Tagged: coronavirus

Sneeze Cloud

I know this Friday will be good.

I’ll let you think about that one. By the way, markets are closed then.

For a decade we’ve written about the way the stock market has disconnected from reality.  Nothing lays bare the truth like a Pandemic.  More on that later.

First I’ve got to get something off my chest.

I’m not a doctor. But ModernIR is as good at the physiology of American equities as those medically trained are with humans. We’re experts at threshing dense, complicated information for central tendencies, patterns.

We’ve studied and validated data around this Pandemic.  The Centers for Disease Control reports (statistics as of 2017) that in New York annually more than 4,500 people die from the flu and pneumonia.

I saw a headline yesterday saying New York City Covid-19 deaths had surpassed those on Sep 11, 2001, as if the two were related.  At least seven morbidities kill more New Yorkers every year.

I’m proud of my fellow Americans for their indefatigable patience. And I’m also tired of hysteria, propaganda turning mask-wearers against non-mask-wearers, false correlations.

Over 115,000 New Yorkers die per annum, chiefly from heart disease (a co-morbidity with Covid-19) and cancer. And 3.5 million Americans die every year.

Now we find that our rush to respirators for a Coronavirus response may be wrong.  Read about Cytokine storms. See this. We put our haste to confront a threat ahead of understanding it.

You know viruses are inanimate?  We think they’re “bugs,” malevolent living things. In fact they’re hunks of protein, sequences of RNA or DNA coated in a fatty lipid layer. They’re inert unless they encounter susceptible hosts like mucosal cells.

In the truest sense, computer viruses are like human viruses, both meaningless unless they encounter code to corrupt, incapable of corrupting otherwise.

Healthy skin is impervious to them. Alcohol dissolves lipids, proteins decay under foamy soap. Sunlight and air are also enemies of proteins.

One could say, “Yeah Quast. But they’re transmitted by people.”

True. Viruses replicate in host cells and spread through human contact.  As ever.  Karen and I joke that every time we board a plane we leave our little antibody bubble world.

Fifteen million people die yearly around the globe from viruses.  The CDC offers vastly greater numbers falling ill from virally triggered maladies. It’s always true and will be tomorrow as much as today.  We’re ever walking into someone else’s sneeze cloud.

This paper’s opening salvo says: “Influenza-like illness (ILI) accounts for a large burden of annual morbidity and mortality worldwide (WHO 2020). Despite this, diagnostic testing for specific viruses underlying ILI is relatively rare (CDC 2019). This results in a lack of information about the pathogens that make between 9 million and 49 million people sick every year in the United States alone (CDC 2020).”

Yet we’re telling people, “Trust the government. We’ll find a vaccine.” Coronaviruses cause the bulk of the one billion common colds in the USA annually.  Look it up.

“Big Short” Michael Burry, an MD turned hedge fund manager famed for betting against mortgage securities before 2008, says our response to Covid-19 is worse than the virus.

A bigger sneeze cloud.

We stipulate that any Presidential administration would be excoriated for less than pulling out all the stops, whatever that phrase means.

Today it means monetizing any economic deficiency.  Or in English, having government compensate loss with money it borrows or creates. Yet government has only the money the people surrender to it.

So the government instead reaches far into the future through the central bank and hands the future the Coronavirus and takes from the future its money, for us.

We might laugh and say, “Suckers!”

But the Constitution that’s ostensibly the supreme law of this land prohibits taking private property for public use without just compensation. No scepter for any mayor or governor or other official exists under it. There is no authority to order people to do anything unless the people first agree to it. That’s the bedrock of self-government.

In this crisis we’ve taken millions of businesses for public use (here, safety) without just compensation, offering people who expended their lives building restaurants, bars, salons, hotels, stores, gyms, on it goes, on which they depended for retirement, inheritance to pass on to children, a loan.

I’m heartsick. It will take a generation to recover, not a quarter or two.

Most people think viruses are alive and it’s untrue. Most people think the stock market is a barometer for economic outcomes, and it’s untrue. Too many suppose government can save us from life, or death. And it’s untrue.

In a way, the stock market is a sneeze cloud. Trillions in Exchange Traded Fund transactions aren’t counted as turnover (thus Blackrock is unchanged in your 13Fs when it trades frantically). Half the volume is borrowed. Fast Traders set prices. Arbitrage dominates trading. You can’t trust what it signals.

