Tagged: Liquidity

Trading Fast and Slow

 

Happy 2nd Half of 2020!  I bet we’re all glad we’re halfway there. Karen and I would’ve been in Greece now sailing the Ionian islands, luxury catamaran, sunset off starboard, Hurricane in hand.

Instead my checklist leaving the house has expanded from wallet, phone, keys, to wallet, phone, keys, mask.  No vacation for you. Just a Pandemic and executive orders.

A CEO of a public company said, “Why does my stock trade only 60 shares at a time, and how do I fix it?”

I was happy the team at ModernIR had highlighted shares-per-trade (one of several liquidity metrics we track).  Every public-company CEO should understand it.

After all, your success, investor-relations folks selling the story to The Street (and investors, whether you can buy or sell shares before the price changes), depends on availability of stock. Not how great your story is.

Because there’s a mistaken idea loose in the stock market. We understand supply is limited in every market from homes for sale to shishito peppers at the grocery store. Yet we’re led to believe stocks are infinitely supplied.

This CEO I mentioned asked, “So how do I fix it?”

This isn’t AMZN we’re talking about, which trades less than 30 shares at a time, but that’s over $70,000 per trade.  AMZN is among the most liquid stocks trading today. The amount you can buy before the price changes is almost eight times the average in the whole market.

AAPL is liquid too, not because it trades almost $16 billion of stock daily but because you can ostensibly buy $35,000 at a pop, and it trades more than 400,000 times.

Back to our CEO, above. The company trades about 3,000 times per day, roughly $3,000 per trade.  Liquidity isn’t how much volume you’ve got. It’s how much of your stock trades before the price changes.

That matters to both the IR people as storytellers and the investors trying to buy it.

I’ve shared several vignettes as I experiment with our new decision-support platform democratizing market structure for investors, called Market Structure EDGE. I couldn’t buy more than 10 shares of AAPL efficiently. My marketable order for JPM split in two (96 shares, 4 shares), and high-speed traders took the same half-penny off each.

The CEO we’re talking about meant, “What can we do differently to make it easier for investors to buy our shares?”

The beginning point, at which he’d arrived, which is great news, is realizing the constraints on liquidity.

But. If you have the choice to buy something $3,000 at a time – oh, by the way, it’s also more than 4% volatile every day – or buying it $70,000 at a time with half the volatility, which “risk-adjusted return” will you choose?

And there’s the problem for our valiant CEO of a midlevel public company in the US stock market today. Fundamentals don’t determine liquidity.

To wit, TSLA is more liquid than AAPL, over $42,000 per trade.

Forget fundamentals. TSLA offers lower risk.

Ford and GM trade around $4,000 per transaction, a tenth as liquid as TSLA.  Heck, NKLA the maker of hydrogen trucks with no products and public via reverse merger is twice as liquid as our blue-chip carmakers of the 20th century.

Prospects, story, don’t determine these conditions. These vast disparities in liquidity invisible to the market unless somebody like us points them out are driven by DATA.

The reason liquidity is paltry in most stocks is because a small group of market participants with deep pockets can buy better data from exchanges than what’s seen publicly.  I’ll explain as we wrap the edition of the MSM in a moment.

The good news is the SEC wants to change it.  In a proposal to revamp what are called the data plans, the SEC is aiming to shake up the status quo by among other things, putting an issuer and a couple investors on the committee governing them.

I’ve been trying for 15 years to achieve something like this, and so has NIRI, the IR professional association (they longer than me!). I should retire! Mission accomplished.

Heretofore, the exchanges and Finra, called “Self-Regulatory Organizations (SROs),” have been able to create their own rules. In a perfect world full of character, we’d all be self-regulatory. No laws, just truth.

Alas, no.  The exchanges provide slow regulatory data to the public and sell fast data for way more money to traders who can afford it.

By comparing the slow data to the fast data, traders can jump in at whatever point and split up orders and a take a penny from both parties.

This happens to popular brokerage Robinhood’s order flow by the way.  Those retail customers get slow data, and the traders buying the trades use fast data.

That’s not the problem. The problem is that by buying Robinhood’s order flow at slow-data prices, and selling it at fast-data prices, T Rowe Price’s trades get cut out, front-run, jumped past.

Your big investors can’t buy your stock efficiently (passive money doesn’t care as it’s just tracking a benchmark).

That’s why our CEO’s company trades 60 shares at a time.

For stocks like AMZN the difference between fast and slow is small because they’re the cool kids. And size grows. For the rest, it’s the crows in the cornfield.

You can talk to investors till you turn blue. It won’t solve this problem. The only thing that will is when investors join with public companies and get behind eliminating Fast Data and Slow Data and making it just Data.

We’ve got a shot, thanks to this SEC, and the head of the division of Trading and Markets, Brett Redfearn.  We should all – public companies and investors – get behind it. If you want to know how, send me a note.

Canary Prices

We’ve written of risks in stocks from proliferating Exchange Traded Funds (ETFs).

We’ve talked long about liquidity risks, here last October with CNBC’s Brian Sullivan.

So what, right?

