Tagged: Market Structure

Age of Discovery

Bom Dia!

We returned Monday from Portugal after two fantastic weeks roaming and pedaling this land famed for its explorers. We stood at Cape St. Vincent, once the end of the known world where Vasco da Gama, Ferdinand Magellan and Christopher Columbus sailed off to what many thought was a ride over the edge.

In a sense, the investor-relations and stock-picking professions are at Cape St. Vincent. The market we’ve known, the one driven by business fundamentals, is a spit of rock projecting into a vast sea of unknown currents.  We are explorers on a forbidding shore.

Henry the Navigator, father of the Age of Discovery, challenged fear, superstition and entrenched beliefs to create the Harvard of sailing schools on the barren shoals of Sagres, a stone’s throw south of Cape St. Vincent. From it went intrepid adventurers who by sailing what proved to be a globe laid the cornerstones of today’s flattened earth that’s interconnected economically and culturally.

Speaking of conquering the unknown, I’m paneling for the NIRI Virtual chapter at noon ET today on the impact of Exchange Traded Funds, then tomorrow addressing the Capital Area NIRI group on how ETFs drive the market.

It’s what the money is doing. If as IR professionals we’re to fulfill our responsibilities to inform our boards about important facets of equity valuation, we have to know these things as explorers knew the sextant.

By the same token, investors, if you know only how stocks should be valued bottom-up but not how the market transforms stocks into products and data priced by arbitrage, then you’ll fail to beat the benchmark.  Market Structure is as essential to navigation as was knowing currents and stars and weather patterns for yesteryear’s seafarers.

How do we at ModernIR know we’ve got the right navigational tools for today’s market?  Vasco da Gama combined knowledge and forecasts learned at the School of Navigation to find a passage by sea to India.

We combine knowledge of market rules and the behavior of money with software and mathematical models that project outcomes – passages.  If our knowledge is correct, our sextant will mark a course.

Our models are roughly 93% accurate in forecasting short-term prices across the entire market – a startling achievement. For comparative purposes, moving averages have no measurable statistical capacity to forecast prices, and variances between them and actual prices are factors larger than that in our models. Why use tools that don’t tell you where you’re going?

Ownership-change is a tiny fraction of trading volume. What does it tell you about how your price is set?  Nothing. By contrast, patterns of behavioral change are as stark as waves in Cascais – or the world’s biggest surfers’ waves off Nazare.  We see waves of sector rotation, short-term turns in the market – just like weather patterns.

We’re in an age of discovery. Some will cling to a barren spit of land, doing what they’ve always done. The rest will set a new course to a future of clarity about how stocks are priced and valued and how money behaves.  Which group will you be in?

Hope to see you at a NIRI chapter meeting soon!  And ask us how we can help you navigate the coming earnings season with better tools.

Lab Knowledge

We are finally watching Breaking Bad five years after the most successful basic cable series in television history ended.

It’s symbolic of the era that we’re viewing it via Netflix. And NFLX Market Structure Sentiment is bottomed, and shorts have covered. We’ll come to market structure in a moment because it intersects with Breaking Bad.

Launched in 2008, Breaking Bad is about high school chemistry teacher Walter White, who turns to cooking methamphetamine to cover medical bills. He becomes Heisenberg, king of blue meth.

I won’t give the story away but what sets Walter White apart from the rest of the meth manufacturers is his knowledge of molecular structure. Let’s call it Lab Knowledge.  With lab knowledge, Walter White concocts a narcotic compound that stuns competitors and the Drug Enforcement Agency alike. He produces it in a vastly superior lab.

In the stock market there’s widespread belief that the recipe for a superior investment compound is the right set of ingredients comprised of financial and operating metrics of businesses.

Same goes for the investor-relations profession, liaison to Wall Street. We’re taught that the key to success is building buyside and sellside relationships around those very same financial and operating metrics.

There’s a recipe. You follow it, and you succeed.

Is anyone paying attention to the laboratory?

The stock market is the lab. Thanks to a total rewriting of the rules of its chemistry, the laboratory has utterly transformed, and the ingredients that underpin the product it churns out now are not the same ones from before.

I don’t mean to toot the ModernIR horn, but we did the one thing nobody else bothered to do.  We inspected the lab.  We studied the compounds it was using to manufacture the products circulating in the market (ETFs, high-speed trading, etc.).

