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Gravity

April 7, 2014 1 comment

Is there anything different about the current downturn in stocks, already two whole days old?

It is difficult to get terribly concerned about this latest setback when in one sense it is right on schedule. The modest down-swings have occurred at such regular intervals that the chart of the VIX looks quite a bit like an EKG (see chart, source Bloomberg).

vixekg

A rise in the VIX to the 19-21 zone happens approximately quarterly, with minor peaks at the same intervals. Eerie, ain’t it?

So is there anything particularly ominous about the current pullback? There is no clear catalyst – I am reading that the selloff is being “led” by tech shares, but the tech-heavy indices look to me as though they have fallen similarly (adjusted for the fact that they have higher vol to begin with. The S&P is down around 3%, and the NDX is down 4.6% over the same period. To be sure, the NDX’s recent peak wasn’t a new high for the year, and it has penetrated the 100-day moving average on the downside, but it doesn’t look unusual to me.

Nor do the economic data look very different to me. The Payrolls number on Friday was in line with expectations, and beat it comfortably when including the upward revisions to the prior two months. The generation of 200k new jobs is not exciting, but it is pretty standard for a normal expansion. My main concern had been that the “hours worked” figure in the employment report had plunged last month, but it rebounded this month and assuaged my concerns (although Q1 growth is probably still going to be low when it is reported later this month, it will be reasonably explained away by the weather).

Two things are different now from previous setbacks, but one is positive and one is negative. They are related, but one is somewhat bullish for the economy and the other is somewhat bearish for risky assets.

We will start with the negative, because it segues nicely into the positive. It is nothing new, of course, to point out that the Fed is tapering, and will be steadily continuing to taper over the next several meetings. Despite the well-orchestrated chorus of “tapering is not tightening,” such Fed action clearly is a “negative loosening” of policy – if you don’t want to call that tightening, then invent a new language, but in English it is tightening.

Now, I never want to short sell the notion that President Clinton taught us all, including market denizens, that if you say something ridiculous often enough, it comes to be regarded as the truth. At times, the market meme clearly has kept the market moving upward even though rational analysis argued for a different outcome. For example, in the early part of the equity bear market that started in 2000, the market meme was that this was a “corporate governance” crisis or a “tech selloff”, when in fact it was a broad-based and deep bear market. In the more-recent credit crisis, it started off as a “subprime” crisis even though it was clearly much more, from the beginning.

So I am loathe to bet about how long markets can run on air before the market meme falters. The challenge, obviously, is being able to distinguish between times when the market meme is correct; when the market meme is incorrect, but harmless; and when the market meme is incorrect, and obfuscating a deeper, more dangerous reality.

“Tapering is not tightening” is one of those thoughts that, while not as serious as “this is a corporate governance problem” or “this is about subprime,” is also clearly mistaken, and possibly dangerous. The reason it might actually be dangerous is because the effect of tightening doesn’t happen because people are thinking about it. Monetary policy doesn’t act primarily through the medium of confidence, any more than gravity does. And, just as gravity is still acting on those aboard the “Vomit Comet,” monetary tightening still acts to diminish liquidity (or, more precisely, the growth rate of liquidity) even when it appears to be doing nothing special at the moment.

The eventual effect of diminished liquidity is to push asset prices lower, and (ironically) also may be to push money velocity higher since velocity is correlated with interest rates.

Now, don’t be overly alarmed, because even as Fed liquidity provision is slowing down there is no sign that transactional money growth is about to slow. Indeed (and here is the positive difference), commercial bank credit has begun to rise again after remaining nearly static for approximately a year (see chart, source Enduring Investments). (As an aside, I corrected the pre-2010 part of this chart to reflect the effect of recategorizations of credit as of March 2010 that caused a jump in the official series).

cbc_mb

If you look carefully at this chart, by the way, you will see something curious. Notice that during QE2, as the monetary base rose commercial bank credit stagnated – and then began to rise as soon as the Fed stopped buying Treasuries. It rose steadily during late 2011 and for most of 2012. Then, commercial bank credit began to flatline as soon as the Fed began to buy Treasuries again (recall that QE3 started with mortgages for a few months before the Fed added Treasuries to the purchase order), and began to climb again at just about the same time that the taper began in December.

I don’t have any idea why these two series should be related in this way. I am unsure why expanding the monetary base would “crowd out” commercial bank credit in any way. Perhaps the Fed began QE because they forecast that commercial bank credit would flatline (in QE1, credit was obviously in decline), so the causality runs the other way…although that gives a lot of credit to forecasters who have not exhibited much ability to forecast anything else. But regardless of the reason, the fact that bank credit is expanding again – at an 8% annualized pace over the last quarter, the highest rate since 2008 – is positive for markets.

Of course, an expansion and/or a market rally built on an expansion of credit is not entirely healthy in itself, as to some extent it is borrowing from the future. But if credit can expand moderately, rather than rapidly, then the “gravity” of the situation might be somewhat less dire for markets. Yes, I still believe stocks are overvalued and have been avoiding them in preference to commodities (the DJ-UBS is 7.3% ahead in that race, this year), but we can all hope to avoid a repeat of recent calamities.

The problem with that cheerful conclusion is that it depends so much on the effective prosecution of monetary policy not just from the Federal Reserve but from other monetary policymakers around the world. I will have more to say on that, later this week.

Tempest in a Microsecond

April 1, 2014 3 comments

News flash! High-frequency trading (HFT) is happening!

The “60 Minutes” piece on HFT that aired this weekend ensured that now, finally, everyone has heard of HFT. Even “60 Minutes” has now heard of it, four years after the Flash Crash and more than a decade after it began. Apparently the FBI is now suddenly concerned over this “latest blemish.”

Again, this is hardly new. Here is the record of Google search activity of the term “high frequency trading.”

Capture

So why is it that, for years, most of the world knew about HFT and yet no one did anything about it?? According to author Michael Lewis, the stock market is rigged! There should be an uproar (at least, there should be if you are selling a book). Why has there been no uproar previously?