The market has functioned well in this Coronavirus Pandemonium, argue regulators and reporters (WSJ subscription required).

What’s the definition of functioning?  Volume?  You longtime users of Market Structure Analytics rely on them so as not to confuse busy – volume – with productive – liquidity (and to know when story drives price, and doesn’t, and much more).

Refinitiv Lipper says some $20 billion left US equities the week ended Mar 6. Sounds big but it’s 1% of volume.

Add up shorting (borrowed stock) at 45.2% of daily S&P 500 trading the past week, and Fast Trading (machines hyper-trading intraday and ending flat), 53.3% of volume, and it’s 98.5% of market volume but not liquidity.

There’s your 99% (the difference is a rounding error).

This is why you should care about market structure, if you haven’t yet.

Volatility Monday triggered a marketwide stock circuit-breaker halting trading when stocks drop 7%. First time since the rule was implemented in 2013.

Volatility halts also stopped futures trading Monday. Both events derailed reads of VIX volatility, which depend on futures contracts and put/call pricing for freely trading S&P 500 components.

Maybe the VIX was over 100 Monday. We don’t know, as components stopped trading.

What’s more, volatility halts for stocks and ETFs cascaded to more than a thousand Monday and Tuesday, including pauses in large caps like OXY, stopped eight times. I think we surpassed the record-setting currency-driven (as is this) frenzy of Aug 24, 2015.

Many directional ETFs in energy, commodities, market vectors, bonds, leveraged instruments, were halted too.  Volatility halts are coal-mine canaries.

And we’re led to believe investors are panicking over the Coronavirus, and getting out, because markets are working. Anybody but ModernIR writing about volatility halts, paucity of liquidity? Do tell.

Market Structure Analytics exist, public companies and investors, to know what headlines don’t say.

It’s egregious disservice to tell everyone “the market is working great!” when volatility halts explode, most volume is transient trading, and nobody can get in or out.

Canaries falling in waves.

Active Investment declined in the S&P 500 from early Feb until Mar 6 and Mar 9, then ticked up 3% on selling – less than the 5.4% daily intraday volatility (spread between highest and lowest average prices) in components of the S&P 500.

Responding, the market suffered one of its greatest collapses.

People don’t care about insurance – a canary in the coal mine – until it’s needed. And then it’s too late.

Investors and public companies, if you’re lulled by quiescence like last autumn, you’ll be shocked by its departure regardless of the Coronavirus. You shouldn’t be.

ETFs are a principal cause for both market volatility and vanishing liquidity. Investors can sit on stocks – meaning they don’t circulate – and trade ETFs.  When the market lurched, ETF market-makers withdrew, as we’d reasoned from data.

Then investors wanted to sell.

Without the ETFs driving some 67% of trading volume normally, nobody was there to calculate prices. Markets spun crazily like a fighter jet hit by a missile.

And regulators tell us the market is working fine. What about these dying canaries everywhere?

Here is liquidity simply. Trade-size is down to 132 shares in the S&P 500. If you’re an investor trying to sell 100,000 shares, you fill 1% of it and the price gyrates away from you as Fast Traders jump ahead.

Now your pre-trade analytics are wrong. You can pull your trade. Or try to blitzkrieg it in a thousand 100-share trades “at the market,” the best bid.

Wham!

The market implodes a thousand points. Try to buy 10,000 shares and the market skyrockets, rising a thousand points.

Investor-relations people for Energy companies, how do your executives feel about this market?

Technology IR people, what if you’re next?  Tech is the biggest sector. Shorting rose 12% last week in the FAANGs (FB, AAPL, AMZN, GOOG/GOOGL, NFLX) and Active money was selling. FAANGs lead the market up and down. They topped Feb 14, bottomed Mar 3. And now?

(We have the answer. Ask us.)

Investors, is a market that can’t accommodate 1% of the audience into and out of the exits without shuddering the whole stadium and threatening its foundations okay?

Sentiment by our measures is the lowest we’ve ever recorded. Yesterday it was still falling but a day or two from bottom. Uncharted territory, yes. But ModernIR is continuously mapping behaviors, trends, spreads, more.  We have that data, right here.

What if markets zoom? Or don’t?

What’s it worth, public companies and investors, to know what the headlines don’t tell you?  What’s the price of a canary? Ask us. You’ll be surprised.

Viral Market

I fear the Coronavirus may cause us to miss the real clanging claxon the past two weeks: The stock market cannot handle any form of truth.  The viral threat is market structure.

That the market plummeted on yesterday’s surprise (shocking) Federal Reserve rate-cut, the first non-meeting central-bank move since 2008, is to be expected in context of the continuum that created pressure in the first place.  Let’s review:

1.      Week of Feb 16. Options expired, Market Structure Sentiment topped, demand for derivatives bets fell 5% rather than rose, on a fast-appreciating US dollar.

2.      Feb 24.  New options for March expiration began trading. March brings the first “quad-witching” period of 2020, with rafts of derivatives tied to currencies and interest rates recalibrating.  Against a soaring dollar and plunging interest rates, uncertainty flared and implied derivatives demand vanished, tanking stocks.

