Tagged: Stocks

Moon Rules

We spent last week in Summit County, famous for Breckenridge and Keystone. With windows open and the sun set, the temperature at 9,000 feet drops fast, great for sleeping.

It’s not great for staying awake reading a Kindle but I worked through some exciting pages of Artemis, the new novel by Andy Weir, who wrote The Martian, made into a Ridley Scott movie starring Matt Damon.

And yes, Artemis got me thinking about market structure. Not because of the profanity, the ripping pace, the clever characters, the exotic settings.  It’s a book set on the moon, where scientific rules matter.

Weir’s genius is the application of science to clever storylines. On the moon, if you want to commit a crime to save the community, you better understand how to blend acetylene and oxygen in zero atmosphere. Fail to follow or understand the rules, you die.

It’s not life and death in the stock market but rules play the same supreme role in dictating outcomes. If as public companies you think your story will determine the outcome for your stock, the rules will humble you.  How much of your trading volume comes from Active Investment? You can and should know – and it’s not what you’d think. But that’s not the point of being public, is it.  So don’t be afraid.

If you’re an investor and you think fundamentals will pace you to superior results, think again. The amount of money choosing company financials has plunged, while funds indexing to markets has mushroomed. Rules helping models will eat your lunch.

What rules? Start with Regulation National Market System. It creates a marketplace that forces revenue-sharing among intermediaries. Professional sports like basketball in the USA also operate with rules that shift focus from playing the sport to managing salary cap (Denver just traded three Nuggets for that reason).

If you don’t know this, you’ll have a false understanding of what drives the sport. The “haves” must distribute funds to the “have nots.” Some owners in money-losing markets might choose to skimp on salary to scrape mandated distributions from teams making bank (I wonder what the NBA Cavaliers will do now?).

Right now, stock market sentiment reflecting not the opinions of humans but the ebb and flow of money and the way machines price stocks (the rules, in other words) is topping again as it did about June 12. Options expire today through Friday.  So, no matter what you expect as earnings commence, the market will have a propensity to decline ahead.

It’s like the rules on the moon.  In one-sixth of earth’s gravity, harsh sun, no atmosphere, success depends on knowing how stuff works. Investors and public companies, welcome to the moon. You can’t treat it like earth. Rules determine outcomes. If your actions don’t account for the rules that govern how markets function, outcomes will reflect it.

But it’s fun on the moon once you know what you’re doing. It’s fun knowing when the market is topped, and bottomed, on rules. It’s fun doing investor-relations when you know what all the money is doing.  So, come on up to zero atmosphere! It’s not scary.

Piloting Fees

What do these pension funds below have in common?

All (over $1.3 trillion of assets), according to Pensions & Investments, periodical for retirement plans, endorse the SEC’s Fee Pilot program on stock-trading in US equities.

The California State Teachers’ Retirement System
The California Public Employees Retirement System (CalPERS)
The Ontario Teachers Pension Plan (Canada)
The New York City Retirement Systems
The State of Wisconsin Investment Board
The Alberta Investment Management Corp. (Canada)
The Healthcare of Ontario Pension Plan (Canada)
The Alaska Permanent Fund Corp.
The Arizona State Retirement System
The San Francisco City & County Employees’ Retirement System
The Wyoming Retirement System
The San Diego City Employees’ Retirement System

In case you missed the news, we’ll explain the study in a moment. It will affect how stocks trade and could reverse what we believe are flaws in the structure of the US stock market impeding capital formation. But first, we perused comment letters from other supportive investors and found:

Capital Group (parent of American Funds) $1.7 trillion
Wellington Management, $1 trillion
State Street Global Advisors, $2.7 trillion (but State Street wants Exchange Traded Products, ETPs, its primary business, excluded)
Invesco, $970 billion
Fidelity Investments, $2.4 trillion
Vanguard, $5.1 trillion
Blackrock, $6.3 trillion (with the proviso that equal ETPs be clustered in the same test groups)
Assorted smaller investment advisors

By contrast, big exchange operators and a collection of trading intermediaries are either opposed to the study or to eliminating trading incentives called rebates.  We’ll explain “rebates” in a bit.

