Tagged: ETFs

Gaffes and Spoofs

You all remember the Fat Finger?

It’s a gaffe, trading-style.  In one 2014 instance, if the record can be believed, somebody in Japan accidentally tried to buy $700 billion of stocks including more than half the total outstanding shares of Toyota.

The trades occurred outside hours and were cancelled but the embarrassment lingers.

Do you know of Harouna Traoré?  A French day trader learning the ropes, Mr. Traoré plunked down twenty thousand euros at online platform Valbury Capital and, thinking he was in simulation mode, began trading futures contracts.

Racking up a billion euros of exposure and about a million euros of losses before he realized his error, the horrified trader said, according to CNBC, “I could only think of my family.”  But the intrepid gaffer – so to speak – soldiered on, turning one billion and losses into five billion and profits of about twelve million euros.

I don’t know how it turned out but not well, it appears. The Chicago Mercantile Exchange sanctioned Mr. Traoré in June 2020 for exceeding credit thresholds, and banned him from trading for two years.

The Fat Finger has become reliably rare in US markets, thanks to security protocols.  It’s improbable we’ll again see a Knight Securities buy $4 billion of stock in 45 minutes and be forced to liquidate to Getco as happened in 2012 (Getco is now Virtu).

That’s the good news. The bad news is bizarre moves in equities such as we’ve seen in 2020 are therefore not due to gaffes.

But they could be spoofs, legal or otherwise.  JP Morgan yesterday agreed to a $920 million fine related to spoofing in futures contracts for metals and US Treasurys.  I can’t recall a larger trading fine.

Spoofing is the deliberate act of entering orders to trade securities and then cancelling them, creating, at least momentarily, the artificial appearance of supply or demand.  Dodd-Frank outlawed spoofing after tumult in the 2008 crisis, and regulations for commodities and stocks have subsequently articulated guidelines.

Investors and public companies alike don’t want fake liquidity in markets. As gaffes do, it’s what causes unexpected lurches in prices – but on purpose.

We can all sleep well, then?

Nope.

Turns out there is illegal spoofing, and legal spoofing.  The SEC’s Midas data platform shows trade-to-cancel ratios for stocks in various volume and market-cap tranches.  Generally, there are about 15 cancellations for every executed trade in stocks.

In Exchange Traded Funds (ETFs), the ratio explodes. The gaps or so severe between quartiles and deciles that an average is difficult to find. But the rate ranges from about 100 to nearly 2,000 cancellations for every completed trade.

Well, how is that not spoofing?

Answer: If you use order types it’s legal. It means – broad definitions here – that Fill or Kill (do it at once or don’t do it at all), Limit/Stop-Loss, All or None (no partial fills, the whole thing or nothing), Iceberg (just a little showing and more as the order fills) or Passive (sitting outside the best prices) orders are sanctioned by the government.

Tons are cancelled. Layer your trades with a machine instead, and it’s illegal.  Spoofing.

Wait a minute.

Order types through a broker are trades in the pipeline. Systems know they’re there. Risk-management protocols require it.  If the orders are at retail firms that sell their trades, then the high-speed buyer sees every layer before it reaches the market.

See the issue?

The market is stuffed with legal cancelled orders – that somebody else can see before the trades execute and who will therefore clearly know what the supply/demand balance is, and what gets cancelled.

I’m not sure which is worse, a fat finger, or this.  The one is just an accident.

Now, why should you care?  Because stocks are awash in compliant spoofs.  Regulators are trying to sort, one from the other, the same kind of activity, except one lets somebody else know ahead of time that it’s there. And that’s fine.  Sanctioned.

If you trade on inside information, data you obtained that others don’t know, in exchange for value, it’s illegal. Well, trades sold to high-speed firms are exactly that, if only for a fraction of a second.

If ETFs are peppered with cancellations at rates dwarfing trades, and money is piling into ETFs, would it be good for the public to know? And why mass cancellations?

Because ETFs are legally sanctioned arbitrage vehicles. That’s another story.

The good news is we track the behavior driving arbitrage.  Fast Trading.  We know when it’s waxing and waning. It imploded into today’s futures expirations – where much spoofing occurs, legally – and just as Market Sentiment turned dour.

I hope there are no gaffes.  Spoofs will abound.  Authorities will pat themselves on the back.  It’s a weird market.

***

By – Tim Quast, President and Founder, ModernIR

Big Blanket

The US stock market trades about $500 billion of stock daily, the great majority of it driven by machines turning it into trading aerosol, a fine mist sprayed everywhere. So tracking ownership-changes is hard. And unless we speak up it’s about to get a lot harder.

