These oil companies could be the next takeover targets in Permian Basin after Diamondback deal

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Bitcoin, AI and Magnificent 7: The emerging ETF trends as industry gathers for big conference

Over two thousand attendees are descending on the Fontainebleau Hotel in Miami Beach for the annual Exchange ETF conference. To entice participants, the organizers rented out the entire LIV Nightclub Miami at the hotel for a Super Bowl party Sunday night.

While much of the conference is an excuse to party among the ETF industry reps and the Registered Investment Advisors  (RIAs) that are the main attendees, the industry needs a lot of advice.

The Good news: still lots of money coming in, but the industry is maturing

The ETF juggernaut continues to rake in money, now with north of $8 trillion in assets under management.  Indexing/passive investing, the main impetus behind ETFs 30 years ago, continues to bring in new adherents as smarter investors, including the younger ones that have begun investing since the pandemic, come to understand the difficulty of outperforming the market.

The bad news is much of the easy money has already been made as the industry is now reaching middle aged. Just about every type of index fund that can be thought of is already in existence. 

To grow, the ETF industry has to expand the offerings of active management and devise new ways to entice investors.  

Actively managed strategies did well in 2023, accounting for about a quarter of all inflows.  Covered call strategies like the JPMorgan Equity Premium Income ETF (JEPI), which offered protection during a downturn, raked in money.  But with the broad markets hitting new highs, it’s not clear if investors will continue to pour money into covered call strategies that, by definition, underperform in rising markets.

Fortunately, the industry has proven very skilled at capturing whatever investing zeitgeist is in the air.  That can range from the silly (pot ETFs when there was no real pot industry) to ideas that have had some real staying power.

Six or seven years ago, it was thematic tech ETFs like cybersecurity or electric vehicles that pulled in investors. 

The big topics in 2024:  Bitcoin, AI, Magnificent 7 alternatives

In 2024, the industry is betting that the new crop of bitcoin ETFs will pull in billions.  Bitcoin for grandma?  We’ll see.

Besides bitcoin, the big topics here in Miami Beach are 1) A.I/ and what it’s going to do for financial advisors and investors, and 2) how to get clients to think about equity allocation beyond the Magnificent 7.

Notably absent is China investing.

Bitcoin for grandma?  Financial advisors are divided on whether to jump in

Ten spot bitcoin ETFs have successfully launched.  The heads of three of those, Matt Hougan, chief investment officer at Bitwise, Steve Kurz, global head of asset management at Galaxy and David LaValle, global head of ETFs at Grayscale, will lead a panel offering advice to financial advisors, who seem divided on how to proceed.

Ric Edelman, the founder of Edelman Financial Engines, the #1 RIA in the country and currently the head of the Digital Assets Council of Financial Professionals (DACFP), will also be present. 

Edelman has long been a bitcoin bull. He recently estimates bitcoin’s price will reach $150,000 within two years (about three times its current price), and has estimated that Independent RIAs, who collectively manage $8 trillion, could invest 2.5% of their assets under management in crypto in the next two to three years, which would translate into over $154 billion.

Inflows into bitcoin ETFs to date have been modest, but bitcoin ETFs are being viewed by some advisors as the first true bridge between traditional finance and the crypto community. 

But many advisors are torn about recommending them, not just because of the large number of competing products, but because of the legal minefields that still exist around bitcoin, specifically around SEC Chair Gary Gensler’s warning that any financial advisor recommending bitcoin would have to be mindful of “suitability” requirements for clients.

For many, those suitability requirements, along with the high volatility, continuing charges of manipulation, and the doubt about bitcoin as a true asset class will be enough to keep them away. 

The bitcoin ecosystem is in going into overdrive to convince the RIA community otherwise.

 Artificial intelligence: What can it do for the investing community?

Thematic tech investing (cybersecurity, robotics, cloud computing, electric vehicles, social media, etc.) has waxed and waned in the last decade, but there is no doubt Artificial Intelligence ETFs (IRBT, ROBT, BOTZ)  has recaptured some interest.  The problem is defining what an AI investment looks like and which companies are exposed to AI.

But the impact is already being felt by the financial advisory community.

Jason Pereira, senior partner & financial Planner, Woodgate Financial, is speaking on how financial advisors are using artificial intelligence.  There are amazing AI tools that financial advisors can now use.  Pereira describes how it is now possible to generate financial podcasts with just snippets of your own voice.  Just plug in a text, and it can generate a whole podcast without ever saying the actual words.  How to generate text?  In theory, you could go to Chat GPT and say, for example, “Write 500 words about current issues in 401(k)s,” and rewrite it slightly for a specific audience.

In a world where a million people can now generate a podcast on financial advice, how do you maintain value?  Much of the lower skilled tasks (data analysis) will quickly become commodified, but Pereira believes a very big difference will quickly emerge between volume and quality.

