Piloting Fees

What do these pension funds below have in common?

All (over $1.3 trillion of assets), according to Pensions & Investments, periodical for retirement plans, endorse the SEC’s Fee Pilot program on stock-trading in US equities.

The California State Teachers’ Retirement System
The California Public Employees Retirement System (CalPERS)
The Ontario Teachers Pension Plan (Canada)
The New York City Retirement Systems
The State of Wisconsin Investment Board
The Alberta Investment Management Corp. (Canada)
The Healthcare of Ontario Pension Plan (Canada)
The Alaska Permanent Fund Corp.
The Arizona State Retirement System
The San Francisco City & County Employees’ Retirement System
The Wyoming Retirement System
The San Diego City Employees’ Retirement System

In case you missed the news, we’ll explain the study in a moment. It will affect how stocks trade and could reverse what we believe are flaws in the structure of the US stock market impeding capital formation. But first, we perused comment letters from other supportive investors and found:

Capital Group (parent of American Funds) $1.7 trillion
Wellington Management, $1 trillion
State Street Global Advisors, $2.7 trillion (but State Street wants Exchange Traded Products, ETPs, its primary business, excluded)
Invesco, $970 billion
Fidelity Investments, $2.4 trillion
Vanguard, $5.1 trillion
Blackrock, $6.3 trillion (with the proviso that equal ETPs be clustered in the same test groups)
Assorted smaller investment advisors

By contrast, big exchange operators and a collection of trading intermediaries are either opposed to the study or to eliminating trading incentives called rebates.  We’ll explain “rebates” in a bit.

That the views of investors and exchanges contrast starkly speaks volumes about how the market works today.  None of us wants to pick a fight with the NYSE or the Nasdaq. They’re pillars of the capital markets where we’re friends, colleagues and fellow constituents. And to be fair, it’s not their fault. They’re trying to compete under rules created by the SEC. But once upon a time exchanges matched investors and issuers.

Let’s survey the study. The program aims to assess the impact of trading fees, costs for buying and selling shares, and rebates, or payments for buying or selling, on how trading in stocks behaves.  There’s widespread belief fees distort how stock orders are handled.

The market today is an interconnected data network of 13 stock exchanges (four and soon five by the NYSE, three from the Nasdaq, and four from CBOE, plus new entrant IEX, the only one paying no trading rebates), and 32 Alternative Trading Systems (says Finra).

The bedrock of Regulation National Market System governing this market is that all trades in any individual stock must occur at a single best price:  The National Best Bid to buy, or Offer to sell – the NBBO.  Since exchanges cannot give preference and must share prices and customers, how to attract orders to a market?  Pay traders.

All three big exchange groups pay traders to set the best Bid to buy at one platform and the best Offer to sell at another, so trades will flow to them (between the NBBO).  Then they sell feeds with this price-setting data to brokers, which must by rule buy it to prove to customers they’re giving “best execution.” High-volume traders buy it too, to inform smart order routers.  Exchanges also sell technology services to speed interaction.

It’s a huge business, this data and services segment.  Under Reg NMS, the number of public companies has fallen by 50% while the exchanges have become massive multibillion-dollar organizations.  No wonder they like the status quo.

The vast majority of letters favoring the study point to how incentive payments from exchanges that attract order flow to a market may mean investors overpay.

One example: Linda Giordano and Jeff Alexander at BabelFish Analytics are two of the smartest market structure people I know. They deal in “execution quality,” the overall cost to investors to buy and sell stocks. Read their letter. It explains how trading incentives increase costs.

Our concern is that incentives foster false prices. When exchanges pay traders not wanting to own shares to set prices, the prices do not reflect supply and demand. What’s more, the continuous changing of prices to profit on differences is arbitrage. The stock market is riven with it thanks to incentives and rules.

The more arbitrage, the harder to buy and sell for big investors. Arbitrage is the exact opposite motivation from investment. Why would we want a market full of it?

The three constituents opposing eliminating trading payments are the parties selling data, and the two principal arbitrage forces in the market:  High-frequency traders, and ETFs.

What should matter to public companies is if the stock market is a good place for the kind of money you spend your time targeting and informing. Look at the list above. We’ve written for 12 years now about how the market has evolved from a place for risk-taking capital to find innovative companies, to one best suited to fast machines with short horizons and the intermediaries selling data and services for navigating it.

Today, less than 13% of trading volume comes from money that commits for years to your investment thesis and strategy. All the rest is something else ranging from machines speculating on ticks, to passive money tracking benchmarks, to pairing tactics involving derivatives.

So public companies, if your exchange urges you for the sake of market integrity to oppose the study, ask them why $22 trillion of investment assets favor it? When will public companies and investors take back their own market? The SEC is offering that opportunity via this study.

Are there risks? Yes. The market has become utterly dependent for prices on arbitrage. But to persist with a hollow market where supply and demand are distorted because we fear the consequences of change is the coward’s path.