Archive for August, 2009

Is Trump’s Business Better than His Hair?

Should Trump's Hair or Business Acumen be Fired?!

Should Trump's Hair or Business Acumen be Fired?!

Fiery debate still swirls around the authenticity of Donald Trump’s hair (piece), but what about his business acumen? Just this year in February, Trump Entertainment filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. Maybe “The Donald” should be “fired?!”

If this was his only economic fatality in Trump’s career, one might cut him a little slack. I however am not enslaved into his glorified status in the media and press. My critical eye lacks the generosity necessary to honor him a free hall pass. When looking at Trump’s career, the tabloids must not forget that Trump’s Taj Mahal Casino was also run into bankruptcy purgatory in 1991. Number #11 must be Trump’s magic number because in less than a year, Trump filed for Chapter 11 on the Trump Plaza Hotel and Casino and Trump’s Castle (March 1992).

Like an infomercial, “But wait, there’s more!” In November 2004, Trump Hotels & Casino Resorts Inc. filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. This company reemerged out of bankruptcy as a new operating company, Trump Entertainment Resorts Inc., only to…you guessed it, file bankruptcy again. I think I see a pattern here.

With the vast bankruptcy experience Trump holds and with him and his daughter Ivanka Trump quitting from Trump Entertainment earlier this year, Donald is now trying to scoop up this company for a $100 million steal. The bankruptcy court and creditors will determine if it’s a fair deal. If not approved, rest assured, Donald will have an extra $100 million to spend wisely – possibly building another company into bankruptcy failure or perhaps…better hair care?

 

Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®

Plan. Invest. Prosper.

August 14, 2009 at 4:00 am 2 comments

How Sweet it Is: Sugar Prices Near 30-Year High

The Cap'n Hangin' with the Crunch Berry Beast

The Cap'n Hangin' with the Crunch Berry Beast

The cost of a sugar coma has gone up, making my Cap’n Crunch with Crunch Berries craving a pricier endeavor. It’s seems like almost yesterday when I was crouched over my sugar cereal on a Saturday morning watching cartoons – hey wait, maybe that was last weekend? Regardless of the timeframe, prices for sugar have not been this high since Coke and Pepsi used sugar, rather than corn syrup, in their 1970s formulations and Cuba was the world’s largest sugar producer.

What’s the reason for the +67% price rise in sugar this year*? There are several reasons:

1)      Disappointing Crops: India is the largest consumer of sugar at 23.5 million tons and a very significant producer of the sweetener. Due to deficient rainfall in the northeast and southern regions in India (caused in part by El Niño conditions), the country is estimated to need more than double the imports of the good this year. Disappointing crops in Brazil have also contributed to the tightening global supply. India and Brazil account for about 40% of global sugar supplies.

2)      Forward Buying / Hedging: The supply-demand dynamics of the sugar market have caused certain high sugar-consuming countries, like Egypt and Mexico, to buy large stockpiling purchases – further pushing up prices.  Beyond consumer and speculators, global food and beverage companies from the likes of Kraft, General Mills and ConAgra Foods have been purchasing futures to hedge the risk of additional price hikes.

3)      Oil Increase Buoys Ethanol: Oil’s +59% price increase this year to about $70 per barrel has provided additional price support through increased demand for sugar-based ethanol.

Weather, oil demand, and sentiment may change thereby easing the cost burden of higher priced sugar goods, but irrespective of sugar prices you can rest assured my Cap’n Crunch with Crunch Berries addiction will remain resilient.

*Source: The Financial Times (8-7-09).

Read Financial Times Article on Sugar Here

Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®

Plan. Invest. Prosper.

August 13, 2009 at 4:00 am Leave a comment

“Bye Bye Roubini, Hello Abby”

Perma-Bull with Perma-Grin

Perma-Bull with Perma-Grin

Bye-bye” Dr. Doom” and hello “Happy Abby.”  Abby Joseph Cohen is back in the spotlight with the recent market resurgence and is calling for a sustained bull market rally. The death-like sentiment spread by NYU professor Nouriel Roubini has now swung – it’s time for CNBC to call in the bulls, much like a baseball coach calls in a fresh reliever after a starter has exhausted his strength.

