This Investment Strategy Is Completely Driven By Fake News (And It’s A Real Danger)

“Fake news” is a particularly provocative concept applied to market forecasts now that central banks have destroyed free markets and free thought after the financial crisis. Guesses about where the market is going – and believe me, they are only guesses, some more educated than others – may appear to be grounded in facts and figures but ultimately tell us more about the psychology of the forecaster than anything meaningful about the markets.

Right now, there is overwhelming consensus among forecasters that 2017 is going to be a good year for stocks and a bad year for bonds. The fact that virtually no strategist, and certainly no strategist working for a large financial institution, is calling for stocks to decline should be taken with a grain of salt. They never call for stocks to decline (and if they do they are dismissed as “permabears” and treated with disdain). They are paid to publish bullish forecasts, which renders their advice worthless. Broken clocks can’t tell time. Like large metropolitan newspapers (you know which ones I’m talking about) whose readership is plunging because news is freely available elsewhere and their tired editorial views are discredited by the experiences of their readers, Wall Street is digging its own grave through its own obvious inauthenticity.

That inauthenticity is especially toxic when it leads to passive investment strategies like this one.

This investment vehicle is the perfect product for a world of fake news, as it relies entirely on the suppression of individual thought. It is a disturbing rabbit hole of consensus thinking and if you fall down it, you may never find your way back out.

I nearly got sucked down this hole myself a couple of years ago. Here’s how you can avoid it.

The ETF Phenomenon Distorts The Markets In A Dangerous Way

Inside ETFs is a massive annual ETF conference held every January in Hollywood, Florida. I attended it a couple of years ago when, in a momentary lapse of judgement that will not be repeated, I briefly considered managing a high yield bond ETF. Fortunately I came to my senses and abandoned the project. I have attended and spoken at many large investment conferences going back to the famous Drexel Burnham Junk Bond Conferences of the 1980s, but Inside ETFs ranks among the largest and most overheated conferences I ever witnessed. It reminds me – and this is not a good thing – of the securitization conferences of the 2000s held in Las Vegas (they were featured in the film The Big Short) that grew larger and larger until they (along with the mortgage industry) imploded during the financial crisis of 2008.

ETFs have come to play an outsized role in the markets; like virtually anything that Wall Street touches, they are prone to excess and unintended consequences. Passively investing in ETFs seems to be the order of the day though I strongly believe that active strategies in the right hands will always outperform passive investments over the long run. The problem, however, is that the number of truly capable active managers is extremely limited, something investors are only beginning to discover in a central bank inflated market but will be overwhelmed with when the market runs into serious trouble again. Until then, however, they will continue to close their eyes, park their brains at the door, and buy ETFs.

The structural or technical problem that ETFs introduce into markets is that they create a momentum engine whereby the value of the stocks or bonds that are included in the largest and most liquid ETFs are inflated by the liquidity that flows into these vehicles. Since Election Day, a flood of money flowed into equity ETFs. And in all of 2016, investors poured $375 billion into ETFs, more than the $348 billion they invested in 2015 according to Blackrock. This liquidity was not attracted to the individual stocks or bonds owned by the ETFs but to the overall basket of stocks and bonds held by the vehicle.  This divorces the value of the individual holdings from their fundamental financial condition. As new money pushes the value of an ETF higher, it also pushes the value of individual stocks or bonds in the ETF higher without regard to their fundamentals, distorting prices and creating artificial demand that exacerbates individual stock or bond risk and systemic risk. This is exactly what happened in the securitization market with respect to debt instruments like corporate bank loans and mortgages in the years leading up to the financial crisis.  I need not remind readers that the story didn’t end well.

There is abundant evidence that stocks and bonds that are included in large ETFs trade at premiums to those that find themselves excluded from these popular vehicles, creating trading opportunities but also distorting capital flows and setting markets up for greater volatility and potential dislocations. If history chooses to rhyme this time, a lot of people are going to be singing the blues.

Do you think passive strategies, computer-driven trading and ETFs would flourish in a world where independent thinking was valued? Of course not. ETFs are truly the perfect investment product for a world of “fake news,” which means you need to be aware of how they distort the prices of the stocks and bonds they own.  They still serve an important purpose, especially those that track established indexes like SPDR S&P 500 ETF Trust (NYSEARCA: SPY) or that provide exposure to certain sectors like gold miners like the ones I recommend in my 2017 forecast.  And of course, they can be used to create opportunities on the short side, some of which you can find here.



