Tagged: Arbitrage

Euripides Volatility

Question everything.

That saying is a famous Euripides attribution, the Athenian playwright of 2500 years ago. The Greeks were good thinkers and their rules of logic prevail yet today.

Let’s use them.  Blue chips dropped over 600 points Monday and gained 200 back yesterday. We’re told fear drove losses and waning fear prompted the bounce.

What do you think the Greeks would say?

That it’s illogical?  How can the same thing cause opposing outcomes?  That’s effectively the definition of cognitive dissonance, which is the opposite of clear thinking.

The money motivated to opposite actions on consecutive days is the kind that profits on price-differences. Profiting on price-differences is arbitrage.

Could we not infer then a greater probability that arbitragers caused these ups and downs than that investors were behind them?  It’s an assessment predicated on matching outcome to motivation.

Those motivated by price-changes come in three shades. The size of the money – always follow the money, corollary #1 to questioning everything – should signal its capacity to destabilize markets, for a day, or longer.

There are Risk Parity strategies.  Simon Constable, frequent Brit commentator on markets for the Wall Street Journal and others, suggested for Forbes last year following the February temblor through US stocks that $500 billion targets this technique designed to in a sense continually rebalance the two sides of an investing teeter-totter to keep the whole thing roughly over the fulcrum.

Add strategies designed to profit on volatility or avoid it and you’ve got another $2 trillion, according to estimates Mr. Constable cites.

The WSJ ran a story May 12 (subscription required) called “Volatility in Stocks Could Unravel Bets on Calm Markets,” and referenced work from Wells Fargo’s derivatives team that concluded “low-vol” funds with $400 billion of assets could suddenly exit during market upheaval.

Add in the reverse. Derivatives trades are booming. You can buy volatility, you can sell it, you can hedge it.  That’s investing in what lies between stocks expected to rise (long bets) and stocks thought likely to fall (short bets).

This is the second class:  Volatility traders. They are trying to do the opposite of those pursuing risk-parity. They want to profit when the teeter-totter moves. They’re roughly 60% of daily market volume (more on that in a moment).

The definition of volatility is different prices for the same thing.  The definition of arbitrage is profiting on different prices for the same thing.

The third volatility type stands alone as the only investment vehicle in the history of modern capital markets to exist via an “arbitrage mechanism,” thanks to regulatory exemptions.

It’s  Exchange-Traded Funds (ETFs). ETFs by definition must offer different prices for the same thing. And they’ve become the largest investment vehicle in the markets, the most prolific, having the greatest fund-flows.

EDITORIAL NOTE: I’m hosting a panel on ETFs June 5 at the NIRI Annual Conference, one of several essential market-structure segments at the 50th anniversary event. You owe it to your executive team to attend and learn.

Size matters. Active Investment, getting credit for waxing and waning daily on tidal trade fear, is about 12% of market volume. We can’t precisely break out the three shades of volatility trading. But we can get close.

Fast Trading, short-term profiteering on fleeting price-changes (what’s the definition of arbitrage?), is about 44% of volume. Trades tied to derivatives – risk-parity, bets on price-changes in underlying assets – are 19%.  Passive investment, the bulk of it ETFs (the effects of which spill across the other two), is 25%.

One more nugget for context:  Options expire May 16-17 (index, stock options expirations), and May 22 (VIX and other volatility bets). Traders will try to run prices of stocks to profit not on stocks but how puts, calls and other derivatives increase or decrease far more dramatically than underlying stocks.

The Greeks would look at the math and say there’s an 88% probability arbitrage is driving our market.

Euripides might call this market structure a tragedy. But he’d nevertheless see it with cold logic and recognize the absence of rational thought.  Shouldn’t we too?

Manufactured Spreads

Did Exchange Traded Funds drive the recent market rollercoaster?

The supply of ETF shares moved opposite the market. The S&P 500 fell about 16% in December and rose around 19% from Dec 24 to March 5.  In December, says the Investment Company Institute, US ETFs created, or introduced, $260 billion of ETF shares, and redeemed, or retired, $211 billion.

So as the market tumbled, the number of ETF shares increased by $49 billion.

We saw the reverse in January as the market soared, with $208 billion of ETF shares created, $212 billion redeemed, the supply shrinking a little.

If ETFs track indexes, shouldn’t available shares shrink when the market declines and increase when the market rises?  Why did it instead do the opposite?

One might point to the $46 billion investors poured into equity ETFs in December at the same time they were yanking $32 billion from Active funds, says Morningstar.

Again a contradiction. If more money flowed to equities than left, why did the S&P 500 fall?  Don’t stocks rise when there are more buyers than sellers, and vice versa?

The fact that data and market behavior are at loggerheads should cause consternation for both investors and public companies. It means we don’t understand supply and demand.

One explanation, the folks from the ETF business say, is that inflows to ETFs may have been short. That is, when ETF shares increase while stocks are falling, ETF creators are borrowing stocks and trading them to Blackrock and Vanguard to create ETF shares for investors, who borrow and sell them.

