Tagged: VIX

Vahlcue

You’re wondering what the heck “vahlcue” is. It was up almost 4% in the last hour yesterday as stocks tipped off the diving board.

Meanwhile, cue fall.  The photo at right reminds us that today is a consequence of yesterday. Autumn follows summer. In the Flat Tops near Steamboat, fall flames as summer smolders out.

In the stock market, cue volatility.  Pursuing “vol,” as the traders call it, is big business. It’s everything that depends on an implied price, such as the VIX index tracking implied volatility over the next 30 days in the S&P 500.  It’s priced from options on the index, which in turn is comprised of futures.

Got that?  Volatility is the implied price of an implied price, gleaned from other implied prices.  All instruments derived from implied prices are ways to trade volatility – gaps between rising and falling prices.

Cue intro music.

The Nasdaq, in concert with the Chicago Mercantile Exchange (CME), launched the VOLQ this past Monday, Oct 5, another way to play volatility.

I assume it’s pronounced “vahlcue.”

VOLQ is a futures contract reflecting the implied volatility of the Nasdaq-100, the NDX. It employs a methodology developed by Nations Indexes, innovator in volatility products that isolates the implied volatility of at-the-money options.

Ready to run a power drill through the palm of your hand to stay awake?  If you want intricate details about how it works and how it’s calculated, you can read more.

I’ve got a specific purpose.

VOLQ, like the VIX, is a futures contract derived from options on underlying stocks – three steps from the asset.  It’s a particular set of both put and call options designed to get to the volatility of instruments priced the same as the futures contract, called at-the-money options.

Have you moved on from drilling a hole in your hand to braining yourself on a brick wall?

Here’s the point. Derivatives have proliferated in the stock market. All derivatives are a right but not an obligation.  As such, the propensity to quit them is much higher than one finds in the actual asset.

Famed hedge-fund manager Lee Cooperman, whom I interviewed in the plenary session of the 2019 NIRI Annual Conference, back when humans gathered innocently, lamented in a CNN interview that stock indexes shouldn’t gap 50 points in a matter of minutes.

He blamed trading machines, the rapid-fire intermediaries setting prices. And he’s right.  But the more trading chases products that are rights but not obligations, ways to pursue changing prices, the more heightened the risk of sudden lurches.

Why? All layers of options and futures are forms of implied supply or demand.  But the moment prices move, those layers become ethereal, dissolving in an instant like those animated transitions you can put in you Powerpoint slide deck.

And the more people pursue the gaps rather than the assets, the greater the assets can be blighted by sudden lurches.  Realize VOLQ is just another clip for the automatic weapons in the Nasdaq’s volatility arsenal that already includes e-Minis and micro e-Minis on the Nasdaq 100.

The first e-Mini S&P 500 futures contract began trading in 1997 and was 20% the size of the standard contract.  Micro e-Minis are a tenth of the e-Mini, 2% of the original contract.  And you can trade options on Micro e-Mini futures too.  We wrote about them in August.

Markets keep migrating away from size, away from the core asset, toward tiny, uncommitted bets and hedges comprised of multi-layered derivatives.

It’s great for the firms selling the products.  But it makes volatility accessible to the masses.  And the masses don’t understand it. And the more the masses are exposed to things that vanish, the more given to wild swings become the underlying assets.

Sure, derivatives can work well.  VOLQ was the right play today.  Traders can hedge exposure to sudden market moves, play the probability of profits in snap swings.

But the consequence is a market that cannot be trusted.

Market Structure Analytics help one survive it. Everybody should have baseline market-structure metrics.

The market is likely to rebound, data say. But this lurch manifested a week ago – much of implied volatility is predicated on weekly options – when the sector data looked ragged to us.  Sure enough it was.  Blame volatility and its instruments. Cue the exit music.

Collateral

I apologize.

Correlation between the market’s downward lurch and Karen’s and my return Sunday from the Arctic Circle seems mathematically irrefutable.  Shoulda stayed in Helsinki.

