Tagged: Market Structure

What’s Going On

The most valuable thing is knowing what’s going on.

The country is closing amid Covid cases. Simultaneously, the Shiller PE ratio of earnings in the S&P 500 is 33, a level exceeded in history only at the bursting of the Internet Bubble in 2000.

What’s going on? (The picture here is Howelsen, our beloved Steamboat local ski hill since 1907…a way away from it.)

Stocks are screaming. In contrast, a country jumping in the mummy bag and zipping up suggests sharp impending economic contraction.

Right?

We’re a service society. That is, the bulk of jobs are in doing something for somebody. Bartending to window-washing. Yoga classes to yardwork. Street-sweeping and sanitation, and shearing hair and shearing sheep, and stocking shelves and fixing Internet problems.

Yes, there’s a big spike on the graph from “Information” or whatever you call it.

As income from hairdressing and table-waiting takes a hit, the stock market jumps to eternal highs.  It’s the sort of thing that leads to class envy.

Don’t fall for that.  Follow me here.

Payroll-protection-plan checks are gone, and the mayor or health department or somebody has said you can’t have more than 25% occupancy, everybody working dawn till dusk blending schedules. To make money.

My own stylist says hours are long, pay is down, and taxes are due because there’s not enough for the taxman and the mortgage.

And two weeks ago into the election there was a surge for stocks.

We told you it would happen, nothing to do with the National Haircutting Rate, the Countrywide Window-Washing Ratio. Or whatever.  We call it Sentiment, the way machines set prices.

It’s now topped, smoking cinders falling away.

Jim Cramer said on CNBC, “They just don’t want to sell, Mike.” (Mike Santoli in this case.)

I love Cramer’s iconoclastic verve. He never loses his confidence.

“The open-up trade is back on!” he shouts now to David Faber, who is stoic with a blink and a wan smile.

Who in the markets doesn’t love CNBC?

But they don’t know what’s going on.

Is the Shiller PE right?  Should we wring our hands?

How many body punches from government can the American Economy – hairdressers, restaurateurs, yoga instructors, window-washers, landscapers, on it goes – take before we snap enough ribs to drop to our knees?

It’s like everyone in government is playing craps around that possibility, party affiliation doesn’t matter.

And up goes the market.

Investor-relations professionals tell the c-suite, “We are delivering returns to our investors on superior financial results.”

Everyone shuffles uncomfortably.

Let’s stipulate that if your earnings are accelerating faster than your peers, your stock might do better, even if hairdressers are struggling to pay taxes and other bills.

Couldn’t we all screen for that and make those stocks the most valuable?

Yes. And no.  Yes, you can.  No, it doesn’t work.

A quant fund could screen for all the stocks with 25% annual EPS growth.  That’s got nothing to do with what you do, public companies. Just what you produce. And what if those funds decide to trade your options?

And earnings don’t guarantee stock-appreciation because the market has limited supply. Is GE a great company, BYND a lousy stock?  Explain, please?

I’m making the same point I’ve been making here at the Market Structure Map since 2006, when the whole market was ceded to machines by a rule called Regulation National Market System.

Stop telling your c-suite and Board that you’re flying or falling because of “operating margins.” It’s not true.

The world is math. You need to know what’s going on.

Investors, it’s the same for you. You believe, “Home Depot will be higher because people are buying home-improvement products at record levels.”

That’s not what’s going on.

As for society, we’re deciding if we’ll be a liberal democracy or not. Stock prices won’t decide it.  Knowing what’s going on will.

We can help. Some. (We can help you with knowing what’s going on, IR folks and traders. We have thoughts on society too. But that takes a group effort.)

 

 

On the Skids

If electoral processes lack the drama to satisfy you, check the stock market.

Intraday volatility has been averaging 4%. The pandemic has so desensitized us to gyrations that what once was appalling (volatility over 2%) is now a Sunday T-shirt.

Who cares?

Public companies, your market-cap can change 4% any given day. And a lot more, as we saw this week.  And traders, how or when you buy or sell can be the difference between gains and losses.

So why are prices unstable?

For one, trade-size is tiny.  In 1995, data show orders averaged 1,600 shares. Today it’s 130 shares, a 92% drop.

The exchanges shout, “There’s more to market quality!”

Shoulder past that obfuscating rhetoric. Tiny trades foster volatility because the price changes more often.

You follow?  If the price was $50 per share for 1,600 shares 25 years ago, and today it’s $50 for 130 shares, then $50.02 for 130 shares, then $49.98 for 130 shares, then $50.10 for 130 shares – and so on – the point isn’t whether the prices are pennies apart.

The point is those chasing pennies love this market and so become vast in it. But they’re not investors.  About 54% of current volume comes from that group (really, they want hundredths of pennies now).

