Tagged: Volatility

For the Birds

Did you know the Caribbean is full of brown boobies? 

The blue-footed brown booby, about the size of a seagull.  We’re just back from sailing St Martin and St Barts, where the critters of both sea and sky delighted.

Unlike the stock market, apparently, which has gone to, um, the birds. 

By the way, best food in the islands?  Grand Case on St Martin. It’s French. Need I say more?  On our boat, we had French food, French wine, French chef.

It’s a wonder we left. I gained five pounds. You can see it in the photo, aboard our catamaran in St Barts (more trip photos if you’re interested).

Tim and Karen Quast aboard Norsegod in St Barts Harbor (courtesy Tim Quast).

Back to stocks, we should have expected cratering markets because fundamentals have deteriorated dramatically.

Oh no, wait. They haven’t. 

Zscaler (ZS), which has been crushing expectations every quarter, is up just 6.7% the past year now after rising over 500% the past five years. It’s down 33% the last six months.

Philip Morris (PM), which is not growing, is down 7% the past five years but up 8% the past six months.

The popular explanations for why these conditions exist have reached such shrieking insanity that I might be forced to return to the sea.  And French food.

First, let’s understand how stocks go up.  Not the “more buyers than sellers” version but the mechanics. 

There is demand.  It can come from investors, traders or counterparties. Active investors buy opportunity, Passive investors buy products – growth, value, etc. Traders chase arbitrage (different prices for the same thing). Counterparties buy or sell to meet or mitigate demand for derivatives like options.

When all converge, prices explode. 

And there are compounding factors. Many investors now prefer Exchange Traded Funds (ETFs), which don’t increase the SUPPLY of stocks, just the DEMAND for them.

And traders buy or sell short-term prices with connection only to previous prices, leading to spiraling short-term gyrations.

And derivatives as both implied demand and supply magnify moves.

Are you with me still? Think this is for the birds?

The Tetris of the stock market, the arranging of these blocks, distorts perceptions of supply and demand and fosters absurd explanations.

And over time, it erodes realized returns.  All the toll-collectors – money managers, ETF sponsors, trading intermediaries, stock exchanges, counterparties – get rich.

As of yesterday, the Nasdaq is up about 6.5% annually since March 2000, before taxes and inflation and without respect to risk premia. Tech stocks move 3.5% intraday daily.

You see? Daily price-moves are more than half the average expected pre-tax returns. That’s because of what happens when all the Tetris blocks start falling.

Here’s how. Active investors stop buying equities. Passive investors slow allocations and see redemptions.  Speculators stop setting prices. ETFs have to redeem shares so compounding demand is suddenly replaced by a vacuum. Implied demand via derivatives vanishes.

And prices implode.

This is how the DJIA drops 800 points in a day.

And we haven’t even talked about short volume.  The SEC permits intermediaries to create stock when no real supply exists to satisfy it. That is, they can short stocks without borrowing.

That works great on the way up as it provides supply to rising prices that would otherwise go unsatisfied. On the way down, we become aware that the implied demand in created stock just doesn’t exist.

So, Tim. What can we do in this market?  

You can’t control it.  We could fix it if we stopped letting shilling Fast Traders set prices and create stock.

If we junked the continuous auction market and returned to periodic auctions of real demand and supply. No real buyers or sellers, no prices.

And stock markets should actually compete by offering separate “stores” that aren’t connected electronically and forced to share prices. As it is, markets are just a system.

Alas, none of this will happen anytime soon.

So.

We can continue as companies, investors and traders fooling ourselves that fundamentals drive markets.  Or we can learn how markets work. The starting point.

Otherwise, we’re like somebody reading the opening line today. “Did he just say ‘boobies’?”

I was talking about birds.

We need to understand the topic. The market (ask us, we’ll help).

Suspended

Shocking.

No other word for it.

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

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

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

Illustration 76839447 © Ekaterina Muzyka | Dreamstime.com

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Well, now we know the cost.

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

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

Eyes Wide Open

Here’s my grand unified theory on the world. We stopped following the rules.

Not that humans don’t color outside the lines routinely. But in the last two years we jettisoned restraint. That gave rise to chaos in the stock market, imperialism in Ukraine.

