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ETFs and Arbitrage

The biggest risk to an arbitrager is a runaway market.

Let me frame that statement with backstory. I consider it our mission to help you understand market behavior. The biggest currently is arbitrage – taking advantage of price-differences. Insert that phrase wherever you see the word.  We mean that much of the money behind volume is doing that.  Yesterday eleven of the 25 most active stocks were Exchange-Traded Funds (ETFs). Four were American Depositary Receipts (ADRs).

Both these and high-frequency trading turn on taking advantage of price-differences. Both offer the capacity to capitalize on changing prices – ADRs relative to ordinary-share conversions, and ETFs relative to the net asset value of the ETF and the prices of components. In a sense both are stock-backed securities built on conversions.

For high-speed traders, arbitrage lies in the act of setting prices at different markets. Rules require trades to match between the best bid to buy and offer to sell (called the NBBO). Generally exchanges pay traders to sell and charge them to buy.

In fact, the SEC suspended an NYSE rule because it may permit traders to take advantage of price-differences (something we’ve long contended). We’ll come to that at the end.

Next, ETFs are constructed on arbitrage – price-differences. Say Blackrock sponsors an ETF to track a technology index. Blackrock sells a bunch of ETF shares to a broker like Morgan Stanley, which provides Blackrock with either commensurate stocks comprising the tech index or a substitute, principally cash, and sells ETF shares to the public.

If there’s demand, Morgan Stanley creates more ETF shares in exchange for components or cash, and then sells them. Conversely, if people are selling the ETF, Morgan Stanley buys the ETF shares and sells them back to Blackrock, which pays with stocks or cash.

The trick is keeping assets and stock-prices of components aligned. ETFs post asset positions daily. Divergences create both risk and opportunity for the sponsor and the broker alike. Blackrock cites its derivatives-hedging strategies as a standard risk associated with ETF investing. I’m convinced that a key reason why ETFs have low management fees is that the components can be lent, shorted, or leveraged with derivatives so as to contribute to returns for both the sponsor and the broker.

On the flip side, if markets are volatile as they have been post-Brexit and really since latter 2014, either party could lose money on unexpected moves. So both hedge.

For arbitragers, a perfect market is one with little direction and lots of volatility. Despite this week’s move to new market highs, there remains statistically little real market movement in the past two years. If a market is up or down 2% daily, does it over time gain, lose or stay the same?

Run it in Excel. You’ll see that a market declines over time. Thus arbitragers short securities using rapid tactics to minimize time-decay. If you want a distraction, Google “ETF arbitrage shorting” and read how traders short leveraged ETFs to make money without respect to the market at large.

In fact, this is the root problem: Taking advantage of price-differences is by nature a short-term strategy. Sixteen of the most actively traded 25 stocks yesterday (64% of the total!) were priced heavily by arbitrage, some by high-speed traders and some by investors and the market-makers for ETFs.

Offering further support for arbitrage ubiquity, the market is routinely 45-50% short on a given day. Short volume this week dipped below 45% for the first time since December, perhaps signaling an arbitrage squeeze and certainly offering evidence that arbitragers hate a runaway market.

If the market rises on arbitrage, it means parties SUPPLYING hedges are losing money. Those are big banks and hedge funds and insurance companies. Who’d take the market on a run to undermine arbitrage that’s eating away at balance sheets (big banks and hedge funds have suffered)?  Counterparties.

In our behavioral data Active investment is down and counterparties have been weak too, likely cutting back on participation. That comports with fund data showing net outflows of $70-$80 billion from US equities this year even as the market reverts to highs. The only two behaviors up the past 50 trading days are Fast Trading (arbitrage) and Asset Allocation (market-makers and brokers for ETFs and other quantitative vehicles). Yet more evidence. And both are principally quantitative.

Assemble these statistics and you see why the market seems oblivious to everything from US racial unrest, to a bankrupt Puerto Rico, to foundering global growth and teetering banks.  The market is running on arbitrage.

