Tagged: Short Interest

Borrowed Time

“If a stock trades 500,000 shares daily,” said panelist Mark Flannery from hedge fund Point72 last Thursday on my market-structure panel, “and you’ve got 200,000 to buy or sell, you’d think ‘well that should work.’ It won’t. Those 500,000 shares aren’t all real.”

If you weren’t in Austin last week, you missed a great NIRI Southwest conference.  Mr. Flannery and IEX’s John Longobardi were talking about how the market works today.  Because a stock trades 500,000 shares doesn’t mean 500,000 shares of real buying and selling occur.  Some of it – probably 43% – is borrowed.

Borrowing leads to inflation in stocks as it does in economies.  When consumers borrow money to buy everything, economies reflect unrealistic economic wherewithal. Supply and demand are supposed to set prices but when demand is powered by borrowing, prices inevitably rise to unsustainable levels.  It’s an economic fact.

All borrowing is not bad. Borrowing money against assets permits one to spend and invest simultaneously.  But borrowing is the root of crises so watching it is wise.

Short interest – stock borrowed and sold and not yet covered and returned to owners as a percentage of total shares outstanding – isn’t unseemly. But it’s not a predictive indicator, nor does it describe risk. The great majority of shares don’t trade, yet what sets price is whoever buys or sells.

It’s far better to track shares borrowed as a percentage of total traded shares, as we described last week. It’s currently 43%, down one percentage point, or about 2.3%, as stocks have zoomed in latter August.

But almost 30% of stocks (excluding ETFs, routinely higher and by math on a handful of big ones averaging close to 60%) have short volume of 50% or more, meaning half of what appears to be buying and selling is coming from something that’s been borrowed and sold.

In an up market, that’s not a problem. A high degree of short-term borrowing, much of it from high-speed firms fostering that illusory 500,000 shares we discussed on the panel, means lots of intraday price-movement but a way in which short-term borrowing, and covering, and borrowing, and covering (wash, rinse, repeat), may propel a bull market.

In the Wall Street Journal Aug 25, Alex Osipovich wrote about how Goldman Sachs and other banks are trying to get a piece of the trading day’s biggest event: The closing auction (the article quotes one of the great market-structure experts, Mehmet Kinak from T Rowe Price). Let’s dovetail it with pervasive short-term borrowing.

We’ve mapped sector shorting versus sector ETF shorting, and the figures inversely correlate, suggesting stocks are borrowed as collateral to create ETFs, and ETFs are borrowed and returned to ETF sponsors for stocks.

A handful of big banks like Goldman Sachs are primary market-makers, called Authorized Participants (as opposed to secondary market-makers trading ETFs), which create and redeem ETF shares by moving stock collateral back and forth.

The banks give those using their versions of closing auctions the guaranteed closing price from the exchanges.  But it’s probably a great time to cover short-term ETF-related borrowings because trades will occur at an average price in effect.

The confluence of offsetting economic incentives (selling, covering borrowings) contribute to a stable, rising market. In the past week average intraday volatility dropped to 1.9% from a 200-day average of 2.5% at the same time shorting declined – anecdotal proof of the point.

What’s the flip side?  As with all borrowing, the bill hurts when growth stalls. When the market tips over at some future inevitable point, shorting will meet shorting. It happened in January 2016 when shorting reached 52% of total volume. In February this year during the correction it was 46%. Before the November election, short volume was 49%.

The point for both investors and public companies is that you can’t look at trading volume for a given stock and conclude that it’s equal and offsetting buying and selling. I guarantee you it’s not.

You don’t have to worry about it, but imbalances, however they may occur, become a much bigger deal in markets dependent on largescale short-term borrowing. It’s another market-structure lesson.

Volume and Interest

In the five trading days ended Oct 17, 49.1% of average daily stock volume was short.

“Wait, what?” you say.  “Half the stock market is short?”