Anything wrong with that?

Public companies, it demolishes the link between your story and your stock. You look to the market for what investors think. Instead it’s an arbitrage gauge. I cannot imagine a more impactful fact.

Traders, you can’t trust prices – the very thing you trade. (You should trade Sentiment.)

But wait, there’s more.

How often do you use a credit or debit card?  Parts of the world are going cashless, economies shifting to invisible reliance on a “middle man,” somebody always between the buying or selling.

I’m not knocking the merits of digital exchange. I’m reading Modern Monetary Theory economist Stephanie Kelton’s book, The Deficit Myth.  We can talk about credit and currency-creation another time when we have less stuff stewing our collective insides.

We’re talking about volatility. Why stocks like ETSY and BYND were halted on wild swings this week despite trading hundreds of millions of dollars of stock daily.

Sure, there were headlines. But why massive moves instead of, say, 2%?

The stock market shares characteristics with the global payments system.  Remember the 2008 financial crisis? What worried Ben Bernanke, Tim Geithner and Hank Paulson to grayness was a possibility the plumbing behind electronic transactions might run dry.

Well, about 45% of US stock volume is borrowed. It’s a payments system. A cashless society. Parties chasing pennies don’t want to own things, and avoid that by borrowing. Covering borrowing by day’s end makes you Flat, it’s called.

And there are derivatives. Think of these as shares on a layaway plan.  Stuff people plan to buy on time but might not.

Step forward to Monday, Nov 9. Dow up 1700 points to start. It’s a massive “rotation trade,” we’re told, from stay-at-home stocks to the open-up trade.

No, it was a temporary failure of the market’s payments system. Shorting plunged, dropping about 4% in a day, a staggering move across more than $30 trillion of market-cap. Derivatives trades declined 5% as “layaways” vanished.  That’s implied money.

Bernanke, Geithner and Paulson would have quailed.

Think of it this way. Traders after pennies want prices to change rapidly, but they don’t want to own anything. They borrow stock and buy and sell on layaway.  They’re more than 50% of volume, and borrowing is 45%, derivatives about 13%.

There’s crossover – but suppose that’s 108% of volume – everything, plus more.

That’s the grease under the skids of the world’s greatest equity market.

Lower it by 10% – the drop in short volume and derivatives trades. The market can’t function properly. Metal meets metal, screeching. Tumult ensues.

These payment seizures are routine, and behind the caroming behavior of markets. It’s not rational – but it’s measurable.  And what IS rational can be sorted out, your success measures amid the screaming skids of a tenuous market structure.

Your board and exec team need to know the success measures and the facts of market function, both. They count on you, investor-relations professionals. You can’t just talk story and ESG. It’s utterly inaccurate. We can help.

Traders, without market structure analytics, you’re trading like cavemen. Let us help.

By the way, the data do NOT show a repudiation of Tech. It’s not possible. Tech sprinkled through three sectors is 50% of market-cap. Passive money must have it.

No need for all of us to be on the skids.  Use data.  We have it.

-Tim Quast

Serenity

Moab, UT — photo courtesy Tim and Karen Quast, Oct 2020

On Nov 4, 2020, words commonly associated with a 12-step program come to mind.

Protestant theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, who received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1964, sometime in the 1930s during the Great Depression is said to have coined the words we today call the Serenity Prayer.

Ostensibly it might at the earliest have emphasized courage: Give us courage to change what must be altered, serenity to accept what cannot be helped, and the insight to know the one from the other.

It’s a good life rule, a thoughtful notion after elections. And a way to see the stock market.

For public companies, there are things one can change, influence, based on how the market works.  And things you have to accept.  You cannot control the fact that 85% of volume is motivated by something other than your skill at running a business.

You CAN control what, investor-relations professionals, your board and executives understand about the way the market works.  You can know when to accentuate and accelerate your contact with holders because the data indicate conditions are favorable for them. You can avoid wasting time when conditions signal trouble for your stock and the whole market.

I’ve written about it for years, so I ask that you serenely indulge my penchant for repetition.

The stock market ebbs and flows.  It will add to and remove from your shareholder value, and it will do that no matter how much time and money you spend on telling your story and propagating data on your environmental, social and governance achievements.

Why?  Because that’s the gravity of the stock market. It has immutable forces, like this planet, that remain in place and in effect no matter who’s in charge.

Serenity comes from recognizing what you can and cannot change. And being proactive in response to both.

These principles apply to investors and traders too.

Here’s an example.  If you followed simple principles of market structure to buy and sell MSFT between Feb 1, 2020, before the Pandemic slammed us, and Nov 2, 2020, you could have made 46%.

Buying and holding MSFT has produced a 17% return – a redoubtable outcome under any circumstances.  SPY, proxy for the S&P 500, was up 2% over that span.  It covers 191 trading days.