These people explain it in a tone of voice that sounds like “aren’t we geniuses?”

But if true, the unique characteristics of ETFs that permit them limitless supply and demand elasticity contributed to the market correction.

We cannot manufacture shares of GE to short.  But ETF market-makers can manufacture ETF shares to short. How is that helpful to long-only investors and public companies?  The behavior of stocks separates from fundamentals purely on arbitrage then.

Here’s another statistical oddity: The net shrinkage in January this year marks only the third time since the 2008 Financial Crisis that the monthly spread between ETF creations and redemptions was negative. The other two times were in February and June last year, periods of market tumult.

And still the ETF supply is $45 billion larger than it was when the market corrected (near $55 billion if one adds back market-appreciation).

We conducted an experiment, tracking week-over-week gains and losses for stocks comprising the eleven General Industry Classification System (GICS) sectors and comparing changes to gains and losses for corresponding sector ETFs from State Street, called SPDRs (pronounced “spiders”) from Dec 14 to present.

Startlingly, when we added up the nominal spread – the real difference between composite stocks and ETFs rolled up across all eleven sectors – it was 18%, almost exactly the amount the market has risen.

What’s more, on a percentage basis the spreads were not a penny like you see between typical best bids to buy and offers to sell for stocks. They averaged 5% — 500 basis points – every week.  The widest spread, 2,000 basis points, came in late December as stocks roared.

Now the spread has shrunk to 150 basis points and markets have stopped rallying.  Might it be that big spreads cause traders to chase markets up and down, and small spreads prompt them to quit?

Now, maybe a half-dozen correlated data points are purely coincidental. False correlations as the statistics crowd likes to say.

What if they’re not?  Tell me what fundamental data explains the market’s plunge and recovery, both breath-taking and gravity-defying in their garishness? The economic data are fine. It was the market that wasn’t. What if it was ETF market-making?

The mere possibility that chasing spreads might have destroyed vast sums of wealth and magically remanufactured it by toying with the supply of ETF shares and spreads versus stocks should give everyone pause.

Investors, you should start thinking about these market-structure factors as you wax and wane your exposure to equities.  If fundamentals are not setting prices, find the data most correlated to why prices change, and use it.  We think it’s market structure. Data abound.

And public companies, boards and executives need a baseline grasp on the wholesale and retail markets for ETFs, the vast scope of the money behind it — $4.5 TRILLION in 2018, or more than ten times flows to passive investors last year – and what “arbitrage mechanism” means. So we’re not fooled again (as The Who would say).

What do data say comes next?  Sentiment data are the weakest since January 7 – and still positive, or above 5.0 on our ten-point Sentiment scale. That’s a record since we’ve been tracking it.

So. The market likely stops rising.  No doom. But doom may be forming in the far distance.

Clashing Titans

While Karen and I consumed Arctic Char in Iceland, stock exchanges sued the SEC.

Talk about a big fish story.

The NYSE, Nasdaq and CBOE, representing about 57% of trading volume over a combined twelve platforms, asked a federal court to halt the SEC’s plan to test changes to trading fees and credits via a Transaction Fee Pilot program set to begin late in 2019.

It’s the more curious because investors transacting in markets generally support the planned study. Reading through hundreds of comment letters (including our own, offered in support), we tallied around $24 trillion of assets backing the test.

What’s got the exchanges in such a tizzy about a probationary effort – not an actual rule-change, mind you – that they’ve lawyered up?

The answer lies in the four key tenets of Regulation National Market System, a sort of current Magna Carta for stock-trading in the USA.  Every investor-relations professional and investor should know baseline facts about it.

In 1975 when the USA was mired in screaming inflation, a plunging dollar loosed from its gold moorings in 1971, an oil crisis, and failure in Vietnam, the US Congress decided to throw a fence around stock markets as a vital strategic interest.

So they passed the National Market System amendments to the Exchange Act of 1934, now part of the leviathan United States Code, 15 USC, Section 78c.

Oh boy.

The wheels of regulation mire in swampy muck, so it was thirty years later when the SEC finally got around to fulfilling the vision (no longer needed, in my view) Congress saw in 1975.  Enter Reg NMS.

The regulation has four pillars.  First, exchanges must ensure that stocks trade only at a single national best price (the Order Protection Rule). Second, the SEC – and this is the essence of the Fee Pilot – capped (the SEC said “harmonized”) what exchanges could charge so nobody would be priced out of access (The Access Rule) to stock quotes. It also required a spread between the bid to buy and offer to sell. No locked (same bid, offer) or crossed (higher bid than offer) markets.

Third, the law prohibited stock-quotes (unless under $1 in value) in increments of less than one penny (in effect, guaranteeing speculative traders a profit, because while quotes are in pennies, trades are often in far smaller increments at variations of midpoints) so every stock would have a bid and offer separated by at least a penny.

Finally, the law changed how revenue from data (Market Data Rules) would be allocated.

