Outliers

“Since I started Baron Funds in 1982,” said Ron Baron on Squawk Box last week, “we’ve owned 2,500 stocks. Take 15 of them out and we’re average.”

Baron is quintessentially rational. Visit Baron Funds and click on About and the words across the top are Long-term Investors. Research-Driven. No better proof can be found than that the director of research at Baron, Amy Chasen, was the IR head at Avon for years.

There are 36 fund managers and analysts at Baron overseeing about $21 billion of assets and the firm since 1982 has distinguished itself via patience and homework. Pick good companies and hold them for a long time. 

What percentage of the picks would you expect to be outliers – top performers? Maybe 75%?  The firm is looking for outliers after all. They’re not aiming to be average like Blackrock and Vanguard.

Okay, that’s probably a high expectation. Every time we demonstrate Market Structure Analytics to somebody new we expect there’s a 35% chance, based on the numbers we track, that that person will become a client, because we’re also patient and persistent.

So let’s lower our target for Baron.  Seventy-five percent is too high but you’d think stock pickers would be hoping they’re right at least half the time.  No?

You already know the answer: 0.6% of the firm’s stock selections beat the averages. That’s what 15 of 2,500 is.  The other 2,485 choices add up to average.  Now the good news for Baron is they don’t have to be right often to be good.

The bad news for IR is that using Baron Capital as our index of investor-relations outcomes, the likelihood that you’ll stand out from the crowd is less than 1%. 

“Oh come on Quast, what is this? The beatings will continue until moral improves?”

Oh ye pessimists, it’s the opposite.  IR is not just a storyteller.  IR is the product manager of the equity market.  If your management team thinks you have a 90% chance of standing out from the crowd and you lead them to persist in that belief, you’re creating a lot of needless IR stress. 

It doesn’t mean you stop trying of course. According to our illustrious trade association, NIRI, which at long last as a CEO again, 92% of public companies hold earnings calls (you wonder who the 8% are that don’t, and I’d love to know if they trade differently than the 92% — and my bet is there’s only about a 1% chance they do).  We tell the story because we must. 

But it’s high time IR adapts to the market we’ve got and it’s a lot like retail.  By that I mean the money isn’t one demographic, any more than the customers in Nordstrom are all one demographic group (they may share some characteristics sure, but they’re not all the same age or gender or height or weight).

And by that I also mean you all have high-speed pricing. Do you know that Amazon changes the prices of many items every 15 minutes?  They reprice with algorithms in response to online demand.  Well, now all the other retailers have had to adapt.  Walmart, Target, Best Buy and others may change prices 5-6 times a day now. 

I’ve got the Market Structure Report for a large food company here in front of me. It traded over 53,000 times daily the past week. Theoretically it could be a different price every time. The spread each day between highest and lowest prices averaged 2.3%. Add that up over 20 trading days and it’s 46% of the stock’s market cap.

Retailers are continuously engaging in markdowns to rid the shelves of “the dogs,” the stuff that’s not selling. And some hot new thing will come along and demand patterns change and retailers start lifting prices. It’s happened to me with hotels and airlines.  You too?

Juxtapose that with long-term research-driven investment and you see the problem. The dominant investment behavior of the day is Blackrock and Vanguard. They want to peg the averages of these continuously shifting notions of what’s a dog, what’s hot, what’s up, what’s down, or what’s getting continuously repriced in fractions of seconds.

And it appears they’ll be right 2,485 out of 2,500 times, or about 99% of the time. Over the past decade, 98% of active fund managers (and I think Baron was in the 2%) failed to beat the S&P 500, says Morningstar (Dec 2005-Dec 2015 but you get the point).  

The 20th century was all about active investment for IR, and telling the story, and as a result 92% of us hold earnings calls. But we’ve got to catch up to the market. 

Sometime over the next decade, 92% of us should be viewing ALL the money as the audience, messaging to some of it and consistently measuring the rest, like retailers do. We’ve got to be data analysts in IR.

Because we won’t all be outliers.

The Clash

On Friday Feb 10, behavioral-change in the stock market rocked the Richter.    

Stocks themselves seem rather to be rocking the Casbah, Clash-style (obligatory Grammy Awards Week musical reference, and showing my age I reached back to 1982).  Plus it’s that time again: Options expire today through Friday.

Naturally, Janet Yellen picked this week to tell the market – I say “tell” loosely since her utterances are so inscrutable that we’re left to construe and guess – a rate-hike is coming.

I find it troubling that the regulator of the world’s most important banking system appears to be ignorant of how markets work. Why hint at momentous monetary matters two days before volatility bets lapse?  Then again, maybe it’s purposeful.    

And far easier than ruminating on Chair Yellen’s comments for signals is checking the Fed’s balance sheet. Want to know if the Fed will raise rates?  Look for big moves in either Reverse Repurchases or Excess Bank Reserves.

