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High-Frequency Trading Finally Draws Some Scrutiny

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I remember having a discussion with a friend, back in August of 2009, when I told him that he would soon hear quite a lot about “high-frequency trading”.  It took a bit longer than I expected for that to happen.  The release of the book, Flash Boys by Michael Lewis caused quite a stir.  Many of the book’s harshest critics emphasized that what Lewis “exposed” was actually an old story.  Much had already been written about high-frequency trading (HFT) years earlier.

In fact, here at TheCenterLane.com, I spent some time discussing that subject in the summer of 2009:  here and here.  I wrote about it on a few subsequent occasions in 2010: here, here and here.  More important, in March of 2013, I discussed how HFT had motivated me to avoid using stop-loss orders because of the “mini flash crashes”, engineered by HFT miscreants.

The publication of Flash Boys motivated Charles Schwab himself to discuss his longstanding objections to this sleazy practice.

Despite the cries of Wall Street apologists that Flash Boys was an “old story” which was no longer applicable to the present-day trading environment, Kevin Cook has written a few interesting things on HFT for Zacks Investment Research.  Cook explains how HFT is being used right now as well as how to cope with this situation.  I was particularly startled by Kevin Cook’s list of ten algorithm programs, which have exploited investors and traders with price behavior manipulation.

Although Attorney General Eric Hold-Harmless has promised to take action against HFT, I’m not holding my breath.



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Why I Avoid Using Stop-Loss Orders

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I haven’t been posting here for a while because I have been busy writing about the stock market at the Wall Street Sector Selector website.

Within three months after I first started this blog, I began criticizing the permissive attitude taken by the Securities and Exchange Commission toward predatory securities trading tactics.

Since that time absolutely nothing has changed.  In fact, the SEC has allowed the stock market to become an even more dangerous place for “retail investors” (mom and pop) to keep their life savings.

The use of “limit orders” has become a joke.  The only reason for using a limit order is to let your enemies (the predatory traders) know the maximum extent to which you will allow yourself to be screwed on a trade.  Since July of 2009, I have discussed the threat posed to retail investors by the use of High-Frequency Trading (HFT) systems.  Computers – programmed with predatory algorithms – can engage in “computerized front-running” through the use of “flash orders” to force your own limit order to be executed at its most extreme expense to you.  I discussed this situation in more detail on May 18, 2010.

I rarely use “stop loss” orders.  They are used by investors to limit their loss if a stock price sinks.  The investor specifies a stop price (based on a percentage of the purchase price which is the maximum amount the investor is willing to lose on the stock).  If the stock eventually drops to the price in the stop order, the transaction is initiated and the order goes out to the exchange as a market order – to be filled at the best available price at the time.  In other words, there is no guarantee that the order will be filled at the price specified in the stop order.  In the “flash crash” on May 6 of 2010, many investors lost their shirts because their stop orders were executed and by the time the investors tried to repurchase the stocks, the prices rebounded to where they were before the flash crash.  Worse yet, by the time their stop orders were actually filled, the stock prices had dropped tremendously.  Not only did those investors lose money on the stop orders for no good reason – but many chose to buy back their stocks at the pre-crash prices.  As a result, they lost twice as much money just because of an emotional attachment to the stock.  (Emotional attachment to a particular stock is a bad investment habit.)  Since that time, a number of “mini flash crashes” have been engineered by predatory traders on particular stocks, forcing investors off their positions to take losses, which ultimately benefit the predators, who use stealthy tactics to reap those profits without being caught.

Maureen Farrell recently wrote an interesting piece for CNNMoney about the consequences of  “mini flash crashes”.  Here is some of what she had to say:

Stock exchanges have explicit rules for canceling “clearly erroneous trades” and for triggering so-called circuit breakers that halt trading.  None of the trades mentioned in this story met that criteria.

Generally, trades can be canceled if they fall 5% to 10% from the last trade, but the rules vary, depending on the market cap of a company and its trading volume.

Investors still have to notify the exchange within 30 minutes if they want their trade to be canceled.

And because many of the wild swings aren’t extreme enough to be considered “clearly erroneous,” individual investors may not even be aware that certain trades are being executed.

Although the article noted that “(t)he SEC continues to make changes to try to combat the frequency and impact of the mini flash crashes”, there is apparently nothing being done by the SEC to prevent the predatory engineering of those crashes.  The SEC is apparently doing nothing to allow investors to unwind trades triggered by those crashes.  More important, the SEC is doing nothing to track down and prosecute the culprits responsible for engineering and profiteering from these events.

Wall Street needs a new Sheriff.


 

Goldman Sachs Remains in the Spotlight

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Goldman Sachs has become a magnet for bad publicity.  Last week, I wrote a piece entitled, “Why Bad Publicity Never Hurts Goldman Sachs”.  On March 14, Greg Smith (a Goldman Sachs executive director and head of the firm’s United States equity derivatives business in Europe, the Middle East and Africa) summed-up his disgust with the firm’s devolution by writing “Why I Am Leaving Goldman Sachs” for The New York Times.  Among the most-frequently quoted reasons for Smith’s departure was this statement:

It makes me ill how callously people talk about ripping their clients off.  Over the last 12 months I have seen five different managing directors refer to their own clients as “muppets,” sometimes over internal e-mail.

In the wake of Greg Smith’s very public resignation from Goldman Sachs, many commentators have begun to speculate that Goldman’s bad behavior may have passed a tipping point.  The potential consequences have become a popular subject for speculation.  The end of Lloyd Blankfein’s reign as CEO has been the most frequently-expressed prediction.  Peter Cohan of Forbes raised the possibility that Goldman’s clients might just decide to take their business elsewhere:

Until a wave of talented people leave Goldman and go work for some other bank, many clients will stick with Goldman and hope for the best.  That’s why the biggest threat to Goldman’s survival is that Smith’s departure – and the reasons he publicized so nicely in his Times op-ed – leads to a wider talent exodus.