Reg NMS was implemented in 2007.

I think a legal case could have been made that both decimalization and Reg NMS six years later were unconstitutional. Nowhere does our governing charter give Congress the power to set prices and commandeer property not for public use.

Yet it did so by forcing exchanges to share what before had been proprietary intellectual property – data – and setting what they could charge for services. So how ironic is it that now exchanges are suing to keep this structure?

Not ironic at all when you realize that big exchange groups (the newest entrant IEX is not suing, supports the fee pilot, and didn’t build business on data and technology services) have exploded in size, profits, revenues and influence under Reg NMS.

Humans are an intelligent species. We adapt. The exchanges discovered that they could pay traders to set the bid and offer, and sell the data generated in that process – and then sell all kinds of services for using that data effectively.  Genius!

The pilot plan threatens this construct.

You’ll read that the concern is brokers routing trades for payments instead of where it’s best. That’s to me a red herring.

We oppose prices set by participants wanting to own nothing. They distort fair value, supply, demand, and borrowing. If you use our analytics, you know it’s 44% of trading volume directly, and over 70% indirectly (we calculate that 94% of SPY volume is arbitrage).

If half the volume is intermediation, the market is a mess.

The stock market is supposed to match investors and public companies. Reg NMS derailed the market’s central purpose. That’s my opinion. Predicated on data. I run a technology firm that for the entirety of the Reg NMS regime has measured the collapse of rational thought and capital-formation consequent to this regulation.

The stock market today is a great place to trade stuff. Exchange Traded Funds have prospered because they’re by law dependent on arbitrage, profiting on different prices for the same things. The regulatory structure requires different prices for the same things.

Let’s summarize what’s occurring. The exchanges have invested billions of dollars to make money under Reg NMS. And they’ve succeeded.

The SEC now realizes that Reg NMS hurts the root purpose of equity capital markets and it wants to test ways to roll back rules promoting short-term trading.

The exchanges are opposed because short-term trading is the very cornerstone of profitable data and technology services.

I don’t fault them.  But come on, guys. The SEC has finally seen how the market has devolved into a laser light show of speculation and fleeting intermediary profiteering that has pushed meaningful capital-formation into private equity.

That in turn defrauds mom and pop investors of the Intel Effect (I don’t have to explain it), and my profession, investor relations, of a thriving job market.

Could we run this test, please, and see what happens, exchanges?


The Investment Company Institute (ICI) says US equities saw net outflows of $5.1 billion Jan 2-23, the latest data. Add the week ended Dec 26 and a net $26.2 billion left.

So how can stocks be up?

Maybe flows reversed after the 23rd?  Okay, but the S&P 500 rose 12.2% from Dec 24-Jan 23.  It’s now up about 16%, meaning 75% of gains occurred during net outflows.

Is the ICI wrong?  In a way, yes.  It treats redeemed Exchange Traded Fund (ETF) shares as outflows – and that’s not correct.

Let me explain. The stock market is up because of whatever is setting prices. We measure that stuff. The two big behaviors driving stocks Dec 26-Feb 4 were Passive Investment, and Risk Mgmt, the latter counterparties for directional bets like index options.

That combination is ETFs.

ETF shares are redeemed when brokers buy or borrow them to return to ETF sponsors like Blackrock, which exchanges them for stocks or cash of equal value.

If ETF shares are removed from the market, prices of ETFs tighten – and market makers bet long on index and stock options. That’s how derivatives rally underlying assets.

See, ETFs depend on arbitrage – different prices for the same things. And boy do prices differ. We track that data too.  When ETFs rise more than underlying stocks, the spreads are small. Stocks are far less liquid than ETFs because share-supplies don’t continually expand and contract like ETFs.

As an example, Consumer Discretionary stocks were up 1.6% last week (we meter 197 components for composite data on behaviors, shorting, Sentiment, etc.).  But the State Street Sector SPDR (pronounced “spider,” an acronym for S&P Depository Receipts, an ETF) XLY was up just 0.2%.

XLY is comprised of 65 Consumer Discretionary stocks. As we’ve explained before, ETFs are not pooled investments.  They’re derivatives, substitutes predicated on underlying assets.

So it really means State Street will take these stocks or similar ones in exchange for letting brokers create ETF shares, and vice versa.

You can’t short a mutual fund because it’s a pooled investment.  You can short ETFs, because they’re not. In fact, they’re a way to short entire sectors.

Want to pull down a swath of the market? Borrow key components correlated to the ETF and supply them to a big broker authorized to create ETF shares, and receive off-market blocks of a sector ETF like XLY. Then sell all of it on the open market.

It happened in December.

Here’s how. A staggering $470 BILLION of ETF shares were created and redeemed in December as the market plunged, putting the Nasdaq into bear territory (down 20%) and correcting major indices (down 10% or more).

And guess what?  There were $49 billion more creations than redemptions, which means the supply of ETF shares expanded even as the market declined.

