Tagged: Passive investment

Impassively Up

A picture is worth a thousand words.

See the picture here, sparing you a thousand words (for a larger view click here). It explains our rising stock market.  Look at the line graphs.  Three move up and down, reflecting normal uncertainty and change. Just one is up like the market.  Passive Investment.

Stock market behaviors

At ModernIR, we see the market behaviorally. There are four big reasons investors and traders buy and sell, not one, so we quantify market volume daily using proprietary trade-execution metrics to see the percentages coming from each and trend them.

Were the market only matching risk-taking firms with risk-seeking capital, valuing the market would be simpler. But 39% of volume trades ticks, gambling on fleeting price-moves. About 12% pairs stocks with derivatives, down from over 13% longer term.

Less than 14% of trading volume ties directly to corporate fundamentals. So rational thought isn’t pushing stocks to records. In a sense that’s good news because most stocks don’t have financial performance justifying the 20% rise for the S&P 500 the past year.

Alert reader Alan Weissberger sent data from the St Louis Federal Reserve (click the “1Y” button at top right) showing falling corporate profits the past year. To be sure, profits don’t always connect to markets or the economy. There were rising corporate profits during the 1970, 1991 and 2001 recessions.

And corporate profits were plunging in 2007 when the Dow posted its second-fastest 1,000-point rise in history (the one from 22,000-23,000 just now is the third fastest, and both trail the quickest, in 1999 when profits were likewise falling).

Now, I’ll qualify: This picture reflects a model. Eugene Fama, the father of the Efficient Market Hypothesis, said models aren’t reality.  If they explained everything then you would need to call them reality.

But the market as we’ve modeled it with machines that bring a taciturn objectivity to the process has been driven by the sort of money that views fundamentals impassively.

You might think it surreal that 36% of volume derives from index and exchange-traded funds and other quantitative investment. Yet it makes logical sense. Blackrock and Vanguard have taken in a combined $600 billion this year says the Wall Street Journal and the two now manage nearly $12 trillion that’s largely inured to sellside analysts and your earnings calls, public companies.

And the number of public companies keeps falling, down a third the past decade. I suspect though no one has offered the math – I will buy a case of our best Colorado beer for the person with the data – that total shares of public companies (all the shares of all the companies minus ETFs and closed-end funds) has also fallen on net, 2007-present.

There you have it.  Money that simply buys equities as an asset class sliced in various ways is doing its job.  But it becomes inflation – more money chasing fewer goods. Wall Street calls it “multiple expansion,” paying more for the same thing (current Shiller PE is the highest in modern history save the dot-com bubble).

And because passive money like Gene Fama’s models doesn’t ask whether prices are correct and merely accepts market prices as they are, there’s no governor, no reasoning, that prompts it to assess its collective behavior. So as other behaviors drop off, passive money becomes the dominant force.

In that vein, look at Risk Mgmt. It reflects counterparties to investors and traders using options, futures, forwards, swaps and other derivatives to protect, substitute for or leverage stock positions. The falling percentage suggests the cost of leverage is rising.

It fits. A handful of banks like Goldman Sachs dominate the business. Goldman’s David Kostin publicly expressed concern about market values. Kostin says the stock market is in the 88th percentile of historical valuations. If banks think downside risk is higher, the cost of insuring against it or profiting on rising markets increases.

Where in the past we worried about exuberance, we should be equally wary of the impassive face of passive investment that doesn’t know it’s approaching a precipice.

I don’t think a bear market is near yet but volatility could be imminent. By our measures the market has not mean-reverted since Sept 1. It suggests target-date and other balanced funds are likely overweight in equities. When it tries to rebalance, we could have severe volatility – precisely because this money behaves passively. Or impassively.

Realistic Expectation

How do you set realistic expectations about your shares for management?

I’ll give you examples.  One of our clients had a cyberattack and disclosed the impact, a material one degrading expected quarterly results.  What to expect?

Shares are up on strong volume.

That’s great but it makes execs scratch their heads. And the reverse can happen.

“The division heads tell their teams that growth will translate into share-price gains,” the investor-relations director told me. “They deliver, and the stock goes down 7%.”

I was having this conversation in Silicon Valley.  In fact, I had it twice the same day.

It illustrates a market transformation affecting investor-relations and investors. Fundamentals cannot be counted on to drive corresponding shareholder value.  Active stock-pickers and IR professionals have been slow to adapt, harming outcomes for both.

