Tagged: Short Volume

The Missing Wall

If your house was missing a wall, would you worry whether the front door was locked?

Well, the stock market is missing a wall. 

And yes, the image here is not a missing wall but the walls you can ski at Steamboat.

To our story, investors and public companies need to understand what it means to have a market with a gaping maw in its structure.  Imagine if you went around the house before bedtime shutting off lights, closing windows, locking the front door.

And a wall was missing.

That’s funny like The Truman Show.  Yet glaring structural flaws are no laughing matter.  For investor relations, the profession linking Wall Street to public companies, the job is keeping the house in order.

The lights and windows represent things long done to promote differentiators.  Earnings calls.  Non-deal roadshows (that means visiting holders without pitching a stock or debt offering). Analyst days.  Investor-targeting. Perception studies. On it goes.

You’d be surprised at the work and effort directed at these missions, you who are not in the profession.  We have an entire body of knowledge around the discipline of investor-communication, internally and externally.  Sums spent on tools and services and regulatory compliance and listing fees and so on total billions of dollars annually.

Keeping the house up is a full-time job. But the house is missing a wall. And too often the profession acts like everything is fine.

Evidence of it splashed again through the stock market yesterday. Rocket Companies (NYSE:RKT) slammed into at least three trading-volatility halts en route to a 71% gain.

It’s a great company.  CEO Jay Farner – I heard him on Squawk Box via Sirius Radio last Friday after results as I was descending from the Eisenhower Tunnel to Silverthorne off the Continental Divide – is so impressive. The cynosure of a prepared spokesperson.

And they’re a rocket, no doubt. RKT had $17 billion of revenue and $9 billion of net income, a 53% margin. Who knew selling loans was a more profitable business than selling data?

But.

That’s not what juiced RKT.  Sure, it was up Feb 26, up again Mar 1. But Active investment – the money focused on fundamentals – was 6.8% of RKT volume Mar 1.  So 93.2% of it was something else.

What’s more, Short Volume exploded at the very time rumors surged across the media that we had another Gamestop (GME) here, another “short squeeze,” now in RKT.

I’ll explain everything, so stay with me.

On Feb 19, Short Volume, the percentage of daily trading representing borrowed stock, was 29% of RKT volume.  By Feb 26 as the stock began to jump, it was 55%.

This is the draft you feel, public companies. This is the missing wall leaving you utterly exposed to what’s outside your control, no matter how much you spend, no matter the windows and doors you lock.

Investors, we’ll get to the meaning for you too.

There is only one way for a stock to rise.  Somebody sells stock at a higher price.  Not what you expected?  You thought I’d say, “Somebody must be willing to pay more.”

Yes. That’s true.  But suppose no owners want to sell, because they believe a mortgage company growing more than 100% year over year with 53% margins is a stock to hold.  And suppose the shorts don’t react.

Where does stock come from then?

Answer: That explosion in Short Volume we saw before the stock skyrocketed.

Somebody SHORTED the stock to make it available for sale at a higher price.  Sound cognitively dissonant?  It’s not. It’s called a “market-making exemption.”

We’ve written about it often before.  Read what we wrote on GME.

Truth is, most of the time when investors buy stock, somebody shorts it first and buys it back for the buyer.  At any moment, this can happen to any of you, public companies. And it doesn’t require high short interest – that 1975 measure still in use like a Soviet relic.

No, it can happen on belief. It can happen on nothing more than a machine-driven updraft.  And it could as easily be a downdraft.  What’s to stop market-makers from creating stock to SELL instead of buy? Correct. Nothing.

No matter what your story, your fundamentals, Fast Traders sitting in the middle can create shares out of whole cloth, because regulators have given them leeway to do so, and your stock can behave in unimaginable ways.

Public companies, if you directed 10% of what you spend on story and compliance to targeting Congress for a solution, we might shore up structure.

A solution starts with understanding the problem. And we do.  We can help you (and your board and c-suite).