That the views of investors and exchanges contrast starkly speaks volumes about how the market works today.  None of us wants to pick a fight with the NYSE or the Nasdaq. They’re pillars of the capital markets where we’re friends, colleagues and fellow constituents. And to be fair, it’s not their fault. They’re trying to compete under rules created by the SEC. But once upon a time exchanges matched investors and issuers.

Let’s survey the study. The program aims to assess the impact of trading fees, costs for buying and selling shares, and rebates, or payments for buying or selling, on how trading in stocks behaves.  There’s widespread belief fees distort how stock orders are handled.

The market today is an interconnected data network of 13 stock exchanges (four and soon five by the NYSE, three from the Nasdaq, and four from CBOE, plus new entrant IEX, the only one paying no trading rebates), and 32 Alternative Trading Systems (says Finra).

The bedrock of Regulation National Market System governing this market is that all trades in any individual stock must occur at a single best price:  The National Best Bid to buy, or Offer to sell – the NBBO.  Since exchanges cannot give preference and must share prices and customers, how to attract orders to a market?  Pay traders.

All three big exchange groups pay traders to set the best Bid to buy at one platform and the best Offer to sell at another, so trades will flow to them (between the NBBO).  Then they sell feeds with this price-setting data to brokers, which must by rule buy it to prove to customers they’re giving “best execution.” High-volume traders buy it too, to inform smart order routers.  Exchanges also sell technology services to speed interaction.

It’s a huge business, this data and services segment.  Under Reg NMS, the number of public companies has fallen by 50% while the exchanges have become massive multibillion-dollar organizations.  No wonder they like the status quo.

The vast majority of letters favoring the study point to how incentive payments from exchanges that attract order flow to a market may mean investors overpay.

One example: Linda Giordano and Jeff Alexander at BabelFish Analytics are two of the smartest market structure people I know. They deal in “execution quality,” the overall cost to investors to buy and sell stocks. Read their letter. It explains how trading incentives increase costs.

Our concern is that incentives foster false prices. When exchanges pay traders not wanting to own shares to set prices, the prices do not reflect supply and demand. What’s more, the continuous changing of prices to profit on differences is arbitrage. The stock market is riven with it thanks to incentives and rules.

The more arbitrage, the harder to buy and sell for big investors. Arbitrage is the exact opposite motivation from investment. Why would we want a market full of it?

The three constituents opposing eliminating trading payments are the parties selling data, and the two principal arbitrage forces in the market:  High-frequency traders, and ETFs.

What should matter to public companies is if the stock market is a good place for the kind of money you spend your time targeting and informing. Look at the list above. We’ve written for 12 years now about how the market has evolved from a place for risk-taking capital to find innovative companies, to one best suited to fast machines with short horizons and the intermediaries selling data and services for navigating it.

Today, less than 13% of trading volume comes from money that commits for years to your investment thesis and strategy. All the rest is something else ranging from machines speculating on ticks, to passive money tracking benchmarks, to pairing tactics involving derivatives.

So public companies, if your exchange urges you for the sake of market integrity to oppose the study, ask them why $22 trillion of investment assets favor it? When will public companies and investors take back their own market? The SEC is offering that opportunity via this study.

Are there risks? Yes. The market has become utterly dependent for prices on arbitrage. But to persist with a hollow market where supply and demand are distorted because we fear the consequences of change is the coward’s path.

Substitutes

Substitutes were responsible for yesterday’s market selloff.

Remember back in school when you had substitute teachers? They were standing in for the real deal, no offense to substitutes.  But did you maybe take them a little less seriously than the home room teacher?

The market is saturated with substitutes. The difference between stocks and the home room back in grammar school is nobody knows the difference.

If shares are borrowed they look the same to the market as shares that are not borrowed.  If you use a credit card, the money is the same to the merchant from whom you just bought dinner or a summer outfit. But it’s a substitute for cash you may or may not have (a key statistic on consumption trends).

Apply to borrowed stock. The average Russell 1000 stock trades $235 million of stock daily, and in the past 50 trading days 46%, or $108 million, came from borrowed shares. The Russell 1000 represents over 90% of market capitalization and volume. Almost half of it is a substitute.

