Tagged: Reg NMS

Reg Nemesis II

In the Colorado mountains at Steamboat Springs, the pixie dust florescence of greening aspen leaves paints spring onto the high country.

In the bowels of equity markets there gurgles an emergent leviathan (maybe I should choose different imagery – but we’ll talk about what stinks and what doesn’t in this…movement).  The Securities Exchange Commission (SEC) in January asked stock exchanges to rethink Reg NMS.

Everybody who trades stocks, every investor-relations officer for a public company, should know some key facts about this regulation.

Yes. Of course it’s a pain in the butt (I need a new motif).  Who wants to read regulations?

Reg NMS is Regulation National Market System. In one of our all-time most frequented posts, called Reg Nemesis, we described the effects this law has had on the stock market.

We also explained in our recent NIRI webcast on market structure that its four components regulate stock data, stock quotes, stock prices, and access to all three.

Now the SEC wants to modernize it. I think that’s not a stinker at all. Rules should reflect how the market works, and Reg NMS hatched in the contemporary minds of members of Congress in 1975.

Then, amid caroming inflation and screaming currency volatility of the post-gold, bell-bottomed pandemic-haired hippie era, the legislative halls of Columbia echoed with calls to protect the vital “system” of our stock market.

So Congress added the 11A national market system amendments to the Securities Act.  And thirty years later, the SEC got around to regulating Congress’s will upon free markets, and in 524 sweepingly droll pages that one cannot help but read in the same soporific nasal tone as Ben Stein in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, the stock market became the national market system.

You cannot bear imagining the cacophony with which the stock exchanges met this plan, back then.  There was shrieking and gnashing of legal teeth, the rending of garments and the donning of sack cloth. Ashes were poured on heads. Hieratic beseeching, a great priestly tumult, roared over capital markets.  It was like a pandemic.

Reg NMS was approved in 2005, about four years after the drumbeat began, and implemented in 2007.

Thirteen years on now, nobody loves Reg NMS like stock exchanges love Reg NMS. They’ve even sued the SEC to stop the regulator from questioning its own rules.

As Dave Barry, one of my favorite humorists (if your car is making a knocking noise, turn the radio up) of all time, used to say, “We are not making this up.”

So the SEC basically said, to quote Jerry Stiller (RIP, Ben Stiller’s dad), “Do you want a piece of me!!!!????”

And they’ve instructed exchanges and other market participants to help redraw Reg NMS.  And somehow the sequel is even longer than the original, at 595 pages.

And once again, even though the Securities Act of 1933 and 1934 as amended (oh so very many times amended) specifically includes issuers as constituents not to be discriminated against, we’re omitted from this re-imagining.

That’s a major reason to me why more than 55% of all trading volume currently comes from firms that don’t know what you do or who you are, public companies. They care only that your price profitably changes in fractions of seconds at your investors’ expense.

But I digress.

The Festivus for the rest of us that’s thus far been as elusive as holiday aluminum poles and feats of strength is a market that really works for our profession.

What would that be?  For one, a market that produced more IR jobs rather than fewer (we continue to lose more stocks each year than we gain and there are less than half what there were when I started in this profession in 1995).

And a market where stock pickers favoring your story have the same chance to make money as ETF market-makers and Fast Traders (so blissfully optimistic you want to start humming Fred Rogers, and, were we not socially distanced, hugging your neighbor).

Hey, maybe this is our chance. We can form opinions, speak up.  We’ll have that opportunity as this process, likely to take years as it did the first time around, unfolds.

So, what’s the SEC wanting to put in Nemesis II?  It wants competition for consolidated market data.  The Securities Information Processor (SIP) is a monopoly run by one firm (currently the Nasdaq).  It’s the official source of price and quote information – but it’s slower than all the proprietary data feeds. So everybody sells access even though the law says access must be uniform.

That needs fixing and the SEC is right.

And they want to redefine a “round lot” to reflect an Amazon market. Right now, stocks quote in 100-share increments.  The problem is AMZN, BKNG, GOOG and other stocks trade for well more than $1,000.  The average trade-size in these is about 30 shares.

In fact, almost 60% of trades now are for less than 100 shares, so stocks are trading at prices differing from quotes. It merits analysis, we agree. But do we further “yellow pencil” the market? Should we force all stocks to be $25-50? Is the round lot dead?

I haven’t finished reading all 595 pages yet. We’ll have more to say. We need rules that reflect reality. But we also need simple, comprehensible markets that work for all of us, and not just for speedy machines and stock exchanges.

Maybe we should all yell at them, “Do you want a piece of me!!!!????”

Epiphany

DoubleLine’s famed Jeff Gundlach says we’ll take out March lows in stocks because the market is dysfunctional.

Karen and I have money at DoubleLine through managed accounts with advisors.  Mr. Gundlach is a smart man. Maybe it’s splitting hairs if I say the stock market isn’t dysfunctional but reflecting its inherent structural risks.

