Streetwise Professor

April 11, 2015

The Risks of Clearing Finally Dawn on Tarullo: Better Late Than Never, I Guess

Filed under: Clearing,Derivatives,Economics,Politics,Regulation — The Professor @ 10:11 pm

In October, 2011 I was in a group of academics invited to meet the Board of Governors of the Fed to discuss our research. The theme was network industries, and I was to make a presentation on the network aspects of clearing and its implications for systemic risk.

My most vivid memory of the meeting has little to do with my presentation. Instead, it relates to Ben Bernanke, who sat facing me, directly across the massive boardroom table. Bernanke obviously had a headache. He was rubbing his temples, and he asked a staffer to bring him a cold can of Diet Mountain Dew, which he held against his forehead while closing his eyes. Figuring that a Bernanke headache would portend bad financial news, I was sorely tempted to excuse myself to call my broker to sell the hell out of the S&P.

Sitting next to me was Governor Daniel Tarullo. Truth be told, I was not impressed by his questions, which seemed superficial, or his mien, which was rather brusque, not to say grouchy.

He was definitely not sympathetic to my warning about the potential systemic risks of clearing: he made some skeptical, and in fact dismissive, comments. It was quite evident that he was a believer in clearing mandates.

It appears that Tarullo is still struggling with the idea that CCPs are a risk, but at least he’s open to the possibility:

JPMorgan Chase & Co. and BlackRock Inc. have argued for years that a key response to the last financial crisis could help fuel the next one. [What? No mention of SWP? I was way ahead of them!] Global regulators are starting to heed their warnings.

At issue is the role of clearinghouses — platforms that regulators turned to following the 2008 meltdown to shed more light on the $700 trillion swaps market. A pivotal goal was ensuring that losses at one bank don’t imperil a wide swath of companies, and the broader economy.

Now, Federal Reserve Governor Daniel Tarullo is quizzing Wall Street after big lenders and asset managers said clearinghouses pose their own threats, said three people with knowledge of the discussions who weren’t authorized to speak publicly. Among the concerns raised by financial firms: Relying on clearinghouses shifts risk to just a handful of entities, and the collapse of one could lead to uncapped losses for banks.

. . . .

Tarullo, the Fed’s point man on financial regulation and oversight, has publicly conceded that it’s hard for banks to determine their own market risks if they can’t evaluate how badly they would be hit by the failure of a clearinghouse. It’s “worth considering” whether clearinghouses have enough funds to handle major defaults, he said in a Jan. 30 speech.

Tarullo’s speech is here. Although he is still obviously a clearing fan, at least he is starting to recognize some of the problems. In particular, he acknowledges that it necessary to consider the interaction between CCPs and the broader financial system. Though I must say that since he mentions multilateral netting as the primary reason why CCPs contribute to financial stability, and margins as the second, it’s painfully evident that he doesn’t grasp the fundamental nature of clearing. In the first instance, netting and collateral just redistribute losses, and it is not clear that this redistribution enhances stability. In the second instance, although he acknowledges the problems with margin pro cyclicality, he doesn’t explicitly recognize the strains that large margin flows put on liquidity supply, and the destabilizing effect of these strains.

So it’s a start, but there’s a long way to go.

Tarullo pays most attention to the implications of CCP failure, and to measures to reduce the likelihood of this failure. Yes, failure of a large CCP would be catastrophic, but as I’ve oft written, the measures designed to save them can be catastrophic too.

Tarullo would be well-advised to read this short piece by Michael Beaton, which summarizes many of the issues quite well. The last few paragraphs are worth quoting in full:

In general, I think what we need to take away from all of this is that systemic risk can be transferred – it’s arguable whether or not it can be reduced – but it certainly can’t be eliminated, and the clearing model that we are working towards is a hub and spoke which concentrates risk on a very, very small number of names.

A decentralised network is arguably stronger than a hub and spoke model, mainly because open systems are generally regarded as more robust than closed ones. The latter is what the clearing model operates on and you have that single, glaring point of failure, and there’s really no escape from that.

So, going back to the original questions – do I think the proposals are enough?  I think it goes a long way, but fundamentally I don’t think it will ever resolve the problem of ‘too big to fail’.  I’m just not convinced it’s a problem that is capable of resolution. [Emphasis added.]

Exactly. (The comparison of open vs. closed systems is particularly important.)

Since clearing mandates create their own systemic risks, the Fed, and other central banks, and other macroprudential regulators, must grasp the nettle and determine what central bank support will be extended to CCPs in a crisis. Greenspan extemporized a response in the Crash of ’87, and it worked. But the task will be orders of magnitude greater in the next crisis, given the massively increased scope of clearing. It’s good that Tarullo and the Fed are starting to address these issues, but the mandates are almost 5 years old and too little progress has been made. Faster, please.

 

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April 5, 2015

Not So Krafty?