I doubt regulators intended to fuel mass shorting and supply/demand distortion when they exempted ETFs from key provisions of the Investment Company Act of 1940 (and how can they do that, one wonders?).

But it’s happening. More proof: shorting in stocks topped 48% of all volume in December.

Returning to spreads, we’ve since seen the reverse of that trade. Stocks are being arbitraged up in value to reflect the supply of ETF shares outstanding, in effect.

And shorting has come down, with 5-day levels now below 20- and 50-day averages.

We’ve showed you ETF patterns before. Here’s the Industrials sector, up 5% the past week. Those purple and green bars?  ETFs. Stocks, plus leverage.  The purple bars are bigger than the green ones, meaning there is more leverage than assets.

That was true Jan 8-15 too, ahead of expirations the 16th-18th, the only period during which the sector and the market showed proportionally flat or down prices (see linked image).  Traders used their leverage (options volumes in 2018 crushed past records – but the culprit is short-term ETF leverage, arbitrage. Not rational behavior).

Why should you care about this stuff, investor-relations professionals and investors? We should know how the market works and what the money is doing. With ETF-driven arbitrage pervasive, the market cannot be trusted as a barometer for fundamentals.

Your boards and executive teams deserve to know.

What can we do? Until we have a disaster and the SEC realizes it can’t permit a derivatives invasion in an asset market, we must adapt. Think ahead.

For companies reporting results next week or the week after, risk has compounded because this trade is going to reverse. We don’t know when, but options expire Feb 14-16. Will bets renew – or fold?

Whenever it happens, we’ll see it coming in the data, by sector, by stock, across the market, just as we did in late September last year before the tumult.

Form Follows Function

We’re told that on Friday Jan 18, the Dow Jones Industrial Average soared on optimism about US-China trade, then abruptly yesterday “global growth fears” sparked a selloff.

Directional changes in a day don’t reflect buy-and-hold behavior, so why do headline writers insist on trying to jam that square peg every day into the market’s round hole?

So to speak.

It’s not how the market works. I saw not a single story (if you did, send it!) saying options expired Jan 16-18 when the market surged or that yesterday marked rare confluence of new options trading and what we call Counterparty Tuesday when banks true up gains or losses on bets.

Both events coincided thanks to the market holiday, so effects may last Wed-Fri.

The point for public companies and investors is to understand how the market works. It’s priced, as it always has been, by its purposes. When a long-term focus on fundamentals prevailed, long-term fundamentals priced stocks.

That market disappeared in 2001, with decimalization, which changed property rights on market data and forced intermediaries to become part of volume. Under Regulation National Market System, the entire market was reshaped around price and speed.

Now add in demographics.  There are four competing forces behind prices. Active money is focused on the long-term. Passive money is focused on short-term central tendencies, or characteristics. Fast Traders focus on fleeting price-changes. Risk Management focuses on calculated uncertainties.

Three of these depend for success on arbitrage, or different prices for the same thing. Are we saying Passive money is arbitrage?  Read on. We’ll address it.

Friday, leverage expired. That is, winning bets could cashier for stock, as one would with the simplest bet, an in-the-money call option. The parties on the other side were obliged to cover – so the market soared as they bought to fulfill obligations.

Active money bought too, but it did so ignorantly, unaware of what other factors were affecting the market at that moment.  The Bank for International Settlements tracks nearly $600 trillion of derivatives ranging from currency and interest-rate swaps to equity-linked instruments. Those pegged to the monthly calendar lapsed or reset Friday.

Behavioral volatility exploded Friday to 19%. Behavioral volatility is a sudden demographic change behind price and volume, much like being overrun at your fast-food joint by youngsters buying dollar tacos, or whatever. You run out of dollar tacos.

That happened Friday like it did in late September. The Dow yesterday was down over 400 points before pulling back to a milder decline.

And there may be more. But it’s not rational thought. It’s short-term behaviors.

So is Passive money arbitrage?  Just part of it. Exchange-Traded Funds (ETFs) were given regulatory imprimatur to exist only because of a built-in “arbitrage mechanism” meant to keep the prices of ETFs, which are valueless, claimless substitutes for stocks and index funds, aligned with actual assets.

Regulators required ETFs to rely on arbitrage – which is speculative exploitation of price-differences. It’s the craziest thing, objectively considered. The great bulk of market participants do not comprehend that ETFs have exploded in popularity because of their appeal to short-term speculators.

Blackrock and other sponsors bake a tiny management fee into most shares – and yet ETFs manage nobody’s money but the ETF sponsor’s. They are charging ETF buyers a fee for nothing so their motivation is to create ETF shares, a short-term event.

Those trading them are motivated by how ETFs, index futures and options and stocks (and options on futures, and options on ETFs) may all have fleetingly different prices.

The data validate it.  We see it. How often do data say the same about your stock?  Investors, how often is your portfolio riven with Overbought, heavily shorted stocks driven by arbitrage bets?