We know as much as anyone including Mr. Gundlach about market mechanics. And I still learn new stuff daily.  Matter of fact, I had an epiphany over the weekend. I compared market behaviors during the Great 2020 Market Correction.

Wow is that something to see.  We might host a webcast and share it.  If you’re interested, let us know.

Over the past decade, the effort to produce returns with lower risk has spread virally in the US stock market.  Call it alpha if you like, getting more than you’re risking.  Hedge funds say it’s risk-adjusted return.

The aim is to protect, or insure, everything against risk, as we everyday people do. We protect our homes, cars, lives, appliances, even our entertainment expenditures, against risk by paying someone to replace them (save for our lives, where beneficiaries win at our loss).

Stock traders try to offset the cost of insurance by profitably transacting in insured assets. That’s the holy grail.  No flesh wounds, no farts in our general direction (for you Monty Python fans).

It works this way. Suppose your favorite stock trades for $20 and you’re a thousand shares long – you own 1,000 shares. For protection, you buy 20 puts, each for 50 shares. You’re now long and short a thousand shares.

If the stock rises, the value of your puts shrinks but you’re up. If the stock declines, your long position diminishes but your puts are worth more.  Say the stock rises to $23. The value of your puts declines, making you effectively long 1,300 shares, short 700.

To generate alpha (I’m simplifying, leaving out how options may decrease in value near expiration, the insurance-renewal date, so to speak), you need to offset the cost of insurance. With a good model built on intraday volatility, you can trade the underlying stock for 20 days, buying high and selling low, going long or short, to mitigate costs.

Everybody wins. Your counterparty who sold you the puts makes money.  You make money trading your favorite stock. You have no fear of risk. And because more money keeps coming into stocks via 401ks and so on, even the losers get lucky (thank you Tom Petty, rest in peace, for that one).

One big reason this strategy works is the rules.  Regulation National Market System requires all stocks to trade at a single daily average price in effect. Calculating averages in a generally rising market is so easy even the losers can do it.

Now, what would jack this model all to hell?

A virus (frankly the virus is an excuse but time fails me for that thesis today).

Understand this:  About 80% of all market volume was using this technique. Quants did it. Active hedge funds. Fast Traders. Exchange-Traded Funds (ETF) market-makers.

Big volatility doesn’t kill this strategy. It slaughters the parties selling insurance. Observers are missing this crucial point. Most active money didn’t sell this bear turn.  We can see it.  Again, a story for later via webcast if you’re interested.

What died in the great 2020 Coronavirus Correction was the insurance business.

Casualties litter the field. The biggest bond ETFs on the planet swung wildly in price. Big banks like Dutch giant ABN Amro took major hits. Twenty-six ETFs backed by derivatives failed. The list of ETFs ceasing the creation of new units keeps growing and it’s spilling into mainstream instruments. Going long or short ETFs is a fave hedge now.

The Chicago Mercantile Exchange auctioned the assets of a major high-speed trader that sold insurance, Ronin Capital (around since 2006. If its balance sheet and leverage can be believed, it may have imputed a loss of $500 billion to markets.

Just one firm. How many others, vastly bigger, might be at risk?

Forget stock-losses. Think about how funds mitigate volatility. How they generate alpha. We’ve been saying for years that if the market tips over, what’s at risk is whatever has been extended through derivatives. ETFs are derivatives. That’s 60% of volume.

And now key market-makers for stocks, bonds, ETFs, derivatives, commodities, currencies, are tied up helping the Federal Reserve. Including Blackrock. They can’t be all things to all people at once.

The market isn’t dysfunctional.  It’s just designed to function in ways that don’t work if insurance fails. And yes, I guess that that’s dysfunctional. That was my epiphany.

I’ll conclude with an observation. We shouldn’t shut down our economy. Sweden didn’t. This is their curve. Using a population multiplier, their curve is 27% better than ours – without shutting down the economy, schools, restaurants. We are the land of the free, the home of the brave. Not the land of those home, devoid of the brave. I think it’s time to put property rights, inalienable rights, above the government’s presumption of statist power.

Many Tiny Trades

All 20 biggest points-losses for Dow Jones Industrials (DJIA) stocks in history have occurred under Regulation National Market System.

And 18 occurred from 2018-2020. Fifteen of the 20 biggest points-gains are in the last two years too, with all save one, in Mar 2000, under Reg NMS (2007-present).

It’s more remarkable against the backdrop of the Great Depression of the 1930s when the DJIA traded below 100, even below 50, versus around 20,700 now and small moves would be giant percentage jumps. Indeed, fifteen of the twenty biggest percentage gains occurred between 1929-1939. But four are under Reg NMS including yesterday’s 11.4% jump, 4th biggest all-time.