I was at the whiteboard in a conference room with another technology IR head, who was comparing revenue and margin drivers for his company and its key peers.

“How do I get these numbers to translate into the share price?” he said.

“You’re making the job harder than it has to be today,” I said. “And you might create unrealistic expectations from management for IR and for the company.”

There’s one more implication (we’ll answer them all before we wrap). Things like stocks behaving unexpectedly shouldn’t be ignored or glossed over.

For example, we found water dripping from the air-handler housing in the basement for the central air-conditioning system at our house. Great timing. July.

We could say, “Huh. That’s not what we were expecting.” And go on about what we’re doing.  But that’s a poor strategy, leaving us open to bigger troubles ahead.

When your stock doesn’t act as you expect, it’s water dripping from your air-handler, telling you, IR folks and investors, you’re missing something vital about the market.

Admit it.  Most of us know the market has got a drippy coil. But we go on with what we’ve been doing. We’d rather ignore the leak in the basement than address it.

For whom is that bigger trouble?  Your management team, IR. And your returns, investors. We should change what we’re doing, and revise expectations.

“I don’t want expectations for our stock,” you say. Would a board hire a CEO candidate who said, ‘Don’t expect anything from me’?

Back to our examples. In the cyberattack, Active money bought the news (bad clarity trumps okay uncertainty) but passive investment drove subsequent gains. The IR head appropriately differentiated the two and set expectations about trends and drivers. That’s good 21st century IR.

In the second example, don’t let the notion that growth will drive appreciation become an unmet expectation. Growth may boost the stock. But the IR Officer can go on the offensive with internal presentations showing how the market works and what role Story plays in setting price.

It’s up to IR to help management understand. If 80% of the time something besides Story sets price, doesn’t everybody internally have a right to know?  Don’t disillusion the team by letting incorrect expectations survive. That’s bigger trouble.

At the whiteboard with our IRO wanting to get the market to value results better, what about doing the opposite? It’s easier, less stressful, data-driven. Let the market tell YOU what it values. If 20% of the market values your numbers, measure when that 20% sets price. (We do that with Rational Price and Engagement metrics.)

Then measure how the rest of the money behaves that doesn’t pay attention to Story, and show your management team its trends and drivers. Now you’ll know when it’s about you, your management team will have data-driven views of what the money is really doing, and you, there in the IR chair, will have wider internal value.  And less stress.

That’s the right kind of realistic expectation.

What’s the market’s leaky coil? Two things.  Passive investment is asset-management, not results-driven stock-selection. Prices expand or contract with the rate of capital inflows and outflows for indexes and ETFs. You don’t control it. It controls you.

And over 50% of daily volume comes from fleeting effort to profit on price-differences or protect and leverage portfolios and trades (often in combo). It prices your stocks without wanting to own them.

And speaking of expectations, options are expiring today through Friday. It’s rarely about you when that’s happening. Set that realistic internal expectation (and stop reporting results the third week of each new quarter).

BEST OF: IR Power

EDITORIAL NOTE: Whew! It’s 11pm here in Orlando (this view just off the patio at Highball & Harvest, The Ritz, Grand Lakes), and NIRI National, the annual confab for investor-relations professionals, has wrapped. The bars at the JW Marriott and Ritz Carlton Grand Lakes are full of IR folks — wait, let me rephrase. Post-conference relationship-building is occurring. We’re all about guidance and message, you know.

This is IR Power. It doesn’t mean what you think in a market where Blackrock, Vanguard, and State Street alone have $11.5 trillion of assets ignoring corporate message and sellside research. I’ll give you our view of NIRI National 2017 (and our fact-finding junket in Key West) next week. For now, IR pros and investors, read this. It’s among our most important posts. Cheers from sultry central FL!

First run:  May 17, 2017

“What’s eye are?  I haven’t seen that acronym.”

So said a friend unfamiliar with this arcane profession at public companies responsible for Wall Street relationships.  IR, for you investors who don’t know, is the role that coordinates earnings calls and builds the shareholder base behind traded shares.

Investor Relations is a vocation in transition because of the passive tide sweeping investment, money that can’t be actively built into a shareholder base. Money in models is deaf to persuasion. The IR job is Story. The market more and more is Structure.

But IR underestimates its power. There’s a paradox unfolding in the capital markets.  I liken it to shopping malls and Amazon.  Used to be, people flocked to department stores where earnest clerks matched people to products.