We’re going to show you the behaviors driving stocks during this Pandemic next Wed Apr 15 via a NIRI-sponsored webcast.  We’ll post details at our website, or visit NIRI.org. If you want an email update sent to you, let us know.

I can live with sneeze clouds.  Or die.  We all do someday.  I can’t live with our markets, monetary policy, crisis-response, as masquerades. We can do better.  And we better.

Epiphany

DoubleLine’s famed Jeff Gundlach says we’ll take out March lows in stocks because the market is dysfunctional.

Karen and I have money at DoubleLine through managed accounts with advisors.  Mr. Gundlach is a smart man. Maybe it’s splitting hairs if I say the stock market isn’t dysfunctional but reflecting its inherent structural risks.

We know as much as anyone including Mr. Gundlach about market mechanics. And I still learn new stuff daily.  Matter of fact, I had an epiphany over the weekend. I compared market behaviors during the Great 2020 Market Correction.

Wow is that something to see.  We might host a webcast and share it.  If you’re interested, let us know.

Over the past decade, the effort to produce returns with lower risk has spread virally in the US stock market.  Call it alpha if you like, getting more than you’re risking.  Hedge funds say it’s risk-adjusted return.

The aim is to protect, or insure, everything against risk, as we everyday people do. We protect our homes, cars, lives, appliances, even our entertainment expenditures, against risk by paying someone to replace them (save for our lives, where beneficiaries win at our loss).

Stock traders try to offset the cost of insurance by profitably transacting in insured assets. That’s the holy grail.  No flesh wounds, no farts in our general direction (for you Monty Python fans).

It works this way. Suppose your favorite stock trades for $20 and you’re a thousand shares long – you own 1,000 shares. For protection, you buy 20 puts, each for 50 shares. You’re now long and short a thousand shares.

If the stock rises, the value of your puts shrinks but you’re up. If the stock declines, your long position diminishes but your puts are worth more.  Say the stock rises to $23. The value of your puts declines, making you effectively long 1,300 shares, short 700.

To generate alpha (I’m simplifying, leaving out how options may decrease in value near expiration, the insurance-renewal date, so to speak), you need to offset the cost of insurance. With a good model built on intraday volatility, you can trade the underlying stock for 20 days, buying high and selling low, going long or short, to mitigate costs.

Everybody wins. Your counterparty who sold you the puts makes money.  You make money trading your favorite stock. You have no fear of risk. And because more money keeps coming into stocks via 401ks and so on, even the losers get lucky (thank you Tom Petty, rest in peace, for that one).

One big reason this strategy works is the rules.  Regulation National Market System requires all stocks to trade at a single daily average price in effect. Calculating averages in a generally rising market is so easy even the losers can do it.

Now, what would jack this model all to hell?

A virus (frankly the virus is an excuse but time fails me for that thesis today).

Understand this:  About 80% of all market volume was using this technique. Quants did it. Active hedge funds. Fast Traders. Exchange-Traded Funds (ETF) market-makers.

Big volatility doesn’t kill this strategy. It slaughters the parties selling insurance. Observers are missing this crucial point. Most active money didn’t sell this bear turn.  We can see it.  Again, a story for later via webcast if you’re interested.

What died in the great 2020 Coronavirus Correction was the insurance business.

Casualties litter the field. The biggest bond ETFs on the planet swung wildly in price. Big banks like Dutch giant ABN Amro took major hits. Twenty-six ETFs backed by derivatives failed. The list of ETFs ceasing the creation of new units keeps growing and it’s spilling into mainstream instruments. Going long or short ETFs is a fave hedge now.

The Chicago Mercantile Exchange auctioned the assets of a major high-speed trader that sold insurance, Ronin Capital (around since 2006. If its balance sheet and leverage can be believed, it may have imputed a loss of $500 billion to markets.

Just one firm. How many others, vastly bigger, might be at risk?

Forget stock-losses. Think about how funds mitigate volatility. How they generate alpha. We’ve been saying for years that if the market tips over, what’s at risk is whatever has been extended through derivatives. ETFs are derivatives. That’s 60% of volume.

