Topic: Featured Posts

Realistic Expectation

How do you set realistic expectations about your shares for management?

I’ll give you examples.  One of our clients had a cyberattack and disclosed the impact, a material one degrading expected quarterly results.  What to expect?

Shares are up on strong volume.

That’s great but it makes execs scratch their heads. And the reverse can happen.

“The division heads tell their teams that growth will translate into share-price gains,” the investor-relations director told me. “They deliver, and the stock goes down 7%.”

I was having this conversation in Silicon Valley.  In fact, I had it twice the same day.

It illustrates a market transformation affecting investor-relations and investors. Fundamentals cannot be counted on to drive corresponding shareholder value.  Active stock-pickers and IR professionals have been slow to adapt, harming outcomes for both.

I was at the whiteboard in a conference room with another technology IR head, who was comparing revenue and margin drivers for his company and its key peers.

“How do I get these numbers to translate into the share price?” he said.

“You’re making the job harder than it has to be today,” I said. “And you might create unrealistic expectations from management for IR and for the company.”

There’s one more implication (we’ll answer them all before we wrap). Things like stocks behaving unexpectedly shouldn’t be ignored or glossed over.

For example, we found water dripping from the air-handler housing in the basement for the central air-conditioning system at our house. Great timing. July.

We could say, “Huh. That’s not what we were expecting.” And go on about what we’re doing.  But that’s a poor strategy, leaving us open to bigger troubles ahead.

When your stock doesn’t act as you expect, it’s water dripping from your air-handler, telling you, IR folks and investors, you’re missing something vital about the market.

Admit it.  Most of us know the market has got a drippy coil. But we go on with what we’ve been doing. We’d rather ignore the leak in the basement than address it.

For whom is that bigger trouble?  Your management team, IR. And your returns, investors. We should change what we’re doing, and revise expectations.

“I don’t want expectations for our stock,” you say. Would a board hire a CEO candidate who said, ‘Don’t expect anything from me’?

Back to our examples. In the cyberattack, Active money bought the news (bad clarity trumps okay uncertainty) but passive investment drove subsequent gains. The IR head appropriately differentiated the two and set expectations about trends and drivers. That’s good 21st century IR.

In the second example, don’t let the notion that growth will drive appreciation become an unmet expectation. Growth may boost the stock. But the IR Officer can go on the offensive with internal presentations showing how the market works and what role Story plays in setting price.

It’s up to IR to help management understand. If 80% of the time something besides Story sets price, doesn’t everybody internally have a right to know?  Don’t disillusion the team by letting incorrect expectations survive. That’s bigger trouble.

At the whiteboard with our IRO wanting to get the market to value results better, what about doing the opposite? It’s easier, less stressful, data-driven. Let the market tell YOU what it values. If 20% of the market values your numbers, measure when that 20% sets price. (We do that with Rational Price and Engagement metrics.)

Then measure how the rest of the money behaves that doesn’t pay attention to Story, and show your management team its trends and drivers. Now you’ll know when it’s about you, your management team will have data-driven views of what the money is really doing, and you, there in the IR chair, will have wider internal value.  And less stress.

That’s the right kind of realistic expectation.

What’s the market’s leaky coil? Two things.  Passive investment is asset-management, not results-driven stock-selection. Prices expand or contract with the rate of capital inflows and outflows for indexes and ETFs. You don’t control it. It controls you.

And over 50% of daily volume comes from fleeting effort to profit on price-differences or protect and leverage portfolios and trades (often in combo). It prices your stocks without wanting to own them.

And speaking of expectations, options are expiring today through Friday. It’s rarely about you when that’s happening. Set that realistic internal expectation (and stop reporting results the third week of each new quarter).


How many of you wear a Fitbit?

I remember the last time I saw Jeff Morgan, erstwhile NIRI CEO.  I said, “Jeff, you’ve lost weight. You’re a lean machine!”

He tapped his wrist, and said, “Fitbit. You can appreciate it, Tim. It’s just measuring data, right? Burn more than you take in.”

When we were roaming Barcelona last September, Karen’s phone was a cheering section congratulating us for achieving footstep goals.  Because there’s an app for that of course.

We’ve now bought a Peloton for our home gym, a finessed stationary bike replete with interaction and data. You can measure everything. You mark progress and capability.

On Friday the 13th the Wall Street Journal ran a story about online life insurance. Companies are using algorithms that parse lifestyle data from prescription-drug, motor-vehicle and credit-card sources to meter risk in place of testing blood and urine.

Data reveal facts about conditions. That’s the starting point. The next step is comparing data gathered in one period with the same metrics from another to see what’s changed. It’s what your doctor does.

