Interesting Year

“It’s going to be an interesting year.”

We wrote that phrase in the Jan 2, 2019 edition of the Market Structure Map. (By the way, we’re in Rhode Island this week visiting customers, and in Newport you’ll see the sea in everything.)

I don’t mean to suggest we’re amongst those arrogant buffoons quoting themselves. I do think we drew the right line from Dec 2018 to the future. We noted, and it’s worth reading, that the Federal Reserve had shut down the Maiden Lane financial entity used to buy assets from AIG. An epochal event.

We said it could mark a top for the inflationary arc in risk assets spawned by the flood of cheap central-bank money.  We’ve had no gains in stocks from Sep 20, 2018 to present.

In December last year, pundits blamed the market maelstrom on impending recession. It was false then and it’s false now. Sure, all economies contract – fall into recession.  It wasn’t a uniformly engrossing event before central banks, though.

The human propensity to borrow and spend on growth, which at some point slows, leading to the collapse of borrowers and lenders alike, is normal and not something we should be trying to eradicate by juicing credit markets.

The bigger the credit wave, the farther the economic surfboard skims, and everyone marvels at the duration of the expansion cycle. And then the wave dies on the shoals. We’re now riding it, wind in our hair, with a vast curl beginning to form overhead.

But that’s not what sparked the market’s volatile descent.

One client (thank you!) shared notes from a JP Morgan conference call on recent volatility. JPM says economic underpinnings are reasonably sound and no cause for market troubles. Hedging strategies leading to the consumption of fixed income securities and sale of equities generated market duress (and skyrocketing bond prices), says JPM.

What prompted hedging strategies to change?  The cries of “recession!” didn’t commence until the market had already plummeted.

The same thing happened last December. After the market tanked, people were searching for reasons – failing to consider the structure of markets today and once again errantly supposing rational thought was at fault – and decided that so large a drop could only mean economic contraction had arrived.

It had not.

Think about how incorrect premises cost public companies money. There’s lost equity value. Higher equity cost of capital on volatility. Time and money spent messaging to the market about recession defenses.

CNBC had data yesterday on the spiking occurrence of Google searches around “the R word,” as they say.  No doubt a chunk of readers were searching earnings-call transcripts and press releases for it.

Behavioral data show no evidence of rational thought behind the market’s decline. Passive Investment plunged 20% the week ended Aug 2.  Stocks cratered.

Further, our data show the same thing JPM discussed. At Aug 19, order flow related to directional bets is down 11% versus the 200-day average. Occurring with expiring August options and newly trading September instruments Aug 15-21, it’s telling. Bets and hedges have gone awry. Low volatility schemes have failed. Insurance costs are up.

Low volatility investing is the most popular “smart beta” technique used to beat general market performance with rules-based investments. The dominance of smart beta is largely responsible for the outperformance of Utilities stocks tied to smart beta Exchange Traded Funds (ETFs.). Those strategies failed in August.

Volatility bets like the VIX expire today, Aug 21.

We can often peg the amount a stock will fall on bad earnings news to the percentage of market-cap tied to derivatives. Why? If future prices become indeterminate, the value of the instruments predicated on them declines near zero.

Currently, 16.4% of market cap traces back to derivatives and leverage, such as borrowing, down from pre-August levels over 18%. Volatility clouds predictability. The cost of leverage and protection increases, while use diminishes.

What if the market fell because Passive money was overweight equities and overdue for rebalancing, and stopped buying stocks in late July, which caused a gut-lurching swoon, which in turn rendered hedges worthless?

Talk of recession is a consequence of the market’s decline. Not causality.  Think about your own stock, IR professionals. Do you understand what drives it?  Investors, if you weight your portfolio for a recession that doesn’t exist, you’ll be wrong.

Our premise Jan 2 was that the end of Maiden Lane was the end of a monetary era, and it had the potential to create an interesting year. So far, seems right.  We also know what kind of money is waxing or waning. You should too. It’s not just interesting. It’s essential to correct actions.

Why Traders Trade

Albert Einstein reputedly quipped that compounding was the 8th wonder of the world. What would he think of negative interest rates?

The 10-year German government bond yield is -0.61%. The Rule of 72, which nobody mentions now, says dividing 72 by the expected rate of investment return tells you when it’ll double. At 6%, that’s 12 years. At 2%, 36 years. Try compounding negative rates.

Believe it or not, the stock market is weirder still.

Volatility in US stocks averaged 3.4% daily the past week, 55% higher than the risk-free return of 2.2% for 30-year US Treasurys.

Plug those figures into an equity cost of capital calculation where the expected return is 8%.  You with me?  It’s 22%!  So, the interest you earn on cash has vanished while the cost of raising it in public markets has exploded.

You may say, investor-relations professionals, there’s no way my equity costs 22%.  The truth is, volatility introduces value-uncertainty, which both increases what you pay for money, and on the other side, decreases returns on it.