We still do it, sure. But nowadays seas of cash slosh onto the web and over to Amazon without a concierge. It’s passive shopping.  It’s moved by what we need or want and not by service, save that Amazon is expert at getting your stuff in your hands well and fast.

“You were saying we underestimate our power,” you reply, IR pro. “How?”

You’ve seen the Choice Hotels ad?  A guy with an authoritative voice declares that the Choice people should use four words: “Badda-book, badda-boom.”

The advertisement is humorously stereotyping the consultants, high-powered and high-paid pros who arrive on corporate premises to, buttressed by credibility and prestige, instruct managers on what they must do.

Whether it’s marketing and communications or management like McKinsey & Co., they command psychological currency because of real and perceived credibility, and confident assertion.

Might these people be buffaloing us? There’s probably some of that. But the point is they command respect and value with authority and expertise.

All right, apply that to IR.  Especially now, with the profession in a sort of identity crisis. It’s become the ampersand role.  You’re head of IR &…fill in the blank.  Strategy.  Corporate Development.  Treasury.  Financial Planning & Analysis.  Communications.

The ampersand isn’t causing the crisis. It’s the money.  Bloomberg reporters following the passive craze say indexes and Exchange Traded Funds (ETFs) may surpass active stock funds soon for assets under management.

They already crush stock-pickers as price-setters.  Passive investment is nearly twice as likely to set your price every day as your story.  Buy and hold money buys and holds. Your story isn’t changing daily.  But prices are. Sentiment is. Macro factors are. Risk is.  These and more breed relentless shifting in passive behavior, especially ETFs.

And here’s the IR powerplay.  You are the authoritative voice, the badda-book badda-boom on capital markets internally. With the behavior of money changing, you’re in the best position to be the expert on its evolution. To lead.

If you were the management consultant, you would lay out a plan and benchmarks for organizational transformation. If you were the widget product manager, you’d be providing executives regular data on the widget market and its drivers. You wouldn’t wait for the CEO to say, “Can you pull data together on what’s happening with widgets?”

Sometimes IR people pride themselves on how management never asks about the stock.  If you’re the expert, silence is not your friend. Get out in front of this transformation and lead it.  Don’t let them watch the stock, but help them consistently measure it.

What set of vital facts about passive investment should your management team understand? If you don’t have answers, insist on the resources needed to get them.

Don’t be timid. Don’t wait for management to say, “We want you to study and report back.” It’s too late then. You’ve moved from the expert to the analyst.

Instead, set the pace. See it as a chance to learn to use analytics to describe the market.  Make it a mission to wield your IR power as this passive theme changes our profession.

And we’ll catch you in two weeks!  We’re off to ride the tides on the Belizean reef, a weeklong Corona commercial catamaraning the islands.  We’ll report back.

As we leave, Market Sentiment has again bottomed so stocks rose with Monday’s MSCI rebalances and probably rise through expirations Wed-Fri before mean-reverting again. How many mean-reversions can a bull market handle?

IR Power

“What’s eye are?  I haven’t seen that acronym.”

So said a friend unfamiliar with this arcane profession at public companies responsible for Wall Street relationships.  IR, for you investors who don’t know, is the role that coordinates earnings calls and builds the shareholder base behind traded shares.

Investor Relations is a vocation in transition because of the passive tide sweeping investment, money that can’t be actively built into a shareholder base. Money in models is deaf to persuasion. The IR job is Story. The market more and more is Structure.

But IR underestimates its power. There’s a paradox unfolding in the capital markets.  I liken it to shopping malls and Amazon.  Used to be, people flocked to department stores where earnest clerks matched people to products.

We still do it, sure. But nowadays seas of cash slosh onto the web and over to Amazon without a concierge. It’s passive shopping.  It’s moved by what we need or want and not by service, save that Amazon is expert at getting your stuff in your hands well and fast.

“You were saying we underestimate our power,” you reply, IR pro. “How?”

You’ve seen the Choice Hotels ad?  A guy with an authoritative voice declares that the Choice people should use four words: “Badda-book, badda-boom.”

The advertisement is humorously stereotyping the consultants, high-powered and high-paid pros who arrive on corporate premises to, buttressed by credibility and prestige, instruct managers on what they must do.

Whether it’s marketing and communications or management like McKinsey & Co., they command psychological currency because of real and perceived credibility, and confident assertion.