In 1975 when the government was reeling like a balloon in the wind after cutting the dollar loose from its anchoring gold, Congress decided to grant itself a bunch of authority over the free stock market, turning into the system that it now is.

How?  Congress added Section 11A to the Securities Act, which in 2005 became Regulation National Market System governing stock-trading today – the reason why Market Structure Analytics, which we offer to both public companies and investors, are accurately predictive about short-term price-changes.

And Congress decided to create a disclosure standard for investors, amending the Securities Act with section 13F. That’s what gave rise to the quarterly reports, 13Fs, that both investors and public companies rely on to know who owns shares.

I use the phrase “rely on” loosely as the reports are filed 45 days after the end of each quarter, which means the positions could be totally different by the time data is released. It’s a standard fit for the post office. Mail was the means of mass communication in 1975.

Currently, the standard applies to funds with $100 million or more in assets. Many managers divide assets into sub-funds to stay below that threshold.  So most companies have shareholders that show up in no reports. But at least they have some idea.

Well, out of the blue the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) has decided to lift the threshold to $3.5 billion to reflect, I guess, the collapse of dollar purchasing power.

But nothing else changes!  What would possess a regulatory body ostensibly responsible for promoting fairness and transparency to blanket the market in opacity while keeping in place time periods for reporting that have existed since 1975?

I’m reminded of a great line from the most quotable movie in modern history, Thank You For Smoking: I cannot imagine a way in which you could have $#!!@ up more.

Public companies have been asking the SEC for decades to modernize 13F reporting. Dodd Frank legislation passed in 2010 included a mandate for monthly short-position reporting. It’s not happened because the law put no timeframe on implementation.

But how stupid would it be to require monthly short-position reporting while letting long positions remain undisclosed till 45 days after the end of each quarter?

Much of the world has stricter standards of shareholder disclosure.  Australian markets empower companies and stock exchanges to require of investors full disclosure of their economic interest, on demand.

Our regulators appear to be going the opposite direction.

Australia offers an idea, SEC. If you’re going darken the capital markets with a new (non) disclosure standard, then how about empowering companies to demand from holders at any time a full picture of what they own and how they own it?

Investors, I get it. You don’t want anyone knowing what you have.  Well, it seems to work just fine in Australia, home to a vibrant capital market.

And let’s bring it around to market structure.  There is a woefully tilted playing field around ETFs.  A big investor, let’s say Vanguard, could give a billion-dollar basket of stocks to an Authorized Participant like Morgan Stanley off-market with no trading commissions and no taxes, in exchange for a billion dollars of ETF shares.

None of that counts as fund-turnover.

It could happen by 4p ET and be done the next day.  No trading volume. And then Vanguard could come right back with the ETF shares – again, off-market, doesn’t count as fund-turnover – and receive the stocks back.

Why would investors do that? To wash out capital gains. To profit on the changing prices of stocks and ETFs. This is a massive market – over $500 billion every month in US stocks alone.  It’s already over $3 TRILLION in total this year.

What’s wrong with it?  All other investors have to actually buy and sell securities, and compete with other forces, and with volatility, and pay commissions, pay taxes, alter outcomes by tromping through supply and demand.  Oh, and every single trade is handled by an intermediary (even if it’s a direct-access machine).

So how is that fair?

Well, couldn’t all investors do what Vanguard did?  No. Retail investors cannot.  Yes, big investors could take their stock-holdings to Morgan Stanley and do the same thing. But trading stocks and ETF shares back and forth to profit on price-changes while avoiding taxes and commissions isn’t long-term investment.

That the ETF market enjoys such a radical advantage over everything else is a massive disservice to public companies and stock-pickers.

And after approving the ETF market, you now, SEC, want to yank a blanket over shareholdings to boot?  Really?  Leave us in 1975 but 35 times worse?

Market Structure Analytics will show you what’s happening anyway. And nearly in real time. But that’s not the point. The point is fairness and transparency. Every one of us should comment on this rule.

Unknowable

The question vexing Uber and Grubhub as they wrestle over a merger is which firm’s losses are worth more?

And for investors considering opportunities among stocks, a larger question: What companies or industries deserve better multiples on the Federal Reserve’s backstopping balance sheet and Congress’s operating loans?

Sure, I’m being cheeky, as the Brits would say.  The point is the market isn’t trading on fundamentals. Undeniable now to even the most ardent skeptics is that something is going on with stocks that wears an air of unreality.

And there is no higher impertinence than the somber assertion of the absurd. It deserves a smart retort.

