Tagged: shorting

Experience

“The market structure is a disaster.”

That’s what Lee Cooperman said in a CNBC conversation yesterday with “Overtime” host Scott Wapner.

What he thinks is wrong is the amount of trading occurring off the exchanges in so-called dark pools and the amount of shorting and short-term trading by machines.

I’m paraphrasing.

Mr. Cooperman, who was on my market-structure plenary panel at the 2019 NIRI Annual Conference, decries the end of the “uptick rule” in 2007. It required those shorting stocks to do so only on an uptick.

To be fair to regulators, there’s a rule. Stocks triggering trading halts (down 10% in five minutes) can for a set time be shorted only at prices above the national best bid to buy. It’s called Reg SHO Rule 201.

But market-makers are exempt and can continue creating stock to fill orders. It’s like, say, printing money.

Mr. Cooperman has educated himself on how the market works. It’s remarkable to me how few big investors and public companies (outside our client base!) know even basic market structure – its rules and behaviors.

Case in point.  A new corporate client insisted its surveillance team – from an unnamed stock exchange – was correct that a big holder had sold six million shares in a few days.

Our team patiently explained that it wasn’t mathematically possible (the exchange should have known too).  It would have been twice the percentage of daily trading than market structure permits.  That’s measurable.

Nor did the patterns of behavior – you can hide what you own but not what you trade, because all trades not cancelled (95% are cancelled) are reported to the tape – support it.

But they’re a client, and learning market structure, and using the data!

The point though is that the physics of the stock market are so warped by rules that it can’t function as a barometer for what you might think is happening.  That includes telling us the rational value of stuff.

You’d expect it would be plain crazy that the stock market can’t be trusted to tell you what investors think of your shares and the underlying business.  Right?

Well, consider the economy.  It’s the same way.

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The Federal Reserve has determined that it has a “mandate” to stabilize prices.  How then can businesses and consumers make correct decisions about supply or demand?

This is how we get radical bubbles in houses, cryptocurrencies, bonds, equities, that deflate violently.

Human nature feeds on experience. That is, we learn the difference between good and bad judgement by exercising both.  When we make mistakes, there are consequences that teach us the risk in continuing that behavior.

That’s what failure in the economy is supposed to do, too.

Instead, the Federal Reserve tries to equalize supply and demand and bail out failure.  

Did you know there’s no “dual mandate?”  Congress, which has no Constitutional authority to do so, directed the Fed toward three goals, not mandates: maximum employment, moderate long-term interest rates and stable prices.

By my count, that’s three. The Fed wholly ignores moderate rates. We haven’t had a Fed Funds rate over 6% since 2001.  Prices are not stable at all. They continually rise. Employment? We can’t fill jobs.

From 1800-1900 when the great wealth of our society formed (since then we’ve fostered vast debt), prices fell about 50%.  The opposite of what’s occurring now. 

Imagine if your money bought 50% more, so you didn’t have to keep earning more.  You could retire without fear, knowing you wouldn’t “run out of money.”

Back to market structure.

The catastrophe in Technology stocks that has the Nasdaq at 11,700 (that means it’s returned just 6% per annum since 2000, before taxes and inflation, and that matters if you want to retire this year) is due not to collapsing fundamentals but collapsing prices.

How do prices collapse?  There’s only one way.  Excess demand becomes excess supply.  Excess is always artificial, as in the economy.

People think they’re paying proper prices because arbitragers stabilize supply and demand, like the Fed tries to do. That’s how Exchange Traded Funds are priced – solely by arbitrage, not assets. And ETFs permit vastly more money to chase the same goods.

It’s what happened to housing before 2008.  Derivatives inflated the boom from excess money for loans.

ETFs permit trillions – ICI data show over $7 trillion in domestic ETFs alone that are creating and redeeming $700 BILLION of shares every month so far in 2022 – to chase stocks without changing their prices.

And the Federal Reserve does the same thing to our economy.  So at some point, prices will collapse, after all the inflation.

That’s not gloom and doom. It’s an observable, mathematical fact.  We just don’t know when.

It would behoove us all to understand that the Federal Reserve is as big a disaster as market structure.

We can navigate both. In the market, no investor, trader or public company should try doing it without GPS – Market Structure Analytics (or EDGE).

