Tagged: AAPL

Weird

This is weird. 

I’m traveling to an actual business meeting, by aircraft, and I intend to wear a suit.

Illustration 155967106 / Dune © Rolffimages | Dreamstime.com

There are many things in our society that I had considered weird but these two were not among them.  It’s pretty weird seeing Will Smith slap Chris Rock, who took it with aplomb while the Hollywood audience weirdly applauded.

But that’s not what I was thinking about.

Currently among the weirdest – by no means alone – is the divide between what people think is true about the stock market and what actually is. 

Which I suppose makes it somewhat less weird that my suit-wearing face-to-face is with American manufacturing firms in Atlanta at the MAPI conference. That’s the Manufacturers Alliance for Productivity and Innovation.

I’ve been invited to talk about how Passive Investment profoundly shifts the center of gravity for the investor-relations profession, liaison to Wall Street.

Glad to see these companies caring about their stock market.

And it’s not ESG causing the big shift.  Without offense to those advocating the hot ESG zeitgeist gusting globally, it’s yet another way for public companies to do qualitative work turning them into quantitative trading products.

You may not like that characterization. Well, scores are quantitative measures. Score something, and somebody will trade that score against another – exactly the way sports athletes are, or wine-rankings are, or restaurants on Open Table are.

Long-only investment is qualitative, like writing an essay.

Well, get this.  Active Investment is almost 50% higher in SPY, the S&P 500 ETF, than it is on average in stocks actually comprising the S&P 500.

Public companies, it means stock-pickers invest more in SPY than in the fundamentals of individual stocks. That is a statistical and irrefutable fact.

The problem isn’t you. The problem is the market. 

SPY has a 50-day average of 1.2 million trades per day, and over $53 billion of daily dollar flow. TSLA alone comes remotely in range at $25 billion, half SPY’s colossus. AAPL is a distant third at $15 billion.

Public companies continue to do ever more to ostensibly satisfy what investors want.  And they’re buying SPY.

If the SEC persists in implementing regulations with no precedent legislation – which will mark a first in American history – soon you’ll face mandatory climate disclosures.

So, from the Securities Act of 1933 implementing reporting rules for public companies, through 2022, the amount of information issuers are required to disgorge has become a sandstorm right out of the movie Dune. 

And investors are just buying SPY.

That should exercise you, public companies.  You bust your behinds delivering financial results, blowing sums of Congressional proportion populating the fruited plain with data.

And investors just buy a derivative, an ETF with no intrinsic value or story or results.

Years ago we studied the SPY data, measuring creations and redemptions and trading volume in the world’s largest ETF. We found that 96% of it was arbitrage – aligning SPY with the basket of 500 stocks it tracks.

But because the amount of Active Investment is significantly greater in SPY than the average one of those 500 stocks, we know stock-pickers well outside the S&P 500 are simply using it as a proxy for bottom-up investing too.

So, what should we do as a capital-markets constituency? 

The first rule of holes is when you’re in one, stop digging.  If we want to dig something in, how about our heels?  The entire contingent of public companies should rise up and tell regulators to pound sand.

That you will no longer comply with any further disclosures until the SEC makes markets more hospitable to the investors we work our fingers to the bone to court.

Because it’s not working. 

Why?

The SEC has overridden the stated purpose of the law that created it – notwithstanding that Congress had no Constitutional authority to regulate financial markets in the first place because the states never delegated it by amendment to federal government – which is to foster free, fair and unimpeded capital markets.

Instead the SEC decreed that the purpose of the market would be a continuous auction. Creating prices. And so investors are forced to own things with enough prices to permit them to get in and out.

For stupidity, it’s right up there with Will Smith slapping Chris Rock.

But we’ve got ourselves to blame. Public companies have not cared enough about the market to even pay attention to how it works. So we have a market that sets vast numbers of prices but impairs investment.

If you want to know how the stock market works, use our Market Structure Analytics for a year.  See what really happens. Then you can fight back. Maybe you’ll be moved to storm the regulatory Bastille and bring an end to this aristocratic crap.

That would be weirdly and wildly and wonderfully beautiful.

Uneven Market

My advice?

When the market gets tough, go sailing.  Heck, go sailing when stocks are soaring.  I recommend it.

If you missed the Market Structure Map, we were on hiatus the past two weeks whilst undulating via catamaran over azure seas along the Sir Francis Drake Channel, sailing the whole of the British Virgin Islands from Jost Van Dyke to Anegada.

