Optional Chaos

So which is it?  

Monday, doom loomed over stocks. In Punditry were wringing hands, hushed tones. The virus was back. Growth was slowing. Inflation. The sky was falling!

Then came Tuesday. 

Jekyll and Hyde? Options expirations.  Only CNBC’s Brian Sullivan mentioned it. As ModernIR head of client services Brian Leite said, there wasn’t otherwise much effort to explain where the doom went. One headline said, “Stocks reverse Monday’s losses.”

WC Fields said horse sense is the thing a horse has which keeps it from betting on people. We could have used some horse sense.  I Tweeted this video.

Anyway. What must you know, investors and public companies, about why options cause chaos in stocks? (I’m explaining it to the Benzinga Boot Camp Sat July 24, 30 minutes at 1220p ET.  Come join.)

It’s not just that options-expirations may unsettle equity markets. The question is WHY?

Let me lay a foundation for you. Global Gross Domestic Product (GDP) is about $85 trillion. The notional value – exposure to underlying assets – of exchange-traded options and futures is about the same, $85 trillion give or take, says the Bank for International Settlements. The BIS pegs over-the-counter derivatives notional value at $582 trillion.

So call it $670 trillion. All output is leverage 8-9 times, in effect.

Now, only a fraction of these derivatives tie to US equities. But stocks are priced in dollars. Currency and interest-rate instruments make up 90% of derivatives.

All that stuff lies beneath stocks. Here, let’s use an analogy. Think about the stock market as a town built on a fault line.  The town would seem the stolid thing, planted on the ground. Then a tectonic plate shifts.

Suddenly what you thought was immovable is at risk.

Remember mortgage-backed securities?  These derivatives expanded access to US residential real estate, causing demand to exceed supply and driving up real estate prices.  When supply and demand reached nexus, the value of derivatives vanished.

Suddenly the market had far more supply than demand.  Down went prices, catastrophically. Financial crisis.

Every month, what happened to mortgage-backed securities occurs in stocks. It’s not seismic most times. Stocks are assets in tight supply.  Most stocks are owned fully by investors.  Just three – Blackrock, Vanguard, State Street – own a quarter of all stocks.

So just as real estate was securitized, so are stocks, into options, futures, swaps.  While these instruments have a continuous stream of expiration and renewal dates, the large portion ties to a monthly calendar from the Options Clearing Corp (our version is here).

Every month there’s a reset to notional value. Suppose just 1% of the $50 trillion options market doesn’t renew contracts and instead shorts stocks, lifting short volume 1%.

Well, that’s a potential 2% swing in the supply/demand balance (by the way, that is precisely last week’s math).  It can send the Dow Jones Industrials down a thousand points.  Hands wring.  People cry Covid.

And because the dollar and interest rates are far and away the largest categories, money could leave derivatives and shift to the assets underpinning those – BONDS.

Interest rates fall. Bonds soar. Stocks swoon.  People shriek.

Marketstructureedge.com – Broad Market Sentiment 1YR Jul 21, 2021

Options chaos.  We could see it. The image here shows Broad Market Sentiment – DEMAND – for the stocks represented by SPY, the State Street S&P 500 Exchange Traded Fund (ETF).  Demand waxes and wanes.  It was waning right into expirations.

In fact, it’s been steadily waning since Apr 2021.  In May into options-expirations, Sentiment peaked at the weakest level since Sep 2020. Stocks trembled. In June at quad-witching, stocks took a one-day swan dive.

Here in July, they cratered and then surged.  All these are signals of trouble in derivatives. Not in the assets.  It’s not rational. It’s excessive substitution.

We can measure it at all times in your stock. Into earnings. With deals. When your stock soars or plunges.

In 1971, the USA left the gold standard because the supply of dollars was rising but gold was running out. The derivative couldn’t be converted into the asset anymore. The consequence nearly destroyed the dollar and might have if 20% interest rates hadn’t sucked dollars out of circulation.

High interest rates are what we need again. During the pandemic the Federal Reserve flooded the planet with dollars. Money rushed into risk assets as Gresham’s Law predicts. And derivatives.

When the supply/demand nexus comes, the assets will reprice but won’t vanish. The representative demand in derivatives COULD vanish.  That’s not here yet.

The point: Derivatives price your stock, your sector, your industry, the stock market. Adjustments to those balances occur every month.  We can see it, measure it. It breeds chaos. Pundits don’t understand it.

It’s supply and demand you can’t see without Market Structure goggles. We’ve got ‘em.

Supply and Demand

Happy Bastille Day!  Also, Goldman Sachs made $15 per share, 50% over expectations. The stock declined.

JP Morgan earned $12 billion on revenue of $31 billion, doubling views. Shares fell.

Why are banks making 36% margins when you can’t earn a dime of interest?

I digress.

Illustration 98288171 / Goldman Sachs © Alexey Novikov | Dreamstime.com

I told the Benzinga Premarket Prep show July 12 on Market Structure Monday (which we sponsor) that falling demand and rising supply in the shares of JPM and GS predicted the stocks would probably perform poorly despite widespread views both would batter consensus like Shohei Ohtani on both sides of the plate (baseball humor for you).