Let me interrupt here:  Investor-relations folks and investors, I return to the Fed theme because it remains the linchpin of the market. We’ll make it an intriguing visit!

On the Fed’s balance sheet, sure enough – big changes.  Excess Reserves have risen from about $1.8 trillion in January to $2.2 trillion last week (huge numbers, yes. For the 20 years before the financial crisis, excess reserves averaged about $10 billion). 

That’s a $400 billion push, almost as big as the $500 billion the Fed heaved at the market last January and February when it was collapsing under the weight of the mighty buck following the Fed’s first rate-hike in ten years.

You can hardly remember, right?  Back then, the top price-setter (followed by Fast Trading) was Asset Allocation – selling by indexes and ETFs jammed up at the exits.

It stopped because the buck didn’t. The dollar fell. When the dollar weakens, stocks generally rise because they are denominated, like oil, in dollars. Smaller dollar, bigger price.

And vice versa. The dollar strengthened ahead of the 1987 stock market crash.  Ditto the Internet Bubble. In May 2010, the dollar rose right ahead of the famed Flash Crash. Last January’s swoon? The dollar surged in November and December with the rate-hike.

From Mar 2009 until Aug 2014 the dollar was weak as the Fed trampled it, and stocks, commodities, bonds, housing and so on all rose.  Then abruptly in latter 2014 the Fed stopped beefing up dollar-supplies. Stocks statistically flatlined till Nov 9 last year.  The Dow was 18,000 in Dec 2014 and 17,888 Nov 4, 2016.

Since the Fed is no longer creating new dollars rapidly by buying debt, it instead moves money into or out of the counted supply.  Excess reserves increase the counted supply of money, which decreases dollar-value.  And yup, from early January to last week, the dollar dropped 4% (using the DXY, the dollar-futures contract from The ICE).

Why does that signal a rate-hike? Because increasing interest rates is akin to reducing the supply of money.  The Fed hopes the yin of bigger reserves will mesh with the yang of higher rates and stop the buck in the middle.

But the buck is back up 2% already. We come to the Richter move I mentioned to start.  We track the four big reasons people buy and sell stocks. From Nov 9 to Feb 9 as stocks soared, the leading price-setter was Active Investment. Rational people are bullish on American economic prospects.

But the Number Two price-setter is Risk Management – portfolio leverage with derivatives. And it’s nearly as big as Active Investment.  Investors are buying the present and betting on the future, which means both present and future back current stock-prices.

The problem arises if the future isn’t what it used to be, to paraphrase Yogi Berra.  And one axiom of Market Structure is that behavioral volatility precedes price volatility.  Much like clouds gather before a storm.

On Feb 10 clouds formed. Risk Management marketwide jumped almost 18%. It’s unusual to see a double-digit move in any behavior, and this is among the biggest one-day moves we’ve ever seen for Risk Management. Is money questioning the future?

It came right ahead of the Grammys. And more importantly, before Options Week and Janet Yellen.  Were we monitoring the Ring of Fire for seismic events, we’d be predicting a temblor.

Of course, in the same way that seismic activity doesn’t mean The Big One is coming, it might be nothing.  But stocks are near a statistical top in our 10-point Behavioral Sentiment Index again and the buck is rising toward a March rate-increase. Sooner or later, the present and the future will clash. 

Life will go on.  And we’ll be measuring the data. 

Hedging Bets

We’re in Steamboat Springs this week watching the moose on the snowbanks and letting the world slow down with them for a bit. 

It sets me to thinking. “Hedge funds would be better off doing nothing.”  So postulated (requires subscription) Wall Street Journal writer Laurence Fletcher last week after data from Chicago hedge-fund researcher HFR Inc. showed stock-betting funds that as a group manage about $850 billion lost money in 2016. 

You’re tempted to smirk. The smartest folks in the room can’t beat an algorithm! They can’t top the S&P 500 index fund your 401k owns.  Losers!   

Let’s rethink that perspective.  These are the professional athletes of finance. The New England Patriots of investing. If the best are failing, the ones sorting good companies from bad and chasing them either direction, then maybe we’re missing the real problem. 

Perhaps it’s not that hedge funds are losing but that the market isn’t what it seems.

And if hedge funds are confusing busy with productive, might we be too? The investor-relations profession shares common ground with them.  Great effort and time go into telling the story so it resonates. Hedge funds come at a cost because they’re ostensibly better at sorting fact from fiction. Both disciplines are about standing out.

Apple stands out for instance, touching a 52-week high yesterday following resurgent growth. Yet as my friend Alan Weissberger at fiendbear.com notes, Apple earned $8 billion less in 2016 than the year before and spent $20 billion buying back stock.

People are buying its future, is the retort. If by that one means paying more for less since it’s likely AAPL will continue to consume itself at better than 5% per annum, then yes. But that’s inflation – more money chasing fewer goods.

