Tagged: ETFs

Rotation

There’s a story going around about an epochal rotation from momentum (growth) to value in stocks. It may be a hoax.

I’ll explain in a bit. First the facts. It began Monday when without warning the iShares Edge MSCI USA Value Factor ETF (VLUE) veered dramatically up and away from the iShares Edge MSCI USA Momentum Factor ETF (MTUM).

CNBC said of Monday trading, “Data compiled by Bespoke Investment Group showed this was momentum’s worst daily performance relative to value since its inception in early 2013.”

The story added, “The worst performing stocks of 2019 outperformed on Monday while the year’s biggest advancers lagged, according to SentimenTrader. This year’s worst performers rose 3.5% on Monday while 2019’s biggest advancers slid 1.4%, the research firm said.”

A tweet from SentimenTrader called it “the biggest 1-day momentum shift since 2009.”

It appeared to continue yesterday. We think one stock caused it all.

Our view reflects a theorem we’ve posited before about the unintended consequences of a market crammed full of Exchange Traded Funds, substitutes for stocks that depend for prices on the prices of stocks they’re supposed to track.

To be fair, the data the past week are curious. We sent a note to clients Monday before the open. Excerpt:

“Maybe all the data is about to let loose. It’s just. Strange.  Fast Trading leading. ETFs more volatile than stocks. Spreads evaporating. Sentiment stuck in neutral. More sectors sold than bought….Stocks should rise. But it’s a weird stretch ahead of options-expirations Sep 18-20.  It feels like the market is traversing a causeway.”

That stuff put together could mean rotation, I suppose.

But if there was a massive asset shift from growth to value, we’d see it in behavioral change. We don’t. The only behavior increasing in September so far is Fast Trading – machines exploiting how prices change.

What if it was AT&T and Elliott Management causing it?

If you missed the news, T learned last weekend that Activist investor Elliott Management had acquired a $3.2 billion stake in the communications behemoth and saw a future valuation near $60.  On that word, T surged Monday to a 52-week high.

T is the largest component of the MSCI index the value ETF VLUE tracks, making up about 10% of its value.  ETFs, as I said above, have been more volatile than stocks.

Compare the components of MTUM and VLUE and they’re shades apart. Where T is paired with VLUE, CMCSA ties to MTUM, as does DIS.  MRK is momentum, PFE is value. CSCO momentum, INTC, IBM value. PYPL, V, MA momentum, BAC, C, value.

Look at the market. What stuff did well, which did poorly?

The outlier is T. It’s a colossus among miniatures. It trades 100,000 times daily, a billion dollars of volume, and it’s been 50% short for months, with volatility 50% less than the broad market, and Passive Investment over 20% greater in T than the broad market.

T blasted above $38 Monday on a spectacular lightning bolt of…Fast Trading. The same behavior leading the whole market.  Not investment. No asset-shift.

What if machines, which cannot comprehend what they read like humans can, despite advances in machine-learning, artificial intelligence (no learning or intelligence is possible without human inputs – we’re in this business and we know), improperly “learned” a shift from growth to value solely from T – and spread it like a virus?

Humans may be caught up in the machine frenzy, concluding you gotta be in value now, not realizing there’s almost no difference between growth and value in the subject stocks.

Compare the top ten “holdings” of each ETF. Easy to find. Holdings, by the way, may not reflect what these ETFs own at a given time. Prospectuses offer wide leeway.

But let’s give them the benefit of the doubt. What’s the difference between MRK and PFE? V, MA, and PYPL and C, BAC and, what, GM and DIS?

Stock pickers know the difference, sure.  Machines don’t. Sponsors of ETFs wanting good collateral don’t.  Except, of course, that cheap collateral is better than expensive collateral, because it’s more likely to produce a return.

Such as: All the worst-performing stocks jumped. All the best-performing stocks didn’t.

What if this epochal rotation is nothing more than news of Elliott’s stake in T pushing a domino forward, which dropped onto some algorithm, that tugged a string, which plucked a harp note that caused fast-trading algorithms to buy value and sell momentum?

This is a risk with ETFs. You can’t trust signs of rotation.

We have the data to keep you from being fooled by machine-learning.

Interesting Year

“It’s going to be an interesting year.”

We wrote that phrase in the Jan 2, 2019 edition of the Market Structure Map. (By the way, we’re in Rhode Island this week visiting customers, and in Newport you’ll see the sea in everything.)

I don’t mean to suggest we’re amongst those arrogant buffoons quoting themselves. I do think we drew the right line from Dec 2018 to the future. We noted, and it’s worth reading, that the Federal Reserve had shut down the Maiden Lane financial entity used to buy assets from AIG. An epochal event.

We said it could mark a top for the inflationary arc in risk assets spawned by the flood of cheap central-bank money.  We’ve had no gains in stocks from Sep 20, 2018 to present.

In December last year, pundits blamed the market maelstrom on impending recession. It was false then and it’s false now. Sure, all economies contract – fall into recession.  It wasn’t a uniformly engrossing event before central banks, though.

