We (Still) Don't Know What We Don't Know
Musing on the Markets

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Have You Seen This?

Have You Seen This?

So, here we are. More than two years into what started out as a credit crisis, one plus year after the Lehman collapse and a question that pertains to the one of the central workings of the equities market cannot be answered.

At last evening's Market Technicians Association Educational Foundation seminar, the question your trusty moderator (that's me) posed to the esteemed panel with its decades of experience was in regards to volume. Specifically, the equity markets' volume as recorded each day for every stock traded. That is, the volume that accompanies the price action that results in the market capitalization of the stock market that results in the market value of every investor's portfolio. 

Many market analysts have noted the low volume that has accompanied this bull rally. Some have used this fact as a reason to be more cautious, even bearish. Others have cited that low volume bull rallies have occurred in the past and this one is no different. However, in the past, the volume recorded for equity trades completed were quite accurate and reliable, being recorded on exchanges and reported accordingly. Today, the picture is not quite so clear. 

With so much trading occurring in the off the exchanges hidden recesses of dark pools and structured products, I asked my very knowledgeable panel, can any investor rely on the volume figures being generated in this current market to measure the strength of the price action of a stock? The answer received was, "We don't know". Well, if this well connected, highly informed group of individuals doesn't know, you can easily assume that just about no one knows. Do you?

The importance of understanding this issue goes beyond its impact on basic market analysis tools (such as technical analysis) and cuts to the heart of a financial system that is still shrouded in opaqueness

Transparency remains elusive. Yet, transparency (knowing what investors need to know) is vital to the restoration of a sustained confidence in a system that can be measured. When trades occur in the dark corners of dark pools and other off-exchange structured products, clarity as to what exactly is transpiring becomes the victim and investors seeking to measure the market become the equivalent of a bystander to a drive-by financial shooting. 

Investment Strategy Implications

Nothing increases the risk factor of any investment more than the dangers posed by ignorance. Yet, here we are. More than two years into what started out as a credit crisis, one plus year after the Lehman collapse and we still don't have a clear idea of what exactly is transpiring in a central part of the capital markets - equities. 

For those who might be tempted to dismiss such concerns I simply point to the two key impacts of changing equity prices: the wealth effect and the cost of capital. Both directly impact the real economy, in the current case in a positive way. Were it not for rising market values, the current government policies designed to rescue the US (and global) economy would be brought into doubt. And doubt, a close cousin of uncertainty, is a bad thing for a fragile economic environment. 

Price without volume is an incomplete measure of the strength (or weakness) of a market move. Yet, in the current environment, price is the only metric that can be tracked with clarity. Volume, its indicator of power, cannot. 

Two years and running and we still don't know what we don't know.

To further the exploration of what we don't know tomorrow I will describe how hedge fund replication products pose a potential threat to the equity markets.

Vinny Catalano, CFA, Global Investment Strategist with Blue Marble Research publishes the "Sectors and Styles Strategy Report" newsletter, which contains the market beating Model Growth Portfolio. To learn about subscribing as well as other benefits,  click here.

Posted 11-18-2009 9:08 PM by Vinny Catalano, CFA