Streetwise Professor

July 21, 2014

The Dogs of Accounting Have to Hound Putin, Not the Average Oligarch With Dirty Money

Filed under: Economics,Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 6:48 pm

An idea to combat Putin and Russia that is gaining traction is to go after dirty Russian money in places like Londongrad and New York and Switzerland. Superficially it is an attractive idea, but upon further analysis it will be ineffectual, and perhaps counterproductive.

I say this as an early recommender of asymmetric financial warfare against Russia. In the immediate aftermath of the invasion of Georgia almost 6 years ago, I wrote that the US should “cry havoc and let slip the accountants of war.” But I recommended pointing the forensic accountants directly at Putin and his chief henchmen. Now, that would include Sechin, Ivanov, Yakunin, and the like.

Going after oligarchs and minigarchs in Belgravia or other similarly fashionable enclaves would certainly discomfit them, but would hardly cause VVP to lose a minute’s sleep, let alone to tame his aggressive ways. Only to the extent that these individuals are straw buyers for Putin would threatening their assets with confiscation for having been acquired illicitly bother the Russian president in the slightest.

Indeed, going after Russians with large investments overseas could actually redound to Putin’s benefit. The ability to spirit their wealth out of the country is the main protection that rich Russian have against Vlad’s predations. He has been campaigning for “on shoring” of Russian wealth squirreled away abroad: he has a variety of reasons to do so. A vigorous investigation of foreign investments and holdings of Russians would help spur the very on shoring that Putin wants (for others, I mean). I can just see him saying: “Come to Vova!” This would be a self-inflicted wound.

Pressuring Putin requires going after his money, and that of his closest cronies, not the wealth of the Abramoviches or Deripaskas. That said, this is a daunting task, given the labyrinth of shell companies and straw buyers that no doubt connects Putin et al to property, investments, and accounts. Indeed, it is likely the case that there is no document with Putin’s name on it: a verbal agreement, backed by the very credible threat of a serious health or legal problem in the event of breach, may suffice. Or if such a document exists, it is in Putin’s safe. (With all the appropriate stamps, of course: it’s not official without stamps!) These documents would say something like “I, Gennady Timchencko, hold in trust for Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin 40 percent of the shares in Gunvor.” Or, “I, Arkady Rotenberg, do pledge to pay to Vladimir V. Putin 20 percent of the gross revenues from state contracts or contracts with OAO Gazprom paid to my companies.” (Putin would probably prefer dividends to ownership per se.)

Thus, attacking Putin’s wealth will be a challenge, and one that no doubt requires the active involvement of US and other intelligence agencies. Moreover, given that definitive ownership would no doubt be difficult to establish, no doubt the US would have to lean on financial institutions which it has strong, but not definitive proof, are the repositories of Putin’s billions, in order to put those monies at risk.

But that’s where investigative efforts should be directed. Harassing even the most obscene, obnoxious oligarch with the dirtiest money in London or the south of France won’t affect Putin’s  policy in Ukraine or anywhere else in the slightest. It might be psychologically satisfying to do this, but it will be ineffectual at best, and counterproductive at worst.

 

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I’m Battling Confirmation Bias, But Obama and the Euros Make It Damned Hard

Filed under: Economics,History,Military,Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 10:45 am

Last night I said to bet on form, and that Putin would be doing so. And indeed, it seems that everyone is reverting to form.

The Euros are talking tough and angry, but when it comes to actually doing something, pretty much nothing. As is their wont, they are squabbling over how to divide the costs. No major country will agree to sanctions that require it to bear a greater burden than other EU members. So the response is, as usual, driven to the least common denominator. Cameron proposes that future arms sales to Russia be stopped: but that conveniently lets the French proceed with the Mistral sale. Other proposals involve adding a few more names to the lists of sanctioned individuals, but no companies, and certainly no level 3 sanctions.

Perhaps taking a cue from the Europeans, to whom he has largely deferred, Obama spoke this morning and just hit the replay button. Russia risks becoming more isolated. Unless Russia acts to de-escalate, “the costs for Russia’s behavior will only continue to increase.” Yadda, yadda, yadda. A remake ofGroundhog Day, with Obama threatening costs and isolation replacing “I Got You Babe” in the soundtrack.

Check out that last phrase. Note the passive voice. Very telling. Just who, pray tell, is going to impose these costs, and how? God? Santa Claus? More seriously: The “international community”? The “community of nations”? What is the US going to do? What are you going to do, Barry?

There is no way this pablum is going to induce panic in the Kremlin. Quite the reverse. Doesn’t Obama realize that repetitions of vacuous statements unaccompanied by serious action only embolden Putin, and are exactly why we are where we are?

That question was completely rhetorical.

The only people who would panic when hearing such empty statements directed at them are those more timorous and craven than those uttering them. If such people exist.

Another disturbing fact that strongly suggests that Obama is shying away from any robust action. His statement focused disproportionately on access to the crime scene, rather than who carried out the crime itself. Although Obama has hinted at Russian culpability in the past, this statement made no connection between Russia and the shootdown. He just made a brief remark about getting the facts out there and holding people accountable.

Look. The public record makes the guilty party obvious for all to see. Obama, with access to US intelligence sources, certainly knows far more. The fact that he continues to be reticent is damning. Five days after KAL007, Reagan had given a national address from the Oval Office (not a quickie on the WH lawn), laid out in detail the case for Soviet guilt, and played tapes of intercepted Soviet communications. We are five days out, and if anything, Obama is being less forthcoming about US information on Russian responsibility.

The crime scene issue is pretty much done with now, anyways. Moreover, it is relatively easy for Putin to make pleasant noises on this issue, now that his thugs have be in control of the place for 5 days.

Further on the panic meme, this article from Bloomberg has gotten huge play. It claims that the Russian economic elite is horrified by Putin’s course in Ukraine. Maybe they are, but the article just quotes some think tank guy who claims that’s what the business class is thinking.

And it’s not as if it matters. Even if they are horrified, will they challenge Putin? Their silence-not a single one was quoted-speaks volumes. If these individuals united in opposition, perhaps they could threaten Putin. But they show no signs of doing so, and some basic game theory says they almost certainly will not. They face a coordination problem. Who will go first in opposition, and lose everything with virtual certainty?: better to stick with Putin, and take a big hit to one’s wealth but be left with something. Including one’s freedom (and maybe one’s life). Everyone  will play Alfonse and Gaston, letting the other guy go first. Trying to conspire secretly is extremely dangerous, given the inability to trust anyone and the omnipresent surveillance and informants.

So even if the business elite is horrified, and indeed panicked, this means exactly squat politically.

One last thing about playing to form. The Russian Ministry of Defense gave its X-Files versions of the causes of the destruction of MH17. The only thing that surprised me is that they did not blame HAARP, for which they have blamed crop failures, earthquakes, and the loss of a space probe. Maybe they’re holding that one in reserve, just in case the other stuff doesn’t pan out.