3.      Intraday volatility (spreads between high and low prices) zoomed in the S&P 500 to the highest level we’ve recorded, averaging a searing 4.9% daily. Market-makers for Exchange-Traded Funds could not calculate successful trades between stocks and ETFs and withdrew.  Fast Trading rose to 53% of volume. Markets corrected by Feb 28 at the fastest pace ever.

4.      Bets jumped to 100% that the Fed would cut rates at its Mar 17 meeting in response to mounting economic concern over the Coronavirus.  On Mar 2, with a new month beginning, traders bet big with swaps (swap volumes crushed records) paying on a rate cut.

The Fed cut rates yesterday instead.

They might as well have trafficked in infectious diseases. The change rendered Monday’s bets void by pulling forward all implied returns. It’s effectively the same thing that happened Feb 24 when bets never materialized. The market imploded.

Somebody should be on TV and in the newspapers explaining these mechanics, so the public stops incorrectly supposing the market is a barometer for virus fears.

It’s worse in fact. During the whole period of tumult in the market from Feb 24 to present, Active money at no point was a big seller.  Patterns show a collapse for passive investment – especially ETFs – that didn’t change till Monday on rate-cut bets (that were chop-blocked yesterday).

There’s more. Trade-size in the S&P 500 plummeted to a record-low 132 shares. While volume exploded, it was repeated movement of the same shares by Fast Trading machines, which were 53% of volume. Daily trades per S&P 500 component exploded from a 200-day average of 27,000 to over 58,000.

What does it all mean?  Without any real buying or selling, the market gyrated in ways we’ve never seen before. That’s the shriek of metal, the scream of inefficiency. Rightly, it should raise hair.

We wrote about this looming liquidity threat last year (more than once but we’ll spare you).

Regulators should prepare now for the actual Big One yet to come.  Because the next time there will be real selling. It could make February’s fantasia look like a warmup act.  I’m not mongering fear here. I’m saying public companies and investors should demand a careful assessment from regulators about recent market turmoil.

My suggestion:  If the market moves more than 5% in a day, we should suspend the trade-through rule, the requirement that trades occur at the best national price. Let buyers and sellers find each other, cutting out the Fast Trading middlemen fragmenting markets into a frenzy of tiny trades and volatile prices.

And we’d better develop a clear-eyed perspective on the market’s role as a barometer for rational thought.  The truth is, market structure is  the real viral threat to the big money exposed to stocks.

Wholesale Profits

CNBC’s Brian Sullivan invited me to discuss shrinking market liquidity last Friday. Riveting, huh!

Well, it is to me! Unraveling the mystery of the market has turned out to be a breathtaking quest. I had another aha! moment this weekend.

Jane Street, a big Exchange Traded Funds (ETF) Authorized Participant, commissioned a study by Risk.net on ETF liquidity.  As a reminder, APs, as they’re called, are essential to the ETF supply chain.  They’re independent contractors hired by ETF sponsors such as State Street to create and redeem ETF shares in exchange for collateral like stocks and cash.

Without them, ETFs can’t function. In fact, they’re the reason why ETFs have been blanket-exempted from the Investment Company Act of 1940 under SEC Rule 6c-11, recently approved.

Exempted from what? The law that all pooled investments be redeemable for a portion of the underlying assets. There is no underlying pool of assets for ETFs, as we’ve explained before.

If you’re thinking, “Oh, for Pete’s sake, Quast, can you move on?” stay with me. If we don’t understand how ETFs are affecting equities and what risks they present, it’s our own darned fault.  So, let’s learn together.

As I was saying, ETFs don’t pool assets. Instead, firms like Jane Street gather up baskets of stocks and trade them straight across at a set price to ETF sponsors, which in turn “authorize” APs, thus the term, to create an equal value of ETF shares wholesale in large blocks and sell them retail in small trades.

I explained to Brian Sullivan how the math of the stock market shows a collapse in stock-liquidity. That is, the amount of stock one can buy before the price changes is down to about 135 shares (per trade) in the S&P 500. Nearly half of trades are less than 100 shares.

Block trades have vanished. The Nasdaq’s data show blocks are about 0.06% of all trades – less than a tenth of a percent. Blocks are defined as trades of $200,000 in value and up. And with lots of high-priced stocks, a block isn’t what it was. For BRK.A, it’s 1.5 shares.  In AMZN, around 130 shares.

Yet somehow, trade-sizes in the ETF wholesale market have become gigantic. Risk.net says 52% of trades are $26 million or more.  A quarter of all ETF trades are over $100 million. Four percent are over $1 billion!

And almost $3 TRILLION of ETF shares have been created and redeemed so far in 2019.

Guess what the #1 ETF liquidity criterion is?  According to the Risk.net study, 31% of respondents said liquidity in the underlying stocks. Another 25% said the bid-offer ETF spread.

Well, if stock liquidity is in free-fall, how can ETF liquidity dependent on underlying stocks be so awesome that investors are doing billion-dollar trades with ETF APs?

We’re led to believe APs are going around buying up a billion dollars of stock in the market and turning around and trading it (tax-free, commission-free) to ETF sponsors.