I’m not knocking our epochal tech behemoth. It’s neither pulp fiction nor autobiography to the market. AAPL is its pillar. Models aren’t weighing mathematical facts such as its 5.5 billion shares of currency out, 15% less than three years back. But who’s counting? Not SPY, the most actively traded stock, an exchange-traded fund and AAPL its largest component.

If the models needing AAPL buy it, the whole market levitates in a weird, creaking, unsteady way.  This is what hedge funds have missed. Fundamentals are now back seat to weighting. If you pack weight, the cool kids of the stock market, you rise. When you’re out of the clique, you fall.  Your turn will continually come and go, like a chore schedule.

Hedge funds are also failing to realize that there is no “long only” money today.  Not because conventional longs are shorting but because the whole market is half short – 48% on Feb 6. One of our clients was short-attacked this week with short volume 23% below the market’s average. We doubt the shorts know it. 

Hedge funds are chasing the market because they don’t understand it anymore. No offense to the smartest folks in the room. They’re confusing busy with productive, spending immense sums examining business nuances when the market is a subway station of trains on schedules.

There are two lessons here for investor-relations folks and by extension executives of public companies and investors buying them.  IR people, learn by observation. Don’t be like hedge funds, failing to grasp market structure and getting run over by the Passive train.  Learn how the market works and make it your mission to weave it into what you tell management. Structure trumps story right now.

Second, hedge funds show us all that there’s a mismatch between the hard work of studying markets and how they’re behaving.  Either work, smarts and knowledge no longer pay, or there’s something wrong with the market.  Which is it? 

Stay tuned! We’ll have more to say next time.   

Open Water

If you want to be creeped out – and who doesn’t? – see the movie “Open Water.” It explains the problem with Board reports in investor-relations too.

American director Chris Kentis based his 2003 film on real events. A couple go scuba-diving and are left behind at sea.  He spent $500,000 making it and earned $55 million at the box office. That’s not the part resembling Board reports, unfortunately.

I don’t want to spoil the movie if you’ve never seen it, but I won’t because it’s a psychological drama depending not on action but implication that takes place in one spot on the sea.  Imagine you went scuba diving miles from shore and surfaced and everyone was gone and the current kept you out?

Now suppose as an investigator later it was your job to measure what happened to the couple. You had at your disposal film of the very spot on the ocean that the couple had occupied. You play back four three-month time-lapse slices of film at high speed.

Nothing. Open water.  It’s all you see. Sky whizzes by, days and nights are nearly indistinguishable, the sea appears as an unmarked surface moving across time.

It’s the wrong measure.  To understand what happened to the scuba divers you’d have to zoom in and watch spare increments.  Then you’d see – wait, there.  Are those specks in the water?  Sure enough, two people.  What are they doing?  Now let’s watch….

And that’s what’s wrong with Board reports.  They don’t measure the stock market the way it works. Executives have long strategic horizons and companies are generally benchmarking progress every quarter and looking at years of stock performance.

But your stock is like scuba divers bobbing on the water and your business is as timeless as the sea by comparison to what sets price. Blink.  Okay, blink again. That’s 350 milliseconds, give or take.  Many stocks trade 500 times in one blink.

No, don’t report to the Board every blink in your trading. But if we’re going to impart understanding – the point of providing information – of how shares change in value over time, the measures must reflect the way the ecosystem for your stock functions.

Your buy-and-hold investors have the same horizons you do.  But that’s not the money setting prices most days. Because it buys, and holds.

About 40% of the volume in your stock aims at horizons of a day or less, and generally just fractions of seconds to catch a penny spread a thousand times. Another 33% moves with the ocean, indexes deploying and removing money metronomically with a model. Another 13% or so pegs opportunity to instruments derived from your shares such as options, futures, forwards and swaps with horizons of days or weeks at most.

So just 14% of your market cap traces directly to your long-term strategy.

You say, “That cannot be true.”

In 2006, half the value of the housing market traced to real estate and the rest reflected rights to homes via mortgage-backed securities, and in some markets it was more than 80%. We know because that’s how much home-values declined.

On May 6, 2010, the Flash Crash, the Dow Jones Industrial Average lost a thousand points, or about 10% of its value, in mere minutes, because the money with tiny horizons disappeared from the market.

On August 24, 2015, some exchange-traded funds diverged by 30% or more from the underlying value of assets because money with horizons far shorter than the business strategy of any of the stocks giving them derivative value left. Briefly.

Those are outliers but lesser manifestations are a thrumming reef of vibrancy every day in your stock. At ModernIR, we measure price-setting in one-day and five-day increments because it’s the only way to see the scuba divers bobbing in the water – or the Activists, the fleeting shift in risk-management behavior reflecting deal-arbitrage, the evaporation of momentum, the abrupt drop in index-investment, the paired behaviors indicative of hedge funds coming or going.

Were we to paint stocks with bold brush strokes, the nuances responsible for price-changes would be as flat and impenetrable as open water. And meaningless to the Board and the management team.

