As you may know, I met legendary investor Bill Ackman (Short Herbalife) in the first half of this year. He was taller and bulkier than I expected. Ackman speaks in a soft voice (to strangers of course) and has a firm handshake. My tiny hands were nothing compared to the strong hands of Mr. Bill Ackman.
In case you don’t know, Ackman is one of the world’s most famous hedge fund managers and activist investors. Pershing Square Capital Management net return was 40.4% in 2014, the highest among its peers. Since inception in 2004, Pershing Square posted net gains of 567.1% versus 135.3% return for the S&P 500. The hedge fund’s 1.5% base fee and 16% performance fee is low relative to industry standards.
Last Tuesday (September 13th), another legendary investor Carl Icahn (Long Herbalife) was right next to me at the Delivering Alpha and I didn’t even see him.
Yes, I know!!! Oh my god.
In case you don’t know, Icahn is one of the world’s most famous hedge fund managers and activist investors. As the chairman of Icahn Enterprises LP, Icahn says “Some people get rich studying artificial intelligence. Me, I make money studying natural stupidity” according to his Twitter bio. I love that quote.
How did this happen? During a coffee break before Stephen Schwarzman – Chairman, CEO, and Co-Founder of Blackstone (another legend) – was due to speak in front of investors, press, students (me unfortunately), etc…I lost my focus.
How did I lose my focus? I wanted to be on the cover of Institutional Investor magazine. Well, not the real magazine. There was a photo booth at the conference.
Why was the fake magazine cover so important? Besides being in love with finance, I wanted to get a picture of my handsomeness. Someone who works for NBC even told me I was handsome when I was leaving the event. My response was “I always look handsome” which is a fact.
…So here I am, stepping on the booth while Icahn is just passin’ by!
I was 5-10ft away from the man I admire and I didn’t even see him. I didn’t even notice the cameraman with a strong lighting. I noticed nothing. I was thinking about how I made it to the cover of Institutional Investors magazine and Forbes is next.
Here is the video of me on CNBC for the first time and Carl Icahn on the same screen.
CARL ICAHN: I really think he’s [BILL ACKMAN] a smart guy.
CARL ICAHN: I sort of like him [BILL ACKMAN]. I think he’s smart.
CARL ICAHN: I really believe Ackman being smart
I also think/believe Ackman is smart and so is Icahn.
I didn’t know Icahn was right next to me until I came home. At around 8:40 P.M, I come home. Until 10:24 P.M, I eat my dinner and some snacks, while checking emails and twitter, and reading news.
At 10:24 P.M, I’m scrolling through @CNBCnow twitter and that’s when I saw the video. My reaction was too graphic to describe it here.
The rest is history.
Delivering Alpha 2016 is one of the moments I will forever remember. I really enjoyed the conference and meeting people from the media and hedge fund world.
Although I came late to the conference, at around 1:40 P.M, and missed Ray Dalio, the experience was still amazing. Not just amazing, but also incredible, stunning, astonishing, etc.
Delivering alpha as a concept is all about beating the market. Over the past six years, the investment conference has brought many great investors who got a track record of actually delivering alpha to speak in front of audience.
CNBC and Institutional Investor hosted the annual Delivering Alpha conference at NYC’s Piere Hotel.
I will forever remember this day, September 13, 2016.
So far I met Ben Bernanke, Marcus Lemonis, Chamath Palihapitiyaa (CEO of Social Capital), Bill Ackman, and Carl Icahn. Who’s the next high-profile person I will meet? Janet Yellen? Mario Draghi? Warren Buffett? Stay tuned.
So far I made it to Bloomberg (for real) and Institutional Investors (literally), what’s next? Forbes? WSJ? Time Person of the Year? Stay tuned.
It’s only matter of time before I’m on stage at the Delivering Alpha and media asks me questions. Stay tuned.
Liquidity is the investor’s ability to buy and sell a security without significantly impacting its price. Lack of liquidity in a security can have its consequences. Post financial crisis regulations, such as Volcker Rule (Dodd-Frank), and Basel 3, has made it more expensive and more difficult for banks to store bonds in their inventories and facilitate trades for investors. Regulations designed to make the system more safer have depressed the trading activity.
Lack of supply is one cause for diminishing liquidity. Banks, the dealers of corporate bonds, have reduced their inventories. According to Bank for International Settlements (BIS), “Market participants have raised concerns that regulatory reforms, by raising the costs of warehousing assets, have contributed to reducing market liquidity and could be keeping banks from acting as shock absorbers during periods of market stress.”
According to BIS, “US primary dealers…have continued to reduce their corporate bond inventories over the past years. Since the beginning of the year 2013, they have cut back their net positions in U.S. Treasuries by nearly 80%.
Another big cause of decreasing in liquidity is technology. A technology that has changed the structure of markets, high-frequency trading (HFT), an algorithm computer trading in seconds and in fractions of seconds, account for much larger share of the trading transactions and it leads to low liquidity. Majority of HFTs, if not all, reduces liquidity by pairing selected (self-interest), leaving out others. According to BIS, 70% of U.S. Treasury trading is done electronically, up from 60% in 2012. For both high-yield bonds (not highly liquid asset), it accounts for more than 20%. About 90% of transactions on bond futures take place electronically. I have no doubt electronic trading will continue to increase.
