Quiet Midday

The midday equity-market silence is deafening.

Writing for the Wall Street Journal last week, Dan Strumpf roiled capital-markets constituents describing how stock-trading is now focused around the opening bell and the last half-hour, with volume dribbling otherwise.  NYSE strategists are now contemplating a midday auction.

Successful solutions spring from correct diagnoses. The issue isn’t that Everyone Goes Away at Midday. What’s occurring is symptomatic of structure in both the equity market and institutional investment. This is the giant elephant in the stock-market room. Concentration early and late in volumes reflects the explosive growth in passive investment.

The investor-relations profession predicates its existence on differentiating the corporate story.  You target investors appropriate for your stock. You get out there and set meetings to see investors.  You tell the story unflaggingly. You run a good business, delivering the results you’ve helped investors to expect.

Fine, good. There’s just one problem. This strategy obviates the bedrock principle of public speaking: Know your audience.  In the 1980s when stock-pickers dominated market volumes that weren’t coalesced at the open and close, rational investment behavior led and corporate competitive differentiation mattered most.

Today, the elephant is the core audience. For ten straight years investors have been shifting from picking stocks to allocating assets.  Over that time, the once-fringe notion of using statistical models to invest in stocks has become the predominant approach. Blackrock, Vanguard and their dollars by the trillions today see equities as products.

We flew to the Bay Area yesterday and after our first plane experienced mechanically related delays, we switched flights and I found myself crammed into a rear row next to a Schwab employee from the sprawling Denver office. She’s in the Registered Investment Advisor group, supporting independent planners. Schwab has now launched “robo advisor” services for both retail and advisory markets in response to growth at firms like Betterment, Wealthfront, Personal Capital, Motif Investing and others.

These automated investing services identify your preferences and goals and then construct a model to match them. In Schwab’s case the models are entirely ETF-driven and rebalance daily to match allocation targets.

Advisors could have ignored the elephant trampling the traditional model. The smart ones are embracing them. There’s a lesson for public companies: The elephant of passive, model-driven indexes and ETFs isn’t obscuring your audience. It IS your audience. This is what institutions are doing now.

That doesn’t mean you stop telling the story. It does mean that what you measure, how you gather investor feedback, what you tell management about stock-valuation and how you target investors – in fact, how you see the job – must change. We can’t ignore the giant passive-investment elephant in the room, and go on doing the same things.

Which gets back to silence at midday. Indexes and ETFs are paid to track benchmarks. Tracking is best served by orders near the close. As passive investment has exploded, volume has concentrated in the closing half-hour to mark broad measures.

The opening frenzy is also a consequence. Traders hoping to move index components for arbitrage opportunities act early in the day, leading to frenetic sprints at the bell.  And buttressing this proliferation in model-driven money is mushrooming derivatives-use, from over-the-counter options to fixed-for-floating equity swaps, all of it about the elephant in the room and arbitrage. And 44% of market volume is rented – short, borrowed – to boot.

It’s all related.  A midday auction won’t help the elephant in the room or anyone else because it hasn’t diagnosed the problem. What might help is 24-hour trading. Indexes would be relieved of the need to be near a close.  But investment would then devolve into relentless and repeating arbitrage even more than now, the continuous plucking of profits on slight separations between securities.

We could disconnect markets and disabuse ourselves of the false premise that all need the same price regardless of size – which would bring the Passive Investment juggernaut to a halt and level the playing field again for stock pickers.

That’s not going to happen. Anytime soon, at least. In the meantime, IR professionals, embrace the elephant and make measuring its movement a core part of the job because it’s your core price-setter. It’s concentrating volumes.

And that’s the quiet truth.