Earlier today we quoted a JPMorgan trader who was wondering if after yesterday's mid-day swoon, the result of systematic, vol-targeting and CTA strategies unleashing a barrage of sell orders, if today's action would be similar, to wit: "Let’s see if we can hold pre-market gains throughout the session as yesterday afternoon felt like systematic selling. If 1.90% was a buy-level in bonds, then we may have a relief rally being initiated led by Tech."
A few hours later we found out the answer, and it was a resounding no, because just around the time European market closed, the selling resumed, and boy was it glorious:
So what happened? Well, clearly there were more sellers than buyers (yes, contrary to the ridiculous response that sellers and buyers are always the same, sellers can certainly be more than buyers, and it is the change in price that reflects relative selling or buying pressure and preference).
But there was something more, because as as JPMorgan's QDS strategist Peng Cheng observed, after weeks of relentless buying the dip by retail traders, on Thursday retail investors net sold $53mm, with $400mm coming in the last 2 hours. This, as JPM puts it, "is notable as it is the first time retail investors have net sold since December 6th. Since December 6th, the retail investor had been net buying, on average, more than $800mm per day."
But whereas JPM notes that the above is "great color" it does not get to the why of the sell-off.
And while the answer includes some combination of technicals, deal gamma, and systematic activity, JPM's Andrew Tyler writes that the "overarching story is how the Fed is changing investor behavior." As he notes, the combination of ending QE, beginning QT, and rate hike liftoff has left Equity investors with significant uncertainty, one which is manifesting itself in a “sell all rallies” mentality with regards to the Tech sector.
What is curious, is that according to JPMorgan's Positioning Intelligence team, the selling is led by non-Hedge Funds (one wonders just how much of the recent markets tumble is due to deleveraging by risk-parity whales such as Bridgewater). Here is an excerpt from their weekly wrap:
Tech – Still selling expensive stocks, but buying others: In the US, Expensive Software (JP1BXSFT) continues to underperform and HF flows have remained negative MTD. Additionally, expensive stocks in general (JP1QVLS) saw very strong selling over the past 5 days (>2z) with particularly strong selling on Thurs; it’s worth noting that periods of large selling in the past year have actually been followed by underperformance among these stocks. Despite the selling of expensive stocks and underperformance, Info Tech was actually the most net bought sector in N. Am. (just under +2z) and gross was added (>1z) for the week. Semis were the main driver, although most of TMT saw net buy skews for the week in aggregate.
As the bank concludes, among the reasons for the market scare is that with the Fed meeting next week, what should be a non-event now has investors questioning (i) will the Fed end QE next week; (ii) is next week a live meeting or does liftoff begin in March; and, (iii)is the first rate hike 25bps, 50bps, or more. Incidentally, JPM's answer to all is no (and 25bps).
But before we get there, and get a powerful relief rally as Powell reaffirms that for all of Biden's hollow rhetoric, the Fed will not cause a market crash just to tame inflation (the same inflation the Fed though was transitory as recently as October) and save Biden's approval rating...
... there is another issue to consider: tomorrow's option expiration of $3.1 trillion in notional, including some $1.3 trillion in single-stocks.
As Goldman's Rocky Fishman writes in his latest Vol Vitals note, "the January expiration is always a focus for single stock option markets, because January options are listed years in advance and can build up high open interest", a topic we discussed extensively earlier this week in "All You Need To Know About Friday's "Deep" Option Expiration."
Going back to tomorrow's critical market event, in its post-mortem from Thursday, SpotGamma writes that as expected, "a negative gamma position in all the indices made for volatile trade, today. The high gamma $4,600.00 SPX strike held as resistance; real-money sellers, alongside the hedging of negative delta options trades, bid volatility, and pressured indices."
In other words, stock liquidation played into the large negative gamma position which accelerated selling into the close, SpotGamma writes, adding that so long as the SPX trades below its Volatility Trigger - around 4,630 - SpotGamma sees heightened volatility, and adds that trades with respect to Friday's monthly OPEX will only compound the instability.
In short, tomorrow could unleash sheer chaos in early trading, but once trillions in notional expire, taking away with them a substantial chunk of the negative gamma that dealers are currently trapped under, it is quite likely that following an initial burst lower, the market will finally bottom out for the near-term.
Before we dig a little deeper into what to expect tomorrow, here is some context for today's waterfall rout, courtesy of SpotGamma:
Stocks continued to sell, Thursday, pressured by increased jobless claims, the prospects of more aggressive tightening of monetary policy, and poor responses to earnings.
Growth and rate-sensitive names like Amazon and Peloton (which happened to halt production due to slowing demand), as well as Netflix (which fell after-hours on slower subscriber growth), are just some of the names leading to the downside. There were rumors of forced liquidations, which seemed to sync with with the afternoons indiscriminate selling.
And despite a reduction in gamma levels ahead of today’s regular trade (9:30 AM – 4:00 PM ET), SpotGamma observes that the move lower in markets, overall, comes with an increased concentration of put-heavy gamma tied to Friday’s monthly options expiration.
To preface, delta denotes an options exposure to the underlying direction. Gamma, on the other hand, is the potential delta-hedging of options positions.
- When a position’s delta rises (falls) with stock or index price rises (falls), the underlying is in a positive-gamma environment.
- When a position’s delta falls (rises) with stock or index price rises (falls), the underlying is in a negative-gamma environment.
In the latter case, as the risk of out-of-the-money customer protection developing intrinsic value increases (given an increase in implied volatility or move lower in price), dealers are long more delta, and therefore the addition of hedges (short stock/futures) introduces negative flows (i.e., the addition of short delta hedges to long delta positions) that pressures markets.
This negative gamma regime, which we experienced today, is affecting both single-stocks and the index products. Below, the selling of calls and buying of puts in Tesla, for instance, is a negative delta trade dealers hedge by selling stock, thus exacerbating weakness.
To note, the reduction in the positive delta in names like Tesla, which, heading into this week, had nearly 107% of its deltas set to expire (as a percentage of average daily volume), is one dynamic further pressuring markets.
This activity is feeding into products like the Nasdaq which is seeing a lot of put buying. A shift higher in the VIX term structure (below) denotes demand for index protection, especially in shorter-dated options that are more sensitive to changes in direction and implied volatility.
If volatility continues to rise, positive exposure to delta rises. This solicits even more selling.
Why does this matter and why is all of the above potentially bullish? Because many stocks are to have their largest “put-heavy” gamma positions expire soon. We are taking trillions in put notional. These positions are, at present, compounding weakness as dealers sell aggressively against very short-dated, increasingly sensitive negative gamma positions.
The removal of this exposure post-OPEX and the approaching FOMC event will leave dealers with less positive delta exposure to sell against. That's why, SpotGamma sees the market soon entering into a window of strength, to which we will only add that once $3+ trillion in options expire Friday and much of the dealer negative gamma overhang disappears, the selling which we predicted would dominate this week ahead of Friday's Op-Ex, will have exhausted itself and the bandwagon of shorts that piggybacked on the rout in stocks is about to be painfully squeezed higher.
Still, while the next move is higher, as long as bears successfully maintain S&P prices below the $4,630.00 SPX Volatility Trigger, there is increased potential for instability as dealer hedging flows continue to take from market liquidity (sell weakness and buy strength), further exacerbating underlying movement.