Tagged: Options

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.

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.

Collateral

I apologize.

Correlation between the market’s downward lurch and Karen’s and my return Sunday from the Arctic Circle seems mathematically irrefutable.  Shoulda stayed in Helsinki.

I wouldn’t have minded more time in the far reaches of Sweden and Finland viewing northern lights, sleeping in the Ice Hotel, riding sleds behind dogs, trekking into the mystic like Shackleton and Scott, gearing up for falling temperatures.  We unabashedly endorse Smartwool and Icebreaker base layers (and we used all we had).

Back to the market’s Arctic chill, was it that people woke Monday and said, “Shazam! This Coronavirus thing is bad!”

I’m frankly stupefied by the, shall we say, pandemic ignorance of market structure that pervades reportage.  If you’re headed to the Arctic, you prepare. If you raise reindeer, you’ve got to know what they eat (lichen). And if you’re in the capital markets, you should understand market structure.

There’s been recent talk in the online forum for NIRI, the investor-relations association, about “options surveillance.”   Options 101 is knowing the calendar.

On Aug 24, 2015, after a strong upward move for the US dollar the preceding week, the market imploded. Dow stocks fell a thousand points before ending down 588.

New options traded that day.  Demand vanished because nothing stresses interpretations of future prices – options are a right but not an obligation to buy or sell in the future – like currency volatility.

Step forward.  On Monday Feb 24, 2020, new options were trading.

Nobody showed up, predictively evident in how counterparty trading in support of options declined 5% the preceding week during expirations. Often, the increase or decrease in demand for what we call Risk Management – trades tied to leverage, portfolio insurance, and so on – during expirations is a signal for stocks.

Hundreds of trillions of dollars of swaps link to how interest rates and currency values may change in the future, plus some $10 trillion in equity swaps, and scores of trillions of other kinds of contracts. They recalibrate each month during expirations.

They’re all inextricably linked.  There is only one global reserve currency – money other central banks must own proportionally. The US dollar.

All prices are an interpretation of value defined by money. The dollar is the denominator.  Stock-prices are numerators.  Stronger dollar, smaller prices, and vice versa.

The DXY hit a one-year high last week (great for us buying euros in Finland!).

Let’s get to the nitty gritty.  If you borrow money or stocks, you post collateral.  If you hawk volatility by selling puts or calls, you have to own the stock in case you must cover the obligation.  If you buy volatility, you may be forced to buy or sell the underlying asset, like stocks, to which volatility ties.

Yesterday was Counterparty Tuesday, the day each month following the expiration of one series (Feb 21) and the start of a new one (Feb 24) when books are squared.

There’s a chain reaction. Counterparties knew last week that betting on future stock prices had dropped by roughly $1 trillion of value.  They sold associated stocks, which are for them a liability, not an investment.

Stocks plunged and everyone blamed the Coronavirus.

Now, say I borrowed money to buy derivatives last week when VIX volatility bets reset.  Then my collateral lost 4% of its value Monday. I get a call: Put up more collateral or cover my borrowing.

Will my counterparty take AAPL as collateral in a falling market?  Probably not. So I sell AAPL and pay the loan.  Now, the counterparty hedging my loan shorts stocks because I’ve quit my bet, reducing demand for stocks.

Volatility explodes, and the cost of insurance with derivatives soars.

It may indirectly be true that the cost of insurance in the form of swap contracts pegged to currencies or interest rates has been boosted on Coronavirus uncertainty.

But it’s not at all true that fear bred selling.  About 15% of market cap ties to derivatives.  If the future becomes uncertain, it can be marked to zero.  Probably not entirely – but marked down by half is still an 8% drop for stocks.

This is vital:  The effect manifests around options-expirations. Timing matters. Everybody – investors and public companies – should grasp this basic structural concept.

And it gets worse.  Because so much money in the market today is pegged to benchmarks and eschews tracking errors, a spate of volatility that’s not brought quickly to heel can spread like, well, a virus.

We’ve not seen that risk materialize in a long while because market-makers for Exchange Traded Funds that flip stocks as short-term collateral tend to buy collateral at modest discounts. A 1% decline is a buying opportunity for anyone with a horizon of a day.

Unless.  And here’s our risk: ETF market-makers can substitute cash for stocks. If they borrowed the cash, read the part on collateral again.

I expect ETF market-makers will return soon. Market Structure Sentiment peaked Feb 19, and troughs have been fast and shallow since 2018. But now you understand the risk, its magnitude, and its timing. It’s about collateral.  Not rational thought.

