Streetwise Professor

August 1, 2014

The Real Reason Adidas Opposes Sanctions: It Can’t Afford to Lose the Gopnik Market

Filed under: Economics,Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 4:27 pm

Adidas stock got pounded earlier this week, following a drastic cut in its revenue and profit forecasts.

The company blamed many factors, including Russia:

Adidas also said it was scaling back investment in Russia, where it runs more than 1,000 stores, due to a fall in the rouble since the start of the Ukraine crisis and increasing risks to consumer sentiment and spending there.

“Current tensions in the region point to higher risks to the short-term profitability contribution from Russia/CIS,” it said, adding it would significantly reduce its store opening plan for 2014 and 2015 and increase the number of store closures.

Adidas had said as recently as last month it had not seen any impact on its business in Russia – beyond the translation effect of the weaker rouble.

The gopniks need to buy more track suits! Sanctions may destroy the gopnik market! Now we know why Adidas has been pressing Angela to go easy on Putin.

This brings to mind a hilarious incident from the spring, when Russian Communist Party head Gennady Zyuganov shocked Russian sensibilities by wearing an Adidas track suit while laying flowers on Stalin’s grave:

Russian Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov caused a stir on the Russian blogosphere for laying flowers at the grave of Soviet dictator Josef Stalin while wearing an Adidas tracksuit jacket.

A Twitter user who registered under the name “Josef Stalin” quipped: “Zyuganov showed up in an Adidas tracksuit top, a white shirt and dress shoes. [I'd have had him] shot for this outfit!”

Zyuganov made the dress code blunder on Sunday at a ceremony on Red Square to mark the 92nd anniversary of the establishment of the pioneers, a Soviet-era Communist youth organization.

But the best part was Zyuganov’s excuse:

He told the Russian News Service radio station that he wore it because “nobody makes good tracksuits yet in our country.” He did not specify why he had to wear a tracksuit jacket at all, but perhaps it was its red color that made the Communist leader warm to the garb.

His gaffe may have caught people’s attention because Adidas goods symbolized capitalist swank for many Soviet people under the Communist regime.

Yeah. Capitalist swank. That’s why the Russian equivalent of chavs wear them.

Rest assured. Zyuganov swears he has no promotional contract with Adidas. It was purely a fashion statement.

If Russia can’t make a good track suit, then good luck with that self-reliance that Putin, Lavrov, Medvedev and Rogozin the Ridiculous are promising in high tech goods, military equipment and finance in the aftermath of the sanctions. I’m sure it will all work out swell.

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July 31, 2014

Treasury Channels SWP: Possible Tightening of the Sanctions Net

Filed under: Derivatives,Economics,Russia — The Professor @ 9:48 am

In earlier posts I pointed out a couple of loopholes in the sanctions related to derivatives. Derivatives were explicitly excluded from the mid-July US sanctions imposed on Rosneft and other companies.

One loophole is that US persons can effectively provide credit to Rosneft and other firms subject to US sanctions but not to sanctions by the EU (or other foreign jurisdictions) by selling credit protection on the sanctioned companies to non-US person financial institutions, who could then expand their lending to offset the effect of the inability of US financial institutions to lend directly.

The other loophole is that a sanctioned firm (even one sanctioned by the EU, because its sanctions will evidently include the same loophole) can synthetically create a long-term bond that it cannot issue directly due to the sanctions by borrowing for 90 days, rolling the borrowing, and entering into a payer swap. The swap would effectively convert the floating, short-term rate into a longer-term fixed rate, thereby substituting for a prohibited long-term loan or debt security.

Neither of these is perfect substitutes for the banned transactions, but they are fairly close substitutes.

According to Bloomberg, the US Treasury is considering adding derivatives and short term borrowings to the list of transactions prohibited under the sanctions:

The U.S. might move to limit derivatives trading and short-term loans with Russian companies if sanctions already imposed fail to sway President Vladimir Putin to end support for rebels in eastern Ukraine.

