Tagged: oil



No other word for it.

Yesterday as VIX volatility futures settled on an odd Tuesday, Barclays suspended two of the market’s biggest Exchange Traded Notes (ETNs), VXX and OIL.

Let me explain what it means and why it’s a colossal market-structure deal.

VXX is the iPath Series B S&P 500 VIX Short-Term Futures ETN. OIL is the iPath Pure Beta Crude Oil ETN (OIL). iPath is a prominent Barclays brand. Barclays created the iShares line that Blackrock bought.  It’s an industry pioneer.

Illustration 76839447 © Ekaterina Muzyka | Dreamstime.com

These are marketplace standards, like LIBOR used to be.  This isn’t some back-alley structured product pitched from a boiler room in Bulgaria (no offense to the Bulgarians).

Let’s understand how they work. ETNs are similar to Exchange Traded Funds (ETFs) in that both trade like stocks.  But ETNs are unsecured, structured debt.

The aim of these particular notes is to pay the return via trading reflected in crude oil, and volatility in the S&P 500 stock index. 

OIL uses quantitative data to select baskets of West Texas Intermediate oil futures that the model projects will best reflect the “spot” market for oil – its immediate price.  But nobody owning OIL owns anything. The ETN is just a proxy, a derivative.

VXX is the standard-bearer for trading short-term stock-volatility. It’s not an investment vehicle per se but a way to profit from or guard against the instability of stock-prices.  It’s recalibrated daily to reflect the CBOE Volatility Index, the VIX.

In a nutshell, a security intended to give exposure to volatility was undone by volatility.

I loved this phrase about it from ETF.com: “Volatility ETPs have a history of erasing vast sums of investor capital over holdings periods as short as a few days.”

ETP is an acronym encompassing both ETFs and ETNs as Exchange Traded Products.

It’s not that Barclays shut them down. They continue trading for now. The bank said in a statement that it “does not currently have sufficient issuance capacity to support further sales from inventory and any further issuances of the ETNs.”

ETF industry icon Dave Nadig said, “The ‘Issuance Capacity’ thing is a bit of a get out of jail free card, so we can interpret that as ‘we no longer feel comfortable managing the implied risk of this product.’”

Barclays said it intends to resume supporting the funds at some future point. But we’ll see.  Credit Suisse ETNs that failed in Mar 2020 amid Pandemic volatility were stopped temporarily too but suspensions became permanent.

The lesson is clear. The market is too unpredictable to support single-day bets, which these instruments are principally designed for. 

I’ve long written about the risks in ETPs. They’re all derivatives and all subject to suddenly becoming worthless, though the risk is relatively small.

And it’s incorrect to suppose it can happen only to ETNs. All tracking instruments are at risk of failure if the underlying measure, whatever it is, moves too unpredictably.

You might say, “This is why we focus on the long-term.  You can’t predict the short-term.”

Bosh. Any market incapable of delivering reliable prices is a dysfunctional one.  It’s like saying, “I don’t know what to bid on that Childe Hassam painting but I’m sure over the long-term it’ll become clear.”

Bluntly, that’s asinine. Price is determined by buyers and sellers meeting at the nexus of supply and demand.  If you can’t sort out what any of that is, your market is a mess.

It remains bewildering to me why this is acceptable to investors and public companies. 

It’s how I feel about empty store shelves in the USA. No excuses. It reflects disastrous decisions by leaders owing a civic duty to make ones that are in our best interests.

Same principle applies. We have a market that’s supposed to be overseen in a way that best serves investors and public companies. Instead it’s cacophony, confusion, bellicosity, mayhem.

At least we at ModernIR can see it, measure it, explain it, know it.  We’ve been telling clients that it’s bizarre beyond the pale for S&P 500 stocks to have more than 3% intraday volatility for 50 straight days. Never happened before.

Well, now we know the cost.

Oh, and the clincher? VIX options expired yesterday. Save for four times since 2008, they always expire on WEDNESDAY. Did one day undo Barclays?  Yes.

That’s why market structure matters. Your board and c-suite better know something about it.

When Oil Swoons

How is it that stocks and oil fall if no one is selling them? There’s an answer. Tim Tebow once famously sent a one-word tweet: “Motivation.”

For Tebow (Karen and I were downtown years ago when Tim was a Denver Broncos quarterback, and we passed a handsome youngster who offered a friendly hello and seemed familiar and had shoulders so wide they covered most of the sidewalk…and we realized seconds later we’d passed Tim Tebow.), the word meant a reason to try.

Motivation in markets is money.

Whatever your ticker, investor-relations professionals (or investors, whatever the composition of your portfolios), your price is often set by trading firms.

How do we know? Floor rules at the exchange prohibit using customer orders to price NYSE-listed stocks at the open. Designated Market Makers (DMMs) must trade their own capital to set a bid and offer for your shares. Now all DMMs are proprietary traders.

Investors:  If you don’t know how stock prices are set, you deserve to be outperformed by Exchange Traded Funds (ETFs). ETFs don’t even buy and sell stocks!  They are collateralized stock derivatives (let’s call them CSDs).