Just six of the biggest points-losses are under Reg NMS (we wrote this about the rule). But ranked second is Mar 16, 2020. And 19 of the 20 most volatile days on record – biggest intraday moves – were in the last two years, and all are under Reg NMS.

Statistically, these concentrated volatility records are anomalous and say what’s extant now in markets promotes volatility.  Our market is stuffed full of many tiny trades.

Volume the past five days has averaged 9.9 million shares per mean S&P 500 component, up 135% from the 200-day average.  But intraday volatility is up nearly 400%, trade-size measured in dollars is down 30%.

That’s why we’re setting volatility records. The definition of volatility is unstable prices.

I’m delighted as I’m sure CVX is that the big energy company led DJIA gainers yesterday, rising 22%.  But stocks shouldn’t post an excellent annual return in a day.

CVX liquidity metrics (volume is not liquidity!) show the same deterioration we see in the S&P 500, with intraday volatility up 400%, trade-size down 47%, daily trades up over 240% to 196,000 daily versus long-run average of about 57,000.

Doing way more of the same thing in tiny pieces means intermediaries get paid at the expense of investors.

Every stock by law must trade between the best national visible (at exchanges) bid to buy and offer to sell.  When volatility rises, big investors lose ability to buy and sell efficiently, because prices are constantly changing.

Regulators and exchanges have tried to deal with extraordinary volatility by halting trading.  We’ve tracked more than 7,500 individual trading halts in stocks since Mar 9 – twelve trading days.  Marketwide circuit breakers have repeatedly tripped.

Volatility has only worsened.

In financial crises, we inject liquidity to stabilize prices.  We can do the same in stocks by suspending the so-called “Trade Through Rule” requiring that stocks trade at a single best price, if the market is more than 5% volatile.

Trade size would jump, permitting big investors to move big money, returning confidence and stability to prices. We’ve proposed it three times to the SEC now.

Investors and public companies need to understand if the market is working. Let’s define “working.” The simplest measure is liquidity, which is not volume but dollars per trade, the amount one can buy or sell before price changes.  By that measure, the market has failed utterly during this tumult.

Let’s insist on a market capable of burstable bandwidth, so to speak, to handle surges.  Suspending Rule 611 of Reg NMS during stress is a logical strategy for the next time.

Let’s finish today by channeling the biblical apostles, who came to Jesus asking what would be the sign of the end of the age?  Here, we want to know what the sign is that market tumult is over.

At the extremities, no model can predict outcomes.  But given the nature of the market today and the behaviors dominating it, the rules governing it, we can inform ourselves.

This market crisis commenced Feb 24, the Monday when new marketwide derivatives traded for March expiration.  In the preceding week, demand for derivatives declined 5% at the same time Market Structure Sentiment topped.

We had no idea how violent the correction would be. But these signals are telling and contextual. They mean derivatives play an enormous role.

We had massive trouble with stocks right through the entire March cycle, which concluded Mar 20 with quad-witching.  Monday, new derivatives for April expiration began trading.

It’s a new clock, a reset to the timer.

You longtime clients know we watch Counterparty Tuesday, the day in the cycle when banks square the ledger around new and expired derivatives. That was yesterday.

That the market surged means supply undershot demand. And last week Risk Mgmt rose by 5% and was the top behavior – trades tied to derivatives, insurance, leverage. Shorting fell to the lowest sustained level in years. Market Structure Sentiment bottomed.

It’s a near-term nadir. The risk is that volatility keeps the market obsessed with changing the prices, which is arbitrage. Exchange Traded Funds depend on arbitrage (and led the surge in CVX).  Fast Traders do too. Bets on derivatives do.

The tumult ends in my view when big arbitragers quit, letting investment behavior briefly prevail.  We’ll see it. We haven’t yet.  The market may rise fast and fall suddenly again.

Clashing Titans

While Karen and I consumed Arctic Char in Iceland, stock exchanges sued the SEC.

Talk about a big fish story.

The NYSE, Nasdaq and CBOE, representing about 57% of trading volume over a combined twelve platforms, asked a federal court to halt the SEC’s plan to test changes to trading fees and credits via a Transaction Fee Pilot program set to begin late in 2019.

It’s the more curious because investors transacting in markets generally support the planned study. Reading through hundreds of comment letters (including our own, offered in support), we tallied around $24 trillion of assets backing the test.

What’s got the exchanges in such a tizzy about a probationary effort – not an actual rule-change, mind you – that they’ve lawyered up?

The answer lies in the four key tenets of Regulation National Market System, a sort of current Magna Carta for stock-trading in the USA.  Every investor-relations professional and investor should know baseline facts about it.

In 1975 when the USA was mired in screaming inflation, a plunging dollar loosed from its gold moorings in 1971, an oil crisis, and failure in Vietnam, the US Congress decided to throw a fence around stock markets as a vital strategic interest.

So they passed the National Market System amendments to the Exchange Act of 1934, now part of the leviathan United States Code, 15 USC, Section 78c.