Filed under: Commodities,Derivatives,Economics,Regulation — The Professor @ 10:23 am

The CFTC has filed a complaint against Kraft and Mondelez Global, accusing the companies of manipulating the December, 2011 CBT Wheat Futures Contract. A few comments, based on what is laid out in the complaint (and therefore not on a full evaluation of all relevant facts and data):

  1. A trader executes a market power manipulation (i.e., a corner or a squeeze) by taking excessive, and uneconomic, deliveries on a futures contract. This causes the calendar spread to increase, and the basis at locations where delivery does not (or cannot) occur to fall. The complaint alleges that Kraft took large deliveries. The relevant calendar spread (December-March) rose sharply, and according to Kraft emails cited in the complaint, the basis at Toledo declined. Thus, the facts in the CFTC complaint support a plausible allegation that Kraft and Mondelez executed a market power manipulation/corner/squeeze.
  2. A cornerer takes uneconomic deliveries. That is, the deliveries taken are not the cheapest source of the physical commodity for the cornerer. The complaint does not provide sufficient detail to determine with precision whether this was the case here (but discovery will!), but it does include circumstantial evidence. Specifically, Kraft took delivery on the Mississippi, whereas it needed physical wheat at its mill in Toledo. Further, Kraft did not use most of the wheat it bought via delivery. Instead, it sold it, which is consistent with “burying the corpse.” In addition, given cash bids in Toledo and the futures price at which the defendants took delivery, it is highly likely that it was cheaper for Kraft to buy wheat delivered to its mill in Toledo than it was to take delivery (at an opportunity cost equal to the futures price) and pay load out and freight costs to move the wheat from the Mississippi to Toledo. Again, though, the complaint doesn’t provide direct evidence of this.
  3. A cornerer liquidates a large fraction of its futures position: whereas it loses money on the deliveries it takes, it makes money by liquidating futures at a super competitive price. Kraft liquidated more than half its futures position. This provides further evidence that it did not establish its futures position as a means of securing the cheapest source of cash wheat, and is consistent with the execution of a corner/squeeze.
  4. A processor hedging anticipated cash purchases doesn’t buy calendar spreads. The complaint quotes an email stating that Kraft did.
  5. One clunker in the complaint is the allegation that Kraft’s actions “proximately caused cash wheat prices in Toledo to decline.” Market power manipulation when Toledo is not the cheapest to deliver location (as was evidently the case here, as deliveries did not occur in Toledo) would be expected to reduce the Toledo basis (i.e., the difference between the Toledo cash price and the December futures price), and there is some evidence in the complaint that this occurred. But this is different from causing the flat price of wheat to decline, which is what the CFTC alleges. Any coherent theory of market power manipulation implies that a corner or squeeze would increase, or at least not reduce, the cash price at locations where delivery does not occur, but that the rise in the cash price at these locations is smaller than the rise in the futures price (and in the cash price at the delivery location). This results in a compression of the basis, but a rise (or non-decline) in flat prices.
  6. In sum, the complaint presents a plausible case that Kraft-Mondelez executed a market power manipulation.
  7. But the CFTC doesn’t come out and allege a corner, squeeze, or market power manipulation: these words are totally absent. Instead, the agency relies on its shiny new anti-manipulation authority conferred by Frankendodd under section 6(c)(1) of the Commodity Exchange Act, and CFTC Rule 180.1 that it adopted to implement this authority. This is essentially a Xerox of the SEC’s Rule 10b-5, and proscribes the employment of any “deceptive or manipulative device.” That is, this is basically an anti-fraud rule that has nothing to do with market power and therefore it is ill-adapted to reaching the exercise of market power.
  8. The CFTC no doubt is doing this because under 6(c)(1) and Rule 180.1 the CFTC has a lower burden of proof than under its pre-Frankendodd anti-manipulation authority. Specifically, it does not have to show that Kraft-Mondelez had specific intent to manipulate the market, as was the case prior to Dodd-Frank. Instead, “recklessness” suffices. Further, it does not have to demonstrate that the price of wheat was artificial. In my view, the straightforward application of economics permits determination of both specific intent and price artificiality, but earlier decisions like Indiana Farm and in re Cox make it difficult to for the CFTC to do so. Or at least that’s what CFTC believes.
  9. Although I understand the CFTC’s choice, it has jumped from the frying pan into the fire. Why? Well, to mix metaphors, there is a square peg-round hole problem. As I’ve been shouting about for years, fraud-based manipulations and market power manipulations are very different, and using a statute that targets fraudulent (“deceptive”) actions to prosecute a market power manipulation is likely to end in tears because the legal concept does not fit the allegedly manipulative conduct. The DOJ learned this to its dismay in the Radley case (which grew out of the BP propane corner in 2004). Even though BP executed a garden variety corner, the DOJ alleged that the company engaged in a massive fraud. Judge Miller found this entirely unpersuasive, and shot down the DOJ in flames. The CFTC risks the exact same outcome. Tellingly, it asserts in a conclusory fashion that Kraft-Mondelez employed a “deceptive or manipulative contrivance” but doesn’t say: (a) what that device was, (b) how Kraft’s taking of a large number of deliveries deceived anyone, (c) who was deceived, and (d) how the deception affected prices.