The Truth

You know it’s after Groundhog Day?  We passed Feb 2 and I don’t recall hearing the name Punxsutawney Phil (no shadow, so that means a reputed early spring).

Reminds one of the stock market. Things change so fast there’s no time for tradition.

We have important topics to cover, including the implications of the SEC’s recent decision to approve closing-auction trading at the CBOE, which doesn’t list stocks (save BATS).  Circumstances keep pushing the calendar back.

We said last week that the Coronavirus wasn’t driving stocks. It was market structure – measurable, behavioral change behind prices.

The Coronavirus is mushrooming still, and news services are full of dire warnings of global economic consequence.  Some said the plunge last Friday, the Dow Industrials diving 600 points, reflected shrinking economic expectations for 2020.

Now the market is essentially back to level in two days. The Nasdaq closed yesterday at a new record.  Did expectations of Coronavirus-driven economic sclerosis reverse course over the weekend?

It’s apparent in the Iowa caucuses that accurate outcomes matter.  The Impeachment odyssey, slipping last night into the curtains of the State of the Union address, is at root about interpretations of truth, the reliability of information, no matter the result.

We seem to live in an age where what can be known with certainty has diminished. Nowhere is it manifesting more starkly than in stocks.  Most of what we’re told drives them is unsupported by data.

A business news anchor could reasonably say, “Stocks surged today on a 10% jump in Fast Trading and a 5% decline in short volume, reflecting the pursuit of short-term arbitrage around sudden stock-volatility that created a broad array of cheap buying opportunity in derivatives.”

That would be a data-backed answer. Instead we hear, “Coronavirus fears eased.”

Inaccurate explanations are dangerous because they foster incorrect expectations.

The truth is, behavioral volatility exploded to 30% Feb 3, the most since Aug 2019. To understand behavioral volatility, picture a crowd leaving a stadium that stampedes.

Notice what Sentiment showed Feb 3. Sentiment is the capacity of the market to absorb higher and lower prices. It trades most times between 4.0-6.0, with tops over 7.0  The volatile daily read dropped below 4.0 Feb 3.

Cycles have shortened. Volatility in decline/recovery cycles is unstable.

Here’s the kicker. It was Exchange Traded Funds stampeding into stocks. Not people putting money to work in ETFs.  No, market makers for ETFs bought options in a wild orgy Monday, then caterwauled into the underlying stocks and ETFs yesterday, igniting a searing arc of market-recovery as prices for both options and ETFs ignited like fuel and raced through stocks.

That’s how TSLA screamed like a Ford GT40 (Carroll Shelby might say stocks were faster than Ferraris yesterday).  Same with a cross-section of stocks up hundreds of basis points (UNH up 7%, AMP up 6%, VMW up 4%, CAT up 4%, on it goes).

These are not rational moves. They are potentially bankrupting events for the parties selling volatility. That’s not to say the stock market’s gains are invalid.  We have the best economy in the world.

But.

Everyone – investors, investor-relations professionals, board directors, public-company executives – deserves basic accuracy around what’s driving stocks.  We expect it everywhere else (save politics!).

We’ll have to search out the truth ourselves, and it’s in the data (and we’ve got that data).

Infected Stocks

Coronaviruses are common throughout the world. So says the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The market didn’t treat news of spreading cases in China and the first in the USA (from a Chinese visitor) that way though. Airline and gaming stocks convulsed yesterday.

There’s as ever a lesson for investor-relations practitioners and investors about how the stock market works now. News compounds conditions but is infrequently causal. Investors, there are opportunities in divergences. IR pros, you need to know what’s real and what’s ripple-effect, because moves in stocks may not reflect rational sentiment.

Airline and leisure stocks demonstrate it. Active Investment pushed airlines up 2.4% last week, industry data we track (with proprietary analytics) show.

But.

Shorting rose, and demand for derivatives used to protect or leverage airline investments fell 7% into last week’s options-expirations (know the calendar, folks). That’s a signal that with new options trading yesterday, counterparties would shed inventory in those stocks because demand for options was down.

Both facts – Active buying last week, weak demand for leverage – run counter to the narrative of investor-fear. The data say these stocks would have been down anyway and news is simply compounding what preceded it.

No doubt some investors knee-jerked to headlines saying investors were selling, and sold. But it’s not the cause. It’s effect.

