Tagged: ETFs

Unknowable

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cough, cough.

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

Yet we are.

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

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

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

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

How about corporate spending on box seats at big arenas?

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

An empty edifice?

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

Should stocks trade where they did before these things?

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

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

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

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

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

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

What’s your bet?

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

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

Benjamin Graham

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Unlike Buffett, RenTech and DFA continually wax and wane.

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

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

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

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

Owners aren’t setting prices.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Might that be rational thought?

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

Roll Call

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But.

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

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

Thank you, ETFs.

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

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

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

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

SPECIAL CORONAVIRUS EDITION: Halting

My email inbox took such a fusillade of stock volatility halts yesterday that I set two rules to sort them automatically. Emails rained in well after the close, girders triggered hours before and stuck in an overwhelmed system.

As I write, volatility halts Mon-Thu this week total 2,512.  Smashing all records.

You need to understand these mechanisms, public companies and investors, because high-speed trading machines do.

On May 6, 2010 the market collapsed and then surged suddenly, and systems designed then to interdict volatility failed.  They were revamped. Finalized and implemented in 2013, new brackets sat dormant until Mar 9, 2020.

Wham!

They were triggered again yesterday, the 12th. At Level 1, the market in all its forms across 15 exchanges and roughly 31 Alternative Trading Systems stops trading stocks when benchmarks fall 7% from the reference price in the previous day’s closing auction.

To see exchanges, visit the CTA plan and exclude Finra and CBOE (17 members becomes 15 exchanges). You can track ATS’s (dark pools) here.

The Level 1 pause lasts 15 minutes and trading then resumes.  Say the reference price was 2,400 for the S&P500 the day before. At 2,242, it stops for 15 minutes.  Down 13% to 2,123, it halts again for 15 minutes. At 20% down, the markets close till the next day (that would be SPX 2,000 in our example).

Here’s the kicker: Levels 1-2 apply only till 3:25p ET. If the market has been off 5% all day till 3:25p ET and then it swoons, it won’t stop falling till it’s down 20% – SPX 2,000.  Girders apply only down, not up. Stocks could soar 30% in a day but couldn’t fall 21%.

Then there are single-stock guards called Limit Up/Limit Down (LULD) halts (the stuff inundating my inbox). When a Russell 1000 stock (95% of market cap), or an ETF or closed-end fund, moves 5% away from the preceding day’s reference price in a five-minute span, the security will be halted.

Russell 2000 stocks (add the two and it’s 99.9% of market cap) halt on a 10% move from the reference price in five minutes, applicable all the way to the close. Prices for all securities must be in the LULD range for 15 seconds to trigger halts.

For perspective, high-speed machines can trade in microseconds, millionths of a second (if machines can find securities to trade). Machines can game all these girders.

Boeing (BA) was volatility-halted three times yesterday (market cap $87 billion, over $220 billion of market cap in April last year) and still declined 18%, 80% more than the DJIA (and it’s a component).

Our friends at IEX, the Investors Exchange (the best market, structurally, for trading) tracked the data. Full-service broker-dealers handle customer orders, as do agency brokers (like our blood brothers at Themis Trading). Proprietary traders are racing their own capital around markets.  Look at this.

It matches what we see with behavioral analytics, where machines outrace any indication that rational money is coming or going. It’s why real money struggles to buy or sell.

How have stocks lost 25% of value in two weeks with no material change to shareholdings (widely true)? This is how. Machines are so vastly faster than real money that it’s like shooting fish in a barrel.

A word on futures:  The Chicago Mercantile Exchange triggers halts overnight if futures move 5%. But that tells machines to bet big on the direction prices were last moving.

Let’s bring in Exchange Traded Funds (ETFs). They depend on predictable value in ETF shares and the underlying stocks. If ETFs have risen above the value of underlying stocks, market-makers short ETF shares (borrow them) and return them to ETF sponsors to get stocks worth less than ETF shares. And vice versa.

With a low VIX, this trade is easy to calculate. When volatility soars and ETFs and stocks move the same direction, market-makers quit. They can’t tabulate a directional gain. The market loses roughly 67% of its prices, which come from ETF market-makers. Machines then yank markets up and down thousands of points without meaningful real buying or selling.

Which leads us to next week.  Options expire. This pandemonium began with Feb options-expirations, where demand plunged.  If the market puts together two solid days, there will be an epochal rush to out-of-the-money call options before Mar 20. Stocks will soar 15%.

I’m not saying that’ll happen. It’s remotely possible. But we’re on precarious ground where ETFs subtracted from stocks suggest another 35% of potential downside.

Last, here’s my philosophical thought, apolitical and in the vein of Will Rogers or Oscar Wilde on human nature. A primitive society ignorant of the Coronavirus would blithely pursue food, clothing and shelter. Life going on.

