Tagged: Market Structure

IR Power

“What’s eye are?  I haven’t seen that acronym.”

So said a friend unfamiliar with this arcane profession at public companies responsible for Wall Street relationships.  IR, for you investors who don’t know, is the role that coordinates earnings calls and builds the shareholder base behind traded shares.

Investor Relations is a vocation in transition because of the passive tide sweeping investment, money that can’t be actively built into a shareholder base. Money in models is deaf to persuasion. The IR job is Story. The market more and more is Structure.

But IR underestimates its power. There’s a paradox unfolding in the capital markets.  I liken it to shopping malls and Amazon.  Used to be, people flocked to department stores where earnest clerks matched people to products.

We still do it, sure. But nowadays seas of cash slosh onto the web and over to Amazon without a concierge. It’s passive shopping.  It’s moved by what we need or want and not by service, save that Amazon is expert at getting your stuff in your hands well and fast.

“You were saying we underestimate our power,” you reply, IR pro. “How?”

You’ve seen the Choice Hotels ad?  A guy with an authoritative voice declares that the Choice people should use four words: “Badda-book, badda-boom.”

The advertisement is humorously stereotyping the consultants, high-powered and high-paid pros who arrive on corporate premises to, buttressed by credibility and prestige, instruct managers on what they must do.

Whether it’s marketing and communications or management like McKinsey & Co., they command psychological currency because of real and perceived credibility, and confident assertion.

Might these people be buffaloing us? There’s probably some of that. But the point is they command respect and value with authority and expertise.

All right, apply that to IR.  Especially now, with the profession in a sort of identity crisis. It’s become the ampersand role.  You’re head of IR &…fill in the blank.  Strategy.  Corporate Development.  Treasury.  Financial Planning & Analysis.  Communications.

The ampersand isn’t causing the crisis. It’s the money.  Bloomberg reporters following the passive craze say indexes and Exchange Traded Funds (ETFs) may surpass active stock funds soon for assets under management.

They already crush stock-pickers as price-setters.  Passive investment is nearly twice as likely to set your price every day as your story.  Buy and hold money buys and holds. Your story isn’t changing daily.  But prices are. Sentiment is. Macro factors are. Risk is.  These and more breed relentless shifting in passive behavior, especially ETFs.

And here’s the IR powerplay.  You are the authoritative voice, the badda-book badda-boom on capital markets internally. With the behavior of money changing, you’re in the best position to be the expert on its evolution. To lead.

If you were the management consultant, you would lay out a plan and benchmarks for organizational transformation. If you were the widget product manager, you’d be providing executives regular data on the widget market and its drivers. You wouldn’t wait for the CEO to say, “Can you pull data together on what’s happening with widgets?”

Sometimes IR people pride themselves on how management never asks about the stock.  If you’re the expert, silence is not your friend. Get out in front of this transformation and lead it.  Don’t let them watch the stock, but help them consistently measure it.

What set of vital facts about passive investment should your management team understand? If you don’t have answers, insist on the resources needed to get them.

Don’t be timid. Don’t wait for management to say, “We want you to study and report back.” It’s too late then. You’ve moved from the expert to the analyst.

Instead, set the pace. See it as a chance to learn to use analytics to describe the market.  Make it a mission to wield your IR power as this passive theme changes our profession.

And we’ll catch you in two weeks!  We’re off to ride the tides on the Belizean reef, a weeklong Corona commercial catamaraning the islands.  We’ll report back.

As we leave, Market Sentiment has again bottomed so stocks rose with Monday’s MSCI rebalances and probably rise through expirations Wed-Fri before mean-reverting again. How many mean-reversions can a bull market handle?

Weathering Change

Everyone complains about the weather but nobody does anything about it.

Mark Twain often gets credit for the clever quip but Twain’s friend Charles Dudley Warner said it.  We’re not here to talk weather though the east coast is wishing someone would do something about it.

Like the weather, there’s a relentlessness to stock-market evolution from fundamentally powered capital-formation to procurement process in which vast sums plug into models that pick, pack and stack stocks in precisely indexed packages.

Blackrock, Vanguard and State Street oversee $11.5 trillion that’s generally blind to sellside research and deaf to the corporate story. It’s a force of nature, more like a weather pattern than investment behavior.

Investor-relations folks say: “What do we do about it?”

Alert reader Karen Quast found a paper from Goldman Sachs advising Boards to respond to the rise of passive investment:

The recent decline in active single-stock investing raises important considerations for corporate boards of directors. The decline has been driven by a shift toward ‘passive investing’ and other forms of rule-based investing, such as index funds, factor-based investing, quantitative investing and exchange-traded funds (ETFs).

