Category Archives: asset markets

8/6/20: 30 years of Financial Markets Manipulation


Students in my course Applied Investment and Trading in TCD would be familiar with the market impact of the differential bid-ask spreads in intraday trading. For those who might have forgotten, and those who did not take my course, here is the reminder: early in the day (at and around market opening times), spreads are wide and depths of the market are thin (liquidity is low); late in the trading day (closer to market close), spreads are narrow and depths are thick (liquidity is higher). Hence, a trading order placed near market open times tends to have stronger impact by moving the securities prices more; in contrast, an equally-sized order placed near market close will have lower impact.

Now, you will also remember that, in general, investment returns arise from two sources: 
  1. Round-trip trading gains that arise from buying a security at P(1) and selling it one period later at P(2), net of costs of buy and sell orders execution; and 
  2. Mark-to-market capital gains that arise from changes in the market-quoted price for security between times P(1) and P(2+).
The long-running 'Strategy' used by some institutional investors is, therefore as follows: 
Here is the illustration of the 'Strategy' via Bruce Knuteson paper "Celebrating Three Decades of Worldwide Stock Market Manipulation", available here: https://arxiv.org/pdf/1912.01708.pdf.
  • Step 1: Accumulate a large long portfolio of assets;
  • Step 2: At the start of the day, buy some more assets dominating your portfolio at P(1) - generating larger impact of your buy orders, even if you are carrying a larger cost adverse to your trade;
  • Step 3: At the end of the day, sell at P(2) - generating lower impact from your sell orders, again carrying the cost.

On a daily basis, you generate losses in trading account, as you are paying higher costs of buy and sell orders (due to buy-sell asymmetry and intraday bid-ask spreads differences), but you are also generating positive impact of buy trades, net of sell trades, so you are triggering positive mark-to-market gains on your original portfolio at the start of the day.

Knuteson shows that, over the last 30 years, overnight returns in the markets vastly outstrip intraday returns. 



Per author, "The obvious, mechanical explanation of the highly suspicious return patterns shown in Figures 2 and 3 is someone trading in a way that pushes prices up before or at market open, thus causing the blue curve, and then trading in a way that pushes prices down between market open (not including market open) and market close (including market close), thus causing the green curve. The consistency with which this is done points to the actions of a few quantitative trading firms rather than
the uncoordinated, manual trading of millions of people."

Sounds bad? It is. Again, per Knuteson: "The tens of trillions of dollars your use of the Strategy has created out of thin air have mostly gone to the already-wealthy: 
  • Company executives and existing shareholders benefi tting directly from rising stock prices; 
  • Owners of private companies and other assets, including real estate, whose values tend to rise and fall with the stock market; and 
  • Those in the financial industry and elsewhere with opportunities to privatize the gains and socialize the losses."

These gains to capital over the last three decades have contributed directly and signi ficantly to the current level of wealth inequality in the United States and elsewhere. As a general matter, widespread mispricing leads to misallocation of capital and human effort, and widespread inequality negatively a effects our social structure and the perceived social contract."

25/2/2020: No, 2019-nCov did not push forward PE ratios to 2002 levels


Markets are having a conniption these days and coronavirus is all the rage in the news flow.  Here is the 5 days chart for the major indices:

And it sure does look like a massive selloff.

Still, hysteria aside, no one is considering the simple fact: the markets have been so irrationally priced for months now, that even with the earnings being superficially inflated on per share basis by the years of rampant buybacks and non-GAAP artistry, the PE ratios are screaming 'bubble' from any angle you look at them.

Here is the Factset latest 20 years comparative chart for forward PEs:


You really don't need a PhD in Balck Swannery Studies to get the idea: we are trending at the levels last seen in 1H 2002. Every sector, save for energy and healthcare, is now in above 20 year average territory.  Factset folks say it as it is: "One year prior (February 20, 2019), the forward 12-month P/E ratio was 16.2. Over the following 12 months (February 20, 2019 to February 19, 2020), the price of the S&P 500 increased by 21.6%, while the forward 12-month EPS estimate increased by 4.1%. Thus, the increase in the “P” has been the main driver of the increase in the P/E ratio over the past 12 months."

So, about that 'Dow is 5.8% down in just five days' panic: the real Black Swan is that it takes a coronavirus to point to the absurdity of our markets expectations.

