Aug

3

I am quite skeptical that nowadays it is enough to be a good programmer to make money on Wall Street. A very famous trader recently said in this regard that what is and will always be important is understanding human nature. However, it seems that successful programmers want to strike deals that give them the possibility to share profits and retain the ownership of the code they write. The companies they work for make $100K a day when they may be paid $150K a year. It is an intellectual property problem. When competition increases in high frequency trading, margins will decrease and programmers might want to go back to the old "safe" way they were paid. Sometimes I have the doubt that it is enough to have a piece of spyware, which can monitor information from programs that use certain protocols to make big money. A hacker could monitor someone's trades dropping a sniffer and intercepting trading programs. It would be a sort of real-time insider trading. A modern version of an old, and "sure", way of making money.

Read more in this article.

James Lackey comments:

Stick a trading sheet with a programmer's name on it with a 500k daily loss and see if he wants to enlist in the traders training program or go back to his desk. Ha. It's easy to target shoot but it's harder when they are gunning for you.

But Tony C on here years ago thought he discovered Spyware on his quotes from Enron. Drag your mouse cursor over the quote and see if HFT lifts their 100 share penny offer.

 Charles Sorkin writes:

I've often suspected that something like Tony C's situation happens in the options market. For instance, I can't tell you how often I've entered limit orders on an option with limited activity, and I get "pennied," so-to-speak.

For instance, consider a market for an equity call option that is quoted as $2.50 - $2.80, for a few hundred contracts on both sides. I enter a limit order to sell 10 contracts at $2.70, making the market $2.50 - $2.70, hundreds x 10. Hardly a second later, the market updates again, to something like $2.50 -$2.65, hundreds by 10. GRRR!!!!

Somebody/ something steps in front of me, on a contract that potentially has hardly any open interest, and very little activity in the whole series, perhaps with the expectation that I will lose patience and hit the original bid.

Very frustrating. Sometimes I pull my offer, and watch incredulously as the quote reverts to it's original level.

Jan

25

 Edwin LeFevre's works, while ostensibly all fiction, are based on the personalities and newsmakers of the Street at the turn of the last century, and are filled with nostalgia, as well as notions of "Le Plus Ca Change… Le Plus C'est La Meme Chose."

Easan Katir adds:

Those interested in father-son relations might enjoy Edwin LeFevre's "To the Last Penny" , an illustrated short story published in 1917, currently out of print.

Jun

8

As to the hydrogen production issue, doesn't it shift our reliance to coal, instead of oil? Yes, its domestically sourced, but also beset with similar (worse?) carbon emission issues as petroleum…

Michael Ott replies:

Mike OttHydrogen can be produced from coal, but it's very nasty to the environment and will eventually run out. Biomass is a much better source because it's renewable and available in massive amounts (1.3 billion tons per year, according to the USDA). Biomass can be converted into both liquid and gaseous fuels and will be the bridge to the hydrogen economy. This is why funding ethanol research is important. First you make it from something easy, like starch found in corn or sugar cane. Then you make it from something available in much larger amounts like wood, corn stover, or other ag residues.

One of the main advantages of making ethanol from corn is that the logistics for storage and transport are well established. Plus there is a lot of sugar which can be easily accessed by existing enzymes. The logistics of moving around large amounts of biomass are not well known and will require large amounts of infrastructure. It will be built because infrastructure is always built to support a better and cheaper fuel source. Cellulosic enzymes are also getting better, improving 30X in the last 5 years. The same infrastructure will be used for gasification of biomass, which will produce the massive amounts of hydrogen needed to drive an economy.

This is why I'm optimistic about biomass. Currently, you can make about 80 gallons of ethanol/ton, so the potential productivity is 104 billion gallons. The US consumed 142 billion gallons of gasoline last year, so there is potential to replace a significant chunk of gasoline. Assume that efficiencies will increase to 100 gallons/ton and that dedicated energy crops provide 1.5-2 billion tons/yr, and theoretically all gasoline could be replaced. Obviously not all will be converted, but the potential is there.

Addressing Stefan's points about energy efficiency — Assuming that the sun's energy is free (which it is because it will shine the same on a parking lot as a cornfield), the efficiency of ethanol is 1.4 : 1. Gasoline is 0.88 : 1. The economic efficiencies are much more important. Right now ethanol is much cheaper to produce than gasoline and will be competitive down to $40-50/bbl oil. Both ethanol and gasoline are heavily subsidized, so economic arguments are tough to make. If all subsidies and credits were removed, ethanol and oil would be roughly equally priced at $30/bbl (maybe a little higher due to recently raised corn and nat. gas prices).

Dec

3

RazorCan anyone suggested a friendly, old-time style barber shop in midtown Manhattan or the Wall Street area?  As my hairline slowly recedes, my focus on what constitutes a good haircut experience no longer centers on the coiffure, but rather the dexterity and consistency of the barber, as well as the opportunity to get a close shave with the straight razor. Valuing such qualities as skill, cost, and character/setting (in a Damon Runyan-esque sense), I'd love to hear if anyone has a favorite place to get groomed in New York.

Charles Pennington replies:

I like the shop on 52nd St and 2nd Avenue. The $16 charge includes a haircut, a shave of the neck with a straight razor, and a hot towel. Usually they have "Ultimate Fighting Championship" DVDs playing in the background. They're all Israeli immigrants. Magazines are things like Men's Health ("Get rock hard abs!") and Maxim. With the $16 price, you can just hand them a $20, and that conveniently leaves a >20% tip.

Craig Bowles suggests:

Damian between 2-3rd Place on Court St in Brooklyn is tops and costs $10. Preferable to speak Italian as the oldtimers still play bocce ball up the hill. I used to go to 87th or 88th just west of Lex. Guy close to window is the best and cost was $7 but probably a bit more now. Great barbers and cheap prices leaves more for a good tip.

