Tagged: Market Structure

The Fortress

Happy birthday to Karen Quast! My beloved treasure, the delight of my soul, turns an elegant calendar page today. It’s my greatest privilege to share life with her.

Not only because she tolerates my market-structure screeds.

Speaking of which, I’m discussing market structure today at noon ET with Joe Saluzzi of Themis Trading and Mett Kinak from T Rowe Price. In an hour you’ll mint a goldmine of knowledge.  Don’t miss it.

A citadel by definition is a fortress.  I think of the one in Salzburg, Austria, the Hohensalzburg castle perched on the Salzach, “Salt River” in German, for when salt mined in Austria moved by barge.  We rode bikes there and loved the citadel.

It’s a good name for a hedge fund, is Citadel. We were in San Francisco last week and joined investor-relations colleagues for candid interaction with Citadel. IR pros, hedge funds are stock-picking investors capable of competing in today’s market.

Blasphemy?  Alchemy?  I’ve gone daft?

No, it’s market structure. Exchange Traded Funds (ETFs) have proliferated at the expense of what we call in the IR profession “long-only” investors, conventional Active managers buying stocks but not shorting them.

Since 2007 when Regulation National Market System transformed the stock market into a sea of changing stock-prices around averages, assets have fled Active funds for Passive ones.  ETF assets since 2009 have quadrupled, an unmatched modern asset-class boom.

Underperformance has fueled the flight from the core IR audience of “long-onlys.” Returns minus management fees for pricey stock-pickers trails tracking a benchmark. So funds like SPY, the ETF mirroring the S&P 500 from State Street, win assets.

Why would a mindless model beat smart stock-pickers versed in financial results? As we’ve written, famous long-only manager Ron Baron said if you back out 15 stocks from the 2,500 he’s owned since the early 80s, his returns are pedestrian. Average.

That’s 1%. Smart stock-pickers can still win by finding them.

But. Why are 99% of stocks average? Data show no such uniformity in financial results. We come to why IR must embrace hedge funds in the 21st century.

Long-onlys are “40 Act” pooled investments with custodial assets spent on a thesis meant to beat the market.  Most of these funds must be fully invested. That is, 90% of the money raised from shareholders must be spent.  To buy, they most times must first sell.

Well, these funds have seen TRILLIONS OF DOLLARS the past decade leave for ETFs and indexes (and bonds, and target-date mixed funds). Most are net sellers, not buyers.

Let’s not blindly chase competitively disadvantaged and vanishing assets. That confuses busy with productive. And “action” isn’t getting more of the shrinking stock-picking pie.

First, understand WHY ETFs are winning:

  • ETFs don’t hold custodial assets for shareholders. No customer accounts, no costs associated with caring for customers like stock-pickers support.
  • They don’t pay commissions on trades. ETFs are created and redeemed in large off-market blocks (averaging $26 million a pop, as we explained).
  • They don’t pay taxes.  ETFs are created and redeemed tax-free through in-kind exchanges.
  • ETFs avoid the volatility characterizing the stock market, which averages about 3% daily in the Russell 3000, by creating and redeeming ETFs off-market.
  • And fifth, to me the biggest, stock-market rules force trades toward average prices. All stocks must trade between the best bid to buy and offer to sell. The average.

So.  Stocks are moved by rule toward their average prices. Some few buck it.  Stock-pickers must find that 1%. Money tracking benchmarks picks the 99% that are average. Who’s got the probability advantage?

Now add in the other four factors. Who wins?  ETFs. Boom! Drop the mic.

Except dropping the mic defies market rules prohibiting discrimination against any constituency – such as stock-pickers and issuers.

SEC, are you listening? Unless you want all stocks to become ETF collateral, and all prices to reflect short-term flipping, and all money to own substitutes for stocks, you should stop. What. You. Are. Doing.

Back to Citadel. The Fortress. They admit they’re market neutral – 50% long and short. They use leverage, yes. Real economic reach isn’t $32 billion. It’s $90 billion.

