FX Effects

It’s all about the Benjamins, baby.

What I mean is, Forex (FX) is the world’s most active trading market, with some $5 trillion daily in currencies changing hands on a decentralized global data network.  It can teach us how to think about the effects of Exchange-Traded Funds (ETFs) on stocks.

It’s a 24-hour-a-day market, is FX. And by the way, I’m moderating a panel called “24 Hours of Trading: What You Should Know About Market Structure” Friday at the NIRI Silicon Valley Spring Seminar.

We’re the closing panel, and happy hour follows, so come learn from our outstanding guests and stay for a beverage.  Every investor-relations professional should know how the stock market works now, because the reason we have jobs is the stock market.

Back to our thesis, ETFs trade like currencies. So they’ll have the motivation found in currency-trading.

Currencies trade in pairs, like the dollar/euro, and transactions are in large defined blocks. Most FX trades are bets that a currency will move up or down, producing a profit.  It’s always a pair – if you’re selling a currency, you’re buying another.

The transactions that create ETFs are also in blocks, though they occur off the stock market between ETF creators and broker-dealers. If you want to know more, read this.

The pair in ETF trading is stocks. In fact, ETFs by rule must have what the SEC terms an “arbitrage mechanism.” That’s esoterica meaning there are two markets for ETFs, fostering different prices for the same thing.  ETFs are created wholesale off-market in big blocks and sold retail on the market in small pieces.

The big profit opportunity, though, as with currencies, is in the pair, the underlying stocks. They move apart, creating profit opportunities. Last week, the average spread between the stocks comprising a sector and the ETF for trading that sector was 57 basis points (we wrote about these spreads).

No wonder ETFs are cheap for investors. You can make as much trading them in a week as Active investment managers charge for managing portfolios for a year (SEC: why do ETFs charge a management fee at all, since they don’t manage customer money?).

Let me use an analogy. Picture a gold-backed currency. There’s a pile of gold. There’s a pile of money representing the gold. To have more money, there must be more gold.

Of course, all gold-backed currencies have dropped the gold, because the pile of gold, which is hard to get, fails to pace the easy creation of paper.

ETFs are stock-backed currencies. There are piles of stocks off the market. There are piles of ETF shares issued into the stock market that represent the value of stocks.

Managing collateral isn’t really investment. The head of equities for a big global asset manager told me they’d gotten into ETFs because of a decade-long rout of assets from stock-picking funds.

He said it’s a completely different endeavor. There are no customer accounts to maintain.  The focus is tax-efficiency, managing collateral, constructing the basket, relationships with Authorized Participants who create ETF shares.

He said, “And then what do you need IR (investor relations) for?” They’re not picking investments. They’re efficiently managing the gold backing the currency.

Nasdaq CEO Adena Friedman told CNBC’s Squawk Box Monday, marking the 20th anniversary of the QQQ, “If there’s too much index investing and not enough individual investing, then there become arbitrage opportunities.”

She meant “arbitrage opportunity” not as a good thing but as a consequence of too much passive money.  The focus of the market shifts to spreads and away from fundamentals. The QQQ is a big success. But ETFs have now exploded.

Much of the volume in ETFs is arbitrage, because the arbitrage mechanism is the only way they can be priced – exactly like currencies now.

Investors and public companies act and think and speak as though fundamentals and economic facts are driving the market. The more the market shifts toward collateral and currency, the less fundamentals play a pricing role.  This is how ETFs are giving stocks characteristics of an FX market where the motivation is profit on short-term spreads.

Like currencies, changes in supplies are inflationary or deflationary. Consider how hard it is for countries to reduce supplies of currency.  Whenever they try, prices fall. Falling prices produce recessions. So instead countries don’t shrink currency supplies and we have catastrophic economic crises.

Are ETF shares keeping pace with the assets backing them? It’s a question we should answer. And IR folks, your relevance in this market is as chief intelligence officer measuring all the forces behind equity value. You can’t remain just the storyteller.

Manufactured Spreads

Did Exchange Traded Funds drive the recent market rollercoaster?

The supply of ETF shares moved opposite the market. The S&P 500 fell about 16% in December and rose around 19% from Dec 24 to March 5.  In December, says the Investment Company Institute, US ETFs created, or introduced, $260 billion of ETF shares, and redeemed, or retired, $211 billion.

So as the market tumbled, the number of ETF shares increased by $49 billion.

We saw the reverse in January as the market soared, with $208 billion of ETF shares created, $212 billion redeemed, the supply shrinking a little.

If ETFs track indexes, shouldn’t available shares shrink when the market declines and increase when the market rises?  Why did it instead do the opposite?

One might point to the $46 billion investors poured into equity ETFs in December at the same time they were yanking $32 billion from Active funds, says Morningstar.

Again a contradiction. If more money flowed to equities than left, why did the S&P 500 fall?  Don’t stocks rise when there are more buyers than sellers, and vice versa?