Scott Brooks writes:

Pattern BaldnessAs one whose hairline has stopped receding, I'll throw in my two cents: If you want consistency and a good experience, get a buzz cut. I get a cut every three weeks and can tell any barber/stylist exactly what to do:  

1. Use a 1/2 blade on the sides
2. Use no guard on the top (cut it right down to the skin)
3. Blend the hair on the sides into the "no-hair" on top (don't want a "ridge-line" where the skin and hair meet)
4. Square or round the back — I don't care which — and blend it
 
I don't know if you have a Sport Clips in Manhattan or not, but I've come to like them. Sports on all the TVs in the place. At your cut station, you have a private TV to watch whatever's on ESPN and the stylists seemed to be trained to do one of two things:
 
1. Talk about guy stuff (sports, hunting, fishing, etc.)
2. Figure out quickly if you aren't interested in talking
 
I hate going into a place to get a haircut (Great Clips is my second choice for a haircut and I run into this problem there too often) and having to listen to a stylist talk about her boyfriend or kids/grandkids, or whatever inane subject is on her mind. Most guys just aren't interested in that kind of stuff. Plus, at Sport Clips, I get a cut, massaging shampoo, hot towel/facial massage, and then a vibrating back massage, all for $20 plus tip while watching Sport Center or some game.
 
But they don't give shaves, and if you've ever seen that picture of Albert Anastasia lying on the floor of a barber shop, gunned down during his shave, you might consider shaving yourself at home! 

Ken Smith extends:

Wild Irish RoseWhen I was about 18 years old, some 60 years ago, the price of a haircut was 50 cents at the Barber College down on Seattle's skid row, a shop nested between flop houses and cheap taverns where alcoholics roamed the street looking for another cheap bottle of wine. Winos, they called them.

People did not have money and jobs as they do now, so a trip to skid row for a haircut was in the economic order of things. The local indigents could also get a bed for the night for the same price, 50 cents. Called flop houses, they were dormitory floors, like in an army barracks or concentration camp.

Rod Fitzsimmons Frey responds:

If you had taken that $0.50 and invested it at 6% interest, Ken, you'd have had $17.36 today. About the price of a haircut. Or a dorm room. Difference is you'd not have to go down to skid row to get either, unless you wanted to.

Jul

17

 Muir Woods is 500 acres of coastal redwood forest, twelve miles north of San Francisco, and is a setting that is relatively unchanged over the last 50 million years. The trees in Muir Woods are the oldest living things on earth, and having visited the woods recently I have been thinking of what lessons they might hold for markets and for life. My thoughts on the subject have been helped by reading the following books: Muir Woods by James Morley, Life in an Old Growth Forest by Valerie Rapp, Trees by Roland Ennos.

Lesson One: While from a distance, all the trees look very similar, up close they are each different, showing the effects of fires, exposure to light, roots damaged or spared by floods, wind, storms, landslides, disease, and predation from insects. Many of the current trees have lived since the times of the Vikings. If only the trees could tell their story of what they have seen and witnessed, and what adaptations they have had to make to prosper, we could learn so much about the past present and future.

Looking at an individual stock or a market at a point in time, without regard to the major events that have shaped it leaves much information out of the mix that could be used to project the future.

Lesson Two: The forest thrives and benefits after many seemingly disastrous events. Fires clear the underbrush. Dead trees still standing provide cover for much flora and fauna. Trees contain so much water that there is still much biomass left when they die, and they contain the nutrients and moisture that other plants or fungi need for survival. This situation is called a biological legacy by the scientists, but is just known as a gift by the laymen.

The number of, the amount of time in between, and the extent of watershed declines that the market has witnessed in the last year, as well as the resilience of the market to these declines, is a good measure of the health of a system. It is often good for future growth, to see decimated parts of the market landscape, such as the US real estate sector which has currently taken it on the chin, or the Saudi Arabian market that is down 75%.

Lesson Three: A strong root structure is key. The roots of the redwood trees often stretch horizontally 30 yards from the center of the tree, and they can be as much as one foot in diameter. They mix with the roots of neighboring trees which provides greater strength to all. Seedlings also sprout from the roots, so the same sources are used for multiple outputs. If the tree is unfortunate enough to die, the roots can produce more trees of the same genetic material. The roots of the redwood tree are remarkable in that they are not deep, but they stretch so far horizontally, allowing the tree to grow in different conditions.

The importance of roots to the coastal redwoods leads me to consider the functions of the roots of a company — the sources of capital necessary to build its infrastructure. The money reaches the various divisions of the company and is turned into profits which are then circulated back to the trunk.

Lesson Four: Being tall keeps out competition and gets more light. The choice that a tree makes to invest its energy in upwards growth, and raise its canopy above that of its competitors, is apparently a very successful one in nature, because the different genera of trees, cones,cycloids, hardwoods, have all come to it independently. The redwood trees are able to reach the sun above any competition, and they are able to shade out and prevent any other trees that need sun for growth.

The big companies, those that say have a share price above $100, or a market value above 25 billion, have an advantage over the smaller ones. They are not as subject to dying, yet they have the ability to shed many older divisions to help their earnings statements along. They also do not have to worry as much about random shocks from the environment that might level smaller companies.

I hypothesize that the returns of companies that have a price above $100 is higher than the returns from average companies, and that their volatility is less. Also, that markets at higher levels are less volatile than those at lower levels.

Lesson Five: Trees depend on other flora and fauna.The diversity of the flora that help the basic functions of the tree provides resilience in case of disaster. The ground of Muir Woods is covered by sorrel which retains the moisture and nutrients necessary for the redwoods to grow during the dry summers. The roots of the tree are dependent on lichens that help them get water and nitrogen. Mites helps to recycle a fallen tree by eating the rotting wood, and chewing the litter that falls on the forest floor, and voles living in the canopy spread the fungi that the trees need for survival.

The health of a individual market or stock component, like GE, is dependent on the health of its environment. The healthiest market environments are those that have witnessed many varieties of stress and strain, and exposures to good and bad news.

Conclusion: There are many other lessons that I have learned from Muir Woods, like building a strong bark resistant to insects rather than growing leaves immediately, shading out your competitors, thinking long term, sending your leaves out on strong branches, and changing with the seasons. I can think of no better place in the world than Muir Woods to visit with a view to improving the quality of one's trading or living.

Charles Sorkin writes:

The slopes of White Mountain Peak are home to the ancient bristlecone pine forest, which contains the oldest living things on earth. Such trees are perhaps the reductio ad absurdum of adaptation, making do with diminished oxygen, extremely harsh weather, few nutrients, and highly alkaline rock/soil matrix in which to sink modest roots. The Methuselah of this grove is in excess of 4000 years old, and I'm sure they offer their own lessons. 