Oh boy.

The wheels of regulation mire in swampy muck, so it was thirty years later when the SEC finally got around to fulfilling the vision (no longer needed, in my view) Congress saw in 1975.  Enter Reg NMS.

The regulation has four pillars.  First, exchanges must ensure that stocks trade only at a single national best price (the Order Protection Rule). Second, the SEC – and this is the essence of the Fee Pilot – capped (the SEC said “harmonized”) what exchanges could charge so nobody would be priced out of access (The Access Rule) to stock quotes. It also required a spread between the bid to buy and offer to sell. No locked (same bid, offer) or crossed (higher bid than offer) markets.

Third, the law prohibited stock-quotes (unless under $1 in value) in increments of less than one penny (in effect, guaranteeing speculative traders a profit, because while quotes are in pennies, trades are often in far smaller increments at variations of midpoints) so every stock would have a bid and offer separated by at least a penny.

Finally, the law changed how revenue from data (Market Data Rules) would be allocated.

Reg NMS was implemented in 2007.

I think a legal case could have been made that both decimalization and Reg NMS six years later were unconstitutional. Nowhere does our governing charter give Congress the power to set prices and commandeer property not for public use.

Yet it did so by forcing exchanges to share what before had been proprietary intellectual property – data – and setting what they could charge for services. So how ironic is it that now exchanges are suing to keep this structure?

Not ironic at all when you realize that big exchange groups (the newest entrant IEX is not suing, supports the fee pilot, and didn’t build business on data and technology services) have exploded in size, profits, revenues and influence under Reg NMS.

Humans are an intelligent species. We adapt. The exchanges discovered that they could pay traders to set the bid and offer, and sell the data generated in that process – and then sell all kinds of services for using that data effectively.  Genius!

The pilot plan threatens this construct.

You’ll read that the concern is brokers routing trades for payments instead of where it’s best. That’s to me a red herring.

We oppose prices set by participants wanting to own nothing. They distort fair value, supply, demand, and borrowing. If you use our analytics, you know it’s 44% of trading volume directly, and over 70% indirectly (we calculate that 94% of SPY volume is arbitrage).

If half the volume is intermediation, the market is a mess.

The stock market is supposed to match investors and public companies. Reg NMS derailed the market’s central purpose. That’s my opinion. Predicated on data. I run a technology firm that for the entirety of the Reg NMS regime has measured the collapse of rational thought and capital-formation consequent to this regulation.

The stock market today is a great place to trade stuff. Exchange Traded Funds have prospered because they’re by law dependent on arbitrage, profiting on different prices for the same things. The regulatory structure requires different prices for the same things.

Let’s summarize what’s occurring. The exchanges have invested billions of dollars to make money under Reg NMS. And they’ve succeeded.

The SEC now realizes that Reg NMS hurts the root purpose of equity capital markets and it wants to test ways to roll back rules promoting short-term trading.

The exchanges are opposed because short-term trading is the very cornerstone of profitable data and technology services.

I don’t fault them.  But come on, guys. The SEC has finally seen how the market has devolved into a laser light show of speculation and fleeting intermediary profiteering that has pushed meaningful capital-formation into private equity.

That in turn defrauds mom and pop investors of the Intel Effect (I don’t have to explain it), and my profession, investor relations, of a thriving job market.

Could we run this test, please, and see what happens, exchanges?

Rules and Money

There are two pillars to market intelligence: The Rules, and The Money.

By market intelligence, I mean information about what’s pricing a stock. So, translating, information about what’s pricing a stock must derive from the rules that govern stock-trading, and how money conforms to those rules.

Wouldn’t that be supply and demand?  Would that it were! There are instead four big rules for stocks now, tenets of Regulation National Market System about which every investor and investor-relations officer should have a basic grasp.

“Quast,” you say. “This sounds about as exciting as cleaning a tennis court with a tooth brush. In Houston. In the summer.”

It can be very exciting, but the point isn’t excitement.  If you don’t know the rules (always expect your market intelligence provider to know the rules for stocks), your conclusions will be wrong.  You’ll be guessing.

For instance, if you report strong results and your stock jumps on a series of rapid trades, can a human being do that?  Refer to the rules. What do they require?  That all marketable trades – an order to buy or sell stock – be automated.

No manual stock order can be marketable. Manual orders are nonmarketable, meaning prices for the stock must come to them instead. Picture a block of cheese and a grater passing by it and shaving some off.

The rule creating this reality in stocks is the Order Protection Rule, or the Trade-Through Rule. Same thing. It says traders cannot trade at $21.00 if the same stock is available for $20.99 somewhere else. To ensure compliance, regulators have mandated that orders wanting to be the best bid to buy or offer to sell must be automated.

And the bid to buy will always be lower than the offer to sell. Stocks may only trade at them, or between them.  There can only be one best price (though it may exist in several places).