The next time you ready information for the Board, think about the ecosystem, which is frenetic – in stark contrast to business strategy.  If nothing else, make sure they recognize that at any given moment, price depends on the 85% oblivious to strategy.

That might seem frightening, like sharks. Like the sharks it’s but a fact of the stock ecosystem, something to be understood rather than feared (and if you want to learn about the ecosystem, ask us!).

Core Reality

“Our stock dropped because Citi downgraded us today.”

So said the investor-relations chief for a technology firm last week during options-expirations.

For thirty years, this has been the intonation of IR. “We’re moving on the Goldman upgrade.”  “UBS lifted its target price, and shares are surging.” “We’re down on the sector cut at Credit Suisse.”

But analyst actions don’t buy or sell stocks.  People and machines do. Thirty years ago you could be sure it was people, not machines.  Now, machines read news and make directional bets. And why is a sellside firm changing its rating on your stock smack in the middle of expirations?

We’ll get to that. Think about this. Investors meet with you privately to learn something about your business or prospects somebody else might overlook.  Analyst actions are known to all. You see it on CNBC, in new strings, from any subscription feed.

How could it be uniquely valuable information proffering investment opportunity?

Let me phrase it this way. Why would a sellside firm advertise its views if those are meant to differentiate?  If you’re covered by 50 analysts with the same view, how is that valuable to anyone?

Indexes and exchange-traded funds track benchmarks. Call them averages.  Brokers must give customers prices that meet averages, what’s called “Best Execution.” If most prices are average, how are we supposed to stand out?

Now we get to why banks change ratings during expirations. Citi knows (Citi folks, I’m not picking on you. Bear with me because public companies need to learn stuff you already know.) when options expire. They’re huge counterparties for derivatives like options, swaps, forwards, reverse repurchases.

In fact, yesterday’s market surge came on what we call “Counterparty Tuesday,” the day each month following expirations when the parties on the other side of hedged or leveraged trades involving derivatives buy or sell to balance exposure. They were underweight versus bets (our Sentiment Index bottomed Monday, signaling upside).

Sellside research is a dying industry. Over 40% of assets now are in passive-investment instruments like index and exchange-traded funds that don’t buy research with trading commissions as in the old days.

How to generate business?  Well, all trades must pass through brokers.  What about, say, nudging some price-separation to help trading customers?

How?  One way is right before the options on stocks are set to lapse you change ratings and tell everyone.  No matter who responds, from retail trader, to high-speed firm, to machine-reading algorithm, to counterparty backing calls, it ripples through pricing in multiple classes (derivatives and stocks).  Cha-ching. Brokers profit (like exchanges) when traders chase spreads or bet on outcomes versus expectations.

We’re linear in the IR chair. We think investors buy shares because they might rise, and sell them when they think they’re fully valued. But a part of what drives price and volume is divergences from averages because that’s how money is made.

In this market of small divergences, your shares become less an investment and more an asset to leverage. Say I’m a big holder but your price won’t diverge from the sector. I get a securities-lending broker and make your shares available on the cheap.

I loan shares for trading daily and earn interest. I “write” puts or calls others will buy or trade or sell, and if I can keep the proceeds I boost yield.

I could swap my shares for a fee to the brokers for indexes and ETFs needing to true up assets for a short time.  I could sell the value of my portfolio position through a reverse repurchase agreement to someone needing them to match a model.

Here’s why traders rent. Say shares have intraday volatility – spread between daily highest and lowest prices – of 2%, the same as the broad market. A high-speed algorithm can buy when the price is 20 basis points below intraday average and sell when it’s 20 basis points over (rinse, repeat).

If the stock starts and finishes the month at $30, the buy-and-hold investor made zero but the trader capturing 20% of average intraday price volatility could generate $4.80 over the month, before rental fees of say half that (which the owner and broker share).  That’s an 8% return in a month from owning nothing and incurring no risk!

Let’s bring it back to the IR chair.  We’d like to think these things are on the fringe. Interesting but not vital. Across the market the past twenty days, Asset Allocation was 34% of daily volume. Fast Trading – what I just described – was 37%. Risk Management (driving big moves yesterday) was almost 14% of volume.

That’s 85%. The core reality. Make it part of your job to inform management (consistently) about core realities. They deserve to know! We have metrics to make it easy, but if nothing else, send them an article each week about market-function.

Metrics

How many of you wear a Fitbit?

I remember the last time I saw Jeff Morgan, erstwhile NIRI CEO.  I said, “Jeff, you’ve lost weight. You’re a lean machine!”

He tapped his wrist, and said, “Fitbit. You can appreciate it, Tim. It’s just measuring data, right? Burn more than you take in.”

When we were roaming Barcelona last September, Karen’s phone was a cheering section congratulating us for achieving footstep goals.  Because there’s an app for that of course.

We’ve now bought a Peloton for our home gym, a finessed stationary bike replete with interaction and data. You can measure everything. You mark progress and capability.