Here’s what I mean. The Pandemic prompted a reversal of the relationship between people and governments. Governments derive their purpose and support from the people.

Even in tyrannies.  French Nobel-Prize-winning writer Albert Camus who coincidentally wrote a book called The Plague said, “The welfare of humanity is always the alibi of tyrants.”

We did it for the people.

During the Pandemic, governments uniformly, whether free or autocratic, assumed supreme authority and bullied everybody into submission. Rules be damned.

That’s a bullhorn to brigands, cretins and miscreants.  If the rules don’t apply, then what’s to stop me?

Everybody started taking other people’s stuff.

Here in the USA, the country’s system of production and distribution through free-market capitalism was crushed by a tsunami of manufactured money. Businesses were unevenly and forcibly shuttered (some essential, others not, for no reason save an opinion) when the cornerstone of the rule of law is uniform justice.

And the money whooshed away from commerce into financial assets and real estate. There was a geyser drenching everything.

Waves come in, waves go out. 

I told users of our trading decision-support platform Market Structure EDGE last May that the long Pandemic Money momentum arc might have ended. The data signaled it (see image).

Market Structure EDGE data. Sentiment (Demand) changed in May 2021. Price has returned there, and Demand is ever more volatile.

The market doesn’t suddenly recede.  The tsunami comes in.  Reaches a zenith. Goes back out. You can see it in the sea but the ebb and flow is deceitful in asset markets.

Plus, human attention spans are short. We think that whatever is happening at this moment is reflected in the mirror of capital markets, forgetting the most basic economic principle besides Supply and Demand: Cause and Effect.

The tripwires might be immediate. Somebody coughs in a quiet theater. Russia invades Ukraine. Jay Powell says, “We’ll raise rates…” and everybody stampedes. And then he adds, “By and by.”

The stock market is now trading where it was in May 2021 when Pandemic Momentum died. Sure, there was a carryover. (We wrote about the changes here and here.)

But the wave that advanced for more than a year is receding. We’re experiencing the consequences of monetary actions that smashed every concept of good behavior.

We shouldn’t have thrown the rules out.

The roiling waters now may calm and settle and return to a regular tidal cadence. The data suggest a surge in Tech stocks in particular is possible and maybe in the whole market.

But we’ve done damage that may be far longer-lasting ultimately.

There are bigger reasons why Russia invaded Ukraine and no excuses for thuggery (though thuggery is a timeless imperialist trait).  But what greenlights bad behavior is evidence the rules don’t apply anymore.

And so here we are at the crossroads of geopolitics and markets in a world where anything goes. Russia ETFs are cratering. Nickel was halted. Wheat doubled in a day. Oil is at 2008 weak-dollar pre-Financial-Crisis prices as the dollar hits Pandemic highs.

Half the S&P 500 is down 20% or more. Half the Nasdaq stocks are down by half, and the Nasdaq Composite is now down 2% for the trailing year!

Consequences.

Now, throw in market mechanics. Market Structure. The reason the trouble from Ukraine is so cataclysmic for asset markets isn’t rational but structural.  I wrote about volatility last week in a post called Rise and Fall. I think it’s worth reading.

By the way, did you see John Stewart is the new Market Structure expert?

The stock market is volatile because 53% of trading volume derives from participants with better data and faster prices and shorter horizons than the investors and companies who depend on the market.

They magnify markets up and down.

Once we thought markets should be free, fair and open, and rules should level the playing field for all. We’ve thrown those rules out.  Now rules promote specific outcomes.

How do we get back to good? Stop doing all that stuff. And in case that’s awhile coming, our best defense is understanding what’s happening.

The great international relations classicist Hans Morgenthau said all politics are the pursuit of power defined by self-interest, and human nature doesn’t change.

That’s a good lens for seeing the world.

And in the stock market, understand that 10% of volume is rational. The rest is reactive, leveraged, constantly evolving, changing prices, hedging. It’s all measurable, though.

Eyes wide open is always the best strategy. 

It begins with understanding what’s going on. In the stock market, we can help you.  In life, my advice is biblical: The prudent foresee evil and hide themselves.