For that to be true, it’s got to profitable to buy all the products retail and sell them wholesale. So to speak. My dad joked that the reason cattle-ranching was a lousy business is because you buy your services retail and sell the products wholesale.

Yet the biggest, booming business in the equity markets globally is ETFs.

We recently studied a stock repurchase program for a small-cap Tech-sector company.  It trades about 300,000 shares a day. When the buyback was consuming about 30,000 shares daily, behaviors heaved violently and Fast Traders front-ran the trades, creating inflation and deflation.

That’s less than a million dollars of stock per day.  And it was too much. Cutting the buyback down to about 10,000 shares ended the front-running.

I don’t believe billions in stocks can be gobbled up daily by ETF APs without disrupting prices. Indeed, starting in September we observed a spiking breakdown in the cohesion of ETF prices and underlying stock-prices and a surge in spreads (not at the tick level but over five-day periods).

But let’s say it’s possible. Or that big passive investors are trading stocks for ETF shares, back and forth, to profit on divergence. In either case it means a great deal of the market’s volume is about capturing the spreads between ETFs and underlying stocks – exactly the complaint we’ve made to the SEC.

Because that’s not investment.

And it’s driving stock-pickers out of business (WSJ subscription required) with its insurmountable competitive lead over long-term risk-taking on growth enterprises, which once was the heart of the market.

The alternative is worse, which is that ETF APs are borrowing stock or substituting cash and equivalents. We could examine the 13Fs for APs, if we knew who they were. A look at Jane Street’s shows its biggest positions are puts and calls.  Are they hedging? Or substituting derivatives for stocks?

Public companies and Active investors deserve answers to these questions. Market regulation prohibits discriminating against us – and this feels a lot like discrimination.

Meanwhile, your best defense is a good offense:  Market Structure Analytics. We have them. Ask us to see yours.  We see everything, including massive ETF create/redeem patterns.

Suppy Chain Trouble

If you go to the store for a shirt and they don’t have your size, you wait for the supply chain to find it.  There isn’t one to buy. Ever thought about that for stocks?

I just looked up a client’s trade data. It says the bid size is 2, the ask, 3.  That means there are buyers for 200 shares and sellers of 300.  Yet the average trade-size the past 20 days for this stock, with about $27 million of daily volume, is 96 shares.  Not enough to make a minimum round-lot quote.

That means, by the way, that the average trade doesn’t even show up in the quote data. Alex Osipovich at the Wall Street Journal wrote yesterday (subscription required) that the market is full of tiny trades. Indeed, nearly half are less than 100 shares (I raised a liquidity alarm with Marketwatch this past Monday).

Back to our sample stock, if it’s priced around $50, there are buyers for $10,000, sellers of $15,000. But it trades in 96-share increments so the buyer will fill less than half the order before the price changes. In fact, the average trade-size in dollars is $4,640.

The beginning economic principle is supply and demand. Prices should lie at their nexus. There’s an expectation in the stock market of endless supply – always a t-shirt on the rack.

Well, what if there’s not? What if shares for trades stop showing up at the bid and ask?  And what might cause that problem?

To the first question, it’s already happening. Regulations require brokers transacting in shares to post a minimum hundred-share bid to buy and offer to sell (or ask). Before Mr. Osipovich wrote on tiny trades, I’d sent data around internally from the SEC’s Midas system showing 48% of all trades were odd lots – less than 100 shares.

Do you see? Half the trades in the market can’t match the minimum. Trade-size has gone down, down, down as the market capitalization of stocks has gone up, up, up.  That’s a glaring supply-chain signal that prices of stocks are at risk during turbulence.

Let’s define “liquidity.”

I say it’s the amount of something you can buy before the price changes. Softbank is swallowing its previous $47 billion valuation on WeWork and taking the company over for $10 billion. That’s a single trade. One price. Bad, but stable.

The stock market is $30 trillion of capitalization and trades in 135-share increments across the S&P 500, or about $16,500 per trade.  Blackrock manages over $6.8 trillion of assets. Vanguard, $5.3 trillion. State Street. $2.5 trillion.

Relationship among those data?  Massive assets. Moving in miniscule snippets.

Getting to why trade-size keeps shriveling, the simple answer is prices are changing faster than ever.  Unstable prices are volatility.  That’s the definition.

I’ll tell you what I think is happening: Exchange Traded Funds (ETFs) are turning stocks from investments to collateral, which moves off-market. As a result, a growing percentage of stock-trades are aimed at setting different prices in stocks and ETFs. That combination is leading to a supply-chain shortage of stocks, and tiny stock-trades.

ETFs are substitutes dependent on stocks for prices. The ETF complex has mushroomed – dominated by the three investment managers I just mentioned (but everyone is in the ETF business now, it seems) – because shares are created in large blocks with stable prices. Like a WeWork deal.

A typical ETF creation unit is 50,000 shares.  Stocks or cash of the same value is exchanged in-kind. Off-market, one price.

The ETF shares are then shredded into the stock market amidst the mass pandemonium of Brownian Motion (random movement) afflicting the stocks of public companies, which across the whole market move nearly 3% from high to low every day, on average.