The human propensity to borrow and spend on growth, which at some point slows, leading to the collapse of borrowers and lenders alike, is normal and not something we should be trying to eradicate by juicing credit markets.

The bigger the credit wave, the farther the economic surfboard skims, and everyone marvels at the duration of the expansion cycle. And then the wave dies on the shoals. We’re now riding it, wind in our hair, with a vast curl beginning to form overhead.

But that’s not what sparked the market’s volatile descent.

One client (thank you!) shared notes from a JP Morgan conference call on recent volatility. JPM says economic underpinnings are reasonably sound and no cause for market troubles. Hedging strategies leading to the consumption of fixed income securities and sale of equities generated market duress (and skyrocketing bond prices), says JPM.

What prompted hedging strategies to change?  The cries of “recession!” didn’t commence until the market had already plummeted.

The same thing happened last December. After the market tanked, people were searching for reasons – failing to consider the structure of markets today and once again errantly supposing rational thought was at fault – and decided that so large a drop could only mean economic contraction had arrived.

It had not.

Think about how incorrect premises cost public companies money. There’s lost equity value. Higher equity cost of capital on volatility. Time and money spent messaging to the market about recession defenses.

CNBC had data yesterday on the spiking occurrence of Google searches around “the R word,” as they say.  No doubt a chunk of readers were searching earnings-call transcripts and press releases for it.

Behavioral data show no evidence of rational thought behind the market’s decline. Passive Investment plunged 20% the week ended Aug 2.  Stocks cratered.

Further, our data show the same thing JPM discussed. At Aug 19, order flow related to directional bets is down 11% versus the 200-day average. Occurring with expiring August options and newly trading September instruments Aug 15-21, it’s telling. Bets and hedges have gone awry. Low volatility schemes have failed. Insurance costs are up.

Low volatility investing is the most popular “smart beta” technique used to beat general market performance with rules-based investments. The dominance of smart beta is largely responsible for the outperformance of Utilities stocks tied to smart beta Exchange Traded Funds (ETFs.). Those strategies failed in August.

Volatility bets like the VIX expire today, Aug 21.

We can often peg the amount a stock will fall on bad earnings news to the percentage of market-cap tied to derivatives. Why? If future prices become indeterminate, the value of the instruments predicated on them declines near zero.

Currently, 16.4% of market cap traces back to derivatives and leverage, such as borrowing, down from pre-August levels over 18%. Volatility clouds predictability. The cost of leverage and protection increases, while use diminishes.

What if the market fell because Passive money was overweight equities and overdue for rebalancing, and stopped buying stocks in late July, which caused a gut-lurching swoon, which in turn rendered hedges worthless?

Talk of recession is a consequence of the market’s decline. Not causality.  Think about your own stock, IR professionals. Do you understand what drives it?  Investors, if you weight your portfolio for a recession that doesn’t exist, you’ll be wrong.

Our premise Jan 2 was that the end of Maiden Lane was the end of a monetary era, and it had the potential to create an interesting year. So far, seems right.  We also know what kind of money is waxing or waning. You should too. It’s not just interesting. It’s essential to correct actions.

Why Traders Trade

Albert Einstein reputedly quipped that compounding was the 8th wonder of the world. What would he think of negative interest rates?

The 10-year German government bond yield is -0.61%. The Rule of 72, which nobody mentions now, says dividing 72 by the expected rate of investment return tells you when it’ll double. At 6%, that’s 12 years. At 2%, 36 years. Try compounding negative rates.

Believe it or not, the stock market is weirder still.

Volatility in US stocks averaged 3.4% daily the past week, 55% higher than the risk-free return of 2.2% for 30-year US Treasurys.

Plug those figures into an equity cost of capital calculation where the expected return is 8%.  You with me?  It’s 22%!  So, the interest you earn on cash has vanished while the cost of raising it in public markets has exploded.

You may say, investor-relations professionals, there’s no way my equity costs 22%.  The truth is, volatility introduces value-uncertainty, which both increases what you pay for money, and on the other side, decreases returns on it.

University of Chicago professors Eugene Fama, who won a Nobel Prize in 2013, and Kenneth French, who also serves as head of investment policy for quant investor Dimensional Fund Advisors, co-authored a paper describing how equity-market volatility diminishes the apparent superiority of equities over bonds.

To wit, three-month Treasury Bills are returning 2% annualized. The S&P 500 since Sep 20, 2018 is down 0.4% even after yesterday’s gains. What if you’d sold Monday when the Dow Industrials dropped 391 points and bought yesterday when they rose 372? One day can make or break returns for investors.

Same for public companies. Say you issued stock in Dec 2018 and implemented an aggressive buyback in Jan 2019.  On the wrong side of the market, cost of capital skyrockets.

Rather than rationalizing market behavior, we should be asking why it’s become so volatile. And yes, it’s vastly more so now than during earlier epochs.