Bill Rafter adds: 

Redwoods need an exceptional amount of water to prosper. The rainfall in northern California is not always up to that requirement. However the height of the redwood comes to the rescue. Moisture in the atmosphere collects on the high leaves and the tree creates its own rainfall. 

Steve Ellison notes: 

Cook, Sillett, Jennings, and Davis, writing in Nature in 2004, estimated the maximum feasible height of a tree at about 130 meters (the tallest redwood is about 112 meters). "As trees grow taller, increasing leaf water stress due to gravity and path length resistance may ultimately limit leaf expansion and photosynthesis".

Adam Robinson adds: 

Those interested in the seminal work on Chair's musings might want to pursue Thompson's On Growth and Form, written nearly a century ago, I believe the first attempt to analyze biological phenomena quantitatively.

Also, re: Chair's Lesson 2 on resilience of a system, one of the ironies forest rangers learned was that their attempts to put out any and all forest fires resulted in a huge buildup of flammable undergrowth, so that the inevitable fires, when they finally occurred, were uncontrollable conflagrations. A sobering thought for the Fed and other market interventionists.

Which thought reminds me, apropos of Chair's point on the cataclysmic decline in the Saudi market, the Saudi market, perhaps for religious reasons, lacks mechanisms for short selling (I believe), so that market lacks the ability to "incorporate" divergent opinion, so the inevitable buildup of selling pressures, when finally vented, is massive and uncontrollable. 

Steve Ellison remarks:

Adam makes an excellent point that one should keep in mind the next time the Challenger, Gray, and Christmas layoff report is in the news. The process of decomposition, the breaking apart of complex organisms into simple components that can be used by other organisms, is very important in biology. Similarly, business failures and layoffs move people from performing work that customers or employers do not want to activities that add more value. 

James Sogi writes: 

Today's quiet market at recent highs are like the lofty tree tops of the forest. The tree tops seem to know where the top levels are and it takes some extra energy and exposure to extra risk to break above the tree tops. The boughs and branches are slender and sway up there.

Sept CME SP Futures
07/16/07,1560.25,1566.25,1556.50,1559.75
07/13/07,1555.25,1565.75,1553.50,1560.00

The quiet growth pushed upwards to make new incremental highs and an incremental daily gain. As with trees and plants, the upward growth of markets is always incremental, but steady. The rate of growth varies with the climate, the weather and season. The transactions approaching the top are always a good study of dynamics. There are many buys at the very top, hopeful buyers either hoping for the breakout, or seeing the new high as a sign of further gains.

These buyers have been rewarded in the past few years of benign climate, good weather, and rich soils. As with slender reeds, rapid growth is not sturdy and might suffer damage, breakage, wind, insects. Sometimes the boughs break, but with a strong organism, the branches grow back. The gains seem stronger and more protected when supported by steady and sold growth rather than thin shoots shooting upward.

Study of the rings in old trees can give much information about weather patterns in past years and relate to tree growth. It is a worthwhile study. The strongest moves in the market seem to be the steady marches upward, grinding, growing slowly but steadily upward. Even bamboo can crack through the strongest concrete. It’s hard to believe how tall the redwoods can grow. My friend has tree climbers, and we go up trees on these ropes. It feels pretty high up there, but is actually safe. We usually don't go out on limbs.

In the markets, as in the wild, it is always good to see the forest, not just the trees.

Russell Sears writes: 

The giant trees are made of mostly dead wood in the center. The incredible heavy lifting of water is even more amazing when you consider, it is just the outer layer, just under the bark. The efficiency and simplicity is reminiscent of the invisible hand of the market. The part that is growing or expanding sustains the whole tree while the dead wood just lends support. 

Jun

29

 What's more surprising, that the US deficit/GDP ratio is the best of this lot, or that Italy looks good next to Japan?

Roger Arnold adds:

If I recall properly, Japans sovereign debt to GDP is larger than any country has ever been able sustain without a collapse of their currency. The highest debt to GDP that a country has been able to work out of was the US post WW2 at about 140%.

It's interesting that every year or so, as we discuss here, the yen repatriation and associated carry trade unwinding is supposed to kill the dollar.

Buffet / Rogers et al jump on board and the media frenzy lasts about a week or so. None of them ever mention the dire situation Japan is in, which is compounded by their aging demographic and lack of an appropriate immigration policy to change it. And I think their personal savings rate has fallen to 8%, the lowest in Asia. Western Europe is in a similar-situation although their savings rates are still roughly-14%.

How does the dollar collapse in that environment? Where would the capital go? Why would the capital go? What benefit may be achieved by either area taking their savings home from the US?

Rhetorical questions. 

Stefan Jovanovich writes:

The War of the Spanish Succession - the first European World War - left Britain, France, Austria, Spain, Netherlands, Sweden, and Russia with debts that, compared to their governments' actual cash incomes, were far greater than those owed by Japan, the United States or any of the countries of Europe. At the height of the crisis, in 1719, the costs of debt service alone for the British crown were 60% of the government's income. Yet, somehow, the Brits, alone among all the other European nations, successfully refinanced their debt and began their journey towards Empire.

You can read an introduction to the story of their financial triumph, which paid for Marlborough, Nelson, and Wellington's victories. 

From Alex  Forshaw:

Inflation was very high after WW2 ended, correct? So the real value of America's debt would have been significantly reduced. Considering that inflation was a widespread phenomenon among recovering economies, America's currency did not suffer a relative collapse, but Americans holding government debt were screwed.

In this case, Japan's currency seems destined for a relative collapse. I believe that debt service costs the Japanese government about one-third of its income.

In the British instance, didn't a group of private bankers step forward and essentially assume lots of the crown's obligations, because it faced bankruptcy after the Glorious Revolution? (As I understand it, that was when the Bank of England was founded.)

Charles Sorkin writes: 

US Inflation fell precipitously immediately after the war. There was another spike in the late 50s, but there were also two periods of deflation in the immediate decade (or so) into the post-war period. For the most part, inflation was rather benign, by today's standards, until the late 1960s. 

