Streetwise Professor

February 22, 2018

VIX VapoRubOut

Filed under: Commodities,Derivatives,Economics,Exchanges — The Professor @ 12:28 pm

Bloomberg’s Odd Lots podcast from a few days ago discusses “How one of the Most Profitable Trades of the Last Few Years Blew Up in a Single Day.” Specifically, how did short volatility trades perform so well for so long, and then unravel so dramatically in a short period of time?

In fact, these two things are directly related. This trade performed well for a long time precisely because it was effectively selling insurance against an infrequent, severe event–in this case, a volatility spike. In essence, those who shorted volatility (primarily by selling VIX futures either directly or indirectly through exchange traded products like the XIV note) were providing insurance against a volatility spike, collected premiums for a long time, and then ended up paying out large amounts when a spike actually occurred. It is analogous to a company insuring against earthquakes: it’s rolling in the dough collecting premiums until a big earthquake actually happens, at which time the company has to pay out big time.

If you look at a graph of the VIX, you’ll see that the VIX can be well-described as a mean reverting process (i.e., it doesn’t behave like a random walk or a geometric random walk, but tends to return to a base level after it diverges from that level) subject to large upward shocks.  After the spikes, mean reversion kicks in, and the index returns roughly to its previous level.



So if you are short the VIX, you pay out during those spikes.

And that’s not all.  The VIX is strongly negatively correlated with the overall market.  That is, VIX tends to increase when the market goes down:


This means that providing insurance against volatility spikes is costly: the volatility short seller commits to making payouts in bad states of the world.  Thus, risk averse suppliers of volatility insurance will demand a premium to bear the risk inherent in that position.  Put crudely, a short VIX position has a large positive beta, meaning that the expected return (risk premium) on this position will be positive, and large.

The flip side of this is that those with a natural short volatility exposure incur a large cost to bear this risk, and might be willing to hedge (insure) against it.  Indeed, given the fact that such natural short exposures incur losses in bad states of the world, those facing them are willing to pay a premium to hedge them.

In equilibrium, this means that short volatility positions will earn a risk premium.  Since short sellers of volatility futures will have to earn a return to compensate them for the associated risks,  the VIX futures price will exceed the expected future value of VIX at futures expiration.  Thus, VIX futures will be in a Keynesian contango (with the futures above the expected future spot).  Given that VIX itself is a non-traded risk (one cannot buy or sell the actual VIX in the same way one can buy or sell a stock index), this means that the forward curve will also be in contango.*  Further, one would expect that long VIX futures positions lose money on average, and given the spikiness of realized VIX, lose money most of the time with the gains occurring infrequently and being relatively large when they do occur.

And of course, short positions have the exact opposite performance.  Shorts sell VIX futures at a premium over the price at which they expect to cover, and hence make money on average.  Furthermore, losses tend to be relatively infrequent, but when they occur they tend to be large.

And that’s exactly what happened in the period leading up to February 5.  During most of that period, VIX shorts were making money.  When the spike occurred on 2/5/18, however, they were hammered.

But this was not an indication of a badly performing market, or irrational trading.  Given the behavior of volatility and the existence of individuals and firms with a natural short volatility position that some wanted to hedge, this is exactly what you’d expect.  Participants (mainly institutional investors, including university endowments) were willing to take the opposite side of those hedges and receive a risk premium in return. Those short positions would earn positive returns most of the time, but when the returns go negative, they tend to do so in a big way. Again, just like earthquake insurance.

One of the inventors of VIX claims that he doesn’t understand why products such as VIX futures or ETPs that have long or short volatility exposures exist. Really? They exist because they facilitate the transfer of risk from those who bear it at a higher cost to those who bear it at a lower cost.  Absent these markets, the short volatility exposures wouldn’t go away: those with such natural exposures would continue to bear it, and would periodically incur large losses.  Those losses would not be as obvious as when volatility products are traded, but they would actually be more costly.  The pain that volatility short sellers incurred earlier this month might be bad, but it was less than the pain that would have existed if they weren’t there to absorb that risk.

One interesting question is whether technical factors actually exacerbated the size of the volatility spike.  Some sellers of volatility short ETPs (like the XIV exchange traded note that is basically a short position on the front two month VIX futures) hedge that exposure by going short VIX futures.  To the extent that the delta of the ETPs remains constant (i.e., the sensitivity of the value of the product to changes in forward volatility remains constant) that’s not an issue: the hedge positions are static.  However, the XIV in particular had a knock-out feature: payment of the note is accelerated when the value of the position falls to 20 percent of face amount.  The XIV experienced such an acceleration event on the 5th, and to the extent the issuer (UBS) had hedged its volatility exposure this could have caused it to buy a large number of futures, because as soon as the note was paid off, the short VIX position was unnecessary as a hedge, and UBS would have bought futures to close that hedge.  This would have been a discontinuous move in its position, moreover: oh, the joys of hedging barrier options (which is essentially what the acceleration feature created). This buying into a spike could have exacerbated the spike.  Whether UBS actually did this, or whether liquidating its hedge position was big enough to have an appreciable knock-on effect on prices is not known.  But it could have made the volatility event more severe than it would have been otherwise.

Bottom line. These markets exist for a reason–to transfer risk.  Moreover, they behaved exactly as expected, and those who participated got–and paid–in the expected way.  Insurance sellers (those short volatility futures) collected premiums to compensate for the risk incurred.  Most of the time the risk was not realized, because of its “spikey” nature, and those sellers realized positive returns.  When the spike happened, they paid out.  There is never a free lunch.  Yes, the insurance sellers dined out on somebody else most of the time, but when they had to pick up the tab, it was a big one.

*Keynes caused untold confusion by using “normal backwardation” to describe a situation where the futures price is below the expected spot price. In market parlance, backwardation occurs when the futures price is below the actual spot price.  Keynesian backwardation and contango refer to a risk premium, which is not directly observable in the market, whereas actual contango and backwardation are.  It is possible for a market to be in contango, but in a Keynesian backwardation.  Similarly, it is possible for a market to be in backwardation, but a Keynesian contango.  If interest rates exceed dividend yields, stock index futures are an example of the former situation.   No arbitrage forces the market into a contango, but long positions earn a risk premium (a normal backwardation).

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January 31, 2018

Hoist the Stars and Bars Over Sacramento!

Filed under: Economics,Politics — The Professor @ 7:56 pm

California voted overwhelmingly against Trump in 2016, and today, butthurt losers that they are, California’s government is now leading the “resistance” against him.  As described by its cheerleader–the all-but-unreadable Financial Times–it is taking up the standard for states rights in its resistance campaign:

From immigration, to tax policy, to internet regulation and environmental standards, a growing number of California policies confront or contradict federal policies — a test of states’ rights that will ultimately play out in court.

For example, a state Senate committee will discuss this week a measure that would in effect reverse the Federal Communications Commission’s new policy on internet regulation. The measure would require internet service providers in California to adhere to the net neutrality standards governing internet traffic that were enforced during the Obama administration, which had been supported by much of Silicon Valley.

Similar efforts are under way on tax, with a legislative proposal designed to partially circumvent the federal tax bill that was signed into law by Mr Trump in December. The federal bill raised the burden for many people in high-tax states such as California, because they will no longer be able to deduct state tax payments from their federal income tax return

Raise the Stars and Bars over Sacramento!

The tax issue is particularly amusing. Leftist bastion that it is, coastal California has been a huge proponent of soak-the-rich-taxation and income redistribution.  Except California’s rich. Soak other states’ rich (like where, Mississippi? West Virginia?), not ours!

