Tagged: ETFs

Five Questions

Is less more?

This is the question anyone looking at the stock market as a barometer for rational thought – from stock-pickers to investor-relations professionals – should be asking.

A Wall Street Journal article yesterday, “Passive Investing Gains Even in Turbulent Times,” notes that $203 billion flowed to Exchange Traded Funds (ETFs) between September and January, while $167 billion went to index funds.

Most thought stock-pickers would win assets during volatility. So let’s ask another question. From where did the money come?  Morningstar, the WSJ says, shows $370 billion – the same figure – left stock-picking funds from Sep 2018-Jan 2019.

Here’s a third question: What sets prices for stocks?

If you move money from savings to checking, total value of your bank accounts doesn’t gyrate. Should we be asking why moving money from stock-pickers to indexers would be so violent?

I’ve got one more question for IR practitioners before we get to answers: If stock-pickers are seeing net redemptions – money leaving – what should we expect from them as price-setters in stocks?

Okay, let’s review and answer:

Is less stock-picking worth more?  What sets stock-prices? Where did the money going to ETFs and indexes come from? Why did the market move violently these last months? And finally, what should we expect from stock-pickers as price-setters?

Less is not more.  I’m reminded of a line from a professional poker-player who taught poker to a group of us.  He said, “People who chase straights and flushes borrow money to go home on buses.”

The point is that hoping something will happen isn’t a strategy. Hoping stock-pickers, which have lost trillions to passive investments over the past decade, will set your price more is chasing a flush.

We teach our clients to cultivate a diverse palette of those shrinking Active Investment relationships so an Active force will be present more frequently. We show them how to use data to better match product to consumer, further improving the odds.

But look, IR people: If stock pickers saw $370 billion of outflows, they were selling stocks, not buying them. Less is not more.

Stock prices are set by the best bid to buy or offer to sell. Not your fundamentals, or news or blah, blah, blah. What MOTIVATES somebody to hit the bid or the offer is most often that the price changed.

The investment category benefiting most from changing prices is ETFs, because they depend on an “arbitrage mechanism,” or different prices for the same thing.

(Editorial Note:  I’ll be speaking to the Pittsburgh NIRI chapter the evening of Mar 26 on how ETFs affect stocks.)

ETFs are not pooled investments. Blackrock does not combine funds from investors to buy stocks and hold them in an ETF.  ETFs don’t manage other people’s money.

ETF sponsors receive stocks from a broker as collateral, and the broker creates and sells ETF shares. Only the broker has customer accounts. The ETF’s motivation is to profit on the collateral by washing out its capital gains, leveraging it, selling it, investing it.

I’m trying to help you see the motivation in the market. The longer we persist in thinking things about the market that aren’t buttressed by the data, the greater the future risk of the unexpected.

The money that motivated ETFs to profit from changing prices September to January came from stock-pickers.

The market was violent because ETFs form a layer of derivatives in markets obscuring the real supply and demand of stocks. As stocks declined, the number of shares of ETFs did not – causing a downward cascade.

Then as money shifted out of stocks to ETFs, the supply again did not increase, so more money chased the same goods – and ETFs were a currency reflating underlying assets.

If no money either came into or left the market, and it was tumultuously up and down, we can conclude that the actual withdrawal of money from equities could be epic straight-chasing, everybody borrowing money to go home on buses.

We should expect stock-pickers to drive the market to the degree that they are price-setters. That’s 10-15% of the time. In this market riven with collateralized derivatives, you must know what sets prices.

Stock-pickers, if you know, you won’t chase straights and flushes. IR professionals, you’ll help your board and executive team understand the core drivers behind equity value. It’s your story only sometimes. They should know when it is – and when it’s not.

Much of the time, it’s just because your price changes (which ETFs feed). Ask us! We’ll show you the data behind price and volume.

FX Effects

It’s all about the Benjamins, baby.

What I mean is, Forex (FX) is the world’s most active trading market, with some $5 trillion daily in currencies changing hands on a decentralized global data network.  It can teach us how to think about the effects of Exchange-Traded Funds (ETFs) on stocks.