But they’re stock-pickers, with better genes. Every analyst is covering 25-55 stocks, each modeled meticulously by smart people. Whether long or short they meter every business in the portfolio. Even analysts have buy-sell authority (don’t poo-poo the analysts!). And they’re nimble. Dry powder. Agile in shifting market sand.

They can compete with the superiority modern market structure unfairly affords ETFs.

So. Understand market structure. Build relationships with hedge funds. This is the future for our profession. It’s not long-onlys, folks. They’re bleeding on the wall of the fortress. And don’t miss today’s panel.

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.

Bad News

Markets swoon and again comes a hunt for why, because news offered no warning. The news has bad data, which makes for bad news. ModernIR warned. More shortly.

Meanwhile in Steamboat Springs the slopes are painted the palette of Thanksgiving, and a road leads to paradise.

We were in New York with the United Nations last week. Well, not with them. Navigating around them. On foot. We walked fifteen miles over two days of meetings. Trump Tower looked like a siege camp, loaded dump trucks lining the front and frantic 5th Avenue closed to traffic and so quiet you could stroll to the middle and snap a photo.

Wednesday we railed with Amtrak into Washington DC’s Union Station, and Thursday and Friday we trooped with the NIRI contingent up Capitol Hill. Strange time. The halls of congressional buildings Longworth and Rayburn vibrated in partisan division.

NIRI is flexing muscle, however. We had 50 people scattered through more than 30 legislative visits, and the SEC told us, “You’ve brought an impressive number!”

Numbers matter.  We keep that up and we might change the world. So next year, come along! NIRI CEO Gary LaBranche and team deserve all credit for ratcheting up our reach to regulators and legislators.

Now to the data that makes the news look bad. Last week in our piece called Curtains, we explained how market structure leads headlines around by the nose. Yes, news may be the feather that tilts a domino. But it’s not The Big Why.

Structural conditions must first permit daily chatter to move markets. Thus news one day is “stocks are down on trade fears,” and when they rebound as quickly, they’re “up on easing trade fears.”

We’re told the Dow Industrials dropped 340 points yesterday because the ISM Manufacturing Index dipped to a decade low. That index has been falling for months and slipped to contraction in late August. Yet the S&P 500 rose last month.

Anyone can check historical data. The ISM Index routinely bounced from negative (more than now) to positive during the go-go manufacturing days of the 1950s when the USA was over 50% of global output. It was lower routinely in the booming 1980s and 1990s. It was lower in the post-Internet-bubble economic high.

Lesson? Manufacturing moves in cycles. Maybe the data mean the cycle is shortening, as it did in past boom periods. You can see the long-range data here, courtesy of Quandl.

There’s rising and worrisome repetition of news that’s wrong about what’s behind market-moves. Many trust it for reasons, policy, direction. Decisions thus lack footing.

A year ago, ModernIR warned clients about collapsing ETF data in latter September related to the creation of the new Communication Services sector. The market rolled over. Headlines blamed sudden slowing global growth.

Since that headline splashed over the globe, US stocks have posted the best three quarters since 1997. But not before pundits blamed the 20% drop last December on impending recession and monetary policy.

Stocks surged in January 2019, regaining all the media blamed on what never happened.

Why don’t we expect more from the people informing capital markets? Shouldn’t they know market structure? If you get our Sector Insights reports (ask us how), you know what the data said could happen.

For the week ended September 27, selling outpaced buying across all eleven sectors two-to-one. Not a single sector had net buying. Staples, the best performer with gains of 2.7%, got them on outliers only. The sector had one buying day, four selling days, last week.

We asked: Could all that selling land with a splat in early October?

Remember, liquidity is so paltry – now 20% worse than in Sep 2018 – that what got on the elevator (so to speak) last week got off this week, leading the news, which watches the wrong data, to incorrect conclusions.

We saw a bigger behavioral change for ETFs last week than in late Sep 2018. I’ll ask again: If the data signal selling, or buying, and the data predicts where news reacts, why isn’t everyone, especially pundits, watching that data?

Are you?