It will be interesting to see what happens going forward. The CFTC is obviously using this as a test case of its new authority. Perhaps it thinks it is being crafty (or would that be Krafty?) but I fear that by using a law and rule targeted against fraudulent conduct to prosecute a market power manipulation, the agency will just be finding a new way to screw up manipulation law, thereby undermining, rather than strengthening, deterrence of market power manipulation.

So will the Beastie Boys be singing about the CFTC? We’ll see, but I’m not hopeful.

 

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April 4, 2015

The IECA Libels Me: I Am Oddly Flattered

Filed under: Commodities,Derivatives,Economics,Energy,Exchanges,Politics,Regulation — The Professor @ 10:22 am

The Industrial Energy Consumers of America has submitted a comment letter on the CFTC’s position limit rule making. The letter contains this libel:

If one looks at the agenda from the February 26, 2015 meeting (see below), other than CFTC presenters, every presenter has views that are not consistent with CFTC action to set speculative position limits. Professor Pirrong has a long history of client paid studies in this area and will need to identify who paid for the underlying data and study for his results to be credible on this subject.

If “this area” is the subject of speculation and position limits, this statement is categorically false. I have not done one “client paid study” on these issues. Period.

In fact, most of my writing on speculation has either been in my academic work (as in my 2011 book), or here on the blog. I have been arguing this issue on my own time.

Actually, I did do one client paid study on these issues about 11 or 12 years ago. For the IECA, in fact, which was just certain that the NYMEX’s expanded accountability limits for natural gas had caused volatility to increase. They hired me to study this issue. I did, using methods that I had employed in peer reviewed research, and found that IECA’s firm beliefs were flatly contradicted by the data: data that IECA paid for, analyzed using methods that were disclosed to it. IECA decided not to release the study. Surprise, surprise. So IECA knows from direct experience that my opinions are not for sale.

So just who here is hiding something? Hint: it ain’t me.

I could provide other examples. The GFMA study on commodity traders is a well known case: it was written up in the Financial Times. Another example that is not as well known was my work on a project for the Board of Trade in 1991-1992, in which I studied the delivery mechanism for corn and soybeans. (The resulting report was published as Grain Futures Markets: An Economic Appraisal.) I concluded that the delivery mechanism was subject to manipulation, and recommended the addition of delivery points at economic par differentials to Chicago. This was not the desired answer. On the day I presented my results to the committee of the CBT that commissioned the study, the chief economist of the exchange pressured me to change my recommendations. I refused. The meeting that followed became heated. So heated, in fact, that the head of the committee and I almost literally came to blows when I refused to back down: committee members from Cargill and ADM actually took the guy bodily from the room until he calmed down.

So the track record is abundantly clear: I call them like I see them, even if it isn’t what the client wants to hear.

In fact, it is IECA’s ad hominem that lacks credibility. My white papers for Trafigura are not related to the issue of speculation at all. To the contrary, they are related to the issue of physical commodity trading. I did a study for CME in 2009 on the performance of the WTI futures contract. Nothing related to speculation. Data sources disclosed, and the methodologies are clearly set out. Again, if IECA has specific critiques of any of these analyses, bring it on. Anytime. Anywhere. And they can leave their libelous insinuations behind.

Perhaps IECA head Paul Cicio is still sore over how I smacked him around at a House Ag committee hearing in July 2008. Cicio said it was obvious that speculation had inflated energy prices. He used the metaphor of a swimming pool: if a bunch of speculators jump in, it has to raise the water level. I retorted that this shows the exact opposite, because all the speculators get out of the pool before contracts go spot. Long speculators are sellers of futures as delivery approaches, meaning they are out of the pool (the physical market) as delivery approaches, and hence can’t be inflating spot prices.

If Cicio is still sore, all I have to say is: Get over it.

To reiterate: IECA’s statement in a document submitted to a government regulatory agency is categorically false, and libelous.

And oddly flattering. You don’t go out of your way to libel the irrelevant. The fact that this organization feels compelled to slur me by name and attack my credibility (even though the attack is false) means that they must believe that I pose a threat to them. I sure as hell hope so.

Word to the wise. Don’t bring a wet noodle to a gunfight. (I cleaned that up.) You’re going to lose.

 

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If Putin Ripped Off Rogozin’s Head, Would Anybody Notice a Difference?