To put it simply: this is a crime where it isn’t clear anyone is being hurt, Lewis’s panicky declaration notwithstanding. Except, that is, other high-frequency traders, who have fought over the tiny fractions of a penny so hard that the incidence of HFT is actually in decline. Let’s be clear about what HFT is, because there seems to be some misunderstanding (one commentator I saw summarized it as “the big banks buy the stock and then the retail investor buys it 5%-10% higher.” This would be a problem, if that’s what was happening. But it isn’t. The high frequency traders are playing for fractions of a penny. And the person they are stepping in front of may be your buy order, or it may be the offer you just bought from – if you ever see fills like $20.5999 when the offer was $20.60, then you were injured to the tune of minus 1/100 of a cent per share. The whole notion of HFT is to be in and out of a position in milliseconds, which basically limits expected profits to a fraction of the bid/offer. And when there are lots of high frequency traders crossing signals? Then the bid/offer narrows. That’s not a loss to you – it’s a gain.

High frequency traders aren’t just buying and pushing markets up. They are buying and selling nearly-instantly, scalping fractions of pennies. From all that we know, they have no net effect on prices. Indeed, from all that we know, both the beneficial aspects and the negative aspects remain unproven (see “What Do We Know About High Frequency Trading?” from Charles Jones of the Columbia Business School.

So, if you’re being ripped off, it’s far more likely that you’re being ripped off by commissions than that you’re being ripped off by the robots.

But let’s suppose that the robots do push prices up 5% higher than they would otherwise be. Either that’s the right price to pay…in which case they made the market more efficient by pushing it nearer to fair value…or it’s the wrong price to pay, in which case the only way they win is by selling it to someone who pays too much. If that’s you, then the robots aren’t the problem – you are. Stop giving them a greater fool to sell to, and they will lose money.

Now, this is all good advertising for another concept, which needs to be stated often to individual investors but probably could be said in a nicer way than “you’re getting ripped off by robots”: yes, the market is full of very, very smart people. And yet, on average returns cannot be above-average! This means that if you don’t know everything there is to know about TSLA and you buy it anyway, then you can be sure you will still own it, or be still buying it, when the smart guys decide it is time to sell it to you. They don’t have to have inside information to beat you – they just have to know more than you about the company, about valuations, about how it should be valued, and so on. This is why I very rarely buy individual equities. I am an expert in some things, but I don’t know everything there is to know about TSLA. I am the sucker at that table.

Long-time readers will know that I am no apologist for Wall Street. I spent plenty of time on that side of the phone, and I have seen the warts even though I also know that there are lots of good, honest people in the business. The biggest problems with Wall Street are (a) those good, honest people aren’t always fully competent, (b) the big banks are too big, so that when you get weak competence and very weak oversight combined with occasional dishonesty, there can be serious damage done, (c) there is not a strong enough culture at many firms of “client first;” although that doesn’t mean the culture is “me first,” it means the client’s needs sometimes are forgotten, and finally (d) the Street is not particularly creative when it comes to new product development.

And I don’t really like the algo traders and the movement of the business to have more robots in charge. But look, this trend (not necessarily HFT but automated trading) is what you get when you start regulating the heck out of the humans. Which do you want? Kill the robots, and you need more of those dastardly humans. Remove the humans, and those lightning-quick robots might trade in front of you. Choose. In both cases, you will be victimized less if you (a) trade large and liquid indices, not individual equities, and (b) trade infrequently.

The far bigger problem in my mind is the opacity, still, of bond trading and the very large bid/offer spreads that retail investors pay to buy or sell ordinary Treasury bonds that trade in large size – often billions – on tiny fractions of 1% of price. Think of it: in equities, with or without HFT you will get a better price for a 100-lot than for a 1,000,000-lot. But in bonds, you will get a vastly better price for a billion than for a thousand. Now that is where a retail investor should get angry.

Shots Fired

January 29, 2014 8 comments

This isn’t the first time that stocks have corrected, even if it is the first time that they have corrected by as much as 4% in a long while. I point out that rather obvious fact because I want to be cautious not to suggest that equities are guaranteed to continue lower for a while. Yes, I have noted often that the market is overvalued and in December put the 10-year expected real return for stocks at only 1.54%. Earlier in that month, I pointed out and remarked on Hussman’s observation that the methods of Didier Sornette suggested a market “singularity” between mid-December and January. And, earlier this month, I followed up earlier statements in which I said I would be negative on stocks when momentum turned and added that I would sell new lows below the lows of the week of January 17th.

But none of that is a forecast of an imminent decline of appreciable magnitude, and I want to be clear of that. The high levels of valuation make any decline potentially dangerous since the levels that will attract serious value investors are so far away. But that is not tantamount to forecasting a waterfall decline, which I have not done and will not do. How does one forecast animal spirits? And that is exactly what a waterfall decline is all about. Yes, there may be precipitating events, but these are rarely known in prospect. Sure, stocks fell sharply after Bear Stearns in the summer of 2007 liquidated two mortgage-backed funds, but stocks reached new highs in October 2007. What happened in mid-October 2007 to trigger the top? Here is a crisis timeline assembled by the St. Louis Fed. There is basically nothing in October 2007. Similarly, as Bob Shiller has documented, at the time of the 1987 crash there was no talk whatsoever about portfolio insurance. The explanation came later. How about March 2000, the high on the Nasdaq (although the S&P 500 didn’t top until September)?

What two of these episodes – 2000 and 2007 – have in common is that valuations were stretched, but I think it’s important to note that there was no obvious precipitating factor at the time. It wasn’t until well into the stock market debacle in 2007-08 that it became obvious (even to Bernanke!) that the subprime crisis wasn’t just a subprime crisis.[1]

Here is my message, then: when you hear shots fired, it isn’t the best idea to wait around to figure out why people are shooting before you put your head down. Because as the saying goes: if the enemy is in range, so are you.

And, although it may not end up being a full-fledged firefight, shots are being fired, mere days before Janet Yellen takes the helm of the Fed officially (which may be ominous since Fed Chairmen are traditionally tested by markets early in their tenure). Last night, Turkey was forced to crank up money rates by about 450bps, depending which rate you look at. When Argentina was having currency issues, it wasn’t surprising – when you have runaway inflation, even if you declare inflation to be something else, the currency generally gets hit eventually. And Russia’s central bank was established only in 1990. But Turkey, about 65% larger in GDP terms than Argentina, is relatively modern economically and has a central bank that was established in the 1930s and has been learning lessons basically in parallel with our Fed since the early 1980s. Heck, it’s almost a member of the EU. So when that central bank starts cranking up rates to defend the currency, I take note. It may well mean nothing, but since global economics has been somewhat dull for the last year or so (and that’s a good thing), it stands out as something different.