Now our global self-actualized culture in one breath proposes we change the climate, and in the next paralyzes over a tiny virus.  I think Will and Oscar would suggest we learn to live (with viruses and the climate).

Whether we lose 35% or gain 15%, market structure is crushing human thought and shareholder behavior, and that fact deserves redress after this crisis.

The Truth

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Inaccurate explanations are dangerous because they foster incorrect expectations.

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

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

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

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

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

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

But.

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

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

Disruption

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And investors, would it behoove you to know too?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hummingbird Wings

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And son of a gun.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Boxed Yellow Pencils

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s cognitively dissonant to own things you oppose.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Fortress

Happy birthday to Karen Quast! My beloved treasure, the delight of my soul, turns an elegant calendar page today. It’s my greatest privilege to share life with her.

Not only because she tolerates my market-structure screeds.

Speaking of which, I’m discussing market structure today at noon ET with Joe Saluzzi of Themis Trading and Mett Kinak from T Rowe Price. In an hour you’ll mint a goldmine of knowledge.  Don’t miss it.

A citadel by definition is a fortress.  I think of the one in Salzburg, Austria, the Hohensalzburg castle perched on the Salzach, “Salt River” in German, for when salt mined in Austria moved by barge.  We rode bikes there and loved the citadel.

It’s a good name for a hedge fund, is Citadel. We were in San Francisco last week and joined investor-relations colleagues for candid interaction with Citadel. IR pros, hedge funds are stock-picking investors capable of competing in today’s market.

Blasphemy?  Alchemy?  I’ve gone daft?

No, it’s market structure. Exchange Traded Funds (ETFs) have proliferated at the expense of what we call in the IR profession “long-only” investors, conventional Active managers buying stocks but not shorting them.

Since 2007 when Regulation National Market System transformed the stock market into a sea of changing stock-prices around averages, assets have fled Active funds for Passive ones.  ETF assets since 2009 have quadrupled, an unmatched modern asset-class boom.

Underperformance has fueled the flight from the core IR audience of “long-onlys.” Returns minus management fees for pricey stock-pickers trails tracking a benchmark. So funds like SPY, the ETF mirroring the S&P 500 from State Street, win assets.

Why would a mindless model beat smart stock-pickers versed in financial results? As we’ve written, famous long-only manager Ron Baron said if you back out 15 stocks from the 2,500 he’s owned since the early 80s, his returns are pedestrian. Average.

That’s 1%. Smart stock-pickers can still win by finding them.

But. Why are 99% of stocks average? Data show no such uniformity in financial results. We come to why IR must embrace hedge funds in the 21st century.

Long-onlys are “40 Act” pooled investments with custodial assets spent on a thesis meant to beat the market.  Most of these funds must be fully invested. That is, 90% of the money raised from shareholders must be spent.  To buy, they most times must first sell.

Well, these funds have seen TRILLIONS OF DOLLARS the past decade leave for ETFs and indexes (and bonds, and target-date mixed funds). Most are net sellers, not buyers.

Let’s not blindly chase competitively disadvantaged and vanishing assets. That confuses busy with productive. And “action” isn’t getting more of the shrinking stock-picking pie.

First, understand WHY ETFs are winning:

  • ETFs don’t hold custodial assets for shareholders. No customer accounts, no costs associated with caring for customers like stock-pickers support.
  • They don’t pay commissions on trades. ETFs are created and redeemed in large off-market blocks (averaging $26 million a pop, as we explained).
  • They don’t pay taxes.  ETFs are created and redeemed tax-free through in-kind exchanges.
  • ETFs avoid the volatility characterizing the stock market, which averages about 3% daily in the Russell 3000, by creating and redeeming ETFs off-market.
  • And fifth, to me the biggest, stock-market rules force trades toward average prices. All stocks must trade between the best bid to buy and offer to sell. The average.

So.  Stocks are moved by rule toward their average prices. Some few buck it.  Stock-pickers must find that 1%. Money tracking benchmarks picks the 99% that are average. Who’s got the probability advantage?

Now add in the other four factors. Who wins?  ETFs. Boom! Drop the mic.

Except dropping the mic defies market rules prohibiting discrimination against any constituency – such as stock-pickers and issuers.

SEC, are you listening? Unless you want all stocks to become ETF collateral, and all prices to reflect short-term flipping, and all money to own substitutes for stocks, you should stop. What. You. Are. Doing.

Back to Citadel. The Fortress. They admit they’re market neutral – 50% long and short. They use leverage, yes. Real economic reach isn’t $32 billion. It’s $90 billion.