Investors, your turn.  Market structure is to me the most important trading factor because it trumps everything else.  If you were modeling RKT market structure, you’d have seen the entry point Feb 22.

How many more situations like these will it take before we start looking at the missing wall? 

Sailing Away

Sailing takes me away to where I’ve always heard it could be just a dream and the wind to carry me.

Christopher Cross said it (youngsters look it up). In this pandemic we said, “That boy might have it figured out.”

TQ and KQ sailing

So, with two negative Covid tests in hand, we’re currently near 17 degrees North, 62 degrees West readying our 70-foot catamaran for a float with friends.  Chef, bar, crew, trade winds blowing our hair around, azure waters, sunrise, sunset. We’ll catch you after, Feb 8.

And in between, let’s have a look at the market.  The big buzz is GME, Reddit now dominating chatter with WallStreetBets (y’all can look that up too), the stock streaking, a push-pull among longs and shorts, and Andrew Left from Citron cannonballing into the discourse and an pool empty.

It may be a sideshow.  GME is up because Fast Trading, the parties changing bids and offers – shill bids, I call it – and buying retail volume surged from 38% of GME trading to over 57%.

At the same time, Short Volume, daily trading that’s borrowed, plunged from 47% to 34%. The funny thing is it happened AFTER the news, not before it.

The Reddit WSB crew has the sort of solidarity I wish we’d direct at being free. Nobody says to them the words “allow,” or “mandate,” and I love that.

But.

In a free stock market, your actions as traders are known before you make them.

That is, plow millions of limit orders into the market from retail brokerage accounts, and the firms like Citadel Securities buying them know before they hit the market.  They will feed the fire, blowing on the conflagration until it runs out of fuel.

And BBBY is up 50% in two weeks.  But it’s not the same, looking at market structure (the behavior of money behind price and volume in context of rules). Quantitative money plowing into BBBY to begin the year ignited the surge.

Could the actions of machines be misunderstood by humans?  Of course. Already the pattern powering GME has reverted to the mean.  In BBBY, Short Volume is up already on surging Fast Trading, the same machines we just talked about.

All but impossible is beating trading machines. They know more, move faster.

However, they are, paradoxically, unaware of market structure beyond fractions of seconds into the future.

Humans have the advantage of knowing what’s days out.  And on Fri Jan 29, the largest futures contract in the market comes due.  It’s designed to erase tracking errors. This is a much bigger deal than GME and BBBY but not as much fun.

Tracking errors are the trouble for Passive investors, not whether they’re “beating the benchmark,” the goal for Active stock-pickers.

A tracking error occurs when the performance of a fund veers from its benchmark.  The aim is generally less than 2%.  Yet S&P 500 components are 2.5% volatile daily, the difference between highest and lowest average daily prices. For those counting, daily average exceeds monthly target).

It’s why Passives try to get the reference price at market-close. But the market would destabilize if all the money wanting that last price jammed into so fleeting a time.  It would be like all the fans in Raymond James Stadium pre-pandemic – capacity 65,618 – trying to exit at the same time.

Congrats, Tom Brady. We old folks relish your indomitable way.

Like Brady’s achievements, everybody leaving RJ Stadium at once is impossible in the real world.

So funds use accounting entries in the form of baskets of futures and options.  ModernIR sees the effects.  The standard deviation between stocks and ETFs in 2019 was about 31%.  The difference reflects the BASKET used by the ETF versus ALL the stocks. To track that ETF, investors need the same mix.

Well, it’s not possible for everyone in the market to have the same quantity of shares of the components. So investors pay banks for options and futures to compensate for those tracking errors.  The more errors, the higher the demand for true-up derivatives.

In 2020, the average weekly spread rose to 71%, effectively doubling.  In the last eight weeks since the election it’s up to 126%.

The paradoxical consequence is that increasing volatility in benchmark-tracking is creating the illusion of higher demand for stocks, because options and futures are implied DEMAND. 