What was not different today was the Fed’s statement, compared to its prior statement. The FOMC decided to continue the taper, down to “only” $65bln in purchases monthly now. This was never really in question. It would have been incredibly shocking if the Fed had paused tapering because of a mild ripple in global equity markets. The only real surprise was actually on the hawkish side, as Minnesota Fed President Kocherlakota did not dissent in favor of maintaining unchanged (or increased) stimulus – something he has been agitating for recently. Don’t get too used to the Fed being on the hawkish side of expectations, however. As noted above, Dr. Yellen takes the helm starting next week.

The Treasury held its first auction of floating rate notes (FRNs) today, and the auction was highly successful. And why should they not be? They are T-bill credits that reset to the T-bill rate quarterly, plus 4.5bps. In the next few days I will post an article explaining, however, why floating rate notes don’t provide “inflation protection;” there has been a lot of misinformation about that point, and while I explained why this isn’t true in a post from May 2012 when the concept of the FRN program was first mooted, it is worth reiterating in more detail.

So we now have a new class of securities. Why? What constituency was not being sufficiently served by the existing roster of 1-month, 3-month, 6-month, and 1-year TBills, and 2 year notes?

I will ask another “why” question. Why is the President proposing the “myRA” program, which is essentially a way to push savings bonds (the basics of the program is that if you sign up and meet certain income requirements, the government will give you the splendid opportunity to put your money in an account that returns a low, guaranteed rate of interest). This is absolutely nothing new. You can already set up an account with http://www.TreasuryDirect.gov and have your employer make a payroll direct deposit to that account. And there’s no income maximum, and no requirement to ever roll it into an IRA. Yes, it’s true – with Treasury Direct, you will have to pay federal taxes on the interest, but the target audience for the myRA program is not likely to be paying much in the way of taxes so that’s pretty small beer.[2]

The answer to the “why” in both cases is that the Treasury, noticing that one regular trillion-dollar buyer of its debt is leaving the trough, is looking rather urgently for new buyers. FRNs, and a new way to push Treasuries on middle-class America.

Interest rates have declined since year-end, partly because equities have been weak, partly because some growth indicators have been weak recently, and partly because the carry on long Treasury securities is positively terrific. But the Treasury is advertising fairly loudly that they are concerned about whether they’ll be able to raise enough money, at “reasonable” rates, through conventional auctions. Both of these “innovations” cause interest payments to be pegged at the very short end of the curve, where the Fed has pledged to control interest rates for now, but I think interest rates will rise eventually.

Probably not, however, while the bullets fly.


[1] In a note to Natixis clients on December 4th, 2007, entitled “Tragedy of the Commons,” I commented that “M2 has grown only at a 4.4% annual rate over the last 13 weeks, and that’s egregiously too little considering the credit mess (not just subprime, as I am sure my readers are aware, but Alt-A and Prime mortgages, auto loans and credit cards too),” but the idea that the crisis was broader than subprime wasn’t the general consensus at the time by any means. Incidentally, in that same article I said “We have not entered a recession with core inflation this low in many decades, and this recession looks to be a doozy. I believe that by late 2008 we will be confronting the possibility of deflation once again. And, as in the last episode, the Fed will face a stark choice: if short rates don’t get to zero before inflation gets to zero, the Fed loses as they will never be able to get short rates negative,” which I mention since some people think I have always been bullish on inflation.

[2] I wonder how the money is treated for purposes of the debt ceiling. If the Treasury is no longer able to issue debt, then surely it won’t be able to do what amounts to issuing debt in the “myRA” program? So if they hit the debt ceiling, does interest on the account go to zero?

A Payrolls Report that Matters Again

January 9, 2014 7 comments

Tomorrow’s Employment Report offers something it hasn’t offered in a very long time: the chance to actually influence the course of monetary policy, and therefore markets.

Now that the taper has started, its continuation and/or acceleration is very “data dependent.” While many members of the FOMC are expecting for the taper to be completely finished by the middle of this year (according to the minutes released yesterday), investors understand that view is contingent on continued growth and improvement. This is the first Payrolls number in a very long time that could plausibly influence ones’ view of the likely near-term course of policy.

I don’t think that, in general, investors should pay much attention to this report in December or in January. There is far too much noise, and the seasonal adjustments are much larger than the net underlying change in jobs. Accordingly, your opinion of whether the number is “high” or “low” is really an opinion about whether the seasonal adjustment factors were “low” or “high.” Yes, there is a science to this but what we also know from science is that the rejection of a null hypothesis gets very difficult as the standard deviation around the supposed mean increases. And, for this number and next months’ number, the standard deviation is very high.

That will not prevent markets from trading on the basis of whatever number is reported by the BLS tomorrow. Especially in fixed-income, a figure away from consensus (197k on Payrolls, 7.0% on the Unemployment Rate will likely provoke a big trade. On a strong figure, especially coupled with a decline in the Unemployment Rate below 7%, you can expect bonds to take an absolute hiding. And, although it’s less clear with equities because of the lingering positive momentum from December, I’d expect the same for stocks – a strong number implies the possibility of a quicker taper, less liquidity, and for some investors that will be sufficient sign that it’s time to head for the hills.

I think a “weak” number will help fixed-income, and probably quite a lot, but I am less sure how positive it will be for the equity market.

In any event, welcome back to volatility.

Meanwhile, with commodities in full flight, inflation breakevens are shooting higher. Some of this is merely seasonal – over the last 10 years, January has easily been the best month for breakevens with increases in the 10-year breakeven in 7 of the 10 years with an overall average gain of 15bps – and some of it is due to the reduction of bad carry as December and January roll away, making TIPS relatively more attractive. Ten-year breakevens have risen about 18bps over the last month, which is not inconsistent with the size of those two effects. Still, as the chart below (Source: Bloomberg) shows, 10-year breakevens are back to the highest level since before the summer shellacking.