The answers? Rules. Stocks must trade between the best bid to buy and offer to sell, which cannot be the same. Thus, machines change prices. They’re 45% of volume.

On top of that, stock exchanges give firms economic incentives to trade stocks and derivatives simultaneously, accelerating the rate of change for prices.

For instance, the Nasdaq pays traders with more than 0.6% of sell volume (they call it adding liquidity but it’s paying traders to set the offer, the highest price for a stock) $0.29 per hundred shares.

Sell 1.75% of Nasdaq volume, with 0.6% in derivatives like options and futures, and if that amount is 0.1% of total Nasdaq derivatives volume, the exchanges pays $0.32 per hundred shares. That’s a 10% kicker for more prices.

Now add Exchange Traded Funds, which have no intrinsic value and depend for prices on the stocks that collateralize them. The two – stocks, and ETFs – are always a bit out of step.

Take Energy stocks last week.  XLE, a big Energy ETF, was down 2.2%. But composite Energy stocks were down 5.5% – a spread of 150%!

Capture half that by buying the ETF and selling the stocks, and it’s a 75% return.  No wonder traders trade.

ETFs drive what we estimate is 60% of total market volume now. ETFs exist via a regulatory exemption from the Investment Company Act of 1940 permitting them to trade as stock substitutes around an “arbitrage mechanism.”

That is, they depend on changing prices. There are thousands of ETFs, worth trillions of dollars. It’s a mania.

I’ll summarize: Market rules and investment behavior built on continually changing prices have transformed the market from a place where long-range horizons are the objective, to one where continuously changing prices are the objective.

Changing prices is the definition of volatility. Traders trade to profit on it. They rule.

What we expect from the stock market should derive from these facts. Public companies and investors alike should adapt. How? Understand the ebbs and flows and surf them like waves (we have that data). Modulate your buybacks, your stock issuances, your tactical investor-outreach, your investment decisions, to reflect behavioral facts.

Investors and public companies could also band together to petition the SEC to stop giving arbitrage a leg up.  The first step toward that goal is understanding how and why the market’s focus is now today’s spread, not tomorrow’s capital appreciation. I’ve explained it.

Mark Twain would say: Is the market run by smart people who are putting us on or imbeciles who really mean it?

Yet Arrived

Bula!

That’s Fijian for “greetings!” You say it “boo-lah.” Fiji is among the friendliest places on the planet. Karen and I are just back from the South Pacific, as this compilation illustrates.  Do you know it’s traditional in Fiji to invite anyone passing by to breakfast?

Maybe that’s the answer to the world’s woes.

And maybe we should have stayed out to sea!  Our first day back the market tumbled.

We left you July 18 with our concern that the market had become a runaway train. In a private client note Jul 19 as options expired we said, “Right now, the data say the market will next tick up. If it’s a weak top – check page 3 of your Market Structure Reports – we could have trouble. At this moment, I don’t think that’s set to occur. Yet.

Well, “yet” arrived.

Is it possible to know when yet is coming?

Yes. At least the way one knows a storm front is forming. It’s not mystical knowledge. It’s math. Weather forecasters track patterns because, as it turns out, weather is mathematical.  It follows rules that can be modeled.

We put a man on the moon 50 years ago because escaping gravity and traveling four days at predictable velocity will get you there. It’s math – which smart people computed on devices less powerful than your smart phone.

Even human behavior, which isn’t mathematical, can often be predicted (somebody needs to develop a model for mass-shooting nutcases). For instance, in the stock market rational people predictably buy weakness and sell strength.

What kind of money sells weakness and buys strength? We’ll come to that.

Conventional wisdom says stocks imploded because a) people wanted the Federal Reserve to cut rates Jul 31 more than it did, b) President Trump tweeted about Chinese tariffs, c) and the Chinese retaliated by letting the yuan slide.

Relative currency values matter. We’ve written often about it. The pandemonium routing equities Aug 24, 2015 followed a yuan devaluation too. Stocks inversely correlate with the dollar because currencies have no inherent value today.

So if the supply of dollars rises, the value of the dollar falls, and the prices of assets denominated in dollars that serve as stores of value, such as stocks, rise. Value investor Ron Baron said he puts depreciating assets, dollars, into appreciating assets, stocks.

With dollars increasing, the relative value of other currencies like the euro and the yen rises, so prices of goods denominated in them fall – which governments and central banks interpret as “a recession,” leading to interest-rate cuts, negative bond yields, banks buying stuff to create money, and other weirdness.

Makes you wonder if these central planners actually understand economics.

I digress. That’s not the root reason why stocks rolled over. Headlines, Fed actions and currencies don’t buy or sell stocks. People and machines do.

The majority of the money in the market pegs a benchmark now – machine-like behavior. Market Structure Sentiment, our index for short-term market-direction, has been above 5.0 for an extended period without mean-reversion.

That matters because money tracking a measure must rebalance – mean-revert. If it goes an unusual stretch without doing so, risk of a sudden mean-reversion rises.