The decline of active investing means that, in many cases, stock prices have become more correlated and more closely linked to a company’s ‘characteristics,’ such as its index membership, ETF inclusion or quantitative-factor attributes. As a result, companies’ stock prices have become less correlated to their own fundamental performance.

Goldman Sachs is urging preparation. You can’t change the weather. You can only weather the change. The weather forecast isn’t a call to arms. It’s information we use to adapt to conditions. We prepare for discomfort.  We set realistic expectations.

That’s how investor-relations should view passive investment. We call it Asset Allocation because it’s a behavior that directs dollars to equities according to a model apportioning resources for opportunity and risk.

One way to help the board and the management prepare is to present the idea that there’s not just one behavior buying and selling shares. We ran data for an anonymous company whose share-price is 4% higher today than a year ago, trailing the broad market.

There are four purposes behind buying and selling, one of which is Asset Allocation, and all have equal capacity to set price. After all, market rules today prohibit preference (IR people should understand rules governing how shares are priced and traded and we’ll be discussing it at the Twin Cities NIRI chapter next week – join us!).

There are 50 weeks and in each a behavior led, and bought or sold (one week, Active Investment led and price didn’t change, rotation from growth to value).

It’s eye-opening. The behavior “winning” the most weeks was Fast Trading, short-term machines profiting on price-differences rather than investing.  It led 16 weeks, or 32% of the year, and bought more frequently than it sold.

Active Investment – your stock pickers – and Asset Allocation (indexes, ETFs, quantitative investors) were tied, leading 12 weeks each, but where Asset Allocation bought and sold equally, Active Investment sold more than it bought.

Finally, Risk Mgmt, counterparties to portfolio insurance and trading leverage with derivatives, led 10 weeks, or 20% of the year, but bought 70% of the time.  Put them together and the reason the stock is up a little is because the combined demographics behind price and volume bought 26 times and sold 23 times.

You laugh?  These data are telling! If not for other behaviors, Active Investors would have lowered price. Maybe that’s a message for the board and management team – but show this data to them and it will forever change how they think about the market.

The point isn’t changing the market but understanding how it works, measuring it consistently and adapting to reality.  Fundamentals do not rule now.

But with data analytics, it remains profoundly under the purview of investor-relations. That should bring great comfort to all of us in the profession.  Passive investment isn’t something to fear but to measure.

Market Sentiment:  The Federal Reserve likely hikes rates today, and options expire tomorrow and Friday, the latter the first quad-witching session of 2017. Also, S&P and Nasdaq indexes rebalance. VIX expirations still loom next week.

And our Sentiment is negative for the first time since the election. It’s a weather forecast.  No need for panic, only preparation. We’ll all weather change.

Story Versus Store

When you’re in a store, how often do you ask for help finding a product?

Now think about that, investor-relations professionals, and investors.  You former are in the business of telling the story – helping people in the store find a product.  You latter are the shoppers seeking products.

Before I go further, on Mar 10 the IR professionals in Silicon Valley are hosting the annual Spring Seminar with content assembled by crack practitioners Kevin Kessel, Kate Scolnick and friends, and it’s one of the most compelling IR agendas I’ve seen in my 22 years in this profession. We’ll be there (ModernIR sponsors). You should be too.

Back to Story vs. Store.  A hundred years ago farmers came to town and handed a list to the proprietor of the general store, who assembled groceries while buyers were at the livery or the brothel or whatever. 

Today you enter your list at Amazon.com or Jet.com or whatever and a couple days later – we had two shipments yesterday at the office – your stuff shows up (probably not while you’re at the livery or the brothel but follow me here).

Apply to investing. Once long ago, you went to Merrill Lynch and while you were at the livery or the brothel or whatever your financial advisor assembled some stocks for you. Today you go to Wealthfront or Betterment and you enter your criteria and algorithms assemble exchange-traded funds for you. 

The IR profession is founded on effective storytelling. As the impresario for Wall Street, you help it find you.  But the money asking for help finding products is plunging.  Active stock pickers cannot win (a separate story about structure over prowess).  The robots are crushing it. 

The IR profession is at a crossroads. Yes, keep telling your Story. But the STORE is the leviathan today.  Not the Story.  Amazon is massive. Call it The Store. Walmart bought Jet.com for $3.3 billion because people don’t need an impresario, the clerks on the floor.

Blackrock and Vanguard don’t use the impresario of Wall Street: Research from investment banks.  But you can click on the little icon for many Web apps and get customer service, most of it outsourced to somebody outside The Store. 