Equity Allocation Beyond the Magnificent Seven

Financial advisors are beset by clients urging them to throw money at the Magnificent 7.  Roundhill’s new Magnificent 7 ETF (MAGS) has pulled in big money in the last few months, now north of $100 million in assets under management.

Since the end of last year, there have been enormous inflows into technology ETFs (Apple, Microsoft, NVIDIA), and modest inflows into communications (Meta and Alphabet) and consumer discretionary (Amazon).  Most everything else has languished, with particular outflows in energy, health care, and materials. 

Advisors are eager for advice on how to talk to clients about the concentration risks involved in investing solely in big-cap tech and how to allocate for the long haul. 

Alex Zweber, managing director investment strategy at Parametric and Eric Veiel, head of global investments and CIO at T. Rowe Price are leading a panel on alternative approaches that have had some success recently, including ETFs that invest in option overlays, but also on quality and momentum investing in general, which overlaps but is broader than simply investing in the Magnificent 7.

Stop talking about numbers and returns and start offering “human-centric” advice

Talk to any financial advisor for more than a few minutes, and they will likely tell you how difficult it is dealing with some clients who are convinced they should put all their money into NVIDIA, or Bolivian tin mines, or who have investing ADHD and want to throw all their money in one investment one day, then pull it out the next.

Brian Portnoy and Neil Bage, co-founders of Shaping Wealth, are leading one of the early panels on how financial advisors can move away from an emphasis on numbers and more toward engaging with their clients on a more personal and emotional level.

Sounds touchy-feely, but competition for clients has become intense, and there is a new field emerging on how to provide financial advice that is less centered on numbers (assets under management, fees, quarterly statements), and more centered on developing the investor’s understanding of behavioral finance and emotional intelligence. 

Under this style of investment advice, often called “human-centric” or “human-first” advice, more time may be spent discussing behavioral biases that lead to investing mistakes than on stock market minutiae. This may help the clients develop behaviors that, for example, are better suited to longer term investing (less trading, less market timing).  

Advocates of this approach believe this is a much better way to engage and keep clients for the long term.

What’s missing? China

For years, a panel on international investing, and specifically emerging markets/China investing, was a staple at ETF conferences.

Not anymore.  Notably absent is any discussion of international investing, but particularly China, where political risk is now perceived to be so high that investors are fleeing China and China ETFs. 

Indeed, investing “ex-China” is a bit of a thing.

The iShares Emerging Markets ex-China ETF (EMXC) launched with little fanfare in 2017 and had almost no assets under management for several years.  That changed in late 2022, when China ETFs began a long slow descent, and inflows exploded into EMXC from investors who still wanted emerging market exposure, just not to China.

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China’s VC playbook is undergoing a sea change as U.S. IPO exits get tougher

A bank employee count China’s renminbi (RMB) or yuan notes next to U.S. dollar notes at a Kasikornbank in Bangkok, Thailand, January 26, 2023.

Athit Perawongmetha | Reuters

BEIJING — Venture capitalists in China that once rose to fame with giant U.S. IPOs of consumer companies are under pressure to drastically change their strategy.

The urgency to adapt their playbook to a newer environment has increased in the last few years with stricter regulations in China as well as the U.S., tensions between the two countries and slowdown in the world’s second-largest economy.

Here are the three shifts that are underway:

1. From U.S. dollars to Chinese yuan

The business model for well-known venture capital funds in China such as Sequoia and Hillhouse typically involved raising dollars from university endowments, pension funds and other sources in the U.S. — known in the industry as limited partners.

That money then went into startups in China, which eventually sought initial public offerings in the U.S., generating returns for investors.

Now many of those limited partners have paused investing in China, as Washington increases its scrutiny of U.S. money backing advanced Chinese tech and it gets harder for Chinese companies to list in the U.S. A slowdown in the Asian country has further dampened investor sentiment.

That means venture capitalists in China need to look to alternative sources, such as the Middle East, or, increasingly, funds tied to local government coffers. The shift toward domestic channels also means a change in currency.

In 2023, the total venture capital funds raised in China dropped to their lowest since 2015, with the share of U.S. dollars falling to 5.3% from 8.4% in the prior year, according to Xiniu Data, an industry research firm.

That’s far less than in the previous years — the share of U.S. dollars in total VC funds raised was around 15% for the years 2018 to 2021, the data showed. The remaining share was in Chinese yuan.

Currently, many USD funds are shifting their focus to government-backed hard tech companies, which typically aim for A share exits rather than U.S. listings

For foreign investors, high U.S. interest rates and the relative attractiveness of markets such as India and Japan also factor into decisions around whether to invest in China.

