Tagged: investor relations

Human Nature

Science and the stock market both aim for outcomes data don’t support.

I’m going to take you on a short but intense journey, with ground rules. I’ll ask that you check politics at the door.  Keep an open mind.

I’ll take Science first.  Suppose it was a business plan.  You craft an objective, and the path to achieving it.  It’s something I know after roughly 30 years in business.

Science said it aimed to flatten the Covid curve. That we could create a vaccine that would immunize us all, and we’d be free.

Now pelting toward two years of Covid, a great bulk of the population is vaccinated, many boosted too, and Covid abounds.

I’m vaccinated but not boosted and I had it.  Karen and I heard CNBC’s Jim Cramer, perhaps the World’s Most Vaccinated Person, Friday, and looked at each other and said, “He’s got Covid.”

Sure enough.

Here’s the point. Science has known for decades that coronavirus vaccines don’t work because the viruses constantly mutate.

I think mRNA research will be a boon for treating pathologies from cancer to respiratory disease. But Science did what science shouldn’t do.  It gambled.  Dismissed known data, central tendencies, facts. Proclaimed it would eradicate the virus.

You’d expect that from inveterate optimists like entrepreneurs, cowboys riding the bull that’s never been ridden, politicians, the Cinderella team playing the reigning champs.

That’s hope.  Hope isn’t a strategy.

Religion is in the hope business.  Science is supposed to be in the data business.  If we’re objective, stripped of politics, zeitgeist, predilections – shall I say hope – we have to say Science failed.  We didn’t conquer Covid. Our immune systems did.

Can we admit we were wrong?

Yeah, but vaccines lower severity.

That’s an assumption. A hope. And it wasn’t the objective.

Let’s shift to the stock market.  Regulation National Market System is 524 pages dictating a mathematical continuous auction market that works only with pervasive mandatory intermediation and a market-maker exemption from short-locate rules.

It is by design not rational but mathematical.  Yet everywhere, in everything we hear, read, see, is a thesis that the stock market is a constant rational barometer.

The stock market was declining because the Fed was tapering.  Then on the day the Federal Reserve met, stocks soared. Oh no wait, markets like rising rates because it means the economy is better.

Then stocks plunged. It’s Omicron.  Then stocks soared. Omicron fears have faded.

For God’s sake.

The problem is the explanation, nothing else. We know how the market works. It’s spelled out in regulations.  If you want a summary, read the SEC’s Gamestop Memo.

Options expired last week, while the Federal Reserve was meeting. You should expect bets. Indexes rebalanced Friday and demand was down.  So with new options trading Monday, the market fell.

Then Counterparties squared books yesterday, and one would naturally expect a big surge in demand for options at much better prices.  Stocks surged.

VIX volatility hedges expire today. If money sees a need for volatility hedges, stocks will rise.  If not, they’ll fall.  But that’s not humans reacting to Omicron. It’s programmed.

Weather forecasts are predicated on expert capacity to measure and observe weather patterns.  It’s data science.

The stock market is data science. 

If we have vast data science on weather, coronaviruses, the stock market, why would we hope rather than know? 

It happened to Copernicus too.  The sun is the center. No, shut up or die.

Science thought so much of itself that it believed it could do what they say can’t be done.  Save that for Smokey and the Bandit.

What happened?  Human nature. No matter how much one claims to be objective, there is confirmation bias, a belief – hope? – in one’s desired outcome.

Is the investor-relations profession able to let go its predilections, its hope, and shift to objective data science on what drives shareholder value?

What matters is the whole picture. Do you know if Story, Characteristics and capital allocation mesh, or contradict each other? If you’re a long or short trade?

Math. Measurable.

Illustration 131408341 © Zybr78 | Dreamstime.com

It’s of no help to your executive team and Board to paint an unrealistic picture that says Story drives value when the data tell us the opposite. Who cares what drives price? So long as we understand it.  That should be the view.

Humorously, there is hope.  Hope is like faith, a belief in things unseen, in outcomes no data yet validate. There’s hope we’ll come around to reality.  We can help you get there.

And with that, we hope your reality for the Holiday Season 2021 is blissful, joyful, thankful. Merry Christmas! We’ll see you on the far side. 

Most Important

The most important thing this week is gratefulness. 

We at ModernIR wish you and yours everywhere happiness and joy as those of us here in the USA mark a long and free tenure with Thanksgiving tomorrow.

Karen and I saw the Old South Meeting House in Boston, and the Exchange Building in Charleston last week.  For history buffs, it’s a remarkable juxtaposition.  The former gave root to the Boston Tea Party, the latter anchored South Carolina’s revolutionary role.

Mel Gibson’s character in The Patriot is based on Francis Marion, for whom a square and a hotel and much more are named in town.

Charleston, SC. Photo Tim Quast.

And on June 28, 1776, brave souls bivouacked at Fort Moultrie in Charleston Bay behind palmetto logs (why South Carolina is the Palmetto state) took shells lobbed from British warships that stuck in the soft wood and pried them out and fired them back, sinking two and disabling two more, and the Brits withdrew, the first defeat in a long war.

And the battle of Cowpens in Jan 1781 stopped the British in the south, cementing an American victory at Yorktown.