And so we’re

sailing away. You guys hold the fort. Keep your heads down.  We’ll catch you after the last Antigua sunset.

Deal Art

The Federal Reserve’s balance sheet is 185 times leveraged, and DoorDash’s market cap is $50 billion.  I’m sure it’ll all work out.

Image courtesy Amazon and Showtime.

In some ways the Fed is easier to understand than DoorDash. It’s got $7.2 trillion of liabilities and $39 billion of capital.  Who needs capital when you can create money? The Fed is the intermediary between our insatiable consumption and the finite time we all offer in trade for money.

Speaking of money, DoorDash raised over $2.4 billion of private equity before becoming (NYSE:DASH).  For grins, recall that INTC’s 1971 IPO raised $6.8 million.  Thanks to the Fed’s approach to money, it would be worth at least seven times more today.

Really, it says the 1971 dollar is about $0.14 now.  I suspect it’s less still, because humans find ingenious ways to offset the hourglass erosion of buying power running out like sand.  (And INTC’s split-adjusted IPO price would be $0.02 per share rather than the $23.50 at which they then were offered.)

I’m delighted for those Palo Alto entrepreneurs at DASH who early on both wrote the code and delivered the food. And the movie Layer Cake declared that the art of the deal is being a good middleman.  DASH is a whale of a fine intermediary.

As is Airbnb.  The rental impresario is worth $75 billion. Not bad for sitting in the middle.  ABNB is already in six Exchange Traded Funds despite debuting publicly just Dec 10.

Funny, both these intermediary plays are most heavily traded by…intermediaries.  Both in early trading show 70% of volume from Fast Traders, machines intermediating market prices.  More than 50% of daily volume in each thus far is borrowed too.  That is, it’s not owned, but loaned.

ABNB is trading over 22 million shares daily, over 330,000 daily trades, and 54% of volume is borrowed. DASH is averaging 110,000 trades, 9.4 million shares of volume.  And through yesterday, 57% of those shares, about 5.4 million daily, were a bit like the money the Fed creates – electronically borrowed from nowhere.

How? High-speed traders constructing the market’s digital trusses and girders daily like Legos get leeway as so-called market-makers to trade things that might not exist in the moment, if the moment demands it for the sake of stability.

Do you follow?  When the Fed buys our mortgages, it manufactures money. It’s an accounting entry.  Trade banks $200 billion of electronic bucks residing in excess reserves for the mortgages the banks want to sell, which in turn become digital assets on the Fed’s balance sheet. The country didn’t raise that cash by borrowing or taxing.

Pretty cool huh?  Wish you could do that?  Don’t try. It’s fraud for the rest of us.

Anyway, traders can do the same thing, earning latitude to make liquidity from stock marked “borrowed,” so long as the books are squared in 35 days.

And here’s the kicker.  ETFs are intermediary vehicles too.  Man, this art of the deal thing – being a good middle…person – is everywhere.

ETFs take in assets like ABNB shares, and issue an equal value of, say, BUYZ, the Franklin Disruptive Opportunities ETF.  They manage the ABNB shares for themselves (tax-free too). And you buy BUYZ in your brokerage account instead.

Got that?  ETFs don’t manage any money for you. Unlike index funds.  They sell you a substitute, an intermediary vehicle, called ETFs.

Franklin used to be an Active manager. Key folks there told me a couple years ago that unremitting redemptions from active funds had forced them into the ETF business.

One of them told me, paraphrasing, it’s a lot easier running ETFs. We don’t have to keep customer accounts or pick stocks.

You need to understand the machinery of the markets, folks. And the Grand Unified Theory of Intermediation that’s everywhere in our financial markets nowadays.

It’s the art of the deal.  And reason not to expect rational things from the stock market.

If 70% of the volume in ABNB and DASH is resulting thus far from machines borrowing and trading it, and not wanting to own it, valuations reflect the art of the deal, intermediation. Not prospects (which may be great, but the market isn’t the barometer).