The economy?  We COULD take control of it back, too.

Caveat Short Emptor

What’s 218 pages and heavily footnoted? 

No, not an Act of Congress. Federal laws are ten times longer or treated as unserious.

It’s the new SEC proposed short-sale rule.

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I admit, I was excited. As the sort who read Tolstoy’s War and Peace in high school and in college relished French symbolism and theological exegesis – finding meaning in dense and inscrutable texts – what could be more compelling than an SEC rule proposal?

Well. Hm.

Under the Gensler regime, the SEC has engaged in hyperventilating levels of rulemaking while suppressing discourse. Between Feb 9-Mar 21, 2022, the SEC issued six MAJOR rule proposals.

How the hell can we read them – even me – let alone respond substantively?

Politburos do that.

We want fair markets. I support short-sale disclosure. 

But not at the expense of discussion or at the cost of permitting the SEC to regulate matters over which it has no authority.

Contrary to popular belief at the SEC, it’s not omniscient in our financial pursuits. It exists to reduce the risk of fraud in public equity and fixed-income markets.

It could be argued the Constitution enumerates no such federal authority at all. Whatever the case, if a power enlarges like a prostate, it’s probably cancerous.

Cough, cough.

Back to the short-sale rule. Dodd-Frank legislation after the Financial Crisis – crises always diminish liberty (and seem to thus compound) – directed the SEC to implement short-sale reporting, so investors and public companies would know who’s doing it.

The Fact Sheet for Rule 13f(2), as it’s called, says the principal purpose is to “aid the Commission in reconstructing significant market events and identifying potentially abusive trading practices, including short squeezes.”

Are short squeezes abusive?  I thought the purpose of the Exchange Act that created the SEC was to promote transparent and equitable markets.  Did you know that the compulsory disclosures public companies are making today under forms 10Q and 10K date to 1933 and 1934? You think the market functions anything like it did then?

If you do, you haven’t read Regulation National Market System. I have. I read the Federalist Papers for fun, to hear the mellifluous wonder of the English language.

For those struggling with math, it was 88 years ago. Not the Federalist Papers, the Exchange Act of 1934. Automobiles and electricity weren’t ubiquitous on the fruited plain yet then, let alone cell phones, algorithms, and electronic markets.

Now the SEC is regulating to give itself information, not to give the public information.

Again, I’m for transparency. The proposal says: 

Form SHO would require that institutional money managers file on the Commission’s EDGAR system, on a monthly basis, certain short sale related data, some of which would be aggregated and made public. Certain data, including the identities of such managers and individual short positions, would remain confidential.

Wait, what?

The SEC would get a bunch of data, and the rest of us would see anonymous aggregated meaningless stuff. 

Got that?

Yes, the rule proposes that investment managers report short positions greater than $10 million, or average shorting of 2.5% of outstanding shares monthly.  BUT, not by fund.

It’s anonymous data.

So really, PUBLIC COMPANIES get penalized. Everybody would know which stocks are getting the hell pummeled out of them – but not by who.

What does that promote? Mob behavior.

You have to read what the SEC says. For that matter, you should read what the exchanges say when they file to implement regulations.  It may not be what you think.

And while the SEC will collect more data, the biggest source of shorting in the stock market, the market-making exemption from Reg SHO Rule 203(b)(2), is undaunted.

Yes, brokers will have to report “buy to cover” orders or class them as exempt under the provision above.  What would you do as a broker? Report them or class them exempt?

Let me explain. Brokers will continue to be permitted to short stock without locating it, because the SEC thinks the principal purpose of the stock market is to form PRICES, not CAPITAL.

But they will promote an artifice called “short-sale reporting.”

I’m offended by that. The SEC should be mandating 13F reporting monthly for long and short positions. That the Commission instead wants short positions without names each month and long positions by name 45 days after the end of the quarter is sententious.

Quast, what does that mean? Pompous moralizing.

We don’t have legislative authority to mandate monthly long-reporting, the SEC will say. Hypocrites. The SEC just issued climate-disclosure rules with no legislative authority.

The SEC has forgotten its purpose: Free, fair and transparent markets.

Instead, it’s after power, political agendas. Not truth. By the way, see comments here (and I LOVE Patrick Hammond’s). Let’s add to them.