If you’ve never seen market structure analytics, ask us. It’s the vital predictive signal now. That’s good news rather than bad.

Reality Disconnect

In 1975, there were no electronic exchanges in the United States.  Now the average S&P 500 component trades electronically 17,000 times daily in 134-share increments totaling a mean of $500 million of stock.

Yet public companies still have a 1975 standard of shareholder disclosure from the SEC, called 13F filings, referencing the section of the Securities Act with instructions for investment advisors of specified size to report positions 45 days after each quarter-end.

It’s a reality disconnect. Retaining this standard says to executive teams and boards for public companies that “regulators and legislators want you to believe this is what’s driving your share-value.”

You can’t believe what the market is telling you on a given day, let alone over a quarter. We’ll come to that.

In 1975, there were no Exchange Traded Funds, no Fast Traders.  The first index fund open to the public launched Dec 31, 1975, from Vanguard, with $11 million of assets.

Today, index investing has surpassed active stock-picking in the US for assets under management. ETFs are the phenomenon of the era, with growth surpassing anything modern markets have ever seen. There is one ETF for each Russell 1000 stock now.

Total US market capitalization is more than $30 trillion, and 1% of it trades every day – over $300 billion of stock. By our measures, ETFs are responsible for roughly 60% directly or indirectly. ETFs are priced by arbitrage. Arbitrage blurs delineation between Fast Traders and ETF “market-makers.” Both make trade decisions in 10 nanoseconds.

None of this money we’ve just highlighted pays attention to earnings calls or reads 10-Ks and 10-Qs or press releases.  It’s rules-based investing. Asset allocation. Trading.

As money has shifted tectonically from Active to Passive, regulatory and disclosure costs for public companies – to serve Active investors – have gone the opposite direction.

We estimate costs related to quarterly and annual reporting, associated public reviews and audits, and Sarbanes-Oxley and Dodd-Frank and other regulations total $5-6 billion annually. For the roughly 3,400 companies traded nationally, investor-relations budgets consumed by communications tools, travel, reports and services are $3-4 billion.

Unless the point of regulation is busywork, the rules are confusing busy with productive. As the money ceases to listen – there’s been a diaspora of sellside analysts from Wall Street to the IR chair because the buyside has gone passive – the chatter from companies has exponentiated.

The Securities Act says no constituency of the national market system including issuers is to be discriminated against. Failing to modernize data to reflect reality is a disconnect.

Summing up, public companies, beset by a leviathan load of regulatory costs for investors, which are moving in math-driven waves and microseconds, wait to see what funds file 13F records of shareholdings 45 days after the end of each quarter.

There’s more.  The average stock has four distinct trading patterns per month, meaning traders unwind and return, funds rebalance, derivatives bets wax and wane, in 20 trading days. Not over a quarter.

About 45% of all trading volume is borrowed. Another 45% comes from Fast Trading machines (with heavy overlap as machines are automated borrowers) that close out 99% of positions before the trading day ends.

All told, 87% of market volume comes from something other than stock-picking. The disclosure standard supposes – because it dates to 1975 – that all volume is rational.

The reality disconnect is so bad now that machines look like humans. As we wrote last week, the whole of financial punditry has been caught up in a vast reputed momentum-to-value shift.

Except it didn’t happen.

Sure, momentum stocks plunged while value stocks surged.  Yet as this story from Marketwatch yesterday notes (I’m a source here too), AAPL is a core component of flying value indices.  Isn’t AAPL a growth stock?

Here’s the kicker.  The principal reason for swooning momentum and soaring value was a rush by Fast Trading machines that spread through markets, and a corresponding short-squeeze for ETF market-makers, which routinely borrow everything but were caught out in ripping spreads between ETFs and component stocks.

What if today’s Federal Reserve monetary policy decisions reflect belief money has shifted to value?  What if investment decisions are incorrectly recalibrated?  What if observers falsely suppose growth is slowing and crow anew about impending recession?

The market is disconnected from 13Fs. How about modernizing them, regulators? I’ll be going to Capitol Hill and the SEC with the NIRI delegation next week to make this case.