10ybreaksIndeed, according to a private metric we follow, TIPS are now back almost to fair value (they only very rarely get absolutely rich) compared to nominal bonds. This means that the benefit from being long breakevens at this level solely consists of the value that comes from the market’s mis-evaluating the likelihood of increasing inflation rather than decreasing inflation – that is, a speculation – and no longer gets a “following wind” from the fact that TIPS themselves were cheap outright. I still prefer TIPS to nominal Treasuries, but that’s because I think inflation metrics will increase from here and, along with those metrics, interest in inflation products will recover and push breakevens higher again.

RE-BLOG: Tales of Tails

December 19, 2013 1 comment

Note: The following blog post originally appeared on June 27th, 2010 and is part of a continuing year-end ‘best of’ series, calling up old posts that some readers may have not seen before. I have removed some of the references to then-current market movements and otherwise cut the article down to the interesting bits. You can read the original post here.

           

…I also raised my eyebrows at an article in the UK Telegraph which declares that the Fed is considering a “fresh monetary blitz” since the recovery is faltering. I am always happy to be skeptical when an article doesn’t name names, but this seems to me to be fairly likely to be true:

“Key members of the five-man Board are quietly mulling a fresh burst of asset purchases, if necessary by pushing the Fed’s balance sheet from $2.4 trillion (£1.6 trillion) to uncharted levels of $5 trillion.”

The strategy makes sense, if you believe that the long-term effects of dramatic monetary policy movements can be evaluated over a period of a couple of quarters. I would not be surprised at all to discover that the thinking at 20th Street and Constitution Avenue is something along the lines of “hey, we did it once and didn’t cause inflation, so why not take out the paddles again? CLEAR! ZAP.” I’ve written before of the odd set of speeches we saw earlier this year describing a wondrous alchemy that the Fed seemed to believe they could accomplish: buy assets rapidly to save the economy by keeping rates low and adding liquidity. Sell the assets without completely reversing the effect by doing so slowly. Clearly, if there is real belief that the Board can pump and dump without the “dump” causing any problems, then for God’s sake why not pump?

Obviously, that’s a bunch of hooey, but I remain wary that there may be those who believe it.

The market on Friday was led (and maybe even supported) by financial stocks, because the market finally learned the form of the financial reform bill. It is bad, and will cause severe damage to bank earnings. It isn’t as bad as some people feared, but it is about as bad as was ever likely to become law. Prop trading at banks is still banned, and banks will have two years to push trading of commodities, non-investment grade bonds, and CDS that are not cleared through an exchange to separately-capitalized subsidiaries. Most derivatives will have to be cleared and traded on exchanges, which means less customization (bad for dealers, and bad for clients too). This law will be bad for turnover, bad for margins, and will cause leverage ratios to decline (probably the only reasonable part of the prescription, from my view). The Dupont model tells me those three things imply much lower ROE.

So why did bank stocks rally? This is worth a deep reflection because it explains something about markets.

Bank stocks rallied because as bad as the legislation is, the fact that we now know the form of the legislation removes the most onerous tail risks.

Bob Merton, many years ago, observed that the equity of a company can be thought of as a call option on the value of a firm: the value can only go to zero, if the firm is insolvent, but can be worth a great deal. So what do we know about options? One of the things we know is that a great deal of the value of an option comes from the expected value of unlikely, extreme outcomes. If you remove the chance at the home run, an option gets much cheaper.

This is one big reason that bear markets often end with a sharp rally off the lows (although please note that it does not follow that every sharp rally implies an end to the bear market!) – once the disaster case, the chance of an outright crash or broad economic or financial calamity, recedes in probability, the value of equities rise appreciably. A company which avoids bankruptcy by a hair will see its stock rise dramatically when the chance of losing everything goes away. Observe the behavior of many of the financials during the crisis. When TARP and other bank-supportive mechanisms began to have traction the sector leaped, not because earnings were about to be multiplied 10 times but because the fear of zeros greatly receded.

(Aside #1: Most analysts, of course, look at equity values as related linearly to earnings, and in normal circumstances they are. …a PE of 25x is rich, 15x is cheap, for example. But this is likely because behavioral biases prevent analysts from considering the value of the disaster which they think is very unlikely. In any case, a 15x multiple might be quite expensive indeed compared to a 25x multiple, if the former company is about to receive a legal judgement that could potentially destroy the firm. Indeed, one real problem with conventional investment analysis is that the 15x multiple stock might be cheap, or the multiple may in fact be a sign that tail risks are higher for this equity than for the 25x one. Buying enormous dividend yields is often unproductive because the high yield implies a market belief, often correct, that the dividend is not likely to be paid or paid in that amount.)

(Aside #2: Because so much of the value in an option comes from the tail, evaluating options using simple Black-Scholes when the underlying risk isn’t lognormal can be extremely dangerous, especially with exotic options that have path-dependent valuations and with options on underlying instruments that are known to have a high likelihood of non-linear performance – near-bankrupt equities, for example. Black-Scholes implied vols are nearly useless in such a case).

So, owning a stock or stocks generally when the tail risks are about to recede is a good recipe for making sparkling returns. But we have another name for this sort of investing strategy: “catching a knife.” You can own an AIG-like bounce, but also get run over by Lehman. On the flip side, because as an equity investor you own these negative tail events naturally, you can add a lot of value by avoiding the blow-up.

Rising volatility, then, tells you two things: first, it tells you that the market’s sense of the risk of a possible calamity is growing; second, it tells you that once these fears recede you might earn a solid return. You already knew this; it’s why the VIX is considered a contrary indicator by some.

Does it make sense to be investing more, then, when a blowup might happen, or investing less? As it turns out, the answer to this question is not entirely clear but thanks to the Kelly Criterion we can make some observations. The Kelly Criterion describes the optimal bet size, as a proportion of the bankroll, for a series of uncorrelated bets with a given edge and payoff. The simple observation (which becomes a lot less simple after they start involving the math) is that you want to bet more of your payroll if you are (a) getting good odds and (b) are very confident of the outcome. That is, your bet size should increase if you are getting good odds, and have a good edge. Kelly worked out the math to determine what the optimal bet size should be under certain conditions.

