Tagged: Stocks

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.


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!


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.

Acronym Techniques

The stock market is full of acronyms.

Last month, Chicago-based DRW bought Austin’s RGM. It’s a merger of fast giants – or ones who thought they might be giants (opaque musical reference) and once were, and might be again.

You see a lot of acronyms in the high-speed proprietary trading business. Getco became KCG, now Virtu.  HRT remains one of the biggest firms trading supersonically – Hudson River Trading.  TRC Markets is Tower Research. There’s GTS. IMC.  EWT is gone, absorbed by high-speed firm Virtu.

Vanished also is ATD, the pioneering electronic platform created by the founder of Interactive Brokers bought first by Citi and then by Citadel, another high-speed firm.  Mantara bought UNX.

If I missed any vital acronyms, apologies.

RGM embodied HFT – high frequency trading, another acronym. Robbie Robinette studied physics at the University of Texas. Richard Gorelick is a lawyer, and in today’s markets one of the letters of your trading acronym should be backed by jurisprudence.  It’s all about rules. Mark Melton wrote artificial intelligence software.

They were RGM. They built trading systems to react to real-time events. We estimate the peak was 2010. They were crushing it, perhaps making hundreds of millions.  By 2012 in the data we track they’d been passed by Quantlabs, HRT and other firms.

Donald R. Wilson in 1992 was a kid trading options in Chicago when he founded DRW. Today it’s a high-speed trader in futures across 40 global markets with 750 employees, real estate ventures, and a major lawsuit with the Commodities Futures Trading Commission that seeks to bar Wilson from the industry.  Oral arguments were heard in December and the parties await word. DRW confidence must be high. They’re a buyer.

What does it mean for you, investors and public companies? History teaches and so we return to it.

From the early 1990s when both Don Wilson and I were youngsters out of college (we’re the same age so what am I doing with my life?) until roughly 2005, software companies called “Electronic Communications Networks” pounded stock exchanges, taking perhaps half the trading business.

The exchanges cried foul, sued – and then bought and became the ECNs. Today’s stock market structure in large part reflects the pursuit of speed and price, which began then. The entire structure has become high speed, diminishing returns for the acronyms.

Exchange are still paying close to $3 billion in annual trading rebates, incentives to bring orders to markets. Yet the amount earned by high-speed firms has imploded from over $7 billion by estimates in 2009 to less than $1 billion today.

Where are dollars going? Opportunity has shrunk as everyone has gotten faster. Exchanges and brokers that are still the heart of the market ecosystem have again adapted as they did before, becoming the acronyms that ae disappearing.  They are Speed.

Exchanges are selling speed via colocation services, and the data that speed needs. And big brokers with customers have learned to apply high-speed trading methods – let’s call them acronym techniques – to offload risk and exposure when they’re principals for customer orders.

There’s nothing illegal about it. Brokers are free to transfer risk while working orders. But now they can make money not via commissions but in offsetting risk with speed.

And speed is the opposite of the way great things are created.  Your company’s success is no short-term event.  The Neuschwanstein Castle in Bavaria (which we will visit on our cycling trip in the Bavarian Alps later this month) took 23 years to complete.

Your house. Your career.  Your investment portfolio. Your reputation. Your relationships.  Your expertise. Your craft.  What of these happened in fractions of seconds? Technology should improve outcomes but more speed isn’t always better.

Acronyms of high-speed trading have slipped yes, but remain mighty – 39% of US stock market volume the past five days. Fifteen are still pounding pulp out of prices.

But increasingly investors are adopting speed strategies driven by quick directional shifts. We are exchanging patience and time for instant gratification.

With that comes risk. As the acronyms wane in ranks the chance of a sudden shock to equity prices increases, because prices in the market depend on short horizons.

And your stock is an acronym.

Hidden Volatility

Volatility plunged yesterday after spiking last week to a 2017 zenith thus far. But what does it mean?

“Everybody was buying vol into expirations, Tim,” you say. “Now they’re not.”

Buying vol?

“Volatility. You know.”

It’s been a long time since we talked about volatility as an asset class. We all think of stocks as an asset class, fixed income as an asset class, and so on.  But volatility?

The CBOE, Chicago Board Options Exchange, created the VIX to drive investment in volatility, or how prices change. The VIX reflects the implied forward volatility of the S&P 500, extrapolated from prices investors and traders are paying for stock futures. The lower the number the less it implies, and vice versa.

(If you want to know more, Vance Harwood offers an understandable dissection of volatility and the VIX.)

For both investor-relations professionals and investors, there’s a lesson.  Any effort to understand the stock market must consider not just buying or selling of stocks, but buying or selling of the gaps between stocks. That’s volatility.

It to me also points to a flaw in using options and futures to understand forward prices. They are mechanisms for buying volatility, not for pricing assets.