Yes, that’s right.  Short volume last topped 49% marketwide in mid-April. The market glided gently downward from there to May options-expirations. Speaking of expirations, we’re in them for October this week, so it’s a good time to talk about shorting.

Short volume hit a last marketwide low July 12 at 43%, which roughly corresponded to the high point of the Brexit Bounce.  At Nov 30 last year short volume was 42.9% and December and January were horrific for markets.  And on Jan 7, 2016, short volume was 52%. A month later the market bottomed and soared till April.

If short-volume history is a guide, the market is nearing a temporary bottom. It’s unwise to use a single data point, and we don’t (we use six key measures, plus a small supporting cast, as you clients know). The flow and behavior of money count, and we track both.

“Back up,” you say.  “You lost me at ‘short volume.’ What do you mean by that?”

Short volume is trading derived from borrowed shares.

“I read back in August on Zero Hedge that nobody’s short stocks. Trading from borrowed shares is 2% of the S&P 500, near a three-year low.”

You’re talking about short interest, the long-in-the-tooth risk-assessment tool derived from a 1975 Federal Reserve rule called Regulation T. Shorting and derivatives exploded after the US scrapped the gold standard and the Feds wanted to track margin accounts.

“Are we talking about the same short interest? The amount of total shares outstanding or float that’s borrowed and sold and not yet covered?”

Yes. Forty-one years later it’s still a standard market-risk measure. Yet it’s largely useless predictively. It didn’t shoot up until well after Bear Stearns foundered. In late 2007 it was 1.6%.

“So you’re saying it’s a crappy measure. What’s short volume then?”

Short volume is the amount of daily trading volume that’s borrowed. If a stock trades a million shares a day and short volume is 53%, then 530,000 shares of it were borrowed.  With over 40% of all market volume coming from Fast Traders wanting to own nothing, a great deal of this is short-term trading.

“Okay, I’m following. But what’s it tell me?”

Short volume signals several things but in sum it’s what you think: High short volume, lower price.  Why? Shorting is at root the continual adding of supply to the market. So if demand doesn’t keep up, price falls.

Here’s more:

High short volume means weak expectation for gains. No matter what company fundamentals are, if more volume comes from borrowed shares than owned shares, Fast Traders weighing tick data with high performance machines predict investors would rather lend shares for a return than spend money buying and holding them.

High short volume points to rotation. If the machines want to be short, they’re betting holders are selling and trying to hide it by passing shares through multiple brokers. The converse is true too: If you’ve been short and shorting falls, rotation is probably done.

Persistent high shorting reflects uncertainty about corporate strategy.  Not to pick on Tesla (because it’s not alone by any stretch) but its 200-day average short volume is 55%. Investors say it’s a trading vehicle, not an investment opportunity.  By contrast Qualcomm’s 200-day average is 42%. The two have inverse performance the past year.

Tangentially, high short volume CAN mean ETFs are seeing outflows. Exchange Traded Funds don’t directly buy or sell stocks but they create big volume because ETFs track other measures, such as indexes, that are in turn composed of other issues, such as stocks.

Traders measure deviation between ETFs and these other things and arbitrage (profit on price-differences) the spreads.  When investors sell ETF shares, ETF market makers or authorized participants (parties designated to create and redeem ETF shares) might short components to raise cash in order to buy ETF shares and retire them to rebalance supply.

In sum, short volume is a sensor situated near the beating heart of the money behind price and volume. And while algorithms driving trades today are designed to deceive, they can often be unmasked through short volume (with a couple other key measures).

For the rest of this week though, don’t be surprised if the market shows us not a beating heart but expirations-related palpitations.

Feedback

You’ve got to know what to measure.

Every time I interact with anybody from an airline to my company’s communications providers, I get a survey. “How’d we do?”

It drives me crazy. It’s like Claymation customer service:  Move something, take a picture.  Move something, take a picture. You’ve seen clay animation?  Wallace & Gromit popularized cartoonish clay caricature (and cheese!). Each picture contributed to forming movement and emotion. Every snapshot is feedback that when viewed together become the story. It works in cartoons but isn’t a good customer-service model.