More generally, California has been obnoxious in its use of its own economic heft to force its policy preferences on the rest of the country.  Regulations regarding automobile emissions and safety standards are a prominent example. California quite deliberately imposes standards preferred by its coastal elites precisely because it knows that automakers are not going to build cars that do not meet California standards for sale outside the state.

States rights advocates 1.0–in the South, pre-1861–were also notable for their highly situational–not to say hypocritical–adherence to this principle.  At the same time they breathed fire in denunciating even the prospect of Federal government interference with their “domestic institutions”, they demanded that the self-same Federal government enforce the Fugitive Slave Act and chase down escaped in states whose domestic institutions explicitly rejected slavery.

California’s most aggressive states rights stance relates to immigration, where it has basically said “nice little business you got there–shame if anything happened to it” to any firm in California that is even thinking about cooperating with Federal law enforcement of immigration laws:

The state’s top cop issued a warning to California employers Thursday that businesses face legal repercussions, including fines up to $10,000, if they assist federal immigration authorities with a potential widespread immigration crackdown.

“It’s important, given these rumors that are out there, to let people know – more specifically today, employers – that if they voluntarily start giving up information about their employees or access to their employees in ways that contradict our new California laws, they subject themselves to actions by my office,” state Attorney General Xavier Becerra said at a news conference. “We will prosecute those who violate the law.”

Becerra’s warning comes as fears spread of mass workplace raids following reports that immigration agents plan to target Northern California communities for deportations due in part to the state’s “sanctuary” law, which seeks to restrict local law enforcement agencies’ ability to cooperate with immigration authorities.

In essence, the State of California is avowedly nullifying Federal immigration laws, a la South Carolina and tariffs circa 1832.

In fact, California does some things that go beyond what the Gamecocks did 186 years ago.  The main mechanism in the 1832 Nullification Ordinance was a prohibition on state and Federal employees acting “to enforce the payment of duties imposed by the said acts within the limits of this State.”  California hasn’t attempted to impose its authority on Federal officials, but it has gone beyond South Carolina in its imposition of steep fines on private citizens who cooperate with Federal authorities. Why pick a direct fight with the Feds, when you can grind down the little guy?

This is beyond audacious, and beyond hypocritical for a political class that was largely an advocate for increasing the power of the national government–until it lost sway with the election of Trump.

Immigration has been recognized as the exclusive preserve of the Federal government since 1876, when the Supreme Court so ruled. This made sense even when people were less mobile–it makes all the more sense today. Yet California advocates nullifying Federal immigration law, and is willing to bring the full force of its own police powers to bear against anyone who flouts its nullification.  Somewhere in the nether regions, John C. Calhoun and Robert Barnwell Rhett are smiling.

No doubt any action to enforce its nullification laws would result in a legal challenge.  Given the realities of the 9th Circus, and a Federal judiciary that is willing to grant convicted fraudsters a “right to say goodbye” (heretofore undiscovered in almost 230 years of Constitutional jurisprudence), it is quite possible that the state will prevail in court–for a while.  But I can’t imagine that it would prevail in the end, especially when the broader ramifications of a “victory” dawn even on leftists.

For a victory would be a classic example of “be careful what you ask for–you might get it.”  California liberals might gloat at prevailing over the hated Trump administration, but the precedent would live on long afterwards, and provide a road map for other states (and even local jurisdictions) to thwart the Federal government even when liberals are in control of it–as California’s elite believes is the natural order of things, an order which has been violated by Trump’s presidency. Such an outcome, of course, would be a cue for California to go all situational and reject its current states rights position.

Which would prove yet again, as if further proof is necessary, that if politicians didn’t have double standards, they’d have no standards at all. Especially on the Left Coast (a phrase that is descriptive in more ways than one).



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January 23, 2018

Why Are ABCD Singing the Blues?

Filed under: Commodities,Economics,Russia — The Professor @ 9:49 pm

It’s pretty clear that the major agricultural trading firms, notably the ABCDs–ADM, Bunge, Cargill, and Dreyfus–are going through a rough patch of tight margins and low profits.  One common response in any industry facing these conditions is consolidation, and in fact there is a major potential combination in play: ADM approached Bunge about an acquisition..

I am unsatisfied with most of the explanations given.  A widely cited “reason” is that grain and oilseed prices are low due to bumper crops.  Yes, bumper crops and the resulting low prices can be a negative for producers, but it does not explain hard times in the midstream.  Ag traders do not have a natural flat price exposure. They are both buyers and sellers, and care about margin.

Indeed, ceteris paribus, abundant supplies should be a boon to traders.  More supply means they are handling more volume, which is by itself tends to increase revenue, and more volume means that handling capacity is being utilized more fully, which should contribute to firmer margins, which increases revenues even further.

Greg Meyer and Neil Hume have a long piece in the FT about the potential ADM-Bunge deal. Unfortunately, they advance some implausible reasons for the current conditions in the industry. For example, they say: “At the same time, a series of bumper harvests has weakened agricultural traders’ bargaining power with customers in the food industry.” Again, that’s a flat price story, not a spread/margin story.  And again, all else equal, bumper harvests should lead to greater capacity utilization in storage, logistics, transportation, and processing, which would actually serve to increase traders’ bargaining power because they own assets used to make those transformations.

Here’s how I’d narrow down where to look for more convincing explanations. All else equal, compressed margins arise when capacity utilization is low. In a time of relatively high world supply, lower capacity utilization would be attributable to increases in capacity that have outstripped gains in throughput caused by larger crops.  So where is that increased capacity?

There are some hints of better explanations along these lines in the FT article.  One thing it notes is that farmer-owned storage capacity has increased.  This reduces returns on storage assets.  In particular, when farmers have little on-farm storage they must sell their crops soon after harvest, or pay grain merchants to store it.  If they sell their crops, the merchant can exploit the optionality of choosing when to sell: if they store at a local elevator, they pay for the privilege. Either way, the middleman earns money from storage, either in trading profits (from exploiting the timing option inherent in storage) or in storage fees. If farmers can store on-farm, they don’t have to sell right after harvest, and they can exploit the timing options, and don’t have to pay for storage.  Either way, the increased on-farm storage capacity reduces the demand for, and utilization of, merchant-owned storage. This would adversely impact traders’ margins.

The article also mentions “rivals add[ing] to their crop-handling networks.” This would suggest that competitive entry/expansion by other firms (who?) is contributing to the compressed margins.  This would in turn suggest that ABCD margins in earlier years were abnormally high (which attracts entry), or that the costs of these unnamed “rivals” have gone down, allowing them to add capacity profitably even though margins are thinner.

Or maybe it’s that the margins are still healthy where the capacity expansions are taking place. Along those lines, I suspect that there is a geographic component to this. ADM in particular has its biggest asset footprint in North America. Bunge has a big footprint here too, although it also considerable assets in Brazil.  The growth of South America (relative to North America) as a major soybean and corn exporting region, and Russia as a major wheat exporting region, reduce the derived demand for North American handling capacity (although logistical constraints on Russian exports means that Russian export increases won’t match its production increases, and there are bottlenecks in South America too).

This would suggest that the circumstances of the well-known traders that have more of a North American (or western European) asset base are not representative of the profitability of grain trading overall. If that’s the case, consolidation-induced capacity “rationalization” (and that’s a major reason to merge in a stagnant industry) would occur disproportionately in the US, Canada, and western Europe.  This would also suggest that owners of storage and handling facilities in South America and Russia are doing quite well at the same time that owners of such assets in traditional exporting regions are not doing well.

So I am not satisfied with the conventional explanations for the big ag traders’ malaise during a time of plenty. I conjecture that the traditional players have been most impacted by changes in the spatial pattern of production that has reduced the derived demand to use their assets, which are more heavily concentrated in legacy production regions facing increased competition from increased output in newer regions.

