Tagged: Sentiment

Yet Arrived

Bula!

That’s Fijian for “greetings!” You say it “boo-lah.” Fiji is among the friendliest places on the planet. Karen and I are just back from the South Pacific, as this compilation illustrates.  Do you know it’s traditional in Fiji to invite anyone passing by to breakfast?

Maybe that’s the answer to the world’s woes.

And maybe we should have stayed out to sea!  Our first day back the market tumbled.

We left you July 18 with our concern that the market had become a runaway train. In a private client note Jul 19 as options expired we said, “Right now, the data say the market will next tick up. If it’s a weak top – check page 3 of your Market Structure Reports – we could have trouble. At this moment, I don’t think that’s set to occur. Yet.

Well, “yet” arrived.

Is it possible to know when yet is coming?

Yes. At least the way one knows a storm front is forming. It’s not mystical knowledge. It’s math. Weather forecasters track patterns because, as it turns out, weather is mathematical.  It follows rules that can be modeled.

We put a man on the moon 50 years ago because escaping gravity and traveling four days at predictable velocity will get you there. It’s math – which smart people computed on devices less powerful than your smart phone.

Even human behavior, which isn’t mathematical, can often be predicted (somebody needs to develop a model for mass-shooting nutcases). For instance, in the stock market rational people predictably buy weakness and sell strength.

What kind of money sells weakness and buys strength? We’ll come to that.

Conventional wisdom says stocks imploded because a) people wanted the Federal Reserve to cut rates Jul 31 more than it did, b) President Trump tweeted about Chinese tariffs, c) and the Chinese retaliated by letting the yuan slide.

Relative currency values matter. We’ve written often about it. The pandemonium routing equities Aug 24, 2015 followed a yuan devaluation too. Stocks inversely correlate with the dollar because currencies have no inherent value today.

So if the supply of dollars rises, the value of the dollar falls, and the prices of assets denominated in dollars that serve as stores of value, such as stocks, rise. Value investor Ron Baron said he puts depreciating assets, dollars, into appreciating assets, stocks.

With dollars increasing, the relative value of other currencies like the euro and the yen rises, so prices of goods denominated in them fall – which governments and central banks interpret as “a recession,” leading to interest-rate cuts, negative bond yields, banks buying stuff to create money, and other weirdness.

Makes you wonder if these central planners actually understand economics.

I digress. That’s not the root reason why stocks rolled over. Headlines, Fed actions and currencies don’t buy or sell stocks. People and machines do.

The majority of the money in the market pegs a benchmark now – machine-like behavior. Market Structure Sentiment, our index for short-term market-direction, has been above 5.0 for an extended period without mean-reversion.

That matters because money tracking a measure must rebalance – mean-revert. If it goes an unusual stretch without doing so, risk of a sudden mean-reversion rises.

We saw the same condition before stock-corrections in Jan 2016, June 2016 around Brexit, ahead of the US election in late Oct 2016, in Jan 2018, and in Sep 2018. Each featured an extended positive Sentiment run with a weak top, as now.

The week ended Aug 2 also had another mathematical doozy: Exchange Traded Fund flows as measured not by purchases or sales of ETFs but market-making by brokers plunged 20%.  In some mega capitalization stocks it was the largest decline in ETF flows since early Dec 2018.

Passive money buys strength, until it stops. When it stops, weakness often follows. And if it has not rebalanced, it sells weakness because weakness means deteriorating returns.

The last day of trading every month is the most important one for money tracking benchmarks. That was July 31. Stocks deteriorated in the afternoon. Pundits blamed Jay Powell’s comments. What if it was long overdue rebalancing on the last trading day?

That selling coupled with a big overall decline in ETF flows converged with a currency depreciation Monday, and whoosh! What yet we feared arrived.

And yet. It’s not fundamental. Why does that matter? Monetary policy, portfolio positioning, and economic predictions may be predicated on a false premise that rational people had unmet expectations.

I think that’s a big deal.

So. Since yet has arrived, is yet over?  Data say no. It’s a model with predictiveness that may be a step ahead or behind. But a swoon like this should produce a mean-reversion. That’s not – yet – happened.

With that, I say Bula! And if you’re in the neighborhood, drop by for breakfast on us.

Unstoppable

Any of you Denzel Washington fans?

