Tagged: risk

Bare Windows

It’s window-dressing. 

That saying suggests effort to make something appear better than it is.  And it’s a hallmark of stocks in today’s Relative Value era where the principal way we determine the worth of things is by comparing them to other things (true of stocks, and houses, art, cars, bonds, etc.).

ModernIR clients know we talk about “window dressing” at the ends of months and quarters.  It gets short shrift in the news but the PATTERNS of money that we observe cast long shadows over headlines.

Every month, managers who send investors performance statements want stuff to look as good as it can.  Things get bought and sold.  Then the headline-writers root around for some reason, like the Fed chair testifying to Congress.

Even bigger is the money tracking benchmarks. Every month, every quarter, that money needs to get square with its targets.  If Tech is supposed to be 24% of my holdings, and at quarter-end it’s 27%, I’m selling Tech, and especially things that have just gone up, like SNAP.

So SNAP drops 7%.  What did your stock do yesterday?  There’s a reason, and it’s measurable in behavioral patterns. Market structure.

The reason yesterday in particular was so tough is because it was T+2, trade date plus two more days, to quarter-end. If you need to settle a trade, effect a change of ownership, and it’s a big basket you’re working through, you’ll do it three days from quarter-end to make sure all positions settle in time.

With tens of trillions of dollars benchmarked to indexes around the globe, it’s startling to me how little attention is paid to basic mechanics of the market, such as when index money recalibrates (different from periodic rebalances by index creators).

And realize this.  In the last month, half the S&P 500 corrected – dropped more than 10%. About 90% of the Russell 2000 did.  No wonder small caps were up sharply Monday.  Most indexes were underweight those. But they’re less than 10% of overall market cap (closer to 5% than 10%). Truing up is a one-day trade.

Tech is a different story. Five stocks are almost 25% of the S&P 500 (AAPL, AMZN, GOOG, FB, MSFT).  And technology stocks woven through Consumer Discretionary and Communication Services stretch the effects of Tech north of 40%, approaching half the $50 trillion of US market cap.

The wonder is we don’t take it on the chin more often. I think the reason is derivatives. There’s a tendency to rely on substitutes rather than go through the hassle of buying and selling stocks.

As I’ve explained before, this is both the beauty and ugliness of Exchange Traded Funds (ETFs). They’re substitutes. They take the place of stocks, relieving the market of the…unpleasantness of moving real assets.  ETFs are just bits of digital paper that can be manufactured and destroyed at whim.

Remember, ETFs were created by commodity traders who thought, “Wouldn’t it be cool if we didn’t have to get out the forklift and move all that stuff in the commodity warehouse? What if we could just trade warehouse RECEIPTS instead of dragging a pallet of copper around?”

This time the forklifts are out.  It’s been coming since April.  See the image here? That’s Broad Sentiment, our 10-point index of waxing and waning demand for S&P 500 stocks, year-to-date in 2021, vs SPY, the S&P 500 ETF.  SPY is just 2.8% above its high point when Sentiment lost its mojo in April.

Broad Sentiment, courtesy MarketstructureEDGE.com

From Mar 2020 to Apr 2021, we had a momentum market juiced by time and money. There were surfeits of both during the pandemic. People gambled. Money gushed. Stocks zoomed.

But as with all drugs, the effect wears off.  Sentiment peaked in March. Strong stocks notwithstanding, we’ve been coming off a drug-induced high since then.

And the twitches have begun. You see it first in derivatives.  Every expirations period since April has bumped – before, during or right after.  I’ve circled them on the image. It means the cold shakes could come next.  Not saying they will. All analogies break down.

Back to window-dressing.  When it gets hard to dress up the room no matter what curtains you hang, it means something.  Here we are, on the doorstep of Q4 2021.  It’s possible the market, or a benchmark or two, might’ve turned negative for the third calendar quarter yesterday (I’m writing before the market closes).

The RISK can be seen by observing movement in Passive money.  Because it’s the biggest thing in the market.  The windows are bare this time. If we were smart, we’d take a good look around.

But that’s probably too optimistic.  Governments and central banks will try again to slap on the coverings, dress it up, make it look better than it is.

Rewards of Risk

Investor relations involves risk.  And that’s good. 

Don’t you mean investing involves risk, Tim? And why is it good?