This photo below is in The Bight where lies the famous Willy T at anchor, off Norman Island.  You can get used to bare feet, tides, the absence of time save the rising and setting sun.

Photo courtesy Tim Quast

I had time to read Raj Rajaratnam’s new book, Uneven Justice, mostly on the long flights there and back.  I lived for a year in Sri Lanka during college, from whence he hails.

You colleagues long in the capital markets will remember the 2009 arrest of the Galleon hedge-fund founder for insider trading. 

The book is repetitive, has some copy-editing shortcomings. But it’s a remarkable read and I recommend it.  If you like the HBO show Billions, you’ll appreciate the sordid conniving by the attorney for the Southern District of New York, Preet Bharara.

I’ve long thought insider-trading was a mushy “crime.” You may disagree. I think Rajaratnam does a creditable job establishing that he committed no insider trading, whatever one thinks of it.

(I understand the stock market and here’s my issue: All high-frequency traders are armed with material nonpublic information called proprietary data, from which they generate ALL their profits.  And investment, public and private, is a continuous pursuit of what others don’t know, or overlook. To criminalize subjective aspects while permitting the vast sea of the rest is nonsensical and cognitively dissonant.)

This isn’t a book review.  Read it and draw your own conclusions.  But Raj Rajaratnam’s jury could not comprehend how the stock market worked. 

Heck, the attorneys didn’t understand it! The judge didn’t understand it. 

Try explaining to a jury of moms and pops (I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gotten the blink-blink explaining a continuous auction market) how a hedge fund works, the buyside, the sellside, what drives trading decisions, interaction with investor relations departments and corporate execs, the bets and gambles on beats and misses at earnings, the relentless thrum of information everywhere.

The defense team presented vast reams of data illustrating how Galleon developed its investment ideas, all of which traced back to colossal volumes of trading records. The firm managed about $8 billion of assets but traded over $170 BILLION in a year.

The government took issue with 0.01% of trades that by Galleon’s math resulted in a loss. But the prosecution simply said, “This Wall Street billionaire who caused the Financial Crisis is a cheat, and these wiretap snippets prove it.”

Again, draw your own conclusions.  But it resonated with me because there’s a pervasive propensity in the stock market to choose the easy snippet over grasping how it works.

Take for instance the market’s struggle since Jan 5, when we left for Tortola and the trade winds.  The easy explanation is we caused it.  I mean, it coincided, right?

I’m joking but you get the point.

The prevailing trope is Tech stocks are falling as investors wrestle with when the Fed will hike rates.

Years of trailing data show no clear correlation between interest rates and how Tech performs. It’s not difficult analysis.  Check the ten-year data for XLK. Compare to your favorite measure for interest rates, such as DXY or GLD.

There IS, however, correlation between periods of strong gains for Tech, and subsequent pullbacks.  There are just three of those for Tech the past decade:  latter 2018 (spilling into 2019), the Pandemic (spring 2020), and late 2021 (spilling into 2022).

These data suggest that save for Pandemics, investors in retirement accounts get overweight equities and especially Tech, and they recalibrate, especially in the fourth quarter.

Consequences rise as Tech gets bigger and bigger and bigger. Recalibrations rumble through how Fast Traders set 60% of prices and how derivatives underpin 20% of market cap, and how Short Volume (the supply chain), surges or stalls.

And then it starts over.  At some point, it won’t, sure. But the cause will be larger than hypothetical interest-rate hand-wringing.

And public companies, it’s measurable. Take AAPL, world’s biggest stock. Between Oct 1, 2018 and Jan 29, 2019, AAPL was never a 10.0 on our ten-point Demand scale.  Between Feb 28-Apr 15, 2020, it was not a 10.0.

And now? AAPL last had ceiling-rattling 10.0 Demand Dec 16. It’s now a 2.6 and bottomed. Right on schedule.

These are the facts, and the math. Headlines are not. Keep that in mind as earnings kick off. You can do what you’ve always done, the easy course. Or you can be armed with facts and details.  We have them.

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.   

Boxes and Lines

 

In the sense that high-speed transmission lines connecting computerized boxes are the stock market, it’s boxes and lines.

Also, stock exchange IEX, the investors exchange, hosts a podcast called Boxes and Lines that’s moderated by co-founder Ronan Ryan and John “JR” Ramsay, IEX’s chief market policy officer. I joined them for the most recent edition (about 30 mins of jocularity and market structure).

In case you forget, the stock market is not in New York City.  It’s in New Jersey housed in state-of-the-art colocation facilities at Mahwah, Carteret and Secaucus.  It’s bits and bytes, boxes and lines.

