Streetwise Professor

October 19, 2014

It *Was* Too Quiet Out There

Filed under: Commodities,Derivatives,Economics,Energy,Financial crisis — The Professor @ 5:28 pm

Four weeks ago I gave the keynote talk at Energy Risk Asia in Singapore. My talk was a look back at commodity market developments in the past year, followed by a look forward.

The theme of the look back was “A Perfect Calm.” I noted that volatility levels across all markets, not just commodities, were at very low levels. Equity vols, as measured by the VIX, had been in the 10 percent range in August and had only ticked up to around 12 percent by late-September. Commodity volatilities were even more remarkable. Historically, the low level of commodity volatilities (the 5th percentile) have been around the median of equity vols and well above currency and bond vols. During the first half of the year, however, commodity vols were below the 5th percentile of equity vols, and below the 95th percentile of currency and bond vols. Pretty amazing.

I argued that this reflected a happy combination of supply and demand factors. In energy and ags in particular, abundant supplies put a drag on volatility. But volatility from the demand side was low too. The low VIX levels are a good proxy for macro uncertainty, or the lack thereof. Put both of those together, and you get a perfect calm.

But perfect calms are the exception, rather than the rule. The last slide in my talk looked forward, and cribbed a movie cliche: It was titled “It’s Quiet Out There. Too Quiet.” I noted that periods of very low volatility frequently bear the seeds of their destruction. When risk measures are low, firms and traders lever up and increase position sizes. A bit of economic turbulence increases volatilities, which leads to breaches in risk limits, which forces deleveraging and reductions in positions. This tends to lead to reduced liquidity, exaggerated price moves, yet higher volatility, leading to more deleveraging and repositioning, and on it goes. That is, there can be a positive feedback loop. Transitions from low to high volatility can be very abrupt.

It looks like that’s what has happened in the weeks since my return. Equity markets are down substantially. Commodities, notably energy, have slumped: Brent is down to around $88. Volatilities have spiked. The VIX reached over 31 percent last week, and the crude oil VIX went from about 15 percent at the end of August to over 37 percent last week.

The spark appears to have been mounting evidence of a slowdown in Europe and China. Ebola might have been a contributing factor in the last week or two, but in my view the economic weakness is the main driver.

I admit to being like the title character in My Cousin Vinnie. He had difficulty sleeping in the Alabama country quiet, but slept like a lamb in a raucous county jail. Times like these are more interesting, anyways.

So it turns out it was too quiet out there.

And remember. Today is the 27th anniversary of the ’87 Crash (one of the formative experiences of my professional life). Octobers are often . . . interesting (the most dangerous word in the English language). So the markets bear watching closely. If you aren’t interested in them, they may well be interested in you.

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October 14, 2014

The IEA Has Identification Issues: Econ 101 Fail

Filed under: Commodities,Economics,Energy — The Professor @ 1:39 pm

The IEA’s most recent report includes this gem of an analysis:

Recent price declines have sparked speculation about their potentially supportive impact on demand. The price elasticity of oil demand tends to be asymmetric in nature: oil demand falls on high prices more easily than it expands on lower prices. Looking at the last five incidences of crude oil price declines of 15% or more over a four‐month period (as occurred, at the time of going to press, June‐through‐ October), only in one case (in 2006) was a noticeable uptick in demand seen.

The immediate impact tends to be weakening demand reducing oil prices, as opposed to lower prices triggering additional deliveries, which is very much lagged. The dramatic price decline of late 2008/early 2009, for example, was not followed by a noticeable uptick in global oil demand growth until 2H09, many months after prices had started to rebound. Oil price changes will naturally affect demand differently depending on whether they are themselves supply‐ or demand‐driven. The price drop in 2008 was overwhelmingly demand led, whereas recent declines appear to have been largely in response to rising supply. Nevertheless, recent price movements are not expected to significantly lift demand in the short term, especially since crude price drops are not fully carried through to retail product prices.

That sound you just heard was me doing a I-coulda-had-a-V8 head slap.

Um, the IEA is making the most basic error possible: mistaking a fall in quantity demanded (consumed) for a fall in demand. A decline in demand (i.e., a movement in the demand curve) leads to a decline in price and quantity. This is exactly what happened in the episodes the IEA discusses: the 2008-2009 episode is the most severe example. Demand fell precipitously due to the financial crisis and subsequent Great Recession. This cratered prices, and also led to a decline in consumption.

Prices and consumption move inversely when there is a move along the demand curve. This occurs due to a supply shock.

This is Econ 101 textbook stuff, people. It has an name: identification. You can identify a demand curve only by holding it fixed and moving the supply curve. If the demand curve is moving around, you can’t identify a demand curve from price and quantity movements.

Hell, the IEA even recognizes this problem: look at the second paragraph. But if they recognize the problem in the second paragraph, why did they write the first paragraph? And this asymmetry in elasticity stuff? What, did the IEA have an acid flashback of a 60s textbook’s analysis of Sweezy’s Kinked Demand Curve?