But our 46% return in MSFT came in just 107 trading days. The other 84 days we could have owned something else to add to our returns.

How and why? The market ebbs and flows.  MSFT spent 134 days at or above 5.0 on a supply/demand scale, and 57 days below it.  Owning MSFT when it was over 5.0 produced the gains. Selling it when it dipped back below 5.0 avoided the losses.

That had nothing to do, really, with MSFT’s success as a business. It’s supply and demand.  The product is stock.

Since Sep 1, MSFT is down 11% because it’s spent about as much time below 5.0 as above it.

For you ModernIR clients, that over 5.0/under 5.0 scale we’re talking about is Market Structure Sentiment™, your gauge of the balance of supply and demand for your stock (and we go further and show you the kind of money that’s responsible).

Is the story MSFT tells any different now?  No.  It’s market structure. It’s the gravity of the stock market – the ebb and flow of supply and demand.

I’m not suggesting you stop doing the things you do to drive shareholder value.  I am suggesting that without an understanding of market structure, those dollars and efforts can be Sisyphean.

Same for you, traders and investors. I can prove six ways to Sunday, as the saying goes, that buying and holding is inferior to using market structure to help you keep gains and avoid losses.

It’s just intelligent use of technology.

Sometimes the beginning point for better ways of doing things is the Serenity Prayer. You first must recognize what you can and cannot change – and you have to accept what that realization means.  Then you find the courage to change what you can.

With the election behind us now, Market Structure Sentiment™ is about 4.0. It was on the same trajectory we measured in Nov 2016, and with the Brexit vote in June 2016.  The pressure on stocks was machines, and the surge ahead of it was short-covering.

Now we begin the next chapter.  See you next week.

-Tim Quast

Placid

The data are more placid than the people.

When next we write, elections will be over. We may still be waiting for the data but we’ll have had an election. Good data is everything.  Story for another time.

The story now is how’s money behaving before The Big Vote? Depends what’s meant by “behave.” The Wall Street Journal wrote for weeks that traders saw election turmoil:

-Aug 16:  “Traders Brace for Haywire Markets Around Presidential Election.” 

-Sep 27: “Investors Ramp Up Bets on Market Turmoil Around Election.”

-Oct 3: “Investors Can Take Refuge from Election Volatility.”

Then the WSJ’s Gunjan Banerji wrote yesterday (subscription required) that volatility bets have turned bearish – now “low vol” rather than higher volatility. Markets see a big Biden stimulus coming.

It’s a probable political outcome.

However.

The shift in bets may be about prices, not outcomes.  When there is a probability somebody will pay you more for a volatility bet than you paid somebody else for it, bets on volatility soar.  It hits a nexus and reverses. Bets are ends unto themselves.

On Oct 26, S&P Global Market Intelligence offered a view titled, “Hedging costs surge as investors brace for uncertain election outcome.”

It says costs for hedges have soared. And further, bets on dour markets are far more pronounced in 2021, implying to the authors that the market fears Covid19 resurgence more than election outcomes.

Two days, two diametric opposites.

There’s the trouble. Behaviors are often beheld, not beatified.

One of our favorite targets here in the Market Structure Map, as you longtime readers know, is the propensity among observers to treat all options action as rational. The truth is 90% of options expire unused because they are placeholders, bets on how prices change, substitutes. They don’t mean what people think.

S&P Global says the cost of S&P 500 puts has risen by 50% ahead of the election. Yet it also notes the open interest ratio – difference between the amount contracts people want to create versus the number they want to close out – is much higher in 2021 than it is around the election.

The put/call ratio can be nothing more than profiting on imbalances. And what behavior is responsible for an imbalance, valid or not? Enter Market Structure Analytics, our forte.  You can’t look at things like volume, prices, open interest, cost, etc., in a vacuum.

Let me explain. Suppose we say, “There is a serious national security threat from a foreign nation.”

Well, if the foreign nation is Switzerland, we laugh. It’s neutral. Has been for eons.  If it’s China or Iran, hair stands up.

Context matters. I said the behaviors were more placid than the people. I mean the voters are more agitated than the money in US equities.

Standard deviation – call it degree of change – is much higher in the long-run data for all behaviors, by 20% to more than 130%, than in October or the trailing 30 trading days back before September options-expirations.

Meaning? Eye of the beholder. Could be nothing. Could mean money sees no change.

Remember, there are four reasons, not one, for why money buys or sells. Investment, asset-allocation, speculation, taking or managing risk. None of these shares an endpoint.

Active money is the most agitated and even it is subdued. But it’s sold more than bought since Sep 2.  I think it means people read the stuff other people write and become fearful. It’s not predictive.