It’s superfast.

What’s not is the disclosure standard for institutional investors.  We wrote about the SEC’s sudden, bizarre move to exclude about 90% of them from disclosing holdings.

The current standard, which legitimizes the saying “good enough for government work,” is 45 days after the end of the quarter for everybody managing $100 million or more.

We filed our comment letter Monday.  It’ll post here at some point, where you can see all comments. You can read it here now.  Feel free to plagiarize any or all of it, investors and public companies. Issuers, read our final point about the Australian Standard of beneficial ownership-tracing, and include it with your comments.

Maybe if enough of us do it, the SEC will see its way toward this superior bar.

Without reading the letter or knowing the Australian Standard you can grasp a hyperbolic contradiction. The government’s job is to provide a transparent and fair playing field.  Yet the same SEC regulates the stock market located in New Jersey. Boxes and lines.

FB, AAPL, AMZN, NFLX, GOOG, GOOGL, MSFT, AMD, TSLA and SHOP alone trade over 2.5 MILLION times, over $80 billion worth of stock. Every day.

And the standard for measuring who owns the stock is 45 days past the end of each quarter.  A quarter has about 67 trading days, give or take.  Add another 30 trading days.  Do the math.  That’s 250 million trades, about $7.9 trillion of dollar-flow.  In 10 stocks.

Why should the market function at the speed of light while investors report shareholdings at the speed of smell? Slower, really.

Do we really need to know who owns stocks?  I noted last week here and in our SEC 13F Comment Letter both that online brokerage Robinhood reports what stocks its account holders own in realtime via API.

That’s a communication standard fitted to reality. True, it doesn’t tell us how many shares. But it’s a helluva better standard than 97 days later, four times a year.

Quast, you didn’t answer the question.  Why does anyone need to know who owns shares of which companies? Isn’t everybody entitled to an expectation of privacy?

It’s a public market we’re talking about.  The constituency deserving transparency most is the only other one in the market with large regulatory disclosure requirements: Public companies.

They have a fiduciary responsibility to their owners. The laws require billions of dollars of collective spending by public companies on financial performance and governance.

How incoherent would it be if regulations demand companies disgorge expensive data to unknown holders?

As to retail money, the Securities Act of 1933, the legislative basis for now decades of amendments and regulation, had its genesis in protecting Main Street from fraud and risk.  The principal weapon in that effort has long been transparency.

Now, the good news for both investors and public companies is that you can see what all the money is doing all the time, behaviorally. We’ve offered public companies that capability for 15 years at ModernIR.

Take TSLA, now the world’s most actively traded – we believe – individual stock. SPY trades more but it’s an ETF.  Active money has been selling it.  But shorting is down, Passive Investment is down 21% the past week.  TSLA won’t fall far if Passives stay put.

That’s market structure. It’s the most relevant measurement technique for modern markets. It turns boxes and lines into predictive behavioral signals.

And investors, you can use the same data at Market Structure EDGE to help you make better decisions.

Predictive analytics are superior to peering into the long past to see what people were doing eons ago in market-structure years. Still, that doesn’t mean the SEC should throw out ownership transparency.

Small investors and public companies are the least influential market constituents. Neither group is a lobbying powerhouse like Fast Traders.  That should warrant both higher priority – or at least fair treatment. Not empty boxes and wandering lines.

PS – Speaking of market structure, if you read last week’s edition of the Market Structure Map, we said Industrials would likely be down. They are. And Patterns say there’s more to come. In fact, the market signals coming modest weakness. The Big One is lurking again but it’s not at hand yet.

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.

Disruption

What did you say yesterday to your executive team, investor-relations officers, if you’d sent a note Monday about mounting Coronavirus fears?

The market zoomed back, cutting losses in the S&P 500 to about 2% since Jan 17.  We said here in the Market Structure Map Jan 22 that data on market hedges that expired Jan 17 suggested stocks could be down about 2% over the proceeding week.

It’s been a week and stocks were down 2%. (If you want to know what the data say now, you’ll have to use our analytics.)

The point is, data behind prices and volume are more predictive than headlines.

NIRI, the professional association for IR, last year convened a Think Tank to examine the road ahead, and the group offered what it called The Disruption Opportunity.

If we’re to become trusted advisors to executive teams and boards, it won’t be through setting more meetings with stock-pickers but by the strategic application of data.

For instance, if Passive investment powering your stock has fallen 30% over the past 200 trading days, your executive team should know and should understand the ramifications. How will IR respond? What’s controllable? What consequences should we expect?

