Tagged: Options Expirations

In Control

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

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

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

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

Why?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It should be up, not down.

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

Where’d the money go?

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

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

If it doesn’t, Fast Traders will vanish.

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

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

Jekyll and Hyde

Your stock may collateralize long and short Exchange-Traded Funds (ETFs) simultaneously.

Isn’t that cognitive dissonance – holding opposing views? Jekyll and Hyde? It’s akin to supposing that here in Denver you can drive I-25 north toward Fort Collins and arrive south in Castle Rock. Try as long as you like and it’ll never work.

I found an instance of this condition by accident. OXY, an energy company, is just through a contested battle with CVX to buy APC, a firm with big energy operations in the Permian Basin of TX (where the odor of oil and gas is the smell of money).

OXY is in 219 ETFs, a big number.  AAPL is in 271 but it’s got 20 times the market-capitalization.  OXY and its short volume have moved inversely – price down, shorting up. The patterns say ETFs are behind it.

So I checked.

Lo and behold, OXY is in a swath of funds like GUSH and DRIP that try to be two or three times better or worse than an index. These are leveraged funds.

How can a fund that wants to return, say, three times more than an S&P energy index use the same stock as one wanting to be three times worse than the index?

“Tim, maybe one fund sees OXY as a bullish stock, the other as bearish.”

Except these funds are passive vehicles, which means they don’t pick stocks. They track a model, and in this case, the same model.  If the stock doesn’t behave like the ETF, why does the fund hold it?

I should note before answering that GUSH and DRIP and similar ETFs are one-day investments. They’re in a way designed to promote ownership of volatility. They want you to buy and sell both every day.

You can see why. This image above shows OXY the last three months with GUSH and DRIP.

Consider what that means for you investor-relations professionals counting on shares to serve as a rational barometer, or you long investors doing your homework to find undervalued stocks.

Speaking of understanding, I’ll interject that if you’re not yet registered for the NIRI Annual Conference, do it now!  It’s a big show and a good one, and we’ve got awesome market structure discussions for you.

Back to the story, these leveraged instruments are no sideshow. In a market with 3,500 public companies and close to 9,000 securities, tallying all stock classes, closed-end funds and ETFs, some routinely are among the top 50 most actively traded.  SQQQ and TVIX, leveraged instruments, were in the top dozen at the Nasdaq yesterday.

For those juiced energy funds, OXY is just collateral. That is, it’s liquid ($600 million of stock trading daily) and currently 50% less volatile than the broad market. A volatility fund wants the opposite of what it’s selling (volatility) because it’s not investing in OXY. It’s leveraging OXY to buy or sell or short other things that feed volatility.

And it can short OXY as a hedge to boot.

All ETFs are derivatives, not just ones using derivatives to achieve their objectives. They are all predicated on an underlying asset yet aren’t the underlying asset.

It’s vital to understand what the money is doing because otherwise conclusions might be falsely premised. Maybe the Board at OXY concludes management is doing a poor job creating shareholder value when in reality it’s being merchandised by volatility traders.

Speaking of volatility, Market Structure Sentiment is about bottomed at the lowest level of 2019. It’s predictive so that still means stocks could swoon, but it also says risk will soon wane (briefly anyway). First though, volatility bets like the VIX and hundreds of billions of dollars of others expire today. Thursday will be reality for the first time since the 15th, before May expirations began.

Even with Sentiment bottoming, we keep the market at arm’s length because of its vast dependence on a delicate arbitrage balance. A Jekyll-Hyde line it rides.

Form Follows Function

We’re told that on Friday Jan 18, the Dow Jones Industrial Average soared on optimism about US-China trade, then abruptly yesterday “global growth fears” sparked a selloff.

Directional changes in a day don’t reflect buy-and-hold behavior, so why do headline writers insist on trying to jam that square peg every day into the market’s round hole?

So to speak.