18 Responses to “This Investment Strategy Is Completely Driven By Fake News (And It’s A Real Danger)”

  1. Well stated. Stock picking is dead (for now), until it isn’t. Investors have been more interested in how stocks correlate to various indices than they are to the stocks themselves. So, P/E’s have gotten really wacky, particularly in the large-cap, low-volatility stocks. Utilities trading at 20+ P/E multiples, let’s get real here… I appreciate the guys at Sure Money and Nova-X doing the *real* research, not just tracking what everyone else is doing.

  2. Great advice. Especially for the new or novice investor, like myself. I’m beginning to see that history does, in fact, repeat itself. If you want to be assured of your survival, lead the pack. Alpha’s are assured to eat. If you’re a sheep, follow the masses. I’m sure we all know the outcome of the sheep?

  3. You may be right in the long run but in the short run the fed is on the side of the markets and the markets are probably heading higher.
    I have been bearish equities for the past 5 years and long gold.
    Interest rates are heading higher but at a snails pace.
    Not enough to derail markets for the next several years.
    Its hard to sit on the sidelines while everyone else is making money.
    Probably the best way to play the markets is to be invested and keep those stops tight so you can’t get hurt.
    That’s my 2 cents worth.


  4. LaLaLand for sure, on top of it all a long wave of oil deflation is putting a one-year lid on the action, so when the music stops, the
    rally in oil stops too – short-term an increase in oil suredly, but in three, less than everyone expects – bad news for solar, for oil, and for the economy. The internet is deflationary, UBER and AIRBNB is deflationary but the are winners long-term! Why? Thermodynamics – waste is not a boon, it is at some point along the slow slow-down, merely a liability – airplanes will fly only so long. Peak Oil boys, peak oil…
    The caparaison between going from coal to oil is quaint, since this time around we are in one sense going from oil to coal, only
    electric (EROI approx. same) replaces COAL.

  5. One scary thing about ETFs is how they behave in stressful market conditions as the teams of droids in the back room try to continue mimic the action of their particular basket of stocks as liquidity drys up (especially when the HTF boys stop trading)

  6. William P. Dunn IV

    Momentum and volatility move in tandem together. I once was a institution Govt. bond broker @ Cantor Fitzgerald. The govt. bond market was the first to go electronic, then the NYSE after Dick Grasso left it’s helm and the finally the CBOT and the Merc. Broker’s were the eyes and ears for the top dogs trading. Those eyes and ears are now gone leading to increased volatility. When LTC crapped out in 97 or 98 the infallible “Brooks Shaw ” system of computer models failed created by the MIT rocket scientists. (those that can’t do teach) ET’s are another vehicle that can be used effectively ut is not a long term vehicle to own and retail clients need to understand this however most retail based Advisors are unaware of this fact. Selling beget’s selling and momentum now reigns supreme on Wall St. fundamentals now have no meaning any longer. When was the last time Amazon paid a dividend?????????? The answer NEVER. The proverbial kick the can down the road will continue and eventually the DAY OF RECKONING will arrive .We do have oe nownew piece of the puzzle: Al the state pensions that are now underfunded will not be able to use their secret bailout plan they had in place? A federal bailout California, Illinois, and my former sate of New Jersey voted for the “witch” and when in trouble will find no Wizard of Washington to bail them out. FYI to public dis-servants better start saving like the rest of us in the real world. But what do I know????????

  7. I agree with you completely, but it isn’t just the ETFs that are a problem. They have been set up to play a role in the market as a whole. The rules of that system are set up to protect the upside and artificially prevent against any downside events of any kind. The investing world has forgotten that nature is eventually going to have her way. The natural respiration cycle has been denied to the market as a whole for too long. It is stuck holding its breath. It will not be denied indefinitely, however. The pressure is building, and the repercussions of the inevitable out breath are going to be explosive when it finally takes place.

  8. […] But rather than their ignorance giving them pause, it is emboldening them and leading them to borrow record levels of margin debt (margin debt hit a record $528.2 billion in February) and express record levels of bullishness in various surveys at precisely the moment in time when they know the least about their investments!  For the moment, ignorance is bliss, but ignorance always ends in tears and this time will be no different.  When that happens, these park-their-brains-at-the-door investors will be screaming at their wealth managers and investment advisers and asking them to explain how they could possibly be losing money in the stock market since that isn’t supposed to happen in a world where central banks are supposed to bail everybody out.  But even their wealth managers and investment advisers don’t know anything about what’s inside these ETFs because the whole point of investing in these vehicles is to abdicate any responsibility to do fundamental research or think independently.  Instead, ETFs are the perfect vehicle for group thinkers in a world of fake news. (I’ve discussed the ETF phenomenon at greater length here.) […]

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