And we saw that stock pickers were failing because they didn’t understand what the lab was producing. It was not that they’d stopped finding the historically correct chemical elements –financial and operating metrics defining great companies of the past.

It’s that these ingredients by themselves can no longer be counted on to create the expected chemical reaction because the laboratory is compounding differently.

And the difference is massive. The lab determines the outcomes. Write that down somewhere. The lab determines the outcomes. Not the ingredients that exist outside it.

So investors and public companies have two choices.  Start a lab that works in the old way.  Or learn how the current lab works. The latter is far easier – especially since ModernIR has done the work. We can spit out every manner of scientific report on the ingredients.

Back to market structure, before NFLX reported results it was 10/10 Overbought, over 60% short and Passive money – the primary chemical compound for investments now – was selling.  The concoction was destined to blow up.

Everyone blamed ingredients like weaker growth and selling by stock pickers, when those components were not part of the recipe creating the explosion in NFLX. Now, NFLX will be a core ETF manufacturing ingredient, and it will rise.

Investors, what’s in your portfolio?  Have you considered the simmering presence of the laboratory in how your holdings are priced?  And public companies, do you have any idea what the recipe is behind your price and volume?

If you want to be in the capital markets, you need lab knowledge. Every day, remind yourself that the ingredients you’re focused on may not be the ones the lab is using – and the lab determines the outcome. The lab manufactures what the market consumes.

One of the things we’ll be talking about at the NIRI Southwest Regional Conference is the laboratory, so sign up and join us Aug 22-24 in Austin.  Hope to see you there!

 

 

The Matrix

FactSet says quarterly earnings are up 23% from a year ago. Why have stocks declined?

There’s an inclination to grasp at fundamental explanations. Yet stock pickers generally don’t reactively sell because most times they must be fully invested (meaning to sell, they must buy).

Blackrock, Vanguard and State Street claim for Exchange-Traded Funds tracking the S&P 500 or Russell 1000 that turnover is 3-5%. (Editorial note: Those figures exclude creations and redemptions of ETF shares totaling trillions annually – a story we’ve told exclusively in the Market Structure Map.)

If investors are not responsible, who or what is?  Machines. By market rule all trades wanting to set the best bid to buy or offer to sell are automated – running on an algorithm. Why? Because the best price can be anyplace at anytime in the market system, and trades must move fluidly to it.

Thus, machines have become hugely influential in determining how prices are calculated. An amalgam of broker algorithms, smart routers and exchange order types are continually calculating the probability of higher or lower prices and completing a trade.

By our measures, back on Apr 19 the probability of calculating higher prices dropped. Why? Perhaps risk calculations for asset managers ordered rotation from overweighted equities or a need to slough off capital gains from ETFs (stuff mathematical models routinely do).

We have a mathematical representation for it: The market was Overbought. It doesn’t mean people are overpaying for fundamentals. It says machines will lack data to arrive at higher prices.  What follows this condition is nearly always a flat or lower market.

We know then that math arising from market rules is more powerful than a 23% increase in earnings. That should disturb stock pickers and public companies. If the market is The Matrix (if you’re younger than the movie, watch it to understand the reference), what are we all doing straining so hard to be outliers?

And why do machines possess the capacity to trump value-creation?

Good question.

By the way, the math is now changing. It’s resolving toward a mean.  We measure these price-setting propensities with a 10-point scale, the ModernIR Behavioral Index. Most of the time the stock market trades between 4.0 and 6.0, mean-reverting to 5.0 or thereabouts.

It returns to the middle because rules propel it there. Stocks must trade between the best bid or offer. What lies there? The average price. What do indexes and ETFs hew to? Averages.  We’ve explained this before.

When the market slops beyond 6.0, a mean-reversion is coming.  When it drops below 4.0, it signals upward mean-reversion. The market has descended from about 6.5 a week ago to 5.2 yesterday. The market will soon level off or rise as it did microcosmically yesterday, a day of extremes that ended back near midway (but it’s not down to 4.0, notice).

If math is a more reliable indicator of the future than earnings, why is everybody fixated on earnings versus expectations? What if that model is obsolete? And is that a bad thing?