But they’re stock-pickers, with better genes. Every analyst is covering 25-55 stocks, each modeled meticulously by smart people. Whether long or short they meter every business in the portfolio. Even analysts have buy-sell authority (don’t poo-poo the analysts!). And they’re nimble. Dry powder. Agile in shifting market sand.

They can compete with the superiority modern market structure unfairly affords ETFs.

So. Understand market structure. Build relationships with hedge funds. This is the future for our profession. It’s not long-onlys, folks. They’re bleeding on the wall of the fortress. And don’t miss today’s panel.

Time Changes

Public companies, are you still reporting financial results like it’s 1995?

Back then, Tim Koogle and team at Yahoo! made it a mission to be first, showing acuity at closing the books for the quarter faster than the rest. Thousands turned out for the call and – a whiz-bang new thing – webcast.

Ah, yesteryear and its influence.  It’s still setting time for us all.  No, really.  Benjamin Franklin penned a 1784 letter to a Parisian periodical claiming his experiments showed sunlight was available the moment the sun rose and if only Parisians could get out of bed earlier instead of rising late and staying up, they could save immense sums on candles.

Some say his levity gave rise to the notion of Daylight Savings Time. A closer look suggests it was the Canadians.  Sure, scientist George Hudson of the Wellington Philosophical Society presented an 1895 paper saying New Zealand would improve its industry by turning clocks forward two hours in October, back two in March.

But the occupants of Thunder Bay in northern Ontario first shifted time forward in 1908.

What do Canada and New Zealand have in common besides language and erstwhile inclusion in a British empire upon which the sun never set?  They’re at extreme latitudes where light and dark swing mightily.

The push to yank clocks back and forth swept up much of the planet during World War I in an effort to reduce fuel-consumption.

Here in Denver we’re neither at war and hoarding tallow nor gripping a planetary light-bending polar cap in mittened hands.  So why do we cling to an anachronistic practice?

Speaking of which, in 1995 when the internet throngs hung on every analog and digital word from the Yahoo! executive fearsome foursome (at least threesome), most of the money in the market was Active Investment. That was 24 years ago.

Back then, investor-relations pros wanted to be sellside analysts making the big bucks like Mary Meeker and Henry Blodget. Now the sellsiders want to be IR pros because few hang on its words today like it was EF Hutton and the jobs and checks have gone away.

Volume is run by machines. The majority of assets under management are Passive, paying no attention to results. Three firms own nearly 30% of all equities. Thousands of Exchange Traded Funds have turned capital markets into arbitrage foot races that see earnings only as anomalies to exploit. Fast Traders set most of the bids and offers and don’t want to own anything. And derivatives bets are the top way to play earnings.

By the way, I’m moderating a panel on market structure for the NIRI Virtual Chapter Nov 20 with Joe Saluzzi and Mett Kinak. We’ll discuss what every IRO, board member and executive should understand about how the market works.

Today 50% of trades are less than 100 shares.  Over 85% of volume is a form of arbitrage (versus a benchmark, underlying stocks, derivatives, prices elsewhere).

Active Investment is the smallest slice of daily trading. Why would we do what we did in 1995 when it was the largest force?

Here are three 21st century Rules for Reporting:

Rule #1: Don’t report results during options-expirations.  In Feb 2019 Goldman Sachs put out a note saying the top trading strategy during earnings season was buying five-day out of the money calls. That is, buy the rights (it was 1996 when OMC offered that same advice in a song called How Bizarre.). Sell them before earnings. This technique, Goldman said, produced an average 88% return in the two preceding quarters.

How? If calls can be bought for $1.20 and sold for $2.25, that’s an 88% return.  But it’s got nothing to do with your results, or rational views of your price.

The closer to expirations, the cheaper and easier the arbitrage trade. Report AFTER expirations. Stop reporting in the middle of them. And don’t report at the ends of months. Passives are truing up tracking then. Here’s our IR Planning Calendar.

Rule #2: Be unpredictable, not predictable.  Arbitrage schemes depend on three factors: price, volatility, and time. Time equals WHEN you report. If you always publish dates at the same time in advance, you pitch a fastball straight down the middle over the plate, letting speculative sluggers slam it right over the fence.

Stop doing that. Vary it. Better, be vague. You can let your holders and analysts know via email, then put out an advisory the day of earnings pointing to your website.  Comply with the rules – but don’t serve speculators.

Rule #3: Know your market structure and measure it before and after results to shape message beforehand and internal feedback afterward. The bad news about mathematical markets is they’re full of arbitragers.  The good news is math is a perfect grid for us to measure with machines. We can see everything the money is doing.

If we can, you can (use our analytics!).  If you can know every day what sets your price, how it may move with results, whether there are massive synthetic short bets queued up and looming over your press release, well…why wouldn’t you want to know?

Let’s do 21st century IR. No need to burn tallow like cave dwellers. Go Modern. It’s time.