The other three behaviors show diminished responsiveness.  Yes, even risk management.

I could read that to mean the machines that do things don’t see anything changing.  The machines may be right in more ways than one! The more things change, the more they stay the same.

One thing I know for sure. I’ve illustrated how headlines don’t know what’s coming.  It’s why investor-relations and investment alike should not depend on them.

The data, however, do know.  And every investor, every public company, should be metering behavior, be it volatile or placid. We have that data.  I just told you what it showed.

Now, we’ll see what it says.

Oh, and this is placid to me, the Yampa River in CO, anytime of the year, and this is Oct 27, 2020.

What’s In It

We rode the Colorado National Monument this week with our good friends from Sun Valley. There’s a lesson in it about life and stocks both.

We would’ve been riding bikes in Puglia with them now, if not for this pandemic.  Oh, and part of the lesson learned is in Telluride.

Stay with me.  I’ll explain.

So we learned Sun Valley is comprised of four towns.  Sun Valley, Ketchum, Hailey and Bellevue. Each has its own mayor, own government.  It could be one united town, but no.

There’s a point.  While you ponder that, let me give you some background.

Karen and I wandered from Denver to Glenwood Springs (rode bikes, ate great food, soaked in hot springs, at this energetic little burg favored by Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday), and on to Grand Junction (pedaled the Monument and bunked at the lovely Hotel Maverick on the campus of Colorado Mesa University).

We then migrated to Moab and hiked Canyonlands and cycled the Potash Highway where evidence remains of a civilization once living in paradise on the Colorado River (if your etched recreations of yourselves in sandstone reflect jewelry and wildly stylish hair, you’re well up the actualization hierarchy from basic sustenance).

We next traversed the remote stretch from there to Telluride, a dramatic geological shift. The little city in a box canyon lighted by Nikola Tesla and robbed by Butch Cassidy is a swanky spot at the end of the road.  Wow.  I get it.  Oprah. Tom Cruise. Ralph Lauren. It looks like their town.

Or towns, rather.  Because here too as in Idaho there are cities a couple miles apart with two mayors, two governments. There’s Telluride, CO, in the valley. There’s Mountain Village, CO, up above (where no expense has been spared – you cannot find a tool shed that’s a shack).

And that’s the lesson. People talk about coming together.  Sun Valley can’t.  Telluride can’t.  Could it be humans are motivated by their own interests?

And how about money behind stocks?

More on that in a moment.

NIRI, the association for investor-relations professionals, has a 50-year history.  I’m on the national board representing service providers.  We were blindsided by the SEC this summer, which abruptly proposed changing the threshold for so-called 13Fs, named for the section of the Securities Act creating them.

Our profession depends on those filings to understand shareholdings.

The SEC said funds with less than $5 billion of assets would no longer have to file.  There goes insight into 90% of funds. The SEC never asked us.

You’re thinking, “There’s a hammer here, and a nail. Perhaps I’ll just pound it through my hand rather than continue reading.”

Don’t quit! You’re getting close.

Tip O’Neill and Ronald Reagan made deals. You youngsters, look it up.  There were “pork barrel politics,” a pejorative way to describe a quid pro quo.  Wait, is that a double negative?

Let me rephrase. Politicians used to do deals.  Give me something, I’ll give you something.  You can decry it but it’s human nature.  We don’t “come together” without a reason.

Sun Valley. Telluride. They haven’t yet found a reason to unite.

NIRI could learn. We can talk for ten years about why we deserve better data. There’s nothing in it for the other side. I bet if we said to the bulge bracket, the Goldman Sachses, the Morgan Stanleys, “You lose your corporate access until you help us get better data.”

Now both have skin in the game. Stuff gets done.

Most of us outside Jesus Christ, Mother Theresa, Martin Luther King, Jr and Mahatma Gandhi are motivated by what benefits us.

Shift to stocks.  Money with different purposes and time-horizons drives them.  The motivation for each is self-interest, not headlines or negotiations between Nancy Pelosi and Steven Mnuchin.

Let’s call it, “What’s In It for Me?” All the money is motivated by that.  Humans are similarly animated.  For most of the money in the market, what’s in it is a short-term return.

If you want to understand what motivates the money, you must understand self-interest.  You can learn it in Sun Valley or Telluride.  You can learn it watching politics. And it applies to stocks. Money wants returns. When that opportunity wanes, it leaves.

That’s it. No more complex. And ModernIR measures that motivation.  Ask us, and we’ll show you what’s in it for the money behind your shares.  Too bad we can’t figure it out in politics. It’s not that hard.

Minnows

Softbank bet big on call-options and Technology stocks are sinking.

So goes the latest big story. Business-reporting wants a whale, a giant trade that went awry.  A cause for why Tech stocks just corrected (off 10%).

