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Minnows

Softbank bet big on call-options and Technology stocks are sinking.

So goes the latest big story. Business-reporting wants a whale, a giant trade that went awry.  A cause for why Tech stocks just corrected (off 10%).

In reality the market today rarely works that way.  Rather than one big fish there are a thousand minnows, swimming schools occasionally bringing the market down.

We wrote about this last week, regarding short volume. You should read it. We highlighted a key risk right before the market fell.

The same things driving stocks up unassailably toward the heavens, which should first have gotten our attention, often return them to earth. But we humans see no flaws in rising stocks.

Back to Softbank. If you’ve not read the stories, we’ll summarize. CNBC, the Wall Street Journal and other sources have reported on unconfirmed speculation the big Japanese private equity firm bet the equivalent of $50 billion on higher prices for Tech stocks.

Maybe it’s true.  Softbank owned about $4 billion of Tech stocks in the last 13Fs for the quarter ended June 30 (the filings the SEC wants to make less useful, by the way).

Rumor is Softbank levered those holdings by buying call options, rights to own shares at below-market prices if they’re worth more than a threshold level later, on big Tech stocks like MSFT and AAPL.

Here’s where the story ends and market structure begins. The truth is the market neither requires a leviathan to destabilize it, nor turns on this colossus or that. It’s minnows.

It’s always thrumming and humming in the lines and cables and boxes of the data network called the stock market.  And everything is magnified.

A single trade for a single stock, coupled with an order to sell options or buy them, sets off a chain of events.  Machines send signals like radar – ping! – into the network to learn if someone might take the other side of this trade.

Simultaneously, lurking mechanical predators are listening for radar and hearing the pings hitting a stock – MSFT! Wait, there are trades hitting the options market.  Get over to both fast and raise the price!

Compound, compound, compound.

Prices rise.  Retail traders say to themselves, “Let’s buy tech stocks!  Wait, let’s buy options too!”

And the same lurking machines buy those trades from the pipelines of online brokerage firms, assessing the buy/sell imbalance. They rush to the options market to raise prices there too, because once the machines own the trades from retail investors, they are no longer customer orders.  And the machines calculate demand and run prices up.

And index futures contracts rise, and the options on those. Then index funds using options and futures to true up index-tracking lift demand for options and futures, magnifying their own upside.

Read prospectuses, folks. Most index funds can spend up to 10% of assets on substitutes for tracking purposes, and a giant futures contract expires the last trading day of each month that helps indexed money square its assets with the benchmark.

And then the arbitragers for Exchange Traded Funds drive up the prices of ETF shares to keep pace with rising stocks, options, futures.

And there are options on ETFs.

Every price move is magnified by machines.  Up and up and up go stocks and people wonder does the stock market reflect reality?

The thing about prices is you never know precisely when they hit a zenith, the top of the arc. The last pump of your childhood legs in the playground swing, and that fleeting weightlessness.

And then whoosh!  Down you come.

Did Softbank make money or lose it?  I don’t know and it makes no difference. What I just described is relentlessly occurring every fraction of every second in the stock and options markets and there comes a moment of harmonic convergence after long arcs up and down, up and down, like children on swing sets.

It’s a thousand cuts, not a sword. Schools of minnows, not a whale.  The problem isn’t Softbank. It’s a market that depends on the machine-driven electromagnification of every action and reaction.

The reason we know is we measure it. For public companies, and investors. You can wait for stories after the fact surmising sea monsters swam through. Or you can watch it on the screen and see all the minnows, as we do (read last week’s MSM).

What’s next? The same thing. Again.

The Little Short

In Michael Lewis’s The Big Short, a collection of eccentrics finds a flaw in real estate securities and shorts them.  The movie is great, the book even better.

Somebody will write a book about the 2020 stock market (anyone?) flaw.

The flaw? Depends who you ask. Writing for Barron’s, Ben Levisohn notes ZM is worth more in the market on $660 million of sales for the quarter than is IBM on $18 billion.

TSLA is up a thousand percent the last year, sales are up 3%. NVDA is trading at a hundred times quarterly revenue. AAPL is up 160% on 6% sales growth.

I know a lot about fundamental valuation after 25 years in investor relations. But 20 of those years were consumed with market structure, which our models show mechanically overwhelms fundamentals.

Why is market structure irrational?

Because most of the money in the market since Reg NMS isn’t rational. And still investor-relations professionals drag me to a whiteboard and sketch out how the performance of the stock – if it’s up – can be justified by prospects, or if it’s down is defying financials.

Market structure, rules governing how stocks trade, is agnostic about WHY stocks trade. The flaw is process has replaced purpose. Money inured to risk and reality can do anything. Just like government money from the Federal Reserve.

And yet that’s not what I’m talking about today.  The market is the Little Short.  Nobody is short stocks. I use the term “nobody” loosely.

Let me give you some history.