Alex Forshaw writes: 

Hmm, I simply can't reconcile US debt/GDP falling from about 135% at the end of WWII to, what, 20% by 1960? How could economic growth have been that high? Yeah, taxes were high (top marginal rate was about 91% and top effective rate approx. 57%) and Eisenhower was extremely frugal, but Korea would have ratcheted up the national debt again. So I have a hard time getting those figures to add up without brief but intense bursts of inflation at some point in the 1945-60 time frame. 

Charles Sorkin writes:

US Inflation fell precipitously immediately after the war. There was another spike in the late 50s, but there were also two periods of deflation in the immediate decade (or so) into the post-war period. For the most part, inflation was rather benign, by today's standards, until the late 1960s.

Stefan Jovanovich comments:

I think Charles takes the point. There was also a brief spurt of energy price inflation with the start of the Korean War, but that was entirely the product of the Truman Administration's imposition of Jimmy Carter controls. When those were repealed (with the Republican's taking control of Congress), the gas lines disappeared and Exxon was offering to put a tiger in your tank and give you free dishware with every fill-up. The consensus forecast of most expert opinion in 1945 was that the country would experience a deflationary collapse. Sewell Avery, the Chairman of Montgomery Ward, decided to hold cash. The radicals at Sears (!) chose to expand. If Mr. Avery and others holding bonds were "screwed", as Alex puts it, it was not by any precipitous decline in the value of the dollar but by having failed to participate in what John Brooks described as Seven Fat Years.

As for the bankruptcy of the Glorious Revolution, that was entirely a function of the unwillingness of Parliament to pay the King's bills, not any crushing burden of debt. The Duke of Marlborough (hero of the War of Spanish Succession) started his career as a young go-fer to the Stuart crown; he - and most of the other smart money - changed sides when the Dutch indicated a willingness to make a white knight takeover bid.

"Bankruptcy" was the cover story; the real issue was the unwillingness of the city merchants to accept even a hint of the restoration of full civil rights to the Catholics. And so, for another hundred plus years, no one who wanted to hear the mass in Latin could attend Oxford or Cambridge. That did not, of course, prevent Marlborough's forces from being the allies of the Austrians (still among Europe's most fervent Catholics) against the comparatively agnostic French.

Alex Forshaw writes:

Hmm, I simply can't reconcile US debt/GDP falling from about 135% at the end of WWII to, what, 20% by 1960? How could economic growth have been that high? Yeah, taxes were high (top marginal rate was about 91% and top effective rate approx. 57%) and Eisenhower was extremely frugal, but Korea would have ratcheted up the national debt again. So I have a hard time getting those figures to add up without brief but intense bursts of inflation at some point in the 1945-60 time frame. 

May

29

 It should be noted that investment grade bond domestic bond issuance set a monthly record as of Friday, with borrowers selling $105.92 billion in securities (and the month isn't over, with three full days remaining.)

Among the commentary supporting the debt binge, equity strength is highlighted, as well as the perception that despite the aggressive pace of LBO/PE deals. The thinking is that it will be a quite some time until a high-profile deal melts down. Moody's agrees, apparently, with a report issued last week forecasting a decline in default frequency to a record low.

And the proceeds? S&P 500 components have spent more than $440 billion on share repurchases over the past 12 months, according to J. P. Morgan.

Alston Mabry writes:

Having spent a while recently as a spectator at a PE buyout, from the acquirer's point of view, I can offer this observation from the cheap seats. The PE craze appears to be fueled, just like the hedge fund industry, by cheap leverage. The buyout firms are using leverage at 5% to buy cash flow of 10% and pocketing the difference. On a $5B deal, that's $250M/year. And if a few years later somebody comes along and offers you a price you can't refuse, like Riverdeep did for Houghton, then so much the better.

So where's the weak point? Or is it a free lunch? If there were to be a downturn that pushed too many of those cash streams negative, but still the interest payments on the leverage keep coming due, then could some buyout groups get hurt?

Stefan Jovanovich comments:

I doubt that where we sit qualifies as "seats". Even calling the location a knothole in the fence is probably an exaggeration for our odd-lot venue.

Over the last 12 months the return on common stock investments net of commissions before taxes was 19.65%. The pre-tax, post-expense return on our private investments during the same period was twice that - 38.52%. Alas, no one is eager to buy that private cash flow with or without leverage because the world of finance capital for small private businesses here in California no longer exists.

The roll-up boys are long gone and so is small business lending unless you include your Capital One credit card in that definition. The returns on small business equity here in the Golden State will continue to be outsized because there is no way for going concern values to be monetized. No one in their right mind wants to acquire legal employees unless they have already amortized that risk with a full-blown HR department.

If our situation is at all typical, then the flow of capital from small business owners into securities may have a great deal longer to run. We make a great deal of money from our private business, but we know that every new investment in it is truly sunk. We can only get a return from operations, not from selling.

Philip J. McDonnell writes:

In a way the return on private equity is higher than the publicly available equity. With the advent of Sarbanes-Oxley the costs to comply went up for public companies. It simply added costs to their operations with no compensating income gain for the companies or the investors. In addition to that there always was some kind of added cost borne by public companies. As usual the regulatory costs only ratchet upward never down.

With the example of a public company with a 10% return (PE=10) which is purchased for money that was borrowed at 5% giving a net 5% after interest cost return, the real situation may be better. In fact given the regulatory savings the newly private company may be able to yield 11% thus boosting the net return to 6% which is a 20% better ROI.

The benefits do not end there. There are no margin calls in private equity. Contrast that situation with a typical highly leveraged hedge fund. The hedge fund can borrow too. But if it is trading marketable securities there will be margin calls. Typically the portfolio will be marked to market daily and immediate liquidations will ensue if the value falls below minimum margin requirements.

For a private equity firm there is no daily quoted valuation. There is only the book value shown which is typically a high and inflated number set at the time of the buyout. The lender is actually looking to the cash flow more than any vague concept of market or portfolio value. Lenders want performing loans. To them performing means the borrower is repaying as agreed. It is capitalism as it was designed to work. When the government finds ways to regulate and to restrict credit the markets find ways around it. Ultimately the markets will rule.

Apr

26

This price movement of June bond futures on the morning of Apr. 23 taught me a lesson.

From 7:52 AM to 8:55 AM (slightly over an hour) the market went from 111-10 to 111-01. During this period it traded 19,459 contracts. There were no announcements during this time frame.

