Tagged: Options

Troubling Signs

Ahoy!

As you read, we are stopping in Charlotte en route to a 2pm arrival in Sint Maarten in the Caribbean.

Illustration 91269233 © Dharshani Gk Arts | Dreamstime.com

We saw the inflation print at 8.5%, plunging consumer confidence, rising credit risk, the supply-chain morass, and said, “Let’s flee to the sea.”

Okay, not really. We reset this sailing trip that vanished into the Pandemic.  Weirdly, we need no Covid test to see the sand and sea but for us citizens of the Land of the Free, we can’t get back in our OWN COUNTRY without one.

After being shot, boosted and afflicted with Covid in roughly that order.

We the People need to put the little despots in their places, power-seekers lording it over others without respect to math, science or common sense.  Untenable.  Unacceptable.

Back to market structure.  And monetary policy. 

Options expire this Good Friday short week, today and tomorrow. Trading is a tug of war between parties to expiring options and futures on Treasuries, currencies, interest rates, commodities, equities and bonds, and the counterparties with risk and exposure on the other side.

Don’t expect the market to be a barometer on investor-sentiment right now.

And new options trade Monday. Then counterparties square books Tuesday. Volatility derivatives expire Wednesday.

What will be apparent is if risk-taking is resuming.  I think Mon-Tue next week (Apr 18-19) are key.  Look, you can’t peg the day. Could be before, could be after.  But the market will either turn because investors and traders reset swaths of options and futures or we could get clocked.

No middle ground?

Broad Sentiment signals risk.  Might be a couple months away, or not.  Data going back the past decade that we track show that Broad Sentiment with a 90-day rolling read near 5.0 precedes a steep decline.

That’s about where it is.  History warns us.

What about the risk of recession?  Well, of course there’s risk.  Central banks globally exploded the supply of currency and shut down output. Nothing could be more damaging to economies.  Trying to remedy that catastrophe will take a toll.

And the Federal Reserve knows it and knows it must get interest rates back to a level that leaves room to chop them to zero to try to forestall an economic collapse. 

The Fed is motivated to stock up some ammo, not to “normalize rates.” The quickest way to do that is to lift overnight rates and start selling off bonds. If demand for bonds falls, interest rates rise.

That simple. And the Fed is wholly willing to put everything and everyone in jeopardy in order to give itself policy tools. 

I’m not opposed to raising rates. I’m opposed to low rates that devalue savings and purchasing power and encourage debt and consumption.

Impact on equities?  I think we’re seeing it already.  Passive Investment marketwide has fallen from 20.4% of trading volume over the trailing 200 days, to 18.8% now.

Doesn’t seem like much. But a sustained recession in demand from indexes, ETFs and quants will reduce stock prices.  Derivatives demand is down too, from 18% to 17.2%.

Mathematically, that’s an 8% long-term decline in Passive Investment, 4% drop in derivatives demand. Is a 12% reduction in real and implied demand meaningful?  

Absolutely.

So, it’s a matter of the degree of effect, and if or when that trend reverses.  A trend-change across the whole market is unlikely here at April options-expirations. 

How about earnings season?  Only if it’s a barnburner, which is improbable.

I think the best chance is June options-expirations, the next time big money can make meaningful changes to asset-allocations.  In between are Russell rebalances in May.

I’m neither bull nor bear. We’re data analysts. We track the trends.  There are troubling signs here.  Yes, they could dissolve again under the inexorable repetition of There Is No Alternative.

But if not, there’s a rough ride ahead.  So.  You will find us on a boat.  See you Apr 27.

Predicting Moves

One hundred seventy-eight companies reported earnings yesterday. Could one predict which would rise or fall?

There are 148 on deck today, 149 tomorrow.  The high point here in the Q4 2021 cycle was Feb 2 with 330.

Back in early 2016, Goldman Sachs found that stocks underperforming the market in the two weeks before results tended to outperform on the news.  Goldman recommended buying calls on those stocks and found that it returned an average of 18% (that is, buying and selling the calls).

