NYSE Short Interest
A recent survey of asset managers globally, managing USD 27.4 trillion between them, found that 78% of defined-benefit plans would need annual returns of at least 5% per year to meet their commitments, while 19% required more than 8%, "a target of 5% per year can be reached but only by using leverage, shorting, and derivavtives." And sure enough, as Deutsche Bank (DB) reports, in short, investors have rarely been more levered than today! According to DB, a MoM change in NYSE margin debt >10% has to be taken as a critical warning signal as there are astonishing similarities in the sequence of events among all crises. As the S&P 500 just hit a new all-time high, investors might want to ask themselves when it is a good time to become more cautious – yesterday, in our view. Simply put, the higher margin debt levels rise, the more fragile the underlying basis on which prices trade; with even a less severe sell-off in equities capable of triggering a collapse.
With the Fed no longer even pretending it is not all about the stock market, where some mysterious trickle down force is supposed to boost the economy the second the S&P hits new all time highs, and injecting billions into stocks via Primary Dealers courtesy of the daily now-unseterilized POMO (today's edition saw another $3.4 billion enter risk assets), there is apparently no reason to worry about anything. Sure enough, institutions don't need a second invitation to BTFD especially if they can do so on margin. According to the latest NYSE margin debt data, the December of margin debt used for various leveraging activities rose for the fifth consecutive month, reaching $331 billion - the highest since February 2008, when the market was declining, and back to the levels from May 2007 when the market was ramping ever higher to its all time highs which would be hit 3 short months later, and just as the subprime bubble popped.
As if the already documented record $220 billion year end equity market injection courtesy of deposits (being used by bank prop arms to invest in risk assets) was not enough to send markets into nosebleed territory to start the new year, which fully explains the institutional (note: not retail) capital flood into equity funds and ETFs as has been trumpeted every day for the past week by CNBC (we will update the retail data from ICI today), here is yet another reason why the 2012 to 2013 transition has everything to do with trading technicals and nothing to do with fundamentals. As the chart below shows, the reported level of NYSE short interest tumbled as of December 31, to 12.9 billion shares, a major 5% decline - the largest incidentally since December 30, 2011 - the lowest level since March, and a trend which has likely persisted as the shorts once again have thrown in the towel (except for Herbalife of course). Of course, this collapse in bearish sentiment, which goes hand in hand with the surge in NYSE margin debt to 5 years highs, is only sustainable if and only if the Fed has now fully eradicated all risk and all volatility in perpetuity. Which for now, judging by the epic ongoing smackdown in the VIX, is succeeding. That will change.
One place where the S&P level still does have a modest influence is the number of shorts in the market, which are strategically used by repo desks and custodians (State Street and BoNY), to force wholesale short squeezes at given inflection points, usually just when the bottom is about to drop out. The problem is that even short squeezes are increasingly becoming fewer and far between, for the simple reason that the Fed has managed to nearly anihilate shorters as a trading class with its policy of Dow 36,000 uber alles. This was demonstrated with the latest NYSE Group short interest data, which tumbled to 13.6 billion shares short as of the end of September, or the lowest since early May, just as the market was swooning to its lowest level of 2012 to date.
Those hoping that the recent short squeeze which took the market to just why of its 2012 highs will repeat itself may be disappointed, because according to the NYSE, Short Interest as of June 29 plunged to 14.2 billion shares, from well over 14.7 billion two weeks prior, a drop of over half a billion shares, or the most since January, when the combination of LTRO 1, Twist and renewed hope that the economy was "improving" forced 783K shares to cover into the big October-March ramp. The current short interest level of 14.2 billion shares is the third highest of 2012, and was last seen back in November 2011 when the market needed a global coordinated intervention and the ECB's LTRO announcement to prevent i from taking out 2012 lows.
... Nothing more (or less) than NYSE short interest as of June 15 (at 14.7 billion shares) soaring to the highest since October 2011, just before the mega ramp on the previously mentioned October 26, 2011 Greek "Bailout" started on another total non-event as history would show (as would be the ensuing global central bank interventions, and LTROs 1+2). This is also tied for the 3rd highest short interest since July of 2009. Which brings us to the following question: we know that over the past month the only stock "market" catalysts have been small groups of "educated" central-planners: the Fed, SCOTUS, and Eurocrats, with the only upside catalyst being taxpayer cash. Does the chart below mean that the only technical item that matters is Short Interest (as well as short interest in the highly levered and beta-rally inducing EUR), and every time this number rises above a given threshold the various Wall Street repo desks will merely engage in forced buy-ins and cause epic short squeeze like the one today? We don't know. However, we do know that with both long-side and short-side trading becoming meaningless and everything now just an HFT-facilitated stop hunt, this is the surest way to make sure nobody is left trading these markets anymore, something which relentless ongoing cash outflows from equity funds confirm every single week. The good news: once the weak hands have covered, a new wave of shorts can reenter, only to be burned as well on the next overhyped non-event out of Europe or anywhere else.
Wondering just what precipitated the near-record short covering squeeze in the first week of June on nothing but speculation of a Spanish bailout (hence materialized, and proven to be a massive disappointment), and the latest Hilsenrath rumor of more QE? Look no further than the chart below: as of the end of May, the short interest on the NYSE soared by over 800 million shares, bringing the total to 14.3 billion, the highest since November 30, when the market was 6% lower. And since the street's repo desks were fully aware the market was overshorted from a historical basis for this price level, it would be very easy to initiate a short covering squeeze, kicking out the weakest hands which had piled in in the second half of the month. The issue is that now that these shorts have been burned once more, even as the market is once again tumbling, and there is no easy way to spook a liftathon when every offer is lifted regardless of price, the next attempt at levitating the market on mere speculation and innuendo will be far more difficult. At this point it is all up to the Fed: unless Ben delivers in 9 days, it may get very ugly. And of course there is the apocalyptic scenario, where Ben does hint at the NEW QE, and the market pulls a Spain bailout, ramping higher as a well-habituated Pavlovian dog, only to plunge. Because if the central bank is unable to lift the stock market, which directly and indirectly accounts for 68% of all US household assets... what else is left?