Sure, you could say everybody already knew so they sold the news. This is the kind of copout we get from people who want to tell us stocks are always expectations of future outcomes while simultaneously telling us “they were down because growth wasn’t quite good enough to get past the whisper number.”

That is BS.  Plain and simple. 

ModernIR can measure supply and demand in JPM and GS and observe that demand is falling and supply is rising.  Even amid the farcical characteristics of the modern stock market, that means prices will fall.

We can meter these conditions in your stock too, by the way.

The best thing about the stock market today is how well it reflects supply and demand.  Currency markets don’t. The Federal Reserve continuously jacks with currency supplies in such manipulative ways that almost no economic measure, from growth to inflation, can be believed.

But in the stock market, the math is so sacrosanct that it’s impervious to the ubiquitous interference by Congress and regulators with the mechanisms of a free, fair and open market. No matter how bureaucrats assail the battlements, nothing disguises the stark supply/demand fluctuations apparent in the data.

Wow, mouthful there, Quast.

I know it. I’m not kidding.

Look, regulators REQUIRE brokers to buy and sell stocks even when there are no buyers and sellers.  That’s called a “continuous auction market.”  That’s what the US stock market is.

Contrast that with an art auction.

Stay with me. I have a point.

The first requirement of an art auction is actual ART.  Even if its pedigree is suspicious, like Nonfungible Tokens (NFT).  There’s still art for sale, and an audience of bidders pre-qualified to buy it.  No shill bidders allowed.

Nothing so provincial impairs the stock market. While you can make stuff up such as always having 100 shares of everything to buy or sell, even if it doesn’t actually exist, you STILL HAVE TO REPORT THE MATH.

Think I’m joking about shares that don’t exist?  Educate yourself on the market-maker exemption to Reg SHO Rule 203(b)(2). Or just ask me. 

Anyway, everything is measurable. Thanks to rules dictating how trades must be executed. In GS trading the day before results, Short Volume (supply) was rising, Market Structure Sentiment (demand) was falling.

Unless stock-pickers become 300% greater as a price-setter than they’ve been in the trailing 200 days – a probability approaching zero – the stock will decline.

I don’t care how good your story is.  Story doesn’t change supply or demand. Only ACTIONS – to buy or sell or short or leverage – do.

This math should be the principal consideration for every public company. Were we all in the widget business, selling widgets, we wouldn’t say, “I hope the CEO’s speech will juice widget sales.”

Now maybe it will!  But that’s not how you run a widget business.  You look at the demand for widgets and your capacity to supply widgets to meet demand. That determines financial performance. Period.

The stock market is the same.  There is demand. There is supply. Both are measurable. Both change constantly because the motivation of consumers differs. Some want to own it for years, some want to own it for 2 milliseconds, or roughly 0.05% of the time it takes to blink your eyes.

Both forms of demand set price, but one is there a whole lot more than the other. If the only behavior you consider is the one wanting to own for years, you’re not only a buffoon in the midst of courtiers. You’re wrong.  And ill-informed.

Thankfully, we can solve that social foible. And sort the data for you.

The stock market is about supply and demand. Earnings season is upon us again.  The market will once more tell us not about the economy or earnings, but supply and demand.

Ask us, and we’ll show you what your data say comes next.

Data to Know

What should you know about your stock, public companies? 

Well, what do you know about your business that you can rattle off to some inquiring investor while checking the soccer schedule for your twelve-year-old, replying to an email from the CFO, and listening to an earnings call from a competitor?

Simultaneously.

That’s because you know it cold, investor-relations professionals.  What should you know cold about your stock?

While you think about that, let me set the stage. Is it retail money? The Wall Street Journal’s Caitlin McCabe wrote (subscription required) that $28 billion poured to stocks from retail traders in June, sourcing that measure from an outfit called VandaTrack.

If size matters, Exchange Traded Fund (ETF) data from the Investment Company Institute through May is averaging $547 billion monthly, 20 times June retail flows. Alas, no article about that.

You all who tuned to our Meme Stocks presentation last week (send me a note and I’ll share it) know retail money unwittingly depends on two market rules to work.

Illustration 91904354 / Stock Market © Ojogabonitoo | Dreamstime.com

This is good stuff to know but not what I mean. Can you answer these questions?

  • How many times per day does your stock trade?
  • How many shares at a time?
  • How much money per trade?
  • What’s the dollar-volume (trading volume translated into money)?
  • How much of that volume comes from borrowed stock every day?
  • What kind of money is responsible?
  • What’s the supply/demand trend?
  • What are stock pickers paying to buy shares and are they influencing your price?

Now, why should you know those things?  Better, why shouldn’t you know if you can? You might know the story cold. But without these data, you don’t know the basics about the market that determines shareholder value.

Maybe we don’t want to know, Tim.

You don’t want to know how your stock trades?

No, I don’t want to know that what I’m doing doesn’t matter.