Well, yes, investing is a risky endeavor. But I mean the role of “investor relations,” the liaison to Wall Street at public companies, requires taking risk.

It’s not a “yes” job.  You’ll need the courage and occasional temerity to tell your executive team and board what each needs to understand about the equity market – and occasionally what not to do.

Time would fail me to tell you about all the times I’ve had conversations with IR folks who say, “I’m not sure my Board is willing to….” Pick your thing.

In my case, it happens when I explain that 10% of trading volume is rational stock-picking.

Some recoil in horror.  What am I going to do if the executives know 90% of our trading volume is something we can’t control?

If they don’t know, you’ll face unrealistic expectations.  Considered that possibility?  If your board and executive team don’t know how the stock market works, is that a good thing or a bad thing?

We’re still getting to what’s good about risk.

It’s our job to know how the stock market works and to be able to articulate what’s controllable and what’s not. Take the so-called meme stocks like AMC.  I credit AMC leadership for raising capital while the market embraces the stock.  They didn’t make the rules that permit crazy trading. They’re adapting.

And do you know how a stock with 450 million shares outstanding can trade 650 million in a day?  Yes, Fast Trading, in part.  Machines moving the same shares over and over.

But the big reason reaches back to the basics of how today’s stock market works under contemporary rules.  All shares must pass through a broker-dealer. All stocks must trade between the best bid to buy and offer to sell.  And all brokers who are registered to trade stocks must make a minimum bid and offer, both, of 100 shares.

Well, what if there aren’t 100 shares available?  There are no appliances available to install tomorrow in your house.  The electrical market is running out of GFCI outlets. Sherwin Williams is running out of paint.  You may not be able to get a load of lumber.

Yet somehow, magically, there is always 100 shares of your stock for sale. 

It’s not magic. It’s rules.  Rules require brokers and stock exchanges to connect to each other electronically. If they’re registered and not using “Unlisted Trading Privileges” to bid or offer rather than do both, brokers must commit to 100 shares each direction.

Well, it’s impossible. There aren’t 100 shares of everything available at every moment without artificial intervention.

So the SEC let’s brokers create shares under Rule 203(b)(2), the market-maker short-locate exemption, in order to assure 100 are always available.  Well, technically they’re shorting it without having to locate it.  Those trades have to be marked short.  And AMC has had short volume of 50-60% of total trading for two weeks running.

Brokers are manufacturing stock. That’s how the meme stocks scream. Brokers are selling buyers shares that don’t exist. If you’re in the IR profession, should you know these things?

So, why is risk good?  Mitch Daniels, President of Purdue University and ever a ready source for well-turned phrases, told graduates last month, “Our faculty has determined that data analysis, as we now call it, should be as universal a part of a Boilermaker education as English composition.”

We IR people are good at English composition. We need to be great at data.  Because, quoting President Daniels, certainty is an illusion. Just like those shares of AMC, and a swath of the whole market.

But leaders offer the capacity to understand the knowns and unknowns and make confident choices and recommendations.

I think data analytics are as vital to the IR job now as knowing Reg FD and Sarbanes-Oxley. The market translates our companies into digital value.  We need to understand it.

Otherwise we’ll be too fearful to lead our execs and boards boldly through the market we’ve got today.  Sure, there’s risk.  But the rewards of bold leadership never go out of style.  And we need that now more than ever.

Swapping Volatility

Google chose as motto “don’t be evil.” “Beware derivatives” isn’t a bad motto either.

If you’ve read the MSM long, you know we’ve beaten the drum like Boneshaker (when you hear the sound of the drum, here we come) over the risk in derivatives.

Oh please, Quast.  Can’t we talk about something more interesting, like the molecular structure of Molybdenum?

Do you want to know what’s coming, public companies and investors?  We’ve now been warned twice.  I’ll explain.

Before that, this: Recall that we said the market could take a beating this week because of derivatives. A raft of major banks have reported combined damage in the billions from bad derivatives bets by one hedge fund, Archegos Capital.

And VIX bets hit today.  Volatility bets blew up another fund.  Warning Signal No. 2.

Gunjan Banerji wrote about it yesterday in the WSJ (subscription required), admirably explicating the complexities of variance swaps.  The Infinity Q Diversified Alpha Fund shut down.