I wouldn’t have minded more time in the far reaches of Sweden and Finland viewing northern lights, sleeping in the Ice Hotel, riding sleds behind dogs, trekking into the mystic like Shackleton and Scott, gearing up for falling temperatures.  We unabashedly endorse Smartwool and Icebreaker base layers (and we used all we had).

Back to the market’s Arctic chill, was it that people woke Monday and said, “Shazam! This Coronavirus thing is bad!”

I’m frankly stupefied by the, shall we say, pandemic ignorance of market structure that pervades reportage.  If you’re headed to the Arctic, you prepare. If you raise reindeer, you’ve got to know what they eat (lichen). And if you’re in the capital markets, you should understand market structure.

There’s been recent talk in the online forum for NIRI, the investor-relations association, about “options surveillance.”   Options 101 is knowing the calendar.

On Aug 24, 2015, after a strong upward move for the US dollar the preceding week, the market imploded. Dow stocks fell a thousand points before ending down 588.

New options traded that day.  Demand vanished because nothing stresses interpretations of future prices – options are a right but not an obligation to buy or sell in the future – like currency volatility.

Step forward.  On Monday Feb 24, 2020, new options were trading.

Nobody showed up, predictively evident in how counterparty trading in support of options declined 5% the preceding week during expirations. Often, the increase or decrease in demand for what we call Risk Management – trades tied to leverage, portfolio insurance, and so on – during expirations is a signal for stocks.

Hundreds of trillions of dollars of swaps link to how interest rates and currency values may change in the future, plus some $10 trillion in equity swaps, and scores of trillions of other kinds of contracts. They recalibrate each month during expirations.

They’re all inextricably linked.  There is only one global reserve currency – money other central banks must own proportionally. The US dollar.

All prices are an interpretation of value defined by money. The dollar is the denominator.  Stock-prices are numerators.  Stronger dollar, smaller prices, and vice versa.

The DXY hit a one-year high last week (great for us buying euros in Finland!).

Let’s get to the nitty gritty.  If you borrow money or stocks, you post collateral.  If you hawk volatility by selling puts or calls, you have to own the stock in case you must cover the obligation.  If you buy volatility, you may be forced to buy or sell the underlying asset, like stocks, to which volatility ties.

Yesterday was Counterparty Tuesday, the day each month following the expiration of one series (Feb 21) and the start of a new one (Feb 24) when books are squared.

There’s a chain reaction. Counterparties knew last week that betting on future stock prices had dropped by roughly $1 trillion of value.  They sold associated stocks, which are for them a liability, not an investment.

Stocks plunged and everyone blamed the Coronavirus.

Now, say I borrowed money to buy derivatives last week when VIX volatility bets reset.  Then my collateral lost 4% of its value Monday. I get a call: Put up more collateral or cover my borrowing.

Will my counterparty take AAPL as collateral in a falling market?  Probably not. So I sell AAPL and pay the loan.  Now, the counterparty hedging my loan shorts stocks because I’ve quit my bet, reducing demand for stocks.

Volatility explodes, and the cost of insurance with derivatives soars.

It may indirectly be true that the cost of insurance in the form of swap contracts pegged to currencies or interest rates has been boosted on Coronavirus uncertainty.

But it’s not at all true that fear bred selling.  About 15% of market cap ties to derivatives.  If the future becomes uncertain, it can be marked to zero.  Probably not entirely – but marked down by half is still an 8% drop for stocks.

This is vital:  The effect manifests around options-expirations. Timing matters. Everybody – investors and public companies – should grasp this basic structural concept.

And it gets worse.  Because so much money in the market today is pegged to benchmarks and eschews tracking errors, a spate of volatility that’s not brought quickly to heel can spread like, well, a virus.

We’ve not seen that risk materialize in a long while because market-makers for Exchange Traded Funds that flip stocks as short-term collateral tend to buy collateral at modest discounts. A 1% decline is a buying opportunity for anyone with a horizon of a day.