I don’t think so. The earnings-versus-expectations convention promotes arbitrage. Shouldn’t capital-formation power the market?

Currency Volatility

 We interrupt the white-hot arc of the stock market for this public-service announcement: Watch the dollar.

While any number of factors might be selected as reason for the DJIA’s 360-point drop yesterday, one macro factor correlates well: The relative buying power of the US dollar, the world’s reserve currency.

Give me two minutes, and I’ll show you.

Sure, one can say the market is due for a pullback. But randomly? Donald Trump’s first inaugural address is an easy target. Do we call investors schizophrenic if the market regains yesterday’s losses today or tomorrow?

How the US dollar fares versus other global currencies remains a barometer for US stocks. It’s been especially true since 2008 because the Financial Crisis marked a stark turn for central banks toward coordinated global policy.

But all the way back to 1971 when the United States left the gold standard for the 20th century’s version of a cryptocurrency experiment, a floating-rate dollar, shocks to equities trace to gyrations in the currency (the economy’s risk assets like stocks and bonds have replaced gold as the backing commodity but that’s another story).

Black Monday, the October 19, 1987 global stock crash that hacked 508 points or 23% of blue-chip value off the Dow Jones Industrial Average (DJIA) followed a stretch of currency volatility (and interest-rate volatility as the two are intertwined).

For perspective, the DJIA lost a greater number of points just now, Jan 29-30 (533), than it did Oct 19, 1987 (508). Heights today are so lofty that past ravines are wrinkles.

The collapse of the Internet Bubble in 2000 came after a sharp acceleration for the dollar on rate hikes by Fed chair Alan Greenspan to slow what he famously called “irrational exuberance.” He recognized the stock market reflected inflation, which as Milton Friedman said, is always and everywhere a monetary phenomenon.

Inflation is more money than an economy can readily deploy, not rising prices, which is a consequence. Stuffing money into economies is like squeezing a balloon. You don’t know where the air pockets will form.  Prices rise, but not always how or where central bankers suppose.

On May 6, 2010, market seams split fleetingly in the Flash Crash, the DJIA first plunging down and then bucking back up about a thousand points.  Before it, volatility was rattling the euro/dollar trade, a product of 2009’s massive “quantitative easing” by the Federal Reserve as the US central bank gave the global money balloon a giant squeeze and the dollar went into a steep dive.

In latter August 2015 the DJIA lost more than 6% over a series of days following a sudden currency-devaluation in China that tripped the delicate global balance.  And remember the Fed’s first post-crisis rate hike – a buck-booster – in Dec 2015? Near catastrophe for stocks (most for energies as oil plunged when the dollar rose) in January 2016.

We come to yesterday. What came before it? Last week the dollar plummeted about 3% as traders interpreted comments by US Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin to mean he wanted a weaker dollar.

Sure, there’s a sort of Clockmaker God quality to the idea that if we can pan back in the mind’s eye, the financial markets are all perched atop a giant dollar bill that occasionally flutters and spills something into the abyss.

On the other hand, it could be fixed. The dollar, that is. If the dollar wasn’t always fluctuating, we could better concentrate on, say, saving more, or investing capital without worrying about the corrosive effects on returns of a depreciating currency.

So, Jay Powell.  You’ll be steering the Fed after Janet Yellen bids us adieu this week. Imagine how much easier everything would be if the dollar wasn’t one of the things gyrating like stock-prices.

Times and Seasons

You need examples.

I was wishing a longtime friend who turns 50 Sep 20 a happy what they call on Game of Thrones “Name Day,” and it called to mind those words. We were college freshmen 31 years ago – how time flies – and I thought back to my Logic and Philosophy professor.

He’d say in his thick Greek accent, “You need examples.  You cannot illustrate anything well with merely theory, nor can you prove something without support.”

In the stock market, examples are vital for separating theory from fact. And for helping investor-relations professionals and investors alike move past thinking “the market is complicated so my eyes glaze over” to realizing it’s just a grocery store for stocks.

With a rigid set of prescribed rules for consumers.  You can watch consumers comply. Some race around the store grabbing this or that. Others mosey the aisles loading the cart.

Timing plays a huge role. It’s not random.

I’ll give you an example.  Monday I was trading notes with a client whose shares are Overbought, pegging ten on our 10-point Sentiment scale, and 65% short.

