Tagged: Liquidity

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.

The Recovery

It’s all in the recovery.

That’s the philosophy put forth by a friend of mine for dealing with unpleasant facts.

I think the chief reason for the recent swoon in stocks was not anemia in the job market but a sort of investor outrage. You can’t troll a trading periodical or blog or forum without wading through rants on why Michael Lewis, author of the bombshell book Flash Boys on high-speed trading, is either guilty of torpid whimsy (a clever phrase I admit to swiping from a Wall Street Journal opinion by the Hudson Institute’s Christopher DeMuth) or the market’s messiah.

What happens next? Shares of online brokerages including TD Ameritrade, E*Trade and Schwab have suffered on apparent fear that the widespread practice at these firms of selling their orders to fast intermediaries may come under regulatory scrutiny.

What about Vanguard, Blackrock and other massive passive investors? Asset managers favor a structure built around high-speed intermediation because it transforms relentless ebbs and flows of money in retirement accounts from an investing liability to a liquidity asset. Asset management is about generating yield. Liquidity is fungible today, and it’s not just Schwab selling orders to UBS, Scottrade marketing flow to KCG and Citi or E*Trade routing 70% of its brokerage to Susquehanna.

It would require more than a literary suspension of disbelief to suppose that while retail brokers are trading orders for dollars, big asset managers are folding proverbial hands in ecclesiastical innocence. The 40% of equity volume today that’s short, or borrowed, owes much to the alacrity of Vanguard and Blackrock. The US equity market is as dependent on borrowing and intermediation as the global financial system is on the Fed’s $4 trillion balance sheet.

Hoary heads of market structure may recall that we wrote years ago about a firm that exploded onto our data radar in 2007 called “Octeg.” It was trading ten times more than the biggest banks. Tracing addresses in filings, we found Octeg based in the same office as the Global Electronic Trading Co., or GETCO. Octeg. Get it? (more…)

Equity Supply Chain

Dollar General (NYSE:DG) dropped 9% yesterday, offering a lesson to investor-relations professionals.

Before that, a plug: At NIRI National next week I’m paneling with the CEO of short-seller Tesseract Management and the head of securities-lending for Franklin Templeton on short-selling strategy and practices. Longtime NIRI fixture Theresa Molloy has organized a great discussion and will moderate. And please visit ModernIR at booth 719, our eighth straight year in the exhibit hall.

For Dollar General, revenues were light and guidance lighter, margins weakened due to the products folks were buying last quarter, and inventories rose 21%. Investors and traders can examine facts about the structure of Dollar General’s market, from margins to supply-chain, and make value judgments (which will be distorted by other market behaviors, however).

Have you considered that your equity market is also affected by logistics, supply-chain and who’s consuming the product? We perhaps never imagine that the stock market has the same characteristics and limitations of other markets. Have you gone to the shoe store and they didn’t have your size in the brand you wanted? How come that doesn’t happen in the stock market? (more…)

Enlist Investors

We assume investors know how markets work. What if they don’t?

Patrick Armstrong, new president of the Securities Traders Association of New York (STANY), told Traders Magazine yesterday that the buyside has been absent from the market-structure debate.

What debate? If you joined the IR profession in the past 15 years, you may be unaware that stocks today trade radically unlike any other time in the general history of capital markets. It’s not a technology question. Things change. Machines convert human processes to automated ones. That’s normal.

When steamboats flourished on the Mississippi River, what had been hard – rowing upstream – became an easy ride. Travel took on an aspect of leisure. It moved from essential to enjoyable (air travel has gone the other way, as I was reminded yet again flying yesterday from Denver to Newark). It was still travel, though.

What’s the purpose behind trading stocks today? Don’t listen to what somebody tells you. Look at the data – which you do if you use Market Structure Analytics. The data say that the purpose of trading markets is to move things around for profit. That’s 85% of your volume.

If the exchange listing your shares had told you that the fees you pay would give you access to a bunch of short-term traders moving your shares around so the exchange could profit on data revenues, would it have changed your view of the market?

“I want [the buyside] to tell me their opinion on the direction of our market structure. I believe that those who are for the status quo, those who say everything is fine, are the ones to be wary of,” Armstrong said. (more…)

Hired ETF Guns

I dare you.

Ever say that as a kid? “I’ll give you a dollar if you—” (fill in the blank)

Last week the SEC approved a plan by the NASDAQ for sponsors of ETFs trading less than a million shares daily – 93% of ETFs – to pay $50,000-$100,000 annually to market participants if they dare to trade any of these ETFs more aggressively.

We opposed this plan because it allocates dues and fees specifically, not equitably as the Exchange Act requires, and it promotes statistical arbitrage – trading securities for spreads. That’s harmful to buy-and-hold investors and the issuers who seek them out.

The NASDAQ argued – successfully – that stimulating trading in weak ETFs unattractive to automated market-makers will shrink spreads, boost volumes and benefit investors.

Yesterday at TABB Forum, a news site for the trading community hosted by influential consultancy the TABB Group, Stephen Bain from RBC Capital Markets wrote a piece called “The Hidden Cost of Tighter Spreads.” RBC studied trading before and after spreads between the best prices to buy or sell tightened through decimalization and automated market-making.

Bain wrote: “Our initial analysis documents a marked increase in short-term price gyrations for individual stocks, which have effectively doubled from pre-2000 levels to present. This finding represents a significant increased cost for investors – entirely contrary to claims that lower execution costs now prevail.”

We arrived at similar conclusions. The average US stock has Total Intramonth Volatility (TIV) of roughly 40%, calculated by subtracting the low price from the high price each day, dividing by closing price, then tallying those over 20 trading days. (more…)

Maker-Taker’s Mark

Is it diluted?

