Rational Signals

The market message appears to be: If you want to know the rest, buy the rights.

While rival Nintendo is banking on Pokemon Go, Sony bought the rights to Michael Jackson’s music catalog for an eye-popping $750 million. This may explain the sudden evaporation of Jackson family discord. Cash cures ills.

In the equity market, everybody buys the rights to indexes and exchange-traded funds. TABB Group says indexes and ETFs drove 57% of June options volume, with ETFs over 45% of that and indexes the balance. TABB credits money “rushing into broad-market portfolio protection” around the Brexit.

Could be.  But that view supposes options are insurance only.  They’re also ways to extend reach to assets, tools for improving how portfolios track underlying measures and substitutes for stock positions. I’ve wondered about the Russell rebalances occurring June 24 as the Brexit swooned everything, and whether indexers were outsized options buyers in place of equity rebalancing – which then aided sharp recovery as calls were used.

We can see which behaviors set price every day.  On June 24, the day of the dive, Asset Allocation – indexes and ETFs primarily – dominated.  On June 27 Fast Traders led but right behind them was Risk Management, or counterparties for options and futures.

The tail can wag the dog. The Bank for International Settlements tracks exchange-traded options and futures notional values. Globally, it’s $73 trillion (equaling all equity markets) and what’s traded publicly is about half the total options and futures market.

Sifma, the lobbying arm of the US financial industry, pegs interest-rate derivatives, another form of rights, at more than $500 trillion. You’d think with interest rates groveling globally (and about 30% of all government bonds actually digging holes) that transferring risk would be a yawn.  Apparently not.  You can add another $100 trillion in foreign-exchange, equity and credit-default swaps tracked by Sifma and the BIS.

Today VIX derivatives expire. The CBOE gauge measures volatility in the S&P 500.  Yesterday VXX and UVXY, exchanged traded products (themselves derivatives), traded a combined 90 million shares, among the most actively traded stocks. Yet the VIX is unstirred, closing below 12. Why are people buying volatility when there’s none? For perspective, it peaked last August over 40 and traded between 25-30 in January and February this year and again with the Brexit in late June.

The answer is if the VIX is the hot potato of risk, the idea here isn’t to hedge it but to trade the hot potato. And for a fear gauge the VIX is a lousy leading indicator.  It seems only to point backward at risk, jumping when it’s too late to move. Maybe that’s why everybody buys rights?  One thing is sure: If you’re watching options for rational signals, you’ll be more than half wrong.  Might as well flip a coin.

We learned long ago that rational signs come only from rational behavior. In the past week right through options-expirations starting Thursday the 14th, Active Investment was in a dead heat with Risk Management, the counterparties for rights. That means hedge funds were everywhere trying to make up ground by pairing equities and options.

But options have expired.  Do hedge funds double down or is the trade over?  Short volume has ebbed to levels last seen in November, which one might think is bullish – yet it was the opposite then.

Lesson: The staggering size of rights to things tells us focus has shifted from investment to arbitrage. With indexes and ETFs dominating, the arbitrage opportunity is between the mean, the average, and the things that diverge from it – such as rights.

Don’t expect the VIX to tell you when risk looms. Far better to see when investors stop pairing shares and rights, signaling that the trade is over.