U.S. citizens and businesses are still permitted to trade in outstanding debt of any maturity and new short-term debt and derivatives with sanctioned Russian companies. Restrictions on money-market financing and derivatives could be imposed if tougher penalties are necessary, said a Treasury Department official who asked not to be named because further options are still being discussed.

These limits would close off the loopholes that exploit derivatives and short-term borrowing.

I wonder whether these moves had been considered all along, or whether UST learned that financial institutions and sanctioned companies were exploring those loopholes. Interesting development, regardless.


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July 30, 2014

ISDA Should Stay Its Hand, Not Derivatives In Bankruptcy

Filed under: Derivatives,Economics,Financial crisis,Regulation — The Professor @ 8:39 pm

I’ve been meaning to write about how derivatives are treated in bankruptcy, but it’s a big topic and I haven’t been able to get my hands around it. But this article from Bloomberg merits some comment, because it suggests that market participants, led by ISDA, are moving to a partial change that could make things worse if the bankruptcy code treatment of derivatives remains the same.

Derivatives benefit from a variety of “safe harbors” in bankruptcy. They are treated very differently than other financial contracts. If a firm goes bankrupt, its derivatives counterparties can offset winning against losing trades, and determine a net amount. In contrast, with normal debts, such offsets are not permitted, and the bankruptcy trustee can “cherry pick” by not performing on losing contracts and insisting on performance on winning ones. Derivatives counterparties can immediately access the collateral posted by a bankrupt counterparty. Other secured debtors do not have immediate access to collateral. Derivatives counterparties are not subject to preference or fraudulent conveyance rules: the bankruptcy trustee can claw back cash taken out of a firm up to 90 days prior to its bankruptcy, except in the case of cash taken by derivatives (and repo) counterparties. Derivatives counterparties can immediately terminate their trades upon the bankruptcy of a trading partner, collect collateral to cover the bankrupt’s obligations, and become an unsecured creditor on the remainder.

It is this ability to terminate and grab collateral that proved so devastating to Lehman in 2008. Cash is a vital asset for a financial firm, and any chance Lehman had to survive or be reorganized disappeared with the cash that went out the door when derivatives were terminated and collateral seized. It is this problem that ISDA is trying to fix, by writing a temporary stay on the ability of derivatives counterparties to terminate derivatives contracts of a failed firm into standard derivatives contract terms.

That sounds wonderful, until you go back to previous steps in the game tree. The new contract term affects the calculations of derivatives counterparties before a tottering firm actually declares bankruptcy. Indeed, as long as preference/fraudulent conveyance safe harbor remains, the new rule actually increases the incentives of the derivatives counterparties to run on a financially distressed, but not yet bankrupt, firm. This increases the likelihood that a distressed firm actually fails.

The logic is this. If the counterparties keep their positions open until the firm is bankrupt, the stay prevents them from terminating their positions, and they are at the mercy of the resolution authority. They are at risk of not being able to get their collateral immediately. However, if they use some of the methods that Duffie describes in How Big Banks Fail, derivatives counterparties can reduce their exposures to the distressed firm before it declares bankruptcy, and crucially, get their hands on their collateral without having to worry about a stay, or having the money clawed back as a preference or fraudulent conveyance.

Thus, staying derivatives in a bankrupt firm, but retaining the safe harbor from preference/fraudulent conveyance claims, gives derivatives counterparties an incentive to run earlier. Under the contracts with the stay, they are in a weaker position if they wait until a formal insolvency than they are under the current way of doing business. They therefore are more likely to run early if derivatives are stayed.

This means that this unbalanced change in the terms of derivatives contracts actually increases the likelihood that a financial firm with a large derivatives book will implode due to a run by its counterparties. The stay may make things better conditional on being in bankruptcy, but increase the likelihood that a firm will default. This is almost certainly a bad trade-off. We want rules that reduce the likelihood of runs. This combination of contract terms and bankruptcy rules increases the likelihood of runs.

This illustrates the dangers of piecemeal changes to complex financial systems. Strengthening one part can make the entire system more vulnerable to failure. Changing one part effects how the other parts work, and not always for the better.

