Tagged: HFT

On the Skids

If electoral processes lack the drama to satisfy you, check the stock market.

Intraday volatility has been averaging 4%. The pandemic has so desensitized us to gyrations that what once was appalling (volatility over 2%) is now a Sunday T-shirt.

Who cares?

Public companies, your market-cap can change 4% any given day. And a lot more, as we saw this week.  And traders, how or when you buy or sell can be the difference between gains and losses.

So why are prices unstable?

For one, trade-size is tiny.  In 1995, data show orders averaged 1,600 shares. Today it’s 130 shares, a 92% drop.

The exchanges shout, “There’s more to market quality!”

Shoulder past that obfuscating rhetoric. Tiny trades foster volatility because the price changes more often.

You follow?  If the price was $50 per share for 1,600 shares 25 years ago, and today it’s $50 for 130 shares, then $50.02 for 130 shares, then $49.98 for 130 shares, then $50.10 for 130 shares – and so on – the point isn’t whether the prices are pennies apart.

The point is those chasing pennies love this market and so become vast in it. But they’re not investors.  About 54% of current volume comes from that group (really, they want hundredths of pennies now).

Anything wrong with that?

Public companies, it demolishes the link between your story and your stock. You look to the market for what investors think. Instead it’s an arbitrage gauge. I cannot imagine a more impactful fact.

Traders, you can’t trust prices – the very thing you trade. (You should trade Sentiment.)

But wait, there’s more.

How often do you use a credit or debit card?  Parts of the world are going cashless, economies shifting to invisible reliance on a “middle man,” somebody always between the buying or selling.

I’m not knocking the merits of digital exchange. I’m reading Modern Monetary Theory economist Stephanie Kelton’s book, The Deficit Myth.  We can talk about credit and currency-creation another time when we have less stuff stewing our collective insides.

We’re talking about volatility. Why stocks like ETSY and BYND were halted on wild swings this week despite trading hundreds of millions of dollars of stock daily.

Sure, there were headlines. But why massive moves instead of, say, 2%?

The stock market shares characteristics with the global payments system.  Remember the 2008 financial crisis? What worried Ben Bernanke, Tim Geithner and Hank Paulson to grayness was a possibility the plumbing behind electronic transactions might run dry.

Well, about 45% of US stock volume is borrowed. It’s a payments system. A cashless society. Parties chasing pennies don’t want to own things, and avoid that by borrowing. Covering borrowing by day’s end makes you Flat, it’s called.

And there are derivatives. Think of these as shares on a layaway plan.  Stuff people plan to buy on time but might not.

Step forward to Monday, Nov 9. Dow up 1700 points to start. It’s a massive “rotation trade,” we’re told, from stay-at-home stocks to the open-up trade.

No, it was a temporary failure of the market’s payments system. Shorting plunged, dropping about 4% in a day, a staggering move across more than $30 trillion of market-cap. Derivatives trades declined 5% as “layaways” vanished.  That’s implied money.

Bernanke, Geithner and Paulson would have quailed.

Think of it this way. Traders after pennies want prices to change rapidly, but they don’t want to own anything. They borrow stock and buy and sell on layaway.  They’re more than 50% of volume, and borrowing is 45%, derivatives about 13%.

There’s crossover – but suppose that’s 108% of volume – everything, plus more.

That’s the grease under the skids of the world’s greatest equity market.

Lower it by 10% – the drop in short volume and derivatives trades. The market can’t function properly. Metal meets metal, screeching. Tumult ensues.

These payment seizures are routine, and behind the caroming behavior of markets. It’s not rational – but it’s measurable.  And what IS rational can be sorted out, your success measures amid the screaming skids of a tenuous market structure.

Your board and exec team need to know the success measures and the facts of market function, both. They count on you, investor-relations professionals. You can’t just talk story and ESG. It’s utterly inaccurate. We can help.

Traders, without market structure analytics, you’re trading like cavemen. Let us help.

By the way, the data do NOT show a repudiation of Tech. It’s not possible. Tech sprinkled through three sectors is 50% of market-cap. Passive money must have it.

No need for all of us to be on the skids.  Use data.  We have it.

-Tim Quast

Medium Frequency Trading

Liquidity is driving the stock market.  And I don’t mean the Federal Reserve.

I saw it firsthand in my Interactive Brokers account.  I bought 600 shares of GE at the market.  Limit orders are like turn signals in LA:  For sissies.  The average trade-size in GE is a little over 600 shares, or about $3,700.