University of Chicago professors Eugene Fama, who won a Nobel Prize in 2013, and Kenneth French, who also serves as head of investment policy for quant investor Dimensional Fund Advisors, co-authored a paper describing how equity-market volatility diminishes the apparent superiority of equities over bonds.

To wit, three-month Treasury Bills are returning 2% annualized. The S&P 500 since Sep 20, 2018 is down 0.4% even after yesterday’s gains. What if you’d sold Monday when the Dow Industrials dropped 391 points and bought yesterday when they rose 372? One day can make or break returns for investors.

Same for public companies. Say you issued stock in Dec 2018 and implemented an aggressive buyback in Jan 2019.  On the wrong side of the market, cost of capital skyrockets.

Rather than rationalizing market behavior, we should be asking why it’s become so volatile. And yes, it’s vastly more so now than during earlier epochs.

The answers? Rules. Stocks must trade between the best bid to buy and offer to sell, which cannot be the same. Thus, machines change prices. They’re 45% of volume.

On top of that, stock exchanges give firms economic incentives to trade stocks and derivatives simultaneously, accelerating the rate of change for prices.

For instance, the Nasdaq pays traders with more than 0.6% of sell volume (they call it adding liquidity but it’s paying traders to set the offer, the highest price for a stock) $0.29 per hundred shares.

Sell 1.75% of Nasdaq volume, with 0.6% in derivatives like options and futures, and if that amount is 0.1% of total Nasdaq derivatives volume, the exchanges pays $0.32 per hundred shares. That’s a 10% kicker for more prices.

Now add Exchange Traded Funds, which have no intrinsic value and depend for prices on the stocks that collateralize them. The two – stocks, and ETFs – are always a bit out of step.

Take Energy stocks last week.  XLE, a big Energy ETF, was down 2.2%. But composite Energy stocks were down 5.5% – a spread of 150%!

Capture half that by buying the ETF and selling the stocks, and it’s a 75% return.  No wonder traders trade.

ETFs drive what we estimate is 60% of total market volume now. ETFs exist via a regulatory exemption from the Investment Company Act of 1940 permitting them to trade as stock substitutes around an “arbitrage mechanism.”

That is, they depend on changing prices. There are thousands of ETFs, worth trillions of dollars. It’s a mania.

I’ll summarize: Market rules and investment behavior built on continually changing prices have transformed the market from a place where long-range horizons are the objective, to one where continuously changing prices are the objective.

Changing prices is the definition of volatility. Traders trade to profit on it. They rule.

What we expect from the stock market should derive from these facts. Public companies and investors alike should adapt. How? Understand the ebbs and flows and surf them like waves (we have that data). Modulate your buybacks, your stock issuances, your tactical investor-outreach, your investment decisions, to reflect behavioral facts.

Investors and public companies could also band together to petition the SEC to stop giving arbitrage a leg up.  The first step toward that goal is understanding how and why the market’s focus is now today’s spread, not tomorrow’s capital appreciation. I’ve explained it.

Mark Twain would say: Is the market run by smart people who are putting us on or imbeciles who really mean it?

Yet Arrived

Bula!

That’s Fijian for “greetings!” You say it “boo-lah.” Fiji is among the friendliest places on the planet. Karen and I are just back from the South Pacific, as this compilation illustrates.  Do you know it’s traditional in Fiji to invite anyone passing by to breakfast?

Maybe that’s the answer to the world’s woes.

And maybe we should have stayed out to sea!  Our first day back the market tumbled.

We left you July 18 with our concern that the market had become a runaway train. In a private client note Jul 19 as options expired we said, “Right now, the data say the market will next tick up. If it’s a weak top – check page 3 of your Market Structure Reports – we could have trouble. At this moment, I don’t think that’s set to occur. Yet.

Well, “yet” arrived.

Is it possible to know when yet is coming?

Yes. At least the way one knows a storm front is forming. It’s not mystical knowledge. It’s math. Weather forecasters track patterns because, as it turns out, weather is mathematical.  It follows rules that can be modeled.

We put a man on the moon 50 years ago because escaping gravity and traveling four days at predictable velocity will get you there. It’s math – which smart people computed on devices less powerful than your smart phone.

Even human behavior, which isn’t mathematical, can often be predicted (somebody needs to develop a model for mass-shooting nutcases). For instance, in the stock market rational people predictably buy weakness and sell strength.

What kind of money sells weakness and buys strength? We’ll come to that.

Conventional wisdom says stocks imploded because a) people wanted the Federal Reserve to cut rates Jul 31 more than it did, b) President Trump tweeted about Chinese tariffs, c) and the Chinese retaliated by letting the yuan slide.

Relative currency values matter. We’ve written often about it. The pandemonium routing equities Aug 24, 2015 followed a yuan devaluation too. Stocks inversely correlate with the dollar because currencies have no inherent value today.