We should reject that impulse, even if it means waiting longer for a rethinking of 88-year-old disclosure standards.

The Little Short

In Michael Lewis’s The Big Short, a collection of eccentrics finds a flaw in real estate securities and shorts them.  The movie is great, the book even better.

Somebody will write a book about the 2020 stock market (anyone?) flaw.

The flaw? Depends who you ask. Writing for Barron’s, Ben Levisohn notes ZM is worth more in the market on $660 million of sales for the quarter than is IBM on $18 billion.

TSLA is up a thousand percent the last year, sales are up 3%. NVDA is trading at a hundred times quarterly revenue. AAPL is up 160% on 6% sales growth.

I know a lot about fundamental valuation after 25 years in investor relations. But 20 of those years were consumed with market structure, which our models show mechanically overwhelms fundamentals.

Why is market structure irrational?

Because most of the money in the market since Reg NMS isn’t rational. And still investor-relations professionals drag me to a whiteboard and sketch out how the performance of the stock – if it’s up – can be justified by prospects, or if it’s down is defying financials.

Market structure, rules governing how stocks trade, is agnostic about WHY stocks trade. The flaw is process has replaced purpose. Money inured to risk and reality can do anything. Just like government money from the Federal Reserve.

And yet that’s not what I’m talking about today.  The market is the Little Short.  Nobody is short stocks. I use the term “nobody” loosely.

Let me give you some history.

First, ignore short interest. It’s not a useful metric because it was created in 1975 before electronic markets, ETFs, Reg NMS, Fast Traders, exchange-traded derivatives, blah, blah. It’s like medieval costumes in Tom Cruise’s redux of Top Gun. It doesn’t fit.

After the financial crisis, rules for banks changed. The government figured out it could force banks to own its debt as “Tier 1 Capital,” and the Fed could drive down interest rates so they’d have to keep buying more.

Voila! Create a market for your own overspending. The Basel Accords do the same thing.

Anyway, so big banks stopped carrying equity inventories because they couldn’t do both.  Meanwhile the SEC gave market-makers exemptions from limitations on shorting.

Presto, Fast Traders started shorting to provide securities to the market. And that became the new “inventory.” Ten years later, short volume – borrowed stock – averages 45% of trading volume.

It was over 48% this spring.  And then it imploded in latter August, currently standing at 42.6%. The FAANGs, the giant stocks rocketing the major measures into the stratosphere, show even more short paucity at just 39%.

Realize that the market was trading $500 billion of stock before August, about 12 billion shares daily. So what’s the point? Short volume is inventory today, not mainly bets on declining stocks. It’s the supply that keeps demand from destabilizing prices, in effect. A drop from 48% to 43% is a 10% swoon, a cranial blow to inventory.

Higher short volume restrains prices because it increases the available supply. If demand slows, then excess supply weighs on prices, and stocks decline. We’ve been measuring this feature of market structure for a decade. It’s well over 80% correlated.

So the absence of inventory has the opposite impact on prices. They rise.  If the whole market lacks inventory, stocks soar. And the lowest inventory right now is in the FAANGs, which are leading the stampeding bulls.

Thinking about prices as rational things is wholly flawed. It’s not how the market works, from supply-chain, to routing, to quotes, prices, execution.

We thought temporal tumult in behaviors two weeks ago would derail this market. It didn’t. Or hasn’t yet. The big drop in shorting followed, suggesting those patterns included largescale short-covering by market-makers for ETFs.

When the market does finally reverse – and it will, and it’s going to be a freak show of a fall too, on market structure – low short volume will foster seismic volatility. Then shorting will explode, exacerbating the swoon as supply mushrooms and prices implode.

The good news is we can measure these data, and the behaviors responsible, and the impact on price. There’s no need to ever wonder if your stock, public companies, or your portfolio, traders, is about to step on a land mine.  We’re just waiting now to see how the Little Short plays out.

Short-Term Borrowing

Half the volume in the stock market is short – borrowed. Why?

It’s the more remarkable because stocks since late December have delivered an epic momentum rebound. A 15% gain is a good year. Half the sectors in the market were up 15% in just the last 25 trading days.

Yet amid the stampede from the depths of the December correction, short volume, the amount of daily trading on borrowed shares, rose rather than fell, and remains 48%.  That means if daily dollar-volume is $250 billion, $120 billion is borrowed stock.