Ergo, 600 shares should fill without issue. Well, pfffttth on that.

A hundred shares went to Island – which doesn’t exist anymore but the name lives on at Instinet, owned by Nomura. It’s an Alternative Trading System, a dark pool.

Island, for you market structure geeks (you know who you are!), invented the market as it exists today.  Look up Josh Levine and Jeff Citron (the guy behind phone company Vonage now).  And read Scott Patterson’s “Dark Pools.” 

Back to our saga. Another hundred shares filled at the NYSE’s Retail Liquidity Program, meaning I bought them from a high-frequency trader paid by the NYSE to improve the price a half-penny (price was $6.445).

If you’re suffering from insomnia, read this latest update on NYSE Arca fees. I’ll give you something to keep you awake:  a $50 American Express gift card to the first three people to tell me CORRECTLY what selling retail orders pays at NYSE Arca.

Oh, and this is why online retail brokers sell order flow and why high-speed traders buy it.  Read – or try to – the fee schedule. Think about all that complexity filtering through how algorithms route orders around the marketplace.

And think about how it might set the price for things while the good folks on CNBC are divining economic signals from what stocks do.

The exchanges are going to gush about how great this is for me.  You’re getting a better price, see!

Continuing:  Then a hundred shares executed at the very same price and time at CBOE EDGA, a stock exchange that pays traders about $0.18/100 to buy shares (to “remove,” the exchanges like to say, but adding and removing is selling and buying).  If you sell there, you pay.

Then 200 shares matched at $6.448 at a place simply labeled “DARK,” followed by another hundred in the same place, at the same price.

By breaking up my single order into five pieces (IBKR’s algo did it), the price went up.  GE’s market cap is $60 billion. It trades 130 million shares daily. Revenues are $120 billion. Should 20% of my 600-share order price it?

All these trades occurred at 9:25:52 AM MT.  I know the sequence only because the trades are ranked by succession.

This…process, or whatever you want to call it, is pricing the whole stock market.  It’s the Twister – remember that suggestive board game? – version of liquidity.

Our friends Joe Saluzzi, Sal Arnuk and team at Themis Trading are chuckling. This is daily life for them (read their book!).

But do you understand, readers?  GE’s business prospects didn’t do it.

I bought it because Market Structure Sentiment ticked up, signaling gains.  The vast bulk of trades are driven by the same motivation.  For me, it’s Medium Frequency Trading, or what probability for gains exists over a few days.

For most orders it’s far less, and for ten parties – no doubt some of them the same but there is a broker on each side of every trade – my MFT, my medium-frequency trade, was an HFT, a high-frequency trade.

Our collective acts set prices.  Trading heuristics – what do I get for this action versus that one?  Who will pay me to be ahead or behind this trade?

Exchanges and brokers say it bears little on the weight of the money in the market. Oh, really?  Try trading 600 shares of GE at the market. And why is the NYSE’s fee-schedule update 49 pages long?

Get takeout via DoorDash (a restaurant HFT, we could call them) and the price is in the cart. It’s not dependent on volume of food or whether you’re routing the meal to somebody else.

The restaurant pays for the service (or you pay delivery), but the cost is clear, and fixed. It appears to me traders made nearly three cents intermediating my fragmented order, and were paid an additional $0.51-$0.54 for setting prices.

What difference does it make? Motivation. During the placid, halcyon days of Nov 2019, stock prices still moved 2% up and down every day. In March it was over 12%. Right now it’s 3.3%. Every party to a trade gets paid. Price? Volatility.

Try reading the Nasdaq’s response to what we call Reg Nemesis II. No, seriously. Read it. Make sense?  Why is the market so fricking complicated?  Why are we told it’s good?

It lacks credulity. As do most of the daily links drawn to stock prices and headlines.

But I’ve got good news, public companies and investors. If we understand what’s happening, we can turn it to our advantage and influence it, both. I’ve got more to say on both counts soon. It’s happening.  Stay tuned.

Meanwhile, Market Sentiment bottomed last week but we’ve been moving at dog years in equities, so watch out. Things can change on a dime – especially either side of month-end window-dressing.

Rotation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That stuff put together could mean rotation, I suppose.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Short-Term Borrowing

Half the volume in the stock market is short – borrowed. Why?