He starred in a 2010 movie loosely based on real events called Unstoppable, about a runaway freight train (I have Tom Petty’s “Runaway Train” going through my head).

In a way, the market has the appearance of an unstoppable force, a runaway train.  On it goes, unexpectedly, and so pundits, chuckling uncomfortably, try to explain why.

Tellingly, however, in the past month, JP Morgan said 80% of market volume is on autopilot, driven by passive and systematic flows.  Goldman Sachs held a conference call for issuers on what’s driving stock-prices – focusing on market structure. Jefferies issued a white paper called When the Market Moves the Market (thank you, alert readers, for those!).

We’ve been talking about market structure for almost 15 years (writing here on it since 2006). We’re glad some big names are joining us. You skeptics, if you don’t believe us, will you believe these banks?

Market structure has seized control. Stock pickers say the market always reflects expectations.  Well, stocks are at records even as expectations for corporate earnings predict a recession – back-to-back quarterly profit-declines.

There’s more. Last week the S&P 500 rose 0.8%, pushing index gains to 9.3% total since the end of May. But something that may be lost on most: The S&P 500 is up less than 2.5% since last September. The bane of stock-investing is volatility – changing prices.

Hedge funds call that uncompensated risk. The market has given us three straight quarters of stomach-lurching roller coasters of risk. For a 2.5% gain?

We all want stocks to rise!  Save shorts and volatility traders.  The point is that we should understand WHY the market does what it does. When it’s behaving unexpectedly, we shouldn’t shrug and say, “Huh. Wonder what that’s about?”

It’s akin to what humorist Dave Barry said you can do when your car starts making a funny noise:  Turn the radio up.

Let me give you another weird market outtake.  We track composite quantitative data on stocks clustered by sector (and soon by industry, and even down to selected peers).  That is, we run central tendencies, averages, for stocks comprising industries.

Last week, Consumer Discretionary stocks were best, up 1.5%. The sector SPDR (XLY, the State Street ETF) was up 2% (a spread of 33% by the way). Yet sector stocks had more selling than buying every day but Friday last week.

You know the old investor-relations joke:  “Why is our stock down today?”

“Because we had more sellers than buyers.”

Now stocks are UP on more selling than buying.

An aside before I get to the punchline:  ETF flows are measured in share creations and redemptions. More money into ETFs? More ETF shares are created.  Except there were $50 billion more ETF shares created than redeemed in December last year when the market fell 20%.

The market increasingly cannot be trusted to tell us what’s occurring, because the mechanics of it – market structure – are poorly understood by observers. ETFs act more like currencies than stocks because they replace stocks. They don’t invest in stocks (and they can be created and shorted en masse).

With the rise of ETFs, Fast Trading machines, shorting, derivatives, the way the market runs cannot be seen through the eyes of Benjamin Graham.

Last week as the S&P 500 rose, across the eleven industry groups into which it’s divided there were 28 net selling days, and 27 net buying days (11 sectors, five days each).

How can Consumer Discretionary stocks rise on net selling? How can the market rise on net selling? Statistical samples. ETFs and indexes don’t trade everything. They buy or sell a representative group – say 10 out of a hundred.

(Editorial note: listen to five minutes of commentary on Sector Insights, and if you’re interested in receiving them, let us know.)

So, 90 stocks could be experiencing outflows while the ten on which this benchmark or that index rests for prices today have inflows, and major measures, sector ETFs, say the market is up when it’s the opposite.

Market Structure Sentiment™, our behavioral index, topped on July 12, right into option-expirations today through Friday.  On Monday in a flat market belying dyspepsia below the surface, we saw massive behavioral change suggesting ETFs are leaving.

Stay with me. We’re headed unstoppably toward a conclusion.

From Jan 1-May 31 this year, ETFs were less volatile than stocks every week save one. ETFs are elastic, and so should be less volatile. Suddenly in the last six weeks, ETFs are more volatile than stocks, a head-scratcher.

Mechanics would see these as symptoms of failing vehicle-performance. Dave Barry would turn the radio up.  None of us wants an Unstoppable train derailing into the depot.  We can avoid trouble by measuring data and recognizing when it’s telling us things aren’t working right.

Investors and public companies, do you want to know when you’re on a runaway train?