We’ve been writing on market structure for over a decade. Market structure is to the stock market what the Periodic Table is to chemistry. Building blocks.

We’ve argued that the building blocks of the market, the rules governing how stock prices are set, have triumphed over the conventions of stock-valuation.

SPY, the S&P 500 Exchange Traded Fund (ETF), yesterday closed above $308. It last traded near these levels Mar 2.

What’s happened since? Well, we had a global pandemic that shut down the entire planetary economic machinery save what’s in Sweden, North Dakota and Africa. Over 40 million people in the United States alone took unemployment. Perhaps another 50 million got a paycheck courtesy of the US Congress’s Paycheck Protection Program.

Which means more than half the 160 million Americans working on Mar 2 when stocks last traded at current levels have been idled (though yes, some are returning).

At Feb 27, the Federal Reserve’s balance sheet was $4.2 trillion, of which $2.6 trillion sat in excess-reserve accounts earning interest of about 1.6% (why banks could pay some basis points on your savings account – arbitrage, really, that you, the taxpayer, footed).

By May 28 the Fed’s obligations on your behalf (all that money the Fed doles out has your name on it – “full faith and credit of the United States”) were $7.1 trillion, with $3.3 trillion in excess reserves now earning ten cents and wiping out meager savings-account returns but freeing taxpayers of interest expense.

The nearest facsimile I can arrive at for this great workforce idling, casting about in my history-obsessed mind, is the American Indians.  They were told, stop hunting and gathering and go on the government’s payroll.

Cough, cough.

You cannot idle the industrious and value their output the same as you did before.

Yet we are.

While I’m a pessimist about liberal democracy (classical meaning of “freedom”) because it persisted through a pandemic by the barest thread, I’m an inveterate optimist about American business.  I’ve obsessed on it my adult life. It affords a fulsome lifestyle.

The goal of good fiction is suspense of disbelief. That is, do I buy the thesis of the story? (News of the World is by the way brilliant fiction from Paulette Jiles with a high disbelief-suspension quotient).

Well, the stock market is supposed to be a barometer for truth. Not a litmus test for suspension of disbelief.

Sure, the pandemic cut some costs, like business travel. But contending a benefit for bottom lines ignores the long consequential food chain of ramifications rippling through airlines, hotels, restaurants, auto rentals, Uber, Lyft, on it goes.

How about corporate spending on box seats at big arenas?

Marc Benioff is still building his version of Larry Ellison’s Altar to Self in downtown San Francisco (no slight intended, just humor) for salesforce.  Yet he said to CNBC that some meaningful part of the workforce may never return to the office.

An empty edifice?

And nationwide riots now around racial injustice will leave at this point unknown physical and psychological imprints on the nerve cluster of the great American economic noggin.

Should stocks trade where they did before these things?

The answer is unknowable. Despite the claims of so many, from Leuthold’s Jim Paulson to Wharton’s Jeremy Siegel, that stocks reflect the verve of future expectations, it’s not possible to answer something unknowable.

So. The market is up on its structure. Its building blocks. The way it works.

Yes, Active investors have dollar-cost-averaged into stocks since late March. But that was money expecting a bumpy ride through The Unknowable.

Instead the market rocketed up on its other chock-full things.

Quants chased up prices out of whack with trailing data. ETF arbitragers and high-speed traders feasted on spreads between the papery substance of ETF shares and the wobbly movement of underlying stocks.  Counterparties to derivatives were repeatedly forced to cover unexpected moves. The combination lofted valuations.

None of these behaviors considers The Unknowable.  So, as the Unknowable becomes known, will it be better or worse than it was Mar 2?

What’s your bet?

Daily Market Structure Sentiment™ has peaked over 8.0/10.0 for the third time in two months, something we’ve not seen before. The causes are known.  The effects are unknowable save that stocks have always paused at eights but never plunged.

The unknowable is never boring, sometimes rewarding, sometimes harsh. We’ll see.

Benjamin Graham

A decade ago today, stocks flash-crashed.  I’m reminded that there are points of conventional market wisdom needing reconsideration.

It’s not because wisdom has diminished. It’s because the market always reflects what the money is doing, and it’s not Ben Graham’s market now. I’ll explain.

There are sayings like “sell in May and go away.”  Stocks fell last May. You’ll find bad Mays through the years. But to say it’s an axiom is to assert false precision.

Mind you, I’m not saying stocks will rise this month. They could plunge. The month isn’t the reason.