We can’t isolate gaming in GICS data but leisure stocks shared behavioral characteristics with airlines. Investment was up last week, led by Passive money rather than Active funds (Active rose 2% too). But Risk Management, the use of leverage, declined 3%. And the pattern of demand changed.

What if the real cause for declines in these industries is the rising cost of leverage?

I’ll make my last plug for the book The Man Who Solved the Market. Near the end, one of Jim Simons’s early collaborators at Renaissance Technologies observes, “I don’t deny that earnings reports and other business news surely move markets. The problem is that so many investors focus so much on these types of news that nearly all of the results cluster very near the average.”

He added that he believed the narratives that most investors latch onto to explain price-moves were quaint, even dangerous, because they breed misplaced confidence that an investment can be adequately understood and its future divined.

I’ll give you two more examples of the hubris of using headlines to understand stocks. The S&P 500, like airline and leisure stocks, experienced a 2% decline in demand for derivatives into expirations last week. Patterns changed. Ten of eleven sectors had net selling Friday even as broad measures finished up.

If the market is down 2% this week – and I’m not saying it will fall – what’ll be blamed? Impeachment? Gloomy views from Davos? The coronavirus?

One more: Utilities. These staid stocks zoomed 4% last week, leading all sectors. They were the sole group to show five straight days of buying. We were told the market galloped on growth prospects from two big trade agreements.

So, people bought Utilities for growth?

No, not the reason. Wrapped around the growth headlines was a chorus of voices about how the market keeps going up for no apparent reason. Caution pushes investors to look for things with low volatility.

Utilities move about 1.4% daily between intraday high and low average prices. Tech stocks comprising about 24% of the S&P 500 are 2.6% volatile – 86% more!

Communication Services, the sector for Alphabet, Facebook, Twitter and Netflix, is 2.8% volatile every day, exactly 100% more volatile than Utilities.

The Healthcare sector, stuffed with biotechnology names, is 4.8% volatile, a staggering 243% greater than Utilities.

These data say low-volatility strategies from quantitative techniques, to portfolio-weightings, to Exchange-Traded Funds are disproportionately – and simultaneously – reliant on Utilities. If volatility spikes, damage will thus magnify.

IR people, you’ve got to get a handle on behaviors behind price and volume (we can show you yours!). Headlines are quaint, even dangerous, said the folks at Renaissance Technologies, who earned 39% after-fee returns every year for more than three decades.

Investors, you must, too (try our Market Structure EDGE platform). None of us will diagnose market maladies by reading headlines. The signs of pathology will be deeper and earlier. In the data.

Russelling Stocks

We’re back!

At the NIRI Annual Conference last week in Phoenix (where foliage defied fiery environs) we launched an ad campaign for investor-relations professionals that graced the escalator wall into the hall, and the ModernIR booth hummed.

I had the honor of co-vice-chairing, and my market structure panel with hedge-fund legend Lee Cooperman, market commentator Joe Saluzzi, and SEC head of Trading and Markets Brett Redfearn kicked off the conference Monday June 3rd.

Due to an inadvertent clerical error, I was also named a NIRI volunteer of the year (here with NIRI CEO Gary LaBranche and board chair Ron Parham) along with TopBuild’s Tabitha Zane.  And I met NIRI co-founder Dick Morrill who at 97 can still deliver a ringing speech.

Post-conference, Karen and I bolted briefly to our mountain home, Steamboat Springs, where frost dusted the grass twice the last week and Sand Mountain jutted white-capped above a voluptuous carpet of grasses and blooms.

Meanwhile back in the stock market, with trade fears gripping the world – US stocks zoomed at the best rate in 13 months, posting six straight days of gains, a 2019 record, beating even the heady January start.

Against this backdrop loom big index rebalances. The Russell indices have been morphing toward July 1 reconstitution in phases that persist through the next three Fridays. On June 21, S&P quarterly rebalances will join the jammed queue, as will stock and index options and futures expirations June 19-21.

And expiring June 28 when the Russell finalizes are monthly CBOE futures contracts created to help indexers true up benchmark-tracking on the month’s last trading day.

Russell says $9 trillion of assets are pegged to its US equity indexes.  For perspective, the Russell 1000 is 95% of US market cap, the Russell 2000 most of the remaining 5%, as there are only 3,450 public companies.

What’s at stake with rebalances is thus more than pegged assets. It’s all the assets.