It’s a 24-hour-a-day market, is FX. And by the way, I’m moderating a panel called “24 Hours of Trading: What You Should Know About Market Structure” Friday at the NIRI Silicon Valley Spring Seminar.

We’re the closing panel, and happy hour follows, so come learn from our outstanding guests and stay for a beverage.  Every investor-relations professional should know how the stock market works now, because the reason we have jobs is the stock market.

Back to our thesis, ETFs trade like currencies. So they’ll have the motivation found in currency-trading.

Currencies trade in pairs, like the dollar/euro, and transactions are in large defined blocks. Most FX trades are bets that a currency will move up or down, producing a profit.  It’s always a pair – if you’re selling a currency, you’re buying another.

The transactions that create ETFs are also in blocks, though they occur off the stock market between ETF creators and broker-dealers. If you want to know more, read this.

The pair in ETF trading is stocks. In fact, ETFs by rule must have what the SEC terms an “arbitrage mechanism.” That’s esoterica meaning there are two markets for ETFs, fostering different prices for the same thing.  ETFs are created wholesale off-market in big blocks and sold retail on the market in small pieces.

The big profit opportunity, though, as with currencies, is in the pair, the underlying stocks. They move apart, creating profit opportunities. Last week, the average spread between the stocks comprising a sector and the ETF for trading that sector was 57 basis points (we wrote about these spreads).

No wonder ETFs are cheap for investors. You can make as much trading them in a week as Active investment managers charge for managing portfolios for a year (SEC: why do ETFs charge a management fee at all, since they don’t manage customer money?).

Let me use an analogy. Picture a gold-backed currency. There’s a pile of gold. There’s a pile of money representing the gold. To have more money, there must be more gold.

Of course, all gold-backed currencies have dropped the gold, because the pile of gold, which is hard to get, fails to pace the easy creation of paper.

ETFs are stock-backed currencies. There are piles of stocks off the market. There are piles of ETF shares issued into the stock market that represent the value of stocks.

Managing collateral isn’t really investment. The head of equities for a big global asset manager told me they’d gotten into ETFs because of a decade-long rout of assets from stock-picking funds.

He said it’s a completely different endeavor. There are no customer accounts to maintain.  The focus is tax-efficiency, managing collateral, constructing the basket, relationships with Authorized Participants who create ETF shares.

He said, “And then what do you need IR (investor relations) for?” They’re not picking investments. They’re efficiently managing the gold backing the currency.

Nasdaq CEO Adena Friedman told CNBC’s Squawk Box Monday, marking the 20th anniversary of the QQQ, “If there’s too much index investing and not enough individual investing, then there become arbitrage opportunities.”

She meant “arbitrage opportunity” not as a good thing but as a consequence of too much passive money.  The focus of the market shifts to spreads and away from fundamentals. The QQQ is a big success. But ETFs have now exploded.

Much of the volume in ETFs is arbitrage, because the arbitrage mechanism is the only way they can be priced – exactly like currencies now.

Investors and public companies act and think and speak as though fundamentals and economic facts are driving the market. The more the market shifts toward collateral and currency, the less fundamentals play a pricing role.  This is how ETFs are giving stocks characteristics of an FX market where the motivation is profit on short-term spreads.

Like currencies, changes in supplies are inflationary or deflationary. Consider how hard it is for countries to reduce supplies of currency.  Whenever they try, prices fall. Falling prices produce recessions. So instead countries don’t shrink currency supplies and we have catastrophic economic crises.

Are ETF shares keeping pace with the assets backing them? It’s a question we should answer. And IR folks, your relevance in this market is as chief intelligence officer measuring all the forces behind equity value. You can’t remain just the storyteller.

Manufactured Spreads

Did Exchange Traded Funds drive the recent market rollercoaster?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Flowing

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

So how can stocks be up?

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

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

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

That combination is ETFs.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It happened in December.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Your boards and executive teams deserve to know.

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

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

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

Short-Term Borrowing

Half the volume in the stock market is short – borrowed. Why?

It’s the more remarkable because stocks since late December have delivered an epic momentum rebound. A 15% gain is a good year. Half the sectors in the market were up 15% in just the last 25 trading days.

