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.

Down Maiden Lane

For the Federal Reserve, 2018 was the end of the lane. For us, 2019 is fresh and new, and we’re hitting it running.

The market comes stumbling in (anybody remember Suzy Quatro?). The Dow Jones dropped 6% as it did in 2000. The index fell 7% in 2001 and 17% in 2002. The last year blue chips were red was 2015, down 2%.

Everybody wants to know as the new year begins what’s coming.  Why has the market been so volatile? Is a recession at hand? Is the bull market over?

We only know behavior – what’s behind prices. That’s market structure.

Take volatility. In Q4 2018, daily intraday volatility marketwide (average high-low spread) averaged 3.7%, a staggering 61% increase from Q3.  Cause? Exchange-Traded Funds. It’s not the economy, tariffs, China, geopolitics, or Trump.

Bold assertion?  Nope, math.  When an index mutual fund buys or sells stocks, it’s simple: The order goes to the market and gets filled or doesn’t.

ETFs do not buy or sell stocks. They move collateral manually back and forth wholesale to support an electronic retail market where everything, both ETF shares and stocks serving as collateral for them, prices in fractions of seconds. The motivation isn’t investment but profiting on the difference between manual prices and electronic ones.

When the market goes haywire, that process ruptures. Brokers lose collateral exchanged for ETF shares, so they trade desperately to recoup it. There were over $4.1 trillion of ETF wholesale transactions through Nov 2018.

The other $4.1 trillion that matters is the Fed’s balance sheet. If the bull market is over, it’ll be due to the money, not the economy. We have been saying for years that a reckoning looms, and its size is so vast that it’s hard to grasp the girth (rather like my midsection during the holidays).

On Dec 18, 2008, the Federal Reserve said its balance sheet had been “modified to include information related to Maiden Lane II LLC, a limited liability company formed to purchase residential mortgage-backed securities (RMBS) from…American International Group, Inc. (AIG).”

The biggest Fed bank sits between Liberty Street and Maiden Lane in New York. Maiden Lane made the Fed over the next six years owner of seas of failed debts.

Ten year later, on Dec 27, 2018, The Fed said its balance sheet had been “modified to reflect the removal of table 4 ‘Information on Principal Accounts of Maiden Lane LLC.’ The table has been removed because the remaining assets in the portfolio holdings of Maiden Lane LLC have been reduced to a de minimis balance.”

There were at least three Maiden Lane companies created by the Fed to absorb bad debts. At Dec 2018, what remains of these bailouts is too small to note.

Wow, right? Whew!

Not exactly. We used the colossal balance sheet of US taxpayers – every Federal Reserve Note in your wallet pledges your resources to cover government promises – to save us.  We were able to bail ourselves out using our own future money in the present.

We’ve been led to believe by everyone except Ron Paul that it’s all worked out, and now everything is awesome.  No inflation, no $5,000/oz gold.  Except that’s incorrect.  Inflation is not $5,000/oz gold.  It’s cheap money.  We’ve had inflation for ten straight years, and now inflation has stopped.

Picture a swing set on the elementary-school playground. Two chains, a sling seat, pumping legs (or a hand pushing from behind). Higher and higher you go, reaching the apex, and falling back.

Inflation is the strain, the pull, feet shoved forward reaching for the sky.  What follows is the stomach-lurching descent back down.

We were all dragged down Maiden Lane with Tim Geithner and Hank Paulson and Ben Bernanke. They gave that sling seat, the American economy, the biggest shove in human history. Then they left. Up we went, hair back, laughing, feet out, reaching for the sky.

Now we’re at the top of the arc.

The vastness of the economic swing is hard to comprehend. We spent ten years like expended cartridges in the longest firefight ever to get here. We won’t give it up in a single stomach-clenching free-fall.

But the reality is and has always been that when the long walk to the end of Maiden Lane was done, there would be a reckoning, a return to reality, to earth.

How ironic that the Fed’s balance sheet and the size of the ETF wholesale market are now roughly equal – about $4.1 trillion.

It’s never been more important for public companies and investors to understand market structure – behavior. Why? Because money trumps everything, and arbitraging the price-differences it creates dominates, and is measurable, and predictable.

The trick is juxtaposing continual gyrations with the expanse of Maiden Lane, now ended. I don’t know when this bull market ends. I do know where we are slung into the sling of the swing set.

It’s going to be an interesting year. We relish the chance to help you navigate it. And we hope the Fed never returns to Maiden Lane. Let the arc play out. We’ll be all right.