Watch CNBC Interview of Cohen

Over the last year, we’ve gone from full-fledged panic, into a healthy level of fear – the decline in the CBOE Volatility Index (VIX) supports this claim. But with cash still piled to the ceiling and broad indices still  are about -35% below 2007 peaks, I wouldn’t say sentiment is wildly ebullient quite yet. The low-hanging fruit has been picked and now we need to tread lightly and delay the victory lap for a little longer. Market timing has never been my gig, so gag me any time I attempt a market prediction. Having said that, sentiment comprises the softer art aspects of investing, and therefore it can swing the markets wildly in the short-run. Ultimately in the long-run, profits and cash flows are what drive stock prices higher, and that’s what I pay attention to. Profits and cash flows are currently depressed and unemployment remains high by historical standards, but there are signs of recovery. Cohen highlights easy profit comparisons in the second half of 2009 (versus 2008), coupled with inventory replenishment, as significant factors that can lead to larger than anticipated surges in early economic cycle recoveries.  Whether the pending economic advance is sustainable is a question that Cohen would not address.

Investors are emotional creatures, and CNBC realizes this fact. Before investing in that 30-1 leveraged, long-only hedge fund, prudence should reign supreme as we start to see some of the previously bullish strategists begin crawling out of their caves – including perma-bull Abby Joseph Cohen.

Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®

Plan. Invest. Prosper.

August 12, 2009 at 4:00 am 1 comment

Stock Market Nirvana: Butter in Bangladesh

Butter

Hallelulah to Jason Zweig at The Wall Street Journal for tackling the subject of data mining through his interview with David Leinweber, author of Nerds on Wall Street. All this talk about Goldman Sachs, High Frequency Trading (HFT) and quantitative models is making my head spin and distorting the true value of data modeling. Quantitative modeling should serve as a handy device in your tool-box, not a robotic “black box” solely relied on for buy and sell recommendations. As the article points out, all types of sites and trading platforms are hawking their proprietary tools and models du jour.

The problem with many of these models, even for the ones that work, is that financial market behavior and factors are constantly changing. Therefore any strategy exploiting outsized profits will eventually be discovered by other financial vultures and exploited away. As Mr. Leinweber points out, these models become meaningless if the data is sliced and diced to form manipulated relationships and predictive advice that make no sense.

Butter in Bangladesh: To drive home the shortcomings of data mining, Leinweber uses a powerful example in his book, Nerds on Wall Street, of butter production in Bangladesh. In searching for the most absurd data possible to explain the returns of the S&P 500 index, Leinweiber discovered that butter production in Bangladesh was an excellent predictor of stock market returns, explaining 75% of the variation of historical returns. The Wall Street Journal goes onto add:

By tossing in U.S. cheese production and the total population of sheep in both Bangladesh and the U.S., Mr. Leinweber was able to “predict” past U.S. stock returns with 99% accuracy.

 

For some money managers, the satirical stab Leinweber was making with the ridiculous analysis was lost in translation –  after the results were introduced Leinweber had multiple people request his dairy-sheep model. “A distressing number of people don’t get that it was a joke,” Leinweber sighed.

Super Bowl Crystal Ball: Leinweber is not the first person to discover the illogical use of meaningless factors in quantitative models. Industry observers have noticed stocks tend to perform well in years the old National Football league team wins the Super Bowl. Unfortunately, this year we had two “old” NFL teams play each other (Pittsburgh Steelers and Arizona Cardinals). Oops, I guess we need to readjust those models again.

NFL Data mining

Other bizarre studies have been done linking stock market performance to the number of nine-year-olds living in the U.S. and another linking positive stock market returns to smog reduction.

Data Mining Avoidance Rules:

1)    Sniff Test: The data results have to make sense.  Correlation between variables does not necessarily equate to causation.

2)    Cut Data into Slices: By dividing the data into pieces, you can see how robust the relationships are across the whole data set.

3)    Account for Costs: The results may look wonderful, but the model creator must verify the inclusion of all trading costs, fees, and taxes to increase confidence results will work in the real world.

4)    Let Data Brew: What looks good on paper might not work in real life. “If a strategy’s worthwhile,” Mr. Leinweber says, “then it’ll still be worthwhile in six months or a year.”

Not everyone has a PhD in statistics, however you don’t need one to skeptically ask tough questions. Doing so will help avoid the buried land mines in many quantitative models. Happy butter churning…

Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®

Plan. Invest. Prosper.