Rather than fixing single parts one at a time, it is essential to recognize the interdependencies between the pieces. The bankruptcy rules have a lot of interdependencies. Indeed, the rules on preferences/fraudulent conveyance are necessary precisely because of the perverse incentives that would exist prior to bankruptcy if claims are stayed in bankruptcy, but creditors can get their money out of a firm before bankruptcy. Stays alone can make things worse if the behavior of creditors prior to a formal filing is not constrained. All the pieces have to fit together.

The Bloomberg article notes that the international nature of the derivatives business complicates the job of devising a comprehensive treatment of derivatives in bankruptcy: harmonizing bankruptcy laws across many countries is a nightmare. But the inability to change the entire set of derivatives-related bankruptcy rules doesn’t mean that fixing one aspect of them by a contractual change makes things better. It can actually make things worse.  It is highly likely that imposing a stay in bankruptcy, but leaving the rest of the safe harbors intact, will do exactly that.

ISDA appears to want to address in the worst way the problems that derivatives can cause in bankruptcy. And unfortunately, it just might succeed. ISDA should stay its hand, and not derivatives in bankruptcy, unless other parts of the bankruptcy code are adjusted in response to the new contract term.

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July 29, 2014

‘Tis But a Scratch

Filed under: Economics,History,Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 9:10 pm

I owe the Euros an apology. It turns out that they did implement most of the sanctions recommended in the “non-paper.” So it proved to be more than an orphan straw man.

That said, upon further consideration, there is less here than could have been hoped for. Indeed, these sanctions will impose little real damage on Russia.

There are three major pieces of the new European sanctions. First, Europeans (including foreign subsidiaries and branches of non-EU banks) are prohibited from buying new equity or debt with maturity of greater than 90 days from Russian banks with more than 50 percent state ownership. Second, there is a ban on the sale of oil technology and equipment. Third, there is an arms sales ban.

The US has implemented similar measures, with one peculiar exception: Sberbank is not included in the US sanctions, though it is in the European sanctions.

The bank sanctions are getting the most attention, but they are hardly devastating. I only had enough time today to look at the international borrowings of Sberbank, VTB, and VEB. Sberbank’s foreign debt borrowings total only about 4 percent of its total liabilities, and only a small fraction of those mature in the next year. Therefore, the sanctions put no immediate pressure on Sberbank, especially since it still can borrow from US persons. VTB’s foreign debt with maturities in 2014 and 2015 is no more than 6 percent of its total liabilities: I can’t be more precise because its financial statements only report broad maturity categories. VEB’s total Eurobond issues are about 8 percent of its liabilities: again, only a fraction of these are due in the next year or so.

Loss of this funding would be something of a strain, but the sums involved could readily be replaced by drawing on Russian foreign reserves and borrowing from non-EU and non-US banks.

What’s more, a little financial engineering permits these institutions to circumvent the effect of the sanctions. It seems that they can still enter into derivatives trades: derivatives are explicitly excluded from US sanctions. Since under the sanctions the banks can still borrow with 90 day maturities, they can create a synthetic long term loan with a fixed interest rate by borrowing for 90 days on a rolling basis, and enter into receive floating-pay fix swaps. Yes, there still is some risk here: if sanctions are extended to prevent even short term borrowings, the banks following this strategy would have a short swap position and no offsetting floating rate borrowings.

In brief, the sanctioned banks aren’t heavily dependent on European or US debt markets for their funding; the Russian government has the resources to cover this funding gap; and there is a somewhat riskier alternative (borrow short-term and hedge via swaps). Thus, although it would be unfair to say that the financial sanctions merely damage a few capillaries, it is definitely the case that they don’t come anywhere close to striking at Russia’s financial jugular. They are annoyance, and no more.

It is also important to note that the European sanctions do not target Rosneft. So the Russian oil company still has access to European (and Asian) debt and equity markets. As I noted before, this significantly cushions the blow on the Russian firm.