 

A Credit Market

In the stock market the beatings have been consistent while we all wait for morale to improve. What’s causing it?

I’m surprised conservatives haven’t blamed midterm elections. Alert reader Pat Davidson in Wisconsin notes CNBC viewers say tariffs, global economic weakness and Fed rate-hikes are behind the stock swoon.

Is it a coincidence that these are what the media talk about most?

I think stocks are down because of market structure. Exchange Traded Funds infect them with characteristics of a credit market.

The big hand pelting backsides of stocks has been uneven. Broad measures have corrected off highs. I tallied the FAANGs (FB, AMZN, AAPL, NFLX, GOOG) and they’re down 20-40% from peaks. Same with small-caps.

We last week launched our Sector Insights reports that compile readings on composite stocks by sector. Surveying them, only one, Communications Services, showed recent Active buying. The rest were uniformly beset by ETFs. As was the broad market. ETFs were favoring Utilities and shedding everything else.

Two sectors had positive Sentiment, Real Estate and Utilities, but both were in retreat. Financials and Industrials were tied for worst Sentiment at 2.2/10.0.

Note that Monday, Real Estate and Utilities were the worst performers, down nearly 4%. Financials and Industrials were best, down less than the rest.

The point is that our measures are quantitative. They are not rational factors like tariffs, global economic weakness, or Fed rate-hikes. Yet they accurately and consistently predict what stocks, sectors and the market will do, short-term.

Therefore, the cause for much of the short-term behavior in stocks cannot be rational.

Sure, we’ve written about our expectation that a strong dollar would be deflationary for commodities and risk assets. Inflation is low interest rates. Excess availability of capital fostered by artificially depressed costs. It’s not rising prices. When excess availability vanishes, prices fall regardless of whether they first rose.

The Federal Reserve has removed nearly $1 trillion from its balance sheet and excess reserves through policies, which translates on a reserve-ratio basis to a reduction in capital of roughly $8-10 trillion. That will deflate prices.

But the problem isn’t deflation. It’s the inflation that preceded it. Fed, are you listening?  How about not creating inflation in response to crises? How about instead letting things that should fail do so by setting rates high and accepting only good collateral? Then human creativity can restore productivity, and economies can soar anew.

A financial instrument that extends reach to an asset class is a form of credit.  Credit creates bubbles that collapse when the extension of credit is curtailed.

Let’s use the Healthcare sector as an example. Year to date, Healthcare before Friday was the top-performing sector (now eclipsed by Utilities, up nearly 8%). From Nov 15-Dec 3, comparative performance for the sector was positive.

Suddenly in December the sector fell apart, with the red tide coming on green and purple bars, signaling ETFs.  It happened before JNJ plunged 14%. The credit bubble burst.

ETFs are a form of credit. Blackrock itself describes ETFs as a tool that equalizes supply with demand. ETFs are collateralized substitutes for buying and selling stocks. They offer artificially low costs. They permit elastic supplies of money to chase finite US shares.

The result on the way up is soaring equities. The consequence on the way down is collapsing stocks.

Here’s an analogy. Suppose you have a line of credit on your house and you buy something with it – say a vacation home.  Your capacity to borrow derives from the rising value of your house, which in turn is driven by demand for homes around you.

What if banks extending credit are out of lending capacity and lift rates?  Suddenly, demand for houses around yours declines. Home prices begin to fall. The value of your house drops.

And the bank that extended credit to you becomes concerned and wants more collateral.

Suppose that’s happening in the wholesale market where ETFs are created and redeemed. It far outstrips any other form of fund-flows — $4 trillion already this year through November (estimated), $400 billion per month.

If the value of the collateral used to create ETF shares – stocks – is of indefinite and unpredictable and falling value, the capacity to extend credit collapses. And prices start falling everywhere.  Those who borrowed must sell assets to cover obligations.

What if that’s the cause, not the economy or tariffs? That should matter to pundits, investors and investor-relations professionals (and CEOs by extension).

We have the data. Use it. We expect markets to jump Dec 19-21 through the final expirations period of 2018. But it’s a credit market subject to credit shocks.

Surly Furious

Surly Furious would be a great name for a rock band. And maybe it describes stocks.  It’s for certain the name of a great Minnesota beer.

