So much for the latest "recovery." While everyone continued to forget that in the New Normal markets do not reflect the underlying economy in the least, and that the all time highs in the Russell 2000 should indicate that the US economy has never been better, things in reality took a deep dive for the worse, at least according to the Empire State Fed, the Philly Fed, and now the Richmond Fed, all of which missed expectations by a huge margin, and are now deep in contraction territory. Moments ago, the Richmond Fed reported that the Manufacturing Index imploded from a 9 in November, 5 in December and missed expectations of a 5 print at -12: this was the biggest miss to expectations since September 2009.
Three months ago, in anticipation of the now traditional year end ramp in "story stocks" (i.e., those companies in the Russell 2000 that have negligible or negative cash flow, yet have a "story" to them, and/or massive short interest usually for a reason) we penned an article titled "Presenting the most shorted stocks" focusing on the 50 most shorted/hated names in the Russell 2000. We suggested that for "the overly aggressive out there, and those who are tired of watching paint dry, one option is to create an equal-weighted basket of the 20 most hated names, and hope for the arrival of the one catalyst that forces a massive squeeze." That, or just await the traditional rotation into high beta garbage that comes every year like clockwork in the last months of the year. Sure enough precisely this happened in 2012 as it always does, with the Russell 2000 outperforming the S&P notably since November, with the index hitting all time highs a few days ago, yet our most-shorted basket crushing the returns of both the S&P and the broader Russell 2000 by a substantial amount. Alas, those hoping that that the Russell bubble will continue indefinitely may want to promptly reassess, as moments ago Interactive Brokers just announced it would hike both initial and maintenance margins on all low cap stocks (under $250 million in market cap) beginning January 11, 2013, to 100%!
On January 8, 2013 there were two separate events where an exchange stopped disseminating quotes, which caused the last quote sent from that exchange to lock (bid price equals ask price) or cross (bid price is greater than ask price) the NBBO (National Best Bid/Offer) when market prices moved higher or lower on other exchanges. Crossed quotes cause many problems for wholesalers (who internally match orders), order-routers, traders, financial web-sites, business news channels, and any of the 2.5 million subscribers that use the consolidated quote to analyze stock prices. From IWM to HLF, the crosses (and thus integrity of the consolidated feed) were everywhere.
Earlier today, Bill Frezza of the Competitive Enterprise Institute and CNBC's Steve Liesman got into a heated exchange over a recent Frezza article, based on some of the key points we made in a prior post "A Record $2 Trillion In Deposits Over Loans - The Fed's Indirect Market Propping Pathway Exposed" in which, as the title implies, we showed how it was that the Fed was indirectly intervening in the stock market by way of banks using excess deposits to chase risky returns and generally push the market higher. We urge readers to spend the few minutes of this clip to familiarize themselves with Frezza's point which is essentially what Zero Hedge suggested, and Liesman's objection that "this is something the banks don't do and can't do." Liesman's naive view, as is to be expected for anyone who does not understand money creation under a fractional reserve system, was simple: the Fed does not create reserves to boost bank profits, and thus shareholder returns, and certainly is not using the fungible cash, which at the end of the day is what reserves amount to once dispersed among the US banks, to gun risk assets higher.
Alas, Steve is very much wrong.
Today, to little fanfare, the Fed announced a major binding settlement with the banks over robosigning and fraudclosure, which benefited the large banks, impaired the small ones (which is great: room for even more consolidation, and even more TBest-erTF, which benefits America's handful of remaining megabanks), and was nothing but one minor slap on the banking sector's consolidated wrist involving a laughable $3 billion cash payment. As part of the settlement, the US public is expected to ignore how much money the banks actually made in the primary and secondary market over the years courtesy of countless Linda Greens and robosigning abuses. A guess: the "settlement" represents an IRR of some 10,000% to 100,000% for the settling banks. We are confident once the details are ironed out, this will be an accurate range. Yet what is most disturbing, or not at all, depending on one's level of naivete, is the response of Elijah Cummings, ranking member of the house Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. As a reminder, Congress had demanded that the settlement not be announced before there was a hearing on it. This did not even dent the Fed's plans to proceed with today's 11 am public announcement which can now not be revoked. It is Cummings' response which shows, yet again, just who is the true master of the Federal Reserve.