The fact that data and market behavior are at loggerheads should cause consternation for both investors and public companies. It means we don’t understand supply and demand.

One explanation, the folks from the ETF business say, is that inflows to ETFs may have been short. That is, when ETF shares increase while stocks are falling, ETF creators are borrowing stocks and trading them to Blackrock and Vanguard to create ETF shares for investors, who borrow and sell them.

These people explain it in a tone of voice that sounds like “aren’t we geniuses?”

But if true, the unique characteristics of ETFs that permit them limitless supply and demand elasticity contributed to the market correction.

We cannot manufacture shares of GE to short.  But ETF market-makers can manufacture ETF shares to short. How is that helpful to long-only investors and public companies?  The behavior of stocks separates from fundamentals purely on arbitrage then.

Here’s another statistical oddity: The net shrinkage in January this year marks only the third time since the 2008 Financial Crisis that the monthly spread between ETF creations and redemptions was negative. The other two times were in February and June last year, periods of market tumult.

And still the ETF supply is $45 billion larger than it was when the market corrected (near $55 billion if one adds back market-appreciation).

We conducted an experiment, tracking week-over-week gains and losses for stocks comprising the eleven General Industry Classification System (GICS) sectors and comparing changes to gains and losses for corresponding sector ETFs from State Street, called SPDRs (pronounced “spiders”) from Dec 14 to present.

Startlingly, when we added up the nominal spread – the real difference between composite stocks and ETFs rolled up across all eleven sectors – it was 18%, almost exactly the amount the market has risen.

What’s more, on a percentage basis the spreads were not a penny like you see between typical best bids to buy and offers to sell for stocks. They averaged 5% — 500 basis points – every week.  The widest spread, 2,000 basis points, came in late December as stocks roared.

Now the spread has shrunk to 150 basis points and markets have stopped rallying.  Might it be that big spreads cause traders to chase markets up and down, and small spreads prompt them to quit?

Now, maybe a half-dozen correlated data points are purely coincidental. False correlations as the statistics crowd likes to say.

What if they’re not?  Tell me what fundamental data explains the market’s plunge and recovery, both breath-taking and gravity-defying in their garishness? The economic data are fine. It was the market that wasn’t. What if it was ETF market-making?

The mere possibility that chasing spreads might have destroyed vast sums of wealth and magically remanufactured it by toying with the supply of ETF shares and spreads versus stocks should give everyone pause.

Investors, you should start thinking about these market-structure factors as you wax and wane your exposure to equities.  If fundamentals are not setting prices, find the data most correlated to why prices change, and use it.  We think it’s market structure. Data abound.

And public companies, boards and executives need a baseline grasp on the wholesale and retail markets for ETFs, the vast scope of the money behind it — $4.5 TRILLION in 2018, or more than ten times flows to passive investors last year – and what “arbitrage mechanism” means. So we’re not fooled again (as The Who would say).

What do data say comes next?  Sentiment data are the weakest since January 7 – and still positive, or above 5.0 on our ten-point Sentiment scale. That’s a record since we’ve been tracking it.

So. The market likely stops rising.  No doom. But doom may be forming in the far distance.

Clashing Titans

While Karen and I consumed Arctic Char in Iceland, stock exchanges sued the SEC.

Talk about a big fish story.

The NYSE, Nasdaq and CBOE, representing about 57% of trading volume over a combined twelve platforms, asked a federal court to halt the SEC’s plan to test changes to trading fees and credits via a Transaction Fee Pilot program set to begin late in 2019.

It’s the more curious because investors transacting in markets generally support the planned study. Reading through hundreds of comment letters (including our own, offered in support), we tallied around $24 trillion of assets backing the test.

What’s got the exchanges in such a tizzy about a probationary effort – not an actual rule-change, mind you – that they’ve lawyered up?

The answer lies in the four key tenets of Regulation National Market System, a sort of current Magna Carta for stock-trading in the USA.  Every investor-relations professional and investor should know baseline facts about it.

In 1975 when the USA was mired in screaming inflation, a plunging dollar loosed from its gold moorings in 1971, an oil crisis, and failure in Vietnam, the US Congress decided to throw a fence around stock markets as a vital strategic interest.

So they passed the National Market System amendments to the Exchange Act of 1934, now part of the leviathan United States Code, 15 USC, Section 78c.

Oh boy.

The wheels of regulation mire in swampy muck, so it was thirty years later when the SEC finally got around to fulfilling the vision (no longer needed, in my view) Congress saw in 1975.  Enter Reg NMS.

The regulation has four pillars.  First, exchanges must ensure that stocks trade only at a single national best price (the Order Protection Rule). Second, the SEC – and this is the essence of the Fee Pilot – capped (the SEC said “harmonized”) what exchanges could charge so nobody would be priced out of access (The Access Rule) to stock quotes. It also required a spread between the bid to buy and offer to sell. No locked (same bid, offer) or crossed (higher bid than offer) markets.