What’s ahead? I think we may have another rough day, then maybe a slow slide into month-end window-dressing where Passive money will reweight away from equities again.  Sentiment and behavioral volatility will tell us, one way or the other.

Ask me tomorrow if behavioral volatility was up today. It’s not minds changing every day that moves the market. It’s arbitrage.

Deal Data

From another rumor that game-maker Zynga might have a buyer, to a Trian bid for Papa John’s, to Bill Ackman’s stake in Starbucks, deals and rumors of them abound. Suppose it’s your company, investor-relations professionals. How do you add value for your executives?

These situations are often chess games.  Here’s an example, since much of the drama is now old news.  When Disney battled Comcast for 21st Century Fox and before bids were hiked, patterns of deal arbitrage signaled starkly that a war would ensue.

One could say it’s logical that the price would rise, and so it was.  But there is no certitude like the power of data – patterns of long bets, covered bets. They are stark in the market if one knows how to measure the data (which we do).

After Disney won the bidding war, data then showed high expectation Comcast would win Sky Broadcasting, the European unit partly owned by Disney.  Data then signaled a sudden turn toward accelerated bidding – before the UK Takeover Panel announced that a speeded process would indeed follow.

Think about the data-powered value investor-relations, so armed, delivers to those making important decisions.

I’ll give you more examples.  Two years ago, longtime client Energy Transfer tried a combination with The Williams Companies that would have created an energy giant. The deal-arbitrage data were woeful. Active money stopped buying. Massive short bets formed and never wavered. Ultimately, the firms called off the effort.

A later plan to consolidate Sunoco, an Energy Transfer unit, presented challenges. It would cut cash distributions by roughly a quarter.  Would holders support it?

Data patterns were opposite what we’d seen in the Williams deal – strong, long bets, solid Active investment. We were confident shareholders would approve. And they did.

The company is now consolidating its Master Limited Partnership into the general partner.  We highlighted big positive bets at September options expirations. A week later, both Glass Lewis and ISS came out in favor of the transaction.

Data are every bit as powerful an IR tool as telling the story.  Maybe more so, because we have a mathematical market today riven with behaviors that arbitrage events and track benchmarks passively, motivations fueled by mathematical probabilities and balances more than story.

Oh, did I mention? We have never yet missed an Activist in the data. We’ve always warned early. And we’ve seen a bunch of them.  We know legacy market intelligence struggles to find them because, as we wrote last week, routinely 98% of trading volume fails to manifest in settlement data.

In one instance years ago, Carl Icahn took a major stake in a pharmaceutical company that had two high-paid surveillance providers watching. Neither saw it. Suddenly, Icahn filed with over 8 million shares – accumulated without buying a single share (he used European-style puts.).

We showed the company Market Structure Analytics and the stark patterns of derivatives.  They hired us. Subsequently, our data showed investors were betting against Icahn. His proxy bid to put a slate of directors on the board failed.  We then tracked his gradual withdrawal in the data. Not through shares owned but in patterns of behavior (nearly realtime, at T+1).

Lips can lie. Data those behind it believe are hidden from view – but which shine like light through night-vision goggles for us – is truth.  We have an unfolding situation now where what hedge funds are doing and saying are diametrically opposite. That’s a negotiating tactic. Since management knows, they have the stronger hand.

That’s IR in the age of Big Data.  And it’s fun to boot!  Seeing patterns of behavior and reporting it to executives and board directors puts IR in the right-hand advisory seat.  Right where it belongs in this era of fast machines and market reavers.

If you want a confidential analytics assessment of what’s behind your price and volume (which are not metrics but consequences of behaviors), let us know.

Electric Market Toothbrush

We were in Portugal and our electric toothbrush went haywire.

It would randomly turn on in the night, and no amount of pressing the button would silence it. We abandoned it in Evora in the shadow of 2,000-year-old Roman aqueducts that still work.

The point isn’t the ephemeral nature of manufactured products (Amazon assured we’d have a replacement waiting, so the modern era works!). But two recent events show how the stock market is built for the short-term – and may run of its own accord.

First, the Wall Street Journal reported Sep 21 that a judge is permitting a class action suit from customers to proceed against TD Ameritrade alleging the big discount broker with 11 million customers breached its “best execution” obligation.

For you investor-relations professionals who’ve heard about the Fee Pilot Program proposed by the SEC, this gets to the heart of it. For you investors, it illustrates how market structure is trumping investment motivation.

Let me explain.  The suit claims TD Ameritrade put its own interest above that of its customers because it routed customer trade-executions to high-speed traders for payment, earning $320 million. TD Ameritrade had net income of about $870 million in 2017 – so selling orders was over 35% of the bottom line.

There’s no law against it, and rules encourage it by forcing trading to occur between the national best bid to buy or offer to sell. Prices constantly change as machines move bids and offers, breaking trades into small pieces to profit on intermediating them.

Retail brokerages sell orders to high-speed firms to avoid these marketplace challenges (of note, the WSJ said Fidelity stopped selling its orders in 2015, an exception in the group). That fast traders paid $320 million for orders suggests they can sell them for more – money that should have gone to the customers rather than the intermediaries.

