April 13, 2016

Making Water

If someone says he’s going to make water, it means one thing.  If he says he’s providing liquidity, it means another.  We should clear (and perhaps clean) that up.

In the stock market, some firms call themselves “liquidity providers.” The term suggests they’re creating something somebody else needs (here we depart sharply from making water). Liquidity by definition is the availability of assets to a market. Providing assets is important, helpful and benign, it would seem.

Hudson River Trading, one of the biggest liquidity providers (the terms high-frequency trader and liquidity-provider can be interchangeable), said in its last 13f it had 64 positions, the largest at $32 million in the exchange-traded S&P 500 fund SPY, leading a baker’s dozen ETFs topping its holdings. The biggest stock position was XOM at $1.5 million or 19,000 shares. A retail investor could own as much. Hudson River trades thousands of securities and millions of shares daily. If one could see its short positions, I bet the two would about cancel out. Effectively, zero assets.

If liquidity is availability of assets, how do you deliver assets when you don’t own any?

The NYSE enlists the help of a group it calls Supplemental Liquidity Providers (scroll to see them). SLPs, the exchange says, “trade only for their proprietary accounts, not for public customers or on an agency basis.” In its fee schedule the NYSE says it pays SLPs $0.06-$0.30 per hundred shares.

Did you catch that? The NYSE pays firms to supply liquidity but only proprietary trades – their own orders – qualify. The traders it’s paying are just like Hudson River. If the NYSE isn’t paying them to bring assets, the only other thing they can offer of value to the exchange is prices.  And setting prices is really arbitrage.

The Nasdaq does the same thing.  It pays traders around $0.31 per hundred shares to “add liquidity.” We’ve written for years about the system of incentives in the stock market. It’s called the “maker-taker model” because buying and selling are treated differently, not as the same activity.  Search our blog for “maker taker” for more and read this one.

Are there auto parts liquidity providers?  Grocery liquidity providers? There are automobile distributors, yes, who buy inventory wholesale from manufacturers. But they sell to the public and fold service, financing and support into the customer experience.

Broker-dealers like Citigroup or Raymond James that sell shares to investors write research, commit capital, provide trading services and account management, underwrite offerings, syndicate financings.  You won’t know the names of many equity liquidity providers. Most offer no services and have no customers.

What’s the value?  Little for you, issuers and investors. They are price-setters for exchanges, which in turn are data-sellers. Best prices are valuable data. The REST of the market participants with customers (humans and software systems alike register as brokers) must by law buy data about the best prices to make sure customers get them.

It’s perverse. Exchanges pay traders with no purpose save arbitrage – which call themselves liquidity providers – to set prices for anyone who actually IS a real buyer or seller. Sound to you like making water into the wind? Yup. But to quote humorist Dave Barry, we’re not making any of this up.

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