It’s not how the market works. I saw not a single story (if you did, send it!) saying options expired Jan 16-18 when the market surged or that yesterday marked rare confluence of new options trading and what we call Counterparty Tuesday when banks true up gains or losses on bets.

Both events coincided thanks to the market holiday, so effects may last Wed-Fri.

The point for public companies and investors is to understand how the market works. It’s priced, as it always has been, by its purposes. When a long-term focus on fundamentals prevailed, long-term fundamentals priced stocks.

That market disappeared in 2001, with decimalization, which changed property rights on market data and forced intermediaries to become part of volume. Under Regulation National Market System, the entire market was reshaped around price and speed.

Now add in demographics.  There are four competing forces behind prices. Active money is focused on the long-term. Passive money is focused on short-term central tendencies, or characteristics. Fast Traders focus on fleeting price-changes. Risk Management focuses on calculated uncertainties.

Three of these depend for success on arbitrage, or different prices for the same thing. Are we saying Passive money is arbitrage?  Read on. We’ll address it.

Friday, leverage expired. That is, winning bets could cashier for stock, as one would with the simplest bet, an in-the-money call option. The parties on the other side were obliged to cover – so the market soared as they bought to fulfill obligations.

Active money bought too, but it did so ignorantly, unaware of what other factors were affecting the market at that moment.  The Bank for International Settlements tracks nearly $600 trillion of derivatives ranging from currency and interest-rate swaps to equity-linked instruments. Those pegged to the monthly calendar lapsed or reset Friday.

Behavioral volatility exploded Friday to 19%. Behavioral volatility is a sudden demographic change behind price and volume, much like being overrun at your fast-food joint by youngsters buying dollar tacos, or whatever. You run out of dollar tacos.

That happened Friday like it did in late September. The Dow yesterday was down over 400 points before pulling back to a milder decline.

And there may be more. But it’s not rational thought. It’s short-term behaviors.

So is Passive money arbitrage?  Just part of it. Exchange-Traded Funds (ETFs) were given regulatory imprimatur to exist only because of a built-in “arbitrage mechanism” meant to keep the prices of ETFs, which are valueless, claimless substitutes for stocks and index funds, aligned with actual assets.

Regulators required ETFs to rely on arbitrage – which is speculative exploitation of price-differences. It’s the craziest thing, objectively considered. The great bulk of market participants do not comprehend that ETFs have exploded in popularity because of their appeal to short-term speculators.

Blackrock and other sponsors bake a tiny management fee into most shares – and yet ETFs manage nobody’s money but the ETF sponsor’s. They are charging ETF buyers a fee for nothing so their motivation is to create ETF shares, a short-term event.

Those trading them are motivated by how ETFs, index futures and options and stocks (and options on futures, and options on ETFs) may all have fleetingly different prices.

The data validate it.  We see it. How often do data say the same about your stock?  Investors, how often is your portfolio riven with Overbought, heavily shorted stocks driven by arbitrage bets?

What’s ahead? I think we may have another rough day, then maybe a slow slide into month-end window-dressing where Passive money will reweight away from equities again.  Sentiment and behavioral volatility will tell us, one way or the other.

Ask me tomorrow if behavioral volatility was up today. It’s not minds changing every day that moves the market. It’s arbitrage.

Counterparty Tuesday

Anybody hear yesterday’s volatility blamed on Counterparty Tuesday?

Most pointed to earnings fears for why blue chips fell 500 points before clawing back.  Yet last week the Dow Jones Industrial Average zoomed 540 points on earnings, we were told.  We wrote about it.

Counterparty Tuesday is the day each month following expiration of the previous month’s derivatives contracts like puts, calls, swaps, forwards (usually the preceding Friday), and the start of new marketwide derivatives contracts the following Monday.

When grocery stores overstock the shelves, things go on sale.  When counterparties expect a volume of business that doesn’t materialize, they shed the inventory held to back contracts, which can be equities.