So if the supply of dollars rises, the value of the dollar falls, and the prices of assets denominated in dollars that serve as stores of value, such as stocks, rise. Value investor Ron Baron said he puts depreciating assets, dollars, into appreciating assets, stocks.

With dollars increasing, the relative value of other currencies like the euro and the yen rises, so prices of goods denominated in them fall – which governments and central banks interpret as “a recession,” leading to interest-rate cuts, negative bond yields, banks buying stuff to create money, and other weirdness.

Makes you wonder if these central planners actually understand economics.

I digress. That’s not the root reason why stocks rolled over. Headlines, Fed actions and currencies don’t buy or sell stocks. People and machines do.

The majority of the money in the market pegs a benchmark now – machine-like behavior. Market Structure Sentiment, our index for short-term market-direction, has been above 5.0 for an extended period without mean-reversion.

That matters because money tracking a measure must rebalance – mean-revert. If it goes an unusual stretch without doing so, risk of a sudden mean-reversion rises.

We saw the same condition before stock-corrections in Jan 2016, June 2016 around Brexit, ahead of the US election in late Oct 2016, in Jan 2018, and in Sep 2018. Each featured an extended positive Sentiment run with a weak top, as now.

The week ended Aug 2 also had another mathematical doozy: Exchange Traded Fund flows as measured not by purchases or sales of ETFs but market-making by brokers plunged 20%.  In some mega capitalization stocks it was the largest decline in ETF flows since early Dec 2018.

Passive money buys strength, until it stops. When it stops, weakness often follows. And if it has not rebalanced, it sells weakness because weakness means deteriorating returns.

The last day of trading every month is the most important one for money tracking benchmarks. That was July 31. Stocks deteriorated in the afternoon. Pundits blamed Jay Powell’s comments. What if it was long overdue rebalancing on the last trading day?

That selling coupled with a big overall decline in ETF flows converged with a currency depreciation Monday, and whoosh! What yet we feared arrived.

And yet. It’s not fundamental. Why does that matter? Monetary policy, portfolio positioning, and economic predictions may be predicated on a false premise that rational people had unmet expectations.

I think that’s a big deal.

So. Since yet has arrived, is yet over?  Data say no. It’s a model with predictiveness that may be a step ahead or behind. But a swoon like this should produce a mean-reversion. That’s not – yet – happened.

With that, I say Bula! And if you’re in the neighborhood, drop by for breakfast on us.

Unstoppable

Any of you Denzel Washington fans?

He starred in a 2010 movie loosely based on real events called Unstoppable, about a runaway freight train (I have Tom Petty’s “Runaway Train” going through my head).

In a way, the market has the appearance of an unstoppable force, a runaway train.  On it goes, unexpectedly, and so pundits, chuckling uncomfortably, try to explain why.

Tellingly, however, in the past month, JP Morgan said 80% of market volume is on autopilot, driven by passive and systematic flows.  Goldman Sachs held a conference call for issuers on what’s driving stock-prices – focusing on market structure. Jefferies issued a white paper called When the Market Moves the Market (thank you, alert readers, for those!).

We’ve been talking about market structure for almost 15 years (writing here on it since 2006). We’re glad some big names are joining us. You skeptics, if you don’t believe us, will you believe these banks?

Market structure has seized control. Stock pickers say the market always reflects expectations.  Well, stocks are at records even as expectations for corporate earnings predict a recession – back-to-back quarterly profit-declines.

There’s more. Last week the S&P 500 rose 0.8%, pushing index gains to 9.3% total since the end of May. But something that may be lost on most: The S&P 500 is up less than 2.5% since last September. The bane of stock-investing is volatility – changing prices.

Hedge funds call that uncompensated risk. The market has given us three straight quarters of stomach-lurching roller coasters of risk. For a 2.5% gain?

We all want stocks to rise!  Save shorts and volatility traders.  The point is that we should understand WHY the market does what it does. When it’s behaving unexpectedly, we shouldn’t shrug and say, “Huh. Wonder what that’s about?”

It’s akin to what humorist Dave Barry said you can do when your car starts making a funny noise:  Turn the radio up.

Let me give you another weird market outtake.  We track composite quantitative data on stocks clustered by sector (and soon by industry, and even down to selected peers).  That is, we run central tendencies, averages, for stocks comprising industries.

Last week, Consumer Discretionary stocks were best, up 1.5%. The sector SPDR (XLY, the State Street ETF) was up 2% (a spread of 33% by the way). Yet sector stocks had more selling than buying every day but Friday last week.

You know the old investor-relations joke:  “Why is our stock down today?”

“Because we had more sellers than buyers.”

Now stocks are UP on more selling than buying.

An aside before I get to the punchline:  ETF flows are measured in share creations and redemptions. More money into ETFs? More ETF shares are created.  Except there were $50 billion more ETF shares created than redeemed in December last year when the market fell 20%.