We saw the same condition before stock-corrections in Jan 2016, June 2016 around Brexit, ahead of the US election in late Oct 2016, in Jan 2018, and in Sep 2018. Each featured an extended positive Sentiment run with a weak top, as now.

The week ended Aug 2 also had another mathematical doozy: Exchange Traded Fund flows as measured not by purchases or sales of ETFs but market-making by brokers plunged 20%.  In some mega capitalization stocks it was the largest decline in ETF flows since early Dec 2018.

Passive money buys strength, until it stops. When it stops, weakness often follows. And if it has not rebalanced, it sells weakness because weakness means deteriorating returns.

The last day of trading every month is the most important one for money tracking benchmarks. That was July 31. Stocks deteriorated in the afternoon. Pundits blamed Jay Powell’s comments. What if it was long overdue rebalancing on the last trading day?

That selling coupled with a big overall decline in ETF flows converged with a currency depreciation Monday, and whoosh! What yet we feared arrived.

And yet. It’s not fundamental. Why does that matter? Monetary policy, portfolio positioning, and economic predictions may be predicated on a false premise that rational people had unmet expectations.

I think that’s a big deal.

So. Since yet has arrived, is yet over?  Data say no. It’s a model with predictiveness that may be a step ahead or behind. But a swoon like this should produce a mean-reversion. That’s not – yet – happened.

With that, I say Bula! And if you’re in the neighborhood, drop by for breakfast on us.

Unstoppable

Any of you Denzel Washington fans?

He starred in a 2010 movie loosely based on real events called Unstoppable, about a runaway freight train (I have Tom Petty’s “Runaway Train” going through my head).

In a way, the market has the appearance of an unstoppable force, a runaway train.  On it goes, unexpectedly, and so pundits, chuckling uncomfortably, try to explain why.

Tellingly, however, in the past month, JP Morgan said 80% of market volume is on autopilot, driven by passive and systematic flows.  Goldman Sachs held a conference call for issuers on what’s driving stock-prices – focusing on market structure. Jefferies issued a white paper called When the Market Moves the Market (thank you, alert readers, for those!).

We’ve been talking about market structure for almost 15 years (writing here on it since 2006). We’re glad some big names are joining us. You skeptics, if you don’t believe us, will you believe these banks?

Market structure has seized control. Stock pickers say the market always reflects expectations.  Well, stocks are at records even as expectations for corporate earnings predict a recession – back-to-back quarterly profit-declines.

There’s more. Last week the S&P 500 rose 0.8%, pushing index gains to 9.3% total since the end of May. But something that may be lost on most: The S&P 500 is up less than 2.5% since last September. The bane of stock-investing is volatility – changing prices.

Hedge funds call that uncompensated risk. The market has given us three straight quarters of stomach-lurching roller coasters of risk. For a 2.5% gain?

We all want stocks to rise!  Save shorts and volatility traders.  The point is that we should understand WHY the market does what it does. When it’s behaving unexpectedly, we shouldn’t shrug and say, “Huh. Wonder what that’s about?”

It’s akin to what humorist Dave Barry said you can do when your car starts making a funny noise:  Turn the radio up.

Let me give you another weird market outtake.  We track composite quantitative data on stocks clustered by sector (and soon by industry, and even down to selected peers).  That is, we run central tendencies, averages, for stocks comprising industries.

Last week, Consumer Discretionary stocks were best, up 1.5%. The sector SPDR (XLY, the State Street ETF) was up 2% (a spread of 33% by the way). Yet sector stocks had more selling than buying every day but Friday last week.

You know the old investor-relations joke:  “Why is our stock down today?”

“Because we had more sellers than buyers.”

Now stocks are UP on more selling than buying.

An aside before I get to the punchline:  ETF flows are measured in share creations and redemptions. More money into ETFs? More ETF shares are created.  Except there were $50 billion more ETF shares created than redeemed in December last year when the market fell 20%.

The market increasingly cannot be trusted to tell us what’s occurring, because the mechanics of it – market structure – are poorly understood by observers. ETFs act more like currencies than stocks because they replace stocks. They don’t invest in stocks (and they can be created and shorted en masse).

With the rise of ETFs, Fast Trading machines, shorting, derivatives, the way the market runs cannot be seen through the eyes of Benjamin Graham.

Last week as the S&P 500 rose, across the eleven industry groups into which it’s divided there were 28 net selling days, and 27 net buying days (11 sectors, five days each).

How can Consumer Discretionary stocks rise on net selling? How can the market rise on net selling? Statistical samples. ETFs and indexes don’t trade everything. They buy or sell a representative group – say 10 out of a hundred.

(Editorial note: listen to five minutes of commentary on Sector Insights, and if you’re interested in receiving them, let us know.)

So, 90 stocks could be experiencing outflows while the ten on which this benchmark or that index rests for prices today have inflows, and major measures, sector ETFs, say the market is up when it’s the opposite.