And it’s the heart of financial reporting. We can debate the flaws of the requirement, but every quarter public companies are providing metrics to investors and analysts, who in turn model the data to understand business outcomes.

In fact, it’s the beat of the market. Every week data pours forth from governments and central banks on producer-prices and purchasing managers and jobs and consumer sentiment and on and on it goes.

I think it’s too much, promoting arbitrage on expectations versus outcomes. But think of the cognitive dissonance in our profession, investor-relations.  While everyone is measuring short-term, IR is trying to manage long-term. Yes, we want long-term commitment to our shares.  But that’s not how prices are set.

Unless you measure something the way it functions, you’ll get incorrect conclusions.

Much of the IR community isn’t measuring at all. We react. Right? The stock moves, and we call people for explanations.  How can answers be accurate without comparatives?  You don’t know what’s changed. No Fitbit is delivering data supporting conclusions.

The key to good management is consistent measurement. It’s the only way to understand an ecosystem and sort what you can control from what’s systemic.

Suppose I declare that I will float across the room.  Well, gravity, the rule governing the movement of bodies in this universe, says on this planet my pronouncement is flawed.

The gravity of the stock market is Regulation National Market System.  It defines how money moves from point A to point B.  We can observe those movements.

I showed a company yesterday how shares climbed from $60 to $70 during election week last November on Asset Allocation, and from $70 to $72 on Risk Management. That means ETFs and derivatives boosted shares.  Active money didn’t buy until the stock was at $75, even though it was selling the stock at $61 right before the election. Active money didn’t know what to do.

What followed? Fast Traders sold and shorted because the last fools to the party were the Active stock-pickers unaware of how the market works now.  No wonder many lag the averages.

If investors making rational decisions set the prices of stocks more than 50% of the time, the market can be called rational. Otherwise, it’s got to be called something else.  IR professionals, it’s your job to help management see the market realistically.

All the people talking about stocks are of a breed. The sea of money using models isn’t telling others what it’s doing!  But it’s setting prices.

You must measure now. What’s your Fitbit for the IR job?  Is it calibrated to the market we have today or one that no longer exists?

Case in point: I told a healthcare company recently that the data showed they would be unable to hold any gains until short volume were no longer consistently 65%.

“But our short interest is well below sector averages,” they said.

“That measure is from 1975,” I said. “It doesn’t reflect how the market works now.”

The stock dropped 8% yesterday and remains at the same average price it’s had since short volume rose over 60% well more than a quarter ago. The data – the Fitbit for IR – will tell them when conditions have changed.  Fitness can be measured in IR as it is elsewhere.

Measurement is management.  Put key metrics in front of your management regularly. Don’t wait to be asked for information – then it’s too late and you’ve lost control and become a glorified assistant (and they’ll define the job for you).

Create anticipation with metrics. “We’ve had a nice run but Fast Traders are leading, we’re Overbought, and short volume is over 50%, so expect some pressure next week.”

That’s what you should be doing.  Stop calling people for wild guesses unsupported by data AFTER something has occurred. Start measuring and setting expectations – especially around earnings, or events like options-expirations today through Friday.

You can only set expectations if you’re first consistently measuring and comparing key data points. This is evolved IR.  You can invent your own metrics. But we’ve already done that for you.

Two Pillars

I hit a nerve.

What sparked the tempest was my assertion last week that investor-relations professionals can’t be just storytellers when over 80% of trading is not Active investment.  (For you investors, it’s why stock-picking is performance-challenged.)

It’s not that respondents raged against the machines of the markets, or at me. Folks just wondered what to do instead.

A good friend and respected veteran in communications prodded me.  “You need to be specific,” he said. “You do a good job explaining the market, but don’t fade to generalities at the finish.”

I’m paraphrasing. In my mind, I’m clear. Perhaps on paper I’ve been less so. I conceded that he must be correct. So as the new year begins with the prospect of blessings, here are two firm principles for IR:

Rule No. 1: Build a diverse palette of institutional relationships strategically, then consistently match product to consumer tactically.

The market at some point will treat your shares, which are a product, in a manner that departs from the story you tell to support them. Broaden the audience.

Investors, think about this from a stock-picking perspective. You can select companies with great fundamentals but if Asset Allocation models don’t like them, expect the stocks to lag.

And yes, it’s possible to know what kind of money moves into and out of which stocks or sectors. We do it every day. We’ll come to that with some real examples.

Now match product to consumer, which is good relationship-management. Make this tactic a simple weekly action. We lay out a plan for you. It turns on metrics.

Nordstrom doesn’t randomly call people when the new Eton shirts are in, or whatever. They know which customers buy those shirts because they measure and track behavioral data. IR should too, and can.

