Tagged: Earnings

Earning the Answers

It’s 8am Eastern Time and you’re in a conference room. Earnings season.

Executives around the table. The serious ones in suits and ties like usual. Others in shorts or jeans. Everybody reading the call script one more time. 

“You think we’ll get that question about inventory levels?” the COO says. 

“What’s the stock gonna do today?” says your CEO. 

All of us who’ve been in the investor-relations chair understand the quarterly grind. We practice, prepare, canvass probable questions, rehearse answers.  Try to get the execs to read the script aloud. We listen to competitors’ calls, seeking key queries.

Yet 85% of the volume in the market is driven by money paying no attention to calls.

“Not during earnings,” you say. “Active money is the lead then.” 

If it is, that’s a victory. It’s an anecdotal observation rather than hard statistical fact, but my experience with the data suggests less than 20% of public companies have Active money leading as price-setter on earnings days. 

I’m reminded of a classic example. One of our clients had screaming Sentiment – 10/10 on our index, slamming into the ceiling – and 68% short volume ahead of results. We warned that without the proverbial walk-off grand slam, nothing would stop a drop. 

Active money led, setting a new Rational Price, our measure of fair value, though shares closed down. In proceeding days the stock lost 8%. It wasn’t the story. It was the sector. Tech tanked. And shorting. And Sentiment.

Which leads us back to the carefully crafted earnings call. We’ve got a variety of clients with Activist investors, and I’ll give you two sharply contrasting outcomes that illustrate the importance of the answer to both your COO’s and CEO’s questions. 

One has been slashing and burning expenses (it’s what you do when somebody horns in with money and personality).  Still, heading into the call shorting was 69% and investors were wary. The company has a history of sharp pullbacks on results.

The only bull bets were from machines that leveraged hard into shares. No thought, just a calculated outcome.

Did you see the Wall Street Journal article yesterday on a massive VIX bet?  Some anonymous trader has wagered about $265 million that the VIX will be over 25 in October.  The trader could win big or lose big.

It’s the same thing. Traders, both humans and machines, bet on volatility, exacerbated by results.  Fast Traders wagered our client would jump about 8% (we could forecast it).  They were right. The buying that drove initial response came from quantitative money. Machines read the data and bought, and shorting dropped 20% in a day.

Rational investors have since been profit-takers.  Price moved so much on bets that buy-and-hold money turned seller.

In the other instance, price fell 15%. Risk Management was 15% of market capitalization ahead of the call because Activism tends to boost the value of the future – reflected in derivatives. But Activists have short attention spans. If you’re two quarters in without any meaningful catalyst, you’re asking for trouble.

Well, that was apparent in the data. They were 60% short every day for 50 days ahead of results, the equivalent of a tapping foot and a rolling eye. If you don’t give that audience a catalyst they’re going to take their futures and forwards and go home. 

Results missed and management guided down, and ALL of that 15% came out of market cap. Investors didn’t sell? No. How does it help long money to sell and slaughter price? They’d wreck months or years of commitment in a minute.

But the future was marked to zero because event-driven money dropped its rights to shares. And 15% of market cap held that way vanished.

The degree of uncertainty in all prices, not just ones at earnings season, are increasing because machines are betting on volatility, long and short, price-spreads.

It’s not rational. It’s gambling. Moral of the story? Prepare well, yes.  But prepare proportionally.  Keep it simple. A minority of the money listens now and cannot overcome the power of arbitrage (we need a better market. Another story.).

You might recoil at the idea. But if the market has changed, shouldn’t we too? Correlate outcomes to effort. Learn market structure. Measure the money. Set expectations. Prepare. But prepare wisely. Efficiently. Don’t confuse busy with productive.  

For your COO, the answer is yes, we’ll get that question, and for your CEO, the answer probably has no bearing on how shares will behave. Keep the answer short. (And yes, we can forecast how shares will behave and what will set price. Ask us.)

Expectations vs Outcomes

“Earnings beat expectations but revenues missed.”

Variations on this theme pervade the business airwaves here during earnings, currently at fever pitch.  Stocks bounce around in response. Soaring heights, crushing depths, and instances where stocks moved opposite of what the company expected.