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July 20, 2014

There’s No Panic! in the Kremlin Disco Because Putin Has Weighed His Foes and Found Them Wanting

Filed under: Economics,History,Military,Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 9:17 pm

As the evidence of Russian guilt for the MH17 massacre mounts and becomes irrefutable, there is widespread conjecture that Putin has been backed into a corner, and that he and the siloviki may be in a state of panic. Color me skeptical. I don’t sense any panic! in the Kremlin disco.

Of course the massacre creates huge complications for Putin. But he will not even begin to panic until he is confronted with something far more threatening than has come out of western capitals in days since the atrocity.

Yes, there have been expressions of outrage. This outrage has been intensified by the desecration carried out by Putin’s thugs on the ground. But outrage is easy. Action is hard.

Here, the signs are much more encouraging to Putin. Merkel made it plain that she still thought it was essential to maintain good relations with Russia, and did not say anything serious about an increase in sanctions. France and Italy have been almost completely silent. Even the nation that suffered worst-the Netherlands-was still willing to give Putin “one last chance.”

Obama and Cameron may actually be playing the role of B’rer Fox to Putin’s B’rer Rabbit. Obama said the US will not provide arms to Ukraine, and again stated-as if this was necessary-US troops would not be deployed. Moreover, he called for an immediate cease fire in eastern Ukraine.

Well guess what. Putin is adamantly opposed to western arms flowing to Ukraine, and is also calling for a cease fire. Precisely because this would buy time and breathing space for his increasingly beleaguered creatures in Donetsk and Luhansk, and precisely because he knows that the obligations under any cease fire would be enforced asymmetrically, with Ukraine being under much more pressure from the west to conform than  the Russian proxy forces would be.

Meaning that Putin might throw Obama just like he did in Syria with regards to chemical weapons. By agreeing to what Obama has demanded, and which Germany and other Euros have demanded-a cease fire-Putin can defuse the pressure for now, and use the respite to bolster the battered rebels, and to give them time to continue to fortify the territories they hold. So by demanding a cease fire, Obama (and other western leaders) are throwing B’rer Rabbit Putin right into the briar patch.

Cameron demanded that Russia guarantee access to the site where MH17 landed. Putin could well grab at this too, and say that the only way he can do that is if Russian “peacekeepers” move in. This is another thing he’s wanted to do. (There are many pictures of armor in Russia with peacekeeping insignia painted on them.) Again into the briar patch.

But the main thing that Putin needs to do is to stall for time. He is no doubt calculating that previous spasms of outrage have dissipated rapidly, especially when corporate champions in Europe ramp up the pressure on their governments, and that this one will too. He has heard the “last chance” mantra before, and his experience is that each last chance is followed by another one. He knows that the Euros have no stomach for a confrontation, even one conducted purely with economic weapons, and that Obama has only little more appetite.

Even while the bodies remain unburied, Europe is divided over intensifying sanctions. Those divisions will only increase as time passes. And you may rest assured that Putin’s connections and agents of influence in the west are working overtime to exploit those divisions, and stoke the well-established tendencies in western governments to procrastinate and avoid confrontation. He saw it after Georgia. He saw it after Crimea. He has seen it repeatedly in the past 3 months over Ukraine.

Certainly Putin could have done without this. The massacre served no military purpose, and has interfered with his schemes in Ukraine. But it has not created an existential, panic-inducing threat to him or his regime. He views it as a setback, but one that he can manage with his usual mixture of double-talk, pacific gestures, and behind the scenes pressure exerted by his corporate allies in Europe and to a lesser extent the US.

The only thing that has the possibility of inducing anything approaching panic in Putin is for Obama and Merkel and the lesser lights in Europe to upset his calculations by playing against type. Impose crippling sanctions with the promise of removing them if Putin essentially capitulates on Ukraine, rather than threatening to impose more costs if he keeps it up.

That is, all the talk about a cornered, panic Putin is so much wishful thinking. It presumes that the shock of the event has caused western governments finally to see Putin as a monster who must be confronted robustly. There’s no evidence that this is the case even while emotions are running their hottest. And past experience suggests that the image of Putin as a monster can actually work to his advantage, because it makes timorous governments all the more intimidated from confronting him.

I would like to believe that the deaths of 298 innocents has not been in vain, and that their murders will resolve western leaders to do what it takes to confront Putin’s aggression. But I’m betting on form. And I am sure Putin is too.  He has weighed his foes, and found them wanting.

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July 18, 2014

Sanctions: Pinprick or Sledgehammer Blow, With Little In Between

Filed under: Commodities,Derivatives,Economics,Energy,Military,Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 11:27 pm

Before the massacre over Donetsk, the big Russia-related story was the new sanctions imposed on Wednesday. Although those sanctions were overshadowed by yesterday’s atrocity, the wanton destruction of MH17 raises the possibility that more intense sanctions will be forthcoming. Therefore, it is worthwhile to examine what the US did Wednesday to see what would be necessary to impose truly crippling costs on Russian companies and the Russian economy generally. (Forget what the Euros did. That is so embarrassing that it should be passed over in silence.)

The sanctions imposed Wednesday are very weak beer. (Here is an FAQ from the Treasury outlining them.) They were different than previous sanctions in that these were directed at companies, rather than individuals. Moreover, some of the targeted companies are on the commanding heights of the Russian economy: Rosneft, VTB, Gazprombank, and Novatek. (Notable absences: Gazprom and Sberbank.)

Under the sanctions, “US Persons” (which can include US subsidiaries in foreign countries) are prohibited from buying new debt from or new making loans to these companies with maturities of 90 days. (Existing loans/bonds are not affected.)  US persons are also precluded from buying “new” equity from the financial firms: they can buy new equity from Rosneft and Novatek.

Since US banks are major lenders to foreign companies, this might seem to be a major impediment to the affected companies, and indeed  Rosneft’s and Novatek’s stock prices were both down more than 5 percent on the news. But in my opinion, this reaction is more related to how the announcement raised the likelihood of more severe sanctions in the future, rather than the direct effects of these new sanctions.

That’s because although the sanctions will constrain the capital pool that Rosneft and the others can borrow from, other lenders in Europe and Asia can step into the breach. The sanctions do make it more difficult for the sanctioned companies to borrow dollars even from foreign banks, because although the sanctions do not bar foreign banks and investors from accessing the US dollar clearing system for most transactions, they could be interpreted to make it illegal to process the banned debt and equity deals:

U.S. financial institutions may continue to maintain correspondent accounts and process U.S. dollar-clearing transactions for the persons identified in the directives, so long as those activities do not involve transacting in, providing financing for, or otherwise dealing in prohibited transaction types identified by these directives.

Some have argued that this is a serious constraint that will effectively preclude the sanctioned companies from borrowing dollars other than on a very short-term basis. This is allegedly a big problem for Rosneft, because its export revenues are in dollars, and borrowing in other currencies would expose the company to substantial exchange rate risk.