It’s the more remarkable because stocks since late December have delivered an epic momentum rebound. A 15% gain is a good year. Half the sectors in the market were up 15% in just the last 25 trading days.

Yet amid the stampede from the depths of the December correction, short volume, the amount of daily trading on borrowed shares, rose rather than fell, and remains 48%.  That means if daily dollar-volume is $250 billion, $120 billion is borrowed stock.

What difference does it make? We’ve written before that the stock market now has characteristics of a credit market.  That is, if lending is responsible for half the volume, the market depends on short-term loans rather than long-term investment.

And share-borrowing, credit, will give the market a false appearance of liquidity.

Think about the sudden and massive December declines that included the worst-ever points-loss for the Dow Jones Industrial Average.  Was that a liquidity problem? Does a V-shaped recovery signal a liquidity problem?

Before the Dodd-Frank financial legislation, large banks might carry a supply of shares to meet the needs of customers, especially stocks covered by equity research.

With rigid value-at-risk regulations now, banks don’t hold inventory.  The supply chain for the stock market has shifted to proprietary fast traders, which don’t carry inventory either. They borrow it.

We define liquidity as the number of shares that can be traded before the price changes.  Prior to electronic markets, trade-sizes were ten times larger than today.  The mean trade-size the last five days was 181 shares, or about $13,500 against an average market price of $74.61.

But a few liquid stocks skew the average.  AAPL’s liquidity is over $23,000, its average trade-size. WMT is the average, about $13,000. GIS is half that, about $6,800.

AAPL is also 57% short – over half its liquidity is borrowed.  And AAPL is used as collateral by 270 Exchange-Traded Funds (ETFs). Related?

(Side note: Why would AAPL be used more than other stocks in an index if ETFs are tracking an index? Because ETFs only use a sample, often the biggest stocks that are liquid and easy to borrow.)

These three elements – fast traders, high borrowing levels, ETFs – are intertwined and they create risks of inflation and deflation in stocks that bear no correlation to fundamentals.

The market, as we’ve said before, always reflects its primary purposes. If the parties supplying the market with shares are borrowing them, they have an economic interest that will compete with the objectives of those buying shares as an equity investment.

Second, borrowing is a back-office brokerage function. With massive short-term securities lending, the back office becomes as important as the cash equities desk. And it’s a loan business, a credit market (a point made by the insightful academics comprising the Bogan family).

And ETFs? If you want to know how they work, read our white paper. ETFs are not pooled investments. They are collateralized stock substitutes. Derivatives.

Collateral is something you find in a credit market. ETF collateralization, the wholesale market where ETF shares are created and redeemed, is a staggering $400 billion per month in US equities, says the Investment Company Institute.

It’s cheap and easy for brokers to borrow the shares of a basket of stocks and supply them as collateral to the Blackrocks of the world (does Blackrock then loan them out, perpetuating the cycle?) for the right to create and sell ETF shares (or provide them to a hedge-fund customer wanting to short the whole Technology sector).

And how about the reverse? Brokers can borrow ETF shares and return them to Blackrock to receive collateral – stocks and/or cash that Blackrock puts in the redemption basket to offer in-kind for ETF shares.

These are the mechanics of the stock market.  It works well if there’s little volatility – much like the short-term commercial paper market that froze catastrophically during the financial crisis.

We are not predicting doom. We are highlighting structural risks investors and public companies should understand. The stock market depends for prices and liquidity on short-term borrowing. In periods of volatility, that dependency will amplify moves.

In extreme cases, it’s possible the stock market could seize up not through investor panic but because short-term borrowing may freeze.

How might we see that risk? Behavioral volatility. When the movement of money becomes frantic behind prices and volume where only a few firms like ours can see it, market volatility tends to follow (as Sept 2018 behaviors presaged October declines).

Currently, behavioral volatility is muted ahead of the Fed meeting concluding today, loads of earnings, and jobs data Friday. It can change on a dime.

Big Movers

You can’t expect the stock market to reflect earnings. I’ll explain.

By week’s end, 20% of the S&P 500 will have reported, and earnings are up 17% over the same period last year so far (normalized to about 7% sans federal corporate tax reform legislation).

Yardeni Research, Inc. reports that price-to-earnings ratios in various categories of the market are not misaligned with history.  The S&P 500 trades just over 16 times forward expected earnings, about where it did in 2015, and in 2007 before the financial crisis, and well below levels before Sep 11, 2001.