Why?

Well, everyone is doing it – betting on expectations versus outcomes.  The Federal Reserve Open Market Committee meeting wraps today and much musing and a lot of financial betting swirls around what Chair Yellen is expected to offer as outcome.

Then Friday the world stops at 8:30am ET, holding its breath to see if the expectation for April US jobs matches the outcome.

And by the way, I will join Rick Santelli in Chicago Thursday morning, in between, on Squawk on the Street to pontificate fleetingly and I hope meaningfully.

Obsession with expectations versus outcomes in equity markets and across the planar vastness of economic and monetary data blots out long-term vision and fixes attention on directional bets.

It’s not investment. And it’s no way to plan the future, this mass financial pirouette around a data point.  But it’s the market we’ve got. We must understand it, like it or not.

Back to your stock. The reason that after you beat and raise your stock falls is what occurred ahead of your call.

It may have nothing to do with how you performed versus consensus. For proof, droves from the sellside are looking for IR jobs because trillions of dollars migrating from active portfolios into indexes and ETFs aren’t using sellside research. Or listening to calls.

It reminds me of the Roadrunner cartoons, Wile E. Coyote running off the cliff. Remember? Parts of Wile E. drop in order, the last thing remaining, his blinking eyes.

That’s to me like results versus consensus.  The eyes of Wile E. Coyote, last vestige of something fallen off the cliff of colossal change to investment and trading behavior. The sellside still has everybody thinking outcomes versus expectations matter to investors.

No, they matter to the hordes with directional bets – over 40% of the market.

They bet long or short, or on the spread between high and low prices. They may have fixed for floating swaps that pay if you beat, leading counterparties to sell your shares – and the bettors are short your stock too, so they make a fee on the bet and more covering as your stock falls.

And the CEO says to you, “What the heck?”

If your stock is 50% short (we measure it) and slamming the ceiling of Sentiment due to a marketwide derivatives surge after expirations – which happened Apr 24-25 – it doesn’t matter if you crush consensus. Structure trumps Story. Price will fall because bets have already paid thanks to the broad market.

The market makes sense when you understand what sets price.

Active investment leads less than 20% of the time. The juggernaut of indexes and ETFs rumbles through at about 34%, and it’s now distorting share-borrowing and Risk Management. The latter is 13-16% of your market cap – hopes for the future that can sour or surge on any little data point.

Let’s bring it back to the Fed and jobs and the economy. I said your stock will move based on what happened beforehand.  That can be a day or two, or a week or two.

The economy is massive. It will move on what happened beforehand too but the arc is years. No matter what may be occurring now, which in turn will manifest in the future.

The threat to the US economy and stocks is a lack of appreciation that tomorrow is a consequence of yesterday, not of tomorrow.  For the better part of a decade, furious fiscal and monetary effort promoted borrowing and spending so people would consume more.

But the consequence of borrowing and spending is debt and a lack of money. Which causes the economy to contract in the future. Stocks are pumped on past steroids. If the economy beats and raises, everything can still fall because of what happened yesterday.

We must first navigate consequences of yesterday before reaching the fruits from today.

Same for you. The stock market is awash in bets on divergences, even more when financial results mean opportunity blooms. Your active money clangs around in there, often as confused as you.

Your challenge and opportunity, IR professionals? Helping management develop an expectation of market form that matches the outcome of its function now.

Volatility Insurance

In Texas everything is bigger including the dry-aged beef ribs at Hubbell & Hudson in the Woodlands and the lazy river at Houston’s Marriott Marquis, shaped familiarly.

We were visiting clients and friends before quarterly reporting begins again. Speaking of which, ever been surprised by how stocks behave with results?

We see in the data that often the cause isn’t owners of assets – holders of stocks – but providers of insurance. To guard against the chance of surprises, investors and traders use insurance, generally in the form of derivatives, like options. 

Played Monopoly, the board game? A Get Out of Jail Free card is a right but not an obligation to do something in the future that depends on an outcome, in this case landing on the “go to jail” space. It’s only valuable if that event occurs. It’s a derivatives contract.