Extended Chaos

See this photo?  Winter Carnival in Steamboat Springs. The Old West. Sort of. People ride shovels on snow down main street behind horses.

Courtesy Karen Quast. 2022 Steamboat Winter Carnival.

Now. What the hell is happening in extended-hours trading? Could be a shovel ride.

You might’ve forgotten with the pace of news and markets, but during Q4 2021 earnings, SNAP lost 24% of its value by market-close, then soared 62% in the hour and a half after.

Facebook – Meta Platforms (strange to brand as something nonexistent) – lost $235 billion of market cap after the market closed.

Amazon was down 8% at the close, then rose 18% afterward.  Market cap, $1.5T.

What’s going on?

Let me tell you a story. Settle in.

Once there was a buttonwood tree in New York City and stockbrokers would gather to trade there. In 1792 the brokers formed the NYSE.  To trade securities listed at the NYSE, you had to be a member.

Time passed. It worked. In 1929, the stock market blew up.

The government flexed. The Constitution authorizes no intervention in securities markets, but people were economically panicked.  Congress passed the Securities Acts of 1933 and 1934, taking control. Stuff got complicated.

In 1975, with inflation soaring and a war in Asia ending badly (déjà vu), Congress decided the stock market was a vital national interest and should be a System.

They passed the National Market System amendments to the Securities Acts after finding that new data technology could mean more efficient and effective market operations.

So Congress, pursuing the nebulous “public interest,” decided it must decree fair competition among brokers, exchanges, and other markets.

And they said opportunity should exist for trades to execute without the middleman, the broker-dealer or exchange – rejecting the buttonwood model.

With me still? 

I’m explaining how we ended up with extended-hours trading, and why it bucks like a bronc. We’re not there yet. 

In 1971, the National Association of Securities Dealers launched an automated quotation system. That became the Nasdaq.

In the 1990s, computerized trading systems outside the stock markets – as Congress envisaged – sprang up. No broker-dealers. No middlemen (save the software).

They demolished stock markets, taking more than half of all trading.

They were firms like Island, Brut, Archipelago, Instinet (the oldest, from 1969). They weren’t stock exchanges, weren’t brokers.  They were software companies matching buyers and sellers.

Ingenious, frankly. The exchanges cried foul.

The SEC intervened with a set of rules forcing these so-called Electronic Communications Networks (ECNs) to become broker-dealers.

And extended-hours trading began.

Why?

Because exchanges had to display ECN prices, and ECNs had to become brokers. So exchanges would win the price business, and ECNs would win the size business.

By the way, the exchanges bought the ECNs and incorporated the technology. The Nasdaq runs on vestiges of Brut and Island, the NYSE on Arca – Archipelago.  Instinet is owned by Nomura.

In 2005, the SEC fulfilled the vision of Congress from 1975, imposing Regulation National Market System – Reg NMS. That’s the rule running the stock market today, with its 17 exchanges and about 34 “dark pools,” which are ATS’s.  Latter-day ECNs.

Reg NMS links all markets, removes the differences in listing one place versus another, shares all prices and all data, and mandates trading at the best systemwide price.

But rules preceding Reg NMS for ATS’s didn’t proscribe extended-hours trading.

The irony? Congress wanted to cut out the middleman, the broker and exchange, and instead ALL trading is intermediated. It might be the craziest thing in human history outside emergency powers.

Plus, the rise of Passive Investment means vast sums need reference prices – a set price each day – to comply with the Investment Company Act of 1940 (another rule).  So exchanges persist with a 4p ET close.

But Exchange Traded Funds (ETFs) match off-market in blocks – and the parties running those trades are the same operating dark pools (ATS’s), behind most derivatives.

And there you have it.  Exchanges create prices for “40 Act” funds at 4p ET. And broker-dealers trade stuff other times, getting ever bigger.  Gyrating prices when the Stock Market is closed.

It’s now at times the tail wagging the dog.  It’s incongruous if the aim of the legislation behind Reg NMS is a free, fair, regulated, orderly, connected market.

That’s your answer.

Stocks gallop after the market closes because rules have fostered an arbitrage trade between market hours, and after-hours. The reason for extended-hours chaos is rules bifurcating the stock market into prices for thee but not for me.