Market Structure Sentiment™, our behavioral index, topped on July 12, right into option-expirations today through Friday.  On Monday in a flat market belying dyspepsia below the surface, we saw massive behavioral change suggesting ETFs are leaving.

Stay with me. We’re headed unstoppably toward a conclusion.

From Jan 1-May 31 this year, ETFs were less volatile than stocks every week save one. ETFs are elastic, and so should be less volatile. Suddenly in the last six weeks, ETFs are more volatile than stocks, a head-scratcher.

Mechanics would see these as symptoms of failing vehicle-performance. Dave Barry would turn the radio up.  None of us wants an Unstoppable train derailing into the depot.  We can avoid trouble by measuring data and recognizing when it’s telling us things aren’t working right.

Investors and public companies, do you want to know when you’re on a runaway train?

The Canary

For a taste of July 4 in a mountain town, featuring boy scouts serving pancakes, a camel amongst horses, sand crane dancers, and Clyde the glad hound, click here.  Americana.

Meanwhile back in the coal mine of the stock market, the canary showed up.

We first raised concern about the possible failure of a major prime broker in 2014. By “prime,” we mean a firm large enough to facilitate big transactions by supplying global trading capacity, capital, advice and strategy.

We homed in on mounting risk at HSBC and Deutsche Bank.

Last weekend Deutsche Bank announced an astonishing intention:  It will eliminate global equity trading and 18,000 jobs. It’s a long-range effort, the bank says, with targeted conclusion in 2022.

But will a bank erasing the foundation of investment-banking, cash equities, retain key people and core customers? Doubtful. In effect, one of the dozen largest market-makers for US stocks is going away.

It matters to public companies and investors because the market depends on but a handful of firms for market-efficiency in everything from US Treasurys, to stocks, to derivatives, and corporate bonds.

And Exchange Traded Funds.  Industry sources say over 80% of creations and redemptions in ETF shares are handled by ten firms. We don’t know precise identities of the ten because this market with over $300 billion of monthly transactions is a black box to investors, with no requirement that fund sponsors disclose which brokers support them.

We know these so-called “Authorized Participants” must be self-clearing members of the Federal Reserve system, which shrinks the pool of possibilities to about 40, including Deutsche Bank, which hired an ETF trading legend, Chris Hempstead, in 2017.

It’s possible others may fill the void. But you have to be an established firm to compete, due to rigorous regulatory requirements.

For instance, brokers executing trades for customers must meet a stout “best execution” mandate that orders be filled a large percentage of the time at the best marketwide prices. That standard is determined by averages across aggregate order flow dominated in US markets by yet again ten firms (we presume the same ones), including Deutsche Bank.

It’s exceedingly difficult to shoulder in.  The great bulk of the 4,000 or so brokers overseen by Finra, the industry regulator, send their trades to one of these ten because the rest cannot consistently achieve the high required standard.

So the elite club upon which rests the vast apparatus of financial markets just shrank by about 10%.

Already the market is susceptible to trouble because it’s like a soccer stadium with only a handful of exits.  That’s no problem when everyone is inside.  But getting in or out when all are in a rush is dangerous, as we saw in Feb 2018 and Dec 2019, with markets swooning double digits in days.

Let’s go back to a basic market-structure concept.  The “stock market” isn’t a place. It’s a data network of interconnected alcoves and eddies.  What’s more, shares don’t reside inside it.  The supply must continuously be brought to it by brokers.

Picture a farmers’ market with rows of empty stalls. When you move in front of one, suddenly products materialize, a vendor selling you goat’s milk soap. You go to the next blank space and instantly it’s a bakery stand with fresh croissants.  As you move along, contents vanish again.

That’s how the stock market works today under the mandatory market-making model imposed by Regulation National Market System. High-speed traders and gigantic brokerage firms are racing around behind the booths and stands at extreme speeds rushing croissants and goat’s milk soap around to be in front of you when you appear.

The network depends on the few.  We have long theorized that one big threat to this construct is its increasing dependency on a handful of giant firms. In 2006, a large-cap stock would have over 200 firms making markets – running croissants to the stand.

Today it’s less than a hundred, and over 95% of volume concentrates consistently at just 30 firms, half of them dealers with customers, the other half proprietary trading firms, arbitragers trading inefficiencies amid continuous delivery of croissants and goat’s milk soap – so to speak – at the public bazaar.

We said we’ll know trouble is mounting when one of the major players fails. Deutsche Bank hasn’t failed per se, but you don’t close a global equity trading business without catastrophic associated losses behind the scenes. The speedy supply chain failed.

Why? I think it’s ETFs. These derivatives – that’s what they are – depend on arbitrage, or profiting on different prices for the same thing, for prices. Arbitrage creates winners and losers, unlike investment occurring as growing firms attract more capital.

As arbitrage losers leave, or rules become harder to meet, the market becomes thinner even as the obligations looming over it mount.

We are not predicting disaster. We are identifying faults in the structure. These will be the cause of its undoing at some point ahead.  We’ve seen the canary.

