February 24, 2016

Side Deals

Yesterday on what we call Counterparty Tuesday, stocks plunged.

Every month options, futures and swaps expire and these instruments represent trillions of notional-value dollars. Using an analogy, suppose you had to renew your homeowners insurance each month because the value of your house fluctuated continually.  Say there’s a secondary market where you can trade policies till they expire. That’s like the stock market and its relationship to these hedging derivatives.

As with insurance, somebody has to supply the coverage and take the payout risk. These “insurers” are counterparties, jargon meaning “the folks on the other side of the deal.”  They’re banks like Deutsche Bank, HSBC, Morgan Stanley, Citi.

Each month the folks on the other side of the deal offer signals of demand for insurance, a leading indicator of investor-commitment. We can measure counterparty impact on market volume and prices because we have an algorithm for it.  Last week (Feb 17-19) options and futures for February expired and the folks on the other side of the deal dominated price-setting, telling us that trading in insurance, not the assets themselves, was what made the market percolate. That’s profoundly important to understand or you’ll misinterpret what the market is doing.

On Monday Feb 22, a new series of derivatives began trading. Markets jumped again. Yesterday on Counterparty Tuesday, the folks on the other side of the deal told us they overshot demand for options and futures or lost on last week’s trades.  And that’s why stocks declined.

The mechanics can be complicated but here’s a way to understand. Say in early February investors were selling stocks because the market was bearish. They also then cut insurance, for why pay to protect an asset you’re selling (yes, we see that too)?

Around Feb 11, hedge funds calculating declines in markets and the value of insurance and the distance to expirations scooped up call options and bought stocks, especially ones that had gone down, like energy and technology shares and futures.

Markets rose sharply on demand for both stocks and options. When these hedge funds had succeeded in chasing shares and futures up sharply in short order, they turned to the folks on the other side of the deal and said, “Hi. We’d like to cash these in, please.”

Unless banks are holding those stocks, they’re forced to buy in the market, which drives price even higher. Pundits say, “This rally has got legs!” But as soon as the new options and futures for March began trading Monday, hedge funds dumped shares and bought puts – and the next day the folks on the other side of the deal, who were holding the bag (so to speak), told us so. Energy stocks and futures cratered, the market swooned.

It’s a mathematical impossibility for a market to sustainably rise in which bets produce a loser for every winner. If hedge funds are wrong, they lose capacity to invest.  If it’s counterparties – the folks on the other side of the deal – the cost of insurance increases and coverage shrinks, which discourages investment.  In both cases, markets flag.

Derivatives are not side deals anymore but a dominant theme. Weekly options and futures now abound, more short-term betting. Exchange-Traded Funds (ETFs), derivatives of underlying assets, routinely populate lists of most active stocks. Both are proof that the tail is wagging the dog, and yet financial news continues casting about by the moment for rational explanations.

Every day we’re tracking price-setting data (if you don’t know what sets your price the problem is the tools you’re using, because it’s just math and rules).  Right now, it’s the counterparties. Short volume remains extreme versus long-term norms, telling us horizons are short. Active investment is down over $3 billion daily versus the long-term.

You can and should know these things. Stop doing what you’ve always done and start setting your board and your executives apart. Knowledge is power – and investor-relations has it, right at our fingertips.

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