Tagged: ETFs

BEST OF: Green and Purple

EDITORIAL NOTE:  We are on a big catamaran with Painkillers in hand watching the sun dissolve into an aqua Grenadine sea. So while we all float on, here’s Part Two of our return to the past to learn today’s lessons. The piece below originally ran Mar 7, 2018. If we’re going to understand today’s market, we must wrap our minds around the vastness of the ETF Effect:  

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.

Best Of: The Housing ETF

Editorial note:  We looked at market Sentiment topping into this week’s options expirations cycle and said to ourselves, “Selves, we should be cheeseburgers in paradise instead of hanging around here waiting for the market to fall!”  So we are somewhere on Barbados, not searching for Rihanna but chasing tranquility. You all are in charge. We’ll catch you up May 30!  But this below to me is the most important thing to know at the moment in the stock market:  How ETFs work. 

 

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.

Substitutes

Substitutes were responsible for yesterday’s market selloff.

Remember back in school when you had substitute teachers? They were standing in for the real deal, no offense to substitutes.  But did you maybe take them a little less seriously than the home room teacher?

The market is saturated with substitutes. The difference between stocks and the home room back in grammar school is nobody knows the difference.

If shares are borrowed they look the same to the market as shares that are not borrowed.  If you use a credit card, the money is the same to the merchant from whom you just bought dinner or a summer outfit. But it’s a substitute for cash you may or may not have (a key statistic on consumption trends).

Apply to borrowed stock. The average Russell 1000 stock trades $235 million of stock daily, and in the past 50 trading days 46%, or $108 million, came from borrowed shares. The Russell 1000 represents over 90% of market capitalization and volume. Almost half of it is a substitute.

Why does it matter?  Suppose half the fans in the stands at an athletic event were proxies, cardboard cutouts that bought an option to attend a game but were there only in the form of a Fathead, a simulacrum.

The stadium would appear to be full but think of the distortions in player salaries, costs of advertisement, ticket prices.  If all the stand-ins vanished and we saw the bleachers were half-empty, what effect would it have on market behavior?

Shorting is the biggest substitute in the stock market but hardly the only one.  Options – rights to buy shares – are substitutes. When you buy call options you pay a fee for the right to become future demand for shares of stock.  Your demand becomes part of the audience, part of the way the market is priced.

But your demand is a Fathead, a representation that may not take on greater dimension. Picture this:  Suppose you were able to buy a chit – a coupon – that would increase in value if kitchen remodels were on the rise.

Your Kitchen Chit would appreciate if people were buying stoves, fridges, countertops, custom cabinets.  Now imagine that so many people wanted to invest in the growth of kitchen remodels that Kitchen Chits were created in exchange for other things, such as cash or stocks.

What’s the problem here?  People believe Kitchen Chits reflect growth in kitchen remodels. If they’re backed instead by something else, there’s distortion.  And buying and selling Kitchen Chits becomes an end unto itself as investors lose sight of what’s real and focus on the substitute.

It happens with stocks. Every month options expire that reflect substitutes. This kitchen-chit business is so big that by our measures it was over 19% of market volume in the Russell 1000 the past five days during April options-expirations.

It distorts the market.  Take CAT.  Caterpillar had big earnings. The stock was way up pre-market, the whole market too, trading up on futures – SUBSTITUTES – 150 points as measured by the Dow Jones Industrial Average.

But yesterday was Counterparty Tuesday, the day each month when those underwriting substitutes like options, futures, swaps, balance their books.  Suppose they had CAT shares to back new options on CAT, and they bid up rights in the premarket in anticipation of strong demand.

The market opened and nobody showed up at the cash register. All the parties expecting to square books in CAT by selling future rights to shares at a profit instead cut prices on substitutes and then dumped what real product they had.  CAT plunged.

Extrapolate across stocks. It’s the problem with a market stuffed full of substitutes. Yesterday the substitutes didn’t show up to teach the class. The market discovered on a single day that when substitutes are backed out, there’s not nearly so much real demand as substitutes imply.

Substitution distorts realistic expectations about risk and reward. It’s too late to change the calculus. The next best thing is measuring substitutes so as not to confuse the fans of stocks with the Fatheads.

Big Movers

You can’t expect the stock market to reflect earnings. I’ll explain.

By week’s end, 20% of the S&P 500 will have reported, and earnings are up 17% over the same period last year so far (normalized to about 7% sans federal corporate tax reform legislation).

Yardeni Research, Inc. reports that price-to-earnings ratios in various categories of the market are not misaligned with history.  The S&P 500 trades just over 16 times forward expected earnings, about where it did in 2015, and in 2007 before the financial crisis, and well below levels before Sep 11, 2001.