On the surface, the fact that NYSE short interest was just reported today to have risen to 13.1 billion shares as of April 30 could be troubling for the bears, as this just happens to be the highest short interest number of 2012. Indeed, an increase in short interest into a centrally-planned market is always disturbing, as it opens up stocks to the kinds of baseless short covering melt ups that simply have some HFT algo going on a stop hunt as their source, that we have seen in the past several weeks. Naturally, it would be far easier to be short a market in which Ben Bernanke managed to eradicate all other bears, especially when considering that a year ago the Short Interest as of April 30 was virtually identical.
Following the unleashing of $2.5 trillion in central bank liquidity, market shorts have predictably gone into hibernation, and as the just released NYSE short interest update confirms, the total number of outstanding shorts is at the lowest it has been in the past 4 years for the second month running, at 12.6 billion. Once the realization that central banks are limited from pumping incremental liquidity in the market is strictly limited by $9/gallon gas in Europe, and the inflection point in risk is reached, look for there to be almost no natural buying buffer to the downside. Then again with central planners out there with their CTRL+P willing to micromanage every downtick of the stock market, does anyone even care any more? Certainly not the retail investor.
Curious what has provoked a vicious year end (and 2012 year beginning) Santa Rally, which until today had seen the S&P trade higher on 12 out of 15 consecutive days? Wonder no more: the reason is the same it has always been - year end short covering, which in turn has spilt over into the new year's momentum chasing HFT brigade and the occasional retail momo who still has some cash left after covering commission costs. According to the latest NYSE biweekly update, the short interest as of the end of 2011 was a modest 12.8 billion shares, a sharp drop from the 13.4 billion and 14.2 billion 2 and 4 weeks prior, and certainly a very far cry from the over 16 billion shares short which market the market bottom in late September. Also, for anyone wondering why so far 2012 is an identical replica of 2011, decoupling and all, look no further than the SI data as of early 2011 - SSDD. Short covered, and only as the year unwound did they dare to challenge the central banks and to increase their shorting activity.
Following the market drop in early November, it was widely expected by most, us included, that stock shorts would pile in once again, only to be burned by moves like today's, which is more of an attempt to flush out even more shorts by hitting limit pain thresholds, than buying on any actual fundamental improvements. Curiously, as the just released NYSE data, the short interest at November 15, not only did not increase in the previous two week period, it dropped to a 3 month low of 14.1 billion shares, just down from October 31. Which means that there were no new weak hands, and that all the algos who are pushing the market higher on hopes that short covering will take it even higher once a limit waterfall begins are likely to be disappointed. And with fundamentals completely irrelevant, this data update also likely means that shorts will take this opportunity to reshort the market.
It was bound to happen: after hitting a two year high recently at (adjusted) 15.3 billion shares, total NYSE short interest, which failed to be satisfied with a violent market plunge and instead got caught in a vicious short squeeze, has dropped to the lowest level since mid-August, or 14.7 billion shares. Naturally, this, coupled with the massive bearish bias in the euro, discussed previously, where covering merely added to reinforce the squeeze dynamics, are sufficient to explain the weak hands covering following the unprecedented near 1000 point jump in the DJIA. The good news for bears: it appears the weak hands have been shaken off now. At this point, even if no incremental shorts are layered on, then certainly the autopilot melt up in equities will be next to impossible to be sustained, and some real, not rhetorical, pick up in the global economy will be needed. Alas, one is not coming.
Just when one thought the oversold status of the all important Euro (by way of the market defining EURUSD) may have peaked and short covering resumed, we once again find that the technical reason (not to be confused with the fundamental one which has to do with EUR repatriation by French banks) why the EUR continues to melt up, and drag all 1.000 correlated assets along with it, is that after a brief retracement in mega bearish exposure in the currency as of last week, bearish sentment once again returned, and after 8,902 net short non-commercial contracts were covered in the weekend ended October 11, the subsequent most recent week saw another 3,925 net shorts added according to the CFTC's COT report, bringing net short exposure back to near 2011 'highs' at -77,720 contracts. This is, to put it mildly, disturbing, because while stock pundits look at NYSE short interest, in this day and age of ultra low volume and liquidity algo trading, the only real transaction occur on the uber-levered margin: i.e., the EURUSD, where one pip delta translates in roughly 2 DJIA points. But it is explicitly disturbing because while the EURUSD has just closed at 1.39, or the highest (resistance) level since early September when the pair broke down, the net short interest now is well over double when the EURUSD first traded at this level.
A week ago we showed NYSE short interest, which in the aftermath of the massive slide in the EURUSD (the only real driver of beta these days, and with correlation at 1.000, also alpha), had soared to March 2009 levels. Naturally that left the market extremely exposed to any forced short squeeze, such as that witnessed 9 days ago when based on since refuted, but metastasized rumors, we saw a major flush higher in the Euro, and hence ES, which became self-sustaining once the short covering squeeze in stocks took over. Yesterday we got the latest NYSE short interest update and as expected, the shorts have dropped markedly with the number down from 15.7 billion on September 15 to 14.9 billion at the end of September. And since the SPY has moved from 110 to over 120 in the interim period, it is safe to say that when the next short interest update is released in two weeks, the number will be well in the low 14 billion range if not below it. The question is when the market will start pricing in the end of the short squeeze. Our estimate: at about the time when the EURUSD stops surging on hope and lies.