11/1/19: Herding: the steady state of the uncertain markets


Markets are herds. Care to believe in behavioral economics or not, safety is in liquidity and in benchmarking. Both mean that once large investors start rotating out of one asset class and into another, the herd follows, because what everyone is buying is liquid, and when everyone is buying, they are setting benchmark expected returns. If you, as a manager, perform in line with the market, you are safe at the times of uncertainty and ambiguity. In other words, it is better to bet on losing or underperforming alongside the crowd of others, than to bet on a more volatile expected returns, even though these might offer a higher upside.

How does this work? Here:


Everyone loves Corporate debt, until everyone runs out of it and into Government debt. Everyone hates Government debt, until everyone hates corporate debt. It's ugly. But it is real. Herding is what drives markets, even though everyone is keen on paying analysts top dollar not to herd.

11/1/19: Herding: the steady state of the uncertain markets


Markets are herds. Care to believe in behavioral economics or not, safety is in liquidity and in benchmarking. Both mean that once large investors start rotating out of one asset class and into another, the herd follows, because what everyone is buying is liquid, and when everyone is buying, they are setting benchmark expected returns. If you, as a manager, perform in line with the market, you are safe at the times of uncertainty and ambiguity. In other words, it is better to bet on losing or underperforming alongside the crowd of others, than to bet on a more volatile expected returns, even though these might offer a higher upside.

How does this work? Here:


Everyone loves Corporate debt, until everyone runs out of it and into Government debt. Everyone hates Government debt, until everyone hates corporate debt. It's ugly. But it is real. Herding is what drives markets, even though everyone is keen on paying analysts top dollar not to herd.

15/11/18: BIS on payments systems and cryptos / blockchain


On November 1, Agustín Carstens, General Manager, Bank for International Settlements delivered a pretty punchy speech on the topic of payments systems evolution in modern age of digital technologies. Punchy, in the sense that much of it is focused on, indirectly, enlisting the evidence as to the lack of the markets for the blockchain and cryptocurrencies deployment in the payments systems at the wholesale and retail levels.

Take the following:  "One of the most significant developments in the evolution of money has been its electronification and, more recently, digitalisation. ...Realtime gross settlement (RTGS) systems for interbank payments, ...emerged in the 1980s. ...RTGS systems allow banks and other financial institutions to send money to each other with immediate and final settlement. They are typically operated by central banks and process critical (read: high-value) payments to allow for the smooth functioning of the economy. Today, the top interbank payment systems in the G20 countries settle more than $17.5 trillion a day, which is over 50 times a working day’s global GDP. ...Given the technology cycle, many central banks are currently looking at next-generation RTGS systems to offer more robust operations and enhanced services."

What does this imply for the world of cryptos? In simple terms, there is no market for cryptos as platforms for interbank payments settlements - the market is already served and the speed of services, cost and security are underpinned by the Central Banks.

Next up: retail payments systems.

Starting with back office: "For retail payment systems, ...in Mexico consumer payments operate at the same speed as interbank payments... The beneficiary of a payment is credited money in near real time. That is, if I were to send you money from my Mexican bank account, you would see the funds in your Mexican bank account in 15 seconds or less. ...Based on a BIS analysis, fast payment systems are likely to become the dominant retail payment system by 2023."

Again, what's the market for blockchain systems to be deployed here? I am not convinced there is one, especially as payments latency and costs are, to-date, more prohibitive under blockchain systems than using traditional payments platforms.

Front office: Carstens notes the progress achieved in delivering what he describes as "payments ... made using bank account aliases" in Argentina that are instant in time, and the ongoing trend toward development of the front-end payments interfaces, based on "cashless systems – no cashiers, no lines, no cash, no physical payment devices. Amazon and others envision a future where you walk into a store, take what you want, and are automatically billed for the items using facial recognition and artificial intelligence. Though this approach may seem a bit scary, it is less so than having microchips implanted inside us, which some firms are also piloting! To be frank, though, neither of these options – facial recognition or microchip implants – are particularly appealing to me."