Diversified Alpha, a mutual fund marketed as a hedge fund for the masses, had roughly $1.75 billion of assets at last word.  The fund aimed in part at volatility strategies.  It said:

“The Volatility Strategy seeks to profit from the mispricing of volatility related instruments across equities, currencies, bonds, interest rates, and commodities markets. These instruments include options, variance swaps, correlation swaps, and total return swaps. The Strategy invests across a wide range of time horizons and takes long and short positions in the underlying volatility instruments.”

The fund went broke betting on volatility – mispricings.  That’s two in short succession.  Diversified Alpha filed its plea with the SEC Feb 21 to halt redemptions. Right after February expirations. Archegos Capital went belly-up with March expirations.

Much of the money in equities trades mispricings. That’s what ETFs do (ETF vs a basket). It’s what Fast Traders do (one price vs another). It’s what derivatives traders do (stocks vs options).  Those behaviors are roughly 80% of US equity volume.

These disasters you describe, Tim, are isolated to leveraged outfits.

Nope.

Here’s the SAI for the Blackrock Technology Opportunities Fund. I have read a great many SAIs, a reason I’ve in the past highlighted risks, especially for Exchange Traded Funds.

On page 3 is this: Only information that is clearly identified as applicable to the Fund is considered to form a part of the Fund’s SAI.

Then follows a table, with X’s by what applies.  See page 4, the derivatives section. Derivatives for hedges and speculation apply.  Credit default swaps, interest-rate swaps, total return swaps, options on swaps, on it goes.

I’m sure it’s a small part of this fund’s assets, used within rules to true up tracking or remediate some of the unremitting volatility that’s been seeded in all financial instruments by vast artificial quantities of money and low interest rates. But read the SAI on your favorite fund. What’s it say?

By the way, volatility in stocks has plunged by 50% the past couple weeks. Almost like a tide going out ahead of a tsunami. Behind it in other data we track are vast swings in standard deviation between the prices of sector stocks and the ETFs tracking them.

That is, if we compile moves of all sector stocks and the average is a 1.8% decline and the composite average for sector ETFs is 0.1%, standard deviation is 625%.

It suggests to me that ETFs are substituting stuff that moves less than stocks – like swaps or IOUs of some sort, or cash – to get away from the error-inducing volatility in stocks.

But that could blow up derivatives predicated on a statistical equity basket. What the hell is going on?  Exactly.  That’s what I want to know. Something is wrong, and we’re seeing little fissures, seeping steam, wisps of ash.

We’ve long been concerned about these risks. But they’re like the way Ernest Hemingway described how one goes broke (a line I’ve used often): very slowly then all at once.

I’m not wringing my hands. Forewarned is forearmed. Investors and traders, it’s wise to get out of the pool around these things, which we observe in the data, and report.

And for public companies, it’s high time to make sure your executive teams realize risk resides beyond “alternative investments.” It’s everywhere. All around us. 

How central are Morgan Stanley, JP Morgan, Credit Suisse, Deutsche Bank, banks losing on Archegos, to financial markets from IPOs to Treasury Open Market operations?  Derivatives to equity and ETF trading?

It may be the cost of paying ourselves to sit out a Pandemic is the stability of our financial markets. We’re inflating everything including derivatives.  We can survive it.  In fact, it would do us good to roll around in the dirt and develop some resilience.

Whatever happens, we’ve got the data.  We warned EDGE users to be out by last Friday. We can tell you, public companies, if these instruments are large in your price. 

Everybody is swapping volatility. Beware.

Liquidity

Want a big ranch out west?

Apparently you don’t. The Wall Street Journal last month ran a feature (subscription required) on the mushrooming supply of leviathan cattle operations from Colorado to Idaho, legacy assets of the rich left to heirs from the era of Ted Turner and John Malone.

A dearth of demand is saddling inheritors with big operating expenses and falling prices.  Cross Mountain Ranch near Steamboat Springs, CO is 220,000 acres with an 11,000 square-foot house that costs a million dollars annually to run. It can be yours for a paltry $70 million, $320 an acre (I wonder if that price holds for a thousand?).

What have cattle ranches got to do with the stock market?  Look at your holders, public companies.  What’s the concentration among the largest?

