how one China-related ETF has fared

Yesterday I mentioned a Factset article about the trading behavior of China-related ETFs during the current market gyrations in Shanghai and Shenzhen.  It focuses on the Deutsche X-trackers Harvest CSI 500 China-A Shares Small Cap ETF (ASHS).  Quite a mouthful.

ASHS opened for business last year and has about $41 million in assets.  Its goal is to track the performance of 500 Chinese small caps.  It holds all of the names in the appropriate proportions, to the extent that it can.  Where it can’t, it finds the best proxies available.

Year to date through yesterday, ASHS has risen by 37%+.

The fund melted up in mid-June, however.  Its price rose by 40% from June 8th through June 10th alone, at which time it had y-t-d performance of +113%.

The bottom fell out in the following month, when ASHS lost slightly more than half its value–before bouncing back up by +30% over the past few weeks.

Two points about ASHS:

1.  The fund uses fair value pricing, which is the industry norm in the US.  Fair value pricing, usually performed by a third party the fund hires, does two things:

—-it adjusts the prices of foreign securities in markets that are closed during New York trading for information that has come to light after their last trade, and

—-it gives an estimate for the value of securities that are not trading for one reason or another on a given day.

(Note: in my experience, both types of adjustment are surprisingly reliable.)

This second feature has doubtless come in handy over the past couple of months, since there have been days when as many as half of the Chinese small caps haven’t traded.


2.  A mutual fund transacts once a day, through the management company, after the market close and at Net Asset Value.

In contrast, an ETF like ASHS trades continuously during the day, through a number of broker dealers (Authorized Participants), and not necessarily at NAV.

The idea is that these middlemen will use the very cheap brokerage record systems for fund transactions, thus keeping administrative costs down–and that the brokers will use their market making and inventory capability as a way of minimizing the daily flows in and out of the ETF portfolio.

In June, this worked out in an interesting, and ultimately stabilizing way for ASHS.

As I mentioned above, the market price of ASHS rose by 40% over two days in mid-June.  We know that, according to Chinese trading rules, the stocks in the portfolio itself could rise in value by at most 10% daily, or 21% over two days.  I can’t imagine the ASHS fair value pricing service decided that the portfolio was actually worth 40% more than two days earlier when the market signal was twenty-ish.  If I’m correct, the broker dealers decided to meet (presumably large) demand for ASHS shares by letting the premium to NAV expand substantially  …by 20%?…thereby choking some of the demand off, rather than issue a ton of new ASHS shares at a lower price.

According to Factset, the brokers did create new shares.  But they apparently lent at least some of them to short sellers, who sold them in the market, further tamping down demand.

So the Authorized Participants performed their market-making function admirably–presumably making a boatload of money in the process.   But this situation illustrates that the worst fears of possible ETF illiquidity in crisis times may be overblown.






MSCI and China’s A shares

A few days ago, MSCI, the premiere authority on the structuring of stock market indices around the world, declared that it had been carefully considering adding Chinese A shares to its Emerging Market indices–and concluded that it would not yet do so.

What is this all about?


MSCI (Morgan Stanley Capital International) creates indices that investment management companies use to construct their products–both index and actively managed– and to benchmark their performance.

Having a certain stock, or a set of stocks, in an index is a big deal.   For passive investors, it means that they must hold either the stocks themselves or an appropriate derivative.  Either way, client money flows into the issues.

For active investors, they’re forced to at least research the names and keep them on their radar.  If they don’t hold a certain stock or group, they’re at least tacitly betting that the names in question will underperform.


If we measure economic size using Purchasing Power Parity, China is the largest in the world.  It seems odd that the country not be fully represented in at least Emerging Markets indices.



Beijing, in the final analysis, would like to have international investors studying A shares deeply and buying and selling them freely.

How so?

In many ways, the story of the growth of the Chinese economy over the past three decades has been one of slow replacement of the central planning attitude of large, stodgy state-owned enterprises with the dynamism of more market based rivals.  The heavy lifting has been done by constant political struggle against powerful entrenched, backward-facing, political interests that even today control some state-owned enterprises.  It would be nice for a change to have the market do some of the work–by bidding up the stocks of firms that increase profits and punishing those that simply waste national resources.


In addition, Beijing now seems to believe that freer flow of investment capital in and out of China can act as a safety valve to counteract the extreme boom/bust tendency that the country’s domestic stock markets have exhibited in the past.


the burning issue?

Foreign access to the A share market is still too limited.