Filed under: Economics,Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 9:13 am

Rogozin the Ridiculous™ is in charge of the massive Russian Vostochny Cosmodrome project. It is not going well. The project is way behind schedule, and way over budget. It is beset by corruption, running into the hundreds of millions of dollars.  Labor problems are rife.

And apparently Russia’s financial difficulties are also starting to bite. It can’t pay the light bill. Workers haven’t been paid since January, and are starting a hunger strike. The delays and the labor problem are leading Rogozin to conscript college students in “Soviet-style work gangs”  to complete the project. In the winter. So, how was your internship, Yuri?

In response, Rogozin is acting like the simulacrum of a Stalinist. He has installed “an array of webcams to be able to personally monitor construction from Moscow, some 7,000 kilometres to the west.” He has fired several construction managers, and has initiated some criminal prosecutions for corruption. He rages about sabotage and has threatened to “rip the heads off” anyone who impedes completion of the project.

If someone, Putin say, ripped off Rogozin’s head, would anyone notice a difference? Other than improving his looks, that is.

The only surprise is that Rogozin is not blaming he delays on the evil Americans, and their diabolical HAARP.

In fact, Rogozin is a faux Stalinist. All bluster. A farcical, pale imitation.

This project, invested with all the prestige and rubles Putin can manage, is a very public demonstration of the dysfunctional nature of the Russian state, and the utter impracticality of an economy dominated by state  corporations engaged in megaprojects. Putting someone like Rogozin in charge just provides some comic relief.

Keep this all in mind when evaluating Yakunin’s proposal for a superhighway, pipeline and rail route spanning Siberia and permitting one to drive from Moscow to Alaska. Read this, and have a good laugh:

The scheme was unveiled at a meeting of the Moscow-based Russian Academy of Science.

Dubbed the Trans-Eurasian Belt Development (TEPR), the project calls for a major roadway to be constructed alongside the existing Trans-Siberian Railway, along with a new train network and oil and gas pipelines.

“This is an inter-state, inter-civilization, project,” the Siberian Times quoted Yakunin. “The project should be turned into a world ‘future zone,’ and it must be based on leading, not catching, technologies.”

This in a country that does not have a highway connecting its two largest cities, and which is renowned for its horrific roads.

And its fools, of whom Rogozin is only the most prominent.

(h/t to commenter Ivan for pointing me to this story.)

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April 3, 2015

BATS in the OCC’s Belfry?, or The Perils of Natural Monopoly Regulation, CCP Edition

Filed under: Clearing,Derivatives,Economics,Exchanges,Financial crisis,Regulation — The Professor @ 11:13 am

The Options Clearing Corporation (“OCC”) and the exchanges that own it (Chicago Board Options Exchange, Incorporated, International Securities Exchange, LLC, NASDAQ OMX PHLX LLC, NYSE MKT LLC, and NYSE Arca) are embroiled in a dispute with virtually everyone else in the options business regarding its new capital plan. Pursuant to its designation as a “Systemically Important Financial Market Utility” (“SIFMU”) under Frankendodd, OCC was required to boost capital from $25 million to nearly $250 million. Part of this will be obtained through retained earnings, with an additional $150 million via a capital injection from the four owner-exchanges. In addition, CBOE et al promise to inject up to $117 million in the event of “unexpected losses”, which would be most likely to occur during a financial crisis.

In return, the owner-exchanges receive in essence preferred stock, which pays a dividend in perpetuity. The exact amount of the dividend is not known publicly, but those objecting to the plan (including BATS and KCG) claim that it could be as much as 16-19 pct, at least in the first few years of the plan’s operation.

Non-owner exchanges like BATS and market users like KCG are furious, claiming that the the capital plan allows OCC’s owners to “monetize” the rents accruing to its status as the monopoly clearer for options transactions in the US. They believe that OCC will pay for the dividend by charging super competitive fees that will impair competition among exchanges (advantaging the owner exchanges over the non-owners) and will burden market users.

This is a difficult issue, the nature of OCC. Here are some thoughts:

1. OCC is a regulated monopoly, and arguably a natural monopoly.This creates the traditional conflict between the owners of the utility and its customers, which include other exchanges that aren’t owners (like BATS) and clearing firms and market users (like KCG). This is in many ways very similar to a dispute between a traditional electric utility and its ratepayers heard before a state utility commission, with the exception that this is before the SEC.

2. Like a traditional are case involving a regulated utility, the dispute here is over what is a fair rate of return on capital. BATS and KCG are objecting to the rate of return the 4 exchange owners of OCC are being promised for their capital contribution, and the process by which the SEC approved this rate of return.

