Tagged: Investor Relations

New Answers

What’s the purpose of life?

We want simple answers to complex questions.  Such as when management asks why the stock price is up or down. Since elementary explanations are often incorrect, there’s been a loss of confidence.  “We broke through our moving averages” wears thin with the CEO.

I’ll give you a couple examples. Yesterday an energy master limited partnership trading on the NYSE announced an unchanged cash distribution for the first time in years. This company is known for steadily ratcheting up quarterly outlays to holders.

The stock tanked. Right?  Nope, it doubled the modest sector gains in energy yesterday. Maybe investors thought the company would trim the distribution?  Now we’re speculating because the opposite of what was expected occurred.

We’re also assuming price depends on rational thought, which if the feds now contending a trader spoofing the futures market with placed and canceled trades caused the Flash Crash, is the exact opposite of reality.  Do you know the SEC’s own trading data show at least 25 cancels for every completed trade in stocks of all market-caps (250 per trade in high dollar-volume issues), and over 1,000 cancels-per-trade in big ETFs?

Another company last week dropped sharply amid block volumes, prompting conventional stock soothsayers to conclude big holders were selling. Seems logical, right? If your stock trades 8,342 times daily on average your closing price is the 8,342nd trade.  It’s where the day’s music stopped and useless as a central tendency – and yet closing price is the de facto measure of action (we prefer midpoint price, by the way).

In the 1961 science fiction novel Solaris by Polish writer Stanislaw Lem – made into a 2002 movie starring George Clooney – Kelvin the protagonist questions his sanity. Seeing things that appear real but seem impossibly so, he begins to believe his entire journey may be occurring in his own mind.  To establish a reality baseline he performs some calculations. He reverts to the math.

Back to the stock above, the math showed the opposite of what reality appeared to say. Active value investors had been buyers. When buying stopped, traders abruptly quit lifting prices, prompting a brief plunge. Short volumes, which had jumped 40% in two days, sharply retreated at once, implying block prints reflected short-covering – by the very brokers who’d just filled buys for Value money.  The stock is now trading higher, which would be unlikely if big holders were sellers.

Ah for simple answers – but we don’t live in that world. Which brings us to today. Two vital macro events collide like matter in a particle accelerator: In the morning, we’ll get a first read on US GDP this quarter.  Then later the Federal Reserve via the non-apparitional personage of Janet Yellen will pronounce something about monetary policy.

Beneath the surface the market is on pins and needles. The Fed represents the supply of money, economic growth its cost.  The US dollar has been coming off decade-highs for days now, indicating some see growth drearier than hoped.  In the ModernIR 10-point Behavioral Index, sentiment is still weakly over neutral, meaning investors think whatever happens will be accommodative and therefore helpful to stocks.

But hedging is breathtaking – radically greater in the past five days than any other behavior. Investors are in fact in sharp retreat as price-setters. Effectively, everyone but the Fed has transferred the risk of being wrong to somebody else. Where that hot potato lands will determine the fate of equities. Moves either direction could be large.

Data suggest the economy will offer a limp pulse, perhaps wheezing in below 1% despite expectations from the Fed itself last December of 3%. If the Fed is off by 70% nobody there will get fired, which is good news for the jobless rate.

What’s it all mean? We pine for Easy, Simple. We’re sure as IR officers our shares stand out, and I hear all the time, “My stock is different.”  Like doctors studying angiograms we see the data and say, “You look like the typical patient to us. The good news is that means we’ve got answers.”

The great modern opportunity for the IR profession is the same presented to any generation, scientist, philosopher or explorer challenging convention.  We first face complex reality and then translate it into refreshing value for those we serve.

It’s not simple – but it’s exhilarating. So today, whatever your stock does in response to Janet Yellen’s invigorating oratory and the probable whiff from the economy, ask the question – why? – and if you’re still laboring along the flat earth of old-fashioned perspectives, stop.  Seek new answers. They exist!

Then the CEO will again ask you for them – a measure of value from those you serve.

Patterns

Happy Tax Day!  Don’t you wish you could be somewhere else?

Sit at Saba Rock looking north where beyond the earth’s curvature lies Anegada and you know why Richard Branson embraced the British Virgin Islands.

We did too, abandoning electronics including in my case a shaver. From the Soggy Dollar on Jost Van Dyke (named for a Dutch privateer) to Sandy Spit and Sandy Cay and into the azure chop around The Indians off Norman, we let time run a delightful course.

Norman Island is among the reputed inspirations for Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Treasure Island” (which gripped my young imagination), ostensibly eponymous for the pirate Captain Norman, a Briton caught and hung by Puerto Ricans.