Sure, by some measures valuations are extreme. Viewed via normative metrics, however, the market is as it’s been. From 1982-2000, PE ratios were generally rising.  From there to 2012, they were generally falling. Yet between we had multiple major market corrections.

Which returns us to my incendiary opening assertion that earnings today don’t drive stocks. What does? The money setting prices. Let me explain.

Buy-and-hold money tends to buy, and hold. Most conventional “long” equity funds must be fully invested, which means to buy something they must sell something else.  Buying and selling introduces tax, trading-commission, and volatility costs, which can cause stock-picking investors to underperform broad indexes.

The Investment Company Institute reported that 2016 turnover rates among equity funds averaged 34%, or about a third of positions annually. Passive index and exchange-traded funds tout low turnover. State Street, sponsor for the world’s largest ETF, SPY, claimed 2017 turnover was 3%.

We’ll come to the fallacy of low turnover in ETFs.

First, Big Reason #1 for the movement of stocks is arbitrage. Follow the money. Using our proprietary statistical measures of behavior in stock trades, nearly 46% of market volume (20-day ave.) in the Russell 1000 (which is over 90% of market cap) came from high-speed traders.

They are not investors. These machines trade tick data in baskets, aiming most times to own nothing at day’s end. The objective is to profit on intraday price-moves.  For instance, 52% of Facebook’s daily trading volume is high-speed machines. Less then 9% is Active investment by stock-pickers.

Viewed another way, there’s a 46% chance that the price of stocks reflects machines trading the tick. Since less than 12% of Russell 1000 volume was fundamental, there is but a one-in-eight chance that earnings set prices. High-speed trading is arbitrage – profiting on price-differences.

Don’t fundamentals price the market long-term? Again, that would be true if the majority of the money setting prices in the market was motivated by fundamentals. That hasn’t been true this century.

How about fund flows?  Assembling data from EPFR, Lipper and others and accounting for big outflows in February, about $40 billion has come into US stocks this year.

Using Investment Company Institute data and estimates for Mar and Apr this year, ETFs have by comparison created and redeemed some $1.5 TRILLION of shares. Fund flows are less than 3% of that figure.

These “in-kind” exchanges between ETF creators and big brokers that form the machinery of the ETF market are excluded from portfolio turnover. If they were counted, turnover rates in ETFs would dwarf those for conventional funds. And the objective behind creations and redemptions is not investment.

ETF creators make money by charging brokers fees for these transactions (which are tax-free to them) and investing the collateral. Brokers then trade ETFs and components and indexes to profit on the creations (new ETF shares sold to investors) and redemptions (returning ETF shares to ETF creators in exchange for collateral to sell and short).

Neither of these parties is trying to produce an investment return per se. They are profiting on how prices change – which is arbitrage (and if ETF creations are greater than redemptions, they permit more money to chase the same goods, lifting markets).

Summarizing: The biggest sources of movement of money and prices are machines trading the tick, and ETF creators and brokers shuttling tax-free collateral and shares back and forth by the hundreds of billions. If pundits describe the market in fundamental terms, they are not doing the math or following the money.

And when the market surges or plunges, it’s statistically probable that imbalances in these two behaviors are responsible.

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.

Three Ways

Jakob Dylan (he of Pulitzer lineage) claimed on the Red Letter Days album by the Wallflowers that there are three ways out of every box.  Warning: Listen to the song at your own risk. It will get in your head and stay there.

Something else that should get in the heads of every investor, every executive and investor-relations professional for public companies, is that there are three ways to make money in the stock market (which implies three ways to lose it too).

Most of us default to the idea that the way you make money is buying stuff that’s worth more later. Thus, when companies report results that miss by a penny and the stock plunges, everybody concludes investors are selling because expectations for profits were misplaced so the stock is worth less.

Really? Does long-term money care if you’re off a penny? Most of the time when that happens, it’s one of the other two ways to make money at work.

Take Facebook (FB) the past two days.

“It’s this Cambridge Analytica thing. People are reconsidering what it means to share information via social media.”

Maybe it is.  But that conclusion supposes investors want a Tyrion Lannister from Game of Thrones, a mutilated nose that spites the face. Why would investors who’ve risked capital since New Year’s for a 4% return mangle it in two days with a 9% loss?

You can buy stocks that rise in value.  You can short stocks that decline in value. And you can trade the spreads between things. Three ways to make money.

The biggest? We suppose buying things that rise dominates and the other two are sideshows.  But currently, 45% of all market trading volume of about $300 billion daily is borrowed. Short.  In January 2016, shorting hit 52% of trading volume, so selling things that decline in value became bigger than buying things that rise.  That’s mostly Fast Trading betting on price-change over fractions of seconds but the principle applies.