The relevance here is as follows: when a crisis hits, two things are happening to you as an equity investor. First, you are becoming more confident that the market will reward you for buying when everyone else is selling, because (as noted above) unless the world actually does end you are likely to be getting a good price. Second, though, you need to recognize that the increasing chance of debacle implies a worse payoff. In April of 2008, the chances of losing everything the next day were pretty slim. In mid-September 2008, the chances were appreciable that a bunch of your portfolio might be in trouble. So your edge (confidence in winning, if the bet was repeated a bunch of times) was growing, but your odds (payoff if you win, relative to your loss if you don’t) were worsening.

The schematic below shouldn’t be taken literally, but is meant to illustrate the basic relationships.

When potential payoffs worsen, you need a lot more confidence to bet big.

These lines are the pure results from the Kelly formula for the indicated inputs. Perhaps an investor might consider his/her “bankroll” in this case to be the maximum portfolio concentration in equities. Obviously, if you are extremely confident that you are going to win, then no matter what the payoff you should be making a pretty reasonable bet; therefore, the lines converge on the right. But as we move left, we get a sense of the tradeoff between the edge and the odds. When volatility is rising, the investor is moving to the left, implying a lower confidence of a payoff; if the market is trading to lower prices, it improves your odds but you can see that you would need vastly better odds to counteract the effect of increased uncertainty. I would suggest that in the range of normal investor confidence, rising volatility implies that you should tend to be taking chips off the table, even though it means you may miss a minor pop if the world doesn’t end.

We are not currently in a crisis quite like what we saw in 2008. But the elevated levels of implied volatility suggest that crisis is not so far off as we would like to see it. I think this means that we should be avoiding the possibility of the long negative tail, and taking chips off the table.

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Madness or Wisdom?

December 3, 2013 2 comments

Trading, and to some extent investing, is all about knowing when markets are moving with the wisdom of the crowds and when they’re moving with the madness of the crowds. In recent years, there has seemed to be much more madness than wisdom (a statement which can probably be generalized beyond the financial markets themselves, come to think of it). Where do we stand now?

I think a recent letter by John Hussman of Hussman Strategic Advisors, entitled “An Open Letter to the FOMC: Recognizing the Valuation Bubble In Equities,” is worth reading. Hussman is far from the only person, nor even the most august or influential investor, questioning the valuation of equities at the moment. Our own valuation models have had the projected 10-year compounded real return of equities below 3% for several years, and below 2% since late April. For a time, that may have been sustainable because of the overall low level of real rates, but since the summertime rates selloff the expected equity premium has been below 1.5% per annum, compounded – and is now below 1% (see Chart, source Enduring Investments).

realequitypremHussman shows a number of other ways of looking at the data, all of which suggest that equity prices are unsustainable in the long run. But what really caught my eye was the section “Textbook speculative features”, where he cites none other than Didier Sornette. Sornette wrote a terrific book called Why Stock Markets Crash: Critical Events in Complex Financial Systems, in which he argues that markets at increased risk of failure demonstrate certain regular characteristics. There is now a considerable literature on non-linear dynamics in complex systems, including Ubiquity: Why Catastrophes Happen by Mark Buchanan and Paul Ormerod’s Why Most Things Fail: Evolution, Extinction and Economics . But Sornette’s book is one of the better balances between accessibility to the non-mathematician and utility to the financial practitioner. But Hussman is the first investor I’ve seen to publicly apply Sornette’s method to imply a point of singularity to markets in real time. While the time of ‘breakage’ of the markets cannot be assessed with any more, and probably less, confidence than one can predict a precise time that a certain material will break under load – and Hussman, it should be noted, “emphatically” does not lay out an explicit time path for prices – his assessment puts Sornette dates between mid-December and January.

Hussman, like me, is clearly of the belief that we are well beyond the wisdom of crowds, into the madness thereof.

One might reasonably ask “what could cause such a crash to happen?” My pat response is that I don’t know what will trigger such a crash, but the cause would be the extremely high valuations. The trigger and the cause are separate discussions. I can imagine a number of possibilities, including something as innocuous as a bad “catch-up” CPI print or two that produces a resurgence of taper talk or an ill-considered remark from Janet Yellen. But speculating on a specific trigger event is madness in itself. Again, the cause is valuations that imply poor equity returns over the long term; of the many paths that lead to poor long-term returns, some include really bad short-term returns and then moderate or even good returns thereafter.

I find this thought process of Hussman’s interesting because it seems consonant with another notion: that the effectiveness of QE might be approaching zero asymptotically as well. That is, if each increment of QE is producing smaller and smaller improvements in the variables of interest (depending who you are, that might mean equity prices, long-term interest rates, bank lending, unemployment, etc), then at some point the ability of QE to sustain highly speculative valuations goes away and we’re left with the coyote-running-over-the-cliff scenario. Some Fed officials have been expressing opinions about the declining efficacy of QE, and Janet Yellen comes to office on February 2nd. I suspect the market is likely to test her very early.

None of this means that stocks cannot go straight up from here for much longer. There’s absolutely nothing to keep stock prices from doubling or tripling from here, except the rationality of investors. And as Mackay said, “Men, it has been well said, think in herds; it will be seen that they go mad in herds, while they only recover their senses slowly, and one by one.” Guessing at the date on which the crowd will toggle back from “madness” to “wisdom” is inherently difficult. What is interesting about the Sornette work, via Hussman, is that it circles a high-risk period on the calendar.

For two days in a row now, I’ve discussed other people’s views. On Wednesday or Thursday, I’ll share my own thoughts – about the possible effects of Obamacare on measured Medical Care inflation.

Twit or Treat?

November 7, 2013 7 comments

I guess we have to add to the list of uncomfortable comparisons to 1999’s equity mania the Twitter IPO. A widely-known company with no earnings…and no visible way to produce any revenues of note, much less earnings…went public and promptly doubled. Hedge funds which were able to get in on the IPO allocation cheered this nice kick to their performance numbers, and the backers of the now-$25bln-company are surely elated. But the rest of us have got to be thinking about Pets.com.