What’s the good news, you ask?  The SEC is aware of rising risk. It suspended an NYSE rule-filing on fees at the exchange’s Amex Options market after concluding the structure may incentivize arbitrage.  The SEC is scrutinizing leveraged ETFs and could end them.

But most important is the timeless self-regulation of knowledge. If we’re all aware of what’s driving the market then maybe the arbitragers will be their own undoing without taking the rest of us with them.

Janus ETFs

Everybody adapts, including institutional investors like Janus.

Rattle off a top-ten list of the best active stock pickers visited by teams of company execs and investor-relations pros trundling through the airports and cities of America, and Denver’s Janus likely makes the cut.

Ah, but.  In 2014 Janus bought VelocityShares, purveyor of synthetic exchange-traded products.  Just as a drug manufactured in a laboratory rather than from the plant that first formed its mechanism of action is a replica, so are these lab-made financial instruments. They replicate the act of investment without actually performing it.

It’s neither good nor bad per se, as I explained yesterday to the NIRI San Diego chapter. But synthetics are revolutionizing how public stocks trade – without owning public stocks. Describing its effort at adaptation, Janus says on its website that it’s “committed to offering distinctive strategies for today’s complex market environment. Leveraging almost a half century of investment experience, we are now pleased to make our expertise available through Exchange Traded Funds.”

Janus says it’s intending to offer a range of returns beyond simple capital-appreciation, including “volatility management” and “uncorrelated returns.” Janus’s VelocityShares directed at volatility aim to produce enhanced or inverse returns on the VIX, an index called the “fear gauge” for reflecting volatility in forward rights to the S&P 500.

But traders and investors don’t fear volatility. They invest in it.  On Monday May 16, four of the top 20 most actively traded stocks were exchange-traded products leveraging the VIX.  Those offered by Janus aren’t equity investments but a debt obligation backed by Credit Suisse. Returns derive from what is best described as bets using derivatives.

The prospectus for the most active version is 174 pages, so it’s hard to decipher the nature of wagers. It says: “We expect to hedge our obligations relating to the ETNs by purchasing or selling short the underlying futures, listed or over-the-counter options, futures contracts, swaps, or other derivative instruments relating to the applicable underlying Index…and adjust the hedge by, among other things, purchasing or selling any of the foregoing, at any time and from time to time, and to unwind the hedge by selling any of the foregoing, perhaps on or before the applicable Valuation Date.”

Got that?  Here’s my attempt at translation: “We’ll do the exact opposite of whatever return we’ve promised you, to keep from losing money.”

During the mortgage-related financial crisis there was a collective recoil of horror through media and into Congress that banks may have been betting against their clients. Well, come on.  It’s happening in equities every day!  Exactly how do we think somebody who says “sure, I’ll take your bet that you can make double the index without buying any assets” can possibly make good without farming the risk out to someone else?

In the mortgage crisis we learned about “credit default swaps” and how insurers like AIG were on the hook for hundreds of billions when real estate stopped rising. Who is on the hook for all these derivatives bets in equities if stocks stop rising? It’s the same thing.

Last Friday the 13th, five of the top 20 most actively traded instruments on the Nasdaq and NYSE were synthetic exchange-traded products attempting to produce outsized returns without correlating to the market. That’s 25% of the action, in effect.

For stock-picking investors and public companies it means a significant contingent of price-setting trades in the stock market are betting on moves uncorrelated to either fundamentals or markets. You’ll find no explanation in ownership-change.

What do you tell management and Boards about a market where, demonstrably, top price-setting vehicles like TVIX owned by conventional stock-pickers aren’t buying or selling stock but betting on tomorrow’s future values using derivatives?

In fact, everyone is betting against each other – traders, banks, investors. I take you back to the mortgage-backed securities crisis. The value of underlying assets was massively leveraged through derivatives the values of which bore no direct connection to whether mortgages were performing assets.  That by any definition is credit-overextension. A bubble.  A mania. Then homes stopped appreciating. The bubble burst two years later.

Look at stocks. They’ve not risen since Nov 2014. Is anyone out there listening or paying attention to the derivatives mess in equities?

