Tagged: Investing

Man vs Machine

If you’ve never been to Sedona, AZ in April, go but guard yourself because it will lay hold on your spirit and make it captive to unrelenting beauty.

How does the French election, yet unfinished, help US stocks?

Wait, no. It’s not the French election causing US stocks to soar, we’re told. It’s corporate earnings. Investors are loving good numbers.

Except investors didn’t set prices Monday when the market surged. Fast Traders did. The machines.

Saying the market is up because investors like Macron’s chances to win the French presidency reflects nothing fundamental. It’s an explanation fitted to an outcome.  Saying investors are gushing over corporate earnings is also finding a cause for an effect.

What data support the conclusion stocks jumped because people prefer the Frenchman Macron over the Frenchwoman Le Pen?  What data say investors are pouring money into stock because of strong earnings?  Earnings aren’t strong. They’re just better than weak results a year ago.

The data supporting those views, it turns out, is the market itself.  It’s up. So it must be that investors like something. The French election.  No?  How about US corporate earnings?  Market direction becomes a cause for humans, even when humans are not its cause.

Many suppose prices in the stock market can’t be set by machines. The opposite is true. Prices in the market can’t be set by humans. Under Regulation National Market System, it’s impossible for a human being to walk around the stock market trying to make a trade.

The rules say any “marketable trade,” a stock order wanting to be the best bid to buy or offer to sell, must be run by machines. Why? Because a human cannot keep pace with the market’s speed, and the order must be able to move fluidly to best price, So, the regulators said, it must be automated. Run by machines.

No matter where shares are listed, your stock can trade anywhere, from a private market operated by Credit Suisse, to the newest exchange, IEX.  The rules say simply that orders to buy and sell must move seamlessly to wherever the best price resides.

Well, humans devised machines with one purpose: setting price.  Humans themselves can set prices, sure. But they try to be in the middle, between the best bid to buy and offer to sell.  Yet we go on treating both events as though they are the same.

Understanding both the broad market and your own shares requires recognizing that while self-driving cars are a ways off yet, self-driving stocks are here now. When we all sit around talking about it, trying to find some rational explanation, we become weirder than the market. It’s as though we’re making excuses for the monster we crafted.

Since Fast Traders who want to own nothing set the pace, don’t be surprised if the pace disappears all at once.  And ask yourself every day: Are humans setting my stock price today, or is it the machines?  The answer is eminently measurable.

Predictive Knowledge

Why don’t I trade like my peers?

The CEO is sure it’s because investors don’t understand something – how you manage inventory, your internal rate of return targets. Pick something.

Investors ask the same question. Why does that stock lag the group? For answers, they root through financials, technology, leadership, position in the market, to find the reason for the discount (or opportunity).

What if these assumptions are wrong?

At prompting from friend and colleague Karla Kimrey in the Rocky Mountain NIRI chapter (which we sponsor) who knows I’m a data geek, I’m reading Michael Lewis’s The Undoing Project, his latest. It’s a sort of sequel to Moneyball, about how baseball’s Oakland A’s changed professional sports with data analytics (read both and you’ll see that ModernIR is Moneyball for IR).

The Undoing Project focuses on why incorrect assumptions prevail.  I don’t have the punch line yet because I’m still reading. But I get the point already and it’s apropos for both investor-relations professionals and investors in markets that often seem to defy what we assume is the rationale behind stocks and the whole market.

Perception overwhelms reality.

The CEO, the IR professionals, investors, are all focused on the same thing. The collective assumption is that any outcome varying from expectations is a deficiency in story.  Personal perceptions have shaped our interpretation of the market’s behavior.

Yet statistically, rational thought is a minority in market volume – about 14% of it, give or take. When markets surged Monday, the Dow Jones Industrials up 183 points, we were told it was enthusiasm about earnings.

The data showed the opposite – Asset Allocation. Money that pays no attention to earnings. It’s 33% of market volume.

Why would it buy now? Because options are expiring today through Friday (and derivatives directly influence 13% of trading volume marketwide).  Asset Allocation uses options and futures to nimbly track benchmarks, and with markets down it’s probable that derivative positions were converted to the actual stocks.

But then it’s over.  Mission accomplished.  Yesterday the market gave back 114 points to go with 138 points last Thursday. The qualitative assumption – the gut instinct – that earnings enthusiasm lifted stocks Monday was not supported by subsequent data.

Daryl Morey, general manager of the Houston Rockets, gives The Undoing Project a literary push in the early pages. An MIT man and not a basketball player, Morey came into the job because team owner Leslie Alexander wanted “a Moneyball type of guy.”

He sought data-driven results.  And it worked.  Houston is in the top ranks for success with draft picks and getting to the playoffs, and other teams have copied them.