It was an article by Hussman Funds (ht rich t) that got me thinking more deeply about these comparisons. Although the article was referred to me partly because of the insightful comments about the Phillips Curve, which echo similar comments I have made in the past, I kept reading to the end as I usually do when trapped in a Hussman article! While there are a number of us (including Hussman, Grantham, Arnott, e.g.) who have been concerned for a while about equity market valuations since we use similar metrics, I really haven’t been terribly concerned about the possibility of an imminent and steep market decline for a while, though I think returns from these levels over the next decade will be close to flat in real terms as they were after the 1999 peak. However, Hussman had me thinking about this.

I do think that there is one key difference from 1999, and that is that not everyone is talking about stocks. That is, not yet…the Twitter IPO might get us there – on Fox Business News today a young talking head (who was no more than 10 years old in 1999) made sure that viewers were informed that anyone could buy Twitter, just by calling their broker. (Not just anyone, though, could get in at the IPO price…a point the cub reporter neglected to mention).

The counter-argument to “is this a 1999 set-up?” takes two forms. The less-sophisticated form is “nuh-uh”, although usually said in a slightly more elaborate way that implies the questioner is a mindless, not to mention soulless, Communist who isn’t getting enough loving at home. The more-sophisticated argument is worth considering, but isn’t particularly soothing to me. This hypothesis is that this isn’t 1999, it’s 1997, before the parabolic blow-off and with lots of room left to run. It wasn’t as if there was any lack of skepticism about the stock market’s levels (which, sweetly, we considered lofty at the time):

“Is it possible that there is something fundamentally new about this current period that would warrant such complacency? Yes, it is possible. Markets may have become more efficient, competition is more global, and information technology has doubtless enhanced the stability of business operations. But, regrettably, history is strewn with visions of such “new eras” that, in the end, have proven to be a mirage. In short, history counsels caution.” – Alan Greenspan, February 26th, 1997

The bubble, of course, did not pop in 1997. It popped in 1999, after Greenspan had abandoned his prior skepticism (in late 1998, as he came to believe that “I do not claim that all market behavior is a rational response to changes in the real world. But most of it must be. For, were it otherwise, the relatively stable economic environments that have been evident among the major industrial countries over the generations would not be possible”).  Between 1997 and 1999, there was plenty of time for investors to make money, and as long as they realized they were taking money for the future and got out before 2000…alas, very few of them did.

But, speaking from experience, the 1997-1999 period was very lonely. While investors who gradually sold their long positions out in 1998 and 1999 did much better than the ones they were selling to, they were also very unpopular at cocktail parties. The bearish analysts were put on the street, begging for tuppence. Which, considering that most of them were in the United States, was also unsuccessful.

The 1999 bubble…and the later property bubble…also did not burst until the Fed was actually tightening policy. It is on this point that many bullish arguments depend, but it is a weak one I believe. To be sure, there is no chance that the Fed will be tightening policy any time soon. The taper is not going to happen until 2014Q2 at the earliest, and I think it will take until later in 2014, when inflation figures will become uncomfortable, before they will start pulling back on QE. Some observers believe it will be much later. A Wall Street Journal article on Wednesday detailed a recent research paper written by the head of the monetary affairs division at the Fed; it argued that it may make sense for the Fed to lower its Unemployment Rate threshold and said that “an ‘optimal’ policy might keep rates near zero as late as 2017.”

The activist Fed continues to be one of the biggest risks to the market and the economy. As a trader, I know that 90% of trading is just sitting there, waiting for the ‘fat pitch’ you can do something about. It boggles my mind that a central banker doesn’t sit around at least that much, considering that they know even less about the complexities of the global economy than I know about the complexities of the market. And, unlike the global economy, the market doesn’t fight back when I act on it.

I actually have a feeling that we won’t be worrying about those Unemployment thresholds, either the old ones or the ones proposed in that paper. As I wrote late last month, the expansion is getting a bit long in the tooth and I would not be surprised to see another recession looming in 2014. I don’t have any reason for that outlook other than the calendar, but sometimes these reasons become obvious only in hindsight.

In any event, though, I wouldn’t wait around for the Fed to be tightening. It isn’t overnight funding rates that I would worry about, but longer-term interest rates, and there has already been a warning shot fired that indicates the Fed is not wholly in control of those rates.

So, it may be too early to be out of equities. Maybe even a lot too early. But one thing I am sure of is that it isn’t too late. It is the latter condition, not the former, that is the most damaging to one’s financial position.

Brace for Data Impact

October 17, 2013 19 comments

Not a bad trick!

The government shuts down, and the Administration threatens default; the stock market drops a few percent, and then rallies to new highs. Then the shutdown ends, and the stock market rallies again because the shutdown ended.

I lose track of the mental gymnastics required to reconcile prices rising perpetually no matter what the news – or, what is worse, rising regardless of whether the news is “A” or “not A.”

I saw an analyst report recently in which the writer argued that stocks were not overvalued per se; they were only one standard deviation above fair value. I don’t disagree very much, quantitatively, with that view…it sounds about right. But the way it is expressed is somewhat misleading. We know that roughly two-thirds of a normal distribution is contained between +1 standard deviation and -1 standard deviation from the mean. This implies that only about one-third is outside of one standard deviation, and only half of that on the upside. In other words, a market which is “only one standard deviation above fair value” is in the 84th percentile or so of richness. Or, if we were to throw darts randomly at the distribution, about five of those darts would represent “down” and one would represent “up” from that level.

Now, whether or not we call that “expensive” or a “bubble” (I don’t think it qualifies as a bubble) is mostly a linguistic argument rather than a financial argument. The financial/investing argument is whether it is smart to be invested in an 84th percentile market or not.

The answer isn’t quite as clear as it seems because it depends on how rich the market is when you sell it. If you buy at the 84th percentile and later sell at the 84th percentile, then you’ve gained the growth in earnings and any dividends over that period. So it’s not an automatic loser. Similarly, if you are holding a bad poker hand but push all your chips into the middle, you might win against someone else’s hand in the event that theirs is even worse. But that doesn’t mean it’s a good move. In investing, as in poker, you win by making your biggest bets when odds are favorable, and avoiding bets when odds are adverse. And sometimes, that means you have to sit at the table for a long time waiting for good odds! So, whether stocks are “expensive” or not at the 84th percentile is to an important degree irrelevant to me. What is relevant is sizing my bet to reflect my chances of winning, which aren’t very good right now.