We are in Minneapolis, one of our favorite cities, where Midwest client services Director Perry Grueber lives, and where nature sprays and freezes into the artful marvel of Minnehaha Falls, and where over pints of Furious IPA from Surly Brewing we deconstructed investor-relations into late evening.

It got us thinking. ModernIR launched Sector Insights this week to measure how money behaves by sector. The data we track show all sectors topping save Consumer Staples.

“Wait, topped? The market has been declining.”

We’re not surprised that closing prices are reverting to the mean, the average, after big swings. You need to understand, public companies and investors, that the market isn’t motivated by your interests.

It’s driven by profit opportunity in the difference in prices between this group of securities or that, over this period or that.

How do we know?  Because it’s what market rules and investment objectives promote. Prices in stocks are set by the best bid to buy or offer to sell – which can never be the same – and motivated most times not by effort to buy or sell stocks but instead by how the price will change.

Who cares?  You should, investors and public companies.

Suppose I told you that in this hotel where you’re staying the elevator only goes to the 5th floor.  You decide it’s immaterial and you set out to reach the 6th floor. You lead your board of directors and executives to believe it should be their expectation that they can reach the 5th floor. Yet as you arrive at the elevator you learn it goes only to the 4th floor.

Whose fault is that?

The beer that put Minneapolis on the map is from Surly Brewing, an India Pale Ale called Furious. What’s better in a name than Surly Furious?  It’s worth drinking.

When the market is surly and furious, you should know it. We can see it first in Market Structure Reports (we can run them for any company), and then in Sector Insights (just out Dec 10) and in the broad market.

Number one question: How does it change what I do?  Investors, it’s easy. Don’t buy Overbought sectors or markets. Don’t sell Oversold sector or markets, no matter how surly and furious they may seem.

Public companies, we expend immense effort and dollars informing investors. Data suggest disclosure costs exceed $5 billion annually for US public companies.

If we discovered the wind blows only from the west, why would we try to sail west? If we discover passive investors are attracting 100% of net new investor inflows, and investors don’t buy or sell your stock, should you not ask what the purpose is of all the money you’re spending to inform investors who never materialize?

We can fear the question and call it surly, or furious. Or we can take the data – which we offer via Market Structure Reports and Sector Insights – and face it and use it to change investor expectations.

Which would you prefer? We’ve now released Sector Reports. If you’d like to know what Sentiment indicates for your stock, your sector — or the broad market — ask us.

Sector Insights

We take a moment to honor the passing of George Herbert Walker Bush, 41st President of the United States, who earned respect across aisles and left a legacy of dignity, achievement and service.

Markets are closed today in Presidential honor, perhaps fortuitously, though it won’t surprise us if stocks surge back, confounding pundits. A CNBC headline at 4:24pm ET yesterday said, “Dow plunges nearly 800 points on fears of cooling economy.”

The article said the slide steepened when Jeffrey Gundlach of Doubleline Capital told Reuters the yield-curve inversion (three-year Treasury notes now pay more than five-year notes) signals that the economy is “poised to weaken.” A drubbing in Financials (weren’t we told higher rates help banks?) and strength for Utilities were said to support that fear.

Yet Sector Insights (I’ll explain in a moment!) for Financials show the rally last week came on Active Investment – rational people buying Financials.  In a spate of schizophrenia, did Active money seize a truncheon and bludgeon away its gains in a day?  Possible, maybe. But improbable.

Utilities have been strong all year (see Figure 1). Market Structure Sentiment™ for Utilities from Jan 3-Dec 3, 2018 is 5.4/10.0 – solidly GARP (sectors trade between 4 and 7 generally). Utilities haven’t dipped below 4.0 since late June.

If strength in Utilities signals economic fear, did it commence in January (or March, when they soared after the market corrected)?

What if it’s market structure?  Did anyone ask?  Add up the week-over-week change in the two behaviors driving Utilities highe

Figure 1 – Market Structure Sentiment(TM) – Utilities Sector – 2018. Proprietary ModernIR data.

r the past week and what we call internally “behavioral volatility” was massive – 22%.  Daily behavioral change is routinely 2% total!

We’ve long said that behavioral volatility precedes price-volatility.  Last Friday, daily behavioral volatility in the entire market was a breathtaking 19.6% (5.4% jump in Active Investment, sizzling 14.2% skyhook from Fast Traders) at month-end window-dressing.  On Thu, Nov 29, it was 20%, driven by Passive Investment and Risk Mgmt, a behavioral combination signaling ETF creations and redemptions.