Unless.  And here’s our risk: ETF market-makers can substitute cash for stocks. If they borrowed the cash, read the part on collateral again.

I expect ETF market-makers will return soon. Market Structure Sentiment peaked Feb 19, and troughs have been fast and shallow since 2018. But now you understand the risk, its magnitude, and its timing. It’s about collateral.  Not rational thought.

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.

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.

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.

Half the Market

I’ve seen at least four Wall Street Journal stories in May alone about a quiescent VIX.

The CBOE’s volatility index derived from options pricing on the S&P 500 hit a low Monday last seen in Dec 1993, the WSJ said (subscription required). It moved lower still yesterday, 9.58 intraday.

Implicit in the storyline is a bull market, since one roared from 1993 to the bursting of the dot-com bubble. But the conclusion violates the Law of Small Numbers, the human propensity to assign undue value to insignificant data sets.  As proof, the VIX was a hair’s breadth from record low in Jan 2007.

Remember that? Lehman, little did we know, was failing. The financial crisis thereafter manifested in markets like a Hollywood blockbuster action movie where the hero outruns the explosion as the structure dissolves in showering computer-generated fantasia.

Since we can make equal bull or bear cases with the same data, it supports neither.

Aside: The investor-relations profession has a notorious proclivity toward the Law of Small Numbers. Stock’s down 3%, so we call somebody to learn why. You’re chasing the exception. Track instead the central tendency in the whole data set so you can see what changed before the stock fell 3%.

And assigning rational motivation to the VIX defies the data.  Less than 20% of daily market volume comes from rational thought. The rest is tracking the mean, arbitraging spreads back to the mean, or hedging departures from the mean.

Where everything is average, volatility vanishes. Thus a dead VIX fits. It offers little predictive value (save higher volatility always follows very low) and simply points to low spreads.

The reason is market structure. Passive investment tracks benchmarks and so seeks the mean – average price. Arbitragers look for departures from the mean to trade for profit. The market is riven with arbitrage so few mean-divergences survive to the close. But boy is there opportunity. You’ll see soon.

Meanwhile, those managing risk offload exposure to someone else, which produces equal and offsetting trading – which reinforces the mean.

And here’s a shocker. We track daily share-borrowing – shorting – as a percentage of total trading volume. Short shares are 48.1% of volume, which means long trades are 51.9%. In other words, nearly half the market is short.

Locked markets, or trades where the bid to buy equals the asking price to sell, are prohibited, so there will always be a spread, a dab of volatility. Arbitragers are almost guaranteed gains by being long and short everywhere.

We also measure intraday volatility, the spread between average intraday high and low prices. It’s 2.5% – astonishing arbitrage fodder.

For perspective, the S&P 500 rose 0.5% the last ten sessions. That means stocks are 400% more volatile every day than the ten-day change in closing prices.

Arbitragers are making tremendous gains by consuming intraday volatility.

It may be that Exchange-Traded Fund (ETF) market-makers are responsible. It explains why ETF costs are so low: Arbitrage gains are additive.

And ETF sponsors can rent out liquidity, shares accounting for the 48% of trading that’s borrowed – boosting returns. There’s support in the data. We track passive-investment patterns and correlate them to short volume, and there’s agreement.

ETF market-makers have four arbitrage opportunities: a) ETF net asset value versus ETF price; b) ETF versus underlying index; c) ETF price versus prices of components of the index; d) ETF price versus options and futures on components and the index.

By the close, ETFs and indexes want to peg the measure so divergences converge at average.

It’s a circumstantial case. But evidence piles up that ETFs are consuming spreads while simultaneously driving stock-prices and deflating the VIX.

What’s the risk?  Mortgage-backed securities did the same thing to real estate.  There was a finite asset, homes. With cheap mortgages, lots of money wanted exposure. So home loans were securitized – replicated – to expand demand, delivering great returns to those selling them. It worked till home prices stopped rising. Then replicated value evaporated. Half the market.