Ironically, I’m too capacity constrained to do more than conjecture. But it’s a natural for my Université de Genève students looking for a thesis topic or course paper topic. Hint, hint. Nudge, nudge.



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January 17, 2018

No Yodeling Required!: Swiss Sanity on Citizenship

Filed under: Economics,Politics — The Professor @ 7:39 pm

Not long after finishing my immigration post, I came across this article that cracked me up:

Dutch vegan who applied for a Swiss passport has had her application rejected because the locals found her too annoying

Nancy Holten, 42, moved to Switzerland from the Netherlands when she was eight years old and now has children who are Swiss nationals.

However, when she tried to get a Swiss passport for herself, residents of Gipf-Oberfrick in the canton of Aargau rejected her application.

I guess they can’t kick her out, but they can deprive her of citizenship.  (And “Oberfrick”–heh.)

This is an amusing illustration of a broader Swiss principle: who gets to be Swiss depends on their contribution to Switzerland, and their ability to integrate with those already there.  A more serious illustration comes from a recent change in Swiss citizenship law:

On 20 June 2016, the Swiss Parliament voted on the new Swiss Citizenship Act, which will come into force together with the relevant Ordinance on 1 January 2018. The main aim of the new law is to limit the issuance of Swiss citizenship to well-integrated foreign nationals only. Furthermore, the Citizenship Act also aims to harmonise the residence requirements and implement into a law the authorities’ practice. [Emphasis added.]

. . . .

Under current law, the basic requirements to obtain Swiss citizenship can be summarised as follows: a. The applicant must have resided a minimum of 12 years in Switzerland (of which at least three years within the five years prior to the application) and a certain amount of time (usually between two to five years) in a specific canton and in a specific commune prior to being able to apply. Shorter periods apply to certain categories of applicants aged between 10 and 20 years for whom the years spent in Switzerland between their 10th and 20th birthdays count double in the calculation of the 12- year period required at the federal level. b. The applicant must prove that he/she is well integrated in Switzerland. As per the current practice of the Swiss authorities, the following requirements usually need to be fulfilled: the applicant must have a clean criminal record, prove that he/she fulfils all financial obligations, in particular with respect to tax payment, has a good reputation, has a good knowledge of a Swiss national language (i.e. French, German or Italian), has a basic knowledge of Swiss geography and history, and knows how the Swiss political system functions. c. Additional requirements may need to be met according to the respective cantonal and/or communal laws.

. . . .

Only applicants holding a C-type permit (permanent residence permit) may apply for Swiss citizenship (currently, holders of B-type residence permits may also apply). The applicant must have resided a total of 10 years in Switzerland (not 12 years as today). The ordinance to the SCA now details the concept of ‘good integration’. According to the ordinance, an applicant is deemed as being well integrated if he/she:

• has good oral and written language skills in one of the national languages;

• respects the public order and security;

• respects the Swiss federal constitution;

• participates in the economic life or undergoes education, i.e. the applicant is employed or attends a school/university;

• ensures that his/her family members are integrated;

• is not a threat to the internal and external security of Switzerland;

• is familiar with Swiss living conditions.

Applicants with a criminal record or who are dependent on Swiss social welfare will most likely be rejected.

Indeed, regarding the last point, the new law precludes citizenship for those who have been on public assistance in any time in the past three years.

Fortunately, it appears that yodeling is not a requirement!

Note that none of these criteria are based on nation of origin.  There will no doubt be a relationship between the likelihood of meeting these criteria, and whether one emigrates from a s***hole, but the law does not discriminate or create quotas on the basis of national origin (which is likely by itself to be a very crude proxy for ability to contribute, and which is part of US law primarily as the result of ethnic politics).

Certain aspects of the Swiss naturalization system are not practical for the US.  In particular, the role of cantonal and communal authorities in authorizing citizenship (as the Annoying Dutch Vegan found out to her chagrin) is a non-starter here.  This conflicts with the US Constitution, and is at odds with the much greater mobility of Americans vs. Swiss.  But the principle of conditioning citizenship on integration, fluency in a national language, non-dependence on public assistance, lack of a criminal record, etc., is certainly possible in the US, and makes sense.  It is certainly a more rational and sober policy than one that revolves around nauseating pap about “dreamers” and the like: whenever a debate centers on agitprop and euphemisms you know it is fundamentally dishonest and manipulative.

You can’t paint the Swiss as mouth-breathing populist, nationalist wackos: if anything, they are a little too control-freakish for me (and most Americans, I’d wager).  Indeed, the Swiss have been very successful at balancing a deep integration in the world economy and international institutions with a pride in their own national traditions and mores, and a desire to preserve them.  They have avoided many of the problems that somewhat similar nations (notably Sweden and the Netherlands) have experienced with their immigration policies. (There’s nothing like Malmo or Gothenburg or Rotterdam in Switzerland.)  The Swiss have struck a reasonable balance between openness to foreigners and national pride, and are not consumed by the neurotic complexes and self-loathing that have paralyzed many Swedes, Dutch, Germans, etc. (and the governments of these nations).

Switzerland therefore represents a plausible example/role model for a reasoned immigration debate in the US. Yet it is almost never mentioned here.

And it’s not just immigration.  The Swiss health care system has much to recommend it–far more than the dysfunctional system that prevails in the US.  The Swiss model would be a great starting place for a transformation of US healthcare.  I’d prefer an even more market-based system, but politics is the art of the practical, and I realize that my ideal is not gonna happen. But the Swiss model meets many of the goals of the left in a much more efficient way than our current system, and certainly dominates monstrosities like the UK or Canadian systems.

It would be impossible–and indeed, highly objectionable–to try to make the US like Switzerland. For myriad reasons. But there are some things we can take from Switzerland, or should at least consider seriously. Not that I’m holding my breath.

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January 15, 2018


Filed under: Economics,Politics,Uncategorized — The Professor @ 8:30 pm

A few comments on ShitholeGate.

First, I dunno if Trump said it. It sounds in character, but the sources for it (being anonymous and/or Dick Durbin) are hardly unimpeachable.

Second, there must be a shortage of fainting couches, smelling salts, and pearls for clutching in DC and media land, given the collective swooning and shock at the thought that a president used a four letter word.

Uhm, LBJ anybody? Nixon?

Third, there are logically coherent and logically incoherent objections to what Trump allegedly said about questioning the wisdom of admitting more people from shitholes than non-shitholes (e.g., Norway–though at one time, my ancestors apparently disagreed!)

The logically coherent objection is: “Yes, these are horrible, abjectly miserable places, which is why we should take in people from them, on humanitarian grounds.”

The logically incoherent objection is: “How dare you call them shitholes! They are wonderful places full of wonderful people! But we are rescuing people from lives of misery by taking in the poor and huddled masses from these places.” If they’re so great, why the intense desire to leave?

Suffice it to say, the logically incoherent objection has been the dominant narrative on the left.

The logically coherent objection creates its own issues: logical coherence is necessary for it to be a reasonable policy position, but by no means sufficient.

One of the issues is: what is the limiting principle? Or is there none?: do you favor no restrictions on immigration whatsoever? If that’s your position–be open about your support for open borders. Don’t try to have it all ways.

If you do favor restrictions, what criteria will you apply for determining who can immigrate to the US? What are the benefits? The costs? What is the incidence of those costs and benefits? Again, be open about it–speaking in gauzy generalities is dishonest, and makes it impossible to evaluate your position.