Graham protégé Warren Buffett told investors last weekend that he could find little value and had done the unthinkable: Reversed course on an investment. He dumped airlines. Buffett owned 10% of AAL, 11% of DAL, 11% of LUV and 9% of UAL.

Buffett and Berkshire Hathaway, sitting on $137 billion, believe in what Buffett termed “American Magic.” But they’ve sold, and gone away in May.

There are lots of those sayings. As January goes, so goes the market.  Santa Claus rallies come in December.  August is sleepy because the traders are at the Cape, the Hamptons.

These expectations for markets aren’t grounded in financial results or market structure.

Blackrock, Vanguard and State Street own 15-20% of the airlines, all of which are in 150-200 Exchange Traded Funds (ETF).  Passive money holds roughly half their shares.

Passives don’t care about the Hamptons, January, or May.  Or what Warren Buffett does.

In JBLU, which Buffett didn’t own, the Big Three own 20%, and Renaissance Technologies and Dimensional Fund Advisors, quants with track records well better than Buffett’s in the modern era, invest in the main without respect to fundamentals.

Unlike Buffett, RenTech and DFA continually wax and wane.

It’s what the money is doing now.  Its models, analysis, motivation, allocations, are not Benjamin Graham’s (he wrote Security Analysis, The Intelligent Investor, seminal tomes on sound stock-picking from the 1930s and 1940s).

And that’s only part of it.  New 13fs, regulatory details on share-ownership, will be out mid-May. Current data from the Sep-Dec 2019 quarters for DAL show net institutional ownership down 17m shares, or 3%.

But DAL trades over 70 million shares every day. Rewinding to the 200-day average before the market correction exploded volumes, DAL still traded over 16m shares daily.  The total net ownership change quarter-over-quarter was one day’s trading volume.

Since there are about 64 trading days in a quarter, and 13fs span two quarters, we could say DAL’s ownership data account for about 1/128th of trading volume. Even if we’re generous and measure a quarter, terribly little ownership data tie to volume.

Owners aren’t setting prices.

Benjamin Graham was right in the 1930s and 1940s.  He’s got relevance still for sound assessment of fundamental value.  But you can’t expect the market to behave like Benjamin Graham in 2020.

The bedrock principle in the stock market now is knowing what motivates the money that’s coming and going, because that’s what sets prices.  Fundamentals can’t be counted on to predict outcomes.

In DAL, Active Investment – call it Benjamin Graham – was about 12% of daily volume over the trailing 200 days, but that’s down to 8% now. Passive money is 19%, Fast Traders chasing the price long and short are 62% of the 73m shares trading daily. Another 11% ties to derivatives.

Those are all different motivations, reasons for prices to rise or fall.  The 11% related to derivatives are hoping for an outcome opposite that of investors. Fast Traders don’t care for more than the next price in fractions of seconds. They’re the majority of volume and will own zero shares at day’s end. You’ll see little of them in 13fs.

The airline showing the most love from Benjamin Graham – so to speak – is Southwest.  Yet it’s currently trading down the most relative to long-term performance. Why? Biggest market cap, biggest exposure to ETFs.  It’s not fundamental.

If you’re heading investor-relations for a public company or trying to invest in stocks, what I’ve just described is more important than Benjamin Graham now.

The disconnect between rational thought and market behavior has never been laid so bare as in the age of the pandemic.  It calls to mind that famous Warren Buffett line:  Only when the tide goes out do you discover who’s been swimming naked.

Might that be rational thought?

How airlines perform near-term depends on bets, trading, leverage. Not balance sheets.  It’s like oil, Energy stocks – screaming up without any fundamental reason.  And market structure, the infinite repeating arc from oversold to overbought, will price stocks. Not Ben Graham.  Though he was wise.

Roll Call

Apr 21, yesterday, is Texas A&M Aggie Muster.  Aggies everywhere gather to say “here” for Aggies lost in the past year, a roll call. It’s more poignant this time for my Aggie, Karen, and the many friends and family hailing from College Station.  Gig’em, Aggies.

Speaking of Texas, let’s talk oil.  We’ve been saying for years that volatility during the next crisis, whenever it came, would be exacerbated by Exchange Traded Funds (ETFs) and lead to large failures.  It’s now happened in oil, which freakishly settled Monday at $37 below zero.

Oil prices are predicated in the USA on futures contracts for West Texas Intermediate (WTI). Overflowing storage facilities mean few parties want to take delivery of oil. That pressures prices.

But oil isn’t worth nothing. It’s not worth less than nothing. That futures went south of zero is a product of the supply/demand distortions ETFs introduce.