Counterparty Tuesday is a gauge indicating whether the massive derivatives market – the Bank for International Settlements tracks over $530 trillion, ten times the global economy – is overstocked or understocked. It’s much larger than the underlying volume of Active Investment behavior in the US stock market.

Let me use a sports analogy. Suppose your favorite NFL team is beating everyone (like the LA Rams are).  “They are killing everybody through the air,” crow the pundits.

You look at the data. The quarterback is averaging five passes per game and zero touchdowns.  But on the ground, the team is carrying 40 times per game and averaging four rushing touchdowns.

These statistics to my knowledge are fake and apply to no NFL team right now. The point is the data don’t support the proffered explanation. The team is winning on the ground, not through the air.

In the same vein, what if market volatility in October ties back to causes having no direct link to corporate earnings?

What difference does it make if the stock market is down on earnings fears or something else?  Because investor-relations professionals message in support of fundamental performance, including earnings.  Boards and management teams are incentivized via performance. Active stock-picking investors key off financial performance.

If the market isn’t swooning over performance, that’s important to know!

Returning to our football analogy, what data would help us understand what’s hurting markets?  Follow the money.

We wrote last week about the colossal shift from active to passive funds in equities the past decade.  That trend has pushed Exchange-Traded Funds toward 50% of market volume. When passive money rebalanced all over the market to end September, the impact tipped equities over.

Now step forward to options expirations, which occurred last week, new ones trading Monday, and Counterparty Tuesday for truing up books yesterday. Money leveraged into equities had to mark derivatives to market. Counterparties sold associated inventory.

Collateral has likely devalued, so the swaps market gets hit. Counterparties were shedding collateral. The cost of insuring portfolios has likely risen because counterparties may have taken blows to their own balance sheets. As costs rise, demand falters.

Because Counterparty Tuesday in October falls during quarterly reporting, it’s convenient to blame earnings. But it doesn’t match measurable statistics, including the size of the derivatives market, the size and movement of collateral for ETFs (a topic we will return to until it makes sense), or the way prices are set in stocks today.

The good news?  Counterparty Tuesday is a one-day event. Once it’s done, it’s done. And our Market Structure Sentiment index bottomed Oct 22. We won’t be surprised if the market surges – on earnings enthusiasm? – for a few days.

The capital markets have yet to broadly adapt to the age of machines, derivatives and substitutes for stocks, like ETFs, where earnings may pale next to Counterparty Tuesday, which can rock the globe.

Times and Seasons

You need examples.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Turnover

Earnings season.

Late nights for IR professionals crafting corporate messages for press releases and call scripts. Early mornings on CNBC’s Squawk Box, the company CEO explaining what the beat or miss means.

One thing still goes lacking in the equation forming market expectations for 21st century stocks: How money behaves. Yesterday for instance the health care sector was down nearly 2%. Some members were off 10%. It must be poor earnings, right?

FactSet in its most recent Earnings Insight with 10% of the S&P out (that’ll jump this week) says 100% of the health care sector is above estimates. That makes no sense, you say. Buy the rumor, sell the news?

There are a lot of market aphorisms that don’t match facts.  One of our longtime clients, a tech member of the S&P 500, pre-announced Oct 15 and shares are down 20%.  “The moral of the story,” lamented the IR officer, an expert on market structure (who still doesn’t always win the timing argument), “is you don’t report during options-expirations.”

She’s right, and she knew what would happen. The old rule is you do the same thing every time so investors see consistency. The new rule is know your audience. According to the Investment Company Institute (ICI), weighted turnover in institutional investments – frequency of selling – is about 42%.  Less than half of held assets move during the year.

That matches the objectives of investor-targeting, which is to attract money that buys and holds. It does.  In mutual funds, which still have the most money, turnover is near 29% according to the ICI.

So if you’re focused on long-term investors, why do you report results during options-expirations when everybody leveraging derivatives is resetting positions?  That’s like commencing a vital political speech as a freight train roars by.  Everybody would look around and wonder what the heck you said.