Meanwhile, be wary of markets. The Fed was intervening yesterday and likely cuts rates today by 25-50 basis points, just as volatility expirations hit now, and before a raft of stock, index, ETF, currency, Treasury and interest-rate derivatives expire through Friday. And Market Sentiment is topped.

Maybe it’s nothing. But if the market rolls, there are data-driven reasons.  And it’s about time disclosures took a leap forward past the reality disconnect for public companies.

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.

 

Unstoppable

Any of you Denzel Washington fans?

He starred in a 2010 movie loosely based on real events called Unstoppable, about a runaway freight train (I have Tom Petty’s “Runaway Train” going through my head).

In a way, the market has the appearance of an unstoppable force, a runaway train.  On it goes, unexpectedly, and so pundits, chuckling uncomfortably, try to explain why.

Tellingly, however, in the past month, JP Morgan said 80% of market volume is on autopilot, driven by passive and systematic flows.  Goldman Sachs held a conference call for issuers on what’s driving stock-prices – focusing on market structure. Jefferies issued a white paper called When the Market Moves the Market (thank you, alert readers, for those!).

We’ve been talking about market structure for almost 15 years (writing here on it since 2006). We’re glad some big names are joining us. You skeptics, if you don’t believe us, will you believe these banks?

Market structure has seized control. Stock pickers say the market always reflects expectations.  Well, stocks are at records even as expectations for corporate earnings predict a recession – back-to-back quarterly profit-declines.

There’s more. Last week the S&P 500 rose 0.8%, pushing index gains to 9.3% total since the end of May. But something that may be lost on most: The S&P 500 is up less than 2.5% since last September. The bane of stock-investing is volatility – changing prices.

Hedge funds call that uncompensated risk. The market has given us three straight quarters of stomach-lurching roller coasters of risk. For a 2.5% gain?

We all want stocks to rise!  Save shorts and volatility traders.  The point is that we should understand WHY the market does what it does. When it’s behaving unexpectedly, we shouldn’t shrug and say, “Huh. Wonder what that’s about?”

It’s akin to what humorist Dave Barry said you can do when your car starts making a funny noise:  Turn the radio up.

Let me give you another weird market outtake.  We track composite quantitative data on stocks clustered by sector (and soon by industry, and even down to selected peers).  That is, we run central tendencies, averages, for stocks comprising industries.

Last week, Consumer Discretionary stocks were best, up 1.5%. The sector SPDR (XLY, the State Street ETF) was up 2% (a spread of 33% by the way). Yet sector stocks had more selling than buying every day but Friday last week.

You know the old investor-relations joke:  “Why is our stock down today?”

“Because we had more sellers than buyers.”

Now stocks are UP on more selling than buying.

An aside before I get to the punchline:  ETF flows are measured in share creations and redemptions. More money into ETFs? More ETF shares are created.  Except there were $50 billion more ETF shares created than redeemed in December last year when the market fell 20%.

The market increasingly cannot be trusted to tell us what’s occurring, because the mechanics of it – market structure – are poorly understood by observers. ETFs act more like currencies than stocks because they replace stocks. They don’t invest in stocks (and they can be created and shorted en masse).

With the rise of ETFs, Fast Trading machines, shorting, derivatives, the way the market runs cannot be seen through the eyes of Benjamin Graham.

Last week as the S&P 500 rose, across the eleven industry groups into which it’s divided there were 28 net selling days, and 27 net buying days (11 sectors, five days each).

How can Consumer Discretionary stocks rise on net selling? How can the market rise on net selling? Statistical samples. ETFs and indexes don’t trade everything. They buy or sell a representative group – say 10 out of a hundred.

(Editorial note: listen to five minutes of commentary on Sector Insights, and if you’re interested in receiving them, let us know.)

So, 90 stocks could be experiencing outflows while the ten on which this benchmark or that index rests for prices today have inflows, and major measures, sector ETFs, say the market is up when it’s the opposite.