They didn’t say how the stocks themselves fared.

Illustration 35557373 / Earnings © Iqoncept | Dreamstime.com

And there’s no indication the strategy continues to work as it did then.  But you’ll recall that Jan 2016 was pretty volatile.

Not as bad as Jan 2022. 

Bloomberg wrote Jan 31 (thank you, Alert EDGE user John C for the tip) that the market’s capacity to handle trades tumbled during volatility in January. The trouble was so bad that the spread between bids to buy and sell S&P 500 futures contracts widened to levels seen during the Pandemic crash of March 2020.

Nowhere does the article say, as we told all clients, that this same set of futures contracts expired the last trading day of January (and every last trading day of each month), and to prepare for tumult because volatility would make derivatives settlements a hot mess.

Index funds use futures contracts on the S&P 500 to get performance back in line with the benchmark at month-end. They’re an excellent proxy for nearly any basket and “40 Act” funds are permitted by rules to use up to 10% of assets on substitutes.

Tim, I thought you were going to tell us how to know if stocks will surge or swoon on results?

Hang on, I’ll get to that.  There’s an important point here, first.  Futures and options both depend on the value of underlying assets but routinely separate from them.  In fact, stocks in the S&P 500 last week were up 50% more than the derivatives that are supposed to track them.

Stocks comprising the SPX were up 2.3% on average last week, while the SPX, the futures contract, rose 1.5%. That’s a spread of 50% — a crazy divergence. 

Meanwhile, Short Volume hit a record 49% of trading volume in the S&P 500.

It’s all related.

Indexes need to get square. Banks absorb the task, for a fee. Massive volatility ensues. Banks trade like crazy to transfer the risk – they’re not front-running customers but mitigating derivatives risk – from giant gaps and maws in the data to the stock market.

Stocks gyrate. Short volume soars, spreads explode.

And it’s all about derivatives. Not much to do with investor sentiment at all.

Now, can we predict these effects in your stock at results?  Yes.  Not perfectly, but well. Derivatives play a colossal role at earnings, and it can be seen, measured, predicted.

Every public company should measure and observe what the money is doing ahead of results.  Measure what Active money is doing. Check Short Volume. Meter derivatives (we do all of that with machines).

We use that and Supply/Demand data to forecast volatility and direction and to understand the reasons WHY.

For instance, SNAP traded near $24, down from over $83 back in September, before results.  It then skyrocketed after reporting its first quarterly profit to near $40.  That’s terrific, but it’s also crazy.  What kind of market behaves that way?

A story for another day.

Anyway, SNAP showed big LONG bets during January options expirations. The stock price didn’t show it.  But the data sure did.  Short Volume set a six-month low and correlated to a big surge in derivatives (that’s measurable too).

Long bets on SNAP’s earnings.

That didn’t guarantee a big jump. SNAP Short Volume was back to 50% ahead of earnings – a straddle – and currently sits at 61%. But the bets were there.  It was possible to know just about everything that might happen.

If you can know all that, why wouldn’t you? 

If your CEO or CFO knew you could see which way the bets were going, and what was responsible for it, they’d probably appreciate learning about it from the investor-relations officer.  And they’d want to know if money focused on the Story played a role.

Measurable. We can help. Press of a button for us.

I’ll leave you with a tidbit. Statistically, stocks did better reporting AFTER options expirations, regardless of results. Bets cost more.

Public companies, report after expirations. Beware month-end futures expirations. Traders, predictability is better outside options-expirations.

Big lesson? Derivatives are running the stock market.  And data will help you understand the effects.  Don’t go through another earnings cycle guessing at what might happen.

Electric Jellyfish

There are four Pinthouse locations in Austin and Round Rock, TX.

We’ve not been to any of them but we’ve had their scrumptious hazy IPA beer, Electric Jellyfish.  It may be the world’s best.

And the stock market has been an electric jellyfish.