On Friday the 13th the Wall Street Journal ran a story about online life insurance. Companies are using algorithms that parse lifestyle data from prescription-drug, motor-vehicle and credit-card sources to meter risk in place of testing blood and urine.

Data reveal facts about conditions. That’s the starting point. The next step is comparing data gathered in one period with the same metrics from another to see what’s changed. It’s what your doctor does.

And it’s the heart of financial reporting. We can debate the flaws of the requirement, but every quarter public companies are providing metrics to investors and analysts, who in turn model the data to understand business outcomes.

In fact, it’s the beat of the market. Every week data pours forth from governments and central banks on producer-prices and purchasing managers and jobs and consumer sentiment and on and on it goes.

I think it’s too much, promoting arbitrage on expectations versus outcomes. But think of the cognitive dissonance in our profession, investor-relations.  While everyone is measuring short-term, IR is trying to manage long-term. Yes, we want long-term commitment to our shares.  But that’s not how prices are set.

Unless you measure something the way it functions, you’ll get incorrect conclusions.

Much of the IR community isn’t measuring at all. We react. Right? The stock moves, and we call people for explanations.  How can answers be accurate without comparatives?  You don’t know what’s changed. No Fitbit is delivering data supporting conclusions.

The key to good management is consistent measurement. It’s the only way to understand an ecosystem and sort what you can control from what’s systemic.

Suppose I declare that I will float across the room.  Well, gravity, the rule governing the movement of bodies in this universe, says on this planet my pronouncement is flawed.

The gravity of the stock market is Regulation National Market System.  It defines how money moves from point A to point B.  We can observe those movements.

I showed a company yesterday how shares climbed from $60 to $70 during election week last November on Asset Allocation, and from $70 to $72 on Risk Management. That means ETFs and derivatives boosted shares.  Active money didn’t buy until the stock was at $75, even though it was selling the stock at $61 right before the election. Active money didn’t know what to do.

What followed? Fast Traders sold and shorted because the last fools to the party were the Active stock-pickers unaware of how the market works now.  No wonder many lag the averages.

If investors making rational decisions set the prices of stocks more than 50% of the time, the market can be called rational. Otherwise, it’s got to be called something else.  IR professionals, it’s your job to help management see the market realistically.

All the people talking about stocks are of a breed. The sea of money using models isn’t telling others what it’s doing!  But it’s setting prices.

You must measure now. What’s your Fitbit for the IR job?  Is it calibrated to the market we have today or one that no longer exists?

Case in point: I told a healthcare company recently that the data showed they would be unable to hold any gains until short volume were no longer consistently 65%.

“But our short interest is well below sector averages,” they said.

“That measure is from 1975,” I said. “It doesn’t reflect how the market works now.”

The stock dropped 8% yesterday and remains at the same average price it’s had since short volume rose over 60% well more than a quarter ago. The data – the Fitbit for IR – will tell them when conditions have changed.  Fitness can be measured in IR as it is elsewhere.

Measurement is management.  Put key metrics in front of your management regularly. Don’t wait to be asked for information – then it’s too late and you’ve lost control and become a glorified assistant (and they’ll define the job for you).

Create anticipation with metrics. “We’ve had a nice run but Fast Traders are leading, we’re Overbought, and short volume is over 50%, so expect some pressure next week.”

That’s what you should be doing.  Stop calling people for wild guesses unsupported by data AFTER something has occurred. Start measuring and setting expectations – especially around earnings, or events like options-expirations today through Friday.

You can only set expectations if you’re first consistently measuring and comparing key data points. This is evolved IR.  You can invent your own metrics. But we’ve already done that for you.

The Death Star

Last Sunday treated us to a picture-perfect Santa Monica day.

We were there helping investor-relations folks at the NIRI Fundamentals conference understand the stock market.

Of it, you probably won’t say to your CFO, “I bet you have no idea how our stock trades.” But it’s bad news if you’re asked by the CFO and have no answer.

So let’s talk about the Death Star. That’s what the industry bemusedly calls today’s trading environment.  The stock market is not at the corner of Broad and Wall or in the heart of Times Square.  It’s in New Jersey on banks of computers at several massive colocation facilities connected by superfast telecommunications infrastructure.

DeathStar

The Death Star (courtesy IEX, T Rowe Price)

The three big exchange groups today each operate four stock markets on those giant computer arrays. Suppose Nordstrom ran four stores in the mall rather than one. We’d think: “Why don’t they put the stuff in one place so customers can easily find it?”

Good question. We’ll answer it in a moment.

BATS Global Inc. is the largest stock exchange in the US now by market-share with its four platforms. Yet it lists only its own shares and exchange-traded funds. ETF trading is good business.

At two of them, traders are paid to buy shares, and at the other two they’re paid to sell (fees differ). This paying traders to buy or sell is called Maker-Taker/Taker-Maker.  Now, the Chicago Board Options Exchange is buying BATS Global.