What are we, Italians in the age of Galileo? What difference does it make what sets price?  The point is we ought to know. Otherwise, we’ve got no proof that the market serves our best interests.

We spend billions of dollars complying with disclosure rules. Aren’t we owed some proof those dollars matter?

Yes.  We are.  But it starts with us.  The evidence of the absence of fundamentals in the behavior of stocks is everywhere.  Not only are Blackrock, Vanguard and State Street the largest voting block for public companies and principally passive investors, but the majority of trading volume is executed by intermediaries who are not investors at all.

Stocks with no reason to go up, do.  And stock with no reason to go down, do.  Broad measures are not behaving like the stocks comprising them.  Over the whole market last week, just two sectors had more than a single net buying day:  Utilities and Energy. Yet both were down (0.9%, 1.3% respectively). Somehow the S&P 500 rose 1.7%.

You’d think public companies would want to know why the stock market has become a useless barometer.

Let me give you two examples for the questions I asked.  Public companies, you should be tracking these data at least weekly to understand changing supply/demand conditions for your shares.  And what kind of money is driving shareholder-value.

I won’t tell you which companies they are, but I’ll tweet the answer tomorrow by noon ET (follow @_TimQuast).  These are all 5-day averages by the way:

Stock A: 

  • Trades/day:  55,700
  • Shares/trade: 319
  • $/Trade: $4,370
  • Dollar volume:  $243 million
  • Short volume percent: 51%
  • Behaviors:  Active 9% of volume; Passive, 36%; Fast Trading, 32%; Risk Mgmt, 23% (Active=stock pickers; Passive=indexes, ETFs, quants; Fast Trading=speculators, intermediaries; Risk Mgmt=trades tied to derivatives)
  • Trend: Overbought, signal predicts a decline a week out
  • Active money is paying:  $11.60, last in May 2021, Engagement is 94%

Stock B:

  • Trades/day:  67,400
  • Shares/trade: 89
  • $/Trade: $11,000
  • Dollar volume:  $743 million
  • Short volume: 47%
  • Behaviors:  Active, 8% of volume; Passive, 24%; Fast Trading 49%; Risk Mgmt, 19%
  • Trend: Overbought, signal predicts declines a week out
  • Active money is paying:  $121, last in June 2021, Engagement is 81%

The two stocks have gone opposite directions in 2021.  The problem isn’t story for either one. Both have engaged investors. Active money is 8-9%.

The difference is Passive money. Leverage with derivatives.

Would that be helpful to boards and executive teams?  Send this Market Structure Map to them.  Ask if they’d like to know how the stock trades.

Everybody else in the stock market – traders, investors, risk managers, exchanges, brokers – is using quantitative data.  Will we catch up or stay stuck in the 1990s?

We can help.

Rustling Data

The Russell Reconstitution is so big everybody talks about it.  And yet it’s not. 

The Nasdaq touted its role facilitating this year’s Russell reset, saying, “A record 2.37 billion shares representing $80,898,531,612 were executed in the Closing Cross in 1.97 seconds across Nasdaq-listed securities.”

Impressive, no question.  That’s a lot of stuff to happen in the equivalent of the proper following distance when driving 65 mph (a rule often ignored, I’ve observed).

I’d also note that the Closing Cross is not the “continuous auction market” required by SEC rules but a real auction where buyers meet sellers. Regulators permit these to open and close markets.

The Nasdaq said, “Russell reconstitution day is one of the year’s most highly anticipated and heaviest trading days in the U.S. equity market, as asset managers seek to reconfigure their portfolios to reflect the composition of Russell’s newly-reconstituted U.S. indexes.”

The press release said it was completed successfully and the newly reconstituted index would take effect “Monday, June 29, 2020.”

Somebody forgot to update the template.

But that’s not the point.  What the Nasdaq said is untrue.  The Russell rebalance June 25, 2021 was not “one of the heaviest trading days in the US equity market.”

It was 159th out of 252 trading days over the trailing year, using the S&P 500 ETF SPY as a proxy (we cross-checked the data with our internal volume averages for composite S&P 500 stocks, and against other major-measure ETF proxies).

SPY traded 58 million shares June 25 this year but has averaged over 72 million shares daily the trailing twelve months.

Whoa.

Right?

This is market structure. If a stock exchange doesn’t know, who are you counting on for facts about the stock market?

CNBC June 29, 2021

I snapped the photo here hurriedly of the conference-room TV at ModernIR yesterday with CNBC’s Sara Eisen and former TD Ameritrade Chair Joe Moglia. But look at what they call in video production the lower third, the caption.

That’s what hedge-fund legend Lee Cooperman said in the preceding segment. “Market Structure is totally broken.”  Eisen and Moglia were talking about it.

When I vice-chaired the NIRI Annual Conference in 2019, I moderated the opening plenary session with Lee Cooperman, Joe Saluzzi, co-author of the book “Broken Markets” (you should read it), and Brett Redfearn, head of the SEC’s division of Trading and Markets (now head of capital markets for Coinbase).