There are less than 3,600 US public companies when ETFs, multiple share classes and closed-end funds are removed. Low rates have created high demand. To expand access, ETFs replicate exposure, and are booming. It works so long as stocks rise.

When that stops at some sure point, extrapolated value will be marked to zero. Half the market.  Won’t arbitragers save the day? Not if volatility jumps as average prices plunge.

Rational Signals

The market message appears to be: If you want to know the rest, buy the rights.

While rival Nintendo is banking on Pokemon Go, Sony bought the rights to Michael Jackson’s music catalog for an eye-popping $750 million. This may explain the sudden evaporation of Jackson family discord. Cash cures ills.

In the equity market, everybody buys the rights to indexes and exchange-traded funds. TABB Group says indexes and ETFs drove 57% of June options volume, with ETFs over 45% of that and indexes the balance. TABB credits money “rushing into broad-market portfolio protection” around the Brexit.

Could be.  But that view supposes options are insurance only.  They’re also ways to extend reach to assets, tools for improving how portfolios track underlying measures and substitutes for stock positions. I’ve wondered about the Russell rebalances occurring June 24 as the Brexit swooned everything, and whether indexers were outsized options buyers in place of equity rebalancing – which then aided sharp recovery as calls were used.

We can see which behaviors set price every day.  On June 24, the day of the dive, Asset Allocation – indexes and ETFs primarily – dominated.  On June 27 Fast Traders led but right behind them was Risk Management, or counterparties for options and futures.

The tail can wag the dog. The Bank for International Settlements tracks exchange-traded options and futures notional values. Globally, it’s $73 trillion (equaling all equity markets) and what’s traded publicly is about half the total options and futures market.

Sifma, the lobbying arm of the US financial industry, pegs interest-rate derivatives, another form of rights, at more than $500 trillion. You’d think with interest rates groveling globally (and about 30% of all government bonds actually digging holes) that transferring risk would be a yawn.  Apparently not.  You can add another $100 trillion in foreign-exchange, equity and credit-default swaps tracked by Sifma and the BIS.

Today VIX derivatives expire. The CBOE gauge measures volatility in the S&P 500.  Yesterday VXX and UVXY, exchanged traded products (themselves derivatives), traded a combined 90 million shares, among the most actively traded stocks. Yet the VIX is unstirred, closing below 12. Why are people buying volatility when there’s none? For perspective, it peaked last August over 40 and traded between 25-30 in January and February this year and again with the Brexit in late June.

The answer is if the VIX is the hot potato of risk, the idea here isn’t to hedge it but to trade the hot potato. And for a fear gauge the VIX is a lousy leading indicator.  It seems only to point backward at risk, jumping when it’s too late to move. Maybe that’s why everybody buys rights?  One thing is sure: If you’re watching options for rational signals, you’ll be more than half wrong.  Might as well flip a coin.

We learned long ago that rational signs come only from rational behavior. In the past week right through options-expirations starting Thursday the 14th, Active Investment was in a dead heat with Risk Management, the counterparties for rights. That means hedge funds were everywhere trying to make up ground by pairing equities and options.

But options have expired.  Do hedge funds double down or is the trade over?  Short volume has ebbed to levels last seen in November, which one might think is bullish – yet it was the opposite then.

Lesson: The staggering size of rights to things tells us focus has shifted from investment to arbitrage. With indexes and ETFs dominating, the arbitrage opportunity is between the mean, the average, and the things that diverge from it – such as rights.

Don’t expect the VIX to tell you when risk looms. Far better to see when investors stop pairing shares and rights, signaling that the trade is over.

Vinnie the Face

How do you know macroeconomists have a sense of humor?  They use decimal points.

While you ponder, it’s that time again when the Federal Reserve meets to wring its figurative hands over decimal points, VIX expirations hit as volatility explodes anew, and Brits consider telling Europe to pound sand.  Wait, that last part is new.

And by the way, what’s with these negative interest rates everywhere?

