July 25, 2018

Shell Game

The earnings-versus-expectations construct that fixates Wall Street and business journalism as companies report results fuels bets on which shell hides the pea.

In fact, the stock market is built now on hiding the pea and moving the shells, apparent in the Fee Pilot debate we’ve written about recently.

You know the shell game, right?  This cat is pretty good at it.

As to picking the shell that hides the pea, I’m surprised the investor-relations profession isn’t up in arms over claims like Google parent Alphabet’s good numbers reputedly “boosting earnings optimism,” as one headline read.

What stock picker following GOOG trends and drivers and listening to its IR team and executives providing color and guidance didn’t know the quarter would be good? Keen observers didn’t wake up shouting, “Shazzam! I’m shocked at the numbers!”

But yesterday was Counterparty Tuesday, the one day every month when banks backing directional bets – most very short term – square derivatives books. Every third month it falls amidst earnings. If your bets are right, you get paid. Wrong, you pay up.

Banks shuffle assets accordingly. Yesterday, blue chips were up (GOOG is one now), risky stocks were down.

Take the new Communications Services ETF, XLC (see here in sector ETFs), which presages a reshuffling of Consumer Discretionary and Technology stocks into a re-imagined and amalgamated General Industry Classification System (GICS) for everything from Twitter, to Disney, to Facebook, to Electronic Arts that officially hits markets Sep 21, 2018.

Just four companies accounted for XLC gains yesterday if you view Alphabet’s two stock classes as a single company. Alphabet is 24% of the ETF’s weighting. With Facebook, two stocks are 45% of purported assets (read our ETF White Paper for more on “assets”).

The others with gains were VZ and T, two of the spare coterie comprising the old Telecom GICS that’s going away.  Combined the five green elements of XLC yesterday are 54% of its weighting. The other 21 were all in the red.

If you bet on GOOG and you pile in regardless of numbers, your bet pays because GOOG is so massive that as counterparties cover, it drives the entire market up. No wonder betting abounds.

But it’s not fundamentals. It’s betting on the law of large numbers.

Coming back to the Fee Pilot proposed by the SEC to study whether trading incentives distort how orders are handled, we support it because Fast Traders turn the market into a shell game.

Take HRT Financial, a top high-speed trader. We’ve got nothing against the smart folks behind it. But look up its 13F reports. It trades many billions of shares of stocks every month yet owns almost nothing – a measly few hundred million dollars.

Public companies are led to believe that having a bunch of prices set by high-speed firms that don’t want to own anything is good. Well, where do they get shares to sell to investors?  They borrow most of them – from owners! If they didn’t, it would show up as ownership. Or they buy them elsewhere in the market, in tiny pieces, in fractions of seconds, and immediately sell them. They are moving the shells, not fostering a market with deep supply.

It all fits together.  The earnings-versus-expectations model shifts focus from long-term prospects to how something fluctuates.  What is betting on fluctuations? Arbitrage.

Next piece of the puzzle:  How are prices set in the stock market?  By the fastest order bidding to buy or offering to sell. Fast machines like those run by HRT Financial set prices in tiny increments.  Exchanges offer incentives to high-speed traders to set prices in tiny increments – to keep moving the shells, keep that pea in motion, keep fooling people about where the best price is.

And exchanges sell the data from this shell game because rules require everybody in pursuit of the pea to buy it to prove they’re not gaming their customers. It would be laughable if it weren’t true, and describing the stock market.

Three big lessons, investors and public companies. Number one, you’ve got to have better data than the operators of the shell game if you want to keep track of the pea.  And we’ve got it.  Number two, don’t trust a shell game to give you an accurate portrayal of either business fundamentals or future outcomes.

And number three, the best defense against any form of shell game is knowledge. Education. Knowing how the game works. I refer you to the cat above. If the cat can figure it out, so can we!  Market Structure knowledge is now essential for both investors and public companies.

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