Passive assets are now over 50% of managed money, Exchange Traded Funds alone drive more than 50% of volume. The effects of these events are massive not due to susurrations in construction but in the capacity for price-changes to ripple through intertwined asset classes and the entirety of equity capitalization.

It’s like being in Group One on a United Airlines flight.  The fewer the airlines, the bigger the audience, the longer the line.

When the money wanting to queue up beside a benchmark was an eclectic conclave outside Palm Springs, rebalances were no big deal. Now passives are Los Angeles and rebalances are a Friday afternoon rush hour.

Put together the trillions tied to Russell and S&P indexes, the trillions in equity-linked swaps benchmarked to broad measures, the hundreds of trillions tied to expiring currency and interest rate swaps, the ETF market-makers trying to price ETFs and stocks driving $125 billion of daily trading volume, the Active “closet indexers” mimicking models, the Fast Traders with vast machine-computing power trying to game all the spreads. It’s keying the tumblers on the locks to the chains constraining the Kraken.

It’s not a myth. It’s already happening. Stocks imploded when the Communication Services sector was yanked like a rib from the torso of Tech and Consumer Discretionary stocks last September. It happened repeatedly through October, November and December 2018 as sector and market-cap ETFs washed like tides over stocks.

It happened in January, March, May, this year.

And it just happened again. What was it? Strafing waves of short-term passive shifts.

Lead market behavior in June so far? Risk Mgmt – continuous recalibration of derivatives bets.  Followed by Fast Trading – machines changing prices. Followed by Passive Investment (which tied to Risk Mgmt is ETFs, far and away the biggest combined influencer).

All these behaviors are 30%-43% higher than Active Investment as influencers. Defined as percentages of trading volume the past five days, Active is 11.6%, Passive, 26.9%, Fats Trading 41.4%, Risk Mgmt 20.1%.

What’s rustling the thickets of equity volatility, introducing unpredictability into stocks across the board, are vast benchmarked behaviors and their trading remoras.

The longer everyone persists in trying to assign rational motivation to moves, the more dangerous the market becomes. This isn’t complicated: The elephant in the room is the money watching prices – passive, speculative, hedged.  If observers are looking elsewhere, we’ll sooner or later get caught off-guard.

Let’s not.  Instead, be aware. Know the calendar.  Listen for Russelling stocks.

The Vital Day

Which is the most important trading day of the month?

“The one when my company reports results,” you say.

Good guess, and you’re usually right. Not this time. It’s the last day.  Yesterday was it, the vital day of April, the benchmark for monthly fund-performance.

All funds want to clock results, punch the timer when the sprinter hits the tape. But it’s most true for money tracking a measure like the S&P 500.

CBOE, the giant derivatives and equities market operator, began in 2014 offering an options contract to “allow asset managers to more precisely match SPX option expirations to end-of-month fund cycles and fund performance periods.” SPX is the S&P 500. CBOE offers many ways for investors to improve tracking or profit on variances.

CBOE describes SPX securities as “flexible tools that allow investors to synthetically adjust their positions to a 500-stock portfolio.”

All three big exchange groups (NYSE, Nasdaq, CBOE) operate equity and derivatives markets, and all promote pricing advantages for firms trading equities and derivatives simultaneously.

That means, public companies and investors, these exchanges are encouraging traders to speculate. How often are prices of stocks affected by the prices of derivatives ranging from options on individual stocks to futures on indexes and ETFs?  (Heck, there are options on futures.)

Answer: Behavioral analytics ModernIR developed show that about 19% of volume marketwide the last five days ties to derivatives. By sector, Communication Services was highest at 20.6%; Industrials the lowest, 17.7%.

Active Investment by comparison was 11.2% of volume in Communication Services stocks, and 12.6% in Industrials (sellers, however).

AAPL, trading today on results, had 23% of volume on Apr 29 – $1.03 billion! – driven by derivatives-related trades. About 150 S&P 500 components, and hundreds of others, release this week.

Derivatives are bigger than investment. Do stocks then reflect fundamentals?

BK plunged Apr 17 – index options expired that day – and the biggest behavioral change was in Risk Mgmt, reflecting derivatives. Shorting peaked Apr 17. Bets preceding results were quantitative, and big. Math.  Active money then bought the dip.

SIRI dropped on results like a diver off a cliff, and over 23% of its trading volume beforehand traced to counterparties for derivatives bets.