The Nasdaq also pays traders one place to sell and pays them another place to buy. The Nasdaq is the largest options-market operator. Now the Nasdaq and the CBOE will both run large options/equities trading complexes with fees and credits that encourage traders to do opposite things in different spots, which is arbitrage.

The NYSE is owned by Intercontinental Exchange, and equity trading and listing are fragments of a global revenue colossus in derivatives helping financial players manage risk. ICE is also a huge technology and data purveyor.

By operating multiple platforms, the exchanges can set the best bid or offer, the market’s singular entry point, more often.  Each market then has unique data to sell to brokers and other exchanges, which in turn are required by rule to prove they’re giving customers the best prices – which means they have to buy the data.

There’s your answer. Exchanges operate multiple markets because they make money by changing the prices of everything and encouraging profits on differences. By promoting the arbitrage that vexes you in the IR chair, they sell data and technology.

The only exchange solely offering equity trading and listing that’s not intertwined with derivatives and influenced by trading incentives to set the bid and ask is the newest, IEX.  For our view on IEX and much more, catch the Chicago NIRI chapter’s webcast Friday.

The starting point for understanding any business is recognizing how it makes money.  The Death Star is an inferior capital-raising mechanism (it could be good again with rule-changes issuers should push).  Today, companies like Uber and Facebook grow giant on private equity and use the public market as an exit strategy.

Microsoft and Intel were like reality TV for stocks, taking everyday investors on the long and exciting process of growing in public for all to see and own. We can quibble over causality for this divergence. Our systems monitor the Death Star. It favors trading.

When you understand the Death Star, you arrive at this sort of answer for the CFO: “Since investors and traders can only trade at the best price, our price is most times set by the fastest machines. The big exchanges pay them to set the price so they have price-setting data to sell. They also encourage customers to engage in arbitrage.

“Occasionally active investors shoulder through the arbitrage.  Waves of asset-allocation flows can dominate.  A lot of the time derivatives lead because everybody is focused on managing risk, and in that process short-term divergences develop, which can be traded for profit. And this is why you need an IR professional more than ever.  Somebody has got to understand the Death Star.”

It’s easier to say, “I’m not sure but our story is central.”  It’s just not true most times.

Every IR gal or guy faces this moment of truth: Do I mail in the pat answer, or do I assail the battlements of convention and learn about the Death Star?

You can change your stars, as the Heath Ledger movie A Knight’s Tale asserts. Consistent metrics resonate with executives. If last week Active money led and Sentiment was Neutral, 5.0/10.0, and short volume was down, driving gains, they’ll want to know how those metrics changed this week. Measure and report.

They’ll look to you for the next episode of Star Wars, so to speak. That beats watching the stock or getting sent by them on wild goose chases for answers.  Embrace the change.

Speaking of change, we plan to launch in coming weeks daily sector reports highlighting key metrics – Sentiment, Key Behavior, Short Volume, etc. – for the eleven big industry classifications so you can see what’s happening in your group and how you compare.

There’s much more, so stay tuned! And don’t fear the Death Star.

Two Pillars

I hit a nerve.

What sparked the tempest was my assertion last week that investor-relations professionals can’t be just storytellers when over 80% of trading is not Active investment.  (For you investors, it’s why stock-picking is performance-challenged.)

It’s not that respondents raged against the machines of the markets, or at me. Folks just wondered what to do instead.

A good friend and respected veteran in communications prodded me.  “You need to be specific,” he said. “You do a good job explaining the market, but don’t fade to generalities at the finish.”

I’m paraphrasing. In my mind, I’m clear. Perhaps on paper I’ve been less so. I conceded that he must be correct. So as the new year begins with the prospect of blessings, here are two firm principles for IR:

Rule No. 1: Build a diverse palette of institutional relationships strategically, then consistently match product to consumer tactically.

The market at some point will treat your shares, which are a product, in a manner that departs from the story you tell to support them. Broaden the audience.

Investors, think about this from a stock-picking perspective. You can select companies with great fundamentals but if Asset Allocation models don’t like them, expect the stocks to lag.

And yes, it’s possible to know what kind of money moves into and out of which stocks or sectors. We do it every day. We’ll come to that with some real examples.

Now match product to consumer, which is good relationship-management. Make this tactic a simple weekly action. We lay out a plan for you. It turns on metrics.

Nordstrom doesn’t randomly call people when the new Eton shirts are in, or whatever. They know which customers buy those shirts because they measure and track behavioral data. IR should too, and can.

Say you’re a growth story. But your shares are falling. The data show it’s Fast Traders shorting your shares, not investors selling. You can only affect active money, but get specific. Call the kind that likes Eton shirts. Deep-value high-turn hedge funds.

Every IR team should build (strategy) three or four such relationships. Tactically follow up only when your product matches. Help them achieve their investment objectives. They’ll help your shares recover so you’re a growth stock matching story.

Rule No. 2:  Measure the kind of money setting price, and make it part of management’s thinking (which takes persistence).