Today Norman Island is owned by billionaire Henry Jarecki who in his youth fled anti-Semitic Nazi Germany and later pioneered commodity-futures investing in the USA. His son Andrew recently made film headlines with HBO’s The Jinx on accused killer Robert Durst, the black sheep of the New York real-estate family managing Freedom Tower.

Dr. Jarecki, for years a practicing psychiatrist (still a Yale medical school faculty member) before switching to quantitative futures-trading at his firm Gresham Investment Management LLC, told Wall Street Journal reporter Cynthia Cui in a 2010 interview that both trading and psychiatry are about recognizing patterns. So armed, Jarecki said, you can “transform a modest effort into a grand result.”

How you announce your earnings-date is a recognizable pattern for traders.  One of our clients wrote while I was out, “I know you’re still floating among the virgins but when you reconnect thought you might like to see this exchange I had recently with the quant shop (name removed for privacy but we know and track them)…”

Our client had gotten inquiry from these traders asking when the company would report results. Our client said you’re quants so why do you ask? An analyst there with a Ph.D. thoughtfully responded:

“We are indeed a quantitative firm, focusing in options market making…. Options are typically priced based on the current stock price, a volatility component which characterizes the typical stock price movements possible, and a time component which characterizes how much time the volatility component has to act on the stock. The wrinkle in the problem of option pricing is that volatility doesn’t act uniformly in time; after earnings the stock prices tends to move more than on a typical day. Therefore it is important that we have the correct earnings date in our trading system as soon as it’s publicly available…”

This trading group is profiting in options-volatility, which depends on eliminating price uncertainties including questions about the timing of your earnings. What your company does, your financial results, are irrelevant to the grand opportunity. What matters is the volatility pattern.

This is why we track patterns everywhere in your trading.  We know a great deal about the patterns and we’ve been telling you for ten years now that if you move differently from your peers it’s not about your results but standard deviation, arbitrage, spreads. (more…)

Three Days

Some energy-sector clients lost 40% of market-capitalization in three days last October.

A year and a half cultivating share-appreciation and by Wednesday it’s gone.  How so?  To get there let’s take a trip.

I love driving the Llano Estacado, in Spanish “palisaded steppe” or the Staked Plains. From Boise City, OK and unfolding southward to Big Spring, TX lies an expanse fit for nomads, an unending escarpment of mottled browns and khakis flat as iron rail stretching symmetric from the horizon like a sea.

Spanish explorer Francisco Coronado wrote, “I reached some plains so vast that I did not find their limit anywhere I went.” Here Comanches were dominating horse warlords for hundreds of years. Later sprouted first the oil boom early last century around Amarillo and again in the 21st century a neoclassical renaissance punctuated by hydraulic fracturing in the Permian Basin.

The air sometimes is suffused with mercaptan, an additive redolent of rotten egg that signals the otherwise invisible presence of natural gas. But the pressure of a relentless regimen silts away on a foreshortened compass, time seeming to cease and with it the pounding of pulses and devices.  It’s refreshing somehow.

And on a map one can plot with precision a passage from Masterson to Lampasas off The Llano and know what conquering that route demands from clock and fuel gauge.

Energy stocks in August 2014 were humming along at highway speed and then shot off The Llano in October, disappearing into the haze.

(Side note: If you want to discuss this idea, we’re at the NIRI Tristate Chapter in Cincinnati Wed Mar 18 and I’m happy to entertain it!)

What happened?  There are fundamental influences on supply and demand, sure. But something else sets prices. I’ll illustrate with an example. Short interest is often measured in days-to-cover meaning shares borrowed and sold and not yet bought and returned are compared to average daily trading volume. So if you move a million shares daily and your short interest is eight million, days-to-cover is eight, which may be good or bad versus your average.

Twice in recent weeks we’ve seen big blocks in stocks, and short volumes then plunged by half in a day. Both stocks declined. Understand, short interest and short volume differ. The former is shares borrowed but not yet covered. It’s a limited measure of risk.  Carry a big portfolio at a brokerage with marginable accounts and you can appropriate half more against it under rules.

Using a proxy we developed, marketwide in the past five days short volume was about 44%, which at 6.7 billion total shares means borrowed shares were 2.95 billion. Statistically, nearly 30% of all stocks had short volume above 50%.  More shares were rented than owned in those on a given day. (more…)

Assuming

Those of you in Boston, we visited accidentally this week.

Flying into LaGuardia Sunday afternoon, Mother Nature had thrown up a snowy blockade, and running low on fuel after an hour circling like a speedway pace car, we diverted to Logan. Thanks for the gas.

We caught our breath and de-iced, and the captain came on: “Ladies and gentlemen, I don’t know how this is going to go”—pilots should never start with those nine words—“but we’ll be taking off shortly. We may just circle New York and be back at Logan. Who knows?  Thanks for flying United.”