Yet amid the stampede from the depths of the December correction, short volume, the amount of daily trading on borrowed shares, rose rather than fell, and remains 48%.  That means if daily dollar-volume is $250 billion, $120 billion is borrowed stock.

What difference does it make? We’ve written before that the stock market now has characteristics of a credit market.  That is, if lending is responsible for half the volume, the market depends on short-term loans rather than long-term investment.

And share-borrowing, credit, will give the market a false appearance of liquidity.

Think about the sudden and massive December declines that included the worst-ever points-loss for the Dow Jones Industrial Average.  Was that a liquidity problem? Does a V-shaped recovery signal a liquidity problem?

Before the Dodd-Frank financial legislation, large banks might carry a supply of shares to meet the needs of customers, especially stocks covered by equity research.

With rigid value-at-risk regulations now, banks don’t hold inventory.  The supply chain for the stock market has shifted to proprietary fast traders, which don’t carry inventory either. They borrow it.

We define liquidity as the number of shares that can be traded before the price changes.  Prior to electronic markets, trade-sizes were ten times larger than today.  The mean trade-size the last five days was 181 shares, or about $13,500 against an average market price of $74.61.

But a few liquid stocks skew the average.  AAPL’s liquidity is over $23,000, its average trade-size. WMT is the average, about $13,000. GIS is half that, about $6,800.

AAPL is also 57% short – over half its liquidity is borrowed.  And AAPL is used as collateral by 270 Exchange-Traded Funds (ETFs). Related?

(Side note: Why would AAPL be used more than other stocks in an index if ETFs are tracking an index? Because ETFs only use a sample, often the biggest stocks that are liquid and easy to borrow.)

These three elements – fast traders, high borrowing levels, ETFs – are intertwined and they create risks of inflation and deflation in stocks that bear no correlation to fundamentals.

The market, as we’ve said before, always reflects its primary purposes. If the parties supplying the market with shares are borrowing them, they have an economic interest that will compete with the objectives of those buying shares as an equity investment.

Second, borrowing is a back-office brokerage function. With massive short-term securities lending, the back office becomes as important as the cash equities desk. And it’s a loan business, a credit market (a point made by the insightful academics comprising the Bogan family).

And ETFs? If you want to know how they work, read our white paper. ETFs are not pooled investments. They are collateralized stock substitutes. Derivatives.

Collateral is something you find in a credit market. ETF collateralization, the wholesale market where ETF shares are created and redeemed, is a staggering $400 billion per month in US equities, says the Investment Company Institute.

It’s cheap and easy for brokers to borrow the shares of a basket of stocks and supply them as collateral to the Blackrocks of the world (does Blackrock then loan them out, perpetuating the cycle?) for the right to create and sell ETF shares (or provide them to a hedge-fund customer wanting to short the whole Technology sector).

And how about the reverse? Brokers can borrow ETF shares and return them to Blackrock to receive collateral – stocks and/or cash that Blackrock puts in the redemption basket to offer in-kind for ETF shares.

These are the mechanics of the stock market.  It works well if there’s little volatility – much like the short-term commercial paper market that froze catastrophically during the financial crisis.

We are not predicting doom. We are highlighting structural risks investors and public companies should understand. The stock market depends for prices and liquidity on short-term borrowing. In periods of volatility, that dependency will amplify moves.

In extreme cases, it’s possible the stock market could seize up not through investor panic but because short-term borrowing may freeze.

How might we see that risk? Behavioral volatility. When the movement of money becomes frantic behind prices and volume where only a few firms like ours can see it, market volatility tends to follow (as Sept 2018 behaviors presaged October declines).

Currently, behavioral volatility is muted ahead of the Fed meeting concluding today, loads of earnings, and jobs data Friday. It can change on a dime.

Form Follows Function

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

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

So to speak.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Down Maiden Lane

For the Federal Reserve, 2018 was the end of the lane. For us, 2019 is fresh and new, and we’re hitting it running.

The market comes stumbling in (anybody remember Suzy Quatro?). The Dow Jones dropped 6% as it did in 2000. The index fell 7% in 2001 and 17% in 2002. The last year blue chips were red was 2015, down 2%.