Do we want to be Amazon, or that little icon? We won’t be the Big Dogs in either IR or investment by being better impresarios. Success in the 21st century is ironically about minding the Store. for IR, that means data analysis is the vital key to the future.

And investors, the secret to success in this market is tracking what’s moving into and out of The Store – Blackrock and Vanguard and ETFs are the amazons of equities. 

I’ll give you a case in point. A big client was a juggernaut for two weeks – nothing but green metrics, hitting the forecasts every day. Then short volume doubled in two days. Investment tumbled.

That’s Store. Not Story. You can say you don’t care about the short-term. Well, the Store does. Management does. Who’s minding the store? IR professionals, that’s you.  Ignore the amazons, the leviathans, the temporal distortions at your own peril.

Let’s not be the “click here for support” icon, IR pros. Let’s be Amazon. How? Your equity is a product used by consumers wanting less help from clerks and impresarios. They’re renting it, sharing it, trading it, leveraging it more than you ever imagined. 

If you’re bewildered, ask us for help. But let’s not become little icons at the bottom of screens. That’s no strategy for Boardroom domination.  Let’s be amazons. Love The Store.

The Clash

On Friday Feb 10, behavioral-change in the stock market rocked the Richter.    

Stocks themselves seem rather to be rocking the Casbah, Clash-style (obligatory Grammy Awards Week musical reference, and showing my age I reached back to 1982).  Plus it’s that time again: Options expire today through Friday.

Naturally, Janet Yellen picked this week to tell the market – I say “tell” loosely since her utterances are so inscrutable that we’re left to construe and guess – a rate-hike is coming.

I find it troubling that the regulator of the world’s most important banking system appears to be ignorant of how markets work. Why hint at momentous monetary matters two days before volatility bets lapse?  Then again, maybe it’s purposeful.    

And far easier than ruminating on Chair Yellen’s comments for signals is checking the Fed’s balance sheet. Want to know if the Fed will raise rates?  Look for big moves in either Reverse Repurchases or Excess Bank Reserves.

Let me interrupt here:  Investor-relations folks and investors, I return to the Fed theme because it remains the linchpin of the market. We’ll make it an intriguing visit!

On the Fed’s balance sheet, sure enough – big changes.  Excess Reserves have risen from about $1.8 trillion in January to $2.2 trillion last week (huge numbers, yes. For the 20 years before the financial crisis, excess reserves averaged about $10 billion). 

That’s a $400 billion push, almost as big as the $500 billion the Fed heaved at the market last January and February when it was collapsing under the weight of the mighty buck following the Fed’s first rate-hike in ten years.

You can hardly remember, right?  Back then, the top price-setter (followed by Fast Trading) was Asset Allocation – selling by indexes and ETFs jammed up at the exits.

It stopped because the buck didn’t. The dollar fell. When the dollar weakens, stocks generally rise because they are denominated, like oil, in dollars. Smaller dollar, bigger price.

And vice versa. The dollar strengthened ahead of the 1987 stock market crash.  Ditto the Internet Bubble. In May 2010, the dollar rose right ahead of the famed Flash Crash. Last January’s swoon? The dollar surged in November and December with the rate-hike.

From Mar 2009 until Aug 2014 the dollar was weak as the Fed trampled it, and stocks, commodities, bonds, housing and so on all rose.  Then abruptly in latter 2014 the Fed stopped beefing up dollar-supplies. Stocks statistically flatlined till Nov 9 last year.  The Dow was 18,000 in Dec 2014 and 17,888 Nov 4, 2016.

Since the Fed is no longer creating new dollars rapidly by buying debt, it instead moves money into or out of the counted supply.  Excess reserves increase the counted supply of money, which decreases dollar-value.  And yup, from early January to last week, the dollar dropped 4% (using the DXY, the dollar-futures contract from The ICE).

Why does that signal a rate-hike? Because increasing interest rates is akin to reducing the supply of money.  The Fed hopes the yin of bigger reserves will mesh with the yang of higher rates and stop the buck in the middle.

But the buck is back up 2% already. We come to the Richter move I mentioned to start.  We track the four big reasons people buy and sell stocks. From Nov 9 to Feb 9 as stocks soared, the leading price-setter was Active Investment. Rational people are bullish on American economic prospects.

But the Number Two price-setter is Risk Management – portfolio leverage with derivatives. And it’s nearly as big as Active Investment.  Investors are buying the present and betting on the future, which means both present and future back current stock-prices.

