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.






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.



short selling as an investment tool (II): hedged vs. unhedged

Short selling is involved a number of hedging strategies.  Short sellers, however, like any investors, can run both unhedged and hedged positions and portfolios.


It’s important to distinguish between a hedged position and a diversified position.  Both are ways of reducing risk.  But they’re not the same.  Diversification is having three cows in case one stops giving milk.  Hedging is having one cow but taking out an insurance policy in case the animal drops dead.

You can have a diversified portfolio consisting solely of short positions, just as you can have one that is made up completely of long positions.  In both cases, you’re at least somewhat protected against the risk that one or two positions go wrong.  But in the former case, you’re still exposed to the possibility that the overall market rises sharply.  In the latter, you still have the risk of a sharp market decline.

Dyed-in-the-wool short sellers run unhedged short portfolios.  Operating this way means taking on a lot of risk, and requires a person who is temperamentally suited to the short side and has a considerable degree of skill. The reason is the more open-ended possibility of loss if the positions move the wrong way. But the structure is pretty straightforward.

You can have as an objective either to have the names you’re short to lose money in absolute terms, or simply to underperform an index like the S&P 500.


It’s much more common for short positions to be components of a hedged portfolio, that is, one that includes long positions as well.  Three ways to do this:

1.  One of the oldest instances of hedged portfolios is risk arbitrage, a merger and acquisition strategy, where a manager typically buys the stock of the target and sells the acquirer short, after a deal is announced.  More about this in a post next week.

2.  Another is the original hedge fund, what would be called today a market-neutral strategy, where the manager holds equal dollar amounts of both long and short equity.  If you were to read the marketing literature for this kind of portfolio, the managers might say things that would lead you to believe that by doing so they have hedged away the risks associated with overall market movements.  Maybe so.  Personally, though, I think it’s very hard for a manager not to let a directional bias–his thoughts about where we are in the business cycle–seep into both long and short active positions.  In other words, if you think the market is going down, you’d be short cyclicals and long defensives, and vice versa.)At the very least, performance has two components:  (out)performance of the long positions against the index pus (under) performance of the shorts.

3.  What are called pair trades have become popular over the last decade or so, both with high net worth individual investors and with modern hedge funds (which, to my suddenly curmudgeonly eyes, have nothing more than a fee structure in common with the traditional ones described in the last paragraph).  Pair trades consist of two stock ideas, one long and one short, typically both in the same industry and probably covered by the same industry analyst–who is the one suggesting the trade (and hoping the management of the company on the short side doesn’t find out).

The concept is to reduce the active bet you’re making to one about the relative operating efficiency of two companies in the same or allied industries.  In theory, factors relating to the strength of the global economy or the health of the industry involved are taken out of the equation this way.  Like the market-neutral strategy, gains or losses are supposed to come from what’s different about the two members of the pair.

Examples from the recent past might be:

Long Toyota, short GM

Long HP, short Dell

Long McDonalds, short Starbucks

or even

Long Wal-Mart, short Target (weak economy)

Long Target, short Wal-Mart (strong economy)

In the first two cases, the contrast is between strong management and weak management (of course, Toyota turned out not to be so strong in the end).  In the last three, and very clearly in the last two, strength/weakness of the economy has snuck back in.

My thoughts

Pair trades—small positions only!—while riskier than simple long positions and requiring careful/continual monitoring, strike me as okay for individuals to try their hands at.  The rest of the short-related world–hedged or not–should be left to professionals.

Short-selling and the uptick rule

The SEC has been holding hearings about reinstating the “uptick rule” for short-selling in the US market, and has come up with a new rule.  The rule-making comes as a reaction to assertions that the Wall Street decline in late 2008 was made worse by speculative short sellers taking advantage of the removal of the uptick rule in 2007.  What are the issues?


A short seller borrows stock from an owner, promising to return it on demand, and  promptly sells it.  The debt to the owner is expressed, not in dollars, but in a specific number of shares of a certain stock.  So at some point, the short seller must buy the stock back in the market and return it.  This can happen because the short seller decides his investment idea has outlived its usefulness, or because the original owner “calls” the stock back to him.

why sell short?

The short seller may think the stock in question will go down, so that he can make money by buying it back at a lower price and then returning it to the original owner.

Or he may have a hedging strategy in mind (this was the original “hedge fund” idea).  If so, he will reinvest the sale proceeds in something else he thinks will do better than the stock he sold short.  He might, for example, short Toyota and go long (i.e., buy) Ford.  In this case, he will make money if Ford goes up more, or down less, than Toyota.  He doesn’t need the stock he’s betting against to be an absolute loser, just a relative one.

Short selling is highly institutionalized on Wall Street.  Many financial firms and most large institutional investors have stock lending departments, which deal with each other to facilitate short selling by locating and arranging for stock to be borrowed and arranging for collateral to be provided.  (As a portfolio manager, I understood why my firm would do stock lending.  It didn’t thrill me, though.  It always irked me on those occasions when, despite their promises to the contrary, the borrower refused to return a stock I wanted to sell.)

Then, of course, there was the incredible disaster at AIG–and apparently other middlemen as well–where that company took the collateral it was holding, typically Treasury bonds, sold it and replaced it with sub-prime mortgage securities so it could earn higher interest income.  After sub-prime mortgage securities tanked, short sellers couldn’t close out their positions because AIG couldn’t give them back their collateral.  AIG needed another $40 billion+ from the government to clean up this mess.  But that’s another story.

the uptick rule

The uptick rule was instituted for exchange-traded stocks by the SEC in 1938, in response to a market swoon in 1937.  The SEC believed the market’s fall was caused, or at least made considerably worse, by rampant speculative short selling.  In response to brokerage industry lobbying, the rule was rescinded in July 2007–just at the beginning of a sharp market contraction made considerably worse, in the view of many, by rampant speculative short selling.

The rule was that you could only sell a stock short on an uptick.  That is to say, you could only sell a stock short either:

–at a price higher than the immediately previous trade, or

–at the same price as the previous trade, if the last price that was different from the previous trade was a lower price.

Put in less precise terms, the rule says that if a stock is declining you can’t hold it down or push the price even lower  by selling it short.  You can only sell short into a rebound (and thereby prevent that rebound from advancing), but if the stock turns lower again, you have to stop selling it short.

Remember, none of this prevents a “natural” seller (someone who owns the stock) from selling.  The uptick rule only applies to short sellers.

the new rule

The SEC has just instituted a new, limited anti-short selling rule.  It applies only to stocks which have fallen by 10% in price during a trading day, and applies only to the remainder of that trading day and the following trading day.

During that time, a stock may only be sold short if the sale price is higher than the highest bid price maintained by any market maker in the stock.  In other words, the short sale trade has to establish an uptick.

The main untested feature of the new rule is that it only kicks in after a stock has fallen by 10%  Before that, it’s a free-for-all.  It may well happen that market makers decide to move the market in a stock that’s being sold short down as fast as possible to the 10% mark, where they receive temporary protection against short sellers.  In my experience, that’s what happens in foreign markets when market makers encounter any sort of concerted selling.

“naked” shorts are much more important, I think

I don’t find anything particularly wrong with short selling–I should mention, though, that I worked on, and later ran, a (very successful) short portfolio in the early Eighties.  I’m also not sure that the uptick rule is a significant issue.

If anything, there may be unintended negative consequences.  My experience outside the US with markets that put arbitrary, or commodity market-like, restrictions on selling is that they end up with declines that are longer in time and deeper in extent than similar markets that don’t have such restrictions.

I think that colorfully named “naked” shorts are a much more significant concern.  More on that topic in my next post.