Tagged: NIRI

440 Market

How durable is the US stock market?

It sounds like we’re talking about shoes.  Can I wear these hiking? Are they waterproof?

No, it’s a legitimate question, a fair comparison.  Public companies, your capacity to raise capital, incentivize your executives, and deliver returns to shareholders in large part depends on the stock market’s ability to reflect what you’re doing as a business.

And investors, how do you know you can trust the market?

Trust is the bedrock of commerce.  The founders of our republic thought you couldn’t have confidence in transactions involving the exchange of time for money, or goods for money, if the value of the money wasn’t constant.  It was thought back then essential to assure the people that their money would not be misused or devalued.

In the same sense, I think it’s right to expect assurances about the market.  Our retirement accounts are there, by the trillions.

I think pooling public capital and trusting its deployment to smart, seasoned people is a bedrock capitalist principle. People and money are the pillars of productivity – labor and capital.

Agreed?

We can generally concur that prudent deployment of capital is good. Putting money in the hands of smart, experienced people is a winning idea.

We agree, I expect, about the need for a system of uniform justice.  If a dispute arises about the way money has been handled, you’re owed recourse, redress, due process.

Right?

Then there’s the probity, the integrity, of the capital markets.  It’s as important to know you won’t be jobbed by the commercial market for your public investments as it is to have clear, speedy and reliable jurisprudence.

But the big question hangs there.  Do we have that kind of stock market?

To that point, I’m speaking to my dear investor-relations family, the NIRI Rocky Mountain Chapter, tomorrow as part of a program on macroeconomics and market structure. Guess which piece I’ve got? Come join us!  It won’t be boring.

It’s always been important to understand things.  Money.  Government.  Economics. Markets.  The harder these become to comprehend, the more we should ask why.

I understand the stock market.

Reminds me of a line about bitcoin I saw on Twitter, and I think I’ve shared it before so apologies: I’ve never understood bitcoin. On the other hand, I’ve never understood paper money either.

Rather than valuation metrics I see the stock market as machinery.  I grew up on a cattle ranch where the motto was “hundreds are nice, but we need thousands.”  We fixed everything, welded everything, patched everything.  We paid attention to the machinery because we owned it no matter how old it was, and our livelihood depended on it.

My point is it’s not valuation that necessarily determines the health of a market. It’s the machinery creating the valuation. 

Country singer Eric Church laid down a tune for the ages in 2016, Record Year. One of the best songs ever.  The following year, 2017, was a record for ETFs, which saw almost $500 billion of inflows, data show.

And between then and now, trillions of dollars more have followed, leaving the allure of superior Active returns for the durable machinery of Passive crowd-following.

Not surprisingly, Active Investment is down almost 40% as a percentage of daily US trading volume since 2017.

The weird thing, so is Passive Investment.

As market volume has risen from about $250 billion daily in 2017 to $625 billion so far in Jan 2021, investment of both kinds is down almost 75%.  And speculation and derivatives – substitutes for stocks – are up more than 50%.

Wow, right?

I think it means Passive money isn’t adjusting to rising valuations, leaving itself dangerously out over the skis, as we Alpine folks say on steep slopes.

I don’t think the machinery is about to collapse. But. Let me tell you one more story.

We had a gorgeous John Deere 440 that came with the ranch. It was old. And orange, and easy to drive and full of superfast hydraulics for the blade, the backhoe. Fine machinery.  And it left us too often with a slipped track supine in the river with the busted metal heavy on the fast-flowing river-bottom. Or on hillsides. And in ditches.

Love. Hate.  Like the stock market.

The stock market is sleek and lovely. But the hydraulics are hot and we’re crawling the tracklayer through fast waters. I’m concerned that Passive money isn’t keeping up, that the market is reliant on things that don’t last.

It’s not fear.  It’s prudence that leads me to keep an eye on the tracks and not the trading multiples.  And we have that data for you.

Don’t forget to join us at the NIRI Rocky Mountain session today!

Fearless

How does the stock market work?

That’s what somebody was asking at the online forum for my professional association, NIRI.

By the way, the NIRI Annual Conference is underway.  I enjoyed yesterday’s sessions and seeing the faces of my colleagues in the virtual happy hour.  We’ve got two more days.  Come on! We’ll never have another 2020 Covid-19 Pandemic Annual Conference.

So, I’m not knocking the question. The discussion forum is a candid venue where we talk about everything but material nonpublic information.

Investors and traders, how do you think the stock market works?

My profession exists because there are companies with stock trading publicly. Otherwise, there’s no reason to have an investor-relations department, the liaison to Wall Street. IR people better know how the stock market works.

