June 14, 2017

Mercenary Prices

Florida reminded us of high-speed traders.  I’ll explain.

An energized audience and the best attendance since 2012 marked NIRI National, the investor-relations annual confab held last week, this year in Orlando.

We spent the whole conference in the spacious and biggest-ever ModernIR booth right at the gateway and in late-night revelry with friends, clients and colleagues, and I don’t think we slept more than five hours any night.  Good thing it didn’t last longer or we might have expired.

I can’t speak to content because we had no exposure. But asking people coming through the exhibit hall what moved them, we heard about IEX CEO Brad Katsuyama’s general session on the state of markets (we said hi to Brad, who was arriving in from New York about 1am as we were wrapping for the night and heading to bed).

“He said the exchanges are paying $2.7 billion to traders.”

That what folks were reporting to us.

You remember how this works, longtime readers?  The big listing duopoly doled out $500 million in incentives to traders in the most recent quarter.  That is, exchanges paid others to trade on their platforms (the rest came from BATS Global, now part of CBOE).

Both exchanges combined earned about $180 million in fees from companies to list shares. Data and services generated a combined $750 million for the two.

There’s a relationship among all three items – incentives, listing fees, data revenues.  Companies pay to list shares at an exchange. The exchange in turn pays traders to set prices for those shares. By paying traders for prices, exchanges generate price-setting data that brokers and market operators must buy to comply with rules that require they give customers best prices.

I’m not ripping on exchanges. They’re forced by rules to share customers and prices with competitors. The market is an interlinked data network. No one owns the customer, be it a trader, investor or public company. Exchanges found ways to make money out there.

But if exchanges are paying for prices, how often have you supposed incorrectly that stocks are up or down because investors are buying or selling?

At art auctions you have to prove you’ve got the wherewithal to buy the painting before you can make a bid. Nobody wants the auction house paying a bunch of anonymous shill bidders to run prices up and inflate commissions.

And you public companies, if the majority of your volume trades somewhere else because the law says exchanges have to share prices and customers, how come you don’t have to pay fees to any other exchange?  Listing fees have increased since exchanges hosted 100% of your trading.  Shouldn’t they decrease?

Investors and companies alike should know how much volume is shill bidding and what part is real (some of it is about you, much is quant).  We track that every day, by the way.

The shill bidders aren’t just noise, even if they’re paid to set prices. They hate risk, these machine traders.  They don’t like to lose money so they analyze data with fine machine-toothed combs.  They look for changes in the way money responds to their fake bids and offers meant not to own things but to get fish to take a swipe at a flicked financial fly.

Take tech stocks.  We warned beginning June 5 of waning passive investment particularly in tech. The thing that precedes falling prices is slipping demand and nobody knows it faster than Fast Traders.  Quick as spinning zeroes and ones they shift from long to short and a whole sector gives up 5%, as tech did.

Our theme at NIRI National this year was your plan for a market dominated by passive investment.  Sometime soon, IR has got to stop thinking everything is rational if billions of dollars are paid simply to create valuable data.

We’ve got to start telling CEOs and CFOs and boards.  What to do about it? First you have to understand what’s going on. And the buzz on the floor at NIRI was that traders are getting paid to set prices. Can mercenary prices be trusted?

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