Individual Investors Should Worry Professionals
When I became a professional securities analyst in the 1960s, there was a trend to have two separate research and marketing efforts of brokerage firms. A traditional effort to serve individual investors was joined by a second and higher paid effort to serve institutional investors. Around the cyclical movements of the stock market, individual and institutions invested differently and each fed off the others’ transactions. Institutions were able to buy what they thought was cheap stocks from supposedly unsophisticated individual owners and sell into them when individuals were not well enough informed. Interestingly, this dichotomy did not work to the disadvantage of the individual investors as much as it may have seemed. Individual investors were not only net buyers, but for the most part, long-term investors that often facilitated the more rapid turnover of the so-called professional investors.
This relationship is no longer the case. Because of the decision of the US government to introduce price competition in brokerage commissions (which led to a price war), the profitability of directly serving the individual long-term investor declined meaningfully. Today, try to get a “full service” retail brokerage representative to be interested in opening an account to handle the sporadic purchase of a hundred shares of a NYSE traded securities. If the broker can’t get the customer to open a margin account, buy new issues, trade over-the-counter securities or place decision making judgment in a managed account or a packaged product or possibly an automated relationship with a call center, chances are he/she will not be interested in the relationship with the prospective customer. Only the alternatives just suggested are profitable for the firm and the individual broker. Thus, relatively few individuals are directly active in today’s stock market. They are investors through their employers’ defined contribution plans and stock purchase plans, or mutual funds/variable annuities or in some cases, stock options.
The plain truth on most days, particularly in the summer months, almost all the transactions come through various institutional channels. The market has become largely a game of professionals competing against each other for research and trades. In some respects, the market has become more susceptible to sudden volatility within the trading day as the professionals in this interconnected world react to each incremental research element and price change. Thus, a different sort of market analysis is required to avoid being at a competitive disadvantage.
Exchange-Traded Funds (ETFs), and Exchange Traded Notes (ETNs), while relatively small in terms of assets as compared with other institutions, are selectively quite large in the intra-day markets. While the regulators believed that when they permitted the creation of these vehicles in the US and a number of other markets, individual investors would benefit from their low cost and trading efficiency; they really created trading vehicles for fast trading professional investors including hedge funds, market makers, managed accounts of investment advisors, central banks (Tokyo), and other institutional players.
In many weeks, the aggregate net transactions in ETFs is larger than those of conventional mutual funds, even though their assets are less than half of the assets of mutual funds. While there are thousands of ETF transactions in a given week, the vast majority of transactions are in a couple of products that professionals are using to invest or hedge with or without margin type leverage. According to my old firm, Lipper, Inc., for the week ending Wednesday, there was $6.7 Billion in net purchases of equity ETFs. $4.4 Billion went into PowerShares QQQ Trust EFI, invested in the 100 largest NASDAQ stocks, and $1.2 Billion into the iShares Core MSCI EAFE Index fund or about 5.65% of that fund’s total net assets. This left approximately $100 million for net purchases of all other equity ETFs.
A similar pattern was present on the taxable fixed income side which had total net purchases in the week of $1.2Billion, with $1.1 Billion into two funds, iShares 20+Year Treasury Bond ETF, and iShares Core Total U.S. Bond Market ETF.
All four of these funds could be used to fulfill the short-term trading needs of institutions. To get a feel as to how important the trading is in these products, one should look at the extreme volatility of the major stock and bond indices in the last ten minutes of a trading day as the Authorized Participants (APs) try to even up their trading books. On some days in the last few minutes, the stock indices can move close to 1/3 of the daily price moves for the whole day up to 3:30. Sometimes some of the transactions in ETFs is on the short side. In October of 2016, the size of the short interest was at a record level on the SPDR S&P500 ETF. Currently, it is at the lowest level in more than a year. Obviously, some trading institutions were shorting due to their views on the US Election. They may have viewed this as a hedge against some long positions or it could have not been paired against other holdings.
Mutual Funds are Evolving
There is also something happening in the conventional mutual fund transactions. Despite a current period of relatively good fund performance, funds are experiencing net redemptions. A careful analysis will reveal that this is not a signal of disappointment. Most of the redemptions are coming out of the Large Cap Growth and Growth and Income funds that were the major receivers of decades of inflows driven by commissioned sales people. The basic investment pitch to potential owners of funds was to provide retirement capital and to a lesser degree educational funding. On an actuarial basis, a good bit of these redemptions are completions fulfilling their intended purposes. In prior decades, we would not have seen net redemptions because the normal completions would have been offset by new sales of funds, except selling funds to individuals is far less profitable than it has been in part because the sale freezes the money in place for a number of years due to anti-churning rules and commissions on funds are no longer the highest level available to the salesperson.
There is another important trend that takes mutual fund dollars out of the US marketplace. While domestic funds in the week had net redemptions of $4.6 Billion, non-domestic funds had net sales of $2.6 Billion. This is understandable on two levels. The Financial Times data shows that there are eighteen national stock markets it tracks. Eight had gains of between twenty and twenty-six percent and only one of these (NASDAQ) was in the US. The IMF is forecasting only India and China will have GDP gains of more than 5%.
All three of the major US stock market indices, Dow Jones Industrial Average, Standard & Poors 500, and the NASDAQ composite started last week with a price upward gap. Often price gaps get filled before a major move occurs. In addition, the NASDAQ composite daily price chart shows a reversal pattern called a “Head & Shoulders” which might be predicting a decline. As part of the market’s function to promote humility, this index is now rising near its former peak. The technical market analysts at Merrill Lynch stated that if the index breaks out on the upside, it would be a failed Head & Shoulder pattern that is quite bullish. As usual, there is a “on the other side” market research team at Charles Schwab that suggests that we should be prepared for a summer pull back.
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