Tagged: ETFs

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?

Dragon Market

As the market fell yesterday like a dragon from the sky (Game of Throners, the data are not good on dragon longevity now), 343 companies reported results, 10% of all firms.

Market fireworks were blamed yet again on tariff fears. Every tantrum is the Fed or tariffs it seems, even with hundreds publishing earnings. What happened to the idea that results drive markets?

Speaking of data, on May 6, the market first plunged like a bungee jumper off a bridge – and then caromed back up to a nonevent.

Behind the move, 21% of companies had new Rational Prices – Active money leading other behaviors and buying. That’s more than twice the year-long average of about 9% and the third-highest mark over the entire past year.

Talk about buying the dip. Smart money doesn’t see tariffs as threats to US interests (and likes the economic outlook, and likes corporate financial results). We’ve been using them to fund government since the Hamilton Tariffs of 1789.

So if not tariffs, why did stocks fall?

Before I tell you what the data show: Come to the NIRI Annual Conference, friends and colleagues. I’m moderating a panel the first day featuring hedge-fund legend Lee Cooperman, market-structure expert and commentator Joe Saluzzi, and SEC head of Trading and Markets Brett Redfearn.

We’ll talk about the good and bad in market-evolution the past 50 years and what’s vital to know now.  Sign up here.

IR folks, you’re the chief intelligence officer for capital markets. Your job is more than telling the story. It’s time to lead your executive team and board to better understand the realities driving your equity value, from Exchange Traded Funds to shorting and event-driven trends. It’s how we remain relevant.

Before you report results, you should know what the money that’s about you, your story, your results, your strategy, is doing – and what the rest of it is doing too. 

Take LYFT, which reported yesterday for the first time. Just 8% of LYFT volume is from Active Investment. By contrast about 22% is quantitative event-driven money, and over 58% is fast machines trading the tick. The balance ties to derivatives.

From that data, one can accurately extrapolate probable outcomes (ask us for your Market Expectation, or LYFT’s, and we’ll show you).

Every IR team should be arming its board and executives with a view of all the money, not just musing on how core holders may react – which is generally not at all.

And investors, if you’re focused only on fundamentals without respect to market structure, you’ll get burned.  I can rattle off a long list of companies beating and raising whose shares fell. The reasons aren’t rational but arbitrage-driven.

Having kept you in the dark like a Game of Thrones episode, let’s throw light on the data behind the late equity swoon: Always follow the money (most in financial media are not).

ETFs are 50% of market volume.  There have been $1.4 trillion (estimating for Apr and May) of ETF shares created and redeemed in 2019 already.

ETF shares are collateralized with stocks, but ETFs do not pool investor assets to buy stocks. In exchange for tax-free collateral, they trade to brokers the right to create ETF shares to sell to investors. The collateral is baskets of stocks – that they own outright.

The motivation, the profit opportunity, for that collateral has got nothing to do with tariffs or earnings or the economy. It’s more like flipping houses.

An Invesco PowerShares rep quipped to one of our team, “You see that coffee cup? I’d take that as collateral if I could flip it for a penny.”

ETF sponsors and brokers in very short cycles flip ETF shares and collateral. As with real estate where it works

Tech Sector Composite Stocks — Behavioral Data

great until houses start to fall in value, the market craters when all the parties chasing collateral try to get out at once (and it happens suddenly).

ETF patterns for the top year-to-date sector, Tech, are elongated way beyond normal parameters (same for two of three other best YTD sectors). It suggests ETFs shares have been increasing without corresponding rises in collateral.

With the market faltering, there’s a dash to the door to profit on collateral before the value vanishes. One thing can trigger it. A tweet? Only if a move down in stocks threatens to incinerate – like a dragon – the value of collateral.

How important is that for IR teams, boards, executives and investors to understand?

Melting Up

Blackrock CEO Larry Fink sees risk of a melt-up, not a meltdown for stocks.