Bonds are back in rally mode for now. The traditional seasonal pattern, which calls for a peak in yields on September 4th, has been strikingly useful this year (the high closing yield for the 10-year note was actually September 5th). But the main portion of that seasonal pattern is coming to an end. Yes, the Fed is continuing to buy bonds, but core inflation is now heading higher rather than lower as it was prior to last month, and we all realize that the can has only been kicked for a couple of months. Still, the VIX plunged on Wednesday and Thursday, so investors clearly don’t anticipate any near-term volatility in markets. That seems really odd to me, since we are about to see the densest economic release calendar we have seen in many years. When I was an options trader, we scaled volatility by the density of economic releases (weighted by the importance of the release). I can’t imagine wanting to sell volatility when we have the Retail Sales and Existing Home Sales reports on Monday, Employment Report and Chicago Fed on Tuesday, New Home Sales on Thursday, Durable Goods on Friday, and lots of corporate earnings besides; and the following week has PPI and CPI and the Chicago PM and ADP and ISM.

And meanwhile, in somewhat astonishing fashion today the dollar got clocked, falling to the lowest level since February. There are certainly some people in Washington scratching their heads on that one. All in all, I am not convinced by the VIX’s brave face that it is the right time to sell such insurance. I would be a better buyer of volatility at these levels.

The Longest Journey Begins With Delaying the First Step

September 18, 2013 13 comments

Everyone expected markets to provide a lot of late-day volatility today, and so they did. The Fed apparently doesn’t mind surprising the market with a non-consensus outcome when that surprise gooses stocks and bonds higher. Here are some (fairly unstructured) thoughts about today’s declaration from the Fed that there will be no “taper” in its QE program yet:

  1. This has nothing to do with the fact that there was a minor wiggle in the Employment data, some weakness in Retail Sales, and some other disappointments this month. If that is now the standard…that the Fed plans to expand its balance sheet without bound as long as growth is not smashing the cover off the ball, then we are truly lost for QE will never, ever end. This month’s numbers were all within the normal variation for economic data, which do in fact vary even when the underlying economy is not. The old standard was “ameliorate a deep recession.” Then Greenspan turned that to “resist even a mild recession.” And now, is the standard “robust growth no matter what the long-term cost?” I don’t think so, and so I reject the notion that the failure to begin the taper has anything to do with the growth numbers.
  2. Similarly, the inflation numbers cannot be the reason. Core inflation is now rising, and the Fed has previously recognized that some of the decline in inflation has been due to transient effects of the sequester. Median inflation has remained steady at 2.1%, which is basically the Fed’s long-term target. The cost of 10-year deflation floors in the market are at the lowest level since they began to trade in 2009 (see chart, source Bloomberg and BGC Partners – the price is in up-front basis points). So it isn’t a lingering fear of deflation that has the Fed concerned.

10y0zcfloor

  1. The Fed speakers over the last month have had ample opportunity to shoot down the idea that taper would start at this meeting, which has been the consensus for a long time. None of them did so, implying that the Fed was comfortable with that consensus. But something changed in the last few days, and that is that the odds-on next Fed Chairman went from being Larry Summers to being Janet Yellen, who happened to be in the meeting today.[1] Does this change the dynamic? Absolutely, since one reason Bernanke has started thinking and talking about tapering is so as to leave as clean a slate as possible so that the next Chairman wouldn’t have to start his term by tightening (sorry, I mean “reducing accommodation”) and scaring asset markets. Once Summers withdrew his name, Yellen’s vote got automatically much more important and the urgency to start the taper much less (since Yellen doesn’t believe there are any important costs to QE). Indeed, in his post-meeting presser Bernanke noted that the “first step” on a taper is “possible this year.” That is far to the dovish side of what the Street was expecting, but consistent with the notion that Yellen’s opinion will carry a heavy weight unless someone else is appointed to the post.
  2. Yellen said last June that the Fed’s objective is a quick return to full employment, and that Fed action might be justified “to insure against adverse shocks [emphasis mine],” or even if the Fed concludes that the recovery “is unlikely to proceed at a satisfactory pace.” So, perhaps I need to reconsider my point #1 above. Maybe that is the standard now.
  3. If in fact QE has no cost, then there is no reason to ever stop it. In fact, it should be accelerated. Most Fed officials seem recently to be coming to the realization that there is highly unlikely to be a costless economic remedy, even if they are not sure what the costs are or think they can be contained. Those people clearly have no voice any more, even though it appeared that those views in the last few months were gaining currency (no pun intended, since the dollar dropped to the lowest level since February after the announcement today – a Fed that was edging however slowly to being more-hawkish than average was good for the dollar; a weak, more-dovish than average central bank will be worse for the dollar all else equal). This is pedal-to-the-metal time.
  4. TIPS got a lot more expensive today, with the 10-year rallying 20bps to 0.475% and breakevens up 4.5bps one day before the Treasury auctions another slug of them. The auction ought still to go well, because caution has been thrown to the wind by our beloved central bankers. This is also good for commodities, and they rose today led by precious and industrial metals. Is it good for equities? Well…
  5. Equity analysts are like puppies. They completely forget what happened 5 minutes ago and every experience is brand new. There is never any context. So stocks shot higher today, with the S&P gaining 1.2%, because of the dovish Fed and lower interest rates. But over the last few months, as the taper grew closer and interest rates shot higher, all equities did was move to new highs. So, higher interest rates and a (relatively) hawkish Fed doesn’t hurt stock prices, but lower interest rates and a dovish Fed helps them? This may be why the Fed thinks that buying bonds keeps interest rates low and selling bonds doesn’t raise them. It’s a strange market-based notion of a perpetual motion machine. For goodness’ sake, let’s crank interest rates down 200bps, back up 200bps, down 200bps, and keep doing that and the stock market will be at 1,000,000 before you know it. Prosperity! But in fact it is probably more like a bicycle pump. Pushing down inflates the tire, pulling up doesn’t deflate it. It seems costless. However, if you keep doing that, eventually the tire will pop.
  6. Speaking of the perpetual motion machine, I enjoyed this little gem from the FOMC statement:

The Committee is maintaining its existing policy of reinvesting principal payments from its holdings of agency debt and agency mortgage-backed securities in agency mortgage-backed securities and of rolling over maturing Treasury securities at auction. Taken together, these actions should maintain downward pressure on longer-term interest rates, support mortgage markets, and help to make broader financial conditions more accommodative…

Really? It hasn’t worked recently. Lest they forget: the taper hadn’t started yet, but until today it was busy being discounted in the bond market. I don’t expect that merely continuing to buy bonds into the SOMA will push rates much lower again. We all know that this game ends, and we know how it ends. With 10-year notes at 2.70% I wouldn’t be selling them, but I also wouldn’t expect a massive rally to unfold. I would hold long positions in September and October, because those are the right months in which to hold bonds (especially with debt ceiling fight #2, Syria, Italy’s government disintegrating, and Germany’s election), but if the market gave me 2.45% to sell, I would sell.


[1] Note, though, that no person who has ever held the office of Fed Vice-Chairman has later been appointed to be Chairman…although Donald Kohn, since he was Vice-Chairman from 2006-2010, would also represent a departure from this same tradition. However, he was not in the room.

The Fed and Regulators Should Draw the Veil

September 9, 2013 Leave a comment

When I remark, from time to time, that I think the Fed has made a mistake in increasing transparency of its deliberations and actions, people occasionally look at me as if I had come out opposed to motherhood or apple pie. But my point is that transparency is good if it permanently decreases risk…but it doesn’t.

What matters is how market actors respond to increased transparency. It is much like the old debate about whether football players ought to wear helmets. It is clear that helmets decrease the likelihood of brain damage in any given collision, compared to the un-helmeted rider in an identical collision. But it is also clear that as helmets have gotten better and better, football players have played faster and faster, with more abandon, and lead with their heads a lot more than they did when all they had was a leather cap. The net effect is indeterminate.[1]

In markets, increased transparency from a central bank or regulator leads to increased leverage in a very direct way. The central bank’s dial is for transparency, but the investor’s dial is for risk appetite and when the central bank turns its dial it does not change the investor’s risk preferences. The result is that increasing transparency, which decreases the risk at any given leverage and at any particular moment, leads to higher levels of leverage, which lowers the tolerance for error. And, as we have seen, central banks and regulators are quite prone to error.

In an interesting way, this is tied into the volume question. The chart below (source: Bloomberg) shows rolling 250-trading-day volume for the NYSE in billions of shares. As has been well-documented, market volumes have been steadily declining for years.

emvols

As we have mentioned here before, there are lots of excuses for lower market volumes on the major exchanges, and probably many of those excuses are part of the answer. But we can no longer simply attribute this to the movement of volumes to “dark pools.” There is simply less going on in the markets, whether in rates or in equities. Ask the dealers. Dodd-Frank and the Volcker Rule are simply decimating volumes. And this is not just bad for dealers, it is bad for everyone.

When a trade happens, there is information revealed. Indeed, in some markets a meaningful proportion of the volume transacted is between dealers who are testing the market to get more information. More trades means that there are more quanta of information. More quanta of information produces more confidence in prices. More confidence in prices means more support for the current prices, and more de facto liquidity.

Think of it this way. If a bond has never traded, and two counterparties come together to trade some at a price of 103, what is your estimate of the true market for another trade? Is it one tick around 103? If so, then you are displaying almost outrageous overconfidence – one data point between two counterparties, about whose motivations you know precisely nothing, tells you almost zero about what the true market (by which I mean, the prices at which you could buy, for an offer, or sell, for a bid, a typical-sized transaction) is, and even less about what the support market (by which I mean the prices at which you could transact in substantially larger sizes) is. And so bid/offer spreads, whether quoted on-screen or over-the-counter from a dealer in the security, must be wider since the market-maker just doesn’t know as much as he would if volumes were higher – and, more to the point, the market must be wider because the client who initiates the trade is likely to know more than the market-maker does about the right price. This is because the market-maker must make a market whether or not he knows the fair price, but the buyer or seller doesn’t have to trade unless he/she believes the fair price is outside of the quoted range. Of course, that’s where the information comes from: if the offer is lifted, it means someone is saying “I think the fair price is higher than your offer,” and that is information.

I mention this today for several reasons. First, because it has been a while since I showed the NYSE volumes chart in a while. Second, because there was an article on Bloomberg today entitled “Professor Who Helped Pop Junk Bubble Says Trace Slows Trade” which ties transparency to diminished volumes. To the extent that Trace produces true transparency and reduces the need for “testing” trades, it is a good thing…but then we should see tighter spreads for size, and while the study is suggestive it isn’t conclusive on this point. More interestingly, the professor in question also made the point that “less trading may hurt investors if, instead of reducing ‘noise’ from the market, the reduction slows how quickly new information alters prices.” And this point is also key:

”…if the decrease in trading activity is the result of dealers’ unwillingness to hold inventory, transparency will have caused a reduction in the range of investing opportunities. That is, even if a decline in price dispersion reflects a decrease in transaction costs, the concomitant decrease in trading activity could reflect an increased cost of transacting due to the inability to complete trades.”

So transparency, it seems, is not an unalloyed positive like apple pie. But lower trading volumes, which are partly the result of transparency (and partly the result of poorly-conceived rules like Dodd-Frank, the Volcker Rule, and Basel III), are very probably bad for everyone. This doesn’t just affect hedge funds. Markets which are deep and liquid are much less prone to sudden price breaks. With the US equity market still floating near the highs despite rapid increases in nominal and real interest rates and worst-ever outflows from ETFs last month, this is a point that may be more than academic at the moment.


[1] However, no one disputes that the faster game is a lot more fun to watch. What I suspect has happened is that the introduction of hard-sided helmets probably increased injuries until players essentially reached maximum speed/recklessness, after which point the further improvements in helmet design probably started to make the game safer again. But it is really hard to prove that.

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