And now key market-makers for stocks, bonds, ETFs, derivatives, commodities, currencies, are tied up helping the Federal Reserve. Including Blackrock. They can’t be all things to all people at once.

The market isn’t dysfunctional.  It’s just designed to function in ways that don’t work if insurance fails. And yes, I guess that that’s dysfunctional. That was my epiphany.

I’ll conclude with an observation. We shouldn’t shut down our economy. Sweden didn’t. This is their curve. Using a population multiplier, their curve is 27% better than ours – without shutting down the economy, schools, restaurants. We are the land of the free, the home of the brave. Not the land of those home, devoid of the brave. I think it’s time to put property rights, inalienable rights, above the government’s presumption of statist power.

The End

In crises I think of Winston Churchill who said, “This is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.”

Let’s start now with lessons from a health crisis that became a market crisis and proceeded to an economic crisis.

This last leg is yet murky but with hotels at 15% occupancy and the great American service industry at a standstill in an economy 70% dependent on consumption, it’s big.

First, the stock market. Intraday volatility in the S&P 500 averaged 10% the past week – a daily market correction between mean high and low prices by component.

Volatility is unstable prices, and big money needs stability to move. If the market exists for public companies and investors, it has served them poorly. Short-term machines have dominated. Investors were unable to get in or out without convulsing the whole construct of a $30 trillion edifice now smashed a third smaller.

Energy companies should be the first ones knocking at the SEC because the sector was 22% volatile the past week amid losing vast value. Sure, oil prices fell. Should it be the worst month ever for oil? The sector was battered more than in the maw of 2008.

Market structure is the hubris of equities. We’ve said it for years. We warned that Exchange Traded Funds, derivatives, had pervaded it, spreading the viral threat of severe inflation and deflation if stocks and ETFs move in unison.

There’s another basic problem. I’ll give you an analogy. The local grocery store down the street in Steamboat was denuded of wares as though some biblical horde of incisor-infested critters had chewed through it. I guess in a sense it was.

If there’s no lettuce, you can’t buy it. The price of lettuce doesn’t carom though. Demand ceases until supply arrives.

And it did. We later found lettuce, carrots, onions, eggs in abundance, but no limes (drat! A vital gin-and-tonic component).

We bought what they had.

In the stock market as with groceries there is no limitless supply of XOM or AAPL or whatever. But rules permit machines to behave as though lettuce and carrots always exist on the shelves when they don’t (a majority of volume was shorting and Fast Trading the past week – phantom products).

It’s why prices bucked and seized like a blender hucked into a bathtub. Investors would reach a hand for the proverbial lettuce and it would vanish and lettuce prices would scream smoking off like bottle rockets on July 4.

We don’t do that with groceries. Why in stocks? Energy companies, are you happy that machines can manufacture a crisis in your prices (that rhymes) and destroy the bulk of your value in days?

Look at Utilities. Producing energy to heat and cool American homes is vulnerable to tornadoes. Not viruses. Why did a preponderance of Utilities lose half their market capitalization in days – and then get 20% back yesterday?

These are questions every public company, every investor, should ask.

(Here’s what happened: Utilities were overweight – we warned of it! – in “low volatility” investments. Those blew up, taking Utilities with them.)

And they jumped on options bets. Volatility as an asset class lapses today around VIX expirations, and resets. Tomorrow index options expire, Friday is the first quad-witch of 2020. Derivatives have demolished swaths of equity capital like a runaway Transformer in one of those boom-boom superhero movies trampling through a trailer park.

It should be evident to the last market-structure skeptic – whoever you are – that market structure overwhelms reason, fundamentals, financials. If you’re in stocks, you need to get your head around it (we have, removing that burden for you).

If you want to be prepared and informed, ask us. We have a product that will fit your budget and put you in with the – socially distanced – cool kids who make market structure part of the investor-relations and investing processes.

Speaking of social distancing, there are 71 million American millennials (meaningful numbers living paycheck-to-paycheck). Viral mortality rate for them globally: 0%. There are two million hoary heads over 90. Covid-19 mortality is 19% (and most over 80 have chronic medical conditions).