Why does it matter?  Suppose half the fans in the stands at an athletic event were proxies, cardboard cutouts that bought an option to attend a game but were there only in the form of a Fathead, a simulacrum.

The stadium would appear to be full but think of the distortions in player salaries, costs of advertisement, ticket prices.  If all the stand-ins vanished and we saw the bleachers were half-empty, what effect would it have on market behavior?

Shorting is the biggest substitute in the stock market but hardly the only one.  Options – rights to buy shares – are substitutes. When you buy call options you pay a fee for the right to become future demand for shares of stock.  Your demand becomes part of the audience, part of the way the market is priced.

But your demand is a Fathead, a representation that may not take on greater dimension. Picture this:  Suppose you were able to buy a chit – a coupon – that would increase in value if kitchen remodels were on the rise.

Your Kitchen Chit would appreciate if people were buying stoves, fridges, countertops, custom cabinets.  Now imagine that so many people wanted to invest in the growth of kitchen remodels that Kitchen Chits were created in exchange for other things, such as cash or stocks.

What’s the problem here?  People believe Kitchen Chits reflect growth in kitchen remodels. If they’re backed instead by something else, there’s distortion.  And buying and selling Kitchen Chits becomes an end unto itself as investors lose sight of what’s real and focus on the substitute.

It happens with stocks. Every month options expire that reflect substitutes. This kitchen-chit business is so big that by our measures it was over 19% of market volume in the Russell 1000 the past five days during April options-expirations.

It distorts the market.  Take CAT.  Caterpillar had big earnings. The stock was way up pre-market, the whole market too, trading up on futures – SUBSTITUTES – 150 points as measured by the Dow Jones Industrial Average.

But yesterday was Counterparty Tuesday, the day each month when those underwriting substitutes like options, futures, swaps, balance their books.  Suppose they had CAT shares to back new options on CAT, and they bid up rights in the premarket in anticipation of strong demand.

The market opened and nobody showed up at the cash register. All the parties expecting to square books in CAT by selling future rights to shares at a profit instead cut prices on substitutes and then dumped what real product they had.  CAT plunged.

Extrapolate across stocks. It’s the problem with a market stuffed full of substitutes. Yesterday the substitutes didn’t show up to teach the class. The market discovered on a single day that when substitutes are backed out, there’s not nearly so much real demand as substitutes imply.

Substitution distorts realistic expectations about risk and reward. It’s too late to change the calculus. The next best thing is measuring substitutes so as not to confuse the fans of stocks with the Fatheads.

Vapor Risk

One definition of “volatile” is “passing off readily in the form of vapor.”

Through yesterday, XIV, the exchange-traded security representing a one-day swap from Credit Suisse and offered by VelocityShares, had seen 94% of its value vaporized. It triggered a technical provision in the fund’s prospectus that says Credit Suisse may redeem the backing notes if the fund loses more than 80% of its value. It’s shutting down.

By mixing exposure to futures and other derivatives of varying lengths tied to the S&P 500, XIV aims to let investors capture not the appreciation of stocks or their decline if one shorted them, but instead the difference between current and future prices. Volatility.

The fund says in sternly worded and repeating fashion things like: The ETNs are riskier than securities that have intermediate or long-term investment objectives, and may not be suitable for investors who plan to hold them for longer than one day.

The idea for investors is hitting the trifecta – long rising stocks, short falling stocks, and with things like XIV, capturing the difference between prices to boot.

The problem for “synthetic” exchange-traded notes (ETNs) like XIV backed by a Credit Suisse promissory note is they hold no assets save commitment to replicate an outcome. They are for all intents and purposes vapor.

They have proved wildly popular, with several volatility ETNs routinely in the top 25 most actively traded stocks. In a low-volatility environment, differences in prices between short-term and long-term options and futures can mean returns of 5-10% on a given day, without particular risk to either party.

But if volatility renders futures and options worthless because prices have changed too much, all the investor’s capital vanishes.

Is this what rocked stocks globally? No. There is, however, a lesson about how global financial markets work that can be drawn from the demise of XIV.  Everyone transfers risk. Investing in volatility is in a sense a hedge against being wrong in long and short positions. If you are, you still make money on the spread.