Insofar as the weapons ban is considered, it is largely symbolic because Russia builds most of its own weaponry. Predictably, existing deals are exempted. Meaning that France can continue with its sales of Mistral assault ships.

A bigger threat to the second Mistral sale is yesterday’s arbitration verdict in the Yukos litigation. If Russia doesn’t pay the $50 billion by January-a metaphysical certainty-the winning claimants can move to seize non-diplomatic Russian government assets in countries that are signatories to the New York Arbitration Convention. Conceivably the claimants could attempt to seize the second Mistral-the Vladivostok, ominously slated for service in the Med and Black Seas-while it is still in France. But no doubt the Russians and French could circumvent this by transferring ownership only after the ship had sailed to Russia. (As an aside, the main effect of the arbitration verdict will be to ensure employment of large number of lawyers for years, because the Russians will fight every attempt to enforce the award by seizing government assets abroad tooth and nail. It is a welcome verdict, but its immediate financial impact on Russia will be pretty much nil.)

The sanctions on oil equipment will have little impact in the near term, and since the European sanctions are time limited, their effect will be diminished even further.

In sum, the new sanctions are far beyond what had been imposed before, but they are still not that damaging to Russia. Putin can legitimately say “’tis but a scratch,” and not in the Black Knight, Monty Python, I’m not going to admit I’m wounded sense.

The United States in particular still has the power to leave Putin financially limbless and bleeding, pitifully claiming his invincibility. But that would require hacking away with a real banking broadsword: cutting off Russian access to dollar markets altogether. But there is no appetite to do this in the west: the Europeans had to screw up their courage to the sticking place to implement even these limited sanctions. And Obama has little appetite for this either: his sanction announcement today was delivered in a listless, phone-it-in fashion, before he ran off to fly to Kansas City for some silly event involving meeting people who had written him letters. He is obviously not engaged in this at all.

The Europeans and Obama believe that they are engaged in a nuanced strategy of graduated escalation that will convince Putin that continued attempts to subvert Ukraine through force will eventually result in Russia incurring unbearable financial costs, and that this will deter him from going further.

Ask the shades of LBJ and McNamara about how hardened dictators interpret graduated escalation. They interpret it as a signal of weakness, not resolve. If anything, it urges them to go further. I would anticipate that this will be true today, with Putin.


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The FUD Factor At Work

Filed under: Commodities,Economics,Energy,Politics,Regulation,Russia — The Professor @ 9:35 am

Going back to the original round of sanctions, I have been arguing that the terms of US sanctions have been left deliberately vague in order to make  banks and investors very cautious about dealing with sanctioned firms. Spreading fear, uncertainty, and doubt-FUD-leverages the effect of sanctions.

When I read the last round of sanctions, I had many questions, and hence many doubts about actually how far the sanctions would reach. I was not alone. Professionals-lawyers at banks and Wall Street law firms-are also uncertain:

But compliance officers at some U.S. banks and broker-dealers say the sanctions, issued by Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC), are not clear enough. That has left financial institutions guessing, in certain instances, at how to comply. They worry they are vulnerable to punitive action by U.S. regulators.

Fear, uncertainty, and doubt, all in one paragraph. The fear part is particularly interesting, and quite real, especially in the aftermath of the truly punitive action by U.S. regulators in the BNP-Paribas case.

OFAC-The Office of Foreign Asset Control, which is in charge of overseeing the sanctions-is in no hurry to clarify matters:

Another senior compliance officer at a major U.S. bank said bankers “are frustrated that OFAC is not providing more guidance.”

The day after the sanctions were issued, OFAC held a conference call with hundreds of financial services industry professionals in an effort to answer concerns. Although some issues were cleared up, others were left undecided, said two sources who were on the call.

Dear Mr. Senior Compliance Officer: that’s on purpose. Believe me.