First, ignore short interest. It’s not a useful metric because it was created in 1975 before electronic markets, ETFs, Reg NMS, Fast Traders, exchange-traded derivatives, blah, blah. It’s like medieval costumes in Tom Cruise’s redux of Top Gun. It doesn’t fit.

After the financial crisis, rules for banks changed. The government figured out it could force banks to own its debt as “Tier 1 Capital,” and the Fed could drive down interest rates so they’d have to keep buying more.

Voila! Create a market for your own overspending. The Basel Accords do the same thing.

Anyway, so big banks stopped carrying equity inventories because they couldn’t do both.  Meanwhile the SEC gave market-makers exemptions from limitations on shorting.

Presto, Fast Traders started shorting to provide securities to the market. And that became the new “inventory.” Ten years later, short volume – borrowed stock – averages 45% of trading volume.

It was over 48% this spring.  And then it imploded in latter August, currently standing at 42.6%. The FAANGs, the giant stocks rocketing the major measures into the stratosphere, show even more short paucity at just 39%.

Realize that the market was trading $500 billion of stock before August, about 12 billion shares daily. So what’s the point? Short volume is inventory today, not mainly bets on declining stocks. It’s the supply that keeps demand from destabilizing prices, in effect. A drop from 48% to 43% is a 10% swoon, a cranial blow to inventory.

Higher short volume restrains prices because it increases the available supply. If demand slows, then excess supply weighs on prices, and stocks decline. We’ve been measuring this feature of market structure for a decade. It’s well over 80% correlated.

So the absence of inventory has the opposite impact on prices. They rise.  If the whole market lacks inventory, stocks soar. And the lowest inventory right now is in the FAANGs, which are leading the stampeding bulls.

Thinking about prices as rational things is wholly flawed. It’s not how the market works, from supply-chain, to routing, to quotes, prices, execution.

We thought temporal tumult in behaviors two weeks ago would derail this market. It didn’t. Or hasn’t yet. The big drop in shorting followed, suggesting those patterns included largescale short-covering by market-makers for ETFs.

When the market does finally reverse – and it will, and it’s going to be a freak show of a fall too, on market structure – low short volume will foster seismic volatility. Then shorting will explode, exacerbating the swoon as supply mushrooms and prices implode.

The good news is we can measure these data, and the behaviors responsible, and the impact on price. There’s no need to ever wonder if your stock, public companies, or your portfolio, traders, is about to step on a land mine.  We’re just waiting now to see how the Little Short plays out.

Indexed

Is it good to be part of the collective?

From Karl Marx to Friedrich Hayek, polemics ring like swords and plowshares on anvils.

But that’s not what we mean.

When Vanguard in 1975 created the 500 Fund, many called it “Bogle’s Folly,” suggesting founder Jack Bogle’s plan to buy and hold a collection of stocks on the notion that the wisdom of crowds was better than that of individuals was daft. If you have time, this is a great read.

Today the Admiral Shares version (the original fund closed to new investors and Vanguard points them to its Exchange Traded Fund VOO tracking the S&P 500, with $560 billion of assets) manages over $530 billion of indexed money tied to the S&P 500.

Jack Bogle was not daft. Passive money dominates, and it exploded after Regulation National Market System, the stock market’s equivalent of the IRS code, ordered stocks to trade at an average price by imposing the National Best Bid or Offer (the NBBO).

Now Dow Jones S&P is reshuffling the Dow Jones Industrial Average (DJIA), removing XOM, RTX and PFE and replacing them with HON, CRM and AMGN.

Aside: I’m representing our trading decision-support firm, Market Structure EDGE, at the Benzinga Trading Boot Camp this Friday at noon ET. It’ll be a good 30-min look at market structure.

Back to the narrative, if you follow the money and it’s benchmarked, then indexing should be good for investors, good for public companies. By extension, getting booted from the collective is bad. Indeed, the issues ousted were down, the ones added were up, though changes don’t occur till Aug 31.

It’s worth noting that a key futures contract used to true up S&P 500 exposure and hedge general market moves expires the last trading day of the month, which is Aug 31. All six stocks are in the S&P 500 and AMGN is in the Nasdaq 100 too.

And all are in many ETFs. RTX populates the fewest (150), AMGN the most (285) with the rest scattered between. XOM is in 269 despite declining 72% year-to-date. Why would the collective choose XOM when it’s down? And Energy is just 3% of the market?

Because ETFs use stocks as collateral. Market-makers trade XOM for S&P 500 ETF shares because they profit on the spread. Sponsors trade it back for appreciated ETFs but supply less than they received. Both parties win, and the sponsor earns ETF fees to boot.

Few know what I just described. It’s the principal objective of the parties trading ETF shares wholesale. If you want to understand, ask me.

CRM is in 208 ETFs and up 29% this year and Tech is 27% of the DJIA. In fact, Tech is the trigger here. AAPL announced a 4-for-1 stock-split that will drop it sharply in the price-weighted DJIA. To offset that effect, Dow Jones is rejiggering.

You still with me?