We’re inundated with market information in the investor-relations profession.  The feedback loop is so intensive that it can somewhere morph from meaningful to white noise. You don’t know what you’re measuring or hearing. The sequence of snapshots doesn’t translate to meaningful film. There’s no narrative in the data.

Back when I was in the IR chair, I’d hear all the time that we’d broken through moving averages.  Initially, I exclaimed, “Oh!” and added, “Thank you!” It was only later that I realized moving averages told me little and certainly weren’t entertaining like Claymation. What should I tell management?  “Unfortunately, there’s been a breakdown in our moving averages, prompting a sharp shift in perception.”

Really?

Here’s another metric that confuses busy with productive. We have clients with high short interest. The measure derives from a 1974 regulation from The Federal Reserve to track borrowing in marginable securities accounts as part of aggregate money supply.

Borrowing is a good measure of risk. To that end, if you’re interested in a riotous three-minute explanation of what’s wrong in Europe, click here (it’s a video clip so be appropriately prepared).

But what if we’re not measuring borrowing correctly? Short volume, or trading with borrowed shares instead of owned shares, is roughly 43% of the total market. This measure wasn’t created by the Fed in 1974. It’s current. It’s Claymation. We’ve studied short interest and short volume and found that the former often is inversely correlated with price-movements, suggesting that it’s a lagging indicator of risk (and thus a lousy one). Not so with short volume.

The ownership measure extant today, 13Fs, was created in 1974 as well. It’s deplorable as feedback on institutional behavior, coming 90 trading days after it might have occurred. Today, over $1.7 trillion of assets are held by Exchange-Traded Funds that post ownership positions daily, yet trades clear “T+3,” or potentially four days out.

Do you think about these things in the IR chair? Perception is, “Our price continuously reflects rational thought.” Reality is something else, demonstrably and statistically.  Speaking of which, I’m hoping to take the NIRI Arizona chapter on a rollicking safari through market structure today. Process is more influential than purpose.

What you don’t want to do with your IR forensics is confuse busy with productive. You can track vast seas of data that neither offer narrative nor animate it.  What’s the right feedback mechanism? Reality! What is money doing right now and what’s the likely impact in the future, and what’s that mean to actions in my IR program and what I communicate to management? (more…)

Autocallable

It’s time we had The Talk.

Candid discussions can be uncomfortable. They broach subjects we prefer to avoid. But we can’t ignore the facts of life.

One such fact is Contingent Absolute Return Autocallable Optimization Securities. We’re more comfortable talking about diarrhea, right? Bring them up at a party and the crowd disperses. Try talking to your teenager about them and she’ll roll her eyes and turn up One Direction in her ear buds.

Why the public disdain? Look at the name. Need we say more? They’re wildly popular though with issuing banks including JP Morgan, UBS, Barclays, Morgan Stanley, RBC and others – just about anyone who offers “structured products.”

This particular version of structured product (“a financial instrument crafted by a brokerage to achieve a particular investment objective for clients ranging from short-term yield to long-term risk-mitigation” is how we’d describe them) achieved both infamy and scrutiny after Apple shares slumped in latter 2012. Big banks had sold hundreds of millions of dollars of Contingent Autocallable Securities paying a yield of about 10% and tied to the performance of Apple shares. Buyers got stuck with shares that had dropped 30% in value and lost principal to boot.

I’ll give you my simplest understanding of how these instruments work and why you should care from the IR chair. It’s a debt instrument and it’s unsecured. It tends to pay high interest, like 10% annualized in a basis-points world. Whether it pays out turns on two things: How long you hold it, and whether the underlying equity to which it’s paired declines below a trigger price.

There are two problems for IROs. First, because regulators consider it debt, if it “converts” there’s no equity trade. These things are not responsible for big percentages of volume so there’s no vortex looming in your share-counts. But still, decisions and strategies impacting shares are resulting from instruments you can’t track. (more…)

Rotation

You’ve heard of 99-year leases?