 

Russelling Stocks

We’re back!

At the NIRI Annual Conference last week in Phoenix (where foliage defied fiery environs) we launched an ad campaign for investor-relations professionals that graced the escalator wall into the hall, and the ModernIR booth hummed.

I had the honor of co-vice-chairing, and my market structure panel with hedge-fund legend Lee Cooperman, market commentator Joe Saluzzi, and SEC head of Trading and Markets Brett Redfearn kicked off the conference Monday June 3rd.

Due to an inadvertent clerical error, I was also named a NIRI volunteer of the year (here with NIRI CEO Gary LaBranche and board chair Ron Parham) along with TopBuild’s Tabitha Zane.  And I met NIRI co-founder Dick Morrill who at 97 can still deliver a ringing speech.

Post-conference, Karen and I bolted briefly to our mountain home, Steamboat Springs, where frost dusted the grass twice the last week and Sand Mountain jutted white-capped above a voluptuous carpet of grasses and blooms.

Meanwhile back in the stock market, with trade fears gripping the world – US stocks zoomed at the best rate in 13 months, posting six straight days of gains, a 2019 record, beating even the heady January start.

Against this backdrop loom big index rebalances. The Russell indices have been morphing toward July 1 reconstitution in phases that persist through the next three Fridays. On June 21, S&P quarterly rebalances will join the jammed queue, as will stock and index options and futures expirations June 19-21.

And expiring June 28 when the Russell finalizes are monthly CBOE futures contracts created to help indexers true up benchmark-tracking on the month’s last trading day.

Russell says $9 trillion of assets are pegged to its US equity indexes.  For perspective, the Russell 1000 is 95% of US market cap, the Russell 2000 most of the remaining 5%, as there are only 3,450 public companies.

What’s at stake with rebalances is thus more than pegged assets. It’s all the assets.

Passive assets are now over 50% of managed money, Exchange Traded Funds alone drive more than 50% of volume. The effects of these events are massive not due to susurrations in construction but in the capacity for price-changes to ripple through intertwined asset classes and the entirety of equity capitalization.

It’s like being in Group One on a United Airlines flight.  The fewer the airlines, the bigger the audience, the longer the line.

When the money wanting to queue up beside a benchmark was an eclectic conclave outside Palm Springs, rebalances were no big deal. Now passives are Los Angeles and rebalances are a Friday afternoon rush hour.

Put together the trillions tied to Russell and S&P indexes, the trillions in equity-linked swaps benchmarked to broad measures, the hundreds of trillions tied to expiring currency and interest rate swaps, the ETF market-makers trying to price ETFs and stocks driving $125 billion of daily trading volume, the Active “closet indexers” mimicking models, the Fast Traders with vast machine-computing power trying to game all the spreads. It’s keying the tumblers on the locks to the chains constraining the Kraken.

It’s not a myth. It’s already happening. Stocks imploded when the Communication Services sector was yanked like a rib from the torso of Tech and Consumer Discretionary stocks last September. It happened repeatedly through October, November and December 2018 as sector and market-cap ETFs washed like tides over stocks.

It happened in January, March, May, this year.

And it just happened again. What was it? Strafing waves of short-term passive shifts.

Lead market behavior in June so far? Risk Mgmt – continuous recalibration of derivatives bets.  Followed by Fast Trading – machines changing prices. Followed by Passive Investment (which tied to Risk Mgmt is ETFs, far and away the biggest combined influencer).

All these behaviors are 30%-43% higher than Active Investment as influencers. Defined as percentages of trading volume the past five days, Active is 11.6%, Passive, 26.9%, Fats Trading 41.4%, Risk Mgmt 20.1%.

What’s rustling the thickets of equity volatility, introducing unpredictability into stocks across the board, are vast benchmarked behaviors and their trading remoras.

The longer everyone persists in trying to assign rational motivation to moves, the more dangerous the market becomes. This isn’t complicated: The elephant in the room is the money watching prices – passive, speculative, hedged.  If observers are looking elsewhere, we’ll sooner or later get caught off-guard.

Let’s not.  Instead, be aware. Know the calendar.  Listen for Russelling stocks.

Phones and Wristwatches

Numbers matter. But not the ones you think, public companies and investors.

For instance, the best sector the past month is Utilities, up 3.5%, inversing the S&P 500’s 3.5% decline over that time (a 7% spread trade, we could say).

Utilities were worst for revenue surprises among the eleven sectors last quarter, says FactSet, and ninth of eleven for earnings surprises. Financial returns were mid-pack among sectors. It wasn’t results.

Sure, Utilities are defensive, along with Staples, Real Estate, Health Care. Those are up too the last month but less than Utilities.

One number sets Utilities apart: volatility.

Or lack thereof. Measured intraday, it’s 1.5% daily between high and low prices for stocks comprising the sector. Broad-market intraday volatility is 2.7%, 50% higher than Utilities.