Then from 8:56 AM to 9:57 AM the market completely reversed its direction and went from 111-10 to 111-01, exactly where it began two hours previously. The additional contracts traded in that time frame: 20,469. Almost the exact amount as on the way down.

Why would market participants all of a sudden change sentiment, when there were no announcements? What makes participant bias change so abruptly without news?

Robert Ray replies:

A nine tick Lobagola? Take that same move from the perspective of someone that wasn't watching every tick and it would appear that not much at all went on as the price was the same two hours later. There is a meal here in how one perceives things.

Edward Talisse remarks:

This behavior happens all the time, not only in US but in Bunds and JGBs. It's the hedging of new issue deal flow. As corporate bonds are priced, dealers (read: swap desks) trade the order flow but usually end up flat. It has nothing to do with availability of new information.

George Zachar adds:

Deal flow is information, and gaming the hedges and their lifting is a major part of the debt market's micro-process.

Phil McDonnell explains:

A price quote is for a completed transaction. It is always between a buyer and a seller. So the number of buyers always equals the number of sellers — no exceptions. Only the price adjusts. So logically the number of long contracts equals the number of shorts always, all futures markets — no exceptions.

You can infer something about the initiator of the trade. He is often a market order coming from off floor. The market order will cross on the floor (or in a computer) with the current bid or ask. So a down tick usually means an off floor trade crossed with the bid. An uptick often indicates an off floor market order crossed with the current best ask. This is only the commonest case and must be tempered with the realization that limit orders will appear as bid/ask quotes as well and may be confused with market maker activity. Also you cannot know if open interest is increased or decreased by a single trade, but you can track it on a net basis over longer time periods.

Victor told the tale of the elephants always returning by the same path in his book EdSpec. It was a story originally told by Lobagola. The story holds true for markets as well. Markets tend to retrace the same ground — often many times.

Is there statistical evidence for this? One need look no farther than Doc Castaldo's recent post on the Pythagorean scale and markets. His data showed that markets exhibit small changes far too often for it to be chance. This is the salient feature of speculative markets. It happens all the time. Huge amounts of money are made and lost on the very numerous small change days.

Consider the idealized model of a market with a single market maker. He quotes 100 to 101. Someone sells to him at 100. So he drops his quote to 99 to 100. The very act of dropping the quote inspires more selling. He drops his bids to 98, 97, 96 then 95 in succession as more sales come in. His average cost is about 97.50. Now at 95 a funny thing happens. He hits somebody's threshold of pain, whose stop is executed at 95, and our market maker winds up too long. Now he holds the price firm or even raises it.

On the perception of firming or even rising prices speculators start to nibble. Our market maker now slowly raises prices back up to where they were before. Only this time he is supplying at the ask price. So he makes his spread which he tries to maintain at one point. By the end of the day the quote returns to where it was before. Our market maker has sold his inventory at an average of 98.50. The market has done a Lobagola down then up. The news reports the market was unchanged today and everyone yawns. But our intrepid market maker made his spread going down and then back up. He can afford to eat at Delmonico's yet another night.

Sam Marx adds:

As a former market maker on the floor, I can say that this description is a good approximation of what happens. That's why the distribution of prices is higher at the middle than the normal distribution. The market maker is more confident within the existing range.

Also, when there is an large influx of sell orders, the market maker steps aside, buying smaller quantities, a minimum number of lots at each lower price to perform his function, and lets the price really drop. When buy orders start coming in, or when the sell orders stop, he starts buying. That's why the price distribution is lower than the theoretical normal distribution a short distance from the middle of the curve. A leptokurtic distribution.

J.T. Holley extends:

I'm looking at long bonds today. The UK 50 year yields 4.1% and the French Euro 50 year around 4.0% Does this mean that the US long bond is going to 4%? Has anyone with a scientific bent studied/counted the ratios/differences of these instruments' yields?

Faisal Essa responds:

The UK and EUR long bonds are said to trade at those levels because of the local pension and insurance company law changes that have forced pension funds to match their long duration liabilities with long duration, high quality bonds. This has led to reduction in allocation to equities and a shortage of long bond supply relative to demand. To make matters worse, restrictions on currency exposure and derivatives overlays force the funds to stay in their own market rather than buying other countries' long bonds. This legal framework is quite unfortunate for Dimsonian pensioners.

This situation (along with changes in US pension fund law) does have some influence on US long bonds and long TIPS.

Charles Sorkin suggests:

If the media decide to exploit the notion that the American homeowner needs to be bailed out, bonds could fly. An interesting hedge (although extremely difficult to model and get the ratio correct) would be a short bond position hedged with long support-class POs. Difficult for the small investor to find, but some pieces have been floating around lately in the upper $30s to upper $40s on long paper. Such securities could return your principal within two years on a bond rally of 100-200 bps. 

Apr

11

There is still an enormous number of subprime and stated income loan programs available for people with low credit scores and few assets. Only the programs for the most marginal borrowers have been taken from the market. And new creative programs have been introduced to fill the temporary void at startling speed. It has truly been a marvel to behold.

Far from being the contagion I was expecting, the mortgage markets and residential real estate markets have not only absorbed this shock but are exhibiting signs of even greater confidence and liquidity now that the underlying concerns about fraud and irrational underwriting in the mortgage markets and loose appraisals of collateral have been acknowledged.

There will still be more headlines but those unscrupulous players not already knocked out are quickly being isolated from participating by the mbs markets. Underwriting to exact specifications for each loan program has returned following the sloppy underwriting that was at the heart of the real problem in the mbs market.

This tension release and resulting rapid tightening up of the industry appears to have worked amazingly well and amazingly quickly.

Charles Sorkin writes: 

Just throwing this notion out there, but is it accurate to say that "home-ownership for all Americans" is a stable economic regime? For instance, jobs for all Americans (i.e. 0% unemployment) is widely considered unstable, and would lead to sporadic regional labor shortages and is associated with inflation pressure.

Is there a NAIRH (non accelerating instability rate of homeownership) associated with the American economy, much like the much-debated NAIRU concept?

An insightful reference to housing stock, homeownership, and the means of financing it, are referenced in Paul McCulley's monthly commentary on the Pimco website.

Ken Smith writes: 

The next step in America will be to follow Britian which in the period 1979 through 1997 converted municipal housing to ownership housing. Well over a million former tenants became homeowners.