Say you’re a growth story. But your shares are falling. The data show it’s Fast Traders shorting your shares, not investors selling. You can only affect active money, but get specific. Call the kind that likes Eton shirts. Deep-value high-turn hedge funds.

Every IR team should build (strategy) three or four such relationships. Tactically follow up only when your product matches. Help them achieve their investment objectives. They’ll help your shares recover so you’re a growth stock matching story.

Rule No. 2:  Measure the kind of money setting price, and make it part of management’s thinking (which takes persistence).

We’ve made it simple with six key metrics. The stock market is not a single monetary demographic, and it’s not long-term. Facts. Not threats to IR.

Copernicus said the earth was orbiting the sun, not the other way around. People wanted to go on doing what they always had.  Help your management team adapt to the real world. Yes, they’ll resist. Don’t let them revert to incorrect practices.

Example: A health care company has for the last five of seven weeks had Fast Trading as the leading price-setter, and short volume is consistently 65%.  Price reverts repeatedly.

The IR professional should tell management so executives won’t waste money on trying to reach more investors or blame IR for communicating ineffectually.

The data say investors are not responsible. Sure, the team might pick relationships to call that buy Eton shirts – aggressive, able to take risks in trading ranges.  But high short volume signals investors prefer renting shares out to investing more money in them.

The vital action item here is to set realistic expectations for management – perhaps flat tell them that the story and strategy need adjustment if investors are to engage again.  That’s powerful. And cost-effective.

A big client did a massive deal. For months the data showed investors hated it. No matter what they said with their lips, their money was not setting prices. The team tracked data and tweaked message and finally behavior changed. The deal closed. Powerful data.

Another client tracked investor-engagement for a year through a short attack and industry disfavor but ended with Superb investor-engagement using our measure called Gamma.  Awesome success metric.

Another had become a momentum growth stock without a momentum growth story, thanks to industry expectations. Data showed the dilemma ahead of a call that would likely recalibrate expectations. It showed big downside risk. But the transition out by growth money and the point where value investors set price were measurable, helping the IR team consistently inform management despite a painful reset to price.

The most important effort in any management discipline is understanding how the ecosystem functions. It’s impossible to make good decisions by guessing.  IR is a product manager.

There are two pillars to great IR in the 21st century. Build and manage diverse institutional relationships, matching product to consumer. Measure the data, understand the behavior setting price, and communicate it to management relentlessly.

You can’t run a truly 21st century IR program without knowing what kind of money is setting your price.  And why would you?  I didn’t say you can’t run a program. But it’s that vital, essential.

You can know what sets price. You can see how money changes over time.  You can use it to run your IR program efficiently and proactively (it’s our plan to bring behavioral analytics to investors in 2017 too). And you can look cool and feel less stressed.

That’s a darned good 2017 strategy, resting on big pillars.

The Math

“Making investment decisions by looking solely at the fundamentals of individual companies is no longer a viable investment philosophy.”

So said Steve Eisman, made famous in Michael Lewis’s book The Big Short, upon shutting down his new investment fund in 2014.  Actor Steve Carrell portrayed Eisman as Mark Baum in last year’s hit movie from the book.

Michael Burry, the quirky medical doctor running Scion Capital in the book and the movie (played by Christian Bale), first earned street credibility via posts about stocks on Silicon Investor, the online discussion forum huge before the dot-com bubble burst.

But in the ten years after Regulation National Market System transformed the stock market in 2005 from a vibrant human enterprise into a wide-area data network, 98% of all active stock-pickers failed to beat the S&P 500, proving Mr. Eisman correct.  You can’t pick stocks on merits alone now.

That’s contrary to the legacy objective of the investor-relations profession, which is to stand the company’s story apart from the rest.

As with finding the root of the mortgage-industry rot, today the market is all about data.  Everything is.  Google Analytics examines internet traffic patterns.  ZipRecruiter is analytics for hiring. Betterment is analytics for personal investing.  HomeAdvisor and Angie’s List are analytics for home-repair. Pandora is analytics for music you like.

Pick your poison. Everything is data. So why, ten years after Reg NMS, is the IR profession calling someone to ask, “How come my stock is down today?” All trades pricing the market under Reg NMS must by law be automated.

If you’re calling somebody to ask about your stock, I’m sorry but you’re doing IR like a caveman. And, paraphrasing Steve Eisman, running the IR department solely by telling the story to investors is no longer a viable industry philosophy.

Why? Because it begins with the flawed premise that the money buying and selling your shares is motivated by fundamentals alone.  For the past decade – the span of Reg NMS – trillions have departed active stock-picking portfolios and shifted to indexes and Exchange-Traded Funds, because tracking a benchmark is a better path to returns.