The problem arises if the future isn’t what it used to be, to paraphrase Yogi Berra.  And one axiom of Market Structure is that behavioral volatility precedes price volatility.  Much like clouds gather before a storm.

On Feb 10 clouds formed. Risk Management marketwide jumped almost 18%. It’s unusual to see a double-digit move in any behavior, and this is among the biggest one-day moves we’ve ever seen for Risk Management. Is money questioning the future?

It came right ahead of the Grammys. And more importantly, before Options Week and Janet Yellen.  Were we monitoring the Ring of Fire for seismic events, we’d be predicting a temblor.

Of course, in the same way that seismic activity doesn’t mean The Big One is coming, it might be nothing.  But stocks are near a statistical top in our 10-point Behavioral Sentiment Index again and the buck is rising toward a March rate-increase. Sooner or later, the present and the future will clash. 

Life will go on.  And we’ll be measuring the data. 

Open Water

If you want to be creeped out – and who doesn’t? – see the movie “Open Water.” It explains the problem with Board reports in investor-relations too.

American director Chris Kentis based his 2003 film on real events. A couple go scuba-diving and are left behind at sea.  He spent $500,000 making it and earned $55 million at the box office. That’s not the part resembling Board reports, unfortunately.

I don’t want to spoil the movie if you’ve never seen it, but I won’t because it’s a psychological drama depending not on action but implication that takes place in one spot on the sea.  Imagine you went scuba diving miles from shore and surfaced and everyone was gone and the current kept you out?

Now suppose as an investigator later it was your job to measure what happened to the couple. You had at your disposal film of the very spot on the ocean that the couple had occupied. You play back four three-month time-lapse slices of film at high speed.

Nothing. Open water.  It’s all you see. Sky whizzes by, days and nights are nearly indistinguishable, the sea appears as an unmarked surface moving across time.

It’s the wrong measure.  To understand what happened to the scuba divers you’d have to zoom in and watch spare increments.  Then you’d see – wait, there.  Are those specks in the water?  Sure enough, two people.  What are they doing?  Now let’s watch….

And that’s what’s wrong with Board reports.  They don’t measure the stock market the way it works. Executives have long strategic horizons and companies are generally benchmarking progress every quarter and looking at years of stock performance.

But your stock is like scuba divers bobbing on the water and your business is as timeless as the sea by comparison to what sets price. Blink.  Okay, blink again. That’s 350 milliseconds, give or take.  Many stocks trade 500 times in one blink.

No, don’t report to the Board every blink in your trading. But if we’re going to impart understanding – the point of providing information – of how shares change in value over time, the measures must reflect the way the ecosystem for your stock functions.

Your buy-and-hold investors have the same horizons you do.  But that’s not the money setting prices most days. Because it buys, and holds.

About 40% of the volume in your stock aims at horizons of a day or less, and generally just fractions of seconds to catch a penny spread a thousand times. Another 33% moves with the ocean, indexes deploying and removing money metronomically with a model. Another 13% or so pegs opportunity to instruments derived from your shares such as options, futures, forwards and swaps with horizons of days or weeks at most.

So just 14% of your market cap traces directly to your long-term strategy.

You say, “That cannot be true.”

In 2006, half the value of the housing market traced to real estate and the rest reflected rights to homes via mortgage-backed securities, and in some markets it was more than 80%. We know because that’s how much home-values declined.

On May 6, 2010, the Flash Crash, the Dow Jones Industrial Average lost a thousand points, or about 10% of its value, in mere minutes, because the money with tiny horizons disappeared from the market.

On August 24, 2015, some exchange-traded funds diverged by 30% or more from the underlying value of assets because money with horizons far shorter than the business strategy of any of the stocks giving them derivative value left. Briefly.

Those are outliers but lesser manifestations are a thrumming reef of vibrancy every day in your stock. At ModernIR, we measure price-setting in one-day and five-day increments because it’s the only way to see the scuba divers bobbing in the water – or the Activists, the fleeting shift in risk-management behavior reflecting deal-arbitrage, the evaporation of momentum, the abrupt drop in index-investment, the paired behaviors indicative of hedge funds coming or going.

Were we to paint stocks with bold brush strokes, the nuances responsible for price-changes would be as flat and impenetrable as open water. And meaningless to the Board and the management team.

The next time you ready information for the Board, think about the ecosystem, which is frenetic – in stark contrast to business strategy.  If nothing else, make sure they recognize that at any given moment, price depends on the 85% oblivious to strategy.

That might seem frightening, like sharks. Like the sharks it’s but a fact of the stock ecosystem, something to be understood rather than feared (and if you want to learn about the ecosystem, ask us!).