We walked miles and marveled at history on quaint sidewalks under live oaks. Also, we consumed unseemly amounts of grits, seafood and charming southern hospitality. We arrived concave and left convex.  Stay at the Zero George and dine there.

So, what’s most important to investor-relations officers, and traders, as we reflect this late November 2021?  While in Boston, I had opportunity to join a panel about alternative data for the Boston Securities Traders Association.

I told them I could summarize my twenty years of market structure with three words: Continuous auction market. At my advancing age, I think it’s the most important thing to grasp, because it gives rise to everything else.

I’ll explain.

In a continuous auction market, buying and selling are uninterrupted. It’s not really possible. At the grocery store, a continuous auction market would suggest the store never runs out of anything, even with no time for re-stocking. At least, in a declared amount.

Had you thought about that, IR folks and traders?  There isn’t a continuous stream of stock for sale. That condition is manufactured.

The SEC declared the stock market would never run out of at least 100 shares of everything.  Why? So the little guy’s trade would always get executed.  Consequences? It’s like that scene near the end of Full Metal Jacket where they huck a bunch of smoke grenades to go find the sniper.

The stock market is a confusing smoke cloud.  Let me give you some stats, and then I’ll explain what they mean. First, 70% of market volume in the S&P 500 is either Fast Trading, machines changing prices, or equity trades tied to derivatives.

So only 30% is investment. Yet over 40% of market volume is short – manufactured stock intended to ensure that 100 shares of everything is always for sale. So what’s fake is larger than what’s real.

Plus, 80% of all orders don’t become trades, according to data from the SEC.  And 60% of trades are less than 100 shares (odd lots).  The stock market is mist, a fine spray of form over substance.

What does this mean for all of us?  You can’t tell the Board and the executive team that investors are setting your price, IR people. Yes, it happens. But it’s infrequent. Most of your volume is the pursuit of something other than investment, principally price as an end unto itself (TSLA trades a MILLION times per day and moves 5.5% from high to low daily, on average).

And traders, it means technical signals work poorly.  They don’t account for how many prices are false, how much volume isn’t investment.

Thankfully, there’s a solution. If you understand the PURPOSE of the stock market – to create a continuous auction – then you can understand its behaviors and sort one from the other to see actual supply and demand.

Public companies, there is no other way to delineate Controllables from Non-Controllables. We can help. We’ve done the time, the thinking, the work, so you don’t have to.

And traders, you can trade supply and demand, rather than price.  Vastly more stable, less capricious, duplicitous, cunning.

I’m grateful to know that. And I’m grateful for rich and rewarding time on this planet. All of us have travails, trials. It’s part of life. But it’s vital to consider what’s most important. 

Happy Thanksgiving.

The Inferiors

One of the penalties of refusing to participate in politics is that you end up being governed by your inferiors.

So, purportedly, said Plato. That’s our sole word on current elections.

Illustration 209532110 / Plato © Naci Yavuz | Dreamstime.com

Now let me tell you how my order to buy 50 shares was internalized by my broker, but my limit order to sell it split into two trades at Instinet, and what that’s got to do with the Federal Reserve and public companies.

Sounds like a whodunnit, right? 

Let me explain. I trade stocks because of our trading decision-support platform, Market Structure EDGE. It’s a capstone for my long market-structure career: I know now what should matter to public companies, what should matter to traders, how it ALL works.

Continuing, the Fed today probably outlines plans to “taper.” Realize, the Fed has been buying US mortgages at the same time nobody can build houses because there isn’t any paint, no appliances, you can’t find glass, wood went through the roof (so to speak).

So the Fed inflated the value of real estate.  Why?  Because it prompts people to spend money. To the government, economic growth is spending.  Mix surging balance sheets with gobs of Covid cash, and it’s like taking the paddles and telling everybody, “Clear!” and hitting the economy with high voltage.

The Fed has concluded the heartbeat is back and it’s putting away the paddles. Its balance sheet, though, says tapering is a ways off.

What’s that got to do with my trade? The Fed is intermediating our buying and selling to make it act and look like more.

But it’s not more.  And the economy rather than looking like an elite athlete – trimmed, toned, fit – is instead just off the gurney.

Put another way, the economy reflects multiple-expansion, a favorite Wall Street explanation for why stocks go up. It means everybody is paying more for the same thing.

We should have let it get tough, trim, fit. Ah well.

Did you see the Wall Street Journal article (subscription required) this week on payment for order flow in stocks and options?  I’m happy market structure is getting more airplay.  It will in the end be what gets discussed when everyone asks what happened.

Everything is intermediated. The Fed buys mortgages. Traders by trades.

I bought 50 shares of a tech stock at the market. That is, I entered the order and said, “I’ll take the best price available for 50 shares.”

I know my 50 shares is less than the minimum 100-share bid so it MUST be filled at the best price.  I also know the stock I bought trades about $16,000 at a time, and my order for 50 shares is just under that.

I’m stacking the deck in my favor by understanding market structure (I also know the stock has screaming Demand, falling Supply, a combo lifting prices, as in the economy, so I’m adding to my advantage, like a high-speed trader).

I had to confirm repeatedly that I understood I’d NOT entered a “limit” order, a trade with a specified price.