After all, that loss of talent could erode Goldman’s ability to hold onto clients. And that could give Goldman clients a better alternative.  So when Goldman’s board replaces Blankfein, it should appoint a leader who will restore the luster to Goldman’s traditional values.

Goldman’s errant fiduciary behavior became a popular topic in July of 2009, when the Zero Hedge website focused on Goldman’s involvement in high-frequency trading, which raised suspicions that the firm was “front-running” its own customers.   It was claimed that when a Goldman customer would send out a limit order, Goldman’s proprietary trading desk would buy the stock first, then resell it to the client at the high limit of the order.  (Of course, Goldman denied front-running its clients.)  Zero Hedge brought our attention to Goldman’s “GS360” portal.  GS360 included a disclaimer which could have been exploited to support an argument that the customer consented to Goldman’s front-running of the customer’s orders.  One week later, Matt Taibbi wrote his groundbreaking, tour de force for Rolling Stone about Goldman’s involvement in the events which led to the financial crisis.  From that point onward, the “vampire squid” and its predatory business model became popular subjects for advocates of financial reform.

Despite all of the hand-wringing about Goldman’s controversial antics – especially after the April 2010 Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations hearing, wherein Goldman’s “Fab Four” testified about selling their customers the Abacus CDO and that “shitty” Timberwolf deal, no effective remedial actions for cleaning-up Wall Street were on the horizon.  The Dodd-Frank financial “reform” legislation had become a worthless farce.

Exactly two years ago, publication of the report by bankruptcy examiner Anton Valukas, pinpointing causes of the Lehman Brothers collapse, created shockwaves which were limited to the blogosphere.  Unfortunately, the mainstream media were not giving that story very much traction.  On March 15 of 2010, the Columbia Journalism Review published an essay by Ryan Chittum, decrying the lack of mainstream media attention given to the Lehman scandal.  This shining example of Wall Street malefaction should have been an influential factor toward making the financial reform bill significantly more effective than the worthless sham it became.

Greg Smith’s resignation from Goldman Sachs could become the game-changing event, motivating Wall Street’s investment banks to finally change their ways.  Matt Taibbi seems to think so:

This always had to be the endgame for reforming Wall Street.  It was never going to happen by having the government sweep through and impose a wave of draconian new regulations, although a more vigorous enforcement of existing laws might have helped.  Nor could the Occupy protests or even a monster wave of civil lawsuits hope to really change the screw-your-clients, screw-everybody, grab-what-you-can culture of the modern financial services industry.

Real change was always going to have to come from within Wall Street itself, and the surest way for that to happen is for the managers of pension funds and union retirement funds and other institutional investors to see that the Goldmans of the world aren’t just arrogant sleazebags, they’re also not terribly good at managing your money.

*   *   *

These guys have lost the fear of going out of business, because they can’t go out of business.  After all, our government won’t let them.  Beyond the bailouts, they’re all subsisting daily on massive loads of free cash from the Fed.  No one can touch them, and sadly, most of the biggest institutional clients see getting clipped for a few points by Goldman or Chase as the cost of doing business.

The only way to break this cycle, since our government doesn’t seem to want to end its habit of financially supporting fraud-committing, repeat-offending, client-fleecing banks, is for these big “muppet” clients to start taking their business elsewhere.

In the mean time, the rest of us will be keeping our fingers crossed.


 

Those Smart Bond Traders

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There seems to be a consensus that bond traders are smarter than stock traders.  Consider this thought from Investopedia’s Financial Edge website:

Many investors believe bond traders understand the economy better than equity traders.  Bond traders pay very close attention to any economic factor that might affect interest rates.  Equity traders recognize that changes in bond prices provide a good indication of what bond traders think of the economy.

Widespread belief that Ben Bernanke’s Zero Interest Rate Policy (ZIRP) has created a stock market “bubble” has led to fear that the bubble may soon pop and cause the market to crash.  It was strange to see that subject discussed by John Melloy at CNBC, given the news outlet’s reputation for stock market cheerleading. Nevertheless, Mr. Melloy recently presented us with some ominous information:

The Yale School of Management since 1989 has asked wealthy individual investors monthly to give the “probability of a catastrophic stock market crash in the U.S. in the next six months.”

In the latest survey in December, almost 75 percent of respondents gave it at least a 10 percent chance of happening.  That’s up from 68 percent who gave it a 10 percent probability last April, just before the events of May 6, 2010.

*   *   *

The Flash Crash Commission – containing members of the CFTC and SEC – made a series of recommendations for improving market structure Friday, including single stock circuit breakers, a more reliable audit trail on trades, and curbing the use of cancelled trades by high-frequency traders.  They still don’t know what actually caused the nearly 1,000-point drop in the Dow Jones Industrial Average in a matter of minutes.

*   *   *

Overall volume has been very light in the market though, as the individual investor put more money into bonds last year than stocks in spite of the gains.  Strategists said this has been one of the longer bull markets (starting in March 2009) with barely any retail participation.  Flows into equity mutual funds did turn positive in January and have continued this month however, according to ICI and TrimTabs.com.  Yet the fear of a crash persists.

Whether or not one is concerned about the possibility of a market crash, consensual ambivalence toward equities is on the rise.  Felix Salmon recently wrote an article for The New York Times entitled, “Wall Street’s Dead End”, which began with the observation that the number of companies listed on the major domestic exchanges peaked in 1997 and has been declining ever since.  Mr. Salmon discussed the recent trend toward private financing of corporations, as opposed to the tradition of raising capital by offering shares for sale on the stock exchanges:

Only the biggest and oldest companies are happy being listed on public markets today.  As a result, the stock market as a whole increasingly fails to reflect the vibrancy and heterogeneity of the broader economy.  To invest in younger, smaller companies, you increasingly need to be a member of the ultra-rich elite.

