March 4, 2020

Viral Market

I fear the Coronavirus may cause us to miss the real clanging claxon the past two weeks: The stock market cannot handle any form of truth.  The viral threat is market structure.

That the market plummeted on yesterday’s surprise (shocking) Federal Reserve rate-cut, the first non-meeting central-bank move since 2008, is to be expected in context of the continuum that created pressure in the first place.  Let’s review:

1.      Week of Feb 16. Options expired, Market Structure Sentiment topped, demand for derivatives bets fell 5% rather than rose, on a fast-appreciating US dollar.

2.      Feb 24.  New options for March expiration began trading. March brings the first “quad-witching” period of 2020, with rafts of derivatives tied to currencies and interest rates recalibrating.  Against a soaring dollar and plunging interest rates, uncertainty flared and implied derivatives demand vanished, tanking stocks.

3.      Intraday volatility (spreads between high and low prices) zoomed in the S&P 500 to the highest level we’ve recorded, averaging a searing 4.9% daily. Market-makers for Exchange-Traded Funds could not calculate successful trades between stocks and ETFs and withdrew.  Fast Trading rose to 53% of volume. Markets corrected by Feb 28 at the fastest pace ever.

4.      Bets jumped to 100% that the Fed would cut rates at its Mar 17 meeting in response to mounting economic concern over the Coronavirus.  On Mar 2, with a new month beginning, traders bet big with swaps (swap volumes crushed records) paying on a rate cut.

The Fed cut rates yesterday instead.

They might as well have trafficked in infectious diseases. The change rendered Monday’s bets void by pulling forward all implied returns. It’s effectively the same thing that happened Feb 24 when bets never materialized. The market imploded.

Somebody should be on TV and in the newspapers explaining these mechanics, so the public stops incorrectly supposing the market is a barometer for virus fears.

It’s worse in fact. During the whole period of tumult in the market from Feb 24 to present, Active money at no point was a big seller.  Patterns show a collapse for passive investment – especially ETFs – that didn’t change till Monday on rate-cut bets (that were chop-blocked yesterday).

There’s more. Trade-size in the S&P 500 plummeted to a record-low 132 shares. While volume exploded, it was repeated movement of the same shares by Fast Trading machines, which were 53% of volume. Daily trades per S&P 500 component exploded from a 200-day average of 27,000 to over 58,000.

What does it all mean?  Without any real buying or selling, the market gyrated in ways we’ve never seen before. That’s the shriek of metal, the scream of inefficiency. Rightly, it should raise hair.

We wrote about this looming liquidity threat last year (more than once but we’ll spare you).

Regulators should prepare now for the actual Big One yet to come.  Because the next time there will be real selling. It could make February’s fantasia look like a warmup act.  I’m not mongering fear here. I’m saying public companies and investors should demand a careful assessment from regulators about recent market turmoil.

My suggestion:  If the market moves more than 5% in a day, we should suspend the trade-through rule, the requirement that trades occur at the best national price. Let buyers and sellers find each other, cutting out the Fast Trading middlemen fragmenting markets into a frenzy of tiny trades and volatile prices.

And we’d better develop a clear-eyed perspective on the market’s role as a barometer for rational thought.  The truth is, market structure is  the real viral threat to the big money exposed to stocks.

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