Everybody wants to know as the new year begins what’s coming.  Why has the market been so volatile? Is a recession at hand? Is the bull market over?

We only know behavior – what’s behind prices. That’s market structure.

Take volatility. In Q4 2018, daily intraday volatility marketwide (average high-low spread) averaged 3.7%, a staggering 61% increase from Q3.  Cause? Exchange-Traded Funds. It’s not the economy, tariffs, China, geopolitics, or Trump.

Bold assertion?  Nope, math.  When an index mutual fund buys or sells stocks, it’s simple: The order goes to the market and gets filled or doesn’t.

ETFs do not buy or sell stocks. They move collateral manually back and forth wholesale to support an electronic retail market where everything, both ETF shares and stocks serving as collateral for them, prices in fractions of seconds. The motivation isn’t investment but profiting on the difference between manual prices and electronic ones.

When the market goes haywire, that process ruptures. Brokers lose collateral exchanged for ETF shares, so they trade desperately to recoup it. There were over $4.1 trillion of ETF wholesale transactions through Nov 2018.

The other $4.1 trillion that matters is the Fed’s balance sheet. If the bull market is over, it’ll be due to the money, not the economy. We have been saying for years that a reckoning looms, and its size is so vast that it’s hard to grasp the girth (rather like my midsection during the holidays).

On Dec 18, 2008, the Federal Reserve said its balance sheet had been “modified to include information related to Maiden Lane II LLC, a limited liability company formed to purchase residential mortgage-backed securities (RMBS) from…American International Group, Inc. (AIG).”

The biggest Fed bank sits between Liberty Street and Maiden Lane in New York. Maiden Lane made the Fed over the next six years owner of seas of failed debts.

Ten year later, on Dec 27, 2018, The Fed said its balance sheet had been “modified to reflect the removal of table 4 ‘Information on Principal Accounts of Maiden Lane LLC.’ The table has been removed because the remaining assets in the portfolio holdings of Maiden Lane LLC have been reduced to a de minimis balance.”

There were at least three Maiden Lane companies created by the Fed to absorb bad debts. At Dec 2018, what remains of these bailouts is too small to note.

Wow, right? Whew!

Not exactly. We used the colossal balance sheet of US taxpayers – every Federal Reserve Note in your wallet pledges your resources to cover government promises – to save us.  We were able to bail ourselves out using our own future money in the present.

We’ve been led to believe by everyone except Ron Paul that it’s all worked out, and now everything is awesome.  No inflation, no $5,000/oz gold.  Except that’s incorrect.  Inflation is not $5,000/oz gold.  It’s cheap money.  We’ve had inflation for ten straight years, and now inflation has stopped.

Picture a swing set on the elementary-school playground. Two chains, a sling seat, pumping legs (or a hand pushing from behind). Higher and higher you go, reaching the apex, and falling back.

Inflation is the strain, the pull, feet shoved forward reaching for the sky.  What follows is the stomach-lurching descent back down.

We were all dragged down Maiden Lane with Tim Geithner and Hank Paulson and Ben Bernanke. They gave that sling seat, the American economy, the biggest shove in human history. Then they left. Up we went, hair back, laughing, feet out, reaching for the sky.

Now we’re at the top of the arc.

The vastness of the economic swing is hard to comprehend. We spent ten years like expended cartridges in the longest firefight ever to get here. We won’t give it up in a single stomach-clenching free-fall.

But the reality is and has always been that when the long walk to the end of Maiden Lane was done, there would be a reckoning, a return to reality, to earth.

How ironic that the Fed’s balance sheet and the size of the ETF wholesale market are now roughly equal – about $4.1 trillion.

It’s never been more important for public companies and investors to understand market structure – behavior. Why? Because money trumps everything, and arbitraging the price-differences it creates dominates, and is measurable, and predictable.

The trick is juxtaposing continual gyrations with the expanse of Maiden Lane, now ended. I don’t know when this bull market ends. I do know where we are slung into the sling of the swing set.