What difference does it make? We’ve written before that the stock market now has characteristics of a credit market.  That is, if lending is responsible for half the volume, the market depends on short-term loans rather than long-term investment.

And share-borrowing, credit, will give the market a false appearance of liquidity.

Think about the sudden and massive December declines that included the worst-ever points-loss for the Dow Jones Industrial Average.  Was that a liquidity problem? Does a V-shaped recovery signal a liquidity problem?

Before the Dodd-Frank financial legislation, large banks might carry a supply of shares to meet the needs of customers, especially stocks covered by equity research.

With rigid value-at-risk regulations now, banks don’t hold inventory.  The supply chain for the stock market has shifted to proprietary fast traders, which don’t carry inventory either. They borrow it.

We define liquidity as the number of shares that can be traded before the price changes.  Prior to electronic markets, trade-sizes were ten times larger than today.  The mean trade-size the last five days was 181 shares, or about $13,500 against an average market price of $74.61.

But a few liquid stocks skew the average.  AAPL’s liquidity is over $23,000, its average trade-size. WMT is the average, about $13,000. GIS is half that, about $6,800.

AAPL is also 57% short – over half its liquidity is borrowed.  And AAPL is used as collateral by 270 Exchange-Traded Funds (ETFs). Related?

(Side note: Why would AAPL be used more than other stocks in an index if ETFs are tracking an index? Because ETFs only use a sample, often the biggest stocks that are liquid and easy to borrow.)

These three elements – fast traders, high borrowing levels, ETFs – are intertwined and they create risks of inflation and deflation in stocks that bear no correlation to fundamentals.

The market, as we’ve said before, always reflects its primary purposes. If the parties supplying the market with shares are borrowing them, they have an economic interest that will compete with the objectives of those buying shares as an equity investment.

Second, borrowing is a back-office brokerage function. With massive short-term securities lending, the back office becomes as important as the cash equities desk. And it’s a loan business, a credit market (a point made by the insightful academics comprising the Bogan family).

And ETFs? If you want to know how they work, read our white paper. ETFs are not pooled investments. They are collateralized stock substitutes. Derivatives.

Collateral is something you find in a credit market. ETF collateralization, the wholesale market where ETF shares are created and redeemed, is a staggering $400 billion per month in US equities, says the Investment Company Institute.

It’s cheap and easy for brokers to borrow the shares of a basket of stocks and supply them as collateral to the Blackrocks of the world (does Blackrock then loan them out, perpetuating the cycle?) for the right to create and sell ETF shares (or provide them to a hedge-fund customer wanting to short the whole Technology sector).

And how about the reverse? Brokers can borrow ETF shares and return them to Blackrock to receive collateral – stocks and/or cash that Blackrock puts in the redemption basket to offer in-kind for ETF shares.

These are the mechanics of the stock market.  It works well if there’s little volatility – much like the short-term commercial paper market that froze catastrophically during the financial crisis.

We are not predicting doom. We are highlighting structural risks investors and public companies should understand. The stock market depends for prices and liquidity on short-term borrowing. In periods of volatility, that dependency will amplify moves.

In extreme cases, it’s possible the stock market could seize up not through investor panic but because short-term borrowing may freeze.

How might we see that risk? Behavioral volatility. When the movement of money becomes frantic behind prices and volume where only a few firms like ours can see it, market volatility tends to follow (as Sept 2018 behaviors presaged October declines).

Currently, behavioral volatility is muted ahead of the Fed meeting concluding today, loads of earnings, and jobs data Friday. It can change on a dime.

Volume and Interest

In the five trading days ended Oct 17, 49.1% of average daily stock volume was short.

“Wait, what?” you say.  “Half the stock market is short?”

Yes, that’s right.  Short volume last topped 49% marketwide in mid-April. The market glided gently downward from there to May options-expirations. Speaking of expirations, we’re in them for October this week, so it’s a good time to talk about shorting.

Short volume hit a last marketwide low July 12 at 43%, which roughly corresponded to the high point of the Brexit Bounce.  At Nov 30 last year short volume was 42.9% and December and January were horrific for markets.  And on Jan 7, 2016, short volume was 52%. A month later the market bottomed and soared till April.