Sure, by some measures valuations are extreme. Viewed via normative metrics, however, the market is as it’s been. From 1982-2000, PE ratios were generally rising.  From there to 2012, they were generally falling. Yet between we had multiple major market corrections.

Which returns us to my incendiary opening assertion that earnings today don’t drive stocks. What does? The money setting prices. Let me explain.

Buy-and-hold money tends to buy, and hold. Most conventional “long” equity funds must be fully invested, which means to buy something they must sell something else.  Buying and selling introduces tax, trading-commission, and volatility costs, which can cause stock-picking investors to underperform broad indexes.

The Investment Company Institute reported that 2016 turnover rates among equity funds averaged 34%, or about a third of positions annually. Passive index and exchange-traded funds tout low turnover. State Street, sponsor for the world’s largest ETF, SPY, claimed 2017 turnover was 3%.

We’ll come to the fallacy of low turnover in ETFs.

First, Big Reason #1 for the movement of stocks is arbitrage. Follow the money. Using our proprietary statistical measures of behavior in stock trades, nearly 46% of market volume (20-day ave.) in the Russell 1000 (which is over 90% of market cap) came from high-speed traders.

They are not investors. These machines trade tick data in baskets, aiming most times to own nothing at day’s end. The objective is to profit on intraday price-moves.  For instance, 52% of Facebook’s daily trading volume is high-speed machines. Less then 9% is Active investment by stock-pickers.

Viewed another way, there’s a 46% chance that the price of stocks reflects machines trading the tick. Since less than 12% of Russell 1000 volume was fundamental, there is but a one-in-eight chance that earnings set prices. High-speed trading is arbitrage – profiting on price-differences.

Don’t fundamentals price the market long-term? Again, that would be true if the majority of the money setting prices in the market was motivated by fundamentals. That hasn’t been true this century.

How about fund flows?  Assembling data from EPFR, Lipper and others and accounting for big outflows in February, about $40 billion has come into US stocks this year.

Using Investment Company Institute data and estimates for Mar and Apr this year, ETFs have by comparison created and redeemed some $1.5 TRILLION of shares. Fund flows are less than 3% of that figure.

These “in-kind” exchanges between ETF creators and big brokers that form the machinery of the ETF market are excluded from portfolio turnover. If they were counted, turnover rates in ETFs would dwarf those for conventional funds. And the objective behind creations and redemptions is not investment.

ETF creators make money by charging brokers fees for these transactions (which are tax-free to them) and investing the collateral. Brokers then trade ETFs and components and indexes to profit on the creations (new ETF shares sold to investors) and redemptions (returning ETF shares to ETF creators in exchange for collateral to sell and short).

Neither of these parties is trying to produce an investment return per se. They are profiting on how prices change – which is arbitrage (and if ETF creations are greater than redemptions, they permit more money to chase the same goods, lifting markets).

Summarizing: The biggest sources of movement of money and prices are machines trading the tick, and ETF creators and brokers shuttling tax-free collateral and shares back and forth by the hundreds of billions. If pundits describe the market in fundamental terms, they are not doing the math or following the money.

And when the market surges or plunges, it’s statistically probable that imbalances in these two behaviors are responsible.

Paid Access

A day ski pass to Vail will now set you back $160-$190. It’s rich but I’m glad the SEC isn’t studying skiing access fees. It is however about to consider trading access fees and you should know, public companies and investors. These are the gears of the market.

We all probably suppose stock exchanges make money by owning turf and controlling access. Right? Pete Seibert, Earl Eaton and their Denver investors had a similar ski vision when in 1962 they bought a hunk of Colorado mountain down from the pass through which Charles Vail had run Highway 6. Control turf, charge for access.

In stock trading it started that way too. The Buttonwood Agreement by 24 brokers in 1792 that became the NYSE was carving out turf. Brokers agreed to give each other first look at customer orders and to charge a minimum commission.

This became the stock-exchange model. To trade at one, you had to have access, like a ski pass. Floor firms were called two-dollar brokers, the minimum commission. If you wanted to offer customers more services – say, beer at Fraunces Tavern with a stock trade – you could charge more. But not less.  No undercutting on price.

In the ski business, Nederland, Loveland, Wolf Creek and other ski slopes along the continental divide will undercut, letting you in for half Vail’s cost – but Vail wraps world-class value-adds around its access fees, like Mountain Standard and The Sebastian.