“VCs have definitely changed their view on Greater China from a couple years ago,” Kyle Stanford, lead VC analyst at Pitchbook, said in an email.

“Greater China private markets still have a lot of capital available, whether it be from local funds, or from areas such as the Middle East, but in general the view on China growth and VC returns has changed,” he said.

2. China investments, China exits

Washington and Beijing in 2022 resolved a long-standing audit dispute that reduced the risk of Chinese companies having to delist from U.S. stock exchanges.

But following the fallout over Chinese ride-hailing giant Didi’s U.S. listing in the summer of 2021, the two countries have increased scrutiny of China-based companies wanting to go public in New York.

Beijing now requires companies with large amounts of user data — essentially any internet-based consumer-facing business in China — to receive approval from the cybersecurity regulator, among other measures, before they can list in Hong Kong or the U.S.

Washington has also tightened restrictions on American money going into high-tech Chinese companies. A few large VCs have separated their China operations from those in the U.S. under new names. Last year, Sequoia most famously rebranded in China as HongShan.

“USD funds in China can still invest in non-sensitive sectors for A share IPOs, but have the challenge of local enterprise preferring capital from RMB [Chinese yuan] funds,” said Liao Ming, founding partner of Beijing-based Prospect Avenue Capital, which has focused on U.S. dollar funds.

Stocks listed in the mainland Chinese market are known as A shares.

“The trend is shifting towards investing in parallel entity overseas assets, marking a strategic move ‘from long China to long Chinese,” he said.

“With U.S. IPOs no longer being a viable exit strategy for China assets, investors should target local exits in their respective capital markets—in other words, China exits for China assets, and U.S. exits for overseas assets,” Liao said.

Read more about China from CNBC Pro

Only a handful of China-based companies – and barely any large ones – have listed in the U.S. since Didi’s IPO. The company went public on the New York Stock Exchange in the summer of 2021, despite reported regulatory concerns.

Beijing promptly ordered an investigation that forced Didi to temporarily suspend new user registrations and app downloads. The company delisted later that year.

The probe, which has since ended, came alongside Beijing’s crackdown on alleged monopolistic practices by internet tech companies such as Alibaba. The clampdown also covered after-school tutoring, minors’ access to video games and real estate developers’ high reliance on debt for growth.

3. VC-government alignment, larger deals

Instead of consumer-facing sectors, Chinese authorities have emphasized support for industrial development, such as high-end manufacturing and renewable energy.

“Currently, many USD funds are shifting their focus to government-backed hard tech companies, which typically aim for A share exits rather than U.S. listings,” Liao said, noting that it aligns with Beijing’s preferences as well.

These companies include developers of new materials for renewable energy and factory automation components.

In 2023, the 20 largest VC deals for China-headquartered companies were mostly in manufacturing and included no e-commerce business, according to PitchBook data. In pre-pandemic 2019, the top deals included a few online shopping or internet-based consumer product companies, and some electric car start-ups.

The change is even more stark when compared with the boom around the time online shopping giant Alibaba went public in 2014. The 20 largest VC deals for China-headquartered companies in 2013 were predominantly in e-commerce and software services, according to PitchBook data.

… the venture capital scene has become even more state-concentrated and focused on government priorities.

Camille Boullenois

Rhodium Group

The shift away from internet apps towards hard tech requires more capital.

The median deal size in 2013 among those 20 largest China VC transactions was $80 million, according to CNBC calculations based off PitchBook data.

That’s far smaller than the median deal size of $280 million in 2019, and a fraction of the median of $804 million per transaction in 2023 for the same category of investments, the analysis showed.

Many of those deals were led by local government-backed funds or state-owned companies, in contrast to a decade earlier when VC names such as GGV Capital and internet tech companies were more prominent investors, according to the data.

“In the past 20 years, China and finance developed very quickly, and in the past ten years private [capital] funds grew very quickly, meaning just investing in any industry would [generate] returns,” Yang Luxia, partner and general manager at Heying Capital, said in Mandarin, translated by CNBC. She has been focused on yuan funds, while looking to raise capital from overseas.

Yang doesn’t expect the same pace of growth going forward, and said she is even taking a “conservative” approach to new energy. The technology changes quickly, making it hard to select winners, she said, while companies now need to consider buyouts and other alternatives to IPOs.

Then there’s the question of China’s growth itself, especially as state-linked funds and policies play a larger role in tech investment.

“In 2022, [private equity and venture capital] investment in China was cut in half, and it fell again in 2023. Private and foreign actors were the first to withdraw, so the venture capital scene has become even more state-concentrated and focused on government priorities,” said Camille Boullenois, associate director, Rhodium Group.