In reality the market today rarely works that way.  Rather than one big fish there are a thousand minnows, swimming schools occasionally bringing the market down.

We wrote about this last week, regarding short volume. You should read it. We highlighted a key risk right before the market fell.

The same things driving stocks up unassailably toward the heavens, which should first have gotten our attention, often return them to earth. But we humans see no flaws in rising stocks.

Back to Softbank. If you’ve not read the stories, we’ll summarize. CNBC, the Wall Street Journal and other sources have reported on unconfirmed speculation the big Japanese private equity firm bet the equivalent of $50 billion on higher prices for Tech stocks.

Maybe it’s true.  Softbank owned about $4 billion of Tech stocks in the last 13Fs for the quarter ended June 30 (the filings the SEC wants to make less useful, by the way).

Rumor is Softbank levered those holdings by buying call options, rights to own shares at below-market prices if they’re worth more than a threshold level later, on big Tech stocks like MSFT and AAPL.

Here’s where the story ends and market structure begins. The truth is the market neither requires a leviathan to destabilize it, nor turns on this colossus or that. It’s minnows.

It’s always thrumming and humming in the lines and cables and boxes of the data network called the stock market.  And everything is magnified.

A single trade for a single stock, coupled with an order to sell options or buy them, sets off a chain of events.  Machines send signals like radar – ping! – into the network to learn if someone might take the other side of this trade.

Simultaneously, lurking mechanical predators are listening for radar and hearing the pings hitting a stock – MSFT! Wait, there are trades hitting the options market.  Get over to both fast and raise the price!

Compound, compound, compound.

Prices rise.  Retail traders say to themselves, “Let’s buy tech stocks!  Wait, let’s buy options too!”

And the same lurking machines buy those trades from the pipelines of online brokerage firms, assessing the buy/sell imbalance. They rush to the options market to raise prices there too, because once the machines own the trades from retail investors, they are no longer customer orders.  And the machines calculate demand and run prices up.

And index futures contracts rise, and the options on those. Then index funds using options and futures to true up index-tracking lift demand for options and futures, magnifying their own upside.

Read prospectuses, folks. Most index funds can spend up to 10% of assets on substitutes for tracking purposes, and a giant futures contract expires the last trading day of each month that helps indexed money square its assets with the benchmark.

And then the arbitragers for Exchange Traded Funds drive up the prices of ETF shares to keep pace with rising stocks, options, futures.

And there are options on ETFs.

Every price move is magnified by machines.  Up and up and up go stocks and people wonder does the stock market reflect reality?

The thing about prices is you never know precisely when they hit a zenith, the top of the arc. The last pump of your childhood legs in the playground swing, and that fleeting weightlessness.

And then whoosh!  Down you come.

Did Softbank make money or lose it?  I don’t know and it makes no difference. What I just described is relentlessly occurring every fraction of every second in the stock and options markets and there comes a moment of harmonic convergence after long arcs up and down, up and down, like children on swing sets.

It’s a thousand cuts, not a sword. Schools of minnows, not a whale.  The problem isn’t Softbank. It’s a market that depends on the machine-driven electromagnification of every action and reaction.

The reason we know is we measure it. For public companies, and investors. You can wait for stories after the fact surmising sea monsters swam through. Or you can watch it on the screen and see all the minnows, as we do (read last week’s MSM).

What’s next? The same thing. Again.

The Little Short

In Michael Lewis’s The Big Short, a collection of eccentrics finds a flaw in real estate securities and shorts them.  The movie is great, the book even better.

Somebody will write a book about the 2020 stock market (anyone?) flaw.

The flaw? Depends who you ask. Writing for Barron’s, Ben Levisohn notes ZM is worth more in the market on $660 million of sales for the quarter than is IBM on $18 billion.

TSLA is up a thousand percent the last year, sales are up 3%. NVDA is trading at a hundred times quarterly revenue. AAPL is up 160% on 6% sales growth.

I know a lot about fundamental valuation after 25 years in investor relations. But 20 of those years were consumed with market structure, which our models show mechanically overwhelms fundamentals.

Why is market structure irrational?

Because most of the money in the market since Reg NMS isn’t rational. And still investor-relations professionals drag me to a whiteboard and sketch out how the performance of the stock – if it’s up – can be justified by prospects, or if it’s down is defying financials.

Market structure, rules governing how stocks trade, is agnostic about WHY stocks trade. The flaw is process has replaced purpose. Money inured to risk and reality can do anything. Just like government money from the Federal Reserve.

And yet that’s not what I’m talking about today.  The market is the Little Short.  Nobody is short stocks. I use the term “nobody” loosely.

Let me give you some history.