This was the era of privatization. In 1979 British government institutions owned much or all of coal, steel, gas, electricity, water, railways, airlines, telecommunications, nuclear power and shipbuilding, and had a significant stake in oil, banking, shipping and road haulage.

The agencies responsible for these changes were called Next Step Agencies. So the next step in America is conversion of municipal housing to private ownership by individuals or corporations.

The Bush Administration has voiced, many times, the goal of home ownership for all Americans. It appears the goal is to implement this program without regard to ability to pay. I can see a way to profit from this. Get the loan without ability to pay, peddle the property for an appreciated value, pay off the loan and keep the difference. Do another flip, and another.

So what happens when everything falls apart? When jobs are lost, as in Illinois, Ohio, and other hard hit states? Nothing bad happens. Since anyone can get a property without income then anyone can pay up for the property being flipped. So another person steps in, without income, to purchase property that has been appreciated by an appraiser willing to be part of the game, for compensation, of course.

Is this magical thinking? Is this reason? Is this logic? Is this traditional? Is this paradise? Is this the new economy? Is this a bubble?

Apr

5

 My five-year-old daughter (now in Kindergarten) inquired this evening as to how money is made. She was clearly not asking about how people get jobs, or where money comes from, but how people (or companies, as she is familiar with them) actually cause wealth (in an abstract sense) to be increased in the world around them. And she clarified that she was not specifically interested in how I make money.

Perhaps there are thoughts on how to answer this question? Besides people having jobs, she knows that I trade things, and that kids her age have been known to set up lemonade stands, and she often grasps quickly all sorts of complex ideas about people's behavior as well as simple economics.

Sam Humbert remarks:

When my younger son was five, he offered this bit of economic analysis after tagging along with Mom on a series of shopping errands, and noticing that at every stop she gave the cashier some money, then the cashier handed her back some change: "It's good that you get change! That way, you never run out of money!"

Rod Fitzsimmons Frey writes:

Wealth was created from imagination and energy. Since there is no limit to the way creative and energetic people can increase the value of the things around them, there is no limit to wealth. It is literally created by the human spirit. 

Mar

31

 I believe hedge fund strategies will be new frontiers in the ETF market. As we are seeing ETFs move into more active strategies, we have already seen the beginning of this trend. The quantitative backdrop for evolution can be found in these articles by hedge fund Bridgewater, on selling beta as alfa and levering betas.

My prediction is that the increased accessibility will make it harder to prosper for hedge funds that are currently selling beta as alpha. In effect I see no reason why it couldn't soon be as easy to access some of these strategies as it is to trade the QQQQ today.

Gordon Haave writes:

Yes, but the whole point of the ability to replicate these funds is that you don't need the lockup, or at least not as much of one. One can short volatility without a 1-year lockup.

From Bill Rafter:

The largest portion of hedge fund money is employed in long-short. Long-short is highly liquid and highly scalable, and could easily endure a zero-day lockup. For example, we have a long-only (in theory, less liquid that long-short) large-cap program that has a zero-day lockup. One might ask why. Our answer is "marketing." Investors (particularly pros) are a lot less reluctant to give you money if they can get out on an instant's notice.

Lockups are really only necessary for strategies such as event-driven or distressed assets. The hedge fund industry mostly uses lockups to keep control of its assets. Recall how the recent ('06) Greenwich-based fund went guts-up and tried to manipulate its reports to shareholders to have the latter miss a redemption deadline.

Brian Haag adds:

If the funds are algorithmically managed, they are a short. Fixed systems die. If the funds are actively managed, they are a short. They will not attract the talent that 2/20 type arrangements will, and will thus be the mark at the table.

This whole "you can replicate any hedge fund strategy by adding beta and a few formulas" meme is no different from the "You can beat Wall Street at its own game!" type hucksterism so prevalent in the late 90s. It's just marketing crapola. While the base idea may be sound, that you don't have to get involved in hedge funds to receive average returns, so what? The only possible outperformance in products like these is relative to managers with subpar returns. It's all just another way for the industry to sell average performance.

Managers who do add alpha are very happy about this whole development. It's another source of edge. One needs to look no further than the "Goldman roll" in commodities to see an example.

Charles Sorkin adds:

I have been offered structured notes (intended to be re-offered to our customers) that pay interest based on the Tremont hedge fund indices. Depending on the degree of index participation desired, investors have the option to have total return floored at zero percent (principal guaranteed, like a bank note). Naturally, the secondary market for such a thing is limited, but it's still better than a hedge fund lock-up. Moreover, the issuer is generally an AA-rated large European bank.

Need to get more aggressive? Just buy 'em on margin…

Henrik Andersson adds:

Some of these structured products, which are particularly popular in Europe, are selling with a participation rate of 100% and no Asian etc. This is strange since it seems you get the put for free; but in these cases the cost of the option is most likely taken from the fees of the underlying funds.

Mar

20

A Swiss bank's research says Alt-A and Subprime adjustable mortgages account for 13.8% of outstanding first lien mortgages. Let's say a third of those were issued most recently, populating the oft-cited cratering indices. That would be around 4.55% of outstandings.

Now, let's say a quarter of those are in trouble. That would be 1.14% of outstandings. Finally, let's say the underlying value of the paper is only 60 cents on the dollar, for a 40% haircut. Forty percent of 1.14% is 0.46%, a loss of 46 bp of outstandings.

Away from the human tragedies of folks losing their houses, etc., it is very hard for me to come up with a scenario where a market-wide loss of less than half a percent foreshadows material macro fallout.

Bear in mind the securities losses will be concentrated in funky first-to-die paper, much of which is held overseas. And the unfortunate folks losing their homes weren't among the economy's biggest spenders.

Bud Conrad writes:

I like your method of looking at the situation. I come up with a worse number starting with the Alt A added into the sub prime as likely candidates for failure added in. Another view has Alt A about 18% of new issues in 2006 for $350B according to inside MBS & ABS. Subprime was 25% of new lending in 2005 and was said to be $600B.

Combining these gets closer to 40% or say a third of the loans for a guess. I leave one reduction step out entirely, the number of such loans just recently, as they might all have some risk.