The market may not appear broken to you. But you should know that market-structure events occur about 70 times per year. And the Nasdaq ought to know if the Russell Reconstitution is really a heavy trading day. It’s their business.

Just as it’s your business, investor-relations professionals, to know your market. The equity market.

Just the preceding week, June quad-witching owned the Russell Reconstitution like Mark Cavendish sprinting at the Tour de France.  Worse, actually, though few cycling moments match seeing The Manx Missile win his 31st stage after having left the sport.

It was a beatdown.  SPY volume June 16-18 averaged 97 million shares, 67% higher than the Russell rebalance, peaking the 18th at 119 million shares. 

And June 30, 2020, the final trading day of the second calendar quarter last year, SPY traded more than 113 million shares, nearly twice this year’s Russell volumes June 25.

June 30 is today. 

In fact, the last trading day of each month in the trailing twelve averaged 99 million shares of SPY traded.

What do those dates and June 16-18 have in common?  Derivatives.  Each month, there are six big expirations days: The VIX, morning index options, triple- or quad-witching, new options, the true-up day for banks afterward, and last-day futures.

This final one is the ultimate trading day each month featuring the lapsing of a futures contract used to true up index-tracking. The CBOE created it in 2014 for that purpose. Russell resets may be using it instead.

What’s it say that derivatives expirations are 67% more meaningful to volume than an annual index reconstitution for $10 trillion pegged dollars, or that average daily volume in SPY, the world’s largest exchange-traded derivative – all ETFs are derivatives, substitutes for underlying assets – exceeds volume on a rebalance day?

That your executive teams and boards better know. They deserve to know. If you give them anachronistic data unreflective of facts, it’s no help. Imagine if Lee Cooperman is right, and our profession fails our boards and executive teams.

No practice has a higher duty to understand the equity market than the investor-relations profession.  If you’re not certain, ask us for help. We’ll arm you so you need never worry again about fulfilling it.

Fab Problem

The world relies on one semiconductor company. 

How did an economic ecosystem let itself get boxed in like that?  About the same way it happened in the stock market.  There’s a lesson for public companies and investors.

Yang Jie and colleagues at The Wall Street Journal June 19 wrote a thorough treatise (subscription required) on the extraordinary rise of TSMC, as it’s known, under founder and Texas Instruments veteran Morris Chang.

Courtesy Dreamstime.com

And how 92% of the world’s most sophisticated chips depend on it. And nearly 60% of all chips, including all the ones for iPhones, the chips for cars, for PCs, for a vast array of devices operating on microcircuitry.

The company is a juggernaut and Morris Chang, 89 and now retired, is a genius.  But a different term comes to mind for participants in the semiconductor industry who let themselves become so perilously dependent.

And what about the consumers of the products?  Was no one aware that the boulevard ferrying technological essentials had a sign on it saying “not a through road?”

There was a failure of hindsight and foresight, a fixation on discrete objectives at the expense of broad comprehension of its mechanics and structure. Seems to me, anyway.

What’s this got to do with the stock market?

There’s a similar lack of imagination over the past 15 years among public companies participating in it.  Finra says it regulates about 3,400 brokers.  But 30 of them execute nearly all trading volume, data we’ve observed ourselves as the leader in Market Structure Analytics for public companies.

If you want to know how the stock market works, join ModernIR June 24 to learn how the Great Meme Stock Craze of 2021 happened – and can happen to you. 

Back to the point, it’s far worse than 30. About ten firms handle nearly all customer orders, and another ten set most of the prices but have no clients and aim to own nothing.

And $500 billion daily dances delicately through that machinery.

It happened the way it did for TSMC.  Once, there were many designers and fabricators.  Then designers discovered they could cut costs and burdens by leaving the fab business, outsourcing it to TSMC.

It made sense operationally. It’s a lot cheaper not building and running factories.  The WSJ article says a single fab may cost $20 billion to build.

And by the time you finish, maybe the technology has moved on, and now what?  TSMC will spend $100 billion the next three years staying current.  Hard to compete with that.

The same thing happened in the stock market, though for somewhat different reasons.  Among the thousands of broker-dealers buying and selling securities for investors, the great majority got out of the fab business, so to speak.

They don’t clear their own trades. They don’t even execute their own trades. They’re introducing brokers.  They sell to customers but outsource trading and account services.

It’s an operational decision. You can’t make money owning the infrastructure.  But the reason is market rules created by Congress and regulators.  First, stocks were decimalized. Brokers counted on the spread between buying and selling for profits.  Poof, gone. There went the fabs.

Then regulators in 2007 implemented the 1975 Congressional vision of a “national market system” connecting all markets electronically and setting in motion a rigorous rules matrix on handling trades. It forced most firms to send their trades to a handful capable of making the equivalent of a $20 billion investment in chip fabrication.

And intermediary profits didn’t vanish. Oh no, they’re larger than ever. But where big spreads between stocks in the past supported sellside research and deep arrays of stock-trading by firms with customers, now tiny spreads accrue colossally to a handful of firms you’ve barely heard of.

