Water Down

Why are my shares down when my peers are up?

The answer most times isn’t that you’ve done something poorly that your peers are doing well. That would be true if 100% of the money in the market was sorting differences and was in fact trading you and your peers, and if the liquidity for you and your peers were identical at all times.

What is liquidity? Images of precipitation come to mind, which prompts recollection of that famous quip by whoever said it (Mark Twain gets credit but there’s no proof it was his utterance) that bankers will lend you an umbrella only when it’s sunny and take it back at the first hint of rain.

The Wall Street Journal yesterday carried a story about distressing levels of assets in big bond funds locked in positions that “lack liquidity.” Public companies, your bankers and shareholders have probably complained at some point about your “lack of liquidity.”

What it means is among the most profoundly vital yet most commonly overlooked (and misunderstood) aspects of markets. Things are finite. Public companies spend the great bulk of their investor-relations resources on Telling the Story. Websites, earnings calls, press releases, non-deal road shows, sellside conferences, targeting tools, on it goes.

But do you know how much of the product you’re selling is available to purchase? One definition of liquidity is the capacity of a market to absorb buying or selling without substantially altering a product’s value.

The WSJ’s Jason Zweig yesterday tweeted a great 1936 observation by Hungarian-born German émigré Melchior Palyi, longtime University of Chicago professor of economics: “A liquid structure never liquidates. Only the illiquid one comes under the pressure of liquidation.”

Think about that in terms of your own shares.  A liquid market can absorb the ingress and egress of capital without destroying the value of the supporting assets.

What’s your stock’s liquidity?  It’s not volume. We ran a random set of 11 stocks with market capitalization ranging from $300m-$112 billion. Mean volume for the group was 1.1m shares but varied from 50,000-5.6 million. Leaving out the biggest and smallest in each data set, we had a group with an average market cap of $6 billion, average daily volume of 755,000 shares, and average dollars per trade of $5,639.

That last figure is the true measure of liquidity. How much stock can trade without materially changing the price? In our group, it’s $5,639 worth of shares. So in a market with over $24 trillion of product for sale – US market capitalization – the going rate at any given movement is about the amount you’d spend on a Vespa motor scooter.  Now look at the dollar amount of your shares held by your top ten holders.

The stock market is incapable of handling significant movement of institutional assets. It’s a critically faulty structure if investors were to ever begin to pick up the pace of stock-redemptions. They are trying.  For the 20 trading days end Sept 18, the share of market for indexes and ETFs – Blackrock, Vanguard – is up 120 basis points over the long-run average, and stocks are down measurably.  Now, 1.2% might not seem like much but that’s more than $2 billion daily, sustained over 20 trading days. The S&P 500 is down about 5%.  At that ratio, if 10% of investors in indexes and ETFs wanted to sell, the market could decline 50%.

We’re not trying to make you afraid of water!  But this is the market for the financial product all public companies sell: Shares.  That it’s demonstrably ill-formed for a down market is partly the fault of us in the issuer community, because we’re participants and ought to be fully aware of how it works and when and where it may not, and should demand a structure supporting liquidity, not just trading.

Action items:  Know the dollar-size of your average daily trade (a metric we track), and compare it to the dollar-amount held by your biggest holders.  When your management team needs a risk-assessment, you’ll be ready.