I’d prefer to tell you how computerized high-speed market-makers have made “the rapid and frequent amending or withdrawing of orders…an essential feature of a common earnings model known as market making,” according to Dutch regulators studying fast trading (that nugget courtesy of Sal Arnuk at Themis Trading). If you as a human do that, they throw you in jail for spoofing. If it’s a machine programmed by humans, all’s well.

We’ll instead talk macro factors today because they’re dominating. Negative interest rates, the Brexit, currencies, stocks, share a seamless narrative.

First, the Brexit looms like a hailstorm in Limon, Colorado, not because the UK and Europe are terminating trade. No, nerves are rattled because it represents a fracture in the “we’re all in this together” narrative underpinning global monetary policy. All that’s needed – infinitely – if everybody lives within their means are currencies that don’t lose value over time. There’s not a single one like that right now.

Suppose on your street some neighbors were prosperous and others deep in financial trouble, and block leaders built a coalition around a mantra: The only way for us all to prosper is if the neighbors with money give some to the neighbors without.

It altruistic. It’s also untrue.  That will ensure nobody prospers. The EU strategy has been to get countries like the UK to agree to principles that let wastrel nations offload their profligacy on responsible ones.  It doesn’t matter how one views it ideologically. What matters is the math and the math doesn’t work.

The UK is threatening to quit the block coalition on a belief that the best way to ensure that the UK prospers is to stop taking responsibility for others.

Negative interest rates tie to the EU strategy. Contrary to what you hear from droning economists and central bankers, low interest rates aren’t driven by low growth prospects. If growth prospects are low and therefore risky, capital costs should be high.  Low growth is a product of lost purchasing power, defined as “what your money buys.” If what your money buys diminishes, you’ll be buying less, which leads to low growth.

The reason money buys less is because governments are filching from their citizens by trading money for debt, and falling behind on their payments.

I’ll explain in simple terms.  If you miss a credit card payment, your creditor doesn’t receive money it’s owed. Driving interest rates to zero is tantamount to skipping payments because it reduces the amount owed.  Interest is money owed.

Suppose you told your credit card company, “I will pay you only 1% interest.” That would be nice but generally debtors don’t get to set the terms.

The world’s largest debtors are governments, and they do get to control the terms.  What’s more, they alone create money. Heard of the California Gold Rush, the Alaska Gold Rush?  Why none now?  Governments outlawed the use of gold as money. Gold is valuable, yes. But it’s not legal tender. So you can’t mine for legal tender anymore.

It’s a great gig if you can get it, spending all you want and borrowing and telling creditors what you’ll pay, and then whipping up a batch of cash to buy out your own debt.

Except even governments can’t just prestidigitate cash like a single item in a double-entry ledger. It used to be central banks offset created cash with things like gold.  Now, the entire global monetary system including the dollar, euro, UK pound, Japanese yen, Chinese yuan, etc., is backed by debt.

What does that mean?  To create money, central banks manufacture it and trade it for debt. Why? Because much of what is measured as growth today is really just rising prices. So if prices stop rising, growth stalls, and economies slip into recession and then governments have an even harder time funding bloated budgets.

More money chasing goods drives up prices. So central banks attempt to encourage spending and borrowing by creating money to buy the debts of their governments and now private companies too. The idea is to relieve banks and businesses of debts, thus enabling them to borrow and spend more, which, the thinking goes, will produce growth.

This cycle creates extreme demand for debt, which becomes so valuable that the interest rates on it turn negative.  What happens to ordinary people who borrow and spend beyond their means is the opposite. The cost of debt keeps rising until you’re paying Vinnie the Face the 20% weekly vig in an alley as he smacks a baseball bat in a hand.

So you see, it’s all related. The strangest part is that all financial crises are products of overspending.  Yet governments and central banks cannot manufacture money to save us from our largess unless we rack up debts they can buy with manufactured money.