Take yesterday.  All you had to do was buy technology and materials stocks.  Today it might be something else. The most widely traded stock on the planet is SPY, the S&P 500 ETF.  It traded $7 billion of volume yesterday, ten times BAC, the most active stock.

Here’s another. XLU, the Utilities ETF, was among the 25 most actively traded issues yet the sector barely budged, up 0.04%. Why active then? ETFs fuel arbitrage.  Profiting on price-differences. It’s not where prices close but how they change intraday.

Best trade yesterday?  NUGT, the leveraged gold ETF, was up 7.5% even though gold has been a bust the past month.  The S&P 500 took the whole year to gain 10% and then only on the Trump Bump. Between Dec 30 and Oct 31, the S&P 500 eked out 2% appreciation. You could triple that in a day with NUGT so why invest long-term?

“Boy, Quast,” you say. “It’s the holiday season! What are you, The Grinch?”

Not at all! The opposite in fact. I’m on a quest to make IR central to public companies again. We invented Market Structure Analytics, data for the IR profession to address the demise of IR as Storyteller.  The future for our profession isn’t a command of fundamentals but knowledge of market form and function.

Let me be blunt. Anybody can tell the story. Only IR professionals dedicate themselves to knowing how the market works – and that’s job security, a transferrable skill set.

The way IR shifts back from a rotational role to vital standalone profession is through knowledge of the stock market. If you want to be a biologist, study and understand biology. If you want to be a biology reporter, you just need to know some biologists (no offense to biology reporters).

Which will the IR profession be in 2017?

Having threshed trading data for 15 years now through the regulatory and behavioral transformation of the equity market, I feel a tad like those guys in The Big Short who studied mortgage numbers and concluded it was irrefutable: It was going to blow up.

These data are irrefutable: Over 80% of your volume most days is driven by something much shorter-term than your business strategy.  Ergo, if all you tell your Board and management is how your strategy influences the stock, you’ll at some point be in trouble.

This is the lesson of 2016.  Make 2017 the year IR transforms how the people in the boardrooms of America understand the stock market. That is an invigorating challenge that will breathe value into our profession. The math doesn’t lie.

Verve and Sand

The whole market is behaving as though it’s got an Activist shareholder.

In a sense it does.  More on that in a minute.

We track the effects of Activism on trading and investment behaviors both before it’s widely known and afterward. A hallmark of these event-driven scenarios is behavioral volatility. That is, one or more of the big four reasons investors and traders buy and sell stocks routinely fluctuates day-over-day by more than 10% in target companies.

(Aside: Traders and investors buy and sell stocks for their unique characteristics, when they have characteristics shared by others, to profit on price-differences, and to leverage or protect trades and portfolios. The market at root is just these four simple purposes.)

Event-driven stocks can override normal constraints such as Overbought conditions, high short volume, or bearish fundamentals.  In fact, short volume tends to fall for catalyst stocks because the cost of borrowing shares rises as more want to own rather than rent, and unpredictability of outcomes makes borrowing shares for trading riskier.

Currently in the broad market, shorting trails the 200-day average marketwide. The market has manifested both negative and overbought sentiment and has still risen.

And behavioral volatility is off the charts.

Almost never does the broad market show double-digit fluctuations in behavior because it’s a giant index smoothing out lumps. With quad-witching and quarterly index rebalances Dec 16, Asset Allocation ballooned 16.3% marketwide, signaling that indexes and ETFs are out of step with assets (and may be substituting).

Also on Dec 16, what we call Risk Management (protecting or leveraging trades and portfolios) jumped 12%. It’s expected because leverage with derivatives has been pandemic in markets, with Active Investment and Risk Management – a combination pointing to hedge funds – currently leading.

Here’s the thing. The combined increase for the two behaviors last Friday was an astonishing 28%.  Then on Dec 19 as the new series of marketwide derivatives issued, Fast Trading – profiting on price-differences – exploded, jumping 25%.

A 25% change for a stock trading $100 million of dollar-volume daily is a big deal. The stock market is about $300 billion of daily dollar-volume.

Picture a skyscraper beginning to sway.

Looking back, Risk Management jumped 16% with July expirations, the first after searing Brexit gains. The market fell from there to September expirations when again behavioral volatility exploded. The market recovered briefly before falling all the way to the election. With expirations Nov 18, Risk Management shot up 11.2%.

Behavioral volatility precedes price-volatility. We have it now, monumentally.

What’s happened in the broad market is a honeymoon before the wedding. The incoming Trump administration has sparked an investing surge betting on a catalyst – exactly the way Activist investors affect individual stocks.  Fundamentals cease to matter.  Supply and demand constraints go out the window. A fervor takes hold.