Suppose all the ski resorts could charge only a maximum rate for passes and were forced to send their customers to any mountain having a better price.  It would be inconvenient for travelers arriving in Vail via I-70 to learn that, no, the best ski price is now at Purgatory in Durango, five hours by car.

And it would be like today’s stock market (save for speed). The three big exchange groups, plus the newest entrant IEX, and tiny Chicago Stock Exchange, comprising currently 12 separate market centers, can charge a maximum price of $0.30/100 shares for access to trade. And still they all undercut on price.

That’s because rules require trades to match between the marketwide Best Bid or Offer (BBO) – the best price. As Vail would do in our imaginary scenario, exchanges must continually send their customers to another exchange with the best price.

How to set the best price? You can only cut price so much.  More people will still go to Vail because it’s close to Denver on the Interstate, than to Purgatory, halfway between Montrose, CO and Farmington, NM off highway 550.

Now suppose Purgatory paid to chopper you in from Vail. It might not move you out of The Sebastian, but you’d again have the stock exchanges today. While access fees are capped (and undercut), exchanges can pay traders to bring orders to them.

That’s called a rebate. Exchanges pay brokers incentives to set prices because if they can’t attract the BBO part of the time, they don’t match trades, don’t capture market share, can’t generate valuable data to sell to brokers (Only IEX is eschewing rebates).

The problem for investors and companies is that trades motivated by rebates are like shill bids at art auctions (which by the way are prohibited). They set the best price for everybody else yet the shill bidder doesn’t want to own the painting – or the shares. That’s high-frequency trading. It’s 40% of market volume on average and can be 60%.

Bloomberg reported yesterday the SEC is planning to study access fees through a pilot trading program next year. We’re encouraged that it may include a group of securities with no rebates. But the initial framework begun in 2016 under Mary Jo White aimed to lower access fees, and the study right now contains those plans.

Why? Exchanges are already lowering them. How about setting a floor on access fees so exchanges can make a decent return matching trades and don’t have to engage in surreptitious incentive programs to compete? I got the idea from the Buttonwood Agreement and 200 years of history.

Say all exchanges charge baseline access fees. If this exchange or that wants to wrap more value around fees – better data or more technology or beer – they can charge more.

Whatever happens, we hope (and I asked Chairman Clayton by email) the SEC makes an issuer committee part of the process. Without your shares, public companies, there’s no market. We should have a say. That’s why we have to know how it works!

Acronym Techniques

The stock market is full of acronyms.

Last month, Chicago-based DRW bought Austin’s RGM. It’s a merger of fast giants – or ones who thought they might be giants (opaque musical reference) and once were, and might be again.

You see a lot of acronyms in the high-speed proprietary trading business. Getco became KCG, now Virtu.  HRT remains one of the biggest firms trading supersonically – Hudson River Trading.  TRC Markets is Tower Research. There’s GTS. IMC.  EWT is gone, absorbed by high-speed firm Virtu.

Vanished also is ATD, the pioneering electronic platform created by the founder of Interactive Brokers bought first by Citi and then by Citadel, another high-speed firm.  Mantara bought UNX.

If I missed any vital acronyms, apologies.

RGM embodied HFT – high frequency trading, another acronym. Robbie Robinette studied physics at the University of Texas. Richard Gorelick is a lawyer, and in today’s markets one of the letters of your trading acronym should be backed by jurisprudence.  It’s all about rules. Mark Melton wrote artificial intelligence software.

They were RGM. They built trading systems to react to real-time events. We estimate the peak was 2010. They were crushing it, perhaps making hundreds of millions.  By 2012 in the data we track they’d been passed by Quantlabs, HRT and other firms.

Donald R. Wilson in 1992 was a kid trading options in Chicago when he founded DRW. Today it’s a high-speed trader in futures across 40 global markets with 750 employees, real estate ventures, and a major lawsuit with the Commodities Futures Trading Commission that seeks to bar Wilson from the industry.  Oral arguments were heard in December and the parties await word. DRW confidence must be high. They’re a buyer.

What does it mean for you, investors and public companies? History teaches and so we return to it.

From the early 1990s when both Don Wilson and I were youngsters out of college (we’re the same age so what am I doing with my life?) until roughly 2005, software companies called “Electronic Communications Networks” pounded stock exchanges, taking perhaps half the trading business.

The exchanges cried foul, sued – and then bought and became the ECNs. Today’s stock market structure in large part reflects the pursuit of speed and price, which began then. The entire structure has become high speed, diminishing returns for the acronyms.