ETFs and Divine Creation and Redemption

There’s a saying: It’s easier to keep the cat in the bag than to get it back in there once you’ve let it out. Nobody is likely to stuff the Exchange Traded Fund (ETF) cat back in the bag.

Because ETFs are miraculous.

The biblical story of creation is that something came from nothing. Same with the Christian concept of redemption – being bought for a price without rendering equal worth in kind.

Today, we’ll share with occupants of the IR chair the divine story of how ETFs work.

Before ETFs were closed-end mutual funds. Closed end funds (CEFs) are publicly traded securities that IPO to raise capital and pursue a business objective (like any business), in this case an investment thesis. Traded units have a price, and the net asset value rises and falls on the success of managers in achieving objectives. The rub with CEFs is that share value can depart from net asset value – just like stocks often separate from intrinsic business worth.

The investment industry, with support from regulators, devised ETFs to magically remedy through Creation and Redemption this fault of nature. ETF kingpin iShares, owned by Blackrock, illustrates here, with a clever floral analogy (thank you Joe Saluzzi at Themis Trading who alerted us to it). You don’t have to buy individual flowers and face market risks because iShares puts them in a bouquet for you. Great idea. (more…)

Just Data

If stocks rise when VIX options expire, is it good or bad?

It’s data. That, we know.  If you’d never considered a relationship between stocks and options, welcome to market structure.  It’s something every public company, investor, trader, should grasp. At least in big brush strokes.

So here goes.

“Market structure” is the mechanics of the stock market. The behavior of money behind price and volume, we say. You’ll hear the phrase from people like SEC chair Gary Gensler and Virtu CEO Doug Cifu. Those guys understand the stock market.

By the way, if you missed our piece on Payment for Order Flow, an arcane element of market structure that now plays a central role for prices marketwide, read it here.

So, options-expirations.  Here’s the calendar.  Options are expiring all the time but the juggernaut are the monthly ones.  VIX options expired yesterday. That’s the so-called “Fear Gauge,” and we’ve written before about it.  It’s the implied volatility of the S&P 500.

It’s a lousy risk meter.  By the time it moves it’s too late. Its gyrations are consequences, not predictors. ModernIR (and sister company EDGE for trading decision-support) has much better predictive tools.

The VIX is really about volatility as an asset class (and it’s trillions of dollars now, not just VIX but volatility instruments).  You can buy things that you hope rise, short things you think might fall – or trade the gaps between, which in some ways is the least risky thing because it’s always in the middle.

In any case, the assets backing volatility are the same things that rise or fall. Stocks.  So a jump in demand for volatility hedges can cause stocks to rise. 

Yesterday stocks rose with VIX resets. 

And when it falls, it can mean the opposite. As it did August 18 when the VIX last lapsed and renewed.  A big pattern of Passive buying preceded it.  Then wham! Down day with the VIX reset.

Then growth stocks, momentum stocks, Big Tech, the FAANGs, etc., shot up.  That’s because money reduced its exposure to volatility hedges and increased its bets on “risk,” or things that might rise.

So.

Did that just stop?  No, it stopped last week.  What’s more it’s apparent in the data. 

Let me explain. Backing up, from Aug 6-17 – right before August expirations – there is a MASSIVE pattern of Passive money.  After that pattern, the market shot up. Except for one day, Aug 18. VIX expirations.

It indicates that ETFs took in large quantities of stocks, then created ETF shares and sold them to investors, which drove the market up. And the money spent on hedges was shifted to chasing call-options in “risk-on” stocks.

And yes. We can see that in any stock, sector, industry, peer group.

Back to the present, index-rebalances are slated for this Friday, quarterlies for, among others, big S&P Dow Jones benchmarks.  There are three MILLION global indexes now.

The data suggest those rebalances finished between Aug 26-Sep 10. Money didn’t wait to be front-run Friday. There’s another massive Passive pattern during that time.  The image here shows both patterns, the one in August, and this September version (through Sep 14, right before VIX expirations).

We can infer, albeit not with absolute certainty, that the trade from August has reversed.  ETFs are shedding stocks and removing growth-portfolio ETF shares.  Hedges are going back on.