At risk, then, is the shareholder democracy that America forged, slowly, over the past 50 years.  Civilians, rather than plutocrats, controlled corporate America, and that relationship improved standards of living and usually kept the worst of corporate abuses in check.  With America Inc. owned by its citizens, the success of American business translated into large gains in the stock portfolios of anybody who put his savings in the market over most of the postwar period.

Today, however, stock markets, once the bedrock of American capitalism, are slowly becoming a noisy sideshow that churns out increasingly meager returns.  The show still gets lots of attention, but the real business of the global economy is inexorably leaving the stock market — and the vast majority of us — behind.

Investors who decided to keep their money in bonds, heard some discouraging news from bond guru Bill Gross of PIMCO on February 2.   Gus Lubin of The Business Insider provided a good summary of what Bill Gross had to say:

His latest investment letter identifies four scenarios in which bondholders would get burned.  Basically these are sovereign default, currency devaluation, inflation, and poor returns relative to other asset classes.

In other words, you can’t win.  Gross compares Ben Bernanke to the devil and calls ZIRP a devil’s haircut:  “This is not God’s work – it has the unmistakable odor of Mammon.”

Gross recommends putting money in foreign bonds and other assets that yield more than Treasuries.

I was particularly impressed with what Bill Gross had to say about the necessary steps for making America more competitive in the global marketplace:

We need to find a new economic Keynes or at least elect a chastened Congress that can take our structurally unemployed and give them a chance to be productive workers again.  We must have a President whose idea of “centrist” policy is not to hand out presents to the right and the left and then altruistically proclaim the benefits of bipartisanship.  We need a President who does more than propose “Win The Future” at annual State of the Union addresses without policy follow-up.  America requires more than a makeover or a facelift.  It needs a heart transplant absent the contagious antibodies of money and finance filtering through the system.  It needs a Congress that cannot be bought and sold by lobbyists on K Street, whose pockets in turn are stuffed with corporate and special interest group payola.  Are record corporate profits a fair price for America’s soul?  A devil’s bargain more than likely.

You can’t discuss bond fund managers these days, without mentioning Jeffrey Gundlach, who recently founded DoubleLine Capital.  Jonathan Laing of Barron’s wrote a great article about Gundlach entitled “The King of Bonds”.  When I reached the third paragraph of that piece, I had to re-read this startling fact:

His DoubleLine Total Return Bond Fund (DBLTX), with $4.5 billion of assets as of Jan. 31, outperformed every one of the 91 bond funds in the Morningstar intermediate-bond-fund universe in 2010, despite launching only in April.  It notched a total return of 16.6%, compared with returns of 8.36% for the giant Pimco Total Return Fund (PTTAX), run by the redoubtable Bill Gross  . . .

The essay described how Gundlach’s former employer, TCW, feared that Gundlach was planning to leave the firm.  Accordingly, TCW made a pre-emptive strike and fired Gundlach.  From there, the story gets more interesting:

Five weeks after Gundlach’s dismissal, TCW sued the manager, four subordinates and DoubleLine for allegedly stealing trade secrets, including client lists, transaction information and proprietary security-valuation systems.  The suit also charged that a search of Gundlach’s offices had turned up a trove of porn magazines, X-rated DVDs and sexual devices, as well as marijuana.

*    *    *

He charges TCW with employing “smear tactics … to destroy our business.” As for “the sex tapes and such,” he says, they represented “a closed chapter in my life.”

That’s certainly easy to understand.  Porn just hasn’t been the same since Ginger Lynn retired.

Jeff Gundlach’s December webcast entitled, “Independence Day” can be found here.  Take a good look at the graph on page 16:  “Top 0.1% Income Earners Share of Total Income”.  It’s just one of many reminders that our country is headed in the wrong direction.


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The Invisible Bank Bailout

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August 23, 2010

By now, you are probably more than familiar with the “backdoor bailouts” of the Wall Street Banks – the most infamous of which, Maiden Lane III, included a $13 billion gift to Goldman Sachs as a counterparty to AIG’s bad paper.  Despite Goldman’s claims of having repaid the money it received from TARP, the $13 billion obtained via Maiden Lane III was never repaid.  Goldman needed it for bonuses.

On August 21, my favorite reporter for The New York Times, Gretchen Morgenson, discussed another “bank bailout”:  a “secret tax” that diverts money to banks at a cost of approximately $350 billion per year to investors and savers.  Here’s how it works:

Sharply cutting interest rates vastly increases banks’ profits by widening the spread between what they pay to depositors and what they receive from borrowers.  As such, the Fed’s zero-interest-rate policy is yet another government bailout for the very industry that drove the economy to the brink.

Todd E. Petzel, chief investment officer at Offit Capital Advisors, a private wealth management concern, characterizes the Fed’s interest rate policy as an invisible tax that costs savers and investors roughly $350 billion a year.  This tax is stifling consumption, Mr. Petzel argues, and is pushing investors to reach for yields in riskier securities that they wouldn’t otherwise go near.

*   *   *

“If we thought this zero-interest-rate policy was lowering people’s credit card bills it would be one thing but it doesn’t,” he said.  Neither does it seem to be resulting in increased lending by the banks.  “It’s a policy matter that people are not focusing on,” Mr. Petzel added.

One reason it’s not a priority is that savers and people living on fixed incomes have no voice in Washington.  The banks, meanwhile, waltz around town with megaphones.

Savers aren’t the only losers in this situation; underfunded pensions and crippled endowments are as well.

Many commentators have pointed out that zero-interest-rate-policy (often referred to as “ZIRP”) was responsible for the stock market rally that began in the Spring of 2009.  Bert Dohmen made this observation for Forbes back on October 30, 2009:

There is very little, if any, investment buying.  In my view, we are seeing a mini-bubble in the stock market, fueled by ZIRP, the “zero interest rate policy” of the Fed.