Read the Front Month Newsletter piece called Jane Street and the Arbitrage Royal Family.  Sounds like a vocal group from the 1960s. If Gladys Knight ran a market-making firm, she’d call it PipTrading LLC.

Jane Street is killing it. Arbitragers. Should that not raise eyebrows?

The Stock Market has the very same supply-chain issue that besets chips.  We only learned about Chip Trouble through the 2020 Pandemic. We shut down the global supply chain.  Now it can’t get back to level.

Supply-chain flaws will show in the stock market when a fab fails, the supply chain stalls. I’m not worried about it. You should be!  Public companies. Investors.  You’ve let parties with no vested interest in the market – regulators – hang it on a fragile wire.  Like the kind etched by Extreme Ultraviolet Lithography.

Look that one up.

Will we ask for a report on the stock-market supply chain before it’s our undoing?  Or is it TSMC all over again?

Money Highway

Is Jay Powell the new Investor Relations Officer for all public companies? 

Before we answer, the tranquil image at right free of the Federal Reserve and all the travails of modern economics and politics (and investor relations) is Catamount Lake near Steamboat Springs.  I love this time of year, the way the mountains glow verdant and lakes lie full among the meadows.

Back to the Fed and IR, the gaping deficit in investor-relations today is an application of quantitative and behavioral analytics. We have them. You can use them.  They tell us just about everything one would want to know about the equity market.

For the hermitic amongst us, the Fed chair takes the mic today to end a two-day policy meeting. Some have asked about the impact of monetary policy on Market Structure Sentiment, our ten-point gauge for share supply and demand in your stock, peers, industry, sector, and the whole market, so we’ll address it briefly.

For those not reading the Fed’s balance sheet, you should know it’s $7.993 trillion currently, and includes commitments to buy mortgage-backed securities running north of $200 billion continuously (no wonder mortgage rates are low despite a dearth of homes), reverse repurchases are a record-shattering $720 billion, and excess reserves are nearing $4 trillion.

In 2007, excess reserves averaged $10 billion. It’s 400 times more now, money with no place to go save begging for 10-12 basis points of interest from the Fed, which gave it to banks to begin.

Yeah, weird, right?  Why would you create money and then pay interest on it? Because your models have convinced you this is “good for the economy.”

The Fed’s yearly calendar typically includes four meetings with policy statements in March, June, September and December. The Fed doesn’t convene in May or October and calls an abbreviated November conclave ahead of the US election cycle.

Central banks were considered lenders of last resort under the Thornton-Bagehot (badge-it) model from the UK. They took only good collateral for monetary support (limited by gold and silver) and charged high interest rates.  Central banks were not seen as the fiscal pantheon but a lifeline for only those capable of surviving.

Thus, economies washed out failure.  Economic crises throughout history always trace to the overextension of credit. They are normal parts of the tension between human fear and greed.

Today, central banks take bad collateral and offer low rates. They prevent failure. That truncates the market mechanisms wanting to remove excess capacity when credit is overextended. It obviates competition and promotes monopolism (then government decries business practices).

Failure transfers from economies to the public balance sheet (and citizens bemoan these bailouts that are only possible through the central bank). I’m sure it’ll all work out.  Cough, cough.

Market Structure Sentiment is a constant meter of human fear and greed, through stock-picking, macroeconomic musings, quantitative models and speculation.  We don’t need to make monetary policy a separate input. The behavior of money already tells us what people think.

Money is the drug. The Fed is the dealer. 

Broad Market Sentiment told us in April the monetary party was over. That’s when money stopped flooding to equities and Broad Market Sentiment stopped rising toward 7.0 and stalled near 6.0.  Broad Market Sentiment is falling at an accelerating rate now.

We like to track daily behavioral change in the S&P 500.  Most times it runs from basis points to a few percentages. June 14, with Sentiment accelerating down, behavioral change mushroomed to 14%.

Not good.

We’re all on the Money Highway, public companies. You can have the best strategy for driving 55 (Sammy Hagar notwithstanding! Musical humor for you oldsters like me.). But if the Fed governs the freeway to 30mph, you’ll be stuck in the traffic, no way out.

And you should be measuring the behavior of money because it will tell you what everyone is doing. It’ll tell you what your stock pickers think. It’ll tell you if Passive money is coming or going. If you’re in deals, it’ll tell you if that deal gets done or gets competition.

So, is the Money Highway crumbling? The dollar is rising despite the Fed’s best efforts.  It gets hoarded into assets, and then prices stop rising. I don’t know if we’re about to tip over. I do know that every market correction in the modern era has been preceded by the same data we see now.

I wish we could all get off the Money Highway and take the backroads.

Blunderbuss

Do stores sell coats in the summer? 

No, they sell bathing suits. They match product to consumer.  Do you, investor-relations professionals?

I’ll tell you what I mean.  First, here’s a tease:  I recorded a panel yesterday with the Nasdaq’s Chris Anselmo and Kissell Research Group’s Dr. Robert Kissell on How New Trading Patterns Affect IR.