Might these people be buffaloing us? There’s probably some of that. But the point is they command respect and value with authority and expertise.

All right, apply that to IR.  Especially now, with the profession in a sort of identity crisis. It’s become the ampersand role.  You’re head of IR &…fill in the blank.  Strategy.  Corporate Development.  Treasury.  Financial Planning & Analysis.  Communications.

The ampersand isn’t causing the crisis. It’s the money.  Bloomberg reporters following the passive craze say indexes and Exchange Traded Funds (ETFs) may surpass active stock funds soon for assets under management.

They already crush stock-pickers as price-setters.  Passive investment is nearly twice as likely to set your price every day as your story.  Buy and hold money buys and holds. Your story isn’t changing daily.  But prices are. Sentiment is. Macro factors are. Risk is.  These and more breed relentless shifting in passive behavior, especially ETFs.

And here’s the IR powerplay.  You are the authoritative voice, the badda-book badda-boom on capital markets internally. With the behavior of money changing, you’re in the best position to be the expert on its evolution. To lead.

If you were the management consultant, you would lay out a plan and benchmarks for organizational transformation. If you were the widget product manager, you’d be providing executives regular data on the widget market and its drivers. You wouldn’t wait for the CEO to say, “Can you pull data together on what’s happening with widgets?”

Sometimes IR people pride themselves on how management never asks about the stock.  If you’re the expert, silence is not your friend. Get out in front of this transformation and lead it.  Don’t let them watch the stock, but help them consistently measure it.

What set of vital facts about passive investment should your management team understand? If you don’t have answers, insist on the resources needed to get them.

Don’t be timid. Don’t wait for management to say, “We want you to study and report back.” It’s too late then. You’ve moved from the expert to the analyst.

Instead, set the pace. See it as a chance to learn to use analytics to describe the market.  Make it a mission to wield your IR power as this passive theme changes our profession.

And we’ll catch you in two weeks!  We’re off to ride the tides on the Belizean reef, a weeklong Corona commercial catamaraning the islands.  We’ll report back.

As we leave, Market Sentiment has again bottomed so stocks rose with Monday’s MSCI rebalances and probably rise through expirations Wed-Fri before mean-reverting again. How many mean-reversions can a bull market handle?

Weathering Change

Everyone complains about the weather but nobody does anything about it.

Mark Twain often gets credit for the clever quip but Twain’s friend Charles Dudley Warner said it.  We’re not here to talk weather though the east coast is wishing someone would do something about it.

Like the weather, there’s a relentlessness to stock-market evolution from fundamentally powered capital-formation to procurement process in which vast sums plug into models that pick, pack and stack stocks in precisely indexed packages.

Blackrock, Vanguard and State Street oversee $11.5 trillion that’s generally blind to sellside research and deaf to the corporate story. It’s a force of nature, more like a weather pattern than investment behavior.

Investor-relations folks say: “What do we do about it?”

Alert reader Karen Quast found a paper from Goldman Sachs advising Boards to respond to the rise of passive investment:

The recent decline in active single-stock investing raises important considerations for corporate boards of directors. The decline has been driven by a shift toward ‘passive investing’ and other forms of rule-based investing, such as index funds, factor-based investing, quantitative investing and exchange-traded funds (ETFs).

The decline of active investing means that, in many cases, stock prices have become more correlated and more closely linked to a company’s ‘characteristics,’ such as its index membership, ETF inclusion or quantitative-factor attributes. As a result, companies’ stock prices have become less correlated to their own fundamental performance.

Goldman Sachs is urging preparation. You can’t change the weather. You can only weather the change. The weather forecast isn’t a call to arms. It’s information we use to adapt to conditions. We prepare for discomfort.  We set realistic expectations.

That’s how investor-relations should view passive investment. We call it Asset Allocation because it’s a behavior that directs dollars to equities according to a model apportioning resources for opportunity and risk.

One way to help the board and the management prepare is to present the idea that there’s not just one behavior buying and selling shares. We ran data for an anonymous company whose share-price is 4% higher today than a year ago, trailing the broad market.

There are four purposes behind buying and selling, one of which is Asset Allocation, and all have equal capacity to set price. After all, market rules today prohibit preference (IR people should understand rules governing how shares are priced and traded and we’ll be discussing it at the Twin Cities NIRI chapter next week – join us!).

There are 50 weeks and in each a behavior led, and bought or sold (one week, Active Investment led and price didn’t change, rotation from growth to value).