Exchange are still paying close to $3 billion in annual trading rebates, incentives to bring orders to markets. Yet the amount earned by high-speed firms has imploded from over $7 billion by estimates in 2009 to less than $1 billion today.

Where are dollars going? Opportunity has shrunk as everyone has gotten faster. Exchanges and brokers that are still the heart of the market ecosystem have again adapted as they did before, becoming the acronyms that ae disappearing.  They are Speed.

Exchanges are selling speed via colocation services, and the data that speed needs. And big brokers with customers have learned to apply high-speed trading methods – let’s call them acronym techniques – to offload risk and exposure when they’re principals for customer orders.

There’s nothing illegal about it. Brokers are free to transfer risk while working orders. But now they can make money not via commissions but in offsetting risk with speed.

And speed is the opposite of the way great things are created.  Your company’s success is no short-term event.  The Neuschwanstein Castle in Bavaria (which we will visit on our cycling trip in the Bavarian Alps later this month) took 23 years to complete.

Your house. Your career.  Your investment portfolio. Your reputation. Your relationships.  Your expertise. Your craft.  What of these happened in fractions of seconds? Technology should improve outcomes but more speed isn’t always better.

Acronyms of high-speed trading have slipped yes, but remain mighty – 39% of US stock market volume the past five days. Fifteen are still pounding pulp out of prices.

But increasingly investors are adopting speed strategies driven by quick directional shifts. We are exchanging patience and time for instant gratification.

With that comes risk. As the acronyms wane in ranks the chance of a sudden shock to equity prices increases, because prices in the market depend on short horizons.

And your stock is an acronym.

Livermore Lesson

A guy from Cumbria in the UK has built a Twitter Tape Machine.

Programmer Adam Vaughan was long intrigued by ticker tape, the stock market technology standard from 1869, when Thomas Edison patented a version better than inventor Edward Calahan’s, until the 1960s when TV and computers made paper tape spitting out price and volume for stocks obsolete.

Mr. Vaughan built his device from spare parts and networked it to check his Twitter feed every thirty seconds and burn anything new onto a strip of thermal cash-register paper. No ink. No checking the device. Tear off the strip and read.

It’s a goofy idea. Isn’t it better to scroll a phone screen with your index finger?  But you can order the Twitter Tape Machine if you’re moved.

Sometimes we need absurdity to shine brightly before we see things.  Nobody reads ticker tape anymore. And yet. Price and volume scrolling on screens is still the standard.

Jesse Livermore started trading stocks in 1891 after working as a board boy transferring figures from ticker tape to the quotation board at Paine Webber. In his tumultuous life speculating in stocks, he famously made $100 million shorting the 1929 crash – the equivalent today, using an income measure of worth, of about $7 billion.

He’d be the John Paulson, the George Soros, of then. Before the riches, on May 9, 1901 Livermore lost $50,000. He later said, “The ticker beat me by lagging so far behind the market. The divergence between the printed and the actual prices undid me.”

A hundred years ago the top high-frequency trader of his time saw opportunity in the gap between posted and actual prices. Today we call that “latency arbitrage,” one form of profiting on price-differences by spotting lagging price patterns. You need machines in the National Market System to win the gap trade, and firms like Tower Research and Hudson River Trading have made it an automated science.

Livermore made and lost fortunes, going bankrupt three times, living large and then committing suicide in 1940, saying in a note his life was a failure. Ticker tape won in the end.

But Livermore was an outlier. Most of the prices and volume on the tape then came from committed investment.  It’s to me fantastically ironic that the SEC was formed in the 1930s to mitigate nefarious “bucket shop” short-term manipulation – and now under a heavy regulatory regime half the market’s volume is a form of exploitation via short-term price-moves. Every one of those costs you minutely, investors and companies.

Leveraged ETFs, investment funds sanctioned by the SEC that use derivatives to deliver one-day directional bets, are arbitrage. Speed traders exploiting slow and fast prices, intraday volatility, divergences from the mean tracked by passive investments, are arbitraging, profiting on price-differences.

Where Livermore was on the cutting edge in 1929 shorting stocks, today 45% of ALL daily market volume is short – from borrowed shares.  Routinely now we see shorting running up as prices rise and down as prices fall. Traders make money via a sort of above-the-surface, below-the-surface trade that works best in a placid VIX environment.

