October arrives serene and tranquil in Denver, the Rockies dusted with recent snow, the sky intensely blue, deciduous trees on the boulevards colored like Jackson Pollock movements on a Wayne Thiebaud landscape.

By contrast, the equity market recalls the scrolling text concluding Clint Eastwood’s Oscar-winning Unforgiven:  “…of notoriously vicious and intemperate disposition.”

One-word summary: “Volatile.”

Why? Ideas abound. Teetering global growth. The threat of an African pandemic. Mideast conflict. Breaking Bad is off the air.  With the Chicago Board Options Exchange’s measure of implied S&P 500 volatility, the VIX, trading over 20 now and up 71% the past month, wringing hands accompany the ringing of opening market bells.

The VIX stood at 12.8 Sept 11, when the ModernIR 10-Point Behavioral Index (MIRBI) dipped below neutral (5.0) for the first time since Aug 4.  Back then, the MIRBI bottomed Aug 8 and turned positive Aug 14. This time, it’s still negative a full month later, marking the longest dour MIRBI attitude we’ve documented since developing the index roughly four years ago.

The MIRBI measures how money moved the past five trading days versus the five before that, in four demographic clusters (Active money, Asset-allocation, Fast Money, Hedging). This continuous sentiment conveyor belt is thus an excellent barometer of the totality of contemporaneous market behavior. It’s neither qualitative nor technical. It’s almost never wrong on market-direction because ups and downs demand the absence or presence of money – which is what it measures (and can change in a blink).

The big question: Why did all the money turn negative? (more…)