Third, the law prohibited stock-quotes (unless under $1 in value) in increments of less than one penny (in effect, guaranteeing speculative traders a profit, because while quotes are in pennies, trades are often in far smaller increments at variations of midpoints) so every stock would have a bid and offer separated by at least a penny.

Finally, the law changed how revenue from data (Market Data Rules) would be allocated.

Reg NMS was implemented in 2007.

I think a legal case could have been made that both decimalization and Reg NMS six years later were unconstitutional. Nowhere does our governing charter give Congress the power to set prices and commandeer property not for public use.

Yet it did so by forcing exchanges to share what before had been proprietary intellectual property – data – and setting what they could charge for services. So how ironic is it that now exchanges are suing to keep this structure?

Not ironic at all when you realize that big exchange groups (the newest entrant IEX is not suing, supports the fee pilot, and didn’t build business on data and technology services) have exploded in size, profits, revenues and influence under Reg NMS.

Humans are an intelligent species. We adapt. The exchanges discovered that they could pay traders to set the bid and offer, and sell the data generated in that process – and then sell all kinds of services for using that data effectively.  Genius!

The pilot plan threatens this construct.

You’ll read that the concern is brokers routing trades for payments instead of where it’s best. That’s to me a red herring.

We oppose prices set by participants wanting to own nothing. They distort fair value, supply, demand, and borrowing. If you use our analytics, you know it’s 44% of trading volume directly, and over 70% indirectly (we calculate that 94% of SPY volume is arbitrage).

If half the volume is intermediation, the market is a mess.

The stock market is supposed to match investors and public companies. Reg NMS derailed the market’s central purpose. That’s my opinion. Predicated on data. I run a technology firm that for the entirety of the Reg NMS regime has measured the collapse of rational thought and capital-formation consequent to this regulation.

The stock market today is a great place to trade stuff. Exchange Traded Funds have prospered because they’re by law dependent on arbitrage, profiting on different prices for the same things. The regulatory structure requires different prices for the same things.

Let’s summarize what’s occurring. The exchanges have invested billions of dollars to make money under Reg NMS. And they’ve succeeded.

The SEC now realizes that Reg NMS hurts the root purpose of equity capital markets and it wants to test ways to roll back rules promoting short-term trading.

The exchanges are opposed because short-term trading is the very cornerstone of profitable data and technology services.

I don’t fault them.  But come on, guys. The SEC has finally seen how the market has devolved into a laser light show of speculation and fleeting intermediary profiteering that has pushed meaningful capital-formation into private equity.

That in turn defrauds mom and pop investors of the Intel Effect (I don’t have to explain it), and my profession, investor relations, of a thriving job market.

Could we run this test, please, and see what happens, exchanges?

Best of MSM: Market Structure Matters

EDITORIAL NOTE: We returned last night on a 7-hour flight from Iceland, weighed down with breathtaking photography. As with market structure, there’s too much material to offer more than a snippet at a time.  I wish we could show you everything. It’s the land of fire and ice (we trekked well into the mountains to soak in hot springs). Water pours from glaciers (and we hiked one). And Reykjavik enchants.  As with markets now, Iceland sits atop turbulent plumbing that at any moment can spout like a geyser or volcano. In markets, I returned to see the volatility gauges shaking in the data.  We’ll talk about that next week. This week, let me take you back nearly six years to March 2013: 

“I get out and meet investors. Tell the story. The rest is noise.”

That’s what an IRO I’ve known since the 1990s said last week over a web meeting about Market Structure Analytics.

Speaking of which, we’ll be discussing this notion with two investor-relations officers who make Market Structure part of complete and exciting IR programs at IR Magazine’s West Coast Think Tank April 4 in Palo Alto. Space is limited. If you want to join our conclave, email me for an invitation.

There are three big reasons why telling the story and ignoring the market is a bad idea. First, anybody can do that (I know – I used to do it!). It’s IR measured by setting meetings, which is like monitoring the success of an advertising campaign by counting the ads you’ve run. It’s clerical.

IR is not a clerical function. It’s not about setting meetings. It’s a strategic effort with direct implication to the reason your business exists: To deliver shareholder value. As I once contended with my CFO when I was in the IR chair, if we’re not willing to spend the price of one non-deal road show on tools to measure what we’re doing, then why are we doing it? (I got the tool, by the way, but it didn’t do what we needed…and that’s why Market Structure Analytics exist today).

A decade ago when I was an IRO, rules were swiftly swinging into place that now have transformed trading. Enron and Worldcom and Elliott Spitzer’s contention that research and trading should be separated and an SEC decision to replace vibrant and unimpeded commerce with a National Market System were just flaring like dust devils in plowed Midwest fields. Fundamental investment hadn’t yet been routed from public markets to private equity by the Indy Racing version of equity-trading, and a majority of volume still had bottom-up roots.