On Monday Dec 3, ETF basket-moves drove another 15% surge. Think about it: 20%, 20%, 15%. Picture a boat rocking as people rush from one side to the other, and the momentum builds until the boat tips over.

Economic fear exists. And the yield curve has predicted – what’s the economics joke? – five of the last three recessions.

But the curve could as well trace to selling by the Fed of $350 billion of Treasurys and mortgage securities while the Treasury gorges on short-term paper to fund deficits.

Most see the market as a ticking chronometer of rational thought.  It’s not, any more than your share-price is a daily reflection of investors’ views of your management’s credibility. It is sometimes. Data say about 12% of the time.

If pundits think it’s economics when it’s a structural flaw in the market, the advice and actions are wrong.  And we could be caught unprepared.

Don’t people move money into and out of index funds or ETFs too in reaction to economics?  Sure. But not daily.  We just had this discussion with our financial advisors and we like most allocating assets plan in long swaths on risk and exposure.

And I’ll say it till everyone gets it: ETFs do not form capital or buy or sell stocks. They are continually created and redeemed by parties swapping collateral (stocks and cash) back and forth to profit on spreads between that underlying collateral and the frenzy of arbitrage in ETF shares traded in the stock market.

It’s those people and machines in the market who rush back and forth and rock the boat, arbitragers trying to profit on different prices for the same thing.

Especially if they’ve borrowed collateral or leveraged into expected short-term moves. They’ve tipped the market over three times now just since early October.

You can see it in patterns. Speaking of which, wouldn’t it be nice to know what’s driving your sector the next time the CEO says, “Why is our stock down while our peers are up?”

To that end, we’re delighted to announce our latest innovation at ModernIR:  Sector Insights.  Now you can compare the trading and investment behaviors behind your stock and your sector.

We classify every company by GICS industry and sector.  Algorithms can then cluster a variety of data points from investment and trading behaviors, to shorting, and intraday volatility and Market Structure Sentiment™, providing unprecedented clarity into sector trends and drivers.

If you’re interested in seeing your Sector Insights alongside your Market Structure Report, send a note to Mike Machado here. (Clients, you can see a three-minute overview of how to use Sector Insights in concert with your Market Structure Reports here.)

Meanwhile, buckle up.  December could further provide a wild ride to investors – and you’ll see it in Sector Insights if it’s coming.  We’ll be here to help you help your executives and board directors understand what’s driving equity values.

Bucking the Mighty

Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell, keeper of the buck, speaks today. Should we care, investors and investor-relations folks?

There’s been less worshipfulness in the Powell Fed era than during the Yellen and Bernanke regimes. Out of sight, out of mind.  We tend in the absence of devotion to monetarists to forget that the mighty buck is the world’s only reserve currency.

Yet the buck remains the most predictive – besides ModernIR Market Structure Sentiment™ – signal for market-direction. So we have to know what it’s signaling.

When we say the dollar is the reserve currency, we mean it’s proportionate underpinning for other currencies. Effectively, collateral. The European Central Bank owns bucks and will sell them to weaken the dollar and strengthen the euro, and vice versa.

The USA alone holds no foreign currency reserves as ballast to balance out the buck. Instead, if the Fed wants to hike rates, dollars have to become a little rarer, harder to find.

The Federal Reserve as we noted when oil dove has been selling securities off its balance sheet.  It receives Federal Reserve Notes, bucks, in return, and that money comes out of circulation, and dollars nudge higher (forcing other central banks to sell dollars).

Combine what the Fed has sold and what banks are no longer leaving idle at the Fed as excess reserves (at the height $2.6 trillion but now below $1.8 trillion) and the supply of bucks has shrunk $1 trillion, and since banks can loan out about nine dollars for every one held in reserve, that’s a big decline out there – effectively, trillions.

So the dollar rises, and markets falter, and oil plunges.  We wrote about this back in January and said to watch for a rising dollar (even as others were predicting $100 oil).

Now why do stocks and oil react to relative dollar-value?  Because they are substitutes for each other.  As famous value investor Ron Baron says, investors trade depreciating assets called dollars for appreciating ones called stocks.

If the dollar becomes stronger, you trade fewer of them for stocks. Or oil. That means lower prices for both. Conversely, when interest rates are as low as a doormat, credit creates surging quantities of dollars, and the prices of substitutes like stocks and oil rise.