Brokers don’t want us traders using market orders because they can’t sell them. So my own broker sold me shares. That’s internalizing the trade, matching it in-house.

I sold via limit order because I was in a meeting. My broker sold it to somebody like Citadel, which split it into two trades at Island (Instinet, owned by Nomura) and took a penny both times. Then price rose almost a dollar more.

Wholesalers see all the flow, everywhere. They buy limit orders only on high odds of rising prices, making a spread, and buying and selling several times over to make more than the $0.08 they paid for my trade. I know it, and expect it.

But the purpose of the market, public companies – you listening to me? – becomes this intermediation. It’s over half of all volume. You think investors are doing it.

And this is the problem with the Fed. It manipulates the capacity to spend, and the value of assets, and manipulation becomes the purpose of the economy.

Markets cease to be free. Outcomes stop serving as barometers of supply and demand.

Actually, we see supply and demand in stocks (ask us). Too many public companies still don’t want to believe the data and instead go on doing pointless stuff. I don’t get that.  Why would we want our executives to be ignorant?

Apply that to the economy (maybe to Plato’s observation).  Let’s be honest. Rising debt and rising prices are clanging claxons of folly, like my 50 shares becoming two trades. They’re not harbingers of halcyon days.

Why be public for arbitrage? Why trade to be gamed?

We should face facts both places. The sooner, the better.  Elsewise we’re governed by our inferiors.

Clear the Room

Winter is coming.

But autumn is mighty fine this year in the Rockies, as my weekend photo from Yampa Street in Steamboat Springs shows.

Winter follows fall and summer. Other things are less predictable, such as economic outcomes and if your Analyst Day will do what you hope (read from last week).

Here, two of my favorite things – monetary policy, market structure – dovetail.

Steamboat Springs. Photo by Tim Quast.

If you want to clear the room at a cocktail party, start talking about either one.  In fact, if you’re trapped talking to somebody you’d rather not, wanting a way out, say, “What’s your view of the fiat-currency construct?”  or “What do you think of Payment for Order Flow?”

I’ve told you before about the daily noon ET CNBC segment Karen calls the “What Do You Think of THIS Stock?” show.  Guests yammer about stocks.

Some weeks ago the host said, “What do you think of Payment for Order Flow?”

Silence.  Some throat-clearing.

Nobody understands it!  These are market professionals. Decades of experience. They don’t know how it works.

Not our topic. But so I don’t leave you hanging, PFOF is as usual with the stock market an obfuscating way to describe something simple.  Retail brokers sell a product called people’s stock trades so those people can trade stocks for free.

This is why you’re brow-beaten to use limit orders at your online brokerage.  Don’t you dare put in a market order! Dangerous!  Not true. Fast Traders, firms wanting to own nothing by day’s end and driving 53% of market volume, eschew limit orders.

They know how the market works. Brokers want you to use limit orders because those get sold. Most market orders don’t.

Pfizer wants everybody to be vaccinated and retail brokers want every trade to be a limit order, because both get paid. Same thing, no difference.

Now, back to the point.  If you tell your corporate story to a thousand investors, why doesn’t your price go up?  Similarly, why can’t we just print, like, ten trillion dollars and hand it out on the street corner and make the economy boom?

Simple. Goods and services require two things:  people and money. Labor and capital. Hand out money and nobody wants a job. Labor becomes scarce and expensive.

And if you hand out money, you’re devaluing the currency.  Money doesn’t go as far as it used to.  You need more to make the same stuff.

The irony is that handing out money destroys the economy.  You can’t make stuff, deliver it, ship it, pack it, load it, unload it, move it – and finally you can’t even buy it because you can’t afford it.

Got it?

The best thing we could do for the economy is put everything on sale.  Not drive prices up and evacuate products from shelves.  But that requires the OPPOSITE action so don’t expect it.

What does market structure have in common with monetary policy?

Too many public companies think you just tell the story to more investors and the stock price goes up.  We’re executing on the business plan. The trouble is too few know.

Wrong.  That’s a controllable, sure.  But it’s not the way the market works. AMC Theaters is a value story.  It was a herculean growth stock in early 2021 and along with Gamestop powered the Russell 2000 Value Index to crushing returns.

I was looking at data for a large-cap value stock yesterday.  The Exchange Traded Fund with the biggest exposure is a momentum growth ETF. It’s humorous to me reading the company’s capital-allocation strategy – balance-sheet flexibility with a focus on returning capital to shareholders – and looking at the 211 ETFs that own it.  It’s even in 2x leveraged bull ETFs (well, the call-options are, anyway).

Your story is a factor.  But vastly outpacing it are your CHARACTERISTICS and the kind of money creating supply, and demand. If you trade $1,500 at a time, and AMZN trades $65,000 at a time, which thing will Blackrock own, and which thing will get traded and arbitraged against options and futures?

Your CFO needs to know that, investor-relations people. And we have that data.

That large-cap I mentioned? We overlaid patterns of Active and Passive money.  Active money figured out by May 2021 that this value company was a growth stock and chased it. They were closet indexers, the Active money. PASSIVE patterns dwarf them.

And when Passive money stopped in September, the stock dropped like a rock.