I would seriously question whether the current price drop is totally supply driven as well. Chinese demand appears to have dropped steeply, and the European economy is slowing notably: Germany in particular has hit a rough patch.

So the IEA fails Econ 101, but we’re supposed to take seriously its analysis of more complex issues?

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October 13, 2014

Russia in a Nutshell: Three Stories That Convey Important Truths About an Aggressive, Mendacious, and Economically Weak Empire

Filed under: Commodities,Economics,Energy,Military,Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 2:43 pm

A quick rundown on some Russia stories. Three stories that encapsulate important truths about an unhappy country that seems intent on forcing others to share in its unhappiness.

First, there was a lot of attention paid to Putin’s announcement that 17,000 soldiers would be withdrawn from Rostov, on the Ukrainian border, to return to their bases. The reactions are a combination of poor memory, ignorance, and wishful thinking. Poor memory because something similar happened in the spring, which didn’t preclude an invasion in the summer. Ignorance, because if you are aware of Russia’s conscription cycle, you are aware that the fall 2013 conscript class is due to be mustered out, and units must return to their bases to discharge last year’s class and induct and train this year’s. That’s what happened in the spring. This ignorance is inexcusable now, as it was written about in the spring, notably by Pavel Felgenhauer: I wrote about it here as well. Wishful thinking, because everyone is grasping at the hope that Putin will back down from the Ukraine battle. As if.

There is no news here. This is an artifact of Russia’s conscription system. Period. Watch for new training exercises in a few months, and the deployment of units to the Ukrainian border again, once the new conscripts are integrated into their units.

Second, Russia will sign several intergovernmental agreements with China when Premier Li visits next month. One of them is an agreement to export gas from Russia to China.

I know what you’re thinking: “Wait, didn’t they sign that deal to huge fanfare back in May?” Apparently not:

Russia has prepared intergovernmental agreements to sign during Chinese Premier Li Keqiang’s visit to Moscow next week including one on a $400 billion natural gas deal agreed in May, Russia’s deputy foreign minister said.

Russian gas exporter Gazprom and China National Petroleum Corp (CNPC) have agreed that Russia will supply China with 38 billion cubic metres of gas starting from 2019.

Yet on Friday Gazprom said an intergovernmental agreement between Russia and China required for the plan to come into force had not yet been signed.

Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Igor Morgulov told Chinese state news agency Xinhua that governmental agreements including one on gas were ready for signing during Li’s coming visit.

“They include an intergovernmental agreement on natural gas supplies via an “‘eastern’ route,” he said. [Emphasis added.]

Proving yet again that announcements from the Russians about any deal should be treated with extreme skepticism. They are the masters of vaporcontracts.

The Russians are touting various deals with the Chinese as proof of their invulnerability to western sanctions and pressure. The feebleminded believe this. In fact, Russian desperation is palpable: the fact that they hyped the gas non-deal is a perfect example of this. If you don’t think that the Chinese are aware that they have the whip hand here, and are flogging the Russians for all it is worth, please contact me. I’ve securitized some bridges, and I’m sure they’d be perfect for your portfolios!

Third, the Russians are in full paranoid mode over the decline in oil prices. Brent is down to $88/bbl, which puts Urals at about $86. Speaking of 86, they are having flashbacks to 1986, when the Saudis flooded the world with oil. This began the fatal crash of the Soviet economy (described well in Gaidar’s book, Empire).

The vice-president of Russia’s state-owned oil behemoth Rosneft has accused Saudi Arabia of manipulating the oil price for political reasons. Mikhail Leontyev was quoted in Russian media as saying:

Prices can be manipulative. First of all, Saudi Arabia has begun making big discounts on oil. This is political manipulation, and Saudi Arabia is being manipulated, which could end badly.

Er, this is way different from 1986. At most, the Saudis have increased output only slightly (about 100kbbl/day): in ’86, they more than doubled output. The Saudis are just acknowledging market reality. Demand is weak,  supplies from the US are growing, and Libya is coming back into the market. Put those  things together, and prices are inevitably going to fall. The Saudis can see the writing on the wall, and their market share is sufficiently small that unilateral reductions in their output are not economically rational. Funny, now that I mention it: Saudi market share is about the same as Russian market share. The Russians produce up to capacity, because that is profit maximizing. Yet they expect the Saudis to cut back output? Of course they do! The Saudis should sacrifice their own interests to bail out the Russians! Of course they should!

Leontyev seems to be vying with the Gazprom guy Komlev to see who can make the most idiotic statements about world energy markets. Something that commentor Ivan passed on suggests that as idiotic as Komlev was, Leontyev has him hands down. The Rosneft spokesman also blamed low oil prices on ISIS selling oil at a “triple discount.” Hilarious! World oil prices are determined in the world market. ISIS has to sell at a huge discount because it is politically radioactive, and because it cannot access world markets directly. Those to whom it sells pocket the discount to adjust for the risk of dealing with a political leper (a radioactive leper!-I’m not mixing metaphors), and sell at the world price. The world price is determined by world output, not the price of the first sale. If anything, ISIS is propping up prices by reducing output in Syria (not a big deal) and threatening output in Iraq (a bigger deal).