The market increasingly cannot be trusted to tell us what’s occurring, because the mechanics of it – market structure – are poorly understood by observers. ETFs act more like currencies than stocks because they replace stocks. They don’t invest in stocks (and they can be created and shorted en masse).

With the rise of ETFs, Fast Trading machines, shorting, derivatives, the way the market runs cannot be seen through the eyes of Benjamin Graham.

Last week as the S&P 500 rose, across the eleven industry groups into which it’s divided there were 28 net selling days, and 27 net buying days (11 sectors, five days each).

How can Consumer Discretionary stocks rise on net selling? How can the market rise on net selling? Statistical samples. ETFs and indexes don’t trade everything. They buy or sell a representative group – say 10 out of a hundred.

(Editorial note: listen to five minutes of commentary on Sector Insights, and if you’re interested in receiving them, let us know.)

So, 90 stocks could be experiencing outflows while the ten on which this benchmark or that index rests for prices today have inflows, and major measures, sector ETFs, say the market is up when it’s the opposite.

Market Structure Sentiment™, our behavioral index, topped on July 12, right into option-expirations today through Friday.  On Monday in a flat market belying dyspepsia below the surface, we saw massive behavioral change suggesting ETFs are leaving.

Stay with me. We’re headed unstoppably toward a conclusion.

From Jan 1-May 31 this year, ETFs were less volatile than stocks every week save one. ETFs are elastic, and so should be less volatile. Suddenly in the last six weeks, ETFs are more volatile than stocks, a head-scratcher.

Mechanics would see these as symptoms of failing vehicle-performance. Dave Barry would turn the radio up.  None of us wants an Unstoppable train derailing into the depot.  We can avoid trouble by measuring data and recognizing when it’s telling us things aren’t working right.

Investors and public companies, do you want to know when you’re on a runaway train?

The Canary

For a taste of July 4 in a mountain town, featuring boy scouts serving pancakes, a camel amongst horses, sand crane dancers, and Clyde the glad hound, click here.  Americana.

Meanwhile back in the coal mine of the stock market, the canary showed up.

We first raised concern about the possible failure of a major prime broker in 2014. By “prime,” we mean a firm large enough to facilitate big transactions by supplying global trading capacity, capital, advice and strategy.

We homed in on mounting risk at HSBC and Deutsche Bank.

Last weekend Deutsche Bank announced an astonishing intention:  It will eliminate global equity trading and 18,000 jobs. It’s a long-range effort, the bank says, with targeted conclusion in 2022.

But will a bank erasing the foundation of investment-banking, cash equities, retain key people and core customers? Doubtful. In effect, one of the dozen largest market-makers for US stocks is going away.

It matters to public companies and investors because the market depends on but a handful of firms for market-efficiency in everything from US Treasurys, to stocks, to derivatives, and corporate bonds.

And Exchange Traded Funds.  Industry sources say over 80% of creations and redemptions in ETF shares are handled by ten firms. We don’t know precise identities of the ten because this market with over $300 billion of monthly transactions is a black box to investors, with no requirement that fund sponsors disclose which brokers support them.

We know these so-called “Authorized Participants” must be self-clearing members of the Federal Reserve system, which shrinks the pool of possibilities to about 40, including Deutsche Bank, which hired an ETF trading legend, Chris Hempstead, in 2017.

It’s possible others may fill the void. But you have to be an established firm to compete, due to rigorous regulatory requirements.

For instance, brokers executing trades for customers must meet a stout “best execution” mandate that orders be filled a large percentage of the time at the best marketwide prices. That standard is determined by averages across aggregate order flow dominated in US markets by yet again ten firms (we presume the same ones), including Deutsche Bank.

It’s exceedingly difficult to shoulder in.  The great bulk of the 4,000 or so brokers overseen by Finra, the industry regulator, send their trades to one of these ten because the rest cannot consistently achieve the high required standard.

So the elite club upon which rests the vast apparatus of financial markets just shrank by about 10%.

Already the market is susceptible to trouble because it’s like a soccer stadium with only a handful of exits.  That’s no problem when everyone is inside.  But getting in or out when all are in a rush is dangerous, as we saw in Feb 2018 and Dec 2019, with markets swooning double digits in days.

Let’s go back to a basic market-structure concept.  The “stock market” isn’t a place. It’s a data network of interconnected alcoves and eddies.  What’s more, shares don’t reside inside it.  The supply must continuously be brought to it by brokers.

Picture a farmers’ market with rows of empty stalls. When you move in front of one, suddenly products materialize, a vendor selling you goat’s milk soap. You go to the next blank space and instantly it’s a bakery stand with fresh croissants.  As you move along, contents vanish again.

That’s how the stock market works today under the mandatory market-making model imposed by Regulation National Market System. High-speed traders and gigantic brokerage firms are racing around behind the booths and stands at extreme speeds rushing croissants and goat’s milk soap around to be in front of you when you appear.