Which leads to Reason No. 2 why telling the story and ignoring the market is a bad idea. If we know these things have transformed markets, how could institutional investment behavior not similarly transform? It’s a bit like assessing the climate in Phoenix with the rain gauge you had in Seattle.

Which highlights Reason No. 3 why telling the story and ignoring the market is a bad idea. There’s a better gauge. You don’t have to use a smart phone, but the technology exists. You don’t have to check the weather report before heading up the hill to ski, but you can, and should. You don’t have to guess your way driving around town. There’s GPS.

Business managers measure operations for feedback. IROs should measure the market (as it functions now, not as it did in 1980) for feedback. That technology exists. It’s transformative, exhilarating, to move from guessing to knowing. To see behaviors in living color telling you the risk or reward ahead in your shares.

Few things can elevate IR to a higher strategic plane of value and importance than defining and owning success measures. These become tools that help you command a regular chair in the Boardroom. Yesterday’s measures won’t earn today’s success.

Watch the Machines

As dawn spreads across the fruited plain today, we’re plunging into Iceland’s Blue Lagoon.  If we learn market-structure secrets here, we’ll report back next week.

Meanwhile, stocks have been emitting the effervescence of a Sunday brunch mimosa bubbling a happy orange hue.  Market Structure Sentiment™ for stocks as measured daily has posted a record stretch at 6.0/10.0 or higher.

What’s that mean ahead?

Here’s back-story for those new to the Market Structure Map. We formalized what we first called MIRBI (merbee), the ModernIR Behavioral Index, in Jan 2012. Market Structure Analytics is the science of demographics in the money behind prices and volume. We can measure them in your stock, a sector, the whole market.

Correlated to prices, volatility and standard deviation, behaviors proved predictive. We built a ten-point quantitative scale from Oversold at 1 to Overbought at 10. Stocks mean-revert to 5.0 and trade most times between 4.0-6.0. Market Structure Sentiment™ has signaled nearly every short-term rise and fall in stocks since 2012, large and small.

In both late January 2018 and late Sep 2018 preceding market corrections, Market Sentiment topped weakly, signaling stocks were overbought and pressure loomed.

If corporate fundamentals consistently priced stocks, this math wouldn’t matter. Active Investment can only blunt market structure periodically. Just the way it is.

It reflects a truth about modern markets: Machines set prices more than humans. So, if you want to know what prices will do, watch the machines. Investor-relations professionals and investors must know market structure now. Otherwise we blame humans for things machines are doing.

Getting back to the future, we recorded a couple long 6.0+ stretches in 2012. They presaged plateaus for stocks but nothing else. It was a momentum market rich with Fed intervention, and European bond-buying to prop up the euro.  Scratch those as comparatives.

Same drill in two 2013 instances, May and July. We had a blip, but the rocket sled was burning central-bank nitrous oxide and barely hiccupped.

After the Federal Reserve hiked rates in December 2015 for the first time in ten years, the market nearly imploded in January. This would prove – till further notice – to be the last time the Fed overtly intervened.

After stocks showed gaping cracks to begin the year, by Mar 2016 excess reserves at the Fed had soared by $500 billion.  The dollar swooned.  Stocks surged. And Market Structure Sentiment™ marked the longest recorded stretch above 5.0.

By Nov 1, 2016, before Donald Trump’s election, however, stocks were back to Dec 2014 levels. I think the bull market was ending but Trump’s ascendency gave it new life.

Cycles have shortened because the bulk of behaviors changing prices every day are motivated by arbitrage – profiting on price-differences. True for Fast Traders, ETF market-makers, market-neutral strategies, global-macro allocations, counterparties.

The length of trading cycles, I believe, depends on the persistence of profits from arbitrage.  Volatility bets expire today, index options tomorrow, with full options expirations and index true-ups Feb 15th.

We may not yet mark a cycle terminus, but arbitrage profits are thinning. For the week ended Feb 2, spreads between sector ETFs and sector stocks totaled 10.5%. Last week it was down to 5.6%.

Further illustrating, Healthcare stocks were up 1.6% the five days end Feb 2, and down 1.6% the week of Feb 8 (and the sector is down the past five days). Real Estate and Utilities offered behavioral data saying they were market hedges – and they’re the two best performers the past five trading days.

I’m confident we’ll see this trading cycle end first in peaking Market Structure Sentiment™ (linked here for Sep 4-Feb 11). It faltered briefly but hasn’t fallen.

As to a big prediction? Past performance guarantees nothing, yet forgetting history condemns us to repeating mistakes. There’s a balance. Seen that way, this long positive run may be the earliest harbinger of the last bull run ending 6-9 months out. Machines will be sifting the data. We’ll watch them.

Now if you’ll excuse us, we’re going to slip into this wildly blue lagoon.