One could argue spreads are so low that what difference does it make?  What’s a few pennies on a hundred-share order?

The problem is that fees for orders change behavior. High-speed firms aren’t investors. They profit by changing prices. That’s arbitrage, and it becomes both means and end.

What’s the definition of volatility?  Unstable – changing – prices. Rules create economic incentives to change prices. Intraday volatility marketwide is 2.3%, far higher than what the VIX based on implied volatility suggests. Arbitrage is the opposite of long-term investment. Why would we want rules that encourage it?

This is why we support the proposed SEC study that would include eliminating fees in one group (an astute IR guy observed to me in Washington DC last week that every stock should spend time in each of the buckets so there is no discrimination). We don’t want arbitrage pricing the market we all depend on as a gauge of fair value.

Which leads to the second item. The ETFMG Alternative Harvest ETF, a pot fund amusingly tickered “MJ” (last dance with Mary Jane, one more time to kill the pain, sang Tom Petty), made headlines for sharp divergence from its intraday indicative value.

ETFs are required to report net asset value every 15 seconds. Traders can arbitrage – here it comes again – ETF shares as they cross above or below NAV.

(Programming note: I’ll be at the Connecticut/Westchester Chapter Oct 3 talking about the impact of ETFs on markets and your stock, and we’re sponsoring the NIRI Chicago Chapter this Friday the 28th so stop by and say hi!)

The SEC is now proposing to eliminate that requirement so ETFs would price once a day like actual pooled investments such as index mutual funds.  Here’s the kicker: The SEC in first permitting ETFs to trade exempted them from the “redeemable security” mandate in the Investment Company Act of 1940.

That is, all pooled investments must exchange investors’ shares for a proportionate part of the pool of assets when asked. ETFs are exempted from that provision. They are not redeemable. The SEC approved them because creators said the “arbitrage mechanism” would make them in effect redeemable because they would have the same value as an index.

What if the arbitrage incentive diminishes?

To me, the problem today for investors and public companies is the market’s staggering dependency on arbitrage. High-speed traders and Passive money, the latter mostly ETF market-making, are 80% of market volume. The two behaviors at issue in these situations. The math on SPY, the world’s largest ETF, suggests arbitrage is an astonishing 94% of its trading volume when compared to gross share-issuance.

It’s like an electric toothbrush you can’t shut off. What you thought was an instrument designed to serve a purpose can no longer be controlled.  It’s creditable that the SEC is investigating how its rules may be running the toothbrush – and courts could put a spotlight on a market priced by the fastest orders.

We don’t need to go back to Roman aqueducts (though they still work). We can and should recognize that the market has gotten awfully far removed from its intended purpose.

Shell Game

The earnings-versus-expectations construct that fixates Wall Street and business journalism as companies report results fuels bets on which shell hides the pea.

In fact, the stock market is built now on hiding the pea and moving the shells, apparent in the Fee Pilot debate we’ve written about recently.

You know the shell game, right?  This cat is pretty good at it.

As to picking the shell that hides the pea, I’m surprised the investor-relations profession isn’t up in arms over claims like Google parent Alphabet’s good numbers reputedly “boosting earnings optimism,” as one headline read.

What stock picker following GOOG trends and drivers and listening to its IR team and executives providing color and guidance didn’t know the quarter would be good? Keen observers didn’t wake up shouting, “Shazzam! I’m shocked at the numbers!”

But yesterday was Counterparty Tuesday, the one day every month when banks backing directional bets – most very short term – square derivatives books. Every third month it falls amidst earnings. If your bets are right, you get paid. Wrong, you pay up.

Banks shuffle assets accordingly. Yesterday, blue chips were up (GOOG is one now), risky stocks were down.

Take the new Communications Services ETF, XLC (see here in sector ETFs), which presages a reshuffling of Consumer Discretionary and Technology stocks into a re-imagined and amalgamated General Industry Classification System (GICS) for everything from Twitter, to Disney, to Facebook, to Electronic Arts that officially hits markets Sep 21, 2018.

Just four companies accounted for XLC gains yesterday if you view Alphabet’s two stock classes as a single company. Alphabet is 24% of the ETF’s weighting. With Facebook, two stocks are 45% of purported assets (read our ETF White Paper for more on “assets”).

The others with gains were VZ and T, two of the spare coterie comprising the old Telecom GICS that’s going away.  Combined the five green elements of XLC yesterday are 54% of its weighting. The other 21 were all in the red.

If you bet on GOOG and you pile in regardless of numbers, your bet pays because GOOG is so massive that as counterparties cover, it drives the entire market up. No wonder betting abounds.

But it’s not fundamentals. It’s betting on the law of large numbers.

Coming back to the Fee Pilot proposed by the SEC to study whether trading incentives distort how orders are handled, we support it because Fast Traders turn the market into a shell game.