Because there are nearly 900 ETFs, reliant on the largest stocks for tracking, ever-rising amounts of stock-trading tie back to ETF spreads. That is, are stocks above or below ETF prices? Go long or short accordingly.

Through August 2019, ETF creations and redemptions in US stocks total $2.6 trillion.  From Jan 2017-Aug 2019, $10.1 trillion of ETF shares were created and redeemed.

ETFs are priced via an “arbitrage mechanism” derived from prices in underlying stocks. Machines are chopping trades into minute pieces because the smaller the trade, the lower the value at risk for the arbitragers trading ETFs versus stocks.

ETFs are the dominant investment vehicle now. Arbitrage is the dominant trading activity. What if we’re running out of ETF collateral – stocks?

It would explain much: shrinking trade-sizes because there is no supply to be had. Rising shorting as share-borrowing is needed to create supply. Price-instability because much of the trading is aimed at changing the prices of ETFs and underlying stocks.

Now, maybe it’s an aberration only. But we should consider whether the collateralization feature of ETFs is crippling the equity supply-chain. What if investors tried to leave both at the same time?

All public companies and investors should understand market liquidity – by stock, sector, industry, broad measure. We track and trend that data every. Data is the best defense in an uncertain time, because it’s preparation.

Six See Eleven

What do you do in Steamboat Springs when autumn arrives at the Botanic Park? Why, have a Food & Wine Festival of course!

Meanwhile the derivatives festival in equities continues, thanks to the SEC, which through Rule 6c-11 is now blanket-exempting the greatest financial mania of the modern era, Exchange Traded Funds (ETFs), from the law governing pooled investments.

I’ll explain what this means to companies and stock-picking investors.

Look, I like Chairman Clayton, Director Redfearn, and others there.  But the SEC isn’t Congress, legislating how the capital markets work (one could argue that the people never delegated that authority to government through the Constitutional amendment process at all. But I digress).

The point is, the SEC is supposed to promote free and fair markets – not one purposely tilted against our core audience of stock-pickers.

The problems with ETFs are they’re derivatives, and they foster arbitrage, or profiting on different prices for the same thing. If arbitrage is a small element – say 15% – it can highlight inefficiencies. But thanks to ETFs, 87% of volume (as we measure it) is now directly or indirectly something besides business fundamentals, much of it arbitrage.

Do we want a market where the smallest influencer is Benjamin Graham?

ETFs in fact can’t function without arbitrage. ETFs have no intrinsic value.  They are a traded substitute for a basket of underlying stocks that depend on prices of those stocks for a derivative price applied to the ETF shares. So, unless brokers trade both ETF shares and stocks simultaneously, ETF prices CAN collapse.

That was an outlier problem until ETFs became the fastest-growing financial instrument of all time outside maybe 16th century Dutch tulip bulbs.

But collapse is not the core threat from ETFs. Arbitrage distorts the market’s usefulness as a barometer of fundamentals, warps the market toward speed, and shrivels liquidity.

How and why are these conditions tied to ETFs and arbitrage?  I’m glad you asked!

The motivation for arbitragers is short-term price-changes.  The motivation for investors is long-term capital formation. These are at loggerheads.  The more arbitrage, the faster prices change.  Price-instability shrinks the size of trades, and liquidity is the amount of something that can trade before prices change. It’s getting smaller as the market balloons.

If money can’t get into or out of stocks, it will stop buying them and start substituting other things for them. Voila! ETFs.

But.

We’ll get to that “but” in a minute.

ETFs are a fantastic innovation for ETF sponsors because they eliminate the four characteristics that deteriorate fund-performance:

Volatility. ETF shares are created off-market in big blocks away from competition, arbitrage, changing prices, that war on conventional institutional orders.

Customer accounts. ETFs eliminate asset-gathering and the cost of supporting customers, offloading those to brokers. Brokers accept it because they arbitrage spreads between stocks and ETFs, becoming high-frequency passive investors (HFPI).

Commissions. ETF sponsors pay no commissions for creating and redeeming ETF shares because they’re off-market.  Everyone else does, on-market.

Taxes. Since ETFs are generally created through an “in-kind” exchange of collateral like cash or stocks, they qualify as tax-exempt transactions.  All other investors pay taxes.

Why would regulators give one asset class, which wouldn’t exist without exemptions from the law, primacy? It appears the SEC is trying to push the whole market into substitutes for stocks rather than stocks themselves.

The way rules are going, stocks will become collateral, investments will occur via ETFs. Period.  If both passive and active investors use ETFs, then prices of ALL stocks will become a function of the spread between the ETFs and the shares of stocks.

Demand for stocks will depend not on investors motivated by business prospects but on brokers using stocks as collateral. Investors will buy ETFs instead of stocks.

If there is no investment demand for stocks, what happens when markets decline?

What would possess regulators to promote this structure? If you’ve got the answer, let me know.

And if you’re in IR and if you play guitar (Greg Secord? You know who you are, guitar players!), start a rock band. Call it Six See Eleven. Book some gigs in Georgetown. Maybe Jay Clayton will pop in.