Illustration 234002321 / Electric Jellyfish © Rul Stration | Dreamstime.com

Let me explain, on this Groundhog Day (it’s 2/2/22!).  Jellyfish float on the currents.  They don’t propel themselves with purpose around the sea.  But an electric one probably would, except you’d never know where it was headed.

Substituting, the stock market floats on the currents, and if it was electric, it would propel itself around and you’d never know where it was headed.

Look, I’m joking to some degree!  We all make our living in the stock market.  And as Joe Walsh said, life’s been good to me.  Remember, the name of that album was “But Seriously, Folks….”

And the stock market has measurably predictive characteristics. So do jellyfish from the standpoint that ocean currents will tell you where they’ll go.  Currents drive both.

And it’s hard to fight the current.  Friday Jan 28 and Monday Jan 31 reflected the explosive role of futures contracts in the stock market, which in turn effectuate the epochal role of Passive money in stocks.

One thing leads to another (a good song by The Fixx but maybe the better version of one thing leading to the next is the great country tune by Hardy called “One Beer”).

Passive money follows a model. Fast Traders set the prices. 

Suppose investors are biased toward GROWTH. Those stocks get an outsized allocation in models tracking otherwise statistically predictable benchmarks like the S&P 500.

That in turn drives up the value of associated options contracts.  The notional value of traded put and call options exceeded the value of trading in the underlying stocks in 2021.

And that’s a further input into the value of futures contracts used by index and exchange-traded funds to match benchmarks.  They can transfer the risk of buying or selling stocks to banks through baskets of futures expiring the last monthly trading day.

All of that stuff compounds, driving values artificially high. If that current changes, markets can lose value at stunning speeds.

Jan 28 was the day before options contracts expired. Right before the close, stocks surged – as an electric jellyfish might.  Happened again Jan 31 as Dec-Jan futures contracts true-ups hit, and money reset to contracts lapsing the last day of February.

Last week, trading data we track showed investment declined about 12% in the S&P 500, while trading tied to derivatives that we call Risk Mgmt rose over 3%, Fast Trading 2%.

That’s the effect of futures contracts used by Passives – transferred to banks – and machines sifting the prices of stocks and derivatives and rapidly repricing both.

There’s another electric jellyfish datapoint here.  Short Volume, daily trading on borrowed or created stock, hit 49% of total market volume Monday Jan 31, the highest level we believe we’ve ever recorded in the S&P 500.

In a sense, the stock market went beyond electric jellyfish into the metaverse.  Banks tasked with truing up indexes had to buy gobs of stuff to make index clients whole after a tumultuous January.

That’s the implication.

And because there was very little stock for sale, Short Volume – the supply chain of the stock market – surged to accommodate it.

Market-makers can manufacture stock. They are required to make bids and offers even when no one is buying and selling. They’re exempt from rules requiring others to first locate shares.

We might say that banks prestidigitated stock to fill orders for derivatives.  Just made up shares to back instruments that might not get used.

I’m sure it’ll all work out.  Cough, cough.

And look, it might.  Weird things can occur, without apparent consequences.  But it all compounds.

At some point, all the screwy stuff we humans are doing to escape reality is going to bring us crashing back to earth. So to speak.  Monetary policy is artificial. The stock market is artificial. And now people are spending hundreds of millions of dollars on dirt that doesn’t exist, in the metaverse.

It was a terrific January 2022 for ModernIR as companies of all sizes sought us out for a grounding in the reality of data, a way to track the electric jellyfish.

And we can track it.  We can’t predict when it’ll stop working. We can predict that if you like IPAs, you’ll love Electric Jellyfish.

Optional Chaos

So which is it?  

Monday, doom loomed over stocks. In Punditry were wringing hands, hushed tones. The virus was back. Growth was slowing. Inflation. The sky was falling!

Then came Tuesday. 

Jekyll and Hyde? Options expirations.  Only CNBC’s Brian Sullivan mentioned it. As ModernIR head of client services Brian Leite said, there wasn’t otherwise much effort to explain where the doom went. One headline said, “Stocks reverse Monday’s losses.”

