The biggest problem in the bond market explained with the help of fried chicken

What is liquidity?

It is a big topic in financial markets — especially the bond market lately, where there's been a lot of hand wringing about the lack of liquidity.

The worry is simply that when 
investors want to sell large amounts of bonds, fast, the buyers won't be there to meet them. That would send prices spiraling.

Some regulators have said this shouldn't be a concern, and the market is operating just fine. Wall Street banks are near unanimous that liquidity conditions have in fact deteriorated.

Chris White, the founder of ViableMkts and the creator ofGoldman Sachs' electronic bond trading platform GSessions, has a pretty compelling description of liquidity and an explanation for why it is lacking. 

He taught a course on the Fundamentals of Market Structure with edX which is now available online, and I watched it Wednesday night (the first module is free). He does a great job of explaining the issues in plain terms. 

First up, here are his thoughts on how to define liquidity:

What is liquidity? It's predictable immediacy. What is predictable immediacy? It's a service of convenience that somebody is providing or something is providing. This is critical to understand the nature of markets because markets are defined by people who are looking for the service of convenience and are willing to buy it versus people whose job it is to sell the service of convenience.

In the bond market, the buyer of convenience is a mutual fund, hedge fund, or insurance company that wants to buy or sell bonds. The sellers of convenience are the broker dealers whose job it is to make sure that there's enough supply and demand available so those big investors can do the trades they need.

But this setup isn't exclusive to financial markets. Another seller of convenience is a fried chicken restaurant. The buyer in that case? A hungry individual who wants to eat right away and know what to expect when they place an order.

And it's when you think about it in those terms that the trouble in the bond market starts to come clearer.

The seller of liquidity is Popeyes Chicken, right? How are they getting paid? Now you could go to the ... farm. You could go to a farm, buy a chicken, slaughter it, take the feathers off of it, gut it, fry it up and you could have what you're getting at Popeyes. Oh, you'd also have to milk a cow and, you know, get the flour for the batter for whatever. So you actually could eat the same meal using your own devices, but you went to Popeyes and you just bought that meal. 

Is there a difference in the cost of the materials that you would have gone out and gotten on your own to cook your meal as opposed to what you're paying for the fully prepared meals from Popeyes? Yeah, Popeyes theoretically should be more expensive.

The point is — that whether it's with fried chicken or bonds — sellers of convenience need to be compensated for their work, and the buyer of liquidity has to be willing to pay up for the convenience. When they don't, then there are problems like the low liquidity environment we're hearing about now.

Now one of the common arguments around the dearth of liquidity in the fixed income market is that it is because of regulation. It is more difficult for banks to hold inventory on their balance sheet, so they don't.

White's argument is that it is to do with economics; that it is no longer profitable for the sellers of convenience, so they're not selling that service.

Seen this way, a narrowing bid-ask spread, or the gap between the price a buyer wants to pay and a seller wants to sell for, is a bad sign. It shows that the potential profit is reduced, and that therefore the incentive to provide liquidity is lessened.

This view stands in contrast to the commonly held view that compression in a bid-ask spread is a sign of strong liquidity. 

Here is White:

How they get paid is one of the biggest debates that is occurring in financial markets today, because what's starting to happen here is a breakdown in the understanding of liquidity. [It is the] equivalent to travelers wanting taxicab drivers to drive them to JFK and not charge them more than the price of gas. That is a large account wanting a market-maker to provide them with immediate trading liquidity, but not mark it up not charge a commission or not receive any privileges around the order flow.