I found a 2011 Vanguard document that in the fine print on page one says turnover in its mutual funds averages 35% versus 1,800% in its ETFs.

Do you understand? ETFs churn assets 34 more times than your long-term holders. Since 1997 when there were just $7 billion of assets in ETFs, these instruments have grown 41% annually for 18 straight years!  Mutual funds?  Just 5% and in fact for ten straight years money has moved out of active funds to passive ones.  All the growth in mutual funds is in indexes – which don’t follow fundamentals.

Here’s another tidbit: 43% of all US investment assets are now controlled by five firms says the ICI. That’s up 34% since 2000.  The top 25 investment firms control 74% of assets. Uniformity reigns.

Back to healthcare. That sector has been the colossus for years. Our best-performing clients by the metrics we use were in health care. In late August the sector came apart.  Imagine years of accumulation in ETFs and indexes, active investments, and quantitative schemes. Now what will they do?

Run a graph comparing growth in derivatives trading – options, futures and options on futures in multiple asset classes – and overlay US equity trading. The graphs are inversed, with derivatives up 50% since 2009, equity trading down nearly 40%. Translation: What’s growing is derivatives, in step with ETFs. Are you seeing a pattern?

I traded notes with a variety of IR officers yesterday and more than one said the S&P 500 neared a technical inflection point.  They’re reporting what they hear. But who’s following technicals? Not active investors. We should question things more.

Indexes have a statutory responsibility to do what their prospectuses say. They’re not paid to take risk but to manage capital in comportment with a model. They’re not following technicals. ETFs? Unless they’re synthetic, leveraging derivatives, they track indexes, not technicals.

That means the principal followers of technical signals are intermediaries – the money arbitraging price-spreads between indexes, ETFs, individual stocks and sectors. And any asymmetry fostered by news.

Monday Oct 19 the new series of options and futures began trading marketwide. Today VIX measures offering volatility as an asset class expire.  Healthcare between the two collapsed. It’s not fundamental but tied to derivatives. A right to buy at a future price is only valuable if prices rise. Healthcare collapsed at Aug expirations. It folded at Sept expirations. It’s down again with Oct expirations. These investments depended on derivatives rendered worthless.

The point isn’t that so much money is temporary. Plenty buys your fundamentals. But it’s not trading you.  So stop giving traders an advantage by reporting results during options-expirations. You could as well write them a check!

When you play to derivatives timetables, you hurt your holders.  Don’t expect your execs to ask you. They don’t know.  It’s up to you, investor-relations professionals, to help management get it.

Behavioral Volatility

I recall knowing one particularly volatile fellow. I should have called him VIX.

Speaking of the VIX, options on that popularly titled Fear Gauge expire today as a raft of S&P components report results. Many will see sharp moves in share-prices and attempt to put them in rational context.

Volatility derivatives are no sideshow but a mainstream fact. Yesterday the top five  most active ETFs included the SPDR S&P 500 ETF (SPY) a Standard & Poor’s Depositary Receipt from State Street that traded 68 million shares, more than any single stock including Apple ahead of results, and the VIX Short-Term Futures ETN iPath (VXX), with 38 million shares, matching Facebook’s volume (out-trading all but seven stocks).

Louis Navellier turned the concept of volatility into quantitative analytics for investment at his Reno advisory firm managing $2.5 billion. Oversimplifying, rising volatility signals change. Mr. Navellier used increasing volatility as a signal to sell highs and buy lows.

By the same token, when your shares break through moving averages, it’s at root a volatility signal. Your price is changing more than the historical central tendency.  But what causes volatility?

This is why we introduced Market Structure Alerts in June for our clients. They’re predicated on the seminal principle that volatility signals change. Rising standard deviation is a pennant pointing to developments you should know. But we want more than surface answers.  Measuring tides alone offers no reasons. So we measure behavioral volatility, not price or volume volatility – which is a byproduct of the former.