At this point, retail investors (the “mom and pop” customers of discount brokerage firms) are no longer impressed.  After the “flash crash” of May 6 and the revelations about stock market manipulation by high-frequency trading (HFT), retail investors are now avoiding mutual funds.  Graham Bowley’s recent report for The New York Times has been quoted and re-published by a number of news outlets.   Here is the ugly truth:

Investors withdrew a staggering $33.12 billion from domestic stock market mutual funds in the first seven months of this year, according to the Investment Company Institute, the mutual fund industry trade group.  Now many are choosing investments they deem safer, like bonds.

The pretext of providing “liquidity” to the stock markets is no longer viable.  The only remaining reasons for continuing ZIRP are to mitigate escalating deficits and stopping the spiral of deflation.  Whether or not that strategy works, one thing is for certain:  ZIRP is enriching the banks —  at the public’s expense.



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Avoiding The Stock Market

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May 18, 2010

In the wake of the stock market’s “flash crash” on May 6, there have been an increasing number of reports that retail investors (“Ma and Pa”) are pulling their money out of stocks.  Beyond that, some commentators have stepped forward to speak out and advise retail investors to steer clear of the stock market, due to the volatility caused by “high-frequency trading” or HFT.  One recent example of this was Felix Salmon’s video message, which appeared at The Huffington Post.

HFT involves a practice wherein firms are paid a small “rebate” (approximately one-half cent per trade) by the exchanges themselves when the firms buy and sell stocks.  The purpose of paying firms to make such trades (often selling a stock for the same price they paid for it) is to provide liquidity for the markets.  As a result, retail investors would not have to worry about getting stuck in a “roach motel” – not being able to get out once they got in – after buying a stock.  Many firms involved in high-frequency trading (Goldman Sachs, RGM Advisors, Tradebot Systems and others) have their computer servers “co-located” in the same building as the exchange, in order to get each of their orders processed a few nanoseconds faster than orders coming from further distances (albeit at the speed of light).  The Zero Hedge website has been critical of HFT for quite a while.  They recently published this informative piece on the subject, pointing out how HFT firms caused the catastrophe on May 6:

. . .  when the selling in size commences they all just shut down.  So much for providing liquidity when it is needed.

At The Market Ticker website, Karl Denninger explained how HFT platforms often use “predatory algorithms” to drive a stock’s price up to the full extent of a customer’s limit order (a practice called “frontrunning”):

Let’s say that there is a buyer willing to buy 100,000 shares of BRCM with a limit price of $26.40.  That is, the buyer will accept any price up to $26.40.

But the market at this particular moment in time is at $26.10, or thirty cents lower.

So the computers, having detected via their “flash orders” (which ought to be illegal) that there is a desire for Broadcom shares, start to issue tiny (typically 100 share lots) “immediate or cancel” orders – IOCs – to sell at $26.20.  If that order is “eaten” the computer then issues an order at $26.25, then $26.30, then $26.35, then $26.40.  When it tries $26.45 it gets no bite and the order is immediately canceled.

Now the flush of supply comes at, big coincidence, $26.39, and the claim is made that the market has become “more efficient.”

Nonsense; there was no “real seller” at any of these prices!  This pattern of offering was intended to do one and only one thing – manipulate the market by discovering what is supposed to be a hidden piece of information – the other side’s limit price!

The extent to which frontrunning takes place was the subject of a recent conversation between Larry Tabb of Tabb Group and Erin Burnett on CNBC.  The Zero Hedge website provided this analysis of the video clip:

The funniest bit of the exchange occurs at 3:35 into the clip, when Tabb publicly discloses that front-running is not only legal but occurs all the time on open exchanges. When Erin Burnett, who unfortunately still thinks that the Deutsche Mark is used in Germany, asks who is doing the front running, Tabb says “It could be anyone.”

A recent piece by Josh Lipton at the Minyanville website focused on the activity of retail investors since the recent “flash crash”:

Specifically, during the past week through May 12, your friends and neighbors pulled $2.8 billion out of US stock funds, according to the latest data from the professional number crunchers at Lipper FMI.

To put that stat in context, we called up Robert Adler, the head of Lipper FMI Americas, for a chat this morning.  He tells us that’s the most investors have pulled out, in fact, since March 11, 2009.

At the same time, says Adler, investors plowed $16.6 billion into money-market funds.  “That’s the first inflows money market funds have seen in the last 16 weeks,” he says.

*   *   *

“There was an about-face this past week by investors,” Adler says, noting that such outflows from both equity and bond funds, and a sharp reversal in money market funds, demonstrate a clear and dramatic shift in sentiment.

The analyst is quick to emphasize, however, that one week doesn’t make a trend.  “We have to wait another week to see whether this was simply event driven or if this is the beginning of a new trend,” he says.

The current risk-aversion experienced by retail investors is compounded by the ugly truth that stocks are currently overvalued.  Shawn Tully of Fortune made this very clear in a May 17 commentary, wherein he provided us with a sage bit of prognostication:

Here’s how I see the odds.  The chances are about one in three that we suffer a huge, wrenching correction in the next year or two similar to the one in 1987.  That possibility is so high because stocks are so startlingly expensive.  Another high probability event is that markets go on a long sideways grind, with smaller drops along the way.  What’s extremely unlikely is that the market rises substantially from current levels and stays there for any extended period.

Whatever happens in the next couple of years, the odds are overwhelming that investors who buy stocks today will reap puny returns for 10 years.  For example, if you’d purchased shares at today’s PE of 22 in early 2003, you would have gotten a return of around 3% a year, barely enough to compensate for inflation, let alone buy the blood pressure medication you’d need to survive the scary ride of stock ownership.