Selling the Future

Karen and I are in Playa del Carmen, having left the US after the Trump election.

Just kidding! We’re celebrating…Karen’s 50th birthday first here on the lovely beaches of Quintana Roo and next in New York where we go often but never for fun. This time, no work and all play.

Speaking of work, Brian Leite, head of client services, circulated a story to the team about Carl Icahn’s election-night buys. Futures were plunging as Mrs. Clinton’s path to victory narrowed. Mr. Icahn bought.

If you’ve got a billion dollars you can most times make money.  You’d buy the cheapest sector options and futures and aim your billion at a handful of, say, small-cap banks in a giant SEC tick-size study that are likely to move up rapidly. Chase them until your financial-sector futures are in the money.  Cash out.  See, easy.

(Editorial observation: It might be argued the tick study exacerbated volatility – it’s heavily concentrated in Nasdaq stocks and that market has been more volatile. It might also be argued that low spreads rob investors of returns and pay them to traders instead.)

If you’re big you can buy and sell the future anytime. The market last week roared on strength for financials, industrials, defense and other parts of the market thought to benefit from an unshackled Trump economy.

An aside: In Denver, don’t miss my good friend Rich Barry tomorrow at NIRI on the market post-election (Rich, we’ll have a margarita for you in Old Mexico).

We track the four main reasons investors and traders buy or sell, dividing market volume among these central tendencies. Folks buy or sell stocks for their unique features (stock picking), because they’re like other stocks (asset allocation), to profit on price-differences (fast trading) and to protect or leverage trades and portfolios (risk management).

Fast trading led and inversely correlated with risk-management. It was a leveraged, speculative rally. Traders profited by trafficking short-term in people’s long-term expectations (there was a Reagan boom but it followed a tough first eighteen Reagan months that were consequences of things done long before he arrived).

Traders buy the future in the form of rights and sell it long before the future arrives, so that by the time it does the future isn’t what it used to be.

They’re grabbing in days the implied profits from a rebounding future that must unfold over months or even years. Contrast with stock-pickers and public companies. Both pursue long arcs requiring time and patience.

Aside: ModernIR and NIRI will host an incredible but true expose with Joe Saluzzi of Themis Trading and Mett Kinak of T Rowe Price Dec 1 on how big investors buy and sell stocks today. 

Why does the market favor trading the future in the present? It’s “time-priority,” meaning the fastest – the least patient – must by rule set the price of stocks, the underlying assets. We could mount a Trump-size sign over the market: Arbitrage Here.

We’re told low spreads are good for investors. No, wide spreads assign value to time. Low spreads benefit anyone wanting to leave fast. Low spreads encourage profiting on price-differences – which is high-frequency trading.

Long has the Wall Street Journal’s Jason Zweig written that patience is an investing virtue.  Last weekend’s column asked if we have the stamina to be wealthy, the clear implication being that time is our friend.

Yet market structure is the enemy of patience. Options expire today through Friday. The present value of the future lapses. With the future spent, we may give back this surge long before the Trump presidency begins, even by Thanksgiving.

I like to compare markets and monetary policy. Consider interest rates. High rates require commitment. Low borrowing costs encourage leverage for short-term opportunities.  We’ve got things backward in money and the markets alike. Time is not our friend.

Upshot?  The country is in a mood to question assumptions. We could put aside differences and agree to quit selling the future to fast traders. Stop making low spreads and high speed key tenets of a market meant to promote time and patience – the future.

Trivago and Traders

I was high-frequency traded by a travel site.

Had that happen? You web-search a place and pricing and there’s no availability for the date you want so you check elsewhere and suddenly there’s vacancy – but now it costs more so you better act fast!  It’s like the stock market’s recent performance.

It’s not the first time I’ve been played by algorithms but it happened trying to book rooms in Crested Butte this week as we toured my visiting mother around the continental divide. Having spoken with hotel staff and knowing there wasn’t peak demand, I waited. At the hotel we got the best bargain of all. If you want a good deal, cut out the middle man.

And when you’re shopping online for a hotel deal, realize it’s a cabal. Expedia owns hotwire, hotels.com, Orbitz, Travelocity, and trivago to name the biggest brands. Priceline owns booking.com and Kayak among others.

When you start searching for a travel deal, the machines know almost instantly. It’s an integrated network where much of the pricing and supply are controlled by a handful of players.  Start looking for rooms, and rates rise not due to supply outstripping demand but because middle men change the prices.

Let’s think about the stock market. Expedia and Priceline have an advantage through being many places simultaneously. They’re in effect trading all the stocks – all the places you go unless you cut them out and go straight to the hotel.