If speculators exploit the tape – price and volume – why do price and volume remain the convention for measuring what investors think? In a market riven with arbitrage?

On every investor-relations website are displayed price and volume. Ticker tape. As if that connotes fair value when we know so much volume, the relentlessly changing prices (our clients average 14,000 trades daily – 14,000 theoretical different prices!), reflect arbitrage.

It’s absurd if you think about it. In 1901 Jesse Livermore could exploit patterns in the tape, and the tape showed price and volume. In 2017, price and volume remain the key data points public companies use to measure the market. But exploitation has exploded.

Investors and public companies alike should be going BEHIND price and volume to the patterns, trends, drivers. Price and volume are consequences. Patterns are the future for well-informed constituents. I suspect even Jesse Livermore would agree.

Our new Key Metrics Report released yesterday for clients puts the focus not on price and volume but six metrics stacked by period, so one can see when the Livermores are leading, or Active investors committed to story.  Instead of searching the tape, scroll to see patterns in Rational Price, Engagement, Short Volume, Key Behavior, Sentiment.

Best, patterns signal what’s coming. There are patterns in weather, patterns in stocks, because mathematical principles govern both. And all things in this universe.

I imagine a day when on websites everywhere are Rational Prices instead of just market price and volume.  And more. But one step at a time!  First, learn your patterns. It’s the future. Price and volume are prologue, like the past.

Mercenary Prices

Florida reminded us of high-speed traders.  I’ll explain.

An energized audience and the best attendance since 2012 marked NIRI National, the investor-relations annual confab held last week, this year in Orlando.

We spent the whole conference in the spacious and biggest-ever ModernIR booth right at the gateway and in late-night revelry with friends, clients and colleagues, and I don’t think we slept more than five hours any night.  Good thing it didn’t last longer or we might have expired.

I can’t speak to content because we had no exposure. But asking people coming through the exhibit hall what moved them, we heard about IEX CEO Brad Katsuyama’s general session on the state of markets (we said hi to Brad, who was arriving in from New York about 1am as we were wrapping for the night and heading to bed).

“He said the exchanges are paying $2.7 billion to traders.”

That what folks were reporting to us.

You remember how this works, longtime readers?  The big listing duopoly doled out $500 million in incentives to traders in the most recent quarter.  That is, exchanges paid others to trade on their platforms (the rest came from BATS Global, now part of CBOE).

Both exchanges combined earned about $180 million in fees from companies to list shares. Data and services generated a combined $750 million for the two.

There’s a relationship among all three items – incentives, listing fees, data revenues.  Companies pay to list shares at an exchange. The exchange in turn pays traders to set prices for those shares. By paying traders for prices, exchanges generate price-setting data that brokers and market operators must buy to comply with rules that require they give customers best prices.

I’m not ripping on exchanges. They’re forced by rules to share customers and prices with competitors. The market is an interlinked data network. No one owns the customer, be it a trader, investor or public company. Exchanges found ways to make money out there.

But if exchanges are paying for prices, how often have you supposed incorrectly that stocks are up or down because investors are buying or selling?

At art auctions you have to prove you’ve got the wherewithal to buy the painting before you can make a bid. Nobody wants the auction house paying a bunch of anonymous shill bidders to run prices up and inflate commissions.

And you public companies, if the majority of your volume trades somewhere else because the law says exchanges have to share prices and customers, how come you don’t have to pay fees to any other exchange?  Listing fees have increased since exchanges hosted 100% of your trading.  Shouldn’t they decrease?

Investors and companies alike should know how much volume is shill bidding and what part is real (some of it is about you, much is quant).  We track that every day, by the way.

The shill bidders aren’t just noise, even if they’re paid to set prices. They hate risk, these machine traders.  They don’t like to lose money so they analyze data with fine machine-toothed combs.  They look for changes in the way money responds to their fake bids and offers meant not to own things but to get fish to take a swipe at a flicked financial fly.

Take tech stocks.  We warned beginning June 5 of waning passive investment particularly in tech. The thing that precedes falling prices is slipping demand and nobody knows it faster than Fast Traders.  Quick as spinning zeroes and ones they shift from long to short and a whole sector gives up 5%, as tech did.

Our theme at NIRI National this year was your plan for a market dominated by passive investment.  Sometime soon, IR has got to stop thinking everything is rational if billions of dollars are paid simply to create valuable data.