Take HRT Financial, a top high-speed trader. We’ve got nothing against the smart folks behind it. But look up its 13F reports. It trades many billions of shares of stocks every month yet owns almost nothing – a measly few hundred million dollars.

Public companies are led to believe that having a bunch of prices set by high-speed firms that don’t want to own anything is good. Well, where do they get shares to sell to investors?  They borrow most of them – from owners! If they didn’t, it would show up as ownership. Or they buy them elsewhere in the market, in tiny pieces, in fractions of seconds, and immediately sell them. They are moving the shells, not fostering a market with deep supply.

It all fits together.  The earnings-versus-expectations model shifts focus from long-term prospects to how something fluctuates.  What is betting on fluctuations? Arbitrage.

Next piece of the puzzle:  How are prices set in the stock market?  By the fastest order bidding to buy or offering to sell. Fast machines like those run by HRT Financial set prices in tiny increments.  Exchanges offer incentives to high-speed traders to set prices in tiny increments – to keep moving the shells, keep that pea in motion, keep fooling people about where the best price is.

And exchanges sell the data from this shell game because rules require everybody in pursuit of the pea to buy it to prove they’re not gaming their customers. It would be laughable if it weren’t true, and describing the stock market.

Three big lessons, investors and public companies. Number one, you’ve got to have better data than the operators of the shell game if you want to keep track of the pea.  And we’ve got it.  Number two, don’t trust a shell game to give you an accurate portrayal of either business fundamentals or future outcomes.

And number three, the best defense against any form of shell game is knowledge. Education. Knowing how the game works. I refer you to the cat above. If the cat can figure it out, so can we!  Market Structure knowledge is now essential for both investors and public companies.

The Housing ETF

Recent market volatility is, we’re told, investors one day saying “let’s sell everything because of tariffs and a trade war” and two days later “let’s buy in epic fashion because the USA is negotiating with China.”

That conforms market behavior to a fundamental explanation but omits the elephant: Exchange Traded Funds. They are 50% of market volume. They’re no side show.

Today you’ll see the way wild swings trace to how ETFs work, by creating an ETF that lets people trade houses. Sound fun?

Let’s name our ETF company after a color and something from nature. How about WhiteTree? WhiteTree is in Denver. We make Big Broker Inc., our Authorized Participant (AP) responsible for creating ETF shares, and we advertise: “Want to own residential real estate but trade it like stocks? Buy PADS!”

There’s demand (Editorial note: ETFs like STWD offer this exposure) and we tell our AP, Big Broker Inc., to provide a “Creation Basket” of titles to Denver homes as collateral, and in exchange BBI can create ETF shares to sell to the public.

We get deeds to real estate tax free. Cool! Why? It’s an “in-kind” exchange under IRS rules and SEC exemptive orders. One thing of equal value is exchanged for another. No fund turnover, no commissions (and we can charge BBI to boot!).

We don’t manage any money, just the collateral, the houses.  Demand is great for PADS and analysts say, “It’s a boom in residential real estate.”  We need more PADS to sell.

So we ask BBI for more collateral and BBI says, “We’re out of Denver homes. Will you take some in Minot, ND?” Sure. It’s collateral. More PADS shares, investor demand is strong, and The Housing Index, the benchmark PADS is tracking, rises.

We can’t keep up with PADS demand. We tell BBI the Creation Basket will take any housing deeds they’ve got. “We’re out,” BBI says. “How about a check for the amount of a house in Minot?”

Done! More ETF shares created. The media says WhiteTree is managing billions of investments in housing. No, we manage collateral. And we’re now writing futures on The Housing Index to boost reported ETF returns.

Home prices in Minot, ND soar. Pundits are saying, “Minot is an economic model for the nation. Everybody wants to live in Minot!”

But at WhiteTree, we’ve got a problem. Home values nationwide are rising and those capital gains taxes will be imputed to PADS shares, hurting our performance versus the benchmark. We need to get rid of capital gains, something ETF Redemption permits.

So we survey the collateral and Minot deeds have risen most.  We offer a Redemption Basket to BBI: PADS shares for equal value in Minot deeds (or a cash substitute).

BBI shorts The Housing Index, borrows PADS shares from another broker, gives them to WhiteTree, which delivers Minot deeds, and BBI dumps them.

Real Estate in Minot implodes.  Pundits are saying, “The economy turned. Nobody wants to live in Minot!”

This is precisely how ETFs work. Replace housing with stocks. It’s how they expand beyond the asset base and become an engine for the asset class.

Take the last two weeks. Bad times for Facebook (FB). The Tech Sector is over 25% of the S&P 500, and FB is the third largest Tech holding. It WAS the Redemption Basket, with brokers trading S&P 500 ETFs like SPY and IVV for FB and shorting FB and buying puts on Tech and FB. The market imploded.

But now ETF funds have removed capital gains via the Redemption process and instead with the Mar 31 quarter-end looming they need to true up tracking versus benchmarks.