It airs at 4p ET June 22 during the 2021 NIRI Annual Virtual Conference.  Root around in the couch cushions of your IR budget and find some coins and join us.  We’ll be taking questions live around the panel.  Sling some heckling if you want!  It’s a great program.

Now, back to matching product to consumer.  The IR outreach strategy for maintaining relationships with investors often resembles a blunderbuss. Unless you went to elementary school when I did and saw pictures of pilgrims sporting guns with barrels shaped like flugelhorns, you probably don’t know what I’m talking about.

You threw some stuff in the barrel and loaded it with powder and ignited it and hoped some of what belched out went in the general direction you were pointing.

Illustration 165213327 © Dennis Cox | Dreamstime.com

If you don’t have anything better I guess it works. But the IR profession shouldn’t be blunderbussing wildly around.

I get it, Tim.  Be targeted in our outreach.

No, I mean sell your product to consumers who’ll buy it.  Your product is your stock.  Your story is a narrative that may or may not match your product.

Huh?

Stay with me.  I’ll explain.  This is vital.   

Think of it this way. REI is an outdoors store.  It’ll sell you cycling stuff and camping gear in the summer, and skiing gear and coats in the winter.  The data analytics they use are pretty simple: The season changes.

In the stock market, the seasons are relentlessly changing but the temperature doesn’t rise and fall in predictable quadrants to tell you if igloos or swimsuits are in. But the BEHAVIORAL DATA wax and wane like many small seasons.

The Russell 2000 value index is up 30% this year. The Russell 2000 growth index has risen just 3.8%.  Is value more appealing than growth?  No, as both Benzinga and the Wall Street Journal reported, GME and AMC rank 1-2 in the index.

The crafters of the indices didn’t suppose that movie theaters in the age of Covid or a business built on selling games that have moved online were growth businesses.

They’re not. But the products are. These are extreme cases but it happens all the time.

CVX, market cap $210 billion, is in both Value and Momentum State Street SPDR (S&P Depositary Receipts) Exchange Traded Funds. It’s got both characteristics AT DIFFERENT TIMES.

AAPL, in 299 ETFs, is used for focus value, dividend strategies, technology 3x bull leveraged exposure, high growth, luxury goods, risk-manager and climate-leadership investing, among a vast array of other reasons.

Look up your own stock and see what characteristics are prompting ETF ownership.  That’s data you can use.  Don’t know what to do? Ask us. We’ll help.

How can ETFs with diametrically opposed objectives use the same stocks? That’s something every investor-relations professional needs to know. ETFs control $6 trillion in the US alone. They’re not pooled investments and they don’t hold custodial accounts like mutual funds.

Should the IR profession understand what the money is doing in the stock market?

Set that aside for now. There’s an immediate lesson to help us stop behaving like blunderbusses.  Stocks constantly change. I think rather than targeting specific investors, you should build a big tent of folks you know.

And you should RECONNECT with them in highly specific, data-driven ways.  If you just call investors you know to follow up, you’re doing IR like a cave man. Stop doing that.

The deck is already stacked against investors focused on story.  They need all our help they can get! I’ve explained it many times.  Rules promote average prices and harm outliers.  Passives want average prices. Stock pickers want outliers.

If we want investors interested in our stories to succeed, use DATA to help them.

Like this. We met with a Financials component yesterday.  The data show a big surge in Passive money in patterns.  You won’t see it in settlement data.  It never leaves the custodian because it the same money moving from indexes to ETFs and back.

But ModernIR can see it in near realtime.

The IR department should be calling core GROWTH names, even though it’s a value story.  That wave of Passive money is going to lift the stock. Growth money buys appreciation. Value money buys opportunity.

You want to move from blunderbuss to data expert in modern markets?  Ask us.  You don’t have to be way behind like the Russell indices.  You can be way ahead, like a modern IRO.

Get rid of that blunderbuss, pilgrim.   

Rewards of Risk

Investor relations involves risk.  And that’s good. 

Don’t you mean investing involves risk, Tim? And why is it good?

Well, yes, investing is a risky endeavor. But I mean the role of “investor relations,” the liaison to Wall Street at public companies, requires taking risk.

It’s not a “yes” job.  You’ll need the courage and occasional temerity to tell your executive team and board what each needs to understand about the equity market – and occasionally what not to do.

Time would fail me to tell you about all the times I’ve had conversations with IR folks who say, “I’m not sure my Board is willing to….” Pick your thing.

In my case, it happens when I explain that 10% of trading volume is rational stock-picking.

Some recoil in horror.  What am I going to do if the executives know 90% of our trading volume is something we can’t control?

If they don’t know, you’ll face unrealistic expectations.  Considered that possibility?  If your board and executive team don’t know how the stock market works, is that a good thing or a bad thing?

We’re still getting to what’s good about risk.

It’s our job to know how the stock market works and to be able to articulate what’s controllable and what’s not. Take the so-called meme stocks like AMC.  I credit AMC leadership for raising capital while the market embraces the stock.  They didn’t make the rules that permit crazy trading. They’re adapting.