Okay, here we go. What does “Overbought” mean? Let’s use an analogy. You know I love using spinach, right.  Overbought means all the spinach on the grocery store shelf is gone.  If the store is out of spinach, people stop consuming spinach.

What alone can override an overbought spinach market is willingness to pay UP for more spinach by driving to another store. Most consumers won’t. They’ll buy something else.

All analogies break down but you see the point?  We can measure the interplay of price and behaviors in shares so we know when they’re Overbought, Oversold, or about right — Neutral.

Now let’s introduce timing into the equation.  Monday was the one day all month with new options on stocks and other securities officially trading.  Our example stock was up 4%.  Yet it’s Overbought and 65% short.

What’s “65% short?”  That means 65% of trading volume is coming from borrowed shares. Traders are borrowing and selling shares every day to profit on short-term price-changes. It’s more than half the trading volume.

A quick and timely aside here:  We were in Chicago Friday for the NIRI chapter’s annual IR Workshop and the last panel – an awesome one spearheaded by Snap-On’s Leslie Kratcoski, an IR superstar – included the head of prime brokerage for BNP Paribas.  Among many other things, prime brokers lend securities. BNP is also a big derivatives counterparty.

Those elements dovetail in our example. The stock was Overbought and 65% short yet soared 4% yesterday. Short squeeze (forced buying), yes. But we now know WHY.

News didn’t drive price up 4%.  It was a classic case of big moves, no news. One could cast about and come up with something indirect. But let’s understand how the grocery store for your shares continuously reveals purpose.

The CONDITIONS necessary for the stock to move up 4% existed BEFORE the move.  This is why it’s vital to measure consistently.  If you’re not measuring, you’re guessing.

Why would the stock soar with new options trading?  There is demand for derivatives tied to the company’s stock. Parties short had to buy in – cover positions.  Why? Because the counterparty needed shares to back new derivatives positions (naked puts or calls are much riskier).

The stock jumped 4% because that’s how much higher the price had to move to bring new spinach, so to speak, into the market, the grocery store. Nobody wanted to sell at current prices – the stock was Overbought. Up 4%, sellers were induced to offer shares.

On any other day of the month these events would not have coalesced. I suspect hedge funds behind the bets had no idea their cloak of secrecy would be yanked off.

Once you spend a little time measuring and understanding the market, you can know in a minute or two what’s setting price. And now we know to watch into October expirations because hedge funds have made a sizeable bet, likely up (if they’re wrong they’ll be sellers ahead of expirations – and we’ll watch short volume).

Speaking of timing, options expirations for September wraps officially today with VIX and other volatility trades lapsing. The market has been on a tear. Come Thu-Fri, we’ll get a first taste of autumn.  Next week brings window-dressing for the month and quarter.

Our Sentiment Index marked a double top through expirations. About 80% of the time, an up market into expirations is a down market after, and with surging Sentiment, down could be dramatic say five or so trading days from now.

You’ll have to tell me how it goes! Karen and I are off to mark time riding bikes from Munich to Salzburg through the Bavarian Alps, a way to measure my impending 50th birthday next month.  We call it The Four B’s:  Beer, bread, brats and bikes. We’ll report back the week of Oct 9.

A Big Deal

Tim, I’m listening,” said this conference attendee, “and I’m wondering if I made the wrong career choice.” He said, “Am I going to be a compliance officer?”

We were in Boston, Karen and I, marking our wedding anniversary where the romance began: at a NIRI conference, this one on investor-relations fundamentals for newbies. I was covering market structure – the behavior of money behind price and volume – and what’s necessary to know today in IR (it wouldn’t hurt investors to know too).

It prompts reflection. The National Investor Relations Institute’s program on the fundamentals of IR that Karen and I both attended over a decade ago differed tectonically. Then, most of the money in the market was fundamental.

Companies prided themselves on closing the books fast each quarter and reporting results when peers did – or quicker.  I remember Tim Koogle hosting thousands on the Yahoo! earnings call about a week after quarter-end, the company setting a torrid pace wrapping financial results and reporting them.

Most of the money was buying results, not gambling on expectations versus outcomes. There were no high-frequency traders, no dark pools, limited derivatives arbitrage, no hint yet that passive investment using a model to track averages instead of paying humans to find better companies would be a big deal.