Speaking of market structure, I’m a vice chair for NIRI’s Annual Conference – the 50th anniversary edition.  From the opening general session, to meeting the hedge funds, to a debate on how ETFs work, we’ve included market structure.  Catch a preview webcast on So-So Thursday, Apr 18, (before Good Friday) at 2pm ET (allow time to download Adobe Connect): https://niri.adobeconnect.com/webinar041819

Back to Larry Fink, is he right?  Who knows. But Blackrock wants to nudge record sidelined retail and institutional cash into stocks because revenues declined 7%.

Data tell us the market doesn’t need more buyers to melt up. Lipper said $20 billion left US equities from Jan through Apr 3, more than the $6 billion Bloomberg had earlier estimated. Stocks rallied 16%.

We wrote April 3 that no net cash fled equities in Q4 last year when the market corrected. If stocks can plunge when no money leaves and soar when it does, investors and public companies should be wary of rational expectations.

We teach public companies to watch for behavioral data outside norms.  Investors, you should be doing the same. Behavioral-change precedes price-change.  It can be fleeting, like a hand shoved in a bucket of water. Look away and you’ll miss the splash.

Often there’s no headline or economic factor because behaviors are in large part motivated by characteristics, not fundamentals.

Contrast with what legendary value investor Benjamin Graham taught us in Security Analysis (1934) and The Intelligent Investor (1949): Buy stocks discounted to assets and limit your risk.

The market is now packed with behaviors treating stocks as collateral and chasing price-differences. It’s the opposite of the Mr. Market of the Intelligent Investor. If we’re still thinking the same way, we’ll be wrong.

When the Communication Services sector arose from Technology and Consumer Discretionary stocks last September, the pattern of disruption was shocking. Unless you saw it (Figure 1), you’d never have known markets could roll over.

Larry Fink may think money should rush in (refrains of “fools rush in…”) because interest rates are low.  Alan Greenspan told CNBC last week there’s a “stock market aura” in which a 10% rise in stocks corresponds to a 1% increase in GDP. Stocks were down 18% in Q4, and have rebounded about 16%. Is the GDP impact then neutral?

To me, the great lesson for public companies and investors is the market’s breakdown as a barometer for fundamentals.  We’ve written why. Much of the volume driving equities now reacts to spreads – price-differences.

In a recent year, SPY, the world’s largest and oldest Exchange Traded Fund, traded at a premium to net asset value 62% of the time and a discount 38% of the time. Was it 2017 when stocks soared?  No, it was 2018 when SPY declined 4.5%.

Note how big changes in behavioral patterns correspond with market moves. The one in September is eye-popping. Patterns now are down as much as up and could signal a top.

SPY trades 93% of the time within 25 basis points of NAV, but it effectively never trades AT net-asset-value. Comparing trading volume to creations and redemptions of ETF shares, the data suggest 96% of SPY trading is arbitrage, profiting on price-differences.

This is the stuff that’s invaded the equity market like a Genghis Kahn horde trampling principles of value investment and distorting prices.

So, what do we DO, investors and public companies?

Recognize that the market isn’t a reliable barometer for rational thought. If your stock fell 40% in Q4 2018 and rebounded 38% in Q1, the gain should be as suspect as the fall.

Ask why. Ask your exchange. Ask the regulators. Ask the business reporters. These people should be getting to the bottom of vanishing rationality in stocks.

It may be the market now is telling us nothing more than ETFs are closing above net asset value and ETF market-makers are melting stocks up to close that gap.  That could be true 62% of the time, and the market could still lose 20% in two weeks.

When you hear market-behavior described in rational terms – even during earnings – toss some salt over a shoulder.  I think the market today comes down to three items: Sentiment reflecting how machines set prices, shorting, and behavioral change.

Behavioral patterns in stocks now show the biggest declines since September. Sentiment reflecting how machines set prices is topped ahead of options expirations that’ll be truncated by Good Friday. Shorting bottomed last week and is rising.

(Side note: patterns don’t vary during earnings. They fluctuate at month-ends, quarter-ends and options-expirations, so these are more powerful than results.)

Nobody knows the future and we don’t either. Behaviors change. But the present is dominated by characteristics, powerful factors behind behavioral patterns.