Together, these three stories convey important truths  about Russia. And truth is ugly indeed. An aggressive, economically tottering empire dependent on commodity rents, and constitutionally unable to tell the truth or deal with reality.

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You Might Have Read This Somewhere Before. Like Here.

The FT has a long article by John Dizard raising alarms about the systemic risks posed by CCPs. The solution, in other words, might be the problem.

Where have I read that before?

The article focuses on a couple of regulatory reports that have also raised the alarm:

No, I am referring to reports filed by the wiring and plumbing inspectors of the CCPs. For example, the International Organization for Securities Commissions (a name that could only be made duller by inserting the word “Canada”) issued a report this month on the “Securities Markets Risk Outlook 2014-2015”. I am not going to attempt to achieve the poetic effect of the volume read as a whole, so I will skip ahead to page 85 to the section on margin calls.

Talking (again) about the last crisis, the authors recount: “When the crisis materialised in 2008, deleveraging occurred, leading to a pro-cyclical margin spiral (see figure 99). Margin requirements also have the potential to cause pro-cyclical effects in the cleared markets.” The next page shows figure 99, an intriguing cartoon of a margin spiral, with haircuts leading to more haircuts leading to “liquidate position”, “further downward pressure” and “loss on open positions”. In short, do not read it to the children before bedtime.

This margin issue is exactly what I’ve been on about for six years now. Good that regulators are finally waking up to it, though it’s a little late in the day, isn’t it?

I chuckle at the children before bedtime line. I often say that I should give my presentations on the systemic risk of CCPs while sitting by a campfire holding a flashlight under my chin.

I don’t chuckle at the fact that other regulators seem rather oblivious to the dangers inherent in what they’ve created:

While supervisory institutions such as the Financial Stability Oversight Council are trying to fit boring old life insurers into their “systemic” regulatory frameworks, they seem to be ignoring the degree to which the much-expanded clearing houses are a threat, not a solution. Much attention has been paid, publicly, to how banks that become insolvent in the future will have their shareholders and creditors bailed in to the losses, their managements dismissed and their corporate forms put into liquidation. But what about the clearing houses? What happens to them when one or more of their participants fail?

I call myself the Clearing Cassandra precisely because I have been prophesying so for years, but the FSOC and others have largely ignored such concerns.

Dizard starts out his piece quoting Dallas Fed President Richard Fisher comparing macroprudential regulation to the Maginot Line. Dizard notes that others have made similar Maginot Line comparisons post-crisis, and says that this is unfair to the Maginot Line because it was never breached: the Germans went around it.

I am one person who has made this comparison specifically in the context of CCPs, most recently at Camp Alphaville in July. But my point was exactly that the creation of impregnable CCPs would result in the diversion of stresses to other parts of the financial system, just like the Maginot line diverted the Germans into the Ardennes, where French defenses were far more brittle. In particular, CCPs are intended to eliminate credit risk, but they do so by creating tremendous demands for liquidity, especially during crisis times. Since liquidity risk is, in my view, far more dangerous than credit risk, this is not obviously a good trade off. The main question becomes: During the next crisis, where will be the financial Sedan?

I take some grim satisfaction that arguments that I have made for years are becoming conventional wisdom, or at least widespread among those who haven’t imbibed the Clearing Kool Aid. Would that have happened before legislators and regulators around the world embarked on the vastest re-engineering of world financial markets ever attempted, and did so with their eyes wide shut.

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October 7, 2014

The Crude Export Ban: Moot For Now, But That’s Not Necessarily a Good Thing

Filed under: Commodities,Economics,Energy,Politics,Regulation — The Professor @ 7:55 pm

Markets are wondrous things.

Consider the crude oil market. Remember the debate about the US crude export ban? Well, in a few months, that has turned out to be a moot issue. Due to the collapse of demand in Europe, and the freeing up of Nigerian supplies formerly exported to the US, price relationships have changed dramatically. Whereas Louisiana Light Sweet had recently traded at a big discount to Brent, it is now at a sufficiently high premium that it is economical to import Brent to the US, especially to the East Coast. Jones Act tankers expected to take crude from the Gulf to the East Coast are swinging at anchor because it is now economical to feed the EC refineries with Brent.

What’s more, the US crude glut fattened domestic refining margins. So how did US refiners respond? By increasing capacity, and reducing maintenance schedules by 30 percent. This has increased the demand for domestic crude, which has in turn helped close, and at times reverse, the US price discount. This investment in capacity and adjustment of maintenance schedules is arguably inefficient: it’s better to direct some of the crude to underutilized European refineries than to expand refining capacity in the US. But the point is that this inefficiency is attributable to inefficient laws: the laws on oil export have stood still, but the markets have moved on to mitigate the damage.

Meaning at present, price differentials are such that it would not be profitable to export crude even if it were permitted.

This may be true now, but of course it is not destined to be true forever. Therefore, it is still desirable to eliminate the ban, if only to eliminate the incentives to use scarce resources to take advantage of the price distortions that the ban can sometimes cause.  The ban might be a moot issue for now, but that’s not necessarily a good thing.

