Central Bankers: Masters of the Universe

Earlier this month, along with our usual dire observations about an economy that has come unhinged, I noted that the world was not coming to an end.  On closer inspection, I may have been wrong on that one.

One sign that all is not right in the world of investing is the increasing volatility.  Volatility is not a good thing for investors seeking to limit their risk and markets recently have been as spiked as Jonestown Kool-Aid.  The results could be nearly as disastrous. Volatility

As the chart shows, currency, oil and interest rates have been up, down and all around.  Bonds, too, have been volatile, and price shifts have been taking place with increasing frequency.

It makes me uncomfortable when I see government bonds flash crashing along with currencies of developed markets with enormous debt levels.  The Swiss National Bank’s unpegged its currency and, if Japan keeps burning yens, China is likely to unpeg its currency. When that happens, it isn’t going to be fun.

Why is this happening?  Because central bankers have become the masters of the universe.  Make that Masters of the Universe.

As Zerohedge notes, “For the last few years, valuations in more and more markets seem to have stopped following traditional relationships and instead followed global QE.  Likewise in meetings with investors, we have been struck by how little time anyone spends discussing fundamentals these days, and how much revolves around central banks.  Record-high proportions of investors think fixed income is expensive and think equities are expensive.  A growing number of property market participants seem to think real estate is expensive. And yet almost all have had to remain long, as each of these markets has rallied.  Could it be that central bank liquidity has forced investors to be the same way round more so than previously, and that this is making markets prone to sudden corrections?” 

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Shining a Light on Dark Pools

“Unless there are some changes, there’s going to be a massive crash, a flash crash times ten.”                                            Ron Morgan and Brian Levine, Goldman Sachs

As recently as 2005, dark pools made up 3% to 5% of trading activity.  Today, it’s 12%.

Dark pools are like fraternal clubs, but without the secret handshake.  No one talks about them, so they’re a mystery to the world at large.  Many were unfamiliar with dark pools until this past week, when The Wall Street Journal announced that Goldman Sachs is planning to close its Sigma X dark pool, which is one of the industry’s largest and darkest pools.  (Goldman has not confirmed that action.)Dark Pools 2

So what is a dark pool?  It’s a stock exchange where trading takes place in the “dark,” which means the size and price of orders are not revealed to other participants.

To some extent, dark pools are a reaction to high-frequency trading (HFT), which we discussed last week and in other previous posts.  When trades take place in the dark, algorithmic traders can’t take advantage of them.

Theoretically, if dark trades, which are typically high volume trades, took place in the light of day, high-frequency traders would amplify the impact of such trades and potentially cause another flash crash.  Or worse.

But on Wall Street, of course, nothing is ever that simple.  There’s more to dark pools than that.  Consider some of the questions that dark pools raise:

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