Driverless Market

Suppose you were human resources director for a fleet of driverless taxis.

As Elon Musk proposes streets full of autonomous autos, the market has become that fleet for investors and investor-relations professionals.  The market drives itself. What we measure as IR professionals and investors should reflect a self-driving market.

There’s nothing amiss with the economy or earnings. About 78% of companies reporting results so far this quarter, FactSet says, are beating expectations, a tad ahead of the long-term average of 72%.

But a closer look shows earnings unchanged from a year ago. In February last year with the market anticipating earnings goosed by the corporate tax cut of 2017, stocks plunged, and then lurched in Q3 to heights we’re now touching anew, and then nosedived in the fourth quarter.

An honest assessment of the market’s behavior warrants questioning whether the autonomous vehicle of the market has properly functioning sensors. If a Tesla sped down the road and blew a stop sign and exploded, it would lead all newscasts.

No matter the cacophony of protestations I might hear in response to this assertion, there is no reasonable, rational explanation for the fourth-quarter stock-implosion and its immediate, V-shaped hyperbolic restoration. Sure, stocks rise and fall (and will do both ahead). But these inexplicable bursts and whooshes should draw scrutiny.

Investor-relations professionals, you are the HR director for the driverless fleet. You’re the chief intelligence officer of the capital markets, whose job encompasses a regular assessment of market sensors.

One of the sensors is your story.  But you should consistently know what percentage of the driving instructions directing the vehicle are derived from it.  It’s about 12% marketwide, which means 88% of the market’s navigational data is something else.

Investors, the same applies. The market is as ever driven by its primary purpose, which is determined not by guesses, theory or tradition, but by what dominates price-setting.  In April, the dominating behavior is Exchange-Traded Funds.  Active investment was third of four big behaviors, ahead only of Fast Trading (curious, as Fast Traders avoid risk).

ETF shares are priced by spreads versus underlying stocks. Sure, investors buy them thinking they are consuming pooled investments (they’re not). But the motivation driving ETFs is whether they increase or decrease in price marginally versus stocks.

ETF market-makers supply stocks to a sponsor like Blackrock, which grants them authority to create an equal value of ETF shares to sell into the market. They aim to sell ETFs for a few basis points more than the value of exchanged shares.

The trade works in reverse when the market-maker borrows ETF shares to return to Blackrock in exchange for a group of stocks that are worth now, say, 50 basis points more than the stocks the market-maker originally offered.

If a market-maker can turn 30-50 basis points of profit per week this way, it’s a wildly winning, no-risk strategy. And it can and does carry the market on its updraft. We see it in patterns.

If it’s happening to your stock, IR professionals, it’s your job to know. Investors, you must know too, or you’ll draw false conclusions about the durability of cycles.

Big Market Lesson #1 in 2019: Learn how to measure behaviors. They’re sensors. Watch what’s driving your stock and the market higher (or lower – and yes, we have a model).

Speaking of learning, IR people, attend the 50th Anniversary NIRI Annual Conference. We have awesome content planned for you, including several not-to-be-missed market-structure sessions on hedge funds, the overall market, and ETFs.  Listen for a preview here and see the conference agenda here.  Sign up before May 15 for the best rate.

Big Market Lesson #2: Understand what stops a driverless market.

ETF-led rallies stall when the spread disappears. We have a sensor for that at ModernIR, called Market Structure Sentiment™ that meters when machines stop lifting or lowering prices.

It’s a 10-point scale that must remain over 5.0 for shares to rise. It’s averaged 6.2 since Jan 8 and has not been negative since. When it stalls, so will stocks, without respect to earnings or any other fundamental sensor.

I look forward to driverless cars. But we’ll want perfected technology before trusting them. The same should apply to a driverless stock market.

 

Melting Up

Blackrock CEO Larry Fink sees risk of a melt-up, not a meltdown for stocks.

Speaking of market structure, I’m a vice chair for NIRI’s Annual Conference – the 50th anniversary edition.  From the opening general session, to meeting the hedge funds, to a debate on how ETFs work, we’ve included market structure.  Catch a preview webcast on So-So Thursday, Apr 18, (before Good Friday) at 2pm ET (allow time to download Adobe Connect): https://niri.adobeconnect.com/webinar041819

Back to Larry Fink, is he right?  Who knows. But Blackrock wants to nudge record sidelined retail and institutional cash into stocks because revenues declined 7%.