Same thing with ETFs.  The art of the deal is exchanging them for stocks.

The Fed? The more it buys, the more valuable debt becomes (and the less our money is worth). So that’s working too.  Cough, cough.

Here’s your lesson, investors and investor-relations folks. You cannot control these things. But ignore them at your peril (we always know the facts I shared about DASH and ABNB). All deals with intermediaries need three parties to be happy, not two.  And one always wants to leave.

In Control

What can you control?

Courtesy IEX

It’s a question largely abandoned in the modern era under the assumption humans can control everything.  Arrogance often precedes experience-induced humility.

But we’re talking specifically about the stock market.  Public companies. Share-performance.  Investor relations. What’s within your sphere of influence?

There’s a big difference between your capacity to drive shareholder value rationally in a quantitative market – and the value you provide internally to your board and executive team about what depends on story, and what turns on the product, your shares.

I’ll talk in practical terms about it Thursday at the NIRI Chicago 2020 IR Workshop, the first virtual edition. Join us for the event! I’m on about 1:30pm ET Thursday the 24th.

Market structure plays a key role.  Supply and demand affect stocks the same way they do products in any market. Yet the supply of product – shares – is almost never a consideration for public companies and investor-relations professionals, who suppose that telling the story to more investors will create volume and drive the price up.

Our friends at IEX here explain the difference between volume and liquidity (and we described liquidity and volatility last week). The more parties between the sources of supply and demand, the more volume compounds (especially with derivatives, leverage via borrowing, Exchange Traded Funds).

But volume doesn’t create more supply of the product.  This by the way is how stocks soar and lurch today (we touched on it last week).

SHOP, the big Canadian e-commerce company, saw shares plummet about 30% in a week on a share-offering. The stock then skyrocketed yesterday.  Shares were trading near $1,140 to start September, fell to $850 after the news, and were near $960 yesterday.

Rational thought?

No, supply and demand. SHOP is the 7th most liquid stock in the US market (a reason why we cluster it with close cousins the FAANGs). In fact, supply is so tight in SHOP that it depends on borrowed stock.

Most times stocks with high short volume – borrowed shares – underperform the market.  Shorting adds supply to the market.  If demand falls, short volume weighs on price.

Short volume is at a basic level rented inventory. Traders who deal shares in fractions of seconds rent stocks to sell to others, profiting on the differences in price.  At some point before the close they buy it back and return it, aiming to make more getting between buyers and sellers – see the IEX video – than they spend renting stocks and covering that borrowing.

In SHOP, the demand has been so great that even high shorting isn’t dragging the price down. They’re an outlier, and edge case (and that data clearly indicate they can afford to continue issuing stock, by the way). There’s more to be made trading SHOP every day than the cost of constantly covering borrowed shares.

Disrupt that supply chain with a stock offering and the whole SHOP market for shares shudders.

That’s why it’s essential for investor-relations professionals to help executives and boards understand what’s controllable.  If your market capitalization is less than roughly $4 billion, you’re outside where 95% of the money plays, which is in the Russell 1000.

You can either get bigger and get into the top thousand, come up with something that makes you a screaming growth play that’ll compound your trading and limited liquidity into $4 billion of market cap – or set realistic internal expectations for your team.

Data can help you make a difference with your liquidity. Use it to time your outreach to investors. Aiming to attract buyers when it’s 62% short – unless you’re SHOP – is wasting time. Wait till liquidity improves.

I’ll use a great example to kick off the Chicago discussion tomorrow. And if you’re on hand live and we have the data, I’ll tell you your liquidity ranking.

Bottom line, IR should be captaining liquidity. You’re the chief intelligence officer. Supply and demand determine your price. Know your liquidity.  Ask us, and we’ll help.

The Little Short

In Michael Lewis’s The Big Short, a collection of eccentrics finds a flaw in real estate securities and shorts them.  The movie is great, the book even better.

Somebody will write a book about the 2020 stock market (anyone?) flaw.