AAPL’s coming stock-split whacks the DJIA from 27% Tech to 20%, so CRM joins, getting the index back to 23% (thanks to CNBC’s good take for that insight).

CRM instantly becomes #6 in the DJIA, AMGN #3 (is it now overexposed to Healthcare, with UNH #1 after the AAPL split?), HON #11.

In a sense, these moves are risk-management for the index creator. Depend too much on one stock and your index can get shellacked. Out over the skis in a sector? Pick somebody who gets you lined up with gravity.  CRM is in because it puts Tech in a reasonable range again in the index.

It’s a profound point, frankly. The index is less about the economy, more about the collective. Not that there’s anything wrong with that – unless you think the index is about the economy.

Now, what should we conclude about getting indexed, or not? It matters little if you’re big. All six of these issues will continue to be ETF fodder. None has an Engagement score over 75% though. It means the story struggles to stand clear from the collective in each case.

For public companies, it shifts the IR job from only the story, to measuring and reporting on the demographic effects of the money. It’s powerful. We have that data.

And investors should use market structure, not just fundamentals. If you want to know more, tune to Benzinga Premarket Prep today (Aug 26) at 835a ET (there’s a replay).  I’ll be talking about our sister company, Market Structure EDGE.

Mini Me

Minis abound.

You can trade fractions of shares.  Heck, the average trade-size is barely 100 shares, and 50% of trades are less than that.  Minis, as it were.

There are e-mini futures contracts on the S&P 500 index, and the newer micro e-mini futures product is the CME’s most successful, says the derivatives market operator.

Starting Aug 31 there will be micro options on e-mini futures for the S&P 500 and the Nasdaq 100. As of Aug 10, there are mini CBOE VIX volatility futures too, with a 10th of the face value of the conventional contract (expiring Aug 19).

One can spend less to have exposure to stocks and market-moves. The same notion animated a push toward decimalization before 2001 when it was implemented.

Decimals didn’t kill the stock market but they gutted analyst-coverage. Spreads – that is, the difference between the cost to buy and sell – funded research. In the 1990s there were on average 60 underwriters per IPO, and there were hundreds of those.

Today, there are five underwriters on average, the data show, and IPOs don’t keep pace with companies leaving markets through deals.  The Wilshire 5000, which in 1998 had 7,200 components, today has 2,495, factoring out micro-caps comprising just basis points of total market-capitalization.

Half the companies in the Wilshire 5000 have no analysts writing, while the top few hundred where trading supports it are festooned with quills – pens – like porcupines.

I think the inverse correlation between markets and the proliferation of minis bears some connection. It’s not the only thing, or perhaps even the biggest. But there’s a pattern.

And you should understand the market so you know what to expect from it. After all, who thought the March bear turn for stocks would be the shortest in history?

No one.  Including us.  Market structure, the way the ecosystem functions, explains it far better than fundamentals. But read to the end. We’ll say more.

Are the minis playing a role?

Look I’m not knocking fractional shares or tiny derivatives.  Rather, let’s think about the ramifications of growing layers separating trading from underlying assets.  Consider:

  • You can trade the stocks of the Nasdaq 100, the largest hundred at the exchange.
  • You can trade them in fractions without paying a commission.
  • You can trade the QQQ, the popular Exchange Traded Fund (ETF) that tracks the performance of the 100. ETFs as we’ve explained repeatedly are substitutes for stocks, not pooled interest in owning them.
  • You can trade e-mini futures contracts on the Nasdaq 100.
  • And now you can trade micro options on the e-mini Nasdaq 100 futures.
  • And you can trade options on the QQQ, and every component of the Nasdaq 100.
  • And you can trade the S&P 500 with exactly the same kinds of instruments, and SPY, the ETF.

It’s ingenious product-creation, and we’re not criticizing the innovators behind them.  It’s that I don’t think many people ask what effect the pursuit of mini increments of investment will have on market-behavior and prices, things that matter particularly to public companies depending on the market as a rational barometer.

And investors join public companies in caring how markets work.  Derivatives are becoming an ever-larger part of market volume. They’re layers of separation from underlying assets that become ends unto themselves, especially as increments shrink.

Why trade the stocks? Trade the rights on how they may behave – in tiny slices.

It disguises real supply and demand, which drives markets up relentlessly. Until that stops. Then markets collapse violently. These are chronic conditions in markets with too many derivatives.

Just saying.

Speaking of the market, it did as we wrote last week, with Market Structure Sentiment™ bottoming Aug 7, presaging gains a week out. Now options are expiring (including the VIX today), and Sentiment is topping, and behavioral volatility is massive, larger than we’ve measured at any point in the pandemic.

Maybe it’s nothing. Sometimes those data pass without a ripple. The FAANGs look good (low shorting, bottomed Sentiment). But we may be at the top of the Ferris Wheel after all those minis drove us this short, sharp way back up.

Big Blanket

The US stock market trades about $500 billion of stock daily, the great majority of it driven by machines turning it into trading aerosol, a fine mist sprayed everywhere. So tracking ownership-changes is hard. And unless we speak up it’s about to get a lot harder.