At earnings, if you shift the focus from growth – topline – to value – managing what’s between the topline and the bottom line – the worth of future growth can evaporate even if investors don’t sell a share.

Investors with portfolio insurance use their Get Out of Jail Free cards, perhaps comprised of S&P 500 index futures. The insurance provider, a bank or fund, delivers futures and offsets its exposure by selling and shorting your shares. It can drop your price 10-20%.

Writers Chris Whittall and Jon Sindreu last Friday in the Wall Street Journal offered the most compelling piece (may require registration — send me a note if you can’t read it) I’ve seen on this concept of insurance in stocks.

Investors of all ilks, not just hedge funds, protect assets against the unknown, as we all do. We buy life, auto, health, home insurance.  We seek a Get Out of Jail Free card for ourselves and our actions.

In stocks, we track this propensity as Risk Management, one of the four key behaviors setting market prices. It’s real and by our measures north of 13% of total market cap.

But the market has been a flat sea.  No volatility.  This despite a new President, geopolitical intrigue, global acts of terror, a Federal Reserve stretching after eight Rumpelstiltskin years, and a chasm between markets and fundamentals.

Whittall and Sindreu theorize that opposing actions between buyers and sellers of insurance explains the strange placidity in markets where the VIX, the so-called Fear Gauge derived from prices of options on stocks, has been near record lows.

The thinking goes that the process of buying and selling insurance is itself the explanation for absence of froth. Because markets seem inured to threats, investors stop buying insurance such as put options against surprise moves, and instead look to sell insurance to generate a fee. They write puts or calls, which generate cash returns.

Banks take the other side of the trade because that’s what banks do. They’re now betting volatility will rise. To offset the risk they’re wrong, they buy the underlying: stocks. If volatility rises the bet pays, but the bank loses on the shares, which fall. 

This combination of events, it’s supposed, is contributing to imperturbable markets. Everything nets to zero except the stock-purchases by banks and cash returns generated by investors selling insurance, so there’s no volatility and markets tend to rise.

Except that’s not investment. It’s trafficking in get-out-of-jail-free cards.

And despite low volatility, there’s a cost. We’ve long said there will be a Lehman moment for a market dominated by Risk Management.

We’ve seen hedge funds struggle. They’re big players in the insurance game. And banks have labored at trading. Maybe it’s due to insurance losses. Think Credit Suisse, Deutsche Bank, HSBC.  Someone else?

From Nov 9-Mar 1 the behavior we call Risk Management led as price-setter marketwide, followed closely by Active Investment. The combination points to what’s been described: One party selling insurance on risk, another buying it, and a continual truing up of wins and losses.  

Now, for perspective, the VIX is a lousy alarm system. It tells us only what’s occurred. And intraday volatility, the spread between daily high and low prices across the market, is 2.2%, far higher than closing prices imply.

We may reach a day where banks stop buying insurance from selling investors, if indeed that’s what’s been occurring.  Stocks will cease rising.  Investors will want to buy insurance but the banks won’t sell it.  Then real assets, not insurance, will be sold.

It’s why we track Risk Management as a market demographic, and you should too.  You can’t prevent risk. But you can see it change.

Stein’s Law

Why are stocks rising if earnings and revenues are falling?

FactSet’s latest Earnings Insight with 70% of the S&P 500 reporting says earnings are down 2.2% versus the third quarter last year, revenues off 2.9%.  Yardeni Reseach Inc. shows a massive stock-disconnect with global growth. Yet since the swale in August marked a correction (10% decline), stocks have recouped that and more.

We’re not market prognosticators. But the core differentiation in our worldview from an analytical standpoint is that we see the stock market the way Google views you:  possessing discrete and measurable demographics. When you search for something online you see what you sought served up via ads at Google, Facebook, Twitter, etc. Advertising algorithms can track your movement and respond to it. They don’t consider you just another human doing exactly the same things as everybody else.