Now let’s look out a decade or two.  The evidence is extremely strong that price matters, and matters a lot:  except in rare cases, buying stocks when they are pricey — when the Shiller PE exceeds 20 — leads to puny returns ten years later.

Not that you’d ever know that from the happy talk from Wall Street.  So screen the noise out, and follow the numbers.  They’ll eventually get better for investors.  But to get back there, we may revisit October of 1987.

Considering the unlimited number of awful news events unfolding in America and around the world right now, we could be headed for a market crash much worse that that of October, 1987.  Cheers!




Too Cute By Half

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April 29, 2010

On April 15, I discussed the disappointing performance of the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission (FCIC).  The vapid FCIC hearings have featured softball questions with no follow-up to the self-serving answers provided by the CEOs of those too-big–to-fail financial institutions.

In stark contrast to the FCIC hearings, Tuesday brought us the bipartisan assault on Goldman Sachs by the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations.  Goldman’s most memorable representatives from that event were the four men described by Steven Pearlstein of The Washington Post as “The Fab Four”, apparently because the group’s most notorious member, Fabrice “Fabulous Fab” Tourre, has become the central focus of the SEC’s fraud suit against Goldman.   Tourre’s fellow panel members were Daniel Sparks (former partner in charge of the mortgage department), Joshua Birnbaum (former managing director of Structured Products Group trading) and Michael Swenson (current managing director of Structured Products Group trading).  The panel members were obviously over-prepared by their attorneys.  Their obvious efforts at obfuscation turned the hearing into a public relations disaster for Goldman, destined to become a Saturday Night Live sketch.  Although these guys were proud of their evasiveness, most commentators considered them too cute by half.  The viewing public could not have been favorably impressed.  Both The Washington Post’s Steven Pearlstein as well as Tunku Varadarajan of The Daily Beast provided negative critiques of the group’s testimony.  On the other hand, it was a pleasure to see the Senators on the Subcommittee doing their job so well, cross-examining the hell out of those guys and not letting them get away with their rehearsed non-answers.

A frequently-repeated theme from all the Goldman witnesses who testified on Tuesday (including CEO Lloyd Bankfiend and CFO David Viniar) was that Goldman had been acting only as a “market maker” and therefore had no duty to inform its customers that Goldman had short positions on its own products, such as the Abacus-2007AC1 CDO.  This assertion is completely disingenuous.  When Goldman creates a product and sells it to its own customers, its role is not limited to that of  “market-maker”.  The “market-maker defense” was apparently created last summer, when Goldman was defending its “high-frequency trading” (HFT) activities on stock exchanges.  In those situations, Goldman would be paid a small “rebate” (approximately one-half cent per trade) by the exchanges themselves to buy and sell stocks.  The purpose of paying Goldman to make such trades (often selling a stock for the same price they paid for it) was to provide liquidity for the markets.  As a result, retail (Ma and Pa) investors would not have to worry about getting stuck in a “roach motel” – not being able to get out once they got in – after buying a stock.  That type of market-making bears no resemblance to the situations which were the focus of Tuesday’s hearing.

Coincidentally, Goldman’s involvement in high-frequency trading resulted in allegations that the firm was “front-running” its own customers.   It was claimed that when a Goldman customer would send out a limit order, Goldman’s proprietary trading desk would buy the stock first, then resell it to the client at the high limit of the order.  (Of course, Goldman denied front-running its clients.)  The Zero Hedge website focused on the language of the disclaimer Goldman posted on its “GS360” portal.  Zero Hedge found some language in the GS360 disclaimer which could arguably have been exploited to support an argument that the customer consented to Goldman’s front-running of the customer’s orders.

At Tuesday’s hearing, the Goldman witnesses were repeatedly questioned as to what, if any, duty the firm owed its clients who bought synthetic CDOs, such as Abacus.  Alistair Barr of MarketWatch contended that the contradictory answers provided by the witnesses on that issue exposed internal disagreement at Goldman as to what duty the firm owed its customers.  Kurt Brouwer of MarketWatch looked at the problem this way :

This distinction is of fundamental importance to anyone who is a client of a Wall Street firm.  These are often very large and diverse financial services firms that have — wittingly or unwittingly — blurred the distinction between the standard of responsibility a firm has as a broker versus the requirements of an investment advisor.  These firms like to tout their brilliant and objective advisory capabilities in marketing brochures, but when pressed in a hearing, they tend to fall back on the much looser standards required of a brokerage firm, which could be expressed like this:

Well, the firm made money and the traders made money.  Two out of three ain’t bad, right?

The third party referred to indirectly would be the clients who, all too frequently, are left out of the equation.

A more useful approach could involve looking at the language of the brokerage agreements in effect between Goldman and its clients.  How did those contracts define Goldman’s duty to its own customers who purchased the synthetic CDOs that Goldman itself created?  The answer to that question could reveal that Goldman Sachs might have more lawsuits to fear than the one brought by the SEC.



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Just In Time For Labor Day

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September 7, 2009

Friday’s report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, concerning non-farm payrolls for the month of August, left many people squirming.  The “green shoots” crowd usually has no trouble cherry-picking through the monthly BLS reports for something they can spin into happy-sounding news, utilizing the “not as bad as expected” approach.  Nevertheless, the August BLS report portrayed unpleasant conditions, not only for the unemployed but for those currently working full-time in the labor force, as well.