In 1975 when the government was reeling like a balloon in the wind after cutting the dollar loose from its anchoring gold, Congress decided to grant itself a bunch of authority over the free stock market, turning into the system that it now is.

How?  Congress added Section 11A to the Securities Act, which in 2005 became Regulation National Market System governing stock-trading today – the reason why Market Structure Analytics, which we offer to both public companies and investors, are accurately predictive about short-term price-changes.

And Congress decided to create a disclosure standard for investors, amending the Securities Act with section 13F. That’s what gave rise to the quarterly reports, 13Fs, that both investors and public companies rely on to know who owns shares.

I use the phrase “rely on” loosely as the reports are filed 45 days after the end of each quarter, which means the positions could be totally different by the time data is released. It’s a standard fit for the post office. Mail was the means of mass communication in 1975.

Currently, the standard applies to funds with $100 million or more in assets. Many managers divide assets into sub-funds to stay below that threshold.  So most companies have shareholders that show up in no reports. But at least they have some idea.

Well, out of the blue the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) has decided to lift the threshold to $3.5 billion to reflect, I guess, the collapse of dollar purchasing power.

But nothing else changes!  What would possess a regulatory body ostensibly responsible for promoting fairness and transparency to blanket the market in opacity while keeping in place time periods for reporting that have existed since 1975?

I’m reminded of a great line from the most quotable movie in modern history, Thank You For Smoking: I cannot imagine a way in which you could have $#!!@ up more.

Public companies have been asking the SEC for decades to modernize 13F reporting. Dodd Frank legislation passed in 2010 included a mandate for monthly short-position reporting. It’s not happened because the law put no timeframe on implementation.

But how stupid would it be to require monthly short-position reporting while letting long positions remain undisclosed till 45 days after the end of each quarter?

Much of the world has stricter standards of shareholder disclosure.  Australian markets empower companies and stock exchanges to require of investors full disclosure of their economic interest, on demand.

Our regulators appear to be going the opposite direction.

Australia offers an idea, SEC. If you’re going darken the capital markets with a new (non) disclosure standard, then how about empowering companies to demand from holders at any time a full picture of what they own and how they own it?

Investors, I get it. You don’t want anyone knowing what you have.  Well, it seems to work just fine in Australia, home to a vibrant capital market.

And let’s bring it around to market structure.  There is a woefully tilted playing field around ETFs.  A big investor, let’s say Vanguard, could give a billion-dollar basket of stocks to an Authorized Participant like Morgan Stanley off-market with no trading commissions and no taxes, in exchange for a billion dollars of ETF shares.

None of that counts as fund-turnover.

It could happen by 4p ET and be done the next day.  No trading volume. And then Vanguard could come right back with the ETF shares – again, off-market, doesn’t count as fund-turnover – and receive the stocks back.

Why would investors do that? To wash out capital gains. To profit on the changing prices of stocks and ETFs. This is a massive market – over $500 billion every month in US stocks alone.  It’s already over $3 TRILLION in total this year.

What’s wrong with it?  All other investors have to actually buy and sell securities, and compete with other forces, and with volatility, and pay commissions, pay taxes, alter outcomes by tromping through supply and demand.  Oh, and every single trade is handled by an intermediary (even if it’s a direct-access machine).

So how is that fair?

Well, couldn’t all investors do what Vanguard did?  No. Retail investors cannot.  Yes, big investors could take their stock-holdings to Morgan Stanley and do the same thing. But trading stocks and ETF shares back and forth to profit on price-changes while avoiding taxes and commissions isn’t long-term investment.

That the ETF market enjoys such a radical advantage over everything else is a massive disservice to public companies and stock-pickers.

And after approving the ETF market, you now, SEC, want to yank a blanket over shareholdings to boot?  Really?  Leave us in 1975 but 35 times worse?

Market Structure Analytics will show you what’s happening anyway. And nearly in real time. But that’s not the point. The point is fairness and transparency. Every one of us should comment on this rule.

Power of Two

We’re coming to the end of two Coronavirus quarters. What happens now?

In a word, July.  As to what July brings, it’s summer in the northern hemisphere, winter down under.

It’s also the end of a remarkable period in stocks. I don’t mean rising or falling, volatility, the invincible-Alexander-the-Great-Macedonian-phalanx of the stock market (your history tidbit…you can look it up).

By “end” we don’t mean demise.  Though a demise is probably coming. More on that later. We mean the end of epic patterns.

We wrote last week about index-rebalances delayed since December.  In patterns observable through ModernIR behavioral analytics, the effort to complete them stretched unremitting from May 28 to June 18.

Yes, June 19 was a muscular volume day with quad-witching and we saw BIG Exchange Traded Fund (ETF) price-setting that day in many stocks. (Note: ETFs are substitutes for stocks that are easily traded but entitle owners to no underlying assets save the ETF shares.)