Don’t know what I mean? Stop, and listen:

If you’re in Dallas Fri Nov 16, hear my presentation on ETFs at The Clubs at Prestonwood.  Clients in Dallas: Ask your CFO and Treasurer and VP of Finance and Controller to learn what the money is doing behind price and volume, and why.

What if you’re Nasdaq-listed?  The first and fastest machines set all offers to sell (the primary price) and bids to buy (the secondary price) when stocks open for trading, and chances are traders (not IEX, the only exception) have been paid to set bids and offers.

It’s not your fundamentals. Machines set prices all day long.

And the price of oil most days is not determined by fundamentals either. It’s set by a currency. The US dollar.  Oil is denominated in dollars. Big dollar, smaller oil price. Small dollar – say 2007, or much of 2017 – big oil price.

Back to stocks. Under Regulation National Market System, there is a spread between the best bid to buy and offer to sell for your shares.  They can’t be the same ($15.01 buy, $15.01 to sell). That’s a locked market. Against the law.

The Bid cannot be higher than the Offer (e.g. Bid, $15.02, Offer $15.01). That’s a crossed market. Can’t happen. Why? So there’s an audit trail, a way to trace which firms set every bid, every offer, in the market. And a crossed market cannot be controlled by limit-up/limit-down girders that govern stocks now. (You can bid more than what’s asked for art, houses, cars, companies, etc. But not stocks.)

If demand from money wanting to buy shares exactly matched supply, stocks would decline. Brokers, required by rule to set every bid and offer, have to be paid.

That means stocks can rise only if demand exceeds supply, a condition we measure every day for you, and the market. Do you think your board and executive team might like to know?  (Note: If you want to know if supply exceeds demand in your stock, or your sector, ask us. We’ll give you a look gratis.)

Knowing if or when supply exceeds demand is not determined by whether your stock goes up or down. Were it so, 100% of trades would be front-run by Fast Traders. So how can it be that no money leaves stocks and they fall, and no money sells oil and it falls?

Do you own a house? Suppose you put it up as collateral for a loan to start a business you believed would be more valuable than your house. This is the bet ETF traders make daily. Put up collateral, create ETF shares, bet that ETF shares can be sold for more ($12.1 million) than the cost of the collateral offered for the right to create them ($12.0 million).

Then suppose you can sit between buyers and sellers and make 10 basis points on every trade in the ETF, the index futures the ETF tracks, and the stocks comprising the index.  Another $120,000 (a 20% margin over collateral). Do that every day and it’s meaningful even to Goldman Sachs for whom this business is now 90% of equity trading.

Reverse it. When stock-supply exceeds demand, ETF creators and market-makers lose money. So they sell and short, and the whole market convulses.  Spreads jump. Nobody can make heads or tails of it – until you consider the motivation. Price-spreads.

Oil? Remember our time-tested theme (you veteran readers). If the dollar rises, oil falls. It happened in Sep 2014 when the Federal Reserve stopped expanding its balance sheet.

Now it’s worse. The Fed is shrinking its balance sheet. Oil is denominated in dollars no matter what Saudi Arabia does. If the dollar gets bigger – stronger – oil prices shrink. Look at the chart here for the Energy sector. ETFs? Devalued collateral?

ETFs, the greatest investment phenomenon of the modern era, behave like currencies. We’ve not yet had a BIG imbalance. It’s coming. We’ll see it.  Subscribe. It’s motivating.

The Fulcrum

The teeter-totter with the moving fulcrum never caught on.

The reason is it wasn’t a teeter-totter, which is simple addition and subtraction, but a calculus problem. The same mathematical hubris afflicted much talk surrounding US economic growth last autumn when it seemed things were booming even as oil prices were imploding.

“The problem is oil is oversupplied,” we were told, “so this is a boon for consumers.”

“What about the dollar?” we asked.

Oil prices are a three-dimensional calculus problem. Picture a teeter-totter.  On the left is supply, on the right is demand.  In the middle is the fulcrum: money. Here, the dollar.

In January 15, 2009 when the Fed began to buy mortgage-backed assets, the price of oil was near $36.  Supply and demand were relatively static but the sense was that economies globally were contracting. On Jan 8, 2010, one year later, oil was about $83. Five years removed we’re talking about the slow recovery. So how did oil double?

The explanation is the fulcrum between supply and demand. Dollars plunged in value relative to global currencies when the Fed began spending them on mortgages.  Picture a teeter-totter again. If I’m much heavier than you, and the fulcrum shifts nearer me, you can balance me on the teeter-totter.  Oil is priced in dollars. Smaller dollars, larger oil price, or vice-versa.

As the Fed shifted the fulcrum, the lever it created forced all forms of money to buy things possessing risk, like stocks, real estate, art, commodities, goods and services.

As we know through Herb Stein, if something cannot last forever it will stop. On August 14, 2014 the Fed’s balance sheet had $4.463 trillion of assets, not counting offsetting bank reserves. On Aug 21, 2014, it was $4.459 trillion, the first slippage in perhaps years.

Instantly, the dollar began rising (and oil started falling). At Jan 22, 2015, the Fed’s balance sheet is $4.55 trillion, bigger again as the Fed tries to slow dollar-appreciation. But the boulder already rolled off the ridge. The dollar is up 22% from its May 2014 low, in effect a 35% rise in the cost of capital – a de facto interest-rate increase. (more…)