Read Full WSJ Article Here

See WSJ Video Interview Here

August 11, 2009 at 4:00 am 5 comments

V-Shaped Recovery or Road to Japan Lost Decades?

The Lost Decades from the 1989 Peak

The Lost Decades from the 1989 Peak

On the 6th day of March this year, the S&P 500 reached a devilish low of 666. Now the market has rebounded more than 50% over the last five months. So is this a new bull market throttled into gear, or is it just a dead-cat bounce on route to a lost two decades, like we saw in Japan?

Smart people like Nobel Prize winner and economist Paul Krugman make the argument that like Japan, the bigger risk for the U.S.  is deflation (NY Times Op-Ed), not inflation.

Now I’m no Nobel Prize winner, but I will make a bold argument of why Professor Krugman is out to lunch and why we will not go in a Japanese death-like, deflationary spiral.

Let’s review why our situation is dissimilar from our South Pacific friends.

Major Differences:

  • Japanese Demographics: The Japanese population keeps getting older (see UN chart), which will continue to pressure GDP growth. According to the National Institute of Population and Social Security Research, by 2055 the Japanese population will fall 30% to 90 million (equivalent to 1955 level). Over the same time frame, the number of elderly under age 65 is expected to halve. To minimize the effects of the contraction of the working population, it will be necessary both to increase labor productivity, loosen immigration laws, and to promote the employment of woman and people over 65. Japan’s population is expected to expected contraction in Japan’s labor force of almost 1% a year in 2009-13.

    Source: The Financial Times

    Source: The Financial Times/UN (Declining Workforce Per 65 Year Old)

  • Bank of Japan Was Slow to React: Japan recognized the bubble occurring and as a result hiked its key lending discount rate from 1989 through May 1991. The move had the desired effect by curbing the danger of inflation and ultimately popped the Nikkei-225 bubble. Stock prices soon plummeted by 50% in 1990, and the economy and land prices began to deteriorate a year later.  Belatedly, Japan’s central bank began a series of interest rate-cuts, lowering its discount rate by 500-basis points to 1% by 1995. But the Japanese economy never recovered, despite $1-trillion in fiscal stimulus programs.
  • The Higher You Fly, the Farther You Fall: The relative size of the Japanese bubble was gargantuan in scale compared to what we experienced here in the United States. The Nikkei 225 Index traded at an eye popping Price-Earnings ratio of about 60x before the collapse. The Nikkei increased over 450% in the eight years leading up to the peak in 1989, from the low of about 6,850 in October 1982 to its peak of 38,957 in December 1989. Compare those extreme bubble-icious numbers with the S&P 500 index, which rose approximately a more meager 20% from the end of 1999 to the end of 2007 (U.S. peak) and was trading at more reasonable 18x’s P-E ratio.

    Source: Dow Jones

    Source: Dow Jones

  • Debt Levels not Sustainable:  Japan is the most heavily indebted nation in the OECD. Japan is moving towards that 200% Debt/GDP level rapidly and the last time Japanese debt went to 200% of GDP (during WWII), hyper-inflation ensued and forced many fixed income elderly into poverty. Although our debt levels have yet to reach the extremes seen by Japan, we need to recognize the inflationary pressure building. Japan’s debt bubble cannot indefinitely sustain these debt increases, leaving little option but to eventually inflate their way out of the problem.
  • Banking System Prolongs Japanese Deflation: Despite the eight different stimulus plans implemented in the 1990s, Japan lacked the fortitude to implement the appropriate corrective measures in their banking system by writing off bad debts. An article from July 2003 Barron’s article put it best:
After the collapse of the property bubble, many families and businesses had debts that far exceeded their devalued assets. When a version of this happened in America in the savings-and-loan crisis, the resulting mess was cleaned up quickly. The government seized assets, sold them off, bankrupted ailing banks and businesses, sent a few crooks to jail and everything started fresh, so that deserving new businesses could get loans. The process is like a tooth extraction — painful but mercifully short. In Japan this process has barely begun. Dynamic new businesses cannot get loans, because banks use available credit to lend to bankrupt businesses, so they can pretend they are paying their debts and avoid the pain of write-offs. This is self-deception. The rotten tooth is still there. And the Japanese people know it.

 

The Future – Rise of the Rest: Fareed Zakaria, Newsweek editor wrote about the “Rise of the Rest” in an incredible article (See Sidoxia Website) describing the rising tide of globalization that is pulling up the rest of the world. The United States population represents only 5% of the global total, and as the technology revolution raises the standard of living for the other 95%, this trend will only accelerate the demand of scarce resources, which will create a constant inflationary headwind.