Data tell us the market doesn’t need more buyers to melt up. Lipper said $20 billion left US equities from Jan through Apr 3, more than the $6 billion Bloomberg had earlier estimated. Stocks rallied 16%.

We wrote April 3 that no net cash fled equities in Q4 last year when the market corrected. If stocks can plunge when no money leaves and soar when it does, investors and public companies should be wary of rational expectations.

We teach public companies to watch for behavioral data outside norms.  Investors, you should be doing the same. Behavioral-change precedes price-change.  It can be fleeting, like a hand shoved in a bucket of water. Look away and you’ll miss the splash.

Often there’s no headline or economic factor because behaviors are in large part motivated by characteristics, not fundamentals.

Contrast with what legendary value investor Benjamin Graham taught us in Security Analysis (1934) and The Intelligent Investor (1949): Buy stocks discounted to assets and limit your risk.

The market is now packed with behaviors treating stocks as collateral and chasing price-differences. It’s the opposite of the Mr. Market of the Intelligent Investor. If we’re still thinking the same way, we’ll be wrong.

When the Communication Services sector arose from Technology and Consumer Discretionary stocks last September, the pattern of disruption was shocking. Unless you saw it (Figure 1), you’d never have known markets could roll over.

Larry Fink may think money should rush in (refrains of “fools rush in…”) because interest rates are low.  Alan Greenspan told CNBC last week there’s a “stock market aura” in which a 10% rise in stocks corresponds to a 1% increase in GDP. Stocks were down 18% in Q4, and have rebounded about 16%. Is the GDP impact then neutral?

To me, the great lesson for public companies and investors is the market’s breakdown as a barometer for fundamentals.  We’ve written why. Much of the volume driving equities now reacts to spreads – price-differences.

In a recent year, SPY, the world’s largest and oldest Exchange Traded Fund, traded at a premium to net asset value 62% of the time and a discount 38% of the time. Was it 2017 when stocks soared?  No, it was 2018 when SPY declined 4.5%.

Note how big changes in behavioral patterns correspond with market moves. The one in September is eye-popping. Patterns now are down as much as up and could signal a top.

SPY trades 93% of the time within 25 basis points of NAV, but it effectively never trades AT net-asset-value. Comparing trading volume to creations and redemptions of ETF shares, the data suggest 96% of SPY trading is arbitrage, profiting on price-differences.

This is the stuff that’s invaded the equity market like a Genghis Kahn horde trampling principles of value investment and distorting prices.

So, what do we DO, investors and public companies?

Recognize that the market isn’t a reliable barometer for rational thought. If your stock fell 40% in Q4 2018 and rebounded 38% in Q1, the gain should be as suspect as the fall.

Ask why. Ask your exchange. Ask the regulators. Ask the business reporters. These people should be getting to the bottom of vanishing rationality in stocks.

It may be the market now is telling us nothing more than ETFs are closing above net asset value and ETF market-makers are melting stocks up to close that gap.  That could be true 62% of the time, and the market could still lose 20% in two weeks.

When you hear market-behavior described in rational terms – even during earnings – toss some salt over a shoulder.  I think the market today comes down to three items: Sentiment reflecting how machines set prices, shorting, and behavioral change.

Behavioral patterns in stocks now show the biggest declines since September. Sentiment reflecting how machines set prices is topped ahead of options expirations that’ll be truncated by Good Friday. Shorting bottomed last week and is rising.

(Side note: patterns don’t vary during earnings. They fluctuate at month-ends, quarter-ends and options-expirations, so these are more powerful than results.)

Nobody knows the future and we don’t either. Behaviors change. But the present is dominated by characteristics, powerful factors behind behavioral patterns.

Watch the Machines

As dawn spreads across the fruited plain today, we’re plunging into Iceland’s Blue Lagoon.  If we learn market-structure secrets here, we’ll report back next week.

Meanwhile, stocks have been emitting the effervescence of a Sunday brunch mimosa bubbling a happy orange hue.  Market Structure Sentiment™ for stocks as measured daily has posted a record stretch at 6.0/10.0 or higher.

What’s that mean ahead?

