Tagged: Program Trading

The Obvious

Algorithmic trading is Wall Street’s last best hope.

So said the lead sentence in a story called Algo Wars in the May 30, 2005 edition of Investment Dealer’s Digest. That publication is gone and so is Lehman Brothers, co-leader of program-trading at the NYSE in May 2005, and computers were then rapidly displacing humans in driving it.

Algorithms, computerized mathematical models for trading, are ubiquitous now not just in equities but across a spectrum of electronically traded securities ranging from currencies and options to futures and US Treasuries.

History illuminates origins. It’s the reason to be a student of it, paraphrasing the Spanish philosopher called George Santayana (his actual name is a lot longer), who made the cover of Time Magazine in 1936 and observed that those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.

Algorithms, the article says, were birthed by “market developments and regulations that made trading equities more complicated and less profitable.” It quotes Sang Lee, founder of then brand-new market consultancy Aite Group, now a thought leader on market structure, saying algorithms “emerged from this hostile institutional trading environment where it’s getting increasingly difficult to move large blocks of orders.”

That was ten years ago. I had started ModernIR a few months earlier. Josh Friedlander, author of Algo Wars, wrote near the beginning that “because the democratization of algorithmic trading has just begun, its impact on the corporate world is still uncertain,” referring to ambiguity about how algorithms would affect stocks of companies.

Friedlander also wondered if small-caps, victimized then by decimalization and a regulatory separation of research and trading, would suffer further. The JOBS Act, made law in 2012, made it easier for small firms to go public but didn’t address structural woes for small stocks.  Today analyst coverage is a Rorschach blot on the biggest 750 firms, leaving 3,000 largely in uncovered white space. And the buyside and sellside have spent billions on technologies for hiding trades in a complex market.

Exchange Traded Funds (ETFs) grew out of this milieu. Moving big orders was a problem a decade ago.  Now look at it. We have Blackrock and Vanguard with $8 trillion of assets and a stock market with $24 trillion of capitalization. ETFs are the next evolution for a market built on rules meant to fuel movement but which paradoxically paralyze it.

I looked up one of our small-cap clients with about $1 billion of market cap and compared it to one with $10 billion. The small-cap was in 58 ETFs, 15% more than the $10 billion stock, and short volumes for it are in the highest 20% marketwide. It’s not that ETFs are focused on small-caps. Our typical large-cap client with $25 billion or more of market-cap is in about 100 ETFs.  Borrowing and derivatives predominate.

What should be obvious from the IR chair upon retrospection is how little faith one can have in what’s observable on the surface of price and volume.  ETFs move positions relentlessly and without respect to news save for reactions to prices and direction where applicable. Algorithms proliferating for a decade are designed to hide intention.

If as an institutional seller you wanted to obscure your disbursements, would you employ algorithms that pressured prices?  Selling would be patently obvious and the billions spent on sleights of hand wasted.  Clients, you know we routinely observe contrarian patterns in the data – Positive sentiment signaling impending pressure, Negative sentiment a bottom and probable buying.

Let me summarize. The obvious lesson of history here is that a decade of profound stock-market transformation coupled with leviathan investment from its core participants in purpose-obfuscating trading technologies will not produce a market where you look at your price and volume and say, “I think we have a big seller.”

Every now and then that might be right. But 90% of the time what seems to be apparent is probably not what’s occurring.  Thus ModernIR thrives today and we can help anybody regardless of size or trading volume observe reality under the market’s skin.

Look Around

It’s good to know what’s around you.

En route back from Austin to Denver we traversed the hinterlands including eight miles of dirt track to visit the evocative scene of the 1864 Sand Creek massacre of peaceful Cheyenne and Arapahoe north of Lamar, CO. There’s an eerie stillness yet.

A technology client in a five-day period showed a 14% increase in midpoint price on a 4% rise in Rational investment and a 3% uptick in Speculative trading. It’s not evocative, I agree. You see all those percent signs and you want to watch cartoons or have a cocktail hour. Or drive a deserted road. Any escape from dreaded math!

But it’s telling you as plainly as historical evidence what’s happening. It’s laden to dripping with news you can use. Rational investment occurred. Speculators picked up on it and moved the price. And look how important rational investment is – just a few percentage points can change everything. There’s no better or more immediate proof of the need for IR and sweating the small stuff. One call here, one meeting there, and the whole structure of your equity market transforms.

Think about what web advertisers do with data. Every click, visit, or search is a data point that paints a three-dimensional picture of you, the consumer, and which then lines the margins of your browser with things you might use. And cookies might send you emails offering travel deals, an Overstock auction, or affordable life insurance.

Another client gained 5% around Thanksgiving, on a 7% increase in Program trading – and we even know the brokers responsible for it, and how much they were up or down compared to the preceding period. We use an algorithm for that. We marked Rational and Speculative trading as shares of market this week versus last and both were down. Hedging was the measurable, mathematical price-setter. (more…)

JP Morgan and Market Structure

Karen and I will join the ghost of Billy the Kid and about 3,000 cyclists in New Mexico next weekend for the Santa Fe Century. Weather looks good, winds below gale force. Should be fun!