The fix? I think it’s wrong for a “market system” to own the price of anything.  Stores for stocks should be no different than grocery stores – stocking what they wish and offering prices and supply.

How do we change it? Fix government powers. The SEC owns the market. Not us.

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.

Whacked and Lulled

D-whacked. 

That’s how some described the stock market the past few days.  Since Donald Trump has been cancelled from popular culture, you’d be excused for missing the debut of a SPAC associated with the former President called Digital World Acquisition Corp (DWAC).

You get it now, right.  D-whack.

Illustration 93383364 / Volatility © Iqoncept | Dreamstime.com

The Twittersphere was a-flurry, amusing given the ex-President’s erstwhile penchant for that platform.

The new SPAC finished Oct 20 at $9.96, and closed the next day at $94.20, an 850% increase.  It was volatility-halted a half-dozen times Thursday, five minutes at a time.  I was on Benzinga shows several times in recent days discussing it.

We’re going to talk about those halts. Hang on for a bit.

On Friday, DWAC went berserk anew amid a rash of volatility halts, and I saw a price north of $187 at one point – a gain of almost 1,800% in two days.  It’s now near $60.

Oh, and get this:  Including warrants, there are about 42 million shares outstanding.  Last Thursday alone, DWAC traded 498 million shares, twelve times what exists.  Through yesterday it’s traded 730 million shares.

It couldn’t be a short squeeze like meme stocks GME and AMC were said to experience.  There were no shares to short. I won’t relitigate that story here, save to say that short squeezes are difficult to effect because market-makers can create stock.

And that’s what happened. If there are orders to buy 100 million shares of DWAC, market-makers will create stock to fill those between the best bid to buy or offer to sell.

Traders and public companies, you best grasp this flaw.  There is theoretically no limit on the stock that brokers executing trades might create. Stock is currency. What happens when you create more currency to chase the same goods – here, prices?

Prices inflate.

The ramifications are breathtaking.  This colossal risk exists because the SEC wants a “continuous auction market” where everything is always for sale, 100 shares at a time.

It’s nobody else’s fault. It’s a choice.

Now, let’s get back to volatility halts. We’ve had hundreds the past week, most in tiny stocks. DWAC was volatility halted almost 20 times in total.

Let’s understand volatility halts. After the May 6, 2010 so-called Flash Crash, the SEC and Finra and the exchanges implemented rules to halt the broad market and individual stocks, and they’ve been updated some since.

The broad market – as we saw repeatedly in March 2020 – hits a Level 1 halt for 15 minutes if the S&P 500 drops 7% below its previous closing price.  That halt doesn’t apply after 3:25p ET, though.  Level 2 is down 13%, and we sit and wait 15 minutes again. That actually happened. Remember?

If we smash into Level 3, down 20%, the market closes for the day.

In single stocks, there are volatility halts called Limit Up/Limit Down (LULD). Nearly 10,000 triggered in the spring of 2020. LULDs stop trading in a stock when price moves outside calculated bands from the SIP, the Securities Information Processor.

That’s the consolidated tape, how we know volume and prices across a byzantine network of nodes where stocks trade.  Trading pauses for five minutes if the bid or offer moves outside the bands.

If those moves last under 15 seconds, the halt dissolves.  If not, trading stops for five minutes, and the primary listing market then re-launches trading (the CBOE says other markets can trade a stock if the listing market can’t reopen it but I can’t confirm that).

DWAC kept rising because bids and offers melted back inside the bands. Well, what’s the point of pausing then?  Why limit a stock up or down if no limit actually happens?

Traders were screaming that the price would move dramatically at resumption too.  Of course. Price bands kept revising.  And for stocks like PHUN, which also traded wildly, the bands are massive – double what they are for stocks with prices higher than $3.

These halts seem pointless. They don’t serve issuers or investors, only the parties responsible for maintaining a continuous auction. That then becomes the purpose of the market – rather than a fair place for investors and public companies to find each other.

What happened in March 2020 will happen again. We see it in the terrible challenge stocks face when they decline rather than rise.  The market shouldn’t be d-whacked.

But it is. So get ready.