Does that mean the market is about to tip over like so many have been predicting?

Rarely does a market implode when everybody is expecting it. In fact, name a time when that was true. Sure, somebody always manages to make the right call. But it’s a tiny minority.

Whatever happens, it’s going to surprise people. Either the pullback will be much worse than expected, or all the hedges that are going on as we proceed into September expirations will blunt the downside and reverse it when new options trade next week.

By the way, market woe sometimes comes on new options.  Sep 24, 2015.  Feb 24, 2020.  I could list a litany. Those are dates when new options traded. If nobody shows up for new options, the 18% of market cap that rests on rights but not obligations to do something in the future – derivatives – stuff can tumble.

Hedging in the SPX is about 19% of market cap right now.  ETF flows are down about 5% the last week versus the week before.  Our ten-point scale of Broad Sentiment has fallen from a peak Sep 7 of 6.1 to 5.1 Sep 14, still trending down. Any read over 5.0 is positive. It’s about to go negative.

Predictions? I bet we rebound next week. BUT if Monday is bad, the bottom could fall out of stocks.  And you should always know what’s coming, companies, investors and traders. It’s just data.

 

Growth vs Value

Are you Value or Growth?  

Depends what we mean, I know. S&P Dow Jones says it distinguishes Value with “ratios of book value, earnings and sales to price.”

It matters because Growth is terrorizing Value.  According to data from the investment arm of AllianceBernstein, Growth stocks outperformed Value stocks by 92% between 2015-2020.  Morningstar says it’s the biggest maw on record, topping the 1999 chasm.

If you’re in the Growth group, you’re loving it.  But realize.  By S&P Dow Jones’s measures, anybody could be a Value or Growth stock at any time.  It’s all in the metrics.

The larger question is why the difference?  AllianceBernstein notes that the traditional explanation is earnings growth plus dividends paid.  That is, if your stock is up 50% more than a peer’s, it should be because your earnings and dividends are 50% better.

If that were the case, everybody would be a great stock-picker. All you’d need do is buy stocks with the best earnings growth. 

Well, turns out fundamentals accounted for just ten percentage points of the difference.  The remaining 82% of the spread, as the image here from AllianceBernstein shows, was multiple-expansion.  Paying more for the same thing.

Courtesy AllianceBernstein LP. https://www.alliancebernstein.com/corporate/en/insights/investment-insights/whats-behind-the-value-growth-performance-gap.html

Put differently, 90% of the time Growth stocks outperform Value stocks for no known reason. No wonder stock-picking is hard.

Take Vertex (VRTX) and Fortinet (FTNT), among the two very best and worst stocks of the past year.  I don’t know fundamentally what separates them. One is Tech, the other Healthcare.

I do know that running supply/demand math on the two, there’s a staggering behavioral difference.  FTNT spent 61 days the past year at 10.0 on our ten-point scale measuring demand called Market Structure Sentiment.  It pegged the speedometer 24% of the time.

VRTX spent five days at 10.0.  Two percent of the time.  You need momentum in today’s stock market or you become a Value stock.

We recently shared data with a client who wondered why there was a 20-point spread to the price of a top peer.  We ran the data.  Engagement scores were about the same – 85% to 83%, advantage to our client. Can’t say it’s story then.

But the peer had a 20% advantage in time spent at 10.0.  The behavioral patterns were momentum-style. Our client’s, GARP/Value style.

Okay, Quast.  Suppose I stipulate to the validity of your measure of supply and demand, whatever it is.  Doesn’t answer the question. Why do some stocks become momentum, propelling Growth to a giant advantage over Value?

I think it’s three things. I can offer at least some data, empirical or circumstantial, to support each.

Let’s call the first Herd Behavior.  The explosion of Exchange Traded Funds concentrates herd behavior by using stocks as continuously stepped-up collateral for ETF shares.  I’ll translate.  ETFs don’t invest in stocks, per se.  ETFs trade baskets of ETF shares for baskets of stocks (cash too but let’s keep it simple here). As the stocks go up in value, ETF sponsors can trade them out for ETF shares. Say those ETF shares are value funds.