It wasn’t story. It was supply and demand.

Same with the economy. Flood it with cash, and it’s hard to get that cat back in the bag once you’ve let it out.  You cannot reverse easy monetary policy without harsh consequences, and you can’t shift from momentum to value without deflation.

The good news is when you understand what’s actually going on, you can manage the controllables and measure the non-controllables. Both matter.  Ask us, and we’ll show you.

Analyst Day

Why do you hold an Analyst Day? 

Traders and investors, these are what Joel Elconin on Benzinga Premarket Prep this past Monday called “the dog and pony show.”

For the investor-relations profession, the liaison to Wall Street, it’s a big deal, ton of work. We choreograph, prepare, script, rehearse, plan. We’re laying out Management’s strategic vision.

And it’s successful if…what?  The stock jumps?

Analyst Days: Productive, or just busy? Illustration 130957015 © Turqutvali | Dreamstime.com

Before Regulation National Market System in 2007 transformed the stock market into the pursuit of average prices, triggering an avalanche of assets into index funds and ETFs, you could say that.

Even more so before decimalization in 2001 transformed “the spread,” the difference between the prices to buy and sell, into the pursuit of pennies. It’s now devolved to tenths of pennies in microseconds.

The point is, a good Analyst Day meant investors bought the stock. Same with earnings. News. 

Let me take a moment here.  In addition to ModernIR, the planet’s IR market-structure experts and the biggest provider of serious data for serious IR professionals at US-listed companies, Karen and I run a trading decision-support platform called Market Structure EDGE.

Using data from that platform, I bought 200 shares of a known Consumer Discretionary stock this week using an algorithm from my online firm, Interactive Brokers. The order was split into three trades for 188 shares, 4 shares, and 8 shares, all executed at BATS, owned by CBOE, the last trade at a half-penny spread.

Why is this germane to an Analyst Day?  Stick with me, and you’ll see.

Would you go to a store looking for carrots and buy 10 of them at one, then drive to another for 2, and a third for 4?  Idiocy. Confusing busy with productive. So, why is that okay in a market worth $50 trillion of FIDUCIARY assets?

The stock I bought is a household name.  Ranks 463rd by dollars/trade among the 3,000 largest stocks traded in the US market, which are 99.9% of market capitalization. It’s among the 500 most liquid stocks.

Your Analyst Day is a massive target.  And over 90% of volume in the market has a purpose other than investment in mind. My trade in three pieces meant the purpose for the other side was to profit by splitting an order into tiny parts. That’s not investment. It’s arbitrage.

Investor-relations people, you are the market maestros. Your executives and Board count on you to know what matters.  Did it occur to you that your Analyst Day is a giant plume of smoke attracting miscreants? Does your executive team understand that your Analyst Day could produce a vast plume of arbitrage, and not what they expect?  If not, why not?

Look, you say. I run an Analyst Day. Are you saying I shouldn’t?

I’m saying that whether you do or not should be data-driven.  And evaluating the outcome should be data-driven too.  As should be the planning and preparation.

As should the understanding from internal audiences that at least 70% of the volume around it will be profiteers chasing your smoke plume, just like they gamed me for about 2.5 cents.

It’s not the 2.5 cents that matters. It’s the not knowing supply or demand. It’s the absence of connection between price and reality. 

By the way, Rockwell Medical is the current least liquid stock in the National Market System. You can trade $250 of it at a time on average, without rocking the price.  Most liquid? AMZN, at $65,000 per trade (price $3,275, trades 190,000 times per day, 18 shares at a time).

IR does not derive its value from telling the story. Its value lies in serving as trusted advisor for navigating the equity market.  Making the best use of shareholder resources. Understanding the money driving price and volume. You are not a storyteller.  You are the Chief Market Intelligence Officer. 

Think of the gonzo state of things.  I know what revenue every customer generates in our businesses, and what the trends are, the engagement is, the use of our data, what people click or don’t.  Yet too many public companies are spewing information to the market with NO IDEA what creates volume, why they’re traded, what sets price.

Is that wise?

So, what SHOULD we be doing?  The same thing we do in every other business discipline.  Use software and analytics that power your capacity to understand what drives returns. Do you understand what creates your price and volume?

Back to the Analyst Day. Don’t hold one because tradition says so. Do it if you benefit from it!  If your investors are fully engaged, you’re wasting their time and yours. That’s measurable.  You should know it well beforehand.

If they aren’t, set a goal and measure market reactions.  Realize that arbitragers will game your smoke plume.  That’s measurable too. Know what Active stock-pickers pay.  Know when Passives wax and wane. Know what’s happening with derivatives, and why.

Everything is measurable. But not with 1995 tools. Don’t do things just because you always have. Do them because they count.

That’s the IR profession’s opportunity, the same as it is everywhere else.

Resistance and Support

Bucket-list seeing Colorado aspens in autumn. It will remind you that the planet is a living canvas and that everything is going to be okay.

Colorado aspens at Muddy Pass summit. Karen Quast

Now, what about the stock market?  I said last week in the Market Structure Map:

“Predictions? I bet we rebound next week. BUT if Monday is bad, the bottom could fall out of stocks.  And you should always know what’s coming, companies, investors and traders. It’s just data.”