The same thing that happened to ranches is occurring in stocks.  The vast wealth reflected in share-ownership came considerably from generations now passing on inheritance or taking required minimum distributions. The youngsters, at least so far, aren’t stockowners. They’re buying coffee, cannabis and café food.

Juxtapose that with what we’ve been saying about liquidity in stocks, and as the WSJ wrote today.

Liquidity to us is how much of something can be bought or sold before the price changes.  Those landed dynasties of western dirt are discovering people eschew large land masses and monolithic homesteads.

In stocks, the same is true.  Back up five years to Sep 4, 2014. The 200-day (all measures 200-day averages) trade size was 248 shares and dollars/trade was $17,140. Short volume was about 42%, the average Russell 1000 stock traded about $230 million of stock daily. And intraday volatility, the difference between highest and lowest daily prices, was about 2.2%.

Five years later? Average trade-size is 167 shares, down 33%.  Dollars/trade is down 26% to $12,760. Shorting is nearly 47% daily. Dollars/day is down 17% to $170 million. Volatility is up 32% to 2.9% daily.

But market-capitalization has increased by some 40%.  It’s as though the stock market has become a giant ranch in Colorado teetering over millennials loitering in a coffee shop. No offense, millennials.

Every investor and public company should understand these liquidity characteristics because they increase risk for raising capital or making stock investments.

Why is liquidity evaporating like perspiration out of an Under Armor shirt?

Rules and behaviors. Rules force brokers – every dollar in and out of stocks passes through at least one – into uniform behavior, which decreases the number capable of complying. Picture a grocery store near dinnertime with just three checkout lanes open.

In turn, concentration means more machination by brokers to hide orders. They break them into smaller pieces to hide footsteps – and machines become more sophisticated at interrupting trades in ever smaller increments to reveal what’s behind them.

And all the liquidity measures shrink. We see it in the data. A blue bar of Active Investment rarely manifests without an array of orange bars swarming to change prices, Fast Traders who have detected the difference in the data where human influence drives machine behavior.

What can you do, public companies and investors?  Prepare for bigger and unexpected gyrations (volatility erodes investment returns and increases equity cost of capital).

Examples: HRB reported results before Labor Day. The quarter is fundamentally inconsequential for a company in the tax-preparation business. Yet the stock plunged. Drivers?  Shares were 71% short and dominated by machines setting prices and over 21% of trading tied to short derivatives bets.

Those structural facts cost holders 10% of market cap.

Same with ULTA. While business conditions might warrant caution, they didn’t promote a 30% reduction in equity value.  Market structure did it – 58% short, 55% of total volume from machines knowing nothing about ULTA and paying no heed to the call.

We have the data. Market structure is our sole focus. No public company or investor should be unaware of liquidity factors in stocks and what they predict.

Put another way, all of us on the acreage of equities better understand now that vast tracts of value are tied up by large holders who don’t determine the price of your stocks anymore than your grandfather’s capacity to buy 100,000 acres will price your big Wyoming ranch now.

What does is supply and demand. And liquidity is thin all over.  Data can guard against missteps.

 

Supine Risk

We’re in New York this week while companies gather in Dallas for the annual NAREIT conference, the association for real estate investment trusts.

Real estate is about 3% of the S&P 500. By comparison, Technology is 23%, the largest by a wide margin over healthcare and financials (a combined 27%).  Yet large REIT Exchange Traded Funds hold more assets than big Tech ETFs, with the top ten for each managing $54 billion and $46 billion respectively.

The implication is disproportionate influence in real estate from passive investment. With market sentiment the weakest in more than a year by our measures, I’m prompted to reflect on something we’ve discussed before: Risk in passive investment.

One might suppose that investments following models are less risky than portfolios built by selecting stocks on fundamental factors. Singling out businesses leaves one open to wrong decisions while baskets diffuse risk. Right? Look at Vanguard’s success.

Yes. But missing in these assumptions is what happens when concentrated assets are bought and sold. The biggest real estate funds are mainly at Vanguard, Blackrock, State Street and Schwab. It’s probably true across the whole market.

Behind ETFs, stocks are concentrated too. We’ve described how the top thousand stocks are more than 90% of market volume, capitalization and analyst coverage. Just 8% of assets are in the Russell 2000, the bottom two tiers of the Russell 3000. And there are barely more than 3,300 companies in the Wilshire 5000 now.