At a minimum, every week the executive team should be receiving regular communication from IR disruptors, a nugget, a key conclusion, about core trends driving shareholder value that may have nothing to do with fundamentals.

Take AAPL, which reported solid results yesterday after the market closed.  AAPL is the second most widely held stock in Exchange Traded Funds (there’s a nugget).  It’s over 20% of the value of the Tech sector, which in turn is nearly 24% of the S&P 500, in turn 83% of market-capitalization.

AAPL is a big engine (which for you cyclists is American rider Tejay van Garderen’s nickname).  And it always mean-reverts.

It may take time. But it’s as reliable as Rocky Mountain seasons – because the market is powered today by money that reverts to the mean. Over 85% of S&P 500 volume is something other than stock-picking.

AAPL has the widest mean-reversion gap in a half-decade now, with Passive investment down a third in the last week.  AAPL trades over 30 million shares daily, about $10 billion of stock. And 55% of that – 17 million shares, $5.5 billion of dollar volume – is on borrowed shares.

Those factors don’t mean AAPL is entering a mean-reversion cycle. But should the executive team and the board know these facts?  Well, it sure seems so, right?

And investors, would it behoove you to know too?

The Russell 1000 is 95% of market cap, the Russell 3000, over 99.9%.  That means we all own the same stocks.  You won’t beat the market by owning stocks someone else doesn’t.

How then will you win?  I’m coming to that.

IR pros, you’re the liaison to Wall Street.  You need to know how the market works, not just what your company does that differs from another. If your story is as good as somebody else’s but your stock lags, rather than rooting through the financials for reasons, look at the money driving your equity value.

Take CRM. Salesforce is a great company but underperformed its industry and the S&P 500 much of the past year – till all at once in the new year it surged.

There’s no news.  But behaviors show what caused it.  ETF demand mushroomed. CRM is in over 200 ETFs, and the S&P 500.  For a period, ETFs could get cheap CRM stock to exchange into expensive SPY shares, an arbitrage trade.  The pattern is stark.

Now that trade is done. CRM market structure signals no imminent swoon but Passive demand is down over 20% because there’s no profit in the CRM-for-ETFs swap now.

That fact is more germane to CRM’s forward price-performance than its financials.

This, IR pros, is your disruption opportunity in the c-suite. If you’re interested in seeing your market structure, ask and we’ll give you a free report.

Investors, your disruption opportunity isn’t in what you own but when you buy or sell it. Supply and demand rule that nexus, and we can measure it.   If you’d like to know about Market Structure EDGE, ask us.

Jekyll and Hyde

Your stock may collateralize long and short Exchange-Traded Funds (ETFs) simultaneously.

Isn’t that cognitive dissonance – holding opposing views? Jekyll and Hyde? It’s akin to supposing that here in Denver you can drive I-25 north toward Fort Collins and arrive south in Castle Rock. Try as long as you like and it’ll never work.

I found an instance of this condition by accident. OXY, an energy company, is just through a contested battle with CVX to buy APC, a firm with big energy operations in the Permian Basin of TX (where the odor of oil and gas is the smell of money).

OXY is in 219 ETFs, a big number.  AAPL is in 271 but it’s got 20 times the market-capitalization.  OXY and its short volume have moved inversely – price down, shorting up. The patterns say ETFs are behind it.

So I checked.

Lo and behold, OXY is in a swath of funds like GUSH and DRIP that try to be two or three times better or worse than an index. These are leveraged funds.

How can a fund that wants to return, say, three times more than an S&P energy index use the same stock as one wanting to be three times worse than the index?

“Tim, maybe one fund sees OXY as a bullish stock, the other as bearish.”

Except these funds are passive vehicles, which means they don’t pick stocks. They track a model, and in this case, the same model.  If the stock doesn’t behave like the ETF, why does the fund hold it?

I should note before answering that GUSH and DRIP and similar ETFs are one-day investments. They’re in a way designed to promote ownership of volatility. They want you to buy and sell both every day.

You can see why. This image above shows OXY the last three months with GUSH and DRIP.

Consider what that means for you investor-relations professionals counting on shares to serve as a rational barometer, or you long investors doing your homework to find undervalued stocks.

Speaking of understanding, I’ll interject that if you’re not yet registered for the NIRI Annual Conference, do it now!  It’s a big show and a good one, and we’ve got awesome market structure discussions for you.