Market Structure Sentiment™, our behavioral index, topped on July 12, right into option-expirations today through Friday.  On Monday in a flat market belying dyspepsia below the surface, we saw massive behavioral change suggesting ETFs are leaving.

Stay with me. We’re headed unstoppably toward a conclusion.

From Jan 1-May 31 this year, ETFs were less volatile than stocks every week save one. ETFs are elastic, and so should be less volatile. Suddenly in the last six weeks, ETFs are more volatile than stocks, a head-scratcher.

Mechanics would see these as symptoms of failing vehicle-performance. Dave Barry would turn the radio up.  None of us wants an Unstoppable train derailing into the depot.  We can avoid trouble by measuring data and recognizing when it’s telling us things aren’t working right.

Investors and public companies, do you want to know when you’re on a runaway train?

The Canary

For a taste of July 4 in a mountain town, featuring boy scouts serving pancakes, a camel amongst horses, sand crane dancers, and Clyde the glad hound, click here.  Americana.

Meanwhile back in the coal mine of the stock market, the canary showed up.

We first raised concern about the possible failure of a major prime broker in 2014. By “prime,” we mean a firm large enough to facilitate big transactions by supplying global trading capacity, capital, advice and strategy.

We homed in on mounting risk at HSBC and Deutsche Bank.

Last weekend Deutsche Bank announced an astonishing intention:  It will eliminate global equity trading and 18,000 jobs. It’s a long-range effort, the bank says, with targeted conclusion in 2022.

But will a bank erasing the foundation of investment-banking, cash equities, retain key people and core customers? Doubtful. In effect, one of the dozen largest market-makers for US stocks is going away.

It matters to public companies and investors because the market depends on but a handful of firms for market-efficiency in everything from US Treasurys, to stocks, to derivatives, and corporate bonds.

And Exchange Traded Funds.  Industry sources say over 80% of creations and redemptions in ETF shares are handled by ten firms. We don’t know precise identities of the ten because this market with over $300 billion of monthly transactions is a black box to investors, with no requirement that fund sponsors disclose which brokers support them.

We know these so-called “Authorized Participants” must be self-clearing members of the Federal Reserve system, which shrinks the pool of possibilities to about 40, including Deutsche Bank, which hired an ETF trading legend, Chris Hempstead, in 2017.

It’s possible others may fill the void. But you have to be an established firm to compete, due to rigorous regulatory requirements.

For instance, brokers executing trades for customers must meet a stout “best execution” mandate that orders be filled a large percentage of the time at the best marketwide prices. That standard is determined by averages across aggregate order flow dominated in US markets by yet again ten firms (we presume the same ones), including Deutsche Bank.

It’s exceedingly difficult to shoulder in.  The great bulk of the 4,000 or so brokers overseen by Finra, the industry regulator, send their trades to one of these ten because the rest cannot consistently achieve the high required standard.

So the elite club upon which rests the vast apparatus of financial markets just shrank by about 10%.

Already the market is susceptible to trouble because it’s like a soccer stadium with only a handful of exits.  That’s no problem when everyone is inside.  But getting in or out when all are in a rush is dangerous, as we saw in Feb 2018 and Dec 2019, with markets swooning double digits in days.

Let’s go back to a basic market-structure concept.  The “stock market” isn’t a place. It’s a data network of interconnected alcoves and eddies.  What’s more, shares don’t reside inside it.  The supply must continuously be brought to it by brokers.

Picture a farmers’ market with rows of empty stalls. When you move in front of one, suddenly products materialize, a vendor selling you goat’s milk soap. You go to the next blank space and instantly it’s a bakery stand with fresh croissants.  As you move along, contents vanish again.

That’s how the stock market works today under the mandatory market-making model imposed by Regulation National Market System. High-speed traders and gigantic brokerage firms are racing around behind the booths and stands at extreme speeds rushing croissants and goat’s milk soap around to be in front of you when you appear.

The network depends on the few.  We have long theorized that one big threat to this construct is its increasing dependency on a handful of giant firms. In 2006, a large-cap stock would have over 200 firms making markets – running croissants to the stand.