Facebook Monday as the stock plunged was 52% short. Nearly $3 billion of trading volume was making money, not losing it.  FB was 49% short on Friday the 16th before the news, and Overbought and overweight in Passive funds ahead of the Tech selloff.

The headline was a tripwire but the cause wasn’t investors that had bought appreciation.

But wait, there’s a third item. Patterns in FB showed dominating ETF market-making the past four days around quad-witching and quarterly index-rebalances. I say “market-making” loosely because it’s a euphemism for arbitrage – the third way to make money.

Buying the gaps between things is investing in volatility. Trading gaps is arbitrage, or profiting on price-differences (which is volatility).  ETFs foster arbitrage because they are a substitute for something that’s the same: a set of underlying securities.

Profiting on price-differences in the same thing is the most reliable arbitrage scheme. ETF trading is now 50% of market volume, some from big brokers, some from Fast Traders, nearly all of it arbitrage.

FB was hit by ETF redemptions.  Unlike any other investment vehicle, ETFs use an “in-kind exchange” model. Blackrock doesn’t manage your money in ETFs. It manages collateral from the broker who sold you ETF shares.

To create shares for an S&P 500 ETF like IVV, brokers gather a statistical sampling of S&P stocks worth the cost of a creation basket of 50,000 shares, which is about $12 million. That basket need be only a smattering of the S&P 500 or things substantially similar. It could be all FB shares if Blackrock permits it.

FB is widely held so its 4% rise means the collateral brokers provided is worth more than IVV shares exchanged in-kind. Blackrock could in theory make the “redemption basket” of assets that it will trade back for returned IVV shares all FB in order to eliminate the capital gains associated with FB.

So brokers short FB, buy puts on FB, buy a redemption basket of $12 million of IVV, and return it to Blackrock, receive FB shares, and sell them. And FB goes down 9%.  The key is the motivation. It’s not investment but arbitrage profit opportunity. Who benefited? Blackrock by reducing taxes, and brokers profiting on the trade. Who was harmed? Core FB holders.

This is 50% of market volume. And it’s the pattern in FB (which is not a client but we track the Russell 1000 and are building sector reports).

The next time your stock moves, think of Jakob Dylan and ask yourself which of the three ways out of the equity box might be hitting you today. It’s probably not investors (and if you want to talk about it, we’ll be at NIRI Boston Thursday).

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.

Collateral Recovery

Who remembers EF Hutton?

When EF Hutton talks, people listen.  That slogan crafted by Hutton’s William Clayton, who died in 2013, and now-defunct advertising agency Benton & Bowles, wasn’t about a man but a firm. Ads ran in the 70s and 80s where characters would shout “EF Hutton!” over a din, and all clamor would stop as people leaned in to hear.

Edward Francis Hutton died in 1962. But his firm touched history via its brand, its merger with Shearson Lehman, and its subsequent mutations through Smith Barney, Citigroup and Morgan Stanley. The name lives today, in fact, through HUTN Inc., which owns the EF Hutton moniker.

In a sense the Hutton Effect today in capital markets is Amazon. Every time Amazon speaks, the market holds its breath.  From athletic apparel, to groceries, to pharmaceuticals and healthcare, the market has stopped midsentence, transfixed. Investors realize Amazon is so leviathan (searching for a synonym for “Amazon”) that it can sway the fortunes of industries.

Another mammoth in our midst seems to go unnoticed, a sort of antonym to EF Hutton and Amazon. Exchange Traded Funds.

NOTE: I’m on a panel tomorrow for the NIRI Virtual Chapter on Passive vs Active Investing and will serve as warmup or foil Thursday Feb 22 for NIRI CEO Gary LeBranche here in Denver at the Rocky Mountain chapter, on ETFs.  We’ll talk about ETFs.

ETFs have been loud about attracting $4.8 trillion of global assets and 50% of US trading volume, but dead quiet about what they really do. Were sellers of groceries thrown in a pit with a hulking sword-swinging Amazon, the cries would be shrill. A market tossed together with this beast called ETFs offers not a whimper, let alone a silence-deafening EF Hutton listen.

Why?

I’ve come to an answer.  We know how Amazon works.  Whatever you think of the Bezosian Beast, we understand its manners.  It’s among us without guile.

But I don’t think investors and public companies get what ETFs do. They are a permeating market presence of epochal significance and yet an idea persists that their influence is invisible. It’s not true with Amazon, or ETFs.