Futures are themselves derivatives that obligate one to action only if held to settlement. ETF investors are not buying barrels of oil. They’re buying the PRICE of oil.

But they’re really buying derivatives that represent derivatives that represent the price of oil.  The massive oil ETF, USO (always among the most active stocks, it yesterday traded a billion shares, one of every twelve, leading the market), currently claims assets of $3 billion comprised heavily of June and July WTI contracts.  It’s down 80% in a year.

We’ve explained before that ETFs work similarly to, say, buying poker chips.  You pay cash to the house and receive chips of equal value. The chips represent the cash.  The difference with ETFs is there’s an intermediary between you and the house.

So the intermediary, the broker, pays the house for the chips and sells them to you.  Suppose the intermediary, the broker, gave energy futures as payment for the chips, rather than cash.

Then the value of the futures plunged. ETFs compound the damage. The broker is out the value of it collateral, futures, and you’re out the value of your chips, which also collapse.

The broker may stop transacting in the ETF because it’s out a lot of money. Now you can’t find a buyer – and you suffer even more damage.

This happened.  Interactive Brokers said it lost $88 million, its portion of the excess losses by its customers, some of whom lost everything in their accounts. The firm’s CEO said in a CNBC interview yesterday it had exposure to about 15% of the May WTI futures contracts behind the damage, meaning some $500 million more exists.

And the damage yesterday to the June WTI contract, the next in the series, was as impactful.  Massive Singapore futures broker Hin Leong, which moves physical commodities, filed for bankruptcy. It had been in business since 1963.

Banks most exposed to Hin Leong’s billions in obligations:  HSBC and ABN Amro.  We’ve long said we thought HSBC was a counterparty at risk in a financial crisis, on exposure to derivatives.  ABN Amro lost big already, on Ronin Capital’s March failure.

The biggest derivatives counterparties though are all names you know: JP Morgan, Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley, BofA, Citi (which has vastly more derivatives exposure via swaps than anyone).  They may be fine – but the world relies on these firms to make every meaningful market, from helping the Fed, to trading ETFs.

We’re leaving out a key piece of the story. The big way ETFs cause trouble is by distorting the market’s perception of supply and demand. In 2008, securitized mortgage derivatives bloated the appearance of demand for real estate.

USO owned some 25% of the subject oil futures contract. Yes, we’ve got too much oil (remember peak oil? Cough, cough.) because travel died. Sure, we know supply exceeds demand.

But.

Demand from derivatives of derivatives is extended reach to an asset class – which inflates its price.  I submit:  WTI May futures traded to -$37 Apr 20 because ETFs grossly inflated the price despite its apparent weakness. When books were squared and inflationary “financial” demand from ETFs removed, oil was worth 200% less than zero.

Said another way, when money in ETFs not wanting to take delivery of oil didn’t even want its price, we discovered that demand implied in futures misrepresented reality.

Thank you, ETFs.

Barclays shuttered two oil instruments. A dozen more are at risk.  USO is at risk. The roll call of the threatened is lengthening.

Where else are ETFs inflating prices relative to underlying demand? Well, the greatest instance of asset-class extension is in US equities. Especially the FAANGs – FB, AAPL, AMZN, NFLX, GOOG (and the pluses are MSFT, AMD, TSLA, a handful of others).

These bellwethers have weathered better than the rest in a global shutdown.  But they all depend on consumer-discretionary income. People have to be working to pay for subscriptions, and businesses must be operating to spend advertising dollars.

The drums are drumming. I expect we’ll see some even more surprising ETF failures before the roll call is done.  The sooner we’re back to work, the quicker the drumbeat ends.

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.

The Truth

You know it’s after Groundhog Day?  We passed Feb 2 and I don’t recall hearing the name Punxsutawney Phil (no shadow, so that means a reputed early spring).

Reminds one of the stock market. Things change so fast there’s no time for tradition.

We have important topics to cover, including the implications of the SEC’s recent decision to approve closing-auction trading at the CBOE, which doesn’t list stocks (save BATS).  Circumstances keep pushing the calendar back.

We said last week that the Coronavirus wasn’t driving stocks. It was market structure – measurable, behavioral change behind prices.

The Coronavirus is mushrooming still, and news services are full of dire warnings of global economic consequence.  Some said the plunge last Friday, the Dow Industrials diving 600 points, reflected shrinking economic expectations for 2020.

Now the market is essentially back to level in two days. The Nasdaq closed yesterday at a new record.  Did expectations of Coronavirus-driven economic sclerosis reverse course over the weekend?