The supply of Value ETF shares shrinks because there’s less interest in Value.  Then the ETF sponsor asks for the same stocks back to create more Growth ETF shares.

But the taxes are washed out via this process. And more ETF shares are created.  And ETFs pay no commissions on these transactions. They sidestep taxes and commissions and keep gains.  It’s wholly up to traders and market-makers to see that ETF shares track the benchmark or basket.

The point? It leads to herd behavior. The process repeats. Demand for the same stuff is unremitting.  We see it in creation/redemption data for ETFs from the Investment Company Institute. ETF creations and redemptions average over $500 billion monthly. Same stuff, over and over. Herd behavior.

Second, there’s Amplification.  Fast Traders, firms like Infinium, GTS, Tower Research, Hudson River Trading, Quantlab, Jane Street, Two Sigma, Citadel Securities and others amplify price-moves.  Momentum derives from faster price-changes, and Fast Traders feed it.

Third is Leverage with derivatives or borrowing.  Almost 19% of trading volume in the S&P 500 ties to puts, calls and other forms of taking or managing risk with derivatives. Or it can be borrowed money. Or 2-3x levered ETFs. The greater the pool of money using leverage, the larger the probability of outsized moves.

Summarizing, Growth beats Value because of herd behavior, amplification of price-changes, and leverage.

By the way, we can measure these factors behind your price and volume – anybody in the US national market system.

Does that mean the Growth advantage is permanent?  Well, until it isn’t. Economist Herb Stein (Ben’s dad) famously said, “If something cannot last forever, it will stop.”

And it will. I don’t know when. I do know that the turn will prompt the collapse of leverage and the vanishing of amplification. Then Growth stocks will become Value stocks.

And we’ll start again.

Where’s It Going?

Where’s what going?

Time? Hm.

Money?  Well. Yes.

It abounds and yet it doesn’t go far.  Why that’s the case is another story (I can explain if you like but it usually clears a room at a cocktail party).

First, if you were spammed last week with the MSM, apologies! It was inadvertently set on full-auto.  And one other note, our sister company Market Structure EDGE  is up for several Benzinga Fintech Awards.  As in American politics, you may vote early and often (just kidding!). No, you can vote daily though till about Oct 22, 2021.  We hope you’ll help! Click here, and turn it into a daily calendar reminder.

Today we’re asking where the money gushing at US stocks and bonds like a ruptured fire hydrant is going. Morningstar says it’s $800 billion into US securities the last twelve months through July.

That’s minus a $300 billion drop in actively managed equity assets. Stock-pickers are getting pounded like a beach in a hurricane. Public companies, you realize it?

That’s not the point of this piece. But investor-relations professionals, realize the money you talk to isn’t buying. It’s selling.  There are exceptions and you should know them.  But don’t build your IR program around “targeting more investors.” Build it on the inflows (your characteristics), not the outflows.  If you want to know more, ask us.

So where did the $800 billion go? 

About $300 billion went to taxable bond funds.  Not for income. Appreciation. Bonds keep going up (yields down, prices up). They’re behaving like equities – buy appreciation, not income.

The rest, about $500 billion, went to US equities.  We’re going to look at that. 

$500 billion seems like a lot.  Ross Perot thought a billion here, billion there, pretty soon you’re talking real money. For you who are too young to know it, Google that.

But today $500 billion ain’t what it was. And frankly, five hundred billion deutschemarks wasn’t much in the Weimar Republic either.  The problem wasn’t inflation. The problem was what causes inflation: too much money.

Ah, but Weimar didn’t have derivatives. Silly fools.

For perspective, more than $500 billion of Exchange Traded Funds (ETF) are created and redeemed in US equities every month.  Stocks trade more than $500 billion daily in the US stock market.

And the money supply as measured by the Federal Reserve’s “M2” metric reflecting the total volume of money held by the public, increased by $5 trillion from Feb 2020 to July 2021.  That’s a 32% increase. About like stocks (SPY up 33% TTM).

Wait. The stock market is up the same as the money supply? 