I disagree, because there are ways around this. A company could borrow in Euros, for instance, and  sell the Euros for dollars. It could then deposit, invest, or spend the dollars just like the proceeds from dollar loans because it would have access to the dollar clearing system. Alternatively, the companies could borrow in Euros and immediately swap the Euros into dollars. This is because derivatives transactions are not included in the sanctions, and the payments on those could also be cleared. This would add some expense and complexity, but not too much.

The sanctions even permit  financial engineering that would allow US banks  effectively to provide credit for the sanctioned firms because derivatives on debt and equity of the sanctioned firms are explicitly exempted from the sanctions. For instance, a US bank could sell credit protection on Rosneft to a European bank that would increase the capacity of the European bank to extend credit to Rosneft. Syndication is one way that US banks can get credit exposure to Rosneft and reduce the amount of credit exposure that foreign banks have to incur, and even though the sanctions preclude US banks from participating in syndicates, the same allocation of credit risk could be implemented through the CDS market. This would permit foreign banks to increase their lending to the sanctioned firms to offset the decline of US direct lending. (This would still involve the need to convert foreign currency into dollars if the sanctioned borrower wanted dollars.)

Unlike real super majors (who can borrow unsecured, or secured by physical assets), Rosneft is unusually dependent on prepaid oil sales for funding, and these agreements are almost exclusively in dollars. This has led to some debate over whether the sanctions will seriously cramp Rosneft’s ability to use prepays.

There are a couple of reasons to doubt this. First, after the initial round of sanctions raised the specter of the imposition of sanctions on Rosneft, many prepay deals were re-worked to include sanctions clauses. For instance, they permit the payment currency to be switched to Euros, or to another currency in the off chance that the Europeans grow a pair and shut Rosneft out of the Euro payment system. Again, as long as access to the dollar system is not blocked altogether, those non-dollar currencies could be converted into dollars.

Second, there is some ambiguity as to whether prepays would even be covered. The sanctions specify the kinds of transactions that are covered:

The term debt includes bonds, loans, extensions of credit, loan guarantees, letters of credit, drafts, bankers acceptances, discount notes or bills, or commercial paper.

It is not obvious that prepays as usually structured would fall into any of these categories, and prepays are not specifically mentioned. A standard prepay structure is for a syndicate of banks to extend a non-recourse loan to a commodity trading firm like Glencore, Vitol, Trafigura, or BP. The trading firm uses the loan proceeds to make a prepayment for oil to Rosneft. In return, the trading firm gets an off take agreement that obligates Rosneft to deliver oil at a discounted price: the discount is effectively an interest payment.

The banks lend to the trading companies, not Rosneft. But (except for a small participation of 5-10 percent by the traders) the banks have the credit exposure. So this does not fall under any of the listed categories, except for perhaps “extension of credit.” Insofar as the trading firm is the borrower who faces the banks, it’s not clear the banks fall afoul of the sanctions even though that banks bear Rosneft’s credit risk. What about the trading firm? It’s not a US person, and a prepayment is not explicitly listed as a type of debt under the sanctions: again, this would turn on the “extensions of credit” provision. Under prepays, payment is usually with an irrevocable letter of credit, but these generally have maturities of less than 90 days, so that’s free of any sanctions problem.

So, there’s a colorable argument that prepays aren’t subject to the sanctions. But there is a colorable argument that they are. Economically they are clearly loans to Rosneft, though done via a trading firm acting as a conduit. But whether they are “debt” legally under the sanctions definition is not clear.

But especially in this regulatory environment, bank (and trading firm) tolerance for ambiguity is  pretty low. So the FUD factor kicks in: even though they could make a plausible legal argument that prepays fall outside the definition of debt under the Treasury rules, the risk of having that argument fail may be sufficient to dissuade them from doing dollar prepays. This is especially true in the post BNP Paribas world. So it is likely that future prepays may be in currencies other than the dollar, and as long as dollar clearing is open to it, Rosneft will just have to convert or swap the Euros or Sterling or Swiss Francs or whatever  into dollars if it really wants to borrow dollars. Again, an inconvenience and an added expense, but not a major hurdle.

All this means that the most recent round of sanctions are  sound and fury, signifying not very much. Indeed, by deliberately avoiding the truly devastating sanction, this round signifies a continued reluctance to hit Putin and Russia where it really hurts. Someone like Putin likely interprets this as a sign of weakness.

What would the devastating sanction that was deliberately avoided be? Cutting off altogether access to the dollar clearing system. Recall that the just-imposed sanctions say “U.S. financial institutions may continue to maintain correspondent accounts and process U.S. dollar-clearing transactions for the persons identified in the directives.” Change that to “U.S. financial institutions are prohibited from maintaining correspondent accounts and processing U.S. dollar-clearing transactions for the persons identified in the directives” and it would be a whole new ballgame. This would mean that the sanctioned companies could not receive, spend, deposit, or invest a dollar. (Well, they could if they could find a bank insane enough to be the next BNP Paribas. Good luck with that.)

I discussed how this would work in a post in March, and the Banker’s Umbrella provided a very readable and definitive discussion about that time. Basically, every dollar transaction, even one handled by a foreign bank, involves a correspondent account at a US bank. Cut off access to those accounts, and the sanctioned company can’t touch a dollar.

This would close off the various workarounds I discussed above. The sanctioned companies would have to restructure their operations and financing pretty dramatically. This would be particularly challenging for Rosneft, given that the currency of choice in oil transactions is the USD. This would be like the sanctions that have been imposed on Iran and on Sudan.

This would represent the only truly powerful sanction. And that’s one of the issues. Anything short of cutting off all access to the dollar market is at most an irritant to the sanctioned companies. Cutting off all access imposes a major cost. There’s not much in between. It’s a choice between a pinprick and a sledgehammer blow, with little in-between.

But if a Rubicon hasn’t been crossed now, with the murder of 298 people and continued battles in places like Luhansk waged by Russian-armed rebels, it’s hard to imagine it will ever be. If Putin and Russia are going to pay a real price for their wanton conduct, the sledgehammer is the only choice.

 

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July 15, 2014

Oil Futures Trading In Troubled Waters

Filed under: Commodities,Derivatives,Economics,Energy,Exchanges,HFT,Regulation — The Professor @ 7:16 pm

A recent working paper by Pradeep Yadav, Michel Robe and Vikas Raman tackles a very interesting issue: do electronic market makers (EMMs, typically HFT firms) supply liquidity differently than locals on the floor during its heyday? The paper has attracted a good deal of attention, including this article in Bloomberg.

The most important finding is that EMMs in crude oil futures do tend to reduce liquidity supply during high volatility/stressed periods, whereas crude futures floor locals did not. They explain this by invoking an argument I did 20 years ago in my research comparing the liquidity of floor-based LIFFE to the electronic DTB: the anonymity of electronic markets makes market makers there more vulnerable to adverse selection. From this, the authors conclude that an obligation to supply liquidity may be desirable.

These empirical conclusions seem supported by the data, although as I describe below the scant description of the methodology and some reservations based on my knowledge of the data make me somewhat circumspect in my evaluation.