It’s apparent in the Iowa caucuses that accurate outcomes matter.  The Impeachment odyssey, slipping last night into the curtains of the State of the Union address, is at root about interpretations of truth, the reliability of information, no matter the result.

We seem to live in an age where what can be known with certainty has diminished. Nowhere is it manifesting more starkly than in stocks.  Most of what we’re told drives them is unsupported by data.

A business news anchor could reasonably say, “Stocks surged today on a 10% jump in Fast Trading and a 5% decline in short volume, reflecting the pursuit of short-term arbitrage around sudden stock-volatility that created a broad array of cheap buying opportunity in derivatives.”

That would be a data-backed answer. Instead we hear, “Coronavirus fears eased.”

Inaccurate explanations are dangerous because they foster incorrect expectations.

The truth is, behavioral volatility exploded to 30% Feb 3, the most since Aug 2019. To understand behavioral volatility, picture a crowd leaving a stadium that stampedes.

Notice what Sentiment showed Feb 3. Sentiment is the capacity of the market to absorb higher and lower prices. It trades most times between 4.0-6.0, with tops over 7.0  The volatile daily read dropped below 4.0 Feb 3.

Cycles have shortened. Volatility in decline/recovery cycles is unstable.

Here’s the kicker. It was Exchange Traded Funds stampeding into stocks. Not people putting money to work in ETFs.  No, market makers for ETFs bought options in a wild orgy Monday, then caterwauled into the underlying stocks and ETFs yesterday, igniting a searing arc of market-recovery as prices for both options and ETFs ignited like fuel and raced through stocks.

That’s how TSLA screamed like a Ford GT40 (Carroll Shelby might say stocks were faster than Ferraris yesterday).  Same with a cross-section of stocks up hundreds of basis points (UNH up 7%, AMP up 6%, VMW up 4%, CAT up 4%, on it goes).

These are not rational moves. They are potentially bankrupting events for the parties selling volatility. That’s not to say the stock market’s gains are invalid.  We have the best economy in the world.

But.

Everyone – investors, investor-relations professionals, board directors, public-company executives – deserves basic accuracy around what’s driving stocks.  We expect it everywhere else (save politics!).

We’ll have to search out the truth ourselves, and it’s in the data (and we’ve got that data).

Disruption

What did you say yesterday to your executive team, investor-relations officers, if you’d sent a note Monday about mounting Coronavirus fears?

The market zoomed back, cutting losses in the S&P 500 to about 2% since Jan 17.  We said here in the Market Structure Map Jan 22 that data on market hedges that expired Jan 17 suggested stocks could be down about 2% over the proceeding week.

It’s been a week and stocks were down 2%. (If you want to know what the data say now, you’ll have to use our analytics.)

The point is, data behind prices and volume are more predictive than headlines.

NIRI, the professional association for IR, last year convened a Think Tank to examine the road ahead, and the group offered what it called The Disruption Opportunity.

If we’re to become trusted advisors to executive teams and boards, it won’t be through setting more meetings with stock-pickers but by the strategic application of data.

For instance, if Passive investment powering your stock has fallen 30% over the past 200 trading days, your executive team should know and should understand the ramifications. How will IR respond? What’s controllable? What consequences should we expect?

At a minimum, every week the executive team should be receiving regular communication from IR disruptors, a nugget, a key conclusion, about core trends driving shareholder value that may have nothing to do with fundamentals.

Take AAPL, which reported solid results yesterday after the market closed.  AAPL is the second most widely held stock in Exchange Traded Funds (there’s a nugget).  It’s over 20% of the value of the Tech sector, which in turn is nearly 24% of the S&P 500, in turn 83% of market-capitalization.

AAPL is a big engine (which for you cyclists is American rider Tejay van Garderen’s nickname).  And it always mean-reverts.

It may take time. But it’s as reliable as Rocky Mountain seasons – because the market is powered today by money that reverts to the mean. Over 85% of S&P 500 volume is something other than stock-picking.

AAPL has the widest mean-reversion gap in a half-decade now, with Passive investment down a third in the last week.  AAPL trades over 30 million shares daily, about $10 billion of stock. And 55% of that – 17 million shares, $5.5 billion of dollar volume – is on borrowed shares.

Those factors don’t mean AAPL is entering a mean-reversion cycle. But should the executive team and the board know these facts?  Well, it sure seems so, right?

And investors, would it behoove you to know too?

The Russell 1000 is 95% of market cap, the Russell 3000, over 99.9%.  That means we all own the same stocks.  You won’t beat the market by owning stocks someone else doesn’t.

How then will you win?  I’m coming to that.