TWTR exploded from about $34 to over $40 intraday on long (not short) derivatives bets made with new options that traded Apr 22, driving more than 20% of TWTR volume. Active money played no price-setting role and was a profit-taker on the move.

INTC rag-dolled down Apr 26 with results, on volumes approaching 80 million shares, and the biggest behavior was Risk Mgmt – counterparties to derivatives bets.

CHRW was 70% short and 25% of its trading volume tied to derivatives – a resounding bear bet – before shares blinked out this week to December levels.

Imagine the value you’d add – what’s your name, IR professional? Portfolio manager? – if you knew the behaviors behind price and volume BEFORE stocks went wild.

A lesson: 

Fast Traders arbitrage the tick. That is, computerized trades profit by churning many securities long and short fleetingly, netting gains. The more money seeks a measure – indexes, ETFs, closet indexers, money trying to beat a benchmark – the more machines change prices. Fast Trading is 42% of volume the past five days.

Passive investment must track the benchmark. ETFs need variance versus the index to price shares. That combination is 27% of volume.

Active money chasing superior stories defined by fundamentals is 12% of market volume the five days ended Apr 29. So, during earnings season stocks had a 1-of-8 chance of being priced by story.

Derivatives (Risk Mgmt to us at ModernIR) used by indexes to true up tracking and traders to profit on volatility are 19% of volume.

Got bad news to dump, companies? Do it the last three trading days of the month. You’ll get hammered. But then it’s done. Money will return in the new month. Investors, in the new month the stuff hammered to finish the last month could win.

There’s a vital day: The last trading day each month. It trumps story. You should understand it. We can help you.

Bad Liquidity

JP Morgan’s global head of macro quant and derivatives research (if you have that title, you should be a big deal!), Marko Kolanovic, says the market’s rising propensity toward violent moves up and down reflects bad liquidity.

Bad Liquidity would be a great name for a rock band. But what’s it mean?

Most measure volatility with the VIX.  The trouble with it predictively is it’s not predictive. It spikes after the fact, not ahead.

It was not always so. Modern Portfolio Theory (MPT), a hot investment thesis of the 1990s stock market, said rising volatility reflected growing price uncertainty. Managers like Louis Navellier flew private jets on fortunes made shifting from stocks as volatility mounted.

I’d argue it’s the opposite now. When volatility vanishes, arbitrage opportunities, the primary price-discovery mechanism today (“price discovery” means “trying to figure out the price of a thing”), have been consumed. What happens then? Money leaves.

Speaking of money leaving, Mr. Kolanovic blames falling Active investment for a lack of liquidity. He says algorithm

Image shows weekly spreads between composite stocks and State Street sector SPDR ETFs, with negative numbers indicating more volatility in ETFs, positive numbers, more volatility in composite sector stocks.

s – “stock recipes” run by computers – are present when markets rise and absent when markets fall, exacerbating liquidity shortages.

Active investors tend to sell when prices are high and buy when they’re low, helping to ease liquidity constraints. As Active investment declines (he says just 10% of trading, presumably he means at JP Morgan, comes from Active stock-picking, eerily near the figures we measure – with algorithms no less), stabilizing liquidity shrinks.

Liquidity boiled down (so to speak!) is the availability of a thing at a stable price.  The more that’s available, the better your chance of getting it at the same price.

Investors tend to want a lot of something – a truckload.  Arbitragers tend to want the price to change. These aims are diametrically opposed.

By the way, I’m speaking to the NIRI Minneapolis chapter today on Exchange Traded Funds, which are predicated on an arbitrage mechanism. That means they can only exist as investment instruments if there is volatility. Mr. Kolanovic thinks volatility is the root rot.  Connection?

Yes. ETFs distort liquidity in two crucial ways that compound risk for stocks. As we’ve explained, ETFs are not pooled investments. They are most closely akin to put and call options, in that they are created when people want more of them and removed from the market when people don’t want them.

As with puts and calls, they become ends unto themselves. Too many mistake options prices for future stock prices. Sometimes that’s true. But changes in the value of options are a discrete profit opportunity themselves.

Goldman Sachs wrote in February this year as Q4 2018 results were coming in (thank you to an alert reader!): “What’s interesting this quarter is that buying calls for earnings reports has posted its best return in over thirteen years (record). In fact, buying the closest out of the money call 5 days ahead of earnings and closing the day after has produced an average return of 88%.”

Eighty-eight percent! That’s not a bet on results but pure arbitrage in options.