“Greater use of electronic trading and enhanced transparency in fixed income markets typically comes at the cost of greater price impact from large trades.”, BIS said in the report. Bonds now trade in smaller transaction sizes than they did before, “… large trades seem less suitable for trading on electronic platforms because prices move quickly against participants who enter large orders due to the transparency of the market infrastructure.” “It “discourages market-makers from accommodating large trades if they fear that they cannot unwind their positions without risking a sizeable impact on prices.”
BIS in its quarterly review report (March 2015) stated (source: FINRA’s TRACE data), the average transaction size of large trades of U.S. investment grade corporate bonds (so-called “block trades”) declined from more than $25 million in 2006 to about $15 million in 2013.
This is a sign of illiquidity since “trading large amounts of corporate bonds has become more difficult.” Trades facing constrained liquidity puts investors, especially large investors, to a disadvantage.
Capacity to buy/sell without too much influence on the market prices are deteriorating. Lack of liquidity can causes wild swings in the bond prices, which then can affect the rest of the financial markets. Today’s financial markets are so connected just like the economic domino effects.
They are connected, but let me tell you why they are so important. The U.S Treasury securities market is the largest, the most liquid, and the most active debt market in the world. They are used to finance the government, and used by the Federal Reserve in implementing its monetary policy. I repeat, in implementing its monetary policy. Having a liquid market – in which having no problem buying and selling securities without affecting the market price – is very important to the market participants and policymakers alike.
Examples of high volatility in a low liquidity:
Flash Crash (May 2010)
In a matter of 30 minutes, major U.S. stock indices fell 10%, only to recover most of the losses before the end of the trading day. Some blue-chip shares briefly traded at pennies. WHAT A SALE! According to a U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) report, before 2:32 p.m., volatility was unusually high and liquidity was thinning, a mutual-fund group entered a large sell order (valued at approximately $4.1 billion) in “E-mini” futures on the S&P 500 Index. The large trade was made by an algorithm. The “algo” was programmed to take account of trading volume, with little regard, or no regard at all, to the price nor time. Since the volatility was already high during that time and volume was increasing, this sell trade was executed in just 20 minutes, instead of several hours that would be typical for such an order, 75,000 E-mini contracts (again, valued at approximately $4.1 billion).
According to the report, this sell pressure was initially absorbed by HFTs, buying E-mini contracts. However, minutes after the execution of the sell order, HFTs “aggressively” reduced their long positions. The increase in the volume again led the mutual-fund group “algo” to increase “the rate at which it was feeding the orders into the markets”, creating what’s known as a negative feedback loop. That’s the power of HFTs.
This was nearly 6 years ago. Today, there’s no doubt the power of the secretive section of the financial markets, HFTs, are much stronger and powerful and can destroy the markets with “one finger”.
With low liquidity in the bond market and increasing HFT transactions in it, the threat is real. Automated trades can trigger extreme price swings and the communication in these automated trades can quickly erode liquidity before you even know it, even though there is a very high volume. While liquidity in the U.S. bond market is high, it’s not high enough to battle the power of the technological progress.
Let’s not forget. Fixed-income assets such as, corporate bonds, are often traded over the counter in illiquid markets, not in more liquid exchanges, as stocks are.
It’s all about profits. Some, if not all HFTs, act the way they do, to make profit. There’s nothing wrong with that. But, the creators of the algorithms have to be ethical and responsible. It’s not likely to happen anytime soon since profits are the main goal (mine too) in the financial markets. So why should HFT “be fair” to others? I know I wouldn’t.
Taper Tantrum (2013 Summer)
In the summer of 2013, the former Federal Reserve chairman, Ben Bernanke, hinted an end to the Fed’s monthly purchases of long-term securities (taper off, or slow down its Quantitative Easing), which sent the financial markets, including the bond market into a tailspin.
On June 19, 2013, Ben Bernanke during a press conference said, “the Committee currently anticipates that it would be appropriate to moderate the monthly pace of purchases later this year.” That sentence alone started the financial market roller coaster.
Yields skyrocketed. The gravity took down the value of greenback (U.S. Dollar). U.S. long-term interest rates shot up by 100 basis points (1%). Even short-term interest rate markets saw the rate-hike to come sooner than the Fed policymakers suggested. Borrowings costs increased so much, as the markets was expecting tightening of the monetary policy, it “locked up” the Fed from cutting the pace of bond buying that year.
This raises (or raised) whatever the market prices can handle orders that are executed in milliseconds. It points to a lack of supply (dealer inventories), A.K.A illiquidity. I feel bad for funds that have a lot of corporate-bonds in their portfolio. The struggle is real.
An open-ended funds that allow investors to exit overnight are more likely to experience a run, as market volatility increases. A run on funds will force the funds to sell illiquid assets, which can push down the prices lower and lower. Recently example of that is the Third Avenue (“investors’ money are being held hostage”).