The flaw? Depends who you ask. Writing for Barron’s, Ben Levisohn notes ZM is worth more in the market on $660 million of sales for the quarter than is IBM on $18 billion.

TSLA is up a thousand percent the last year, sales are up 3%. NVDA is trading at a hundred times quarterly revenue. AAPL is up 160% on 6% sales growth.

I know a lot about fundamental valuation after 25 years in investor relations. But 20 of those years were consumed with market structure, which our models show mechanically overwhelms fundamentals.

Why is market structure irrational?

Because most of the money in the market since Reg NMS isn’t rational. And still investor-relations professionals drag me to a whiteboard and sketch out how the performance of the stock – if it’s up – can be justified by prospects, or if it’s down is defying financials.

Market structure, rules governing how stocks trade, is agnostic about WHY stocks trade. The flaw is process has replaced purpose. Money inured to risk and reality can do anything. Just like government money from the Federal Reserve.

And yet that’s not what I’m talking about today.  The market is the Little Short.  Nobody is short stocks. I use the term “nobody” loosely.

Let me give you some history.

First, ignore short interest. It’s not a useful metric because it was created in 1975 before electronic markets, ETFs, Reg NMS, Fast Traders, exchange-traded derivatives, blah, blah. It’s like medieval costumes in Tom Cruise’s redux of Top Gun. It doesn’t fit.

After the financial crisis, rules for banks changed. The government figured out it could force banks to own its debt as “Tier 1 Capital,” and the Fed could drive down interest rates so they’d have to keep buying more.

Voila! Create a market for your own overspending. The Basel Accords do the same thing.

Anyway, so big banks stopped carrying equity inventories because they couldn’t do both.  Meanwhile the SEC gave market-makers exemptions from limitations on shorting.

Presto, Fast Traders started shorting to provide securities to the market. And that became the new “inventory.” Ten years later, short volume – borrowed stock – averages 45% of trading volume.

It was over 48% this spring.  And then it imploded in latter August, currently standing at 42.6%. The FAANGs, the giant stocks rocketing the major measures into the stratosphere, show even more short paucity at just 39%.

Realize that the market was trading $500 billion of stock before August, about 12 billion shares daily. So what’s the point? Short volume is inventory today, not mainly bets on declining stocks. It’s the supply that keeps demand from destabilizing prices, in effect. A drop from 48% to 43% is a 10% swoon, a cranial blow to inventory.

Higher short volume restrains prices because it increases the available supply. If demand slows, then excess supply weighs on prices, and stocks decline. We’ve been measuring this feature of market structure for a decade. It’s well over 80% correlated.

So the absence of inventory has the opposite impact on prices. They rise.  If the whole market lacks inventory, stocks soar. And the lowest inventory right now is in the FAANGs, which are leading the stampeding bulls.

Thinking about prices as rational things is wholly flawed. It’s not how the market works, from supply-chain, to routing, to quotes, prices, execution.

We thought temporal tumult in behaviors two weeks ago would derail this market. It didn’t. Or hasn’t yet. The big drop in shorting followed, suggesting those patterns included largescale short-covering by market-makers for ETFs.

When the market does finally reverse – and it will, and it’s going to be a freak show of a fall too, on market structure – low short volume will foster seismic volatility. Then shorting will explode, exacerbating the swoon as supply mushrooms and prices implode.

The good news is we can measure these data, and the behaviors responsible, and the impact on price. There’s no need to ever wonder if your stock, public companies, or your portfolio, traders, is about to step on a land mine.  We’re just waiting now to see how the Little Short plays out.

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.

 

Short-Term Borrowing

Half the volume in the stock market is short – borrowed. Why?

It’s the more remarkable because stocks since late December have delivered an epic momentum rebound. A 15% gain is a good year. Half the sectors in the market were up 15% in just the last 25 trading days.

Yet amid the stampede from the depths of the December correction, short volume, the amount of daily trading on borrowed shares, rose rather than fell, and remains 48%.  That means if daily dollar-volume is $250 billion, $120 billion is borrowed stock.