A related issue is that those who object to, or even have reservations about, open borders or even relatively liberal immigration policy are routinely excoriated as racists and bigots. Yes, some are. But many are not, even though they have a strong preference for traditional American culture which is deeply rooted in European cultures and ethnicity. Do you believe that is a legitimate preference?  If not, do you advocate the rejection of democratic means to decide immigration matters because those with illegitimate views might prevail? Further, African Americans are to a large extent more opposed to immigration than white Americans. Is that due to racism? Or is it a telling indication that the views on immigration also (and arguably primarily) fall along economic/class lines?

This touches upon another element of incoherence in the immigration debate: assimilation. Many (and arguably most, now) advocates of liberal immigration policies are hostile to the notion of assimilation, again imputing racist motives and cultural bigotry to those who believe that current immigrants should assimilate the way that their grandparents and great-grandparents and generations before them did. But hostility to assimilation and hostility to those who favor assimilation means that it’s OK for some (immigrants) to prefer their own culture, ethnicity or race, but it’s not OK for others (the native born) to do so.

This is another variation on the incoherence of identity politics. The most ardent advocates of identity politics scorn intensely those who feel that their identity is threatened by mass immigration, especially mass immigration without assimilation. In the identity politics animal farm, all identities are equal, but some are more equal than others.

Along these lines, it is pretty apparent that the political elites who are most ardent in support of very liberal immigration policies are those who are least likely to be disclocated by large flows of immigrants, and may indeed benefit from it. Those they scorn–many of whom voted for Trump–are the ones most likely to be adversely impacted, either economically or socially/culturally.  Ironic coming from people who are also likely to claim that they favor redistribution in order to reduce economic inequality.

Personally, I confess to some ambivalence on these matters. The libertarian in me favors free movement of people. At the same time, I recognize the Friedman/Richard Epstein point that the welfare state means that immigration is not the result of mutually beneficial bargains entered into without coercion: immigration attracted by the potential to obtain benefits funded by coercive taxation is problematic indeed. (Friedman and Epstein object to the welfare state in large part because it makes unrestricted immigration infeasible.) Furthermore, I understand the importance of social trust and communication and coordination due to shared assumptions and beliefs, and how those can be facilitated by some homogeneity in ideals and culture and background. Relatedly, a democratic polity operating on a principle of consent has to give preference to current citizens.

Immigration has always been a fraught issue in the US, although the intensity of views about it has waxed and waned over time. Our handling of the issue has never been perfect, but I think that (a) the US historically did a better job of it than any country in history (certainly modern history), and (b) we handled immigration best prior to the rise of the welfare state, and when assimilation was a widely shared ideal. Those conditions do not prevail now, which makes me much more cautious, and indeed skeptical, about relatively untrammeled immigration. As a result, I think it’s fair to ask: how many should we accept from where?, and shouldn’t we be more skeptical about mass immigration from countries that are vastly different economically, culturally, and socially?

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January 2, 2018

Buyer Beware: Bart Does Crypto

Filed under: Commodities,Derivatives,Economics,Energy,Regulation — The Professor @ 8:08 pm

Back in the day, Bart Chilton was my #2 whipping boy at the CFTC (after Gary Gensler AKA GiGi). Bart took umbrage (via email) at some of my posts, notably this one. Snort.

Bart was the comedian in that dynamic duo. He coined (alert: pun foreshadowing!) such memorable phrases as “cheetah” to criticize high frequency traders (cheetah-fast cheater–get it? Har!) and “massive passives” to snark at index funds and ETFs. Apparently Goldilocks could never find a trading entity whose speed was just right: they were either too fast or too slow. He blamed cheetahs for causing the Flash Crash, among other sins, and knocked the massive passives for speculating excessively and distorting prices.

But then Bart left the CFTC, and proceeded to sell out. He took a job flacking for HFT firms. And now he is lending his name (I won’t say reputation) to an endeavor to create a new massive passive. This gives new meaning to the phrase sell out.

Bart’s massive passive initiative hitches a ride on the crypto craze, which makes it all the more dubious. It is called “OilCoin.” This endeavor will issue said coins, and invest the proceeds in “reserve barrels” of oil. Indeed, the more you examine it, the more dubious it looks.

In some ways this is very much like an ETF. Although OilCoin’s backers say it will be “regulatory compliant,” but even though it resembles an ETF in many ways, it will not have to meet (nor will it meet, based on my reading of its materials) listing requirements for ETFs. Furthermore, one of the main selling points emphasized by the backers is its alleged tax advantages over standard ETFs. So despite the other argle bargle in the OilCon–excuse me, OilCoin–White Paper, it’s primarily a regulatory and tax arb.

Not that there’s necessarily anything wrong with that, just that it’s a bit rich that the former stalwart advocate of harsher regulation of passive commodity investment vehicles is part of the “team” launching this effort.

I should also note some differences that make it worse than a standard ETF, and worse than other pooled investment vehicles like closed end funds. Most notably, ETFs have an issue and redemption mechanism that ensures that the ETF market price tracks the value of the assets it holds. If an ETF’s price exceeds the value of the assets the ETF holds, an “Authorized Participant” can buy a basket of assets that mirrors what the ETF holds, deliver them to the ETF, and receive ETF shares in return. If an ETF’s price is below the market value of the assets, the AP can buy the ETF shares on the market, tender them to the ETF, and receive an equivalent share of the assets that the ETF holds. This mechanism ties the ETF market price to the market prices of its assets.

The OilCoin will not have any such tight tie to the assets its operators invest in. Insofar as investment policy is concerned:

In addition to investing in oil futures, the assets supporting OilCoin will also be invested in physical oil and interests in oil producing properties in various jurisdictions in order to hold a diversified pool of assets and avoid the risk of holding a single, concentrated position in exchange traded futures contracts. As a result, OilCoin’s investment returns will approximate but not precisely track the price movement of a spot barrel of crude oil.

I note the potential illiquidity in “physical oil” and in particular “interests in oil producing properties.” It will almost certainly be very difficult to value this portfolio. And although the White Paper suggests a one barrel of oil to one OilCoin ratio, it is not at all clear how “interests in oil producing properties” will figure into that calculation. A barrel of oil in the ground is a totally different thing, with a totally different value, than a barrel of oil in storage above ground, or an oil futures contract that is a claim on oil in store. This actually has more of a private equity feel than an ETF feel to it. Moreover, even above ground barrels can differ dramatically in price based on quality and location.

Given the illiquidity and heterogeneity of the “oil” that backs OilCoin, it is not surprising that the mechanism to keep the price of the OilCoin in line with “the” price of “oil” is rather, er, elastic, especially in comparison to a standard ETF: the motto of OilCoin should be “Trust Us!” (Pretty funny for crypto, no?) (Hopefully it won’t end up like this, but methinks it might.)

Here’s what the White Paper says about the mechanism (which is a generous way of characterizing it):

OilCoin’s investment returns will approximate but not precisely track the price movement of a spot barrel of crude oil.

. . . .

In order to ensure measurable intrinsic value and price stability, each OilCoin will maintain an approximate one-to-one ratio with a single reserve barrel of oil. [Note that a “reserve barrel of oil” is not a barrel of any particular type of oil at any particular location.] This equilibrium will be achieved through management of the oil reserves and the number of OilCoin in circulation.

As demand for OilCoin causes the price of a single OilCoin to rise above the spot price of a barrel of oil on global markets [what barrel? WTI? Brent? Mayan? Whatever they feel like on a particular day?], additional OilCoin may be issued in private or open market transactions and the proceeds will be invested in additional oil reserves. Similarly, if the price of an OilCoin falls below the price of a barrel of oil, oil reserves may be liquidated with the proceeds used to purchase OilCoin privately or in the open market. This method of issuing or repurchasing OilCoin and the corresponding investment in or liquidation of oil reserves will provide stability to the market price of OilCoin relative to the spot price of a barrel of crude oil and will provide verifiable assurances that the value of oil reserves will approximate the aggregate value of all issued OilCoin.