The current unemployment level is a living nightmare for the unemployed individuals and their families.  It also brings some degree of discomfort (although less significant) to those people with money to invest, who are waiting for signs of a sustainable economic upturn before heading back out from the sidelines and into the equities markets.  Both groups got an unvarnished look at the latest BLS data from Dave Rosenberg, Chief Economist at Gluskin Sheff in Toronto.  His September 4 economic commentary: Lunch with Dave, gave us a thorough analysis of the BLS report:

While the Obama economics team is pulling rabbits out of the hat to revive autos and housing, there is nothing they can really do about employment; barring legislation that would prevent companies from continuing to adjust their staffing requirements to the new world order of credit contraction. While nonfarm payrolls were basically in line with the consensus, declining 216,000 in August, there were downward revisions of 49,000 and the details were simply awful.  The fact that 65% of companies are still in the process of cutting their staff loads is quite disturbing — even manufacturing employment fell 63,000 in August, to its lowest level since April 1941 (!), despite the inventory replenishment in the automotive sector and all the excitement over the recent 50+ print in the ballyhooed ISM index.  The fact that temp agency employment is still declining, albeit at a slower pace, alongside the flat workweek and jobless claims stuck at 570,000, are all foreshadowing continued weakness in the labour market ahead.  Until we see signs of a sustained turnaround in the jobs market all bets are off over the sustainability of any economic recovery.

Looking at the details of the Household Survey, Rosenberg found “a rather alarming picture” of what is happening in the labor market:

First, employment in this survey showed a plunge of 392,000, but that number was flattered by a surge in self-employment (whether these newly minted consultants were making any money is another story) as wage & salary workers (the ones that work at companies, big and small) plunged 637,000 — the largest decline since March (when the stock market was testing its lows for the cycle).  As an aside, the Bureau of Labor Statistics also publishes a number from the Household survey that is comparable to the nonfarm survey (dubbed the population and payroll-adjusted Household number), and on this basis, employment sank — brace yourself — by over 1 million, which is unprecedented.  We shall see if the nattering nabobs of positivity discuss that particular statistic in their post-payroll assessments; we are not exactly holding our breath.

Second, the unemployment rate jumped to 9.7% from 9.4% in July, the highest since June 1983 and at the pace it is rising, it will pierce the post-WWII high of 10.8% in time for next year’s midterm election.  And, this has nothing to do with a swelling labour force, which normally accompanies a turnaround in the jobs market — the ranks of the unemployed surged 466,000 last month.

The language of the BLS report itself on this subject demonstrates how the current unemployment crisis is not an “equal opportunity” phenomenon:

Among the major worker groups, the unemployment rates for adult men (10.1 percent), whites (8.9 percent), and Hispanics (13.0 percent) rose in August.  The jobless rates for adult women (7.6 percent), teenagers (25.5 percent), and blacks (15.1 percent) were little changed over the month.  The unemployment rate for Asians was 7.5 percent, not seasonally adjusted. (See tables A-1, A-2, and A-3.)The civilian labor force participation rate remained at 65.5 percent in August.  The employment population ratio, at 59.2 percent, edged down over the month and has declined by 3.5 percentage points since the recession began in December 2007.

Dave Rosenberg added the painful reminder that the unemployment picture always lags behind the end of a recession.  How far behind?  Look at this:

Jobless claims started off August at 554k and closed the month at 570k.  So it seems as though we enter September with the prospect of yet another month of declining payrolls because claims have to break decisively below 500k before jobs stop vanishing and below 400k before the unemployment rate stops rising.  Remember, in the early 1990s credit crunch the recession ended in March 1991 and yet the unemployment rate did not peak until June 1992; and in the last cycle, which was an asset deflation phase, the recession ended in November 2001 and yet the jobless rate did not peak until June 2003. So in the last two cycles, it took 15-20 months for the unemployment rate to peak even after the economic downturn officially ended.

At least Mr. Rosenberg had some constructive criticism for the current administration’s efforts at job creation.  It’s one thing to just yell:  “FAIL” and yet, quite another to put some thought into what needs to be done:

Our advice to the Obama team would be to create and nurture a fiscal backdrop that tackles this jobs crisis with some permanent solutions rather than recurring populist short-term fiscal goodies that are only inducing households to add to their burdensome debt loads with no long-term multiplier impacts.  The problem is not that we have an insufficient number of vehicles on the road or homes on the market; the problem is that we have insufficient labour demand.

As for those who are still in the labor force, the situation is also deteriorating, rather than improving.  A report by Carlos Torres for Bloomberg News noted that the “real number” for unemployment is 16.8 percent.  Beyond that, the work week for factory employees is currently 39.8 hours.  It will have to reach 41 hours before we even get a chance to see some changes:

The index of total hours worked, which takes into account changes in payrolls and the workweek, fell 0.3 percent last month to the lowest level since 2003.

“It tells us payrolls aren’t turning positive any time soon,” Joseph LaVorgna, chief  U.S.  economist at Deutsche Bank Securities Inc. in New York, said on a conference call yesterday, referring to the workweek figures. “This wasn’t a friendly report.”

A measure of unemployment, which includes the part-time workers who would prefer a full-time position and people who want work but have given up looking, reached 16.8 percent last month, the highest level in data going back to 1994.

The workweek for factory employees, which held at 39.8 hours last month, leads total payrolls by about three months, LaVorgna said.  Once it reaches at least 41 hours and once payrolls for temporary workers stabilize, then an increase in total employment can be expected months later, he said.

Payrolls for temporary workers started turning down in January 2007, 11 months before the recession began.  They dropped by another 6,500 workers in August, the government’s report showed yesterday.

In other words, the decline in temporary worker payrolls preceded the recession by 11 months!  Worse yet, the payrolls for temporary workers must stabilize before an increase in total employment comes along “months later”.

Meanwhile, at the Financial Times, Sarah O’Connor reports that many people who have jobs must still rely on food stamps to survive:

The number of working Americans turning to free government food stamps has surged as their hours and wages erode, in a stark sign that the recession is inflicting pain on the employed as well as the newly jobless.

*   *   *

The food stamp data suggest that “the labour market problems are more significant than you would expect, given just the unemployment rate”, said John Silvia, chief economist at Wells Fargo.  “For me it suggests the consumer is not going to rebound or contribute to economic growth for the next year, as the consumer would in a traditional economic recovery.”