When the ocean rolls or roars, we understand that it reflects something else ranging from the gravitational pull of the earth and the moon to earthquakes undersea. We use these facts to shape our understanding of how our ecosystem called earth functions.

A conversation I have often with IR professionals is what I’ll call Story versus Structure.  “My CEO wants to understand why we’re underperforming our peers.”  We have a simple answer and an elementary model that demonstrates it. Yet it can be hard to let go of the notion that underperformance traces to a fundamental feature, the Story. “Our return on equity trails our peer group, so that’s got to be the reason.”

Now sometimes Story is the problem. When it is, it manifests in behavioral change. But don’t forget that the biggest investors are Blackrock and Vanguard. We’re told they’re perpetual holders. No, they’re perpetual trackers of benchmarks like the S&P 500 so they are perpetually in motion, relentlessly sloshing like tides. When these tides crash more violently it’s because money in 401ks and pensions is uniformly beginning to buy or sell, producing disparate impact in stocks.

It’s not Story but Structure. The market functions in a defined way, according to a set of measurable mathematical rules, just like the universe. If we omit some part of market function because it’s complicated it doesn’t cause the behavior to cease to exist. Every IR program today should measure behavioral change.

How many ETFs own your shares?  Our smallest client with market cap of $200 million is in 14. Most are in 30, 40 or more, some over 100. Each of these probably has options and futures and tracks an underlying index, which also has options and futures. All the components of each ETF and underlying index likely have options and futures, just as your shares might. There are exchange-traded notes that directionally leverage indexes and ETFs. Swaps that substitute returns in baskets of these for proceeds in other asset classes. Traders pair futures with stocks and change them each day. And throughout, Blackrock and Vanguard and the rest of their asset-allocation kin behind two million global index products move like massive elephants ever crossing the Serengeti.

Sound dizzying?  It’s your ecosystem. The good news is we’ve reduced its complexities to a set of central tendencies and now we have Alerts that signal when these change.

Why should you care in the IR chair? We’ve got a friend who’s a realtor in Steamboat Springs. She knows everything about it, down to the details of any house you can mention that’s on the market. She knows which neighborhoods get sun in the afternoon, where you should be for easy access to amenities. She knows her market.

We want you to know yours. We hope to help you move from seeing price and volume as a tide moved by mysterious forces to understanding your ecosystem and what distinct behavioral change is behind volatility.

That in turn makes you a powerful expert for your Board and management team. You don’t have to do it, of course. But the quest to be better, to know what there is to know about the market you serve is the difference between something that can become mundane and an enterprise ever fresh and new, an exhilarating exploration.  Some volatility, so to speak, is refreshing!

The Escalator

As the US investor-relations profession’s annual confabulation concludes in the Windy City, we wonder how the week will end.

The problem is risk. Or rather, the cost of transferring it to somebody else. Today the Federal Reserve’s Open Market Committee Meeting adjourns with Janet Yellen at the microphone offering views on what’s ahead. The Fed routinely misses the economic mark by 50%, meaning our central bank’s legions of number crunchers, colossal budget and balance sheet and twelve regional outposts supporting the globe’s reserve currency offer no more certainty about the future than a coin flip.  That adds risk.

The Fed sets interest rates – not by ordering banks to charge a certain amount for borrowing but through setting the cost at which the Fed itself lends to banks. Higher rates paradoxically present lower risk because money can generate a return by doing nothing.  Idle money now wastes away so it’s getting deployed in ways it wouldn’t otherwise.

If you’re about to heave this edition of the Market Structure Map in the digital dump, thinking, “There goes Quast again, yammering about monetary policy,” you need to know what happens to your stock when this behavior stops. And it will stop.

