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.