It’s eye-opening. The behavior “winning” the most weeks was Fast Trading, short-term machines profiting on price-differences rather than investing.  It led 16 weeks, or 32% of the year, and bought more frequently than it sold.

Active Investment – your stock pickers – and Asset Allocation (indexes, ETFs, quantitative investors) were tied, leading 12 weeks each, but where Asset Allocation bought and sold equally, Active Investment sold more than it bought.

Finally, Risk Mgmt, counterparties to portfolio insurance and trading leverage with derivatives, led 10 weeks, or 20% of the year, but bought 70% of the time.  Put them together and the reason the stock is up a little is because the combined demographics behind price and volume bought 26 times and sold 23 times.

You laugh?  These data are telling! If not for other behaviors, Active Investors would have lowered price. Maybe that’s a message for the board and management team – but show this data to them and it will forever change how they think about the market.

The point isn’t changing the market but understanding how it works, measuring it consistently and adapting to reality.  Fundamentals do not rule now.

But with data analytics, it remains profoundly under the purview of investor-relations. That should bring great comfort to all of us in the profession.  Passive investment isn’t something to fear but to measure.

Market Sentiment:  The Federal Reserve likely hikes rates today, and options expire tomorrow and Friday, the latter the first quad-witching session of 2017. Also, S&P and Nasdaq indexes rebalance. VIX expirations still loom next week.

And our Sentiment is negative for the first time since the election. It’s a weather forecast.  No need for panic, only preparation. We’ll all weather change.

A Rational Market

The market appears to have become the Walking Dead.

I don’t mean a collection of bodies reduced to bloody pulp by a barbed-wire encased baseball bat. That would be the Presidential election. (Aside: you who watched the new Dead episode know with nauseating certainty what I mean.)

No, market volume is a zombie compared to the summer. Volume was 6.7 billion daily shares Jun-Aug 2016.  Now we’re eking out 5.8 billion, a drag-footed, scar-faced amble.

Usually it’s the other way around.

Meanwhile, business media has been fixated (somewhat ironically) on the Passive invasion that’s digging a giant hole and burying stock-pickers. The Wall Street Journal last week ran a half-dozen stories on the death-grip indexes and exchange-traded funds have laid on investing. Not to be outdone, CNBC covered the big lurch into market passivity all last week.

Both reported how Blackrock has amassed $5 trillion of assets (while, we’d add, ignoring the sellside, discounted cash-flows and earnings calls).  A WSJ article titled Passive Can Be Very Active described how leveraged ETFs classified as passive vehicles drive immense daily volume (we told you about these things a long time ago).

But volume is moseying. So wither the wither?  It looks like Passive is responsible. Now, the market is a uniform beast in which every barcoded thing must behave like the rest or regulators fine it for looking different, by which I mean failing to trade at the averages. If any stock so much hints at departing from the crowd it’s immediately volatility-halted.

I exaggerate for dramatic effect but only some. Rules create uniformity that makes standing out difficult. So over time stocks cluster around the averages like, well, zombies. The world’s most widely traded equity by a country mile is SPY, State Street’s ETF proxy for the S&P 500.  It routinely manages $25 billion of daily volume.

But that was last summer. Monday with the November series of options and futures trading marketwide – routinely it’s hectic with new derivatives – it managed about $11 billion, just 45% of its summertime tally.

We measure the share of daily volume driven by Passive investment marketwide. It’s not down a lot, 100 basis points or so. But that’s every day. And it ripples into options and futures that counterparties back with equity-trading as placid measures mean indexes and ETFs use fewer of them to true up positions. Weaker Fast Trading follows, and anemic ETF market-making. Pretty soon it’s the walking dead.

But there’s a storyline of survival. While the corpus of passivity has shriveled like bacon in a hot pan, or perhaps more accurately like one of those flex hoses when you shut the water off, underneath there is a turgid Active current.

I mean Active investment. We’re a data-analytics firm so we measure everything.  We know each day what percentage of our clients earn new Rational Prices (fair value) when Active stock-pickers buy.

Amidst listless Passive volume, we have seen surging Rational Prices.  On Oct 13, a stunning 32.7% of our client base had new Rational Prices even as volume wilted like pumpkin leaves after the first frost.

Last Friday, the 21st, the penultimate Friday before Halloween and fittingly hosting triple-witching, an impressive 15.5% of our clients were valued rationally by Active investment.