We’ve got to start telling CEOs and CFOs and boards.  What to do about it? First you have to understand what’s going on. And the buzz on the floor at NIRI was that traders are getting paid to set prices. Can mercenary prices be trusted?

Race Condition

You might think today’s title is about physical fitness.

No, ModernIR is an equity data analytics firm, not a personal trainer. I first heard the term “race conditions” used to describe stock-trading at TABB Forum, the traders’ community, in comments around an October 2012 article there by HFT expert Haim Bodek on why high-frequency traders have an advantage.

Reader Dave Cummings said, responding to it, “When Reg NMS was debated, several people very knowledgeable about market structure (including myself) argued against locked, crossed, and trade-through rules because of the side-effects caused by race conditions between fragmented markets.”

Emphasis mine.  You say who is Dave Cummings and what is this jargon that has me wanting to bludgeon my noggin on a wall?

I hope Mr. Cummings won’t mind my resurrecting his point. He started both BATS Global Inc., the stock exchange the CBOE is buying that by market-share the last five trading days nosed out the NYSE with 20.7% of US volume versus the venerated Buttonwood bourse’s 19.9% (the Nasdaq had 17.7%, IEX 2.2%, and nearly 40% was in broker pools), and speedy proprietary (no customers, trades its own capital) firm TradeBot.

He knows market structure.

We come to the jargon. Don’t tune out, investor-relations people and investors, because you need to understand the market to function well in it. Right?

Most people don’t know what Dave knows (that could go on a T-shirt). Mr. Cummings was explaining that trading rules prohibit the bid to buy and the offer to sell from being the same. A locked market. Crossed markets are out too, by law. You can’t make a bid to buy that is higher than the offer to sell.

And this “trade through” thing means brokers can’t continue buying stock at $20 one place if it’s now available for $19.99 another place.

I’ve said before that there’s no such thing as a “fragmented market.” A market by definition is aggregation. The stock market today is a series of interconnected conclaves all forced to do the same thing with the same products and prices. You understand? You can buy Nasdaq stocks at the NYSE and vice versa and only at the best price everywhere.

ModernIR builds software and runs lots of data-warehousing functions so we know race conditions. It’s when something doesn’t happen in proper sequence, you might say.

For instance, a data warehouse must be updated on schedule before an algorithm processes a routine. Some hiccup in the network slows the population of the data warehouse, so the algorithm fails because data haven’t shown up. Race condition.

The stock market is similarly a series of dependent processes, some of which will inescapably fail. Why would we create a stock market with a known propensity for process errors? Exactly. But let’s focus on what this means to investors and public companies.

It means the market is barred from behaving rationally in some circumstances. What if I want to pay more for something? Or say I don’t mind getting an inferior price for the convenience of staying in one place.

Plus, can we trust prices? What if yesterday’s big gains were a product of a race condition? I’m not saying they were. But we measure discrete market behaviors setting prices. Counterparties for derivatives were heavy buyers Monday when the stock market swooned sharply and then recovered most of its losses by the close.

These big banks or insurers bought because investors had portfolio insurance to guard against losses. That’s not investment behavior.

What then if equity trades tied to derivatives didn’t populate someplace and the market zoomed yesterday on a process error? Again, I’m not saying it did.  But the things Mr. Cummings warned would create errors in markets are cornerstones of the regulations behind the National Market System.

And why can’t a bid and offer be the same? Forcing them to be different means an intermediary is part of every trade. That’s why 40% of trading is in dark pools – to escape shill bids by trading intermediaries.

Why would Congress – which created the National Market System – mandate a middle man for stocks, when to get a good deal you cut the middle man out? Think about that with health care (or with government itself, which is the ultimate middle man).

But I digress.

We have a stock market the requires an intermediary, prohibits buying and selling at the same price (unless at the midpoint between them, which is the average, which is why index-investing is crushing stock-picking), and stops investors from paying the price they want and forces them instead to take a different price.

In Denver real estate, the bid to buy is often higher than the offer to sell because there aren’t enough houses. Don’t you want people paying more for your shares rather than less? So why do rules require the opposite?

I want us all thinking about whether the stock market serves our best interests in current form where passive investment is taking over everything.

I’ll be talking about that to the NIRI Capital Area chapter Apr 4, so come say hi. And we’ll be at NIRI Boston tonight self-congratulating with the rest of the sponsoring vendors in Sponsorpalooza.  You all in Minneapolis, good seeing you last week!

I just hope there are no race conditions in our travel plans from Denver today.