It raises a point I hope future economics textbooks will recognize: The definition of inflation should be “low interest rates,” not higher prices. Low rates surge the supply of dollars via credit, so even if prices don’t rise everywhere, inflation exists, which we find out when rates rise and prices of things used as substitutes for dollars fall.

Those people saying “see, there’s no inflation” do not understand inflation. By the way, Exchange Traded Funds have exactly the same condition, and risk. They are substitutes for stocks that expand and contract to equalize supply and demand.

Presuming Chairman Powell wants interest rates higher so we can lower them furiously – and wrongly – in the next crisis, we can expect more deflation for things that substitute for dollars.

It won’t be linear.  ModernIR Market Structure Sentiment™ signals a short-term bottom is near. There may be a rush to the upside for a bit. Credit will go to “strong sales expectations for the holiday season” when it’s likely market-makers for ETFs trading depreciated stocks for the right to create ETF shares.  Like the buck, the stocks come out of circulation – causing stocks to rise – which in turn boosts ETF shares tracking those prices.

The problem as with currencies is that we can’t get a good view of supply or demand when the medium of exchange – money, ETF shares – keeps expanding and contracting to balance out supply and demand.

The market loses its capacity to serve as an economic or valuation barometer, just as money loses its capacity to store value.

I’ve said before to picture a teeter-totter. One side is supply, the other, demand. When currencies have fixed value, we know which thing is out of balance. When the fulcrum moves, we have no idea.

That distortion exists in stocks via ETFs and economies via the mighty buck, which both must buck mightily to equalize supply and demand. Who thought it was a good idea to equalize supply and demand?  I hope Jerome Powell bucks the mighty.

Collateral

I like Thanksgiving.  We may not all always feel grateful for our circumstances, but an attitude of gratefulness is healthy, I’m convinced. So, happy Thanksgiving!

Karen and I will be feeling festively appreciative this year high in the Rockies, in Beaver Creek.

As November fades, markets seem ungrateful.  One Wall Street Journal article Friday noted that the majority of companies beating estimates this quarter underperformed. The author concluded that where investors before rewarded companies for exceeding expectations, now they have to offer rosier future views.

What data supports that contention?  There were no investors interviewed for the piece who said they dumped stocks like AMD, which was down 27% on results. Why would an investor lop 27% off returns in a day – gains earned by risking holding shares for months or longer?  It defies logic, and things defying logic should be scrutinized.

Only arbitragers profit when stocks fall – those betting on different prices for the same thing. High-speed traders, hedge funds that bet short, and market-makers for Exchange Traded Funds (ETFs).

Only one of these is ordered by regulators to engage in arbitrage. ETF market-makers.

Isn’t it extreme to say “ordered?” No. ETFs don’t work without an arbitrage mechanism because they don’t have intrinsic value.

ETFs are exempted by the SEC from the requirement in the Investment Act of 1940 to offer investors a single price for fund shares, and to make those shares redeemable in a proportionate chunk of the underlying pool of assets.

The SEC granted relief to creators of ETFs because there are two markets, two different prices for ETFs – fostering economic incentive to support them by buying low and selling high, so to speak.

Because ETFs are not redeemable – can’t be traded for money in a pool – market-makers have an unusually strong economic motivation to chase and foster big divergences.  They can trade ETF shares for stocks, and vice versa.

If money flows into the market and investors want to buy ETFs, market-makers gather up a collection of stocks to trade to firms like Blackrock for the right to create ETF shares.  They want stocks that are easy to buy or borrow or swap for, and ones that have outperformed or underperformed.

Why? Because stocks that have outperformed will be shed soon by Blackrock and other ETF creators, which can wash out associated capital gains by offering them as collateral to trade for ETF shares. So brokers might borrow them and then buy puts, knowing the likelihood that these stocks will be on the ETF chopping block soon is high.

Conversely, when stocks plunge in value, ETF market-makers will buy them to use as collateral for ETF shares that can be quickly marked up and sold at a profit.

Passive money dominated AMD around results. Same with ALGN, which also plummeted on results that beat expectations.  Both stocks were 50% or more short ahead of results.

Think of it this way:  Your stock is gold, and ETF shares are gold-backed dollar bills. Suppose gold could be acquired for half-price. If the currency stays the same, you make 50%.  So you really, really want to find cheap gold.

Whoever trades stocks sets the price. It’s not determined by who OWNS the stocks. Suppose investors stopped buying AMD and ALGN to study results. Smart market-makers for ETFs would detect the lack of normal buying and would sell and short them aggressively so the prices would fall.