 

Flowing

The Investment Company Institute (ICI) says US equities saw net outflows of $5.1 billion Jan 2-23, the latest data. Add the week ended Dec 26 and a net $26.2 billion left.

So how can stocks be up?

Maybe flows reversed after the 23rd?  Okay, but the S&P 500 rose 12.2% from Dec 24-Jan 23.  It’s now up about 16%, meaning 75% of gains occurred during net outflows.

Is the ICI wrong?  In a way, yes.  It treats redeemed Exchange Traded Fund (ETF) shares as outflows – and that’s not correct.

Let me explain. The stock market is up because of whatever is setting prices. We measure that stuff. The two big behaviors driving stocks Dec 26-Feb 4 were Passive Investment, and Risk Mgmt, the latter counterparties for directional bets like index options.

That combination is ETFs.

ETF shares are redeemed when brokers buy or borrow them to return to ETF sponsors like Blackrock, which exchanges them for stocks or cash of equal value.

If ETF shares are removed from the market, prices of ETFs tighten – and market makers bet long on index and stock options. That’s how derivatives rally underlying assets.

See, ETFs depend on arbitrage – different prices for the same things. And boy do prices differ. We track that data too.  When ETFs rise more than underlying stocks, the spreads are small. Stocks are far less liquid than ETFs because share-supplies don’t continually expand and contract like ETFs.

As an example, Consumer Discretionary stocks were up 1.6% last week (we meter 197 components for composite data on behaviors, shorting, Sentiment, etc.).  But the State Street Sector SPDR (pronounced “spider,” an acronym for S&P Depository Receipts, an ETF) XLY was up just 0.2%.

XLY is comprised of 65 Consumer Discretionary stocks. As we’ve explained before, ETFs are not pooled investments.  They’re derivatives, substitutes predicated on underlying assets.

So it really means State Street will take these stocks or similar ones in exchange for letting brokers create ETF shares, and vice versa.

You can’t short a mutual fund because it’s a pooled investment.  You can short ETFs, because they’re not. In fact, they’re a way to short entire sectors.

Want to pull down a swath of the market? Borrow key components correlated to the ETF and supply them to a big broker authorized to create ETF shares, and receive off-market blocks of a sector ETF like XLY. Then sell all of it on the open market.

It happened in December.

Here’s how. A staggering $470 BILLION of ETF shares were created and redeemed in December as the market plunged, putting the Nasdaq into bear territory (down 20%) and correcting major indices (down 10% or more).

And guess what?  There were $49 billion more creations than redemptions, which means the supply of ETF shares expanded even as the market declined.

I doubt regulators intended to fuel mass shorting and supply/demand distortion when they exempted ETFs from key provisions of the Investment Company Act of 1940 (and how can they do that, one wonders?).

But it’s happening. More proof: shorting in stocks topped 48% of all volume in December.

Returning to spreads, we’ve since seen the reverse of that trade. Stocks are being arbitraged up in value to reflect the supply of ETF shares outstanding, in effect.

And shorting has come down, with 5-day levels now below 20- and 50-day averages.

We’ve showed you ETF patterns before. Here’s the Industrials sector, up 5% the past week. Those purple and green bars?  ETFs. Stocks, plus leverage.  The purple bars are bigger than the green ones, meaning there is more leverage than assets.

That was true Jan 8-15 too, ahead of expirations the 16th-18th, the only period during which the sector and the market showed proportionally flat or down prices (see linked image).  Traders used their leverage (options volumes in 2018 crushed past records – but the culprit is short-term ETF leverage, arbitrage. Not rational behavior).

Why should you care about this stuff, investor-relations professionals and investors? We should know how the market works and what the money is doing. With ETF-driven arbitrage pervasive, the market cannot be trusted as a barometer for fundamentals.

Your boards and executive teams deserve to know.

What can we do? Until we have a disaster and the SEC realizes it can’t permit a derivatives invasion in an asset market, we must adapt. Think ahead.

For companies reporting results next week or the week after, risk has compounded because this trade is going to reverse. We don’t know when, but options expire Feb 14-16. Will bets renew – or fold?

Whenever it happens, we’ll see it coming in the data, by sector, by stock, across the market, just as we did in late September last year before the tumult.

Short-Term Borrowing

Half the volume in the stock market is short – borrowed. Why?

It’s the more remarkable because stocks since late December have delivered an epic momentum rebound. A 15% gain is a good year. Half the sectors in the market were up 15% in just the last 25 trading days.

Yet amid the stampede from the depths of the December correction, short volume, the amount of daily trading on borrowed shares, rose rather than fell, and remains 48%.  That means if daily dollar-volume is $250 billion, $120 billion is borrowed stock.

What difference does it make? We’ve written before that the stock market now has characteristics of a credit market.  That is, if lending is responsible for half the volume, the market depends on short-term loans rather than long-term investment.

And share-borrowing, credit, will give the market a false appearance of liquidity.

