Tagged: ETFs

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.


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.

Pricing Everything

As the colors of political persuasion in the USA ripple today, what matters in the equity market is what the money is doing.

We measure Sentiment by company and sector and across the whole market daily. It’s not mass psychology. Rational thought sets a small minority of prices (your board and execs should know, investor-relations professionals, or they will expect you to move mountains when the power at IR fingertips now is demographics – just as in politics).

We’re measuring ebbs and flows of money and the propensity of the machines executing the mass of trades now to lift or lower prices.

When the market is Oversold by our measures, it means Passive money is likely to be underweight relative to its models and benchmarks, and probability increases that machines will lift prices for stocks because relative value – the price now versus sometime in the past 20 days – is attractive. We call it Market Structure Sentiment.

In Oct 2016, before the Presidential election, Market Structure Sentiment saw its worst stretch since Sep-Oct 2014 when the Federal Reserve stopped buying debt, sending the dollar soaring and the energy industry into a bear market.

We at ModernIR thought then that after pervasive monetary intervention the next bear market would be two years out. On the eve of the Presidential election two years ago, and two years out, the Dow 30 traded at Dec 2014 levels.

We figured we’d called it.

We were wrong (the market makes fools of most who propose to prophesy).  Donald Trump won, and stocks surged until October this year.

As I write Nov 6, Market Structure Sentiment has bottomed at 3.5/10.0 on our 10-point scale. In 2016 it bottomed Nov 9, the day of the election (and stocks surged thereafter).

Conclusions?  Maybe rational thought means little.

Consider: The SEC has approved Rule 606(b)(3) (if rules need parentheses it means there are too many – but I digress) for brokers, requiring that they disclose (thank you, alert and longtime reader Walt Schuplak) when they’re paid by venues for trades and trade for their own accounts.

Public companies and investors, why do we need rules requiring brokers to tell us if they’re getting paid for orders or trading ahead? Because they’re doing it. And it’s legal.

If we want to suppress both things, why not outlaw them?

Because the market now depends on both to price everything.

Let me explain. When the SEC exempted Exchange Traded Funds from the Investment Company Act’s requirement that fund-shares be redeemable for underlying assets, they did so because ETFs had an “arbitrage mechanism,” a built-in way for brokers to profit if ETFs deviated from its underpinning index.  (NOTE: If you don’t know how ETFs work, catch the panel at NIRI Chicago next week.)

Those exemptions preceded Regulation National Market System, which capped trading fees – but left open what could be PAID for trades. I bet the SEC never saw this coming.

Rule 606(b)(3) forces brokers to tell customers when they get paid for trades and if they are trading for themselves at the same time.

In ETFs, the two dovetail. Brokers can earn trading incentives legitimately because they’re fueling the SEC-sanctioned arbitrage mechanism, which requires changing prices. Rules let you get paid for it!

Second, since ETFs are created and redeemed by brokers (not Blackrock), much ETF market-making is principal trading – for a broker’s own account.

So ETFs create opportunity for brokers to get paid for setting price, and to put their own trades ahead of customer orders – the things 606(b)(3) wants to highlight.

Now ETFs are the largest investment vehicle in markets, and Fast Trading prices stocks more often than anything else. Suppose you’re the SEC. What would you do?

Let’s put it in mathematical terms. Our analytics show 88% of trading volume is something besides rational investment. We blame rules that focus on price. Whatever the cause, there’s a 12% chance rational thinking is why Sentiment is bottomed at midterms.

I think the SEC knows. Can they fix it? Well, the SEC created it to begin.

For now, public companies, every time you look at stock-price, there’s a 12% chance it’s rational. Does your board know? If not, why not? Boards have fiduciary responsibility.

And investors, are you factoring market structure into your decisions? You’d best do so. Odds favor it.

Blocking Volatility


As the market raged high and low, so did Karen and I this week, from high in the Rockies where we saw John Denver’s fire in the sky over the Gore Range, down to Scottsdale and the Arizona desert’s 80-degree Oct 30 sunset over the Phoenician (a respite as my birthday is…wait for it…Oct 31).

Markets rise and fall.  We’re overdue for setbacks.  It doesn’t mean we’ll have them, but it’s vital that we understand market mechanics behind gyrations. Sure, there’s human nature. Fear and greed. But whose fear or greed?

Regulators and exchanges are tussling over fees on data and trades.  There’s a proposed SEC study that’ll examine transaction fees, costs imposed by exchanges for trading. Regulation National Market System caps them at $0.30/100 shares, or a third of a penny per share, which traders call “30 mils.”