Today it’s less than a hundred, and over 95% of volume concentrates consistently at just 30 firms, half of them dealers with customers, the other half proprietary trading firms, arbitragers trading inefficiencies amid continuous delivery of croissants and goat’s milk soap – so to speak – at the public bazaar.

We said we’ll know trouble is mounting when one of the major players fails. Deutsche Bank hasn’t failed per se, but you don’t close a global equity trading business without catastrophic associated losses behind the scenes. The speedy supply chain failed.

Why? I think it’s ETFs. These derivatives – that’s what they are – depend on arbitrage, or profiting on different prices for the same thing, for prices. Arbitrage creates winners and losers, unlike investment occurring as growing firms attract more capital.

As arbitrage losers leave, or rules become harder to meet, the market becomes thinner even as the obligations looming over it mount.

We are not predicting disaster. We are identifying faults in the structure. These will be the cause of its undoing at some point ahead.  We’ve seen the canary.

 

In Control

This is what Steamboat Springs looked like June 21, the first day of summer (yes, that’s a snow plow).

Before winter returned, we were hiking Emerald Mountain there and were glad the big fella who left these tracks had headed the other way (yes, those are Karen’s shoes on the upper edge, for a size comparison).

A setup for talking about a bear market?  No.  But there are structural facts you need to know.  Such as why are investor-relations goals for changes to the shareholder base hard to achieve?

We were in Chicago seeing customers and one said, “Some holders complain we’re underperforming our peers because we don’t have the right shareholder mix. We develop a plan to change it.  We execute our outreach. When we compare outcomes to goals after the fact, we’ve not achieved them.”

Why?

The cause isn’t a failure of communication. It’s market structure.  First, many Active funds have had net outflows over the last decade as money shifted from expensive active management to inexpensive passive management.

It’s trillions of dollars.  And it means stock-pickers are often sellers, not buyers.

As the head of equities for a major fund complex told me, “Management teams come to see my analysts and tell the story, but we’ve got redemptions.  We’re not buying stocks. We’re selling them. And getting into ETFs.”

Second, conventional funds are by rule fully invested.  To buy something they must sell something else.  It’s hard business now.  While the average trade size rose the past two weeks from about 155 shares to 174 shares, it’s skewed by mega caps.  MRK is right at the average.  But FDX’s average trade size is 89 shares.  I saw a company yesterday averaging 45 shares per trade.

Moving 250,000 shares 45 at a time is wildly inefficient. It also means investors are continually contending with incorrect prices. Stocks quote in 100-share increments. If they trade in smaller fractions, there’s a good chance it’s not at the best displayed price.

That’s a structural problem that stacks the deck against active stock pickers, who are better off using Exchange Traded Funds (ETFs) that have limitless supply elasticity (ETFs don’t compete in the market for stocks. All stock-movement related to creating and redeeming ETF shares occurs off-market in giant blocks).

Speaking of market-structure (thank you, Joe Saluzzi), the Securities Traders Association had this advice for issuers:  Educate yourself on the market and develop a voice.

Bottom line, IR people, you need to understand how your stock trades and what its characteristics are, so you and your executive team and the board remain grounded in the reality of what’s achievable in a market dominated by ETFs.

Which brings us to current market structure.  Yesterday was “Counterparty Tuesday” when banks true up books related to options expiring last week and new ones that traded Monday.  The market was down because demand for stocks and derivatives from ETFs was off a combined 19% the past week versus 20-day averages.

It should be up, not down.

Last week was quad-witching when stock and index options and futures lapsed. S&P indexes rebalanced for the quarter. There was Phase III of the annual Russell reconstitution, which concludes Friday. Quarterly window-dressing should be happening now, as money tracking any benchmark needs to true up errors by June 28.

Where’d the money go?

If Passive money declines, the market could tip over. We’re not saying it’s bound to happen.  More important than the composition of an index is the amount of money pegged to it – trillions with the Russells (95% of it the Russell 1000), even more for S&P indices.