Here’s back-story for those new to the Market Structure Map. We formalized what we first called MIRBI (merbee), the ModernIR Behavioral Index, in Jan 2012. Market Structure Analytics is the science of demographics in the money behind prices and volume. We can measure them in your stock, a sector, the whole market.

Correlated to prices, volatility and standard deviation, behaviors proved predictive. We built a ten-point quantitative scale from Oversold at 1 to Overbought at 10. Stocks mean-revert to 5.0 and trade most times between 4.0-6.0. Market Structure Sentiment™ has signaled nearly every short-term rise and fall in stocks since 2012, large and small.

In both late January 2018 and late Sep 2018 preceding market corrections, Market Sentiment topped weakly, signaling stocks were overbought and pressure loomed.

If corporate fundamentals consistently priced stocks, this math wouldn’t matter. Active Investment can only blunt market structure periodically. Just the way it is.

It reflects a truth about modern markets: Machines set prices more than humans. So, if you want to know what prices will do, watch the machines. Investor-relations professionals and investors must know market structure now. Otherwise we blame humans for things machines are doing.

Getting back to the future, we recorded a couple long 6.0+ stretches in 2012. They presaged plateaus for stocks but nothing else. It was a momentum market rich with Fed intervention, and European bond-buying to prop up the euro.  Scratch those as comparatives.

Same drill in two 2013 instances, May and July. We had a blip, but the rocket sled was burning central-bank nitrous oxide and barely hiccupped.

After the Federal Reserve hiked rates in December 2015 for the first time in ten years, the market nearly imploded in January. This would prove – till further notice – to be the last time the Fed overtly intervened.

After stocks showed gaping cracks to begin the year, by Mar 2016 excess reserves at the Fed had soared by $500 billion.  The dollar swooned.  Stocks surged. And Market Structure Sentiment™ marked the longest recorded stretch above 5.0.

By Nov 1, 2016, before Donald Trump’s election, however, stocks were back to Dec 2014 levels. I think the bull market was ending but Trump’s ascendency gave it new life.

Cycles have shortened because the bulk of behaviors changing prices every day are motivated by arbitrage – profiting on price-differences. True for Fast Traders, ETF market-makers, market-neutral strategies, global-macro allocations, counterparties.

The length of trading cycles, I believe, depends on the persistence of profits from arbitrage.  Volatility bets expire today, index options tomorrow, with full options expirations and index true-ups Feb 15th.

We may not yet mark a cycle terminus, but arbitrage profits are thinning. For the week ended Feb 2, spreads between sector ETFs and sector stocks totaled 10.5%. Last week it was down to 5.6%.

Further illustrating, Healthcare stocks were up 1.6% the five days end Feb 2, and down 1.6% the week of Feb 8 (and the sector is down the past five days). Real Estate and Utilities offered behavioral data saying they were market hedges – and they’re the two best performers the past five trading days.

I’m confident we’ll see this trading cycle end first in peaking Market Structure Sentiment™ (linked here for Sep 4-Feb 11). It faltered briefly but hasn’t fallen.

As to a big prediction? Past performance guarantees nothing, yet forgetting history condemns us to repeating mistakes. There’s a balance. Seen that way, this long positive run may be the earliest harbinger of the last bull run ending 6-9 months out. Machines will be sifting the data. We’ll watch them.

Now if you’ll excuse us, we’re going to slip into this wildly blue lagoon.

 

Surly Furious

Surly Furious would be a great name for a rock band. And maybe it describes stocks.  It’s for certain the name of a great Minnesota beer.

We are in Minneapolis, one of our favorite cities, where Midwest client services Director Perry Grueber lives, and where nature sprays and freezes into the artful marvel of Minnehaha Falls, and where over pints of Furious IPA from Surly Brewing we deconstructed investor-relations into late evening.

It got us thinking. ModernIR launched Sector Insights this week to measure how money behaves by sector. The data we track show all sectors topping save Consumer Staples.

“Wait, topped? The market has been declining.”

We’re not surprised that closing prices are reverting to the mean, the average, after big swings. You need to understand, public companies and investors, that the market isn’t motivated by your interests.

It’s driven by profit opportunity in the difference in prices between this group of securities or that, over this period or that.