The risk is that science and technology becomes “more state-directed and aligned with government’s priorities,” she said. “That could be effective in the short term, but is unlikely to encourage a thriving innovation environment in the long term.”

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Oil prices could spike 20%, possibly double if Middle East conflict disrupts Strait of Hormuz

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The Middle East is on fire: What you need to know about the Red Sea crisis

On October 7, Hamas fighters launched a bloody attack against Israel, using paragliders, speedboats and underground tunnels to carry out an offensive that killed almost 1,200 people and saw hundreds more taken back to the Gaza Strip as prisoners. 

Almost three months on, Israel’s massive military retaliation is reverberating around the region, with explosions in Lebanon and rebels from Yemen attacking shipping in the Red Sea. Meanwhile, Western countries are pumping military aid into Israel while deploying fleets to protect commercial shipping — risking confrontation with the Iranian navy.

That’s in line with a grim prediction made last year by Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian, who said that Israel’s counteroffensive in Gaza meant an “expansion of the scope of the war has become inevitable,” and that further escalation across the Middle East should be expected. 

What’s happening?

The Israel Defense Forces are still fighting fierce battles for control of the Gaza Strip in what officials say is a mission to destroy Hamas. Troops have already occupied much of the north of the 365-square-kilometer territory, home to around 2.3 million Palestinians, and are now fighting fierce battles in the south.

Entire neighborhoods of densely-populated Gaza City have been levelled by intense Israeli shelling, rocket attacks and air strikes, rendering them uninhabitable. Although independent observers have been largely shut out, the Hamas-controlled Health Ministry claims more than 22,300 people have been killed, while the U.N. says 1.9 million people have been displaced.

On a visit to the front lines, Israeli Defence Minister Yoav Gallant warned that his country is in the fight for the long haul. “The feeling that we will stop soon is incorrect. Without a clear victory, we will not be able to live in the Middle East,” he said.

As the Gaza ground war intensifies, Hamas and its allies are increasingly looking to take the conflict to a far broader arena in order to put pressure on Israel.

According to Seth Frantzman, a regional analyst with the Jerusalem Post and adjunct fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, “Iran is certainly making a play here in terms of trying to isolate Israel [and] the U.S. and weaken U.S. influence, also showing that Israel doesn’t have the deterrence capabilities that it may have had in the past or at least thought it had.”

Northern front

On Tuesday a blast ripped through an office in Dahieh, a southern suburb of the Lebanese capital, Beirut — 130 kilometers from the border with Israel. Hamas confirmed that one of its most senior leaders, Saleh al-Arouri, was killed in the strike. 

Government officials in Jerusalem have refused to confirm Israeli forces were behind the killing, while simultaneously presenting it as a “surgical strike against the Hamas leadership” and insisting it was not an attack against Lebanon itself, despite a warning from Lebanese caretaker Prime Minister Najib Mikati that the incident risked dragging his country into a wider regional war. 

Tensions between Israel and Lebanon have spiked in recent weeks, with fighters loyal to Hezbollah, the Shia Islamist militant group that controls the south of the country, firing hundreds of rockets across the frontier. Along with Hamas, Hezbollah is part of the Iranian-led “Axis of Resistance” that aims to destroy the state of Israel.

In a statement released on Tuesday, Iran’s foreign ministry said the death of al-Arouri, the most senior Hamas official confirmed to have died since October 7, will only embolden resistance against Israel, not only in the Palestinian territories but also in the wider Middle East.

“We’re talking about the death of a senior Hamas leader, not from Hezbollah or the [Iranian] Revolutionary Guards. Is it Iran who’s going to respond? Hezbollah? Hamas with rockets? Or will there be no response, with the various players waiting for the next assassination?” asked Héloïse Fayet, a researcher at the French Institute for International Relations.

In a much-anticipated speech on Wednesday evening, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah condemned the killing but did not announce a military response.

Red Sea boils over

For months now, sailors navigating the narrow Bab- el-Mandeb Strait that links Europe to Asia have faced a growing threat of drone strikes, missile attacks and even hijackings by Iran-backed Houthi militants operating off the coast of Yemen.

The Houthi movement, a Shia militant group supported by Iran in the Yemeni civil war against Saudi Arabia and its local allies, insists it is only targeting shipping with links to Israel in a bid to pressure it to end the war in Gaza. However, the busy trade route from the Suez Canal through the Red Sea has seen dozens of commercial vessels targeted or delayed, forcing Western nations to intervene.

Over the weekend, the U.S. Navy said it had intercepted two anti-ship missiles and sunk three boats carrying Houthi fighters in what it said was a hijacking attempt against the Maersk Hangzhou, a container ship. Danish shipping giant Maersk said Tuesday that it would “pause all transits through the Red Sea until further notice,” following a number of other cargo liners; energy giant BP is also suspending travel through the region.