It’s going to be an interesting year. We relish the chance to help you navigate it. And we hope the Fed never returns to Maiden Lane. Let the arc play out. We’ll be all right.

 

Bucking the Mighty

Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell, keeper of the buck, speaks today. Should we care, investors and investor-relations folks?

There’s been less worshipfulness in the Powell Fed era than during the Yellen and Bernanke regimes. Out of sight, out of mind.  We tend in the absence of devotion to monetarists to forget that the mighty buck is the world’s only reserve currency.

Yet the buck remains the most predictive – besides ModernIR Market Structure Sentiment™ – signal for market-direction. So we have to know what it’s signaling.

When we say the dollar is the reserve currency, we mean it’s proportionate underpinning for other currencies. Effectively, collateral. The European Central Bank owns bucks and will sell them to weaken the dollar and strengthen the euro, and vice versa.

The USA alone holds no foreign currency reserves as ballast to balance out the buck. Instead, if the Fed wants to hike rates, dollars have to become a little rarer, harder to find.

The Federal Reserve as we noted when oil dove has been selling securities off its balance sheet.  It receives Federal Reserve Notes, bucks, in return, and that money comes out of circulation, and dollars nudge higher (forcing other central banks to sell dollars).

Combine what the Fed has sold and what banks are no longer leaving idle at the Fed as excess reserves (at the height $2.6 trillion but now below $1.8 trillion) and the supply of bucks has shrunk $1 trillion, and since banks can loan out about nine dollars for every one held in reserve, that’s a big decline out there – effectively, trillions.

So the dollar rises, and markets falter, and oil plunges.  We wrote about this back in January and said to watch for a rising dollar (even as others were predicting $100 oil).

Now why do stocks and oil react to relative dollar-value?  Because they are substitutes for each other.  As famous value investor Ron Baron says, investors trade depreciating assets called dollars for appreciating ones called stocks.

If the dollar becomes stronger, you trade fewer of them for stocks. Or oil. That means lower prices for both. Conversely, when interest rates are as low as a doormat, credit creates surging quantities of dollars, and the prices of substitutes like stocks and oil rise.

It raises a point I hope future economics textbooks will recognize: The definition of inflation should be “low interest rates,” not higher prices. Low rates surge the supply of dollars via credit, so even if prices don’t rise everywhere, inflation exists, which we find out when rates rise and prices of things used as substitutes for dollars fall.

Those people saying “see, there’s no inflation” do not understand inflation. By the way, Exchange Traded Funds have exactly the same condition, and risk. They are substitutes for stocks that expand and contract to equalize supply and demand.

Presuming Chairman Powell wants interest rates higher so we can lower them furiously – and wrongly – in the next crisis, we can expect more deflation for things that substitute for dollars.

It won’t be linear.  ModernIR Market Structure Sentiment™ signals a short-term bottom is near. There may be a rush to the upside for a bit. Credit will go to “strong sales expectations for the holiday season” when it’s likely market-makers for ETFs trading depreciated stocks for the right to create ETF shares.  Like the buck, the stocks come out of circulation – causing stocks to rise – which in turn boosts ETF shares tracking those prices.

The problem as with currencies is that we can’t get a good view of supply or demand when the medium of exchange – money, ETF shares – keeps expanding and contracting to balance out supply and demand.

The market loses its capacity to serve as an economic or valuation barometer, just as money loses its capacity to store value.

I’ve said before to picture a teeter-totter. One side is supply, the other, demand. When currencies have fixed value, we know which thing is out of balance. When the fulcrum moves, we have no idea.

That distortion exists in stocks via ETFs and economies via the mighty buck, which both must buck mightily to equalize supply and demand. Who thought it was a good idea to equalize supply and demand?  I hope Jerome Powell bucks the mighty.

Collateral

I like Thanksgiving.  We may not all always feel grateful for our circumstances, but an attitude of gratefulness is healthy, I’m convinced. So, happy Thanksgiving!

Karen and I will be feeling festively appreciative this year high in the Rockies, in Beaver Creek.

As November fades, markets seem ungrateful.  One Wall Street Journal article Friday noted that the majority of companies beating estimates this quarter underperformed. The author concluded that where investors before rewarded companies for exceeding expectations, now they have to offer rosier future views.