So it gets better. The question that followed was:  What is IR?

Is that infrared? No, “IR” is investor relations. Liaison to Wall Street. Chief intelligence officer. The department that understands the stock market.

So, why is my profession asking how the stock market works? And why, since we’ve been a profession for over a half-century, are we asking ourselves what our job is?

I think it’s because we’re uncertain. Fearful. Grasping for purpose.

We shouldn’t be. The IR job is knowing the story, governance, key drivers in the industry and sector, and how stock-market mechanics affect shareholder value. Internal politics. External rules. Communications best practices.  We are communicators, data analysts.

That’s it.

So how does the stock market work? Section 502 of the Economic Growth, Regulatory Relief, and Consumer Protection Act of 2018, which became law in May that year, required the SEC to give Congress an answer.

It did, in this 100-page report released in Aug 2020. The government always takes longer to describe things than the private sector.  No profit motive, you know. But still. Do we think the SEC is making stuff up?

They’re not. I’m a market-structure expert. The SEC presents an exceptionally accurate dissection of how the stock market works, the effects of algorithms, the inherent risks in automated markets.

Did you get that, IR people?  The SEC understands the market. Traders do. Investors do. Shouldn’t we?  It’s the whole reason for our jobs.

If you’re offended, apologies. It’s time for our profession to be a little more David, a little less Saul.  A little more huck the stone at Goliath, a little less cower in the tents.  I studied theology, so if my analogy baffles, see the book of I Samuel in the bible, roughly the 17th chapter.

It’s literature for atheists and believers alike. It’s about knowing what you’re doing, fearlessly.

Here’s the stock market in 120 words, boiled down from 100 SEC pages:

There is a bid to buy, an offer to sell. These are set in motion each trading day by computers. The computers reside in New Jersey. Half the daily volume comes from these computers, which want to own nothing and make every trade. The equations computers use are algorithms that buy or sell in response to the availability of shares, and almost half of all volume is short, or borrowed. Stock exchanges pay computerized traders to set prices. About 40% of volume is Passive or model-based investment, and trades tied to derivatives like options. About 10% is buy-and-hold money. The interplay of these behaviors around rules governing stock quotes, trades and data determines shareholder value. And it’s all measurable.  

If you want to see these ideas visually, here they are.  IR people, it’s a mantra.

What do you tell your executives?  They need to hear these 120 words twice per month. Once a week would be better.  Visually. What part of your board report reflects these facts?

“I don’t describe the stock market.”

Oh? Stop fearing. We’ll help. What do those 120 words above look like through the lens of your stock? Ask. We’ll show you.

Let’s stop wondering how the stock market works and what IR is. IR is the gatekeeper between shareholder value and business execution.  Math. Physics. A slung stone. A board slide.

Let’s be IR. Fearless.

Are You 2.0?

Are you 2.0?

I know.  You’re tired of clichés.

Especially in a pandemic that birthed a lexicography – social distancing, mask-up, nonessential, emergency executive orders, comorbidity.

After all that, you don’t want to hear you’re 1.0, not 2.0.

On the other hand, I’m notorious for not wanting to upgrade. I’ll stay 1.0 rather than risk 2.0 jacking up the performance of some app.  An update downloads, and now I can’t connect to the printer.  Been through that?

So has the investor-relations profession.

Aside:  Investors, you’re getting a ringside seat. IR, as we call it, is the liaison between public companies and Wall Street. A painful evolution from 1.0. to 2.0 is underway.

In the 1970s you had a rotary phone on your desk and you called investors. IR 1.0 is telling the story.

The IR profession formalized by association in 1969 with the advent of the National Investor Relations Institute (NIRI).  I’m currently on the national board representing service providers. A year from now, I’ll hand off that baton to our next emissary.

IR Era 1.0 lasted from 1969 till 2005 when Regulation National Market System changed the market. Telling the story was the chief function of IR for more than 35 years.

If you don’t know Reg NMS, read this.

Continuing, I had the honor of vice-chairing the 50th Anniversary NIRI Annual Conference in 2019, in Phoenix.  Back when people innocently shook hands, hugged, packed conference halls.  We had famed stock-picker Lee Cooperman, market-structure expert Joe Saluzzi of Themis Trading, SEC head of Trading and Markets Brett Redfearn.

We were standing there looking at IR 2.0. Man, that was fun.

I doubt we’ll dispute rotary phones are obsolete.  Sure, we’ve got ringtones that sound like them. But punching buttons is easier.

Speaking of easy, attending the NIRI 2020 Annual Conference is easier than a button. And it’s upon us.  We’ve spent a long time apart.  Socially distanced, I guess. While that continues at the AC, we can still be virtually together. I’ll be there.