Think about the sudden and massive December declines that included the worst-ever points-loss for the Dow Jones Industrial Average.  Was that a liquidity problem? Does a V-shaped recovery signal a liquidity problem?

Before the Dodd-Frank financial legislation, large banks might carry a supply of shares to meet the needs of customers, especially stocks covered by equity research.

With rigid value-at-risk regulations now, banks don’t hold inventory.  The supply chain for the stock market has shifted to proprietary fast traders, which don’t carry inventory either. They borrow it.

We define liquidity as the number of shares that can be traded before the price changes.  Prior to electronic markets, trade-sizes were ten times larger than today.  The mean trade-size the last five days was 181 shares, or about $13,500 against an average market price of $74.61.

But a few liquid stocks skew the average.  AAPL’s liquidity is over $23,000, its average trade-size. WMT is the average, about $13,000. GIS is half that, about $6,800.

AAPL is also 57% short – over half its liquidity is borrowed.  And AAPL is used as collateral by 270 Exchange-Traded Funds (ETFs). Related?

(Side note: Why would AAPL be used more than other stocks in an index if ETFs are tracking an index? Because ETFs only use a sample, often the biggest stocks that are liquid and easy to borrow.)

These three elements – fast traders, high borrowing levels, ETFs – are intertwined and they create risks of inflation and deflation in stocks that bear no correlation to fundamentals.

The market, as we’ve said before, always reflects its primary purposes. If the parties supplying the market with shares are borrowing them, they have an economic interest that will compete with the objectives of those buying shares as an equity investment.

Second, borrowing is a back-office brokerage function. With massive short-term securities lending, the back office becomes as important as the cash equities desk. And it’s a loan business, a credit market (a point made by the insightful academics comprising the Bogan family).

And ETFs? If you want to know how they work, read our white paper. ETFs are not pooled investments. They are collateralized stock substitutes. Derivatives.

Collateral is something you find in a credit market. ETF collateralization, the wholesale market where ETF shares are created and redeemed, is a staggering $400 billion per month in US equities, says the Investment Company Institute.

It’s cheap and easy for brokers to borrow the shares of a basket of stocks and supply them as collateral to the Blackrocks of the world (does Blackrock then loan them out, perpetuating the cycle?) for the right to create and sell ETF shares (or provide them to a hedge-fund customer wanting to short the whole Technology sector).

And how about the reverse? Brokers can borrow ETF shares and return them to Blackrock to receive collateral – stocks and/or cash that Blackrock puts in the redemption basket to offer in-kind for ETF shares.

These are the mechanics of the stock market.  It works well if there’s little volatility – much like the short-term commercial paper market that froze catastrophically during the financial crisis.

We are not predicting doom. We are highlighting structural risks investors and public companies should understand. The stock market depends for prices and liquidity on short-term borrowing. In periods of volatility, that dependency will amplify moves.

In extreme cases, it’s possible the stock market could seize up not through investor panic but because short-term borrowing may freeze.

How might we see that risk? Behavioral volatility. When the movement of money becomes frantic behind prices and volume where only a few firms like ours can see it, market volatility tends to follow (as Sept 2018 behaviors presaged October declines).

Currently, behavioral volatility is muted ahead of the Fed meeting concluding today, loads of earnings, and jobs data Friday. It can change on a dime.

Form Follows Function

We’re told that on Friday Jan 18, the Dow Jones Industrial Average soared on optimism about US-China trade, then abruptly yesterday “global growth fears” sparked a selloff.

Directional changes in a day don’t reflect buy-and-hold behavior, so why do headline writers insist on trying to jam that square peg every day into the market’s round hole?

So to speak.

It’s not how the market works. I saw not a single story (if you did, send it!) saying options expired Jan 16-18 when the market surged or that yesterday marked rare confluence of new options trading and what we call Counterparty Tuesday when banks true up gains or losses on bets.

Both events coincided thanks to the market holiday, so effects may last Wed-Fri.

The point for public companies and investors is to understand how the market works. It’s priced, as it always has been, by its purposes. When a long-term focus on fundamentals prevailed, long-term fundamentals priced stocks.

That market disappeared in 2001, with decimalization, which changed property rights on market data and forced intermediaries to become part of volume. Under Regulation National Market System, the entire market was reshaped around price and speed.

Now add in demographics.  There are four competing forces behind prices. Active money is focused on the long-term. Passive money is focused on short-term central tendencies, or characteristics. Fast Traders focus on fleeting price-changes. Risk Management focuses on calculated uncertainties.

Three of these depend for success on arbitrage, or different prices for the same thing. Are we saying Passive money is arbitrage?  Read on. We’ll address it.

Friday, leverage expired. That is, winning bets could cashier for stock, as one would with the simplest bet, an in-the-money call option. The parties on the other side were obliged to cover – so the market soared as they bought to fulfill obligations.