That’s what everybody wants to know about the market. Are gains for broad equity measures, seemingly epic like my skiing Saturday at Copper Mountain, real or watered down?

That’s actually not our story this week. But we’re so fascinated by what market structure shows that if you huddle in here we’ll share observations. The dollar declined when Japanese Prime Minister Abe said Monday that either the Bank of Japan creates inflation or the government will rewrite its charter. That means more currency devaluations for everyone (if your money buys less tomorrow than it did today, that’s a devaluation whether called one or not).

So stocks rose yesterday. Also helping stocks, money was hedging at options-expirations Feb 15. When investors hedge they tend to invest more funds. Sentiment is okay, too, finishing last week at 5.38 (on a 10-pt scale), up from 5.05 to start the week. Yesterday it was down to 4.71, by far the lowest level all year.

All over, short volumes are down compared to long volumes. That’s a loaded message. Higher short volumes mean more competitive markets. But lower short volumes also mean demand for wholesale short positions is down and shorts are covering. Which is good.

Talk about mixed messages! Investors want stocks to rise but are wary. Lower overall short-interest (bullish) and some short-covering (bullish) also means money is less prepared for the unexpected, and that markets aren’t as competitive as they should be when prices are rising. Pray for no surprises or we’ll have a monumental down day.

Which brings us to our story. Beam, Inc., distiller of Maker’s Mark, said last week that to stretch its oak-aged bourbon it would cut the alcohol content. Drinkers recoiled in horror and disgust. They’d rather do without than do with less for the same price. Beam backed down. (more…)

Having never gone to a Neighborhood Pumpkin-Carving, we were wistful when squirrels promptly devoured the face off our finished product (marked “easiest” in the booklet of pumpkin-carving patterns we purchased). Ah well. What some consider a jack-o-lantern others see as a meal.

Speaking of scary, for those keeping record we note more currency-driven events to explain to your executives. First, the European Central Bank last week threw down the red carpet for Greek lenders, so the dollar dived and stocks soared on changes to perceived risk and anticipated further global currency-printing. On Halloween, Japan intervened to weaken the yen by buying other currencies, so the dollar strengthened (less supply, same demand) and markets plunged. On Nov 1, fear of setbacks on the Greece deal drove risk managers back to the dollar, pushing it up and stocks down more.

US markets should be proxies for fundamental value and forward multiples of collective corporate cash flows. Not meters for currency fluctuations. Happy Halloween.

Speaking of meters, there is Tom Peterffy, immigrant, billionaire, and architect of automated trading. Peterffy ranked 236th on Forbes’ list of the 400 richest in 2009, fruits of long labor revolutionizing how stocks trade. Peterffy, founder of Timber Hill and Interactive Brokers, pioneers in automated multi-asset-class electronic trading, believes automated trading goes too far. (more…)

Outrage in the Dark

Observe. Orient. Decide. Act. OODA.

This is how Pipeline Trading describes its predictive analytics for helping buyside customers identify large-block trading opportunities.

For those of you who missed the news that rocked The Street this week, Pipeline, a dark pool, was fined $1 million by the SEC for misleading clients about the nature of its liquidity.

Were you harmed? Check to see if your shares trade at Pipeli—

Oh. You can’t. It’s a dark pool. You don’t know if your shares trade there unless Pipeline’s orders route to your listing exchange.

Of Pipeline, SEC Enforcement Director Robert Khuzami said in a statement: “Investors are entitled to accurate information as to how their trades are executed.”

Pipeline offers a platform where institutional customers like mutual funds can find “natural liquidity,” or real orders from other buysiders. What’s more, Pipeline provides execution algorithms that mimic how high-frequency traders try to project price and volume in order to place profitable trades ahead of moves. If the buyside can beat HFT at its own game, then instead of being victimized, it can also generate alpha – market-beating returns on trades. (more…)

Did you see the Nicole Kidman film ten years ago called The Others?

A woman becomes convinced her house is haunted. In case you’ve not seen it, I’ll save the twist, but it’s the twist that matters. Things are not as they seem.

Crack WSJ markets writer Tom Lauricella asked in a page one article Oct 18 if markets are cracked. Traders he surveyed said building positions in stocks is getting harder. Liquidity is thin. Spreads are rising. Getting trades done – completing an order to buy or sell shares within projected price ranges – is challenging now in the most liquid names.

In the movie The Others, the problem is perspective. The answer to what’s going on depends on how you look at it. Since we’re limited by the camera and the perspective of the central characters, the reality of the problem doesn’t manifest itself till near the end.

In markets, it seems like liquidity is the problem. But what if it’s a matter of perspective? Classically, liquidity is capital. Today it’s somebody on the other side of the trade. Are they the same? No. What’s on the other side of most trades? A machine. Why is it there? Incentives. It’s not there because it’s committing capital. It’s there because it’s paid to be there. (more…)

We’re late this week due to celebrations around the anniversary of the rebellion from the Crown. We played croquet, appropriately and cheekily British we thought (no offense to our good friends and former overlords across the pond). Croquet has actual rules we learned.

Sunday, Karen and I loaded the bikes and set out with good friend Jeffrey to conquer the passage between two of Colorado’s tall “fourteeners” named Princeton and Harvard. We rode from the Arkansas Valley floor at 8,000 feet up Cottonwood Pass (which sounds like “cotton whupass”) from Buena Vista to the summit at 12,126 feet and a stunning view of the fruited plain.

Choosing a route from point A to point B had me thinking about stock trades (you do this long enough, that’ll happen to you too). Stock trades must have routes. Sometimes it happens automatically. Whether orders for shares in your stock meet their matches internally at Barclays or by dint of timing, routing, pricing and chance at Susquehanna’s dark pool, RiverCross, often is a matter of routing. Even online brokers afford ways to route trades now. (more…)