In that vein, last week leading into quad witching the lead behavior in every sector was Fast Trading.  Machines, not investors, drove the S&P 500 up 2.2%, likely counting on Passive money manifesting (as we did).

If it doesn’t, Fast Traders will vanish.

Summing up, we need to know what’s within our control.  Targeting investors without knowing market structure is like a farmer cutting hay without checking the weather report.  You can’t control the weather. You control when you cut hay – to avoid failure.

The same applies to IR (and investing, for that matter) in modern markets.

Dragon Market

As the market fell yesterday like a dragon from the sky (Game of Throners, the data are not good on dragon longevity now), 343 companies reported results, 10% of all firms.

Market fireworks were blamed yet again on tariff fears. Every tantrum is the Fed or tariffs it seems, even with hundreds publishing earnings. What happened to the idea that results drive markets?

Speaking of data, on May 6, the market first plunged like a bungee jumper off a bridge – and then caromed back up to a nonevent.

Behind the move, 21% of companies had new Rational Prices – Active money leading other behaviors and buying. That’s more than twice the year-long average of about 9% and the third-highest mark over the entire past year.

Talk about buying the dip. Smart money doesn’t see tariffs as threats to US interests (and likes the economic outlook, and likes corporate financial results). We’ve been using them to fund government since the Hamilton Tariffs of 1789.

So if not tariffs, why did stocks fall?

Before I tell you what the data show: Come to the NIRI Annual Conference, friends and colleagues. I’m moderating a panel the first day featuring hedge-fund legend Lee Cooperman, market-structure expert and commentator Joe Saluzzi, and SEC head of Trading and Markets Brett Redfearn.

We’ll talk about the good and bad in market-evolution the past 50 years and what’s vital to know now.  Sign up here.

IR folks, you’re the chief intelligence officer for capital markets. Your job is more than telling the story. It’s time to lead your executive team and board to better understand the realities driving your equity value, from Exchange Traded Funds to shorting and event-driven trends. It’s how we remain relevant.

Before you report results, you should know what the money that’s about you, your story, your results, your strategy, is doing – and what the rest of it is doing too. 

Take LYFT, which reported yesterday for the first time. Just 8% of LYFT volume is from Active Investment. By contrast about 22% is quantitative event-driven money, and over 58% is fast machines trading the tick. The balance ties to derivatives.

From that data, one can accurately extrapolate probable outcomes (ask us for your Market Expectation, or LYFT’s, and we’ll show you).

Every IR team should be arming its board and executives with a view of all the money, not just musing on how core holders may react – which is generally not at all.

And investors, if you’re focused only on fundamentals without respect to market structure, you’ll get burned.  I can rattle off a long list of companies beating and raising whose shares fell. The reasons aren’t rational but arbitrage-driven.

Having kept you in the dark like a Game of Thrones episode, let’s throw light on the data behind the late equity swoon: Always follow the money (most in financial media are not).

ETFs are 50% of market volume.  There have been $1.4 trillion (estimating for Apr and May) of ETF shares created and redeemed in 2019 already.

ETF shares are collateralized with stocks, but ETFs do not pool investor assets to buy stocks. In exchange for tax-free collateral, they trade to brokers the right to create ETF shares to sell to investors. The collateral is baskets of stocks – that they own outright.

The motivation, the profit opportunity, for that collateral has got nothing to do with tariffs or earnings or the economy. It’s more like flipping houses.

An Invesco PowerShares rep quipped to one of our team, “You see that coffee cup? I’d take that as collateral if I could flip it for a penny.”

ETF sponsors and brokers in very short cycles flip ETF shares and collateral. As with real estate where it works

Tech Sector Composite Stocks — Behavioral Data

great until houses start to fall in value, the market craters when all the parties chasing collateral try to get out at once (and it happens suddenly).

ETF patterns for the top year-to-date sector, Tech, are elongated way beyond normal parameters (same for two of three other best YTD sectors). It suggests ETFs shares have been increasing without corresponding rises in collateral.