Active money bought too, but it did so ignorantly, unaware of what other factors were affecting the market at that moment.  The Bank for International Settlements tracks nearly $600 trillion of derivatives ranging from currency and interest-rate swaps to equity-linked instruments. Those pegged to the monthly calendar lapsed or reset Friday.

Behavioral volatility exploded Friday to 19%. Behavioral volatility is a sudden demographic change behind price and volume, much like being overrun at your fast-food joint by youngsters buying dollar tacos, or whatever. You run out of dollar tacos.

That happened Friday like it did in late September. The Dow yesterday was down over 400 points before pulling back to a milder decline.

And there may be more. But it’s not rational thought. It’s short-term behaviors.

So is Passive money arbitrage?  Just part of it. Exchange-Traded Funds (ETFs) were given regulatory imprimatur to exist only because of a built-in “arbitrage mechanism” meant to keep the prices of ETFs, which are valueless, claimless substitutes for stocks and index funds, aligned with actual assets.

Regulators required ETFs to rely on arbitrage – which is speculative exploitation of price-differences. It’s the craziest thing, objectively considered. The great bulk of market participants do not comprehend that ETFs have exploded in popularity because of their appeal to short-term speculators.

Blackrock and other sponsors bake a tiny management fee into most shares – and yet ETFs manage nobody’s money but the ETF sponsor’s. They are charging ETF buyers a fee for nothing so their motivation is to create ETF shares, a short-term event.

Those trading them are motivated by how ETFs, index futures and options and stocks (and options on futures, and options on ETFs) may all have fleetingly different prices.

The data validate it.  We see it. How often do data say the same about your stock?  Investors, how often is your portfolio riven with Overbought, heavily shorted stocks driven by arbitrage bets?

What’s ahead? I think we may have another rough day, then maybe a slow slide into month-end window-dressing where Passive money will reweight away from equities again.  Sentiment and behavioral volatility will tell us, one way or the other.

Ask me tomorrow if behavioral volatility was up today. It’s not minds changing every day that moves the market. It’s arbitrage.

Exchanging Data

Do we need another stock exchange?

I’ve been asked this question repeatedly since Bank of America Merrill Lynch, Charles Schwab, Citadel Securities, E*TRADE, Fidelity Investments, Morgan Stanley, TD Ameritrade, UBS, and Virtu Financial agreed Jan 7 to collaborate on seeking approval for a 14th official US stock market.

The answer? It depends on who “we” is, or are.

Adam Sussman of block-trading firm Liquidnet wrote that it’s an effort to lower trading costs which, thanks to high prices from exchanges for data feeds, have gone the opposite direction of trading commissions.

As to further fragmentation – more venues, less aggregation of buyers and sellers – Sussman says amusingly (the whole piece is funny) that “fragmentation is like having kids – after you have three of them, you just go numb to the pain.”

Michael Friedman, formerly of proprietary trading shop and technology vendor Trillium Management, said at TABB Forum (registration required) that these trading firms representing perhaps more than half of all volume resent how the exchanges keep raising prices for market data that brokers themselves create.

Before the exchanges IPO’d – all but IEX are now owned by public shareholders – they were member-owned, and members didn’t pay for data. Coincidentally the new market is called MEMX, or Members Exchange, anachronistically hailing a different era.

Friedman artfully unfolds market structure, explaining how a bid to buy shares at $9.08 at the NYSE cannot execute if the Nasdaq has a bid to buy at $9.10 because buyers willing to pay more are given legal priority and the trade must route out to the Nasdaq.

What if these firms were to route all the best trades – ones wanting to be the highest bid to buy or offer to sell – to themselves?  They could conceivably ravage market-share among big exchange groups until costs fell to a new equilibrium.

I think there are two other big reasons for this new cooperative.

One is easy to understand. Brokers are required to prove to customers that they provide “best execution,” or trading services that are at least as good as the average.  Paradoxically, that standard is predicated on averages for customer trades in the market – which concentrate heavily into the largest firms, including several MEMX backers.

If the order flow is consistently better than the average, it’s conceivable these firms could use their own data for free to meet best-execution requirements, a tectonic fist-bump amidst market rules.

So how would they boost odds that their data are better?  Look at who’s involved. They are mostly retail brokerage firms, or firms buying retail flow.

At Fidelity, about 97% of the firm’s retail orders are “nondirected,” lacking instructions about where the trades should occur. And well over 50% of those orders are sent to Virtu and Citadel.

Schwab says 99.6% of its trades are nondirected and 70% of them go to Virtu, Citadel and UBS.

And guess what?  Retail orders are permitted under rules to, in the jargon of market structure, “price-improve” trades.  The NYSE says its Retail Liquidity Program “can be used by retail firms directly as well as by the brokers who service retail order flow providers.”

Interactive Brokers, a firm for sophisticated retail traders and hedge funds, says retail orders with a limit, or set price, can be hidden from display at exchanges in increments of a thousandth of a dollar better than the displayed one, and the orders will float with a changing bid to buy or offer to sell.