The biggest risk-transfer effort relates to currencies and interest rates. As with stocks, the transference of unexpected fluctuations through swaps – which the Bank for International Settlements says have $540 trillion of notional value (but precious little actual value, rather like XIV) – only works if the disturbances are small.

In the past month, the US Treasury was laying in dry powder before the debt ceiling. The size of auctions exploded by about 50%. Getting people to buy 50% more of the same thing caused interest rates to shoot up. The rise in debt devalued the dollar, a double whammy. Hedges fell apart.

Counterparties for these hedging swaps also transfer the risk, often with short-term Exchange-Traded-Fund (ETF) or ETN hedges that lapse on Fridays. They are the same banks like Credit Suisse making markets in stocks. This is what caused stocks to swoon, not a strong jobs number or higher wages. On Friday, Feb 2, stocks imploded. I suspect counterparties were selling assets to cover losses.

Now we come to a warning about ETFs. Their original creators, who were in the derivatives business, likened ETF shares to commodity warehouse receipts, a representation of something physically residing elsewhere.

In this long bull market, money has poured into ETFs. The supply of things in the warehouse has not kept pace with the exposure to it via ETFs.  We have written over and over about this problem. The way ETFs trade and the way underlying assets increase or decrease are two different processes.  Investors buy and sell the warehouse receipts. The fund and its Authorized Participants in large block transactions occasionally adjust underlying warehouse assets.

We can see by tracking the amount of money flowing to big ETFs from Blackrock, Vanguard and State Street and counter-checking those flows against reported fund turnover that insufficient warehouse commodities (stocks) back ETF shares.

Why? Because buying and selling things incurs transaction costs and tax consequences, which diminishes fund performance. Shaving those is a gutsy strategy – sort of like dumping fuel in a car race to give yourself an advantage in the last flaps by running light and on fumes.

But you can run out of fuel. If the value of the stuff in the warehouse plunges as everybody tries to sell, we’ll find out what part of those warehouse receipts are backed by vapor.

So far that has not happened. But we don’t know what damage has been done to market makers short ETF shares and long stocks or vice versa. The next week will be telling. If a major counterparty was irreparably harmed, we could be in a world of vapor.

If not, the hurt will fade and we’ll revert to normal. Right now, forecasts for stocks in our models say vapor risk is small. But let’s see what happens come Friday, another short-term expiration for derivatives.

Can It Last?

It’s the number one question.  Tack “how long” on the front.

I’m asked all the time: “Tim, do you think the stock market is sustainable? Are fundamentals driving it or is this a bubble? Stock buybacks?  The Fed is behind it, right? Isn’t bitcoin proof of irrational exuberance?”

And everybody with an opinion is asked, and answers. I’ve offered mine (read The 5.5 Market from last week) and I’ll add today what we’ve further learned about the behavior of money.

Speaking of money, Karen and I joke that we miss the recession. Hotels were a bargain.  They gave you free tickets to shows if you just came to Las Vegas. Vacations were affordable (I’m not making light of great stock returns but if we give it all back, how is that helpful?).

Now suppose at the same time interest rates would rise. People and companies with too much debt would suffer, sure. But society would save money and take on less debt. That’s what higher interest rates encourage. From Hammurabi in Babylon until fairly recently we understood this to be the formula for prosperity.

“Quast, do you know nothing about contemporary behavioral economics? What kind of idiot would think it’s better to save money and avoid debt?  Economists agree that debt and spending drive the global consumption economy.”

Ask your financial advisor if you should borrow money and spend more, or save money and invest it.  So how come the Federal Reserve encourages borrowing and spending?

Recessions have purpose – and they’re packed with opportunity!  Seriously. They reset the economic calculus.

I’ll give you an example from the Wall Street Journal yesterday, which reported that here in Denver we have 16,000 vacant metro apartments, most in the luxury category. And 22,000 more are being built. Since they’re unaffordable, the city has launched a program to subsidize rents.

This is the kind of warped outcome one gets from promoting debt and spending, and it’s influencing our stock market too. I’m not the least worried because I know boundless opportunity awaits when prices reset, and that’s the right way to see it.  Warren Buffett said it’s unwise to pay more for a thing than it’s worth.  All right, I look forward to attractive prices ahead.