The network depends on the few.  We have long theorized that one big threat to this construct is its increasing dependency on a handful of giant firms. In 2006, a large-cap stock would have over 200 firms making markets – running croissants to the stand.

Today it’s less than a hundred, and over 95% of volume concentrates consistently at just 30 firms, half of them dealers with customers, the other half proprietary trading firms, arbitragers trading inefficiencies amid continuous delivery of croissants and goat’s milk soap – so to speak – at the public bazaar.

We said we’ll know trouble is mounting when one of the major players fails. Deutsche Bank hasn’t failed per se, but you don’t close a global equity trading business without catastrophic associated losses behind the scenes. The speedy supply chain failed.

Why? I think it’s ETFs. These derivatives – that’s what they are – depend on arbitrage, or profiting on different prices for the same thing, for prices. Arbitrage creates winners and losers, unlike investment occurring as growing firms attract more capital.

As arbitrage losers leave, or rules become harder to meet, the market becomes thinner even as the obligations looming over it mount.

We are not predicting disaster. We are identifying faults in the structure. These will be the cause of its undoing at some point ahead.  We’ve seen the canary.

 

Flying Machines

While France roasts on both the heat of the US women’s soccer strikers and mother nature’s summertime glow, in Steamboat Springs Lake Catamount sits alpine serene, and it was 46 degrees Fahrenheit (about the same read in Celsius in France) on our early bike ride yesterday.

In the USA, we join figurative thankful hands with you across the fruited plain to mark this amazing republic’s 243rd birthday.  Long may the stars and stripes fly.

What’s flying in markets are a bunch of machines.

Joe Saluzzi, one of our marquee panelists at the NIRI Annual Conference last month, spoke to IR Magazine on how the market works and why investor-relations professionals need to educate themselves. As Joe says, much of your volume isn’t investment but trading. It distorts perceptions of real supply and demand.

Why does that matter?  Because your board, your executive team, your investors, see your stock as a barometer of fundamentals. You need to know when that’s true – and when it’s not.  Misunderstanding what the market is doing can lead to big mistakes.

What if your stock declines sharply with results and management believes it has miscommunicated key messages (and blames you)?

Suppose market structure shows Active money bought in the preceding two weeks – because you’ve been talking regularly over the quarter about what you’re trying to do strategically. Then before the call, they stop buying to pay attention to what you say.

The absence of what had been present will be patently apparent to Fast Traders. They will sell and short you.  Whoosh! The flying machines take you down.

Every IRO should understand, and observe, and report internally to the executive team and the board, the starkly apparent data demonstrating these facts. We have that data. For anyone traded in US markets.  Including your peers. And yes, you can see that data.

Story is vital, sure.  But the way we think about the influence of story, fundamentals, strategy, should be predicated on facts, not a perception diverging from reality.

Illustratively, CNBC ran a headline last Saturday reading “80% of the stock market is now on autopilot.”  Referencing a JP Morgan client note, the reporter said about 60% of assets are in passive indexes and Exchange-Traded Funds (ETFs), with another 20% following systematic strategies.

An aside, I think Morningstar is behind the curve on measuring the pervasive and endemic shift to passive in stocks. It’s not just assets under management but the composition of volume.

A WSJ article (registration required) last December describing the “herdlike behavior of computerized trading” also quoted JP Morgan officials estimating that 85% of market volume was something other than Active investing.

Those of you using our analytics know we track the facts with precision. Currently, it’s 87%, with just 13% of market volume the past week from Active investment.

Does it render IR obsolete?  Of course not!  Stop thinking your job consists of talking to investors.

That’s part of the job, sure. But IR is a strategic management function. Your job is to know what all the money is doing, all the time, and communicate important facts about trends and drivers to the board and executives so they’ll have realistic expectations.

And your job is to manage the market for your shares, which includes sorting out what’s controllable and what’s not, and providing important metrics on equity health and drivers around news, earnings, and non-deal road shows – and on a regular basis, proactively, as all good business managers do.

That’s IR today. The market is not full of “noise.” It’s full of flying machines, amazing sensors feeding back vital data to observers like us, who in turn help you take command of the equity-market battlefield as trusted strategic advisor to your executive team.

Ponder that with a cold beer (or a cold Rose from Provence!) and a flag this holiday week.  Happy birthday, USA!

In Control

This is what Steamboat Springs looked like June 21, the first day of summer (yes, that’s a snow plow).

Before winter returned, we were hiking Emerald Mountain there and were glad the big fella who left these tracks had headed the other way (yes, those are Karen’s shoes on the upper edge, for a size comparison).

A setup for talking about a bear market?  No.  But there are structural facts you need to know.  Such as why are investor-relations goals for changes to the shareholder base hard to achieve?

We were in Chicago seeing customers and one said, “Some holders complain we’re underperforming our peers because we don’t have the right shareholder mix. We develop a plan to change it.  We execute our outreach. When we compare outcomes to goals after the fact, we’ve not achieved them.”