That is, if the best bid to buy everyone sees is $9.08, a hidden limit order can be set at $9.081 and bounce like a bobber, staying always a fraction of a penny better than visible prices.

Under market rules, stocks cannot quote in increments below a penny. But they sure can trade in smaller increments, and they do all the time.

By aggregating retail order flow that market rules give a special dispensation to be better than other orders the members of MEMX believe they can not only match more orders but create the best market data.

How is it possible? Regulators wanted to be sure the little guy wouldn’t get screwed, so they give retail trades preference. They never dreamed innovative high-speed traders would buy it, or take advantage of rules permitting these trades to have narrower spreads.

It may work.

The problem is that the advantage MEMX hopes to leverage is a regulatory one that gives special access to one kind of activity.  (Editorial note: As we’ve written repeatedly, it’s just as Exchange Traded Funds have proliferated not by being better but through unique regulatory advantages giving them a private, wholesale block market with no transparency).

What’s it mean to investors and public companies? Investors, you could be picked off because MEMX could have compounded capacity to price-improve non-displayed orders. Public companies, something other than capital-formation is driving markets, which is not in your best interest.

We’d prefer a fair, level playing field serving investors and issuers, not rules permitting exceptions traders can game.

Leveraged Market

Paul Rowady writing at Alphacution says 67% of securities in US stock markets are derivatives dependent on an underlying 33%, made up of company stocks. It’s leveraged.

We can talk about ramifications at the end. To begin, the point is to understand, investors and investor-relations professionals, what it means to how stocks perform.

A derivative is a security that gets its value from an underlying asset. Mr. Rowady is referring to the proliferation of stock and index options and exchange-traded funds (ETFs) predicated on stocks.

It seems helpful to understand the linkage between how the market falls or rises, and how instruments that are derived from shares comprising market capitalization contribute to these cycles.

With derivatives outnumbering stocks two-to-one, the market behaves in a sense like a 2x leveraged vehicle, such as QLD, the ProShares Ultra QQQ ETF, which aims to correspond to two times the performance of the Nasdaq 100.

I’m oversimplifying. For a pure comparison, all the derivatives would have to be long, and they’re not of course, and there’s wide disparity in performance among securities across the market.

Follow me here.  Leveraged markets compound performance both directions. Take QLD. Suppose its underlying asset, the Nasdaq 100 represented by QQQ, is up 5%. QLD would rise 10%. Say for simplicity QQQ trades at $100. QQQ closes at $105, QLD at $110.

QQQ then retreats 5% the next trading day, back to $100. QLD closes at $99, 10% below $110. Compound that daily 5% up-and-down pattern over 30 days and QLD loses 50% of its value while QQQ is still worth $100.

Borrowing is leverage.  If I buy 100 shares of AAPL and borrow $15,000 or so to buy another 100 shares, and AAPL drops 8%, I’m down not 8% but the compounding effect of losses on the asset serving as collateral. I may be forced to sell core portfolio positions to cover my losses on borrowings.

Routinely, brokers are borrowing stocks to supply to ETF sponsors like Blackrock for the right to create ETF shares. We’ve studied shorting in ETFs and component stocks and have found them inversely correlated – validation.

Borrowed stock here isn’t a bet on declines but a defined value. If I exchange $1 million of borrowed stock for the right to create ETF shares that then fall to $950,000, I’ve lost 5% of my money.

I’ve got an obligation to cover borrowings even though I’ve lost money creating and selling ETF shares.  I may be forced to sell something else to align value at risk with internal compliance requirements.

This isn’t a dissection of detailed trading practices but rather a reflection on what can happen in volatile markets when leverage is pervasive. At Jan 7, 48% of all stock-trading volume was short – borrowed. That’s 1x leveraged. On top of the derivatives-to-stock ratio.

When considerations of losses or gains on leverage are ubiquitous, the market isn’t a reliable barometer for how the economy is faring, what investors think of trade practices or government shutdowns, or how your business is performing fundamentally.

The good news is it’s measurable! IR pros, we track every day what behavior is long or short, the role of Risk Mgmt reflecting leverage, and what trends signal. Investors, Sector Insights meter Sentiment, behaviors, shorting, intraday volatility and other factors by industry group.

Investors, you can turn market structure to your advantage (ask us about Market Structure EDGE). IR people, you can proactively inform management – a key action as chief intelligence officers for the capital markets. Ask us how to learn more.

Is there systemic threat in leveraged markets? Of course. We wrote about how stocks have taken on characteristics of a credit market, and credit is always leverage, which grows where interest rates are low and money is artificially plentiful. The reset at the end of the gravy train tends to wipe out leverage.

When? Who knows?  Debt deflations that follow credit booms begin with outlier failures that cause people to say, “Huh. Wonder what happened there?”  Let’s watch trends.