Yup.

Did everybody sell stocks at higher prices?

No. Everybody bought stocks at higher prices.

Okay, so where did the stock come from to buy, if nobody sold?

Maybe enough holders sold stocks to people paying 33% more to account for the difference. Good luck with that math. You can root it out if you want.

But it’s not necessary.  We already know the answer. The money went into derivatives. 

The word “derivative” sounds fancy and opaque and mysterious. It’s not.  It’s a substitute for an asset.  You can buy a Renoir painting. You can buy a Renoir print for a lot less. You can buy a stock. You can buy an option on that stock for a lot less.

Suppose you want to buy the stocks in the S&P 500 but you don’t want the trouble and expense of buying 500 of them (a Renoir). You can buy a swap (a print, No. 347 of 3,900), pay a bank to give you the returns on the index (minus the fee).

Or you can buy SPY, the S&P 500 ETF.  You think you’re getting a Renoir.  All those stocks. No, you’re getting a print somebody ran on an inkjet printer.  It looks the same but it’s not, and it’s not worth the stocks beneath it.

Image courtesy ModernIR, Aug 25, 2021.

See this image?  There is demand.  There is supply. The former greatly exceeds the latter like we’ve seen the last year during a Covid Pandemic (chew on that one for a bit), so excess demand shunts off to a SUBSTITUTE. Derivatives. ETFs, options, futures.

That’s what’s going on. That’s where the money went. Look at GME and AMC yesterday. Explosive gains on no news. Why? Banks squared derivatives books yesterday after the August expirations period. Demand for prints (options), not paintings (stock), vastly exceeded supply.

So banks bought the underlying paintings called GME and AMC – and sold traders ten times as many prints. Options. Derivatives. It’s implied demand. The stocks shot up.

Bad? Well, not good. The point isn’t doom. The point is understanding where the money is going. Every trader, investor, public company, should understand it. 

It’s all measurable if you stop thinking about the market like it’s 1995. It’s just math. About 18% of the market is in derivatives.  But about 75% of prices are transient things with no substance.  Prints, not paintings.

Public companies, know what part of your market is Renoir, what part is just a print.  Traders, do the same.

We have that data.  Everybody should always know where the money is going.

Suddenly

Things are getting worrisome. 

It’s not just our spectacular collapse in Afghanistan less than a month before the 20-year anniversary of Nine Eleven.  That’s bad, yes.  Inexcusable.

Illustration 179312099 / Ernest Hemingway © Lukaves | Dreamstime.com

It’s not the spasmodic gaps in supply chains everywhere – including in the stock market. 

It’s not bond yields diving as inflation spikes, which makes sense like accelerating toward a stop sign.

It’s not the cavalier treatment of the people’s money (do you know we spent $750 million of US taxpayer dollars on the Kabul embassy, the world’s largest, then left the keys on the desk?).

It’s all of it.  Stuff’s jacked up, and it should bother us.

Karen and I went to a concert at Strings, the performing arts venue in Steamboat Springs.  If you want to feel better about yourself, go to the state fair.  Or an Asleep at the Wheel concert in Steamboat.

People are showing up with walkers, oxygen tanks, doddering uncertainly up the walkway.  I’m joking!  Mostly.  You get the point. (Lord, I apologize for my poor taste.)

And Asleep at the Wheel is awesome. I grew up on Hotrod Lincoln and The House of Blue Lights.

Anyway, covid mania continues so the hall serves no food or drink inside.  We’re dependent on food trucks outside for snacks.

None showed up.

There was a big bike ride this past weekend, three thousand gravel riders.  The food trucks were there. But there’s not enough staff working to cover more than one base. We and the oldsters were out of luck for tacos and cheesesteak.

But we were told they’d be there, and they weren’t. That kind of thing happened in Sri Lanka when I lived there for a year in college. But not in the World’s Superpower.

It gets worse.

The bartenders were shaking their heads. They couldn’t restock beforehand because the supplier was closed.  No staff.  A major liquor store – the biggest in the region with normally 3-4 registers running simultaneously – had to close because they had no staff to run the shop.