Staples and Real Estate trail market volatility too, while Health Care, only of late returning to the safe-harbor fold, is more than twice as volatile as Utilities.

The worst sector in the market the last month is Energy, down 8.4% as measured by State Street’s sector ETF, XLE. And Energy stocks, with daily swings of 3.9%, were 44% more volatile than the broad market – and 100% more volatile than Utilities.

Among the most popular recent investments, the WSJ reports (posted here by Morningstar), are low-volatility ETFs like $SPLV and $USMV. Assets have exploded. These funds are disproportionately exposed to Utilities. And our models show massive ETF patterns in Utilities stocks.

Remember, ETFs are not pooled investments. They’re derivatives. If money flows to these ETFs, it’s not aggregating into a big lake of custodial money overseen by Blackrock or Invesco.

Suppose I traded my cell phone for your wristwatch. You’re free to do what you want with my phone because it’s yours now. But in a sense we’re saying the phone and the wristwatch are of similar value.

Say we’re day-trading phones and wristwatches.  Neither of us has a claim per se to the phone or the wristwatch. But we’ll be inclined to buy the wristwatch when it’s worth less than the phone and sell it when it’s worth more.

Same with ETFs. Low-vol ETF sponsors want assets such as Utilities and big stocks like WMT or PFE that don’t move much intraday (about 1.3% for those two).

ETFs are priced on spreads. Low-volatility instruments demand comparatives with low volatility (creating a run on low-vol assets?). They have no intrinsic value. You can’t find an ETF lying on the sidewalk and trade it to, say, Blackrock for its face value in cash.

It has no face value. Unless there’s another item with similar value to which it compares. ETFs are priced via in-kind exchange. Phone and wristwatch.

The ETF, phones, will be attractive to a trader to buy if it’s discounted to the stuff it’s supposed to track, wristwatches, and less attractive (and a short) if it’s currently priced above that stuff (phones). Prices constantly change as a result. Volatility.

The same thing will by extension invade your stock’s pricing, because your stock is the stuff ETFs track.

This is vital to understand, public companies and investors.

If the majority of money in the market fixates on spreads, the spread becomes more important than your financial results. Spreads become better predictors of future stock values than fundamentals.

EDITORIAL NOTE: Come to the NIRI Annual Conference June 2-5 in Phoenix! I’m hosting a session on ETFs with Rich Evans from the Univ of VA Wed morning Jun 5.

Also, the Think Tank chaired by Ford Executive Director of Investor Relations Lynn Tyson has released its white paper on the future of Investor Relations. Adapting to evolving market structure and investment behavior is key.

This image (linked) looks like robot-generated modern art. It’s our data on spreads between ETFs and stocks from Dec 2018 to present.  Wide spreads matched strong markets. Diminishing spreads correlated to weakening stocks. Maybe it’s false correlation.

But what if as spreads narrow the incentive to swap phones for watches fades? Markets could be imperiled by numbers we’re not watching. Shouldn’t we know?

Are you listening, financial reporters?

Jekyll and Hyde

Your stock may collateralize long and short Exchange-Traded Funds (ETFs) simultaneously.

Isn’t that cognitive dissonance – holding opposing views? Jekyll and Hyde? It’s akin to supposing that here in Denver you can drive I-25 north toward Fort Collins and arrive south in Castle Rock. Try as long as you like and it’ll never work.

I found an instance of this condition by accident. OXY, an energy company, is just through a contested battle with CVX to buy APC, a firm with big energy operations in the Permian Basin of TX (where the odor of oil and gas is the smell of money).

OXY is in 219 ETFs, a big number.  AAPL is in 271 but it’s got 20 times the market-capitalization.  OXY and its short volume have moved inversely – price down, shorting up. The patterns say ETFs are behind it.

So I checked.

Lo and behold, OXY is in a swath of funds like GUSH and DRIP that try to be two or three times better or worse than an index. These are leveraged funds.

How can a fund that wants to return, say, three times more than an S&P energy index use the same stock as one wanting to be three times worse than the index?

“Tim, maybe one fund sees OXY as a bullish stock, the other as bearish.”

Except these funds are passive vehicles, which means they don’t pick stocks. They track a model, and in this case, the same model.  If the stock doesn’t behave like the ETF, why does the fund hold it?

I should note before answering that GUSH and DRIP and similar ETFs are one-day investments. They’re in a way designed to promote ownership of volatility. They want you to buy and sell both every day.

You can see why. This image above shows OXY the last three months with GUSH and DRIP.

Consider what that means for you investor-relations professionals counting on shares to serve as a rational barometer, or you long investors doing your homework to find undervalued stocks.

Speaking of understanding, I’ll interject that if you’re not yet registered for the NIRI Annual Conference, do it now!  It’s a big show and a good one, and we’ve got awesome market structure discussions for you.

Back to the story, these leveraged instruments are no sideshow. In a market with 3,500 public companies and close to 9,000 securities, tallying all stock classes, closed-end funds and ETFs, some routinely are among the top 50 most actively traded.  SQQQ and TVIX, leveraged instruments, were in the top dozen at the Nasdaq yesterday.