But the patterns strapping May to June like a Livestrong bracelet (wait, are those out?) ended almost everywhere June 18.  The effort reflected work by about $30 trillion, adding up money marked to MSCI, FTSE Russell and S&P Dow Jones, to match underlying construction.

Funds moved before rebalances. And the biggest components, ETF data indicate – really, they dwarf everything else – are AAPL and MSFT. Patterns show money piled like a rugby scrum into AAPL call options in early June, and then plowed headlong into AAPL equity between June 12-18.

It’s good business if you can get it, knowing the stock will inevitably rise because of its mass exposure to indexes and how its price then when last money square-danced into an Allemande Left with indexers in December 2019 was about $280.

How many of you remember when AAPL was down to about 5% of the computing market, most of that in academia, and it looked like MSFT would steamroll it right out of business?  And then MSFT was yesterday’s news, washed up, a boomer in a Slack world.

Today both say, Ha! Suckers!

MSFT patterns are like AAPL’s but less leveraged, explaining the divergence in performance over the past year. AAPL is up 84%, MSFT about half that.  You can see here how both have performed versus the Tech-heavy QQQ (Nasdaq 100 from Invesco) and the SPY, State Street’s proxy for the S&P 500.

AAPL and MSFT have pulled the market along like Charles Atlas (and his doppelganger) towing a Pennsylvania railcar (more arcane and anachronistic history for you).

That ended, at least for now.  The Russell reconstitution continues through Friday but in patterns at this point it appears money has already changed mounts, shifted chairs.

The marvel is the magnitude of the effects of these events, and the power of two – AAPL and MSFT.

You’re thinking, “What about the rest of the FAANGs?”

MSFT isn’t one but we include it, and oftentimes now TSLA and AMD.  FB, AMZN, NFLX, GOOG – incisors dripping less saliva than AAPL – are massive, yes. But they don’t pack the ETF power of the two.

Let me give you some data. There are 500 Financials stocks, about 400 Healthcare, around 300 Consumer Discretionary.  Tech is around 200.  Most of these sectors are Oversold, and there’s a lot of shorting. The FAANGs are Overbought and more than 50% short, collectively.

The few outweigh the many.

And meanwhile, Market Structure Sentiment™ is both bottomed and lacking the maw it signaled. Either we skip across the chasm for now, or it trips us soon (stocks love to render fools of soothsayers).

The salient point is that the market can’t be trusted to reflect views on Covid19, or trade with China, or the election in November, or economic data, or actions of the Federal Reserve (curiously the Fed’s balance sheet is tightening at the moment). It’s right now defined by the power of two.

Two legs.

We humans stand fine on two. Can the market?  We’re about to find out.  And the degree to which your shares are at risk, public companies, to those two legs, and your portfolio, investors, is measurable and quantifiable. Ask us, and we’ll show you.

Squid Ink

Is retail money creating a Pandemic Bubble? Sort of. Really, it’s Fast Traders turning those orders into clouds of squid ink.

There are 47 million customer accounts at Schwab, Fidelity, Ameritrade, E*Trade and Robinhood.  These big online brokers sell their flow to Citadel, Two Sigma, Susquehanna’s G1X options platform, Virtu, UBS, options trader Wolverine, and others.

Nearly all of the orders are “non-directed,” meaning the broker determines where to send them.  Also, more than three paragraphs of market structure goop and people grab a bottle of tequila and go back to day-trading.

So, let me explain.

Do you know CHK?  A shale-oil play, it’s on the ropes financially. In May it was below $8. Yesterday CHK was near $70 when it halted for news. Which never came, and trading resumed. (Note: A stock should never, ever be halted for news, without news.)

It closed down hard near $24. Rumors have flown for weeks it’ll file bankruptcy.  Why was it at $70? People don’t understand that public equity often becomes worthless if companies go bust. Debtholders convert to equity and wipe out the old shareholders.

Hertz (HTZ) went bankrupt May 26 and shares closed at $0.56.  Monday it was over $5.50, up about 900%. HTZ debt is trading at less than 40 cents on the dollar, meaning bondholders don’t think they’ll be made whole – and they’re senior to equity.

This is bubble behavior. And it abounds. Stocks trading under $1 are up on average 79% since March, according to a CNBC report.

ABIO, a Colorado biotech normally trading about 10,000 shares daily with 1.6 million shares out made inconsequential reference to a Covid preclinical project (translation: There’s nothing there). The stock exploded, trading 83 million shares on May 28, or roughly 50 times the shares outstanding.

Look at NKLA.  It’s been a top play for Robinhood clients and pandemic barstool sports day-trading. No products out yet, no revenue. DUO, an obscure Chinese tech stock trading on the Nasdaq yesterday jumped from about $10 to $129, closing above $47.

Heck, look at Macy’s.  M, many thought, was teetering near failure amidst total retail shutdown. From about $4.50 Apr 2, it closed over $9.50 by June 8.

W, the online retailer that’s got just what you need, is up 700% since its March low despite losing a billion dollars in 2019.