For those countries in decline, like Japan, demand destruction raises the risk of deflation, but historically the innovative foundation of capitalism has continually allowed the U.S. to grow its economic pie. Economic legislation by our Congress will help or hinder our efforts in dealing with these inflationary pressures.  One way is to incentivize investment in innovation and productive technologies. Another is to expand our targeted immigration policies towards attracting college educated foreigners, thereby relieving aging demographics pressures (as seen in Japan). These are only a few examples, but regardless of political leanings, our country has survived through wars, assassinations, terrorist attacks, banking crises, currency crises, and yes recessions, to only end up in a stronger global position.

This crisis has been extremely painful, but so have the many others we have survived. I believe time will heal the wounds and we will eventually conquer this crisis. I’m confident that historians will look at the coming years in favorable light, not the lost decades of pain as experienced in Japan.

Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®

Plan. Invest. Prosper.

August 10, 2009 at 4:00 am 4 comments

Surviving in a Post-Merger Financial World

The financial institution dominoes have fallen.

The financial institution dominoes have fallen.

Over the last two years we have experienced the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression. As a result, financial institutions have come under assault from all angles, including its customers, suppliers, and regulators. And as we have watched the walls cave in on the banking and brokerage industries, we have seen a tremendous amount of consolidation. Like it or not, we need to adapt to the new environment.

The accelerated change began in early 2008 with the collapse of Bear Stearns and negotiated merger with JP Morgan Chase. Since then we saw the largest investment banking failure (Lehman Brothers), and the largest banking failure in history (Washington Mutual). Other mergers included the marriage of Merrill Lynch and Bank of America, the combination of Wachovia into Wells Fargo, and most recently the blending of Smith Barney into Morgan Stanley. These changes don’t even take into account the disruption caused by the government control of Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, and AIG.

So what does all this change mean for consumers and investors?

1)     Rise in Customer Complaints: Change is not always a good thing. Customer complaints rose 54% in 2008, and climbed 86% in the first three months of 2009 according to FINRA (Financial Industry Regulatory Authority), a nongovernmental regulator of securities companies. The main complaint is “breach of fiduciary duty,” which requires the advisor to act in the best interest of the client. Making the complaint stick can be difficult if the broker only must fulfill a “suitability” standard. To combat the suitability limitation, investors would be well served by investigating an independent Registered Investment Adviser (RIA) who has a fiduciary duty towards clients.

2)     Less Competition = Higher Prices: The surviving financial institutions are now in a stronger position with the power to raise prices. Pricing can surface in various forms, including higher brokerage commissions, administrative fees, management fees, ATM fees, late fees, 12b-1 fees and more. 

3)     Customer Service Weakens: The profit pool has shrunk as lending has slowed and the real estate gravy train has come to a screeching halt. By cutting expenses in non-revenue generating areas, such as customer service, the financial institutions are having a difficult time servicing all their client questions and concerns. There is still fierce competition for lucrative accounts, but if you are lower on the totem pole, don’t expect extravagant service. 

4)     Increased Regulation: Consumer pain experienced in the financial crisis will likely lead to heightened regulation. For example, the Obama administration is proposing a consumer protection agency, but it may be years before tangible benefits will be felt by consumers. Financial institutions are doing their best to remove themselves from direct oversight by paying back government loans. In the area of financial planning, proposals have been brought to Congress to raise standards and requirements, given the limited licensing requirements. Time will tell, but changes are coming.

Investing in a Post-Merger Financial World: Take control of your financial future by getting answers from your advisor and financial institution. Get a complete list of fees. Find out if they are an independent RIA with a “fiduciary duty” to act in the client’s best interest. Research the background of the advisor through FINRA’s BrokerCheck site (www.finra.org) and the SEC’s Investment Adviser Public Disclosure Web site (www.sec.gov). Get referrals and shop around for the service you deserve. Survival in a post-merger world is difficult, but with the right plan you can be successful.

For disclosure purposes, Sidoxia Capital Management, LLC is an independent Registered Investment Advisor in California.

Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®

Plan. Invest. Prosper.