A new round of sanctions may be imminent. I am hoping to be proven wrong in my forecasts, because reports are that the Europeans are going to do something serious. Add serious doubts to serious action, and American and European banks won’t touch most Russian banks or major companies with a 10 foot pole while wearing a hazmat suit. That will cause some major economic problems for Putin and Russia. Not 1998-magnitude problems, but maybe something bordering on 2008 problems, although a $100+ oil price will help contain the damage, despite the added difficulties that sanctions will create for the Russians to cash the checks for that oil.

Then it will be Vlad’s move. What that move will be, I do not know.

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July 25, 2014

Benchmark Blues

Pricing benchmarks have been one of the casualties of the financial crisis. Not because the benchmarks-like Libor, Platts’ Brent window, ISDA Fix, the Reuters FX window or the gold fix-contributed in an material way to the crisis. Instead, the post-crisis scrutiny of the financial sector turned over a lot of rocks, and among the vermin crawling underneath were abuses of benchmarks.

Every major benchmark has fallen under deep suspicion, and has been the subject of regulatory action or class action lawsuits. Generalizations are difficult because every benchmark has its own problems. It is sort of like what Tolstoy said about unhappy families: every flawed benchmark is flawed in its own way. Some, like Libor, are vulnerable to abuse because they are constructed from the estimates/reports of interested parties. Others, like the precious metals fixes, are problematic due to a lack of transparency and limited participation. Declining production and large parcel sizes bedevil Brent.

But some basic conclusions can be drawn.

First-and this should have been apparent in the immediate aftermath of the natural gas price reporting scandals of the early-2000s-benchmarks based on the reports of self-interested parties, rather than actual transactions, are fundamentally flawed. In my energy derivatives class I tell the story of AEP, which the government discovered kept a file called “Bogus IFERC.xls” (IFERC being an abbreviation for Inside Ferc, the main price reporting publication for gas and electricity) that included thousands of fake transactions that the utility reported to Platts.

Second, and somewhat depressingly, although benchmarks based on actual transactions are preferable to those based on reports, in many markets the number of transactions is small. Even if transactors do not attempt to manipulate, the limited number of transactions tends to inject some noise into the benchmark value. What’s more, benchmarks based on a small number of transactions can be influenced by a single trade or a small number of trades, thereby creating the potential for manipulation.

I refer to this as the bricks without straw problem. Just like the Jews in Egypt were confounded by Pharoh’s command to make bricks without straw, modern market participants are stymied in their attempts to create benchmarks without trades. This is a major problem in some big markets, notably Libor (where there are few interbank unsecured loans) and Brent (where large parcel sizes and declining Brent production mean that there are relatively few trades: Platts has attempted to address this problem by expanding the eligible cargoes to include Ekofisk, Oseberg, and Forties, and some baroque adjustments based on CFD and spread trades and monthly forward trades). This problem is not amenable to an easy fix.

Third, and perhaps even more depressingly, even transaction-based benchmarks derived from markets with a decent amount of trading activity are vulnerable to manipulation, and the incentive to manipulate is strong. Some changes can be made to mitigate these problems, but they can’t be eliminated through benchmark design alone. Some deterrence mechanism is necessary.

The precious metals fixes provide a good example of this. The silver and gold fixes have historically been based on transactions prices from an auction that Walras would recognize. But participation was limited, and some participants had the market power and the incentive to use it, and have evidently pushed prices to benefit related positions. For instance, in the recent allegation against Barclays, the bank could trade in sufficient volume to move the fix price sufficiently to benefit related positions in digital options. When there is a large enough amount of derivatives positions with payoffs tied to a benchmark, someone has the incentive to manipulate that benchmark, and many have the market power to carry out those manipulations.

The problems with the precious metals fixes have led to their redesign: a new silver fix method has been established and will go into effect next month, and the gold fix will be modified, probably along similar lines. The silver fix will replace the old telephone auction that operated via a few members trading on their own account and representing customer orders with a more transparent electronic auction operated by CME and Reuters. This will address some of the problems with the old fix. In particular, it will reduce the information advantage that the fixing dealers had that allowed them to trade profitably on other markets (e.g.,. gold futures and OTC forwards and options) based on the order flow information they could observe during the auction. Now everyone will be able to observe the auction via a screen, and will be less vulnerable to being picked off in other markets. It is unlikely, however, that the new mechanism will mitigate the market power problem. Big trades will move markets in the new auction, and firms with positions that have payoffs that depend on the auction price may have an incentive to make those big trades to advantage those positions.