The one thing our long bull market has lacked is fervor. It’s the most hated – and now second longest ever – bull market for US stocks because so many have loathed the monetary intervention behind ballooning asset prices.

That’s all been forgotten and a sort of irrational exuberance has set in.

Those who know me know I embrace in libertarian fashion broad individual liberty and limited government because it’s the environment that promotes prosperity best for all. I favor a future with more of it.

We should get the foundation right though. I’ll use a metaphor.  Suppose a giant storm lashes a coast, burying it in sand. Some return to the beach to rebuild homes and establishments but much lies listlessly beneath a great grainy coat.

Then a champion arrives and urges people to build. The leader’s verve lights a fire in the breasts of the people, who commence building a vast structure.

Right on the sand.  Which lies there still unmoved, a shifting layer beneath the mighty edifice rising upon it.

It’s better to remove the sand – all the central-bank buildup from artificial prices, the manufactured money, the warped credit markets.  Otherwise when the next wave comes the damage will be that much greater.

So call me wary of this surge.

Teasing Us All

A line in the 1973 song Lord Mr. Ford goes, “All the cars placed end to end would reach to the moon and back again, and there’d probably be some fool pull out to pass.”

Such is the delicate balance of global finance and economics that if somebody wheels out of line like the UK did from the European Union last week, a pileup ensues.

We should wonder why the heck everything is so fragile, especially stocks. Humans were engaged in commerce long before bureaucratic bodies decreed a need for pacts and zones. The USA was trading globally back when everyone funded government with the very tariffs now vilified. We did better then, the May trade deficit of $60 billion says.

To contend that global trade will suffer setbacks if the UK leaves the EU is like saying every pro athlete must have the same agent. There must be something else here.  Sherlock Holmes, that fictional feature of Scotsman Arthur Conan Doyle’s imagination, said that after eliminating the impossible, what remains, no matter how implausible, is the answer.

For instance, when you eliminate the impossible about the stock market, the implausible remaining fact is that it’s mostly priced by arbitragers. That was the case Monday in the data, where the Dow Jones Industrials shed 260 points on arbitrage (last Friday though, macro money via indexes and ETFs panicked at the disco). Naturally arbitragers reversed course yesterday. If traders drive the market down and nobody sells, they conclude money is hoping for a bounce – so they offer one.

The market has devolved into a series of reactions to expectations versus outcomes. No wonder.  So have political and monetary policies. As the Brexit recedes and something else arises (perhaps a reactionary Japanese currency-devaluation rattling US stocks again) we’ll continue to bounce from rail to rail down the road, occasionally keeping it between the lines, because policy-makers are managing to minutia.

Ever got a credit card with a teaser rate?  The low promotional cost is intended to prompt a reaction from you.  The card company wants consumption to follow.  Who benefits? You could say, “I got some stuff I wouldn’t otherwise be able to afford.”

True enough. But should you buy things on credit you can’t afford, and if you do, would you expect to be more prosperous as a result or less so?  We’ll come to it in a moment.

The beneficiary is the credit-card company, which hopes to drive revenue in the present through transactions, and revenue in the future if or when the interest-rate normalizes.

Central banks since 2009 have been engaged in a grand teaser-rate experiment. In effect the Fed and others offered the planet a low introductory rate. Who benefits?  We humans got stuff we couldn’t otherwise afford such as mortgages (bought by the Fed to boot), new cars and refrigerators. But does spending borrowed money lead to future prosperity?

If you’ve ever had a financial planner or a grandparent, you know that the secret to future prosperity is the exact opposite – saving money now instead of spending it.

What I would like to know, Janet Yellen, Larry Summers, Austan Goolsbee, Greg Ip, Steve Liesman, Jon Hilsenrath and the rest of you super-smart economists is if we know that saving today is the key to future prosperity, why are you supporting monetary policy that encourages spending now for future prosperity?  Both things can’t be true.

Think about the Federal Reserve and interest rates. We’re all waiting for the impossible.  If we’ve had a low introductory rate for seven years prompting everyone from companies to consumers to spend and borrow today, how in the world could it be true that normalizing rates would promote economic growth?

The problem, however, isn’t normal rates but the original policy of a years-long teaser rate getting people to spend. It’s why everything is so fragile. Markets and economies are perched on a temporary condition: An introductory rate.

Who in our analogy is the credit-card company benefiting from our spending? Governments.  They measure consumption – spending – as economic growth.  If there is economic growth, governments can claim to have solved problems and then can continue to promise citizens more stuff in the future, which will require yet more economic growth to fund it. This way they stay in charge and get everybody doing the same things.

The Brexit is a crack in the grand teaser-rate plan. That’s why it’s rattling markets. Teaser rates that promote spending do not create actual growth and will not produce prosperity. Yet the savings and thrift that do are not only discouraged but inhibited.