But my biggest problem with the paper is that it seems to miss the forest for the trees. The really interesting question is whether electronic markets are more liquid than floor markets, and whether the relative liquidity in electronic and floor markets varies between stressed and non-stressed markets. The paper provides some intriguing results that speak to that question, but then the authors ignore it altogether.

Specifically, Table 1 has data on spreads in from the electronic NYMEX crude oil market in 2011, and from the floor NYMEX crude oil market in 2006. The mean and median spreads in the electronic market: .01 percent. Given a roughly $100 price, this corresponds to one tick ($.01) in the crude oil market. The mean and median spreads in the floor market: .35 percent and .25 percent, respectively.

Think about that for a minute. Conservatively, spreads were 25 times higher in the floor market. Even adjusting for the fact that prices in 2011 were almost double than in 2006, we’re talking a 12-fold difference in absolute (rather than percentage) spreads. That is just huge.

So even if EMMs are more likely to run away during stressed market conditions, the electronic market wins hands down in the liquidity race on average. Hell, it’s not even a race. Indeed, the difference is so large I have a hard time believing it, which raises questions about the data and methodologies.

This raises another issue with the paper. The paper compares at the liquidity supply mechanism in electronic and floor markets. Specifically, it examines the behavior of market makers in the two different types of markets. What we are really interested is the outcome of these mechanisms. Therefore, given the rich data set, the authors should compare measures of liquidity in stressed and non-stressed periods, and make comparisons between the electronic and floor markets. What’s more, they should examine a variety of different liquidity measures. There are multiple measures of spreads, some of which specifically measure adverse selection costs. It would be very illuminating to see those measures across trading mechanisms and market environments. Moreover, depth and price impact are also relevant. Let’s see those comparisons too.

It is quite possible that the ratio of liquidity measures in good and bad times is worse in electronic trading than on the floor, but in any given environment, the electronic market is more liquid. That’s what we really want to know about, but the paper is utterly silent on this. I find that puzzling and rather aggravating, actually.

Insofar as the policy recommendation is concerned, as I’ve been writing since at least 2010, the fact that market makers withdraw supply during periods of market stress does not necessarily imply that imposing obligations to make markets even during stressed periods is efficiency enhancing. Such obligations force market makers to incur losses when the constraints bind. Since entry into market making is relatively free, and the market is likely to be competitive (the paper states that there are 52 active EMMS in the sample), raising costs in some state of the world, and reducing returns to market making in these states, will lead to the exit of market making capacity. This will reduce liquidity during unstressed periods, and could even lead to less liquidity supply in stressed periods: fewer firms offering more liquidity than they would otherwise choose due to an obligation may supply less liquidity in aggregate than a larger number of firms that can each reduce liquidity supply during stressed periods (because they are not obligated to supply a minimum amount of liquidity).

In other words, there is no free lunch. Even assuming that EMMs are more likely to reduce supply during stressed periods than locals, it does not follow that a market making obligation is desirable in electronic environments. The putatively higher cost of supplying liquidity in an electronic environment is a feature of that environment. Requiring EMMs to bear that cost means that they have to recoup it at other times. Higher cost is higher cost, and the piper must be paid. The finding of the paper may be necessary to justify a market maker obligation, but it is clearly not sufficient.

There are some other issues that the authors really need to address. The descriptions of the methodologies in the paper are far too scanty. I don’t believe that I could replicate their analysis based on the description in the paper. As an example, they say “Bid-Ask Spreads are calculated as in the prior literature.” Well, there are many papers, and many ways of calculating spreads. Hell, there are multiple measures of spreads. A more detailed statement of the actual calculation is required in order to know exactly what was done, and to replicate it or to explore alternatives.

Comparisons between electronic and open outcry markets are challenging because the nature of the data are very different. We can observe the order book at every instant of time in an electronic market. We can also sequence everything-quotes, cancellations and trades-with exactitude. (In futures markets, anyways. Due to the lack of clock synchronization across trading venues, this is a problem in a fragmented market like US equities.) These factors mean that it is possible to see whether EMMs take liquidity or supply it: since we can observe the quote, we know that if an EMM sells (buys) at the offer (bid) it is supplying liquidity, but if it buys (sells) at the offer (bid) it is consuming liquidity.

Things are not nearly so neat in floor trading data. I have worked quite a bit with exchange Street Books. They convey much less information than the order book and the record of executed trades in electronic markets like Globex. Street Books do not report the prevailing bids and offers, so I don’t see how it is possible to determine definitively whether a local is supplying or consuming liquidity in a particular trade. The mere fact that a local (CTI1) is trading with a customer (CTI4) does not mean the local is supplying liquidity: he could be hitting the bid/lifting the offer of a customer limit order, but since we can’t see order type, we don’t know. Moreover, even to the extent that there are some bids and offers in the time and sales record, they tend to be incomplete (especially during fast markets) and time sequencing is highly problematic. I just don’t see how it is possible to do an apples-to-apples comparison of liquidity supply (and particularly the passivity/aggressiveness of market makers) between floor and electronic markets just due to the differences in data. Nonetheless, the paper purports to do that. Another reason to see more detailed descriptions of methodology and data.

One red flag that indicates that the floor data may have some problems. The reported maximum bid-ask spread in the floor sample is 26.48 percent!!! 26.48 percent? Really? The 75th percentile spread is .47 percent. Given a $60 price, that’s almost 30 ticks. Color me skeptical. Another reason why a much more detailed description of methodologies is essential.

Another technical issue is endogeneity. Liquidity affects volatility, but the paper uses volatility as one of its measures of stressed markets in its study of how stress affects liquidity. This creates an endogeneity (circularity, if you will) problem. It would be preferable to use some instrument for stressed market conditions. Instruments are always hard to come up with, and I don’t have one off the top of my head, but Yanev et al should give some serious thought to identifying/creating such an instrument.

Moreover, the main claim of the paper is that EMMs’ liquidity supply is more sensitive to the toxicity of order flow than locals’ liquidity supply. The authors use order imbalance (CTI4 buys minus CTI4 sells, or the absolute value thereof more precisely), which is one measure of toxicity, but there are others. I would prefer a measure of customer (CTI4) alpha. Toxic (i.e., informed) order flow predicts future price movements, and hence when customer orders realize high alphas, it is likely that customers are more informed than usual and earn positive alphas. It would therefore be interesting to see the sensitivities of liquidity supply in the different trading environments to order flow toxicity as measured by CTI4 alphas.

I will note yet again that market maker actions to cut liquidity supply when adverse selection problems are severe is not necessarily a bad thing. Informed trading can be a form of rent seeking, and if EMMs are better able to detect informed trading and withdraw liquidity when informed trading is rampant, this form of rent seeking may be mitigated. Thus, greater sensitivity to toxicity could be a feature, not a bug.