Meanwhile, your best defense is a good offense, public companies and investors. Know how the market works. Know what the money is doing. Prepare for Six See Eleven.

Liquidity

Want a big ranch out west?

Apparently you don’t. The Wall Street Journal last month ran a feature (subscription required) on the mushrooming supply of leviathan cattle operations from Colorado to Idaho, legacy assets of the rich left to heirs from the era of Ted Turner and John Malone.

A dearth of demand is saddling inheritors with big operating expenses and falling prices.  Cross Mountain Ranch near Steamboat Springs, CO is 220,000 acres with an 11,000 square-foot house that costs a million dollars annually to run. It can be yours for a paltry $70 million, $320 an acre (I wonder if that price holds for a thousand?).

What have cattle ranches got to do with the stock market?  Look at your holders, public companies.  What’s the concentration among the largest?

The same thing that happened to ranches is occurring in stocks.  The vast wealth reflected in share-ownership came considerably from generations now passing on inheritance or taking required minimum distributions. The youngsters, at least so far, aren’t stockowners. They’re buying coffee, cannabis and café food.

Juxtapose that with what we’ve been saying about liquidity in stocks, and as the WSJ wrote today.

Liquidity to us is how much of something can be bought or sold before the price changes.  Those landed dynasties of western dirt are discovering people eschew large land masses and monolithic homesteads.

In stocks, the same is true.  Back up five years to Sep 4, 2014. The 200-day (all measures 200-day averages) trade size was 248 shares and dollars/trade was $17,140. Short volume was about 42%, the average Russell 1000 stock traded about $230 million of stock daily. And intraday volatility, the difference between highest and lowest daily prices, was about 2.2%.

Five years later? Average trade-size is 167 shares, down 33%.  Dollars/trade is down 26% to $12,760. Shorting is nearly 47% daily. Dollars/day is down 17% to $170 million. Volatility is up 32% to 2.9% daily.

But market-capitalization has increased by some 40%.  It’s as though the stock market has become a giant ranch in Colorado teetering over millennials loitering in a coffee shop. No offense, millennials.

Every investor and public company should understand these liquidity characteristics because they increase risk for raising capital or making stock investments.

Why is liquidity evaporating like perspiration out of an Under Armor shirt?

Rules and behaviors. Rules force brokers – every dollar in and out of stocks passes through at least one – into uniform behavior, which decreases the number capable of complying. Picture a grocery store near dinnertime with just three checkout lanes open.

In turn, concentration means more machination by brokers to hide orders. They break them into smaller pieces to hide footsteps – and machines become more sophisticated at interrupting trades in ever smaller increments to reveal what’s behind them.

And all the liquidity measures shrink. We see it in the data. A blue bar of Active Investment rarely manifests without an array of orange bars swarming to change prices, Fast Traders who have detected the difference in the data where human influence drives machine behavior.

What can you do, public companies and investors?  Prepare for bigger and unexpected gyrations (volatility erodes investment returns and increases equity cost of capital).

Examples: HRB reported results before Labor Day. The quarter is fundamentally inconsequential for a company in the tax-preparation business. Yet the stock plunged. Drivers?  Shares were 71% short and dominated by machines setting prices and over 21% of trading tied to short derivatives bets.

Those structural facts cost holders 10% of market cap.

Same with ULTA. While business conditions might warrant caution, they didn’t promote a 30% reduction in equity value.  Market structure did it – 58% short, 55% of total volume from machines knowing nothing about ULTA and paying no heed to the call.

We have the data. Market structure is our sole focus. No public company or investor should be unaware of liquidity factors in stocks and what they predict.

Put another way, all of us on the acreage of equities better understand now that vast tracts of value are tied up by large holders who don’t determine the price of your stocks anymore than your grandfather’s capacity to buy 100,000 acres will price your big Wyoming ranch now.

What does is supply and demand. And liquidity is thin all over.  Data can guard against missteps.

 

Bad Liquidity

JP Morgan’s global head of macro quant and derivatives research (if you have that title, you should be a big deal!), Marko Kolanovic, says the market’s rising propensity toward violent moves up and down reflects bad liquidity.

Bad Liquidity would be a great name for a rock band. But what’s it mean?

Most measure volatility with the VIX.  The trouble with it predictively is it’s not predictive. It spikes after the fact, not ahead.

It was not always so. Modern Portfolio Theory (MPT), a hot investment thesis of the 1990s stock market, said rising volatility reflected growing price uncertainty. Managers like Louis Navellier flew private jets on fortunes made shifting from stocks as volatility mounted.

I’d argue it’s the opposite now. When volatility vanishes, arbitrage opportunities, the primary price-discovery mechanism today (“price discovery” means “trying to figure out the price of a thing”), have been consumed. What happens then? Money leaves.

Speaking of money leaving, Mr. Kolanovic blames falling Active investment for a lack of liquidity. He says algorithm

Image shows weekly spreads between composite stocks and State Street sector SPDR ETFs, with negative numbers indicating more volatility in ETFs, positive numbers, more volatility in composite sector stocks.

s – “stock recipes” run by computers – are present when markets rise and absent when markets fall, exacerbating liquidity shortages.

