Tagged: Maker Taker

Making Water

If someone says he’s going to make water, it means one thing.  If he says he’s providing liquidity, it means another.  We should clear (and perhaps clean) that up.

In the stock market, some firms call themselves “liquidity providers.” The term suggests they’re creating something somebody else needs (here we depart sharply from making water). Liquidity by definition is the availability of assets to a market. Providing assets is important, helpful and benign, it would seem.

Hudson River Trading, one of the biggest liquidity providers (the terms high-frequency trader and liquidity-provider can be interchangeable), said in its last 13f it had 64 positions, the largest at $32 million in the exchange-traded S&P 500 fund SPY, leading a baker’s dozen ETFs topping its holdings. The biggest stock position was XOM at $1.5 million or 19,000 shares. A retail investor could own as much. Hudson River trades thousands of securities and millions of shares daily. If one could see its short positions, I bet the two would about cancel out. Effectively, zero assets.

If liquidity is availability of assets, how do you deliver assets when you don’t own any?

The NYSE enlists the help of a group it calls Supplemental Liquidity Providers (scroll to see them). SLPs, the exchange says, “trade only for their proprietary accounts, not for public customers or on an agency basis.” In its fee schedule the NYSE says it pays SLPs $0.06-$0.30 per hundred shares.

Did you catch that? The NYSE pays firms to supply liquidity but only proprietary trades – their own orders – qualify. The traders it’s paying are just like Hudson River. If the NYSE isn’t paying them to bring assets, the only other thing they can offer of value to the exchange is prices.  And setting prices is really arbitrage.

The Nasdaq does the same thing.  It pays traders around $0.31 per hundred shares to “add liquidity.” We’ve written for years about the system of incentives in the stock market. It’s called the “maker-taker model” because buying and selling are treated differently, not as the same activity.  Search our blog for “maker taker” for more and read this one.

Are there auto parts liquidity providers?  Grocery liquidity providers? There are automobile distributors, yes, who buy inventory wholesale from manufacturers. But they sell to the public and fold service, financing and support into the customer experience.

Broker-dealers like Citigroup or Raymond James that sell shares to investors write research, commit capital, provide trading services and account management, underwrite offerings, syndicate financings.  You won’t know the names of many equity liquidity providers. Most offer no services and have no customers.

What’s the value?  Little for you, issuers and investors. They are price-setters for exchanges, which in turn are data-sellers. Best prices are valuable data. The REST of the market participants with customers (humans and software systems alike register as brokers) must by law buy data about the best prices to make sure customers get them.

It’s perverse. Exchanges pay traders with no purpose save arbitrage – which call themselves liquidity providers – to set prices for anyone who actually IS a real buyer or seller. Sound to you like making water into the wind? Yup. But to quote humorist Dave Barry, we’re not making any of this up.

Compensation Model

What do you get paid to do?

That’s the question the SEC may soon pose to high-frequency traders, according to a story from Bloomberg yesterday.

“The maker-taker compensation model is very much in the core of what our market structure review folks are looking at,” said SEC Chair Mary Jo White.

If you’re the CFO or investor-relations officer for a public company, you should want an answer too. Because there’s belief silence from public companies about market structure indicates agreement.

Suppose I said, “In one minute, describe your business, its key drivers and how you differentiate yourself for investors.”  I bet most of you could.

What if I asked, “How do your shares trade and where, who trades them, and how are they priced?”

“I don’t even know what ‘maker-taker’ means,” you might mumble.

It’s convention in IR to ignore the stock but that ethos has led a generation of investor-relations professionals to think they don’t need to know how the stock market functions.

“I don’t want my executives watching the stock,” you say.  “If we run a good business, the rest will take care of itself.”

The largest institutional investors in the US equity market, Blackrock and Vanguard, are asset allocators. They’re not Benjamin Graham, the intelligent investor. They track benchmarks because that’s what they’re paid to do.

Active investors are paid to find good businesses, deals, and yet nearly 90% don’t outperform indexes. Stock-pickers are not less intelligent than mathematical models. But they seek outliers in a market that rewards conformity.