Fir some years, China has had a cumbersome apparatus that allows large foreign institutions to deposit specified (large) sums of money inside China and use the funds to buy and sell stocks.  But becoming a so-called qualified foreign institutional investor and operating within government-set constraints is a pain in the neck.  It’s never been a popular route.

Recently, Beijing has begun to allow investment money to flow more freely between Hong Kong and Shanghai.  A HK-Shenzen link is apparently also in the offing.

In MSCI’s view, this isn’t enough free flow yet.  I think that’s the right conclusion.  Nevertheless, weaving A shares into MSCI indices is only a question of time.

my thoughts

As professional securities analysts from the US and elsewhere turn their minds to A shares, there stand to be both big winning stocks and equally large losers.  The big stumbling block will be getting reliable information to use in sorting the market out.

cooling the Chinese stock market fever

In the 1990s, Alan Greenspan, the head of the Fed back then, famously warned against “irrational exuberance” in the US stock market, but did nothing to stop it   …this even though he had the ability to cool the market down by tightening the rules on margin lending.  This is the stock market  analogue to raising or lowering the Fed Funds rate to influence the price of credit, but has never been used seriously in the US during my working life.

The  Bank of Japan has no such compunctions.  It has been very willing to chasten/encourage speculatively minded retail investors by tightening/loosening the criteria for borrowing money to buy stocks.


We have no real history to generalize from in the case of China.  But moves in recent weeks by the Chinese securities markets regulator seem to indicate that Beijing will fall into the stomp-on-the-brakes camp.


–at the end of last month, the regulator allowed (ordered?) domestic mutual funds to invest in shares in Hong Kong, where mainland-listed firms’ shares are trading at hefty discounts to their prices in Shanghai

–highly leveraged “umbrella trusts” cooked up by Chinese banks to circumvent margin eligibility requirements have been banned,

–a new futures product, based on small and mid-cap stocks, has been created, offering speculators the opportunity to short this highly heated sector for the first time, and

–effective today, institutional investors in China are being allowed to lend out their holdings–providing short-sellers with the wherewithal to ply their trade (although legal, short-selling hasn’t been a big feature of domestic Chinese markets until now, because there wasn’t any easy way to obtain share to sell short).

What does all this mean?

The simplest conclusion is that Beijing wants to pop what it sees as a speculative stock market bubble on the mainland.  It is possible, however, that more monetary stimulus–to prop up rickety state-owned enterprises or loony regional government-sponsored real estate projects–is in the pipeline and Beijing simply wants to dampen the potential future effects on stocks.

I have no idea which view is correct.

It’s clear, however, that Hong Kong is going to be a port in any storm, and that it is going to be increasingly used as a safety valve to absorb upward market pressure from the mainland.  So relative gains vs. Shanghai seem assured.  Whether that means absolute gains remains to be seen, although I personally have no inclination to trim my HK holdings.



Current Market Tactics, March 12, 2014

I’ve just updated Current Market Tactics.

Maybe a correction isn’t in the offing.  Too bad.  On the other hand, upside momentum seem to me to be waning.

junk bond ETFs underperforming in a down market: it’s the nature of the beast


ETFs are a great innovation, in my view.  Legally, they’re set up as investment corporations, like mutual funds (read my posts on ETFs vs. mutual funds for more details).  But, unlike mutual funds, which process buys and sells in-house (and charge a recurring fee to holders for doing so), ETFs outsource this market-making function to Wall Street brokerage firms.

This difference has several consequences:

–no recurring fee, so lower overall fund expenses,

–you can buy and sell all through the trading day, instead of selling at closing net asset value,

–unlike a mutual fund, an ETF holder has no guarantee he can transact at NAV, and

–you pay the broker a commission and a bid-asked spread when you transact (the second is an “invisible” cost that may offset the advantage of lower fund fees).

If you’re a buy-and-hold investor (the wisest course for you and me, in my opinion), ETFs have it all over index funds, especially for very liquid products like an S&P 500 index.

what about junk bond ETFs?

Why, then, have junk bond index ETFs been seriously underperforming their benchmarks during the current period of rising interest rates?

Several obvious factors:

–junk bonds aren’t particularly liquid.  Many don’t trade every day.  In fact, junk bond fund and ETF managers employ independent pricing services, which estimate the value of bonds that haven’t traded that day, in order to calculate daily NAV.

This means that if redemptions come, a junk bond index fund/ETF has to go hunting for buyers and won’t get the best prices for the bonds it’s selling.  The sharper-than-benchmark falls in ETF NAVs suggests they’re taking big haircuts on the positions they’re liquidating.