Who in the market trades everything?  No, not Goldman Sachs. None of the big brokers trade anywhere near all the securities in the market. That’s not the business they’re in.

But high-frequency traders do. All our clients down to the very smallest ones under $50m in market cap are traded daily by high-frequency firms.

High-speed firms trade thousands of securities everywhere simultaneously, generally exchange-traded products where setting the prices everyone sees is the aim: stocks, commodities, derivatives and currencies.

But these firms don’t want to own anything. Wrap your head around this idea, because it’s a lot like getting travel-deal HFT’d.  The travel sites keep changing prices in order to prompt a reaction.  You’ll get teased: “Four left at this price!”

It’s the same in the stock market.  High-speed traders with vastly powerful networked machines connected to all the trading venues know every time there are ripples of supply or demand in any security.  Instantly, the price for that stock changes. If you’ve read the book Flash Boys, you get what I’m saying.

But let’s go one step further.  In the last 17 weeks through July 29 this year, there was not a single one in which Active Investors – buy-and-hold stock pickers – led as price-setters (through both the Brexit Swoon and Brexit Bounce).  In nine of those weeks Fast Traders did.  That’s over half the time (otherwise it’s been Asset Allocation – indexes and ETFs – or Risk Management, counterparties to derivatives like options and futures).

This is why the market is defying fundamentals. It’s exactly how pricing and supply defied fundamentals when we were trying to book a hotel in Crested Butte. Elevation Hotel & Spa was not remotely out. But the fast-trading hotel algorithms sure wanted everyone to think so.

The same thing happens repeatedly through each trading day. Stocks soar, and then falter and fall…and someone tries to book some shares…and all of the sudden prices race back up and the Dow Jones rises 80 points.  Better act fast!  These prices won’t last!

The truth is that the equivalent of booking.com is making it impossible for anyone to know the real supply and demand of stocks.  Since investors can only guess the same as we do hunting for hotel deals, they scratch their heads and try to buy.

You might say, “But we get good hotel deals.” As in the stock market, electronic trading ended laziness at big brokers and exchanges. But now the middle men have taken over. They’re now worse than what we had before. They’re fostering dangerous illusions.

Illusions cause markets to become mispriced because it’s impossible to separate the middle men from the actual supply of product.  How to solve it? First, understand how much of your daily volume is being driven by middle men. Then you can begin to measure what’s real.

Ultimately, investors and public companies should confederate to create a market that bars high-speed traders. Until then don’t be fooled by either HFT or booking.com.

The IEX Machete

We humans don’t like change.

We become accustomed to uncomfortable shoes, kinks in the neck each morning, the monotony of sameness. Were we recorded we’d likely be surprised to hear ourselves making excuses for why what we don’t like must continue. The USA’s Declaration of Independence lamented how people are disposed to suffer ills rather than change them.

The rise of IEX, the Investors Exchange, embodies that ethos. Late last Friday the enterprising folks canonized by Michael Lewis in his book Flash Boys won longsuffering reward when the Securities and Exchange Commission granted the alternative trading system status as a US stock exchange able to host listings.

We’ve become disposed to suffer ills. It’s been 45 years since companies wanting to list shares publicly with a US national stock market had more than two choices (OTC Markets Group and NYSE MKT, I’m not slighting either of you here). That’s remarkable in a country that prides itself on entrepreneurialism and innovation, and testament to both the byzantine form the market has taken and the entrenched nature of the competition.

Comments on IEX’s exchange application are supportive save for vitriol from would-be peers reminiscent of the invective and condescension of some activist investors (think Icahn and Ackman).

Contrast with the behavior of golfing professionals at last weekend’s US Open. Dustin Johnson won his first major despite a controversial penalty, and his fellow competitors rallied behind him despite what we could call “losing market-share.”  Contender Bubba Watson on CNBC’s Squawk Box said he was with fans shouting “Dus-tin! Dus-tin!”

That’s mature professionalism. By contrast, IEX joins the green jackets of the stock-exchange business to derogations from peers. They’ve lobbied for every penalty stroke.

We mean no offense to the incumbents. But it’s embarrassing. Our stock market obsessed with speed and crammed with arbitrage and mostly inhospitable to the active “long-only” (few now are purely long) investors companies spend all their time and resources courting is meaningfully a product of legacy exchanges. We’ve been sold a bill of goods.

The Duopoly is loath to admit IEX or share the power they’ve exercised over the listing process. Why? If innovation and choice are byproducts of free markets, incumbent opposition should raise eyebrows (kudos to the SEC for reinforcing the mechanism of a free and open market that exists for issuers and investors). They’ve chosen easy regulatory monopoly instead, and it’s made them arrogant.

