January 20, 2021

440 Market

How durable is the US stock market?

It sounds like we’re talking about shoes.  Can I wear these hiking? Are they waterproof?

No, it’s a legitimate question, a fair comparison.  Public companies, your capacity to raise capital, incentivize your executives, and deliver returns to shareholders in large part depends on the stock market’s ability to reflect what you’re doing as a business.

And investors, how do you know you can trust the market?

Trust is the bedrock of commerce.  The founders of our republic thought you couldn’t have confidence in transactions involving the exchange of time for money, or goods for money, if the value of the money wasn’t constant.  It was thought back then essential to assure the people that their money would not be misused or devalued.

In the same sense, I think it’s right to expect assurances about the market.  Our retirement accounts are there, by the trillions.

I think pooling public capital and trusting its deployment to smart, seasoned people is a bedrock capitalist principle. People and money are the pillars of productivity – labor and capital.

Agreed?

We can generally concur that prudent deployment of capital is good. Putting money in the hands of smart, experienced people is a winning idea.

We agree, I expect, about the need for a system of uniform justice.  If a dispute arises about the way money has been handled, you’re owed recourse, redress, due process.

Right?

Then there’s the probity, the integrity, of the capital markets.  It’s as important to know you won’t be jobbed by the commercial market for your public investments as it is to have clear, speedy and reliable jurisprudence.

But the big question hangs there.  Do we have that kind of stock market?

To that point, I’m speaking to my dear investor-relations family, the NIRI Rocky Mountain Chapter, tomorrow as part of a program on macroeconomics and market structure. Guess which piece I’ve got? Come join us!  It won’t be boring.

It’s always been important to understand things.  Money.  Government.  Economics. Markets.  The harder these become to comprehend, the more we should ask why.

I understand the stock market.

Reminds me of a line about bitcoin I saw on Twitter, and I think I’ve shared it before so apologies: I’ve never understood bitcoin. On the other hand, I’ve never understood paper money either.

Rather than valuation metrics I see the stock market as machinery.  I grew up on a cattle ranch where the motto was “hundreds are nice, but we need thousands.”  We fixed everything, welded everything, patched everything.  We paid attention to the machinery because we owned it no matter how old it was, and our livelihood depended on it.

My point is it’s not valuation that necessarily determines the health of a market. It’s the machinery creating the valuation. 

Country singer Eric Church laid down a tune for the ages in 2016, Record Year. One of the best songs ever.  The following year, 2017, was a record for ETFs, which saw almost $500 billion of inflows, data show.

And between then and now, trillions of dollars more have followed, leaving the allure of superior Active returns for the durable machinery of Passive crowd-following.

Not surprisingly, Active Investment is down almost 40% as a percentage of daily US trading volume since 2017.

The weird thing, so is Passive Investment.

As market volume has risen from about $250 billion daily in 2017 to $625 billion so far in Jan 2021, investment of both kinds is down almost 75%.  And speculation and derivatives – substitutes for stocks – are up more than 50%.

Wow, right?

I think it means Passive money isn’t adjusting to rising valuations, leaving itself dangerously out over the skis, as we Alpine folks say on steep slopes.

I don’t think the machinery is about to collapse. But. Let me tell you one more story.

We had a gorgeous John Deere 440 that came with the ranch. It was old. And orange, and easy to drive and full of superfast hydraulics for the blade, the backhoe. Fine machinery.  And it left us too often with a slipped track supine in the river with the busted metal heavy on the fast-flowing river-bottom. Or on hillsides. And in ditches.

Love. Hate.  Like the stock market.

The stock market is sleek and lovely. But the hydraulics are hot and we’re crawling the tracklayer through fast waters. I’m concerned that Passive money isn’t keeping up, that the market is reliant on things that don’t last.

It’s not fear.  It’s prudence that leads me to keep an eye on the tracks and not the trading multiples.  And we have that data for you.

Don’t forget to join us at the NIRI Rocky Mountain session today!

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