Morey says knowledge is prediction. We learn things to understand what may happen. It’s a great way to think about it. Suppose it works in IR and investing too.

It starts with questioning assumptions.  What gut instincts do you hold about your stock that you can’t support with data?  How do they compare to the data on market volume?

I know there’s a swath of people in every walk including IR and investing who think data is BS. Who cares? they’d say.  I go with my instincts. Besides, what difference does it make if we know or don’t?

Knowledge is prediction. Data align perception and reality. In Undoing, Lewis uses the Muller-Lyer illusion. Your mind perceives one line longer. Nay. Measurements prove it.

I’ll leave you with this data on the market. I wrote last week about volatility insurance.  Now we’ve got volatility.  Insurance policies are expiring right now, with the VIX today kicking off April expirations through Friday. Our Sentiment Index trend is like mid-2014.

We don’t know what may come. But we’re thinking ahead. Assumptions are necessary but should be the smallest part of expectation.

That’s a good rule of thumb in life, investing and IR (and if you want help thinking about what IR assumptions may be wrong, ask us. We may not have the answer. But we’ve got great data analytics to help sort reality from perception).

Risk-Free Return

Everybody is talking about the weather. Why doesn’t somebody do something?

This witticism on human futility is often attributed to Mark Twain but traces to Twain’s friend and collaborator Charles Dudley Warner. A century later, it’s still funny.

There’s a lot of hand-wringing going on about interest rates, which from the IR chair may seem irrelevant until you consider that your equity cost of capital cannot be calculated without knowing the risk-free rate.

That and a piece in Institutional Investor Magazine some weeks back brought to my view by alert reader Pam Murphy got me thinking about how investors are behaving – which hits closer to investor-relations than anything.

When I say hands are wrung about rates, I mean will they go up? We’ve not had normalized costs of capital since…hm, good question. Go to treasurydirect.gov and check rates for I-Bonds, the federal-government savings coupon. I-Bonds pay a combination of a fixed rate plus an inflation adjustment. Guess what the fixed rate is? 0.00%. The inflation-adjusted return May-Oct 2013 is 1.18%.EE-Bonds with no inflation adjustment yield 0.20% annually. This is a 20-year maturity instrument. Prior to 1995, these bonds averaged ten-year maturities and never paid less than 4% annually, often over 7%. If the I-Bond pegs inflation at 1.18% every six months, translating to 2.36% annually, is the risk-free rate of return a -2.16%? (more…)

The Trading Edge

If stocks trade on moving averages, why do high-frequency firms hire math whizzes?

Providing some form of answer, Thomson Reuters will cease publishing the University of Michigan’s twice-monthly consumer-confidence survey two seconds early to premium data customers including high-speed traders, following pressure from New York attorney general Eric Schneiderman.

Do you have an investment horizon of two seconds? If you don’t, is the early provision of data the problem, or is it a market structure that makes information more valuable if it’s received first?

New York Times writer Nathaniel Popper quoted me in a piece July 8 on the widely publicized controversy. Most everyone said something like, “It’s about time they stopped leaking information to the privileged.”

I said the market had devolved into a footrace. There’s nothing wrong with information asymmetry. Look at the Buttonwood Agreement in 1792 between 24 brokers who formed the NYSE. It set a minimum commission so none would undercut others on price, and required that all give each other preference on trades. Well, isn’t that a first look? Unique and valuable information is the bedrock of capital-formation. (more…)

Sizing it Up

We’re in Texas for Thanksgiving and it was 85 degrees yesterday as we idled in heavy I-35 traffic halfway to Fort Worth.

I have to share a funny line you might use if your Thanksgiving guests linger long. My step father-in-law said, “As my dad used to say to my mother, ‘honey we’d better head to bed. These people might want to go home.’”

We considered running a “best of” Market Structure Map from last year or the year before at this time, but markets were in a tizzy over the Euro and Greece. I know, it’s redundant.

So here’s one to ponder, IR folks. Traders Magazine reported Nov 19 that the Nasdaq is ending a bid at its PSX market to draw larger stock trades by ranking size over arrival time.

It was a bold move. In markets dominated by statistical arbitrage and tiny trades, what about a place where size trumps speed? Launched in September 2010, it lasted two years. Size didn’t matter – and yet 50% of trades in the largest 1,300 stocks occur in the dark, folks from the exchanges now say.

It’s disappointing. You want to see a market for investors work. As a guy running a shop performing statistical analysis on trading activity, I’ll tell you why I think it failed. There’s just not enough investment. The bifurcation between dark and lit markets occurring in large stocks is more about statistical arbitrage than finding size. We have a market suited to trading, not investing.

You can’t change out the spark plugs, or whatever, and fix a broken chassis. You can’t get the football team and the volleyball players onto the same playing surface for two entirely different games. Well, you can. But somebody’s going to leave in a hurry. (more…)