If your stock rises because your peer reports good results, your conclusion shouldn’t stop at “we’re up thanks to them,” but should continue on to “what behavior reacted to their results and what does it say about expectations for us?” Assuming that investors are responsible for the move requires supposing all market behavior is equal, which it is not.

I saw a Market Expectation yesterday for one of our clients reporting today before the open predicting a higher price but not on investor-enthusiasm. Fast traders were 45% of their volume, active and passive investors a combined 40%. So bull bets by speculators trumped weak expectations from investors.  Bets thus will drive outcomes today.

Which leads back to the market. We separate monetary behaviors into distinct groups with different measurable motivation. By correlating behavioral changes we can see what sets prices. For instance, high correlation between what we call Risk Management – the use of derivatives including options and futures – and Active Investment is a hallmark of hedge-fund behavior. The combination dominated October markets. And before the rebound swung into high gear, we saw colossal Risk Management – rights to stocks.

What led markets higher in October are the very things that led it lower Aug-Sep. The top three sectors in October: Basic Materials, Technology, Energy.  Look at three representative ETFs for these groups and graph them over six months: XLB, XLK, XLE.

We might define arbitrage as a buy low, sell high strategy involving two or more securities. The data imply arbitrage involving derivatives and equities. Sell the derivatives, buy the stocks, buy the derivatives, exercise the derivatives.

That chain of events will magnify recovery because it forces counterparties like Deutsche Bank (cutting 35,000 jobs, exiting ten countries), Credit Suisse (raising capital), Morgan Stanley (weak trading results), Goldman Sachs (underperformance in trading) and JP Morgan (underperformance in trading) among others to cover derivatives.

And since the market is interconnected today through indexes and ETFs, an isolated rising tide lifts all boats.  A stock that’s in technology ETFs may also be in broad-market baskets including Russell, midcap, growth, S&P 500, MSCI and other indices.  As these stocks, rise, broad measures do.

At October 22, the ModernIR 10-point Behavioral Index (we call it MIRBI) was topped, signaling impending retreat. That day, the European Central Bank de facto devalued the Euro. The next day, the Chinese Central Bank did the same.  The Federal Reserve followed suit October 28 by holding rates steady. Stocks suddenly accelerated and haven’t slowed. The MIRBI never fell to neutral and is now nearing a back-to-back top.

You’ll recall that Herb Stein, father of famous Ben, coined Stein’s Law: “If something cannot last forever, it will stop.” The rally in stocks has been led by things that cannot last. In fact, the conditions fueling equity gains – everywhere, not just in the US – are comprised of what tends to have a short shelf life (options expire the week after next). Bear markets historically are typified by a steep retreat, followed by a sharp recovery, followed by a long decline.

Whatever the state of the market, what’s occurring won’t last because we can see that arbitrage disconnected from fundamental facts drove it. Understanding what behavior sets prices is the most important aspect of market structure. And it’s the beginning point for great IR.

Your Voice

I debated high-frequency trader Remco Lenterman on market structure for two hours.

Legendary financial writer Kate Welling (longtime Barron’s managing editor) moderated.  Your executives should be reading Kate so propose to your CFO or CEO that you get a subscription to wellingonwallstreet.com. The blow-by-blow with Remco is called Mano-a-Mano but the reason to read is Kate’s timely financial reporting.

Speaking of market structure, yesterday the SEC’s Equity Market Structure Advisory Committee (EMSAC…makes one think of a giant room-sized flashing and whirring machine) met on matters like high-frequency trading and exchange-traded funds.

Public companies have a friend or two there (IEX’s Brad Katsuyama, folks from Invesco and T Rowe Price) but no emissaries. Suppose we were starting a country to be of, for, and by the people but the cadre creating it weren’t letting the people vote?

It makes one think the party convening the committee (the SEC) can’t handle the truth.  After all, it was the person heading that body, Mary Jo White, who proclaimed in May that the equity market exists for investors and issuers and their interests must be paramount.  It’s a funny way to show it.

And now the NYSE and the Nasdaq, left off too, are protesting. BATS is on while listing only ETFs. The Nasdaq generates most of its revenue from data and technology services, not listings.  Intercontinental Exchange, parent of the NYSE, yesterday bought Interactive Data Corp, a giant data vendor, for $5.6 billion.