–ETFs attract short-term traders, who are more prone to redeem

–ETFs can be sold short, adding to downward  pressure

–ETFs don’t accept dribs and drabs of redeemed shares from the investment banks it uses as middlemen.  Brokers hold until they have minimum exchangeable quantities.  While they’re waiting, they may hedge their positions–meaning they may short the ETF, too.


One not-so-obvious one:

Unlike a mutual fund, the broker you’re buying and selling through has no obligation to transact for you in an ETF at NAV.  Quite the opposite.  Your expectation should be that the broker will make a profit through his bid-asked spread.

The broker typically has a very good idea what NAV is on a minute-to-minute basis.  Individuals like us usually don’t.  NOt a great bargaining position to be in.

In addition, in contrast with an S&P 500 index fund, where the broker gets an up-to-date NAV every 15 seconds, no one knows precisely what a junk bond fund NAV is at any given time (certainly the broker has a better idea than you and me, but that’s another issue).  This uncertainty makes the broker widen his spread.

On top of that, when a broker is taking on more inventory of shares than he feels comfortable with, he’ll widen his spread further, to discourage potential sellers from transacting.

Brokers know how much money they make through these spreads.  No one else does.  We do know, though, that in past times of stress the last trade of the day in a less-liquid ETFs has often been substantially below NAV.  My guess is that recent junk bond ETF sellers have paid a hefty price through the bid-asked spread to get their transactions done.  If you’re one, compare your selling price with that’s day’s NAV and see.

TVIX: an expensive lesson about an exotic exchange traded note


TVIX is the ticker symbol for “Velocity Shares Daily 2x VIX Short-Term” ETNs (exchange traded notes), sponsored by Credit Suisse.  What a mouthful!

They’ve been in the news recently because of very big losses some buyers of them have suffered.

what it is (hang onto your hat)

An ETN is something like an ETF, except that what the holder is buying is not an ownership interest in a collection of equity securities but rather a piece of a debt security issued by the investment bank that sponsors the ETN.

In the case of TVIX, the debt instrument in question is a promise by Credit Suisse to pay the holder an amount that’s tied to the performance of futures on the CBOE Volatility Index, or VIX.  Although in form the actual note issued by CS is a debt instrument, in function it’s very much like an OTC derivative contract.

The 2x in the name means the ETN is leveraged.  It’s designed to deliver 2x the return on the VIX.

Daily means it’s re-leveraged each day to deliver 2x the return on the VIX.  The significance of this daily recalibration is that the return over longer periods of time can be significantly different than 2x leverage over that span, depending on the sequence of daily gains and losses.

The VIX is a measure of expected volatility, or movement of the S&P 500 index away from the current level–up or down–over the coming 30 days.  It’s calculated based on the prices of near term puts and calls on the S&P.

what happened

ETFs and ETNs typically act like open-end mutual funds.  When new buyers want the securities, the sponsor satisfies demand by issuing more.  When sellers want to redeem, the sponsor cashes them in.

In the case of TVIX, Credit Suisse hedges the risk it takes in issuing the note by maintaining an offsetting position in the actual VIX futures contract. A month or so ago, however,  CS reached the maximum position size allowed by the Chicago Board of Exchange.  When it did, CS stopped issuing new ETN shares.  At that time the net asset value of TVIX was about $15/share.

Over the ensuing weeks, as the S&P 500 meandered, the VIX fell sharply and the NAV of TVIX plunged to about $7 a share.

And here’s the strange part…

…retail buyers didn’t notice. 

They continued to pay $14-$15 a share for TVIX, despite the plunge in value of the underlying note!.   At the worst point investors were paying over 2x NAV!!!   That’s like going to the bank to get change for $20 and being satisfied with $10 in coins.  Who would do that?  From looking at the charts it appears that at least a million shares or so traded at this level of misvaluation.

Then short sellers appeared and the bottom fell out. TVIX, which is trading a bit below $7.50 now, bottomed around $6.

the lesson(s)?

1.  Unlike mutual funds, ETFs and ETNs don’t trade at net asset value.  They trade at whatever price willing buyers and willing sellers meet.

2.  As far as I’m aware there’s no publicly available data on average bid-asked spreads for any ETFs or ETNs.  But the VIX price is available in real time, so it should have been easy to make a rough guess at NAV–and theefore the premium one would be paying.  It’s hard to believe that no buyer did any homework.  The broker acting as an agent in the transaction certainly knew what net asset value was.