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Manipulation Prosecutions: Going for the Capillaries, Ignoring the Jugular

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

The USDOJ has filed criminal charges against a trader named Michael Coscia for “spoofing” CME and ICE futures markets. Frankendodd made spoofing a crime.

What is spoofing? It’s the futures market equivalent of Lucy and the football. A trader submits buy (sell) orders above (below) the inside market in the hope that this convinces other market participants that there is strong demand (supply) for (of) the futures contract. If others are so fooled, they will raise their bids (lower their offers). Right before they do this, the spoofer pulls his orders just like Lucy pulls the football away from Charlie Brown, and then hits (lifts) the higher (lower) bids (offers). If the pre-spoof prices are “right”, the post-spoof bids (offers) are too high (too low), which means the spoofer sells high and buys low.

Is this inefficient? Yeah, I guess. Is it a big deal? Color me skeptical, especially since the activity is self-correcting. The strategy works if those at the inside market, who these days are likely to be HFT firms, consider the away from the market spoofing orders to be informative. But they aren’t. The HFT firms at the inside market who respond to the spoof will lose money. They will soon figure this out, and won’t respond to the spoofs any more: they will deem away-from-the-market orders as uninformative. Problem solved.

But the CFTC (and now DOJ, apparently) are obsessed with this, and other games for ticks. They pursue these activities with Javert-like mania.

What makes this maddening to me is that while obsessing over ticks gained by spoofs or other HFT strategies, regulators have totally overlooked corners that have distorted prices by many, many ticks.

I know of two market operations in the last ten years plausibly involving major corners that have arguably imposed mid-nine figure losses on futures market participants, and in one of the case, possibly ten-figure losses. Yes, we are talking hundreds of millions and perhaps more than a billion. To put things in context, Coscia is alleged to have made a whopping $1.6 million. That is, two or three orders of magnitude less than the losses involved in these corners.

And what have CFTC and DOJ done in these cases? Exactly bupkus. Zip. Nada. Squat.

Why is that? Part of the explanation is that previous CFTC decisions in the 1980s were economically incoherent, and have posed substantial obstacles to winning a verdict: I wrote about this almost 20 years ago, in a Washington & Lee Law Review article. But I doubt that is the entire story, especially since one of the cases is post-Frankendodd, and hence the one of the legal obstacles that the CFTC complains about (relating to proving intent) has been eliminated.

The other part of the story is too big to jail. Both of the entities involved are very major players in their respective markets. Very major. One has been very much in the news lately.

In other words, the CFTC is likely intimidated by-and arguably captured by-those it is intended to police because they are very major players.

The only recent exception I can think of-and by recent, I mean within the last 10 years-is the DOJ’s prosecution of BP for manipulating the propane market. But BP was already in the DOJ’s sights because of the Texas City explosion. Somebody dropped the dime on BP for propane, and DOJ used that to turn up the heat on BP. BP eventually agreed to a deferred prosecution agreement, in which it paid a $100 million fine to the government, and paid $53 million into a restitution fund to compensate any private litigants.

The Commodity Exchange Act specifically proscribes corners. Corners occur. But the CFTC never goes after corners, even if they cost market participants hundreds of millions of dollars. Probably because corners that cost market participants nine or ten figures can only be carried out by firms that can hire very expensive lawyers and who have multiple congressmen and senators on speed dial.

Instead, the regulators go after much smaller fry so they can crow about how tough they are on wrongdoers. They go after shoplifters, and let axe murderers walk free. Going for the capillaries, ignoring the jugular.

All this said, I am not a fan of criminalizing manipulation. Monetary fines-or damages in private litigation-commensurate to the harm imposed will have the appropriate deterrent effect.

The timidity of regulators in going after manipulators is precisely why a private right of action in manipulation cases is extremely important. (Full disclosure: I have served as an expert in such cases.)

One last comment about criminal charges in manipulation cases. The DOJ prosecuted the individual traders in the propane corner. Judge Miller in the Houston Division of the  Southern District of Texas threw out the cases, on the grounds that the Commodity Exchange Act’s anti-manipulation provisions are unconstitutionally vague. Now this is only a district court decision, and the anti-spoofing case will be brought under new provisions of the CEA adopted as the result of Dodd-Frank. Nonetheless, I think it is highly likely that Coscia will raise the same defense (as well as some others). It will be interesting to see how this plays out.

But regardless of how it plays out, regulators’ obsession with HFT games stands in stark contrast with their conspicuous silence on major corner cases. Given that corners can cause major dislocations in markets, and completely undermine the purposes of futures markets-risk transfer and price discovery-this imbalance speaks very ill of the priorities-and the gumption (I cleaned that up)-of those charged with policing US futures markets.