First, ignore short interest. It’s not a useful metric because it was created in 1975 before electronic markets, ETFs, Reg NMS, Fast Traders, exchange-traded derivatives, blah, blah. It’s like medieval costumes in Tom Cruise’s redux of Top Gun. It doesn’t fit.

After the financial crisis, rules for banks changed. The government figured out it could force banks to own its debt as “Tier 1 Capital,” and the Fed could drive down interest rates so they’d have to keep buying more.

Voila! Create a market for your own overspending. The Basel Accords do the same thing.

Anyway, so big banks stopped carrying equity inventories because they couldn’t do both.  Meanwhile the SEC gave market-makers exemptions from limitations on shorting.

Presto, Fast Traders started shorting to provide securities to the market. And that became the new “inventory.” Ten years later, short volume – borrowed stock – averages 45% of trading volume.

It was over 48% this spring.  And then it imploded in latter August, currently standing at 42.6%. The FAANGs, the giant stocks rocketing the major measures into the stratosphere, show even more short paucity at just 39%.

Realize that the market was trading $500 billion of stock before August, about 12 billion shares daily. So what’s the point? Short volume is inventory today, not mainly bets on declining stocks. It’s the supply that keeps demand from destabilizing prices, in effect. A drop from 48% to 43% is a 10% swoon, a cranial blow to inventory.

Higher short volume restrains prices because it increases the available supply. If demand slows, then excess supply weighs on prices, and stocks decline. We’ve been measuring this feature of market structure for a decade. It’s well over 80% correlated.

So the absence of inventory has the opposite impact on prices. They rise.  If the whole market lacks inventory, stocks soar. And the lowest inventory right now is in the FAANGs, which are leading the stampeding bulls.

Thinking about prices as rational things is wholly flawed. It’s not how the market works, from supply-chain, to routing, to quotes, prices, execution.

We thought temporal tumult in behaviors two weeks ago would derail this market. It didn’t. Or hasn’t yet. The big drop in shorting followed, suggesting those patterns included largescale short-covering by market-makers for ETFs.

When the market does finally reverse – and it will, and it’s going to be a freak show of a fall too, on market structure – low short volume will foster seismic volatility. Then shorting will explode, exacerbating the swoon as supply mushrooms and prices implode.

The good news is we can measure these data, and the behaviors responsible, and the impact on price. There’s no need to ever wonder if your stock, public companies, or your portfolio, traders, is about to step on a land mine.  We’re just waiting now to see how the Little Short plays out.

Mini Me

Minis abound.

You can trade fractions of shares.  Heck, the average trade-size is barely 100 shares, and 50% of trades are less than that.  Minis, as it were.

There are e-mini futures contracts on the S&P 500 index, and the newer micro e-mini futures product is the CME’s most successful, says the derivatives market operator.

Starting Aug 31 there will be micro options on e-mini futures for the S&P 500 and the Nasdaq 100. As of Aug 10, there are mini CBOE VIX volatility futures too, with a 10th of the face value of the conventional contract (expiring Aug 19).

One can spend less to have exposure to stocks and market-moves. The same notion animated a push toward decimalization before 2001 when it was implemented.

Decimals didn’t kill the stock market but they gutted analyst-coverage. Spreads – that is, the difference between the cost to buy and sell – funded research. In the 1990s there were on average 60 underwriters per IPO, and there were hundreds of those.

Today, there are five underwriters on average, the data show, and IPOs don’t keep pace with companies leaving markets through deals.  The Wilshire 5000, which in 1998 had 7,200 components, today has 2,495, factoring out micro-caps comprising just basis points of total market-capitalization.

Half the companies in the Wilshire 5000 have no analysts writing, while the top few hundred where trading supports it are festooned with quills – pens – like porcupines.

I think the inverse correlation between markets and the proliferation of minis bears some connection. It’s not the only thing, or perhaps even the biggest. But there’s a pattern.

And you should understand the market so you know what to expect from it. After all, who thought the March bear turn for stocks would be the shortest in history?

No one.  Including us.  Market structure, the way the ecosystem functions, explains it far better than fundamentals. But read to the end. We’ll say more.

Are the minis playing a role?

Look I’m not knocking fractional shares or tiny derivatives.  Rather, let’s think about the ramifications of growing layers separating trading from underlying assets.  Consider:

  • You can trade the stocks of the Nasdaq 100, the largest hundred at the exchange.
  • You can trade them in fractions without paying a commission.
  • You can trade the QQQ, the popular Exchange Traded Fund (ETF) that tracks the performance of the 100. ETFs as we’ve explained repeatedly are substitutes for stocks, not pooled interest in owning them.
  • You can trade e-mini futures contracts on the Nasdaq 100.
  • And now you can trade micro options on the e-mini Nasdaq 100 futures.
  • And you can trade options on the QQQ, and every component of the Nasdaq 100.
  • And you can trade the S&P 500 with exactly the same kinds of instruments, and SPY, the ETF.