And prices are products of the behavior of money.  Last week we described how the market could not correctly be credited with rational valuation because stock-picking was not the principal behavior. Over the past ten years, all the NET new inflows into US equities have gone to index and exchange-traded funds. They follow a benchmark. They don’t pick stocks.

They also rarely sell them. If things are bought and not sold, prices rise.  There is a paucity of stocks for sale. In its 2016 prospectus for the S&P 500 ETF SPY, State Street said its turnover – proportion of holdings bought and sold – was 4%.  The fund that year, the latest available, had $197 billion in net asset value. Four percent is about $8 billion.

Yet SPY traded $25 billion daily in 2016 (still does!), about three times the entire annual fund turnover. Explanation? Right there on page 2 of the prospectus: The Trust’s portfolio turnover rate does not include securities received or delivered from processing creations or redemptions of Units.

On page 30 we learn this:  For the year ended September 30, 2016, the Trust had in-kind contributions, in-kind redemptions, purchases and sales of investment securities of $177,227,631,568, $167,729,988,725, $7,783,624,798, and $6,444,954,759, respectively.

Translating to English, it means brokers called Authorized Participants created $177 billion worth of new ETF shares by exchanging assemblages of stocks for them that were not counted as sales by SPY. It counted sales of only about $8 billion – as I said above.

The functional turnover rate for SPY is closer to 100%. If it really was, the market would be volatile. Prices would fall as shares hit the market. SPY drives 10% of the entire stock market’s dollar volume.

But what trades is ETF shares. The creation and redemption process occurs away from the market in some secretive block-transaction fashion that means the natural buying or selling that would otherwise be done is not happening.

Selling lowers prices. The absence of selling, the replacement of selling with trading in ETF shares predicated primarily on price-differences – arbitrage – produces a market that relentlessly rises with very little volatility.

And which notably means investors don’t actually own anything when they buy ETF shares. If they did, that $177 billion SPY exchanged for ETF shares would carry a taxable ownership interest, and transaction costs. It doesn’t.

Think about that.

When the recession comes because of this bizarre displacement of actual buying and selling by derivatives, I look greatly forward to all the bargains, the affordable vacation homes in desirable places, the cheap stocks, and the free show tickets in Las Vegas.

I just can’t tell you when. The wise are always prepared.

The 5.5 Market

The capital markets are riven with acronyms.

One of the first you learn in IR (acronym for investor relations) is “GARP.” Growth at a Reasonable Price.  As 2018 begins, GARP is a great way to describe the stock market, just as it was in 2017. Will it continue?

Let’s set ground rules. What “reasonable” means varies with circumstances but the idea is you’re paying a fair price for appreciation, what investors want and companies hope to deliver.

If arguments were colors, you could hear every hue of the rainbow on whether stocks are overpriced or not. Here at ModernIR, we’re statisticians studying how money behaves. We measure what it’s doing rather than whether it should be doing what it’s doing.

What I’ve learned from observing data is that there is an elegant and uniform explanation for why we have a GARP market. I’ll come to it in a moment.

But to ModernIR GARP is a number: 5.5/10.0 on the ModernIR Behavioral Sentiment Index.  Take the FAANGGs – Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Netflix, the two Alphabets. For 2017, the ModernIR BSI is 5.44 for them. The Russell 1000 is 5.48.  The BSI comprised of our client base with more energy and telecom is 5.39 for 2017.

As 2018 begins, it’s 5.6. All these numbers are within two-tenths of a point. It’s a GARP market.

It means it’s a little better than neutral, which is GARP investment.  For instance, if an economy’s population grew, and the ratio of people employed remained constant, and purchasing power outpaced inflation, you’d have a GARP economy.  Buying and holding it would mean appreciation.

Don’t think too long about that one. You’ll become disturbed by incongruity – but that’s a separate story. We’re after an elegant and uniform explanation to why our market runs according to GARP.

CNBC’s Jim Cramer believes it’s this: “There aren’t enough shares!!!”

It’s a point we’ve made too.  Both the number of companies in the US stock market and the total number of outstanding shares has been in steady decline while the amount of money chasing the shrinking product pool continues to rise.

Is inflation the elegant explanation? More money chasing fewer goods? Discounting fundamentals entirely seems incorrect.