Along these lines, it is important to note that many liquid and deep futures markets have been plagued by “bang the close” problems. For instance, Amaranth traded large volumes in the settlement period of expiring natural gas futures during three months of 2006 in order to move prices in ways that benefited its OTC swaps positions. The CFTC recently settled with the trading firm Optiver that allegedly banged the close in crude, gasoline, and heating oil in March, 2007. These are all liquid and deep markets, but are still vulnerable to “bullying” (as one Optiver trader characterized it) by large traders.

The incentives to cause an artificial price for any major benchmark will always exist, because one of the main purposes of benchmarks is to provide a mechanisms for determining cash flows for derivatives. The benchmark-derivatives market situation resembles an inverted pyramid, with large amounts cash flows from derivatives trades resting on a relatively small number of spot transactions used to set the benchmark value.

One way to try to ameliorate this problem is to expand the number of transactions at the point of the pyramid by expanding the window of time over which transactions are collected for the purpose of calculating the benchmark value: this has been suggested for the Platts Brent market, and for the FX fix. A couple of remarks. First, although this would tend to mitigate market power, it may not be sufficient to eliminate the problem: Amaranth manipulated a price that was based on a VWAP over a relatively long 30 minute interval. In contrast, in the Moore case (a manipulation case involving platinum and palladium brought by the CFTC) and Optiver, the windows were only two minutes long. Second, there are some disadvantages of widening the window. Some market participants prefer a benchmark that reflects a snapshot of the market at a point in time, rather than an average over a period of time. This is why Platts vociferously resists calls to extend the duration of its pricing window. There is a tradeoff in sources of noise. A short window is more affected by the larger sampling error inherent in the smaller number of transactions that occurs in a shorter interval, and the noise resulting from greater susceptibility to manipulation when a benchmark is based on smaller number of trades. However, an average taken over a time interval is a noisy estimate of the price at any point of time during that interval due to the random fluctuations in the “true” price driven by information flow. I’ve done some numerical experiments, and either the sampling error/manipulation noise has to be pretty large, or the volatility of the “true” price must be pretty low for it to be desirable to move to a longer interval.

Other suggestions include encouraging diversity in benchmarks. The other FSB-the Financial Stability Board-recommends this. Darrel Duffie and Jeremy Stein lay out the case here (which is a lot easier read than the 750+ pages of the longer FSB report).

Color me skeptical. Duffie and Stein recognize that the market has a tendency to concentrate on a single benchmark. It is easier to get into and out of positions in a contract which is similar to what everyone else is trading. This leads to what Duffie and Stein call “the agglomeration effect,” which I would refer to as a “tipping” effect: the market tends to tip to a single benchmark. This is what happened in Libor. Diversity is therefore unlikely in equilibrium, and the benchmark that survives is likely to be susceptible to either manipulation, or the bricks without straw problem.

Of course not all potential benchmarks are equally susceptible. So it would be good if market participants coordinated on the best of the possible alternatives. As Duffie and Stein note, there is no guarantee that this will be the case. This brings to mind the as yet unresolved debate over standard setting generally, in which some argue that the market’s choice of VHS over the allegedly superior Betamax technology, or the dominance of QWERTY over the purportedly better Dvorak keyboard (or Word vs. Word Perfect) demonstrate that the selection of a standard by a market process routinely results in a suboptimal outcome, but where others (notably Stan Lebowitz and Stephen Margolis) argue that  these stories of market failure are fairy tales that do not comport with the actual histories. So the relevance of the “bad standard (benchmark) market failure” is very much an open question.