How do we know?  Because it’s what market rules and investment objectives promote. Prices in stocks are set by the best bid to buy or offer to sell – which can never be the same – and motivated most times not by effort to buy or sell stocks but instead by how the price will change.

Who cares?  You should, investors and public companies.

Suppose I told you that in this hotel where you’re staying the elevator only goes to the 5th floor.  You decide it’s immaterial and you set out to reach the 6th floor. You lead your board of directors and executives to believe it should be their expectation that they can reach the 5th floor. Yet as you arrive at the elevator you learn it goes only to the 4th floor.

Whose fault is that?

The beer that put Minneapolis on the map is from Surly Brewing, an India Pale Ale called Furious. What’s better in a name than Surly Furious?  It’s worth drinking.

When the market is surly and furious, you should know it. We can see it first in Market Structure Reports (we can run them for any company), and then in Sector Insights (just out Dec 10) and in the broad market.

Number one question: How does it change what I do?  Investors, it’s easy. Don’t buy Overbought sectors or markets. Don’t sell Oversold sector or markets, no matter how surly and furious they may seem.

Public companies, we expend immense effort and dollars informing investors. Data suggest disclosure costs exceed $5 billion annually for US public companies.

If we discovered the wind blows only from the west, why would we try to sail west? If we discover passive investors are attracting 100% of net new investor inflows, and investors don’t buy or sell your stock, should you not ask what the purpose is of all the money you’re spending to inform investors who never materialize?

We can fear the question and call it surly, or furious. Or we can take the data – which we offer via Market Structure Reports and Sector Insights – and face it and use it to change investor expectations.

Which would you prefer? We’ve now released Sector Reports. If you’d like to know what Sentiment indicates for your stock, your sector — or the broad market — ask us.

Counterparty Tuesday

Anybody hear yesterday’s volatility blamed on Counterparty Tuesday?

Most pointed to earnings fears for why blue chips fell 500 points before clawing back.  Yet last week the Dow Jones Industrial Average zoomed 540 points on earnings, we were told.  We wrote about it.

Counterparty Tuesday is the day each month following expiration of the previous month’s derivatives contracts like puts, calls, swaps, forwards (usually the preceding Friday), and the start of new marketwide derivatives contracts the following Monday.

When grocery stores overstock the shelves, things go on sale.  When counterparties expect a volume of business that doesn’t materialize, they shed the inventory held to back contracts, which can be equities.

Counterparty Tuesday is a gauge indicating whether the massive derivatives market – the Bank for International Settlements tracks over $530 trillion, ten times the global economy – is overstocked or understocked. It’s much larger than the underlying volume of Active Investment behavior in the US stock market.

Let me use a sports analogy. Suppose your favorite NFL team is beating everyone (like the LA Rams are).  “They are killing everybody through the air,” crow the pundits.

You look at the data. The quarterback is averaging five passes per game and zero touchdowns.  But on the ground, the team is carrying 40 times per game and averaging four rushing touchdowns.

These statistics to my knowledge are fake and apply to no NFL team right now. The point is the data don’t support the proffered explanation. The team is winning on the ground, not through the air.

In the same vein, what if market volatility in October ties back to causes having no direct link to corporate earnings?

What difference does it make if the stock market is down on earnings fears or something else?  Because investor-relations professionals message in support of fundamental performance, including earnings.  Boards and management teams are incentivized via performance. Active stock-picking investors key off financial performance.

If the market isn’t swooning over performance, that’s important to know!

Returning to our football analogy, what data would help us understand what’s hurting markets?  Follow the money.

We wrote last week about the colossal shift from active to passive funds in equities the past decade.  That trend has pushed Exchange-Traded Funds toward 50% of market volume. When passive money rebalanced all over the market to end September, the impact tipped equities over.

Now step forward to options expirations, which occurred last week, new ones trading Monday, and Counterparty Tuesday for truing up books yesterday. Money leveraged into equities had to mark derivatives to market. Counterparties sold associated inventory.

Collateral has likely devalued, so the swaps market gets hit. Counterparties were shedding collateral. The cost of insuring portfolios has likely risen because counterparties may have taken blows to their own balance sheets. As costs rise, demand falters.

Because Counterparty Tuesday in October falls during quarterly reporting, it’s convenient to blame earnings. But it doesn’t match measurable statistics, including the size of the derivatives market, the size and movement of collateral for ETFs (a topic we will return to until it makes sense), or the way prices are set in stocks today.