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October 6, 2014

Laughing Gaz(prom)

Filed under: Commodities,Derivatives,Economics,Energy,Russia — The Professor @ 6:21 pm

Silly me, I thought the “gaz” in Gazprom was methane. But reading this article in Platts, I’m thinking it’s nitrous oxide.  I had to read it several times before I could catch a glimpse of what Sergei Komlev, head of Gazprom Export’s contract structuring and price formation department, was getting at. I now see the basic problem is that he thinks the price of gas in Europe is too low. And the culprit? Speculators! Paper traders! “Virtual gas”!

Come on Sergei, you can’t get originality points for that one. Round up the usual suspects and all that.

Anyways, FWIW, here are Sergei’s deep, N20 inspired thoughts on the subject:

“Paradoxically, gas price erosion is taking place at a time when physical supplies are tight,” Komlev said, adding that some European market analysts had acknowledged that hubs were overflowing with largely “paper” gas.

This became possible with the development of the spot gas market as hubs developed a new class of customer such as banks and commodity traders, Komlev said.

But “as no one is in a position to predict the weather, traded volumes of ‘paper’ gas significantly surpassed real world demand for gas because of the abnormally warm winter in 2014,” he said.

This artificial oversupply had put significant pressure on the market, resulting in a collapse in spot prices, he said.

“As a result, our European customers are facing negative margins as they have to supply gas to end-consumers at lower prices than they pay for physical deliveries under long-term contracts,” he said.

“When some time ago our clients sold our contract volumes on a forward curve for many months ahead they targeted this new class of customers first,” he said.

I’m doubled over in convulsions here, and I haven’t even taken a hit. Is there such a thing as second hand N20?

Let me translate what really happened. Speculators went long. Weather was unusually warm. Prices fell, and speculators took a bath. Simple story. As for “tight physical supplies”, later on Sergei lets on that gas demand in Europe fell 20 percent in the 1st half of 2014.

Sorry, but “paper gas” doesn’t heat a single home or turn a single turbine. It doesn’t oversupply. It doesn’t overdemand. It just transfers price risk. As contracts go prompt, the price of paper gas converges to the price of physical gas, which is driven by supply and demand fundamentals-most notably the weather. What frosts (or is it burns?) Sergei is that the price converged to a low price which is out of line with the oil-linked prices in Gazprom contracts. This has imposed pain on Gazprom’s customers, who are clamoring to renegotiate their contracts, which Sergei and Gazprom no likey.

Like the proverbial blind hog and the acorn, Sergei did root up a bit of the truth:

Long-term contracts were shaped at a time when spot gas markets in Europe were not developed, and the gas price — linked to oil prices — “was practically independent of supply/demand dynamics,” Komlev said.

I repeat: The oil linked price was/is “practically independent of supply/demand dynamics.”

Exactly! That’s the problem! That’s why a move to hub-based pricing, where gas prices can reflect gas values, is so necessary: it ensures that contract prices reflect supply/demand dynamics. Prices that don’t reflect values lead to distortions in output and consumption and investment, and to conflicts between buyers and sellers that inflate transactions costs.

Komlev went on to say that since price in the contracts was not flexible, and was out of line with gas values, it was necessary to permit quantity flexibility in Gazprom contracts. If the company is dragged kicking and screaming into the 21st century, and must index its contractual gas prices to-wait for it-gas prices, it will eliminate the quantity optionality.

Throw the customers into that b’rer patch, Sergei. Truth be told, fixed quantity forward supply contracts are quite the thing in the US, and have been since the dysfunctional price controls on gas were discarded in the 1980s. Companies can buy and sell base load volumes using fixed quantity long term contracts (perhaps at indexed prices); respond to near term fundamental conditions with short-term (e.g., month ahead) forward contracts entered into during something analogous to “bid week” and respond to intra-month/daily supply and demand swings with spot transactions. They can also get various customized contracts that are seasonally shaped, or have some optionality that permits efficient responses to supply and demand shocks (though the CFTC’s proposed Seven Prong-Prong, not Pirrong-test for determining whether supply contracts with quantity optionality are swaps subject to Frankendodd could wreak havoc with that).

A liberated gas market offers a variety of contract terms, including contracts that embed various sorts of quantity optionality. But the point is that heterogeneous suppliers and demanders can utilize a variety of contracts tailored to meet their idiosyncratic needs, as opposed to Gazprom contracts, which remind me of nothing so much as an ill-fitting Soviet suit.

I do have to thank Sergei. I haven’t had such a good laugh in a long time, with or without chemical assistance. But I doubt he-and Gazprom-will be laughing for long. The disconnect between oil and gas prices has become too large and too persistent for their beloved oil linkage to survive much longer.

Speaking of oil-linked prices, this is an issue in LNG markets too. I recently authored a white paper on the subject. I’ll provide a link and write a post on that subject in the next few days.

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October 5, 2014

Damage Control at the CFTC

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

The WSJ recently ran an article describing the ongoing standoff between the EU and the CFTC over swaps clearing. The Europeans have refused to certify any US clearinghouse as being subject to regulations equivalent to those under which European CCPs do. For its part, the CFTC has refused to recognize EU CCPs. The Europeans have pointedly recognized CCPs from a variety of other nations, including Japan, Hong Kong and India: things are so bad between the US and Europe that I wouldn’t be surprised if the Euros certified a North Korean CCP before they did the same for CME or another US CCP.