Come join me!  It’s simple. Go here and register (you’d spend a lot more on hotel rooms – and we had sponsored your keys at the Miami Fontainebleau, by the way. Sigh. Ah well.) and instead of checking in to a room, check out the schedule.

Come see our Express Talk. See our two-minute video called, “What Do I Do With It?” See the 2021 IR Planning Calendar to help you navigate the minefield of derivatives expirations when you report results (don’t blow a limb off your story. So to speak.).

I just watched our Express Talk.  I look rough in the first clip – like I’ve been through a Pandemic. I’m cleaned up in the next, even wearing a tie. Then I’m settled in by clip three to share what matters about IR 2.0.

Come view them. Support our community.  After all, 2020 is going to end, despite indications at times this year that it never would. We’re almost there!

Back to IR 2.0.  Understand this: Our profession is a data enterprise now. Not a phone-dialer, meeting-setter.  There’s financial data (your story), ESG data (governance), Alt data (what the buyside is really tracking, like jobs, credit card transactions, port-of-entry satellite views).

And there’s Market Structure. This is the only measure that’ll tell you what sets price. If Activism threats exist. When Passive money rotates. If it’s about your story. How to run buybacks. What happens when you spin off a unit. The best time to issue stock. How deal arbs bet on outcomes (and if they think you’re about to do a deal). What drives shareholder value.

I’ll repeat that.  It’s the only measure that tells you what drives shareholder value. Headlines and financials don’t. Buyers and sellers of stock do.

Do you want to pick up the phone and call people?  Or do you want to advise the executive team and the board?

Okay. IR 2.0 is not for everyone. Some of us just belong in IR 1.0. Give me a desk and a phone and let me call people and convince myself that it matters.

Have at it.

But that’s yesterday. It’s an infinitesimal speck (like a virus) of today’s job. And even dialing should be guided by data, measured by data.

It’s almost 2021. I know the mullet is trying to make a comeback. I know I listen to 80s music.  But that’s no reason to do the IR job like it’s 1984.  Don’t do that. It’s not a good look.

Come see ModernIR and the rest of the vendor community (there are 22 others with us in the virtual exhibit hall) at this year’s disruptive event, the NIRI Annual Conference. See you there.

And let’s start 2021 with good hair and good data.

The Fortress

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

Not only because she tolerates my market-structure screeds.

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

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

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

Blasphemy?  Alchemy?  I’ve gone daft?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

First, understand WHY ETFs are winning:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bad News

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Are you?

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

Dragon Market

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

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

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

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

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

So if not tariffs, why did stocks fall?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tech Sector Composite Stocks — Behavioral Data

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

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

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

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

Electric Market Toothbrush

We were in Portugal and our electric toothbrush went haywire.

It would randomly turn on in the night, and no amount of pressing the button would silence it. We abandoned it in Evora in the shadow of 2,000-year-old Roman aqueducts that still work.

The point isn’t the ephemeral nature of manufactured products (Amazon assured we’d have a replacement waiting, so the modern era works!). But two recent events show how the stock market is built for the short-term – and may run of its own accord.

First, the Wall Street Journal reported Sep 21 that a judge is permitting a class action suit from customers to proceed against TD Ameritrade alleging the big discount broker with 11 million customers breached its “best execution” obligation.

For you investor-relations professionals who’ve heard about the Fee Pilot Program proposed by the SEC, this gets to the heart of it. For you investors, it illustrates how market structure is trumping investment motivation.

Let me explain.  The suit claims TD Ameritrade put its own interest above that of its customers because it routed customer trade-executions to high-speed traders for payment, earning $320 million. TD Ameritrade had net income of about $870 million in 2017 – so selling orders was over 35% of the bottom line.

There’s no law against it, and rules encourage it by forcing trading to occur between the national best bid to buy or offer to sell. Prices constantly change as machines move bids and offers, breaking trades into small pieces to profit on intermediating them.

Retail brokerages sell orders to high-speed firms to avoid these marketplace challenges (of note, the WSJ said Fidelity stopped selling its orders in 2015, an exception in the group). That fast traders paid $320 million for orders suggests they can sell them for more – money that should have gone to the customers rather than the intermediaries.

One could argue spreads are so low that what difference does it make?  What’s a few pennies on a hundred-share order?

The problem is that fees for orders change behavior. High-speed firms aren’t investors. They profit by changing prices. That’s arbitrage, and it becomes both means and end.

What’s the definition of volatility?  Unstable – changing – prices. Rules create economic incentives to change prices. Intraday volatility marketwide is 2.3%, far higher than what the VIX based on implied volatility suggests. Arbitrage is the opposite of long-term investment. Why would we want rules that encourage it?