Proof is in the VIX itself. As a predictor it’s deplorable. It can only tell us about current conditions (though it’s a win for driving volatility trading). Suppose local TV news said: “Stay tuned for yesterday’s weather forecast.”

(NOTE: We’ll talk about trading dynamics at the NIRI Southwest Regional Conference here in Austin on Lady Bird Lake Aug 24-25 in breakout sessions. Join us!)

Shorting shares for fleeting periods is also a form of investing in volatility. I can think of a great example in our client base. Earlier this year it was a rock star, posting unrelenting gains. But it’s a company in an industry languishing this summer, and the stock is down.

Naturally one would think, “Investors are selling because fundamentals are weak.”

But the data show nothing of the sort! Short volume has been over 70% of trading volume this summer, and arbitrage is up 12% while investment has fallen.

Isn’t that important for management to understand? Yes, investing declined. But the drop alone prompted quantitative volatility traders to merchandise this company – and everyone is blaming the wrong thing. It’s not investors in stocks. It’s investors in volatility. Holders weren’t selling.

“But Tim,” you say. “There isn’t any volatility. Except for last week the VIX has had all the enthusiasm of a spent balloon.”

The VIX reflects closing prices. At the close, all the money wanting to be average – indexes and ETFs tracking broad measures – takes the midpoint of the bid and offer.

Do you know what’s happening intraday?  Stocks are moving 2.5% from average high to low. If the VIX were calculated using intraday prices, it would be a staggering 75 instead of 11.35, where it closed yesterday.

What’s going on? Prices are relentlessly changing. Suppose the price of everything you bought in the grocery store changed 2.5% by the time you worked your way from produce to dairy products?

Volatility is inefficiency. It increases the cost of capital (replace beta with your intraday volatility and you’ll think differently about what equity costs).  Its risk isn’t linear, manifesting intraday with no apparent consequence for long periods.

Until all at once prices collapse.

There’s more to it, but widespread volatility means prices are unstable. The stock market is a taut wire that up close vibrates chaotically. Last week, sudden slack manifested in that wire, and markets lurched. It snapped back this week as arbitragers slurped volatility.

It’s only when the wire keeps developing more slack that we run into trouble. The source of slack is mispriced assets – a separate discussion for later. For now, learn from the wire rather than the tape.  The VIX is a laconic signal incapable of forecasts.

And your stock, if it’s hewing to the mean, offers volatility traders up to 2.5% returns every day (50% in a month), and your closing price need never change.

When you slip or pop, it might be the volatility wire slapping around.  Keep that in mind.

Man vs Machine

If you’ve never been to Sedona, AZ in April, go but guard yourself because it will lay hold on your spirit and make it captive to unrelenting beauty.

How does the French election, yet unfinished, help US stocks?

Wait, no. It’s not the French election causing US stocks to soar, we’re told. It’s corporate earnings. Investors are loving good numbers.

Except investors didn’t set prices Monday when the market surged. Fast Traders did. The machines.

Saying the market is up because investors like Macron’s chances to win the French presidency reflects nothing fundamental. It’s an explanation fitted to an outcome.  Saying investors are gushing over corporate earnings is also finding a cause for an effect.

What data support the conclusion stocks jumped because people prefer the Frenchman Macron over the Frenchwoman Le Pen?  What data say investors are pouring money into stock because of strong earnings?  Earnings aren’t strong. They’re just better than weak results a year ago.

The data supporting those views, it turns out, is the market itself.  It’s up. So it must be that investors like something. The French election.  No?  How about US corporate earnings?  Market direction becomes a cause for humans, even when humans are not its cause.

Many suppose prices in the stock market can’t be set by machines. The opposite is true. Prices in the market can’t be set by humans. Under Regulation National Market System, it’s impossible for a human being to walk around the stock market trying to make a trade.

The rules say any “marketable trade,” a stock order wanting to be the best bid to buy or offer to sell, must be run by machines. Why? Because a human cannot keep pace with the market’s speed, and the order must be able to move fluidly to best price, So, the regulators said, it must be automated. Run by machines.

No matter where shares are listed, your stock can trade anywhere, from a private market operated by Credit Suisse, to the newest exchange, IEX.  The rules say simply that orders to buy and sell must move seamlessly to wherever the best price resides.

Well, humans devised machines with one purpose: setting price.  Humans themselves can set prices, sure. But they try to be in the middle, between the best bid to buy and offer to sell.  Yet we go on treating both events as though they are the same.

Understanding both the broad market and your own shares requires recognizing that while self-driving cars are a ways off yet, self-driving stocks are here now. When we all sit around talking about it, trying to find some rational explanation, we become weirder than the market. It’s as though we’re making excuses for the monster we crafted.

Since Fast Traders who want to own nothing set the pace, don’t be surprised if the pace disappears all at once.  And ask yourself every day: Are humans setting my stock price today, or is it the machines?  The answer is eminently measurable.