The NYSE has proposed lowering the cap to $0.10/100, or a tenth of a penny per share, or 10 mils. Did you know there’s a booming market where brokers routinely pay eight cents per share or $8.00/100 shares?

What market? Exchange-Traded Funds (ETFs).

We’re told that one day the market is plunging on trade fears, poor earnings, geopolitics, whatever. And the next, it surges 430 points on…the reversal of fears. If you find these explanations irrational, you’re not alone, and you have reason for skepticism.

There’s a better explanation.

Let’s tie fees and market volatility together. At right is an image from the iShares Core MSCI EAFE ETF (CBOE:IEFA) prospectus showing the size of a standard creation Unit and the cost to brokers for creating one.  Divide the standard Unit of 200,000 shares by the usual cost to create one Unit, $15,000, and it’s $0.08/share (rounded up). Mathematically, that’s 2,600% higher than the Reg NMS fee cap.

Understand: brokers provide collateral – in this case $12.5 million of stocks, cash, or a combination – for the right to create 200,000 ETF shares to sell to the public.

Why are brokers willing to pay $8.00/100 to create ETF shares when they rail at paying $0.30/100 – or a lot less – in the stock market?

Because ETF shares are created in massive blocks off-market without competition. Picture buying a giant roll of paper privately, turning it into confetti via a shredder, and selling each scrap for a proportionate penny more than you paid for the whole roll.

The average trade-size for brokers creating IEFA shares is 200,000 shares.  The average trade-size in the stock market where you and I buy IEFA or any other stock is 167 shares (50-day average, ModernIR data).  Do the math on that ratio.

ETF market-makers are pursuing a realtime, high-speed version of the corporate-raider model. Buy something big and split it into pieces worth more than the sum of the parts.

In a rising market, it’s awesome.  These creations in 200,000-share blocks I’ve just described are running at nearly $400 billion every MONTH. Create in blocks, shred, mark up. ETF demand drives up all stocks. Everybody wins.

What happens in a DOWN market?

Big brokers are exchanging your stocks, public companies, as collateral for the right to create and sell ETF shares.  Suppose nobody shows up to buy ETF shares.  What brokers swapped to create ETF shares is suddenly worth less, not more, than the shredded value of the sum of the parts. So to speak.

Without ETF flows to drive up it up, the collateral – shares of stocks – plunges in value.

The market devolves into desperate tactical trading warfare to offset losses. Brokers dump other securities, short stocks, buy hedges. Stocks gyrate, and the blame goes to trade, Trump, earnings, pick your poison.

How do I know what I’ve described is correct?  Follow the money. The leviathan in the US equity market today is creating and redeeming ETF shares. It’s hundreds of billions of dollars monthly, versus smatterings of actual fund-flows. You don’t see it because it’s not counted as fund turnover.

But it fits once you grasp the weird way the market’s last big block market is fostering volatility.

What’s ahead? If losses have been sorted, we’ll settle down in this transition from Halloween to November. Our data are still scary.  We may have more ghouls to flush out.

Reactively Passive

As stocks fell last week, pundits declared that interest rates and trade fears had shaken confidence. Yesterday as the Dow Jones Industrial Average zoomed 540 points, earnings, they declaimed, had brought investors rushing back. Oh, and easing trade tensions.

Didn’t we know corporate profits would be up 20% on tax cuts?

Rational factors affect stocks. But often these convenient explanations are offered afterward, and few observers seem to look at the data surrounding investment behavior.

The first image here with data from the Investment Company Institute’s 2018 Factbook shows the staggering shift from active to passive funds over the past decade. It debunks most market reporting claiming rational thought is reactively propelling markets.

A fallacy that lacks comprehension of how passive money behaves is that it rides the coattails of rational money (In fact Active investors are closet indexing with ETFs). If your stock is 1% of a weighted index fund, and shares rise faster than other components and become 1.2%, sooner or later the fund must rebalance or slip out of compliance.

If equities are meant to be 40% of a targICI Data from 2018 Factbook - Active to Passive shiftet-date fund and become 50%, the fund will rebalance.  We see the patterns, most times at month-ends and quarter-ends, and around monthly expirations when options, futures, forwards, repurchases and other derivatives used widely by investors, market-makers and fund managers must be recalibrated.

The biggest culprit is Exchange Traded Funds.

We’re told by Blackrock, Vanguard and State Street that ETFs have little turnover.  Should we believe money pours into markets but does nothing? It cannot simultaneously be true that trillions of dollars shift to ETFs and true that ETFs don’t invest it.

Unless ETFs don’t buy and sell things. In which case, what are ETFs?