Now start thinking about what money will do in response.  Orders will be broken into pieces. Sure enough, trade size has come down by factors, and block trades (we wrote about it) are a tiny part of the market.

Big Commandment #2 for stocks is the Access Rule. It goes hand-in-glove with the first rule because it’s really what turned the stock market into a data network.

The Access Rule says all market centers including stock markets like the five platforms operated by the NYSE, the three owned by the Nasdaq, the four owned by CBOE, the newest entrant IEX, and the 32 broker markets that match stock trades must be connected so they can fluidly share prices and customers.

It also capped what exchanges could charge for trades at $0.30/100 shares – paid by brokers trading in the stock market for themselves or customers (the SEC Fee Pilot Program aims to examine if these fees, and their inverse, incentive payments, cause brokers to execute trades in ways they would not otherwise choose).

The third big rule outlaws Sub-Penny Pricing, or quoting in increments so small they add no economic value.  You may still see your stock trading at $21.9999 because of certain exceptions for matching at midpoints of quotes.

Reg NMS lastly imposed new Market Data Rules. Since everyone is sharing prices and customers on this network called the stock market, plans had to be refined for pooling data-revenue (prohibiting sub-penny trading was meant to prevent a proliferation of tiny meaningless prices).

Yet, data is a byproduct of prices. There are hundreds of millions of dollars of revenue governed by the Consolidated Tape Association, which divides proceeds according to how various platforms and brokers quote and trade in accordance with best prices. Outside the CTA, there may be billions of dollars now in proprietary data feeds.

These rules drive how money behaves. The fastest machines will price your stock to start the day no matter where you trade, because they have the quickest bids and offers. But their purpose is to profit on changing prices, not to own stocks.

Passive investment dominating the market is aided by rules. What lies between the bid and the offer? The average price. Those tracking benchmarks like index mutual and exchanged-traded funds get a boost toward their objective.  Prices become uniform (our data show very tight Poisson distribution in the stock market – which helps securities tracking benchmarks).

And because stock prices are highly unstable – average intraday spread in the Russell 1000 the past five trading days is 2.6%, and the typical stock trades over 16,000 times daily in 167-share increments – investors turn to substitutes like derivatives. Even Warren Buffett who once famously skewered them as instruments of mass financial destruction has large derivatives positions.

Let’s finish where we started. Why doesn’t supply and demand drive stock prices? Because rules governing trades don’t let supply and demand manifest naturally. The greatest proportion of trades are now driven by machines wanting to own nothing, the opposite of a market animated by supply and demand.

When you look at your stock or stocks in your portfolio, remind yourself: What’s driving them up and down are rules, and money racing around a course in compliance with those rules.  Some part is rational. A bunch of it isn’t.  We all – investors and public companies – can and should know what’s going on. The first rule, after all, is to be informed.

Welcome to the 21st century stock market.

Block Monopoly

This year’s rare midweek July 4 prompted a pause for the Market Structure Map to honor our Republic built on limited government and unbounded individual liberty. Long may it live.

Returning to our market narrative: Did you know that 100% of Exchange Traded Fund creations and redemptions occur in block trades?

If you’ve got 48 minutes and a desire to understand ETFs, catch my podcast (you can get our ETF White Paper too) with IR Magazine’s Jeff Cossette.

In stocks, according to publicly reported data, three-tenths of one percent (0.3%) of NYSE trades are blocks (meaning 99.7% are non-block).  The Nasdaq compiles data differently but my back-of-the-envelope math off known data says blocks are about the same there – a rounding error of all trades.

Blocks have shrunk due to market regulation. Rules say stock trades must meet at a single national price between the best bid to buy and offer to sell.  That price relentlessly changes, especially for the biggest thousand stocks comprising 95% of volume and market cap (north of $2.5 billion to make the cut) so the amount of shares available at the best price is most times tiny.

We track the data.  At July 9, the average Russell 1000 stock traded 13,300 times per day in 160-share increments.  If you buy and sell shares 200 at a time like high-speed traders or algorithmic routers that dissolve and spray orders like crop-dusters, it’s great.

But if you buy cheese by the wheel, so to speak, getting a slice at a time means you’re not in the cheese-wheel buying business but instead in the order-hiding business. Get it? You must trick everybody into thinking you want a slice, not a wheel.

The cause? Market structure. Regulation National Market System, the regime governing stock trades, says one exchange must send to another any trade for which a better price exists there (so big exchanges pay traders to set price. IEX, the newest, doesn’t).

Put simply, exchanges are forced by rules to share prices. Exchanges cannot give preference to any customer over another.

ETFs get different rules. Shares are only created in blocks, and only traded between ETF creators and their only customers, called Authorized Participants.