This is why we support the proposed SEC study that would include eliminating fees in one group (an astute IR guy observed to me in Washington DC last week that every stock should spend time in each of the buckets so there is no discrimination). We don’t want arbitrage pricing the market we all depend on as a gauge of fair value.

Which leads to the second item. The ETFMG Alternative Harvest ETF, a pot fund amusingly tickered “MJ” (last dance with Mary Jane, one more time to kill the pain, sang Tom Petty), made headlines for sharp divergence from its intraday indicative value.

ETFs are required to report net asset value every 15 seconds. Traders can arbitrage – here it comes again – ETF shares as they cross above or below NAV.

(Programming note: I’ll be at the Connecticut/Westchester Chapter Oct 3 talking about the impact of ETFs on markets and your stock, and we’re sponsoring the NIRI Chicago Chapter this Friday the 28th so stop by and say hi!)

The SEC is now proposing to eliminate that requirement so ETFs would price once a day like actual pooled investments such as index mutual funds.  Here’s the kicker: The SEC in first permitting ETFs to trade exempted them from the “redeemable security” mandate in the Investment Company Act of 1940.

That is, all pooled investments must exchange investors’ shares for a proportionate part of the pool of assets when asked. ETFs are exempted from that provision. They are not redeemable. The SEC approved them because creators said the “arbitrage mechanism” would make them in effect redeemable because they would have the same value as an index.

What if the arbitrage incentive diminishes?

To me, the problem today for investors and public companies is the market’s staggering dependency on arbitrage. High-speed traders and Passive money, the latter mostly ETF market-making, are 80% of market volume. The two behaviors at issue in these situations. The math on SPY, the world’s largest ETF, suggests arbitrage is an astonishing 94% of its trading volume when compared to gross share-issuance.

It’s like an electric toothbrush you can’t shut off. What you thought was an instrument designed to serve a purpose can no longer be controlled.  It’s creditable that the SEC is investigating how its rules may be running the toothbrush – and courts could put a spotlight on a market priced by the fastest orders.

We don’t need to go back to Roman aqueducts (though they still work). We can and should recognize that the market has gotten awfully far removed from its intended purpose.

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.

Mercenary Prices

Florida reminded us of high-speed traders.  I’ll explain.

An energized audience and the best attendance since 2012 marked NIRI National, the investor-relations annual confab held last week, this year in Orlando.

We spent the whole conference in the spacious and biggest-ever ModernIR booth right at the gateway and in late-night revelry with friends, clients and colleagues, and I don’t think we slept more than five hours any night.  Good thing it didn’t last longer or we might have expired.

I can’t speak to content because we had no exposure. But asking people coming through the exhibit hall what moved them, we heard about IEX CEO Brad Katsuyama’s general session on the state of markets (we said hi to Brad, who was arriving in from New York about 1am as we were wrapping for the night and heading to bed).

“He said the exchanges are paying $2.7 billion to traders.”

That what folks were reporting to us.

You remember how this works, longtime readers?  The big listing duopoly doled out $500 million in incentives to traders in the most recent quarter.  That is, exchanges paid others to trade on their platforms (the rest came from BATS Global, now part of CBOE).

Both exchanges combined earned about $180 million in fees from companies to list shares. Data and services generated a combined $750 million for the two.

There’s a relationship among all three items – incentives, listing fees, data revenues.  Companies pay to list shares at an exchange. The exchange in turn pays traders to set prices for those shares. By paying traders for prices, exchanges generate price-setting data that brokers and market operators must buy to comply with rules that require they give customers best prices.

I’m not ripping on exchanges. They’re forced by rules to share customers and prices with competitors. The market is an interlinked data network. No one owns the customer, be it a trader, investor or public company. Exchanges found ways to make money out there.

But if exchanges are paying for prices, how often have you supposed incorrectly that stocks are up or down because investors are buying or selling?

At art auctions you have to prove you’ve got the wherewithal to buy the painting before you can make a bid. Nobody wants the auction house paying a bunch of anonymous shill bidders to run prices up and inflate commissions.

And you public companies, if the majority of your volume trades somewhere else because the law says exchanges have to share prices and customers, how come you don’t have to pay fees to any other exchange?  Listing fees have increased since exchanges hosted 100% of your trading.  Shouldn’t they decrease?

Investors and companies alike should know how much volume is shill bidding and what part is real (some of it is about you, much is quant).  We track that every day, by the way.

The shill bidders aren’t just noise, even if they’re paid to set prices. They hate risk, these machine traders.  They don’t like to lose money so they analyze data with fine machine-toothed combs.  They look for changes in the way money responds to their fake bids and offers meant not to own things but to get fish to take a swipe at a flicked financial fly.