With the market faltering, there’s a dash to the door to profit on collateral before the value vanishes. One thing can trigger it. A tweet? Only if a move down in stocks threatens to incinerate – like a dragon – the value of collateral.

How important is that for IR teams, boards, executives and investors to understand?

Driverless Market

Suppose you were human resources director for a fleet of driverless taxis.

As Elon Musk proposes streets full of autonomous autos, the market has become that fleet for investors and investor-relations professionals.  The market drives itself. What we measure as IR professionals and investors should reflect a self-driving market.

There’s nothing amiss with the economy or earnings. About 78% of companies reporting results so far this quarter, FactSet says, are beating expectations, a tad ahead of the long-term average of 72%.

But a closer look shows earnings unchanged from a year ago. In February last year with the market anticipating earnings goosed by the corporate tax cut of 2017, stocks plunged, and then lurched in Q3 to heights we’re now touching anew, and then nosedived in the fourth quarter.

An honest assessment of the market’s behavior warrants questioning whether the autonomous vehicle of the market has properly functioning sensors. If a Tesla sped down the road and blew a stop sign and exploded, it would lead all newscasts.

No matter the cacophony of protestations I might hear in response to this assertion, there is no reasonable, rational explanation for the fourth-quarter stock-implosion and its immediate, V-shaped hyperbolic restoration. Sure, stocks rise and fall (and will do both ahead). But these inexplicable bursts and whooshes should draw scrutiny.

Investor-relations professionals, you are the HR director for the driverless fleet. You’re the chief intelligence officer of the capital markets, whose job encompasses a regular assessment of market sensors.

One of the sensors is your story.  But you should consistently know what percentage of the driving instructions directing the vehicle are derived from it.  It’s about 12% marketwide, which means 88% of the market’s navigational data is something else.

Investors, the same applies. The market is as ever driven by its primary purpose, which is determined not by guesses, theory or tradition, but by what dominates price-setting.  In April, the dominating behavior is Exchange-Traded Funds.  Active investment was third of four big behaviors, ahead only of Fast Trading (curious, as Fast Traders avoid risk).

ETF shares are priced by spreads versus underlying stocks. Sure, investors buy them thinking they are consuming pooled investments (they’re not). But the motivation driving ETFs is whether they increase or decrease in price marginally versus stocks.

ETF market-makers supply stocks to a sponsor like Blackrock, which grants them authority to create an equal value of ETF shares to sell into the market. They aim to sell ETFs for a few basis points more than the value of exchanged shares.

The trade works in reverse when the market-maker borrows ETF shares to return to Blackrock in exchange for a group of stocks that are worth now, say, 50 basis points more than the stocks the market-maker originally offered.

If a market-maker can turn 30-50 basis points of profit per week this way, it’s a wildly winning, no-risk strategy. And it can and does carry the market on its updraft. We see it in patterns.

If it’s happening to your stock, IR professionals, it’s your job to know. Investors, you must know too, or you’ll draw false conclusions about the durability of cycles.

Big Market Lesson #1 in 2019: Learn how to measure behaviors. They’re sensors. Watch what’s driving your stock and the market higher (or lower – and yes, we have a model).

Speaking of learning, IR people, attend the 50th Anniversary NIRI Annual Conference. We have awesome content planned for you, including several not-to-be-missed market-structure sessions on hedge funds, the overall market, and ETFs.  Listen for a preview here and see the conference agenda here.  Sign up before May 15 for the best rate.

Big Market Lesson #2: Understand what stops a driverless market.

ETF-led rallies stall when the spread disappears. We have a sensor for that at ModernIR, called Market Structure Sentiment™ that meters when machines stop lifting or lowering prices.

It’s a 10-point scale that must remain over 5.0 for shares to rise. It’s averaged 6.2 since Jan 8 and has not been negative since. When it stalls, so will stocks, without respect to earnings or any other fundamental sensor.

I look forward to driverless cars. But we’ll want perfected technology before trusting them. The same should apply to a driverless stock market.