3. It is particularly challenging to determine a “fair” rate of return on this capital because of the unique risks that the OCC exchanges are assuming. This capital is at risk of taking a big hit, and the owner-exchanges are potentially obligated to make additional capital contributions, during periods of financial crisis (the “dire circumstances”) referred to in BATS’s letter to the SEC. This tends to make this capital very expensive, and it should therefore earn a relatively high rate of return (high dividend). Capital that has bad returns when the market is doing poorly overall-“high beta”, if you will-is expensive capital. The type of capital being provided is fraught with wrong-way risk: it is likely to take a hit precisely when the capital suppliers are least able to afford it. Determining how much of a risk premium is warranted is a challenge, because of the exceptional nature of the risk. In essence, the exchanges are assuming tail risk, i.e., the risk of exceptional events, and it is inherently difficult to evaluate and price these risks.

4. The other exchanges and firms like KCG benefit from the risk bearing capital supplied by the owner exchanges. Otherwise, they would have to bear the risk. But of course they would like to underpay for this benefit, just as the owner exchanges might want to overcharge for it.

5. In other words, this situation is tailor made for disputes. Monopoly rate setting to determine fair rates and a fair rate of return on capital with very unusual and hard to evaluate risks.

6. The fears about the effects of pricing on inter-exchange competition in execution service are misdirected. Yes, it is possible that the owner exchanges will capture monopoly rents accruing to the OCC’s dominant position, but traditional “one monopoly rent” analysis implies that they don’t have an incentive to use OCC pricing power to advantage their competitive position in execution services. Indeed, the opposite is true.

This also highlights some organization, ownership and governance issues that I addressed in my research on exchanges that culminated in my 2000 JLE piece. Exchanges (and clearinghouses) have market power, and serve disparate and heterogeneous interests. They can use pricing to redistribute rents (which accrue in part due to market power) from one group of intermediaries to another. Not-for-profit status and mutual ownership (having the exchange or CCP operate as a non-profit “utility” serving disparate intermediary-owners is a way of reducing rent seeking and mitigating the use of pricing to redistribute rents.

But non-profit, mutual organization comes at a cost. It requires highly participative, committee-heavy governance that slows decision making and often creates gridlock that makes it difficult for the exchanges/CCPs to respond to technology, regulatory, or market shocks. (Look at the CBT in the 1990s and early-2000s if you want an example.) If everybody has a voice and a vote, it is very difficult to get things done.

In sum, “financial market utility” pricing and governance is inherently messy and controversial.  It has all of the problems associated with public utility regulation, and then some. The problems are particularly daunting when it comes to capitalizing, allocating and pricing the systemic and wrong way risks that CCPs bear. Given these complexities, I won’t venture an opinion here, except to say that (a) I can see both sides of the argument here, and (b) this ain’t going away anytime soon.

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March 30, 2015

An Elegant Answer to the Wrong Question (or an Incomplete One)

Filed under: Clearing,Derivatives,Economics,Financial crisis,Regulation — The Professor @ 1:14 pm

Rodney Garrett and Peter Zimmerman of the NY Fed have produced a paper studying the effect of clearing on derivatives counterparty risk exposures. It is basically an extension of the Duffle-Zhu paper from a few years ago. It studies more realistic networks and a more diverse set of scenarios than D-Z. It demonstrates that with a variety of network structures, clearing actually reduces netting efficiency and increases counterpart risk exposures. This is especially true with “scale free” or “core-periphery” networks, which are more realistic representations of actual derivatives markets than the all-to-all structure in D-Z. They show that when the system relies on relatively few crucial nodes, as is the case in most dealer structures, clearing reduces netting efficiency. This, as Garrett and Zimmerman note, could explain why clearing has not been adopted voluntarily. It also raises doubts about the advisability of clearing mandates, inasmuch as the alleged benefit of clearing is a reduction in counterparty credit exposures.

A few comments. The results, taken on their own terms, make sense. In particular, networks connecting dealers and customers via derivatives transactions, are endogenous. And although network structures are not necessarily efficient due to network externalities and path dependence, there are forces that lead to minimizing credit exposures. thus, although it would be Panglossian to assert that existing structures minimize these exposures, it should not be surprising that interventions that lead to dramatic alterations to networks increase counterparty risk exposures as existing networks are configured at least in part to reduce these exposures.

More importantly, though, there is the issue of whether counterparty risk exposure in derivatives transactions is the proper metric to evaluate the effect of clearing mandates. As I have noted for  years (as has Mark Roe), when participants in derivatives transactions have other liabilities, changes in netting efficiency in derivatives primarily redistribute wealth to or from one group of creditors (derivatives counteparties) from or to other creditors (e.g., unsecured lenders, commercial paper purchasers, deposit insurers). Netting and offset essentially privilege the creditors that can use them, at the expense of others who cannot. So telling me policy A reduces counterparty risk exposures by netting provides me very little information about the systemic effects of the policy. To understand the systemic effects, you need to understand the distributive effects across the full set of creditors impacted by the change in derivatives netting efficiency induced by the policy–and that would be every creditor of derivatives market participants. This paper, like all others in the area, does not do that.