Failure to certify will mean that it will become prohibitively expensive for US firms to clear swaps in Europe, and vice versa. This will exacerbate the already worrisome fragmentation of swaps markets along jurisdictional lines.

The Euros are furious at the US’s rather imperialistic attitude on derivatives regulation, especially under the Gensler chairmanship of the CFTC. As new commissioner Christopher Giancarlo points out in a scathing speech delivered at the recent FIA meetings in Geneva, this imperialism was not limited to clearing issues alone. It also involved attempts to dictate how trades are executed, that is, the “Worst of Frankendodd” SEF mandate:

Making things worse, the CFTC swaps trading rules contain a host of peculiar limitations based on practices in the US futures markets that have not been adopted in the EU11 or anywhere else. Several of these peculiar CFTC swaps trading rules are contrary to common practice in global markets and are unlikely to be replicated by non-US regulators, including:

  • Trading only on order books and request for quote (RFQ) systems to TWO then THREE counterparties;12
  • Exchange-certified “made available to trade” determinations;13
  • Swap Execution Facility (SEF) position-limit maintenance and enforcement;14
  • Limitations on counterparty transparency;15 and
  • 10 CFTC Staff Advisory No. 13-69 (Nov. 14, 2013), available at http://www.cftc.gov/ucm/groups/public/@lrlettergeneral/documents/letter/13-69.pdf.

Now I have long been a critic of these rules. And so my criticism is not new and is not directed at the staff of the CFTC who worked hard to adapt existing trading models to meet greatly expedited implementation deadlines.

Here’s the key paragraph:

The avowed purpose of the CFTC’s broad assertion of jurisdiction is to insulate the United States from systemic risk. Yet, on the ostensible grounds of ring-fencing the US economy from harm, the CFTC purports to tell global swaps markets involving US persons to adopt particular CFTC trading mechanics that do almost nothing to reduce counterparty risk. In the words of one former senior CFTC advisor, the Interpretative Guidance “yoked together rules designed to reduce risk with rules designed to promote market transparency. Yet it provided almost no guidance about how to think about the extraterritorial application of market transparency rules independent of risk. As a result, [the CFTC prescribed] how to apply US rules abroad based on considerations that are tangential to the purposes of those rules.”

How do like them apples? (Those who remember the Gensler regime will know what I’m referring to.) As Giancarlo notes, a US obsession with swaps execution, that has nothing to do with reducing systemic risk, is causing jurisdictional fragmentation that likely increases systemic risk. What’s more, I would add that this is nuts even on its own terms. The idea behind SEFs was to increase competition in swaps execution. But fragmenting the market between the US and Europe reduces competition.

Giancarlo also rightly criticizes the fact that the CFTC issued an “Interpretive Guidance” and a “Staff Advisory” rather than a formal rule. In theory firms could disregard this “guidance”, but in practice that would be a very dangerous and risky thing to do. Meaning that the CFTC has effectively imposed an indefensible policy without going through the processes that are intended to mitigate policy mistakes. Unfortunately, a federal judge recently ruled against an industry legal challenge to the CFTC’s imposition of its dictates through such procedural legedermain.

Giancarlo has a concrete proposal to eliminate the impasse:

But we can go further. I intend to do everything I can to encourage the CFTC to replace its cross-border Interpretative Guidance with a formal rulemaking that recognizes outcomes-based substituted compliance for competent non-US regulatory regimes. As part of that effort, I will seek the withdrawal of the CFTC staff’s November 2013 Advisory that fails not only the letter and spirit of the “Path Forward,” but also contradicts the conceptual underpinnings of the CFTC’s Interpretive Guidance.

I hope that happens, but the question is whether it will happen in time. Unless the impasse is resolved soon, the “Balkanization” that Giancarlo laments will only get worse. Once that division becomes established, it will be difficult to reverse later, even if the the US and EU eventually recognize the equivalence of each other’s CCPs.

The good news here is that new Chair Timothy Massad also appears to be substantially less rigid, dictatorial, and imperious than his predecessor Gensler. Perhaps we shall see a more reasonable approach to derivatives regulation, especially on cross-border issues. This will not be sufficient to undo the many defects of Frankendodd, but it may at least mitigate the damage.

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We Are So Screwed, Ebola Edition

Filed under: Economics,Politics — The Professor @ 8:24 am

A corollary to the old expression “sh*t happens” is “it happens all at once.” That certainly appears to be true in the Age of Obama. The parade of horribles just keeps on getting longer.

Case in point: Ebola. Of course the outbreak in west Africa, unprecedented in both scale, scope, and location (occurring far to the west of most previous episodes) cannot be laid at the doorstep of the White House (guarded as it is by a rather fallen Secret Service!). But the American response to it is very much the administration’s responsibility, and the early indications are: Be afraid. Be very afraid.