Bare Windows

It’s window-dressing. 

That saying suggests effort to make something appear better than it is.  And it’s a hallmark of stocks in today’s Relative Value era where the principal way we determine the worth of things is by comparing them to other things (true of stocks, and houses, art, cars, bonds, etc.).

ModernIR clients know we talk about “window dressing” at the ends of months and quarters.  It gets short shrift in the news but the PATTERNS of money that we observe cast long shadows over headlines.

Every month, managers who send investors performance statements want stuff to look as good as it can.  Things get bought and sold.  Then the headline-writers root around for some reason, like the Fed chair testifying to Congress.

Even bigger is the money tracking benchmarks. Every month, every quarter, that money needs to get square with its targets.  If Tech is supposed to be 24% of my holdings, and at quarter-end it’s 27%, I’m selling Tech, and especially things that have just gone up, like SNAP.

So SNAP drops 7%.  What did your stock do yesterday?  There’s a reason, and it’s measurable in behavioral patterns. Market structure.

The reason yesterday in particular was so tough is because it was T+2, trade date plus two more days, to quarter-end. If you need to settle a trade, effect a change of ownership, and it’s a big basket you’re working through, you’ll do it three days from quarter-end to make sure all positions settle in time.

With tens of trillions of dollars benchmarked to indexes around the globe, it’s startling to me how little attention is paid to basic mechanics of the market, such as when index money recalibrates (different from periodic rebalances by index creators).

And realize this.  In the last month, half the S&P 500 corrected – dropped more than 10%. About 90% of the Russell 2000 did.  No wonder small caps were up sharply Monday.  Most indexes were underweight those. But they’re less than 10% of overall market cap (closer to 5% than 10%). Truing up is a one-day trade.

Tech is a different story. Five stocks are almost 25% of the S&P 500 (AAPL, AMZN, GOOG, FB, MSFT).  And technology stocks woven through Consumer Discretionary and Communication Services stretch the effects of Tech north of 40%, approaching half the $50 trillion of US market cap.

The wonder is we don’t take it on the chin more often. I think the reason is derivatives. There’s a tendency to rely on substitutes rather than go through the hassle of buying and selling stocks.

As I’ve explained before, this is both the beauty and ugliness of Exchange Traded Funds (ETFs). They’re substitutes. They take the place of stocks, relieving the market of the…unpleasantness of moving real assets.  ETFs are just bits of digital paper that can be manufactured and destroyed at whim.

Remember, ETFs were created by commodity traders who thought, “Wouldn’t it be cool if we didn’t have to get out the forklift and move all that stuff in the commodity warehouse? What if we could just trade warehouse RECEIPTS instead of dragging a pallet of copper around?”

This time the forklifts are out.  It’s been coming since April.  See the image here? That’s Broad Sentiment, our 10-point index of waxing and waning demand for S&P 500 stocks, year-to-date in 2021, vs SPY, the S&P 500 ETF.  SPY is just 2.8% above its high point when Sentiment lost its mojo in April.

Broad Sentiment, courtesy MarketstructureEDGE.com

From Mar 2020 to Apr 2021, we had a momentum market juiced by time and money. There were surfeits of both during the pandemic. People gambled. Money gushed. Stocks zoomed.

But as with all drugs, the effect wears off.  Sentiment peaked in March. Strong stocks notwithstanding, we’ve been coming off a drug-induced high since then.

And the twitches have begun. You see it first in derivatives.  Every expirations period since April has bumped – before, during or right after.  I’ve circled them on the image. It means the cold shakes could come next.  Not saying they will. All analogies break down.

Back to window-dressing.  When it gets hard to dress up the room no matter what curtains you hang, it means something.  Here we are, on the doorstep of Q4 2021.  It’s possible the market, or a benchmark or two, might’ve turned negative for the third calendar quarter yesterday (I’m writing before the market closes).

The RISK can be seen by observing movement in Passive money.  Because it’s the biggest thing in the market.  The windows are bare this time. If we were smart, we’d take a good look around.

But that’s probably too optimistic.  Governments and central banks will try again to slap on the coverings, dress it up, make it look better than it is.