Take tech stocks.  We warned beginning June 5 of waning passive investment particularly in tech. The thing that precedes falling prices is slipping demand and nobody knows it faster than Fast Traders.  Quick as spinning zeroes and ones they shift from long to short and a whole sector gives up 5%, as tech did.

Our theme at NIRI National this year was your plan for a market dominated by passive investment.  Sometime soon, IR has got to stop thinking everything is rational if billions of dollars are paid simply to create valuable data.

We’ve got to start telling CEOs and CFOs and boards.  What to do about it? First you have to understand what’s going on. And the buzz on the floor at NIRI was that traders are getting paid to set prices. Can mercenary prices be trusted?

The Rising

Can’t see nothing in front of me. Can’t see nothing coming up behind. 

Those of you who know me know I would never write “can’t see nothing.” But Bruce Springsteen can get away with it.

He and the E Street Band put out the eponymous album on July 30, 2002, and it was appropriate for the stock market as the S&P 500 bottomed October 4, 2002 at 800 and proceeded with The Rising, traveling steadily upward to 1,561 by October 12, 2007. 

We didn’t return until Mar 2013, taking longer to get back than to arrive in the first place.

Now we’ve had variations on a Rising theme for eight years. The market bottomed this week in 2009, on Mar 6, at 683 for the S&P 500, lower than when our troubadour from Long Branch, NJ first commanded in gravel and guitar that we come on up for the rising.   

As with the last lyric in Bruce the Bard’s melody, it’s on wheels of fire that we’ve come rolling down here to 2017 in the stock market, blistering records and burning up the tape. 

We at ModernIR study equity data in our inimitable way, the cross of our calling, Bruce might say.  And that’s all the poetry I can muster.  But I’ve got some facts.

We measure Sentiment on a purely mathematical basis, tracking how the four big reasons people buy and sell interact with market prices and where these wax and wane.

We’re good at capturing short-term asset-price changes. We’ve been doing it for a long time. Our five-day forecasts are roughly 95% correlated to the actual average prices for stocks after the five projected days have elapsed – statistically interchangeable.  

Putting it in English, in short spans we can foretell the future, using math, because the money in the market is using math in ways we can observe with precision. 

Here’s what we know about market Sentiment and short-term prices. For 77 consecutive days now, back to Nov 14, 2016, the stock market has been about 5.0 or higher on our 10-point Sentiment Index.  Since June 2012, some 1,200 trading days, 715 have been 5.0 or higher. It’s been a bull market.  But ten percent are in a row since the election. 

Remarkable. (Aside: If you want to kick this around, catch me Friday at the NIRI Silicon Valley Spring Seminar.)

To our knowledge, the previous record for extended neutral or better Sentiment without a single tip to negative was 53 days, from Feb 22 to May 6 last year.  Back in 2013 when we had a momentum stock market, our Sentiment gauge would carom from below 4.0 to over 9.0 – a rocking Richter event – about every month. 

Here’s the thing:  When last year’s epic Sentiment run concluded in May, we were never able to rise sustainably again – until November. It required an extraordinary catalyst in the form of the Wildly Unexpected Donald Trump. The S&P 500 finished October 2016 lower than it wrapped May 2016. Even with another massive catalyst, the Brexit Boomerang, between. 

This is not scientific. It’s not fundamental. It’s not a factor model. But it IS mathematical, and it does reflect how money behaves today. Here’s my conclusion: Without an extraordinary event, a catalyst, when this long Sentiment run atop 5.0 stops, it will mark the end of this particular bull market. 

What’s a real-world application for investor-relations people? We track Sentiment for you.  When you’re Overbought your price will fall, absent a catalyst. When you’re Oversold, barring a tsunami, your shares will rise. It’s not rational. It’s math.  

You can use this data to your advantage.  When you’re a 10, call a couple of your good value holders to check in, because you’re likely to dip, and if your holder buys (you will be on their minds), you might revert to 5.0 quicker – and 5.0 stocks are the bedrock of solid investment portfolios. 

And vice versa. You’re 1.0?  Pick up the phone. The first investor to buy probably makes money (and will remember to look when next you call) and you’ll return to 5.0. It’s not what you say. It’s that you call that counts. Put yourself on the screen.

Won’t that work for the market? Sure.  At Feb 11 last year, the market was a 1.0/10.0. Great time to buy, turned out.  It was a Rising. 

We don’t know what’s ahead. Don’t know what’s coming up behind. But the math says we’ve had it good for a record stretch. It’s hard to keep setting records.