Speaking of gales, JP Morgan blew one through markets. So many have opined that I balk at compounding the cacophony. My own mother is throwing around the acronym “JPM” in emails.

But there’s something you should understand about JPM and market structure, IR folks. First, put this on your calendar at NIRI National next month: EMC’s global head of IR, Tony Takazawa, is moderating a panel Monday June 4, at 4:15p, on IR Targeting and Investor Trading Behaviors (scroll down to it). The aim: Understand how markets have changed, how institutions have adapted, and what that means to gaining buyside interest today. I’ll be there, and we hope you will be.

Back to JP Morgan. You could define “market structure” in many ways. We prefer “the behavior of money behind price and volume.” What’s JPM got to do with that?

A lot. We observed in the days before word broke about trading woes at the big custodian for Fannie and Freddie that its program-trading volumes in equities were down by wide margins across the market-cap spectrum. It disappeared entirely from some small-cap clients that it typically trades algorithmically with great consistency (indexes, models, ETFs).

These facts raised no particular red flag because we saw widespread discordance in program-trading last week. Then word of JPM’s whale of a London loss broke. Maybe it was coincidental that its program-trading volumes fell. Regardless, it demonstrates the interconnected nature of markets today. Missteps in the risk-management arm of a bank can blight program-trading in health care, technology and other equities. (more…)

When Investors Buy and Sell

When investors buy and sell shares, what happens?

The logical answer is “stocks go up and down.” Let’s get more specific. Among the 20 largest asset managers at the end of 2009, ten were bank-owned, says consulting firm Towers Watson. The five largest – Blackrock, State Street, Allianz, Fidelity and Vanguard – are independents that pass the preponderance of their buying and selling through the biggest sellside firms on passive equity and ETF trading programs.

The banks behind ten of the twenty largest asset managers include BNP Paribas, Deutsche Bank, JP Morgan, BNY Mellon, Credit Agricole, UBS, Goldman Sachs, HSBC and Bank of America.

The top ten futures brokers for 2009 were Newedge (Societe General/Credit Agricole joint venture), Goldman Sachs, JP Morgan, Deutsche Bank, Citigroup, UBS, BofA, MF Global, Morgan Stanley and Barclays. (more…)

High Correlation in Stocks

While Irene splashed Wall Street, we Coloradans reveled in the ridden glory of the USA Pro Cycling Challenge. The 500-mile route hosted 130 of the world’s top cyclists including Tour de France winner Cadel Evans and both runners-up, Luxembourgers Andy and Frank Schleck.

We were there, clanging bells and hooting our hearts out. Here is winner Levi Leipheimer readying for the time trial that put him in yellow. The peloton left Avon here for Steamboat, and Levi is visible midway in yellow. At the finish, some 250,000 jammed downtown Denver for the epic, lapping conclusion. We are proud of American cycling and our state’s awesome organizational effort.

Speaking of peloton, Wall Street Journal reporter John Jannarone wrote Monday in the Heard column called “Traders Seek Salvation from Correlation” about how stocks race in formation. It’s among the best pieces we’ve seen on modern trading. Jannarone says that S&P 500 stocks show 80% correlation in the past month, meaning eight in ten move synchronously.

This is a source of distress for IR folks trying to distinguish a strong company story from the herd. We’d argue that rather than slamming the collective IR noggin into the burgeoning brick wall of macro-focus investing that you instead track program trading and establish what level is acceptable – and use it as an IR success measure. We wrote about this last week, so we won’t retrace the trodden path.

Why a mirror image across so much of the market? One driver Jannarone posits is Exchange-Traded Fund investing. According to Credit Suisse, these drive some 30% of daily stock volume. Jannarone also notes that trading in S&P 500 E-mini futures contracts is more than four times the combined daily volume of the two biggest S&P 500 ETFs, the SPDR, and iShares S&P 500 Index ETF. (more…)

Whew, we’re back to good.

That seems the attitude about market gyrations in August. Prices recovered. Heck, we should’ve skipped the mess and stayed on the Cape.

Across our client base, we saw few rational-price changes between Aug 1 and Aug 12. Rational investors were not responsible aside from stop losses triggering reactions. Trading data do indicate sizeable shifts in assets by global risk managers.

We talked about that last week. Responses to currency fluctuations. Institutions transferring risk by moving money continuously via electronic markets from bonds, to equities, to derivatives, to currencies. With fear of a currency meltdown rising, risk managers engaged in random, computerized, global buying and selling to discourage everyone from running to the same side of the boat and capsizing it.

We’re convinced that techniques developed after 2008 were employed to blunt this “tail risk” crowd behavior. That’s the chance that everybody does the same thing at the same time, destroying global portfolios in a mad rush. Computers randomly bought and sold. The lack of a trend reduced the risk of a rout. (more…)

We were in San Francisco Sunday escaping the heat parching most of the country. Cool heads are better than hot heads, we thought. It was nice to need a sweater.