There’s a post-mortem here, a timeless market-structure lesson. First, volume that’s not Rational distorts fair value. Stuff that pursues averages hurts stock-pickers.

And if volume decreases while Active Investment improves its price-setting authority, volume does not equal value.  What matters is the kind of money setting price. With less competition from zombies, the enterprising can make supply runs.

That’s really great news for the investor-relations profession. Our civilization will endure. You don’t need big volume. In fact, if you have big volume the old convention that “you have a big holder buying or selling” is more often wrong than right.  Active money doesn’t want others to know it’s buying. If it does, you better be wary. That’s what Activists do.

There’s more good news.  Where Passive money that puts no thought into its movement is incapable of knowing what lies ahead and can slouch unsuspecting right off cliffs, that Active money bought October brings comfort. There’s Rational Thought in that forest that so often we can’t see for the trees.

Yes, the market like the storyline in the show depends on the zombies. They move the broad measures from one point to the next. You have to be prepared for the occasional slaughter while recognizing that the humans win in the end.  Rational thought trumps.

False Passive

Karen and I are in Boston seeing friends at the NIRI chapter (we sponsor) and our trip today like last week coincides with snow in Denver. Next winter if the slopes turn bare, we’ll schedule a couple flights to bring in the blizzards.

Last week trooping through Chicago where you had to lean to stay upright in the wind, an investor-relations officer told me, “Passive money can’t be setting prices because it’s, well, passive. It can only follow active money.”

Sometimes I’m so close to the trees of market structure that I forget about the forest everyone else is seeing. Statisticians warn about false positives, false correlations, false precision. The descriptor “passive” for investment behavior following models inaccurately portrays what the money is doing. We call it “Asset Allocation” behavior.

To understand this money let’s first review how the stock market works:

It’s a data network comprised of visible nodes called exchanges and invisible ones called formally alternative trading systems and colloquially “dark pools,” stores for stocks where you must be a member to buy. Exchanges are required to serve all customers, who must either be a broker or use one.

All markets share customers and prices. You cannot continue to serve a customer in one market including a dark pool at a price worse than what’s available elsewhere. Thus, trades must match between the network-wide best price called the NBBO – national best bid/offer (best price to buy or sell).

Orders wanting to price the market must be automated so they can rapidly move from one node to the next, or the data network can’t function.

-Because of this structure, exchanges offer trading incentives called “rebates” to more frequently have the best price on the network. They pay high-speed traders about $0.29/100 shares to bring orders to their markets and set prices.

-The NYSE, the Nasdaq and BATS Global Markets operate multiple exchanges, rather than one that would aggregate buying and selling, so as to increase the amount of time each group has the best price, which means fast traders create many prices. By our measures, fast traders are eight times as likely to set prices, but with just 100 shares.

Exchanges want to set prices because any broker or market center handling customer orders must give customers the best prices so all are required to buy expensive pricing data, which is how exchanges make money.

Now you understand the stock market. Onto this network come seas of money from Blackrock and Vanguard and a raft of exchange-traded funds. For two decades investors have been choosing passive investment in accelerating fashion. It’s how Blackrock and Vanguard are the world’s biggest investors ($8 trillion of assets) and ETFs host $3 trillion while turning holdings at 2,500% (making buy-and-hold a parody).

Passive money is governed by the model it tracks, the prospectus describing the fund, and inflows and outflows. Tack on the explosive popularity in recent years of “smart beta” money tracking mathematical measures to capitalize on trends or market inefficiencies and you have a recipe for perpetual motion.

To that end, indexed money by rule must peg its benchmark – the measure metering its performance. Indexes use options and futures to mirror the benchmark so counterparties for options and futures are in and out of the market. That sets prices.

The majority of trading in ETFs is a form of arbitrage. ETFs don’t buy or sell stocks. ETF sponsors privately transact with authorized participants in large blocks. In the market, people are trading ETF shares that simply represent assets held by sponsors. Market-makers are shorting or going long components to capture inefficiencies, and fast traders are repricing components, indexes, options and futures for spreads.

All of this is setting your price. If money flows into SPY, the world’s most actively traded stock with $25 billion of volume daily, arbitragers, market-makers and authorized participants must respond. This trade splashing through your peer group may move members disparately at times because of liquidity, options, futures, shorting.