I looked at the turnover rate in the last prospectus for SPY from State Street, the largest and oldest ETF. The fund says it bought or sold just 3% of its $242 billion of assets.

But turnover is footnoted: “Portfolio turnover rate excludes securities received or delivered from in-kind processing of creations or redemptions of units.”

Huh. Creations and redemptions?  We researched it (as you already know!).

Creations and redemptions, it turns out, are tax-free, commission-free, off-market block transactions between large brokers and ETF creators like Blackrock.  The broker supplies collateral such as stocks or cash and receives in-kind rights to create and sell ETF shares.

Then trillions of investment dollars buy these collateralized stock substitutes, setting stocks afire. If investors sell ETFs, brokers buy and return them to Blackrock to get collateral back. Wash, rinse, repeat.

Blackrock makes money as the rush of investors into ETFs drives up the value of the underlying collateral (gotten by brokers where?), and by minimizing taxes.

For instance, under rules for ETFs, if your stock has gone way up, Blackrock will put your shares in the redemption basket to trade for an equal value of ETF shares from, say, Morgan Stanley, which then can sell and short your stock, which plunges.

Blackrock sheds associated capital gains.  Morgan Stanley at some future point will cover or buy your shares and return them to Blackrock for the right to create more ETF shares offering exposure to – whatever, the S&P 500, a sector ETF, a market-cap ETF.

These transactions are occurring in the hundreds of billions of dollars monthly, none of it recorded as fund turnover.

If creations and redemptions were counted for SPY, its turnover rate would be 165%, not 3%. SPY created and redeemed well more than $400 billion, nearly double its total assets, in the most recent full year.

As of Aug 2018, nearly $2.9 TRILLION of these transactions has occurred – all effectively commission-free and tax-free for Blackrock, Vanguard and State Street (but not for the end consumers of ETFs, who pay taxes and commissions).

Continually, brokers try to profit on differing prices for collateral and ETF shares, and ETF managers try to wash out capital gains, removing overvalued collateral and bringing in undervalued collateral (the reason you and peers diverge).

The relentless creation/redemption tides swing stocks, and human beings then cast about for explanations like interest rates or trade fears – or wait, trade fears have eased! The market rallies!

Tech Sector behaviors Sep-Oct 2018This is what it looks like in the Tech sector. We saw the same pattern at the same time in every GICS sector to varying degrees, the most in Materials (down 10%), the least in Utilities (down less than 2% the past five days).

The last time the market rebalanced was in early July, the first part of the third quarter of 2018.  Our Sentiment Index dipped below 4.0, a market bottom.  We observed no meaningful rebalancing again in July, or August, or September. Each time the market mean-reverted to 5.0 without turning negative, we warned of compounding imbalances.

Market Sentiment was about 4.0, a bottom, Oct 15, after topping Sep 26. Into expirations today through Friday, we expected a strong surge because all the stuff that was overweight is now underweight (the surge arrived a day early, before VIX expirations).

These cycles tend to shorten as markets break down. We had six bottoms in 2015, the last time the market was negative for the year. This is the third for 2018 after just one in 2017. Aging bull market?

Electric Market Toothbrush

We were in Portugal and our electric toothbrush went haywire.

It would randomly turn on in the night, and no amount of pressing the button would silence it. We abandoned it in Evora in the shadow of 2,000-year-old Roman aqueducts that still work.

The point isn’t the ephemeral nature of manufactured products (Amazon assured we’d have a replacement waiting, so the modern era works!). But two recent events show how the stock market is built for the short-term – and may run of its own accord.

First, the Wall Street Journal reported Sep 21 that a judge is permitting a class action suit from customers to proceed against TD Ameritrade alleging the big discount broker with 11 million customers breached its “best execution” obligation.

For you investor-relations professionals who’ve heard about the Fee Pilot Program proposed by the SEC, this gets to the heart of it. For you investors, it illustrates how market structure is trumping investment motivation.

Let me explain.  The suit claims TD Ameritrade put its own interest above that of its customers because it routed customer trade-executions to high-speed traders for payment, earning $320 million. TD Ameritrade had net income of about $870 million in 2017 – so selling orders was over 35% of the bottom line.

There’s no law against it, and rules encourage it by forcing trading to occur between the national best bid to buy or offer to sell. Prices constantly change as machines move bids and offers, breaking trades into small pieces to profit on intermediating them.

Retail brokerages sell orders to high-speed firms to avoid these marketplace challenges (of note, the WSJ said Fidelity stopped selling its orders in 2015, an exception in the group). That fast traders paid $320 million for orders suggests they can sell them for more – money that should have gone to the customers rather than the intermediaries.