I’m not making this up. When Blackrock wants more ETF shares, they create them in blocks only.  From Blackrock’s IVV S&P 500 ETF prospectus: Only an Authorized Participant may engage in creation or redemption transactions directly with the Fund. The Fund has a limited number of institutions that may act as Authorized Participants on an agency basis (i.e., on behalf of other market participants).

Why can ETFs offer preference when it’s against the law for exchanges? Fair question. There is no stated answer. The unstated one is that nobody would make markets in ETFs if a handful of firms didn’t have an unassailable competitive advantage, a sure chance to make money (why ETF fees are so low).

Again from the IVV prospectus:

Prior to trading in the secondary market, shares of the Fund are “created” at NAV by market makers, large investors and institutions only in block-size Creation Units of 50,000 shares or multiples thereof.

Each “creator” or authorized participant (an “Authorized Participant”) has entered into an agreement with the Fund’s distributor, BlackRock Investments, LLC (the “Distributor”), an affiliate of BFA. A creation transaction, which is subject to acceptance by the Distributor and the Fund, generally takes place when an Authorized Participant deposits into the Fund a designated portfolio of securities (including any portion of such securities for which cash may be substituted) and a specified amount of cash approximating the holdings of the Fund in exchange for a specified number of Creation Units.

And down a bit further (emphasis in all cases mine):

Only an Authorized Participant may create or redeem Creation Units with the Fund. Authorized Participants may create or redeem Creation Units for their own accounts or for customers, including, without limitation, affiliates of the Fund.

Did you catch that last bit? The creator of ETF shares – only in blocks, off the secondary market (which means not in the stock market) – may create units for itself, for its customers, or even for the Fund wanting ETF shares (here, Blackrock).

And the shares are not created at the best national bid to buy or offer to sell but at NAV – Net Asset Value.

Translating to English: ETF shares are created between two cloistered parties with no competition, off the market, in blocks, at a set price – and then sold to somebody else who will have to compete with others and can only trade at the best national price, which continually changes in the stock market, where no one gets preference and prices are incredibly unstable.

It’s a monopoly.

Two questions:  Why do regulators think this is okay? The SEC issued exemptive orders to the 1940 Investment Company Act (can the SEC override Congress?) permitting it.

We wrote about the enormous size of ETF creations and redemptions. Which leads to Question #2: Why wouldn’t this process become an end unto itself, displacing fundamental investment?

The Matrix

FactSet says quarterly earnings are up 23% from a year ago. Why have stocks declined?

There’s an inclination to grasp at fundamental explanations. Yet stock pickers generally don’t reactively sell because most times they must be fully invested (meaning to sell, they must buy).

Blackrock, Vanguard and State Street claim for Exchange-Traded Funds tracking the S&P 500 or Russell 1000 that turnover is 3-5%. (Editorial note: Those figures exclude creations and redemptions of ETF shares totaling trillions annually – a story we’ve told exclusively in the Market Structure Map.)

If investors are not responsible, who or what is?  Machines. By market rule all trades wanting to set the best bid to buy or offer to sell are automated – running on an algorithm. Why? Because the best price can be anyplace at anytime in the market system, and trades must move fluidly to it.

Thus, machines have become hugely influential in determining how prices are calculated. An amalgam of broker algorithms, smart routers and exchange order types are continually calculating the probability of higher or lower prices and completing a trade.

By our measures, back on Apr 19 the probability of calculating higher prices dropped. Why? Perhaps risk calculations for asset managers ordered rotation from overweighted equities or a need to slough off capital gains from ETFs (stuff mathematical models routinely do).

We have a mathematical representation for it: The market was Overbought. It doesn’t mean people are overpaying for fundamentals. It says machines will lack data to arrive at higher prices.  What follows this condition is nearly always a flat or lower market.

We know then that math arising from market rules is more powerful than a 23% increase in earnings. That should disturb stock pickers and public companies. If the market is The Matrix (if you’re younger than the movie, watch it to understand the reference), what are we all doing straining so hard to be outliers?

And why do machines possess the capacity to trump value-creation?

Good question.

By the way, the math is now changing. It’s resolving toward a mean.  We measure these price-setting propensities with a 10-point scale, the ModernIR Behavioral Index. Most of the time the stock market trades between 4.0 and 6.0, mean-reverting to 5.0 or thereabouts.

It returns to the middle because rules propel it there. Stocks must trade between the best bid or offer. What lies there? The average price. What do indexes and ETFs hew to? Averages.  We’ve explained this before.

When the market slops beyond 6.0, a mean-reversion is coming.  When it drops below 4.0, it signals upward mean-reversion. The market has descended from about 6.5 a week ago to 5.2 yesterday. The market will soon level off or rise as it did microcosmically yesterday, a day of extremes that ended back near midway (but it’s not down to 4.0, notice).

If math is a more reliable indicator of the future than earnings, why is everybody fixated on earnings versus expectations? What if that model is obsolete? And is that a bad thing?