Well son of a gun.

New options traded Monday and the market took a vicious thwap to the noggin. Why? No, not Chinese real estate.  Or this thing, or that thing.  There was a buffet of options spread out for consumption and the crowd that showed up to feast was sparse like a pandemic trade show.

That’s weak implied demand. So stocks fell. Again, read last week’s blog. About 20% of market capitalization ties to rights to buy or sell that reset monthly.  If demand drops even a half-percent it can rock equities.

Who’s using those?  Hedge funds.  Traders.  Funds substituting derivatives for equities (permissible up to about 10% of assets).

Shouldn’t we wonder WHY fewer guests came to the options banquet? Yes, but in advance! If you’re casting about AFTER it happens, you’re making it up, like resistance and support. We talked for three weeks about the big risk into Monday.

The point isn’t being right. The point is correct data.  

What’s more, investors didn’t sell. Active Investment was down about 17% marketwide Monday. And the last-hour recovery that clawed back 30% from the lows came on quant money and machines.

I was talking with the investor-relations officer for a Nasdaq-traded Consumer Discretionary company.  I said, “What do you do for answers about why your stock moves differently from your peers?”

She said, “I call the Nasdaq.  The guy there tells me what our levels of resistance and support are.”

There are over $63 trillion in worldwide regulated (following standardized government guidelines like the Investment Company Act of 1940) investment funds, says the Investment Company Institute in its 2021 Factbook.

None of that money makes decisions using levels of support or resistance. So why would that be the explanation, if the job of the investor-relations officer is to help the board and executive team understand what drives shareholder value and how to succeed in the public equity markets?

Just askin’.

To be fair, this IR officer is now a client. It’s telling though, isn’t it, that for many in the investor-relations profession a telephone is the chief source of data. And the data provider says, “You broke through your support levels.”

Uh huh.

It’s true machines will calculate how to price bids and offers by sifting the surrounding data.  From that data come levels of support and resistance. The trouble is those machines don’t want to own anything.

Our friend in Consumer Discretionary saw shareholder value plummet 23% from the end of August to September options-expirations. Principal cause, Derivatives.  Active and Passive Investment patterns shrank over that time.

It had nothing to do with story.  In fact, that company’s Engagement score – quantitative measure of influence from Active stock-pickers – is 91%. Superb.  At this moment, the stock is exactly in line with what stock-pickers are willing to pay. That’s measurable.

And it wasn’t levels of support or resistance. Yes, over that time the machines manufacturing most prices averaged 55% of the stock’s volume and owned no shares at day’s end (and 60% of volume was short to boot – borrowed or manufactured).

To me, support and resistance are like the daytime temperature. Today’s high and low temperatures reflect seasons and weather-fronts, not support and resistance.  The seasons and weather-fronts of the stock market are patterns of changing behavior.

Last week, the S&P 500 saw a 1% drop in demand for derivatives – we call that a 1% decline in Risk Mgmt – when options-expirations should have driven an increase in demand.

Against falling demand (Sentiment) and rising supply (Short Volume) marketwide, we thought, “The market could take a Mike Tyson to the chin.”

Indexes reweighted too, and Passive investment was down 5% in the S&P 500.  Suggests weaker flows to Tech since that’s where all the market cap is.

What now? The Fed meets at 2p ET today.  Our 10-point index of short-term supply and demand called Broad Sentiment is 4.4, and 4.0 is a bottom. Probably stocks recover.

If the bottom turns to mush, people will be saying, “The market’s next level of support is…”

And that won’t be it. The data say we’ve been in a long slowdown from momentum since April. The consequences can show up all at once.  I doubt it’s right here, right now. But it’s possible. 

Growth vs Value

Are you Value or Growth?  

Depends what we mean, I know. S&P Dow Jones says it distinguishes Value with “ratios of book value, earnings and sales to price.”

It matters because Growth is terrorizing Value.  According to data from the investment arm of AllianceBernstein, Growth stocks outperformed Value stocks by 92% between 2015-2020.  Morningstar says it’s the biggest maw on record, topping the 1999 chasm.

If you’re in the Growth group, you’re loving it.  But realize.  By S&P Dow Jones’s measures, anybody could be a Value or Growth stock at any time.  It’s all in the metrics.

The larger question is why the difference?  AllianceBernstein notes that the traditional explanation is earnings growth plus dividends paid.  That is, if your stock is up 50% more than a peer’s, it should be because your earnings and dividends are 50% better.

If that were the case, everybody would be a great stock-picker. All you’d need do is buy stocks with the best earnings growth. 

Well, turns out fundamentals accounted for just ten percentage points of the difference.  The remaining 82% of the spread, as the image here from AllianceBernstein shows, was multiple-expansion.  Paying more for the same thing.

Courtesy AllianceBernstein LP. https://www.alliancebernstein.com/corporate/en/insights/investment-insights/whats-behind-the-value-growth-performance-gap.html

Put differently, 90% of the time Growth stocks outperform Value stocks for no known reason. No wonder stock-picking is hard.

Take Vertex (VRTX) and Fortinet (FTNT), among the two very best and worst stocks of the past year.  I don’t know fundamentally what separates them. One is Tech, the other Healthcare.