OilCoin’s price stability program will be managed by the OilCoin management team with a view to supporting the liquidity and functional operation of the OilCoin marketplace and to maintaining an approximate but not precise correlation between the price of a single OilCoin and the spot price of a single barrel of oil [What type of barrel? Where? For delivery when?]. While maintaining price stability of digital currencies through algorithmic purchase and sale may be appropriate in certain circumstances, and while it is possible as a technical matter to link such an algorithm to a programmed purchase and sale of oil assets, such an approach would be likely to result in (i) the decoupling of the number of OilCoin in circulation from an approximately equivalent number of reserve barrels of oil, and (ii) a highly volatile stock of oil reserve assets adding unnecessary and avoidable transaction costs which would reduce the value of OilCoin’s supporting oil reserve assets. Accordingly, it is expected that purchases and sales of OilCoin and oil reserves to support price stability will be made on a periodic basis [Monthly? Annually? When the spirit moves them?] as the price of OilCoin and the price of a single barrel of oil [Again. What type of barrel? Where? For delivery when?] diverge by more than a specified margin [Specified where? Surely not in this White Paper.]

[Emphasis added.]

Note the huge discretion granted the managers. (“May be issued.” “May be liquidated.” Whenever they fell like it, apparently, as long as there is a vague connection between their actions and “the spot price of crude oil “–and remember there is no such thing as “the” spot price) A much less precise mechanism than in the standard ETF. Also note the shell game aspect here. This refers to “the” price of “a barrel of oil,” but then talks about “diversified holdings” of oil. The document goes back and forth between referring about “reserve barrels” and “barrels of oil on the global market.”

Note further that there is no third party mechanism akin to an Authorized Party that can arb the underlying assets against the OilCoin to make sure that it tracks the price of any particular barrel of oil, or even a portfolio of oil holdings. This means that OilCoin is really more like a closed end fund, but one  that is not subject to the same kind of regulation as closed end funds, and which can apparently invest in things other than securities (e.g., interests in oil producing properties), some of which may be quite illiquid and hard to value and trade. One other crucial difference from a closed end fund is that OilCoin states it may issue new coins, whereas closed end funds typically cannot have secondary offerings of common shares.

Closed end funds can trade at substantial premiums and discounts to the underlying NAV, and I would wager that OilCoin will as well. Relating to the secondary issue point, unlike a closed end fund, OilCoin can issue new coins if they are at a premium–or if the managers feel like it. Again, the amount of discretion possessed by OilCoin’s managers is substantially greater than for a closed end fund or ETF (or an open ended fund for that matter). (There is also no indication that the managers will be precluded from investing the funds in their own “oil producing interests.” That potential for self-dealing is very concerning.)

There is also no indication in the White Paper as to just what an OilCoin gives a claim on, or who has the control rights over the assets, and how these control rights can be obtained. My reading of the White Paper does not find any disclosure, implicit or explicit, that OilCoin owners have any claim on the assets, or that someone could buy 50 percent plus one of the OilCoins, boot the existing management, and get control of the operation of the investments, or any mechanism that would allow acquisition of a controlling interest, and liquidation of the thing’s assets. (I say “thing” because what legal form it takes is not stated in the White Paper.)  These are other differences from a closed end fund or ETF–and mean that OilCoin is not subject to the typical mechanisms that protect investors from the depredations of promoters and managers.

A lot of crypto is all about separating fools from their money. OilCoin certainly has that potential. What is even more insidious about it is that the backers state that it is a different kind of crypto currency because it is backed by something: in the words of the White Paper, OilCoin is “supported” by the “substantial intrinsic value of assets” it holds. The only problem is that there is no indication whatsoever that the holder of the cryptocurrency can actually get their hands on what backs it. The “support” is more chimerical than real.

So my basic take away from this is that OilCoin is a venture that allows the managers to use the issue of cryptocurrency to fund totally unconstrained speculations in oil subject to virtually none of the investor protections extended to the purchasers of securities in corporations, investors of closed end funds, or buyers of ETFs. All sickeningly ironic given the very public participation of a guy who inveighed against speculation in oil and the need for strict regulation of those investing other people’s money.

My suggestion is that if you are really hot for an ICO backed by a blonde, buy whatever Paris Hilton is touting these days, and avoid BartCoin like the plague.




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December 27, 2017

Vova the Squeegee Man

Filed under: Economics,Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 4:21 pm

My old buddy Vova is making a rather forced and pathetic attempt to persuade rich Russians to repatriate the money they have invested (squirreled away) overseas:

President Vladimir Putin is using the threat of additional U.S. sanctions to encourage wealthy Russians to repatriate some of their overseas assets, which exceed $1 trillion by one estimate.

I call the attempt forced and pathetic precisely because Putin feels obliged to try to persuade, rather than dictate. And because he is offering inducements:

Putin said on Monday that Russia should scrap the 13 percent profit tax on funds repatriated from abroad and renew an amnesty from penalties for businesses returning capital.

And because he’s raising the bogeyman of western sanctions (from the Bloomberg piece):

“We and our entrepreneurs have repeatedly faced unjustified and illegal asset freezes under the guise of sanctions,” Peskov said on a conference call Tuesday. “The president’s initiative aims to create comfortable conditions for businesses if they want to use this opportunity to repatriate their capital.”

Heretofore, sanctions have limited the ability of the affected entities to tap western financing: they have not involved expropriation or the kind of piratical corporate and government behavior that has been seen in Russia. Investments abroad remain abroad despite the more hostile environment to Russian money in the west because it is still safer than it would be in Russia. That’s why Vova has to beg and bribe to try to get Russians to repatriate. And previous efforts have hardly been successful:

Russia rolled out a similar amnesty program during the worst of the conflict in Ukraine, which coincided with a plunge in oil prices that triggered the country’s longest recession of the Putin era. That 18-month initiative, the results of which haven’t been disclosed, “didn’t work as well as we’d hoped,” Finance Minister Anton Siluanov said. Unlike that plan, this one waives Russia’s 13 percent tax on personal income, according to Dmitry Peskov, Putin’s spokesman.

Note that the mere threat of western sanctions has not been enough: hence the tax waiver.

Insofar as piratical corporate behavior is concerned, I give you Igor Sechin, ladies and gentlemen. What do you think is more intimidating, Sechin plotting–and the system cooperating–to jail a troublesome minister for eight years, or what the US and Europe have done to sanctioned entities? Or his serial extortions of Sistema, which recently agreed to an “amicable” settlement with Rosneft/Sechin? Said “amicable” settlement involved the former paying the latter $1.7 billion dollars to settle a suit . . . over what is rather hard to say. I still don’t get the legal theory under which Rosneft even thought it was entitled payment for Sistema’s alleged past wrongs. Given that this occurred mere days after Putin called for an amicable settlement, it is pretty clear that he was taking Sechin’s side and telling Sistema to cave–and do so with a smile.

This is why Russian money will stay out of Russia, Putin’s pleas notwithstanding.

Another story gives you a partial explanation for Putin’s neediness: “Russia’s Reserve Fund to be fully depleted in 2017.” The rainy day fund is empty, and the outlook remains cloudy.

Thus, for all the hyperventilating about Putin the Colossus, the objective basis for his power is shaky indeed. He can be a pest and troublemaker, but he lacks the economic heft to be much more. Yet for selfish political reasons, Democrats, NeverTrump Republicans, and the media inflate his importance daily. Enough. Putin is rattling his tin cup, hoping that some rich Russians will drop some rubles into it. Maybe if the tax inducement isn’t enough, he can squeegee their windshields.