One could argue spreads are so low that what difference does it make?  What’s a few pennies on a hundred-share order?

The problem is that fees for orders change behavior. High-speed firms aren’t investors. They profit by changing prices. That’s arbitrage, and it becomes both means and end.

What’s the definition of volatility?  Unstable – changing – prices. Rules create economic incentives to change prices. Intraday volatility marketwide is 2.3%, far higher than what the VIX based on implied volatility suggests. Arbitrage is the opposite of long-term investment. Why would we want rules that encourage it?

This is why we support the proposed SEC study that would include eliminating fees in one group (an astute IR guy observed to me in Washington DC last week that every stock should spend time in each of the buckets so there is no discrimination). We don’t want arbitrage pricing the market we all depend on as a gauge of fair value.

Which leads to the second item. The ETFMG Alternative Harvest ETF, a pot fund amusingly tickered “MJ” (last dance with Mary Jane, one more time to kill the pain, sang Tom Petty), made headlines for sharp divergence from its intraday indicative value.

ETFs are required to report net asset value every 15 seconds. Traders can arbitrage – here it comes again – ETF shares as they cross above or below NAV.

(Programming note: I’ll be at the Connecticut/Westchester Chapter Oct 3 talking about the impact of ETFs on markets and your stock, and we’re sponsoring the NIRI Chicago Chapter this Friday the 28th so stop by and say hi!)

The SEC is now proposing to eliminate that requirement so ETFs would price once a day like actual pooled investments such as index mutual funds.  Here’s the kicker: The SEC in first permitting ETFs to trade exempted them from the “redeemable security” mandate in the Investment Company Act of 1940.

That is, all pooled investments must exchange investors’ shares for a proportionate part of the pool of assets when asked. ETFs are exempted from that provision. They are not redeemable. The SEC approved them because creators said the “arbitrage mechanism” would make them in effect redeemable because they would have the same value as an index.

What if the arbitrage incentive diminishes?

To me, the problem today for investors and public companies is the market’s staggering dependency on arbitrage. High-speed traders and Passive money, the latter mostly ETF market-making, are 80% of market volume. The two behaviors at issue in these situations. The math on SPY, the world’s largest ETF, suggests arbitrage is an astonishing 94% of its trading volume when compared to gross share-issuance.

It’s like an electric toothbrush you can’t shut off. What you thought was an instrument designed to serve a purpose can no longer be controlled.  It’s creditable that the SEC is investigating how its rules may be running the toothbrush – and courts could put a spotlight on a market priced by the fastest orders.

We don’t need to go back to Roman aqueducts (though they still work). We can and should recognize that the market has gotten awfully far removed from its intended purpose.

Age of Discovery

Bom Dia!

We returned Monday from Portugal after two fantastic weeks roaming and pedaling this land famed for its explorers. We stood at Cape St. Vincent, once the end of the known world where Vasco da Gama, Ferdinand Magellan and Christopher Columbus sailed off to what many thought was a ride over the edge.

In a sense, the investor-relations and stock-picking professions are at Cape St. Vincent. The market we’ve known, the one driven by business fundamentals, is a spit of rock projecting into a vast sea of unknown currents.  We are explorers on a forbidding shore.

Henry the Navigator, father of the Age of Discovery, challenged fear, superstition and entrenched beliefs to create the Harvard of sailing schools on the barren shoals of Sagres, a stone’s throw south of Cape St. Vincent. From it went intrepid adventurers who by sailing what proved to be a globe laid the cornerstones of today’s flattened earth that’s interconnected economically and culturally.

Speaking of conquering the unknown, I’m paneling for the NIRI Virtual chapter at noon ET today on the impact of Exchange Traded Funds, then tomorrow addressing the Capital Area NIRI group on how ETFs drive the market.

It’s what the money is doing. If as IR professionals we’re to fulfill our responsibilities to inform our boards about important facets of equity valuation, we have to know these things as explorers knew the sextant.

By the same token, investors, if you know only how stocks should be valued bottom-up but not how the market transforms stocks into products and data priced by arbitrage, then you’ll fail to beat the benchmark.  Market Structure is as essential to navigation as was knowing currents and stars and weather patterns for yesteryear’s seafarers.

How do we at ModernIR know we’ve got the right navigational tools for today’s market?  Vasco da Gama combined knowledge and forecasts learned at the School of Navigation to find a passage by sea to India.

We combine knowledge of market rules and the behavior of money with software and mathematical models that project outcomes – passages.  If our knowledge is correct, our sextant will mark a course.

