Category Archives: liquidity risk

31/5/20: S&P500 Shares Buybacks: Retained Earnings and Risk Hedging

Shares buybacks can have a severely destabilizing impact on longer term companies' valuations, as noted in numerous posts on this blog. In the COVID19 pandemic, legacy shares buybacks are associated with reduced cash reserves cushions and thiner equity floats for the companies that aggressively pursued this share price support strategy in recent years. Hence, logic suggests that companies more aggressively engaging in shares buybacks should exhibit greater downside volatility - de facto acting as de-hedging instrument for risk management.

Here is the evidence:

Note how dramatically poorer S&P500 Shares Buybacks index performance has been compared to the overall S&P500 in recent weeks. Since the start of March 2020, S&P500 Shares Buybacks index average daily performance measured in y/y returns has been -15.04%, against the S&P500 index overall performance of -0.89%. Cumulatively, at the end of this week, S&P500 Shares Buybacks index total return is down 10.18 percent against S&P500 total return of -0.967 percent.

While in good times companies have strong incentives to redistribute their returns to shareholders either through dividends or through share price supports or both, during the bad times having spare cash on balancesheet in the form of retained earnings makes all the difference. Or, as any sane person knows, insurance is a cost during the times of the normal, but a salvation during the times of shocks.

19/5/18: Leverage risk in investment markets is now systemic

Net margin debt is a measure of leverage investors carry in their markets exposures, or, put differently, the level of debt accumulated on margin accounts. Back at the end of March 2018, the level of margin debt in the U.S. stock markets stood at just under $645.2 billion, second highest on record after January 2018 when the total margin debt hit an all-time-high of $665.7 billion, prompting FINRA to issue a warning about the unsustainable levels of debt held by investors.

Here are the levels of gross margin debt:


And here is the net margin debt as a ratio to the markets valuation - a more direct measure of leverage, via Goldman Sachs research note:
Which is even more telling than the absolute gross levels of margin debt in the previous chart.

Per latest FINRA statistics (, as of the end of April 2018, debit balances in margin accounts rose to $652.3 billion, beating March levels

And things are even worse when we add leveraged ETFs to the total margin debt:

In simple terms, we are at systemic levels of risk relating to leverage in the equity markets.

8/4/18: Tail Risk and Liquidity Risk: What about that Alpha?

An interesting data set that illustrates two key concepts relating to financial returns, covered extensively in my courses:

  1. Liquidity risk factor - inducing added risk premium on lower liquidity assets; and
  2. The importance of large scale corrections in long term data series (geometric vs arithmetic averaging for returns)
Indirectly, the above also indicates the ambiguous nature of returns alpha (also a subject of my class presentations, especially in the Applied Investment & Trading course in MSc Finance, TCD): micro- small- and to a lesser extent mid-cap stocks selections are often used to justify alpha-linked fees by investment advisers. Of course, in all, ranking in liquidity risks helps explain much of geometric returns rankings, while across all, geometric averaging discount over arithmetic averaging returns helps highlight the differentials in tail risks.

Sounds pretty much on the money.

8/12/17: Coinbase to Bitcoin Flippers: You Might Flop

If you need to have a call to 'book profit', you are probably not a serious investor nor a seasoned trader. Then again, if you are 'into Bitcoin' you are probably neither anyway. Still, here is your call to "Go cash now!"

In simple terms, Coinbase is warning its customers that "access to Coinbase services may become degraded or unavailable during times of significant volatility or volume. This could result in the inability to buy or sell for periods of time." In other words, if there is a liquidity squeeze, there will be a liquidity squeeze.


So a couple of additions to this post, on foot of new stuff arriving.

One: Bloomberg-Businessweek report ( that some 40% of the entire Bitcoin supply is held by roughly 1,000 'whales'. Good luck seeing through the concentration risk on top of the collusion risk when they get together trading.

Two: Someone suggested to me that ICOs holding Bitcoin as capital reserves post-raising are part problem in the current markets because by withdrawing coins from trading, they are reducing liquidity. Which is not exactly what is happening.

Suppose an ICO buys or raises Bitcoins and holds these as a reserve. The supply of Bitcoin to the market is reduced, while demand for Bitcoins rises. This feeds into rising bid-ask spreads as more buyers are now chasing fewer coins with an intention to buy. Liquidity improves for the sellers of the coins and deteriorates for the buyers. Now, suppose there is a sizeable correction to the downside in Bitcoin price. ICOs are now having a choice - quickly sell Bitcoin to lock in some capital they raised or ride the rollercoaster in hope things will revert back to the rising price trend. Some will choose the first option, others might try to sit out. Those ICOs that opt to sell will be selling into a falling market, increasing supply of coins just as demand turns the other way. Liquidity for sellers will deteriorate. Prices will continue to fall. This cascade will prompt more ICOs to liquidate Bitcoins they hold, driving liquidity down even more. Along the falling prices trend, all sellers will pay higher trading costs, sustaining even more losses. Worse, as exchanges struggle to cover trades, liquidity will rapidly evaporate for sellers.

It is anybody's guess if liquidity crunch turns into a crisis. My bet - it will, because in quite simple terms, Bitcoin is already relatively illiquid: it takes hours to sell and spreads on trading are wide or more accurately, wild. Security of trading is questionable, as we have recently seen with, and the market is full of speculation that some of these 'heists' are insider jobs with some exchanges acting as pumps to suck coins out of clients' wallets. The rumours might be total conspiracy theory, but conspiracy theories turn out to be material in market panics.