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December 26, 2017

Agency Costs: Washington’s Augean Stables

Filed under: Economics,Politics,Regulation — The Professor @ 6:09 pm

In news that definitely added to my holiday cheer, a gloomy New York Times moaned that “[m]ore than 700 people have left the Environmental Protection Agency since President Trump took office, a wave of departures that puts the administration nearly a quarter of the way toward its goal of shrinking the agency to levels last seen during the Reagan administration.”

Given that the EPA is one of the most malign agencies in DC, every subtraction is an addition to America’s wealth–and no, this will not detract markedly, if at all from environmental quality. Or at least, any loss in environmental quality would not have been worth the cost necessary to achieve it.

The most signal achievement of Trump’s first almost year has been on the regulatory front. (The recent tax law arguably pips that.) The metastasizing regulatory/administrative state under both the Bush and Obama administrations is a detriment to prosperity, and in particular to the dynamism of the American economy. It is the engine of European-like sclerosis, and it badly needs to be brought under control.

Trump has begun–and only that–the task of cleaning this Augean Stables on the Potomac. The bureaucrats are none to happy, and are fighting back, mainly through classic bureaucratic guerrilla warfare. Unfortunately, they have advantages in this form of combat, and any progress will be achieved slowly, and only through unceasing effort. Those appointed to lead the agencies are often at a disadvantage in taming those who work for them even when they have a will to do so, and what’s more, all of the mechanisms of capture are at work here, meaning that agency political appointees are constantly at risk of going native.

The administrative state is a threat to prosperity and liberty, and a Constitutional anomaly, not to say monstrosity. Administrative agencies combine executive, legislative, and judicial functions, thereby threatening the separation of powers and associated checks and balances which are intended to prevent any single branch of government overawing the others. Indeed, in many respects the administrative state has become an independent branch of government, though not one formally established by the Constitution.

Moreover, it is not subject to the normal mechanisms of accountability. Yes, it is formally subject to Congressional oversight and some presidential control, and hence indirectly subject to the electorate, but due in large part to the scope and intricacy of the regulators’ responsibilities, there is a huge principal-agent problem: agency costs (as economists use the term) are a major issue with federal agencies. It is very difficult for Congress or the White House to control regulators. Further, information asymmetries make it inefficient to utilize high-powered incentives to get regulators to implement the wishes of those who formally control them. Civil service protections insulate bureaucrats from personal accountability for all but the most egregious misconduct (and sometimes not even then).

There is also a strong bias towards expanding agencies’ power. Several factors work in this direction, and few in the opposite way. Empire building is one such factor–regulators have a strong preference to expand their power. Congressional committees that oversee agencies also gain political power when the influence of their charges expand. (This shares some similarities with a mafia protection racket.) Government agencies attract people who are ideologically predisposed to expansive exercise of government power.

These asymmetries lead to a ratchet effect. Statist administrations–notably Obama’s, but to a considerable degree Bush’s as well–find allies in the administrative state who eagerly push their agenda. (Look at the CFTC in the Gensler years.) Less statist ones–like Trump’s–face a wearying battle of attrition to undo what had been put in place by previous administrations (and Congresses).

Legal precedents only make things more difficult. The Chevron doctrine (derived from a 33 year old Supreme Court decision) requires federal courts to defer to the judgments (I would not say expertise) of regulatory agencies in matters of statutory ambiguity and interpretation. This exacerbates greatly the agency problems, because since Congressional “contracts” (i.e., laws) are inherently incomplete (they do not specify regulatory actions in every state of the world), such ambiguities and necessities of interpretation are inevitably legion. And under Chevron, the federal courts can do little to rein in an agency. (Justice Gorsuch has criticized Chevron, and hopefully soon there will be an opportunity to reverse it or narrow it substantially.)

The administrative state is a progressive–and Progressive–creation. It reflects deep suspicion and skepticism about private ordering, and a belief in the superior knowledge and moral superiority of an expert class who should be protected from popular whims and passions, as expressed through election results, because those whims and passions are not the reflection of wisdom, knowledge, or dispassionate analysis. (If you want a sick laugh, look at Tom Nichols’ bleatings about expertise at @radiofreetom on Twitter.)  In the progressive worldview, the lack of democratic accountability is a feature, not a bug. Leave these people alone. They know better–and are better–that you!

The strongest case for some insulation of administrative agencies from more intrusive control by the Constitutionally-recognized branches of government is that this facilitates credible commitments: market participants, and citizens generally, know there will be some stability in rules and regulations, and can plan accordingly. But given the tendency to expand the scope of regulations, this translates into stability of overregulation.

There’s also something, well, Russian about a highly bureaucratic state, largely run by an unelected nomenklatura. Read Tocqueville’s descriptions of 19th century Russia and the 19th century US, and you’ll see that the administrative state leans far more towards the former than the latter.  I would also note that the bureaucracy is one of Putin’s strongest political pillars.

So the news that a few bureaucrats at the EPA are so disenchanted by Trump that they’ve up and quit is encouraging, but it’s at most a small victory in a big war. I have been encouraged by few other wins (e.g., on net neutrality), but the most I hope for is an elimination of some of the most egregious excesses of the Obama (and to a lesser degree Bush) years. The overall trend is towards a more powerful, insular, and unaccountable administrative state, much to the detriment of America’s freedom, dynamism, and prosperity.


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December 21, 2017

Not Exactly What I Asked Santa For, But I’ll Take It

Filed under: Derivatives,Economics,Politics — The Professor @ 10:13 pm

Miracle of miracles, Congress has passed, and Trump will sign (perhaps after the New Year) a tax bill. It’s hardly perfect, but it’s an improvement on the existing system, and is about the best we could expect to get in the current political climate.

What do we want from a tax system, and how does this bill get us closer to that? One goal of the tax system–and the one that I prioritize–is to minimize the deadweight cost of raising the necessary revenue. All real world taxes involve distortions–deadweight losses–because they warp incentives at the margin. For instance, a tax on labor income drives a wedge between the marginal benefit of working an hour (the after tax wage) and the marginal cost (the value of lost leisure). This induces people to work too little and to consume too much leisure (or equivalently, consume too much leisure and too little goods and services) because they don’t capture the full benefit of their labor. Really inefficient tax systems are rife with such distortions. The US tax code provides numerous examples.

Taxes on capital or the returns to capital–taxes on dividends, corporate profits, and capital gains–are highly distorting. Steven Landsberg explains this as intuitively as anyone. The basic idea is that capital taxes are a form of double taxation that distort incentives to save and invest vs. consume. As Landsberg puts it, it is a surtax. With capital taxation, we have an incentive to consume too much and save and invest too little.

For about 30 years, economists have understood that in certain circumstances, the optimal rate of tax on returns to capital is zero. That is, a consumption tax is optimal.

There are caveats to this conclusion. Information-driven considerations can lead to a positive capital tax rate. For example, if people can disguise labor income as capital income to escape the income tax on labor earnings, a positive capital tax can be efficient in conjunction with a personal income tax. Disguising consumption as investment (is a new personal computer an investment or consumption?) can lead to a similar result. Distributive considerations (which inherently involve value judgments, I should note, whereas efficiency considerations do not) can also make it desirable to tax capital.

But even given these caveats, it is almost certainly the case that an efficient tax system imposes relatively low taxes on capital.

This efficiency effect is also related to another (possible) goal of the taxation system–to affect the distribution of income/wealth/consumption. For the impact of the tax on capital returns on investment affects who actually bears the burden of the tax.