I’ve over these many years moved from student to faculty. I had just described the stock market today for a professional crop preparing to take IR reins, no doubt among it those who years from now will be the teachers.

I explained that the stock market possesses curious and unique characteristics. When you go to the grocery store and buy, say, a bag of spinach, you suppose the price on it is the same you’ll pay at the cash register. Imagine instead at the checkout stand the price you thought you were paying was not the same you were getting charged.

Go another step further. You had to buy it by the leaf, and someone jumped ahead of you and handed you each leaf, charging a small fee for every one.

That’s the stock market now. There is always by law a spread between the bid to buy and offer to sell, and every interaction is intermediated so regulators have a transaction trail.

I explained to the startled attendees unaware that their shares were priced this way that in my town, Denver, real estate is hot. Prices keep rising. People list houses for sale – call it the best offer to sell – and someone will offer a higher price than asked.

In the stock market today, unlike when I began in the profession, it’s against the law for anyone to bid to buy your shares for a price greater than the best offer. That’s a crossed market. Nor can the prices be the same. That’s a locked market. Verboten.

So in this market, I said, trillion of dollars have shifted from trying to find the best products in the grocery store to tracking average prices for everything. This is what indexes and exchange-traded funds do – they track the averages.

By following averages and cutting out cost associated with researching which things in the grocery store are best, money trying to be average is outperforming investors trying to buy superior products. So it’s mushroomed.

And, I said, you can’t convince the mathematical models tracking the averages to include you.  You can only influence them with governance – how you comply with all the rules burdening public companies these days, even as money is ignoring fundamental performance and choose average prices.

That’s when the question came.  See the first paragraph.

I said, “I’m glad you asked.”  Karen says I need to talk less about the problems in our profession and more about the opportunities.  Here was a chance.

“It’s the greatest time in history to be in our profession,” I said.

Here’s why. Then, we championed story, a communications job. Today IR is a true management function because money buying story is only a small part of volume. IR demands data and analytics and proactive reporting to the management and Board of Directors so they recognize that the market is driven as much by setting prices as it is by financial results.

There are $11.5 trillion of assets at Blackrock, Vanguard and State Street alone ignoring earnings calls and – importantly – the sellside.  IR courts investors and the sellside.

It’s time to expand the role beyond the message. Periods of tectonic change offer sweeping professional opportunity. Investors should think the same way: How does the market work, who succeeds in it and why, and is that helpful to our interests?

IR gets to answer that question.  It’s a big deal.  Welcome to the new IR.

Harvey Market Structure

We’ve said many prayers for friends, family and colleagues in Texas and Louisiana and will continue in the wake of Harvey. There’s a lesson from it about stocks today too.

Is paying attention to the weather forecast important?  The weather guessers were eerily accurate and I think most would agree that had Harvey hit without warning, outcomes would be factors more harrowing despite current widespread devastation.

The point of the forecasts was to prepare for outcomes, not to alter the path of the storm. Would that the latter were possible but it’s beyond our control. (Could we have lined up all the portable fans in Texas on a giant power strip fronting the gulf and blown that thing back to sea? No).

Just one thing drives me batty talking to public-company executives about market structure. It’s when they say: “If I can’t change it, why do I care about it?”

If we only measure what we can change, why do we track storms? Why mark birthdays?

In all matters human, measuring is the essential task underpinning correct conclusions, awareness, planning for the future, and separating what’s in our control from what’s not.

I’ll give you another comparative:  The solar eclipse on Aug 21.  Thanks to a rare preserved Mayan book called the Dresden Codex kept in Germany, it’s now been historically proven that Mayans could predict solar eclipses.

Their records written hundreds of years ago projected one July 11, 1991, long after they themselves were gone. Sure enough. It’s impressive that people who didn’t know the sun is 400 times larger than the moon or that the moon is 400 times nearer – creating a perfect match periodically – could do it.

But we can infer from archaeological records that they and others like the Aztecs may have used superior knowledge to dupe the less-informed.

More simplistically, a lack of understanding can produce incorrect conclusions. The fearful masses believed when the sun began to fade that the gods were angry. The rulers likely reinforced the idea to retain power.