Suppose ETFs through the use of collateral drove these recent gyrations?  There’s a swamp around the way they work. Read the prospectus – not the summary but the full document – for SPY. Tell me what you learn.  Half of it is about taxes.

But I know this: ETFs don’t invest your money. They manage collateral. Big investors gather up shares in large blocks from who knows where, because there’s no transparency, and exchange them for ETF shares.

They then sell those ETF shares at a profit. Don’t believe me? Read an ETF prospectus.  What’s this got to do with market volatility?  Suppose big investors had pledged stocks belonging to others as collateral to gain access to ETF shares expected to rise in value – and then the collateral dropped sharply in value.

They’d have to sell assets to raise money to buy ETF shares to trade back for collateral that might well belong to somebody else (never pledge the mob’s donkey on your personal horse race).

Boy would that process produce volatility if it were Amazonian in scope. And volatility was leviathan. Collateral damage.

Theorizing this way, we warned clients last week (as those of you reading know): If this is sorting out who owns what, we’ll take a hit Tue-Wed Feb 20-21.

Okay, well, that happened yesterday.  A glancing blow but it was there. If collateral is sorted out, markets zoom anew now. If not, you’ll see trouble again today.

Lesson? We can see what Amazon is doing. ETFs are another story.  We don’t know what they use for collateral. That alone should make us more watchful. ETFs don’t behave like EF Hutton stilling the noisy room.

So stay tuned. If this is a collateral recovery, confidence may be shaken. And we all need to understand the Amazon of the capital markets, ETFs.

Vapor Risk

One definition of “volatile” is “passing off readily in the form of vapor.”

Through yesterday, XIV, the exchange-traded security representing a one-day swap from Credit Suisse and offered by VelocityShares, had seen 94% of its value vaporized. It triggered a technical provision in the fund’s prospectus that says Credit Suisse may redeem the backing notes if the fund loses more than 80% of its value. It’s shutting down.

By mixing exposure to futures and other derivatives of varying lengths tied to the S&P 500, XIV aims to let investors capture not the appreciation of stocks or their decline if one shorted them, but instead the difference between current and future prices. Volatility.

The fund says in sternly worded and repeating fashion things like: The ETNs are riskier than securities that have intermediate or long-term investment objectives, and may not be suitable for investors who plan to hold them for longer than one day.

The idea for investors is hitting the trifecta – long rising stocks, short falling stocks, and with things like XIV, capturing the difference between prices to boot.

The problem for “synthetic” exchange-traded notes (ETNs) like XIV backed by a Credit Suisse promissory note is they hold no assets save commitment to replicate an outcome. They are for all intents and purposes vapor.

They have proved wildly popular, with several volatility ETNs routinely in the top 25 most actively traded stocks. In a low-volatility environment, differences in prices between short-term and long-term options and futures can mean returns of 5-10% on a given day, without particular risk to either party.

But if volatility renders futures and options worthless because prices have changed too much, all the investor’s capital vanishes.

Is this what rocked stocks globally? No. There is, however, a lesson about how global financial markets work that can be drawn from the demise of XIV.  Everyone transfers risk. Investing in volatility is in a sense a hedge against being wrong in long and short positions. If you are, you still make money on the spread.

The biggest risk-transfer effort relates to currencies and interest rates. As with stocks, the transference of unexpected fluctuations through swaps – which the Bank for International Settlements says have $540 trillion of notional value (but precious little actual value, rather like XIV) – only works if the disturbances are small.

In the past month, the US Treasury was laying in dry powder before the debt ceiling. The size of auctions exploded by about 50%. Getting people to buy 50% more of the same thing caused interest rates to shoot up. The rise in debt devalued the dollar, a double whammy. Hedges fell apart.

Counterparties for these hedging swaps also transfer the risk, often with short-term Exchange-Traded-Fund (ETF) or ETN hedges that lapse on Fridays. They are the same banks like Credit Suisse making markets in stocks. This is what caused stocks to swoon, not a strong jobs number or higher wages. On Friday, Feb 2, stocks imploded. I suspect counterparties were selling assets to cover losses.

Now we come to a warning about ETFs. Their original creators, who were in the derivatives business, likened ETF shares to commodity warehouse receipts, a representation of something physically residing elsewhere.

In this long bull market, money has poured into ETFs. The supply of things in the warehouse has not kept pace with the exposure to it via ETFs.  We have written over and over about this problem. The way ETFs trade and the way underlying assets increase or decrease are two different processes.  Investors buy and sell the warehouse receipts. The fund and its Authorized Participants in large block transactions occasionally adjust underlying warehouse assets.

We can see by tracking the amount of money flowing to big ETFs from Blackrock, Vanguard and State Street and counter-checking those flows against reported fund turnover that insufficient warehouse commodities (stocks) back ETF shares.