Then they would scoop both up at depressed prices to supply to Blackrock in exchange for the right to create ETF shares – even ETF shares for safe-harbor value ETFs.

Stocks are collateral. Motivation for market-makers shuffling collateral around is not investing. It’s profiting on price-differences for the same thing.

This behavior is as we’ve said repeatedly far bigger than any form of fund-flows.  ETF creations and redemptions totaled $3.3 trillion through September this year, or more than $360 billion monthly.

I believe the data will show – it won’t be out until the last trading day this month – that there were ETF outflows in October for the third time this year (also in February and June, and in both months stock-market gains vanished, and in Feb stocks corrected), and the third time since the Financial Crisis.

The risk in a prolonged down market is that ETF shares and the value of collateral – stocks – are both declining simultaneously.  Market-makers can pick one and short it, or pick both and short both, in the hopes that if and when the market recovers, they get it right.

But if they’re wrong, the sheer size of ETF creations and redemptions says there’s not enough collateral to cover obligations. Today, VIX volatility bets are lapsing ahead of Thanksgiving to conclude a horrific Nov expirations cycle.

I think it’ll sort out. If not, the bull market could end. And a major contributor when that happens will be the all-out pursuit of collateral over investment by ETFs.

When Oil Swoons

How is it that stocks and oil fall if no one is selling them? There’s an answer. Tim Tebow once famously sent a one-word tweet: “Motivation.”

For Tebow (Karen and I were downtown years ago when Tim was a Denver Broncos quarterback, and we passed a handsome youngster who offered a friendly hello and seemed familiar and had shoulders so wide they covered most of the sidewalk…and we realized seconds later we’d passed Tim Tebow.), the word meant a reason to try.

Motivation in markets is money.

Whatever your ticker, investor-relations professionals (or investors, whatever the composition of your portfolios), your price is often set by trading firms.

How do we know? Floor rules at the exchange prohibit using customer orders to price NYSE-listed stocks at the open. Designated Market Makers (DMMs) must trade their own capital to set a bid and offer for your shares. Now all DMMs are proprietary traders.

Investors:  If you don’t know how stock prices are set, you deserve to be outperformed by Exchange Traded Funds (ETFs). ETFs don’t even buy and sell stocks!  They are collateralized stock derivatives (let’s call them CSDs).

Don’t know what I mean? Stop, and listen:

If you’re in Dallas Fri Nov 16, hear my presentation on ETFs at The Clubs at Prestonwood.  Clients in Dallas: Ask your CFO and Treasurer and VP of Finance and Controller to learn what the money is doing behind price and volume, and why.

What if you’re Nasdaq-listed?  The first and fastest machines set all offers to sell (the primary price) and bids to buy (the secondary price) when stocks open for trading, and chances are traders (not IEX, the only exception) have been paid to set bids and offers.

It’s not your fundamentals. Machines set prices all day long.

And the price of oil most days is not determined by fundamentals either. It’s set by a currency. The US dollar.  Oil is denominated in dollars. Big dollar, smaller oil price. Small dollar – say 2007, or much of 2017 – big oil price.

Back to stocks. Under Regulation National Market System, there is a spread between the best bid to buy and offer to sell for your shares.  They can’t be the same ($15.01 buy, $15.01 to sell). That’s a locked market. Against the law.

The Bid cannot be higher than the Offer (e.g. Bid, $15.02, Offer $15.01). That’s a crossed market. Can’t happen. Why? So there’s an audit trail, a way to trace which firms set every bid, every offer, in the market. And a crossed market cannot be controlled by limit-up/limit-down girders that govern stocks now. (You can bid more than what’s asked for art, houses, cars, companies, etc. But not stocks.)

If demand from money wanting to buy shares exactly matched supply, stocks would decline. Brokers, required by rule to set every bid and offer, have to be paid.

That means stocks can rise only if demand exceeds supply, a condition we measure every day for you, and the market. Do you think your board and executive team might like to know?  (Note: If you want to know if supply exceeds demand in your stock, or your sector, ask us. We’ll give you a look gratis.)

Knowing if or when supply exceeds demand is not determined by whether your stock goes up or down. Were it so, 100% of trades would be front-run by Fast Traders. So how can it be that no money leaves stocks and they fall, and no money sells oil and it falls?