When day traders were partying like it was 1999, in 1999, stocks for businesses with no revenues and products boomed.  Then the Nasdaq lost 83% of its value.

About 95% of online-broker orders are sold to Fast Traders – the Citadels, the Two Sigmas, the Virtus.  They’re buying the tick data (all the prices) in fractions of seconds. They know what’s in the pipeline, and what’s not.

Big online brokers sell flow to guarantee execution to retail traders.  I shared my experience with GE trades. The problem is retail prices are the ammunition in the machine gun for Fast Traders. They know if clips are being loaded, or not. And since retail traders don’t direct their trades (they don’t tell the broker to send it to the NYSE, Nasdaq, Instinet, IEX, etc., to hide prices from Fast Traders), these are tracer rounds stitching market prices up and down wildly.

The Fast Traders buying it can freely splatter it all over the market in a frenzy of rapidly changing prices, the gun set on Full Automatic.

This is how Fast Traders use retail trades to cause Wayfair to rise 700%. The order flow bursts into the market like squid ink in the Caribbean (I’ve seen that happen snorkeling), and everyone is blinded until prices whoosh up 30%.

A money manager on CNBC yesterday was talking about the risk in HTZ. She said there were no HTZ shares to borrow. Even if you could, the cost was astronomical.

Being a market structure guy with cool market structure tools (you can use them too), I checked HTZ.  Nearly 56% of trading volume is short. Borrowed. And the pattern (see here) is a colossus of Fast Trading, a choreographed crescendo into gouting squid ink.

How? Two Sigma, Hudson River Trading, Quantlab, etc., Fast Trading firms, enjoy market-making exemptions. They don’t have to locate shares. As high-speed firms “providing liquidity,” regulators let them do with stocks what the Federal Reserve does with our money. Digitally manufacture it.

Because they buy the flow from 47 million accounts, they know how to push prices.

That’s how ABIO traded 83 million shares (60% of the volume – nearly 50 million shares – was borrowed May 28, the rest the same shares trading many times per second).

It’s how CHK exploded up and then imploded as the manufactured currency vanished. And when stocks are volatility halted – which happened about 40 times for CHK the past two trading days – machines can game their skidding stop versus continuing trades in the ETFs and options and peer-group stocks related to the industry or sector.

This squid ink is enveloping the market, amid Pandemic psychology, and the economic (and epic) collapse of fundamental stock-pricing.

Dangerous.

You gotta know market structure, public companies (ask us) and investors (try EDGE).

Benjamin Graham

A decade ago today, stocks flash-crashed.  I’m reminded that there are points of conventional market wisdom needing reconsideration.

It’s not because wisdom has diminished. It’s because the market always reflects what the money is doing, and it’s not Ben Graham’s market now. I’ll explain.

There are sayings like “sell in May and go away.”  Stocks fell last May. You’ll find bad Mays through the years. But to say it’s an axiom is to assert false precision.

Mind you, I’m not saying stocks will rise this month. They could plunge. The month isn’t the reason.

Graham protégé Warren Buffett told investors last weekend that he could find little value and had done the unthinkable: Reversed course on an investment. He dumped airlines. Buffett owned 10% of AAL, 11% of DAL, 11% of LUV and 9% of UAL.

Buffett and Berkshire Hathaway, sitting on $137 billion, believe in what Buffett termed “American Magic.” But they’ve sold, and gone away in May.

There are lots of those sayings. As January goes, so goes the market.  Santa Claus rallies come in December.  August is sleepy because the traders are at the Cape, the Hamptons.

These expectations for markets aren’t grounded in financial results or market structure.

Blackrock, Vanguard and State Street own 15-20% of the airlines, all of which are in 150-200 Exchange Traded Funds (ETF).  Passive money holds roughly half their shares.

Passives don’t care about the Hamptons, January, or May.  Or what Warren Buffett does.

In JBLU, which Buffett didn’t own, the Big Three own 20%, and Renaissance Technologies and Dimensional Fund Advisors, quants with track records well better than Buffett’s in the modern era, invest in the main without respect to fundamentals.

Unlike Buffett, RenTech and DFA continually wax and wane.

It’s what the money is doing now.  Its models, analysis, motivation, allocations, are not Benjamin Graham’s (he wrote Security Analysis, The Intelligent Investor, seminal tomes on sound stock-picking from the 1930s and 1940s).

And that’s only part of it.  New 13fs, regulatory details on share-ownership, will be out mid-May. Current data from the Sep-Dec 2019 quarters for DAL show net institutional ownership down 17m shares, or 3%.

But DAL trades over 70 million shares every day. Rewinding to the 200-day average before the market correction exploded volumes, DAL still traded over 16m shares daily.  The total net ownership change quarter-over-quarter was one day’s trading volume.

Since there are about 64 trading days in a quarter, and 13fs span two quarters, we could say DAL’s ownership data account for about 1/128th of trading volume. Even if we’re generous and measure a quarter, terribly little ownership data tie to volume.