On Wednesday the Houthis targeted a CMA CGM Tage container ship bound for Israel, according to the group’s military spokesperson Yahya Sarea. “Any U.S. attack will not pass without a response or punishment,” he added. 

“The sensible decision is one that the vast majority of shippers I think are now coming to, [which] is to transit through round the Cape of Good Hope,” said Marco Forgione, director general at the Institute of Export & International Trade. “But that in itself is not without heavy impact, it’s up to two weeks additional sailing time, adds over £1 million to the journey, and there are risks, particularly in West Africa, of piracy as well.” 

However, John Stawpert, a senior manager at the International Chamber of Shipping, noted that while “there has been disruption” and an “understandable nervousness about transiting these routes … trade is continuing to flow.”

“A major contributory factor to that has been the presence of military assets committed to defending shipping from these attacks,” he said. 

The impacts of the disruption, especially price hikes hitting consumers, will be seen “in the next couple of weeks,” according to Forgione. Oil and gas markets also risk taking a hit — the price of benchmark Brent crude rose by 3 percent to $78.22 a barrel on Wednesday. Almost 10 percent of the world’s oil and 7 percent of its gas flows through the Red Sea.

Western response

On Wednesday evening, the U.S., Australia, Bahrain, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Germany, Italy, Japan, the Netherlands, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom issued an ultimatum calling the Houthi attacks “illegal, unacceptable, and profoundly destabilizing,” but with only vague threats of action.

“We call for the immediate end of these illegal attacks and release of unlawfully detained vessels and crews. The Houthis will bear the responsibility of the consequences should they continue to threaten lives, the global economy, and free flow of commerce in the region’s critical waterways,” the statement said.

Despite the tepid language, the U.S. has already struck back at militants from Iranian-backed groups such as Kataeb Hezbollah in Iraq and Syria after they carried out drone attacks that injured U.S. personnel.

The assumption in London is that airstrikes against the Houthis — if it came to that — would be U.S.-led with the U.K. as a partner. Other nations might also chip in.

Two French officials said Paris is not considering air strikes. The country’s position is to stick to self-defense, and that hasn’t changed, one of them said. French Armed Forces Minister Sébastien Lecornu confirmed that assessment, saying on Tuesday that “we’re continuing to act in self-defense.” 

“Would France, which is so proud of its third way and its position as a balancing power, be prepared to join an American-British coalition?” asked Fayet, the think tank researcher.

Iran looms large

Iran’s efforts to leverage its proxies in a below-the-radar battle against both Israel and the West appear to be well underway, and the conflict has already scuppered a long-awaited security deal between Israel and Saudi Arabia.

“Since 1979, Iran has been conducting asymmetrical proxy terrorism where they try to advance their foreign policy objectives while displacing the consequences, the counterpunches, onto someone else — usually Arabs,” said Bradley Bowman, senior director of Washington’s Center on Military and Political Power. “An increasingly effective regional security architecture, of the kind the U.S. and Saudi Arabia are trying to build, is a nightmare for Iran which, like a bully on the playground, wants to keep all the other kids divided and distracted.”

Despite Iran’s fiery rhetoric, it has stopped short of declaring all-out war on its enemies or inflicting massive casualties on Western forces in the region — which experts say reflects the fact it would be outgunned in a conventional conflict.

“Neither Iran nor the U.S. nor Israel is ready for that big war,” said Alex Vatanka, director of the Middle East Institute’s Iran program. “Israel is a nuclear state, Iran is a nuclear threshold state — and the U.S. speaks for itself on this front.”

Israel might be betting on a long fight in Gaza, but Iran is trying to make the conflict a global one, he added. “Nobody wants a war, so both sides have been gambling on the long term, hoping to kill the other guy through a thousand cuts.”

Emilio Casalicchio contributed reporting.



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These Middle East flashpoints could trigger regional conflict that impacts oil prices

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2024 energy outlook: What investors can expect from crude prices, and how to play it

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GPT and other AI models can’t analyze an SEC filing, researchers find

Patronus AI co-founders Anand Kannappan and Rebecca Qian

Patronus AI

Large language models, similar to the one at the heart of ChatGPT, frequently fail to answer questions derived from Securities and Exchange Commission filings, researchers from a startup called Patronus AI found.

Even the best-performing artificial intelligence model configuration they tested, OpenAI’s GPT-4-Turbo, when armed with the ability to read nearly an entire filing alongside the question, only got 79% of answers right on Patronus AI’s new test, the company’s founders told CNBC.

Oftentimes, the so-called large language models would refuse to answer, or would “hallucinate” figures and facts that weren’t in the SEC filings.

“That type of performance rate is just absolutely unacceptable,” Patronus AI co-founder Anand Kannappan said. “It has to be much much higher for it to really work in an automated and production-ready way.”

