August 29, 2018

Borrowed Time

“If a stock trades 500,000 shares daily,” said panelist Mark Flannery from hedge fund Point72 last Thursday on my market-structure panel, “and you’ve got 200,000 to buy or sell, you’d think ‘well that should work.’ It won’t. Those 500,000 shares aren’t all real.”

If you weren’t in Austin last week, you missed a great NIRI Southwest conference.  Mr. Flannery and IEX’s John Longobardi were talking about how the market works today.  Because a stock trades 500,000 shares doesn’t mean 500,000 shares of real buying and selling occur.  Some of it – probably 43% – is borrowed.

Borrowing leads to inflation in stocks as it does in economies.  When consumers borrow money to buy everything, economies reflect unrealistic economic wherewithal. Supply and demand are supposed to set prices but when demand is powered by borrowing, prices inevitably rise to unsustainable levels.  It’s an economic fact.

All borrowing is not bad. Borrowing money against assets permits one to spend and invest simultaneously.  But borrowing is the root of crises so watching it is wise.

Short interest – stock borrowed and sold and not yet covered and returned to owners as a percentage of total shares outstanding – isn’t unseemly. But it’s not a predictive indicator, nor does it describe risk. The great majority of shares don’t trade, yet what sets price is whoever buys or sells.

It’s far better to track shares borrowed as a percentage of total traded shares, as we described last week. It’s currently 43%, down one percentage point, or about 2.3%, as stocks have zoomed in latter August.

But almost 30% of stocks (excluding ETFs, routinely higher and by math on a handful of big ones averaging close to 60%) have short volume of 50% or more, meaning half of what appears to be buying and selling is coming from something that’s been borrowed and sold.

In an up market, that’s not a problem. A high degree of short-term borrowing, much of it from high-speed firms fostering that illusory 500,000 shares we discussed on the panel, means lots of intraday price-movement but a way in which short-term borrowing, and covering, and borrowing, and covering (wash, rinse, repeat), may propel a bull market.

In the Wall Street Journal Aug 25, Alex Osipovich wrote about how Goldman Sachs and other banks are trying to get a piece of the trading day’s biggest event: The closing auction (the article quotes one of the great market-structure experts, Mehmet Kinak from T Rowe Price). Let’s dovetail it with pervasive short-term borrowing.

We’ve mapped sector shorting versus sector ETF shorting, and the figures inversely correlate, suggesting stocks are borrowed as collateral to create ETFs, and ETFs are borrowed and returned to ETF sponsors for stocks.

A handful of big banks like Goldman Sachs are primary market-makers, called Authorized Participants (as opposed to secondary market-makers trading ETFs), which create and redeem ETF shares by moving stock collateral back and forth.

The banks give those using their versions of closing auctions the guaranteed closing price from the exchanges.  But it’s probably a great time to cover short-term ETF-related borrowings because trades will occur at an average price in effect.

The confluence of offsetting economic incentives (selling, covering borrowings) contribute to a stable, rising market. In the past week average intraday volatility dropped to 1.9% from a 200-day average of 2.5% at the same time shorting declined – anecdotal proof of the point.

What’s the flip side?  As with all borrowing, the bill hurts when growth stalls. When the market tips over at some future inevitable point, shorting will meet shorting. It happened in January 2016 when shorting reached 52% of total volume. In February this year during the correction it was 46%. Before the November election, short volume was 49%.

The point for both investors and public companies is that you can’t look at trading volume for a given stock and conclude that it’s equal and offsetting buying and selling. I guarantee you it’s not.

You don’t have to worry about it, but imbalances, however they may occur, become a much bigger deal in markets dependent on largescale short-term borrowing. It’s another market-structure lesson.

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