Active investors tend to sell when prices are high and buy when they’re low, helping to ease liquidity constraints. As Active investment declines (he says just 10% of trading, presumably he means at JP Morgan, comes from Active stock-picking, eerily near the figures we measure – with algorithms no less), stabilizing liquidity shrinks.

Liquidity boiled down (so to speak!) is the availability of a thing at a stable price.  The more that’s available, the better your chance of getting it at the same price.

Investors tend to want a lot of something – a truckload.  Arbitragers tend to want the price to change. These aims are diametrically opposed.

By the way, I’m speaking to the NIRI Minneapolis chapter today on Exchange Traded Funds, which are predicated on an arbitrage mechanism. That means they can only exist as investment instruments if there is volatility. Mr. Kolanovic thinks volatility is the root rot.  Connection?

Yes. ETFs distort liquidity in two crucial ways that compound risk for stocks. As we’ve explained, ETFs are not pooled investments. They are most closely akin to put and call options, in that they are created when people want more of them and removed from the market when people don’t want them.

As with puts and calls, they become ends unto themselves. Too many mistake options prices for future stock prices. Sometimes that’s true. But changes in the value of options are a discrete profit opportunity themselves.

Goldman Sachs wrote in February this year as Q4 2018 results were coming in (thank you to an alert reader!): “What’s interesting this quarter is that buying calls for earnings reports has posted its best return in over thirteen years (record). In fact, buying the closest out of the money call 5 days ahead of earnings and closing the day after has produced an average return of 88%.”

Eighty-eight percent! That’s not a bet on results but pure arbitrage in options.

ETFs offer the same opportunity. Shares are created when investors want exposure to equities and redeemed when investors want out. But the investors to a large extent now are ETF market-makers profiting on spreads between ETFs and the underlying stocks comprising a tracking instrument. It’s arbitrage. Profiting on price-differences.

The problem with this liquidity is it’s continuously fluctuating. We can have no consistent, measurable idea of the supply of ETFs or the demand for stocks. That means the market at any given time cannot be trusted to provide meaningful prices.

The data to me say it’s the arbitrage mechanism in ETFs behind bad liquidity. ETFs can only establish prices through spreads with stocks. The market is now stuffed with ETFs. The motivation is the spread. Not fundamentals – or even fund-flows.

We track spreads between ETFs and composite stocks. Our data say spreads totaled hundreds of percentage points from Dec 2018 to Mar 2019. At Apr 5, stocks are 33% more volatile in 2019 on net than ETFs. That’s way more than the market has risen.  Somebodies will want to keep it.

If we want to know where the next financial crisis will develop, we need look no further than ETFs. They are now a mania. They depend on spreads. As liquidity goes, that’s bad.

Going Naked

Today this bull market became the longest in modern history, stretching 3,453 days, nosing out the 3,452 that concluded with the bursting of the dot-com bubble.

Some argue runs have been longer before several times. Whatever the case, the bull is hoary and yet striding strongly.

Regulators are riding herd. Finra this week fined Interactive Brokers an eyebrow-raising $5.5 million for short-selling missteps. The SEC could follow suit.

Interactive Brokers, regulators say, failed to enforce market rules around “naked shorting,” permitting customers to short stocks without ensuring that borrowed shares could be readily located.

Naked shorting isn’t by itself a violation. With the lightning pace at which trades occur now, regulators give brokers leeway to borrow and sell to investors and traders to ensure orderly markets without first assuring shares exist to cover borrowing.  I’m unconvinced that’s a good idea – but it’s the rule.

Interactive Brokers earned penalties for 28,000 trades over three years that failed to conform to rules. For perspective, the typical Russell 1000 stock trades 15,000 times every day.

What’s more, shorting – borrowed shares – accounts for 44% of all market volume, a consistent measure over the past year.  Shorting peaked at 52% of daily trading in January 2016, the worst start to January for stocks in modern history.

In context of market data then, the violations here are infinitesimal. What the enforcement action proves is that naked shorting is not widespread and regulators watch it closely to ensure rules are followed. Fail, and you’ll be fined.

“Wait a minute,” you say.  “Are you suggesting, Quast, that nearly half the market’s volume comes from borrowed shares?”

I’m not suggesting it. I’m asserting it.  Think about the conditions. Since 2001 when regulations forced decimalization of stock-trading, there has been a relentless war on the economics of secondary market-making. That is, where brokers used to carry supplies of shares and support trading in those stocks with capital and research, now few do.

So where do shares come from?  For one, SEC rules make it clear that market makers get a “bona fide” exemption from short rules because there may be no actual buyers or sellers. That means supply for bids and offers must be borrowed.

Now consider investment behaviors.  Long-term money tends to buy and hold. Passive investors too will sit on positions in proportion to indexes they’re tracking (if you’re skewing performance you’ll be jettisoned though).

Meanwhile, companies are gobbling their own shares up via buybacks, and the number of public companies keeps falling (now just 3,475 in the Wilshire 5000) because mergers outpace IPOs.

So how can the shelves of the stock market be stocked, so to speak? For one, passive investors as a rule can loan around a third of holdings. Blackrock generates hundreds of millions of dollars annually from loaning securities.