I don’t think so. The earnings-versus-expectations convention promotes arbitrage. Shouldn’t capital-formation power the market?

The Math

“Making investment decisions by looking solely at the fundamentals of individual companies is no longer a viable investment philosophy.”

So said Steve Eisman, made famous in Michael Lewis’s book The Big Short, upon shutting down his new investment fund in 2014.  Actor Steve Carrell portrayed Eisman as Mark Baum in last year’s hit movie from the book.

Michael Burry, the quirky medical doctor running Scion Capital in the book and the movie (played by Christian Bale), first earned street credibility via posts about stocks on Silicon Investor, the online discussion forum huge before the dot-com bubble burst.

But in the ten years after Regulation National Market System transformed the stock market in 2005 from a vibrant human enterprise into a wide-area data network, 98% of all active stock-pickers failed to beat the S&P 500, proving Mr. Eisman correct.  You can’t pick stocks on merits alone now.

That’s contrary to the legacy objective of the investor-relations profession, which is to stand the company’s story apart from the rest.

As with finding the root of the mortgage-industry rot, today the market is all about data.  Everything is.  Google Analytics examines internet traffic patterns.  ZipRecruiter is analytics for hiring. Betterment is analytics for personal investing.  HomeAdvisor and Angie’s List are analytics for home-repair. Pandora is analytics for music you like.

Pick your poison. Everything is data. So why, ten years after Reg NMS, is the IR profession calling someone to ask, “How come my stock is down today?” All trades pricing the market under Reg NMS must by law be automated.

If you’re calling somebody to ask about your stock, I’m sorry but you’re doing IR like a caveman. And, paraphrasing Steve Eisman, running the IR department solely by telling the story to investors is no longer a viable industry philosophy.

Why? Because it begins with the flawed premise that the money buying and selling your shares is motivated by fundamentals alone.  For the past decade – the span of Reg NMS – trillions have departed active stock-picking portfolios and shifted to indexes and Exchange-Traded Funds, because tracking a benchmark is a better path to returns.

Take yesterday.  All you had to do was buy technology and materials stocks.  Today it might be something else. The most widely traded stock on the planet is SPY, the S&P 500 ETF.  It traded $7 billion of volume yesterday, ten times BAC, the most active stock.

Here’s another. XLU, the Utilities ETF, was among the 25 most actively traded issues yet the sector barely budged, up 0.04%. Why active then? ETFs fuel arbitrage.  Profiting on price-differences. It’s not where prices close but how they change intraday.

Best trade yesterday?  NUGT, the leveraged gold ETF, was up 7.5% even though gold has been a bust the past month.  The S&P 500 took the whole year to gain 10% and then only on the Trump Bump. Between Dec 30 and Oct 31, the S&P 500 eked out 2% appreciation. You could triple that in a day with NUGT so why invest long-term?

“Boy, Quast,” you say. “It’s the holiday season! What are you, The Grinch?”

Not at all! The opposite in fact. I’m on a quest to make IR central to public companies again. We invented Market Structure Analytics, data for the IR profession to address the demise of IR as Storyteller.  The future for our profession isn’t a command of fundamentals but knowledge of market form and function.

Let me be blunt. Anybody can tell the story. Only IR professionals dedicate themselves to knowing how the market works – and that’s job security, a transferrable skill set.

The way IR shifts back from a rotational role to vital standalone profession is through knowledge of the stock market. If you want to be a biologist, study and understand biology. If you want to be a biology reporter, you just need to know some biologists (no offense to biology reporters).

Which will the IR profession be in 2017?

Having threshed trading data for 15 years now through the regulatory and behavioral transformation of the equity market, I feel a tad like those guys in The Big Short who studied mortgage numbers and concluded it was irrefutable: It was going to blow up.

These data are irrefutable: Over 80% of your volume most days is driven by something much shorter-term than your business strategy.  Ergo, if all you tell your Board and management is how your strategy influences the stock, you’ll at some point be in trouble.

This is the lesson of 2016.  Make 2017 the year IR transforms how the people in the boardrooms of America understand the stock market. That is an invigorating challenge that will breathe value into our profession. The math doesn’t lie.

Two Faces

In Roman mythology, Janus is the two-faced god of beginnings and endings.  In Denver, Janus is the god of investing. In the news, Janus is merging with UK money manager Henderson.

The move reflects the two faces of the stock market, beginnings and endings and gates and doorways, like the figure from Rome’s old religion.  Today’s market is the inverse of the one prevailing when Tom Bailey launched Janus from a one-room Denver office in 1969, choosing the front-range town over New York to avoid Wall Street GroupThink.

For the next three decades, Janus boomed through a culture of camaraderie built around proprietary financial modeling to find the most dynamic, well-run companies. Janus was a stock-picker of the highest caliber with a penchant for bucking the crowd and going long, big.  Star fund manager Tom Marsico epitomized the Janus style with his Focus Fund backing typically 20 stocks.

