Tagged: pandemic

Squid Ink

Is retail money creating a Pandemic Bubble? Sort of. Really, it’s Fast Traders turning those orders into clouds of squid ink.

There are 47 million customer accounts at Schwab, Fidelity, Ameritrade, E*Trade and Robinhood.  These big online brokers sell their flow to Citadel, Two Sigma, Susquehanna’s G1X options platform, Virtu, UBS, options trader Wolverine, and others.

Nearly all of the orders are “non-directed,” meaning the broker determines where to send them.  Also, more than three paragraphs of market structure goop and people grab a bottle of tequila and go back to day-trading.

So, let me explain.

Do you know CHK?  A shale-oil play, it’s on the ropes financially. In May it was below $8. Yesterday CHK was near $70 when it halted for news. Which never came, and trading resumed. (Note: A stock should never, ever be halted for news, without news.)

It closed down hard near $24. Rumors have flown for weeks it’ll file bankruptcy.  Why was it at $70? People don’t understand that public equity often becomes worthless if companies go bust. Debtholders convert to equity and wipe out the old shareholders.

Hertz (HTZ) went bankrupt May 26 and shares closed at $0.56.  Monday it was over $5.50, up about 900%. HTZ debt is trading at less than 40 cents on the dollar, meaning bondholders don’t think they’ll be made whole – and they’re senior to equity.

This is bubble behavior. And it abounds. Stocks trading under $1 are up on average 79% since March, according to a CNBC report.

ABIO, a Colorado biotech normally trading about 10,000 shares daily with 1.6 million shares out made inconsequential reference to a Covid preclinical project (translation: There’s nothing there). The stock exploded, trading 83 million shares on May 28, or roughly 50 times the shares outstanding.

Look at NKLA.  It’s been a top play for Robinhood clients and pandemic barstool sports day-trading. No products out yet, no revenue. DUO, an obscure Chinese tech stock trading on the Nasdaq yesterday jumped from about $10 to $129, closing above $47.

Heck, look at Macy’s.  M, many thought, was teetering near failure amidst total retail shutdown. From about $4.50 Apr 2, it closed over $9.50 by June 8.

W, the online retailer that’s got just what you need, is up 700% since its March low despite losing a billion dollars in 2019.

When day traders were partying like it was 1999, in 1999, stocks for businesses with no revenues and products boomed.  Then the Nasdaq lost 83% of its value.

About 95% of online-broker orders are sold to Fast Traders – the Citadels, the Two Sigmas, the Virtus.  They’re buying the tick data (all the prices) in fractions of seconds. They know what’s in the pipeline, and what’s not.

Big online brokers sell flow to guarantee execution to retail traders.  I shared my experience with GE trades. The problem is retail prices are the ammunition in the machine gun for Fast Traders. They know if clips are being loaded, or not. And since retail traders don’t direct their trades (they don’t tell the broker to send it to the NYSE, Nasdaq, Instinet, IEX, etc., to hide prices from Fast Traders), these are tracer rounds stitching market prices up and down wildly.

The Fast Traders buying it can freely splatter it all over the market in a frenzy of rapidly changing prices, the gun set on Full Automatic.

This is how Fast Traders use retail trades to cause Wayfair to rise 700%. The order flow bursts into the market like squid ink in the Caribbean (I’ve seen that happen snorkeling), and everyone is blinded until prices whoosh up 30%.

A money manager on CNBC yesterday was talking about the risk in HTZ. She said there were no HTZ shares to borrow. Even if you could, the cost was astronomical.

Being a market structure guy with cool market structure tools (you can use them too), I checked HTZ.  Nearly 56% of trading volume is short. Borrowed. And the pattern (see here) is a colossus of Fast Trading, a choreographed crescendo into gouting squid ink.

How? Two Sigma, Hudson River Trading, Quantlab, etc., Fast Trading firms, enjoy market-making exemptions. They don’t have to locate shares. As high-speed firms “providing liquidity,” regulators let them do with stocks what the Federal Reserve does with our money. Digitally manufacture it.

Because they buy the flow from 47 million accounts, they know how to push prices.

That’s how ABIO traded 83 million shares (60% of the volume – nearly 50 million shares – was borrowed May 28, the rest the same shares trading many times per second).