August 7, 2009 at 4:00 am Leave a comment

Mountains of Cash Starting to Trickle Back

iStock_000004967333XSmall

The month of July was an interesting month because investors opened their 401k and investment statements for the first time in a long while to notice an unfamiliar trend… account values were actually up. Like a child that has burnt their hand on a stove, the wounds and memories are still too fresh – more time must pass before investors decide to get back into the market in full force.

As you can see from the charts below, as investors globally panicked throughout 2008 and early 2009, money earning next to nothing in CDs and Money Market accounts was stuffed under the mattress in droves. The fear factor of last fall has caused current liquid assets to stand near 10 year highs at a level near 120% of the S&P 500 total market capitalization (Thomson Reuters) and at more extreme levels last fall if you just look at Money Market assets (bottom chart) . Now that the Armageddon scenario has been temporarily put to rest, we’re starting to see some of that cash to trickle back into the market. The silver lining is that there is still plenty of dry powder left to drive the market higher – not overnight, but once sustained confidence returns. If the earnings outlook continues to improve, come the beginning of October when 3rd quarter statements arrive in the mail, the pain of not being in the market will overwhelm the fear of burning another hand on the stove like in 2008.

Cash as Pct of SNP500

It is funny how the sentiment pendulum can swing from the grips of despair a year ago. There is still headroom for the market to climb higher before the pendulum swings too far in the bullish direction – if you don’t believe me just look on the horizon at the mountain of cash.

Source: SentimenTrader.com (Fall 2008)

Source: SentimenTrader.com (Fall 2008)

Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®

Plan. Invest. Prosper.

August 6, 2009 at 4:00 am 1 comment

Ackman Builds Fortune Through Optimism and Confidence

Source: Portfolio.com

Source: Portfolio.com

Bill Ackman, 43 year old famed hedge fund manager and activist, was profiled by Jesse Eisenger in a May 2009 Portfolio.com piece with a title that has special meaning to me…The Optimist. I would never be presumptuous enough to compare myself to Mr. Ackman, but my firm, Sidoxia Capital Management, shares something in common with him – the name of my firm is actually derived from the Greek word for optimism (aisiodoxia).

Some confuse his confidence with arrogance, but regardless of your opinion, he has a track record to back up his bold assertions. For example, his six year investment in MBIA Inc. (MBI) netted Ackman about $1.1 billion in profits. At the end of 2008, his firm (Pershing Square Capital Management) managed $4.4 billion.  His brainpower has been sought after by the upper echelon of Washington finance – Ackman has rubbed elbows and provided his views to the likes of Lawrence Summers (director of President Barack Obama’s National Economic Council) and Timothy Geithner (Treasury Secretary). Those who have invested for long periods know there is a fine balance between confidence and hubris as Ackman recognizes:

“The investment business is about being confident enough to know that you’re right and everyone else is wrong. Yet you have to be humble enough that you recognize when you’ve made a mistake.”

 

Another common trait with all good investors is the ability and willingness to put yourself out on a limb. As legendary investor Benjamin Graham states, “You’re neither right nor wrong because others agree with you. You’re right because your facts and reasoning are right.” This is exactly the approach Ackman took when he researched MBIA. While the rest of the world was following the real estate herd as they were about to fall off a cliff, Ackman realized the calamitous situation brewing and warned others of the pending disaster. Being a contrarian is hard-work, and requires detailed analysis for the necessary conviction, a key ingredient for successful investments. Lots of blood, sweat, and tears were certainly used in Ackman’s long-lasting review and attack on MBIA Inc. that began in 2002, punctuated with a 66 page report entitled “Is MBIA Triple A?”

Ackman Charlie Rose

                     Click Here to Watch November 2008 Interview With Charlie Rose

There is another universal bond between all great investors – failure. Ackman is no exception and suffered his fair share of bumps along the road. Most notably, the forced closure of his hedge fund and investment firm Gotham Partners in 2003 was an unpleasant experience. His concentrated fund that held Target (TGT) investments was down -93% in early March 2009, according to Portfolio.com. Throughout all the trials and tribulations, Ackman remains as he likes to call  it, “resilient.”

Life is never easy for the great investors, or as Don Hays says, “You are only right on your stock purchases (and sales) when you are sweating.” Ackman has had to sweat out a volatile ride ever since he first dove in to purchase Target Corp. shares. As the article in Portfolio.com points out, at one point Ackman had nearly lost $2 billion with his bet on Target and suffered a hard fought loss in a proxy battle with the Target board.