It’s ingenious product-creation, and we’re not criticizing the innovators behind them.  It’s that I don’t think many people ask what effect the pursuit of mini increments of investment will have on market-behavior and prices, things that matter particularly to public companies depending on the market as a rational barometer.

And investors join public companies in caring how markets work.  Derivatives are becoming an ever-larger part of market volume. They’re layers of separation from underlying assets that become ends unto themselves, especially as increments shrink.

Why trade the stocks? Trade the rights on how they may behave – in tiny slices.

It disguises real supply and demand, which drives markets up relentlessly. Until that stops. Then markets collapse violently. These are chronic conditions in markets with too many derivatives.

Just saying.

Speaking of the market, it did as we wrote last week, with Market Structure Sentiment™ bottoming Aug 7, presaging gains a week out. Now options are expiring (including the VIX today), and Sentiment is topping, and behavioral volatility is massive, larger than we’ve measured at any point in the pandemic.

Maybe it’s nothing. Sometimes those data pass without a ripple. The FAANGs look good (low shorting, bottomed Sentiment). But we may be at the top of the Ferris Wheel after all those minis drove us this short, sharp way back up.

Dark Edges

The stock market’s glowing core can’t hide the dark edges – rather like this photo I snapped of the Yampa River in downtown Steamboat springs at twilight.

Speaking of which, summer tinkled its departure bell up high.  We saw the first yellowing aspen leaves last week, and the temperature before sunrise on the far side of Rabbit Ears Pass was 30 degrees, leaving a frosty sheen on the late-summer grass.

The last hour yesterday in stocks sent a chill too. Nothing shouts market structure like lost mojo in a snap.  I listened to pundits trying to figure out why.  Maybe a delay in stimulus.  Inflation. Blah blah.  I didn’t hear anyone blame Kamala Harris.

It’s not that we know everything.  Nobody does.  I do think our focus on the mechanics, the machinery, the rules, puts us closer to the engines running things than most observers.

And machines are running the market.  Machines shift from things that have risen to things that have fallen, taking care to choose chunks of both that have liquidity for movement. Then all the talking heads try to explain the moves in rational terms.

But it’s math. Ebbs and flows (Jim Simons, the man who solved the market at Renaissance Technologies, saw the market that way).

Passives have been out of Consumer Staples. Monday they rushed back and blue chips surged. The Nasdaq, laden with Tech, is struggling. It’s been up for a long time. Everybody is overweight and nobody has adjusted weightings in months. We can see it.

By the way, MSCI rebalances hit this week (tomorrow on the ModernIR Planning Calendar).

This is market structure. It’s morphed into a glowing core of central tendencies, such as 22% of all market capitalization now rests on FB, AAPL, AMZN, NFLX, GOOG, MSFT, AMD, TSLA and SHOP.

That’s the glowing core.  When they glow less, the dark edges grow.

Then there’s money.  Dough. Bucks. Specifically, the US dollar and its relationship to other global currencies. When the dollar falls, commodities surge. It’s tipped into the darkness the past month, marking one of its steepest modern dives.  Gold hit a record, silver surged, producer prices dependent on raw commodities exploded.

Then the dollar stopped diving. It’s up more than 1% in the last five days. And wham! Dark edges groped equities late yesterday. Gold plunged. Silver pirouetted off a 15% cliff.

August is traditionally when big currency-changes occur. Aug last year (massive move for the dollar versus the Chinese Renminbi Aug 5, 2019). Aug 2015. Aug 2018. Currencies rattle prices because currencies underpin, define, denominate, prices.

Back up to Feb 2020.  The dollar moved up sharply in late February, hitting the market Monday, Feb 24, as new options traded.  Pandemic!

Options expire next week.  The equivalent day is Aug 24, when new options will trade. Nobody knows when the dark edges will become cloying hands reaching for our investment returns or equity values.

In fact, Market Structure Sentiment™, our algorithm predictively metering the ebb and flow of different trading behaviors, peaked July 28 at 7.7 of 10.0, a strong read.  Strong reads create arcs but say roughly five trading days out, give or take, stocks fall.

They didn’t. Until yesterday anyway. They just arced.  The behavior giving equities lift since late July in patterns was Fast Trading, machines chasing relative prices in fractions of seconds – which are more than 53% of total volume.

Then Market Structure Sentiment bottomed Aug 7 at 5.3, which in turn suggests the dark edges will recede in something like five trading days.  Could be eight. Might be three.

Except we didn’t have dark edges until all at once at 3pm ET yesterday.