Lesson: Everything is big. One reason may be that money buys without selling. Inflows are topping outflows (hint: That has now stopped for the first time in over a year), so indexes aren’t paying out capital gains, skewing returns, as Jason Zweig wrote in the Wall Street Journal Nov 10.

Mr. Zweig highlights the PNC S&P 500 Index Fund, which is distributing 22% of assets as a taxable gain because people have been selling it.  The fund has performed about a third of a percent behind peers. Add in capital gains and the sliver becomes a maw.

Mr. Zweig notes that some big funds including the Vanguard 500 Index and the State Street Institutional S&P 500 Index Fund haven’t paid out capital gains in more than 15 years. If investors aren’t cashing out, assets aren’t sold, capital gains aren’t generated, and results don’t reflect underlying tax liability.

To me there’s a bigger passive risk still. With more money chasing the goods than selling them, things perpetually rise, turning investor-relations professionals and investors alike into winners, but begging the question: What happens when it stops?

I’ve always liked Stein’s Law as a bellwether for reality. If something cannot last forever, said Herb Stein, father of famous son Ben, it will stop. Since it cannot be true that there will always be buyers without sellers, the prudent should size up what happens when giant, concentrated owners shift from buying to selling.

To whom do they sell?

And how can we have buyers without sellers?  Mr. Zweig talks about that too, indirectly. We’ve written directly about it (and I’ve discussed it with Mr. Zweig).  Indexes and ETFs may substitute actual shareholdings with something else, like derivatives. If you can’t find an asset to buy, you buy a right to the asset. This idea torpedoed the mortgage market. You’d think we’d learn.

There’s a rich irony to me in equities now.  During the financial crisis, regulators bemoaned the long and risky shadows cast by giant banks too big to fail because failure would flatten swaths of the global economy.

That was just banks. Lenders.

What we’ve got now is the same thing in the equity market, but risk has transmitted to the assets we all depend on – not just the loans that leverage dependency.

It’s the most profound reason for future policymakers (Jay Powell and Steven Mnuchin) to avoid the mistakes made by the Bernanke Generation of central bankers, who depressed interest rates to zero out of frantic and preternatural fear of failure.

The absence of reasonable interest rates devalues money and pushes it into assets at such a profound rate that for very long stretches the only thing occurring is buying. Result: Everything is giant, and concentrated – the exact opposite of the way one diffuses risk.

When it stops there are no buyers left.

How to get out of a problem of this magnitude?  Quietly. If enough people tiptoe away, there will be buyers when everything is properly priced again.  The hard part is knowing when, because passive risk reposes supine.

Culmination

Outcomes are culminations, not events.

Denver bid farewell this week to retiring Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning who for eighteen years accumulated the byproducts of focus, discipline and work, twice culminating in Super Bowl victories.

The idea that outcomes are culminations translates to the stock market. What happens today in your stock-trading is a product of things preceding today’s culmination just as our lives are accumulations of decisions and consequences.

Rewind to Feb 11, 2016. The S&P 500 hit a 52-week low of 1829. Recession fears were rippling globally. European banks were imploding, with some pundits predicting another 2008 crisis. China was lowering growth views and weakening its currency to pad the landing (word since is some 5-6 million workers will be laid off through 2017).

In apparent response, the US stock market soared, recovering to November levels. If the market is a proxy for the economy, it’s a heckler hurling eggs. Wiping away yolk, pundits said markets expecting monetary tightening from the Federal Reserve saw stasis instead. Recession fears were overblown and an overly reactive market rebounded.

But headlines don’t buy or sell stocks, people and machines do.  Markets move on money. This is what we’ve learned from more than a decade of market lab work, repeating behavioral measurements with software, servers, algorithms and models.

Follow the money.  The most widely traded equity in the world, SPY, is a derivative. It’s an Exchange-Traded Fund (ETF) tracking the S&P 500.  Nearly 50% of all options volume ties to it.  In 2016 so far almost every trading day at least 12 of the 25 most actively traded stocks were ETFs.