Investing bystanders should do themselves a favor and carefully track Ackman’s moves. The outcome of his Target investment is unknown; however I’m confident and optimistic that Bill Ackman will ultimately build on his long-term track record of success.

Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®

Plan. Invest. Prosper.

 Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®  

Plan. Invest. Prosper.  

www.Sidoxia.com 

DISCLOSURE: Sidoxia Capital Management (SCM) and some of its clients own certain exchange traded funds and AAPL, but at the time of publishing SCM had no direct position in MBI, TGT, or any other security referenced in this article. No information accessed through the Investing Caffeine (IC) website constitutes investment, financial, legal, tax or other advice nor is to be relied on in making an investment or other decision. Please read disclosure language on IC “Contact” page.

August 5, 2009 at 4:00 am 1 comment

Momentum Investing: Riding the Wave

Riding the Momentum Wave Can Be Dangerous

Riding the Momentum Wave Can Be Dangerous

As famed trader Jesse Livermore (July 26, 1877 — November 28, 1940) stated, Prices are never too high to begin buying or too low to begin selling.”

For the most part, the momentum trading philosophy dovetails with Livermore’s mantra. The basic premise of momentum investing is to simply buy the outperforming stocks and sell (or short) the underperforming stocks. By following this rudimentary formula, investors can generate outsized returns.  AQR Capital Management and Tobias Moskowitz (consultant), professor at Chicago Booth School of Management, ascribe to this belief too. AQR just recently launched the AQR Momentum Funds:

  • AQR Momentum Fund (AMOMX – Domestic Large & Mid Cap)
  • AQR Small Cap Momentum Fund (ASMOX – Domestic Small Cap)
  • AQR International Momentum Fund (AIMOX – International Large & Mid Cap)

Professor Moskowitz Speaks on Bloomberg  (Thought I looked young?!)

As I write in my book, How I Managed $20,000,000,000.00 by Age 32, I’m a big believer that successful investing requires a healthy mixture of both art and science. Too much of either will create negative outcomes. Modern finance teaches us that any profitable strategy will eventually be arbitraged away, such that any one profitable strategy will eventually stop producing profits.

A perfect example of a good strategy, gone bad is Long Term Capital Management. Robert Merton and Myron Scholes were world renowned Nobel Prize winners who single handedly brought the global financial markets to its knees in 1998 when it lost $500 million in one day and required a $3.6 billion bailout from a consortium of banks. Their mathematical models weren’t necessarily implementing momentum strategies, however this case is a good lesson in showing that even when smart people implement strategies that work for long periods of time, various factors can reverse the trend.

I wish AQR good luck with their quantitative momentum funds, but I hope they have a happier ending than Jesse Livermore. After making multiple fortunes and surviving multiple personal bankruptcies, Mr. Livermore committed suicide in 1940. In the mean time, surf’s up and the popularity of quantitative momentum funds remains alive and well.

Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®

Plan. Invest. Prosper.

August 4, 2009 at 4:00 am 7 comments

High Frequency Trading: Buggy Whip Deja Vu

Slow Frequency Traders (SFT) Moving the Direction of the Buggy Whip

Slow Frequency Traders (SFT) Moving the Direction of the Buggy Whip

Innovation can be a thorn in the side of dying legacy industries. With the advent of the internal combustion engine from Swiss inventor Isaac de Riva (1807) and the subsequent introduction of Henry Ford’s affordable Model-T automobile (1908), the buggy whip industry came under assault and eventually disappeared. I’m sure the candle lobbyists weren’t too happy either when Thomas Edison first presented the light bulb (1879).

Legacy broker dealers and floor traders are suffering similar pains as those in the buggy whip industry did. New competitors are shrewdly exploiting technology in the field of High Frequency Trading (HFT) and as a result are gaining tremendous market share. Supercomputers and complex mathematical algorithms have now invaded the financial market exchanges, shrinking the profit pools of slow-moving, fat-cat broker dealers (a.k.a., Slow Frequency Traders – SFT) by simply trading faster and smarter than the legacy dealers and exchanges. As Dan Akroyd says to Eddie Murphy in the movie Trading Places, before making millions on the commodities trading floor, “It’s either kill, or be killed.” And right now it’s the traditional broker dealers and floor traders that are getting killed. According to a study by the Tabb Group, 73% of U.S. daily equity volume currently comes from high frequency traders (up from 30% in 2005). And despite only representing 2% of the relevant, actively trading financial institutions, the HFT industry generated an estimated $21 billion in profits last year.