If you don’t know an eclipse or a hurricane is coming in your shares, you conclude that a version of the angry gods explanation is behind a fall:  It must be something happening today, some news, misunderstanding of story, miscommunication by the IR team.

That’s generally untrue. Like hurricanes and eclipses, the stock market today is mathematical.  Human beings can push buttons to buy or sell things but trades are either “marketable,” or wanting to be the best buy or sell price, or “nonmarketable” and willing to wait for price to arrive.

Any order that is marketable must be automated, rules say. Automated trades are math. The market is riven with mathematical automated trades for all sorts of things and those trades, unless interdicted by something that changes, will perform in predictable ways, thanks to rules – like the ones that permit us to predict hurricanes and eclipses.

Without knowledge of those rules – market structure – you can be duped. And you are routinely duped by high-frequency traders who claim publicly to be “providing liquidity” when we observe with models all the time that they do the opposite, pushing prices higher when there are buyers and lower (and shorting stocks) when there are sellers.

If you’re routinely checking the weather forecast for your stock, you’re less likely to be duped. That’s Market Structure 101.

You may be dismayed to learn that most of your volume is driven by something other than your company’s fundamentals (unless you have lousy fundamentals, and indexes and ETFs don’t know and so value you the same as superior peers).  But you won’t be fooled again, to borrow as I’m wont to do, a song title.

The good news about market structure versus mother nature is that we can change market structure when enough of us understand that rules have been written to benefit intermediaries at the expense of investors and companies.  Knowing and seeing must come first – which requires measuring, just like satellites that tracked Harvey.

With nature, all we can do is prepare. But preparation in all things including market structure always beats its absence.

Earning the Answers

It’s 8am Eastern Time and you’re in a conference room. Earnings season.

Executives around the table. The serious ones in suits and ties like usual. Others in shorts or jeans. Everybody reading the call script one more time. 

“You think we’ll get that question about inventory levels?” the COO says. 

“What’s the stock gonna do today?” says your CEO. 

All of us who’ve been in the investor-relations chair understand the quarterly grind. We practice, prepare, canvass probable questions, rehearse answers.  Try to get the execs to read the script aloud. We listen to competitors’ calls, seeking key queries.

Yet 85% of the volume in the market is driven by money paying no attention to calls.

“Not during earnings,” you say. “Active money is the lead then.” 

If it is, that’s a victory. It’s an anecdotal observation rather than hard statistical fact, but my experience with the data suggests less than 20% of public companies have Active money leading as price-setter on earnings days. 

I’m reminded of a classic example. One of our clients had screaming Sentiment – 10/10 on our index, slamming into the ceiling – and 68% short volume ahead of results. We warned that without the proverbial walk-off grand slam, nothing would stop a drop. 

Active money led, setting a new Rational Price, our measure of fair value, though shares closed down. In proceeding days the stock lost 8%. It wasn’t the story. It was the sector. Tech tanked. And shorting. And Sentiment.

Which leads us back to the carefully crafted earnings call. We’ve got a variety of clients with Activist investors, and I’ll give you two sharply contrasting outcomes that illustrate the importance of the answer to both your COO’s and CEO’s questions. 

One has been slashing and burning expenses (it’s what you do when somebody horns in with money and personality).  Still, heading into the call shorting was 69% and investors were wary. The company has a history of sharp pullbacks on results.

The only bull bets were from machines that leveraged hard into shares. No thought, just a calculated outcome.

Did you see the Wall Street Journal article yesterday on a massive VIX bet?  Some anonymous trader has wagered about $265 million that the VIX will be over 25 in October.  The trader could win big or lose big.

It’s the same thing. Traders, both humans and machines, bet on volatility, exacerbated by results.  Fast Traders wagered our client would jump about 8% (we could forecast it).  They were right. The buying that drove initial response came from quantitative money. Machines read the data and bought, and shorting dropped 20% in a day.

Rational investors have since been profit-takers.  Price moved so much on bets that buy-and-hold money turned seller.

In the other instance, price fell 15%. Risk Management was 15% of market capitalization ahead of the call because Activism tends to boost the value of the future – reflected in derivatives. But Activists have short attention spans. If you’re two quarters in without any meaningful catalyst, you’re asking for trouble.