Owners aren’t setting prices.

Benjamin Graham was right in the 1930s and 1940s.  He’s got relevance still for sound assessment of fundamental value.  But you can’t expect the market to behave like Benjamin Graham in 2020.

The bedrock principle in the stock market now is knowing what motivates the money that’s coming and going, because that’s what sets prices.  Fundamentals can’t be counted on to predict outcomes.

In DAL, Active Investment – call it Benjamin Graham – was about 12% of daily volume over the trailing 200 days, but that’s down to 8% now. Passive money is 19%, Fast Traders chasing the price long and short are 62% of the 73m shares trading daily. Another 11% ties to derivatives.

Those are all different motivations, reasons for prices to rise or fall.  The 11% related to derivatives are hoping for an outcome opposite that of investors. Fast Traders don’t care for more than the next price in fractions of seconds. They’re the majority of volume and will own zero shares at day’s end. You’ll see little of them in 13fs.

The airline showing the most love from Benjamin Graham – so to speak – is Southwest.  Yet it’s currently trading down the most relative to long-term performance. Why? Biggest market cap, biggest exposure to ETFs.  It’s not fundamental.

If you’re heading investor-relations for a public company or trying to invest in stocks, what I’ve just described is more important than Benjamin Graham now.

The disconnect between rational thought and market behavior has never been laid so bare as in the age of the pandemic.  It calls to mind that famous Warren Buffett line:  Only when the tide goes out do you discover who’s been swimming naked.

Might that be rational thought?

How airlines perform near-term depends on bets, trading, leverage. Not balance sheets.  It’s like oil, Energy stocks – screaming up without any fundamental reason.  And market structure, the infinite repeating arc from oversold to overbought, will price stocks. Not Ben Graham.  Though he was wise.

Roll Call

Apr 21, yesterday, is Texas A&M Aggie Muster.  Aggies everywhere gather to say “here” for Aggies lost in the past year, a roll call. It’s more poignant this time for my Aggie, Karen, and the many friends and family hailing from College Station.  Gig’em, Aggies.

Speaking of Texas, let’s talk oil.  We’ve been saying for years that volatility during the next crisis, whenever it came, would be exacerbated by Exchange Traded Funds (ETFs) and lead to large failures.  It’s now happened in oil, which freakishly settled Monday at $37 below zero.

Oil prices are predicated in the USA on futures contracts for West Texas Intermediate (WTI). Overflowing storage facilities mean few parties want to take delivery of oil. That pressures prices.

But oil isn’t worth nothing. It’s not worth less than nothing. That futures went south of zero is a product of the supply/demand distortions ETFs introduce.

Futures are themselves derivatives that obligate one to action only if held to settlement. ETF investors are not buying barrels of oil. They’re buying the PRICE of oil.

But they’re really buying derivatives that represent derivatives that represent the price of oil.  The massive oil ETF, USO (always among the most active stocks, it yesterday traded a billion shares, one of every twelve, leading the market), currently claims assets of $3 billion comprised heavily of June and July WTI contracts.  It’s down 80% in a year.

We’ve explained before that ETFs work similarly to, say, buying poker chips.  You pay cash to the house and receive chips of equal value. The chips represent the cash.  The difference with ETFs is there’s an intermediary between you and the house.

So the intermediary, the broker, pays the house for the chips and sells them to you.  Suppose the intermediary, the broker, gave energy futures as payment for the chips, rather than cash.

Then the value of the futures plunged. ETFs compound the damage. The broker is out the value of it collateral, futures, and you’re out the value of your chips, which also collapse.

The broker may stop transacting in the ETF because it’s out a lot of money. Now you can’t find a buyer – and you suffer even more damage.

This happened.  Interactive Brokers said it lost $88 million, its portion of the excess losses by its customers, some of whom lost everything in their accounts. The firm’s CEO said in a CNBC interview yesterday it had exposure to about 15% of the May WTI futures contracts behind the damage, meaning some $500 million more exists.

And the damage yesterday to the June WTI contract, the next in the series, was as impactful.  Massive Singapore futures broker Hin Leong, which moves physical commodities, filed for bankruptcy. It had been in business since 1963.

Banks most exposed to Hin Leong’s billions in obligations:  HSBC and ABN Amro.  We’ve long said we thought HSBC was a counterparty at risk in a financial crisis, on exposure to derivatives.  ABN Amro lost big already, on Ronin Capital’s March failure.

The biggest derivatives counterparties though are all names you know: JP Morgan, Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley, BofA, Citi (which has vastly more derivatives exposure via swaps than anyone).  They may be fine – but the world relies on these firms to make every meaningful market, from helping the Fed, to trading ETFs.

We’re leaving out a key piece of the story. The big way ETFs cause trouble is by distorting the market’s perception of supply and demand. In 2008, securitized mortgage derivatives bloated the appearance of demand for real estate.