What difference does it make? We’ve written before that the stock market now has characteristics of a credit market.  That is, if lending is responsible for half the volume, the market depends on short-term loans rather than long-term investment.

And share-borrowing, credit, will give the market a false appearance of liquidity.

Think about the sudden and massive December declines that included the worst-ever points-loss for the Dow Jones Industrial Average.  Was that a liquidity problem? Does a V-shaped recovery signal a liquidity problem?

Before the Dodd-Frank financial legislation, large banks might carry a supply of shares to meet the needs of customers, especially stocks covered by equity research.

With rigid value-at-risk regulations now, banks don’t hold inventory.  The supply chain for the stock market has shifted to proprietary fast traders, which don’t carry inventory either. They borrow it.

We define liquidity as the number of shares that can be traded before the price changes.  Prior to electronic markets, trade-sizes were ten times larger than today.  The mean trade-size the last five days was 181 shares, or about $13,500 against an average market price of $74.61.

But a few liquid stocks skew the average.  AAPL’s liquidity is over $23,000, its average trade-size. WMT is the average, about $13,000. GIS is half that, about $6,800.

AAPL is also 57% short – over half its liquidity is borrowed.  And AAPL is used as collateral by 270 Exchange-Traded Funds (ETFs). Related?

(Side note: Why would AAPL be used more than other stocks in an index if ETFs are tracking an index? Because ETFs only use a sample, often the biggest stocks that are liquid and easy to borrow.)

These three elements – fast traders, high borrowing levels, ETFs – are intertwined and they create risks of inflation and deflation in stocks that bear no correlation to fundamentals.

The market, as we’ve said before, always reflects its primary purposes. If the parties supplying the market with shares are borrowing them, they have an economic interest that will compete with the objectives of those buying shares as an equity investment.

Second, borrowing is a back-office brokerage function. With massive short-term securities lending, the back office becomes as important as the cash equities desk. And it’s a loan business, a credit market (a point made by the insightful academics comprising the Bogan family).

And ETFs? If you want to know how they work, read our white paper. ETFs are not pooled investments. They are collateralized stock substitutes. Derivatives.

Collateral is something you find in a credit market. ETF collateralization, the wholesale market where ETF shares are created and redeemed, is a staggering $400 billion per month in US equities, says the Investment Company Institute.

It’s cheap and easy for brokers to borrow the shares of a basket of stocks and supply them as collateral to the Blackrocks of the world (does Blackrock then loan them out, perpetuating the cycle?) for the right to create and sell ETF shares (or provide them to a hedge-fund customer wanting to short the whole Technology sector).

And how about the reverse? Brokers can borrow ETF shares and return them to Blackrock to receive collateral – stocks and/or cash that Blackrock puts in the redemption basket to offer in-kind for ETF shares.

These are the mechanics of the stock market.  It works well if there’s little volatility – much like the short-term commercial paper market that froze catastrophically during the financial crisis.

We are not predicting doom. We are highlighting structural risks investors and public companies should understand. The stock market depends for prices and liquidity on short-term borrowing. In periods of volatility, that dependency will amplify moves.

In extreme cases, it’s possible the stock market could seize up not through investor panic but because short-term borrowing may freeze.

How might we see that risk? Behavioral volatility. When the movement of money becomes frantic behind prices and volume where only a few firms like ours can see it, market volatility tends to follow (as Sept 2018 behaviors presaged October declines).

Currently, behavioral volatility is muted ahead of the Fed meeting concluding today, loads of earnings, and jobs data Friday. It can change on a dime.

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.

Going Naked

Today this bull market became the longest in modern history, stretching 3,453 days, nosing out the 3,452 that concluded with the bursting of the dot-com bubble.

Some argue runs have been longer before several times. Whatever the case, the bull is hoary and yet striding strongly.