And do you know how a stock with 450 million shares outstanding can trade 650 million in a day?  Yes, Fast Trading, in part.  Machines moving the same shares over and over.

But the big reason reaches back to the basics of how today’s stock market works under contemporary rules.  All shares must pass through a broker-dealer. All stocks must trade between the best bid to buy and offer to sell.  And all brokers who are registered to trade stocks must make a minimum bid and offer, both, of 100 shares.

Well, what if there aren’t 100 shares available?  There are no appliances available to install tomorrow in your house.  The electrical market is running out of GFCI outlets. Sherwin Williams is running out of paint.  You may not be able to get a load of lumber.

Yet somehow, magically, there is always 100 shares of your stock for sale. 

It’s not magic. It’s rules.  Rules require brokers and stock exchanges to connect to each other electronically. If they’re registered and not using “Unlisted Trading Privileges” to bid or offer rather than do both, brokers must commit to 100 shares each direction.

Well, it’s impossible. There aren’t 100 shares of everything available at every moment without artificial intervention.

So the SEC let’s brokers create shares under Rule 203(b)(2), the market-maker short-locate exemption, in order to assure 100 are always available.  Well, technically they’re shorting it without having to locate it.  Those trades have to be marked short.  And AMC has had short volume of 50-60% of total trading for two weeks running.

Brokers are manufacturing stock. That’s how the meme stocks scream. Brokers are selling buyers shares that don’t exist. If you’re in the IR profession, should you know these things?

So, why is risk good?  Mitch Daniels, President of Purdue University and ever a ready source for well-turned phrases, told graduates last month, “Our faculty has determined that data analysis, as we now call it, should be as universal a part of a Boilermaker education as English composition.”

We IR people are good at English composition. We need to be great at data.  Because, quoting President Daniels, certainty is an illusion. Just like those shares of AMC, and a swath of the whole market.

But leaders offer the capacity to understand the knowns and unknowns and make confident choices and recommendations.

I think data analytics are as vital to the IR job now as knowing Reg FD and Sarbanes-Oxley. The market translates our companies into digital value.  We need to understand it.

Otherwise we’ll be too fearful to lead our execs and boards boldly through the market we’ve got today.  Sure, there’s risk.  But the rewards of bold leadership never go out of style.  And we need that now more than ever.

Characteristic Opportunity

I don’t think Harvard Business Review understands 21st century investor relations.

No offense to the smart folks there.  Authors Dennis Carey, Ram Charan and Bill McNabb are world-renowned and wrote for HBR on the Changing Role of the Investor Relations Officer.  It’s excerpted from a new book by the three.

They argue IR people need to be better communicators with Activists and index funds.

Okay.

They also say the IR job is often seen internally as a dead end. Hm. Never seen that or heard it. I’ve been in this profession for 26 years.

They say, “We know one private company in India, where the CEO has made his son the IRO in preparation for the top job.”

Well, Henry Ford III has been in IR for Ford under the expert tutelage of Lynn Tyson, and he’s on the board of directors. IR is the best gig in the company for developing comprehensive strategic understanding of the business, and it’s no dead end.

But that’s not what I mean. There’s opportunity like springtime (like this photo Monday in Steamboat at the Botanic Park).

These seasoned advisors suppose IR remains about strategic communication, now filtered through governance, Activism, and so on.

I was looking over the educational offerings from IR chapters across the fruited plain.  Where are the programs on advising executives and boards on strategic capital allocation in a market dominated by passive money?

How about improving buyback accountability and capital-allocation efficiency with data?  The effect of spinoffs on capital-formation?  Maximizing your characteristics for passive money? The role of derivatives in the US equity market?

What of raising equity when you can rather than when you need it?  Efficiently matching secondary offerings for controlling holders to market trends? What is liquidity and can we improve ours?  What motivates ETF market-makers?  How does retail order flow affect our stock? Can we be Gamestopped?

These topics are every bit as relevant as managing your IR career, running an investor day, targeting investors, ESG, or pick your thing pervading the program docket.

Maybe more so.  I’ll give you three examples.

Mark Bendza at Honeywell (market cap $155 billion) is a sterling example of your contemporary investor-relations officer.  He realized that by shifting his stock-listing to the Nasdaq, HON would be in the Big Three indices – S&P 500 (SPX), Dow Jones Industrials (DJIA), Nasdaq 100 (QQQ).

He expertly pitched the Board of Directors (we armed him with data and facts) and they agreed.  That’s positioning your company in front of the money.  No amount of telling the story could come close to so canny a move to maximize HON’s characteristics.

That’s a word that should be right in the heart of the IR lexicon.  Characteristics.

Another example.  A homebuilder decided to begin paying a dividend.  That’s a mad GROWTH industry in Post-pandemic America. Pretty soon you’ll need gold bullion to buy lumber. We had to table a remodel project ourselves because the cost of things has become tulip-bulb crazy.