Well, that was apparent in the data. They were 60% short every day for 50 days ahead of results, the equivalent of a tapping foot and a rolling eye. If you don’t give that audience a catalyst they’re going to take their futures and forwards and go home. 

Results missed and management guided down, and ALL of that 15% came out of market cap. Investors didn’t sell? No. How does it help long money to sell and slaughter price? They’d wreck months or years of commitment in a minute.

But the future was marked to zero because event-driven money dropped its rights to shares. And 15% of market cap held that way vanished.

The degree of uncertainty in all prices, not just ones at earnings season, are increasing because machines are betting on volatility, long and short, price-spreads.

It’s not rational. It’s gambling. Moral of the story? Prepare well, yes.  But prepare proportionally.  Keep it simple. A minority of the money listens now and cannot overcome the power of arbitrage (we need a better market. Another story.).

You might recoil at the idea. But if the market has changed, shouldn’t we too? Correlate outcomes to effort. Learn market structure. Measure the money. Set expectations. Prepare. But prepare wisely. Efficiently. Don’t confuse busy with productive.  

For your COO, the answer is yes, we’ll get that question, and for your CEO, the answer probably has no bearing on how shares will behave. Keep the answer short. (And yes, we can forecast how shares will behave and what will set price. Ask us.)

Realistic Expectation

How do you set realistic expectations about your shares for management?

I’ll give you examples.  One of our clients had a cyberattack and disclosed the impact, a material one degrading expected quarterly results.  What to expect?

Shares are up on strong volume.

That’s great but it makes execs scratch their heads. And the reverse can happen.

“The division heads tell their teams that growth will translate into share-price gains,” the investor-relations director told me. “They deliver, and the stock goes down 7%.”

I was having this conversation in Silicon Valley.  In fact, I had it twice the same day.

It illustrates a market transformation affecting investor-relations and investors. Fundamentals cannot be counted on to drive corresponding shareholder value.  Active stock-pickers and IR professionals have been slow to adapt, harming outcomes for both.

I was at the whiteboard in a conference room with another technology IR head, who was comparing revenue and margin drivers for his company and its key peers.

“How do I get these numbers to translate into the share price?” he said.

“You’re making the job harder than it has to be today,” I said. “And you might create unrealistic expectations from management for IR and for the company.”

There’s one more implication (we’ll answer them all before we wrap). Things like stocks behaving unexpectedly shouldn’t be ignored or glossed over.

For example, we found water dripping from the air-handler housing in the basement for the central air-conditioning system at our house. Great timing. July.

We could say, “Huh. That’s not what we were expecting.” And go on about what we’re doing.  But that’s a poor strategy, leaving us open to bigger troubles ahead.

When your stock doesn’t act as you expect, it’s water dripping from your air-handler, telling you, IR folks and investors, you’re missing something vital about the market.

Admit it.  Most of us know the market has got a drippy coil. But we go on with what we’ve been doing. We’d rather ignore the leak in the basement than address it.

For whom is that bigger trouble?  Your management team, IR. And your returns, investors. We should change what we’re doing, and revise expectations.

“I don’t want expectations for our stock,” you say. Would a board hire a CEO candidate who said, ‘Don’t expect anything from me’?

Back to our examples. In the cyberattack, Active money bought the news (bad clarity trumps okay uncertainty) but passive investment drove subsequent gains. The IR head appropriately differentiated the two and set expectations about trends and drivers. That’s good 21st century IR.

In the second example, don’t let the notion that growth will drive appreciation become an unmet expectation. Growth may boost the stock. But the IR Officer can go on the offensive with internal presentations showing how the market works and what role Story plays in setting price.

It’s up to IR to help management understand. If 80% of the time something besides Story sets price, doesn’t everybody internally have a right to know?  Don’t disillusion the team by letting incorrect expectations survive. That’s bigger trouble.

At the whiteboard with our IRO wanting to get the market to value results better, what about doing the opposite? It’s easier, less stressful, data-driven. Let the market tell YOU what it values. If 20% of the market values your numbers, measure when that 20% sets price. (We do that with Rational Price and Engagement metrics.)

Then measure how the rest of the money behaves that doesn’t pay attention to Story, and show your management team its trends and drivers. Now you’ll know when it’s about you, your management team will have data-driven views of what the money is really doing, and you, there in the IR chair, will have wider internal value.  And less stress.