This is an example of one of the issues that non-economists have a devil of a time understanding: tax incidence. Who bears the burden of a tax is not necessarily the party on whom the tax is levied. Taxes on labor aren’t necessarily paid by workers. Sales taxes assessed on firms aren’t necessarily paid by those firms. Who bears the tax burden depends on elasticities of supply and demand for the thing that is taxed.

Capital tax incidence is particularly unintuitive because there is a dynamic element to it. But the basic point is that even though a capital tax is formally levied on the owners of capital (or the return streams), over a long enough horizon the burden falls almost entirely on labor.

This is due to the impact of the capital tax on investment mentioned above. Tax capital, you get less investment. With less investment, there is less capital. With less capital, labor is less productive. Lower productivity translates into lower wages. Meaning that even though no supplier of labor writes a check to Uncle Sam to pay for the tax on capital, s/he pays it nonetheless, in the form of lower real wages.

The impact tends to increase over time, because the capital stock does not adjust immediately in response to a capital tax that depresses after-tax returns. But in standard models, the long run equilibrium after-tax return on capital is a constant (determined by the marginal utility of consumption, time preferences, and the long run growth rate of the economy). So if you raise capital taxes, a constant after-tax return requires a rise in the pre-tax return, which requires a fall in the capital stock. That’s what causes wages to fall. And the quicker the capital stock can adjust, the more rapidly the capital tax rise reduce wages.

And of course this works in the opposite direction if you cut capital taxes: the after tax return to capital initially rises, spurring investment, which raises productivity and hence wages.

Indeed, under some fairly standard assumptions, the a cut in capital taxes cause wages to rise more than the lost revenue in capital taxes. Meaning that in the long run, labor pays more than 100 percent of a tax formally levied on capital.

Again, these effects are not immediate, but if you see a surge of investment in the next couple of years, you can surmise that wages will surge too over that time frame.

This result can be expressed in elasticity terms. The supply of capital is perfectly elastic in the long run. Perfectly elastically supplied inputs do not bear any burden of a tax, even if that tax is formally levied on those inputs: instead, the burden is paid by the suppliers of other inputs (e.g., labor) or consumers (in the form of higher prices).

And even to the extent that owners of capital benefit in the short term, they are people too. And yes, many of them are wealthy, but many are workers who are also capitalists due to their participation in pension plans or 401Ks.

The focus of the recently passed tax bill is the reduction of capital taxes, most notably through reductions in the corporate tax rate to 21 percent (from 35 percent–very high by world standards), and through the immediate expensing of some investment expenditures.  This is the main reason the tax bill is a big improvement. Yes, I would prefer a Full Monty consumption tax, but this reduction in capital taxation is a movement towards a more efficient tax system, and one that will increase wages over time more rapidly than under the existing rates.

An efficient tax system should also focus on broadening the tax base and reducing marginal rates, because it is marginal rates that distort decisions to work and save. The current bill does a little on this dimension.

Tax preferences for certain kinds of consumption or investment are also usually a bad idea. The mortgage interest deduction is a classic example of this: the non-taxation of employee health insurance premiums paid by employers is another. The former encourages excessive consumption of/investment in housing. The latter favors employer-provided health coverage, which distorts labor markets (e.g., through job lock).  It also induces overconsumption of health care as compared to other goods and services.

The tax bill trims–but does not eliminate–the favored tax treatment of mortgage interest. So that’s good, but not great. It does nothing  on the health care premium issue, which is unfortunate.

The tax bill also limits corporate deductions of interest payments on debt. This is desirable, because it mitigates the incentive to finance with debt rather than equity. The bill should have gone further.

One largely hidden bad in the bill is the elimination of operating loss carry backs and limits on operating loss carry forwards. I understand the motivation here–it was done to offset revenue losses from other tax cuts. However, this will deter risk taking and lead to more hedging designed to reduce the variability of corporate income solely for the purpose of reducing taxes.

This effect is a little subtle, so I’ll try to explain. With no carry backs or carry forwards, them marginal tax rate when a company loses money is zero, and the marginal tax rate on positive corporate profits is the full corporate rate (now 21 percent). Thus, if a company has a positive probability of losing money, its marginal tax rate is non-decreasing with income, and increasing over some range. Due to Jensen’s inequality, this increasing marginal tax rate means that expected tax payments are increasing in the variance of corporate income.* Thus, increasing risk is costly because it transfers money (on average) to the government. Therefore, firms are more likely to pass up higher returning but riskier projects, and more likely to pay bankers to design hedging products to reduce corporate income volatility (which uses real resources, i.e., causes a deadweight loss), or to engage in diversifying mergers that reduce returns on average but also reduce the variability of corporate income.

In contrast, carry backs and carry forwards reduce the disparity between the marginal tax rate on gains and losses. This means that expected tax payments are less sensitive to the variance of corporate profits, which reduces distortions in risk taking and risk management decisions.

Another negative in the bill is the retention of tax subsidies for electric vehicles and renewables.

But even despite these negatives, all in all, I say two cheers–or maybe 1.5 cheers-for the tax bill. It’s not exactly what I asked Santa for, but it’s better than a sharp stick in the eye.

But from the wailing on the left, you’d think that’s exactly what happened to them. In both eyes, in fact.

The left’s reaction is hysterical, in both senses of the word. It is hysterical in the sense of:

a psychological disorder (not now regarded as a single definite condition) whose symptoms include conversion of psychological stress into physical symptoms (somatization), selective amnesia, shallow volatile emotions, and overdramatic or attention-seeking behavior.

Especially the “shallow volatile emotions, and overdramatic or attention-seeking behavior” parts. Several Democrats (notably Nancy Pelosi) referred to the tax bill as “Armageddon.” Talk about overdramatic hyperbole. A common shriek (especially on Twitter) is that the tax bill will KILL thousands (or is it millions?) of Americans. People on the left seem to be in a competition to show who can be the most OUTRAGED OVER THIS OUTRAGE.

A good deal of this idiocy reflects a basic misunderstanding of tax incidence (which I discussed above). The left confuses who writes the tax check (corporations) with who actually foots the bill (in the medium and long run, wage earners). Another good deal of this idiocy reflects the bill’s limitation on the deductibility of state and local taxes, which hits high tax states like New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, and California–which also happen to be solidly Democratic. So this is a matter of whose ox is gored.

This is rather amusing, because these same Democrats claim to favor making the rich pay more taxes. But not their rich people, who will be hit hardest by the limits on SALT deductibility. I guess income redistribution should be achieved by taxing all those rich rednecks in Mississippi more heavily.

The left’s reaction is hysterical in the other sense of the word, meaning “extremely funny.” The reaction is so overwrought, so over-the-top, so disproportionate, so emotional, and so lacking in intellectual seriousness that it makes me laugh.

And I guess that’s another reason to support it. If those people think it’s horrible, it must be pretty good, right?

In all seriousness, evaluating the bill using some basic economics rather than what you might learn in primal scream therapy, it’s not bad, especially considering the source–a dysfunctional ruling class in DC. It mitigates some of the worst inefficiencies in the existing tax code. It could go further, but the fact that it goes anywhere at all is rather amazing, and a welcome holiday present.

*For those who said “WTF?” when they read “Jensen’s inequality” perhaps an example will help. Consider a company that has two investment opportunities. One pays $100 for certain. The other pays -$100 with a 50 percent probability, and $310 with a 50 percent probability. The expected return on the risky project is actually higher ($105 vs. $100), so from an efficiency perspective, that’s what we’d like the company to choose.

But it won’t if the corporate tax rate is 35 percent on gains, but the firm receives no payment from the government if it loses money: this means that the marginal tax rate on gains is positive, but the marginal rate on losses is zero. With this tax system, the after-tax return of the certain project is $65. The after tax return of the risky project is .5x-$100+.5x.65x$310=50.75.

