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This week, the SEC gave us a belated Christmas present.  But what does it actually portend?

The present in question is an 88-page "Research Note" from the SEC's Division of Trading and Markets titled "Equity Market Volatility on August 24, 2015." It's an innocuous-enough title, but for us market-structure wonks, it's kind of a big deal.

The conclusions of the piece are purely factual, and include dozens of pages of juicy charts and tables (be still my nerdy heart!). There's little or no conjecture, and there's absolutely no policy recommendations.

It outlines the facts of that fateful trading day, discussing what went wrong, and which classes of securities were affected. It's a gold mine for folks who want to dig in and understand what happens when things break, and, for any investor, it's worth reading at least the first six pages.

Key Findings

Here are the most interesting findings—not just because they're objectively interesting—but because they give you some insight into where the SEC may direct future policy:

  • The SEC goes out of its way to point out that large and small equities—and large and small exchange-traded products—were almost equally affected. It hammers this point home repeatedly. To me, this signals that it is countering an internal (or external) argument that there's a "small-cap problem" when it comes to market structure, or that the liquidity haves/have-nots divide is the fundamental problem.
  • The SEC makes a clear point of highlighting that 60% of the limit-up-limit-down (LULD) halts came when securities were trading up from lows. The not-too-subtle implication is that they're going to revisit the symmetry of the system. This is a good thing. People really only care, in general, about downside volatility. Sure, people building models, shorting or managing risk in a sophisticated way care about overall volatility. Actual investors? Not so much.
  • While it highlights the same issues with the NYSE open and reopen process that I did in a recent blog, it makes a case study of the PowerShares QQQs, which, in tracking the Nasdaq 100, by definition includes no NYSE-listed securities. It points out that the Q's had just as big a discount problem in the heat of the open as did the iShares S&P 500 ETF.

It concludes by saying the things it actually wants to keep researching, and show its hand pretty well here: It wants to focus on how the LULD process works (or doesn't), and it wants to readdress marketwide circuit breakers. It also says it's looking at Reg SHO and the short-sale restrictions, although from my analysis, I don't see this as a contributing factor (but hey, I've been wrong before).

So What Does This All Mean?

It's important to understand the SEC's actions in context, and in total. The SEC is not a singular entity that speaks as one voice with one set of tools. Each division has its own regulatory bailiwick, and its own penchant for action or inaction.

The Division of Trading and Markets is generally concerned with plumbing and exchange regulation, and what we see here is it coming into line with where the big action has been lately, the Division of Investment Management.

The Division of Investment Management oversees mutual funds and ETFs (among other things), and the agenda there going into 2016 is enormously clear. There are more than 600 pages of proposed rulemaking currently out for comment, all of it focused on one thing: risk.

One set of rules has been proposed for managing liquidity risk. Another set of rules has been proposed for managing derivatives (and thus leverage) risk. This all comes after a set of questions back in June where it started treading into Trading and Markets territory, asking about whether exchanges should have look-through responsibilities when it comes to exchange-traded products.

Jumping On Risk Bandwagon

This data dump from Trading and Markets reads to me like a "getting on the risk bandwagon" statement. In general, I'm all for this. The SEC's job is to keep the trains running on time, and days like August 24 and unintended exposures through poorly constructed products are absolutely the kinds of things it should be focused on.

My hope is that it takes its time and really listens, because there are dozens of unintended consequences already baked into its proposed rulemaking. That's bad enough when you're talking about the inner workings of mutual funds and ETFs; it's a bigger deal when we're talking about the inner workings of the markets themselves.

The moral of the story: 2016 is a year in which investors—and investment managers—will need to pay very close attention to what's happening in Washington.

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Director of Exchange Traded Funds
Dave left FactSet in 2016. He previously spearheaded the creation of in-depth ETF content for Insight. Dave has been involved in researching, reporting and analyzing the investment management industry for more than 15 years. As managing director at Barclays Global Investors, Dave helped design and market some of the first exchange-traded funds. With partner Don Luskin, he went on to found MetaMarkets.com, a revolutionary transparent mutual fund company that pushed fund disclosure to the top of the SEC agenda. As co-founder at Cerulli Associates in the early '90s, he conducted some of the earliest research on fee-only financial advisers and the rise of indexing.

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