USO owned some 25% of the subject oil futures contract. Yes, we’ve got too much oil (remember peak oil? Cough, cough.) because travel died. Sure, we know supply exceeds demand.

But.

Demand from derivatives of derivatives is extended reach to an asset class – which inflates its price.  I submit:  WTI May futures traded to -$37 Apr 20 because ETFs grossly inflated the price despite its apparent weakness. When books were squared and inflationary “financial” demand from ETFs removed, oil was worth 200% less than zero.

Said another way, when money in ETFs not wanting to take delivery of oil didn’t even want its price, we discovered that demand implied in futures misrepresented reality.

Thank you, ETFs.

Barclays shuttered two oil instruments. A dozen more are at risk.  USO is at risk. The roll call of the threatened is lengthening.

Where else are ETFs inflating prices relative to underlying demand? Well, the greatest instance of asset-class extension is in US equities. Especially the FAANGs – FB, AAPL, AMZN, NFLX, GOOG (and the pluses are MSFT, AMD, TSLA, a handful of others).

These bellwethers have weathered better than the rest in a global shutdown.  But they all depend on consumer-discretionary income. People have to be working to pay for subscriptions, and businesses must be operating to spend advertising dollars.

The drums are drumming. I expect we’ll see some even more surprising ETF failures before the roll call is done.  The sooner we’re back to work, the quicker the drumbeat ends.

Nothing

I rest my case, and it only took 15 years.

On Dec 29, 2009, we wrote in this very blog we’d then been clattering off the keyboard since 2006: “Now, why would you care about Iron Condors, IROs and execs? Because once again something besides fundamentals affected market prices.

Has the market ever offered more proof than now of the absence of fundamentals?  SPY, the S&P 500 Exchange Traded Fund (ETF), is up 27.3% since Mar 23 after falling 34.1% from a Feb 19 peak.  It’s still 19% down but, boy.  That’s like a Patriots Super Bowl comeback.  And what happened?

Nothing.

I’ll explain.

Note: We’re going to discuss what’s happened to the market in the age of the virus at 2p ET today, and it’s free and open to anyone. Join us for an hour: https://www.niri.org/events/understanding-wild-markets-age-of-virus

What I mean by nothing is that the virus is still here, the economy is still shut down.  Quarterly earnings began with the big banks yesterday and they were bad and Financials fell.  The banks are the frontlines of the Viral Response (double entendre intended).

Many say the market’s expectations are improving. But we have NO IDEA what sort of destruction lies beyond the smoky wisps floating up from quarterly reporting. Future expectations are aspirational. Financial outcomes are rational facts.

And do they even matter?

Consider the Federal Reserve. Or as people are calling it on Twitter, the Freasury (Fed merged with Treasury).  The Fed is all-in, signaling that it’ll create plenty of money to replace shrunken consumption (why is that good if your money buys less?). It’s even buying bond-backed ETFs, which are equities (we’re Japan now).

The market’s reaction to Fed intervention cannot be said to reflect business fundamentals but rather the probability of asset-price inflation – or perhaps the analogous equivalent of enough poker chips for all the players including the losers to stay in the game.

It’s a reason for a 27% rally in equities. But it’s confusing to Main Street, as it should be.  We’ll have 20 million unemployed people (it’s coming) and capital destruction in the trillions of dollars when we sort out the mess in our consumption-driven society.

Yet the market doesn’t seem to depend on anything. That’s what I mean by nothing.  The market does its thing, rises and falls, shifts money from Real Estate to Tech and back, without respect to the virus or fundamentals. As investors flail to describe the unexpected.

Stocks dependent on consumption like Consumer Discretionary, Energy, Materials, led sector gainers the last month.  These include energy companies like Chevron, Exxon and Valero that sell gasoline to commuters. Chipotle, Starbuck’s, Royal Caribbean, selling stuff to people with discretionary income. Dow, Dupont and Sherwin-Williams selling paint, chemicals, paper.

They’ve soared, after getting demolished. And nothing has changed. Sure, Amazon, Zoom, Netflix, the chip companies powering systems behind all our stay-at-home video-use are up, and should be.

But the central tendency is that the market plunged down and bucked up, without data to support either move.  That’s what I’ve been talking about so long. The market is not a barometer for rational thought.

It IS a barometer for behaviors, one of which is rational.  And we’ll explain what this image means when you tune to the webcast. (Click here for larger version.)Active Investment - Mar 2020 Correction

Think of the risk in a market motivated by nothing.  In Dec 2019 when we described the market as surly furious, the steep decline had no basis. During it, pundits tried to explain the swoon as expectation of a recession. Stocks roared to epic gains after Christmas 2018.

Nothing motivated either move.  That was a stark illustration of market structure form trumping capital-formation function.

Now stocks have zoomed back up 27% off lows, and everything is still wrong, and the wrongness doesn’t yet have defined parameters.

I don’t know which instance is most stark. Maybe it doesn’t matter. Come ask questions today at 2p ET at our webcast on market structure during the age of the virus.  I would love nothing more!