August 21, 2019

Interesting Year

“It’s going to be an interesting year.”

We wrote that phrase in the Jan 2, 2019 edition of the Market Structure Map. (By the way, we’re in Rhode Island this week visiting customers, and in Newport you’ll see the sea in everything.)

I don’t mean to suggest we’re amongst those arrogant buffoons quoting themselves. I do think we drew the right line from Dec 2018 to the future. We noted, and it’s worth reading, that the Federal Reserve had shut down the Maiden Lane financial entity used to buy assets from AIG. An epochal event.

We said it could mark a top for the inflationary arc in risk assets spawned by the flood of cheap central-bank money.  We’ve had no gains in stocks from Sep 20, 2018 to present.

In December last year, pundits blamed the market maelstrom on impending recession. It was false then and it’s false now. Sure, all economies contract – fall into recession.  It wasn’t a uniformly engrossing event before central banks, though.

The human propensity to borrow and spend on growth, which at some point slows, leading to the collapse of borrowers and lenders alike, is normal and not something we should be trying to eradicate by juicing credit markets.

The bigger the credit wave, the farther the economic surfboard skims, and everyone marvels at the duration of the expansion cycle. And then the wave dies on the shoals. We’re now riding it, wind in our hair, with a vast curl beginning to form overhead.

But that’s not what sparked the market’s volatile descent.

One client (thank you!) shared notes from a JP Morgan conference call on recent volatility. JPM says economic underpinnings are reasonably sound and no cause for market troubles. Hedging strategies leading to the consumption of fixed income securities and sale of equities generated market duress (and skyrocketing bond prices), says JPM.

What prompted hedging strategies to change?  The cries of “recession!” didn’t commence until the market had already plummeted.

The same thing happened last December. After the market tanked, people were searching for reasons – failing to consider the structure of markets today and once again errantly supposing rational thought was at fault – and decided that so large a drop could only mean economic contraction had arrived.

It had not.

Think about how incorrect premises cost public companies money. There’s lost equity value. Higher equity cost of capital on volatility. Time and money spent messaging to the market about recession defenses.

CNBC had data yesterday on the spiking occurrence of Google searches around “the R word,” as they say.  No doubt a chunk of readers were searching earnings-call transcripts and press releases for it.

Behavioral data show no evidence of rational thought behind the market’s decline. Passive Investment plunged 20% the week ended Aug 2.  Stocks cratered.

Further, our data show the same thing JPM discussed. At Aug 19, order flow related to directional bets is down 11% versus the 200-day average. Occurring with expiring August options and newly trading September instruments Aug 15-21, it’s telling. Bets and hedges have gone awry. Low volatility schemes have failed. Insurance costs are up.

Low volatility investing is the most popular “smart beta” technique used to beat general market performance with rules-based investments. The dominance of smart beta is largely responsible for the outperformance of Utilities stocks tied to smart beta Exchange Traded Funds (ETFs.). Those strategies failed in August.

Volatility bets like the VIX expire today, Aug 21.

We can often peg the amount a stock will fall on bad earnings news to the percentage of market-cap tied to derivatives. Why? If future prices become indeterminate, the value of the instruments predicated on them declines near zero.

Currently, 16.4% of market cap traces back to derivatives and leverage, such as borrowing, down from pre-August levels over 18%. Volatility clouds predictability. The cost of leverage and protection increases, while use diminishes.

What if the market fell because Passive money was overweight equities and overdue for rebalancing, and stopped buying stocks in late July, which caused a gut-lurching swoon, which in turn rendered hedges worthless?

Talk of recession is a consequence of the market’s decline. Not causality.  Think about your own stock, IR professionals. Do you understand what drives it?  Investors, if you weight your portfolio for a recession that doesn’t exist, you’ll be wrong.

Our premise Jan 2 was that the end of Maiden Lane was the end of a monetary era, and it had the potential to create an interesting year. So far, seems right.  We also know what kind of money is waxing or waning. You should too. It’s not just interesting. It’s essential to correct actions.

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