On Monday, in "High Frequency Trading: Why Now And What Happens Next" we predicted that "the high freaks are about to become the most convenient, and "misunderstood" scapegoat, for when the market finally does crash. Which means that those HFT-associated terms which very few recognize now, especially those on either side of the pro/anti-HFT debate who have very strong opinions but zero factual grasp of the matter, such as the following:
- Layering: multiple, large orders are placed passively with the goal of “pushing” the book away
Of course, another name for "layering" is "spoofing" which is precisely the term that the SEC used today when it announced that it charged the owner of a New Jersey-based trading firm and several other defendants "in a scheme to manipulate the market through an illegal practice known as "spoofing."
"Today there is a tremendous amount of monetary distortion, on par with the 1929 stock market and certainly the peak of 2007, and many others," warns Universa's Mark Spitznagel. At these levels, he suggests (as The Dao of Capital author previously told Maria B, "subsequent large stock market losses and even crashes become perfectly expected events." Post-Bernanke it will be more of the same, he adds, and investors need to know how to navigate such a world full of "monetary distortions in the economy and the creation of malinvestments." The reality is, Spitznagel concludes that the 'recovery is a Fed distortion-driven mirage' and the only way out is to let the natural homeostasis take over - "the purge that occurs after massive distortion is painful, but ultimately, it’s far better and healthier for the system."
Having been the first to warn the world about the perils of high frequency trading nearly 5 years ago, when momentum ignition, layering and quote stuffing were still incomprehensible buzzwords to all but a select few algo traders from Citadel, GETCO and DE Shaw, and warning about such top-down systemic lock ups like flash-crash over a year in advance; as well as the bottom-up impacts of 20 year old math PhDs being in charge of market topology, our crusade from the micro has since shifted to the macro and the primary nemesis of all that is free and fair, the Federal Reserve. In the intervening years, traders such as Haim Bodek opened the HFT kimono even more publicly a few years ago. The following is a must-watch documentary for every investor and trader to comprehend just what it is (and who it is) that drives stock prices day in and day out.
This morning’s news that the China leadership has launched a “mini-stimulus” package might confirm what we’ve long feared – China’s economic situation is more perilous than we thought. It looks like a comparatively modest supply-side package of tax cuts, export boosts and railway stimulus, designed to “arouse the energy of the market” according the State Council. But it could be the first of many new programs according to analysts. The state is clearly concerned. That it has been forced to act should be a wake up and smell the coffee moment for markets – the implications of China slowdown could be this year’s game changer in markets.
What goes up appears to come down faster. Thanks, apparently, to a well-timed Goldman Sachs suggestion that the heavily-shorted (28.4% of float) electric-car maker is over-priced (whocouldanode at 303% YTD gains), the shares are down 14.5% today on massive volume (-18% from yesterday's highs) but still notably above Patrick Archambault's $84 target.
When we tapered our coverage of HFT manipulation and stock market abuse some time ago, we thought that the message had been heard loud and clear: high frequency trading is a sophisticated market manipulating parasite, whose only real function is to abuse market structure and integrity, by making conventional market manipulation practices more difficult to spot and identify. It turns out some, i.e., Newedge, thought they could still get away with traditional manipulative practices such as spoofing, layering, momentum ignition, wash trading, bypassing, and others, if only they were wrapped in an HFT blanket. It did so for four years from 2008 until 2011. As it turns out it was wrong, and in a stunning example of actually doing its job, FINRA fined Newedge, which is one of the largest futures brokers in the world and ranks third in terms of U.S. customer assets on deposit, a record $9.5 million.
Currency wars are so pre-"QE eternity." At least that is the opinion of Indian multi-billionaire Lakshmi Mittal, and owner of the world's biggest steelmaker, who urged Europe to embrace protectionism and erect trade barriers to "protect" its manufacturers (benefiting one ArcelorMittal among others), while at the same time bashing austerity, saying "the futures of EU manufacturing depended on politicians in Brussels helping industry face what he said was unfair competition from China." In other words, it's time for Europe to escalate into full blown trade warfare with China. It is unclear if Mr. Mittal had any thoughts on how China would, in turn, escalate to this progression in trade warfare: whether with tariffs, subsidies, or outright dumping. What does appear quite clear is that the owner of ArcelorMittal, who on Friday posted a net loss of $345 million (down from a $92 million profit a year earlier) on Q1 sales plunging by 13%, whose stock is just off its 52 week lows, and who said he may close plants in Eastern Europe if the "economy continues to slump", may have some ulterior motives in asking that Europe fight his war for him.
After exposing the stock market manipulative arsenal that is High Frequency Trading, quote stuffing, flash trading, packet churning, layering, sub-pennying, liquidity, latency and dark pool arbitrage, NBBO and Reg NMS exemptions, "hide-not-sliding", collocation, and much, much more for four years, or so long even Credit Suisse joined the chorus we started in April of 2009, we are glad to learn that finally, with a ridiculous Rip Van Winklesian delay, but better late than never, "the FBI has teamed up with securities regulators to tackle the potential threat of market manipulation posed by new computer trading methods that have taken operations beyond the scope of traditional policing." In other words, the SEC has finally realized it can no longer pretend it is not co-opted, but because it has no clue where to even start with HFT, has asked the help of the Feds. Which in itself is hardly reason for optimism, but if there is one thing Hans Gruber has taught us, it is that when the Feds get involved, the first thing they do is cut the power, and in this algo-based market that will end some 99% of all daily manipulative practices we have all grown to love and look forward to every single day.