Why?

The cause isn’t a failure of communication. It’s market structure.  First, many Active funds have had net outflows over the last decade as money shifted from expensive active management to inexpensive passive management.

It’s trillions of dollars.  And it means stock-pickers are often sellers, not buyers.

As the head of equities for a major fund complex told me, “Management teams come to see my analysts and tell the story, but we’ve got redemptions.  We’re not buying stocks. We’re selling them. And getting into ETFs.”

Second, conventional funds are by rule fully invested.  To buy something they must sell something else.  It’s hard business now.  While the average trade size rose the past two weeks from about 155 shares to 174 shares, it’s skewed by mega caps.  MRK is right at the average.  But FDX’s average trade size is 89 shares.  I saw a company yesterday averaging 45 shares per trade.

Moving 250,000 shares 45 at a time is wildly inefficient. It also means investors are continually contending with incorrect prices. Stocks quote in 100-share increments. If they trade in smaller fractions, there’s a good chance it’s not at the best displayed price.

That’s a structural problem that stacks the deck against active stock pickers, who are better off using Exchange Traded Funds (ETFs) that have limitless supply elasticity (ETFs don’t compete in the market for stocks. All stock-movement related to creating and redeeming ETF shares occurs off-market in giant blocks).

Speaking of market-structure (thank you, Joe Saluzzi), the Securities Traders Association had this advice for issuers:  Educate yourself on the market and develop a voice.

Bottom line, IR people, you need to understand how your stock trades and what its characteristics are, so you and your executive team and the board remain grounded in the reality of what’s achievable in a market dominated by ETFs.

Which brings us to current market structure.  Yesterday was “Counterparty Tuesday” when banks true up books related to options expiring last week and new ones that traded Monday.  The market was down because demand for stocks and derivatives from ETFs was off a combined 19% the past week versus 20-day averages.

It should be up, not down.

Last week was quad-witching when stock and index options and futures lapsed. S&P indexes rebalanced for the quarter. There was Phase III of the annual Russell reconstitution, which concludes Friday. Quarterly window-dressing should be happening now, as money tracking any benchmark needs to true up errors by June 28.

Where’d the money go?

If Passive money declines, the market could tip over. We’re not saying it’s bound to happen.  More important than the composition of an index is the amount of money pegged to it – trillions with the Russells (95% of it the Russell 1000), even more for S&P indices.

In that vein, last week leading into quad witching the lead behavior in every sector was Fast Trading.  Machines, not investors, drove the S&P 500 up 2.2%, likely counting on Passive money manifesting (as we did).

If it doesn’t, Fast Traders will vanish.

Summing up, we need to know what’s within our control.  Targeting investors without knowing market structure is like a farmer cutting hay without checking the weather report.  You can’t control the weather. You control when you cut hay – to avoid failure.

The same applies to IR (and investing, for that matter) in modern markets.

Rate of Change

Every investor and public company experiences volatility – the rate of change in prices.

So every investor and public company should come to the market with a baseline grasp on what others do about the rate of change in prices.

Notwithstanding how Rate of Change would be a good name for a rock band, let’s think about the kinds of money that would be concerned about rate of change, volatility.

Hedge funds. Though as we learned in the hedge-fund panel at NIRI Annual a couple weeks ago (with the help of my good friend Rich Barry, I assembled the group on the stage), hedge funds may have longer horizons than you think.

One of those folks said, however, putting emphasis on rate of change, “Whatever assets we’ve got under management, put a multiplier of 5-8 times on it, because that’s our economic impact on markets.”

You’ve got pension funds, commodity funds, insurance companies.  All are impacted by the rate of change in prices.

There are Fast Traders – machines in the markets driving about 45% of trading volume in US stocks that continuously calculate recovering and deteriorating prices. They’ll want to extend their influence in a way that profits from these rates of change.

Am I going somewhere with this?  Yes. And it’s happening right now. Stay with me.

Mutual funds too, especially indexers.  Index funds are the biggest consumer of options and futures because they track the mean, a benchmark. Volatility causes tracking errors.

They can adjust for index errors by buying or selling options (or futures, or repurchase agreements, or forwards, and so on). Most prospectuses include provisos for using about 10% of funds toward these ends.

Only one asset class, however, owes its existence to the rate of change: Exchange Traded Funds. They’re the only financial instrument ever created that was imbued with special regulatory dispensation to pursue arbitrage.  Which is…anyone?  Anyone?

Profiting on the rate of change in prices.

Arbitrage cannot exist if prices don’t change. There was almost no currency arbitrage before the USA left the gold standard in 1971. Exchange rates were fixed. Today, there are $544 TRILLION of over-the-counter derivatives swaps, most tied to currencies and interest rates designed to compensate for continual rates of change.