Do you own a house? Suppose you put it up as collateral for a loan to start a business you believed would be more valuable than your house. This is the bet ETF traders make daily. Put up collateral, create ETF shares, bet that ETF shares can be sold for more ($12.1 million) than the cost of the collateral offered for the right to create them ($12.0 million).

Then suppose you can sit between buyers and sellers and make 10 basis points on every trade in the ETF, the index futures the ETF tracks, and the stocks comprising the index.  Another $120,000 (a 20% margin over collateral). Do that every day and it’s meaningful even to Goldman Sachs for whom this business is now 90% of equity trading.

Reverse it. When stock-supply exceeds demand, ETF creators and market-makers lose money. So they sell and short, and the whole market convulses.  Spreads jump. Nobody can make heads or tails of it – until you consider the motivation. Price-spreads.

Oil? Remember our time-tested theme (you veteran readers). If the dollar rises, oil falls. It happened in Sep 2014 when the Federal Reserve stopped expanding its balance sheet.

Now it’s worse. The Fed is shrinking its balance sheet. Oil is denominated in dollars no matter what Saudi Arabia does. If the dollar gets bigger – stronger – oil prices shrink. Look at the chart here for the Energy sector. ETFs? Devalued collateral?

ETFs, the greatest investment phenomenon of the modern era, behave like currencies. We’ve not yet had a BIG imbalance. It’s coming. We’ll see it.  Subscribe. It’s motivating.

Pricing Everything

As the colors of political persuasion in the USA ripple today, what matters in the equity market is what the money is doing.

We measure Sentiment by company and sector and across the whole market daily. It’s not mass psychology. Rational thought sets a small minority of prices (your board and execs should know, investor-relations professionals, or they will expect you to move mountains when the power at IR fingertips now is demographics – just as in politics).

We’re measuring ebbs and flows of money and the propensity of the machines executing the mass of trades now to lift or lower prices.

When the market is Oversold by our measures, it means Passive money is likely to be underweight relative to its models and benchmarks, and probability increases that machines will lift prices for stocks because relative value – the price now versus sometime in the past 20 days – is attractive. We call it Market Structure Sentiment.

In Oct 2016, before the Presidential election, Market Structure Sentiment saw its worst stretch since Sep-Oct 2014 when the Federal Reserve stopped buying debt, sending the dollar soaring and the energy industry into a bear market.

We at ModernIR thought then that after pervasive monetary intervention the next bear market would be two years out. On the eve of the Presidential election two years ago, and two years out, the Dow 30 traded at Dec 2014 levels.

We figured we’d called it.

We were wrong (the market makes fools of most who propose to prophesy).  Donald Trump won, and stocks surged until October this year.

As I write Nov 6, Market Structure Sentiment has bottomed at 3.5/10.0 on our 10-point scale. In 2016 it bottomed Nov 9, the day of the election (and stocks surged thereafter).

Conclusions?  Maybe rational thought means little.

Consider: The SEC has approved Rule 606(b)(3) (if rules need parentheses it means there are too many – but I digress) for brokers, requiring that they disclose (thank you, alert and longtime reader Walt Schuplak) when they’re paid by venues for trades and trade for their own accounts.

Public companies and investors, why do we need rules requiring brokers to tell us if they’re getting paid for orders or trading ahead? Because they’re doing it. And it’s legal.

If we want to suppress both things, why not outlaw them?

Because the market now depends on both to price everything.

Let me explain. When the SEC exempted Exchange Traded Funds from the Investment Company Act’s requirement that fund-shares be redeemable for underlying assets, they did so because ETFs had an “arbitrage mechanism,” a built-in way for brokers to profit if ETFs deviated from its underpinning index.  (NOTE: If you don’t know how ETFs work, catch the panel at NIRI Chicago next week.)

Those exemptions preceded Regulation National Market System, which capped trading fees – but left open what could be PAID for trades. I bet the SEC never saw this coming.

Rule 606(b)(3) forces brokers to tell customers when they get paid for trades and if they are trading for themselves at the same time.

In ETFs, the two dovetail. Brokers can earn trading incentives legitimately because they’re fueling the SEC-sanctioned arbitrage mechanism, which requires changing prices. Rules let you get paid for it!

Second, since ETFs are created and redeemed by brokers (not Blackrock), much ETF market-making is principal trading – for a broker’s own account.

So ETFs create opportunity for brokers to get paid for setting price, and to put their own trades ahead of customer orders – the things 606(b)(3) wants to highlight.