Back to the story, these leveraged instruments are no sideshow. In a market with 3,500 public companies and close to 9,000 securities, tallying all stock classes, closed-end funds and ETFs, some routinely are among the top 50 most actively traded.  SQQQ and TVIX, leveraged instruments, were in the top dozen at the Nasdaq yesterday.

For those juiced energy funds, OXY is just collateral. That is, it’s liquid ($600 million of stock trading daily) and currently 50% less volatile than the broad market. A volatility fund wants the opposite of what it’s selling (volatility) because it’s not investing in OXY. It’s leveraging OXY to buy or sell or short other things that feed volatility.

And it can short OXY as a hedge to boot.

All ETFs are derivatives, not just ones using derivatives to achieve their objectives. They are all predicated on an underlying asset yet aren’t the underlying asset.

It’s vital to understand what the money is doing because otherwise conclusions might be falsely premised. Maybe the Board at OXY concludes management is doing a poor job creating shareholder value when in reality it’s being merchandised by volatility traders.

Speaking of volatility, Market Structure Sentiment is about bottomed at the lowest level of 2019. It’s predictive so that still means stocks could swoon, but it also says risk will soon wane (briefly anyway). First though, volatility bets like the VIX and hundreds of billions of dollars of others expire today. Thursday will be reality for the first time since the 15th, before May expirations began.

Even with Sentiment bottoming, we keep the market at arm’s length because of its vast dependence on a delicate arbitrage balance. A Jekyll-Hyde line it rides.

Hedging Bets

We’re in Steamboat Springs this week watching the moose on the snowbanks and letting the world slow down with them for a bit. 

It sets me to thinking. “Hedge funds would be better off doing nothing.”  So postulated (requires subscription) Wall Street Journal writer Laurence Fletcher last week after data from Chicago hedge-fund researcher HFR Inc. showed stock-betting funds that as a group manage about $850 billion lost money in 2016. 

You’re tempted to smirk. The smartest folks in the room can’t beat an algorithm! They can’t top the S&P 500 index fund your 401k owns.  Losers!   

Let’s rethink that perspective.  These are the professional athletes of finance. The New England Patriots of investing. If the best are failing, the ones sorting good companies from bad and chasing them either direction, then maybe we’re missing the real problem. 

Perhaps it’s not that hedge funds are losing but that the market isn’t what it seems.

And if hedge funds are confusing busy with productive, might we be too? The investor-relations profession shares common ground with them.  Great effort and time go into telling the story so it resonates. Hedge funds come at a cost because they’re ostensibly better at sorting fact from fiction. Both disciplines are about standing out.

Apple stands out for instance, touching a 52-week high yesterday following resurgent growth. Yet as my friend Alan Weissberger at fiendbear.com notes, Apple earned $8 billion less in 2016 than the year before and spent $20 billion buying back stock.

People are buying its future, is the retort. If by that one means paying more for less since it’s likely AAPL will continue to consume itself at better than 5% per annum, then yes. But that’s inflation – more money chasing fewer goods.

I’m not knocking our epochal tech behemoth. It’s neither pulp fiction nor autobiography to the market. AAPL is its pillar. Models aren’t weighing mathematical facts such as its 5.5 billion shares of currency out, 15% less than three years back. But who’s counting? Not SPY, the most actively traded stock, an exchange-traded fund and AAPL its largest component.

If the models needing AAPL buy it, the whole market levitates in a weird, creaking, unsteady way.  This is what hedge funds have missed. Fundamentals are now back seat to weighting. If you pack weight, the cool kids of the stock market, you rise. When you’re out of the clique, you fall.  Your turn will continually come and go, like a chore schedule.

Hedge funds are also failing to realize that there is no “long only” money today.  Not because conventional longs are shorting but because the whole market is half short – 48% on Feb 6. One of our clients was short-attacked this week with short volume 23% below the market’s average. We doubt the shorts know it. 

Hedge funds are chasing the market because they don’t understand it anymore. No offense to the smartest folks in the room. They’re confusing busy with productive, spending immense sums examining business nuances when the market is a subway station of trains on schedules.

There are two lessons here for investor-relations folks and by extension executives of public companies and investors buying them.  IR people, learn by observation. Don’t be like hedge funds, failing to grasp market structure and getting run over by the Passive train.  Learn how the market works and make it your mission to weave it into what you tell management. Structure trumps story right now.

Second, hedge funds show us all that there’s a mismatch between the hard work of studying markets and how they’re behaving.  Either work, smarts and knowledge no longer pay, or there’s something wrong with the market.  Which is it? 

Stay tuned! We’ll have more to say next time.