If we’ve all figured that out, expect a rough time in coming months for stocks because the truth at first hurts. If we haven’t, then the implausible will continue until it becomes impossible. Or somebody else wheels out of line.

The IEX Machete

We humans don’t like change.

We become accustomed to uncomfortable shoes, kinks in the neck each morning, the monotony of sameness. Were we recorded we’d likely be surprised to hear ourselves making excuses for why what we don’t like must continue. The USA’s Declaration of Independence lamented how people are disposed to suffer ills rather than change them.

The rise of IEX, the Investors Exchange, embodies that ethos. Late last Friday the enterprising folks canonized by Michael Lewis in his book Flash Boys won longsuffering reward when the Securities and Exchange Commission granted the alternative trading system status as a US stock exchange able to host listings.

We’ve become disposed to suffer ills. It’s been 45 years since companies wanting to list shares publicly with a US national stock market had more than two choices (OTC Markets Group and NYSE MKT, I’m not slighting either of you here). That’s remarkable in a country that prides itself on entrepreneurialism and innovation, and testament to both the byzantine form the market has taken and the entrenched nature of the competition.

Comments on IEX’s exchange application are supportive save for vitriol from would-be peers reminiscent of the invective and condescension of some activist investors (think Icahn and Ackman).

Contrast with the behavior of golfing professionals at last weekend’s US Open. Dustin Johnson won his first major despite a controversial penalty, and his fellow competitors rallied behind him despite what we could call “losing market-share.”  Contender Bubba Watson on CNBC’s Squawk Box said he was with fans shouting “Dus-tin! Dus-tin!”

That’s mature professionalism. By contrast, IEX joins the green jackets of the stock-exchange business to derogations from peers. They’ve lobbied for every penalty stroke.

We mean no offense to the incumbents. But it’s embarrassing. Our stock market obsessed with speed and crammed with arbitrage and mostly inhospitable to the active “long-only” (few now are purely long) investors companies spend all their time and resources courting is meaningfully a product of legacy exchanges. We’ve been sold a bill of goods.

The Duopoly is loath to admit IEX or share the power they’ve exercised over the listing process. Why? If innovation and choice are byproducts of free markets, incumbent opposition should raise eyebrows (kudos to the SEC for reinforcing the mechanism of a free and open market that exists for issuers and investors). They’ve chosen easy regulatory monopoly instead, and it’s made them arrogant.

Without restraint through competition and transparency, the market has become a tangle of vines smothering differentiation between companies and promoting arbitrage over investment. The proof is in plunging ranks of public companies, confusion everywhere about what’s setting prices (we’ve cured that malady by the way), and a general migration of stock-prices toward means without regard to fundamentals (those who blame regulation I get it, but the market itself is the problem).

We’ve lost sight of original purpose. So welcome to the jungle, IEX.  We could use a sharp machete.

Chasing Gaps

Have you ever set an important goal?

Whatever your objective, you must plan how to arrive at your final destination as though it were a journey and you were constructing a map or set of directions. And then you persevere, letting nothing deter your purpose.

We don’t all achieve our goals and any extended effort carries risk. You can fail. Your directions could be wrong. You may have underestimated the obstacles between aspiration and destination.  Or you stop caring. Right?

What if success instead constituted correctly tabulating the difference between planned and actual progress? Boy that would be a lot less stressful. And you would have an arbitrage formula!

Every week governments the world round disgorge data on employment, the real estate market, manufacturing, exports, imports, budgets, capital spending, commodities, corporate profits, relative values of currencies, economic growth and more.

Yesterday, markets in the US considered the balance of international trade, The Institute for Supply Management’s non-manufacturing index (fairly strong) and the Purchasing Managers Index of services (modest but new orders were abysmal). Today’s data smorgasbord features mortgage applications, oil inventories and the Federal Reserve’s Open Market Committee ledger called the FOMC Minutes about what central bankers said at the March meeting.

Economists and investors troll the data for indications of future economic growth or contraction. They’re looking for progress toward purpose. Arbitragers react to it differently, trading the spread between expectations and outcomes.

Fundamental investment dominates? If only. We measure market behaviors. Active investment is barely more than a third of the daily volume of arbitrage.

We could define arbitrage as the difference between planned and actual progress – how something is faring relative to goal, or expectation.  In practical terms, arbitrage funds seek spreads between the current price of stocks and their forward value reflected in a futures contract.  If a stock is considered undervalued now but likely to rise later (call that a goal), a trader will buy the stock and sell a futures contract for commensurate shares.