If you can’t stock your bar, you’re in trouble of collapsing as an empire. I say that in the barest jest only.

Back to the stock market.  The supply chain for stocks is borrowed shares. I’ve explained it before.  Dodd Frank basically booted big brokers from the warehouse business for equities.

Used to be, if you were Fidelity you called Credit Suisse and said, “I need a million shares of PFE.”

Credit Suisse would say, “We’ve got 500,000. We’ll call Merrill.”

And the wholesale desk there, the erstwhile Herzog Heine Geduld, would round the other half up.

Not so in 2021.  The banks now are laden to creaking with “Tier One Capital” comprised mostly of US Treasuries.  You’re the government and you need a market for debt, you just change the rules and require banks to own them, and slash interest rates so fixed income funds need ten times more than before.

Elementary, Watson.

What’s more, the stock market is a continuous auction. Everything is constantly for sale in 100-share increments. 

Except there aren’t 100 shares of everything always available. Certainly not 100,000 shares. So the SEC requires – they mandate it – brokers to short stock, create it in effect, to keep the whole continuous auction working.

Well, it’s getting wobbly.  There are sudden surges and swales in short volume now.  And the average trade size in the S&P 500 is 104 shares. Lowest on record.  Almost half that – 44% currently – is borrowed. In effect, the supply chain in the stock market is about 60 shares.

Depending on that tenuous thread is about 75% of three MILLION global index products.  Thousands of ETFs.  And $50 TRILLION of market cap.

The 1926 Ernest Hemingway book The Sun Also Rises has an exchange between two characters.  One asks the other how he went broke.

“Gradually,” he said. “Then suddenly.”

Afghanistan’s sudden collapse was 20 years in the making.  The same thing is happening around us in a variety of ways, products of crises fomenting in our midst that we ignore or excuse.

So what do we do about it?

The societal question is tough.  The market question is simple: Understand the problem, engage on a solution.

Public companies, it’s you and your shareholders sitting at the head of this welling risk.  We owe it to them to understand what’s going on. Know the risk of fragility in your shares’ supply chain. That’s a start. We have that data.

Solving the whole problem will require a well-informed, prepared constituency that cares.  Or all at once it’s going to implode. Not hyperbole. A basic observation.

Behavioral Alerts Definitions

Market Structure Alerts – Definitions & Use

Behavioral Alerts:

  • Active investment = The money you target and with which you communicate. The good stuff. Fundamental investors.
  • Fast Trading = Intermediation. Intraday arbitrage on changing prices. Not “real” ownership-change.
  • Passive Investment = Indexes, ETFs, quantitative investment. Money investing for macro, model-driven reasons. Blackrock, Vanguard, State Street, etc.
  • Risk Management = Portfolio insurance; derivatives to boost performance.

Rational-Price Alert:

  • Rational Price: All prices are not equal. We track when the investors you talk to – Active Investment – outcompete others to buy shares, thus setting price. You should know when that occurs so you can correlate to news or outreach, if applicable.

Short Volume Alert:

  • Short Volume:
    • High = Headwinds, short-term behavior, renting more profitable than owning. Rotation.
    • Low = Limited borrowing, no headwinds; sometimes also a lack of demand.

How to Read:

Purpose: Predictive capabilities for answers & defensive “early alert” characteristics

  • Example: If shares were up on Passive buying on a good day for markets, and the next day is a bad day, shares are likely to give back gains.
  • Example: If your short volume jumps above 50% and the next day your shares are down, the answer isn’t just something occurring today but that market structure indicated rotation was already underway (high short volume can signal rotation).
  • Big behavioral changes signal that pricing of shares has been impacted even if it doesn’t appear so. Harbingers of everything from index rotation to activism or other event-driven behaviors.

Data to Know

What should you know about your stock, public companies? 

Well, what do you know about your business that you can rattle off to some inquiring investor while checking the soccer schedule for your twelve-year-old, replying to an email from the CFO, and listening to an earnings call from a competitor?

Simultaneously.

That’s because you know it cold, investor-relations professionals.  What should you know cold about your stock?