ETFs offer the same opportunity. Shares are created when investors want exposure to equities and redeemed when investors want out. But the investors to a large extent now are ETF market-makers profiting on spreads between ETFs and the underlying stocks comprising a tracking instrument. It’s arbitrage. Profiting on price-differences.

The problem with this liquidity is it’s continuously fluctuating. We can have no consistent, measurable idea of the supply of ETFs or the demand for stocks. That means the market at any given time cannot be trusted to provide meaningful prices.

The data to me say it’s the arbitrage mechanism in ETFs behind bad liquidity. ETFs can only establish prices through spreads with stocks. The market is now stuffed with ETFs. The motivation is the spread. Not fundamentals – or even fund-flows.

We track spreads between ETFs and composite stocks. Our data say spreads totaled hundreds of percentage points from Dec 2018 to Mar 2019. At Apr 5, stocks are 33% more volatile in 2019 on net than ETFs. That’s way more than the market has risen.  Somebodies will want to keep it.

If we want to know where the next financial crisis will develop, we need look no further than ETFs. They are now a mania. They depend on spreads. As liquidity goes, that’s bad.

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.

Substitutes

Substitutes were responsible for yesterday’s market selloff.

Remember back in school when you had substitute teachers? They were standing in for the real deal, no offense to substitutes.  But did you maybe take them a little less seriously than the home room teacher?

The market is saturated with substitutes. The difference between stocks and the home room back in grammar school is nobody knows the difference.

If shares are borrowed they look the same to the market as shares that are not borrowed.  If you use a credit card, the money is the same to the merchant from whom you just bought dinner or a summer outfit. But it’s a substitute for cash you may or may not have (a key statistic on consumption trends).

Apply to borrowed stock. The average Russell 1000 stock trades $235 million of stock daily, and in the past 50 trading days 46%, or $108 million, came from borrowed shares. The Russell 1000 represents over 90% of market capitalization and volume. Almost half of it is a substitute.

Why does it matter?  Suppose half the fans in the stands at an athletic event were proxies, cardboard cutouts that bought an option to attend a game but were there only in the form of a Fathead, a simulacrum.

The stadium would appear to be full but think of the distortions in player salaries, costs of advertisement, ticket prices.  If all the stand-ins vanished and we saw the bleachers were half-empty, what effect would it have on market behavior?

Shorting is the biggest substitute in the stock market but hardly the only one.  Options – rights to buy shares – are substitutes. When you buy call options you pay a fee for the right to become future demand for shares of stock.  Your demand becomes part of the audience, part of the way the market is priced.

But your demand is a Fathead, a representation that may not take on greater dimension. Picture this:  Suppose you were able to buy a chit – a coupon – that would increase in value if kitchen remodels were on the rise.

Your Kitchen Chit would appreciate if people were buying stoves, fridges, countertops, custom cabinets.  Now imagine that so many people wanted to invest in the growth of kitchen remodels that Kitchen Chits were created in exchange for other things, such as cash or stocks.

What’s the problem here?  People believe Kitchen Chits reflect growth in kitchen remodels. If they’re backed instead by something else, there’s distortion.  And buying and selling Kitchen Chits becomes an end unto itself as investors lose sight of what’s real and focus on the substitute.

It happens with stocks. Every month options expire that reflect substitutes. This kitchen-chit business is so big that by our measures it was over 19% of market volume in the Russell 1000 the past five days during April options-expirations.

It distorts the market.  Take CAT.  Caterpillar had big earnings. The stock was way up pre-market, the whole market too, trading up on futures – SUBSTITUTES – 150 points as measured by the Dow Jones Industrial Average.

But yesterday was Counterparty Tuesday, the day each month when those underwriting substitutes like options, futures, swaps, balance their books.  Suppose they had CAT shares to back new options on CAT, and they bid up rights in the premarket in anticipation of strong demand.

The market opened and nobody showed up at the cash register. All the parties expecting to square books in CAT by selling future rights to shares at a profit instead cut prices on substitutes and then dumped what real product they had.  CAT plunged.

Extrapolate across stocks. It’s the problem with a market stuffed full of substitutes. Yesterday the substitutes didn’t show up to teach the class. The market discovered on a single day that when substitutes are backed out, there’s not nearly so much real demand as substitutes imply.

Substitution distorts realistic expectations about risk and reward. It’s too late to change the calculus. The next best thing is measuring substitutes so as not to confuse the fans of stocks with the Fatheads.