Speaking of needing things, there’s a flaw in consensus estimates. Consensus by definition means it’s the general view. But the general view reflected by estimates of earnings, revenues or cash flows comprises less than 15% of total market volume.

Across the market, we find that about 12.5% of substantive volume is what we’d call rational – driven by thoughtful investment derived from fundamentals. How can this be? Great swaths of trading today are driven by relative value – the current value of this basket of things versus that basket of things.

Somewhere around 30% of volume is this kind of trading that we consider program trading. It’s driven by market factors and relative value. After all, currencies that denominate securities have only relative and not intrinsic value. Should we not expect trading instruments to behave the same?

What’s more, some 65% of total market volume on average is just air created by the maker/taker model prevailing across global exchanges, in which we’ve all been fed this line of hooey that a massively mediated market is better for buyers and sellers than one with few intermediaries. When in the history of human commerce has it been more efficient to cut the middle man in rather than out? (more…)

Take the Pulse of Your Stock

Coming to NIRI National 2011 next week? Please visit us at Booth 304! We have no helicopter rides or trips to the Bahamas to give, but we do have a really cool microfiber for keeping those ubiquitous touchscreen pads and smartphones sharp.

June launched by kicking markets right in the rump. We blamed economic data. It’s true but not that simple. Behind the data at the behavioral level, institutions decided against equities roughly May 13. We don’t make this up, we just observe it in the way trades execute. When methodologies, purposes or time horizons change, it manifests in trade executions.

Money didn’t hedge with options expirations May 18-20 either. If you decide not to insure your house against loss, what might that mean? That you expect to sell it shortly, that risk is nonexistent, or that insurance is too darned expensive. As an analogy, two of those three are negatives and the middle one doesn’t exist on Wall Street.


Maybe we should leave more often. Out just one week, and both silver and Osama Bin Laden’s house go on the auction block.

Sunday night after flying back from Antigua by way of Newark, I reviewed a week’s worth of client stock alerts for perspective. Stepping through a side exit and closing the door on life’s cacophony for a week, time stops. The return, the jolt of the madding crowd, is revealing. It’s amazing what you see.

More in a moment, but I promised some of you I’d share what we saw beyond the Truman Show. Apparently you can’t get from Denver to the French West Indies in a day on one airline, (more…)

Karen and I are getting in boat shape ahead of a trip to Antigua (Motto: “Don’t ever say the name ‘Allen Stanford’ around here”). But we’ve encountered obstacles to the cycling part of the regimen: Wind and fire. One more, such as earth, and we’ve have a good name for a rock band. It’s been bone-dry and breezy on the Front Range, and already several range fires have burned black swaths.

Speaking of fires, we’re marching through them with the Issuer Data Initiative. The Number One Need is more names behind it. If you haven’t committed support for better trading data, do so today. Your peers will thank you someday, and you can remind them then that they owe you.

Before we get to what happened Mar 16-21 in trading markets, a word on BATS Exchange. The Kansas City operator of the third-largest American trading venue has made no secret of its interest in listing companies for public trading. BATS made it official today, announcing plans to offer IPOs another path to global liquidity.

Provided BATS offers competitive listing prices and good data, it can compete. We hope exchange executives will consider the key data points in the Issuer Data Initiative. BATS has a reputation for data excellence already, providing a great deal of free data to its trading clients.

We see too that BATS filed a proposed rule change with the SEC last month that will require customers to mark trades as principal (for their own accounts), agency (on behalf of others) or riskless principal (buying from or selling to a customer). See, issuers? Exchanges file rules to change how things are done. Issuers are participants in markets too. If they want something changed, they too can ask.

What drove trading markets roughly March 16-21 also speaks to the importance of good data. Somebody always must execute the trade and report it. That’s the way we all know the volume for any stock. On March 16, the G-7 countries announced a concerted effort to devalue the Japanese yen by flooding markets with currency. March 16-18 also included the monthly options-expirations cycle, and S&P quarterly index rebalances.

During the same period, we observed uniformity in trading activity for a set of “primary dealers” that work with central banks in the United States, Europe and Japan. Across the market-cap and sector spectrum, the same behavior occurred for this set of primary dealers.

We surmise that central banks armed these large brokerages with cash, which is how central banks engage in “quantitative easing.” The brokerages, also all commercial banks today, deployed it by buying securities from selling institutions. It had the desired effect, stabilizing equity markets and reducing upward pressure on the yen.

We’ve seen that many stocks have returned to their pre-March-10 “rational price” levels. But the behaviors producing those prices aren’t rational. If these were riskless principal transactions, do governments now own a bunch of equities with taxpayer dollars? Or were these all principal trades and so the brokers now have high levels of inventory?

Let’s suppose it’s the latter. Fine, so long as markets rise. Brokers can sell inventory as more buyers return to equities. It’s bad, however, if, say, Portugal defaults, causing the Euro to weaken and the dollar to rise. US equities would slide, and brokers would dump inventory to protect themselves as markets fell.

So everybody get out there and buy something made in Portugal.