Without restraint through competition and transparency, the market has become a tangle of vines smothering differentiation between companies and promoting arbitrage over investment. The proof is in plunging ranks of public companies, confusion everywhere about what’s setting prices (we’ve cured that malady by the way), and a general migration of stock-prices toward means without regard to fundamentals (those who blame regulation I get it, but the market itself is the problem).

We’ve lost sight of original purpose. So welcome to the jungle, IEX.  We could use a sharp machete.

Busily Productive

“We try not to confuse busy with productive.”

Thus spake the head of investor-relations for an Israeli tech company years ago, and as we wrap the 2016 NIRI National Conference here in June-gloomy but ever awesome San Diego, I recall it anew.

IR for those of you who don’t know is the job that sits at the confluence of the inflow of capital to companies with shares trading publicly and the outflow of information to the buyers and sellers of shares. With investing gaining popularity in the 1960s, companies organized the effort of courting the former and formalizing the latter, and IR was born.

Attracting investors and communicating effectively will remain a bedrock of our profession until the second-to-last public company is consumed by the one giant firm owning everything and in turn owned by one exchange-traded fund leviathan (let’s hope that future never arrives!).

Most IR spending goes to telling the story and targeting investors, the historical yin and yang of IR.  But how are your shares priced?  Do you know?  Is our profession confusing busy with productive?

Let’s review. IR targets investors suited to the story.  We track corporate peers to find areas needing improvement and ways in which we outperform.  I did this too as a telecom IRO (investor relations officer). Your investment thesis defines unique exceptionalism.

Yet trades are measured by averages, indexes and ETFs hew to the mean, and high-speed traders setting prices want to own nothing.  While you’re trying to rise above, all the algorithms are bending your price back to the middle. It’s one reason why indexes beats stock-pickers: Market structure punishes outliers while active money seeks them.

The only NIRI session I was able to attend this year (we’re busying seeing customers, colleagues and friends during the conference) was a tense paneled polemic (moderated adroitly by one of our profession’s scions, Prudential’s Theresa Molloy) with IEX, hero of Flash Boys with a June 17 SEC deadline on its exchange application, and incumbents the NYSE and the Nasdaq.

Without offense to our market-structure friends at the exchanges, it’s stunning how the legacy firms lobby to preserve speed. Here’s what I mean. When the NYSE and the Nasdaq savage IEX for suggesting that slowing prices down by 350 microseconds is unfair, they are bleating a truth: Their dominance depends on privileges for fast traders.

I’ll reiterate how the market works:  Exchanges don’t aggregate supply and demand, they fracture buying and selling by running multiple markets rather than one. Suppose Nordstrom at the mall split into three stores located at either end and in the middle, with different products in each.  It would inconvenience shoppers, who would have to buy clothes one place and then troop to the far end for shoes. But if Nordstrom was selling data on customer patterns in the mall, it would be a great strategy.

Exchanges pay fast traders to set prices.  Prices are data.  Exchanges make billions selling data.  When IEX says it won’t influence the movement of money by paying for prices but instead will match buyers and sellers fairly and charge them both the same price – which none of the other exchanges do – the truth should be obvious to everyone.

It’s this:  Exchanges are deliberately spreading buyers and sellers apart to sell data. Fast traders are paid by exchanges to create great clouds of tiny trades reflecting narrowly separated prices – the exact opposite of the efficiency of size.

Exchanges sell that price data back to brokers, which are required to give best prices to customers, which they can only demonstrate by buying price data and making sure they match trades at averages of these prices, which means the prices are going to be average, which means the entire market is defined by fast traders and averages.  No wonder Blackrock is enormous. The structure serves it better than stock-pickers – IR’s audience.

This is a racket.  You IR folks are running your executives around the globe at great cost telling the story, targeting investors, tracking ownership-change. Yet the market is built on artificial prices intended to generate data revenue. Structure trumps story.

Stop confusing busy with productive.  Again, telling the story will never go away. But learn what sets your price.

We’ve solved that problem for you.  We announced our Market Structure Analytics Best Practices Guide last Friday, and our new Tableau-powered Market Structure Report.  Five Best Practices. Six Key Metrics. Do these and you’ll be a better IR practitioner in the 21st century – and maybe we’ll cease to be gamed when CEOs understand the market. Five Best Practices (drop me a note for our Guide):

Knowledge. Make it your mission to know how the stock market works.