How long have we been saying the exchanges are in the data and technology businesses? They’re shareholder-owned entities that understand market structure and how to make money under its rules. That’s not bad but it means they’re not your advocates (yet you get the majority of your IR tools through them, which should give you pause).

On CNBC yesterday morning the Squawk Box crew was talking about one of our clients whose revenues near $2 billion were a million dollars – to the third decimal point in effect – shy of estimates. Droves of sellsiders have shifted to the IR chair, suggesting diminishing impact from equity research and yet that stock moved 8% intraday between high and low prices.

What long-term investor cares if a company’s revenues are $2.983 billion or $2.984 billion (numbers massaged for anonymity)? So how can it be rational?

I hear it now:  “It’s not the number but the trend.”  “It’s the color.”  “Revenues weren’t the issue but the guidance was.”

You’re making the point for me. IR professionals have vast and detailed knowledge of our fundamentals as public companies, as we should.  We know each nuance in the numbers, as we should.  We understand the particulate minutia of variances in flux analysis. As we should.

But we don’t get the mechanics of how shares are bought and sold, or by whom. We don’t know how many can be consumed without moving price.  We trust somehow the stock market works and it’s somebody else’s responsibility to ensure that it does.

Ask yourselves:  Would we trust our sales and revenues to a black box? Then why do we trust our balance sheets – underpinned by equity – to one?

Read my debate with Remco Lenterman about what constitutes liquidity and what sets price today (throw in with the c-suite on a subscription to wellingonwallstreet.com).

We picked two of scores of reporting clients this week and checked tick data at the open. Prices for both were set by one traded share.  Suppose you’re the CEO with a stake worth $300 million. We’ve got one of those reporting tomorrow.  What if the first trade is for one share, valued at say $80, and it shaves 8% off market-cap? That’s $24 million lost in that moment, on paper, for your CEO on a trade for $80.

Now you can say, “You’re caught up in the microsecond, Quast. You need to think long-term.”

Or you could wonder, “Why is that possible?  And is it good for long-term money?”

It’s easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for rational investors to price a stock at the open in today’s market structure.  But we have the power to change that condition by demanding to be part of the conversation. It starts with caring about market structure – because you don’t want the CEO coming back to you later asking, “Why didn’t you tell me?”

Somebody from among us must be on that SEC committee, whirring lights and all.

Turnover

Earnings season.

Late nights for IR professionals crafting corporate messages for press releases and call scripts. Early mornings on CNBC’s Squawk Box, the company CEO explaining what the beat or miss means.

One thing still goes lacking in the equation forming market expectations for 21st century stocks: How money behaves. Yesterday for instance the health care sector was down nearly 2%. Some members were off 10%. It must be poor earnings, right?

FactSet in its most recent Earnings Insight with 10% of the S&P out (that’ll jump this week) says 100% of the health care sector is above estimates. That makes no sense, you say. Buy the rumor, sell the news?

There are a lot of market aphorisms that don’t match facts.  One of our longtime clients, a tech member of the S&P 500, pre-announced Oct 15 and shares are down 20%.  “The moral of the story,” lamented the IR officer, an expert on market structure (who still doesn’t always win the timing argument), “is you don’t report during options-expirations.”

She’s right, and she knew what would happen. The old rule is you do the same thing every time so investors see consistency. The new rule is know your audience. According to the Investment Company Institute (ICI), weighted turnover in institutional investments – frequency of selling – is about 42%.  Less than half of held assets move during the year.

That matches the objectives of investor-targeting, which is to attract money that buys and holds. It does.  In mutual funds, which still have the most money, turnover is near 29% according to the ICI.

So if you’re focused on long-term investors, why do you report results during options-expirations when everybody leveraging derivatives is resetting positions?  That’s like commencing a vital political speech as a freight train roars by.  Everybody would look around and wonder what the heck you said.

I found a 2011 Vanguard document that in the fine print on page one says turnover in its mutual funds averages 35% versus 1,800% in its ETFs.