Follow me, here. The biggest investors use models, sending trades through the biggest brokers, which are required to meet “best-execution standards,” a wonky way to say “give investors good results,” which is determined by performance-averages across the market – which are being driven by the biggest investors and their brokers.

Thus Blackrock and Vanguard and their brokers perpetuate standards of conformity created by regulators.  Company story becomes secondary to indexes and Exchange-Traded Funds,  investment vehicles dependent on conformity. (more…)

Take and Make

What if exchanges stopped paying fast traders to set prices? Oh, you didn’t know? Read on.

Off Salt Island in the British Virgins is the wreck of the HMS Rhone, a steamer that sank in an 1867 hurricane.  Even if you’re a snorkeler like me rather than a diver, in the clear BVI water you can see the ribs, the giant drive shaft, the shadowy hulk of a first-rate vessel for its day, 70 feet below the surface.  A storm surprised the Rhone, and after losing an anchor in the channel trying to ride out the squall, the captain ran for open water, unwittingly slamming into the teeth of the tempest.

What’s a 19th century Caribbean wreck got to do with high-frequency trading?  What seems the right thing to do can bring on what you’re trying to avoid by doing it in the first place.

On July 15, Senator Carl Levin called on the Securities and Exchange Commission to end the “maker-taker” fee structure under which exchanges pay traders to sell shares.  I’ve long opposed maker-taker, high-frequency trading and Regulation National Market System.

We have Reg NMS thanks to Congress.  In 1975, that body set in motion today’s HFT flap by inserting Section 11A, the National Market System amendments, into the Securities Act of 1934, and instead of a “free market system,” we had a “national market system.” What a difference one word made.

The legislation mandated a unified electronic tape for stock prices. The NYSE claimed the law took its private property – the data – without due process.  Regulators responded with concessions on how exchanges would set prices for trading. The result: The Consolidated Tape Association (CTA).

Today, the CTA is comprised of the registered US stock exchanges.  Its rules governing quoting and trading determine how exchanges divide roughly $500 million in revenue generated through data that powers stock tickers from Yahoo! Finance to  E*Trade.  If an exchange quotes stocks at the best national bid or offer 50% of the time, and matches 25% of the trades, it gets the lion’s share of data revenue for those stocks. And the more price-setting activity at an exchange, the more valuable their proprietary data products and technology services become. Data has value if it helps traders make pricing decisions.

Here’s where history meets HFT. Reg NMS requires trades to meet at the best price. Exchanges have no shares because they’re not owned by brokers with books of business as in the past. They pay traders to bring shares and trades that create the best prices.  In 2013, NASDAQ OMX paid $1 billion in rebates to generate $385 million of net income.  Subtract revenue from information services and technology solutions ($890 million in 2013, built on pricing data) and NASDAQ OMX loses money.  Prices matter.  NYSE owner Intercontinental Exchange (ICE) opposes maker-taker presumably because it made $550 million in profit without the NYSE in 2012, and half that adding the NYSE in 2013. For a derivatives firm, equities are a tail to wag the dog. (more…)

First Things First

If you’re in a tree sawing off a branch, note which side of it you’re standing on.

The guy studying the branch was Brad Katsuyama, CEO at dark pool IEX, which has designs on exchange-hood. He was speaking along with others before that folksy and fashionable Washington DC club, the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations (you get a titular sense our republic is engaged in perpetual sleuthing – and how do you conclude a hunt when its sponsor is permanent?).

Katsuyama, who called markets “rigged” in Michael Lewis’s Flash Boys, said yesterday, “IEX was created within the current regulatory framework.”

Translation: “We invested big bucks finding a solution that helps investors and complies with rules and we won’t cut off our noses to spite high-speed faces.”

Wait a minute. Doesn’t IEX hate the current framework? For those who’ve not read Flash Boys yet, I won’t spoil it. Ronan Ryan, who earns his own “problem” chapter, entertained a big NIRI National breakout session last week. Karen (beloved spouse and ModernIR COO) thought it was the best one ever at NIRI. Even with the f-bombs.