All that said, I consider this paper a laudable effort that asks serious questions, and attempts to answer them in a rigorous way. The results are interesting and plausible, but the sketchy descriptions of the methodologies gives me reservations about these results. But by far the biggest issue is that of the forest and trees. What is really interesting is whether electronic markets are more or less liquid in different market environments than floor markets. Even if liquidity supply is flightier in electronic markets, they can still outperform floor based markets in both unstressed and stressed environments. The huge disparity in spreads reported in the paper suggests a vast difference in liquidity on average, which suggests a vast difference in liquidity in all different market environments, stressed and unstressed. What we really care about is liquidity outcomes, as measured by spreads, depth, price impact, etc. This is the really interesting issue, but one that the paper does not explore.

But that’s the beauty of academic research, right? Milking the same data for multiple papers. So I suggest that Pradeep, Michel and Vikas keep sitting on that milking stool and keep squeezing that . . . data ;-) Or provide the data to the rest of us out their and let us give it a tug.

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July 11, 2014

25 Years Ago Today Ferruzzi Created the Streetwise Professor

Filed under: Clearing,Commodities,Derivatives,Economics,Exchanges,HFT,History,Regulation — The Professor @ 9:03 am

Today is the 25th anniversary of the most important event in my professional life. On 11 July, 1989, the Chicago Board of Trade issued an Emergency Order requiring all firms with positions in July 1989 soybean futures in excess of the speculative limit to reduce those positions to the limit over five business days in a pro rata fashion (i.e., 20 percent per day, or faster). Only one firm was impacted by the order, Italian conglomerate Ferruzzi, SA.

Ferruzzi was in the midst of an attempt to corner the market, as it had done in May, 1989. The EO resulted in a sharp drop in soybean futures prices and a jump in the basis: for instance, by the time the contract went off the board on 20 July, the basis at NOLA had gone from zero to about 50 cents, by far the largest jump in that relationship in the historical record.

The EO set off a flurry of legal action. Ferruzzi tried to obtain an injunction against the CBT. Subsequently, farmers (some of whom had dumped truckloads of beans at the door of the CBT) sued the exchange. Moreover, a class action against Ferruzzi was also filed. These cases took years to wend their ways through the legal system. The farmer litigation (in the form of Sanner v. CBT) wasn’t decided (in favor of the CBT) until the fall of 2002. The case against Ferruzzi lasted somewhat less time, but still didn’t settle until 2006.

I was involved as an expert in both cases. Why?

Well, pretty much everything in my professional career post-1990 is connected to the Ferruzzi corner and CBT EO, in a knee-bone-connected-to-the-thigh-bone kind of way.

The CBT took a lot of heat for the EO. My senior colleague, the late Roger Kormendi, convinced the exchange to fund an independent analysis of its grain and oilseed markets to attempt to identify changes that could prevent a recurrence of the episode. Roger came into my office at Michigan, and told me about the funding. Knowing that I had worked in the futures markets before, asked me to participate in the study. I said that I had only worked in financial futures, but I could learn about commodities, so I signed on: it sounded interesting, my current research was at something of a standstill, and I am always up for learning something new. I ended up doing about 90 percent of the work and getting 20 percent of the money :-P but it was well worth it, because of the dividends it paid in the subsequent quarter century. (Putting it that way makes me feel old. But this all happened when I was a small child. Really!)

The report I (mainly) wrote for the CBT turned into a book, Grain Futures Contracts: An Economic Appraisal. (Available on Amazon! Cheap! Buy two! I see exactly $0.00 of your generous purchases.) Moreover, I saw the connection between manipulation and industrial organization economics (which was my specialization in grad school): market power is a key concept in both. So I wrote several papers on market power manipulation, which turned into a book . (Also available on Amazon! And on Kindle: for some strange reason, it was one of the first books published on Kindle.)

The issue of manipulation led me to try to understand how it could best be prevented or deterred. This led me to research self-regulation, because self-regulation was often advanced as the best way to tackle manipulation. This research (and the anthropological field work I did working on the CBT study) made me aware that exchange governance played a crucial role, and that exchange  governance was intimately related to the fact that exchanges are non-profit firms. So of course I had to understand why exchanges were non-profits (which seemed weird given that those who trade on them are about as profit-driven as you can get), and why they were governed in the byzantine, committee-dominated way they were. Moreover, many advocates of self-regulation argued that competition forced exchanges to adopt efficient rules. Observing that exchanges in fact tended to be monopolies, I decided I needed to understand the economics of competition between execution venues in exchange markets. This caused me to write my papers on market macrostructure, which is still an active area of investigation: I am writing a book on that subject. This in turn produced many of the conclusions that I have drawn about HFT, RegNMS, etc.

Moreover, given that I concluded that self-regulation was in fact a poor way to address manipulation (because I found exchanges had poor incentives to do so), I examined whether government regulation or private legal action could do better. This resulted in my work on the efficiency of ex post deterrence of manipulation. My conclusions about the efficiency of ex post deterrence rested on my findings that manipulated prices could be distinguished reliably from competitive prices. This required me to understand the determinants of competitive prices, which led to my research on the dynamics of storable commodity prices that culminated in my 2011 book. (Now available in paperback on Amazon! Kindle too.)

In other words, pretty much everything in my CV traces back to Ferruzzi. Even the clearing-related research, which also has roots in the 1987 Crash, is due to Ferruzzi: I wouldn’t have been researching any derivatives-related topics otherwise.

My consulting work, and in particular my expert witness work, stems from Ferruzzi. The lead counsel in the class action against Ferruzzi came across Grain Futures Contracts in the CBT bookstore (yes, they had such a thing back in the day), and thought that I could help him as an expert. After some hesitation (attorneys being very risk averse, and hence reluctant to hire someone without testimonial experience) he hired me. The testimony went well, and that was the launching pad for my expert work.

I also did work helping to redesign the corn and soybean contracts at the CBT, and the canola contract in Winnipeg: these redesigned contracts (based on shipping receipts) are the ones traded today. Again, this work traces its lineage to Ferruzzi.

Hell, this was even my introduction to the conspiratorial craziness that often swirls around commodity markets. Check out this wild piece, which links Ferruzzi (“the Pope’s soybean company”) to Marc Rich, the Bushes, Hillary Clinton, Vince Foster, and several federal judges. You cannot make up this stuff. Well, you can, I guess, as a quick read will soon convince you.

I have other, even stranger connections to Hillary and Vince Foster which in a more indirect way also traces its way back to Ferruzzi. But that’s a story for another day.

There’s even a Russian connection. One of Ferruzzi’s BS cover stories for amassing a huge position was that it needed the beans to supply big export sales to the USSR. These sales were in fact fictitious.

Ferruzzi was a rather outlandish company that eventually collapsed in 1994. Like many Italian companies, it was leveraged out the wazoo. Moreover, it had become enmeshed in the Italian corruption/mob investigations of the early 1990s, and its chairman Raul Gardini, committed suicide in the midst of the scandal.

The traders who carried out the corners were located in stylish Paris, but they were real commodity cowboys of the old school. Learning about that was educational too.

To put things in a nutshell. Some crazy Italians, and English and American traders who worked for them, get the credit-or the blame-for creating the Streetwise Professor. Without them, God only knows what the hell I would have done for the last 25 years. But because of them, I raced down the rabbit hole of commodity markets. And man, have I seen some strange and interesting things on that trip. Hopefully I will see some more, and if I do, I’ll share them with you right here.