Message vs Messages

It’s earnings season. Across the market, companies beat expectations and lift guidance and stocks decline. 

Huh?

I can offer a broad array of cases.  Take TSLA.  Massive quarter, monstrous boost to forward views.  Stock declines.

And yes, I Tweeted before TSLA reported that its price would probably fall.

A Consumer Staples stock beat all the key metrics, lifted guidance. Stock fell 10%, another 10% in following days.

There’s a figure that explains what’s happening: 350 billion. 

That’s the number of order messages processed on a single March day this year by the NYSE, according to head of equities Hope Jarkowski in a TABB Forum interview.  It was a new highwater mark for the exchange, where the previous record in March 2020 was 330 billion.

What’s that got to do with reporting great numbers and seeing your stock swoon? Public companies and investors both deserve to know, and the answer is there in the mass pandemonium of message traffic.

When billions of messages for stock orders are flying around, that’s not rational behavior. That’s money moving near the speed of light.  That’s speculation.

The market is crammed with it.

And what are we doing, public companies (investors, I’ll come to you in a bit)?  We’re prepping our numbers and expecting the stock to reflect what those say, good or bad.

Too many of us are still leading our boards and executive teams to think the numbers drive the stock, even though it’s 2021 and we’ve had this high-speed chaff-winnowing market since 2007 when Regulation National Market System was implemented.

It’s part of the investor-relations job to know the ORDER MESSAGES, not the message, drive the stock. About 350 billion of them on high-traffic days at just the NYSE Group of five stock exchanges and two options markets.

And why does the NYSE operate seven stock and options markets if an exchange is supposed to AGGREGATE buy and sell interest?

Because they’re NOT aggregating buy and sell interest. They want message traffic, a lot of orders.  This is why you need firms like ModernIR, a check and balance on the exchanges, which don’t tell you what the money is doing.

The image here comes courtesy of IEX, the Investors Exchange, and shows how bursts of trades – which flow through messaging traffic – come from proprietary trading firms within two milliseconds of changes in price.

For comparison, hummingbirds flap their wings about 80 times per second, equivalent to about once every 12 milliseconds.  So in a fraction of the flap of hummingbird wings, your entire market structure could shift from positive to negative.  Rational? Nope.

Case in point.  I bought 200 shares of NCLH at the market and it executed at the NYSE RLP.

What’s that?  My broker, Interactive Brokers, is a Retail Member Organization.  It can execute the trade for a tenth of a penny higher than the offer at the NYSE’s Retail Liquidity Program, where a high-speed trader can earn three cents per hundred shares for filling my order.

And if the seller is a NYSE Designated Market Maker (see page 20 here), it’s 20 cents per hundred, 40 cents to sell me 200 shares at one-tenth of a penny better than the best displayed price.

Got that? Sure, I got $30.169 instead of $30.17.  Oh boy. But talk about convoluted.  Why the hell would an exchange do that?

For 350 billion reasons.  Traffic is data. The RLP and my broker set the best bid and offer. That’s money – literally.  Data is money. Best prices are data. We’ve all been buffaloed into believing a tenth of a penny matters. No it doesn’t. We’re being gamed, merchandised.

The more platforms, the more prices, the more data – and especially if five are stocks and two are options on those stocks.    

That’s why your shares implode on results.  Suppose a million of those messages are a bunch of parties shorting, and the market tips the other way in tenths of pennies on hummingbird beats?  In the case of the Staples stock above, over 72% of volume that day was short – borrowed. Not story. Just data. Bets exchanges fill.

So the whole food chain of order-flow messages and order types to take advantage of a retail trade or pay a high-speed trader to be the best bid or offer can cook the market.

Now, why is that all right with you, public companies?

Part of the answer is not knowing enough about the stock market.  We can help.

Investors, this is your market too. I looked at TSLA Market Structure Sentiment. Peaked and falling. Probability is the stock declines. Doesn’t matter what Elon Musk says.

You’re better to trade using Market Structure Sentiment. Stocks can’t be relied upon to behave rationally.  They DO follow supply and demand.

Other than that, everything’s fine.

Swapping Volatility

Google chose as motto “don’t be evil.” “Beware derivatives” isn’t a bad motto either.