Put another way. Papers in this literature say little about systemic risk because they only analyze a piece of the system. The derivatives-centric approach is of little value in assessing systemic risk. To analyze systemic risk, you need to analyze the system, not a piece of it.

What’s more, shuffling around credit risk is probably not the most important effect of clearing mandates, even though it receives the vast bulk of the attention. As I’ve written repeatedly in the past, including here, clearing reduces credit risk by increasing liquidity risk, most notably, through variation margining which results in the need to obtain cash in a hurry to meet margin calls, which can be large when there are large market shocks. The expansion of clearing to OTC markets which dwarf listed derivatives potentially leads to orders-of-magnitude increases in liquidity needs.

It is these liquidity demands which create huge potential systemic risks. Financial crises are usually liquidity crises: mechanisms such as clearing increase demands for liquidity in stressed market conditions, and do so in a way that increases the rigidity and tightness of the coupling in the financial system. This is extremely dangerous. Tight coupling in particular is associated with system failure in a variety of real world systems including both financial and non-financial systems.

Indeed, all of the attempts to make CCPs invulnerable all tend to exacerbate these problems. This raises the possibility that CCPs could be bastions surviving in the midst of a completely rubbled financial system.

In sum, papers like the Garrett-Zimmerman work are very elegant and technically sophisticated, and help answer a question: Does clearing reduce derivatives counterparty risk exposures? But all the elegance and technical sophistication is likely for naught given that the question is the wrong question, or a very incomplete one.

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March 23, 2015

The Systemic Risk, or Not, of Commodity Trading Firms

Filed under: Commodities,Derivatives,Economics,Energy,Financial crisis,Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 2:03 pm

My latest white paper, “Not too big to fail: Systemic Risk, Regulation, and the Economics of Commodity Trading Firms” was released today. A video of me discussing it can be found here (as can my earlier white papers on commodity traders and LNG trading).

The conclusion in a nutshell: commodity trading firms do not pose systemic risks, and therefore it is inappropriate to subject them to bank-like prudential regulations, including capital requirements. Commodity trading firms are not systemically risky because (a) they aren’t really that big, (b) they are not that highly leveraged, (c) their leverage is not fragile, (d) the financial distress of a big trader is unlikely to result in contagious runs on others, or fire sale problems, and (e) their financial performance is not highly pro cyclical. Another way to see it is that banks are fragile because they engage in maturity and liquidity transformations, whereas commodity trading firms don’t: they engage in different transformations altogether.

Commodity traders are in line to be subject to Capital Requirement Directive IV starting in 2017. If the rules turn out to be binding, they will cause firms to de-lever by shrinking, or issue more equity (which may force them to forego private ownership, which aligns the interests of owners and managers). These will be costs, not offset by any systemic benefit. All pain, no gain.

It is my understanding that banks obviously think differently, and are calling for “consistent” regulations across banks, commodity traders, and other intermediaries. Since these firms differ on many dimensions, imposing the same regulations on all makes little sense. Put differently, apropos Emerson, a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds. Or bankers who want to handicap competitors.

The white paper has received some good coverage, including the Financial Times, Reuters, and Bloomberg. I will be writing more about it when I return to the states later in the week.

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March 17, 2015

The Biggest Loser, Iran Deal Edition: That Would Be Russia

Filed under: Commodities,Economics,Energy,Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 11:52 am

I am following around Iranian negotiator Javad Zarif, arriving this morning in Geneva, and then going to Brussels next week. Don’t worry, I won’t go biking. Certainly not in the absurd getup that Zarif’s interlocutor-or should I say Sancho Panza-John Kerry did here on the shores of Lac Leman. The man is obviously immune to mockery.

I am resigned that Sancho-I mean John-and Javad (remember, they are on a first name basis!) will reach some sort of deal that will clear Iran’s path to becoming a nuclear power in the near-to-medium term, with all of the malign consequences that entails. Which leads me to contemplate some of those consequences.

One of which relates to the price of oil (and natural gas), the malignity of which depends on whether you are long or short oil (and gas). Of course, one of the countries that is very long oil (and gas) is Russia, and from its perspective the consequences of a deal will be very malign. Which makes one wonder if Putin (or whoever is really in charge these days!) will attempt to do something to derail it. (Or are they too distracted by the folly in Ukraine? Or by dog fights under the carpet?)

The crucial issue is how rapidly, and by how much, Iranian output will ramp up if a deal is reached. There is both a political dimension to this, and an operational one.

The political issue is how rapidly a deal will result in the dismantling of the myriad sanctions that impede Iran’s ability to sell oil:

“Don’t expect to open the tap on oil,” one Gulf-based Western diplomat told Reuters. It is much easier to lift financial sanctions because so many components of Iran’s oil trade have been targeted, the diplomat said.

. . . .

But for Iran to sell significantly more crude and repatriate hard currency earnings, many U.S. and European restrictions on its shipping, insurance, ports, banking, and oil trade would have to be lifted or waived.