When the dollar increases in value, it buys more stuff. Things heretofore made larger in price by smaller dollars can reverse course, like earnings and stock-prices.  As the dollar puts downward pressure on share-prices, derivatives like options into which risk has been transferred become valuable. Options are then converted into shares, reversing pressure for a period. This becomes a pattern as investors profit on range-bound equities by trading in and out of derivatives.

Since Sept 2014 when we first warned of the Great Revaluation, the apex of a currency driven thunderhead in things like stocks and bonds, major US equity measures have not moved materially outside a range. Despite periodic bouts of extreme volatility around options-expirations, we’re locked in historic stasis, unmatched in modern times.

The reason is that investors have profited without actually buying or selling real assets. This week all the instruments underpinning leverage and risk-transfer expire, with VIX volatility expirations Wednesday as the Fed speaks. The lack of volatility itself has been an asset class to own like an insurance policy.

Thursday, index futures preferred by Europeans lapse. There’s been colossal volatility in continental stock and bond markets and counterparties will charge more to absorb that risk now, especially with a sharpening Greek crisis that edges nearer default at the end of June. Higher insurance costs put downward pressure on assets like stock-prices.

Then quad-witching arrives Friday when index and stock futures and options lapse along with swap contracts predicated on these derivatives, and the latter is hundreds of trillions of notional-value dollars. On top of all that, there are rebalances for S&P and Nasdaq indices, and the continued gradual rebalancing of the Russell indexes.

Expirations like these revisit us monthly, quad-witching quarterly. That’s not new. But investors have grown wary of trading in and out of derivatives. Falling volumes in equities and options point to rising attention on swaps – the way money transfers risk. We see it in a trend-reversal in the share of volume driven by active investment and risk-management. The latter has been leading the former by market-share for 200 days. Now it’s not. Money is trying to sell but struggling to find an exit.

Here at the Chicago Hyatt Regency on Wacker Drive, when a NIRI General Session ends, the escalators clog with masses of IROs and vendors exiting. Index-investing, a uniform behavior, dominates markets and there is clogged-escalator risk in equities.

It may be nothing.  Money changes directions today with staccato variability. But our job as ever is to watch the data and tell you what we see.  We’ve long been skeptics of the structure wrought by uniform rules, and this is why.  It’s fine so long as the escalator is going up.  When the ride ends, it won’t impact all stocks the same way, however, because leverage through indexes, ETFs and derivatives – the power of the crowd – has not been applied evenly.

This year’s annual lesson then is no new one but a big one nonetheless. Investor-relations professionals must beware more than at any other time of the monumental uniformity-risk in markets now, wrought not by story but macroeconomics and structure.

So, we’re watching the escalator.

Three Days

Some energy-sector clients lost 40% of market-capitalization in three days last October.

A year and a half cultivating share-appreciation and by Wednesday it’s gone.  How so?  To get there let’s take a trip.

I love driving the Llano Estacado, in Spanish “palisaded steppe” or the Staked Plains. From Boise City, OK and unfolding southward to Big Spring, TX lies an expanse fit for nomads, an unending escarpment of mottled browns and khakis flat as iron rail stretching symmetric from the horizon like a sea.

Spanish explorer Francisco Coronado wrote, “I reached some plains so vast that I did not find their limit anywhere I went.” Here Comanches were dominating horse warlords for hundreds of years. Later sprouted first the oil boom early last century around Amarillo and again in the 21st century a neoclassical renaissance punctuated by hydraulic fracturing in the Permian Basin.

The air sometimes is suffused with mercaptan, an additive redolent of rotten egg that signals the otherwise invisible presence of natural gas. But the pressure of a relentless regimen silts away on a foreshortened compass, time seeming to cease and with it the pounding of pulses and devices.  It’s refreshing somehow.

And on a map one can plot with precision a passage from Masterson to Lampasas off The Llano and know what conquering that route demands from clock and fuel gauge.

Energy stocks in August 2014 were humming along at highway speed and then shot off The Llano in October, disappearing into the haze.