WC Fields said horse sense is the thing a horse has which keeps it from betting on people. We could have used some horse sense.  I Tweeted this video.

Anyway. What must you know, investors and public companies, about why options cause chaos in stocks? (I’m explaining it to the Benzinga Boot Camp Sat July 24, 30 minutes at 1220p ET.  Come join.)

It’s not just that options-expirations may unsettle equity markets. The question is WHY?

Let me lay a foundation for you. Global Gross Domestic Product (GDP) is about $85 trillion. The notional value – exposure to underlying assets – of exchange-traded options and futures is about the same, $85 trillion give or take, says the Bank for International Settlements. The BIS pegs over-the-counter derivatives notional value at $582 trillion.

So call it $670 trillion. All output is leverage 8-9 times, in effect.

Now, only a fraction of these derivatives tie to US equities. But stocks are priced in dollars. Currency and interest-rate instruments make up 90% of derivatives.

All that stuff lies beneath stocks. Here, let’s use an analogy. Think about the stock market as a town built on a fault line.  The town would seem the stolid thing, planted on the ground. Then a tectonic plate shifts.

Suddenly what you thought was immovable is at risk.

Remember mortgage-backed securities?  These derivatives expanded access to US residential real estate, causing demand to exceed supply and driving up real estate prices.  When supply and demand reached nexus, the value of derivatives vanished.

Suddenly the market had far more supply than demand.  Down went prices, catastrophically. Financial crisis.

Every month, what happened to mortgage-backed securities occurs in stocks. It’s not seismic most times. Stocks are assets in tight supply.  Most stocks are owned fully by investors.  Just three – Blackrock, Vanguard, State Street – own a quarter of all stocks.

So just as real estate was securitized, so are stocks, into options, futures, swaps.  While these instruments have a continuous stream of expiration and renewal dates, the large portion ties to a monthly calendar from the Options Clearing Corp (our version is here).

Every month there’s a reset to notional value. Suppose just 1% of the $50 trillion options market doesn’t renew contracts and instead shorts stocks, lifting short volume 1%.

Well, that’s a potential 2% swing in the supply/demand balance (by the way, that is precisely last week’s math).  It can send the Dow Jones Industrials down a thousand points.  Hands wring.  People cry Covid.

And because the dollar and interest rates are far and away the largest categories, money could leave derivatives and shift to the assets underpinning those – BONDS.

Interest rates fall. Bonds soar. Stocks swoon.  People shriek.

Marketstructureedge.com – Broad Market Sentiment 1YR Jul 21, 2021

Options chaos.  We could see it. The image here shows Broad Market Sentiment – DEMAND – for the stocks represented by SPY, the State Street S&P 500 Exchange Traded Fund (ETF).  Demand waxes and wanes.  It was waning right into expirations.

In fact, it’s been steadily waning since Apr 2021.  In May into options-expirations, Sentiment peaked at the weakest level since Sep 2020. Stocks trembled. In June at quad-witching, stocks took a one-day swan dive.

Here in July, they cratered and then surged.  All these are signals of trouble in derivatives. Not in the assets.  It’s not rational. It’s excessive substitution.

We can measure it at all times in your stock. Into earnings. With deals. When your stock soars or plunges.

In 1971, the USA left the gold standard because the supply of dollars was rising but gold was running out. The derivative couldn’t be converted into the asset anymore. The consequence nearly destroyed the dollar and might have if 20% interest rates hadn’t sucked dollars out of circulation.

High interest rates are what we need again. During the pandemic the Federal Reserve flooded the planet with dollars. Money rushed into risk assets as Gresham’s Law predicts. And derivatives.

When the supply/demand nexus comes, the assets will reprice but won’t vanish. The representative demand in derivatives COULD vanish.  That’s not here yet.

The point: Derivatives price your stock, your sector, your industry, the stock market. Adjustments to those balances occur every month.  We can see it, measure it. It breeds chaos. Pundits don’t understand it.