Yet because they represent the bulk of world powers’ leverage over Iran, initial relief would probably be modest, said Zachary Goldman, a former policy advisor at the U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Terrorism and Financial Intelligence, where he helped develop Iransanctions policy.

Goldman predicted the first step would be to allow Tehran to use more of its foreign currency reserves abroad, now limited to specific bilateral trade.

“It’s discrete, and it doesn’t involve dismantling the architecture of sanctions that has been built up painstakingly over the last five years,” said Goldman, who now heads the Center on Law and Security at New York University.

Even with a nuclear deal, oil sanctions would probably effectively stay in place until early 2016, said Bob McNally, a former White House adviser under George W. Bush and now president of the Rapidan Group energy consultancy.

The operational issue is how rapidly Iran can reactivate its idled fields, and how much damage they have suffered while they have been off-line. The Iranians claim that 1mm barrels per day can come online within months. The IEA concurs:

Turning lots of production back on suddenly can be complicated—and time consuming—even if wells and reservoirs are maintained studiously. It could be even harder in complex Iranian fields that have been pumping for decades.

Still, some analysts have concluded that a good deal of that lost output could return more quickly than often anticipated. The International Energy Agency, for example, has said that it expects a relatively rapid burst of exports if sanctions are lifted.

“They’ve deployed considerable ingenuity in getting around sanctions and keeping fields in tiptop shape. We think Iran could pretty much come back to the market on a dime,” Antoine Halff, head of the IEA’s oil industry and markets division, recently told an audience at the Center for Strategic Studies in Washington.

Perhaps up to 2mm bpd of additional output could come back later. Then there is the issue of how a relaxation or elimination of sanctions would affect output in the long run as (a) western investment flows into the Iranian oil sector, and (b) other producers, and notably OPEC, respond to Iran’s return to the market.

In the short run, the 1mm bpd number  (corresponding to about 1.1 percent of world output) looks reasonable, and given a demand elasticity of approximately 10, that would result in a 10 percent decline in oil prices. Additional flows in the medium term would produce additional declines.

Even if Iran’s return to the market is expected to take some time, due to the aforementioned complications of undoing sanctions, much of the price effect would be immediate. The mechanism is that an anticipated rise in future output reduces the demand to store oil today: the anticipated increase in future output reduces future scarcity relative to current scarcity, reducing the benefit of carrying inventories. There will be de-stocking, which will put downward pressure on spot prices. Moreover, since an increase in expected future output reduces future scarcity relative to current scarcity, future prices will fall more than the spot price, meaning that contango will decline.

Some of the price decline effect may have already occurred due to anticipation of the clinching of a deal: the May Brent price has declined about $10/bbl in the last month. However, the movement in the May-December spread is not consistent with the recent price decline being driven by the market’s estimation that the odds  that Iranian output will increase in the future have risen. The May-December spread has fallen from -$4.47 (contango) to -$6.36. This is consistent with a near-term supply-demand imbalance rather than an anticipated change in the future balance in favor of greater supply. So too is the increase in inventories seen in recent weeks.

Predicting the magnitude of the price response to the announcement of a deal-or the breakdown of negotiations-is difficult because that requires knowing how much has already been priced in. My lack of a yacht that would make a Russian oligarch jealous indicates quite clearly that I lack such penetrating insight. However, the directional effect is pretty clear-down (for a deal, up for a breakdown).

Which is very bad news for the Russian government and economy, which are groaning under the effects of the oil price decline that has already occurred. Indeed, Iran’s return to the market would weigh on prices for years, reducing the odds that Russia could count on a 2009-like rebound to retrieve its fortunes.

Add to this the fact that a lifting of sanctions would open Iran’s vast gas reserves (second only to Russia’s) to be supplied to Europe and Asia, dramatically reducing the profitability of Russian gas sales in the future, and Iran’s return to the energy markets is a near term and long term threat to Russia.

Which makes Putin’s apparent indifference to a deal passing strange. The Russians freak out over developments (e.g., the prospect for an antitrust investigation of Gazprom, or pipsqueak pipeline projects like Nabucco) that pose a much smaller threat than the reemergence of Iran as a major energy producer. But they have not done anything overt to scupper a deal, nor have they unleashed their usual screeching rhetoric.

What gives? Acceptance of the inevitable? A belief that in the long run the deal will actually increase the likelihood of chaos in the Middle East that will redound to Russia’s benefit? Strategic myopia (i.e., an obsession with reassembling Sovokistan, starting with Donbas) that makes the leadership blind to broader strategic considerations? Distraction by internal disputes? Or does Putin (or whoever is calling the shots!) have something up his (their) sleeve(s)?