Consumer spending has traditionally been the engine of the US economy, making up about two thirds of GDP.  Economists fear that people may be unwilling to resume that role.

That conclusion is exactly what the “green shoots” enthusiasts don’t seem to understand.  Those who are well-off enough to pay for their groceries with real money will be focused on paying down their credit cards and saving money before they go out to buy another television or jet ski.  If these people have little or no “discretionary income”, then the High Frequency Trading computers on Wall Street can talk to each other all they want — but the stock values will not go up.

Happy Labor Day!



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Jobs And Propaganda

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August 10, 2009

On Friday, Wall Street celebrated a “less bad” Employment Situation Report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.  Although the consensus estimate for jobs lost during the month of July was 345,000 — the report from the BLS on Friday recited that non-farm payrolls decreased by 247,000.  You may have heard the BLS referred to as the “Bureau of Lies and Statistics” by those who see BLS reports as “cooked data” for propaganda purposes.  Criticism of the spin given to the report could be found at the Zero Hedge website, which featured an entry with the title:  “The Truth Behind Today’s BLS Report” with quotes from such authorities as consulting economist John Williams and economist David Rosenberg.  Mr. Rosenberg was quoted as providing this caveat:

It may be dangerous to extrapolate today’s report into a view that we are about to turn the corner on the job market front.

At The Atlantic Online, Daniel Indiviglio wrote a piece entitled:  “Did the Unemployment Rate Really Go Down?”  Among his points were these:

As a recession drags on for this long, and people are unable to find jobs, they begin leaving the workforce.  They become discouraged regarding job prospects.  BLS offers an unemployment rate that includes these discouraged workers.  In June 2009, that was 10.1%.  For July, it was 10.2%.

Given this change in unemployment including discouraged workers, I think it’s pretty clear that the 0.1% decrease in the reported unemployment rate can be misleading.  In reality, those who would like a job but don’t have one increased by 0.1% up to10.2%.

*   *   *

I just think we need to be careful not to get too excited about today’s numbers.  Although they appear to show a decrease in the unemployment rate, the deeper numbers show the contrary.  We may see the light at the end of the tunnel, but we’ve got a ways to go.

Claims of “good news” about the unemployment picture are regularly contradicted, if not by our own personal experiences, then by those of our relatives and friends.  Beyond that, we see daily reports of middle-class families using food stamps for the first time in their lives and we read about escalating bankruptcy filings.

One article I found particularly interesting was written by Nancy Cook for Newsweek on August 7.  It concerned the problems faced by teenagers this year, who sought summer jobs.  They weren’t able to get those jobs because they found themselves “competing with unemployed adults who are now willing to take positions that were considered entry-level in prerecessionary times.”  Ms. Cook discussed how the inability of teenagers to obtain summer jobs impairs their personal and professional development:

Where does that leave high-school- and college-age students, apart from spending their summers lying on the couch?  It leaves them with little income and, worse, few job skills, says Andrew Sum, director of the Center for Labor Market Studies at Northeastern University in Boston.  “It hurts their ability to get jobs in the future,” he says.  Teens who work in high school and college on average earn salaries 16 percent higher than teens who don’t work, according to the center’s research.

*   *   *

Working summer jobs certainly translates into higher earning power in the long term, but more important, it gives teens “soft skills.”  Those skills teach them to be punctual, write professional e-mails, and work well in teams.  “There’s lots of evidence that shows that employers place a high premium on those skills,” Sum says.  “If you don’t work, you develop cultural signals from other kids, from the streets, or from sitting at home in front of a computer, which is the worst way to learn how to get along with people.”

I find it difficult to believe that normal, human, retail investors would find so much encouragement from reading about the BLS report.  The use of the BLS data to justify Friday’s market pop appears as just another excuse to explain the ongoing inflation of equities prices, caused by banks playing with TARP and other bailout money for their own benefit.

Doubts Concerning The Stock Market Rally

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August 6, 2009

As of today (Wednesday night) the current “bear market rally” continues to surprise people with its longevity.  On the other hand, many news outlets, including The Washington Times and CNBC are declaring a “New Bull Market”.  There seems to be no shortage of commentators proclaiming that the market indices will continue to climb forever.

Back on planet earth, there is a good deal of commentary about the suspicious activity behind this rally.  In my last posting, I discussed the “Plunge Protection Team” or PPT.  Rather than repeat all that, for the benefit of those unfamiliar with the PPT, I will quote the handy definition at the Hamzei Analytics website:

Plunge Protection Team has been the “Working Group” established by law in 1988 to buy the markets should declines get out of control.  It is suspected by many market watchers that PPT has become far more interventionist than was originally intended under the law.  There are no minutes of meetings, no recorded phone conversations, no reports of activities, no announcements of intentions.  It is a secret group including the Chairman of the Federal Reserve, the Secretary of the Treasury, the Head of the SEC, and their surrogates which include some of the large Wall Street firms.  The original objective was to prevent disastrous market crashes.  Lately it seems, they buy the markets when they decide the markets need to be bought, including the equity markets.  Their main resource is the money the Fed prints.  The money is injected into markets via the New York Fed’s Repo desk, which easily shows up in the M-3 numbers, warning intervention was near.  As of April 2006, M-3 is longer reported.

Many of us have looked to the PPT as the driving force behind this rally.  News sources have claimed that the rally is the result of money “coming into the markets from the sidelines” — implying that crisis-wary investors had finally thrown caution to the wind and jumped into the equities markets to partake in the orgy of newfound wealth.  The cash accumulating in the investors’ money market accounts was supposedly being invested in stocks.  This propaganda was quickly debunked by the folks at the Zero Hedge website, with the following revelation:

Most interesting is the correlation between Money Market totals and the listed stock value since the March lows:  a $2.7 trillion move in equities was accompanied by a less than $400 billion reduction in Money Market accounts!