The response to the initial case in Dallas, and the very fact that Thomas Duncan made it to Dallas, hardly inspire confidence. Pandemic illnesses have been a threat for a long time. The Ebola threat has been developing for months. There should be, and should have been, off-the-shelf contingency plans well in place to deal with this, and deal quickly and efficiently. Starting with screening procedures regarding whom to let into the country, and with protocols to identify and isolate potential cases. But that didn’t happen in the Duncan case.

So the government has taken a Mulligan, and will nail the next shot, right?

Based on the response of Center for Disease Control and Prevention head Thomas Friedan, the answer is again: Be afraid. Be very afraid. His response is all about defensive spinning and political correctness. He is fighting against measures to restrict travel to the US by those who are at high risk of exposure to Ebola, measures that should have been in place when the crisis began to explode in Sierra Leone, Guinea, and Libera. In his dishonest defense, he has mastered the Obama tropes of straw men, the false choice, and the non sequitur:

Dr. Thomas Frieden, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said the federal government is looking at different safety-related suggestions from Capitol Hill and beyond, but he suggested the key is to control the deadly virus where it started overseas, not limiting entry to the United States.

“Though we might wish we can seal ourselves off from the world, there are Americans who have the right of return and many other people that have the right to enter this country,” Frieden said at a press conference Saturday.  “We’re not going to be able to get to zero risk no matter what we do unless we control the outbreak in West Africa.”

Frieden went on to say that limiting entry at the borders could actually put Americans at greater risk.

“In terms of the entry process, we really need to be clear that we don’t inadvertently increase the risk to people in this country by making it harder for us to respond to the needs in those countries, by making it harder to get assistance in and therefore those outbreaks would become worse, go on longer, and paradoxically, something that we did to try and protect ourselves might actually increase our risk,” Frieden said.

Where to begin?

  1. Who other than Mr. Straw is wishing, arguing, or advocating that “we seal ourselves off from the world”? A discriminating (yes, discrimination can be a good thing!) approach to admitting people to the US is not “sealing ourselves off from the world.” It is the most basic measure that can be taken to reduce the risk of transmission of the virus to the US.  We’re not talking about pulling up the drawbridge. We’re talking about aggressive screening to identify and isolate high risks, while letting low or zero risk people travel normally.
  2. Who is claiming “zero risk” is possible? The issue is reducing the risk in the most efficient and efficacious ways.
  3. Since when is the “right to enter the country” unlimited? FFS, several years ago I was hassled at customs/immigration for accidentally bringing a ham sandwich off the plane from Europe, and was subjected to luggage checks the next four times I returned to the country. I apparently got more scrutiny than Mr. Duncan. Friday, while waiting for baggage at Newark, a sniffer dog found a guy who’d brought a banana off the plane. He was given a citation.
  4. Since when are fighting against the disease at its origin in west Africa and preventing those from west Africa at high risk to being exposed to the disease from entering the country mutually exclusive alternatives? Can’t we put a “Both” box for Obama to check on the options memo that his staff prepares for him? Does fighting the disease in west Africa compete for resources with screening people entering the US? Hardly.
  5. As dysfunctional as west African countries are, we might as well just kill ourselves now if controlling the disease in that region is necessary to prevent an outbreak in the US.
  6. Does that last quoted paragraph in the story  make any sense? Any? I’ve read it 10 times and it’s more bizarre and incoherent each time. How does restricting entry of potentially infected individuals to the US impede our efforts in west Africa? That is the non sequitur to beat all non sequiturs.

One struggles to find good reasons for Freiden’s battle (and hence the administration’s battle) to screen entry into the country. The fact that Freiden feels compelled to resort to such dishonest arguments strongly suggests that there is no good reason, but there is likely a political agenda here. I strongly suggest that it is a politically correct agenda as well.

Regardless of the rationale, it is beyond outrageous that a legitimate function of government-public health-is being executed so dishonestly and incompetently. But just throw this on the pile. The VA. IRS. Obamacare website. The Secret Service. The Apostles of Big Government are the best evangelists for libertarianism-hell, anarchocapitalism-one could possibly imagine.

 

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September 29, 2014

McNamara on Pirrong & Clearing: Serious, Fair, But Ultimately Unpersuasive

Stephen Lubben passed along this paper on central clearing mandates to me. It would only be a modest overstatement to say that it is primarily a rebuttal to me. At the very least, I am the representative agent of the anti-clearing mandate crowd (and a very small crowd it is!) in Steven McNamara’s critique of opposition to clearing mandates.

McNamara’s arguments are fair, and respectfully presented. He criticizes my work, but in an oddly complimentary way.

I consider it something of a victory that he feels that it’s necessary to go outside of economics, and to appeal to Rawlsian Political Theory and Rawls’s Theory of Justice to counter my criticisms of clearing mandates.

There are actually some points of commonality between McNamara and me, which he fairly acknowledges. Specifically, we both emphasize the incredible complexity of the financial markets generally, and the derivatives markets in particular. Despite this commonality, we reach diametrically opposed conclusions.