Why? Because buying and selling things incurs transaction costs and tax consequences, which diminishes fund performance. Shaving those is a gutsy strategy – sort of like dumping fuel in a car race to give yourself an advantage in the last flaps by running light and on fumes.

But you can run out of fuel. If the value of the stuff in the warehouse plunges as everybody tries to sell, we’ll find out what part of those warehouse receipts are backed by vapor.

So far that has not happened. But we don’t know what damage has been done to market makers short ETF shares and long stocks or vice versa. The next week will be telling. If a major counterparty was irreparably harmed, we could be in a world of vapor.

If not, the hurt will fade and we’ll revert to normal. Right now, forecasts for stocks in our models say vapor risk is small. But let’s see what happens come Friday, another short-term expiration for derivatives.

The 5.5 Market

The capital markets are riven with acronyms.

One of the first you learn in IR (acronym for investor relations) is “GARP.” Growth at a Reasonable Price.  As 2018 begins, GARP is a great way to describe the stock market, just as it was in 2017. Will it continue?

Let’s set ground rules. What “reasonable” means varies with circumstances but the idea is you’re paying a fair price for appreciation, what investors want and companies hope to deliver.

If arguments were colors, you could hear every hue of the rainbow on whether stocks are overpriced or not. Here at ModernIR, we’re statisticians studying how money behaves. We measure what it’s doing rather than whether it should be doing what it’s doing.

What I’ve learned from observing data is that there is an elegant and uniform explanation for why we have a GARP market. I’ll come to it in a moment.

But to ModernIR GARP is a number: 5.5/10.0 on the ModernIR Behavioral Sentiment Index.  Take the FAANGGs – Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Netflix, the two Alphabets. For 2017, the ModernIR BSI is 5.44 for them. The Russell 1000 is 5.48.  The BSI comprised of our client base with more energy and telecom is 5.39 for 2017.

As 2018 begins, it’s 5.6. All these numbers are within two-tenths of a point. It’s a GARP market.

It means it’s a little better than neutral, which is GARP investment.  For instance, if an economy’s population grew, and the ratio of people employed remained constant, and purchasing power outpaced inflation, you’d have a GARP economy.  Buying and holding it would mean appreciation.

Don’t think too long about that one. You’ll become disturbed by incongruity – but that’s a separate story. We’re after an elegant and uniform explanation to why our market runs according to GARP.

CNBC’s Jim Cramer believes it’s this: “There aren’t enough shares!!!”

It’s a point we’ve made too.  Both the number of companies in the US stock market and the total number of outstanding shares has been in steady decline while the amount of money chasing the shrinking product pool continues to rise.

Is inflation the elegant explanation? More money chasing fewer goods? Discounting fundamentals entirely seems incorrect.

But money chases the goods, and what form is money taking? A passive form. Statistically, 100% of the net inflows to stocks the past decade have gone to index and exchange-traded funds. Over that time, stock pickers have lost trillions.

Therefore, the money chasing the goods is pegging a benchmark, not picking outperformers. And by far the big winner is ETFs. What can ETFs do that no other investment vehicle can? They can substitute shares representing stocks, so they don’t have to buy or sell them like other investors do.

More ETF shares are created to accommodate inflows, and then destroyed during outflows, so ETFs bob on the surface of the market, which otherwise fluctuates with supply and demand.

And since all the new money is using ETFs, the entire market has become the bobber.  ETFs create the capacity for ever more money to have access to the same underlying goods. And that is why the market is up, all other things being equal.

It struck me over the holidays that the structure of ETFs, which depends on arbitrage – profiting on price-differences – would inevitably produce a declining market IF the number of shares or public companies or both were expanding. Arbitrage would consume appreciation, leading to an investor exodus from ETFs.

Thus, the elegant explanation for our GARP market is that ETFs arbitrage stocks back to the mean, which is 5.0, and rising flows of capital and shrinking numbers of public companies combine to breed a 5.5 market. GARP.

Why? Because there are ever more ETF shares to accommodate flows to ETFs. For stocks it means multiple-expansion, since ETFs, unlike IPOs, do not create shares of more value-creating enterprises. They only give more money access to the same stocks.

What stops it? The same thing that haunts the global currency system. If at any point, global currencies stop expanding, the prices of all assets could plummet. Why? Because expanding currency supplies drive up prices and create credit, so people keep borrowing more money to buy things. If that process freezes up, prices will implode. Witness 2008.

For ETFs, the danger is as simple as a market in which inflows stop.  What would cause that?  I don’t know right now!  But for the moment it’s not something to fear. We’re in a GARP world.