I do know that running supply/demand math on the two, there’s a staggering behavioral difference.  FTNT spent 61 days the past year at 10.0 on our ten-point scale measuring demand called Market Structure Sentiment.  It pegged the speedometer 24% of the time.

VRTX spent five days at 10.0.  Two percent of the time.  You need momentum in today’s stock market or you become a Value stock.

We recently shared data with a client who wondered why there was a 20-point spread to the price of a top peer.  We ran the data.  Engagement scores were about the same – 85% to 83%, advantage to our client. Can’t say it’s story then.

But the peer had a 20% advantage in time spent at 10.0.  The behavioral patterns were momentum-style. Our client’s, GARP/Value style.

Okay, Quast.  Suppose I stipulate to the validity of your measure of supply and demand, whatever it is.  Doesn’t answer the question. Why do some stocks become momentum, propelling Growth to a giant advantage over Value?

I think it’s three things. I can offer at least some data, empirical or circumstantial, to support each.

Let’s call the first Herd Behavior.  The explosion of Exchange Traded Funds concentrates herd behavior by using stocks as continuously stepped-up collateral for ETF shares.  I’ll translate.  ETFs don’t invest in stocks, per se.  ETFs trade baskets of ETF shares for baskets of stocks (cash too but let’s keep it simple here). As the stocks go up in value, ETF sponsors can trade them out for ETF shares. Say those ETF shares are value funds.

The supply of Value ETF shares shrinks because there’s less interest in Value.  Then the ETF sponsor asks for the same stocks back to create more Growth ETF shares.

But the taxes are washed out via this process. And more ETF shares are created.  And ETFs pay no commissions on these transactions. They sidestep taxes and commissions and keep gains.  It’s wholly up to traders and market-makers to see that ETF shares track the benchmark or basket.

The point? It leads to herd behavior. The process repeats. Demand for the same stuff is unremitting.  We see it in creation/redemption data for ETFs from the Investment Company Institute. ETF creations and redemptions average over $500 billion monthly. Same stuff, over and over. Herd behavior.

Second, there’s Amplification.  Fast Traders, firms like Infinium, GTS, Tower Research, Hudson River Trading, Quantlab, Jane Street, Two Sigma, Citadel Securities and others amplify price-moves.  Momentum derives from faster price-changes, and Fast Traders feed it.

Third is Leverage with derivatives or borrowing.  Almost 19% of trading volume in the S&P 500 ties to puts, calls and other forms of taking or managing risk with derivatives. Or it can be borrowed money. Or 2-3x levered ETFs. The greater the pool of money using leverage, the larger the probability of outsized moves.

Summarizing, Growth beats Value because of herd behavior, amplification of price-changes, and leverage.

By the way, we can measure these factors behind your price and volume – anybody in the US national market system.

Does that mean the Growth advantage is permanent?  Well, until it isn’t. Economist Herb Stein (Ben’s dad) famously said, “If something cannot last forever, it will stop.”

And it will. I don’t know when. I do know that the turn will prompt the collapse of leverage and the vanishing of amplification. Then Growth stocks will become Value stocks.

And we’ll start again.

Suddenly

Things are getting worrisome. 

It’s not just our spectacular collapse in Afghanistan less than a month before the 20-year anniversary of Nine Eleven.  That’s bad, yes.  Inexcusable.

Illustration 179312099 / Ernest Hemingway © Lukaves | Dreamstime.com

It’s not the spasmodic gaps in supply chains everywhere – including in the stock market. 

It’s not bond yields diving as inflation spikes, which makes sense like accelerating toward a stop sign.

It’s not the cavalier treatment of the people’s money (do you know we spent $750 million of US taxpayer dollars on the Kabul embassy, the world’s largest, then left the keys on the desk?).

It’s all of it.  Stuff’s jacked up, and it should bother us.

Karen and I went to a concert at Strings, the performing arts venue in Steamboat Springs.  If you want to feel better about yourself, go to the state fair.  Or an Asleep at the Wheel concert in Steamboat.

People are showing up with walkers, oxygen tanks, doddering uncertainly up the walkway.  I’m joking!  Mostly.  You get the point. (Lord, I apologize for my poor taste.)

And Asleep at the Wheel is awesome. I grew up on Hotrod Lincoln and The House of Blue Lights.

Anyway, covid mania continues so the hall serves no food or drink inside.  We’re dependent on food trucks outside for snacks.

None showed up.

There was a big bike ride this past weekend, three thousand gravel riders.  The food trucks were there. But there’s not enough staff working to cover more than one base. We and the oldsters were out of luck for tacos and cheesesteak.

But we were told they’d be there, and they weren’t. That kind of thing happened in Sri Lanka when I lived there for a year in college. But not in the World’s Superpower.

It gets worse.

The bartenders were shaking their heads. They couldn’t restock beforehand because the supplier was closed.  No staff.  A major liquor store – the biggest in the region with normally 3-4 registers running simultaneously – had to close because they had no staff to run the shop.

If you can’t stock your bar, you’re in trouble of collapsing as an empire. I say that in the barest jest only.