A paradoxical cycle forms. Indices fluctuate because of arbitrage in ETFs predicated on them, which prompts indexed money to adjust, which must happen because rules for indexes demand it.

The sheer size of this money has pervasive market impact, often blotting out effort by active investors to buy or sell growth and value opportunities (uniform rules and uniform trade-executions overwhelm outlier orders, key to why stock pickers rarely beat indexes).

There’s little that’s passive about passive investment. Call it Asset Allocation. But it lacks emotion, reason and common sense. That’s why markets are unresponsive to terror attacks or flagging economies but wedded to monetary policy. It’s about the model.

Quiet Midday

The midday equity-market silence is deafening.

Writing for the Wall Street Journal last week, Dan Strumpf roiled capital-markets constituents describing how stock-trading is now focused around the opening bell and the last half-hour, with volume dribbling otherwise.  NYSE strategists are now contemplating a midday auction.

Successful solutions spring from correct diagnoses. The issue isn’t that Everyone Goes Away at Midday. What’s occurring is symptomatic of structure in both the equity market and institutional investment. This is the giant elephant in the stock-market room. Concentration early and late in volumes reflects the explosive growth in passive investment.

The investor-relations profession predicates its existence on differentiating the corporate story.  You target investors appropriate for your stock. You get out there and set meetings to see investors.  You tell the story unflaggingly. You run a good business, delivering the results you’ve helped investors to expect.

Fine, good. There’s just one problem. This strategy obviates the bedrock principle of public speaking: Know your audience.  In the 1980s when stock-pickers dominated market volumes that weren’t coalesced at the open and close, rational investment behavior led and corporate competitive differentiation mattered most.

Today, the elephant is the core audience. For ten straight years investors have been shifting from picking stocks to allocating assets.  Over that time, the once-fringe notion of using statistical models to invest in stocks has become the predominant approach. Blackrock, Vanguard and their dollars by the trillions today see equities as products.

We flew to the Bay Area yesterday and after our first plane experienced mechanically related delays, we switched flights and I found myself crammed into a rear row next to a Schwab employee from the sprawling Denver office. She’s in the Registered Investment Advisor group, supporting independent planners. Schwab has now launched “robo advisor” services for both retail and advisory markets in response to growth at firms like Betterment, Wealthfront, Personal Capital, Motif Investing and others.

These automated investing services identify your preferences and goals and then construct a model to match them. In Schwab’s case the models are entirely ETF-driven and rebalance daily to match allocation targets.

Advisors could have ignored the elephant trampling the traditional model. The smart ones are embracing them. There’s a lesson for public companies: The elephant of passive, model-driven indexes and ETFs isn’t obscuring your audience. It IS your audience. This is what institutions are doing now.

That doesn’t mean you stop telling the story. It does mean that what you measure, how you gather investor feedback, what you tell management about stock-valuation and how you target investors – in fact, how you see the job – must change. We can’t ignore the giant passive-investment elephant in the room, and go on doing the same things.

Which gets back to silence at midday. Indexes and ETFs are paid to track benchmarks. Tracking is best served by orders near the close. As passive investment has exploded, volume has concentrated in the closing half-hour to mark broad measures.

The opening frenzy is also a consequence. Traders hoping to move index components for arbitrage opportunities act early in the day, leading to frenetic sprints at the bell.  And buttressing this proliferation in model-driven money is mushrooming derivatives-use, from over-the-counter options to fixed-for-floating equity swaps, all of it about the elephant in the room and arbitrage. And 44% of market volume is rented – short, borrowed – to boot.

It’s all related.  A midday auction won’t help the elephant in the room or anyone else because it hasn’t diagnosed the problem. What might help is 24-hour trading. Indexes would be relieved of the need to be near a close.  But investment would then devolve into relentless and repeating arbitrage even more than now, the continuous plucking of profits on slight separations between securities.

We could disconnect markets and disabuse ourselves of the false premise that all need the same price regardless of size – which would bring the Passive Investment juggernaut to a halt and level the playing field again for stock pickers.

That’s not going to happen. Anytime soon, at least. In the meantime, IR professionals, embrace the elephant and make measuring its movement a core part of the job because it’s your core price-setter. It’s concentrating volumes.

And that’s the quiet truth.

Who Is Selling

“Who’s selling?”

It was 2001. I’d look up and there’d be the CEO leaning in the door of my office. This was back when my buns rode the gilded surface of the IR chair. I’d look at my computer screen and our shares would be down a percent or so.