It’s supply and demand you can’t see without Market Structure goggles. We’ve got ‘em.

Something Wicked

When I was a kid I read Ray Bradbury’s novel, Something Wicked this Way Comes, which plays on our latent fear of caricature. It takes the entertaining thing, a traveling carnival, and turns it into 1962-style horror.

Not 2021-style of course. There’s decorum. It stars a couple 13-year-olds after all.

The stock market also plays on our latent fear of caricature.  It’s a carnival at times.  Clowns abound.  As I said last week, companies can blow away expectations and stocks fall 20%.  That’s a horror show.

Courtesy The Guardian

Devilish winds have been teasing the corners of the tent for a time.  We told our Insights Reports recipients Monday about some of those.

The Consolidated Tape Association, responsible for the data used by retail brokers and internet websites like Yahoo! Finance and many others last week lost two hours of market data.  Gone.  Poof.

Fortunately, about 24 hours later they were able to restore from a backup.  But suppose you were using GPS navigation and for two hours Google lost all the maps.

So that was one sideshow, one little shop of horrors.  I don’t recall it happening before.

Twice last week and six times this year so far, exchanges have “declared self-help” against other markets.

It’s something you should understand, investor-relations professionals and traders.  It’s a provision under Regulation National Market System that permits stock exchanges to stop routing trades to a market that’s behaving anomalously, becoming a clown show.

Rules require all “marketable” trades — those wanting to be the best bid to buy or offer to sell — to be automated so they can zip over to wherever the best price resides. And exchanges must accept trades from other exchanges. No exceptions.  It’s like being forced to share your prices, customers, and even your office space with your competitors.

The regulators call this “promoting competition.” Sounds to me like a carnival.

But I digress. Exchanges must by law be connected at high-speed, unless declaring self-help.

An aside, I’ll grant you it’s a strange name for a regulatory term.  Self-help?  Couldn’t they have come up with something else?  Why not Regulatory Reroute? Data Detour?

Anyway, last week the trouble occurred in options markets.  First the BOX options market went down. It’s primarily owned by TMX Group, which runs the Toronto Stock Exchange.

Then last Friday CBOE — Chicago Board Options Exchange, it used to be called — failed and the NYSE American and Arca options markets and the Nasdaq options markets (the Nasdaq is the largest options-market operator) declared self-help. They stopped routing trades there until the issue was fixed.

Now maybe it’s no big deal.  But think about the effect on the algorithms designed to be everywhere at once.  Could it introduce pricing anomalies?

I don’t know.  But Monday the Nasdaq split the proverbial crotch of its jeans and yesterday the so-called “Value Trade” blew a gasket.

I’m not saying they’re related. The market is a complex ecosystem and becoming more so. Errors aren’t necessarily indicative of systemic trouble but they do reflect increasing volumes of data (we get it; we’re in the data business and it happens to us sometimes).

And we’d already been watching wickedness setting up in our index of short-term supply and demand, the ten-point Broad Market Sentiment gauge.  It’s been mired between 5.8-6.1 for two weeks.

When supply and demand are stuck in the straddle, things start, to borrow a line from a great Band of Horses song, splitting at the seams and now the whole thing’s tumbling down.

And here’s a last one:  Exchange Traded Funds (ETFs) have been more volatile than the underlying stocks for five straight weeks, during which time stocks had risen about 5% through last Friday. Since we’ve been measuring that data, it’s never happened before.

Doesn’t mean it’s a signal. It’s just another traveling freak show. Clowns and carnivals. ETFs are elastic and meant to absorb volatility. Stocks are generally of fixed supply while the supply of ETFs fluctuates constantly.  You’d expect stocks most times to thus move more, not less.

I think this feature, and the trouble in options markets, speaks to the mounting concentration of money in SUBSTITUTES for stocks.  It’s like mortgage-backed securities — substitutes for mortgages.  Not saying the same trouble looms.  We’re merely observing the possibility that something wicked this way is coming.