Why do we say ETFs are derivatives? Because derivatives extend access to assets, exactly the thing ETFs do. They’re securities trading on underlying stocks without owning them. The sponsor owns assets, yes. But ETF investors hold only a proxy.

ETFs depend on arbitrage. Rules the SEC approved for ETFs effectively sanction use of information the rest of the market doesn’t know about demand by the big brokers who produce ETF shares for trading.  These brokers are continually shorting index components and derivatives or ETF shares to close the gaps that form between the value of the ETF and what it represents (stocks, sectors, commodities, bonds, indices).

In the stock market, the price-setters are primarily short-term traders (high-frequency firms) arbitraging small price-divergences in many things simultaneously. ETFs are stocks that provide exposure to other stocks, sectors, commodities, bonds and indices. For arbitragers, they’re a massive additional layer of arbitrage permutations:  How might this financial ETF vary with that energy futures contract, and this basket of energy stocks?

What develops in this market is a disregard for fundamental factors. Prices are mathematical facts. Spreads drive directional-change. The market’s purpose devolves from economics to how to price a stock, sector, commodity, bond, futures contract, option or index relative to things associated with it or its value at a point ranging from fractions of seconds to next month before a derivatives contract expires.

It’s not investment but arbitrage of such scale and size that few recognize it. Yesterday, the most actively traded stock was the VelocityShares 3x Long Crude ETN linked to the S&P GSCI Crude Oil Index Excess Return (UWTI).  Yes, that its name! It’s an exchange-traded product backed by Goldman Sachs, and it dropped 13.3%. Offsetting, the eighth most active stock was DUST, the Direxion Daily Gold Miners Index Bear 3x Shares, which rose 13.7%.

Neither DUST nor UWTI owns tangible assets. Their returns depend on derivative contracts held by banks or other counterparties. Now step back. Look at stocks. They are moving the same way but over longer periods. Market moves are a culmination of whichever directional trade is winning at the moment, plus all the tiny little arbitrage trades over ETFs, stocks, commodities, bonds and indices, tallied up.

There are two links back to fundamentals. First, banks back this market. Some of them are losing badly and this is what European bank trouble last month signaled. And this IS a consequence of Fed policy.  By artificially manipulating the cost of capital, the Fed shifted money from scrutinizing economics to chasing arbitrage opportunities.

When arbitrage has exhausted returns, the market will change direction again. It’s coming soon.  The bad news is the market has not yet considered economic threats and is ill-equipped to do so.

Cans and Roads

The problem with kicking the can down the road is what happens when you reach a hill.

Speaking of hills, Taos wasn’t what we’d expected.  Galleries cluster the square, yes.  We loved our circuitous bike ride along the foothills to Arroyo Seco. El Meze boasts views, an iron-chef James Beard winner and delectable fare. The Rio Grande Gorge nearby inspires awe.  But you won’t find posh on La Placita at Paseo del Pueblo Sur. Julia Roberts bought Don Rumsfeld’s 40-acre ranch here to escape Rodeo Drive, not to replace it. Taos is backwoods, weedy, agrarian, a bit Baja. Signature dish? Fry bread at Ben and Debbie’s Tiwa Kitchen down the dusty street from Taos Pueblo, a Native monument.

Do you know what a whole life insurance policy is? It’s money for death that first builds cash value.  You might suppose there’s little connection to either Taos or investor relations. Conventional wisdom taught folks to “buy term and invest the difference.” Why blend your hedge with your investment? Insurance by definition is the price you pay for the unexpected, and investing used to be the opposite.

At Taos Pueblo, for a thousand years the people bested marauders with adobe walls and wooden ladders. The apartment-like construction permitted entry through holes in ceilings doubling as doors. If enemies breached walls, occupants pulled ladders and the complex transformed into an impenetrable fortress.

Today Taos Pueblo is a reservation with a casino down the road. Doors and stairs have replaced holes and ladders and the wall once 10-15 feet high is now a short decorative reminder re-plastered annually for the tourists. Residents count today on the federal government.

Whole life insurance is effectively what’s gotten the planet into trouble. A policy is an agreement to exchange value. Say $1 million. It’s a contract costing you a sum and guaranteeing you a million dollars if you die, which also lets you leverage the amount you’re spending but with immediate impact on the contract’s value. It’s a complex derivative. AIG offered them. The contract guarantees a return, so AIG got insurance on the insurance from a reinsurer and transferred the remaining risk to brokers like Lehman Brothers, which bought mortgage-backed securities to offset promises to backstop AIG’s commitments to pay life-insurance contracts a guaranteed return.