If you’ve read the MSM long, you know we’ve beaten the drum like Boneshaker (when you hear the sound of the drum, here we come) over the risk in derivatives.

Oh please, Quast.  Can’t we talk about something more interesting, like the molecular structure of Molybdenum?

Do you want to know what’s coming, public companies and investors?  We’ve now been warned twice.  I’ll explain.

Before that, this: Recall that we said the market could take a beating this week because of derivatives. A raft of major banks have reported combined damage in the billions from bad derivatives bets by one hedge fund, Archegos Capital.

And VIX bets hit today.  Volatility bets blew up another fund.  Warning Signal No. 2.

Gunjan Banerji wrote about it yesterday in the WSJ (subscription required), admirably explicating the complexities of variance swaps.  The Infinity Q Diversified Alpha Fund shut down.

Diversified Alpha, a mutual fund marketed as a hedge fund for the masses, had roughly $1.75 billion of assets at last word.  The fund aimed in part at volatility strategies.  It said:

“The Volatility Strategy seeks to profit from the mispricing of volatility related instruments across equities, currencies, bonds, interest rates, and commodities markets. These instruments include options, variance swaps, correlation swaps, and total return swaps. The Strategy invests across a wide range of time horizons and takes long and short positions in the underlying volatility instruments.”

The fund went broke betting on volatility – mispricings.  That’s two in short succession.  Diversified Alpha filed its plea with the SEC Feb 21 to halt redemptions. Right after February expirations. Archegos Capital went belly-up with March expirations.

Much of the money in equities trades mispricings. That’s what ETFs do (ETF vs a basket). It’s what Fast Traders do (one price vs another). It’s what derivatives traders do (stocks vs options).  Those behaviors are roughly 80% of US equity volume.

These disasters you describe, Tim, are isolated to leveraged outfits.

Nope.

Here’s the SAI for the Blackrock Technology Opportunities Fund. I have read a great many SAIs, a reason I’ve in the past highlighted risks, especially for Exchange Traded Funds.

On page 3 is this: Only information that is clearly identified as applicable to the Fund is considered to form a part of the Fund’s SAI.

Then follows a table, with X’s by what applies.  See page 4, the derivatives section. Derivatives for hedges and speculation apply.  Credit default swaps, interest-rate swaps, total return swaps, options on swaps, on it goes.

I’m sure it’s a small part of this fund’s assets, used within rules to true up tracking or remediate some of the unremitting volatility that’s been seeded in all financial instruments by vast artificial quantities of money and low interest rates. But read the SAI on your favorite fund. What’s it say?

By the way, volatility in stocks has plunged by 50% the past couple weeks. Almost like a tide going out ahead of a tsunami. Behind it in other data we track are vast swings in standard deviation between the prices of sector stocks and the ETFs tracking them.

That is, if we compile moves of all sector stocks and the average is a 1.8% decline and the composite average for sector ETFs is 0.1%, standard deviation is 625%.

It suggests to me that ETFs are substituting stuff that moves less than stocks – like swaps or IOUs of some sort, or cash – to get away from the error-inducing volatility in stocks.

But that could blow up derivatives predicated on a statistical equity basket. What the hell is going on?  Exactly.  That’s what I want to know. Something is wrong, and we’re seeing little fissures, seeping steam, wisps of ash.

We’ve long been concerned about these risks. But they’re like the way Ernest Hemingway described how one goes broke (a line I’ve used often): very slowly then all at once.

I’m not wringing my hands. Forewarned is forearmed. Investors and traders, it’s wise to get out of the pool around these things, which we observe in the data, and report.

And for public companies, it’s high time to make sure your executive teams realize risk resides beyond “alternative investments.” It’s everywhere. All around us. 

How central are Morgan Stanley, JP Morgan, Credit Suisse, Deutsche Bank, banks losing on Archegos, to financial markets from IPOs to Treasury Open Market operations?  Derivatives to equity and ETF trading?

It may be the cost of paying ourselves to sit out a Pandemic is the stability of our financial markets. We’re inflating everything including derivatives.  We can survive it.  In fact, it would do us good to roll around in the dirt and develop some resilience.