Our exact line Monday at five o’clock a.m. Mountain Time was: “There’s a lot of chaos in the data.”

Son of a gun.

I don’t know if we’re about to see a disaster amongst the trapezes, so to speak, a Flying Wallendas event under the Big Top of our high-flying equity market.  The data tell me the probability still lies some weeks out, because the data show us historically what’s happened when Sentiment hits stasis like it’s done.

But. Something is lurking there in the shadows, shuffling and grunting.

And none of us should be caught out. We have data to keep you ahead of wickedness, public companies and traders. Don’t get stuck at the carnival.

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.

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.

Collateral

I apologize.

Correlation between the market’s downward lurch and Karen’s and my return Sunday from the Arctic Circle seems mathematically irrefutable.  Shoulda stayed in Helsinki.

I wouldn’t have minded more time in the far reaches of Sweden and Finland viewing northern lights, sleeping in the Ice Hotel, riding sleds behind dogs, trekking into the mystic like Shackleton and Scott, gearing up for falling temperatures.  We unabashedly endorse Smartwool and Icebreaker base layers (and we used all we had).

Back to the market’s Arctic chill, was it that people woke Monday and said, “Shazam! This Coronavirus thing is bad!”

I’m frankly stupefied by the, shall we say, pandemic ignorance of market structure that pervades reportage.  If you’re headed to the Arctic, you prepare. If you raise reindeer, you’ve got to know what they eat (lichen). And if you’re in the capital markets, you should understand market structure.

There’s been recent talk in the online forum for NIRI, the investor-relations association, about “options surveillance.”   Options 101 is knowing the calendar.

On Aug 24, 2015, after a strong upward move for the US dollar the preceding week, the market imploded. Dow stocks fell a thousand points before ending down 588.

New options traded that day.  Demand vanished because nothing stresses interpretations of future prices – options are a right but not an obligation to buy or sell in the future – like currency volatility.

Step forward.  On Monday Feb 24, 2020, new options were trading.

Nobody showed up, predictively evident in how counterparty trading in support of options declined 5% the preceding week during expirations. Often, the increase or decrease in demand for what we call Risk Management – trades tied to leverage, portfolio insurance, and so on – during expirations is a signal for stocks.

Hundreds of trillions of dollars of swaps link to how interest rates and currency values may change in the future, plus some $10 trillion in equity swaps, and scores of trillions of other kinds of contracts. They recalibrate each month during expirations.

They’re all inextricably linked.  There is only one global reserve currency – money other central banks must own proportionally. The US dollar.

All prices are an interpretation of value defined by money. The dollar is the denominator.  Stock-prices are numerators.  Stronger dollar, smaller prices, and vice versa.

The DXY hit a one-year high last week (great for us buying euros in Finland!).

Let’s get to the nitty gritty.  If you borrow money or stocks, you post collateral.  If you hawk volatility by selling puts or calls, you have to own the stock in case you must cover the obligation.  If you buy volatility, you may be forced to buy or sell the underlying asset, like stocks, to which volatility ties.

Yesterday was Counterparty Tuesday, the day each month following the expiration of one series (Feb 21) and the start of a new one (Feb 24) when books are squared.

There’s a chain reaction. Counterparties knew last week that betting on future stock prices had dropped by roughly $1 trillion of value.  They sold associated stocks, which are for them a liability, not an investment.

Stocks plunged and everyone blamed the Coronavirus.

Now, say I borrowed money to buy derivatives last week when VIX volatility bets reset.  Then my collateral lost 4% of its value Monday. I get a call: Put up more collateral or cover my borrowing.

Will my counterparty take AAPL as collateral in a falling market?  Probably not. So I sell AAPL and pay the loan.  Now, the counterparty hedging my loan shorts stocks because I’ve quit my bet, reducing demand for stocks.

Volatility explodes, and the cost of insurance with derivatives soars.

It may indirectly be true that the cost of insurance in the form of swap contracts pegged to currencies or interest rates has been boosted on Coronavirus uncertainty.