We’ve made it simple with six key metrics. The stock market is not a single monetary demographic, and it’s not long-term. Facts. Not threats to IR.

Copernicus said the earth was orbiting the sun, not the other way around. People wanted to go on doing what they always had.  Help your management team adapt to the real world. Yes, they’ll resist. Don’t let them revert to incorrect practices.

Example: A health care company has for the last five of seven weeks had Fast Trading as the leading price-setter, and short volume is consistently 65%.  Price reverts repeatedly.

The IR professional should tell management so executives won’t waste money on trying to reach more investors or blame IR for communicating ineffectually.

The data say investors are not responsible. Sure, the team might pick relationships to call that buy Eton shirts – aggressive, able to take risks in trading ranges.  But high short volume signals investors prefer renting shares out to investing more money in them.

The vital action item here is to set realistic expectations for management – perhaps flat tell them that the story and strategy need adjustment if investors are to engage again.  That’s powerful. And cost-effective.

A big client did a massive deal. For months the data showed investors hated it. No matter what they said with their lips, their money was not setting prices. The team tracked data and tweaked message and finally behavior changed. The deal closed. Powerful data.

Another client tracked investor-engagement for a year through a short attack and industry disfavor but ended with Superb investor-engagement using our measure called Gamma.  Awesome success metric.

Another had become a momentum growth stock without a momentum growth story, thanks to industry expectations. Data showed the dilemma ahead of a call that would likely recalibrate expectations. It showed big downside risk. But the transition out by growth money and the point where value investors set price were measurable, helping the IR team consistently inform management despite a painful reset to price.

The most important effort in any management discipline is understanding how the ecosystem functions. It’s impossible to make good decisions by guessing.  IR is a product manager.

There are two pillars to great IR in the 21st century. Build and manage diverse institutional relationships, matching product to consumer. Measure the data, understand the behavior setting price, and communicate it to management relentlessly.

You can’t run a truly 21st century IR program without knowing what kind of money is setting your price.  And why would you?  I didn’t say you can’t run a program. But it’s that vital, essential.

You can know what sets price. You can see how money changes over time.  You can use it to run your IR program efficiently and proactively (it’s our plan to bring behavioral analytics to investors in 2017 too). And you can look cool and feel less stressed.

That’s a darned good 2017 strategy, resting on big pillars.

The Math

“Making investment decisions by looking solely at the fundamentals of individual companies is no longer a viable investment philosophy.”

So said Steve Eisman, made famous in Michael Lewis’s book The Big Short, upon shutting down his new investment fund in 2014.  Actor Steve Carrell portrayed Eisman as Mark Baum in last year’s hit movie from the book.

Michael Burry, the quirky medical doctor running Scion Capital in the book and the movie (played by Christian Bale), first earned street credibility via posts about stocks on Silicon Investor, the online discussion forum huge before the dot-com bubble burst.

But in the ten years after Regulation National Market System transformed the stock market in 2005 from a vibrant human enterprise into a wide-area data network, 98% of all active stock-pickers failed to beat the S&P 500, proving Mr. Eisman correct.  You can’t pick stocks on merits alone now.

That’s contrary to the legacy objective of the investor-relations profession, which is to stand the company’s story apart from the rest.

As with finding the root of the mortgage-industry rot, today the market is all about data.  Everything is.  Google Analytics examines internet traffic patterns.  ZipRecruiter is analytics for hiring. Betterment is analytics for personal investing.  HomeAdvisor and Angie’s List are analytics for home-repair. Pandora is analytics for music you like.

Pick your poison. Everything is data. So why, ten years after Reg NMS, is the IR profession calling someone to ask, “How come my stock is down today?” All trades pricing the market under Reg NMS must by law be automated.

If you’re calling somebody to ask about your stock, I’m sorry but you’re doing IR like a caveman. And, paraphrasing Steve Eisman, running the IR department solely by telling the story to investors is no longer a viable industry philosophy.

Why? Because it begins with the flawed premise that the money buying and selling your shares is motivated by fundamentals alone.  For the past decade – the span of Reg NMS – trillions have departed active stock-picking portfolios and shifted to indexes and Exchange-Traded Funds, because tracking a benchmark is a better path to returns.

Take yesterday.  All you had to do was buy technology and materials stocks.  Today it might be something else. The most widely traded stock on the planet is SPY, the S&P 500 ETF.  It traded $7 billion of volume yesterday, ten times BAC, the most active stock.

Here’s another. XLU, the Utilities ETF, was among the 25 most actively traded issues yet the sector barely budged, up 0.04%. Why active then? ETFs fuel arbitrage.  Profiting on price-differences. It’s not where prices close but how they change intraday.

Best trade yesterday?  NUGT, the leveraged gold ETF, was up 7.5% even though gold has been a bust the past month.  The S&P 500 took the whole year to gain 10% and then only on the Trump Bump. Between Dec 30 and Oct 31, the S&P 500 eked out 2% appreciation. You could triple that in a day with NUGT so why invest long-term?