Brace for a fire sale. Coming soon in your area.
Market makers, where are you? Come back. I need to sell the investments at a current price, before it goes much lower.
October 15, 2014
The financial markets experienced – as the U.S. Department of the Treasury puts it – “an unusually high level of volatility and a very rapid round-trip in prices. Although trading volumes were high and the market continued to function, liquidity conditions became significantly strained.”
On October 15, 2014, the markets went into a tailspin again. The Dow plummeted 460 points, only to recover most of the losses. The Nasdaq briefly fell into a correction territory, only to rebound sharply. The 10-year Treasury yield “experienced a 37-basis-point trading range, only to close 6 basis points below its opening level”, according the U.S. Treasury Department report.
According to Nanex, a firm that offers real-time streaming data on the markets, between 9:33 A.M and 9:45 A.M, “liquidity evaporated in Treasury futures and prices skyrocketed (causing yields to plummet). Five minutes later, prices returned to 9:33 levels.” “Treasury futures were so active, they pushed overall trade counts on the CME to a new record high.”, said the report.
“Note how liquidity just plummets.”
Again, as I said, “Today’s financial markets are so connected just like the economic domino effects.” The mayhem in in the bond market can spread to the foreign exchange (forex) market.
These types of occurrences are becoming common, or the “new normal”. As the Fed raises rates, the market participants will be adjusting their portfolio and/or will adjust them ahead of it (expectations), these adjustments will force another market volatility. But this time, I believe it will be much worse, as liquidity continues to dry up and technology progresses.
Recent market crashes and volatility, including the August 2015 ETF blackout, is just another example of increasing illiquidity in the markets. Hiccups in the markets will get bigger and will become common. Illiquidity is the New Normal.
Hello HFTs, how are you doing? Making $$$? Cool.
With interest rates around 0 (well, before the rate-hike in December), U.S. companies have rushed to issue debt. With the recent rate-hike by the Fed, U.S. corporate bond market will experience more volatility. Lower and diminishing liquidity will “manufacture” a volatility to a record levels that the financial markets and the economy won’t be able to cope with it. As said, “Today’s financial markets are so connected just like the economic domino effects.”, the corporate bond market volatility will spread to the rest of the financial markets.
Last Wednesday (October 7, 2015), I had a chance to meet Ben Bernanke, former chairman of the Federal Reserve and the most powerful man in the world (well, was).
Not that I got a handshake, but got to ask a question.
So how did I get to meet him? It was part of WSJ Pro Central Banking events.
Recently, Wall Street Journal introduced a subscription service, “WSJ Pro”. It debuted with WSJ Pro Central Banking. Its parent company, Dow Jones, describes it as a “premium suite of industry and subject-specific content services, combining news, data, and events in a single membership platform.” The key word is “events”. “Events” is what I love about the subscription. “Events” in other words mean, meeting high-profile people and networking with people in the financial industry.
I had a free access for a while, but now that’s gone. During my trial, I registered for two events, “Breakfast Interview Series: William Dudley” and “Breakfast Interview Series: Ben Bernanke”. I was lucky enough to be chosen to go to both of them.
The event with William Dudley, President of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, took place on September 28. Did not get a chance to ask a question. Nevertheless, great event. Full video of the interview can be found here.
The event with Ben Bernanke took place on October 7. I was so excited for this particular event. Well, who doesn’t want to meet Ben Bernanke? I woke up on 4:30 in the morning and left my house at 6:45 AM. I got to the location of the event by about 7:50. When I checked in, I got an autographed copy of Mr. Bernanke’s new book, “The Courage to Act.” Signed, Sealed, Delivered.
It wasn’t until 8:30 AM when Mr. Bernanke entered the room, getting me and others excited. Along with him, there was WSJ’s Chief Economics Correspondent, Jon Hilsenrath, who also interviewed William Dudley the week before.
During the Q&A session, I got a chance to ask a question. I was so excited and confident. I strongly believed that I was not nervous at all. But, that wasn’t the case.
When I got handed the microphone, I instantly went blind. I forgot most of what I was going to say. It was like Warren Buffett, my idol, interviewing me for a job.
The first word out of my mouth was “student”, when I actually should have stated my name. Asking a question to a person like Ben Bernanke got me so nervous, I mumbled and rambled during my question. My question basically was, “If you were the president, what would you do about the taxes, corporate taxes, which is too high?”
Full video of the interview can be found here. I can be heard asking the question at 42:30.
I asked it because I strongly believe U.S. corporate taxes are too high, causing inversions. Although I got a reasonable answer, I believe I would have gotten better answer if I asked the question in a different way.
My first encounter with a high-profile person made me so nervous, yet taught me a big lesson. It significantly improved my confidence and ability to ask a question (to a high-profile person) without being so nervous. Who’s the next high-profile person I will meet? Janet Yellen?
A short video of Mr. Bernanke leaving the “stage”
A picture of Mr. Bernanke leaving the “stage”
I will forever remember this day, October 7, 2015.
Thank you, Wall Street Journal.
UPDATE: At the event when I was asking the question,