Karen’s grandfather has had an exceptional lease on life. We were in Nashville last weekend as he marked the calendar a 99th time. Remarkably, in his lifetime headlines have been made by WWI, inventor Nikola Tesla, the Great Depression (he was a divinity student at Yale then) and Adolph Hitler.

Speaking of a lease, in a sense that’s what short volume is. We’re not talking about short interest, periodic reads on short positions outstanding. That metric today struggles for statistical significance. Short volumes marketwide the past 20 days averaged 44%. In our client base, the highest daily average was 63%, the lowest, 28%.

Recently, a noted client received public attention from a prolific Short (an investor who in the old-fashioned way borrows and sells shares to raise cash on a belief exposure can be covered later at a lower cost for an arbitrage profit between selling and buying). In weeks leading up, our client’s volume marked short instead of long (a trade is one of those two, or exempt from the rules, the latter true for less than 1% of all trades so 99% of volume is long or short) rose from 39.9% short daily to 71.9% the day before the news.

It’s hard to fathom so large a portion of daily volume short – leased, or borrowed. Yet consider other assets. Most Americans borrow to buy cars and houses and major appliances. We borrow to buy dinner by paying with credit when we eat out. Banks borrow to make loans today (not generally true before the Fed). Governments borrow for everything. In buying $3 trillion of Treasury bonds and mortgage-backed securities, the Federal Reserve borrowed from Americans’ future earnings and productivity. Borrowing is rampant (and no harbinger of health, but that’s another story).

Stocks are the same save that the ratio still favors owning over renting (at 44% to 56% the divide is no chasm). Tracking borrowing alone tells one little except that your stock’s health is dependent on or derived from borrowing. (more…)

The Short Fed Story

Is the Federal Reserve fueling stock-market gains?

When St. Louis Fed president James Bullard addressed the Bowling Green, KY, Chamber of Commerce in February 2011, he pinpointed correlation between Ben Bernanke’s September 2010 Jackson Hole speech on “QE2,” the Fed’s second easy-money program, and the stock-market rebound that followed. Classical effects of monetary easing include rising equity prices, Mr. Bullard said.

The Fed wanted market appreciation because people feel better when the stuff they own seems more valuable. But I think we’re having the wrong debate. The question isn’t if Fed intervention increases stock prices, but this: Can prices set by middle men last?

Before actor Daniel Craig became the new James Bond he starred in a caper flick called Layer Cake that posited a rubric: The art of the deal is being a good middle man. The Fed is the ultimate global middle man. Since the dollar is the world’s reserve currency, the Fed as night manager of the cost and availability of dollars can affect everybody’s money. After all, save where barter still prevails, doing business involves money. Variability in its value is the fulcrum for the great planetary teeter-totter of commerce. The risk for the Fed is distorting global values with borrowing and intermediation.

In the stock market, we’re told it’s been a terrible year for “the shorts” – speculators who borrow shares and sell them on hopes of covering at a lower future price. The common measure is short interest, a twice-monthly metric denoting stocks borrowed, sold, and not yet covered. Historically, that’s about 5% of shares comprising the S&P 500. (more…)

The Long and Short

In the timeless 1987 movie The Princess Bride, Vizzini the Sicilian, played riotously with a lisp by Wallace Shawn, keeps declaring things “inconceivable!”

Swordsman Inigo Montoya, portrayed then by Homeland’s Mandy Patinkin, finally says, “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”

You could say the same for short interest. It’s not what you think it means. Stay with me to the end, and you’ll see.

On August 2, 2012, Knight Capital Group’s algorithms failed. Monday at TABB Forum, Anthony Masso, CEO at trading risk-analytics provider Succession Systems, described how the SEC’s recent settlement with Knight successor KCG Holdings clarified a risk standard called the Market Access Rule. It requires brokers to have systems that forestall actions that may imperil themselves or others in the market. I’d paraphrase the law this way: “We order you to take whatever actions are necessary to prevent bad stuff. Thank you.”