But money chases the goods, and what form is money taking? A passive form. Statistically, 100% of the net inflows to stocks the past decade have gone to index and exchange-traded funds. Over that time, stock pickers have lost trillions.

Therefore, the money chasing the goods is pegging a benchmark, not picking outperformers. And by far the big winner is ETFs. What can ETFs do that no other investment vehicle can? They can substitute shares representing stocks, so they don’t have to buy or sell them like other investors do.

More ETF shares are created to accommodate inflows, and then destroyed during outflows, so ETFs bob on the surface of the market, which otherwise fluctuates with supply and demand.

And since all the new money is using ETFs, the entire market has become the bobber.  ETFs create the capacity for ever more money to have access to the same underlying goods. And that is why the market is up, all other things being equal.

It struck me over the holidays that the structure of ETFs, which depends on arbitrage – profiting on price-differences – would inevitably produce a declining market IF the number of shares or public companies or both were expanding. Arbitrage would consume appreciation, leading to an investor exodus from ETFs.

Thus, the elegant explanation for our GARP market is that ETFs arbitrage stocks back to the mean, which is 5.0, and rising flows of capital and shrinking numbers of public companies combine to breed a 5.5 market. GARP.

Why? Because there are ever more ETF shares to accommodate flows to ETFs. For stocks it means multiple-expansion, since ETFs, unlike IPOs, do not create shares of more value-creating enterprises. They only give more money access to the same stocks.

What stops it? The same thing that haunts the global currency system. If at any point, global currencies stop expanding, the prices of all assets could plummet. Why? Because expanding currency supplies drive up prices and create credit, so people keep borrowing more money to buy things. If that process freezes up, prices will implode. Witness 2008.

For ETFs, the danger is as simple as a market in which inflows stop.  What would cause that?  I don’t know right now!  But for the moment it’s not something to fear. We’re in a GARP world.

Euphoria

The legal community was euphoric Tuesday on word stock exchanges listing your shares, public companies, aren’t immune from lawsuits claiming rules favor high-speed traders.

Bloomberg reported (news breaking so no updated link yet but case history is here) that a federal appeals court has overturned a lower ruling protecting exchanges from suits brought by investors and brokers claiming they were disadvantaged in markets through exchange practices ranging from data feeds to complex order types giving fast machines an edge.

The lawsuits hinge, I’m gathering, on a requirement in the Securities Act that exchange rules not discriminate against any constituency.

It’s something public companies should recognize. You’re an exchange constituency. If investors and traders have an expectation of advanced services, what about public companies?  You’re still calling people to ask why shares are up or down. You could do that in 1932, before the Securities Act passed Congress.

It’s conceivable that 2018 could be a great year for public companies in the way 2017 has been a great year for investors. Few (save Carl Icahn and some others) imagined on Nov 7, 2016 stocks were about to soar.  Euphoria now seems to abound like pot shops here in Denver on what we call the Green Mile from Alameda to Evans south on Broadway.

For companies it’s terrific when shares soar too (though LFIN, which debuted the 13th at roughly $5 and announced the 15th it was buying some blockchain outfit and then promptly roared to $130 and $4 billion of market cap without any revenue and via 21 volatility trading halts, is not exactly the sort of soaring that’s sustainable).

What’s needed more than slamming into the ceiling of all-time high Shiller PE ratios (not there yet but closing) is better disclosure.

Since 1975 not one thing has been modified in 13F investor disclosures. Back then we had rotary phones, human beings executed trades, and on May Day that year an obscure investment firm formed in Malvern, PA, calling itself The Vanguard Group.

Step forward to today and investors are still reporting holdings 45 days after quarter-end while Vanguard manages trillions, markets relentlessly morph, and high-speed firms rent 100 shares of your stock, trade it 5,000 times, volume is 500,000 shares, you think it’s big holders, and at the end of the day they own nothing.

Seem appropriate to you, this mismatch?  It’s decidedly not euphoric that public companies have been left out. One could say discriminated against?  Hm. SEC, are you listening?

So maybe in 2018 we can fix it. No need for Congress to act. Dodd-Frank did that in 2010 by creating a mandate for monthly short-position disclosures. Should long positions be disclosed 45 days after quarter-end? Or instead how about disclosing both long and short positions monthly?