It’s like an episode of CNBC’s American Greed in which people engage in bizarre and irrational behavior to perpetuate fraud. The world’s money is entirely dependent on more debt. It manifests for you and me in how little our money buys now.  That’s stealing as sure as someone reached in your wallet and took money out. I was just commiserating with a client about the cost of NIRI National.  Our money doesn’t go as far as it did.

What’s it mean for the equity market? It fills up with arbitragers, who see uncertainty as opportunity rather than threat.  They’re not trading fundamentals but fluctuations. They can sustain stocks for a while. But sooner or later Vinnie the Face shows up with a bat.

Janus ETFs

Everybody adapts, including institutional investors like Janus.

Rattle off a top-ten list of the best active stock pickers visited by teams of company execs and investor-relations pros trundling through the airports and cities of America, and Denver’s Janus likely makes the cut.

Ah, but.  In 2014 Janus bought VelocityShares, purveyor of synthetic exchange-traded products.  Just as a drug manufactured in a laboratory rather than from the plant that first formed its mechanism of action is a replica, so are these lab-made financial instruments. They replicate the act of investment without actually performing it.

It’s neither good nor bad per se, as I explained yesterday to the NIRI San Diego chapter. But synthetics are revolutionizing how public stocks trade – without owning public stocks. Describing its effort at adaptation, Janus says on its website that it’s “committed to offering distinctive strategies for today’s complex market environment. Leveraging almost a half century of investment experience, we are now pleased to make our expertise available through Exchange Traded Funds.”

Janus says it’s intending to offer a range of returns beyond simple capital-appreciation, including “volatility management” and “uncorrelated returns.” Janus’s VelocityShares directed at volatility aim to produce enhanced or inverse returns on the VIX, an index called the “fear gauge” for reflecting volatility in forward rights to the S&P 500.

But traders and investors don’t fear volatility. They invest in it.  On Monday May 16, four of the top 20 most actively traded stocks were exchange-traded products leveraging the VIX.  Those offered by Janus aren’t equity investments but a debt obligation backed by Credit Suisse. Returns derive from what is best described as bets using derivatives.

The prospectus for the most active version is 174 pages, so it’s hard to decipher the nature of wagers. It says: “We expect to hedge our obligations relating to the ETNs by purchasing or selling short the underlying futures, listed or over-the-counter options, futures contracts, swaps, or other derivative instruments relating to the applicable underlying Index…and adjust the hedge by, among other things, purchasing or selling any of the foregoing, at any time and from time to time, and to unwind the hedge by selling any of the foregoing, perhaps on or before the applicable Valuation Date.”

Got that?  Here’s my attempt at translation: “We’ll do the exact opposite of whatever return we’ve promised you, to keep from losing money.”

During the mortgage-related financial crisis there was a collective recoil of horror through media and into Congress that banks may have been betting against their clients. Well, come on.  It’s happening in equities every day!  Exactly how do we think somebody who says “sure, I’ll take your bet that you can make double the index without buying any assets” can possibly make good without farming the risk out to someone else?

In the mortgage crisis we learned about “credit default swaps” and how insurers like AIG were on the hook for hundreds of billions when real estate stopped rising. Who is on the hook for all these derivatives bets in equities if stocks stop rising? It’s the same thing.

Last Friday the 13th, five of the top 20 most actively traded instruments on the Nasdaq and NYSE were synthetic exchange-traded products attempting to produce outsized returns without correlating to the market. That’s 25% of the action, in effect.

For stock-picking investors and public companies it means a significant contingent of price-setting trades in the stock market are betting on moves uncorrelated to either fundamentals or markets. You’ll find no explanation in ownership-change.

What do you tell management and Boards about a market where, demonstrably, top price-setting vehicles like TVIX owned by conventional stock-pickers aren’t buying or selling stock but betting on tomorrow’s future values using derivatives?

In fact, everyone is betting against each other – traders, banks, investors. I take you back to the mortgage-backed securities crisis. The value of underlying assets was massively leveraged through derivatives the values of which bore no direct connection to whether mortgages were performing assets.  That by any definition is credit-overextension. A bubble.  A mania. Then homes stopped appreciating. The bubble burst two years later.

