The most useful part of the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, according to the eponymous novel by the late Douglas Adams, is that it has the words Dont Panic written on the cover in large friendly letters. ETF investors would do well to take those words to heart.
Monday, dozens of ETFs traded well below fair value in the morning, and yesterday, pundits and reporters were scrambling to extract proximal causes and juicy headlines from the chaos. I spent Monday staring at tapes and reviewing timelines, and heres what I think: the market did exactly what its designed to do, what it was told to do, and what its been regulated to do. If you find that slightly scary, well, maybe you should . . . and maybe you shouldnt.
My poster child for Mondays craziness is the Guggenheim Equal Weight S&P 500 ETF. I chose this ETF for a few reasons. First, it was one of the stocks most heavily hit in the May 2010 flash crash, and second, I like to imagine if I were a market maker or an engineer designing trading algorithms, itd be an easy mark.
Its liquid, with over a million shares a day trading hands, but not so liquid that theres no opportunity to arbitrage out price differences or make money on the spread. Its underlying securities are ridiculously easy to trade, and in a worst case scenario, you can hedge any RSP position with any S&P 500 derivative or ETF and for a short period of time and get pretty close.
RSP got hit hard Monday before it recovered, trading below $50 when fair value for the underlying stocks never dropped below $71.
So what happened? Lets go in time series order.
On a normal day, the designated market makers at the NYSE fire pre-opening indications of where they intend to start making a market what their best bid and offer is going to be. Because of the chaos of Fridays trading, the NYSE opted to invoke the rarely used Rule 48. Rule 48 effectively lets the DMMs not tell anyone where things are going to open until they start trading, removing a level of information from the market.
But remember, not every trade has to go through the market maker, and not every trade has to go through the exchange. So before the open, we had bids and asks being put up on Nasdaq in the range of $70.50 to buy and $74.19 to sell a very wide opening spread which implies to me that the market makers were either waiting for the dust to settle or very nervous about the opening trade.
The market opened with an opening cross of some 70k shares at $72.52 on NYSE, right in the middle of that advertised spread and probably close to the fair value as best anyone could guess (chaos was reigning in S&P 500 stocks at the same time, so its a bit of guesswork). That opening auction seems to have gone off without a hitch and pretty rationally.
But thats when things get squirrelly. While technically trades were occurring right from the start, the best bid/ask was from Nasdaq for the first 20 seconds or so of trading and very wide: $59.22 to buy and somewhere between $65 and $75 to sell.
In those opening seconds, roughly 100,000 shares changed hands in very small lots (many under 100 shares, many of a single share) between $74 and $65. That lower boundary trading triggered the first of 10 halts.
Between 9:30:28 and 10:30:06, nearly a full hour, trading in RSP only occurred in 15 to 30 second bursts between halts. The current single stock circuit breaker rule is that any move of more than 10% within a five minute window triggers a halt. So trading halted four times on down moves and six times on up moves as it recovered.
In each window, the tape looks something like this:
The pattern is consistent: most trades flagged as Intermarket Sweep, which means its a market order to take out the book. Tons of them are odd lots, including many single share trades. In fact, during the hour long halt window, 4,079 trades occurred in the 2:29 minutes that RSP was open. Of them, 1,371 were for less than 100 shares.
The other thing to note is the crazy imbalance of advertised bids and offers. During the rundown, there were effectively no advertised offers to buy. Once RSP started to recover, the buyers came in in droves, and the market couldnt process the orders fast enough to clear them out during the narrow windows when RSP traded. For much of the period, the total advertised size on the bid was less than 100 shares, while there were tens of thousands on the ask.
Heres my interpretation of what happened, recognizing that this is voodoo tea-leaf reading.
For most investors, a day like Monday simply wont matter because theyre smart enough to treat their ETFs not as bets to be put on and off the table on a whim, but as long-term asset allocation vehicles. From that perspective, RSPand all the other ETFs that had hiccupsare still doing just what they say they do, day in and day out. Its only by wading into the madness on purpose that your experience will differ.
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