The difference here is that the expected tax payment is higher when income is riskier. The expected tax payment in the certainty case is $35. In the risky case, it is .5x.35x$310=$54.25.

Carry backs and carry forwards allow the company to use the losses to offset gains in other years. If the firm faced the same payoff structure year after year, it could always carry back or carry forward the -$100 losses from bad years to offset gains in the good years. Thus, tax payments in the good years would fall to .5x.35x$210=$36.75, and its average after tax return would be $105-$36.75=$68.25>$65. So the company would take the project with the higher return.

Of course, the distortion attributable to the elimination of carry backs and limitation on carry forwards is greater, the higher the corporate tax rate. Thus, the reduction in the statutory rate to 21 percent dampens the effect of the reduction in the carry backs/forwards. But since the corporate tax rate is still positive, risk taking and risk management decisions are still distorted.


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December 4, 2017

Bitcoin Futures: What? Me Worry?

Filed under: Clearing,Commodities,Derivatives,Economics,Energy,Exchanges,Regulation — The Professor @ 9:53 pm

The biggest news in derivatives world is the impending launch of Bitcoin futures, first by CBOE, then shortly thereafter by CME.

Especially given the virtually free entry into cryptocurrencies I find it virtually impossible to justify the stratospheric price, and how the price has rocketed over the past year. This is especially true given that if cryptocurrencies do indeed begin to erode in a serious way the demand for fiat currencies (and therefore cause inflation in fiat currency terms) central banks and governments will (a) find ways to restrict their use, and (b) introduce their own substitutes. The operational and governance aspects of some cryptocurrencies are also nightmarish, as is their real resource cost (at least for proof-of-work cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin). The slow transaction times and relatively high transaction fees of Bitcoin mean that it sucks as a medium of exchange, especially for retail-sized transactions. And its price volatility relative to fiat currencies–which also means that its price volatility denominated in goods and services is also huge–undermines its utility as a store of value: that utility is based on the ability to convert the putative store into a relatively stable bundle of goods.

So I can find all sorts of reasons for a bearish case, and no plausible one for a bullish case even at substantially lower prices.

If I’m right, BTC is ripe for shorting. Traditional means of shorting (borrowing and selling) are extremely costly, if they are possible at all. As has been demonstrated theoretically and empirically in the academic literature, costly shorting can allow an asset’s price to remain excessively high for an extended period. This could be one thing that supports Bitcoin’s current price.

Thus, the creation of futures contracts that will make it easier to short–and make the cost of shorting effectively the same as the cost of buying–should be bearish for Bitcoin. Which is why I said this in Bloomberg today:

“The futures reduce the frictions of going short more than they do of going long, so it’s probably net bearish,” said Craig Pirrong, a business professor at the University of Houston. “Having this instrument that makes it easier to short might keep the bitcoin price a little closer to reality.”

Perhaps as an indication of how untethered from reality Bitcoin has become, the CME’s announcement of Bitcoin futures actually caused the price to spike. LOL.

Yes, shorting will be risky. But buying is risky too. So although I don’t expect hedge funds or others to jump in with both feet, I would anticipate that the balance of smart money will be on the short side, and this will put downward pressure on the price.

Concerns have been expressed about the systemic risk posed by clearing BTC futures. Most notably, Thomas Petterfy sat by the campfire, put a flashlight under his chin, and spun this horror story:

“If the Chicago Mercantile Exchange or any other clearing organization clears a cryptocurrency together with other products, then a large cryptocurrency price move that destabilizes members that clear cryptocurrencies will destabilize the clearing organization itself and its ability to satisfy its fundamental obligation to pay the winners and collect from the losers on the other products in the same clearing pool.”

Petterfy has expressed worries about weaker FCMs in particular:

“The weaker clearing members charge the least. They don’t have much money to lose anyway. For this reason, most bitcoin interest will accumulate on the books of weaker clearing members who will all fail in a large move,”

He has recommended clearing crypto separately from other instruments.

These concerns are overblown. In terms of protecting CCPs and FCMs, a clearinghouse like CME (which operates its own clearinghouse) or the OCC (which will clear CBOE’s contract) can set initial margins commensurate with the risk: the greater volatility, the greater the margin. Given the huge volatility, it is likely that Bitcoin margins will be ~5 times as large as for, say, oil or S&Ps. Bitcoin can be margined in a way that poses the same of loss to the clearinghouses and FCMs as any other product.

Now, I tell campfire horror stories too, and one of my staples over the years is how the real systemic risk in clearing arises from financing large cash flows to make variation margin payments. Here the main issue is scale. At least at the outset, Bitcoin futures open interest is likely to be relatively small compared to more mature instruments, meaning that this source of systemic risk is likely to be small for some time–even big price moves are unlikely to cause big variation margin cash flows. If the market gets big enough, let’s talk.

As for putting Bitcoin in its own clearing ghetto, that is a bad idea especially given the lack of correlation/dependence between Bitcoin prices and the prices of other things that are cleared. Clearing diversified portfolios makes it possible to achieve a given risk of CPP default with a lower level of capital (e.g., default fund contributions, CCP skin-in-the-game).

Right now I’d worry more about big markets, especially those that are likely to exhibit strong dependence in a stress scenario. Consider what would happen to oil, stock, bond, and gold prices if war broke out between Iran and Saudi Arabia–not an implausible situation. They would all move a lot, and exhibit a strong dependency. Oil prices would spike, stock prices would tank, and Treasury prices would probably jump (at least in the short run) due to a flight to safety. That kind of scenario (or other plausible ones) scares me a helluva lot more than a spike or crash in Bitcoin futures does while the market is relatively modest in size.

Where I do believe there is a serious issue with these contracts is the design. CME and CBOE are going with cash settlement. Moreover, the CME contract will be based on prices from several exchanges, but notably exclude the supposedly most liquid one. The cash settlement mechanism is only as good as the liquidity of the underlying markets used to determine the settlement price. Bang-the-settlement type manipulations are a major concern, especially when the underlying markets are illiquid: relatively small volumes of purchases or sales could move the price around substantially. (There is some academic research by John Griffen that provides evidence that the settlement mechanism of the VIX contracts are subject to this kind of manipulation.)  The Bitcoin cash markets are immature, and hardly seem the epitome of robustness. Behemoth futures contracts could be standing on spindly cash market legs.

This also makes me wonder about the CFTC’s line of sight into the Bitcoin exchanges. Will they really be able to monitor these exchanges effectively? Will CME and CBOE be able to?

(I have thought that the CFTC’s willingness to approve the futures contracts could be attributable to its belief that the existence of these contracts would strengthen the CFTC’s ability to assert authority over Bitcoin cash exchanges.)

What will be the outcome of the competition between the two Chicago exchanges? As I’ve written before, liquidity is king. Further, liquidity is maximized if trading takes place on a single platform. This means that trading activity tends to tip to a single exchange (if the exchanges are not required to respect price priority across markets). Competition in these contracts is of the winner-take-all variety. And if I had to bet on a winner, it would be CME, but that’s not guaranteed.

Given the intense interest in Bitcoin, and cryptocurrencies generally, it was inevitable that an exchange or two or three would list futures on it. Yes, the contracts are risky, but risk is actually what makes something attractive for an exchange to trade, and exchanges (and the CCPs that clear for them) have a lot of experience managing default risks. The market is unlikely to be big enough (at least for some time) to pose systemic risk, and it’s likely that trading Bitcoin on established exchanges in a way that makes it easier to short could well tame its wildness to a considerable degree.

All meaning that I’m not at all fussed about the introduction of Bitcoin futures, and as an academic matter, will observe how the market evolves with considerable fascination.

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