April 18, 2018

Big Movers

You can’t expect the stock market to reflect earnings. I’ll explain.

By week’s end, 20% of the S&P 500 will have reported, and earnings are up 17% over the same period last year so far (normalized to about 7% sans federal corporate tax reform legislation).

Yardeni Research, Inc. reports that price-to-earnings ratios in various categories of the market are not misaligned with history.  The S&P 500 trades just over 16 times forward expected earnings, about where it did in 2015, and in 2007 before the financial crisis, and well below levels before Sep 11, 2001.

Sure, by some measures valuations are extreme. Viewed via normative metrics, however, the market is as it’s been. From 1982-2000, PE ratios were generally rising.  From there to 2012, they were generally falling. Yet between we had multiple major market corrections.

Which returns us to my incendiary opening assertion that earnings today don’t drive stocks. What does? The money setting prices. Let me explain.

Buy-and-hold money tends to buy, and hold. Most conventional “long” equity funds must be fully invested, which means to buy something they must sell something else.  Buying and selling introduces tax, trading-commission, and volatility costs, which can cause stock-picking investors to underperform broad indexes.

The Investment Company Institute reported that 2016 turnover rates among equity funds averaged 34%, or about a third of positions annually. Passive index and exchange-traded funds tout low turnover. State Street, sponsor for the world’s largest ETF, SPY, claimed 2017 turnover was 3%.

We’ll come to the fallacy of low turnover in ETFs.

First, Big Reason #1 for the movement of stocks is arbitrage. Follow the money. Using our proprietary statistical measures of behavior in stock trades, nearly 46% of market volume (20-day ave.) in the Russell 1000 (which is over 90% of market cap) came from high-speed traders.

They are not investors. These machines trade tick data in baskets, aiming most times to own nothing at day’s end. The objective is to profit on intraday price-moves.  For instance, 52% of Facebook’s daily trading volume is high-speed machines. Less then 9% is Active investment by stock-pickers.

Viewed another way, there’s a 46% chance that the price of stocks reflects machines trading the tick. Since less than 12% of Russell 1000 volume was fundamental, there is but a one-in-eight chance that earnings set prices. High-speed trading is arbitrage – profiting on price-differences.

Don’t fundamentals price the market long-term? Again, that would be true if the majority of the money setting prices in the market was motivated by fundamentals. That hasn’t been true this century.

How about fund flows?  Assembling data from EPFR, Lipper and others and accounting for big outflows in February, about $40 billion has come into US stocks this year.

Using Investment Company Institute data and estimates for Mar and Apr this year, ETFs have by comparison created and redeemed some $1.5 TRILLION of shares. Fund flows are less than 3% of that figure.

These “in-kind” exchanges between ETF creators and big brokers that form the machinery of the ETF market are excluded from portfolio turnover. If they were counted, turnover rates in ETFs would dwarf those for conventional funds. And the objective behind creations and redemptions is not investment.

ETF creators make money by charging brokers fees for these transactions (which are tax-free to them) and investing the collateral. Brokers then trade ETFs and components and indexes to profit on the creations (new ETF shares sold to investors) and redemptions (returning ETF shares to ETF creators in exchange for collateral to sell and short).

Neither of these parties is trying to produce an investment return per se. They are profiting on how prices change – which is arbitrage (and if ETF creations are greater than redemptions, they permit more money to chase the same goods, lifting markets).

Summarizing: The biggest sources of movement of money and prices are machines trading the tick, and ETF creators and brokers shuttling tax-free collateral and shares back and forth by the hundreds of billions. If pundits describe the market in fundamental terms, they are not doing the math or following the money.

And when the market surges or plunges, it’s statistically probable that imbalances in these two behaviors are responsible.

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