That’s the right kind of realistic expectation.

What’s the market’s leaky coil? Two things.  Passive investment is asset-management, not results-driven stock-selection. Prices expand or contract with the rate of capital inflows and outflows for indexes and ETFs. You don’t control it. It controls you.

And over 50% of daily volume comes from fleeting effort to profit on price-differences or protect and leverage portfolios and trades (often in combo). It prices your stocks without wanting to own them.

And speaking of expectations, options are expiring today through Friday. It’s rarely about you when that’s happening. Set that realistic internal expectation (and stop reporting results the third week of each new quarter).

Long and Short

Here’s a riddle for you: What’s long and short at the same time?

Your shares, public companies (investors, the shares of stocks you own too).  You saw that coming, right.  The problem is you don’t know who’s long or short.

Let me rephrase that. You can know in 1975 fashion who’s long.  That year, Congress required investors to report holdings, amending the Securities Exchange Act with section 13F.  Investors with more than $100 million of assets had to report positions 45 days following quarter-end.  Back then, investment horizons were long.

The problem is we have the same standard. Why? Bigger question: Why aren’t more companies asking?  After all it’s your market. You deserve to know who owns your shares, who’s long or short, and where your shares trade.  You also should know what kind of money trades them since a great deal of your volume is for the day, not owned (this part we’ve solved!).

Back to ownership, Exchange Traded Funds post positions every day by law. Why doesn’t everybody else?

“Quast, come on,” you say.  “Investors need some time to buy and sell positions without everyone knowing, if they’ve got longer horizons.”

We’re market structure experts. I can assert: nearly every time investors try to buy or sell in the market, traders know it. That’s why we measure what traders know instead of considering them “noise” like everybody else.

Fast Traders detect buying or selling, often before it happens. I liken it to driving down the road on cruise control. Your exit is coming up so you tap the brakes or take your car off cruise.  Anybody behind you can conclude you’re planning to exit.

Fast Traders observe how behavior slows. It’s how we knew June 5 that the tech sector was about to decline. And they see algorithms accelerating to merge onto the freeway. There’s a buyer. Let’s start lifting the price.  We observe all this in patterns.

Back to the point. If the problem with disclosing positions is a desire to protect investment plans, why is the most popular investment vehicle of our era, ETFs, doing it?

“Those are models,” you say. “They track benchmarks.”

Yes, but all over this country boards and management teams are getting quarterly shareholder reports from 13Fs and concluding that these investors are setting prices.  They’re inexcusably out of step with how markets work.  Isn’t that our profession’s fault? It’s part of the IR job to inform management about equity drivers.

Congress is trying to inform itself. We don’t want to be trailing Congress!  Yesterday there was a big hearing about equity market structure in the House Financial Services Subcommittee on Capital Markets.  They like long titles, you know.

Thanks to good friend Joe Saluzzi of Themis Trading, who testified live – read what he said – we were invited to offer written testimony from an issuer perspective on the state of markets and what would help issuers have fairer and more transparent participation.

It’s the first time ModernIR has been read into the official congressional record and I don’t whether to be elated over the opportunity or melancholy that it’s necessary.

You should read it. It’s how the market works today. In fact, read all the testimony. They say what we write here every week. Everyone’s in the know but the issuer community.

You deserve better, public companies. It’s your market and you’re excluded by those merchandising your shares from having a say in how it functions.

We made three simple proposals:  Move 13Fs up to monthly reports (we didn’t call for daily info!) and make them both long and short.  It’s been proposed before. Maybe this time we’ll get someplace.

We also proposed daily disclosure of trading data by broker. There’s no reason Fast Traders or anyone should be able to hide. Canada requires disclosure. Why do we have a lesser standard (none, in fact)? And we asked Congress to direct the SEC to form an issuer advisory committee so companies have a voice.

What’s central and imperative to this effort at better transparency for the IR job and the management of public companies?  Knowing how the market works.  We’re experts on it. That we were asked to offer an issuer perspective – nobody else from IR was – speaks to it.

The starting point is learning market structure. It’s a core part of the IR job in today’s market.  That’s the long and short of it. Ask us and we’ll help you help your executives.