Do you understand? ETFs churn assets 34 more times than your long-term holders. Since 1997 when there were just $7 billion of assets in ETFs, these instruments have grown 41% annually for 18 straight years!  Mutual funds?  Just 5% and in fact for ten straight years money has moved out of active funds to passive ones.  All the growth in mutual funds is in indexes – which don’t follow fundamentals.

Here’s another tidbit: 43% of all US investment assets are now controlled by five firms says the ICI. That’s up 34% since 2000.  The top 25 investment firms control 74% of assets. Uniformity reigns.

Back to healthcare. That sector has been the colossus for years. Our best-performing clients by the metrics we use were in health care. In late August the sector came apart.  Imagine years of accumulation in ETFs and indexes, active investments, and quantitative schemes. Now what will they do?

Run a graph comparing growth in derivatives trading – options, futures and options on futures in multiple asset classes – and overlay US equity trading. The graphs are inversed, with derivatives up 50% since 2009, equity trading down nearly 40%. Translation: What’s growing is derivatives, in step with ETFs. Are you seeing a pattern?

I traded notes with a variety of IR officers yesterday and more than one said the S&P 500 neared a technical inflection point.  They’re reporting what they hear. But who’s following technicals? Not active investors. We should question things more.

Indexes have a statutory responsibility to do what their prospectuses say. They’re not paid to take risk but to manage capital in comportment with a model. They’re not following technicals. ETFs? Unless they’re synthetic, leveraging derivatives, they track indexes, not technicals.

That means the principal followers of technical signals are intermediaries – the money arbitraging price-spreads between indexes, ETFs, individual stocks and sectors. And any asymmetry fostered by news.

Monday Oct 19 the new series of options and futures began trading marketwide. Today VIX measures offering volatility as an asset class expire.  Healthcare between the two collapsed. It’s not fundamental but tied to derivatives. A right to buy at a future price is only valuable if prices rise. Healthcare collapsed at Aug expirations. It folded at Sept expirations. It’s down again with Oct expirations. These investments depended on derivatives rendered worthless.

The point isn’t that so much money is temporary. Plenty buys your fundamentals. But it’s not trading you.  So stop giving traders an advantage by reporting results during options-expirations. You could as well write them a check!

When you play to derivatives timetables, you hurt your holders.  Don’t expect your execs to ask you. They don’t know.  It’s up to you, investor-relations professionals, to help management get it.

Patterns

Happy Tax Day!  Don’t you wish you could be somewhere else?

Sit at Saba Rock looking north where beyond the earth’s curvature lies Anegada and you know why Richard Branson embraced the British Virgin Islands.

We did too, abandoning electronics including in my case a shaver. From the Soggy Dollar on Jost Van Dyke (named for a Dutch privateer) to Sandy Spit and Sandy Cay and into the azure chop around The Indians off Norman, we let time run a delightful course.

Norman Island is among the reputed inspirations for Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Treasure Island” (which gripped my young imagination), ostensibly eponymous for the pirate Captain Norman, a Briton caught and hung by Puerto Ricans.

Today Norman Island is owned by billionaire Henry Jarecki who in his youth fled anti-Semitic Nazi Germany and later pioneered commodity-futures investing in the USA. His son Andrew recently made film headlines with HBO’s The Jinx on accused killer Robert Durst, the black sheep of the New York real-estate family managing Freedom Tower.

Dr. Jarecki, for years a practicing psychiatrist (still a Yale medical school faculty member) before switching to quantitative futures-trading at his firm Gresham Investment Management LLC, told Wall Street Journal reporter Cynthia Cui in a 2010 interview that both trading and psychiatry are about recognizing patterns. So armed, Jarecki said, you can “transform a modest effort into a grand result.”