If short-volume history is a guide, the market is nearing a temporary bottom. It’s unwise to use a single data point, and we don’t (we use six key measures, plus a small supporting cast, as you clients know). The flow and behavior of money count, and we track both.

“Back up,” you say.  “You lost me at ‘short volume.’ What do you mean by that?”

Short volume is trading derived from borrowed shares.

“I read back in August on Zero Hedge that nobody’s short stocks. Trading from borrowed shares is 2% of the S&P 500, near a three-year low.”

You’re talking about short interest, the long-in-the-tooth risk-assessment tool derived from a 1975 Federal Reserve rule called Regulation T. Shorting and derivatives exploded after the US scrapped the gold standard and the Feds wanted to track margin accounts.

“Are we talking about the same short interest? The amount of total shares outstanding or float that’s borrowed and sold and not yet covered?”

Yes. Forty-one years later it’s still a standard market-risk measure. Yet it’s largely useless predictively. It didn’t shoot up until well after Bear Stearns foundered. In late 2007 it was 1.6%.

“So you’re saying it’s a crappy measure. What’s short volume then?”

Short volume is the amount of daily trading volume that’s borrowed. If a stock trades a million shares a day and short volume is 53%, then 530,000 shares of it were borrowed.  With over 40% of all market volume coming from Fast Traders wanting to own nothing, a great deal of this is short-term trading.

“Okay, I’m following. But what’s it tell me?”

Short volume signals several things but in sum it’s what you think: High short volume, lower price.  Why? Shorting is at root the continual adding of supply to the market. So if demand doesn’t keep up, price falls.

Here’s more:

High short volume means weak expectation for gains. No matter what company fundamentals are, if more volume comes from borrowed shares than owned shares, Fast Traders weighing tick data with high performance machines predict investors would rather lend shares for a return than spend money buying and holding them.

High short volume points to rotation. If the machines want to be short, they’re betting holders are selling and trying to hide it by passing shares through multiple brokers. The converse is true too: If you’ve been short and shorting falls, rotation is probably done.

Persistent high shorting reflects uncertainty about corporate strategy.  Not to pick on Tesla (because it’s not alone by any stretch) but its 200-day average short volume is 55%. Investors say it’s a trading vehicle, not an investment opportunity.  By contrast Qualcomm’s 200-day average is 42%. The two have inverse performance the past year.

Tangentially, high short volume CAN mean ETFs are seeing outflows. Exchange Traded Funds don’t directly buy or sell stocks but they create big volume because ETFs track other measures, such as indexes, that are in turn composed of other issues, such as stocks.

Traders measure deviation between ETFs and these other things and arbitrage (profit on price-differences) the spreads.  When investors sell ETF shares, ETF market makers or authorized participants (parties designated to create and redeem ETF shares) might short components to raise cash in order to buy ETF shares and retire them to rebalance supply.

In sum, short volume is a sensor situated near the beating heart of the money behind price and volume. And while algorithms driving trades today are designed to deceive, they can often be unmasked through short volume (with a couple other key measures).

For the rest of this week though, don’t be surprised if the market shows us not a beating heart but expirations-related palpitations.

The Long and Short

In the timeless 1987 movie The Princess Bride, Vizzini the Sicilian, played riotously with a lisp by Wallace Shawn, keeps declaring things “inconceivable!”

Swordsman Inigo Montoya, portrayed then by Homeland’s Mandy Patinkin, finally says, “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”

You could say the same for short interest. It’s not what you think it means. Stay with me to the end, and you’ll see.

On August 2, 2012, Knight Capital Group’s algorithms failed. Monday at TABB Forum, Anthony Masso, CEO at trading risk-analytics provider Succession Systems, described how the SEC’s recent settlement with Knight successor KCG Holdings clarified a risk standard called the Market Access Rule. It requires brokers to have systems that forestall actions that may imperil themselves or others in the market. I’d paraphrase the law this way: “We order you to take whatever actions are necessary to prevent bad stuff. Thank you.”

That’s not what got my attention. The settlement reveals details about Knight’s errant trades. The broker bought, or went long, $3.5 billion of stocks; and shorted, or sold, about $3.2 billion. In less than an hour, its systems executed four million trades in 174 different stocks to create these positions.

