August 22, 2018

Going Naked

Today this bull market became the longest in modern history, stretching 3,453 days, nosing out the 3,452 that concluded with the bursting of the dot-com bubble.

Some argue runs have been longer before several times. Whatever the case, the bull is hoary and yet striding strongly.

Regulators are riding herd. Finra this week fined Interactive Brokers an eyebrow-raising $5.5 million for short-selling missteps. The SEC could follow suit.

Interactive Brokers, regulators say, failed to enforce market rules around “naked shorting,” permitting customers to short stocks without ensuring that borrowed shares could be readily located.

Naked shorting isn’t by itself a violation. With the lightning pace at which trades occur now, regulators give brokers leeway to borrow and sell to investors and traders to ensure orderly markets without first assuring shares exist to cover borrowing.  I’m unconvinced that’s a good idea – but it’s the rule.

Interactive Brokers earned penalties for 28,000 trades over three years that failed to conform to rules. For perspective, the typical Russell 1000 stock trades 15,000 times every day.

What’s more, shorting – borrowed shares – accounts for 44% of all market volume, a consistent measure over the past year.  Shorting peaked at 52% of daily trading in January 2016, the worst start to January for stocks in modern history.

In context of market data then, the violations here are infinitesimal. What the enforcement action proves is that naked shorting is not widespread and regulators watch it closely to ensure rules are followed. Fail, and you’ll be fined.

“Wait a minute,” you say.  “Are you suggesting, Quast, that nearly half the market’s volume comes from borrowed shares?”

I’m not suggesting it. I’m asserting it.  Think about the conditions. Since 2001 when regulations forced decimalization of stock-trading, there has been a relentless war on the economics of secondary market-making. That is, where brokers used to carry supplies of shares and support trading in those stocks with capital and research, now few do.

So where do shares come from?  For one, SEC rules make it clear that market makers get a “bona fide” exemption from short rules because there may be no actual buyers or sellers. That means supply for bids and offers must be borrowed.

Now consider investment behaviors.  Long-term money tends to buy and hold. Passive investors too will sit on positions in proportion to indexes they’re tracking (if you’re skewing performance you’ll be jettisoned though).

Meanwhile, companies are gobbling their own shares up via buybacks, and the number of public companies keeps falling (now just 3,475 in the Wilshire 5000) because mergers outpace IPOs.

So how can the shelves of the stock market be stocked, so to speak? For one, passive investors as a rule can loan around a third of holdings. Blackrock generates hundreds of millions of dollars annually from loaning securities.

Do you see what’s happening?  The real supply of shares continues to shrink, yet market rules encourage the APPEARANCE of continuous liquidity.  Regulators give brokers leeway – even permitting naked shorting – so the appearance of liquidity can persist.

But nearly half the volume is borrowed. AAPL is 55% short. AMZN is 54% short.

Who’s borrowing? There are long/short hedge funds of course, and I’ll be moderating a panel tomorrow (Aug 23) in Austin at NIRISWRC with John Longobardi from IEX and Mark Flannery from Point72, who runs that famous hedge fund’s US equities long/short strategy.  Hedge funds are meaningful but by no means the bulk of shorting.

We at ModernIR compare behavioral data to shorting. The biggest borrowers are high-frequency traders wanting to profit on price-changes, which exceed borrowing costs, and ETF market-makers.  ETF brokers borrow stocks to supply to ETF sponsors for the right to create ETF shares, and they reverse that trade, borrowing ETF shares to exchange for stocks to cover borrowings or to sell to make money.

This last process is behind about 50% of market volume, and hundreds of billions of dollars of monthly ETF share creations and redemptions.

We’re led to a conclusion: The stock market depends on short-term borrowing to perpetuate the appearance of liquidity.

Short-term borrowing presents limited risk to a rising market because with borrowing costs low and markets averaging about 2.5% intraday volatility, it’s easy for traders to make more on price-changes (arbitrage) than it costs to borrow.

But when the market turns, rampant short-term borrowing as money tries to leave will, as Warren Buffett said about crises, reveal who’s been swimming naked.

When? We’d all like to know when the naked market arrives. Short-term, it could happen this week despite big gains for broad measures. Sentiment – how machines set prices – signals risk of a sudden swoon.

Longer term, who knows? But the prudent are watching short volume for signs of who’s going naked.

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