Do you see what’s happening?  The real supply of shares continues to shrink, yet market rules encourage the APPEARANCE of continuous liquidity.  Regulators give brokers leeway – even permitting naked shorting – so the appearance of liquidity can persist.

But nearly half the volume is borrowed. AAPL is 55% short. AMZN is 54% short.

Who’s borrowing? There are long/short hedge funds of course, and I’ll be moderating a panel tomorrow (Aug 23) in Austin at NIRISWRC with John Longobardi from IEX and Mark Flannery from Point72, who runs that famous hedge fund’s US equities long/short strategy.  Hedge funds are meaningful but by no means the bulk of shorting.

We at ModernIR compare behavioral data to shorting. The biggest borrowers are high-frequency traders wanting to profit on price-changes, which exceed borrowing costs, and ETF market-makers.  ETF brokers borrow stocks to supply to ETF sponsors for the right to create ETF shares, and they reverse that trade, borrowing ETF shares to exchange for stocks to cover borrowings or to sell to make money.

This last process is behind about 50% of market volume, and hundreds of billions of dollars of monthly ETF share creations and redemptions.

We’re led to a conclusion: The stock market depends on short-term borrowing to perpetuate the appearance of liquidity.

Short-term borrowing presents limited risk to a rising market because with borrowing costs low and markets averaging about 2.5% intraday volatility, it’s easy for traders to make more on price-changes (arbitrage) than it costs to borrow.

But when the market turns, rampant short-term borrowing as money tries to leave will, as Warren Buffett said about crises, reveal who’s been swimming naked.

When? We’d all like to know when the naked market arrives. Short-term, it could happen this week despite big gains for broad measures. Sentiment – how machines set prices – signals risk of a sudden swoon.

Longer term, who knows? But the prudent are watching short volume for signs of who’s going naked.

Water Down

Why are my shares down when my peers are up?

The answer most times isn’t that you’ve done something poorly that your peers are doing well. That would be true if 100% of the money in the market was sorting differences and was in fact trading you and your peers, and if the liquidity for you and your peers were identical at all times.

What is liquidity? Images of precipitation come to mind, which prompts recollection of that famous quip by whoever said it (Mark Twain gets credit but there’s no proof it was his utterance) that bankers will lend you an umbrella only when it’s sunny and take it back at the first hint of rain.

The Wall Street Journal yesterday carried a story about distressing levels of assets in big bond funds locked in positions that “lack liquidity.” Public companies, your bankers and shareholders have probably complained at some point about your “lack of liquidity.”

What it means is among the most profoundly vital yet most commonly overlooked (and misunderstood) aspects of markets. Things are finite. Public companies spend the great bulk of their investor-relations resources on Telling the Story. Websites, earnings calls, press releases, non-deal road shows, sellside conferences, targeting tools, on it goes.

But do you know how much of the product you’re selling is available to purchase? One definition of liquidity is the capacity of a market to absorb buying or selling without substantially altering a product’s value.

The WSJ’s Jason Zweig yesterday tweeted a great 1936 observation by Hungarian-born German émigré Melchior Palyi, longtime University of Chicago professor of economics: “A liquid structure never liquidates. Only the illiquid one comes under the pressure of liquidation.”

Think about that in terms of your own shares.  A liquid market can absorb the ingress and egress of capital without destroying the value of the supporting assets.

What’s your stock’s liquidity?  It’s not volume. We ran a random set of 11 stocks with market capitalization ranging from $300m-$112 billion. Mean volume for the group was 1.1m shares but varied from 50,000-5.6 million. Leaving out the biggest and smallest in each data set, we had a group with an average market cap of $6 billion, average daily volume of 755,000 shares, and average dollars per trade of $5,639.

That last figure is the true measure of liquidity. How much stock can trade without materially changing the price? In our group, it’s $5,639 worth of shares. So in a market with over $24 trillion of product for sale – US market capitalization – the going rate at any given movement is about the amount you’d spend on a Vespa motor scooter.  Now look at the dollar amount of your shares held by your top ten holders.

The stock market is incapable of handling significant movement of institutional assets. It’s a critically faulty structure if investors were to ever begin to pick up the pace of stock-redemptions. They are trying.  For the 20 trading days end Sept 18, the share of market for indexes and ETFs – Blackrock, Vanguard – is up 120 basis points over the long-run average, and stocks are down measurably.  Now, 1.2% might not seem like much but that’s more than $2 billion daily, sustained over 20 trading days. The S&P 500 is down about 5%.  At that ratio, if 10% of investors in indexes and ETFs wanted to sell, the market could decline 50%.

We’re not trying to make you afraid of water!  But this is the market for the financial product all public companies sell: Shares.  That it’s demonstrably ill-formed for a down market is partly the fault of us in the issuer community, because we’re participants and ought to be fully aware of how it works and when and where it may not, and should demand a structure supporting liquidity, not just trading.

Action items:  Know the dollar-size of your average daily trade (a metric we track), and compare it to the dollar-amount held by your biggest holders.  When your management team needs a risk-assessment, you’ll be ready.