This all works fine until you come to a hill. Take Greece. So long as the value of assets – homes, stocks, bonds, art, commodities, on it goes – rose, everybody got a guaranteed return and one out of three people could work for the government and still expect to retire at 50 with a pension. That concept came to a chaotic halt when stuff stopped rising in value. Now we wait for a conclusion or a shoe smacked into the can rolling up the rising road.

For most of a thousand years Taos Pueblo ruled its domain and relied on nobody.  Today you take Camino del Pueblo north from Taos Plaza until it dead-ends into a dirt parking lot, where you pay a fee to visit.

What were they doing for a millennium that worked so much better? One could say, “No, Europeans showed up. That’s what stopped it.” Sure. The lesson that you’re better off relying on nobody stands, even if that means you don’t have doors and instead have holes in ceilings, and ladders. Is anybody paying attention?

Back to IR. Your shares today are a whole-life insurance policy.  They’re an asset with associated costs and capacity for leverage via indexes and ETFs, options and futures. All of it is interconnected.  Your story becomes secondary to liabilities and yield.  I’m sorry to tell you so but it’s a fact.  It must be part of what you explain to management or you’ll be leaving out the linchpin of contemporary capital markets.

History is predictive analytics.  The fundamental flaw in our global model is simple. You cannot guarantee a future without hills and if your model depends on kicking cans down roads, sooner or later the can will roll back to you.

The solution?  Simplicity.  Occasional inconvenience. Something a bit Baja. You may have to crawl through a hole in the ceiling. Cutting a door in the wall makes life easier but supposes risk is gone permanently.

We’d warned in May that June might be the roughest month since last autumn in what is our ongoing Great Risk Asset Revaluation. It was, though it took longer than we thought.  We’re not through this turbulence. We’ve reached a hill, of some sort.

Taos Pueblo still stands and its people are delightful and resilient as are humans generally regardless of whole-life insurance policies and risk-transfer. But tomorrow comes, and convenience costs. That’s today’s capital-markets lesson.

Risk

We figured if The President goes there it must be nice.

Reality often dashes great expectations but not so with Martha’s Vineyard where we marked our wedding anniversary. From Aquinnah’s white cliffs to windy Katama Beach, through Oak Bluffs (on bikes) to the shingled elegance of Edgartown, the island off Cape Cod is a winsome retreat.

Speaking of retreat, my dad, a Korean Police Action era (the US Congress last declared war in 1943, on Romania. Seriously.) veteran, told me his military commanders never used the word retreat, choosing instead “advance to the rear!”

Is the stock market poised for an advance to the rear? Gains yesterday notwithstanding, our measures of market sentiment reflected in the ten-point ModernIR Behavioral Index dipped to negative this week for the first time since mid-August. Risk is a chrysalis formed in shadows, studied by some with interest but generally underappreciated.

It happened in 2006 in housing, when trader John Paulson recognized it and put on his famous and very big short. Most missed the chrysalis hanging rather elegantly in the mushrooming rafters of the hot residential sector.

It happened in the 17th century Dutch tulip bubble, an archetype for manic markets.  Yet then tulips and buyers didn’t suddenly explode but just the money behind both, as ships from the New World laden with silver and gold flooded Flanders mints with material for coin. Inflation is always and everywhere a monetary phenomenon.

It’s hard to say if mania is here hanging pupa-esque on the cornices of the capital markets. Most say no though wariness abounds. Mergers are brisk and venture capital has again propagated a Silicon Valley awash in money-losing firms with eye-popping values. Corporate buybacks will surpass $1 trillion in total for 2013-2014, capital raking out shares from markets like leaves falling from turning September trees. (more…)

Missing Volume

I’ve made South Dakota jokes – “fly-over state,” “waste of dirt that could have been used making Colorado larger,” etc.  Not again.

It’s but six hours by car from Denver and we love road trips, so we put a junket to Mount Rushmore on the calendar. Turns out there’s more to the “under God people rule” state than chiseled presidents. In Custer State Park (where never is heard a discouraging Ranger word) this fella ambled by while his brethren were at home on the range below Harney Peak and picturesque Sylvan Lake. Loved it. We’ll go back.