Janus embraced the New Economy and chased technology. Though Marsico left in 1997 in a dispute with management, Janus, which was then owned by Kansas City Southern before spinning out publicly as part of Stilwell Financial, became the best mutual-fund company in the business, peaking at $330 billion of assets in 1999.

Then the Internet Bubble burst. In latter 2000 as tech stocks cratered, Janus was losing $1 billion a day in asset-value. In 2001, the firm cut half its staff and saw assets under management dip below $200 billion. The name Stilwell, a moniker fashioned to honor rail tycoon Arthur Stilwell, went away and the two-faced god returned as a public firm.

But the US stock market emerged from the 20th century fundamentally altered, a National Market System. Well, there is no “market system.” It’s one or the other. A market is organic commercial interaction – a dynamic environment where shrewd analysis and the search for the best is a recipe for the success that bred Janus. A system is a process and method. Success in a system turns on stripping out cost and following a model.

The National Market System today is a process and method. GroupThink. Exactly what Janus eschewed. Blackrock and Vanguard have roared past yesterday’s stock-picking heroes like Janus by stripping cost out and tracking averages, thriving at GroupThink.

It’s remarkable testament to the state of the market that being average is the key to being best. And how did we get a market where average is king? Process and method. Rules.

The Order Handling Rules in 1997 decreed that stock markets must display prices set by Electronic Communications Networks, which obliterated a fixture of exchanges back to the 1792 Buttonwood Agreement that brokers not undercut each other on price.  Regulation ATS required all trades to occur through brokers or exchanges, putting the brokers who created exchanges into competition with their progeny. Decimalization in 2001 wiped out the market-making spread necessary for investment banks to fund small-cap stock research (small-cap IPOs plunged by 90%).

Then Regulation National Market System, a product of Congressional legislation, crafted a single marketplace functioning like a data network around the best national bid or offer. A network of linked nodes isn’t competition. It’s a system. The process and method for navigating the network determines success. Machines navigate it best, so the biggest source of volume today is Fast Trading, which writes no research, carries no inventory, underwrites nothing.

In the decade ended Dec 31, 2015 spanning the creation of the National Market System, 98% of all stock-pickers have failed to beat the average – the S&P 500.  The reason isn’t prowess from passives but how indexes and ETFs strip out cost and construct portfolios around the average prices that now securities regulators require (“Best Execution”).

If you’re looking for outliers like Janus, this market is the wrong one for you (and if you seek that money as the investor-relations profession does, it’s stacked against you too). So money is rushing with great sound and fury from them and into indexes and ETFs.

Mergers are driven by effort to strip out cost.  Henderson is paying $2 billion for Janus to form a manager with $300 billion of assets – smaller than Janus in 1999. Ironically, the amount Henderson is paying equals the investment outflows from the two in 2016.  Janus CEO Dick Weil will co-head the company with Henderson CEO Andrew Formica and will move from Denver to London.

Regulators: Is there not one of you paying attention? You did this. You are wrecking the market for stock-picking, for small-caps, for American capitalism. Now you’ve driven Janus out of Denver.  We don’t need a two-faced market where just one smiles.  Keep this up and you’ll foster the mother of all backlashes.

25 Basis Points

Whether public companies are winning in the stock market comes down to basis points.

The Buttonwood Agreement formulating the US public equity market in 1792 affirmed in two terse sentences that its parties would charge a quarter-point commission.

Last weekend Jason Zweig wrote about “May Day” for the Wall Street Journal. On May 1, 1975, under pressure from the SEC and Justice Department antitrust lawyers, and seeing a path to reducing market-fragmentation and competition from low-cost platforms like Instinet, the NYSE ended fixed commissions. Many brokers saw doomsday looming and called it “Mayday.”

As Mr. Zweig says, assertions of industry demise proved both exaggerated and misplaced. Volumes boomed, advertising about stock-trading exploded, Charles Schwab created the greatest Everyman brokerage in the history of the profession and here in 2015 the notion that set costs for trading was ever a good one are scorned.

It was called “deregulation” since the rule inked by quill pen May 17, 1792 stating “We the Subscribers, Brokers for the Purchase and Sale of the Public Stock, do hereby solemnly promise and pledge ourselves to each other, that we will not buy or sell from this day for any person whatsoever, any kind of Public Stock, at a less rate than one quarter percent Commission on the Specie value of and that we will give preference to each other in our Negotiations” was rescinded.

Under deregulation has come tens of thousands of pages of rules ranging from exchange order-types that hide shares even though exchanges are markets where shares are displayed, to the structural opus magnum Regulation National Market System decreeing trading at the best national price and dividing consequent data revenue.

When you dine out, what’s a fair tip?  If somebody handles bags for you at the hotel, what do you give them?  In 1792, brokers thought 25 basis points an acceptable fee for finding a buyer for a seller, and vice versa. (more…)