I give a higher recovery rate of 75% so 25% loss. Now apply the 25% in trouble, and I get 30% X 25% X 25% = 1.9%

2% loss on all mortgages would be much worse in the sector that I suggested was 30%, more like 6% to them. So I can concoct a problematic, if not catastrophic scenario on this back of a napkin.

Charles Sorkin adds:

I'm not sure the focusing on the dollars lost directly through bad loans is the proper approach for predicting the impact on the economy going forward. After all, with prices of lower-rated residential mortgage backed securities now well below par, much of that money has already been lost, and with the GSEs playing a diminished role these days, much of that money has been lost by private entities.

Tighter lending standards will reduce the amount of consumer spending that was derived from cash-out refinances. Homeowners that do not default on their ARMs will still have less discretionary income to support purchases of big-ticket items (cars, appliances, retail electronic gizmos, etc.). Consumer psychology is generally such that negative headlines can easily convince the marginal buyer to put off homebuying for a couple of quarters. So on and so forth.

Will it be enough to generate a recession? Futures markets are now implying 2-3 rate cuts in 2007, so perhaps we are at a key rate-setting juncture Fed-wise. Keep in mind that if a rate-cut is implemented with the expressed hope that it will support adjustable-rate mortgage debt, it is important to keep in mind that many loans reset only annually.

Feb

11

 The moves in markets often seem to imitate the kinds of things we see in nature: in gas; in water; and in electricity. For example, the gentle back and forth of the stock market last week, gradually building up pressure and then exploding on the downside, is like a cork bursting from a bottle of champagne, or a volcano erupting.

In electronic circuits we often see a signal gently oscillating between set points, then gathering a slight bit of amplitude on one side or the other, and finally tripping the set point thereby triggering a major change in the output. In capacitor resistor circuits, we find the same buildup of charge, with little change in the output until the time constant of the capacitor is fulfilled and the output suddenly and dramatically changes.

The reason for these similarities is they are all results of various energy conservation laws. Energy coming into a system cannot just disappear. One major conservation law in electronics is Kirchoff's Current law. It holds that current going into the confluence of two wires equals the current coming out. Another major law is Kirchoff's voltage law. It states the voltage that's input to a closed circuit is equal to all the voltage used up in work in the circuit.

I find the major applications of conservation laws in markets relating to some input from outside a system. Usually, some information or money flow gets distributed to the various components, companies, and markets of the system. A major merger announcement affects not just one company but all companies related to it. An increase in liquidity in the system gets distributed according to market's laws similar to Kirchoff's laws in electronics.

Click here for information on Kirchoff's laws.

To be continued.

Philip McDonnell adds:

 Two summers ago, in Central Park, the Chair said something to me which was at once profound yet seemingly too simple. "There is only so much money." That was all that he said. To someone who did not understand, it would seem rather sophomoric or even downright cryptic. But it was all he needed to say because I had read his books.

The statement referred to a simple conservation law much like the conservation laws of physics. In physics energy and mass are the most significant variables in most mechanical systems. So we have laws such as the Conservation of Energy, Conservation of Mass and Conservation of Momentum. In financial markets a similar law applies. Money is conserved. At any given time 'there is only so much money'.

Let us imagine an island economy where there are only two stocks X and Y. There is only so much money on the island. When the traders on the island decide they want to invest in X they need to figure out how to pay for the purchase. The only liquid source of money is stock Y. So they sell Y. The price of X goes up and Y goes down.

Let us draw this on an X-Y coordinate plot and assign some real numbers to it. The relationship between X and Y would show up as a line from high up on the Y axis sloping downward to some point of a large X value. Suppose the amount of money were $100. If everyone wanted to own Y and no one wanted X then we would have Y=100, X=0. Conversely if everyone wanted X and not Y then Y=0 and X=100.

We can think of the distance of the current market valuations as the distance from the origin that is equal to the buying power of the money. It is a simple conservation law on our island. The $100 defines a radius from the origin. It thus defines a circle. It is easy to draw on a two-dimensional chart or even in 3D. Drawing a 5000 dimensional sphere for the 5000 actively traded stocks is a project still in progress.

Charles Sorkin adds:

Is it not the beauty of Eurodollars that since there is no reserve requirement (being out of the country and not under the auspices of the Fed), foreign banks can create and loan as many dollars as they want? 

Gregory van Kipnis adds:

Not quite. After the Eurodollar blew up in 1974, central bankers convened at the behest of the Bank of England to put a lid on the runaway growth of the Eurodollar market. It was agreed that each CB would be responsible for defaults of the banks they regulate even if the default were in the Eurodollar market. Following that, each foreign CB put reserve requirements on Eurodollar deposits.

From: George R. Zachar:

Not quite. After the eurodollar blow up in 1974 of Bank Herstadt, central bankers convened at the behest of the Bank of England to put a lid on the runaway growth of the eurodollar market. It was agreed that each CB would be responsible for defaults of the banks they regulate even if the default were in the eurodollar market. Following that, each foreign CB put reserve requirements on eurodollar deposits. /Gregory van Kipnis/

Given

1) That central banks are increasingly players themselves,

2) The clubby incestuous relationships within the govt/bank community in places like Italy,

3) The fact that one major central bank has had a high official murdered by someone he regulated (Russia),

4) The asset explosion in nations whose financial infrastructure hasn't been tested (the Gulf States),

5) The nil possibility that govt bankers grok the array and scope of derivatives…

I would not assume the central banking clerisy is on top of things. They might be, but there's reason for doubt.

Easan Katir writes:

The moves in markets often seem to imitate the kinds of things we see in nature… VN

 To continue the Chair's analogy, it would seem the next practical question is how do we predictively discover the impedance of that market capacitor which discharged on February 8, provided the "3 of a kind," then tripped another point of capacitance and surged in the opposite direction for the past 4 days? What voltmeter can we use to measure the current passing through?

Or is this market more like a big kid bouncing on a "40-day moving average" trampoline for the past seven months?
 

Feb

6

 Is anyone on the list familiar with real estate or related investment aspects of Bucharest, Romania?

A friend is doing some work in Bucharest and asks my advice about her idea of investing her entire life savings buying (rather than renting) an apartment there. Sounds a little crazy to me, even if Romania's recent EU membership is causing a boom. Does anyone have any knowledge or insight that would change my view?