3.  The broker you place the order with is an agent.  He has no obligation to tell you you’re doing something incredibly stupid.  (Caveat emptor.  Welcome to Wall Street.)

4.  I wonder who the short sellers were and how they got the idea to sell TVIX short.

5.  Where do you think the stock the short sellers borrowed to sell came from?   …from the accounts of the retail investors who held TVIX and whose brokerage agreements allowed their firms to led out their holdings, that’s where.  Translation:  from just about any retail holder.

According to the Wall Street Journal, which doesn’t seem to get the misvaluation–which I think is the most interesting part of the story–the SEC is investigating.  Why?   …because the shares plunged just before Credit Suisse announced it would begin to issue new TVIX shares.

the SEC, Citigroup and moral hazard

This is an update and elaboration on my November 11th post about Judge Jed S. Rakoff, the SEC and Citigroup.

moral hazard

Moral hazard in finance is the situation where the existence of an agreement to share risks causes one of the parties to act in an extra-risky manner, to the detriment of the other.   In a sense, the willingness of the party who ultimately gets injured to enter into the agreement causes, or at least allows, the bad behavior by the other to occur.  He inadvertently sets up a situation where the bad behavior is rewarded, not punished.


–Systematically important banks have been able to take very big proprietary trading risks, knowing that they are “too big to fail” and will ultimately be bailed out by the government if their risky bets don’t pan out.  The rewards of such risk-taking go as bonuses to the bankers; the cost of bets gone bad is borne by the general public.

–One of the reasons Germany is so hesitant to bail out Greece is that doing so rewards the latter country’s reckless borrowing behavior over the past decadeand shifts the costs of cleaning up the resulting economic mess onto the citizens of the rest of the EU.

the Rakoff case and moral hazard

Judge Rakoff has just rejected a proposed settlement of a case involving Citigroup and the SEC, on what appear to me to be similar moral hazard grounds.

The settlement involves Citi’s creation and sale of $1 billion in securities ultimately tied to a pool of sub-prime mortgages selected by the bank.  Citi neglected to tell the buyers of the securities that it wasn’t simply an agent.  It was making a $500 million bet that the securities would decline in value sharply–which they subsequently did.  Investors who bought the securities from Citi lost $700 million.

I don’t know precisely how much money Citi made on this transaction.  But I think I can make a good guess.  To make up rough numbers, collecting a 2% fee for creating and selling the issue would bring in $20 million or so.  A 70% gain on its negative bet on the issue would yield $350 million.  If so, the much more compelling reason for creating the issue would be to design it to fail and then short it.  In any event, let’s say Citi cleared $370 million before paying its employees who thought up and executed the total deal.

The proposed settlement?

–fines and penalties totaling $285 million

–Citi doesn’t admit or deny guilt, which means

——the settlement doesn’t create any evidence to support a lawsuit by the investors who lost money, and

——the settlement doesn’t trigger the sanctions against future illegal conduct that are contained in prior settlements with the SEC.

–only low-level Citi employees are reprimanded.

Assume the SEC allegations are all true.

If so, what a deal for Citi!  The SEC “punishment” is that the bank keeps $85 million in profits and gets a slap on the wrist.  Who wouldn’t agree?

What would make this moral hazard is that this is is the worst case outcome for Citi.

And, if you figure that the SEC looks at one suspicious deal out of ten, the situation is even less favorable for investors.  The decision whether to create another issue like this one is a layup.

Would it be so easy if Citi stood a chance of losing money?  …or of triggering clauses in prior settlements prohibiting illegal behavior?

What about the legal team that decided what he minimum disclosure in sales materials should be?  Would they have insisted that Citi must reveal its proprietary trading position in those materials if fines were larger, or if they could be held professionally liable for the information’s exclusion?

What if the Citi executives that okayed everything risked being barred from the securities business for a period of time–would they have acted in the way they did?


I don’t think critics are correct that Judge Rakoff is trying to raise his public profile by insisting that the SEC either obtain a better settlement or go to trial with its case.  Others are saying that the SEC takes settlements like this because it doesn’t have the legal skill to get anything better.  But these are ad hominem arguments  –like saying the parties are wearing ill-fitting clothes, they’re distracting, but irrelevant.

But it is true that this case comes at a time of growing public anger that bank executives are showing few ill effects from the devastating economic damage they helped cause.

It will be interesting to see what new settlement the SEC and Citi come up with.

Stay tuned.