Tagged: Risk Management

Volatility Insurance

In Texas everything is bigger including the dry-aged beef ribs at Hubbell & Hudson in the Woodlands and the lazy river at Houston’s Marriott Marquis, shaped familiarly.

We were visiting clients and friends before quarterly reporting begins again. Speaking of which, ever been surprised by how stocks behave with results?

We see in the data that often the cause isn’t owners of assets – holders of stocks – but providers of insurance. To guard against the chance of surprises, investors and traders use insurance, generally in the form of derivatives, like options. 

Played Monopoly, the board game? A Get Out of Jail Free card is a right but not an obligation to do something in the future that depends on an outcome, in this case landing on the “go to jail” space. It’s only valuable if that event occurs. It’s a derivatives contract.

At earnings, if you shift the focus from growth – topline – to value – managing what’s between the topline and the bottom line – the worth of future growth can evaporate even if investors don’t sell a share.

Investors with portfolio insurance use their Get Out of Jail Free cards, perhaps comprised of S&P 500 index futures. The insurance provider, a bank or fund, delivers futures and offsets its exposure by selling and shorting your shares. It can drop your price 10-20%.

Writers Chris Whittall and Jon Sindreu last Friday in the Wall Street Journal offered the most compelling piece (may require registration — send me a note if you can’t read it) I’ve seen on this concept of insurance in stocks.

Investors of all ilks, not just hedge funds, protect assets against the unknown, as we all do. We buy life, auto, health, home insurance.  We seek a Get Out of Jail Free card for ourselves and our actions.

In stocks, we track this propensity as Risk Management, one of the four key behaviors setting market prices. It’s real and by our measures north of 13% of total market cap.

But the market has been a flat sea.  No volatility.  This despite a new President, geopolitical intrigue, global acts of terror, a Federal Reserve stretching after eight Rumpelstiltskin years, and a chasm between markets and fundamentals.

Whittall and Sindreu theorize that opposing actions between buyers and sellers of insurance explains the strange placidity in markets where the VIX, the so-called Fear Gauge derived from prices of options on stocks, has been near record lows.

The thinking goes that the process of buying and selling insurance is itself the explanation for absence of froth. Because markets seem inured to threats, investors stop buying insurance such as put options against surprise moves, and instead look to sell insurance to generate a fee. They write puts or calls, which generate cash returns.

Banks take the other side of the trade because that’s what banks do. They’re now betting volatility will rise. To offset the risk they’re wrong, they buy the underlying: stocks. If volatility rises the bet pays, but the bank loses on the shares, which fall. 

This combination of events, it’s supposed, is contributing to imperturbable markets. Everything nets to zero except the stock-purchases by banks and cash returns generated by investors selling insurance, so there’s no volatility and markets tend to rise.

Except that’s not investment. It’s trafficking in get-out-of-jail-free cards.

And despite low volatility, there’s a cost. We’ve long said there will be a Lehman moment for a market dominated by Risk Management.

We’ve seen hedge funds struggle. They’re big players in the insurance game. And banks have labored at trading. Maybe it’s due to insurance losses. Think Credit Suisse, Deutsche Bank, HSBC.  Someone else?

From Nov 9-Mar 1 the behavior we call Risk Management led as price-setter marketwide, followed closely by Active Investment. The combination points to what’s been described: One party selling insurance on risk, another buying it, and a continual truing up of wins and losses.  

Now, for perspective, the VIX is a lousy alarm system. It tells us only what’s occurred. And intraday volatility, the spread between daily high and low prices across the market, is 2.2%, far higher than closing prices imply.

We may reach a day where banks stop buying insurance from selling investors, if indeed that’s what’s been occurring.  Stocks will cease rising.  Investors will want to buy insurance but the banks won’t sell it.  Then real assets, not insurance, will be sold.

It’s why we track Risk Management as a market demographic, and you should too.  You can’t prevent risk. But you can see it change.

Light Brigade

Not though the soldier knew someone had blundered.

Alfred Tennyson’s 1854 poem, “The Charge of the Light Brigade,” offers lines more recognized than this one above including “into the valley of death rode the six hundred,” and “theirs not to reason why, theirs but to do and die.”

One wonders about a marketplace that seems today to blunder after arbitrage opportunity despite risk.

