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In the long list of nightmares that market risk managers have to wrestle with on a daily basis, some have gradually receded. For competently-run banks and large trading institutions, the possibility of a rogue trader making undiscovered trades or mis-marking his own book - another Nick Leeson - is increasingly remote given the layers of oversight. But one nightmare in particular has been increasing in frequency since 2009, especially as Volcker Rule and Dodd-Frank restrictions have been implemented.
The concern is market illiquidity. Every year that goes by, liquidity in the financial markets is declining. This is not apparent to the casual observer, or casual investor, who faces a tight market for his hundred- or thousand-lot. But probably every institutional investor has a story of how his attempt to hit a bid on the screens resulted in his trading the minimum size while the rest of the bid fled with sub-millisecond dispatch. And so the question is: if your mutual fund is hit by redemptions at the same time that its market (equities, emerging markets, credit?) is falling apart - and that is the normal time that redemptions swell - then at what price will it be able to get out? And what if there is no bid at all that is big enough?
Banks and other dealing institutions have responded to both the new regulatory restrictions themselves, and to the effects of the restrictions, by decreasing the size of their balance sheet dedicated to trading. Much of the apparent 'liquidity' in the market now is provided by the algos (the algorithmic trading systems) who as we have seen can be there and gone in an eyeblink. I am not aware of anything that has been done in the wake of the various "flash crashes" we have seen that would lead me to have great confidence that in the next big market discontinuity markets will function any better than they did in 2008. In fact, public liquidity is quite a bit smaller and I would expect them to function a fair bit worse.
Yes, many institutions have begun to access "dark pools" where they face anonymous counterparties in crossing large trades, rather than chasing hair-trigger algos for a fraction of the size they need. But nothing is particularly soothing about the dark pools, either (starting with their name). The whole point of a market discontinuity is that flow traders end up all on the same side of the flow; in these times we want the speculative traders with big balance sheets to take the other side of trades at a price that reflects a reasonable return on their capital. Those spec traders, or at least the big-balance-sheet banks, aren't providing extra liquidity in dark pools either.
Banks have also responded to the beat-down regularly administered by socialists like Bernie Sanders and by sympathetic ears in the press (and among the populist splinters of the right as well) - by cutting the experienced and expensive traders who have more experience in pricing scarce liquidity, and perhaps finding it sometimes. Again, none of this makes me optimistic about how we will handle the next "event."
None of this rant is new, really. But what is interesting and new is that the illiquidity is starting to show up in very visual ways. Regular readers know that my primary area of domain expertise is in rates, and specifically in inflation. Consider the chart below (source: Enduring Investments), which I would consider strong evidence that market liquidity in inflation is worse now than it was two years ago. The chart shows 1-year inflation forward from various points on the inflation curve. That is, the point on the far left is 1 year inflation, 0 years forward (in other words, today's 1-year inflation swap). The next point is 1 year inflation, 1 year forward. And so on, so that the last point is 1 year inflation, 29 years forward.
Ignore the level of inflation expectations generally - that isn't my point here. Obviously, inflation expectations are lower and that is not news. But the curve from two years ago shows a nice, smooth, "classic rates derivatives" shape. Inflation is priced in the market as rising in smooth fashion. This doesn't mean that anyone really expects that inflation will rise smoothly like that; only that such is the best single guess and, moreover, one that has nice characteristics in terms of derivatives pricing and transparency.
The blue curve shows the curve from last Thursday. Now, I could have chosen any curve in the last month or two and they would have been similarly choppy. You can see that the market is evidently pricing in that inflation will be 1.72% over the next year, and then decline, then rise, then decline, then rise irregularly until 9 years from now when it will abruptly peak and descend.
That's a mess, and it is an indication that liquidity in the inflation swaps market is insufficient to pull the curves into a nice, smooth shape. This is analogous to one important characteristic of a planet, from an astrophysicist's point of view: any body that is not sufficiently massive to pull itself into a sphere is not a planet, by definition. I would argue that the inability of the market to pull the inflation curve into a nice and smooth "derivatives" shape is an early warning sign that the "mass" of liquidity in this market - and in others - is getting worse in a visually-apparent way.
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