Bad Liquidity

JP Morgan’s global head of macro quant and derivatives research (if you have that title, you should be a big deal!), Marko Kolanovic, says the market’s rising propensity toward violent moves up and down reflects bad liquidity.

Bad Liquidity would be a great name for a rock band. But what’s it mean?

Most measure volatility with the VIX.  The trouble with it predictively is it’s not predictive. It spikes after the fact, not ahead.

It was not always so. Modern Portfolio Theory (MPT), a hot investment thesis of the 1990s stock market, said rising volatility reflected growing price uncertainty. Managers like Louis Navellier flew private jets on fortunes made shifting from stocks as volatility mounted.

I’d argue it’s the opposite now. When volatility vanishes, arbitrage opportunities, the primary price-discovery mechanism today (“price discovery” means “trying to figure out the price of a thing”), have been consumed. What happens then? Money leaves.

Speaking of money leaving, Mr. Kolanovic blames falling Active investment for a lack of liquidity. He says algorithm

Image shows weekly spreads between composite stocks and State Street sector SPDR ETFs, with negative numbers indicating more volatility in ETFs, positive numbers, more volatility in composite sector stocks.

s – “stock recipes” run by computers – are present when markets rise and absent when markets fall, exacerbating liquidity shortages.

Active investors tend to sell when prices are high and buy when they’re low, helping to ease liquidity constraints. As Active investment declines (he says just 10% of trading, presumably he means at JP Morgan, comes from Active stock-picking, eerily near the figures we measure – with algorithms no less), stabilizing liquidity shrinks.

Liquidity boiled down (so to speak!) is the availability of a thing at a stable price.  The more that’s available, the better your chance of getting it at the same price.

Investors tend to want a lot of something – a truckload.  Arbitragers tend to want the price to change. These aims are diametrically opposed.

By the way, I’m speaking to the NIRI Minneapolis chapter today on Exchange Traded Funds, which are predicated on an arbitrage mechanism. That means they can only exist as investment instruments if there is volatility. Mr. Kolanovic thinks volatility is the root rot.  Connection?

Yes. ETFs distort liquidity in two crucial ways that compound risk for stocks. As we’ve explained, ETFs are not pooled investments. They are most closely akin to put and call options, in that they are created when people want more of them and removed from the market when people don’t want them.

As with puts and calls, they become ends unto themselves. Too many mistake options prices for future stock prices. Sometimes that’s true. But changes in the value of options are a discrete profit opportunity themselves.

Goldman Sachs wrote in February this year as Q4 2018 results were coming in (thank you to an alert reader!): “What’s interesting this quarter is that buying calls for earnings reports has posted its best return in over thirteen years (record). In fact, buying the closest out of the money call 5 days ahead of earnings and closing the day after has produced an average return of 88%.”

Eighty-eight percent! That’s not a bet on results but pure arbitrage in options.

ETFs offer the same opportunity. Shares are created when investors want exposure to equities and redeemed when investors want out. But the investors to a large extent now are ETF market-makers profiting on spreads between ETFs and the underlying stocks comprising a tracking instrument. It’s arbitrage. Profiting on price-differences.

The problem with this liquidity is it’s continuously fluctuating. We can have no consistent, measurable idea of the supply of ETFs or the demand for stocks. That means the market at any given time cannot be trusted to provide meaningful prices.

The data to me say it’s the arbitrage mechanism in ETFs behind bad liquidity. ETFs can only establish prices through spreads with stocks. The market is now stuffed with ETFs. The motivation is the spread. Not fundamentals – or even fund-flows.

We track spreads between ETFs and composite stocks. Our data say spreads totaled hundreds of percentage points from Dec 2018 to Mar 2019. At Apr 5, stocks are 33% more volatile in 2019 on net than ETFs. That’s way more than the market has risen.  Somebodies will want to keep it.

If we want to know where the next financial crisis will develop, we need look no further than ETFs. They are now a mania. They depend on spreads. As liquidity goes, that’s bad.

Beating Hearts

As the Dow Jones Industrials surged over 300 points on April Fools Day, the behavior driving it was Exchange Traded Funds, not rational thought reacting to economic data.