While you think about that, let me set the stage. Is it retail money? The Wall Street Journal’s Caitlin McCabe wrote (subscription required) that $28 billion poured to stocks from retail traders in June, sourcing that measure from an outfit called VandaTrack.

If size matters, Exchange Traded Fund (ETF) data from the Investment Company Institute through May is averaging $547 billion monthly, 20 times June retail flows. Alas, no article about that.

You all who tuned to our Meme Stocks presentation last week (send me a note and I’ll share it) know retail money unwittingly depends on two market rules to work.

Illustration 91904354 / Stock Market © Ojogabonitoo | Dreamstime.com

This is good stuff to know but not what I mean. Can you answer these questions?

  • How many times per day does your stock trade?
  • How many shares at a time?
  • How much money per trade?
  • What’s the dollar-volume (trading volume translated into money)?
  • How much of that volume comes from borrowed stock every day?
  • What kind of money is responsible?
  • What’s the supply/demand trend?
  • What are stock pickers paying to buy shares and are they influencing your price?

Now, why should you know those things?  Better, why shouldn’t you know if you can? You might know the story cold. But without these data, you don’t know the basics about the market that determines shareholder value.

Maybe we don’t want to know, Tim.

You don’t want to know how your stock trades?

No, I don’t want to know that what I’m doing doesn’t matter.

What are we, Italians in the age of Galileo? What difference does it make what sets price?  The point is we ought to know. Otherwise, we’ve got no proof that the market serves our best interests.

We spend billions of dollars complying with disclosure rules. Aren’t we owed some proof those dollars matter?

Yes.  We are.  But it starts with us.  The evidence of the absence of fundamentals in the behavior of stocks is everywhere.  Not only are Blackrock, Vanguard and State Street the largest voting block for public companies and principally passive investors, but the majority of trading volume is executed by intermediaries who are not investors at all.

Stocks with no reason to go up, do.  And stock with no reason to go down, do.  Broad measures are not behaving like the stocks comprising them.  Over the whole market last week, just two sectors had more than a single net buying day:  Utilities and Energy. Yet both were down (0.9%, 1.3% respectively). Somehow the S&P 500 rose 1.7%.

You’d think public companies would want to know why the stock market has become a useless barometer.

Let me give you two examples for the questions I asked.  Public companies, you should be tracking these data at least weekly to understand changing supply/demand conditions for your shares.  And what kind of money is driving shareholder-value.

I won’t tell you which companies they are, but I’ll tweet the answer tomorrow by noon ET (follow @_TimQuast).  These are all 5-day averages by the way:

Stock A: 

  • Trades/day:  55,700
  • Shares/trade: 319
  • $/Trade: $4,370
  • Dollar volume:  $243 million
  • Short volume percent: 51%
  • Behaviors:  Active 9% of volume; Passive, 36%; Fast Trading, 32%; Risk Mgmt, 23% (Active=stock pickers; Passive=indexes, ETFs, quants; Fast Trading=speculators, intermediaries; Risk Mgmt=trades tied to derivatives)
  • Trend: Overbought, signal predicts a decline a week out
  • Active money is paying:  $11.60, last in May 2021, Engagement is 94%

Stock B:

  • Trades/day:  67,400
  • Shares/trade: 89
  • $/Trade: $11,000
  • Dollar volume:  $743 million
  • Short volume: 47%
  • Behaviors:  Active, 8% of volume; Passive, 24%; Fast Trading 49%; Risk Mgmt, 19%
  • Trend: Overbought, signal predicts declines a week out
  • Active money is paying:  $121, last in June 2021, Engagement is 81%

The two stocks have gone opposite directions in 2021.  The problem isn’t story for either one. Both have engaged investors. Active money is 8-9%.

The difference is Passive money. Leverage with derivatives.

Would that be helpful to boards and executive teams?  Send this Market Structure Map to them.  Ask if they’d like to know how the stock trades.

Everybody else in the stock market – traders, investors, risk managers, exchanges, brokers – is using quantitative data.  Will we catch up or stay stuck in the 1990s?

We can help.