Our models are roughly 93% accurate in forecasting short-term prices across the entire market – a startling achievement. For comparative purposes, moving averages have no measurable statistical capacity to forecast prices, and variances between them and actual prices are factors larger than that in our models. Why use tools that don’t tell you where you’re going?

Ownership-change is a tiny fraction of trading volume. What does it tell you about how your price is set?  Nothing. By contrast, patterns of behavioral change are as stark as waves in Cascais – or the world’s biggest surfers’ waves off Nazare.  We see waves of sector rotation, short-term turns in the market – just like weather patterns.

We’re in an age of discovery. Some will cling to a barren spit of land, doing what they’ve always done. The rest will set a new course to a future of clarity about how stocks are priced and valued and how money behaves.  Which group will you be in?

Hope to see you at a NIRI chapter meeting soon!  And ask us how we can help you navigate the coming earnings season with better tools.

Borrowed Time

“If a stock trades 500,000 shares daily,” said panelist Mark Flannery from hedge fund Point72 last Thursday on my market-structure panel, “and you’ve got 200,000 to buy or sell, you’d think ‘well that should work.’ It won’t. Those 500,000 shares aren’t all real.”

If you weren’t in Austin last week, you missed a great NIRI Southwest conference.  Mr. Flannery and IEX’s John Longobardi were talking about how the market works today.  Because a stock trades 500,000 shares doesn’t mean 500,000 shares of real buying and selling occur.  Some of it – probably 43% – is borrowed.

Borrowing leads to inflation in stocks as it does in economies.  When consumers borrow money to buy everything, economies reflect unrealistic economic wherewithal. Supply and demand are supposed to set prices but when demand is powered by borrowing, prices inevitably rise to unsustainable levels.  It’s an economic fact.

All borrowing is not bad. Borrowing money against assets permits one to spend and invest simultaneously.  But borrowing is the root of crises so watching it is wise.

Short interest – stock borrowed and sold and not yet covered and returned to owners as a percentage of total shares outstanding – isn’t unseemly. But it’s not a predictive indicator, nor does it describe risk. The great majority of shares don’t trade, yet what sets price is whoever buys or sells.

It’s far better to track shares borrowed as a percentage of total traded shares, as we described last week. It’s currently 43%, down one percentage point, or about 2.3%, as stocks have zoomed in latter August.

But almost 30% of stocks (excluding ETFs, routinely higher and by math on a handful of big ones averaging close to 60%) have short volume of 50% or more, meaning half of what appears to be buying and selling is coming from something that’s been borrowed and sold.

In an up market, that’s not a problem. A high degree of short-term borrowing, much of it from high-speed firms fostering that illusory 500,000 shares we discussed on the panel, means lots of intraday price-movement but a way in which short-term borrowing, and covering, and borrowing, and covering (wash, rinse, repeat), may propel a bull market.

In the Wall Street Journal Aug 25, Alex Osipovich wrote about how Goldman Sachs and other banks are trying to get a piece of the trading day’s biggest event: The closing auction (the article quotes one of the great market-structure experts, Mehmet Kinak from T Rowe Price). Let’s dovetail it with pervasive short-term borrowing.

We’ve mapped sector shorting versus sector ETF shorting, and the figures inversely correlate, suggesting stocks are borrowed as collateral to create ETFs, and ETFs are borrowed and returned to ETF sponsors for stocks.

A handful of big banks like Goldman Sachs are primary market-makers, called Authorized Participants (as opposed to secondary market-makers trading ETFs), which create and redeem ETF shares by moving stock collateral back and forth.

The banks give those using their versions of closing auctions the guaranteed closing price from the exchanges.  But it’s probably a great time to cover short-term ETF-related borrowings because trades will occur at an average price in effect.

The confluence of offsetting economic incentives (selling, covering borrowings) contribute to a stable, rising market. In the past week average intraday volatility dropped to 1.9% from a 200-day average of 2.5% at the same time shorting declined – anecdotal proof of the point.

What’s the flip side?  As with all borrowing, the bill hurts when growth stalls. When the market tips over at some future inevitable point, shorting will meet shorting. It happened in January 2016 when shorting reached 52% of total volume. In February this year during the correction it was 46%. Before the November election, short volume was 49%.

The point for both investors and public companies is that you can’t look at trading volume for a given stock and conclude that it’s equal and offsetting buying and selling. I guarantee you it’s not.

You don’t have to worry about it, but imbalances, however they may occur, become a much bigger deal in markets dependent on largescale short-term borrowing. It’s another market-structure lesson.