The findings highlight some of the challenges facing AI models as big companies, especially in regulated industries like finance, seek to incorporate cutting-edge technology into their operations, whether for customer service or research.

The ability to extract important numbers quickly and perform analysis on financial narratives has been seen as one of the most promising applications for chatbots since ChatGPT was released late last year. SEC filings are filled with important data, and if a bot could accurately summarize them or quickly answer questions about what’s in them, it could give the user a leg up in the competitive financial industry.

In the past year, Bloomberg LP developed its own AI model for financial data, business school professors researched whether ChatGPT can parse financial headlines, and JPMorgan is working on an AI-powered automated investing tool, CNBC previously reported. Generative AI could boost the banking industry by trillions of dollars per year, a recent McKinsey forecast said.

But GPT’s entry into the industry hasn’t been smooth. When Microsoft first launched its Bing Chat using OpenAI’s GPT, one of its primary examples was using the chatbot to quickly summarize an earnings press release. Observers quickly realized that the numbers in Microsoft’s example were off, and some numbers were entirely made up.

‘Vibe checks’

Part of the challenge when incorporating LLMs into actual products, say the Patronus AI co-founders, is that LLMs are nondeterministic — they’re not guaranteed to produce the same output every time for the same input. That means that companies will need to do more rigorous testing to make sure they’re operating correctly, not going off-topic, and providing reliable results.

The founders met at Facebook parent company Meta, where they worked on AI problems related to understanding how models come up with their answers and making them more “responsible.” They founded Patronus AI, which has received seed funding from Lightspeed Venture Partners, to automate LLM testing with software, so companies can feel comfortable that their AI bots won’t surprise customers or workers with off-topic or wrong answers.

“Right now evaluation is largely manual. It feels like just testing by inspection,” Patronus AI co-founder Rebecca Qian said. “One company told us it was ‘vibe checks.'”

Patronus AI worked to write a set of more than 10,000 questions and answers drawn from SEC filings from major publicly traded companies, which it calls FinanceBench. The dataset includes the correct answers, and also where exactly in any given filing to find them. Not all of the answers can be pulled directly from the text, and some questions require light math or reasoning.

Qian and Kannappan say it’s a test that gives a “minimum performance standard” for language AI in the financial sector.

Here’s some examples of questions in the dataset, provided by Patronus AI:

  • Has CVS Health paid dividends to common shareholders in Q2 of FY2022?
  • Did AMD report customer concentration in FY22?
  • What is Coca Cola’s FY2021 COGS % margin? Calculate what was asked by utilizing the line items clearly shown in the income statement.

How the AI models did on the test

Patronus AI tested four language models: OpenAI’s GPT-4 and GPT-4-Turbo, Anthropic’s Claude 2 and Meta’s Llama 2, using a subset of 150 of the questions it had produced.

It also tested different configurations and prompts, such as one setting where the OpenAI models were given the exact relevant source text in the question, which it called “Oracle” mode. In other tests, the models were told where the underlying SEC documents would be stored, or given “long context,” which meant including nearly an entire SEC filing alongside the question in the prompt.

GPT-4-Turbo failed at the startup’s “closed book” test, where it wasn’t given access to any SEC source document. It failed to answer 88% of the 150 questions it was asked, and only produced a correct answer 14 times.

It was able to improve significantly when given access to the underlying filings. In “Oracle” mode, where it was pointed to the exact text for the answer, GPT-4-Turbo answered the question correctly 85% of the time, but still produced an incorrect answer 15% of the time.

But that’s an unrealistic test because it requires human input to find the exact pertinent place in the filing — the exact task that many hope that language models can address.

Llama 2, an open-source AI model developed by Meta, had some of the worst “hallucinations,” producing wrong answers as much as 70% of the time, and correct answers only 19% of the time, when given access to an array of underlying documents.

Anthropic’s Claude 2 performed well when given “long context,” where nearly the entire relevant SEC filing was included along with the question. It could answer 75% of the questions it was posed, gave the wrong answer for 21%, and failed to answer only 3%. GPT-4-Turbo also did well with long context, answering 79% of the questions correctly, and giving the wrong answer for 17% of them.

After running the tests, the co-founders were surprised about how poorly the models did — even when they were pointed to where the answers were.

“One surprising thing was just how often models refused to answer,” said Qian. “The refusal rate is really high, even when the answer is within the context and a human would be able to answer it.”

Even when the models performed well, though, they just weren’t good enough, Patronus AI found.

“There just is no margin for error that’s acceptable, because, especially in regulated industries, even if the model gets the answer wrong 1 out of 20 times, that’s still not high enough accuracy,” Qian said.

