Tagged: fair value

The Reality Discount

If reality were measured like stocks in multiples of earnings, how much should we discount it?

Alert (and good-looking) reader Karen Quast sent a Feb 8 story from The Atlantic by entrepreneur Nick Hanauer, Amazon investor and founder of aQuantive, acquired by Microsoft for $6.4 billion. Called “Stock Buybacks are Killing the American Economy,” Hanauer’s treatise contends companies have shifted from investing in people and stuff to trafficking in earnings-management.

While Hanauer’s real target is sociological, he offers startling statistics compiled at theAIRnet.org. Companies in the S&P 500 have repurchased $6.9 trillion of stock the past decade including $700 billion last year.

The Sept 2014 Harvard Business Review ran a similar story by UMass professor William Lazonick called “Profits Without Prosperity.” Mr. Lazonick says S&P 500 components between 2003-2012 spent 54% of profits, or $2.4 trillion, on buybacks, and another 37% ($1.6 trillion) on dividends, thus sending 91% on to holders.  What strikes me is that companies must’ve borrowed roughly $3 trillion more for buybacks.

Hanauer also nods toward GMO Capital’s ($120 billion AUM) James Montier, whose incendiary white paper “The World’s Dumbest Idea” (drawn from a Jack Welch observation) has been the subject of contention in the investor-relations profession and beyond.  Montier claims a tally of buybacks from the 1980s forward shows firms repurchased more shares than were issued.

If that seems to defy the existence of the stock market (if more shares were bought than offered, how are there any to trade?), it doesn’t. There once were nearly 8,000 companies in the Wilshire 5000 while today it’s 3,750 (you’d think the Wilshire 5000 described the number of companies in it), a 53% freefall. But the big have gotten bigger, with US market capitalization about $2.8 trillion in 1988 and $25 trillion today (rewind to 1950 and total market cap was $92 billion – equaling just, say, Biogen Idec’s market cap now). (more…)

Function Follows Form

Let me go. I don’t want to be your hero.

Those words strung together move me now viscerally after seeing the movie Boyhood, in the running at the Academy Awards, as I write, for best of the year. I’m biased by the video for “Hero” from the band Family of the Year because it highlights rodeo, something bled into the DNA of my youth.  See both. The movie is a cinematic achievement that left us blurry. The song is one I wish I’d had the talent in youth to write.

As ever for the ear that hears and the eye that sees, there’s a lesson for investor-relations. We might have heard MSCI last week refraining those lyrics – let me go, I don’t want to be your hero – to the ValueAct team, activist investors.

Over the past few years as activism has flourished, many companies have longed to be let go but have benefited from the activist grip. Herbalife and Bill Ackman.  Hewlett-Packard and Relational Investors. Dow Chemical and Dan Loeb’s Third Point.  Tessera and Wausau Paper and a raft of others just off Starboard.  On it goes, all around.

A curious condition has laid hold of stocks in the last number of years. It used to be that results differentiated.  Deliver consistent topline and bottom-line performance, do what you say you’ll do, explain it in predictable cadence each quarter – these were a reliable recipe for capital-markets rewards. Form followed function.

Activism by its nature supposes something amiss – that a feature of the form of a company is incorrect or undervalued, or simply operated poorly. By calling attention like the old flashing blue light at Kmart (have I just dated myself?), activists have often outperformed the market.

Meanwhile, the opposite has become more than an exception.  From our own client base we could cull a meaningful percentage of companies following the formula of consistent performance yet missing bigger prizes. (more…)

Who Is Selling

“Who’s selling?”

It was 2001. I’d look up and there’d be the CEO leaning in the door of my office. This was back when my buns rode the gilded surface of the IR chair. I’d look at my computer screen and our shares would be down a percent or so.

“Somebody, apparently,” I’d say. “Let me make a few calls.”

Today we have Facebook, Twitter, Pandora, iPhones, and Tesla. None of these existed in 2001. The Intercontinental Exchange, formed a year earlier to trade derivatives, now owns the NYSE. What’s remarkable to me is that against this technological wave many issuers, not counting the growing horde with Market Structure Analytics, are still making calls to get answers.

Why wouldn’t everybody be modeling market behavior and measuring periodic change? But that’s another story.

So. What if nobody’s selling and your price is down?

Impossible, you say. For price to decline, somebody has to sell.

Let me tell you about two clients releasing earnings last week.