Look at stocks. They’ve not risen since Nov 2014. Is anyone out there listening or paying attention to the derivatives mess in equities?

Volatility

You’ve heard the saying that’s it all in your perspective. It applies to volatility.

Volatility is up 150% since the post-financial-crisis nadir of 10.32 for VIX Volatility in mid-2014. The “Fear Index” closed yesterday over 26, the highest since August 2015 when it topped 28 (way below 43 in 2011 and nearly 80 in 2008). VIX expirations are hitting today.

I’ve been seeing Mohamed El-Erian, whom I admire, chief economic advisor to Allianz and former right hand to Bill Gross at PIMCO, also now gone from the bond giant, on the business TV circuit saying central banks are ending programs designed to dampen financial volatility.

I think he’s got a point, and he means they’re starting to broaden trading ranges in everything from interest rates to currencies (as if we want them setting prices). But volatility is price-uncertainty reflecting evolving valuation.  Conventional measures often fail to reveal change because behaviors in markets morph while the metrics used to understand them don’t.

Figure 1

Figure 1

I can prove it.  In the first chart here (Figure 1), a small-capitalization technology stock on the Nasdaq hasn’t moved much in the year ended Dec 16, 2015 (I’ll explain that date shortly) but the stock rose from a 200-day average price of $20.67 to a five-day mean of $21.05, up 1.8%.  Not too great – but the Russell 2000 Index was off 1.3% in the year ended Dec 16, 2015. Perspective matters.

Now notice:  Daily volatility, or the difference between highest and lowest prices each day, is greater than the change in average price in all four periods.  Think about that. The price changes more every day than it does in moving averages for months and quarters.

Now see Figure 2 showing short volume Dec 1, 2015-Jan 15, 2016 for the same stock. The upper half is long volume (owned shares), the bottom short volume, or rented stock. The blue line is closing price. The data further back show short volume over the trailing 200 days averaged 60.2% daily.

Figure 2

Figure 2

Combine the charts. The stock moved less than 2% on average over the entire period but 60% of the shares trading every day were borrowed, and the spread between high and low prices was nearly 3% every single day.

Do you understand? On the surface this stock is not volatile. But up close it’s torrid – on rented shares. For a solid year, traders have kept this stock in stasis by borrowing and trading, borrowing and trading, because the cost of borrowing was substantially lower than daily price-movement. That’s market-neutral arbitrage.

Everything changed recently. Short volume in Figure 2 plunged Dec 22, 2015.  On Dec 16 (here’s that date now) the Federal Reserve bumped short-term rates to 0.25-0.50%. On Dec 17-18 vast swaths of interest-rate swaps tied to options-expirations lapsed. On Dec 21, the new series of options and futures (and interest-rate swaps) began trading. And on Dec 22, our small-cap’s short volume imploded, finally landing at 33% Jan 11, down from 71% Dec 10, a decline of 54%.

We’ve slung numbers here, I know. But the conclusion is simple. Whatever traders were doing in this small-cap, the Fed’s rate-hike ended it.  We think that’s good. But markets have been addicted for years to cheap credit, which includes borrowing shares for next to nothing, which shifts attention from long-term owning to short-term renting. That changed when the Fed bumped rates. And equites corrected.

There’s another lesson by extension.  What sets your stock’s price may be radically different than you think.  We’ve offered one example that shows short-term borrowing fueled persistent volatility trading masked by apparent long-term placidity. When interest rates crept up minutely, the strategy stopped working.

What’s your stock show?  Price-performance isn’t story alone, perhaps even over the long run, as we’ve just shown. There’s so much to see when measurements reflect current behavior (as ours do). Volatility is price-uncertainty that thanks to policies promoting short-term behavior is now concentrated intraday.  Sorting this out will take time. We won’t change seven fat years with a lean month. The good news is it’s all measurable.