Carstens presents the evidence that shows current Advanced Economies already carrying more than 90 percent of wholesale payments via cheap, lightning fast and highly secure centralized RTGS systems, with 75 percent of payments via the same occurring in the Emerging Markets:


Given this rate of adoption, coupled with the evolving technology curve (that enables similar systems to be deployed in smaller settlements), one has to question the extent to which cryptocurrency solutions can be deployed in the payments systems.

Beyond the not-too-optimistic view of the market niche size, cryptos and blockchain are also facing some serious pressure points from already ongoing innovation in centralized clearance systems. "Although much attention has been focused on cryptocurrencies as the “it” innovation in payments, there’s much unheralded innovation going on" in the Central Banks and elsewhere (read: legacy providers of payments). "Central banks have been pushing the boundaries of what technology can achieve for operational robustness, including switching seamlessly between data centres at short notice and synchronising geographically dispersed data centres."

Carstens notes the potential for the distributed Ledger Tech (aka, blockchain based on private, enterprise-level blockchain) in this space, where innovation is also a domain of the centralized players, as opposed to decentralised crypto markets. "One interesting development in the central banking community is ongoing experimentation with distributed ledger technology (DLT) as a means to enhance operational robustness. People often use DLT and Bitcoin interchangeably, but they are not the same! ...DLT is simply a set of processes and technologies that enable multiple computers to maintain collectively a common database. DLT does not mean mining of coins, public ledgers and open networks. And no central bank that I’m aware of is contemplating these properties in its DLT experimentation."

There are some problems, however, for DLT enthusiasts:
1) "...a Bank of Canada study noting that a DLT-based payment system meeting central bank requirements would be similar to what we have today (ie private ledgers, closed networks and a central operator). The difference is that a network of computers would be used to settle a transaction instead of one computer." In other words, there is a case, yet to be proven, that DLT offers anything new to the payments systems to begin with.
2) "The second is an ECB and Bank of Japan study concluding that processing times would be three times longer using DLT versus current systems." In other words, DLT/blockchain cannot deliver, so far, on its main premise: higher processing efficiency than legacy systems.




Carstens sums it up: "My take is that current versions of DLT are not any better than what we already have today."

In other words: DLT/blockchain solutions appear to be:

  • Not necessary: the technology is attempting to solve the problems that do not exist in the payments systems;
  • Inefficient with respect to its core tenants/promises: the technology is inferior to existent solutions and the pipeline of ongoing improvements to the legacy systems.
Which begs two questions that the DLT/blockchain community needs to answer: What niche can blockchain occupy in payments systems going forward? and Is there a sustainable market within that niche that cannot be captured by alternative technologies?

But there is more. Carstens explains: "Cryptocurrencies, such as Bitcoin, Ether and Tether, do not serve the core functions of money. No cryptocurrency is a true unit of account or a payment instrument, and we have seen this year that they are a poor store of value. This then raises the question: what are they?" The answer should be a wake up call for anyone still long cryptos: "From my perspective, cryptocurrencies are, at best, an asset of some sort. Perhaps an asset comparable to a piece of art for those who appreciate cryptography. Buyers of cryptocurrencies are buying into nothing more than a software algorithm. Some firms are trying to back cryptocurrencies with an underlying asset, such as cash or securities. That sounds nice, but it’s the equivalent of making art from banknotes or stock certificates. The buyer is still buying an idea or a concept or, if you will, an asset that is the equivalent of art hanging on your wall. If people want the underlying asset, they might be better served just buying that."

Carstens previously (February 2018) claimed that the #cryptos are “combination of a bubble, a Ponzi scheme and an environmental disaster.”

Nice perspective. If you are an observer. For a holder of cryptos, this is a serious risk. Playing cards in a casino is fun, but it is not investing. Playing investing in the cryptos world is probably the same.


Note: for an even more 'in your face' assessment of the #Bitcoin and #Cryptos, there is ECB's Executive Board member, Benoit Coeure, who called #BTC the “evil spawn of the [2008] financial crisis, per Bloomberg report of November 15 (https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2018-11-15/cryptocurrencies-are-evil-spawn-of-the-crisis-for-ecb-s-coeure).

The reality of #cryptos investments is that they are, empirically, a massively overvalued bet on the largely undeveloped and unproven (in real world applications) technologies that have only tangential relation to the coins currently traded in the markets. It is, in a way, a derivative bet on a future contract.