But aren’t ETFs manifestations of rational thought? Investors see, say, good Chinese manufacturing data, and pump money into them?

I’m not talking about fund flows.  I’ll explain.

CNBC reported that investors withdrew about $6 billion from stock funds during the first quarter’s epic equity rally. How can stocks soar when money is leaving?

We wrote Mar 20 that tallying fund-flow data in Q4 2018 when the market fell about 20% showed net static conditions. That is, $370 billion left stock-picking portfolios and the same amount shifted to passive funds. If no money left, why did stocks crater?

We should ask why fund flows don’t match market-performance. It seems like everyone is running around with fingers in ears going, “La la la la!” amid these uncomfortable realities.

Bloomberg wrote a wildly compelling piece on “heartbeat trades” Mar 29, taking a cue from FactSet’s Elisabeth Kashner, who first wrote about this ETF phenomenon in late 2017.

The gist is that ETFs somehow get short-term cash or stocks to finance creating ETF shares, which go to the provider of the loan as collateral, and then days later the ETF sponsor provides the bank with high capital-gains stocks equal to the value of the ETF shares, which it receives back.

Follow that?  Money is traded for ETF shares, which in turn are traded for stocks.

(Note: We should also wonder where those stocks came from if the market doesn’t suddenly take a selling hit afterward. Were they borrowed to start?)

The result of this trade is that taxes associated with the stocks are washed out of the ETF portfolio, ostensibly benefiting ETF investors.

Except ETF investors don’t own a share of pooled assets carrying tax liabilities. ETFs are not backed by any assets. The assets moving back and forth between, say, Blackrock and Goldman Sachs in these heartbeat trades belong to Blackrock, not to investors.

So Blackrock gets a tax benefit.

If you as an investor sell appreciated ETF shares, you owe taxes. That is, if you bought ETFs for $20 per share and they go to $30, and you sell them, you have $10 of gains and you’ll owe either ordinary-income or capital-gains taxes.

Not Blackrock et al.  They don’t own ETF shares.  They own collateral. Washed of taxes through processes such as what Bloomberg describes.

Bloomberg acknowledges that the same event – washing capital gains – occurs through the process of creating and redeeming ETF shares in ordinary course. Vanguard says in its ETF FAQs: “Vanguard ETFs can also use in-kind redemptions to remove stocks that have greatly increased in value (which trigger large capital gains) from their holdings.”

That by the way can hit a stock, undermining great fundamentals.

Creations and redemptions are huge. We had an estimated $1 trillion of ETF “gross issuance,” it’s called, in the time ordinary investors yanked $6 billion from stocks.

Might that $1 trillion have SOMETHING to do with how the stock market has behaved?  Read anything about it?

I’ll give you an example of the impact: the April Fools Day’s stock tirade. Brokers knew ETFs were undercollateralized. That is, if ETFs are supposed to, say, hold 500 S&P components in proportion as collateral, the rate of increase of markets in Q1 has meant they’re sampling only – using a handful of the same liquid stocks repeatedly to create and redeem ETF shares.

But they have to square books sometime. Usually month-ends, quarter-ends.

Fast Traders tipped us to it last week by buying and covering shorts.  So the market surged not on investors buying economic news but on ETF bookkeeping, in effect.

What has not happened yet is washing out capital gains. We saw smatterings only at March options-expirations. That shoe awaits, and ETF horizons in the wholesale market where shares are created and redeemed – again, $1 trillion in Q1 2019 – are fleeting.

These facts – not suppositions – matter because financial punditry is describing the market in fundamental terms when it’s being driven by leviathan tax-avoidance and arbitrage around a multi-trillion-dollar ETF creation-redemption process.

For public companies and investors, that means it’s nearly impossible to arrive at reliably fundamental expectations for stocks.

Five Questions

Is less more?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Okay, let’s review and answer:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

FX Effects

It’s all about the Benjamins, baby.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Manufactured Spreads

Did Exchange Traded Funds drive the recent market rollercoaster?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Flowing

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

So how can stocks be up?

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

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

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

That combination is ETFs.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It happened in December.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Your boards and executive teams deserve to know.

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

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

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