That’s still well slower than machines but it would get us into the 21st century. How about it, SEC? Is this the Era of Transparency or is it just the Era of Euphoria?

Speaking of which, will euphoria last? So long as money pumps into Exchange Traded Funds, which don’t create any new shares of public companies but instead create shares of ETFs that reflect dollars chasing the same shrinking set of public companies that currently exists, yes. That’s a euphoric condition.

It’s also inflation. The reason the market behaves like Shangri-La is because the entire market is leveraged like a…well, like a currency that expands far more rapidly than the underlying economy.  Federal Reserve, are you paying attention?

Past all that, I think there’s plenty of reason for euphoria not only about better disclosure in 2018 but in the current season. Good things are happening economically.  There’s a lot of eggnog ahead.  Bowl games to watch while consuming adult beverages.  Chestnuts roasting on an open fire.

But euphoria wears off. We’ll talk about that next year.  Have an awesome holiday season!

Evaluation

We’re in San Francisco at the NIRI meeting, warming up with winter coming to Denver and as summer carries airily on in stocks.

What metrics do you use to evaluate your own shares, investor-relations folks, or ones you own, investors?

I don’t mean fundamentals like cash flow, growth, balance sheet data. Those describe businesses. Stocks are by and large products.

If you bristle at that assertion, it’s just math. JP Morgan and Goldman Sachs have either outright said or intimated that about 10% of their trading volumes come from fundamental investment (our data show 13.5% the past five days). Implication: The other 90% is driven by something else.

This disconnect between how investors and public companies think about stocks and what sets stock prices is to me the root of the struggle for stock pickers and IR professionals alike today.

For instance, the winds are starting to whip around the regulatory regime in Europe called MiFID II, an acronym profusion that considers securities “financial instruments” and will dramatically expand focus on data and prices – two things that power short-term trading.

For proof, one expert discussing MiFID II at TABB Forum said derivatives are “ideally suited” to the regime because they’re statistical. And a high-speed trading firm who will remain anonymous here because we like the folks running it sees MiFID II as a great trading opportunity.

Back to the question: What are your metrics?  It might not be what you’re thinking but it appears to me that the metrics most widely used by investors and companies to evaluate stocks are price and volume. Right?

But price and volume are consequences, not metrics. Think of it this way: What if meteorologists had gone to Puerto Rico and surveyed the damage and reported back that there must’ve been a hurricane?

That’s not very helpful, right? No, meteorologists forecasted the storm’s path. They offered predictive weather metrics. Forecasts didn’t prevent damage but did help people prepare.

The components of the DJIA are trading about 27 times earnings, as I wrote last week. Not adjusted earnings or expected earnings. Plain old net income. It’s a consequence of the underlying behaviors.

By understanding behaviors, we can prepare, both as investors and public companies, for what’s ahead, and gain better understanding of how the market works today.

I can summarize fifteen years of studying the evolution of the US equity market: machines are creating prices, and investors are tracking the averages. That combination creates valuations human beings studying businesses would generally find too rich.

How? Rules. Take MiFID II. It’s a system of regulation that advantages the pursuit of price based on market data, not fundamentals. In the US market, stock regulations require an intermediary for every trade. That also puts the focus on short-term prices.

Then every day by the close, all the money wanting to track some benchmark wants the best average price. So short-term price-setters can keep raising the price, and money tracking averages keeps paying it.  It’s not a choice.  It’s compliance.

In the past five days, data show the average spread between intraday high and low prices is a staggering 3%.  Yet the VIX spent most of that time below 10 and traded down to 9!

How? Machines change prices all day long, and at the close everything rushes to the average, so the VIX says there’s no volatility when volatility is rampant. Since machines are pursuing the same buy low, sell high, strategy that investors hope to execute save they do it in fractions of seconds, the prices most times end higher.

But it’s not rational thought doing the evaluating.

The lesson for IR folks and investors alike is that a market with prices set this way cannot be trusted to render accurate fundamental evaluation of business worth.

What causes it to break? Machines stop setting prices.  What causes that? There’s a topic for a future edition!  Stay tuned.