I’m a data guy. How about keeping oldsters out of bars and youngsters out of nursing homes? I don’t mean to be insensitive and I know the concern is healthcare facilities. But destroying the finances of millennials over sequestering the vulnerable is troubling.

Last, central banks once were lenders of LAST resort taking good collateral at high cost. I would be pulling out all stops too, were I leading. I’m casting no aspersions. But governments are funded by people, not the other way around, and cannot carry the freight by idling productive output. That’s cognitively dissonant, intellectually incongruous.

This may be the last time we get away with it. Let’s stop that before it ends us. Find a new plan.

And investors and IR people, understand market structure. This is a beginning. It’ll again roar in our faces with slavering fangs.

SPECIAL CORONAVIRUS EDITION: Halting

My email inbox took such a fusillade of stock volatility halts yesterday that I set two rules to sort them automatically. Emails rained in well after the close, girders triggered hours before and stuck in an overwhelmed system.

As I write, volatility halts Mon-Thu this week total 2,512.  Smashing all records.

You need to understand these mechanisms, public companies and investors, because high-speed trading machines do.

On May 6, 2010 the market collapsed and then surged suddenly, and systems designed then to interdict volatility failed.  They were revamped. Finalized and implemented in 2013, new brackets sat dormant until Mar 9, 2020.

Wham!

They were triggered again yesterday, the 12th. At Level 1, the market in all its forms across 15 exchanges and roughly 31 Alternative Trading Systems stops trading stocks when benchmarks fall 7% from the reference price in the previous day’s closing auction.

To see exchanges, visit the CTA plan and exclude Finra and CBOE (17 members becomes 15 exchanges). You can track ATS’s (dark pools) here.

The Level 1 pause lasts 15 minutes and trading then resumes.  Say the reference price was 2,400 for the S&P500 the day before. At 2,242, it stops for 15 minutes.  Down 13% to 2,123, it halts again for 15 minutes. At 20% down, the markets close till the next day (that would be SPX 2,000 in our example).

Here’s the kicker: Levels 1-2 apply only till 3:25p ET. If the market has been off 5% all day till 3:25p ET and then it swoons, it won’t stop falling till it’s down 20% – SPX 2,000.  Girders apply only down, not up. Stocks could soar 30% in a day but couldn’t fall 21%.

Then there are single-stock guards called Limit Up/Limit Down (LULD) halts (the stuff inundating my inbox). When a Russell 1000 stock (95% of market cap), or an ETF or closed-end fund, moves 5% away from the preceding day’s reference price in a five-minute span, the security will be halted.

Russell 2000 stocks (add the two and it’s 99.9% of market cap) halt on a 10% move from the reference price in five minutes, applicable all the way to the close. Prices for all securities must be in the LULD range for 15 seconds to trigger halts.

For perspective, high-speed machines can trade in microseconds, millionths of a second (if machines can find securities to trade). Machines can game all these girders.

Boeing (BA) was volatility-halted three times yesterday (market cap $87 billion, over $220 billion of market cap in April last year) and still declined 18%, 80% more than the DJIA (and it’s a component).

Our friends at IEX, the Investors Exchange (the best market, structurally, for trading) tracked the data. Full-service broker-dealers handle customer orders, as do agency brokers (like our blood brothers at Themis Trading). Proprietary traders are racing their own capital around markets.  Look at this.

It matches what we see with behavioral analytics, where machines outrace any indication that rational money is coming or going. It’s why real money struggles to buy or sell.

How have stocks lost 25% of value in two weeks with no material change to shareholdings (widely true)? This is how. Machines are so vastly faster than real money that it’s like shooting fish in a barrel.

A word on futures:  The Chicago Mercantile Exchange triggers halts overnight if futures move 5%. But that tells machines to bet big on the direction prices were last moving.

Let’s bring in Exchange Traded Funds (ETFs). They depend on predictable value in ETF shares and the underlying stocks. If ETFs have risen above the value of underlying stocks, market-makers short ETF shares (borrow them) and return them to ETF sponsors to get stocks worth less than ETF shares. And vice versa.

With a low VIX, this trade is easy to calculate. When volatility soars and ETFs and stocks move the same direction, market-makers quit. They can’t tabulate a directional gain. The market loses roughly 67% of its prices, which come from ETF market-makers. Machines then yank markets up and down thousands of points without meaningful real buying or selling.