From a week after the election, the most-shorted names in the major indices have been the massive outperformers and drivers of this market exuberance (+16.4% versus 8.4% market). That story has not stopped as 2013 has seen the squeeze continue as the year-end strategy of piling into the most-shorted names has worked. From the opening levels on January 2nd (with today seeing even more divergence), the most-shorted Russell 2000 names are dramatically outperforming. It would appear, as Bloomberg notes in its recent article on 2012's most-hated companies' outperformance, that "It's not just hard to be short, it is painful." Of course, they also note one manager's view that "The risk is that if this market rally has been based on short covering and that was all it was, then there’s no further money following, the rally is then either dead or not sustainable." Especially with net spec longs at near-record highs, this has unsustainability written all over it.
2012 is a year most asset managers would like to forget. With the S&P returning 16% and Russell 2000 up 16.3%, on nothing but multiple expansion in a world where risk has been eliminated despite persistently declining revenues and cash flows, a whopping 88% of hedge funds, as well as some 65% of large-cap core, 80% of large cap value, and 67% of small-cap mutual funds underperformed the market, according to Goldman's David Kostin. The ongoing absolute outperformance of mutual funds over their 2 and 20 fee sucking hedge fund peers is notable, as this is the second or perhaps even third year in a row it has happened. And while the usual excuse that hedge funds are not supposed to beat the market but a benchmark, and generally protect capital from downside risk is valid, it is irrelevant if any downside risk (see ongoing rout in VIX and net position in the VIX futures COT update) is now actively managed by central banks both directly and indirectly, their HF LPs no longer see the world in that way. In fact as Bloomberg Market's February issue summarizes, some 635 hedge funds closed in 2012, 8.5% than a year earlier, despite a far stronger year for the general indices. The reason: LPs and MPs have simply had enough of holding on to underperformers and get swept up in the momentum of performance chasing, and the result is redemption requests into funds who may have had a positive benchmark year, but underperform relative to the S&P for two or more years, which nowadays is the vast majority of funds.
Overnight, Frank Partnoy and Jesse Eisinger released an epic magnum opus titled "What's Inside America's Banks", in which they use over 9000 words, including spot on references to Wells Fargo, JPM, Andy Haldane, Kevin Warsh, Basel II, Basel III (whose regulatory framework is now 509 pages and includes a ridiculous 78 calculus equations to suggest that banks have to delever by some $3 trillion, which is why it will never pass) to give their answer: "Nobody knows." Of course, while this yeoman's effort may come as news to a broader cross-section of the population, is it well known by anyone who has even a passing interest in the loan-loss reserve release earnings generating black boxes formerly known as banks (which once upon a time made their money using Net Interest margin, and actually lending out money to make a profit), and now simply known as FDIC insured Bank Holding Company hedge funds. This also happens to be the second sentence in the lead paragraph of the story: "Sophisticated investors describe big banks as “black boxes” that may still be concealing enormous risks—the sort that could again take down the economy." So far so good, and again - not truly news. What however may come as news to none other than the author is that the first sentence of the lead-in: 'Some four years after the 2008 financial crisis, public trust in banks is as low as ever" is, sadly, wrong.
