AAL

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“Because as any coup-launcher or Fed-fighter or volatility-embracer knows, if you’re wrong on timing … you’re just wrong” – Ben Hunt, Epsilon Theory July 26, 2016

The number of short bets on sterling through the futures market is at a multi-year high ahead of next week’s expected cut in interest rates in the UK. While these may be the speculations of the same hedge funds that lost money on the UK referendum, there is a strong consensus that the pound is headed lower. As recent events have shown, this is putting UK companies in the shop window, but can OTAS provide a way of figuring out who is next to be taken over?

There have been strong suspicions and some academic research suggesting option market activity pre-empts M&A announcements. What the research cannot determine is whether trading was due to inside information or informed opinion. Typically it is out-of-the-money call option activity that is more informative than at-the-money or put options.

Before we look at the evidence from OTAS, will the Bank of England cut rates next week? This is a different discussion to whether it should. Jeremy Warner argues in the Telegraph that the sledgehammer-to-crack-a-nut response to a knee jerk, post Brexit survey of disappointed corporate Remainers is not the right way to run an economy. He points out that the acquisition of ARM Holdings funds the current account deficit for three months. Speculators may not be “fighting the Fed”, but they are battling investment flows.

The post referendum narrative is that the economically disadvantaged swung the result and new Prime Minister Theresa May has aimed her pitch squarely at where she believes this constituency lies. Politicians still fail to appreciate that many of those who feel left behind are middle class savers whose retirement plans are decimated by central bank group-think. Unfortunately, the prospects for this small-c conservative demographic are very poor, as explained by Ben Hunt in his latest Epsilon Theory.

If Ben is right and that nothing will stop the central banks from flooding markets with cash, as Brexit, data dependence and such-like are just excuses for more of the only thing the authorities want to do, then stocks should rise and the pound fall. Typically bull markets take place over longer periods than bear markets, and are associated with lower implied volatility as the direction of travel becomes more certain.

UK Large Cap Implied Volatility

UK Large Cap Implied Volatility

Implied volatility for UK large cap stocks is back in the average range of the past two years, but five points above the stable state of the first half of 2015 that saw UK stocks rising steadily. The two recent peaks reflect Brexit worries immediately before and after the referendum. The one before, which was a bigger shock regardless of what the media may tell you, was the global recession fears of February, now long forgotten in large part thanks to desperate/determined[1] action by the ECB.

The US market appears to be leading the UK, which is worth bearing in mind as the Brexit furore subsides and the Trump-panic-hype really takes off.

US Large Cap Implied Volatility

US Large Cap Implied Volatility

M&A activity may mean stock specific rises in implied volatility. OTAS shows that among UK large caps only BHP Billiton has seen such a rise over a month, while Anglo American and GlaxoSmithKline have risen over a week. This is based on at-the-money options, but OTAS users with desktop access may dig deeper to see at what level recent trading has taken place. The bulk of the activity for Anglo American, for example, has been out-of-the-money puts (no take-over expected here).

AAL 1-Week Exchange Traded Option Activity

AAL 1-Week Exchange Traded Option Activity

The chart for ARM Holdings shows that the take-over by Softbank was a surprise. The subsequent sharp fall in implied volatility reflects a done deal at a fixed price, while any continuing option activity is by arbitrage specialists using leverage to magnify small price movements.

ARM Holdings Implied Volatility

ARM Holdings Implied Volatility

There is much more to the option market than M&A. Specialist take-over investors will have lists of potential acquirers and targets and stay on top of many more factors than market signals. For the part-time speculator it is worth creating your own list of sectors and stocks that you believe could be vulnerable to approach were the pound to fall further. Putting these in a portfolio in OTAS will allow easy filtering for unusual activity, whether that is in the options market, dealings by directors, or idiosyncratic price performance.

For those interested in potential acquirers, checking the CDS of the companies may be a means of investigating which managements are planning leveraged take-overs. There are, however, other reasons why credit costs can jump, such as a shortage of cash from operations. For this reason, while OTAS provides an initial view on the world of potential M&A that goes further than press speculation, it is only suggesting stocks on which the user will need to do additional research.

Right now there is little unusual option market activity among UK large cap stocks. This may be because, as the quote at the top of the blog indicates, timing is everything. Or it may be because so few people seem to have been able to contemplate that the UK would have a corporate future outside the EU, any M&A activity comes as a complete surprise.

[1] Delete as per your preferred narrative