I’m not knocking IEX! Love ‘em. But a point has been missed. In order to facilitate what should naturally occur – buyers finding sellers – IEX had to perform unnatural acts. Let me rephrase. There are rules governing stock orders. To comply, IEX created the Magic Shoe Box, a 38-mile fiberoptic hampster wheel to neutralize fast-trading’s version of location, location, location.

Why is some crazy Rube Goldberg contraption necessary to structure a market so it appeals to real investors? Today’s equity market defies Occam’s Razor, which at risk of offending you experts on philosophy I’ll dumb down to “simplest is best.” For proof, the outfit heralded with restoring fairness must perform technological gymnastics to achieve it.

Having committed effort to solving a problem that only exists through synthetic warping-by-market-rule, IEX now is in a quandary. It can’t call for an end to something for which it just found a solution.

We here at ModernIR have long decried how arbitrage prices stocks. The role of the consolidated tape in prices, how data revenues are shared among market centers, and what makes data and circuits at exchanges valuable cements that reality. This foundation now underpins the US stock market with its ETFs, its 44% short volume daily, and its tens of trillions of dollars annually.

It may be an SOB. But to paraphrase political leaders of past generations describing distasteful foreign dictators who were allies: it’s our SOB.

The Senate hearing spotlighted “maker-taker,” about which we’ve written much and often. It describes incentives paid to traders to bring their orders to markets. The NYSE is on the record calling for its end.

We remain uncertain if the new owners of the NYSE understand how the market works. Remove incentives at the NYSE, and why would anyone do business there? It’s a marketplace lacking any native orders. It imports 100% of its goods, with rebates.

“Quast has gone round the bend,” you say. “He’s for HFT.”

Not at all! But first things first. Before we outlaw maker-taker (happy to explain what this means – just send me a note), we had better disconnect markets from each other, and remove the requirement that trades match between the best bid and offer. If we don’t, we will have a stunning disaster. Public companies should care about that.

And if the SEC is unprepared to loosen its grip so the market may function as a free one should, where buyers and sellers match at prices within the natural limits of supply and demand, then we best get used to the SOB we’ve got.

Either way, IROs, do you measure markets the way they work now? Monitor behavioral market-shares, short-volume and dynamic fair value. If you’re tracking ownership and moving averages, you’re missing most of what’s actually occurring.

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…)

The World Rocks and Markets Roll

Memo on a 70-point swing: Saturday we hiked the red rocks at the Denver Front Range’s Roxborough Park. It was 62 degrees Fahrenheit. This morning it was ten below zero.

Last Friday I was in Dallas (seventy-five degrees warm) for a trading panel discussion at the NIRI Dallas-Fort Worth chapter. Also Friday, the Market Structure Map from last week on artificial liquidity ran courtesy of Joe Saluzzi at the Themis Trading blog, and at Welling@Weeden, Kate Welling’s respected letter at Weeden & Co. (many thanks to both generous hosts). Today against a rocking backdrop of geopolitical unrest, rising global inflation, commodity uncertainty and cold winter weather, US equities are rolling.

Talk about wild temperature swings. Higher prices are nice. We loved them in home values too five years ago. There is no better way to be cool in the IR chair than riding a hot stock. And most times, your executives think your share price is undervalued.

But don’t you wonder, just a teensy bit, how come the prospect of the Suez Canal disappearing into a dark pool isn’t mildly sobering? We had four clients up 5-7% today, five down a little, and the vast bulk up equal or better than the market. Really? (more…)

Your Volume and the Maker-Taker Model

You’ve heard the saying “six of one, half-dozen of the other?”

The DXY, the spot market for the US dollar, declined 7% in July. Stocks were up 7%. May was a good month for the DXY, which rose from 81 to 87, roughly. May crucified equities and gave us the Flash Crash on the heels of a surge in the value of the dollar.

Is it six of one, half a dozen of the other? The dollar in your pocket loses 7% of its purchasing power versus other currencies in July. Stocks appreciate 7%. Call me simple, but it seems that when a thing you buy is worth more because the thing you buy it with is worth less, that these sort of cancel each other out. (more…)