For those juiced energy funds, OXY is just collateral. That is, it’s liquid ($600 million of stock trading daily) and currently 50% less volatile than the broad market. A volatility fund wants the opposite of what it’s selling (volatility) because it’s not investing in OXY. It’s leveraging OXY to buy or sell or short other things that feed volatility.

And it can short OXY as a hedge to boot.

All ETFs are derivatives, not just ones using derivatives to achieve their objectives. They are all predicated on an underlying asset yet aren’t the underlying asset.

It’s vital to understand what the money is doing because otherwise conclusions might be falsely premised. Maybe the Board at OXY concludes management is doing a poor job creating shareholder value when in reality it’s being merchandised by volatility traders.

Speaking of volatility, Market Structure Sentiment is about bottomed at the lowest level of 2019. It’s predictive so that still means stocks could swoon, but it also says risk will soon wane (briefly anyway). First though, volatility bets like the VIX and hundreds of billions of dollars of others expire today. Thursday will be reality for the first time since the 15th, before May expirations began.

Even with Sentiment bottoming, we keep the market at arm’s length because of its vast dependence on a delicate arbitrage balance. A Jekyll-Hyde line it rides.

Euripides Volatility

Question everything.

That saying is a famous Euripides attribution, the Athenian playwright of 2500 years ago. The Greeks were good thinkers and their rules of logic prevail yet today.

Let’s use them.  Blue chips dropped over 600 points Monday and gained 200 back yesterday. We’re told fear drove losses and waning fear prompted the bounce.

What do you think the Greeks would say?

That it’s illogical?  How can the same thing cause opposing outcomes?  That’s effectively the definition of cognitive dissonance, which is the opposite of clear thinking.

The money motivated to opposite actions on consecutive days is the kind that profits on price-differences. Profiting on price-differences is arbitrage.

Could we not infer then a greater probability that arbitragers caused these ups and downs than that investors were behind them?  It’s an assessment predicated on matching outcome to motivation.

Those motivated by price-changes come in three shades. The size of the money – always follow the money, corollary #1 to questioning everything – should signal its capacity to destabilize markets, for a day, or longer.

There are Risk Parity strategies.  Simon Constable, frequent Brit commentator on markets for the Wall Street Journal and others, suggested for Forbes last year following the February temblor through US stocks that $500 billion targets this technique designed to in a sense continually rebalance the two sides of an investing teeter-totter to keep the whole thing roughly over the fulcrum.

Add strategies designed to profit on volatility or avoid it and you’ve got another $2 trillion, according to estimates Mr. Constable cites.

The WSJ ran a story May 12 (subscription required) called “Volatility in Stocks Could Unravel Bets on Calm Markets,” and referenced work from Wells Fargo’s derivatives team that concluded “low-vol” funds with $400 billion of assets could suddenly exit during market upheaval.

Add in the reverse. Derivatives trades are booming. You can buy volatility, you can sell it, you can hedge it.  That’s investing in what lies between stocks expected to rise (long bets) and stocks thought likely to fall (short bets).

This is the second class:  Volatility traders. They are trying to do the opposite of those pursuing risk-parity. They want to profit when the teeter-totter moves. They’re roughly 60% of daily market volume (more on that in a moment).

The definition of volatility is different prices for the same thing.  The definition of arbitrage is profiting on different prices for the same thing.

The third volatility type stands alone as the only investment vehicle in the history of modern capital markets to exist via an “arbitrage mechanism,” thanks to regulatory exemptions.

It’s  Exchange-Traded Funds (ETFs). ETFs by definition must offer different prices for the same thing. And they’ve become the largest investment vehicle in the markets, the most prolific, having the greatest fund-flows.

EDITORIAL NOTE: I’m hosting a panel on ETFs June 5 at the NIRI Annual Conference, one of several essential market-structure segments at the 50th anniversary event. You owe it to your executive team to attend and learn.

Size matters. Active Investment, getting credit for waxing and waning daily on tidal trade fear, is about 12% of market volume. We can’t precisely break out the three shades of volatility trading. But we can get close.

Fast Trading, short-term profiteering on fleeting price-changes (what’s the definition of arbitrage?), is about 44% of volume. Trades tied to derivatives – risk-parity, bets on price-changes in underlying assets – are 19%.  Passive investment, the bulk of it ETFs (the effects of which spill across the other two), is 25%.

One more nugget for context:  Options expire May 16-17 (index, stock options expirations), and May 22 (VIX and other volatility bets). Traders will try to run prices of stocks to profit not on stocks but how puts, calls and other derivatives increase or decrease far more dramatically than underlying stocks.

The Greeks would look at the math and say there’s an 88% probability arbitrage is driving our market.

Euripides might call this market structure a tragedy. But he’d nevertheless see it with cold logic and recognize the absence of rational thought.  Shouldn’t we too?