Which leads us to next week.  Options expire. This pandemonium began with Feb options-expirations, where demand plunged.  If the market puts together two solid days, there will be an epochal rush to out-of-the-money call options before Mar 20. Stocks will soar 15%.

I’m not saying that’ll happen. It’s remotely possible. But we’re on precarious ground where ETFs subtracted from stocks suggest another 35% of potential downside.

Last, here’s my philosophical thought, apolitical and in the vein of Will Rogers or Oscar Wilde on human nature. A primitive society ignorant of the Coronavirus would blithely pursue food, clothing and shelter. Life going on.

Now our global self-actualized culture in one breath proposes we change the climate, and in the next paralyzes over a tiny virus.  I think Will and Oscar would suggest we learn to live (with viruses and the climate).

Whether we lose 35% or gain 15%, market structure is crushing human thought and shareholder behavior, and that fact deserves redress after this crisis.

Canary Prices

We’ve written of risks in stocks from proliferating Exchange Traded Funds (ETFs).

We’ve talked long about liquidity risks, here last October with CNBC’s Brian Sullivan.

So what, right?

The market has functioned well in this Coronavirus Pandemonium, argue regulators and reporters (WSJ subscription required).

What’s the definition of functioning?  Volume?  You longtime users of Market Structure Analytics rely on them so as not to confuse busy – volume – with productive – liquidity (and to know when story drives price, and doesn’t, and much more).

Refinitiv Lipper says some $20 billion left US equities the week ended Mar 6. Sounds big but it’s 1% of volume.

Add up shorting (borrowed stock) at 45.2% of daily S&P 500 trading the past week, and Fast Trading (machines hyper-trading intraday and ending flat), 53.3% of volume, and it’s 98.5% of market volume but not liquidity.

There’s your 99% (the difference is a rounding error).

This is why you should care about market structure, if you haven’t yet.

Volatility Monday triggered a marketwide stock circuit-breaker halting trading when stocks drop 7%. First time since the rule was implemented in 2013.

Volatility halts also stopped futures trading Monday. Both events derailed reads of VIX volatility, which depend on futures contracts and put/call pricing for freely trading S&P 500 components.

Maybe the VIX was over 100 Monday. We don’t know, as components stopped trading.

What’s more, volatility halts for stocks and ETFs cascaded to more than a thousand Monday and Tuesday, including pauses in large caps like OXY, stopped eight times. I think we surpassed the record-setting currency-driven (as is this) frenzy of Aug 24, 2015.

Many directional ETFs in energy, commodities, market vectors, bonds, leveraged instruments, were halted too.  Volatility halts are coal-mine canaries.

And we’re led to believe investors are panicking over the Coronavirus, and getting out, because markets are working. Anybody but ModernIR writing about volatility halts, paucity of liquidity? Do tell.

Market Structure Analytics exist, public companies and investors, to know what headlines don’t say.

It’s egregious disservice to tell everyone “the market is working great!” when volatility halts explode, most volume is transient trading, and nobody can get in or out.

Canaries falling in waves.

Active Investment declined in the S&P 500 from early Feb until Mar 6 and Mar 9, then ticked up 3% on selling – less than the 5.4% daily intraday volatility (spread between highest and lowest average prices) in components of the S&P 500.

Responding, the market suffered one of its greatest collapses.

People don’t care about insurance – a canary in the coal mine – until it’s needed. And then it’s too late.

Investors and public companies, if you’re lulled by quiescence like last autumn, you’ll be shocked by its departure regardless of the Coronavirus. You shouldn’t be.

ETFs are a principal cause for both market volatility and vanishing liquidity. Investors can sit on stocks – meaning they don’t circulate – and trade ETFs.  When the market lurched, ETF market-makers withdrew, as we’d reasoned from data.

Then investors wanted to sell.

Without the ETFs driving some 67% of trading volume normally, nobody was there to calculate prices. Markets spun crazily like a fighter jet hit by a missile.

And regulators tell us the market is working fine. What about these dying canaries everywhere?

Here is liquidity simply. Trade-size is down to 132 shares in the S&P 500. If you’re an investor trying to sell 100,000 shares, you fill 1% of it and the price gyrates away from you as Fast Traders jump ahead.