My aforementioned pining for a super yacht that would make Abramovich turn green again betrays my inability to penetrate such mysteries. But it is quite a puzzle, for at least insofar as the immediate economic consequences are concerned, Russia would be the Biggest Loser from a deal that clears Iran’s return to the oil market.

H/T to @libertylynx for the idea for this post.

 

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March 10, 2015

Resource Rents, Russian Aggression, and the Nature of Putinism

Filed under: Commodities,Economics,Energy,History,Military,Russia — The Professor @ 9:00 pm

This nice piece from the WaPo points out the link between oil prices and Russian aggressiveness:

From this perspective, Russia is not so much an insecure superpower as it is a typical petrostate with a short-term horizon that gets aggressive and ambitious once it accumulates substantive oil revenues. Back in the early 2000s when the price of oil was $25 a barrel, Putin was a friend of the United States and didn’t mind NATO enlargement in 2004. According to Hendrix’s research, this is exactly how petrostates behave when the oil prices are low: In fact, at oil prices below $33 a barrel, oil exporters become much more peaceful than even non-petrostates. Back in 2002 when the Urals price was around $20, in his Address to the Federal Assembly Putin enumerated multiple steps to European integration and active collaboration aimed at creating a single economic space with the European Union among Russia’s top priorities. In 2014 – with the price of oil price around $110 – Putin invaded Ukraine to punish it for the attempts to create that same single economic space with the E.U.

I made these basic points eight years ago, in a post titled “Cocaine Blues.”

The graph depicts Gaddy’s estimates of the energy rents accruing to the Soviet–and Russian–economy. Each of the two spikes in the graph corresponds to a period of Soviet/Russian adventurism. The first shot of oil/cocaine during the 1970s oil shock fueled Soviet aggressiveness around the world. The second oil/cocaine shot–the post-2003 runup in oil prices–is powering Putin’s recent revanchism.

There were some follow up posts on the same theme.

This post from Window on Eurasia quotes a Russian social scientist who disputes the importance of oil prices in explaining Russian behavior in the Putin era. Instead, Vladislav Inozemtsev identifies the lack of formal institutions as the characteristic feature of Putinism.

But these things are not mutually exclusive. Indeed, another SWP theme from about this same time period (2007-2008) is that Russia is a natural state in which Putin uses control over resource rents to maintain a political equilibrium. Resource rents permit personalized rule and impede the development of formal, impersonal institutions.

In other words, in Russia, resource rents, and especially oil/energy rents matter, both for its political structure and evolution, and its behavior as an international actor.

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Chinese Chutzpah: Using IP to Ice Cotton Competition

Filed under: Commodities,Derivatives,Economics,Energy,Exchanges,Regulation — The Professor @ 7:32 pm

China is notorious for flouting intellectual property rights. From stolen technology (including notably military gear) to designer knock-offs, China pirates everything and everyone. It is therefore a rather jaw-dropping act of chutzpah for to Chinese Zhengzhou Commodities Exchange to send a nasty cease-and-desist letter to the Singapore subsidiary of ICE demanding that ICE not copy ZCE’s cotton and sugar contracts:

Intercontinental Exchange has been forced to delay the launch of its new Singapore platform after a Chinese exchange threatened legal action to stop the US group launching two commodity futures that are copies of contracts offered in China.

The move by the Zhengzhou Commodity Exchange is likely to send shockwaves through the global futures industry because it signals that China will not tolerate foreign exchanges copying its futures contracts, and comes despite the practice of offering “lookalike” contracts being accepted around the world for years.

The ICE contracts are not copies, exactly. Similar to its “NYMEX lookalike” contracts, which cash settle against the expiring NYMEX future, the ICE Singapore commodity contracts are to be cash settled based on the settlement price of the expiring ZCE future. The ZCE future is delivery-settled. Meaning that the delivery mechanism ensures convergence between physical and futures prices, and the lookalike contract can ensure convergence by cash-settling against the delivery-settled contract.

The issues here are common to all intellectual property controversies. Strong intellectual property rights impede competition. Against that, free riding off the creativity or investment of others can impede innovation.

There isn’t a one-size-fits-all answer to this trade-off. In the case of exchange traded contracts, I tend to lean towards weak intellectual property rights.  The network effects of liquidity tend to weaken competition, and to give incumbents a strong advantage over entrants. There is already a substantial stream of rents to being first that gives strong (and maybe overly-strong) incentives to innovate, making strong intellectual property rights superfluous, and indeed damaging because they place another burden on already weak competition.

The US courts arrived at a similar conclusion, ruling that NYMEX did not have property rights over its settlement prices that it could use to preclude ICE from using them to cash settle its contracts. This is one factor that has encouraged a relatively robust competition in energy derivatives, which is the exception rather than the rule.

In sum, I hope ICE is able to prevail in its battle with ZCE. In part on economic grounds, and in part on the grounds that it burns me to see IP pirates protect their turf by asserting IP, especially over something for which IP is unwarranted.

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