IR pros, you’re the liaison to Wall Street.  You need to know how the market works, not just what your company does that differs from another. If your story is as good as somebody else’s but your stock lags, rather than rooting through the financials for reasons, look at the money driving your equity value.

Take CRM. Salesforce is a great company but underperformed its industry and the S&P 500 much of the past year – till all at once in the new year it surged.

There’s no news.  But behaviors show what caused it.  ETF demand mushroomed. CRM is in over 200 ETFs, and the S&P 500.  For a period, ETFs could get cheap CRM stock to exchange into expensive SPY shares, an arbitrage trade.  The pattern is stark.

Now that trade is done. CRM market structure signals no imminent swoon but Passive demand is down over 20% because there’s no profit in the CRM-for-ETFs swap now.

That fact is more germane to CRM’s forward price-performance than its financials.

This, IR pros, is your disruption opportunity in the c-suite. If you’re interested in seeing your market structure, ask and we’ll give you a free report.

Investors, your disruption opportunity isn’t in what you own but when you buy or sell it. Supply and demand rule that nexus, and we can measure it.   If you’d like to know about Market Structure EDGE, ask us.

Hummingbird Wings

I recall reading in high school that the military’s then new jet, the FA-18 Hornet, would fall out of the sky if not for computers.

Could be that’s exaggerated but the jet’s designers pushed the wings forward, creating the probability of continual minute turbulence events too frequent for human responses.  Why do that? Because it made the plane vastly nimbler in supersonic flight.

You just had to keep the computers on or the craft would go cartwheeling to earth.

As we wrap a remarkable year for stocks in a market too fast for humans and full of trading wings whipping fleeting instances of turbulence, we’re in a curious state where the machines are keeping us all airborne.

I don’t mean the market should be lower.  Valuations are stretched but not perverse. The economy is humming and the job market is great guns. And while the industrial sector might be spongy, the winds in the main blow fair on the fruited plain.

So why any unease about stocks, a sense the market is like an FA-18 Hornet, where you hope the computers keep going (ironic, right)?

It’s not just a feeling.  We at ModernIR as you longtime readers know are not touchy-feely about data. We’re quantitative analysts. No emotion, just math.  Data show continual tweaking of ailerons abounds.

You see it in fund flows. The WSJ wrote over the weekend that $135 billion has been pulled from US equities this year. Against overall appreciation, it’s not a big number. But the point is the market rose on outflows.

And corporate earnings peaked in real terms in 2014, according to data compiled by quantitative fund manager Julex Capital. We’ve got standouts crushing it, sure.  But if earnings drive stocks, there’s a disconnect.

I’m reading the new book on Jim Simons, the “man who solved the market,” says author and WSJ reporter Greg Zuckerman. Simons founded Renaissance Technologies, which by Zuckerman’s calculations (there’s no public data) has made more than $100 billion the past three decades investing in stocks. Nobody touches that track record.

It’s a riveting book, and well-written, and rich with mathematical anecdotes and funny reflections on Simons’s intellectually peripatetic life.

Renaissance is not a stock-picking investment firm. It’s a quant shop. Its guys and gals good at solving equations with no acumen at business or income statements proved better at investing than the rest.

It’s then no baseless alchemy to propose that math lies at the heart of the stock market.

And son of a gun.

There’s just one kind of money that increased the past year.  Exchange Traded Funds (ETFs). This currency substituting for stocks is $224 billion higher than a year ago and about a trillion dollars greater the past three years.  As we learned from Milton Friedman and currency markets, more money chasing the same goods lifts prices.

Stocks declined in 2018, yet ETF shares increased by $311 billion, more than this year.  In 2017, ETF shares increased by $471 billion.

Behind those numbers is a phantasmagorical melee of ETF creations and redemptions, the ailerons keeping the market’s flight level through the turbulent minutia flying by.

I’ve explained it numerous times, so apologies to those tiring of redundancy. But ETFs are substitutes for stocks.  Brokers take a pile of stocks and give it to Blackrock, which authorizes the brokers to create and sell to the public a bunch of ETF shares valued the same as the pile of stocks.

If you sell ETF shares, the reverse happens – a broker buys the ETF shares and gives them to Blackrock in trade for some stocks of equal value.

This differential equation of continuous and variable motion doesn’t count as fund-turnover. But it’s massive – $3.2 trillion through October this year and $10.7 trillion, or a third of the market’s total value, the past three years.

Why the heck are there trillions of ETF transactions not counted as fund flows? Because our fly-by-wire stock market is dependent on this continuous thrum for stable harmonics.