Where I think McNamara is off-base is that he thinks I don’t pay adequate attention to the costs of financial crises and systemic risk. I firmly disagree. I definitely am very cognizant of these costs, and support measures to control them. My position is that CCPs do not necessarily reduce systemic risk, and may increase it. I’ve written several papers on that very issue. The fact that I believe that freely chosen clearing arrangements are more efficient than mandated ones in “peacetime” (i.e., normal, non-crisis periods) (something McNamara focuses on) only strengthens my doubts about the prudence of mandates.

McNamara addresses some of the arguments I make about systemic risk  in his paper, but it does not cite my most recent article that sets them out in a more comprehensive way.  (Here’s an ungated working paper version: the final version is only slightly different.) Consequently, he does not address some of my arguments, and gets some wrong: at least, in my opinion, he doesn’t come close to rebutting them.

Consider, for instance, my argument about multilateral netting. Netting gives derivatives priority in bankruptcy. This means that derivatives counterparties are less likely to run and thereby bring down a major financial institution. McNamara emphasizes this, and claims that this is actually a point in favor of mandating clearing (and the consequent multilateral netting). My take is far more equivocal: the reordering of priorities makes other claimants more likely to run, and on balance, it’s not clear whether multilateral netting  reduces systemic risk. I point to the example of money market funds that invested in Lehman corporate paper. There were runs on MMFs when they broke the buck. Multilateral netting of derivatives would make such runs more likely by reducing the value of this corporate paper (due to its lower position in the bankruptcy queue). Not at all clear how this cuts.

McNamara mentions my concerns about collateral transformation services, and gives them some credence, but not quite enough in my view.

He views mutualization of risk as a good thing, and doesn’t address my mutualization is like CDO trenching point (which means that default funds load up on systemic/systematic risk). Given his emphasis on the risks associated with interconnections, I don’t think he pays sufficient concern to the fact that default funds are a source of interconnection, especially during times of crisis.

Most importantly, although he does discuss some of my analysis of margins, he doesn’t address my biggest systemic risk concern: the tight coupling and liquidity strains that variation margining creates during crises. This is also an important source of interconnection in financial markets.

I have long acknowledged-and McNamara acknowledges my acknowledgement-that we can’t have any great certainty about how whether clearing mandates will increase or reduce systemic risk. I have argued that the arguments that it will reduce it are unpersuasive, and often flatly wrong, but are made confidently nonetheless: hence the “bill of goods” title of my clearing and systemic risk paper (which the editor of JFMI found provocative/tendentious, but which I insisted on retaining).

From this “radical” uncertainty, arguing in a Rawlsian vein, McNamara argues that regulation is the right approach, given the huge costs of a systemic crisis, and especially their devastating impact on the least among us. But this presumes that the clearing mandate will have its intended effect of reducing this risk. My point is that this presumption is wholly unfounded, and that on balance, systemic risks are likely to increase as the result of a mandate, especially (and perhaps paradoxically) given the widespread confidence among regulators that clearing will reduce it.

McNamara identifies me has a hard core utilitarian, but that’s not quite right. Yes, I think I have decent formal economics chops, but I bring a Hayekian eye to this problem. Specifically, I believe that in a complex, emergent system like the financial markets (and derivatives are just a piece of that complex emergent system), top down, engineered, one-size-fits-all solutions are the true sources of system risk. (In fairness, I have made this argument most frequently here on the blog, rather than my more formal writings, so I understand if McNamara isn’t aware of it.) Attempts to design such systems usually result in major unintended consequences, many of them quite nasty. In some of my first remarks on clearing mandates at a public forum (a Columbia Law School event in 2009), I quoted Hayek: “The curious task of economics is to demonstrate to men how little they really know about what they imagine they can design.”

I’ve used the analogy of the Sorcerer’s Apprentice to make this point before, and I think it is apt. Those intending to “fix” something can unleash forces they don’t understand, with devastating consequences.

At the end of his piece, McNamara makes another Rawlsian argument, a political one. Derivatives dealer banks are too big, to politically influential, corrupt the regulatory process, and exacerbate income inequality. Anything that reduces their size and influence is therefore beneficial. As McNamara puts it: clearing mandates are “therefore a roundabout way to achieve a reduction in their status as ‘Too Big to Fail,’ and also their economic and political influence.”

But as I’ve written often on the blog, this hope is chimerical. Regulation tends to create large fixed costs, which tends to increase scale economies and therefore lead to greater concentration. That clearly appears to be the case with clearing members, and post-Frankendodd there’s little evidence that the regulations have reduced the dominance of big banks and TBTF. Moreover, more expansive regulation actually increases the incentive to exercise political influence, so color me skeptical that Dodd-Frank will contribute anything to the cleaning of the Augean Stables of the American political system. I would bet the exact opposite, actually.

So to sum up, I am flattered but unpersuaded by Steven McNamara’s serious, evenhanded, and thorough effort to rebut my arguments against clearing mandates, and to justify them on the merits. Whether it is on “utilitarian” (i.e., economic) or Rawlsian grounds, I continue to believe that arguments and evidence weigh heavily against clearing mandates as prudent policy.  But I am game to continue the debate, and Steve McNamara has proved himself to be a worthy opponent, and a gentleman to boot.

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