Now your pre-trade analytics are wrong. You can pull your trade. Or try to blitzkrieg it in a thousand 100-share trades “at the market,” the best bid.

Wham!

The market implodes a thousand points. Try to buy 10,000 shares and the market skyrockets, rising a thousand points.

Investor-relations people for Energy companies, how do your executives feel about this market?

Technology IR people, what if you’re next?  Tech is the biggest sector. Shorting rose 12% last week in the FAANGs (FB, AAPL, AMZN, GOOG/GOOGL, NFLX) and Active money was selling. FAANGs lead the market up and down. They topped Feb 14, bottomed Mar 3. And now?

(We have the answer. Ask us.)

Investors, is a market that can’t accommodate 1% of the audience into and out of the exits without shuddering the whole stadium and threatening its foundations okay?

Sentiment by our measures is the lowest we’ve ever recorded. Yesterday it was still falling but a day or two from bottom. Uncharted territory, yes. But ModernIR is continuously mapping behaviors, trends, spreads, more.  We have that data, right here.

What if markets zoom? Or don’t?

What’s it worth, public companies and investors, to know what the headlines don’t tell you?  What’s the price of a canary? Ask us. You’ll be surprised.

Viral Market

I fear the Coronavirus may cause us to miss the real clanging claxon the past two weeks: The stock market cannot handle any form of truth.  The viral threat is market structure.

That the market plummeted on yesterday’s surprise (shocking) Federal Reserve rate-cut, the first non-meeting central-bank move since 2008, is to be expected in context of the continuum that created pressure in the first place.  Let’s review:

1.      Week of Feb 16. Options expired, Market Structure Sentiment topped, demand for derivatives bets fell 5% rather than rose, on a fast-appreciating US dollar.

2.      Feb 24.  New options for March expiration began trading. March brings the first “quad-witching” period of 2020, with rafts of derivatives tied to currencies and interest rates recalibrating.  Against a soaring dollar and plunging interest rates, uncertainty flared and implied derivatives demand vanished, tanking stocks.

3.      Intraday volatility (spreads between high and low prices) zoomed in the S&P 500 to the highest level we’ve recorded, averaging a searing 4.9% daily. Market-makers for Exchange-Traded Funds could not calculate successful trades between stocks and ETFs and withdrew.  Fast Trading rose to 53% of volume. Markets corrected by Feb 28 at the fastest pace ever.

4.      Bets jumped to 100% that the Fed would cut rates at its Mar 17 meeting in response to mounting economic concern over the Coronavirus.  On Mar 2, with a new month beginning, traders bet big with swaps (swap volumes crushed records) paying on a rate cut.

The Fed cut rates yesterday instead.

They might as well have trafficked in infectious diseases. The change rendered Monday’s bets void by pulling forward all implied returns. It’s effectively the same thing that happened Feb 24 when bets never materialized. The market imploded.

Somebody should be on TV and in the newspapers explaining these mechanics, so the public stops incorrectly supposing the market is a barometer for virus fears.

It’s worse in fact. During the whole period of tumult in the market from Feb 24 to present, Active money at no point was a big seller.  Patterns show a collapse for passive investment – especially ETFs – that didn’t change till Monday on rate-cut bets (that were chop-blocked yesterday).

There’s more. Trade-size in the S&P 500 plummeted to a record-low 132 shares. While volume exploded, it was repeated movement of the same shares by Fast Trading machines, which were 53% of volume. Daily trades per S&P 500 component exploded from a 200-day average of 27,000 to over 58,000.

What does it all mean?  Without any real buying or selling, the market gyrated in ways we’ve never seen before. That’s the shriek of metal, the scream of inefficiency. Rightly, it should raise hair.

We wrote about this looming liquidity threat last year (more than once but we’ll spare you).

Regulators should prepare now for the actual Big One yet to come.  Because the next time there will be real selling. It could make February’s fantasia look like a warmup act.  I’m not mongering fear here. I’m saying public companies and investors should demand a careful assessment from regulators about recent market turmoil.

My suggestion:  If the market moves more than 5% in a day, we should suspend the trade-through rule, the requirement that trades occur at the best national price. Let buyers and sellers find each other, cutting out the Fast Trading middlemen fragmenting markets into a frenzy of tiny trades and volatile prices.