But the Patronus AI co-founders believe there’s huge potential for language models like GPT to help people in the finance industry — whether that’s analysts, or investors — if AI continues to improve.

“We definitely think that the results can be pretty promising,” said Kannappan. “Models will continue to get better over time. We’re very hopeful that in the long term, a lot of this can be automated. But today, you will definitely need to have at least a human in the loop to help support and guide whatever workflow you have.”

An OpenAI representative pointed to the company’s usage guidelines, which prohibit offering tailored financial advice using an OpenAI model without a qualified person reviewing the information, and require anyone using an OpenAI model in the financial industry to provide a disclaimer informing them that AI is being used and its limitations. OpenAI’s usage policies also say that OpenAI’s models are not fine-tuned to provide financial advice.

Meta did not immediately return a request for comment, and Anthropic didn’t immediately have a comment.

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Friday’s S&P 500 and Nasdaq-100 rebalance may reflect concerns over concentration risk

It’s arguably the biggest stock story of 2023: a small number of giant technology companies now make up a very large part of big indexes like the S&P 500 and the Nasdaq-100. 

Five companies (Apple, Microsoft, Amazon, Nvidia and Alphabet) make up about 25% of the S&P 500. Six companies (Apple, Microsoft, Amazon, Nvidia, Alphabet and Broadcom) make up about 40% of the Nasdaq-100. 

The S&P 500 and the Nasdaq are rebalancing their respective indexes this Friday. While this is a routine event, some of the changes may reflect the concerns over concentration risk. 

A ton of money is pegged to a few indexes 

Now that the CPI and the Fed meeting are out of the way, these rebalances are the last major “liquidity events” of the year, corresponding with another notable trading event: triple witching, or the quarterly expiration of stock options, index options and index futures. 

This is an opportunity for the trading community to move large blocks of stock for the last gasps of tax loss harvesting or to position for the new year. Trading volume will typically drop 30%-40% in the final two weeks of the year after triple witching, with only the final trading day showing significant volume.

All of this might appear of only academic interest, but the big move to passive index investing in the past 20 years has made these events more important to investors. 

When these indexes are adjusted, either because of additions or deletions, or because share counts change, or because the weightings are changed to reduce the influence of the largest companies, it means a lot of money moves in and out of mutual funds and ETFs that are directly or indirectly tied to the indexes. 

Standard & Poor’s estimates that nearly $13 trillion is directly or indirectly indexed to the S&P 500. The three largest ETFs (SPDR S&P 500 ETF Trust, iShares Core S&P 500 ETF, and Vanguard S&P 500 ETF) are all directly indexed to the S&P 500 and collectively have nearly $1.2 trillion in assets under management. 

Linked to the Nasdaq-100 — the 100 largest nonfinancial companies listed on Nasdaq — the Invesco QQQ Trust (QQQ) is the fifth-largest ETF, with roughly $220 billion in assets under management. 

S&P 500: Apple and others will be for sale. Uber going in 

For the S&P 500, Standard & Poor’s will adjust the weighting of each stock to account for changes in share count. Share counts typically change because many companies have large buyback programs that reduce share count. 

This quarter, Apple, Alphabet, Comcast, Exxon Mobil, Visa and Marathon Petroleum will all see their share counts reduced, so funds indexed to the S&P will have to reduce their weighting. 

S&P 500: Companies with share count reduction

(% of share count reduction)

  • Apple        0.5%
  • Alphabet   1.3%
  • Comcast    2.4%
  • Exxon Mobil  1.0%
  • Visa                0.8%
  • Marathon Petroleum  2.6%

Source: S&P Global

Other companies (Nasdaq, EQT, and Amazon among them) will see their share counts increased, so funds indexed to the S&P 500 will have to increase their weighting. 

In addition, three companies are being added to the S&P 500: Uber, Jabil, and Builders FirstSource.  I wrote about the effect that being added to the S&P was having on Uber‘s stock price last week.  

Three other companies are being deleted and will go from the S&P 500 to the S&P SmallCap 600 index: Sealed Air, Alaska Air and SolarEdge Technologies

Nasdaq-100 changes: DoorDash, MongoDB, Splunk are in 

The Nasdaq-100 is rebalanced four times a year; however, the annual reconstitution, where stocks are added or deleted, happens only in December. 

Last Friday, Nasdaq announced that six companies would be added to the Nasdaq-100: CDW Corporation (CDW), Coca-Cola Europacific Partners (CCEP), DoorDash (DASH), MongoDB (MDB), Roper Technologies (ROP), and Splunk (SPLK). 

Six others will be deleted: Align Technology (ALGN), eBay (EBAY), Enphase Energy (ENPH), JD.com (JD), Lucid Group (LCID), and Zoom Video Communications (ZM).