Regulators are riding herd. Finra this week fined Interactive Brokers an eyebrow-raising $5.5 million for short-selling missteps. The SEC could follow suit.

Interactive Brokers, regulators say, failed to enforce market rules around “naked shorting,” permitting customers to short stocks without ensuring that borrowed shares could be readily located.

Naked shorting isn’t by itself a violation. With the lightning pace at which trades occur now, regulators give brokers leeway to borrow and sell to investors and traders to ensure orderly markets without first assuring shares exist to cover borrowing.  I’m unconvinced that’s a good idea – but it’s the rule.

Interactive Brokers earned penalties for 28,000 trades over three years that failed to conform to rules. For perspective, the typical Russell 1000 stock trades 15,000 times every day.

What’s more, shorting – borrowed shares – accounts for 44% of all market volume, a consistent measure over the past year.  Shorting peaked at 52% of daily trading in January 2016, the worst start to January for stocks in modern history.

In context of market data then, the violations here are infinitesimal. What the enforcement action proves is that naked shorting is not widespread and regulators watch it closely to ensure rules are followed. Fail, and you’ll be fined.

“Wait a minute,” you say.  “Are you suggesting, Quast, that nearly half the market’s volume comes from borrowed shares?”

I’m not suggesting it. I’m asserting it.  Think about the conditions. Since 2001 when regulations forced decimalization of stock-trading, there has been a relentless war on the economics of secondary market-making. That is, where brokers used to carry supplies of shares and support trading in those stocks with capital and research, now few do.

So where do shares come from?  For one, SEC rules make it clear that market makers get a “bona fide” exemption from short rules because there may be no actual buyers or sellers. That means supply for bids and offers must be borrowed.

Now consider investment behaviors.  Long-term money tends to buy and hold. Passive investors too will sit on positions in proportion to indexes they’re tracking (if you’re skewing performance you’ll be jettisoned though).

Meanwhile, companies are gobbling their own shares up via buybacks, and the number of public companies keeps falling (now just 3,475 in the Wilshire 5000) because mergers outpace IPOs.

So how can the shelves of the stock market be stocked, so to speak? For one, passive investors as a rule can loan around a third of holdings. Blackrock generates hundreds of millions of dollars annually from loaning securities.

Do you see what’s happening?  The real supply of shares continues to shrink, yet market rules encourage the APPEARANCE of continuous liquidity.  Regulators give brokers leeway – even permitting naked shorting – so the appearance of liquidity can persist.

But nearly half the volume is borrowed. AAPL is 55% short. AMZN is 54% short.

Who’s borrowing? There are long/short hedge funds of course, and I’ll be moderating a panel tomorrow (Aug 23) in Austin at NIRISWRC with John Longobardi from IEX and Mark Flannery from Point72, who runs that famous hedge fund’s US equities long/short strategy.  Hedge funds are meaningful but by no means the bulk of shorting.

We at ModernIR compare behavioral data to shorting. The biggest borrowers are high-frequency traders wanting to profit on price-changes, which exceed borrowing costs, and ETF market-makers.  ETF brokers borrow stocks to supply to ETF sponsors for the right to create ETF shares, and they reverse that trade, borrowing ETF shares to exchange for stocks to cover borrowings or to sell to make money.

This last process is behind about 50% of market volume, and hundreds of billions of dollars of monthly ETF share creations and redemptions.

We’re led to a conclusion: The stock market depends on short-term borrowing to perpetuate the appearance of liquidity.

Short-term borrowing presents limited risk to a rising market because with borrowing costs low and markets averaging about 2.5% intraday volatility, it’s easy for traders to make more on price-changes (arbitrage) than it costs to borrow.

But when the market turns, rampant short-term borrowing as money tries to leave will, as Warren Buffett said about crises, reveal who’s been swimming naked.

When? We’d all like to know when the naked market arrives. Short-term, it could happen this week despite big gains for broad measures. Sentiment – how machines set prices – signals risk of a sudden swoon.