Without offense to the great state of Massachusetts the decaying glory of LaGuardia drawing nearer filled us with thankful anticipation. All’s well that ends well. But we’d assumed we’d fare better with a March New York sojourn than a January one – an assumption lacking buttressing data.

Weather may be the exception, but as a rule, challenging assumptions is an invigorating intellectual process. In his 2003 book Moneyball, Michael Lewis tells how Oakland Athletics manager Billy Beane assailed the battlements of baseball. He tested the game’s assumptions about winning by applying data to conventional wisdom.

That refreshing opportunity prevails in our profession daily. Fourteen years after I saw my first Bloomberg screenshot as an investor-relations officer under the heading “you broke through your moving averages” after I asked my listing exchange, “Why is my stock down today?” our clients still get the same answer I did.

No doubt some traders use moving averages. But the bulk of money moving markets today follows asset-allocation models as the dominance of Blackrock and Vanguard illustrate. Data from the Investment Company Institute show that over 90% of assets in 401k plans now use some sort of asset-allocation model.  Do you think these track moving averages?

Other assumed IR wisdoms unsupported by data:

  • Short interest is the best way to measure risk in shares. 
  • Big volumes mean big investors are buying or selling.
  • If my shares behave differently than my peer’s, someone sees them differently.
  • Tracking share-ownership is an effective way to understand your stock’s activity.
  • Ignore high-speed trading because it’s noise – and in fact, ignore the stock.

Have you graphed short interest and price behavior to study correlations? We have. There is no consistent predictive quality to short-interest levels. So we use other measures of risk that offer statistically significant predictive characteristics. (more…)

Taint Natural

In 1884, British comedian Arthur Roberts invented a card game of trickery and nonsense for which he coined the name “Spoof.”  In 2015, spoofing is a decidedly unfunny and ostensibly illegal trading technique in securities markets. But the joke may be on us.

Mr. Roberts made a living on the Briton public-house and music-hall circuit offering bawdy cabaret like “Tain’t Natural,” a vaudeville version of Robinson Crusoe. Today as a result we call satirizing parodies “spoofs.”

Nobody is laughing about spoofing in securities markets.  Wall Street Journal writer Bradley Hope, that paper’s new Robin to the caped-crusader Scott Patterson (IR folks should read Patterson’s “The Quants” and “Dark Pools,” available at Amazon), portrayed as “illegal bluffing” the frenetic keyboard-clicking of a derivatives trader dubbed “The Russian” in a Feb 23 front-page piece. Dodd-Frank, the Roman Coliseum of regulation, banned these fake trades.

Yet stock prices depend on fakery.  Rules mandate trading at the best national price even if you’re moved by something else.  Stock pickers may like the story at a lesser or greater price but can’t so choose. Traders with horizons of milliseconds following rules have the price gun. In order to post best prices, stock exchanges pay high-speed firms for trades (nobody cares more about price than those who exist to set it). Those then price all the rest.  Then exchanges sell the data, perpetuating a market version of robo-signing.

Like a mutating hospital supergene, this price-setting matrix replicated globally. We have two million global index products and options and futures on those and on the ETFs that track them and the components comprising them and the currencies for the countries in which they reside and on the bonds from the debtors and the governments and the commodities driving industry from milk to corn to futures on Norwegian krone – and most of this stuff trades electronically at speed.

Take a breath.

In the WSJ piece on spoofing, the Chicago proprietary-trading firm behind them, 3Red Group LLC (if the firm has three Russian founders they’ve got a sense of humor) says if it clicks fastest, that’s skill not spoofing. Melodramatic?  If only Arthur Roberts could say. (more…)

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…)

Future Former

As Christmas Eve arrives in the US, market-structure circles are abuzz on tidings from Intercontinental Exchange (ICE), parent of the NYSE, about bold market reform. Is it the birth of opportunity or a winter fable?

In case you missed it, word broke last week that ICE has proposed in a letter to the SEC a plan for fundamentally reforming the stock market. The missive wasn’t offered publicly but reporters have described the contents.

The plan aims to slash what are called access fees – charges paid by traders to purchase shares at the NYSE – from the current capped regulatory rate of 30 cents per hundred to five cents if brokers agree to send the bulk of orders to the exchanges.

The proposal would also ban the “maker-taker” model under which traders earn credits to offer shares for sale at the exchange. There are other elements too, including exceptions for block transactions and retail orders and ostensibly greater insight into data feeds.

Public companies have yet again been omitted from the planning. Why is there a pathological proclivity on the part of exchange operators and regulators to leave out the businesses paying hundreds of millions of dollars in listing fees and without whom there would be no stocks, indexes, ETFs, options or futures?