The less predictable the future is, the shorter the arbitrage timeframe. Weekly options and futures tied to equities, exchange-traded funds and indexes used to be a rounding error. Today they’re 35% of the options market. Trading in options has a notional value five times that of stock-market dollar-volume daily. Nearly 50% of options trace to one security: SPY, the giant S&P 500 ETF.

If the S&P 500 is the goal, the path, the standard, then options reflect the difference between the goal and the expectations, the progress. You see?

Alas, a marketplace with relentless data minutia and nearly infinite ways to bet money on the difference between goal and progress shifts the purpose of the market from goal-achievement to chasing gaps. Why focus on the long term with its pervasive risk and uncertainty when it’s cheaper and less risky to speculate on whether the PMI Services number will be up or down and how new short-term expectations will affect markets?

Now add this in:  Yesterday the Bank of Japan talked the yen down by suggesting it might take interest rates further negative. The Reserve Bank of Australia warned about currency strength, tantamount, too, to talking money down. The Reserve Bank of India cut rates to a five-year low. Money denominates stocks, bonds, derivatives, commodities. Moving money-values constantly shifts focus from the future to a pairs-trade.

Markets are packed with speculators because we’re obsessed with information that deviates the purpose of capital markets from goals to whether something has departed from a benchmark. It institutionalizes averages and promotes arbitrage – chasing gaps.

We could change it by stilling the tides of data and currencies. Prospects for that goal? Currently a number approaching zero. I believe I’ll take out a short futures position.

False Passive

Karen and I are in Boston seeing friends at the NIRI chapter (we sponsor) and our trip today like last week coincides with snow in Denver. Next winter if the slopes turn bare, we’ll schedule a couple flights to bring in the blizzards.

Last week trooping through Chicago where you had to lean to stay upright in the wind, an investor-relations officer told me, “Passive money can’t be setting prices because it’s, well, passive. It can only follow active money.”

Sometimes I’m so close to the trees of market structure that I forget about the forest everyone else is seeing. Statisticians warn about false positives, false correlations, false precision. The descriptor “passive” for investment behavior following models inaccurately portrays what the money is doing. We call it “Asset Allocation” behavior.

To understand this money let’s first review how the stock market works:

It’s a data network comprised of visible nodes called exchanges and invisible ones called formally alternative trading systems and colloquially “dark pools,” stores for stocks where you must be a member to buy. Exchanges are required to serve all customers, who must either be a broker or use one.

All markets share customers and prices. You cannot continue to serve a customer in one market including a dark pool at a price worse than what’s available elsewhere. Thus, trades must match between the network-wide best price called the NBBO – national best bid/offer (best price to buy or sell).

Orders wanting to price the market must be automated so they can rapidly move from one node to the next, or the data network can’t function.

-Because of this structure, exchanges offer trading incentives called “rebates” to more frequently have the best price on the network. They pay high-speed traders about $0.29/100 shares to bring orders to their markets and set prices.

-The NYSE, the Nasdaq and BATS Global Markets operate multiple exchanges, rather than one that would aggregate buying and selling, so as to increase the amount of time each group has the best price, which means fast traders create many prices. By our measures, fast traders are eight times as likely to set prices, but with just 100 shares.

Exchanges want to set prices because any broker or market center handling customer orders must give customers the best prices so all are required to buy expensive pricing data, which is how exchanges make money.

Now you understand the stock market. Onto this network come seas of money from Blackrock and Vanguard and a raft of exchange-traded funds. For two decades investors have been choosing passive investment in accelerating fashion. It’s how Blackrock and Vanguard are the world’s biggest investors ($8 trillion of assets) and ETFs host $3 trillion while turning holdings at 2,500% (making buy-and-hold a parody).

Passive money is governed by the model it tracks, the prospectus describing the fund, and inflows and outflows. Tack on the explosive popularity in recent years of “smart beta” money tracking mathematical measures to capitalize on trends or market inefficiencies and you have a recipe for perpetual motion.

To that end, indexed money by rule must peg its benchmark – the measure metering its performance. Indexes use options and futures to mirror the benchmark so counterparties for options and futures are in and out of the market. That sets prices.

The majority of trading in ETFs is a form of arbitrage. ETFs don’t buy or sell stocks. ETF sponsors privately transact with authorized participants in large blocks. In the market, people are trading ETF shares that simply represent assets held by sponsors. Market-makers are shorting or going long components to capture inefficiencies, and fast traders are repricing components, indexes, options and futures for spreads.

All of this is setting your price. If money flows into SPY, the world’s most actively traded stock with $25 billion of volume daily, arbitragers, market-makers and authorized participants must respond. This trade splashing through your peer group may move members disparately at times because of liquidity, options, futures, shorting.

A paradoxical cycle forms. Indices fluctuate because of arbitrage in ETFs predicated on them, which prompts indexed money to adjust, which must happen because rules for indexes demand it.