Longer term, who knows? But the prudent are watching short volume for signs of who’s going naked.

Three Ways

Jakob Dylan (he of Pulitzer lineage) claimed on the Red Letter Days album by the Wallflowers that there are three ways out of every box.  Warning: Listen to the song at your own risk. It will get in your head and stay there.

Something else that should get in the heads of every investor, every executive and investor-relations professional for public companies, is that there are three ways to make money in the stock market (which implies three ways to lose it too).

Most of us default to the idea that the way you make money is buying stuff that’s worth more later. Thus, when companies report results that miss by a penny and the stock plunges, everybody concludes investors are selling because expectations for profits were misplaced so the stock is worth less.

Really? Does long-term money care if you’re off a penny? Most of the time when that happens, it’s one of the other two ways to make money at work.

Take Facebook (FB) the past two days.

“It’s this Cambridge Analytica thing. People are reconsidering what it means to share information via social media.”

Maybe it is.  But that conclusion supposes investors want a Tyrion Lannister from Game of Thrones, a mutilated nose that spites the face. Why would investors who’ve risked capital since New Year’s for a 4% return mangle it in two days with a 9% loss?

You can buy stocks that rise in value.  You can short stocks that decline in value. And you can trade the spreads between things. Three ways to make money.

The biggest? We suppose buying things that rise dominates and the other two are sideshows.  But currently, 45% of all market trading volume of about $300 billion daily is borrowed. Short.  In January 2016, shorting hit 52% of trading volume, so selling things that decline in value became bigger than buying things that rise.  That’s mostly Fast Trading betting on price-change over fractions of seconds but the principle applies.

Facebook Monday as the stock plunged was 52% short. Nearly $3 billion of trading volume was making money, not losing it.  FB was 49% short on Friday the 16th before the news, and Overbought and overweight in Passive funds ahead of the Tech selloff.

The headline was a tripwire but the cause wasn’t investors that had bought appreciation.

But wait, there’s a third item. Patterns in FB showed dominating ETF market-making the past four days around quad-witching and quarterly index-rebalances. I say “market-making” loosely because it’s a euphemism for arbitrage – the third way to make money.

Buying the gaps between things is investing in volatility. Trading gaps is arbitrage, or profiting on price-differences (which is volatility).  ETFs foster arbitrage because they are a substitute for something that’s the same: a set of underlying securities.

Profiting on price-differences in the same thing is the most reliable arbitrage scheme. ETF trading is now 50% of market volume, some from big brokers, some from Fast Traders, nearly all of it arbitrage.

FB was hit by ETF redemptions.  Unlike any other investment vehicle, ETFs use an “in-kind exchange” model. Blackrock doesn’t manage your money in ETFs. It manages collateral from the broker who sold you ETF shares.

To create shares for an S&P 500 ETF like IVV, brokers gather a statistical sampling of S&P stocks worth the cost of a creation basket of 50,000 shares, which is about $12 million. That basket need be only a smattering of the S&P 500 or things substantially similar. It could be all FB shares if Blackrock permits it.

FB is widely held so its 4% rise means the collateral brokers provided is worth more than IVV shares exchanged in-kind. Blackrock could in theory make the “redemption basket” of assets that it will trade back for returned IVV shares all FB in order to eliminate the capital gains associated with FB.

So brokers short FB, buy puts on FB, buy a redemption basket of $12 million of IVV, and return it to Blackrock, receive FB shares, and sell them. And FB goes down 9%.  The key is the motivation. It’s not investment but arbitrage profit opportunity. Who benefited? Blackrock by reducing taxes, and brokers profiting on the trade. Who was harmed? Core FB holders.

This is 50% of market volume. And it’s the pattern in FB (which is not a client but we track the Russell 1000 and are building sector reports).

The next time your stock moves, think of Jakob Dylan and ask yourself which of the three ways out of the equity box might be hitting you today. It’s probably not investors (and if you want to talk about it, we’ll be at NIRI Boston Thursday).