Spread Spoofing

I’ve never bet on sports, but the bulk of wagers is on the spread – whether the outcome will be above or below a range.

In the stock market spreads rule too, and data suggest market-makers are gambling on which things will move. The most shocking spread is the one between assets flowing to Exchange Traded Funds and the dollar-volume of ETF shares.

Wall Street Journal writer Akane Otani reported last weekend (subscription required) using data from Strategas that US equity ETFs saw about $36 billion of inflows to date this year, the majority into low-volatility strategies favoring defensive plays like large-caps and Utilities.

To accommodate these flows, ETF shares must be created. Data from the Investment Company Institute through August 2019 (the latest available) show a staggering $2.6 trillion of ETF shares have been created and redeemed this year.

Put another way, actual increases in ETF assets are 1.4% of total ETF share-transactions.  Talk about a spread.

I wonder what effect that’s having on the stock market?

First, let’s understand “creations” and “redemptions.”  We’ve written about them before and you can read our ETF white paper for more.  ETF shares are manufactured by brokers, which receive that right from Blackrock and other ETF sponsors in (tax-free) exchange for stocks and cash of equal value.

Say investors are buying Utilities ETFs because they want to avoid volatility. Communication Services sector stocks like Facebook and CBS are 84% more volatile on average over the past 50 trading days (we study that data) than Utilities stocks like Southern Co. and Duke Energy.

Brokers will find (buy, borrow, substitute) Utilities stocks worth, say, $12 million, and receive in trade from an ETF sponsor like State Street (XLU is the Utilities sector ETF) authority to create $12 million worth of ETF shares to sell to the eager investing public.

The data are saying the process of creating and redeeming ETF shares is vastly more peripatetic behind stocks than the actual dollars coming from investors.

Why? We’ll come to that.

Continuing the explanation, ETF shares are created off the market in giant blocks typically numbering 50,000 or more. The price does not move.  These shares are then sold in tiny trades – about 130 shares at a time – that move wildly, as do the prices of stocks exchanged for ETF shares.

There is, as the statistics folks would say, mass Brownian Motion (random movement) amid stocks – and the pursuit of profits via instability is leviathan.

We’ve done the math. An average of $325 billion of ETF shares are created and redeemed every month.  Barely more than a tenth of that has been invested in equity ETFs en toto in 2019.

What’s going on? What we’ve been telling financial reporters and the SEC for the last three years – to withering recrimination from ETF sponsors and resounding silence from the press and regulators.

ETF shares are being created and redeemed so short-term money can profit on the spreads that develop between stocks and ETFs (ironically, the same parties doing this are decrying short-termism).

Create ETF shares, and prices of ETFs will deteriorate versus stocks. Redeem (remove them) and prices firm. Contraction/expansion is relentless and way bigger than flows.

That’s not investing.  It’s gambling on (and fostering) spreads.  The math on its face says nearly 99% of creation/redemption volume is a form of gambling, because it doesn’t match investment-flows.

No doubt now there’s epithet-riddled screaming and shouting occurring across ETF trading rooms and ETF boardrooms.  Perhaps some part of the spread is legitimate.

But I’ll say again, regulators:  You owe the investing public a look into why trillions of dollars of ETF shares are created to serve billions of dollars of investment-flows. And we don’t know who the parties to creations and redemptions are, or what’s being exchanged.

It feels like spoofing – issuing and canceling trades to distort supply and demand. What effect is it having on the prices of stocks that both public companies and investors think reflect investment behavior?

I’ll wager there’s an answer.  Do you want to take the over or under?