The sheer size of this money has pervasive market impact, often blotting out effort by active investors to buy or sell growth and value opportunities (uniform rules and uniform trade-executions overwhelm outlier orders, key to why stock pickers rarely beat indexes).

There’s little that’s passive about passive investment. Call it Asset Allocation. But it lacks emotion, reason and common sense. That’s why markets are unresponsive to terror attacks or flagging economies but wedded to monetary policy. It’s about the model.

The Replicator

In the television and cinematic series Star Trek, the Replicator creates stuff.  Captain Jean-Luc Picard would instruct it to dispense “tea. Earl Grey. Hot.” This YouTube montage is homage.

Speaking of creating stuff, stocks lately saw the longest 2015 rally in step with the weakest jobs report. It came on derivatives, our data show. The OMC song “How Bizarre” says if you want to know the rest, hey, buy the rights. In stocks, the rights to things rather than the things themselves is what drove them. Traders bought rights.

That means somebody else must buy the stocks.  Exercise the right to buy with a call option and the counterparty – we track counterparties – must fulfill it with shares. One risk for markets is that dealers don’t hold supplies of shares, what’s called inventory.

Why? Rules now discourage banks from carrying risk assets like stocks and require instead owning Tier One capital like sovereign debt (how the product of overspending is safer than the rights to profits is unclear) and so banks have stopped making markets in a majority of stocks. Thus, when derivatives are used they must buy, and stocks soar.

The mortgage crisis I hope taught us to watch how markets work. Mortgages were replicated through derivatives as demand for returns on purchased and appreciating homes outstripped underlying supply. When mortgages stopped increasing and houses started to fall in value, mortgage derivatives imploded.

That risk resides now in exchange-traded funds. ETFs often sample rather than replicate indexes. For instance, yesterday a swath of American Depositary Receipts (ADRs) surged because money rushed into an ETF tracking an MSCI global index that excludes US stocks. The index has nearly 1,850 components but the ETF just over 400, or about 21% of the index’s holdings.

What, you say? The ETF doesn’t own all the stocks? Right. There are two kinds of ETFs:  Physical and synthetic.  The former either own shares or sample them, and the latter rely on derivatives to represent the value of stocks. ETFs track indexes four ways:

Full replication. The ETF buys all the stocks in the underlying index, matching comparative weighting. But it may substitute cash for some or all of the stocks.

Sampling. When the tracking index is large (as in our example above) or if the stocks are not available in sufficient quantity, an ETF may construct a representative sample of the index and own only those stocks.

Optimization. Where sampling focuses on picking stocks reflecting the index’s purpose, optimization is a quantitative approach that uses mathematical models to construct correlation in a set of securities that trade like the index whether they reflect industry characteristics or not.

Swap-replication. ETFs pay counterparties for rights to the economic value of underlying indices. No assets actually trade hands.  This is what synthetic ETFs like Direxion and Proshares use (along with futures and options).

It’s worth noting that the great majority of bond ETFs use sampling because fixed-income issues are so vast and illiquid that full replication is a physical impossibility.

Back to equities, as with all derivatives from collateralized debt obligations to floating-rate currencies, problems don’t manifest until the underlying assets stop increasing in value. Those are your shares. The broad market has generally ceased rising and we’ve had a raft of problems in ETFs.

We don’t need to panic. But ETFs are the modern-era mortgage-backed securities. They were designed to make it convenient for everyone to infinitely own a finite asset class: Stocks. That is impossible, and so, sure enough, ETFs are substituting rights for assets.

It didn’t impact us in the IR profession so long as stocks were up. Whether your shares were in an ETF or not, you benefited from the implied demand in the explosion of ETF assets. When ETFs substitute cash, the resulting rise in your share-price isn’t real.

Do you understand? The dollars didn’t buy shares.  And if ETFs are sampling indexes rather than buying them in full, radical volatility can develop between issues held and excluded.

But there’s a bigger risk. As with mortgage-backed securities, ETFs are a multiplier for underlying assets. ETFs that hold stocks don’t trade them per se. Shares of ETFs trade as a promise against its assets. And ETFs lend securities.

ETFs primarily track indexes. You can’t have one without the other. If ETFs investors leave and index investors leave and both stop lending shares to brokers for intermediaries like high-frequency traders, the structure of the market will fundamentally change.

The Fed’s view notwithstanding, markets can and must both rise and fall, and markets dependent on derivatives fall harder. It’s a lesson of history. If we in the IR profession were responsible for the widget market, we’d continually study widget-market form, function, risk and opportunity.

Investor-relations is the equity product manager. We’d better watch the equity-market replicator (and clients, we do, every day).