The good news?  Counterparty Tuesday is a one-day event. Once it’s done, it’s done. And our Market Structure Sentiment index bottomed Oct 22. We won’t be surprised if the market surges – on earnings enthusiasm? – for a few days.

The capital markets have yet to broadly adapt to the age of machines, derivatives and substitutes for stocks, like ETFs, where earnings may pale next to Counterparty Tuesday, which can rock the globe.

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?

Climbing Mountains

You’re welcome.

Had Karen and I not departed Sep 20 for Bavaria to ride bikes along the Alps, who knows what the market might have done?  There’s high statistical correlation between our debouchment abroad and a further surge for US stocks.

Stocks spent all of September above 5.5 on the 10-point ModernIR Sentiment Index. Money never paused, blowing through September expirations and defying statistics saying 80% of the time stocks decline when Sentiment peaks as derivatives lapse.

Were we committed to the interests of stock investors we’d pack our bags with laundered undergarments and return to Germany before the market stalls.

But is the market rational?

Univ. of Chicago professor Richard Thaler, who won the Nobel Prize this week for his work on behavioral economics, is as flummoxed as the rest by its disregard for risk. While Professor Thaler might skewer my certitude to knowledge quotient (you’ll have to read more about him to understand that one), I think I know why.

Machines act like people.  My Google Pixel phone constructed a very human montage of our visit to Rothenberg, a Franconian walled medieval city in the woods east of Mannheim.  I didn’t pick the photos or music. I turned on my phone the next day and it said here’s your movie.  (For awesome views of our trip click here, here, here and here.)

Google also classifies my photos by type – mountains, lakes, waterfalls, boats, cars, churches, flowers, farms, beer.

Don’t you suppose algorithms can do the same with stocks? We have long written about the capacity machines possess to make trading decisions, functionally no different than my Pixel’s facility with photographs.

For companies and investors watching headlines, it appears humans are responding.  If airline stocks are up because of good guidance from United Airlines and American, we suppose humans are doing it. But machines can use data to assemble a stock collage.

The way to sort humans from robots is by behavior. It’s subtle. If I sent around my phone’s Rothenberg Polka, where the only part I played was naming it, recipients would assume I chose photos and set them to music. Karen would look at it and say, “Get rid of that photo. I don’t like it.”

Subtleties are human. Central tendencies like flowers and waterfalls are well within machine purview. Machines don’t like or dislike things. They just mix and match.

Apply to stocks. It explains why the market is impervious to shootings, temblors, volcanic eruptions, hurricanes, geopolitical tension. Those aren’t in the algorithm.

Humans thus far uniquely grapple with fear and greed. A market that is neither greedy nor fearful is not rational. But it can climb mountains of doubt and confound game theorists. What we don’t know is how machines will treat mismatched data. We haven’t had much of it in over nine years.

Our Best Sentiments

Question: “Would you like more timely information about who owns your shares?”

Answer: Yes!

Question: “Would you be willing to ask for more timely information?”

Answer: Um…

Let’s change that “um” to a yes! You know about NIRI’s effort to shorten 13f reporting windows? Read about it here. All you have to do is fill out NIRI’s prepared template and email it to the address provided. There are 23 comment letters supporting the initiative as of March 5. With 1,600 companies in NIRI, we ought to be able to push the number up. See comment letters here: http://www.sec.gov/comments/4-659/4-659.shtml

This effort illustrates the difference between saying something and doing it (and there’s some serious doing here, which is great news!).

Speaking of which, TD Ameritrade is separating the chatter from the chart in its six million retail accounts with the TD Ameritrade IMX, an index showing what retail investors are thinking by tracking what they’re doing. Sentiment out this week for February was the best in stocks since June 2011.

Of course, one measure doth not a market make. We have an algorithm that looks for relative flows from retail money, and we saw more this period too. But other measures differed. As of March 5, Sentiment was 4.55, just below Neutral. We measure Sentiment by tracking relative changes in market-share for big behaviors and weighting that movement according to midpoint price-changes. It’s like a market-cap-weighted index. Statistically, 23% of clients had Negative market sentiment, 68% were Neutral, and 9% were Positive. (more…)