How you announce your earnings-date is a recognizable pattern for traders.  One of our clients wrote while I was out, “I know you’re still floating among the virgins but when you reconnect thought you might like to see this exchange I had recently with the quant shop (name removed for privacy but we know and track them)…”

Our client had gotten inquiry from these traders asking when the company would report results. Our client said you’re quants so why do you ask? An analyst there with a Ph.D. thoughtfully responded:

“We are indeed a quantitative firm, focusing in options market making…. Options are typically priced based on the current stock price, a volatility component which characterizes the typical stock price movements possible, and a time component which characterizes how much time the volatility component has to act on the stock. The wrinkle in the problem of option pricing is that volatility doesn’t act uniformly in time; after earnings the stock prices tends to move more than on a typical day. Therefore it is important that we have the correct earnings date in our trading system as soon as it’s publicly available…”

This trading group is profiting in options-volatility, which depends on eliminating price uncertainties including questions about the timing of your earnings. What your company does, your financial results, are irrelevant to the grand opportunity. What matters is the volatility pattern.

This is why we track patterns everywhere in your trading.  We know a great deal about the patterns and we’ve been telling you for ten years now that if you move differently from your peers it’s not about your results but standard deviation, arbitrage, spreads. (more…)

Leakage

How often do traders know news before you release it?

I was in the car listening to a business program on satellite radio, and they were talking about crazy moves in shares ahead of news.  The host, a trader and money manager, said, “Even with Reg FD and all the disclosure rules, I swear 85% of the time there’s leakage.”

In this age of mandatory dissertation in television ads of pharmaceutical side-effects, one approaches the term “leakage” with caution.  But in market-structure, the behavior of money behind price and volume today, leakage is a functional fact.  Routinely a day before important news, high-frequency trading jumps, signaling impending change and oftentimes distorting price ahead of material information.

Recently a client had a secondary offering for a big holder. Two weeks before it, the broker who would later underwrite the offering led in what we call influential order flow. Two other brokers had matching increases. Yet the company hadn’t yet determined a manager.

Both examples imply leakage. Maybe the fast traders picked up a nugget of information?  Word worked around to broker trading desks?  Both are possible. But we doubt shenanigans played a role. The tipster in both these instances and in much of what appears predictive in stock-moves is the same: Math.

High-frequency traders, the ones signaling money-moves – the reason ignoring fast trading the way so many do is like yanking the fuel gauge from your car and hucking it in the trash – aren’t people.  It’s not somebody on phone calls or in meetings. No channel-checks have been made or hedge funds plied for leads. They’re machines programmed to respond to data.

Therefore, Watson, the elementary conclusion is that the math changes before news. Now could somebody in the know be the trigger?  Sure. Machines seek central tendencies and departures from standard deviation (as do our algorithms) and a trader unaware could unwittingly tip them to a directional shift with orders that don’t look like the others.

The machines spit feeler orders like tiny drones. For example, a utility with market cap around $2 billion trades 225,000 shares daily.  Over a third of the roughly 2,000 trades yesterday were for less than 100 shares. Ten percent were 10 shares or fewer.  Once we saw six hundred-share trades move CSCO $6 in one second. High-speed trading algorithms feather the markets with the smallest possible commitments seeking directional tips.

Suppose a computer metered human traffic at New York’s Penn Station.  The computer would know that before the 2:07 to Bay Head on a westbound track, people are going to fill the station.  Now imagine the computer can determine how many cars should comprise the train, using algorithms that measure human traffic the half-hour leading into 2:07 pm.  If today the standard deviation in the pattern is up and foot traffic down, the computer will peg demand as exceptionally light and order up a very short train for the long trip down the north shore.  What if people were just late arriving? (more…)

Who Is Selling

“Who’s selling?”

It was 2001. I’d look up and there’d be the CEO leaning in the door of my office. This was back when my buns rode the gilded surface of the IR chair. I’d look at my computer screen and our shares would be down a percent or so.

“Somebody, apparently,” I’d say. “Let me make a few calls.”

Today we have Facebook, Twitter, Pandora, iPhones, and Tesla. None of these existed in 2001. The Intercontinental Exchange, formed a year earlier to trade derivatives, now owns the NYSE. What’s remarkable to me is that against this technological wave many issuers, not counting the growing horde with Market Structure Analytics, are still making calls to get answers.

Why wouldn’t everybody be modeling market behavior and measuring periodic change? But that’s another story.

So. What if nobody’s selling and your price is down?

