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More Flash Crashes To Come As Shadow Banking Liquidity Collapses

Remember the algo-ignited, six sigma anomaly that sent 10-year yields down 30 bps in seemingly no time flat on the morning of October 15? Well despite the CFTC’s contention that it was “just a high volume day” without “any break in liquidity,” the Center for Financial Stability is out with a new report which cites the Treasury flash crash as a glaring example of what happens when an increasingly illiquid market collides head-on with “herding investment behavior.” 
From the CFS: 
On October 15, the deepest and most liquid market in the world demonstrated a six standard deviation move in less than two hours, a move that happens once in 506,797,346 days! It is impossible to suggest that this supersized move in the US Treasury market was due to downward assessment of economic expectations. Economic expectations shift weekly – if not daily. Clearly, a shift in the structure of the US Treasury market and substantial reduction of private sector market makers is at the core of recent complications. Similarly, this issue extends well beyond simply the sovereign debt market for US securities, as a result of the interconnectedness among markets and the unique role for Treasury debt as benchmark securities. To be sure, a sustained “flash crash” in the world’s leading fixed income market could readily unleash a pronounced slowdown of the global economy, or worse. 
Put simply, excessive (and incessant) Fed meddling has fundamentally altered the market structure, creating all types of strangeness (the 2-, 5-, and 10-year all special for example) and in the process of sucking collateral from the system, the central bank has made things far more precarious. Recall what Bloomberg had to say about this back in October: 
The amount of U.S. debt available to trade at one time without moving prices as of October has plunged 48 percent to $150 million since April, according to JPMorgan Chase & Co.
As the CFS report goes on to point out, the lack of liquidity in the market is readily observable by way of data on various shadow banking conduits. Incredibly, liquidity has plummeted by nearly half since the eve of the crisis: 
...the reduction of market finance is excessively steep. The CFS measure of market finance is down a stunning 46% in real terms since its peak in March 2008! This phenomenon starves financial markets from needed liquidity and is detrimental to future growth by exposing the economy to potentially unnecessary shocks.
Even more alarming is the following table which shows that shadow banking has contracted for 82 consecutive months...
...and here’s Bloomberg again, with DB’s take: 
A Deutsche Bank index that gauges liquidity by the three-month average size of daily dealer transactions in Treasuries relative to the variability of the 10-year note yield during that period is down to a reading of about 25, from over 500 in 2005. The current level is close to the low of about 19 at the depth of the financial crisis in 2009.
The problem isn’t confined to government debt. CFS also notes that the veritable dearth of liquidity in the secondary market for corporate paper (presumably related to regulation ostensibly aimed at eradicating prop trading) could lead to an “accident”: 
...a recent report by BlackRock highlights how “the secondary trading environment for corporate bonds today is broken.” Data suggest that diminished corporate bond liquidity is in part due to limited participation by market makers. For example, debt holdings by primary dealers are down by 80 percent since a peak in October 2013. These examples signal that the probability of an accident is high and the stage is set for an adverse event meeting with an outsized impact on markets and possibly economies. 

We predicted this 18 months ago, when we warned that “the slightest gust of wind, or rather volatility, threatens to shut down the secondary corporate bond market, which already is running on fumes.”

Of course the last thing you would want to see in this type of environment is a scenario wherein non-human actors are all programmed to move in exactly the same direction at exactly the same time, thus exacerbating the already amplified (thanks to the illiquidity issue) impact of a market-moving event. Thanks to the rise of the machines (a fifth of electronically executed Treasury trades will be executed by robots this year), we have precisely that, as even the zen masters at Bridgewater are starting an artificial intelligence unit. As we noted previously, “it seems that everyone has forgotten [what happens] when all the machines chase down the same rabbit holes?”

Perhaps the ultimate irony in the whole thing is that a Fed policy (i.e. QE) designed explicitly to stamp out tail risk (i.e. a three standard deviation move), is beginning to create six standard deviation moves in the space of just hours. Throw in the unintended consequences of new regulations and a growing legion of lightning fast (if often hapless) robots and you’ve got the makings of a truly impressive meltdown.