That’s not what got my attention. The settlement reveals details about Knight’s errant trades. The broker bought, or went long, $3.5 billion of stocks; and shorted, or sold, about $3.2 billion. In less than an hour, its systems executed four million trades in 174 different stocks to create these positions.

This one tidbit is a tumbler unlocking vast secrets about market behavior. Knight’s algorithms were observably designed to build long and short positions of similar size principally to supply the storefronts of the stock market. When these positions failed to modulate, markets rushed into the vacuum, crushing Knight’s balance sheet.

Here’s the delicate balance in proprietary high-speed trading. Get it wrong by less than 10% and you’re done. Knight got it wrong. This same fragile trestle trains markets over the chasm each day. We’re all riding the rail.

ModernIR tracks short volume using algorithms. The daily average the past 50 days marketwide is 41%, not far off long/short equilibrium. Combined volumes on exchanges and dark pools total about 6.3 billion shares daily, meaning 2.5 billion shares each day are short.

Short interest in the S&P 500 is nearer 5% on average, though components can reach levels that roughly match daily short volume. The difference between interest and volume is that volume is just borrowed, while interest remains sold and outstanding.

Our data show that 11% of public companies have short volume above 50% of total volume. The highest in our client base the last five days was 61%. We’ve seen levels reach 85%, meaning nearly nine of every ten trades involved short shares – rented trading inventory. The lowest we saw was in a series of Class B shares trading just a few thousand per day where still 15% were short.

Elevated short interest can mean speculators are betting on a downturn. But it could as well be searing daytime demand for trading “inventory” – bowling shoes to put on for the day, for the game, traders and intermediaries finding renting cheaper than owning.

What concerns me is that short volume by definition in Regulation T is credit. So the market is heavily dependent on borrowing, just like the entire global financial system.

You have to see volume differently. Half of it is borrowed. Rented. Bowling shoes. High short interest is a product of frenetic demand on short horizons – not a certificate guaranteeing imminent pressure.

But realize that a hiccup in long/short balances can move your shares sharply – and it’s got nothing to do with ownership, or even shorting in the conventional sense. Inconceivable? No. And you know now what I mean.

Maker-Taker’s Mark

Is it diluted?

That’s what everybody wants to know about the market. Are gains for broad equity measures, seemingly epic like my skiing Saturday at Copper Mountain, real or watered down?

That’s actually not our story this week. But we’re so fascinated by what market structure shows that if you huddle in here we’ll share observations. The dollar declined when Japanese Prime Minister Abe said Monday that either the Bank of Japan creates inflation or the government will rewrite its charter. That means more currency devaluations for everyone (if your money buys less tomorrow than it did today, that’s a devaluation whether called one or not).

So stocks rose yesterday. Also helping stocks, money was hedging at options-expirations Feb 15. When investors hedge they tend to invest more funds. Sentiment is okay, too, finishing last week at 5.38 (on a 10-pt scale), up from 5.05 to start the week. Yesterday it was down to 4.71, by far the lowest level all year.

All over, short volumes are down compared to long volumes. That’s a loaded message. Higher short volumes mean more competitive markets. But lower short volumes also mean demand for wholesale short positions is down and shorts are covering. Which is good.

Talk about mixed messages! Investors want stocks to rise but are wary. Lower overall short-interest (bullish) and some short-covering (bullish) also means money is less prepared for the unexpected, and that markets aren’t as competitive as they should be when prices are rising. Pray for no surprises or we’ll have a monumental down day.

Which brings us to our story. Beam, Inc., distiller of Maker’s Mark, said last week that to stretch its oak-aged bourbon it would cut the alcohol content. Drinkers recoiled in horror and disgust. They’d rather do without than do with less for the same price. Beam backed down. (more…)