Speaking of gone, wither volumes? And should you worry?

A client yesterday asked about splitting the stock. Share volume is tepid, off nearly 75% since 2009, though dollar-volume (more important to us) is down less, about 40%. Should they do something to stimulate it, they wondered?

Weak volumes would seem cause for concern. It suggests a lack of consuming. It’s happening more on the NYSE than the NASDAQ.   In 2009, the NYSE averaged 2.6 billion shares daily, about $82 billion of dollar-flow. In 2014 so far, it’s 1.02 billion shares, about $40 billion daily.  The NASDAQ in 2009 saw about 2.5 billion shares and $60 billion daily compared to 2.0 billion shares and about $73 billion in 2014.

The big companies are concentrated on the NYSE, which has about 70% of total market cap.  Money is trading smaller companies, but not owning them, evidenced this year at least by sustained volumes for small-caps but weakness in the Russell 2000, down almost 2% this year with the S&P 500 up 7.5%.  Plus, shorting – renting – is rampant, with 44% of daily market volume the past 20 days, nearly half of trades, from borrowed shares.

Check the Pink Sheets and it’s stark. Volume is averaging about 14 billion shares daily in penny stocks in 2014, compared to about 2.3 billion shares daily in 2009.  Dollar volumes are small but have doubled in that time to $1 billion daily. KCG Holdings as a market-maker does over a 1.2 billion shares a day by itself in penny stocks.

And derivatives volumes have jumped since 2009. Global futures and options trading according to the Futures Industry Association totaled 21.6 billion contracts in 2013, up from 17.7 billion in 2009. More telling is where. In 2009, equity and equity-index derivatives volume was 12 billion contracts, identical to 2013. But energy, currency and metals derivatives trading has exploded, jumping 125% to 5.3 billion contracts in 2013.

The answer to where equity volumes have gone is into trading small caps and penny stocks and derivatives tied to energy, currencies and metals. Investors are searching for short-term differentiation and safety from uncertain asset values affected by massive currency infusions from central banks.

What’s it mean to you in the IR chair? Volume doesn’t define value. Witness Berkshire Hathaway Class A units trading 250 shares daily (about $47m). What matters is who drives it. Don’t give in to arguments for “more liquidity.” You’ll help short-term money, not long-term holders. We don’t think splitting your stock today improves liquidity or appeal to the money that matters.

Speaking of rational money, it averaged 14.5% of total equity volume the past 20 days. Tepid.  Where are active investors? Watching warily, apparently. What drives equity values right now is asset-allocation – the “have to” money that buys the equity class because the model says to.

And meanwhile that money is offsetting risk with derivatives in currencies, energies and metals. Take care not to draw the wrong conclusion about the value of your shares. It’s tied to things way beyond fundamentals at the moment.

Risk-Free Return

Everybody is talking about the weather. Why doesn’t somebody do something?

This witticism on human futility is often attributed to Mark Twain but traces to Twain’s friend and collaborator Charles Dudley Warner. A century later, it’s still funny.

There’s a lot of hand-wringing going on about interest rates, which from the IR chair may seem irrelevant until you consider that your equity cost of capital cannot be calculated without knowing the risk-free rate.

That and a piece in Institutional Investor Magazine some weeks back brought to my view by alert reader Pam Murphy got me thinking about how investors are behaving – which hits closer to investor-relations than anything.

When I say hands are wrung about rates, I mean will they go up? We’ve not had normalized costs of capital since…hm, good question. Go to treasurydirect.gov and check rates for I-Bonds, the federal-government savings coupon. I-Bonds pay a combination of a fixed rate plus an inflation adjustment. Guess what the fixed rate is? 0.00%. The inflation-adjusted return May-Oct 2013 is 1.18%.EE-Bonds with no inflation adjustment yield 0.20% annually. This is a 20-year maturity instrument. Prior to 1995, these bonds averaged ten-year maturities and never paid less than 4% annually, often over 7%. If the I-Bond pegs inflation at 1.18% every six months, translating to 2.36% annually, is the risk-free rate of return a -2.16%? (more…)