And we’d better develop a clear-eyed perspective on the market’s role as a barometer for rational thought.  The truth is, market structure is  the real viral threat to the big money exposed to stocks.

Collateral

I apologize.

Correlation between the market’s downward lurch and Karen’s and my return Sunday from the Arctic Circle seems mathematically irrefutable.  Shoulda stayed in Helsinki.

I wouldn’t have minded more time in the far reaches of Sweden and Finland viewing northern lights, sleeping in the Ice Hotel, riding sleds behind dogs, trekking into the mystic like Shackleton and Scott, gearing up for falling temperatures.  We unabashedly endorse Smartwool and Icebreaker base layers (and we used all we had).

Back to the market’s Arctic chill, was it that people woke Monday and said, “Shazam! This Coronavirus thing is bad!”

I’m frankly stupefied by the, shall we say, pandemic ignorance of market structure that pervades reportage.  If you’re headed to the Arctic, you prepare. If you raise reindeer, you’ve got to know what they eat (lichen). And if you’re in the capital markets, you should understand market structure.

There’s been recent talk in the online forum for NIRI, the investor-relations association, about “options surveillance.”   Options 101 is knowing the calendar.

On Aug 24, 2015, after a strong upward move for the US dollar the preceding week, the market imploded. Dow stocks fell a thousand points before ending down 588.

New options traded that day.  Demand vanished because nothing stresses interpretations of future prices – options are a right but not an obligation to buy or sell in the future – like currency volatility.

Step forward.  On Monday Feb 24, 2020, new options were trading.

Nobody showed up, predictively evident in how counterparty trading in support of options declined 5% the preceding week during expirations. Often, the increase or decrease in demand for what we call Risk Management – trades tied to leverage, portfolio insurance, and so on – during expirations is a signal for stocks.

Hundreds of trillions of dollars of swaps link to how interest rates and currency values may change in the future, plus some $10 trillion in equity swaps, and scores of trillions of other kinds of contracts. They recalibrate each month during expirations.

They’re all inextricably linked.  There is only one global reserve currency – money other central banks must own proportionally. The US dollar.

All prices are an interpretation of value defined by money. The dollar is the denominator.  Stock-prices are numerators.  Stronger dollar, smaller prices, and vice versa.

The DXY hit a one-year high last week (great for us buying euros in Finland!).

Let’s get to the nitty gritty.  If you borrow money or stocks, you post collateral.  If you hawk volatility by selling puts or calls, you have to own the stock in case you must cover the obligation.  If you buy volatility, you may be forced to buy or sell the underlying asset, like stocks, to which volatility ties.

Yesterday was Counterparty Tuesday, the day each month following the expiration of one series (Feb 21) and the start of a new one (Feb 24) when books are squared.

There’s a chain reaction. Counterparties knew last week that betting on future stock prices had dropped by roughly $1 trillion of value.  They sold associated stocks, which are for them a liability, not an investment.

Stocks plunged and everyone blamed the Coronavirus.

Now, say I borrowed money to buy derivatives last week when VIX volatility bets reset.  Then my collateral lost 4% of its value Monday. I get a call: Put up more collateral or cover my borrowing.

Will my counterparty take AAPL as collateral in a falling market?  Probably not. So I sell AAPL and pay the loan.  Now, the counterparty hedging my loan shorts stocks because I’ve quit my bet, reducing demand for stocks.

Volatility explodes, and the cost of insurance with derivatives soars.

It may indirectly be true that the cost of insurance in the form of swap contracts pegged to currencies or interest rates has been boosted on Coronavirus uncertainty.

But it’s not at all true that fear bred selling.  About 15% of market cap ties to derivatives.  If the future becomes uncertain, it can be marked to zero.  Probably not entirely – but marked down by half is still an 8% drop for stocks.

This is vital:  The effect manifests around options-expirations. Timing matters. Everybody – investors and public companies – should grasp this basic structural concept.

And it gets worse.  Because so much money in the market today is pegged to benchmarks and eschews tracking errors, a spate of volatility that’s not brought quickly to heel can spread like, well, a virus.