Lord Tennyson memorialized an ill-fated British cavalry unit at the Battle of Balaclava in October 1854 during the Crimean War. A side note that history often overlooks is the Crimean War’s impact on clothing: Lord Cardigan commanded the British troops, and many Russian soldiers now occupying Crimea sport balaclavas, the ubiquitous choice in headgear for contemporary fighters wanting to make noise while avoiding recognition.

In the equity market, the mild Putin swale Monday in major measures speedily dissolved in festive cheer yesterday as “Ukrainian tensions eased.” I’m not sure what eased since there were more Russian troops in Ukraine yesterday than the day before, some 130,000 Russian soldiers were engaged in “scheduled” maneuvers, and the Russians just test-fired an intercontinental ballistic missile in Kazakhstan. Coincidences, I’m sure.

In market data Monday, we saw selling by bottom-up investors, sidelined indexes/ETFs, fast money trading at about the same pace as those investors exiting defensively, and lots of hedging.

Some of this makes sense. We’d expect rational people to be disturbed, thus selling some and hedging some. Vladimir Putin has a buffet spread before him. If he wants to walk his balaclava-clad comrades into Ukraine, or for that matter Poland, Slovakia (where Russian pipelines connect to Europe), Slovenia, the Czech Republic and other parts of eastern Europe, who’s going to stop him? Germany has about 60,000 troops, Russia, 600,000. Nobody’s got an army there except Russia.

But asset-allocation systems saw no risk. They weren’t sellers. Risk-analytics tools like Blackrock’s Aladdin built around macro data and fund flows and currencies and so on for $15 trillion of institutional assets have no fields labeled Crimea or Putin. Action in global currencies and commodities point green arrows at risk assets.

I realize this is a different sort of Market Structure Map than we generally pen. Our job is to inform and entertain on market-structure topics. Admit it, balaclava, while sinister-sounding, is sort of funny. (more…)

Sun and Goggles

Mayday!

That’s the word quarterback Peyton Manning should’ve used Sunday, instead of Omaha! But we congratulate Coach Pete Carroll, a gentleman, and his bruisers from the Puget Sound.

Speaking of bruising, earnings season and macro factors collided like particles in an accelerator as January slopped into February. With just 58% of our client base reporting thus far, it could be premature to deconstruct it. But I know the question burns in IR minds: Can we understand what’s going on?

People sequenced the human genome. We can measure variance in light as finite as a flashlight blinking…on the moon. We can create money from nothing. Surely we can map market behaviors.

I was skiing in Steamboat last week during a whiteout. It was though I was floating. I had no clear sense of where the slope was until I carved, and I could not gauge my speed until I turned. Powder is forgiving so I wasn’t worried.

But this is how the market seems many times, right? It’s amorphous. There’s no definition to movement. No clarity.

The next day in Steamboat, the sun shone brightly and with goggles suited to light, fresh powder took on the rich and textured characteristics of a Wayne Thiebaud painting. Slopes were luxuriant and vivid.

There are two pillars to market movements, like bright light and the right goggles. I’m not suggesting one can perfectly matrix outcomes. But core principles can be observed.

Remember: We said the market reached a statistical top in our behavioral data on Dec 27. We then warned that if institutions shifted from equities with options-expirations Jan 16-22, the first shoe to drop would be Jan 23-24.

That happened.

In the days since we’ve warned that Shoe No. 2 of a process of retrenching from equities and shoring up institutional risk-hedges could occur during January window-dressing, which would mean Feb 3-4 could be ugly.

That happened.

Markets reached a statistical market bottom, behaviorally, on Feb 3. The same sentiment-reading registered in our data-analytics roughly June 28, 2013, and again about Aug 11, 2013, the last two times data indicated market bottoms (markets then rebounded).

(Warning: This time could be different. We’ve never massively removed central-bank support from global risk assets before.).

You must cease viewing the market as just investment and instead see it as risk-management and data. These are the pillars. One is sun, the other goggles. If risk managers shift resources in asset classes, it will impact trading data that machines consume, because movements depend on mathematical models now. (more…)

BEST OF MSM – A Movable Feast

Happy Thanksgiving! Here’s a phrase Karen’s grandmother coined that you may find useful this time of year:  “We ate to dullness.” 

Since many of you are appropriately absent this week from the IR chair (or whichever office you occupy), we’ll revisit past turf. Among the most widely read Market Structure Maps of 2013 was this below from July 3. The images from our Provence cycling trip exercised influence, but sort through to the lesson.