And straight into those teeth, this homebuilder decides to make its strategic capital allocation plan a dividend.  Genius. Accidental or not!  Why? Because it opens access to hundreds of billions of potential passive dollars that want YIELD.

Without telling the story at all.

That’s massively efficient. And anyone can do it.

Finally, a small-cap growth company recognized that growth could not come on story alone.  About 95% of US market capitalization is in the top thousand stocks, and the entry bar is about $5 billion.  How do you get over that bar and in front of all that money?

IR has an opportunity to shape that plan.  This is a great company. They could file a shelf registration for several billion dollars of stock and commit to an aggressive M&A plan – and place that stock as needed with the very investors they now have.

And it’s entirely possible to go from $500 million to $5 billion in a couple years.  Money wants SIZE.

And traders, returns using market structure are better with size too, because size leads to predictable Sentiment.

This is where IR should be playing in the 21st century, without neglecting the traditional things. But you cannot rely on tradition in modern markets where characteristics are more significant and impactful than telling the story.

It’s an opportunity.

Your Umbrella

Leaving South Carolina is hard.

It’s captivating. We had not a bad meal from Savannah to Pawleys Beach. Perfect weather (the surprising part). But always know where your umbrella is.

And thanks to Steve Hufford at Blackbaud for the tip about the Angel Oak Tree south of Charleston.  It’s hundreds of years old and growing majestically still (see photo).

It’s rather like the stock market. Time marches on.  Look, there will be a day when the cavalier treatment of money punctuating modern finance will have consequences. Money isn’t a tree and doesn’t grow on them.

There is, though, an opportunity for a lesson here.  Is “sell in May and go away” a thing? How could it be, if the largest managers of investments in US markets now are diversified passive funds?

“Sell in May” is a tradition. Stock-pickers would cash out of equities and leave the city for the cape. Maybe to Coastal Carolina. I’m envious. You?

But it’s a figure of speech, a trope, an anachronism.  Passive models don’t cash out of equities. Index funds track the basket. Diversified target-date money follows the plan.

All the time.

We humans often hew to tradition long past its due-by date.  It’s a feature of our nature that has marked historical epochs, sometimes ignominiously.

We’re doing it in investor-relations. Do we really know what drives shareholder value, or do we do the things we traditionally have because it’s what’s always been done?

What if we didn’t hold earnings calls?  Would it make any difference?  Berkshire Hathaway doesn’t. The company reports results on Saturdays by press release. BRK.A has materially outperformed the SPX the past decade.  The SPX has materially outperformed most stock-picking funds the past decade.

It’s why ModernIR argues that IR should be a data analytics and management function. If the money in the main now follows models, why do we still do all the stuff we did when most of it picked stocks?  I’d argue it’s tradition. It’s certainly not data.

Back to our theme, significant moves in markets in May then are likely to be coincidental.  We had them last week, attributed for one day to inflation fears, until the next day and the day after that stocks soared hundreds of points.

What happened to inflation fears?  Pundits were conspicuously silent those two days. And I get it.  If you’ve just declared that inflation has spooked equities, and the spookiness evaporates, you’re not sure what to say next.

Conventional wisdom, another way to say tradition, argues inflation harms equities. That’s wrong.  Equities absorb inflation. Only one thing – higher interest rates – would alter that calculus, and higher rates are a RESPONSE to inflation, not a consequence of it. And people wrongly mistake inflation to mean higher rates.

Rising rates would bankrupt the United States government.  Not likely to happen.  Yet, anyway.

What WILL arrive at some point is the actual consequence of inflation: deflation.  When prices rise in response to excess supplies of money, they will at some point stop rising (when the excess money is absorbed by risk assets like stocks) and fall.

Did you know that from 1791 to 1913, pay for members of Congress didn’t much change?  Thanks to a sound currency and improving output, money went further as purchasing power rose, giving them 50% more money over the course of a century — without a raise.

It’s why I argue that monetary policy should promote purchasing power – not growth, price-stability (an utter disaster), full employment (not the domain of the central bank) or any other thing.  If our money goes farther, we need less of it. That should be the aim.

We’re doing the opposite. So unless and until money stops flowing to stocks, the equity tree will grow. 

The flow is slowing though. Broad Market Sentiment, our ten-point index of waxing and waning demand for equities, has been stuck around 6.0 for a month. It means supply and demand are equalizing.  A normal market moves down to 4.0, and back over 6.0. Over and over. Because more money flows to equities than leaves them.

It’s as simple as the math of tides. What comes in goes out.  And starts over.  Sentiment cannot stay at 6.0 without reverting to 5.0 or lower.

So.

We MAY be approaching the first period where outflows exceed inflows since the Pandemic. We’re not there yet. Data say stocks could be up modestly into expirations to finish the week.  

But there’s a scent in the air, wetness on the breeze, the first feel of rain like you’re walking down Oglethorpe past square on square in Savannah, this one burying Nathaniel Green, that one with the Mercer House on the north end, and you feel it.  A raindrop.

No need for worry. But know where your umbrella is.