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July 8, 2014

The Securities Market Structure Regulation Book Club

Filed under: Derivatives,Economics,Exchanges,Politics,Regulation — The Professor @ 4:30 pm

There was another hearing on HFT on Capitol Hill today, in the Senate. The best way to summarize it was that it reminded me of an evening at the local bookstore, with authors reading selections from their books.

Two examples suffice. Citadel’s Ken Griffin (whom I called out for talking his book on Frankendodd years ago) heavily criticized dark pools, and called for much heavier regulation of them. But he sang the praises of purchased order flow, and warned against any regulation of it.

So, go out on a limb and bet that (a) Citadel does not operate a dark pool, and (b) Citadel is one of the biggest purchasers of order flow, and you’ll be a winner!

The intellectually respectable case against dark pools and payment for order flow is the same. Both “cream skim” uninformed orders from the exchanges, leaving the exchange order flow more informed (i.e., more toxic), thereby reducing exchange liquidity by increasing adverse selection costs. I’m not saying that I agree with this case, but I do recognize that it is at least grounded in economics, and that an intellectually consistent critic of dark pools would also criticize purchased order flow.

But some people have books to sell.

The other example is Jeffrey Sprecher of ICE, which owns and operates the NYSE. Sprecher lamented the fragmentation of the equity markets, and praised the lack of fragmentation of futures markets. But he went further. He said that futures markets were competitive and not fragmented.

Tell me another one.

Yes, there is limited head-to-head competition in some futures contracts, such as WTI and Brent. But these are the exceptions, not the rule. Futures exchanges do not compete head to head in any other major contract. Execution in the equity market is far more competitive than in the futures market. Multiple equities exchanges compete vigorously, and the socialization of order flow due to RegNMS makes that competition possible. This is why the equities exchange business is low margin, and not very profitable. Futures exchanges own their order flow, and since liquidity attracts liquidity, one exchange tends to dominate trading in a particular instrument. So yes, futures markets are not fragmented, but no, they are not competitive. These things go together, regardless of what Sprecher says.  He wants to go back to the day when the NYSE was the dominant exchange and its members earned huge rents. That requires undoing a lot of what is in RegNMS.

Those were some of the gems from the witness side of the table. From the questioner side, we were treated to another display of Elizabeth Warren’s arrogant ignorance and idiocy. The scary thought is that the left views her as the next Obama who will deny Hillary and vault to the presidency. God save us.

Overall the hearing demonstrated what I’ve been saying for years. Market structure, and the regulations that drive market structure, have huge distributive effects. Everybody says that they are in favor of efficient markets, but I’m sure you’ll be shocked to learn that their definition of what is efficient happens to correspond with what benefits their firms. The nature of securities/derivatives trading creates rents. The battle over market structure is a classic rent seeking struggle. In rent seeking struggles, everybody reads out of their books. Everybody.

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July 1, 2014

Putin’s Tell on What He Really Fears: Let’s Take the Hint and Make His Nightmares Reality

Filed under: Economics,Military,Politics,Regulation — The Professor @ 2:58 pm

Vladimir Putin played his favorite game today: divide and conquer. He weighed in on the $9 billion US fine of French bank BNP Paribas for its flagrant and repeated violations of US sanctions on Sudan and Iran. He took a typically narcissistic view: according to Vova, the US offered to relent on its prosecution of BNPP if France terminated its sales of Mistral attack ships to Russia:

“We know about the pressure which our U.S. partners are applying on France not to supply the Mistrals to Russia,” Putin told Russian diplomats in Moscow today. “And we even know they hinted that if the French don’t deliver the Mistrals, they would quietly get rid of the sanctions against the bank, or at least minimize them,” he said without naming BNP Paribas.

He knows this how, exactly? Electronic surveillance? (Don’t tell Angela!) A leak from the French?

Certainly Putin is trying to stir trouble between the US and France, and exploiting the French anger at the US penalties. (To which I say: the anger should be directed at the mangers of BNP Paribas, especially the offenders in its Geneva commodity finance operation who violated sanctions against malign regimes with malice aforethought.)

But the chronology is way off. The US prosecution of BNP began long before Ukraine exploded. Years before. The USDOJ was particularly furious at the French bank’s flagrant attempts to conceal its sanctions busting: the bank eliminated identifying information from the transactions in order to evade detection, a sure sign of a specific intent to commit a violation. This fury was well-stoked long before Putin’s adventurism in Ukraine/Crimea. What’s more, US prosecutors operate very independently, and those involved in the BNP case would be outraged at attempts to interfere in their case against the French by a White House playing geopolitical games, especially given the years and blood, sweat, and tears involved in the prosecution. Prosecutors do not take orders from on high, especially in big cases like this.

This is likely another example of Putin projection. This is how Putin would have instructed his prosecutors to act, and they would have implemented his instructions without question: he just presumes that the same would happen in the US. But the US is very different in that regard. Indeed, I would wager that if the White House did attempt to interfere in this way, the prosecutors would have leaked.

Of course Putin has another agenda here. He realizes that the biggest threat he faces is US sanctions that would be enforced (via the financial provisions of the Patriot Act) by prosecuting any sanctions violator who deals in dollars just as the US has prosecuted BNP. By emphasizing the existential legal threat that European banks would face under a sanctions regime, Putin is attempting to fuel opposition to sanctions: since Obama has made it plain that he will not proceed with sanctions without European support, by fomenting European opposition he can counter the US. To the Europeans (and probably American banks too), the easiest way to avoid severe punishments for sanctions violations is to have no sanctions at all. Which is what Putin wants.

In other words, Putin’s mischievous comment on the BNP Paribas case is a tell. He is revealing what he really fears.  So let’s take the hint, and make his nightmares reality.

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June 26, 2014

There’s Gold in Them Thar Vaults, Boys! Um, Maybe Not

Filed under: China,Commodities,Economics,Politics,Regulation — The Professor @ 7:48 pm

If the vaults are in China, that is. Over the weekend I posted on the fraudulent commodity-based lending (collateralized by aluminum) in Qingdao. Now a Chinese government auditor claims that the gold used as collateral in $15 billion of loans does not exist.

To put this into context, Goldman (ha!) estimates that there are about $80 billion in loans in China collateralized by gold. Thus, the auditor’s report means that at least 20 percent of those loans are fraudulent. Given that it is likely easier to verify the existence of gold pledged as collateral than is the case for copper or soybeans, this suggests that even higher percentages of these other commodity-based loans (totaling another $80 billion) are backed by warehouse receipts that aren’t worth the paper they are printed on.

This situation creates the conditions for a horrific information contagion, which is the worst sort of systemic risk. Many analyses of systemic risk focus on counterparty credit risk, where the failure of one institution topples a set of interconnected dominoes. But historically, the domino problem has been less of a source of financial crises than information contagion. For instance, information contagion was arguably a far more important cause of the 2008 crisis than counterparty contagion.