Back to the stock market.  The supply chain for stocks is borrowed shares. I’ve explained it before.  Dodd Frank basically booted big brokers from the warehouse business for equities.

Used to be, if you were Fidelity you called Credit Suisse and said, “I need a million shares of PFE.”

Credit Suisse would say, “We’ve got 500,000. We’ll call Merrill.”

And the wholesale desk there, the erstwhile Herzog Heine Geduld, would round the other half up.

Not so in 2021.  The banks now are laden to creaking with “Tier One Capital” comprised mostly of US Treasuries.  You’re the government and you need a market for debt, you just change the rules and require banks to own them, and slash interest rates so fixed income funds need ten times more than before.

Elementary, Watson.

What’s more, the stock market is a continuous auction. Everything is constantly for sale in 100-share increments. 

Except there aren’t 100 shares of everything always available. Certainly not 100,000 shares. So the SEC requires – they mandate it – brokers to short stock, create it in effect, to keep the whole continuous auction working.

Well, it’s getting wobbly.  There are sudden surges and swales in short volume now.  And the average trade size in the S&P 500 is 104 shares. Lowest on record.  Almost half that – 44% currently – is borrowed. In effect, the supply chain in the stock market is about 60 shares.

Depending on that tenuous thread is about 75% of three MILLION global index products.  Thousands of ETFs.  And $50 TRILLION of market cap.

The 1926 Ernest Hemingway book The Sun Also Rises has an exchange between two characters.  One asks the other how he went broke.

“Gradually,” he said. “Then suddenly.”

Afghanistan’s sudden collapse was 20 years in the making.  The same thing is happening around us in a variety of ways, products of crises fomenting in our midst that we ignore or excuse.

So what do we do about it?

The societal question is tough.  The market question is simple: Understand the problem, engage on a solution.

Public companies, it’s you and your shareholders sitting at the head of this welling risk.  We owe it to them to understand what’s going on. Know the risk of fragility in your shares’ supply chain. That’s a start. We have that data.

Solving the whole problem will require a well-informed, prepared constituency that cares.  Or all at once it’s going to implode. Not hyperbole. A basic observation.

Starting Point

The starting point for good decisions is understanding what’s going on. 

I find it hard to believe you can know what’s going on when you’re authorizing trillions of dollars of spending.  But I digress.

Illustration 22981930 / Stock Trading © John Takai | Dreamstime.com

Investor relations professionals, when was the last time you called somebody – at an exchange or a broker – to try to find out what’s going on with your stock? I can’t recall when the Nasdaq launched the Market Intelligence Desk but it was roughly 2001.

Twenty years ago.  I was a heavy user until I learned I could dump trade-execution data from my exchange into my own Excel models and see which firms were driving ALL of my volume, and correlate it to what my holders told me.

That was the seed for ModernIR. 

Today, market behaviors and rules are much different than they were in 2001. Active money back then was still the dominant force but computerized speculation was exploding.  What started in the 1990s as the SOES Bandits (pronounced “sews”) – Small Order Execution System (SOES) – was rapidly metastasizing into a market phenomenon.

Regulation National Market System took that phenomenon and stamped it on stocks. What was a sideshow to ensure retail money got good deals now IS the stock market.

Nearly all orders are small.  Block trades are about a tenth of a percent of total trades.  For those struggling with the math, that means about 99.9% (not volume, trades) aren’t blocks.  The trade-size in the stocks comprising the S&P 500 averaged 108 shares the past week.  All-time record low.

Realize, the regulatory minimum for quoting and displaying prices is 100 shares.  Trades below that size occur at prices you don’t even see.  I have a unique perspective on market machinery.  I’ve spent 26 years in the IR profession, a big chunk of that providing data on market behaviors to public companies so they know what’s going on (the starting point for good management).

Now I run a decision-support platform too for active traders that gives them the capacity to understand changing supply/demand trends in stocks – the key to capturing gains and avoiding losses when trading (we say take gains, not chances).  And I trade stocks too.  I know what it means when my NVDA trade for 50 shares executes at the Nasdaq RLP for $201.521.

Yes, a tenth of a penny.  It means my broker, Interactive Brokers, routed my trade to a Retail Liquidity Program at the exchange, where a Fast Trader like Citadel Securities bought it for a tenth of a penny better than the best displayed price, and was paid about $0.015 for doing so.

For those struggling to calculate the ROI – return on investment – when you spend a tenth of a penny to generate one and a half pennies, it’s a 1400% return.  Do that over and over, and it’s real money.  Fast Trading is the least risky and most profitable business in the stock market.  You don’t have to do ANY research and your investment horizon is roughly 400 milliseconds, or the blink of an eye.  Time is risk.

For the record, NVDA trades about 300,000 times per day. Do the math. 

Which leads to today’s Market Structure Map singularity – infinite value.  Trades for less than 100 shares sent immediately for execution – that’s a “market order” – must by law be executed.  The Securities Exchange Commission has mandated (does the SEC have that authority?) a “continuous auction market” wherein everything is always buying or selling in 100-share increments or less.

So algorithms almost always chop trades into pieces smaller than 100 shares that are “marketable” – meant to execute immediately.  And retail traders are browbeaten relentlessly to never, ever, ever enter marketable trades.  Only limit orders. That ensconces information asymmetry – an advantage for machines.  Every time I send a marketable trade for execution, I have to check a box acknowledging that my trade is “at the market.”