Maybe it lasts, maybe it doesn’t. But there’s a vital lesson for public companies and investors about the way the market works.  The shorter the timeframe of the money setting prices, the more statistically probable it becomes that the market suddenly and without warning dives into the dark.

It’s because prices for most stocks are predicated only on the most recent preceding prices.  Not some analyst’s expectation, not a multiple of future earnings, not hopes for an economic recovery in 2021.

Prices reflect preceding prices. If those stall, the whole market can dissolve into what traders call crumbling quotes.  The pandemic nature of short-term behavior hasn’t faded at the edges. It’s right there, looming.  We see it in patterns.

If something ripples here in August, it’ll be the dark edges, or the dollar. Not the 2021 economy.

Boxes and Lines

 

In the sense that high-speed transmission lines connecting computerized boxes are the stock market, it’s boxes and lines.

Also, stock exchange IEX, the investors exchange, hosts a podcast called Boxes and Lines that’s moderated by co-founder Ronan Ryan and John “JR” Ramsay, IEX’s chief market policy officer. I joined them for the most recent edition (about 30 mins of jocularity and market structure).

In case you forget, the stock market is not in New York City.  It’s in New Jersey housed in state-of-the-art colocation facilities at Mahwah, Carteret and Secaucus.  It’s bits and bytes, boxes and lines.

It’s superfast.

What’s not is the disclosure standard for institutional investors.  We wrote about the SEC’s sudden, bizarre move to exclude about 90% of them from disclosing holdings.

The current standard, which legitimizes the saying “good enough for government work,” is 45 days after the end of the quarter for everybody managing $100 million or more.

We filed our comment letter Monday.  It’ll post here at some point, where you can see all comments. You can read it here now.  Feel free to plagiarize any or all of it, investors and public companies. Issuers, read our final point about the Australian Standard of beneficial ownership-tracing, and include it with your comments.

Maybe if enough of us do it, the SEC will see its way toward this superior bar.

Without reading the letter or knowing the Australian Standard you can grasp a hyperbolic contradiction. The government’s job is to provide a transparent and fair playing field.  Yet the same SEC regulates the stock market located in New Jersey. Boxes and lines.

FB, AAPL, AMZN, NFLX, GOOG, GOOGL, MSFT, AMD, TSLA and SHOP alone trade over 2.5 MILLION times, over $80 billion worth of stock. Every day.

And the standard for measuring who owns the stock is 45 days past the end of each quarter.  A quarter has about 67 trading days, give or take.  Add another 30 trading days.  Do the math.  That’s 250 million trades, about $7.9 trillion of dollar-flow.  In 10 stocks.

Why should the market function at the speed of light while investors report shareholdings at the speed of smell? Slower, really.

Do we really need to know who owns stocks?  I noted last week here and in our SEC 13F Comment Letter both that online brokerage Robinhood reports what stocks its account holders own in realtime via API.

That’s a communication standard fitted to reality. True, it doesn’t tell us how many shares. But it’s a helluva better standard than 97 days later, four times a year.

Quast, you didn’t answer the question.  Why does anyone need to know who owns shares of which companies? Isn’t everybody entitled to an expectation of privacy?

It’s a public market we’re talking about.  The constituency deserving transparency most is the only other one in the market with large regulatory disclosure requirements: Public companies.

They have a fiduciary responsibility to their owners. The laws require billions of dollars of collective spending by public companies on financial performance and governance.

How incoherent would it be if regulations demand companies disgorge expensive data to unknown holders?

As to retail money, the Securities Act of 1933, the legislative basis for now decades of amendments and regulation, had its genesis in protecting Main Street from fraud and risk.  The principal weapon in that effort has long been transparency.

Now, the good news for both investors and public companies is that you can see what all the money is doing all the time, behaviorally. We’ve offered public companies that capability for 15 years at ModernIR.

Take TSLA, now the world’s most actively traded – we believe – individual stock. SPY trades more but it’s an ETF.  Active money has been selling it.  But shorting is down, Passive Investment is down 21% the past week.  TSLA won’t fall far if Passives stay put.

That’s market structure. It’s the most relevant measurement technique for modern markets. It turns boxes and lines into predictive behavioral signals.

And investors, you can use the same data at Market Structure EDGE to help you make better decisions.

Predictive analytics are superior to peering into the long past to see what people were doing eons ago in market-structure years. Still, that doesn’t mean the SEC should throw out ownership transparency.

Small investors and public companies are the least influential market constituents. Neither group is a lobbying powerhouse like Fast Traders.  That should warrant both higher priority – or at least fair treatment. Not empty boxes and wandering lines.

PS – Speaking of market structure, if you read last week’s edition of the Market Structure Map, we said Industrials would likely be down. They are. And Patterns say there’s more to come. In fact, the market signals coming modest weakness. The Big One is lurking again but it’s not at hand yet.