During Monday's flurry of tripped circuit breakers and flash crashing mayhem, ETF investors learned the hard way that Howard Marks was precisely correct when he warned that ETFs "can't be more liquid than the underlying and we know the underlying can become highly illiquid." The question now, is whether subsequent flash crashes will trigger even more spectacular divergences between fair value and ETF unit prices on the way to proving, once and for all, that ETFs may indeed be the new financial weapons of mass destruction.
A new academic study from researchers at Stanford, UCLA, and the Arison School of Business in Israel suggests that ETFs are contributing to a lack of liquidity for the stocks they hold. Essentially, the argument is that increased ETF ownership leads to wider bid-asks, less analyst coverage, and higher correlations with broad market moves.
"If investors want complete safety, they can't get much income, and if they aim for high income, they can't completely avoid risk. It’s much more challenging today with rates being suppressed by governments. This is one of the negative consequences of centrally administered economic decisions. People talk about the wisdom of the free market – of the invisible hand – but there’s no free market in money today. Interest rates are not natural."
Anyone trading the Global X FTSE Greece 20 ETF should take a cue from Howard Marks and ask themselves the following question: can an ETF be more liquid than the assets it references?
"We have a problem with this, and that is central bank hubris. They now think that they are omnipotent, because, essentially the government has said we are going to pass over all control of the economy to the central banks, they say to everybody else including financial market participants that “you don’t know, you don’t understand, we have our models and they are right”. And that kind of hubristic approach is when you sow the seeds of your own destruction."
"It's starting to get ugly..."
While investor behavior hasn't sunk to the depths seen just before the crisis, Oaktree Capital's Howard marks warns, in many ways it has entered the zone of imprudence. "Today I feel it's important to pay more attention to loss prevention than to the pursuit of gain... Although I have no idea what could make the day of reckoning come sooner rather than later, I don’t think it’s too early to take today’s carefree market conditions into consideration. What I do know is that those conditions are creating a degree of risk for which there is no commensurate risk premium."
Although a slew of ‘experts’ say the darndest things (e.g.Bloomberg ‘Intelligence’s Carl Riccadonna: “You had equity markets benefit from QE, but eventually QE also jump-started the broader recovery.. Ultimately everyone’s benefiting.”), we can’t get rid of this one other nagging question: who needs an expert to tell them that today’s markets are riddled with bubbles, given that they are the size of obese gigantosauruses about to pump out quadruplets?
By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail
Looking for signs that the country's largest asset management firms believe a market meltdown may be on the horizon? Look no further than Vanguard and several other large ETF providers who have set up billions in credit lines with banks to guard against the possibility that a wave of redemptions could wreak havoc on illiquid credit markets.
Liquidity is plentiful when you don't care about it and scarce when you need it most
"In some instances, malfunctioning algorithms have interfered with market functioning, inundating trading venues with message traffic or creating sharp, short-lived spikes in prices as a result of other algorithms responding to the initial erroneous order flow."... "If liquidity is as bad as it is now, what’s going to happen when things really get adverse?” said Richard Schlanger, who co-manages about $30 billion in bonds as vice president at Pioneer Investments in Boston.
"...The negative divergence of the markets from economic strength and momentum are simply warning signs and do not currently suggest becoming grossly underweight equity exposure. However, warning signs exist for a reason, and much like Wyle E. Coyote chasing the Roadrunner, not paying attention to the signs has tended to have rather severe consequences."
We're just a little over two weeks into PSPP and signs are already beginning to show that the ECB is effectively breaking the market. "The soaring cost of borrowing government bonds in secured lending markets highlights the distortions caused by the ECB's asset-purchase scheme, which analysts say could clog up Europe's financial system," Reuters notes.
What would happen, for example, if a large number of holders decided to sell a high yield bond ETF all at once? In theory, the ETF can always be sold. Buyers may be scarce, but there should be some price at which one will materialize. But we can’t get away from depending on the liquidity of the underlying high yield bonds. The ETF can’t be more liquid than the underlying, and we know the underlying can become highly illiquid.... no investment vehicle should promise more liquidity than is afforded by its underlying assets. Do these recent promises represent real improvements, or merely the seeds for subsequent disappointment?