I was reminded of it the last few days with three public companies you’d recognize. Each had the same scenario:  Declines in price of magnitude unjustified by news or facts – which had shareholders as flummoxed as the IROs.

What happens between buyers and sellers, before they ever meet each other, can have as consequential an impact as the act of changing ownership. Sometimes more. Witness the so-called Flash Crash of May 6, 2010. Shill bidders disappeared, leaving a vacuum that filled with nothing until a thousand DJIA points evaporated. That’s not selling; that’s the conveyor belt connecting our fragmented market just – poof! – vanishing.

Another major structural fact today is that investors are obsessed with risk. Read on.  Best, -TQ

July 3, 2013

We’re back from touring Provence aboard cycling saddles, weighing heavier on the pedals after warmly embracing regional food and drink. Lavender air, stone-walled villages perched over vineyards, crisp mornings and warm days, endless twilight, chilled Viogniers from small-lot Luberon wineries. If these things appeal, go.

In Avignon we feasted at Moutardier in the shadow of the Palais du Papes, the palace of the Roman Catholic popes in the 14th century. From tiny hilltop Oppede-le-Vieux with roots to earliest AD written in moldering stone and worn cobble we surveyed the region’s agricultural riches. After a long climb up, we saw why Gordes is where the rich and famous from Paris and Monte Carlo go to relax. And on Day 5 I scratched off the master life list riding fabled Mont Ventoux, which will host the Tour de France on Bastille Day, July 14. What a trip.

Meanwhile back at the equity-market ranch, things got wobbly. We warned before departing that options-expirations June 19-21 held high risk because markets had consumed arbitrage upside and new swaps rules would make the process of re-risking unusually testy. Markets tumbled.

The Fed? Sure, Ben Bernanke’s comments unnerved markets. But if we could see it in the data before the downdraft occurred, then there’s something else besides the reactions of traders and investors at work. (more…)

A Movable Feast

Bonjour! Ca va?

We’re back from touring Provence aboard cycling saddles, weighing heavier on the pedals after warmly embracing regional food and drink. Lavender air, stone-walled villages perched over vineyards, crisp mornings and warm days, endless twilight, chilled Viogniers from small-lot Luberon wineries. If these things appeal, go.

In Avignon we feasted at Moutardier in the shadow of the Palais du Papes, the palace of the Roman Catholic popes in the 14th century. From tiny hilltop Oppede-le-Vieux with roots to earliest AD written in moldering stone and worn cobble we surveyed the region’s agricultural riches. After a long climb up, we saw why Gordes is where the rich and famous from Paris and Monte Carlo go to relax. And on Day 5 I scratched off the master life list riding fabled Mont Ventoux, which will host the Tour de France on Bastille Day, July 14. What a trip.

Meanwhile back at the equity-market ranch, things got wobbly. We warned before departing that options-expirations June 19-21 held high risk because markets had consumed arbitrage upside and new swaps rules would make the process of re-risking unusually testy. Markets tumbled.

The Fed? Sure, Ben Bernanke’s comments unnerved markets. But if we could see it in the data before the downdraft occurred, then there’s something else besides the reactions of traders and investors at work. (more…)

Who Owns My Shares

Why don’t trading and ownership match?

Sometimes you must change your point of view – put on the Magic Market Structure Spectacles – to see the truth. Say twenty-five institutions own 75% of your shares. From one month to the next there is little change in names or holdings. The remaining 25% of shares must be changing hands every few hours. Right?

In one of the better movies Nicolas Cage made before he became desperate to pay his back-taxes, his character Benjamin Franklin Gates in National Treasure found Ben Franklin’s spectacles and decoded a treasure map on the back of the United States Constitution.

That was in 2004. They were still using flip phones. In the stock market, Regulation National Market System hadn’t yet transformed trading. Yet eight years later with smart phones in most hands, IR teams and executive suites are still looking at ownership data to understand share-prices.

Grab your Magic Market Structure Spectacles. A midcap stock the past 20 trading days averaged 3.1% intraday volatility – the gab between highest and lowest price during the day. The spread in daily closing prices is half that, at 1.6%, and only if you apply absolute value. Net the ups and downs in closing prices and the cumulative price-difference in 20 days is 7%.

Now, add up intraday volatility. Anybody want to take a stab at it? Think of a number. Got it? Okay, the envelope, please. And the winner is…62%.