We’ve not seen that risk materialize in a long while because market-makers for Exchange Traded Funds that flip stocks as short-term collateral tend to buy collateral at modest discounts. A 1% decline is a buying opportunity for anyone with a horizon of a day.

Unless.  And here’s our risk: ETF market-makers can substitute cash for stocks. If they borrowed the cash, read the part on collateral again.

I expect ETF market-makers will return soon. Market Structure Sentiment peaked Feb 19, and troughs have been fast and shallow since 2018. But now you understand the risk, its magnitude, and its timing. It’s about collateral.  Not rational thought.

Infected Stocks

Coronaviruses are common throughout the world. So says the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The market didn’t treat news of spreading cases in China and the first in the USA (from a Chinese visitor) that way though. Airline and gaming stocks convulsed yesterday.

There’s as ever a lesson for investor-relations practitioners and investors about how the stock market works now. News compounds conditions but is infrequently causal. Investors, there are opportunities in divergences. IR pros, you need to know what’s real and what’s ripple-effect, because moves in stocks may not reflect rational sentiment.

Airline and leisure stocks demonstrate it. Active Investment pushed airlines up 2.4% last week, industry data we track (with proprietary analytics) show.

But.

Shorting rose, and demand for derivatives used to protect or leverage airline investments fell 7% into last week’s options-expirations (know the calendar, folks). That’s a signal that with new options trading yesterday, counterparties would shed inventory in those stocks because demand for options was down.

Both facts – Active buying last week, weak demand for leverage – run counter to the narrative of investor-fear. The data say these stocks would have been down anyway and news is simply compounding what preceded it.

No doubt some investors knee-jerked to headlines saying investors were selling, and sold. But it’s not the cause. It’s effect.

We can’t isolate gaming in GICS data but leisure stocks shared behavioral characteristics with airlines. Investment was up last week, led by Passive money rather than Active funds (Active rose 2% too). But Risk Management, the use of leverage, declined 3%. And the pattern of demand changed.

What if the real cause for declines in these industries is the rising cost of leverage?

I’ll make my last plug for the book The Man Who Solved the Market. Near the end, one of Jim Simons’s early collaborators at Renaissance Technologies observes, “I don’t deny that earnings reports and other business news surely move markets. The problem is that so many investors focus so much on these types of news that nearly all of the results cluster very near the average.”

He added that he believed the narratives that most investors latch onto to explain price-moves were quaint, even dangerous, because they breed misplaced confidence that an investment can be adequately understood and its future divined.

I’ll give you two more examples of the hubris of using headlines to understand stocks. The S&P 500, like airline and leisure stocks, experienced a 2% decline in demand for derivatives into expirations last week. Patterns changed. Ten of eleven sectors had net selling Friday even as broad measures finished up.

If the market is down 2% this week – and I’m not saying it will fall – what’ll be blamed? Impeachment? Gloomy views from Davos? The coronavirus?

One more: Utilities. These staid stocks zoomed 4% last week, leading all sectors. They were the sole group to show five straight days of buying. We were told the market galloped on growth prospects from two big trade agreements.

So, people bought Utilities for growth?

No, not the reason. Wrapped around the growth headlines was a chorus of voices about how the market keeps going up for no apparent reason. Caution pushes investors to look for things with low volatility.

Utilities move about 1.4% daily between intraday high and low average prices. Tech stocks comprising about 24% of the S&P 500 are 2.6% volatile – 86% more!

Communication Services, the sector for Alphabet, Facebook, Twitter and Netflix, is 2.8% volatile every day, exactly 100% more volatile than Utilities.

The Healthcare sector, stuffed with biotechnology names, is 4.8% volatile, a staggering 243% greater than Utilities.

These data say low-volatility strategies from quantitative techniques, to portfolio-weightings, to Exchange-Traded Funds are disproportionately – and simultaneously – reliant on Utilities. If volatility spikes, damage will thus magnify.

IR people, you’ve got to get a handle on behaviors behind price and volume (we can show you yours!). Headlines are quaint, even dangerous, said the folks at Renaissance Technologies, who earned 39% after-fee returns every year for more than three decades.

Investors, you must, too (try our Market Structure EDGE platform). None of us will diagnose market maladies by reading headlines. The signs of pathology will be deeper and earlier. In the data.