There is much debate whether when it comes to the total notional size of outstanding derivatives, it is the gross notional that matters (roughly $600 trillion), or the amount which takes out biletaral netting and other offsetting positions (much lower). We explained previously how gross is irrelevant... until it is, i.e. until there is a breach in the counterparty chain and suddenly all net becomes gross (as in the case of the Lehman bankruptcy), such as during a financial crisis, i.e., the only time when gross derivative exposure becomes material (er, by definition). But a bigger question is what is the actual collateral backing this gargantuan market which is about 10 times greater than the world's combined GDP, because as the "derivative" name implies all this exposure is backed on some dedicated, real assets, somewhere. Luckily, the IMF recently released a discussion note titled "Shadow Banking: Economics and Policy" where quietly hidden in one of the appendices it answers precisely this critical question. The bottom line: $600 trillion in gross notional derivatives backed by a tiny $600 billion in real assets: a whopping 0.1% margin requirement! Surely nothing can possibly go wrong with this amount of unprecedented 1000x systemic leverage.
In the recent aftermath of the US just concluding its fourth consecutive fiscal year with a $1 trillion+ deficit, we have been flooded with requests to show how the current fiscal situation stacks up in a big picture context. Very big picture context. For all those requests, we present the following chart showing total US Federal debt/GDP as well as Deficit/(Surplus)/GDP since inception, or in this case as close as feasible, or 1792, which appears to be the first recorded year of historical fiscal data. We can see why readers have been so eager to see the "real big picture" - the chart is nothing short of stunning.
A few days ago, Credit Suisse did something profoundly unexpected: its Trading Strategy team led by Jonathan Tse released a report titled "High Frequency Trading - Measurement, Detection and Response" in which the firm - one of the biggest flow and prop traders by equity volume in both light and dark venues - admitted what Zero Hedge has been alleging for years (and has gotten sick and tired of preaching), and which the regulators have been unable to grasp and comprehend: that high frequency trading is a predatory system which abuses market structure and topology, which virtually constantly engages in such abusive trading practices as the Nanex-branded quote stuffing, as well as layering, spoofing, order book fading, and, last but not least, momentum ignition. While we we cover the full report in the next few days and all its SEC-humiliating implications, it is the last aspect that we wish to focus on because while all the prior ones have been extensively covered on these pages in the past, it is the phenomenon of momentum ignition that goes straight at the dark beating heart of today's zombie markets: momentum, momentum, and more momentum, in which nothing but stop hunts and even more momentum, define the "fair value" of any risk asset - i.e., reflexivity at its absolute worst (in addition to Fed intervention of course), where value is implied by technicals and trading patterns, and where algos buy simply because other algos are buying. Behold robotic stop hunts: HFT-facilitated "Momentum Ignition."
"Around the year 2005, a sudden spark will catalyze a Crisis mood. Remnants of the old social order will disintegrate. Political and economic trust will implode. Real hardship will beset the land, with severe distress that could involve questions of class, race, nation and empire." Strauss & Howe wrote these words in 1997. They understood the dynamics of how generations interact and how the mood of the country shifts every twenty or so years based upon the generational alignment that occurs as predictably as the turning of the seasons. The last generation that lived through the entire previous Crisis from 1929 through 1946 has virtually died off. For those who doubt generational theory and believe history is a linear path of human progress, I would point to the last week of chaos, disarray, government dysfunction, and misery of those who didn’t prepare for Superstorm Sandy, as a prelude to the worst of this Crisis. The lack of preparation by government officials and citizens, death, destruction, panic, anger, helplessness and realization of how fragile our system has become is a perfect analogy to our preparation for this Fourth Turning. The regeneracy of the nation will occur during the next presidential term. The mathematical impossibility of sustaining our economic system is absolute.
If yesterday it was the Middle East's turn to escalate, today it is the Far East, aka Pacific Rim, where China and Japan both remind the world nothing has been fixed in the diplomatic snafu between the two countries over a barren rock in the East China Sea. First, it was China, which on the front page of the biggest daily Xinhua, over the weekend, demanded that Japan immediately stop infringing upon its "territorial sovereignty. To wit: "China asked Japan to immediately stop all acts that harm China's territorial sovereignty, Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said late Saturday, after some Japanese landed on the Diaoyu Islands. Hong said the Japanese landed on the Diaoyu Islands Friday evening with the excuse of preventing Taiwanese activists from landing on the islets. "It is a severe infringement upon China's territorial sovereignty, and the Chinese government has lodged solemn representations and strong protests to the Japanese side," Hong said in a statement." Other headlines make it quite clear that it is in China's interest to stir populist anger at Japan instead of seeking an amicable resolution. What, however, was the most important article in today's Pacific Rim press is this one which has nothing to do with Japan, and everything to do with China's expanding zone of influence: "China's top security official on Saturday made a surprise visit to Afghanistan, the first time in 46 years that a Chinese leader set his foot on the soil of this landlocked Asian country."
There is a perverse macro-level outcome from over-zealous central-planning. We have talked in the past about the greater risk of huge tail events in a controlled/normalized/planned/smoothed world, but as SocGen's Dylan Grice in an analogy to driving: "traffic lights and road signs are well intentioned, but by subtly encouraging us to lower our guard they subtly alter the fundamental algorithm dictating micro-level driving behavior." In other words, we drop our guard. With the plethora of financial market traffic light and road signs (Basel III, Solvency II, Bernanke Put) the fear is that this illusion of capital or safety has made markets more lethal (think AAA-rated bonds for a simple example). "We should be able to understand that the world isn’t risk free, can never be made risk free and that regulations which trick people into thinking it is risk free serve only to make it more dangerous." But instead, following the rule-of-Iksil (baffling with bullshit), regulators have gone the traditional route - but this time to an exponential place of craziness with Dodd-Frank - layering complexity upon complexity to give an out to those who abuse it most. Perhaps, as Grice notes, instead of focusing on 'fixing' the "crisis of capitalism", it would be more pragmatic to focus on the "crisis of dumb counterproductive intervention"?