Darrel and Jeremy suggest that a wise government can make things better:

This is where national policy makers come in. By speaking publicly about the advantages of reform — or, if necessary, by using their power to regulate — they can guide markets in the desired direction. In financial benchmarks as in tap water, markets might not reach the best solution on their own.

Putting aside whether government regulators are indeed so wise in their judgments, there is  the issue of how “better” is measured. Put differently: governments may desire a different direction than market participants.

Take one of the suggestions that Duffie and Stein raise as an alternative to Libor: short term Treasuries. It is almost certainly true that there is more straw in the Treasury markets than in any other rates market. Thus, a Treasury bill-based benchmark is likely to be less susceptible to manipulation than any other market. (Though not immune altogether, as the Pimco episode in June ’05 10 Year T-notes, the squeezes in the long bond in the mid-to-late-80s, the Salomon 2 year squeeze in 92, and the chronic specialness in some Treasury issues prove.)

But that’s not of much help if the non-manipulated benchmark is not representative of the rates that market participants want to hedge. Indeed, when swap markets started in the mid-80s, many contracts used Treasury rates to set the floating leg. But the basis between Treasury rates, and the rates at which banks borrowed and lent, was fairly variable. So a Treasury-based swap contract had more basis risk than Libor-based contracts. This is precisely why the market moved to Libor, and when the tipping process was done, Libor was the dominant benchmark not just for derivatives but floating rate loans, mortgages, etc.

Thus, there may be a trade-off between basis risk and susceptibility to manipulation (or to noise arising from sampling error due to a small number of transactions or averaging over a wide time window). Manipulation can lead to basis risk, but it can be smaller than the basis risk arising from a quality mismatch (e.g., a credit risk mismatch between default risk-free Treasury rates and a defaultable rate that private borrowers pay). I would wager that regulators would prefer a standard that is less subject to manipulation, even if it has more basis risk, because they don’t internalize the costs associated with basis risk. Market participants may have a very different opinion. Therefore, the “desired direction” may depend very much on whom you ask.

Putting all this together, I conclude we live in a fallen world. There is no benchmark Eden. Benchmark problems are likely to be chronic for the foreseeable future. And beyond. Some improvements are definitely possible, but benchmarks will always be subject to abuse. Their very source of utility-that they are a visible price that can be used to determine payoffs on vast sums of other contracts-always provides a temptation to manipulate.

Moving to transactions-based mechanisms eliminates outright lying as a manipulation strategy, but it does not eliminate the the potential for market power abuses. The benchmarks that would be least vulnerable to market power abuses are not necessarily the ones that best reflect the exposures that market participants face.

Thus, we cannot depend on benchmark design alone to address manipulation problems. The means, motive, and opportunity to manipulate even transactions-based benchmarks will endure. This means that reducing the frequency of manipulation requires some sort of deterrence mechanism, either through government action (as in the Libor, Optiver, Moore, and Amaranth cases) or private litigation (examples of which include all the aforementioned cases, plus some more, like Brent).  It will not be possible to “solve” the benchmark problems by designing better mechanisms, then riding off into the sunset like the Lone Ranger. Our work here will never be done, Kimo Sabe.*

* Stream of consciousness/biographical detail of the day. The phrase “Kimo Sabe” was immortalized by Jay Silverheels-Tonto in the original Lone Ranger TV series. My GGGGF, Abel Sherman, was slain and scalped by an Indian warrior named Silverheels during the Indian War in Ohio in 1794. Silverheels made the mistake of bragging about his feat to a group of lumbermen, who just happened to include Abel’s son. Silverheels was found dead on a trail in the woods the next day, shot through the heart. Abel (a Revolutionary War vet) was reputedly the last white man slain by Indians in Washington County, OH. His tombstone is on display in the Campus Martius museum in Marietta. The carving on the headstone is very un-PC. It reads:

Here lyes the body of Abel Sherman who fell by the hand of the Savage on the 15th of August 1794, and in the 50th year of  his age.

Here’s a picture of it:


The stream by which Abel was killed is still known as Dead Run, or Dead Man’s Run.

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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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