That’s the hummingbird wings, the Butterfly Effect, for stocks.

We can see it.  In July a seismic ripple in behavioral patterns said the market could tumble. It did. Dec 3-5, a temblor passed through the movement of money behind prices. The market faltered.

If the ETF hive goes silent, we’ll cartwheel.  It won’t be recession, earnings, fundamentals, tariffs, Trump tweets, blah blah.  It will be whatever causes the computers to shut off for a moment.  It’s an infinitesimal thing.  But it’s why we watch with machines every day.  And one day, like a volcano in New Zealand, it’ll be there in the data.

Jim Simons proved the math is the money. It’s unstable. And that’s why, investor-relations pros and investors, market structure matters.

Boxed Yellow Pencils

“How do you think about ESG?” said my friend Moriah Shilton at a San Francisco NIRI summit some weeks back with hedge fund Citadel.

Silence. The four panelists shifted around.  A couple whispered to each other. Finally, somebody offered with a throat-clearing cough, “It doesn’t factor into our portfolio decisions.”

For those not fluent in Investor Relations (IR) Speak, ESG is “Environmental, Social, Governance.”  NIRI is the National Investor Relations Institute, professional association for the liaison between public companies and Wall Street.

ESG dominates the contemporary IR educational platform. NIRI has made a policy statement on ESG. There are at least two ESG sessions here at the NIRI Senior Round Table meeting (and NIRI national board meeting) this week in Santa Barbara.

The ESG heat isn’t coming from stock-picking investors, the “long-only” audience of public companies spending billions annually on communication through compliance-driven reports like 10Ks, 10Qs, press releases and proxies and via proactive outreach aimed at increasing share-ownership.

Nor is it, apparently, coming from hedge funds like Citadel, the other key audience – and I’d argue now the vital IR constituency because of its capacity to compete with the Great Passive Investment Wave – for public companies.

In fact, the Citadel team later said, “We vote with management on proxy matters, or we vote with our feet by selling shares.”

It’s passive money that’s obsessed with ESG. Passive investment to us is any form of capital allocation for a day or more (by contrast Fast Trading is an investment horizon of a day or less) driven by rules. That’s index investing, Exchange Traded Funds, or any variety of quantitative investment, from global macro to statistical arbitrage.

True, passives may oppose a proxy measure that doesn’t comport with an ESG platform. They will, however, continue owning the stock. Index funds pegged to a benchmark like the S&P 500 are required to own the securities comprising the benchmark.

It’s cognitively dissonant to own things you oppose.

But aren’t they trying to promote practices that make companies better stewards for stakeholders?

From my first exposure to it, good business has been sound financial management, the right people, products, markets, capital structure, the advancement of the best interests of your customers, employees, communities. These are essential strands of business DNA.

In fact, turning those into a checklist promotes the possibility that mediocre firms are treated the same as stellar ones by virtue of filling out a form.  Rules breed uniformity.

Nowhere is that more apparent than in the stock market, where rules push prices toward a mean. Track the midpoint – as Passive money does – and returns become superior by pegging the average.

The investor-relations profession, the pursuit of excellence, Warren-Buffett-style investment strategies, are about unique differentiation.  What makes a company better, superior?

Rules-based investing makes things the same. Passive money has boomed because shares of companies are increasingly products defined by shared criteria, like ESG. The more of that there is, the greater the probability the market will become homogeneous.

Without dismissing its merits, I’m perplexed by why public companies and stock-picking investors would promote shared criteria like ESG (why not differentiate with ESG if you’re so moved?).  We don’t want the stock market to become a bunch of yellow pencils in a box.

I think a form of guilt has gripped the passive-investment colossus like what manifests among the Silicon Valley nouveau riche who ofttimes with minimal effort realize vast wealth, and then feel compelled to browbeat the rest about the “greater good.”

How one favors the greater good should be individually chosen, not directed by rules.

So from atop vast heaps of assets gained through doing nothing more than tracking a benchmark, Massive Passives are compelled to berate the market over purpose.

If that purpose is an ESG checklist, the purpose is a dictated set of rules.  The very thing passive investment promotes.  Ironic, right? By subtly suggesting moral superiority, passive investment advances its own self-interest: rules-based investing.

Rather than mindlessly embracing ESG as good for all, a sentient species capable of staggering creativity and achievement through the individual pursuit of happiness that inures to the benefit of the masses owes itself moments of objective reflection.

And the question to ponder is whether a uniform ESG blanket tossed over the capital markets furthers the pursuit of the excellence the IR profession and stock-pickers seek.