The Middle

Keep it between the lines, advises an old country song from my youth.

“Quast,” you say. “If it’s from your youth, drop the modifier ‘old.’ That’s a given.”

You’d be right. Yesterday was ghoulish, as my Halloween trick was turning 50. Dead in the middle between zero and a hundred. And so now that I’m an elder I can pontificate with more gravity. Or such is the hope.

The Federal Reserve wraps a quiet meeting today where no doubt much pontification by elders ensued, and the trick for the Fed is to keep it between the lines. I expect the Trump administration, if the next Fed head is current Fed governor Jerome Powell, hopes to hew to the middle. No rocked boats or roiled waters, is the thinking.

The stock market is the same. It migrates to the mean. So successful is the average in 2017 that we’ve not had a single short-term market bottom (I’ll explain shortly).

The Wall Street Journal’s list of international indices shows none in the red the last 52 weeks. Root through Bloomberg and you’ll find a few deep in the ranks. Qatar is down 20%. Pakistan, Montenegro, Botswana and Bosnia in the red. But losers are few.

In the deep green are the Merval in Argentina, up 62%, the S&P 500 in the US, 21%, and the Dow Jones Industrial Average comprised of plodding blue chips, up 29%.  Even economically beleaguered Venezuela (native son Jose Altuve guilds baseball’s Astros) should’ve told citizens to buy local stocks as they’ve rocketed 4,700% in a year.

I tallied data on DJIA components.  The average blue chip is trading at 27 times earnings, with shares up 90% the past five years, 18% per annum on average. Yet a survey of financials the past four years across the thirty shows average revenue DOWN 2%, earnings down 7%.

There are some strong blue chips. But money and market structure have distorted the valuation picture (where markets and the Fed dovetail). While we’re not wary, we know it’s true and there will be blood. We’re just in the middle where everybody forgets about cause and effect.

We use the ModernIR Behavioral Index to predictively meter short-term movement of money on a 10-point scale. Over 5.0, more money is coming than going.  Under it, the opposite.  Historically, over 7.0 was a market top predicting profit-taking the next 30 days, and under 4.0 was a near-term market bottom, a value signal.

The market in 2017 is in the middle. That’s a buy and hold market, yes. But it lacks value signals too. People are overpaying. Stocks in 2012 dipped below 4.0 on 41 trading days out of roughly 260 total.  In 2013, there were 31 market bottoms; in 2014, 22; 2015, 39, and 2016, 31.

In 2017, none. Zero. The ModernIR Behavioral Index was 3.5/10.0 on Nov 8, 2016, the last bottom (those who bought then correctly read sentiment!).

I’m glad the US economy is posting numbers many thought impossible – 3% GDP growth for consecutive quarters. It can deliver even better data.  But right now too much money is chasing too few goods.

There’s one source of blame: The Federal Reserve.  Other central banks influence money supply but there’s still just one reserve currency (all efforts thus far to change it notwithstanding).

Result: Picture a Cape Canaveral launch. The space shuttles now retired would blaze 37 million horsepower fighting off gravity. The Falcon Heavy from SpaceX lifts goods to the space station with power like 18 Boeing 747s strapped on and throttled up.

There is no floating economy in space where gravity doesn’t exist. A great gout of central-bank money cannot as with space travel blast the planetary fisc past the gravitational pull of debt and spending. It can only create a long comet trail of stock prices and real estate prices and bond prices.

We think we’re in the middle. And we are. But not how we suppose. We’re between.

The Shiller PE as we wrote last week is the second steepest outlier in its history. Fundamentals don’t match stock prices. Gravitational pull is coming. We’re nearer the edge than the middle, viewed that way.

Many have decried central banks for opening floodgates, claiming it would produce a monetary Katrina. I supposed it would be two years from when the Fed’s balance sheet stopped expanding in latter 2014. But the Trump Rocket took us to zero market bottoms.

What’s tripped up doomsayers is a misunderstanding of the middle. The space between actions and consequences can be long. What is the Fed getting wrong?  It’s keeping us in the middle. It’s eliminating winners and losers.

We’ve got to get out of the middle before the bottom of it drops out.  Jerome Powell, can you help?

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.