But first, say I’m a high-frequency trader and you’re reporting. I rent (borrow) 500 shares of stock trading at $25 apiece. Say the pre-open futures are negative. At the open, I explode ahead of all others by three microseconds to place a market order to sell 500 shares. My order plunges the market 8%. I immediately cover. And for the next six hours I and my HFT compatriots trade those 500 shares amongst ourselves 23,000 times. That’s volume of 11.5 million shares.

The huge move in price prompts swaps counterparties holding insurance policies for Blackrock and Vanguard into the market, spawning big block volumes of another 6 million shares. Now you’ve traded 17.5 million shares and your price, after dropping 8%, recovers back 3% to close down 5% on the day.

So who’s selling? Technically I, an HFT firm, sold 500 shares short at the open. I probably paid a $200 finance fee for them in my margin account.

You’re the IRO. You call your exchange for answers. They see the block data, the big volumes, and conclude, yup, you had some big-time selling. Conventional wisdom says price moves, massive volume, block trades – that’s institutional.

You’re getting calls from your holders saying, “What’s going on? I didn’t think the numbers looked bad.”

Your CEO is drumming fingers on your door and grousing, “Who the HELL is selling?!”

Your Surveillance firm says UBS and Wedbush were moving big volumes. They’re trying to see if there are any clearing-relationship ties to potential institutional sellers.

The truth is neither active nor passive investors had much to do with pressure or volume, save that counterparties for passive holders had to cover exposure, helping price off lows.

Those clients I mentioned? One saw shares drop 9% day-over-day. In the data, HFT was up 170% day-over-day as price-setter, and indexes/ETFs rose 5.3%. Nothing else was up. Active investment was down. Thus, mild passive growth-selling and huge HFT hammered price. Those shares are already back in line with fair value because the selling was no more real than my 500-share example above (but the damage is done and the data are now in the historical set, affecting future algorithmic trades).

In the other case, investors were strong buyers days before results. On earnings, active investment dropped 15%, passive investment, 8%, and HFT soared 191%. These shares also coincidentally dropped 9% (programmers of algorithms know limit up/down triggers could kill their trading strategies if the move is 10% at once).

They’re still down. Active money hasn’t come back. But it’s not selling. And now we’re seeing headlines in the news string from law firms “investigating” the company for potentially misleading investors. Investors didn’t react except to stop buying.

This is the difference between calling somebody and using data models. Don’t fall in love with models (this is not a critique of Tom Brady, mind you). But the prudent IRO today uses Market Structure Analytics.

Structural Distortion

“When I talk about this stuff with clients, they’re only half-listening until this phrase appears.”

Thus spake my learned friend Jim MacGregor, at Abernathy MacGregor in New York City, whose views I hold in high esteem.

“What stuff? What phrase?” I said.

“Market Structure. ‘How market structure can distort your price.’ You write about that,” Jim said, “betcha your readers forward that column to their bosses as much as the previous half-dozen combined.”

I’m not sure what that says about my earlier writ but Jim had my attention. He was saying that explaining how share-prices are affected by market behavior carries more substance than intoning “you need to understand market structure.”

“Market structure” is the behavior of money behind price and volume. Could certain behaviors be distorting fair value for shares?

Exchanges say no. Regulators claim there’s no proof. Surveillance providers tell you to ignore noise.

The biggest money manager today is Blackrock, with $3.9 trillion under management. Blackrock is a quantitative investor known for the $850 billion in its iShares ETFs. It allocates resources top-down. ETFs rebalance every day. Is that noise?

Of 4.5 billion shares trading daily in the US stock market, 1.8 billion, about 40%, are borrowed every day (some amount from Blackrock). That’s not owning, it’s renting.

There are 3,600 national-market-system companies in the US when you remove ETFs, investment companies and multiple classes of stock (I bet Blackrock owns every one). There are two million global indexes. Thousands in US equities are calculated every second. There are more ways to slice stocks than there are underlying corporations.

I was explaining market structure last week to the head of a major public brand, who asked why he should care about market structure if price reverts to a rational level over time. After my explanation, he became a client. I’ll come to what I said.

In Paris in June, Karen and I wanted to visit the top of the Eiffel Tower. The line at the north footing stretched dimly into the gloaming. We’d heard access was quicker at the south entrance. We went there. About 25 were waiting. We were elated. Except there are no elevators at the south footing. You climb. Market structure affected our behavior.

ModernIR monitors bottom-up investment behavior as a share of overall market volume (about 16% the past 12 mos.) and as a price-setter over various time-periods. (more…)