It’s how CHK exploded up and then imploded as the manufactured currency vanished. And when stocks are volatility halted – which happened about 40 times for CHK the past two trading days – machines can game their skidding stop versus continuing trades in the ETFs and options and peer-group stocks related to the industry or sector.

This squid ink is enveloping the market, amid Pandemic psychology, and the economic (and epic) collapse of fundamental stock-pricing.

Dangerous.

You gotta know market structure, public companies (ask us) and investors (try EDGE).

What’s Changed

We’ve been pandemicking across the fruited plain and through the stock market for better than two months. Now what?

I still rue my decision Friday Mar 13 to delay skiing in Steamboat till the next day (it was Fri the 13th after all). The next day the slopes closed for the season.

It’s a reminder not to put off till tomorrow what you can do today. And it raises this question:  What’s changed in the stock market since fear drove us to ground?

Let me wrest your eyes from the headlines over to what the money is doing, demographically. Under Regulation National Market System, exchanges can’t have a “no shirt, no shoes, no service” rule for who buys and sells stocks in the store. Reg NMS requires fair access for all.

We can debate whether giving the public a cheap, slow look at stock prices and volume – the consolidated tape – while selling the pros with fat wallets better, faster and deeper data is fair access. And exchanges handle only about 60% of volume.

But I digress.

On Jan 20, 2020, about 13% of trading volume came from Active Investment, your Benjamin Grahamers, your stock-pickers.

About 16% tied to managing risk and leveraging returns. This is who’s on the other side when there is buying or selling of puts and calls. Or, say, a bank selling a swap for the returns in Financials, then offsetting the risk by shorting Consumer Staples.

Around 24% was Passive investment like quants and index funds.

Nearly 47% was Fast Trading, machines with a horizon of a day or less modeling the math of changing prices.

By Mar 30, coming off the current market bottom, boy had behaviors changed.  Active Investment was up 8% even as volume had exploded to record levels.  That means Active money was buying the bottom, value-style.

Passive Investment tracking the mean, or following global macro factors, or parrying volatility risk was rocked off the balance beam. It plunged 29% as a share of volume.

Moving in opposite fashion, Fast Trading exploded to 57% of trading volume, up 21%. This is what was driving record trading.  WMT, Sam Walton’s globe-crushing consumer staples empire, was averaging 45,000 trades daily Jan 20.  On Mar 30 as stocks were boomeranging out of pandemic hell, it was averaging 146,000 trades daily – an astonishing 224% increase.  Blame Fast Traders.

And finally, Risk Mgmt, the counterparties to derivatives and borrowing for leverage that depend on future prices, dropped 25%.

These behavioral changes describe what happened better than all the headlines, all the Daily Pandemic Updates with Dr. Fauci and team, the Death Clock ticking on the right side of the TV screen, all the Federal Reserve actions, the 40 million people out of work, the 50 million getting paid by loans from the Fed instead of revenue from the job.

Really, 50% of the market’s value vanished as the engine of today’s equities, Passive Investment and the implied leverage in Risk Mgmt, imploded like an unused football stadium where demolition charges change it in seconds from the Roman Coliseum to a pile of steaming dust.

But the market didn’t lose 50% of its value.

Exactly.  You’re catching on.

About 21% of the market’s rebound is speculation on the tick data.  Another 8% is Active investment, stock-pickers putting in a bottom on Fed action, American resilience.

Maybe only 8% of the bounce is real.  Regardless, the combination gives us a 30% (close to it) recovery for the S&P 500.

What about now? At May 20?

Active Investment remains the same. Zero percent change. Risk Mgmt is unchanged too, 0% difference from Mar 30 to May 20. Passive is up 12%, Fast Trading down 4%.

Apply these data to what’s ahead.  Active money is content, committed to a “bottom is in” posture. Risk Mgmt is expensive and uncertain.  Passive money is trying to get its mojo back but it’s half what it was.  And Fast Traders gaming those moving parts, the prices of stocks, are retreating, uncertain.

You’d be hard-pressed to see how these data take us to new highs. You’d also say they don’t smack of another smackdown.

But the pandemic data are still here. They’ve not changed much the past six weeks. Market structure is like water. Disturbances roil it.  When those events pass, it reverts to stillness.

The data are still sloshing.

If the waters are troubled, then even as commuter traffic picks up, gas prices tick up, the city stirs again, keep one eye on the deep. What’s changed at this point is bigger than what’s returned to normal.  Keep your hands inside the gunwales.