Hummingbird Wings

I recall reading in high school that the military’s then new jet, the FA-18 Hornet, would fall out of the sky if not for computers.

Could be that’s exaggerated but the jet’s designers pushed the wings forward, creating the probability of continual minute turbulence events too frequent for human responses.  Why do that? Because it made the plane vastly nimbler in supersonic flight.

You just had to keep the computers on or the craft would go cartwheeling to earth.

As we wrap a remarkable year for stocks in a market too fast for humans and full of trading wings whipping fleeting instances of turbulence, we’re in a curious state where the machines are keeping us all airborne.

I don’t mean the market should be lower.  Valuations are stretched but not perverse. The economy is humming and the job market is great guns. And while the industrial sector might be spongy, the winds in the main blow fair on the fruited plain.

So why any unease about stocks, a sense the market is like an FA-18 Hornet, where you hope the computers keep going (ironic, right)?

It’s not just a feeling.  We at ModernIR as you longtime readers know are not touchy-feely about data. We’re quantitative analysts. No emotion, just math.  Data show continual tweaking of ailerons abounds.

You see it in fund flows. The WSJ wrote over the weekend that $135 billion has been pulled from US equities this year. Against overall appreciation, it’s not a big number. But the point is the market rose on outflows.

And corporate earnings peaked in real terms in 2014, according to data compiled by quantitative fund manager Julex Capital. We’ve got standouts crushing it, sure.  But if earnings drive stocks, there’s a disconnect.

I’m reading the new book on Jim Simons, the “man who solved the market,” says author and WSJ reporter Greg Zuckerman. Simons founded Renaissance Technologies, which by Zuckerman’s calculations (there’s no public data) has made more than $100 billion the past three decades investing in stocks. Nobody touches that track record.

It’s a riveting book, and well-written, and rich with mathematical anecdotes and funny reflections on Simons’s intellectually peripatetic life.

Renaissance is not a stock-picking investment firm. It’s a quant shop. Its guys and gals good at solving equations with no acumen at business or income statements proved better at investing than the rest.

It’s then no baseless alchemy to propose that math lies at the heart of the stock market.

And son of a gun.

There’s just one kind of money that increased the past year.  Exchange Traded Funds (ETFs). This currency substituting for stocks is $224 billion higher than a year ago and about a trillion dollars greater the past three years.  As we learned from Milton Friedman and currency markets, more money chasing the same goods lifts prices.

Stocks declined in 2018, yet ETF shares increased by $311 billion, more than this year.  In 2017, ETF shares increased by $471 billion.

Behind those numbers is a phantasmagorical melee of ETF creations and redemptions, the ailerons keeping the market’s flight level through the turbulent minutia flying by.

I’ve explained it numerous times, so apologies to those tiring of redundancy. But ETFs are substitutes for stocks.  Brokers take a pile of stocks and give it to Blackrock, which authorizes the brokers to create and sell to the public a bunch of ETF shares valued the same as the pile of stocks.

If you sell ETF shares, the reverse happens – a broker buys the ETF shares and gives them to Blackrock in trade for some stocks of equal value.

This differential equation of continuous and variable motion doesn’t count as fund-turnover. But it’s massive – $3.2 trillion through October this year and $10.7 trillion, or a third of the market’s total value, the past three years.

Why the heck are there trillions of ETF transactions not counted as fund flows? Because our fly-by-wire stock market is dependent on this continuous thrum for stable harmonics.

That’s the hummingbird wings, the Butterfly Effect, for stocks.

We can see it.  In July a seismic ripple in behavioral patterns said the market could tumble. It did. Dec 3-5, a temblor passed through the movement of money behind prices. The market faltered.

If the ETF hive goes silent, we’ll cartwheel.  It won’t be recession, earnings, fundamentals, tariffs, Trump tweets, blah blah.  It will be whatever causes the computers to shut off for a moment.  It’s an infinitesimal thing.  But it’s why we watch with machines every day.  And one day, like a volcano in New Zealand, it’ll be there in the data.

Jim Simons proved the math is the money. It’s unstable. And that’s why, investor-relations pros and investors, market structure matters.