Concentration risk: The rules

Under federal law, a diversified investment fund (mutual funds, exchange-traded funds), even if it just mimics an index like the S&P 500, has to satisfy certain diversification requirements. This includes requirements that: 1) no single issuer can account for more than 25% of the total assets of the portfolio, and 2) securities that represent more than 5% of the total assets cannot exceed 50% of the total portfolio. 

Most of the major indexes have similar requirements in their rules. 

For example, there are 11 S&P sector indexes that are the underlying indexes for widely traded ETFs such as the Technology Select SPDR ETF (XLK). The rules for these sector indexes are similar to the rules on diversification requirements for investment funds discussed above. For example, the S&P sector indexes say that a single stock cannot exceed 24% of the float-adjusted market capitalization of that sector index and that the sum of the companies with weights greater than 4.8% cannot exceed 50% of the total index weight. 

At the end of last week, three companies had weights greater than 4.8% in the Technology Select Sector (Microsoft at 23.5%, Apple at 22.8%, and Broadcom at 4.9%) and their combined market weight was 51.2%, so if those same prices hold at the close on Friday, there should be a small reduction in Apple and Microsoft in that index. 

S&P will announce if there are changes in the sector indexes after the close on Friday. 

The Nasdaq-100 also uses a “modified” market-capitalization weighting scheme, which can constrain the size of the weighting for any given stock to address overconcentration risk. This rebalancing may reduce the weighting in some of the largest stocks, including Apple, Microsoft, Amazon, Nvidia and Alphabet. 

The move up in these large tech stocks was so rapid in the first half of the year that Nasdaq took the unusual step of initiating a special rebalance in the Nasdaq-100 in July to address the overconcentration of the biggest names. As a result, Microsoft, Apple, Nvidia, Amazon and Tesla all saw their weightings reduced. 

Market concentration is nothing new

Whether the rules around market concentration should be tightened is open for debate, but the issue has been around for decades.

For example, Phil Mackintosh and Robert Jankiewicz from Nasdaq recently noted that the weight of the five largest companies in the S&P 500 was also around 25% back in the 1970s.

Disclosure: Comcast is the corporate parent of NBCUniversal and CNBC.

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Jim Cramer’s top 10 things to watch in the stock market Thursday

My top 10 things to watch Thursday, Dec. 14

1. U.S. stocks are higher in premarket trading Thursday, with S&P 500 futures up 0.46%. Equities rallied Wednesday after the Federal Reserve held interest rates steady, while indicating it would cut rates three times in 2024 — a decision more dovish than I expected. Meanwhile, bond prices are also strengthening, with the yield on the 10-year Treasury falling below 4%.

2. Toll Brothers announces a new $20 million share-buyback program — and there are only 100 million shares. But CEO Doug Yearley thinks it’s ridiculous that his stock sells at eight-times earnings when it’s more of a secular grower, despite changes in the housing industry.

3. UBS upgrades Club holding Coterra Energy to buy from neutral, citing its strong balance sheet strength and oil diversification. But the firm lowered its price target to $31 a share, down from $33.

4. Piper Sandler raises its price target on Club name Amazon to $185 a share, up from $170, while maintaining an overweight rating on the stock. The firm cites improving retail margins and an expected acceleration at cloud unit Amazon Web Services. Amazon is Piper’s top large cap pick.

5. Stifel raises its price target on Lululemon Athletica to $596 a share, up from $529, while reiterating a buy rating on the stock. The firm argues that “still sound” U.S. consumer balance sheets and wage growth should support margin expansion for companies like Lululemon with “brand specific drivers.”

6. Nike is back. Baird raises its price target on the sneaker company to $140 a share, up from $125, while keeping an outperform rating on the stock. Nike’s “quality growth profile plus margin recovery potential support a continued favorable outlook,” the firm contends.

7. Mid-stage trial data shows that Merck and Moderna‘s experimental cancer vaccine, used in conjunction with Merck’s Keytruda therapy, reduces the risk of death or relapse in patients with melanoma skin cancer after three years.

8. JPMorgan raises its price target on L3Harris Technologies to $240 a share, up from $213, while maintaining a neutral rating on the stock. The firm has “high confidence” in the aerospace-and-defense-technology company’s targets for sales and cash flow.

9. Piper Sandler upgrades Club holding Foot Locker to overweight from neutral, while raising its price target to $33 a share, up from $24. The firm cites Foot Locker’s margin expansion opportunity in 2024, arguing the company is best positioned among the athletic-and-footwear group over the next year.

10. Bernstein raises its price target on FedEx to $340 a share, up from $305, while reiterating an outperform rating on the stock. FedEx, which Bernstein expects to benefit from cost cuts and improved international market conditions, is set to report quarterly results on Dec. 19.

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