Information contagion is a panic that results when the quality of assets in one part of the financial system leads people to question the value of other assets, usually similar but not always. For instance, in 2008,  the problems at Bear and Lehman were the result of bad mortgage investments by these firms. This raised questions about the solvency of other financial institutions that held, or were believed to hold, similar assets. Suddenly all banks became suspect, and had problems funding their assets. They started dumping assets to raise cash, which cratered prices and thereby created problems in institutions that had to mark their assets to a (now depressed) market. Banks that had extended liquidity support to SIVs had to bring them back on their balance sheets, threatening to make them undercapitalized.

Information contagion is most likely to occur, and is most severe when it does, when (a) asset values and balance sheets are opaque, and (b) financial institutions engage in a lot of maturity transformation (i.e., borrowing short to lend long). When asset values and balance sheets are opaque, market participants are more likely to draw inferences from revelations about the values of other firms/assets, because they can’t evaluate the firms/assets directly. In these circumstances, bad news about one firm or one type of asset can lead to a massive loss in confidence in other firms and assets. When these assets are funded with short term borrowings, firms can’t roll over their loans under these conditions, and are more likely to go bankrupt. Moreover, they are more likely to dump assets in fire sales that impose externalities on other firms holding similar assets.

China’s financial system is nothing if opaque. This is particularly true of the shadow banking system, but the banking system is also incredibly murky. For instance, the actual quality of loans on bank books is very difficult to assess. A lot of loans reported as performing are actually quite dodgy.

Information contagion is especially likely because the nature of the revelations about commodity loans raises serious questions about the monitoring of loans and the evaluation of the creditworthiness of borrowers and the quality (and existence!) of their collateral by financial institutions. If banks do a bad job at evaluating commodity loans and borrowers, and commodity collateral, it is reasonable to infer that they do a bad job at monitoring other loans and evaluating other borrowers. It is these sorts of inferences that lead to information contagion.

Moreover, maturity transformation is ubiquitous in China. This is especially true in the shadow banking system.

What this means is that although a few tens of billions of loans backed by non-existent collateral may not seem like a big deal in a financial system with about $17 trillion in credit outstanding (about 35 percent of which is in the shadow sector), the ramifications are far more serious than the value of these commodity loans suggest. There is a serious risk that doubts about the quality of the commodity loans will lead to growing doubts about the quality of other assets, especially in the shadow banking sector.  This creates the potential for panics and runs in that sector, and given the connections between shadow financial institutions and mainstream banks (connections which are themselves opaque) this could spillover into the conventional sector.

In other words, the potential for information contagion in a highly leveraged (with credit at about 250 percent of GDP), highly maturity transformed, and exceedingly opaque financial system is what makes the fraudulent commodity loans a big deal. Potentially a very big deal.

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June 25, 2014

The 40th Anniversary of Jaws, Barclays Edition: Did the LX Dark Pool Keep Out the Sharks or Invite Them In?

Filed under: Economics,Exchanges,HFT,Politics,Regulation — The Professor @ 8:33 pm

Today’s big news is the suit filed by NY Attorney General Eric Schneiderman alleging that Barclays defrauded the customers of its LX dark pool.

In the current hothouse environment of US equity market structure, this will inevitably unleash a torrent of criticism of dark pools. When evaluating the ensuing rhetoric, it is important to distinguish between criticism of dark pools generally, and this one dark pool in particular. That is, there are two distinct questions that are likely to be all tangled up. Are dark pools bad? Or, are dark pools good (or at least not bad), but did Barclays  not do what dark pools are supposed to do while claiming that it did?

What dark pools are supposed to do is protect traders (mainly institutional traders who can be considered uninformed) from predatory traders. Predatory traders can be those with better information, or those with a speed advantage (which often confers an information advantage, through arbitrage or order anticipation). Whether dark pools in general are good or bad depends on the effects of the segmentation of the market. By “cream skimming” the (relatively) uninformed order flow, dark pools make the exchanges less liquid. Order flow on the exchanges tends to be more “toxic” (i.e., informed), and these information asymmetries widen spreads and reduce depth, which raises trading costs for the uninformed traders who cannot avail themselves of the dark pool and who trade on the lit market instead. This means that the trading costs of some uninformed traders (those who can use the dark pools) goes down and the trading costs of some uninformed traders (those who can’t use dark pools) goes up. The distributive effect is one thing that makes dark pools controversial: the losers don’t like them. The net effect is impossible to determine in general, and depends on the competitiveness of the exchange market among other things: even if dark pools reduce liquidity on the exchange, they can provide a source of competition that generates benefits if the exchange markets are imperfectly competitive.

What’s more, dark pools reduce the returns to informed trading.  The efficiency effects of this are also ambiguous, because some informed trading enhances efficiency (by improving the informativeness of prices, and thereby leading to better investment decisions), but other informed trading is rent seeking.

In other words, it’s complicated. There is no “yes” or “no” answer to the first question. This is precisely why market structure debates are so intense and enduring.

The second question is what is at issue in the Barclays case. The NYAG alleges that Barclays promised to protect its customers from predatory HFT sharks, but failed to do so. Indeed, according to the complaint, Barclays actively tried to attract sharks to its pool. (This is one of the problematic aspects of the complaint, as I will show). So, the complaint really doesn’t take a view on whether dark pools that indeed protect customers from sharks are good or bad. It just claims that if dark pools claim to provide shark repellent, but don’t, they have defrauded their customers.

Barclays clearly did make bold claims that it was making strenuous efforts to protect its customers from predatory traders, including predatory HFT. This FAQ sets out its various anti-gaming procedures. In particular, LX performed “Liquidity Profiling” that evaluated the users of the dark pool on various dimensions. One dimension was aggressiveness: did they make quotes or execute against them? Another dimension was profitability. Traders that earn consistent profits over one second intervals are more likely to be informed, and costly for others without information to trade with. Based on this information, Barclays ranked traders on a 0 to 5 scale, with 0 being profitable, aggressive, predatory sharks, and 5 representing passive, gentle blue whales.

Furthermore, Barclays claimed that it allowed its customers to limit their trading to counterparties with certain liquidity profiles, and to certain types of counterparties. For instance, a user could choose not to be matched with a trader with an aggressive profile. Similarly, a customer could choose not to trade against an electronic liquidity provider. In addition, Barclays said that it would exclude traders who consistently brought toxic order flow to the market. That is, Barclays claimed that it was constantly on alert for sharks, and kept the sharks away from the minnows and dolphins and gentle whales.

The NYAG alleges this was a tissue of lies. There are several allegations.

The first is that in its marketing materials, Barclays misrepresented the composition of the order flow in the pool. Specifically,  a graph that  depicted Barclays’ “Liquidity Landscape” purported to show that very little of the trading in the pool was aggressive/predatory. The NYAG alleges that this chart is “false” because it did not include “one of the largest and most toxic participants  [Tradebot] in Barclays’ dark pool.” Further, the NYAG alleges that Barclays deceptively under-reported the amount of predatory HFT trading activity in the pool.