What data supports that contention?  There were no investors interviewed for the piece who said they dumped stocks like AMD, which was down 27% on results. Why would an investor lop 27% off returns in a day – gains earned by risking holding shares for months or longer?  It defies logic, and things defying logic should be scrutinized.

Only arbitragers profit when stocks fall – those betting on different prices for the same thing. High-speed traders, hedge funds that bet short, and market-makers for Exchange Traded Funds (ETFs).

Only one of these is ordered by regulators to engage in arbitrage. ETF market-makers.

Isn’t it extreme to say “ordered?” No. ETFs don’t work without an arbitrage mechanism because they don’t have intrinsic value.

ETFs are exempted by the SEC from the requirement in the Investment Act of 1940 to offer investors a single price for fund shares, and to make those shares redeemable in a proportionate chunk of the underlying pool of assets.

The SEC granted relief to creators of ETFs because there are two markets, two different prices for ETFs – fostering economic incentive to support them by buying low and selling high, so to speak.

Because ETFs are not redeemable – can’t be traded for money in a pool – market-makers have an unusually strong economic motivation to chase and foster big divergences.  They can trade ETF shares for stocks, and vice versa.

If money flows into the market and investors want to buy ETFs, market-makers gather up a collection of stocks to trade to firms like Blackrock for the right to create ETF shares.  They want stocks that are easy to buy or borrow or swap for, and ones that have outperformed or underperformed.

Why? Because stocks that have outperformed will be shed soon by Blackrock and other ETF creators, which can wash out associated capital gains by offering them as collateral to trade for ETF shares. So brokers might borrow them and then buy puts, knowing the likelihood that these stocks will be on the ETF chopping block soon is high.

Conversely, when stocks plunge in value, ETF market-makers will buy them to use as collateral for ETF shares that can be quickly marked up and sold at a profit.

Passive money dominated AMD around results. Same with ALGN, which also plummeted on results that beat expectations.  Both stocks were 50% or more short ahead of results.

Think of it this way:  Your stock is gold, and ETF shares are gold-backed dollar bills. Suppose gold could be acquired for half-price. If the currency stays the same, you make 50%.  So you really, really want to find cheap gold.

Whoever trades stocks sets the price. It’s not determined by who OWNS the stocks. Suppose investors stopped buying AMD and ALGN to study results. Smart market-makers for ETFs would detect the lack of normal buying and would sell and short them aggressively so the prices would fall.

Then they would scoop both up at depressed prices to supply to Blackrock in exchange for the right to create ETF shares – even ETF shares for safe-harbor value ETFs.

Stocks are collateral. Motivation for market-makers shuffling collateral around is not investing. It’s profiting on price-differences for the same thing.

This behavior is as we’ve said repeatedly far bigger than any form of fund-flows.  ETF creations and redemptions totaled $3.3 trillion through September this year, or more than $360 billion monthly.

I believe the data will show – it won’t be out until the last trading day this month – that there were ETF outflows in October for the third time this year (also in February and June, and in both months stock-market gains vanished, and in Feb stocks corrected), and the third time since the Financial Crisis.

The risk in a prolonged down market is that ETF shares and the value of collateral – stocks – are both declining simultaneously.  Market-makers can pick one and short it, or pick both and short both, in the hopes that if and when the market recovers, they get it right.

But if they’re wrong, the sheer size of ETF creations and redemptions says there’s not enough collateral to cover obligations. Today, VIX volatility bets are lapsing ahead of Thanksgiving to conclude a horrific Nov expirations cycle.

I think it’ll sort out. If not, the bull market could end. And a major contributor when that happens will be the all-out pursuit of collateral over investment by ETFs.

When Oil Swoons

How is it that stocks and oil fall if no one is selling them? There’s an answer. Tim Tebow once famously sent a one-word tweet: “Motivation.”

For Tebow (Karen and I were downtown years ago when Tim was a Denver Broncos quarterback, and we passed a handsome youngster who offered a friendly hello and seemed familiar and had shoulders so wide they covered most of the sidewalk…and we realized seconds later we’d passed Tim Tebow.), the word meant a reason to try.