“Boy, Quast,” you say. “It’s the holiday season! What are you, The Grinch?”

Not at all! The opposite in fact. I’m on a quest to make IR central to public companies again. We invented Market Structure Analytics, data for the IR profession to address the demise of IR as Storyteller.  The future for our profession isn’t a command of fundamentals but knowledge of market form and function.

Let me be blunt. Anybody can tell the story. Only IR professionals dedicate themselves to knowing how the market works – and that’s job security, a transferrable skill set.

The way IR shifts back from a rotational role to vital standalone profession is through knowledge of the stock market. If you want to be a biologist, study and understand biology. If you want to be a biology reporter, you just need to know some biologists (no offense to biology reporters).

Which will the IR profession be in 2017?

Having threshed trading data for 15 years now through the regulatory and behavioral transformation of the equity market, I feel a tad like those guys in The Big Short who studied mortgage numbers and concluded it was irrefutable: It was going to blow up.

These data are irrefutable: Over 80% of your volume most days is driven by something much shorter-term than your business strategy.  Ergo, if all you tell your Board and management is how your strategy influences the stock, you’ll at some point be in trouble.

This is the lesson of 2016.  Make 2017 the year IR transforms how the people in the boardrooms of America understand the stock market. That is an invigorating challenge that will breathe value into our profession. The math doesn’t lie.

Verve and Sand

The whole market is behaving as though it’s got an Activist shareholder.

In a sense it does.  More on that in a minute.

We track the effects of Activism on trading and investment behaviors both before it’s widely known and afterward. A hallmark of these event-driven scenarios is behavioral volatility. That is, one or more of the big four reasons investors and traders buy and sell stocks routinely fluctuates day-over-day by more than 10% in target companies.

(Aside: Traders and investors buy and sell stocks for their unique characteristics, when they have characteristics shared by others, to profit on price-differences, and to leverage or protect trades and portfolios. The market at root is just these four simple purposes.)

Event-driven stocks can override normal constraints such as Overbought conditions, high short volume, or bearish fundamentals.  In fact, short volume tends to fall for catalyst stocks because the cost of borrowing shares rises as more want to own rather than rent, and unpredictability of outcomes makes borrowing shares for trading riskier.

Currently in the broad market, shorting trails the 200-day average marketwide. The market has manifested both negative and overbought sentiment and has still risen.

And behavioral volatility is off the charts.

Almost never does the broad market show double-digit fluctuations in behavior because it’s a giant index smoothing out lumps. With quad-witching and quarterly index rebalances Dec 16, Asset Allocation ballooned 16.3% marketwide, signaling that indexes and ETFs are out of step with assets (and may be substituting).

Also on Dec 16, what we call Risk Management (protecting or leveraging trades and portfolios) jumped 12%. It’s expected because leverage with derivatives has been pandemic in markets, with Active Investment and Risk Management – a combination pointing to hedge funds – currently leading.

Here’s the thing. The combined increase for the two behaviors last Friday was an astonishing 28%.  Then on Dec 19 as the new series of marketwide derivatives issued, Fast Trading – profiting on price-differences – exploded, jumping 25%.

A 25% change for a stock trading $100 million of dollar-volume daily is a big deal. The stock market is about $300 billion of daily dollar-volume.

Picture a skyscraper beginning to sway.

Looking back, Risk Management jumped 16% with July expirations, the first after searing Brexit gains. The market fell from there to September expirations when again behavioral volatility exploded. The market recovered briefly before falling all the way to the election. With expirations Nov 18, Risk Management shot up 11.2%.

Behavioral volatility precedes price-volatility. We have it now, monumentally.

What’s happened in the broad market is a honeymoon before the wedding. The incoming Trump administration has sparked an investing surge betting on a catalyst – exactly the way Activist investors affect individual stocks.  Fundamentals cease to matter.  Supply and demand constraints go out the window. A fervor takes hold.

The one thing our long bull market has lacked is fervor. It’s the most hated – and now second longest ever – bull market for US stocks because so many have loathed the monetary intervention behind ballooning asset prices.

That’s all been forgotten and a sort of irrational exuberance has set in.

Those who know me know I embrace in libertarian fashion broad individual liberty and limited government because it’s the environment that promotes prosperity best for all. I favor a future with more of it.

We should get the foundation right though. I’ll use a metaphor.  Suppose a giant storm lashes a coast, burying it in sand. Some return to the beach to rebuild homes and establishments but much lies listlessly beneath a great grainy coat.

Then a champion arrives and urges people to build. The leader’s verve lights a fire in the breasts of the people, who commence building a vast structure.

Right on the sand.  Which lies there still unmoved, a shifting layer beneath the mighty edifice rising upon it.

It’s better to remove the sand – all the central-bank buildup from artificial prices, the manufactured money, the warped credit markets.  Otherwise when the next wave comes the damage will be that much greater.

So call me wary of this surge.