Source: The Financial Times

Source: The Financial Times

HFT Controversy: So what’s the big controversy regarding HFT? Critics of these high speed traders (including Joe Saluzzi at Themis Trading) claim the fast traders are unfairly using the technology for selfish, greedy profit motives, and in the process are disadvantaging investors. Screams of “front-running,” effectively using the information obtained from fast computer processes to surreptitiously trade before poor, unassuming individual investors can react, is a foundational argument used by opponents. Also the detractors argue that the additional liquidity (traditionally considered a positive factor by academics) provided by the HFT-ers is “low-quality” liquidity because the fast trades are believed to suck valuable liquidity out of the system and contribute to heightened volatility. HFT participants are equated to aggressive ticket scalpers, who in the real world buy low priced tickets and later gouge legitimate buyers by reselling the original tickets at outrageously high prices.

Rebuttal:

  • On HFT Price Impact: If HFT is so damaging for individual investors, then why have price spreads narrowed so dramatically since the existence of this fast style of trading? The computerization and decimalization of trading has made trading more efficient – much like ATM machines and e-mail have made banking and document mailing more efficient. Investors can buy at lower prices and sell at higher prices – sounds like a beneficial trend to me.
  • On HFT Volatility: If HFT-ers are demonized for the market crash, then why isn’t anyone patting them on the back or buying them a drink for the ~+50% surge in the equity markets since March of this year? Maybe the investment banks that were levered 30x’s, or the $100s of billions in unregulated mortgage debt stand to shoulder more of the volatility blame?
  • On HFT Price Discovery: At the end of the day, if HFT partakers (robots) are actually manipulating prices,  then reasonable and greedy capitalists (humans) will stabilize prices by either scooping up irrationally low-priced stocks and/or selling short  illogically high priced securities.

On HFT Front-Running and Flash Orders: The New York Times recently ran an article describing a very specific one sided scenario where “flash orders” tipped off HFT traders to unfairly exploit a profitable trade in Broadcom (BRCM) stock. However, trades do not occur in a vacuum. Other scenarios could have easily been drawn up to show HFT-ers losing money on their computer-based strategy. “Quite possibly these flash orders are happening as an unintended consequence of an automated algorithmic trading program,” says Alex Green, Managing Partner at AMG Advisory Group, an institutional trading consulting firm.  Flash orders are used when trying to display an order for a small amount of time while waiting to be displayed in the National Best Bid Best Offer (the bid-ask quotes viewable to the  public). 

In addition, if front-running is indeed occurring, it is happening at prices between the bid-ask spread, thereby incentivizing other market makers to lower their offer price and raise their bid price (a positive development for investors). Any trading occurring outside the bounds of nationally displayed regulated price quotes constitutes illegal activity and can result in time behind bars.

Common Ground – Dark Pools: One area I believe I share common ground with the SFT-ers is on the issue of “dark pools.” In this murky realm, trading occurs in pools of anonymous buyers and sellers where no price quotes are displayed. These pools are bound by the same regulations as other exchanges, but due to their opaqueness are more difficult to police. According to a recent WSJ article, intensified scrutiny has fallen on these dark pools by the SEC because a large number flash orders are routed to them. Although flash orders may not in and of itself be a problem, there is more room for potential abuse in these dark pools.

Conclusion: When all is said and done, it is very clear to me that innovation through technology has translated into a huge gain for individual and institutional investors. It may take a PhD to write the code for a complex high frequency trading algorithm, however it doesn’t take a genius to figure out spreads have narrowed and liquidity has risen dramatically over the last decade – thanks in large part to HFT technological innovation. Certainly technology, globalization, along with the introduction of electronic communication networks (ECNs) like Direct Edge, flash orders, and dark pools have made trading complex. With a denser group of players and structures, it is important that SEC Chairman Mary Schapiro continue to regulate financial market exchanges with the aim of improved transparency and equality. As long as the trends of heightened liquidity and narrowed spreads continue, investors will benefit while the buggy whip lobbyists (legacy broker dealers and floor traders) will continue to scream.

Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®

Plan. Invest. Prosper.

August 3, 2009 at 4:00 am 10 comments

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