But it’s not at all true that fear bred selling.  About 15% of market cap ties to derivatives.  If the future becomes uncertain, it can be marked to zero.  Probably not entirely – but marked down by half is still an 8% drop for stocks.

This is vital:  The effect manifests around options-expirations. Timing matters. Everybody – investors and public companies – should grasp this basic structural concept.

And it gets worse.  Because so much money in the market today is pegged to benchmarks and eschews tracking errors, a spate of volatility that’s not brought quickly to heel can spread like, well, a virus.

We’ve not seen that risk materialize in a long while because market-makers for Exchange Traded Funds that flip stocks as short-term collateral tend to buy collateral at modest discounts. A 1% decline is a buying opportunity for anyone with a horizon of a day.

Unless.  And here’s our risk: ETF market-makers can substitute cash for stocks. If they borrowed the cash, read the part on collateral again.

I expect ETF market-makers will return soon. Market Structure Sentiment peaked Feb 19, and troughs have been fast and shallow since 2018. But now you understand the risk, its magnitude, and its timing. It’s about collateral.  Not rational thought.

The Truth

You know it’s after Groundhog Day?  We passed Feb 2 and I don’t recall hearing the name Punxsutawney Phil (no shadow, so that means a reputed early spring).

Reminds one of the stock market. Things change so fast there’s no time for tradition.

We have important topics to cover, including the implications of the SEC’s recent decision to approve closing-auction trading at the CBOE, which doesn’t list stocks (save BATS).  Circumstances keep pushing the calendar back.

We said last week that the Coronavirus wasn’t driving stocks. It was market structure – measurable, behavioral change behind prices.

The Coronavirus is mushrooming still, and news services are full of dire warnings of global economic consequence.  Some said the plunge last Friday, the Dow Industrials diving 600 points, reflected shrinking economic expectations for 2020.

Now the market is essentially back to level in two days. The Nasdaq closed yesterday at a new record.  Did expectations of Coronavirus-driven economic sclerosis reverse course over the weekend?

It’s apparent in the Iowa caucuses that accurate outcomes matter.  The Impeachment odyssey, slipping last night into the curtains of the State of the Union address, is at root about interpretations of truth, the reliability of information, no matter the result.

We seem to live in an age where what can be known with certainty has diminished. Nowhere is it manifesting more starkly than in stocks.  Most of what we’re told drives them is unsupported by data.

A business news anchor could reasonably say, “Stocks surged today on a 10% jump in Fast Trading and a 5% decline in short volume, reflecting the pursuit of short-term arbitrage around sudden stock-volatility that created a broad array of cheap buying opportunity in derivatives.”

That would be a data-backed answer. Instead we hear, “Coronavirus fears eased.”

Inaccurate explanations are dangerous because they foster incorrect expectations.

The truth is, behavioral volatility exploded to 30% Feb 3, the most since Aug 2019. To understand behavioral volatility, picture a crowd leaving a stadium that stampedes.

Notice what Sentiment showed Feb 3. Sentiment is the capacity of the market to absorb higher and lower prices. It trades most times between 4.0-6.0, with tops over 7.0  The volatile daily read dropped below 4.0 Feb 3.

Cycles have shortened. Volatility in decline/recovery cycles is unstable.

Here’s the kicker. It was Exchange Traded Funds stampeding into stocks. Not people putting money to work in ETFs.  No, market makers for ETFs bought options in a wild orgy Monday, then caterwauled into the underlying stocks and ETFs yesterday, igniting a searing arc of market-recovery as prices for both options and ETFs ignited like fuel and raced through stocks.

That’s how TSLA screamed like a Ford GT40 (Carroll Shelby might say stocks were faster than Ferraris yesterday).  Same with a cross-section of stocks up hundreds of basis points (UNH up 7%, AMP up 6%, VMW up 4%, CAT up 4%, on it goes).

These are not rational moves. They are potentially bankrupting events for the parties selling volatility. That’s not to say the stock market’s gains are invalid.  We have the best economy in the world.