On Monday Mar 26, the Creation Basket was full of stocks that had declined, capital gains wrung out. Brokers bought calls, bought futures on indexes, and the market before the open was set to rise over 300 points on the Dow.  It gained about 700 points.

But the REASON is arbitrage opportunity between COLLATERAL for ETFs, and trading the components, and ETF shares, and options and futures on indexes. Do you see?

Yesterday, nobody showed up to buy the new ETF shares. Investors are skittish. Thus as Tuesday wore on, brokers were worried that the ETF shares they had collateralized could lose value along with the collateral they had supplied to create them. Big trouble!  The market rolled over as they began selling and shorting Tech again to raise cash.

While we have theorized with PADS, what I’ve described about stocks is what we saw in the analytics we invented to track Passive Investment. Everything in the theoretical PADS scenario describes what I’ve read in ETF regulatory documents.

ETFs are like a currency backed by gold. After awhile there’s no more gold and you start backing the currency with something else – or nothing, as is the case today.  The creation of money drives up prices, the rise of which is misconstrued to be economic growth.

ETFs are not rights to stocks via pooled investments. They are substitutes you buy from brokers. As WhiteTree manages no ETF money, so it is with the big ETF sponsors.

The good thing about ETFs is they allow more money access to a finite asset class. But that’s the bad news too. Overextension of assets inevitably leads to bubbles which leads to popping bubbles.

Volatility since February has roiled the value of ETF collateral. Managing collateral exposure is wholly different than investing, and why inexplicable behavior is becoming more common in stocks.  You can see with PADS how complicated resolving this tangle might prove to be.  It’s the age-old lesson about derivatives.

Green and Purple

I can’t find a team (men’s or women’s) headed to March Madness, the annual collegiate sports fete in the USA, wearing green and purple. But the market’s awash in them.

Don’t you mean red and green, Tim?  Buy and selling?

No, green and purple.  See this image?  Green and purple are Passive Investment and Risk Management, a combination revealing how arbitrage in Exchange Traded Funds (ETFs) is taking over the stock market.

In the first circle, green and purple coincide with short covering (lower bar graph) and a surge in price.  In the second, green and purple again, shorting up, price falls.  It’s an anonymous stock exemplar but we see these patterns everywhere.

Monday, a friend sent me a note: “First thing I heard today when I got in the car to go to work and turned on the news is ‘Dow is down on fears of Trump tariff.’  Now I see the market is up 400 points. Should it say: ‘Markets up on Trump tariff?’”

Some pundits, coughing in advance, said it was reduced fears of tariffs on Canada and Mexico. It may be the green and purple gang and not rational thought at all.

I’ve written before about the “arbitrage mechanism” for ETFs.  Google “ETF arbitrage mechanism.” It’s presented as a good thing – the way ETFs can closely track an index.

Yet apart from ETFs, regulators, congresspersons, pundits, investors, all rail at “the arbitragers” for distorting prices and manipulating markets.  Isn’t it cognitively dissonant to say it’s good for ETFs but bad elsewhere?

If we don’t know what’s pricing the market because a pervasive “arbitrage mechanism” – green and purple going long and short – trumps Trump tariffs or any other fundamental consideration, the market cannot serve as a reliable barometer for corporate effort or economic activity.  I’m surprised it’s not troubling to more.

For every trade executed in the stock market in December, 19 were cancelled before matching according to Midas data from the SEC.  Of those that completed, 30% were odd lots – less than 100 shares (no wonder average trade size is about 180 shares).

Trade-cancellations in ETFs run about four times higher than in stocks, near 80-to-1, Midas shows. If trading motivation is changing the price, cancellations will run high.  Investors don’t do it. Profiting on price-differences is arbitrage. Only 5% of US stock orders execute, suggesting a lot of arbitrage. It’s rampant in ETFs. Green and purple.

Here’s what I think. Brokers trade collateral like stocks and cash at a fixed, net-asset-value to ETF sponsors tax-free for ETF shares. They cover borrowed stock-shares, bet long in futures and options on the indexes and components and sell ETF shares to investors.

When the group or index or sector or market-measure has appreciated to the point the ETF sponsor will incur taxes on low-basis stocks in the collateral the brokers provided, the brokers short those stocks and the options and futures and buy the ETF shares and return them to receive the collateral back in exchange.

Headlines may create entries and exits. This process repeats relentlessly, prompting investors and pundits and companies to draw widespread false correlations between market behavior and fundamental or economic factors.

It’s a genius way for brokers, traders and fund sponsors to make money. One could say we all benefit by extension. To a point, yes. So long as more money comes into the market than leaves it, stocks rise.

Volatility mounts on over-correction, where the arbitragers cover at the wrong time, short at the wrong time or exchange collateral for ETF shares in ill-timed ways, leaving puzzled people watching the tape.

Upon reflection, I guess it’s a good thing no team is wearing green and purple. The rest of us would do well to get as good at pattern-recognition as we are at PE ratios, because the patterns are setting prices. Watch the green and purple.