Now ETFs are the largest investment vehicle in markets, and Fast Trading prices stocks more often than anything else. Suppose you’re the SEC. What would you do?

Let’s put it in mathematical terms. Our analytics show 88% of trading volume is something besides rational investment. We blame rules that focus on price. Whatever the cause, there’s a 12% chance rational thinking is why Sentiment is bottomed at midterms.

I think the SEC knows. Can they fix it? Well, the SEC created it to begin.

For now, public companies, every time you look at stock-price, there’s a 12% chance it’s rational. Does your board know? If not, why not? Boards have fiduciary responsibility.

And investors, are you factoring market structure into your decisions? You’d best do so. Odds favor it.

Blocking Volatility

Boo!

As the market raged high and low, so did Karen and I this week, from high in the Rockies where we saw John Denver’s fire in the sky over the Gore Range, down to Scottsdale and the Arizona desert’s 80-degree Oct 30 sunset over the Phoenician (a respite as my birthday is…wait for it…Oct 31).

Markets rise and fall.  We’re overdue for setbacks.  It doesn’t mean we’ll have them, but it’s vital that we understand market mechanics behind gyrations. Sure, there’s human nature. Fear and greed. But whose fear or greed?

Regulators and exchanges are tussling over fees on data and trades.  There’s a proposed SEC study that’ll examine transaction fees, costs imposed by exchanges for trading. Regulation National Market System caps them at $0.30/100 shares, or a third of a penny per share, which traders call “30 mils.”

The NYSE has proposed lowering the cap to $0.10/100, or a tenth of a penny per share, or 10 mils. Did you know there’s a booming market where brokers routinely pay eight cents per share or $8.00/100 shares?

What market? Exchange-Traded Funds (ETFs).

We’re told that one day the market is plunging on trade fears, poor earnings, geopolitics, whatever. And the next, it surges 430 points on…the reversal of fears. If you find these explanations irrational, you’re not alone, and you have reason for skepticism.

There’s a better explanation.

Let’s tie fees and market volatility together. At right is an image from the iShares Core MSCI EAFE ETF (CBOE:IEFA) prospectus showing the size of a standard creation Unit and the cost to brokers for creating one.  Divide the standard Unit of 200,000 shares by the usual cost to create one Unit, $15,000, and it’s $0.08/share (rounded up). Mathematically, that’s 2,600% higher than the Reg NMS fee cap.

Understand: brokers provide collateral – in this case $12.5 million of stocks, cash, or a combination – for the right to create 200,000 ETF shares to sell to the public.

Why are brokers willing to pay $8.00/100 to create ETF shares when they rail at paying $0.30/100 – or a lot less – in the stock market?

Because ETF shares are created in massive blocks off-market without competition. Picture buying a giant roll of paper privately, turning it into confetti via a shredder, and selling each scrap for a proportionate penny more than you paid for the whole roll.

The average trade-size for brokers creating IEFA shares is 200,000 shares.  The average trade-size in the stock market where you and I buy IEFA or any other stock is 167 shares (50-day average, ModernIR data).  Do the math on that ratio.

ETF market-makers are pursuing a realtime, high-speed version of the corporate-raider model. Buy something big and split it into pieces worth more than the sum of the parts.

In a rising market, it’s awesome.  These creations in 200,000-share blocks I’ve just described are running at nearly $400 billion every MONTH. Create in blocks, shred, mark up. ETF demand drives up all stocks. Everybody wins.

What happens in a DOWN market?

Big brokers are exchanging your stocks, public companies, as collateral for the right to create and sell ETF shares.  Suppose nobody shows up to buy ETF shares.  What brokers swapped to create ETF shares is suddenly worth less, not more, than the shredded value of the sum of the parts. So to speak.

Without ETF flows to drive up it up, the collateral – shares of stocks – plunges in value.

The market devolves into desperate tactical trading warfare to offset losses. Brokers dump other securities, short stocks, buy hedges. Stocks gyrate, and the blame goes to trade, Trump, earnings, pick your poison.

How do I know what I’ve described is correct?  Follow the money. The leviathan in the US equity market today is creating and redeeming ETF shares. It’s hundreds of billions of dollars monthly, versus smatterings of actual fund-flows. You don’t see it because it’s not counted as fund turnover.

But it fits once you grasp the weird way the market’s last big block market is fostering volatility.

What’s ahead? If losses have been sorted, we’ll settle down in this transition from Halloween to November. Our data are still scary.  We may have more ghouls to flush out.