Where, may we ask, did the balance of $2.3 trillion in purchasing power come from?  Why the Federal Reserve of course, which directly and indirectly subsidized U.S.banks (and foreign ones through liquidity swaps) for roughly that amount.  Apparently these banks promptly went on a buying spree to raise the all important equity market, so that the U.S. consumer whose net equity was almost negative on March 31, could have some semblance of confidence back and would go ahead and max out his credit card.

Similar skepticism was voiced by Karl Denninger of The Market Ticker website:

So once again we have The Fed blowing bubbles, this time in the equity markets, with (another) wink and a nod from Congress.  This explains why there has been no “great rush” for individual investors to “get back in”, and it explains why the money market accounts aren’t being drained by individuals “hopping on the bus”, despite the screeching of CNBC and others that you better “buy now or be priced out”, with Larry Kudlow’s “New Bull Market” claim being particularly offensive.

Unfortunately the banksters on Wall Street and the NY Fed did their job too well – by engineering a 50% rally off the bottom in March while revenues continue to tank, personal income is in the toilet and tax receipts are in freefall they have exposed the equity markets for what they have (unfortunately) turned into — a computer-trading rigged casino with the grand lever-meister being housed at the NY Fed.

*   *   *

No, real buying is just that – real buying from real retail investors who believe in the forward prospects for the economy and business, not funny-money Treasury and MBS buying by The Fed from “newly created bank reserves” funneled back into the market via high-speed computers.  The latter is nothing more than a manufactured ramp job that will last only until “the boyz” get to the end of their rope (and yes,that rope does have an end) as the fractional creation machine does run just as well in reverse, and as such “the boyz” cannot allow the trade to run the wrong way lest it literally destroy them (10:1 or more leverage is a real bitch when its working against you!)

Is it coming to an end now?  Nobody can be certain when, but what is certain is that over the last week or so there have been signs of heavy distribution – that is, the selling off of big blocks of stock into the market by these very same “boyz.”  This is not proof that the floor is about to disappear, but it is an absolute certainty that these “players” are protecting themselves from the possibility and making sure that if there is to be a bagholder, it will be you.

Many commentators, including Joseph Saluzzi of Themis Trading, have explained how the practice of computer-driven “High-Frequency Trading” has added approximately 70 percent of “volume” to the equities markets.  This is accomplished because the exchanges pay a quarter-of-a-penny rebate to High-Frequency Trading firms for each order they place, waiving all transaction fees.  As a result, the “big boy” firms, such as J.P. Morgan and Goldman Sachs, will make trades with their own money, buying and selling shares at the same price, simply for the rebates.  Those pennies can add up to hundreds of millions of dollars.

I recently came across a very interesting paper (just over eight pages in length) entitled:  A Grand Unified Theory of Market Manipulation, published by Precision Capital Management.  The paper describes a tug of war between Treasury Secretary Ben Bernanke and the New York Fed, that is playing out in the equities and Treasury securities markets.  The authors suggest that if Bernanke’s biggest threat is high long-term Treasury yields (interest rates), the easiest way to prevent or postpone a yield ramp would be to kill the stock market rally and create a “flight to safety in Treasuries” – situation that lowers long-term yields.  The paper describes how the New York Fed facilitates “painting the tape” in the stock markets to keep the rally alive.  For those of you who don’t know what that expression means, here’s a definition:

An illegal action by a group of market manipulators buying and/or selling a security among themselves to create artificial trading activity, which, when reported on the ticker tape, lures in unsuspecting investors as they perceive an unusual volume.

After causing a movement in the security, the manipulators hope to sell at a profit.

Instead of accusations that the PPT is the culprit doing the tape painting during the final minutes of the trading day, we again see a focus on the New York Fed as the facilitator of this practice.  Here’s the explanation given in the paper by Precision Capital Management:

The theory for which we have the greatest supporting evidence of manipulation surrounds the fact that the Federal Reserve Bank of New York (FRNY) began conducting permanent open market operations (POMO) on March 25, 2009 and has conducted 42 to date.  Thanks to Thanassis Strathopoulos and Billy O’Nair for alerting us to the POMO Effect discovery and the development of associated trading edges.  These auctions are conducted from about 10:30 a.m. to 11:00 a.m. on pre-announced days.  In such auctions, the FRNY permanently purchases Treasury securities from selected dealers, with the total purchase amount for a day ranging from about $1.5 B to $7.5 B.  These days are highly correlated with strong paint-the-tape closes, with the theory being that the large institutions that receive the capital interjections are able to leverage this money by 100 to 500 times and then use it to ramp equities.

As for the all-important question of how the authors expect this to play out, they focus on what might happen at the market close on August 5:

And, while it is a bit early to favor one side or the other, we are currently leaning toward a nervous Bernanke and the need to ramp Treasuries at the expense of equities into August 9.  Equities have had more than a nice run and can suffer a bit of a correction.  Key will be watching the close on Wednesday.  A failed POMO paint the tape close could signal that an equities correction of at least a few weeks has gotten underway.

What we saw on Wednesday afternoon was just that.  At approximately 3 p.m. there was an effort to push the S&P 500 index into positive territory for the first time that day, which succeeded for just a few minutes.  The index then dropped back down, closing .29 percent lower than the previous close.  Does this mean that a market correction is underway?  Time will tell.  With the S&P 500 index at 1002 as I write this, many experts consider the market to be “overbought”.  Fund manager Jeremy Grantham, who has been entrusted to invest over $89 billion of his customers’ hard-inherited money, is of the opinion that the current fair value for the S&P 500 should be just below 880.  Thus, there is plenty of room for a correction.  The answer to the question of whether that correction is now underway should be something we will learn rather quickly.