July 10, 2019

The Canary

For a taste of July 4 in a mountain town, featuring boy scouts serving pancakes, a camel amongst horses, sand crane dancers, and Clyde the glad hound, click here.  Americana.

Meanwhile back in the coal mine of the stock market, the canary showed up.

We first raised concern about the possible failure of a major prime broker in 2014. By “prime,” we mean a firm large enough to facilitate big transactions by supplying global trading capacity, capital, advice and strategy.

We homed in on mounting risk at HSBC and Deutsche Bank.

Last weekend Deutsche Bank announced an astonishing intention:  It will eliminate global equity trading and 18,000 jobs. It’s a long-range effort, the bank says, with targeted conclusion in 2022.

But will a bank erasing the foundation of investment-banking, cash equities, retain key people and core customers? Doubtful. In effect, one of the dozen largest market-makers for US stocks is going away.

It matters to public companies and investors because the market depends on but a handful of firms for market-efficiency in everything from US Treasurys, to stocks, to derivatives, and corporate bonds.

And Exchange Traded Funds.  Industry sources say over 80% of creations and redemptions in ETF shares are handled by ten firms. We don’t know precise identities of the ten because this market with over $300 billion of monthly transactions is a black box to investors, with no requirement that fund sponsors disclose which brokers support them.

We know these so-called “Authorized Participants” must be self-clearing members of the Federal Reserve system, which shrinks the pool of possibilities to about 40, including Deutsche Bank, which hired an ETF trading legend, Chris Hempstead, in 2017.

It’s possible others may fill the void. But you have to be an established firm to compete, due to rigorous regulatory requirements.

For instance, brokers executing trades for customers must meet a stout “best execution” mandate that orders be filled a large percentage of the time at the best marketwide prices. That standard is determined by averages across aggregate order flow dominated in US markets by yet again ten firms (we presume the same ones), including Deutsche Bank.

It’s exceedingly difficult to shoulder in.  The great bulk of the 4,000 or so brokers overseen by Finra, the industry regulator, send their trades to one of these ten because the rest cannot consistently achieve the high required standard.

So the elite club upon which rests the vast apparatus of financial markets just shrank by about 10%.

Already the market is susceptible to trouble because it’s like a soccer stadium with only a handful of exits.  That’s no problem when everyone is inside.  But getting in or out when all are in a rush is dangerous, as we saw in Feb 2018 and Dec 2019, with markets swooning double digits in days.

Let’s go back to a basic market-structure concept.  The “stock market” isn’t a place. It’s a data network of interconnected alcoves and eddies.  What’s more, shares don’t reside inside it.  The supply must continuously be brought to it by brokers.

Picture a farmers’ market with rows of empty stalls. When you move in front of one, suddenly products materialize, a vendor selling you goat’s milk soap. You go to the next blank space and instantly it’s a bakery stand with fresh croissants.  As you move along, contents vanish again.

That’s how the stock market works today under the mandatory market-making model imposed by Regulation National Market System. High-speed traders and gigantic brokerage firms are racing around behind the booths and stands at extreme speeds rushing croissants and goat’s milk soap around to be in front of you when you appear.

The network depends on the few.  We have long theorized that one big threat to this construct is its increasing dependency on a handful of giant firms. In 2006, a large-cap stock would have over 200 firms making markets – running croissants to the stand.

Today it’s less than a hundred, and over 95% of volume concentrates consistently at just 30 firms, half of them dealers with customers, the other half proprietary trading firms, arbitragers trading inefficiencies amid continuous delivery of croissants and goat’s milk soap – so to speak – at the public bazaar.

We said we’ll know trouble is mounting when one of the major players fails. Deutsche Bank hasn’t failed per se, but you don’t close a global equity trading business without catastrophic associated losses behind the scenes. The speedy supply chain failed.

Why? I think it’s ETFs. These derivatives – that’s what they are – depend on arbitrage, or profiting on different prices for the same thing, for prices. Arbitrage creates winners and losers, unlike investment occurring as growing firms attract more capital.

As arbitrage losers leave, or rules become harder to meet, the market becomes thinner even as the obligations looming over it mount.

We are not predicting disaster. We are identifying faults in the structure. These will be the cause of its undoing at some point ahead.  We’ve seen the canary.

 

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