(Side note: If you want to discuss this idea, we’re at the NIRI Tristate Chapter in Cincinnati Wed Mar 18 and I’m happy to entertain it!)

What happened?  There are fundamental influences on supply and demand, sure. But something else sets prices. I’ll illustrate with an example. Short interest is often measured in days-to-cover meaning shares borrowed and sold and not yet bought and returned are compared to average daily trading volume. So if you move a million shares daily and your short interest is eight million, days-to-cover is eight, which may be good or bad versus your average.

Twice in recent weeks we’ve seen big blocks in stocks, and short volumes then plunged by half in a day. Both stocks declined. Understand, short interest and short volume differ. The former is shares borrowed but not yet covered. It’s a limited measure of risk.  Carry a big portfolio at a brokerage with marginable accounts and you can appropriate half more against it under rules.

Using a proxy we developed, marketwide in the past five days short volume was about 44%, which at 6.7 billion total shares means borrowed shares were 2.95 billion. Statistically, nearly 30% of all stocks had short volume above 50%.  More shares were rented than owned in those on a given day. (more…)

Market Facts

Volatility derivatives expire today as the Federal Reserve gives monetary guidance. How would you like to be in those shoes? Oh but if you’ve chosen investor-relations as your profession, you’re in them.

Management wants to know why holders are selling when oil – or pick your reason – has no bearing on your shares. Institutional money managers are wary about risking clients’ money in turbulently sliding markets, which condition will subside when institutional investors risk clients’ money. This fulcrum is an inescapable IR fact.

We warned clients Nov 3 that markets had statistically topped and a retreat likely would follow between one and 30 days out. Stocks closed yesterday well off early-Nov levels and the S&P 500 is down 100 points from post-Thanksgiving all-time highs.

The point isn’t being right but how money behaves today. Take oil. The energy boom in the USA has fostered jobs and opportunity, contributing to some capacity in the American economy to separate from sluggish counterparts in Asia and Europe. Yet with oil prices imploding on a sharply higher dollar (bucks price oil, not vice versa), a boon for consumers at the pump becomes a bust for capital investment, and the latter is a key driver in parts of the US that have led job-creation.

Back to the Fed, the US central bank by both its own admission and data compiled at the Mortgage Bankers Association (see this MBA white paper if you’re interested) has consumed most new mortgages coming on the market in recent years, buying them from Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac and primary dealers.

Why? Consumption drives US Gross Domestic Product (GDP), and vital to recovery in still-anemic discretionary spending is stronger home prices, which boost personal balance sheets, instilling confidence and fueling borrowing and spending.

Imagine the consternation behind the big stone walls on Maiden Lane in New York. The Fed has now stopped minting money to buy mortgages (it’ll churn some of the $1.7 trillion of mortgage-backed securities it owns, and hold some). With global asset markets of all kinds in turmoil, especially stocks and commodities, other investors may be reluctant successors to Fed demand. Should mortgages and home-values falter in step with stocks, mortgage rates could spike.

What a conundrum. If the Fed fails to offer 2015 guidance on interest rates and mortgage costs jump, markets will conclude the Fed has lost control. Yet if a fearful Fed meets snowballing pressure on equities and commodities by prolonging low rates, real estate could stall, collapsing the very market supporting better discretionary spending.

Now look around the globe at crashing equity prices, soaring bonds, imploding commodities, vast currency volatility (all of it reminiscent of latter 2008), and guess what?  Derivatives expire Dec 17-19, concluding with quad-witching. Derivatives notional-value in the hundreds of trillions outstrips all else, and nervous counterparties and their twitchy investors will be hoping to find footing.

If you’ve ever seen the movie Princess Bride (not our first Market Structure Map nod to it), what you’re reading seems like a game of wits with a Sicilian – which is on par with the futility of a land war in Asia. Yet, all these things matter to you there in the IR chair, because you must know your audience.  It’s comprised of investors with responsibility to safeguard clients’ assets. (more…)