But.

Everyone – investors, investor-relations professionals, board directors, public-company executives – deserves basic accuracy around what’s driving stocks.  We expect it everywhere else (save politics!).

We’ll have to search out the truth ourselves, and it’s in the data (and we’ve got that data).

Infected Stocks

Coronaviruses are common throughout the world. So says the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The market didn’t treat news of spreading cases in China and the first in the USA (from a Chinese visitor) that way though. Airline and gaming stocks convulsed yesterday.

There’s as ever a lesson for investor-relations practitioners and investors about how the stock market works now. News compounds conditions but is infrequently causal. Investors, there are opportunities in divergences. IR pros, you need to know what’s real and what’s ripple-effect, because moves in stocks may not reflect rational sentiment.

Airline and leisure stocks demonstrate it. Active Investment pushed airlines up 2.4% last week, industry data we track (with proprietary analytics) show.

But.

Shorting rose, and demand for derivatives used to protect or leverage airline investments fell 7% into last week’s options-expirations (know the calendar, folks). That’s a signal that with new options trading yesterday, counterparties would shed inventory in those stocks because demand for options was down.

Both facts – Active buying last week, weak demand for leverage – run counter to the narrative of investor-fear. The data say these stocks would have been down anyway and news is simply compounding what preceded it.

No doubt some investors knee-jerked to headlines saying investors were selling, and sold. But it’s not the cause. It’s effect.

We can’t isolate gaming in GICS data but leisure stocks shared behavioral characteristics with airlines. Investment was up last week, led by Passive money rather than Active funds (Active rose 2% too). But Risk Management, the use of leverage, declined 3%. And the pattern of demand changed.

What if the real cause for declines in these industries is the rising cost of leverage?

I’ll make my last plug for the book The Man Who Solved the Market. Near the end, one of Jim Simons’s early collaborators at Renaissance Technologies observes, “I don’t deny that earnings reports and other business news surely move markets. The problem is that so many investors focus so much on these types of news that nearly all of the results cluster very near the average.”

He added that he believed the narratives that most investors latch onto to explain price-moves were quaint, even dangerous, because they breed misplaced confidence that an investment can be adequately understood and its future divined.

I’ll give you two more examples of the hubris of using headlines to understand stocks. The S&P 500, like airline and leisure stocks, experienced a 2% decline in demand for derivatives into expirations last week. Patterns changed. Ten of eleven sectors had net selling Friday even as broad measures finished up.

If the market is down 2% this week – and I’m not saying it will fall – what’ll be blamed? Impeachment? Gloomy views from Davos? The coronavirus?

One more: Utilities. These staid stocks zoomed 4% last week, leading all sectors. They were the sole group to show five straight days of buying. We were told the market galloped on growth prospects from two big trade agreements.

So, people bought Utilities for growth?

No, not the reason. Wrapped around the growth headlines was a chorus of voices about how the market keeps going up for no apparent reason. Caution pushes investors to look for things with low volatility.

Utilities move about 1.4% daily between intraday high and low average prices. Tech stocks comprising about 24% of the S&P 500 are 2.6% volatile – 86% more!

Communication Services, the sector for Alphabet, Facebook, Twitter and Netflix, is 2.8% volatile every day, exactly 100% more volatile than Utilities.

The Healthcare sector, stuffed with biotechnology names, is 4.8% volatile, a staggering 243% greater than Utilities.

These data say low-volatility strategies from quantitative techniques, to portfolio-weightings, to Exchange-Traded Funds are disproportionately – and simultaneously – reliant on Utilities. If volatility spikes, damage will thus magnify.

IR people, you’ve got to get a handle on behaviors behind price and volume (we can show you yours!). Headlines are quaint, even dangerous, said the folks at Renaissance Technologies, who earned 39% after-fee returns every year for more than three decades.

Investors, you must, too (try our Market Structure EDGE platform). None of us will diagnose market maladies by reading headlines. The signs of pathology will be deeper and earlier. In the data.