Getting past that annoying fact, there’s a lot to like because we’ve seen it before.  We call the proposal “Back to Buttonwood.” The NYSE is a product of a two-sentence compact in 1792 inked under a New York City buttonwood tree by which brokers agreed to give each other preference and to charge a minimum commission. Brokers figured if they pooled orders they’d have more customers, and to make it work they’d agree not to undercut each other on price. (more…)

Market Facts

Volatility derivatives expire today as the Federal Reserve gives monetary guidance. How would you like to be in those shoes? Oh but if you’ve chosen investor-relations as your profession, you’re in them.

Management wants to know why holders are selling when oil – or pick your reason – has no bearing on your shares. Institutional money managers are wary about risking clients’ money in turbulently sliding markets, which condition will subside when institutional investors risk clients’ money. This fulcrum is an inescapable IR fact.

We warned clients Nov 3 that markets had statistically topped and a retreat likely would follow between one and 30 days out. Stocks closed yesterday well off early-Nov levels and the S&P 500 is down 100 points from post-Thanksgiving all-time highs.

The point isn’t being right but how money behaves today. Take oil. The energy boom in the USA has fostered jobs and opportunity, contributing to some capacity in the American economy to separate from sluggish counterparts in Asia and Europe. Yet with oil prices imploding on a sharply higher dollar (bucks price oil, not vice versa), a boon for consumers at the pump becomes a bust for capital investment, and the latter is a key driver in parts of the US that have led job-creation.

Back to the Fed, the US central bank by both its own admission and data compiled at the Mortgage Bankers Association (see this MBA white paper if you’re interested) has consumed most new mortgages coming on the market in recent years, buying them from Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac and primary dealers.

Why? Consumption drives US Gross Domestic Product (GDP), and vital to recovery in still-anemic discretionary spending is stronger home prices, which boost personal balance sheets, instilling confidence and fueling borrowing and spending.

Imagine the consternation behind the big stone walls on Maiden Lane in New York. The Fed has now stopped minting money to buy mortgages (it’ll churn some of the $1.7 trillion of mortgage-backed securities it owns, and hold some). With global asset markets of all kinds in turmoil, especially stocks and commodities, other investors may be reluctant successors to Fed demand. Should mortgages and home-values falter in step with stocks, mortgage rates could spike.

What a conundrum. If the Fed fails to offer 2015 guidance on interest rates and mortgage costs jump, markets will conclude the Fed has lost control. Yet if a fearful Fed meets snowballing pressure on equities and commodities by prolonging low rates, real estate could stall, collapsing the very market supporting better discretionary spending.

Now look around the globe at crashing equity prices, soaring bonds, imploding commodities, vast currency volatility (all of it reminiscent of latter 2008), and guess what?  Derivatives expire Dec 17-19, concluding with quad-witching. Derivatives notional-value in the hundreds of trillions outstrips all else, and nervous counterparties and their twitchy investors will be hoping to find footing.

If you’ve ever seen the movie Princess Bride (not our first Market Structure Map nod to it), what you’re reading seems like a game of wits with a Sicilian – which is on par with the futility of a land war in Asia. Yet, all these things matter to you there in the IR chair, because you must know your audience.  It’s comprised of investors with responsibility to safeguard clients’ assets. (more…)

Ups and Downs

Suppose you were an elevator operator.

In 2013, the conservative Weekly Standard reported that the most senior member of the Senatorial coterie of button-pushers on the Hill pocketed about $210,000 in compensation, on par with investor-relations professionals.

The elevators have been automated in the Capitol since the 1960s, meaning anyone from Chuck Schumer (D-NY) to Senator-elect Bill Cassidy (R-LA) could push his own button and power a ride. When government-shutdown loomed in 2011, elevator operators were classed nonessential. But still they push and ride.

We’re not criticizing the Senate lift staff.  The people’s work has got to get done and our men and women leading the nation cannot be bothered with pushing their own buttons. But Ronald Reagan’s wry observation that the nearest thing to eternal life on earth is a government bureau comes to mind. In some office towers now, elevators are so automated that it’s impossible to disembark save at your predetermined destination. The elevator is alpha and omega.

So clearly, elevator-operation isn’t a growth industry. If that’s what you’ve been doing you’ll have to improve your skills and knowledge.  Jim Ziemer, who started as a warehouse freight elevator-operator retired as CEO of Harley-Davidson in 2009. There’s how you deal with ups and downs.

Looking at performance for active investment managers can make one wonder if IR is in the elevator-operator employment classification. The Wall Street Journal’s Jason Zweig wrote recently that 91% of active managers through September this year had underperformed the broad market (for years active managers have lagged but that’s a separate market-structure discussion).  IR spends most of its time and budget courting owners who can’t hold a candle to indexes and ETFs (in a sense, elevators that don’t need active managers as lift-operators). (more…)