Yes, you read that right. Total intraday volatility is 62% in a single month when the apparent change in price is just 7%. What does that mean to “market neutral” money that hedges assets every day and trades for yield?

A treasure trove. Yet for that same stock we found Rational Prices (where active investors outraced everybody else to buy shares) on just 14.7% of trading days. (more…)

JP Morgan and Market Structure

Karen and I will join the ghost of Billy the Kid and about 3,000 cyclists in New Mexico next weekend for the Santa Fe Century. Weather looks good, winds below gale force. Should be fun!

Speaking of gales, JP Morgan blew one through markets. So many have opined that I balk at compounding the cacophony. My own mother is throwing around the acronym “JPM” in emails.

But there’s something you should understand about JPM and market structure, IR folks. First, put this on your calendar at NIRI National next month: EMC’s global head of IR, Tony Takazawa, is moderating a panel Monday June 4, at 4:15p, on IR Targeting and Investor Trading Behaviors (scroll down to it). The aim: Understand how markets have changed, how institutions have adapted, and what that means to gaining buyside interest today. I’ll be there, and we hope you will be.

Back to JP Morgan. You could define “market structure” in many ways. We prefer “the behavior of money behind price and volume.” What’s JPM got to do with that?

A lot. We observed in the days before word broke about trading woes at the big custodian for Fannie and Freddie that its program-trading volumes in equities were down by wide margins across the market-cap spectrum. It disappeared entirely from some small-cap clients that it typically trades algorithmically with great consistency (indexes, models, ETFs).

These facts raised no particular red flag because we saw widespread discordance in program-trading last week. Then word of JPM’s whale of a London loss broke. Maybe it was coincidental that its program-trading volumes fell. Regardless, it demonstrates the interconnected nature of markets today. Missteps in the risk-management arm of a bank can blight program-trading in health care, technology and other equities. (more…)

Stocks, dollars and Newtonian physics

Isaac Newton posited 334 years ago in his third law of motion that mutual forces of action and reaction between two bodies are equal.

I wonder what he’d think of the relationship between the US dollar and equities, where this small action produces that decidedly unequal reaction.

After the Federal Reserve acted to shore up bank balance sheets by buying long bonds and mortgage-backed securities last week, the dollar trampolined and markets dropped like Newton’s apple.

Pundits blamed dismal economic data. Yet we saw money market-wide shifting from equities September 16 with quad-witching. Before the Fed offered a dim economic portrait. If money was reacting, it sure had a funny, proactive, organized way of showing it.

Today and Monday, the dollar weakened and stocks zoomed skyward in a Newton-flummoxing frenzy to reclaim paradise lost. How many believe this is rational investment behavior? If you do, there’s a solar-panel plant in California that might interest you. (more…)

Follow the Cash

Headline at 2:34 p.m. Eastern Time today: “Fed Pledges Low Rates Through 2013.”

How many recognize this as a currency-devaluation? Markets jumped 4% here in the U.S. as the DXY, the dollar index, dropped.

Last Sunday, the European Central Bank pledged to monetize debts of Italy and Spain. Monday, markets plunged globally. That’s a currency-devaluation. The central bank is promising to increase the supply of currency without a corresponding increase in economic output.

Most blamed S&P’s downgrade of US debt. But the dollar strengthened, and Treasurys increased in value. Why would the diminished instruments be more valuable?

Because that’s not what caused markets to tank. (more…)

Dividends and Buybacks

Would you rather ride your road bike in the sun or the rain?

What if riding in the sun means peddling across Death Valley in the summer, while the rain is a passing shower in the Italian Dolomites?

Context is essential. Let’s apply the same thinking to decisions about stock-repurchases and dividends. Conventional wisdom has long held that both actions appeal to the kinds of stock buyers who hold securities and count on fundamentals.

No argument there. But ponder the third dimension in the IR chair. The first dimension is your story – what defines and differentiates your investment thesis. The second is targeting the kind of money that likes your story. The third dimension is the state of your equity store.

Your equity is a product, competing with other products, with unique supply and demand constraints. If you suppose that your story is correct for a particular buyer without considering whether the buyer can act on interest in your story, you’re leaving money on the table. So to speak.

For instance, if I want four Keith Urban tickets at Pepsi Center in October for no more than $50 each, I’m already sold on the investment thesis – “Keith Urban puts on a good show.” What if there are only two tickets available at $50? Well, I’m not the right buyer for the investment thesis, then. (more…)