Motivation in markets is money.

Whatever your ticker, investor-relations professionals (or investors, whatever the composition of your portfolios), your price is often set by trading firms.

How do we know? Floor rules at the exchange prohibit using customer orders to price NYSE-listed stocks at the open. Designated Market Makers (DMMs) must trade their own capital to set a bid and offer for your shares. Now all DMMs are proprietary traders.

Investors:  If you don’t know how stock prices are set, you deserve to be outperformed by Exchange Traded Funds (ETFs). ETFs don’t even buy and sell stocks!  They are collateralized stock derivatives (let’s call them CSDs).

Don’t know what I mean? Stop, and listen:

If you’re in Dallas Fri Nov 16, hear my presentation on ETFs at The Clubs at Prestonwood.  Clients in Dallas: Ask your CFO and Treasurer and VP of Finance and Controller to learn what the money is doing behind price and volume, and why.

What if you’re Nasdaq-listed?  The first and fastest machines set all offers to sell (the primary price) and bids to buy (the secondary price) when stocks open for trading, and chances are traders (not IEX, the only exception) have been paid to set bids and offers.

It’s not your fundamentals. Machines set prices all day long.

And the price of oil most days is not determined by fundamentals either. It’s set by a currency. The US dollar.  Oil is denominated in dollars. Big dollar, smaller oil price. Small dollar – say 2007, or much of 2017 – big oil price.

Back to stocks. Under Regulation National Market System, there is a spread between the best bid to buy and offer to sell for your shares.  They can’t be the same ($15.01 buy, $15.01 to sell). That’s a locked market. Against the law.

The Bid cannot be higher than the Offer (e.g. Bid, $15.02, Offer $15.01). That’s a crossed market. Can’t happen. Why? So there’s an audit trail, a way to trace which firms set every bid, every offer, in the market. And a crossed market cannot be controlled by limit-up/limit-down girders that govern stocks now. (You can bid more than what’s asked for art, houses, cars, companies, etc. But not stocks.)

If demand from money wanting to buy shares exactly matched supply, stocks would decline. Brokers, required by rule to set every bid and offer, have to be paid.

That means stocks can rise only if demand exceeds supply, a condition we measure every day for you, and the market. Do you think your board and executive team might like to know?  (Note: If you want to know if supply exceeds demand in your stock, or your sector, ask us. We’ll give you a look gratis.)

Knowing if or when supply exceeds demand is not determined by whether your stock goes up or down. Were it so, 100% of trades would be front-run by Fast Traders. So how can it be that no money leaves stocks and they fall, and no money sells oil and it falls?

Do you own a house? Suppose you put it up as collateral for a loan to start a business you believed would be more valuable than your house. This is the bet ETF traders make daily. Put up collateral, create ETF shares, bet that ETF shares can be sold for more ($12.1 million) than the cost of the collateral offered for the right to create them ($12.0 million).

Then suppose you can sit between buyers and sellers and make 10 basis points on every trade in the ETF, the index futures the ETF tracks, and the stocks comprising the index.  Another $120,000 (a 20% margin over collateral). Do that every day and it’s meaningful even to Goldman Sachs for whom this business is now 90% of equity trading.

Reverse it. When stock-supply exceeds demand, ETF creators and market-makers lose money. So they sell and short, and the whole market convulses.  Spreads jump. Nobody can make heads or tails of it – until you consider the motivation. Price-spreads.

Oil? Remember our time-tested theme (you veteran readers). If the dollar rises, oil falls. It happened in Sep 2014 when the Federal Reserve stopped expanding its balance sheet.

Now it’s worse. The Fed is shrinking its balance sheet. Oil is denominated in dollars no matter what Saudi Arabia does. If the dollar gets bigger – stronger – oil prices shrink. Look at the chart here for the Energy sector. ETFs? Devalued collateral?

ETFs, the greatest investment phenomenon of the modern era, behave like currencies. We’ve not yet had a BIG imbalance. It’s coming. We’ll see it.  Subscribe. It’s motivating.