Impossible, you say. For price to decline, somebody has to sell.

Let me tell you about two clients releasing earnings last week.

But first, say I’m a high-frequency trader and you’re reporting. I rent (borrow) 500 shares of stock trading at $25 apiece. Say the pre-open futures are negative. At the open, I explode ahead of all others by three microseconds to place a market order to sell 500 shares. My order plunges the market 8%. I immediately cover. And for the next six hours I and my HFT compatriots trade those 500 shares amongst ourselves 23,000 times. That’s volume of 11.5 million shares.

The huge move in price prompts swaps counterparties holding insurance policies for Blackrock and Vanguard into the market, spawning big block volumes of another 6 million shares. Now you’ve traded 17.5 million shares and your price, after dropping 8%, recovers back 3% to close down 5% on the day.

So who’s selling? Technically I, an HFT firm, sold 500 shares short at the open. I probably paid a $200 finance fee for them in my margin account.

You’re the IRO. You call your exchange for answers. They see the block data, the big volumes, and conclude, yup, you had some big-time selling. Conventional wisdom says price moves, massive volume, block trades – that’s institutional.

You’re getting calls from your holders saying, “What’s going on? I didn’t think the numbers looked bad.”

Your CEO is drumming fingers on your door and grousing, “Who the HELL is selling?!”

Your Surveillance firm says UBS and Wedbush were moving big volumes. They’re trying to see if there are any clearing-relationship ties to potential institutional sellers.

The truth is neither active nor passive investors had much to do with pressure or volume, save that counterparties for passive holders had to cover exposure, helping price off lows.

Those clients I mentioned? One saw shares drop 9% day-over-day. In the data, HFT was up 170% day-over-day as price-setter, and indexes/ETFs rose 5.3%. Nothing else was up. Active investment was down. Thus, mild passive growth-selling and huge HFT hammered price. Those shares are already back in line with fair value because the selling was no more real than my 500-share example above (but the damage is done and the data are now in the historical set, affecting future algorithmic trades).

In the other case, investors were strong buyers days before results. On earnings, active investment dropped 15%, passive investment, 8%, and HFT soared 191%. These shares also coincidentally dropped 9% (programmers of algorithms know limit up/down triggers could kill their trading strategies if the move is 10% at once).

They’re still down. Active money hasn’t come back. But it’s not selling. And now we’re seeing headlines in the news string from law firms “investigating” the company for potentially misleading investors. Investors didn’t react except to stop buying.

This is the difference between calling somebody and using data models. Don’t fall in love with models (this is not a critique of Tom Brady, mind you). But the prudent IRO today uses Market Structure Analytics.

En Route to Knowing

I got a kick out of that movie, Night at the Museum.

Yes, it’s old, and no, we haven’t seen any of the movies that contended alongside Argo for Best Picture this year. But there were several times yesterday as clients reported results in a restive currency-addled market when I thought how things aren’t what they seem. If you could get below the surface, you’d find a tiny little tough cowboy who looked like actor Owen Wilson.

Just kidding. All analogies break down. But often in the market, what you think you’re seeing isn’t what it seems. One client’s share price shot up in the early going with results, jumping nearly 8%. Then it declined 4%. Imagine if gas prices did that every day. But I digress. The price finished right in line with the Rational level – fair market value from a fundamental perspective.

Why the gyrations? Speculators had bet on weak results (something that can be observed), and results weren’t. Traders covered, driving price up. Passive investors like indexes were Hedged. They’d farmed out risk, but surrendered upside. As price suddenly rose, counterparties with rights to gains above certain levels locked them. They’re not investors. When they sold to keep their collar profits, price reverted to the Rational level.

Market price may or may not reflect an investment purpose. Let’s use an example many can appreciate: An analyst ups her price target and rating on your shares, and price climbs 4%. We assume that investors responded. We explain to management, “Investors liked the Outperform rating and higher price target, and bought.”

But was it investment behavior? What if those gains evaporate three days later when the dollar rises100 basis points because Europeans think Italy will need more help from Germany and rush to buy dollars? That’s risk-management behavior, right? (more…)