You know the VIX, the fear gauge?  Instruments tied to it expire today. It’s a way to profit on the rate of change.

Heard of the VVIX?  It tracks the annualized presence of volatility. It was created in 2006 and closed that year over 71%. It’s never been sustainably lower. It’s currently at 96%, about where it was in December last year.

Volatility is rising, not muted as the VIX suggests. Why? Blame can be spread around but it concentrates in ETFs. ETFs aren’t compensating for it. They’re depending on it.

ETF volatility – we track it – averaged 11% PER WEEK between Dec 14, 2018-Jun 14, 2019. Annualized, that’s nearly 600%. In fact, volatility between ETFs and the underlying stocks they’re supposed to track was 23% in April 2019 but a staggering 481% in May when stocks were down for six straight weeks. It suggests low spreads (April) triggered weak markets (May).

Maybe the Dow Jones would be at 50,000 if so many didn’t feed on the rate of change.

Is it good for investors and companies that the focus of the stock market has shifted from what rises or falls to what the gaps are between those items?

We get to today. Options expire today through Friday. These instruments tie to the rate of change in prices.  S&P indices, the benchmarks, true up quarterly this week. Russell indices are in phase three, the penultimate, of annual reconstitution, and they depend on the absence of a rate of change.

New options trade Monday, Jun 24. Counterparties will true up exposure Tuesday the 25th. We’ll see reality around Jun 26-27.

The bigger the money tracking a benchmark, the bigger the assets pegged to ETFs, the more consequential the rate of change of prices becomes.

And it warps any interpretation of fundamentals.

We cannot suppose that fundamentals price stocks when 100% of NET new inflows to stocks the entire past decade have gone to instruments attempting to mitigate the rate of change by tracking some measure.

I hope I’ve made the point.

The data tell us the rate of change could take a stomach-jerking step. Why? Too much money depends on preventing it or fostering it. Tug of war.  It may not happen. But be ready.

Russelling Stocks

We’re back!

At the NIRI Annual Conference last week in Phoenix (where foliage defied fiery environs) we launched an ad campaign for investor-relations professionals that graced the escalator wall into the hall, and the ModernIR booth hummed.

I had the honor of co-vice-chairing, and my market structure panel with hedge-fund legend Lee Cooperman, market commentator Joe Saluzzi, and SEC head of Trading and Markets Brett Redfearn kicked off the conference Monday June 3rd.

Due to an inadvertent clerical error, I was also named a NIRI volunteer of the year (here with NIRI CEO Gary LaBranche and board chair Ron Parham) along with TopBuild’s Tabitha Zane.  And I met NIRI co-founder Dick Morrill who at 97 can still deliver a ringing speech.

Post-conference, Karen and I bolted briefly to our mountain home, Steamboat Springs, where frost dusted the grass twice the last week and Sand Mountain jutted white-capped above a voluptuous carpet of grasses and blooms.

Meanwhile back in the stock market, with trade fears gripping the world – US stocks zoomed at the best rate in 13 months, posting six straight days of gains, a 2019 record, beating even the heady January start.

Against this backdrop loom big index rebalances. The Russell indices have been morphing toward July 1 reconstitution in phases that persist through the next three Fridays. On June 21, S&P quarterly rebalances will join the jammed queue, as will stock and index options and futures expirations June 19-21.

And expiring June 28 when the Russell finalizes are monthly CBOE futures contracts created to help indexers true up benchmark-tracking on the month’s last trading day.

Russell says $9 trillion of assets are pegged to its US equity indexes.  For perspective, the Russell 1000 is 95% of US market cap, the Russell 2000 most of the remaining 5%, as there are only 3,450 public companies.

What’s at stake with rebalances is thus more than pegged assets. It’s all the assets.

Passive assets are now over 50% of managed money, Exchange Traded Funds alone drive more than 50% of volume. The effects of these events are massive not due to susurrations in construction but in the capacity for price-changes to ripple through intertwined asset classes and the entirety of equity capitalization.

It’s like being in Group One on a United Airlines flight.  The fewer the airlines, the bigger the audience, the longer the line.

When the money wanting to queue up beside a benchmark was an eclectic conclave outside Palm Springs, rebalances were no big deal. Now passives are Los Angeles and rebalances are a Friday afternoon rush hour.

Put together the trillions tied to Russell and S&P indexes, the trillions in equity-linked swaps benchmarked to broad measures, the hundreds of trillions tied to expiring currency and interest rate swaps, the ETF market-makers trying to price ETFs and stocks driving $125 billion of daily trading volume, the Active “closet indexers” mimicking models, the Fast Traders with vast machine-computing power trying to game all the spreads. It’s keying the tumblers on the locks to the chains constraining the Kraken.

It’s not a myth. It’s already happening. Stocks imploded when the Communication Services sector was yanked like a rib from the torso of Tech and Consumer Discretionary stocks last September. It happened repeatedly through October, November and December 2018 as sector and market-cap ETFs washed like tides over stocks.