This one tidbit is a tumbler unlocking vast secrets about market behavior. Knight’s algorithms were observably designed to build long and short positions of similar size principally to supply the storefronts of the stock market. When these positions failed to modulate, markets rushed into the vacuum, crushing Knight’s balance sheet.

Here’s the delicate balance in proprietary high-speed trading. Get it wrong by less than 10% and you’re done. Knight got it wrong. This same fragile trestle trains markets over the chasm each day. We’re all riding the rail.

ModernIR tracks short volume using algorithms. The daily average the past 50 days marketwide is 41%, not far off long/short equilibrium. Combined volumes on exchanges and dark pools total about 6.3 billion shares daily, meaning 2.5 billion shares each day are short.

Short interest in the S&P 500 is nearer 5% on average, though components can reach levels that roughly match daily short volume. The difference between interest and volume is that volume is just borrowed, while interest remains sold and outstanding.

Our data show that 11% of public companies have short volume above 50% of total volume. The highest in our client base the last five days was 61%. We’ve seen levels reach 85%, meaning nearly nine of every ten trades involved short shares – rented trading inventory. The lowest we saw was in a series of Class B shares trading just a few thousand per day where still 15% were short.

Elevated short interest can mean speculators are betting on a downturn. But it could as well be searing daytime demand for trading “inventory” – bowling shoes to put on for the day, for the game, traders and intermediaries finding renting cheaper than owning.

What concerns me is that short volume by definition in Regulation T is credit. So the market is heavily dependent on borrowing, just like the entire global financial system.

You have to see volume differently. Half of it is borrowed. Rented. Bowling shoes. High short interest is a product of frenetic demand on short horizons – not a certificate guaranteeing imminent pressure.

But realize that a hiccup in long/short balances can move your shares sharply – and it’s got nothing to do with ownership, or even shorting in the conventional sense. Inconceivable? No. And you know now what I mean.

Stopping Shorts

We’re in Paris.

After last week’s pelting Hollywood, FL schedule at NIRI National 2013, we’re sight-seeing along the Seine and then wheels-down southward through Provence on bikes. Tell you about it in two weeks.

Back to NIRI. The Westin Diplomat taunts with beckoning views of surf and sand mere yards away while you ride chilly escalators through its immense conference center. One early walk Wednesday up the strand, home to bargain venues like the Manta Ray Hotel and dining establishments where breakfast still goes for $3.90, cured our longing for the outdoors, however. We soaked fast in the sultry air where but degrees of atomization separate sea and sky. We don’t know humid in Denver.

Observations? NIRI ran a solid show, tightening panel-times and offering innovative material to spice up the same stuff you’ve always seen if you’ve gone to fifteen of these like I have. Audience? Seemed light to me, perhaps some under the 1,200-ish we heard. But it’s FL. Maybe a chunk hit boats and links rather than booths and panels.

ModernIR pumped up its presence with a new booth, a bag insert, and a full page in the conference program. And I was on a panel about short-selling (we track short volume with algorithms). In all my NIRI years, I can’t recall one on shorting that featured the head of securities-lending for Franklin Templeton and a real short-selling hedge fund.

The gregarious Kevin Tuttle, CEO of short fund Tesseract Management, entertained us with wide-ranging views interspersed with gems that could slip by if you weren’t paying close attention. (more…)

Equity Supply Chain

Dollar General (NYSE:DG) dropped 9% yesterday, offering a lesson to investor-relations professionals.

Before that, a plug: At NIRI National next week I’m paneling with the CEO of short-seller Tesseract Management and the head of securities-lending for Franklin Templeton on short-selling strategy and practices. Longtime NIRI fixture Theresa Molloy has organized a great discussion and will moderate. And please visit ModernIR at booth 719, our eighth straight year in the exhibit hall.

For Dollar General, revenues were light and guidance lighter, margins weakened due to the products folks were buying last quarter, and inventories rose 21%. Investors and traders can examine facts about the structure of Dollar General’s market, from margins to supply-chain, and make value judgments (which will be distorted by other market behaviors, however).

Have you considered that your equity market is also affected by logistics, supply-chain and who’s consuming the product? We perhaps never imagine that the stock market has the same characteristics and limitations of other markets. Have you gone to the shoe store and they didn’t have your size in the brand you wanted? How come that doesn’t happen in the stock market? (more…)