Measurement.  Measure the market according to how it works, not using some metric created in the 1980s. We have six metrics. That’s all you need to know what matters.

Communication.  Proactively inform your management team about how the six metrics change over time so they stop believing things about the market that aren’t true.

A Good Offense.  Use metrics to drive relationships on the buyside. More meetings confuses busy with productive; develop a better follow-up plan.

A Good Defense.  Since markets don’t work anymore, Activism – a disruption of market structure – is perhaps the most popular active value thesis now.  Activists have had 35 years to learn how to hide from Surveillance.  They don’t know how starkly Market Structure Analytics capture their movements.

Let’s stop being pawns. Without public companies the market does not exist. That’s serious leverage.  Maybe it’s time to starting using it.

Ring of Fire

Yesterday China’s stock-futures market Flash-Crashed 10% and recovered in the same single minute.

For those new to market structure, the term “Flash Crash” references a hyperbolic rout and recovery in US equities May 6, 2010 in which the Dow 30 erased a thousand points and gained most of that back, all in 20 minutes. It’s vital to understand the cause, whether you’re the investor-relations officer for a public company or an investor.

China blamed a futures trade for prompting Tuesday’s fleeting plunge. A year ago, China’s stock-futures market had exploded into the planet’s busiest. Then as its equity market was imploding last summer, the government cracked down on futures trading. China also moved to devalue its currency in August last year, ahead of a dizzying Aug 24 plunge in US equities that saw trading in hundreds of Exchange Traded Funds (ETFs) halted as share-prices and fund asset-values veered sharply apart.

Trading in 2016 Chinese stock futures is a shadow of its 2015 glory but yet again sharp volatility in derivatives followed a currency move. Monday as the USA marked Memorial Day the People’s Bank of China pegged the yuan, China’s currency, at the lowest relative level versus the dollar since the Euro crisis of 2011, which also brought rocking volatility to US stocks.  A similar move Aug 12 preceded last summer’s global stock-market stammer.

Every time there’s an earthquake in Japan or Indonesia, it seems like another follows in Chile or New Zealand.  What geologists call the “Ring of Fire” runs from Chile and Peru up along the west coast of the United States and out through the Aleutian Islands of Alaska and down past Japan and Southeast Asia to the South Pacific and New Zealand.

The more things interconnect, the greater the risk. Tectonic connections are a fact of life on this planet, and we adapt.  But we’ve turned global securities markets into a sort of ring of fire as well. In geology, we link tectonic events and observable consequences. In global securities markets, we don’t yet give the magma of money its due.

Globalization helped to intertwine the planet, sure. But it’s not the fault line. All the money denominating everything from your house to Chinese futures is linked via the dollar, the globe’s “reserve currency,” meaning it’s the House Money, the one every country’s central bank must have. If for instance a country’s currency is falling, it can sell dollars and other currencies and buy its own to improve the ratio and thus the value.

Two consequences arise that feed directly back to US public companies and investors.  Suppose the world’s markets were all tied together with a single string and each market had a little coil to play out. That’s currency. Money.  If one market is doing well, the others may be tempted to tug on the string in order to be pulled along, or to let out some string to change the balance of investment flows.

The process becomes an end unto itself.  The connecting currency string is tugged and played in an effort to promote global equilibrium in prices of assets and performance of economies. So arbitrage develops, which is investing in the expectations of outcomes rather than the outcomes themselves. Focus shifts from long-term returns to how things may change based on this economic data point or that central-bank policy shift.

The fissures that develop can be minute monetary arbitrage imbalances like China’s futures flash crash yesterday.  Or much larger and harder to see, like trillions of dollars in ETFs focused on a stock market trading 15% over long-term valuations that rest on economic growth half that of historical averages.

Before the May 2010 Flash Crash, the Euro was falling sharply as Greece neared collapse.  Before 2011 market turmoil globally, the Euro was again shuddering and some thought it was in danger of failing as a currency (that risk remains).  In Japan, the stock market is up 80% since the government there embarked in 2012 on a massive currency expansion. Now this year, the government having paused that expansion, it’s down 10%.  Has the market corrected or is it inflated?  Is the problem the economy or the money?

On the globe’s geological Ring of Fire, unless we achieve some monumental technological advance, living on it comes with risk and no amount of adjustment in human behavior will have an iota of impact. It’s tectonic.

In the stock market, fundamentals matter. But beneath lies a larger consideration. Markets are linked by currencies and central banks toying with strings.  The lesson for public companies and investors alike is that a grand unifying theme exists, like the physical fact of a Ring of Fire: Watch the string.

And there was a tremor in China again.