That’s the truth.  Algorithms pulverize orders into tiny pieces not to make them look like tiny trades, but because tiny trades are required by law to execute.  Large trades are not.  Limit orders are not.  Those both may or may not match.  But tiny trades will. There’s one more piece to that puzzle – the market-making exemption from short-locate rules.  For more on that, go to the youtube channel for sister company EDGE and watch my presentation on meme stocks at The Money Show.

Moral of the story:  The entire structure of the stock market is tilted toward the people and the machines who actually know what’s going on, and away from those who don’t.

Now.  What do you know about the stock market, investor-relations professionals?  You are head of marketing for the stock.  Got that?  Do you know how the stock market works?

If you don’t, you need us.  We know exactly how it works, and exactly what’s going on, all the time.  You should have that information in your IR arsenal. 

Nothing is more important. It’s the starting point.

Passive Pitfalls

We’re back!  We relished upstate New York and Canandaigua Lake. 

If you’ve never been to Letchworth and Watkins Glen parks, put them on your list.  See photo here from the former, the Upper Falls there. Alert reader Deb Pawlowski of Kei Advisors, a local resident, said in pragmatic investor-relations fashion, “Beautiful area, isn’t it?”

Boy, indeed.

Letchworth State Park – Tim Quast

And it was month-end.  Companies were demolishing earnings expectations, a thousand of them reporting last week, sixteen hundred more this week.  Most big ones pile-driving views and guidance saw shares fall.

But how can that be?  Aren’t markets a reflection of expectations?

Tim.  Come on.  You buy the rumor, sell the news.

If that’s how you’re describing the market to your executive team and board…um, you’re doing IR like a caveman.  Rubrics and platitudes ought not populate our market commentary in this profession.

Use data.  Everybody else does (except certain medical-science organizations, but let’s just step lightly past that one for now).

Last week across the components of the S&P 500, Active Investment was up 0.0%. Unchanged.  Passive Investment – indexes, Exchange Traded Funds, quants, the money following a road map – fell 7%.  The use of derivatives, which should be UP during month-end when indexes use futures and options (quarterly options and monthly futures expired Jul 30) to true up tracking instead fell 2%.

No biggie? Au contraire.  A combined 9% drop in those behaviors is colossal. In fact, Passive money saw the steepest drop Jul 30 since Aug 3, 2020.

I’ll come back to what that means in a moment. 

Finishing out the Four Big Behaviors behind price and volume, the only thing up last week besides short volume, which rose to 45% Friday from a 20-day average of 44% of S&P 500 volume, was Fast Trading. Machines with an investment horizon of a day or less. Up 4%.

Think about all the economic data dominating business news.  The Purchasing Managers Index came in at 55 versus expectations of 56. Jobless claims unexpectedly jumped above 400,000.  Inflation came in hotter than expected at a seasonally adjusted 5.4%, annualized. Egads!

As Ronald Dacey in the Netflix series Startup would say, “You feel me?”

I’m just saying data abounds and so do reactions to it. Yet we talk about the stock market like it’s got no measurable demographics or trends driving it.

Well, of course it does!  Why is there not a single report Monday – except mine on Benzinga’s “Market Structure Monday” segment on the Premarket Prep Show – driven by data?

By the way, on Monday Aug 2, Passive Investment surged more than 14%. New month, new money into models.  The reason the market didn’t goose into the rafters was because it filled the giant Friday Passive hole I just described.

Broad Market Sentiment at Aug 2 is 5.4 on our 10-point market-structure scale of waxing and waning demand. That’s exactly what it’s averaged for more than ten years.  The market is not a daily barometer of reactions to data.  But it IS a reflection of what money is observably doing.

And what it’s observably doing to the tune of about 90% of all market volume is not picking stocks. The money follows models.  The money speculates. The money transfers risk. Because time is risk. The riskiest of all market propositions is buying and holding, because it leaves all the price-setting to stuff that’s much more capricious.

The least risky thing to do in the stock market is trade stuff for fractions of seconds, because your money is almost never exposed to downside risk. This is how Virtu famously disclosed in its S-1 that it made money in 1289 of 1290 days.  Stock pickers just want to be right 51% of the time.

What’s the lesson? Everything is measurable and trends manifest precisely the way money behaves.  It’s darned well time that boards and executive teams – and investors – understand the market as it is today.

Oh, and why is the Jul 30 drop in Passive money, the biggest in a year, a big deal? Because the market corrected in September 2020. The so-called FAANG stocks (FB, AAPL, AMZN, NFLX, GOOG/L) fell 35% in three days.

There is Cause. Then a delay. Then the Effect.  There is DEMAND and SUPPLY.  If DEMAND declines and SUPPLY rises, stocks fall.  In fact, those conditions uniformly produce falling prices in any market.

We measure it. Sentiment is demand. Short Volume is supply. 

So. The stock market is at 5.4. Right at the average. But if the supply/demand trends don’t improve, the market is going to correct.  Can’t say when. But the data will give us a causal indication.

If you want to know, use our analytics. We’ll show you everything!