It happened in January, March, May, this year.

And it just happened again. What was it? Strafing waves of short-term passive shifts.

Lead market behavior in June so far? Risk Mgmt – continuous recalibration of derivatives bets.  Followed by Fast Trading – machines changing prices. Followed by Passive Investment (which tied to Risk Mgmt is ETFs, far and away the biggest combined influencer).

All these behaviors are 30%-43% higher than Active Investment as influencers. Defined as percentages of trading volume the past five days, Active is 11.6%, Passive, 26.9%, Fats Trading 41.4%, Risk Mgmt 20.1%.

What’s rustling the thickets of equity volatility, introducing unpredictability into stocks across the board, are vast benchmarked behaviors and their trading remoras.

The longer everyone persists in trying to assign rational motivation to moves, the more dangerous the market becomes. This isn’t complicated: The elephant in the room is the money watching prices – passive, speculative, hedged.  If observers are looking elsewhere, we’ll sooner or later get caught off-guard.

Let’s not.  Instead, be aware. Know the calendar.  Listen for Russelling stocks.

Phones and Wristwatches

Numbers matter. But not the ones you think, public companies and investors.

For instance, the best sector the past month is Utilities, up 3.5%, inversing the S&P 500’s 3.5% decline over that time (a 7% spread trade, we could say).

Utilities were worst for revenue surprises among the eleven sectors last quarter, says FactSet, and ninth of eleven for earnings surprises. Financial returns were mid-pack among sectors. It wasn’t results.

Sure, Utilities are defensive, along with Staples, Real Estate, Health Care. Those are up too the last month but less than Utilities.

One number sets Utilities apart: volatility.

Or lack thereof. Measured intraday, it’s 1.5% daily between high and low prices for stocks comprising the sector. Broad-market intraday volatility is 2.7%, 50% higher than Utilities.

Staples and Real Estate trail market volatility too, while Health Care, only of late returning to the safe-harbor fold, is more than twice as volatile as Utilities.

The worst sector in the market the last month is Energy, down 8.4% as measured by State Street’s sector ETF, XLE. And Energy stocks, with daily swings of 3.9%, were 44% more volatile than the broad market – and 100% more volatile than Utilities.

Among the most popular recent investments, the WSJ reports (posted here by Morningstar), are low-volatility ETFs like $SPLV and $USMV. Assets have exploded. These funds are disproportionately exposed to Utilities. And our models show massive ETF patterns in Utilities stocks.

Remember, ETFs are not pooled investments. They’re derivatives. If money flows to these ETFs, it’s not aggregating into a big lake of custodial money overseen by Blackrock or Invesco.

Suppose I traded my cell phone for your wristwatch. You’re free to do what you want with my phone because it’s yours now. But in a sense we’re saying the phone and the wristwatch are of similar value.

Say we’re day-trading phones and wristwatches.  Neither of us has a claim per se to the phone or the wristwatch. But we’ll be inclined to buy the wristwatch when it’s worth less than the phone and sell it when it’s worth more.

Same with ETFs. Low-vol ETF sponsors want assets such as Utilities and big stocks like WMT or PFE that don’t move much intraday (about 1.3% for those two).

ETFs are priced on spreads. Low-volatility instruments demand comparatives with low volatility (creating a run on low-vol assets?). They have no intrinsic value. You can’t find an ETF lying on the sidewalk and trade it to, say, Blackrock for its face value in cash.

It has no face value. Unless there’s another item with similar value to which it compares. ETFs are priced via in-kind exchange. Phone and wristwatch.

The ETF, phones, will be attractive to a trader to buy if it’s discounted to the stuff it’s supposed to track, wristwatches, and less attractive (and a short) if it’s currently priced above that stuff (phones). Prices constantly change as a result. Volatility.

The same thing will by extension invade your stock’s pricing, because your stock is the stuff ETFs track.

This is vital to understand, public companies and investors.

If the majority of money in the market fixates on spreads, the spread becomes more important than your financial results. Spreads become better predictors of future stock values than fundamentals.

EDITORIAL NOTE: Come to the NIRI Annual Conference June 2-5 in Phoenix! I’m hosting a session on ETFs with Rich Evans from the Univ of VA Wed morning Jun 5.

Also, the Think Tank chaired by Ford Executive Director of Investor Relations Lynn Tyson has released its white paper on the future of Investor Relations. Adapting to evolving market structure and investment behavior is key.

This image (linked) looks like robot-generated modern art. It’s our data on spreads between ETFs and stocks from Dec 2018 to present.  Wide spreads matched strong markets. Diminishing spreads correlated to weakening stocks. Maybe it’s false correlation.

But what if as spreads narrow the incentive to swap phones for watches fades? Markets could be imperiled by numbers we’re not watching. Shouldn’t we know?

Are you listening, financial reporters?