Bill Gross On Bernanke's Latest Helicopter Flyover, "Money For Nothing, Debt For Free" And The End Of Ponzi SchemesSubmitted by Tyler Durden on 01/03/2013 07:53 -0500
Back in April 2012, in "How The Fed's Visible Hand Is Forcing Corporate Cash Mismanagement" we first explained how despite its best intentions (to boost the Russell 2000 to new all time highs, a goal it achieved), the Fed's now constant intervention in capital markets has achieved one thing when it comes to the real economy: an unprecedented capital mismanagemenet, where as a result of ZIRP, corporate executives will always opt for short-term, low IRR, myopic cash allocation decisions such as dividend, buyback and, sometimes, M&A, seeking to satisfy shareholders and ignoring real long-term growth opportunities such as R&D spending, efficiency improvements, capital reinvestment, retention and hiring of employees, and generally all those things that determine success for anyone whose investment horizon is longer than the nearest lockup gate. Today, one calendar year later, none other than Bill Gross, in his first investment letter of 2013, admits we were correct: "Zero-bound interest rates, QE maneuvering, and “essentially costless” check writing destroy financial business models and stunt investment decisions which offer increasingly lower ROIs and ROEs. Purchases of “paper” shares as opposed to investments in tangible productive investment assets become the likely preferred corporate choice." It is this that should be the focus of economists, and not what the level of the S&P is, as it is no longer indicative of any underlying market fundamentals, but merely how large, in nominal terms, the global balance sheet is. And as long as the impact of peak central-planning on "business models" is ignored, there can be no hope of economic stabilization, let alone improvement. All this and much more, especially his admissions that yes, it is flow, and not stock, that dominates the Fed market impact (think great white shark - must always be moving), if not calculus, in Bill Gross' latest letter.
Presented with little comment as the Russell 2000 reaches up to its all-time (nominal) record highs...
Ironically, the very success of stock market manipulation only thins the market of legitimate participants and thus increases the probability that risk that has been suppressed for years will erupt uncontrollably. That the stock market is manipulated is no longer in question. One explicit goal in the Fed's zero-interest rate policy (ZIRP) is to drive capital into risk assets such as stocks. That is a first-order, transparent policy of manipulation, i.e. a centrally managed policy aimed at managing markets to meet a key central-planning goal: creating an illusion of prosperity via an elevated stock market and the resultant "wealth effect" for the 10% who own enough stocks to matter. Indirect manipulation is hidden from public view lest the rigging of the market taint the perception that a rising market is "proof" that Federal Reserve and Administration policies are "succeeding." Indirect manipulation is achieved via Federal Reserve quantitative easing operations, unlimited liquidity and lines of credit to fund bank speculations and masked buying of market futures. This multilevel manipulation creates a Boolean either/or for any Bear market: either it is a planned "panic" that profits the banks or a systemic failure of the orchestrated campaign of market manipulation.
The crowds are slowly starting to fill up Times Square, and despite the imminent countdown to New Year’s, Washington still has not conjured up a resolution to avoid the fiscal cliff. Over the prior two months we have leveraged game theory, Venn diagrams, option “greeks,” and basic investor psychology as tools to decipher the ultimate path of the crisis and subsequent market reaction. Alas, regardless of all the analysis we and countless others have supplied; the short, intermediate, and long term prospects for stocks rest exclusively on headlines. More poignantly, the fate of the U.S. economy, global equities, and net incomes for hundreds of millions now depend upon the decision making of a group so small, its numbers can be counted with one hand.
There were some readers who took offense at our "bloodbath" recap of yesterday's market action (modestly different from that provided by MarketWatch). And, all else equal, a modest 28 step drop in the E-Mini/SPX would hardly be earthshattering. However, all else was not equal, and based on peripheral facts, the reason for our qualifier is that as of last week virtually nobody was prepared for a move as violent and sharp as the one experienced in the last minutes of trading yesterday. In such a context a "mere" 1.5% drop in the futures market has a far more pronounced impact on participants than a 10% or even 5% drop would have had, had traders been positioned appropriately. They weren't. So what was the context? Let's find out.
On December 20, 2012, there was an Event in the eMini futures at 20:18:40 ET. The data exhibits many hallmarks of a HFT (High Frequency Trader) market maker absorbing sell orders up to their limit, and then turning around and dumping those contracts as fast as possible. Exactly what happened in the Flash Crash on May 6, 2010 (this documentary on youtube has a great explanation). Only in this case, the original seller appears to be much more aggressive than Waddell & Reed's algorithm. The drop came in 2 seconds, and halted trading for 10 seconds. The flash crash halted eMini trading for just 5 seconds. A mere 10,000 contracts (or $700mm notional) was enough to do all that damage - enjoy.