Charles Sorkin writes:

What's the real underlying question here? It's easy to look at the performance data on loans that were originated with strong underwriting standards (like Freddie Mac mortgages) and conclude that the middle class credit-worthy borrowers aren't having many problems. Not surprising… these are high-quality loans to people with jobs, and who had their down payments on hand.

It might also be safe to assume that there will be buyers of last resort to support prices of properties foreclosed upon from sub-prime borrowers.

Thus, in answer to the question: "How is the real estate market?"… one could say that it is holding up reasonably well.

But is that what macro investors care about? Or ought we to be more concerned with the question: Will the financial difficulties encountered by sub-prime borrowers be sufficient to diminish consumer spending and trigger a recession?

Jaime Klein writes:

(1) Romania is a new member of the European Union, so its currency is strong and stable, property rights are safe, it is melting into the Eastern wing of the Union (Hungary, Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Poland) and real estate prices are very fast leveling with those countries'. Your niece arrived late to the party. Bucharest is Europe again and real estate prices are rocketing, it is difficult to find something reasonable in dollar terms. Five years ago prices were dirt cheap, and even a year ago you could find good value.

(2) Real estate development in Eastern Europe (and increasingly in Russia itself) is dominated by Israeli companies. They had people familiar with the area and the languages, and they entered very early in the local residential and commercial construction business. Eastern Europe's first mall was built by Motti Zisser (Elbit Medical - it is not a pharma co.) and it was a great success. He was followed by about a hundred Israeli developers, many quoted in TASE (Summit, Ahora, Olympia, Ofek, Yoab, Africa Israel, which is unrelated to Africa. It is a holding company with vast real estate business in Russia, owned by Lev Levayev), Kardan, Profit, Dor, Damari, Rothstein, Dori, etc. The sector doubled its value in 2006 and is still growing very fast. Most of them had been silently accumulating land in expectation of the countries becoming members of the European Union and are well positioned to take advantage of the coming boom.

(3) On the level of anecdote, I returned to Hungary ten years ago, when the government gave back the properties "nationalized" in 1948 from the "bourgeois" class. I went to see a "forest" (erdo) that the Communists took from my Father. My forest had become the downtown of that provincial capital. I accepted to be compensated with certificates and gave up all claims to the land. Others bought factories and property with those certificates; I sold them. Those who bought real estate saw their investment's value go up 1000%. Budapest's prices are now equal to those of the rest of Europe, and it can be presumed that the same will happen to Bucharest's in a few years from now.


(4) The action is moving to further frontiers like Ukrayna (which actually means border lands) and oil-rich Central Asian towns. If your niece wants to invest in a nice historic town with mild Black Sea climate and great untapped potential, I think Odessa would be a good place to look around.

 

Dec

1

I have heard, although I have not checked, that the average time it takes the Fed to ease after the ISM drops below 50 is ~2.5 months.

George Zachar responds:

Second humble gif. answers this question.

 

Sep

27

This past weekend I had an opportunity to drive through the High Sierras along the Tioga Road, which is generally passable only during June (sometimes July) through October. While taking the time to leisurely absorb the magnificent scenery all around, granite domes, rugged canyon vistas, a sequoia grove, hanging valleys and pristine mountain lakes and meadows, I also had time to consider the behavior of the bears about which one is so thoroughly warned by the rangers. As I considered how to express some of the nature of such beasts and how it parallels the notion of bear markets, I came across the following excerpt from John Muir's My First Summer in the Sierras, and I realized that it would be all but impossible for me to express these sentiments in my own words with such eloquence. I think that it is an excellent preface to any study of the nature of bear markets.

So I crept to a low ridge of moraine boulders on the edge of a narrow garden meadow, and in this meadow I felt pretty sure the bear must be. I was anxious to get a good look at the sturdy mountaineer without alarming him; so drawing myself up noiselessly back of one of the largest of the trees I peered past its bulging buttresses, exposing only a part of my head, and there stood neighbor Bruin within a stone's throw, his hips covered by tall grass and flowers, and his front feet on the trunk of a fir that had fallen out into the meadow, which raised his head so high that he seemed to be standing erect. He had not yet seen me, but was looking and listening attentively, showing that in some way he was aware of our approach. I watched his gestures and tried to make the most of my opportunity to learn what I could about him, fearing he would catch sight of me and run away. For I had been told that this sort of bear, the cinnamon, always ran from his bad brother man, never showing fight unless wounded or in defense of young. He made a telling picture standing alert in the sunny forest garden. How well he played his part, harmonizing in bulk and color and shaggy hair with the trunks of the trees and lush vegetation, as natural a feature as any other in the landscape. After examining at leisure, noting the sharp muzzle thrust inquiringly forward, the long shaggy hair on his broad chest, the stiff erect ears nearly buried in hair, and the slow heavy way he moved his head, I thought I should like to see his gait in running, so I made a sudden rush at him, shouting and swinging my hat to frighten him, expecting to see him make haste to get away. But to my dismay he did not run or show any sign of running. On the contrary, he stood his ground ready to fight and defend himself, lowered his head, thrust it forward, and looked sharply and fiercely at me. Then I suddenly began to fear that upon me would fall the work of running; but I was afraid to run, and therefore, like the bear, held my ground. We stood staring at each other in solemn silence within a dozen yards or thereabouts, while I fervently hoped that the power of the human eye over wild beasts would prove as great as it is said to be. How long our awfully strenuous interview lasted, I don't know; but at length in the slow fullness of time he pulled his huge paws down off the log, and with magnificent deliberation turned and walked leisurely up the meadow, stopping frequently to look back over his shoulder to see whether I was pursuing him, then moving on again, evidently neither fearing me very much nor trusting me. He was probably about five hundred pounds in weight, a broad rusty bundle of ungovernable wildness, a happy fellow whose lines have fallen in pleasant places. The flowery glade in which I saw him so well, framed like a picture, is one of the best of all I have yet discovered, a conservatory of Nature's precious plant people. Tall lilies were swinging their bells over that be ar's back, with geraniums, larkspurs, columbines, and daisies brushing against his sides. A place for angels, one would say, instead of bears. In the great cañons Bruin reigns supreme. Happy fellow, whom no famine can reach while one of his thousand kinds of food is spared him. His bread is sure at all seasons, ranged on the mountain shelves like stores in a pantry.

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