“Somebody, apparently,” I’d say. “Let me make a few calls.”

Today we have Facebook, Twitter, Pandora, iPhones, and Tesla. None of these existed in 2001. The Intercontinental Exchange, formed a year earlier to trade derivatives, now owns the NYSE. What’s remarkable to me is that against this technological wave many issuers, not counting the growing horde with Market Structure Analytics, are still making calls to get answers.

Why wouldn’t everybody be modeling market behavior and measuring periodic change? But that’s another story.

So. What if nobody’s selling and your price is down?

Impossible, you say. For price to decline, somebody has to sell.

Let me tell you about two clients releasing earnings last week.

But first, say I’m a high-frequency trader and you’re reporting. I rent (borrow) 500 shares of stock trading at $25 apiece. Say the pre-open futures are negative. At the open, I explode ahead of all others by three microseconds to place a market order to sell 500 shares. My order plunges the market 8%. I immediately cover. And for the next six hours I and my HFT compatriots trade those 500 shares amongst ourselves 23,000 times. That’s volume of 11.5 million shares.

The huge move in price prompts swaps counterparties holding insurance policies for Blackrock and Vanguard into the market, spawning big block volumes of another 6 million shares. Now you’ve traded 17.5 million shares and your price, after dropping 8%, recovers back 3% to close down 5% on the day.

So who’s selling? Technically I, an HFT firm, sold 500 shares short at the open. I probably paid a $200 finance fee for them in my margin account.

You’re the IRO. You call your exchange for answers. They see the block data, the big volumes, and conclude, yup, you had some big-time selling. Conventional wisdom says price moves, massive volume, block trades – that’s institutional.

You’re getting calls from your holders saying, “What’s going on? I didn’t think the numbers looked bad.”

Your CEO is drumming fingers on your door and grousing, “Who the HELL is selling?!”

Your Surveillance firm says UBS and Wedbush were moving big volumes. They’re trying to see if there are any clearing-relationship ties to potential institutional sellers.

The truth is neither active nor passive investors had much to do with pressure or volume, save that counterparties for passive holders had to cover exposure, helping price off lows.

Those clients I mentioned? One saw shares drop 9% day-over-day. In the data, HFT was up 170% day-over-day as price-setter, and indexes/ETFs rose 5.3%. Nothing else was up. Active investment was down. Thus, mild passive growth-selling and huge HFT hammered price. Those shares are already back in line with fair value because the selling was no more real than my 500-share example above (but the damage is done and the data are now in the historical set, affecting future algorithmic trades).

In the other case, investors were strong buyers days before results. On earnings, active investment dropped 15%, passive investment, 8%, and HFT soared 191%. These shares also coincidentally dropped 9% (programmers of algorithms know limit up/down triggers could kill their trading strategies if the move is 10% at once).

They’re still down. Active money hasn’t come back. But it’s not selling. And now we’re seeing headlines in the news string from law firms “investigating” the company for potentially misleading investors. Investors didn’t react except to stop buying.

This is the difference between calling somebody and using data models. Don’t fall in love with models (this is not a critique of Tom Brady, mind you). But the prudent IRO today uses Market Structure Analytics.

Understanding Markets

You’ve heard that bit of cowboy wisdom on how to double your money? Fold it over and put it back in your pocket.

I hear folks wanting cowboy wisdom on market structure. What do I need to grasp? In that sense, this could be the most important Market Structure Map I’ve ever written.

If you’re at home, get a glass of wine. We won’t belabor the story, but it’s not a simple one. In the beginning, in 1792, when 24 brokers clustered under a New York buttonwood tree and agreed to give each other preference and charge a minimum commission, trading securities was simple. That became the New York Stock Exchange. Most trades were for investing, some few for speculating. People have been gambling since the Garden of Eden, obviously.

Step forward. In the 1860s ticker tape by Morse code sped markets up but didn’t change structure. In the 1930s, the Securities Act formed the SEC and imposed a regulatory framework. Structure remained similar, if more process-driven.

Take another step. When Benjamin Graham wrote “The Intelligent Investor” in 1949 (Warren Buffett called it the best book about investing ever written), he said to first distinguish investing from speculating. Seek safety for principal and an adequate return, through research in business-like fashion to find good businesses at a discount to intrinsic value. Own them for the long term. Graham separated this “active” investment from cautious and generalized passive investment. (more…)