Whatever happens, we’ve got the data.  We warned EDGE users to be out by last Friday. We can tell you, public companies, if these instruments are large in your price. 

Everybody is swapping volatility. Beware.

Fama Market

Eugene Fama, Booth School, Univ of Chicago

 

Do you know traders could have made 580% in the S&P 500 the past 200 days?

Public companies, your stock need not rise.  I’ll explain.

The S&P 500 is up almost 20% the last six months. The math says 454 of the 500 are up. That also means 46 stocks are down. Including some big ones like Verizon, Lockheed Martin, Procter & Gamble, Kellogg, Zoetis.

But up isn’t the point. It’s up and down. Traders could have made all the returns in the S&P 500 from October 1995 to present – about 600% – in just 200 days on volatility.

By capturing all of it perfectly, which is next to mathematically impossible. But follow me here.

Across the 500 components, average intraday volatility the past 200 days is 2.9%. That is, the typical S&P 500 stock will gyrate almost 3% from lowest to highest intraday prices.

Add that up.  Over 200 days it’s 580%.

And it bugs the bejesus out of Chief Financial Officers. As it should.  The Wall Street Journal highlighted the investor-relations profession and our own Laura Kiernan in a piece (subscription required) last week called CFOs Zero in on Shareholders as Stock Volatility Soars.

But holders aren’t behind volatility.

The University of Chicago’s Eugene Fama won a Nobel Prize on efficient markets and the effects of volatility.  He famously said, “If active managers win, it has to be at the expense of other active managers. And when you add them all up, the returns of active managers have to be literally zero, before costs. Then after costs, it’s a big negative sign.”

Why?  I’m oversimplifying but he showed that volatility risk, size risk and value risk make stock-picking inefficient and ineffectual.

The data prove it.  Most stock-pickers can’t beat the market because they don’t understand why volatility exists.

What is volatility? Changing prices. We’ve written often about it over the years as this search on the word “volatility” at the ModernIR blog shows.  Stock prices constantly change.

Why?

Regulations require it.  Think I’m overstating it? Rules for stocks require trades to occur between the best bid and offer. And regulators mandated penny spreads for stocks 20 years ago.  Thus trades can only occur at the best current price, which changes often.

The best price for stocks cannot be established by a single principle. That idea earned a Nobel Prize.  Other factors matter including volatility, size and value.  And I’d argue convenience, time-horizon, purpose. You can probably add more.

The market is only efficient for parties benefiting from constantly changing prices. Who’s that? Traders and stock exchanges. 

Profiting on price-changes is arbitrage. We have the perfect arbitrage market. How? There are almost 50 different places where trades can occur in the National Market System, a cornucopia for changing the price if you’re fast and algorithmic.

And now the market is chock full of things that look like stocks but aren’t stocks. ETFs, options, futures.  They all converge and diverge in price.  The parties feasting on this environment need prices to change all the time.

Enter the exchanges. They sell data. The data is comprised of quotes and trades. The more the price changes, the more data there is.  Heck, they lose money on trades to make it selling data.

Only trades involving different owners will settle. About 95% of my trades – I understand market mechanics and I become my own algorithm to take advantage of how it works – match at my broker’s internalizer.  No measurable ownership-change.

And Fast Traders are 54% of market volume. No ownership-change. And trades tied to derivatives are 18% of volume. Little to no ownership-change. And half the market’s volume reflects borrowed stock. No ownership-change.

Let’s review.  Shareholders don’t create volatility. They try to avoid it.  Most trades don’t result in ownership-change because the market is stuffed with efforts to profit on changing prices. And that is the definition of volatility, which exists because of rules that promote constantly changing prices.

There’s a simple fix.  Put the focus back on stable prices, by emphasizing factors other than price, such as size and value.  Call it the Fama Market.  When my dad sold cattle from our ranch, we wanted an average price for a herd, not a price per steer.

If public companies want to fix volatility, we need a different market. You can’t fix it by telling the story. And that can’t be the heart of the investor-relations job. It’s now understanding the market for shares – just as my dad knew the cattle market.

If we lack the collective verve to lobby for better markets, then we have to adapt to this one, by understanding it. We have the tools and data for both companies and investors.