The second basic allegation is that Barclays did not exclude the sharks, and that by failing to update trader profiles, the ability to avoid trading with a firm with a 0 or 1 liquidity profile ranking was useless. Some firms that should have been labeled 0′s were labeled 4′s or 5′s, leaving those that tried to limit their counterparties to the 4′s or 5′s vulnerable to being preyed on by the 0′s. Further, the AG alleges that Barclays promised to exclude the 0′s, but didn’t.

(The complaint also makes allegations about Barclays order routing procedures for its customers, but that’s something of a separate issue, so I won’t discuss that here).

Fraud and misrepresentation are objectionable, and should be punished for purposes of deterrence. They are objectionable because they result in the production of goods and services that are worth less than the cost of producing them. Thus, if Barclays did engage in fraud and misrepresentation, punishment is in order.

One should always be cautious about making judgments on guilt based on a complaint, which by definition is a one-sided representation of the facts. This is particularly true where the complaint relies on selective quotes from emails, and the statements of ex-employees. This is why we have an adversarial process to determine guilt, to permit a thorough vetting of the evidence presented by the plaintiff, and to allow the defendant to present exculpatory evidence (including contextualizing the emails, presenting material that contradicts what is in the proffered emails, and evidence about the motives and reliability of the ex-employees).

Given all this, based on the complaint there is a colorable case, but not a slam dunk.

There is also the question of whether the alleged misrepresentations had a material impact on investors’ decisions regarding whether to trade on LX or not: any fraud would have led to a social harm only to the extent too many investors used LX, or traded too much on it. Here there is reason to doubt whether the misrepresentations mattered all that much.

Trading is an “experience good.” That is, one gets information about the quality of the good by consuming it. Someone may be induced to consume a shoddy good once by deceptive marketing, but if consuming it reveals that it is shoddy, the customer won’t be back. If the product is viable only if it gets repeat customers, deception and fraud are typically unviable strategies. You might convince me to try manure on a cone by telling me it’s ice cream, but once I’ve tried it, I won’t buy it again. If your business profits only if it gets repeat customers, this strategy won’t succeed.

Execution services provided by a dark pool are an experience good that relies on repeat purchases. The dark pool provides an experience good because it is intended to reduce execution costs, and market participants can evaluate/quantify these costs, either by themselves, or by employing consultants that specialize in estimating these costs. Moreover, most traders who trade on dark pools don’t trade on a single pool. They trade on several (and on lit venues too) and can compare execution costs on various venues. If Barclays had indeed failed to protect its customers against the sharks, those customers would have figured that out when they evaluated their executions on LX and found out that their execution costs were high compared to their expectations, and to other venues.  Moreover, dark pool customers trade day after day after day. A dark pool generates succeeds by reducing execution costs, and if it doesn’t it won’t generate persistently large and growing volumes.

Barclays LX generated large and growing volumes. It became the second largest dark pool. I am skeptical that it could have done so had it really been a sham that promised superior execution by protecting customers from sharks when in fact it was doing nothing to keep them out. This suggests that the material effect of the fraud might have been small even had it occurred. This is germane for determining the damages arising from the fraud.

It should also be noted that the complaint alleges that not only did Barclays not do what it promised to keep sharks out, it actively recruited sharks. This theory is highly problematic. According to the complaint, Barclays attracted predatory HFT firms by allowing them to trade essentially for free.

But how does that work, exactly? Yes, the HFT firms generate a lot of volume, but a price of zero times a volume of a zillion generates revenues of zero. You don’t make any money that way. What’s more, the presence of these sharks would have raised the trading costs of the fee-paying minnows, dolphins, and whales, who would have had every incentive to find safer waters, thereby depriving Barclays of any revenues from them. Thus, I am highly skeptical that the AG’s story regarding Barclays’ strategy makes any economic sense. It requires that the non-HFT paying customers must have been enormously stupid, and unaware that they were being served up as bait. Indeed, that they were so stupid that they paid for the privilege of being bait.

It would make sense for Barclays to offer inducements to HFT firms that supply liquidity, because that would reduce the trading costs of the other customers, attracting their volume and making them willing to pay higher fees to trade in the pool.

All we have to go on now is the complaint, and some basic economics. Based on this information, my initial conclusion is that it is plausible that Barclays did misrepresent/overstate the advantages of LX, but that this resulted in modest harm to investors, and that even if the customers of LX got less than they had expected, they did better than they would have trading on another venue.

But this is just an initial impression. The adversarial process generates information that (hopefully) allows more discriminating and precise judgments. I would focus on three types of evidence. First, a forensic evaluation of the LX trading system: did the Liquidity Profile mechanism really allow users to limit their exposure to toxic/predatory order flow? Second, an appraisal of the operation of the system: did it accurately categorize traders, or did Barclays, as alleged in the complaint, systematically mis-categorize predatory traders as benign, thereby exposing traders who wanted to avoid the sharks to their tender mercies? Third, a quantification of the performance of the system in delivering lower execution costs. If LX was indeed doing what a dark pool should do, users should have paid lower execution costs than they would have on other venues. If LX was in fact a massive fraud that attracted customers with promises of protection from predatory traders, but then set the sharks on them, these customers would have in fact incurred higher execution costs than they could have obtained on other venues. At root, the AG alleges that LX promised to lower execution costs, but failed to do so because it did not protect customers from predatory traders: the proof of that pudding is in the eating.

The adversarial judicial process makes it likely that such evidence will be produced, and evaluated by the trier of fact. The process is costly, and often messy, but given the stakes I am sure that these analyses will be performed and that justice will be done, if perhaps roughly.

My bigger concern is  in the adversarial political process. Particularly in the aftermath of Flash Boys, all equity market structure market issues are extremely contentious. Dark pools are a particularly fraught issue. The exchanges (NYSE/ICE and NASDAQ) resent the loss of order flow to dark pools, and want to kneecap them. Many in Congress are sympathetic to their pleas. As I noted at the outset, although the efficiency effects of dark pools are uncertain, their distributive effects are not: dark pools create winners (those who can trade on them, mainly) and losers (those who can’t trade on them, and rent seeking informed traders who lose the opportunity to exploit those who trade on dark pools). Distributive issues are inherently political, and given the sums at stake these political battles are well-funded.

There is thus the potential that the specifics of the Barclays case are interpreted to tar dark pools generally, resulting in a legislative and regulatory over-reaction that kills the good dark pools as well as the bad ones. The facts that AGs are by nature grand-standers generally, and that Schneiderman in particular is a crusader on the make, make such an outcome even more likely.

Given this, I will endeavor to provide an economics-based, balanced analysis of developments going forward. As I have written so often, equity market issues are seldom black and white. Given the nature of equity trading, specifically the central role played by information in it, it is hard to analyze the efficiency effects of various structures and policies. We are in a second best world, and comparisons are complex and messy in that world. In such a world, it is quite possible that both Barclays and the AG are wrong. We’ll see, and I’ll call it as I see it.

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