Streetwise Professor

October 12, 2017

Trump Treasury Channels SWP

SWP doesn’t work for the Trump Treasury Department, and is in fact neuralgic to the idea of working for any government agency. Yet the Treasury’s recent report on financial regulatory reform is very congenial to my thinking, on derivatives related issues anyways. (I haven’t delved into the other portions.)

A few of the greatest hits.

Position limits. The Report expresses skepticism about the existence of “excessive speculation.” Therefore, it recommends limiting the role of position limits to reducing manipulation during the delivery period. Along those lines, it recommends spot month on limits, because that is “where the risk of manipulation is greatest.” It also says that limits should be designed so as to not burden unduly hedgers. I made both of these points in my 2011 comment letter on position limits, and in the paper submitted in conjunction with ISDA’s comment letter in 2014. They are also reflected in the report on the deliberations of the Energy and Environmental Markets Advisory Committee that I penned (to accurately represent the consensus of the Committee) in 2016–much to Lizzie Warren’s chagrin.

The one problematic recommendation is that spot month position limits be based on “holistic” definitions of deliverable supply–e.g., the world gold market. This could have extremely mischievous effects in manipulation litigation: such expansive and economically illogical notions of deliverable supplies in CFTC decisions like Cox & Frey make it difficult to prosecute corners and squeezes.

CFTC-SEC Merger. I have ridiculed this idea for literally decades–starting when I was yet but a babe in arms 😉 It is a hardy perennial in DC, which I have called a solution in search of a problem. (I think I used the same language in regards to position limits–this is apparently a common thing in DC.) The Treasury thinks little of the idea either, and recommends against it.

SEFs. I called the SEF mandate “the worst of Frankendodd” immediately upon the passage of the law in July, 2010. The Treasury Report identifies many of the flaws I did, and recommends a much less restrictive requirement than GiGi imposed in the CFTC SEF rules. I also called out the Made Available For Trade rule the dumbest part of the worst of Frankendodd, and Treasury recommends eliminating these flaws as well. Finally, four years ago I blogged about the insanity of the dueling footnotes, and Treasury recommends “clarifying or eliminating” footnote 88, which threatened to greatly expand the scope of the SEF mandate.

CCPs. Although it does not address the main concern I have about the clearing mandate, Treasury does note that many issues regarding systemic risks relating to CCPs remain unresolved. I’ve been on about this since before DFA was passed, warning that the supposed solution to systemic risk originating in derivatives markets created its own risks.

Uncleared swap margin. I’ve written that uncleared swap margin rules were too rigid and posed risks. I have specifically written about the 10-day margining period rule as being too crude and poorly calibrated to risk: Treasury agrees. Similarly, it argues for easing affiliate margin rules, reducing the rigidity of the timing of margin payments (which will ease liquidity burdens), and overbroad application of the rule to include entities that do not impose systemic risks.

De minimis threshold for swap dealers. I’m on the record for saying using a notional amount to determine the de minimis threshold to determine who must register as a swap dealer made no sense, given the wide variation in riskiness of different swaps of the same notional value. I also am on the record that the $8 billion threshold sweeps in firms that do not pose systemic risks, and that a reduced threshold of $3 billion would be even more ridiculously over inclusive. Treasury largely agrees.

The impact of capital rules on clearing. One concern I’ve raised is that various capital rules, in particular those that include initial margin amounts in determining liquidity ratios for banks, and hence their capital requirements, make no economic sense, and and unnecessarily drive up the costs banks/FCMs incur to clear for clients. This is contrary to the purpose of clearing mandates, and moreover, has contributed to increased concentration among FCMs, which is in itself a systemic risk. Treasury recommends “the deduction of initial margin for centrally cleared derivatives from the SLR denominator.” Hear, hear.

I could go into more detail, but these are the biggies. All of these recommendations are very sensible, and with the one exception noted above, in the Title VII-related section I see no non-sensical recommendations. This is actually a very thoughtful piece of work that if followed, will  undo some of the most gratuitously burdensome parts of Frankendodd, and the Gensler CFTC’s embodiment (or attempts to embody) those parts in rules.

But, of course, on the Lizzie Warren left and in the chin pulling mainstream media, the report is viewed as a call to gut essential regulations. Gutting stupid is actually a good idea, and that’s what this report proposes. Alas, Lizzie et al are incapable of even conceiving that regulations could possibly be stupid.

Hamstrung by inane Russia investigations and a recalcitrant (and largely gutless and incompetent) Republican House and Senate, the Trump administration has accomplished basically zero on the legislative front. It’s only real achievement so far is to start–and just to start–the rationalization and in some cases termination (with extreme prejudice) of Obama-era regulation. If implemented, the recommendations in the Treasury Report (at least insofar as Title VII of DFA is concerned), would represent a real achievement. (As would rollbacks or elimination of the Clean Power Plan, Net Neutrality, and other 2009-2016 inanity.)

But of course this will require painstaking efforts by regulatory agencies, and will have to be accomplished in the face of an unrelentingly hostile media and the lawfare efforts of the regulatory class. But at least the administration has laid out a cogent plan of action, and is getting people in place who are dedicated to put that plan into action (e.g., Chris Giancarlo at CFTC). So let’s get on with it.

 

 

 

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October 9, 2017

The Thaler Nobel: A Nudge to Progressivism in a Populist Age

Filed under: Economics,Politics — The Professor @ 9:02 pm

Richard Thaler won the 2017 economics Nobel. Another win for Chicago. Ironic, in a way, given that in many ways Thaler is the anti-Chicago. The fact that the prime critic of homo economicus is on the faculty of the school most associated with neoclassical economics that utilizes homo economicus as its primary analytic engine is an indication of Chicago’s self-confidence, and reflects a belief that intellectual tension is a spur to scholarly innovation. Also, it may well indicate a canny instinct about future trends in economic science.

Insofar as the Nobel is a measure of impact, this one is warranted: there is no doubt that behavioral economics, of which Thaler is the recognized leader, has had an impact on the profession. That said, this area was recently recognized with Kahneman’s Nobel a few years back, and it would have been preferable IMO to have awarded Thaler along with Kahneman.

Insofar as the substance of behavioral economics is concerned, I largely agree with Mario Rizzo’s opinions on the Thaler award. Along with Rizzo, I find it useful to divide things into positive and normative economics.

With respect to positive economics, as Rizzo notes the primary use of the rational actor assumption is to derive predictions about aggregate/market behavior. It is not at all evident how the irrational actor assumption leads to more empirically robust models.  I vividly recall Gary Becker’s discussion of irrationality in an Econ 301 class at Chicago, in which he showed that rationality (in the form of utility maximization) is not necessary to derive the law of demand (though it is sufficient). Random choices on the budget line lead to a downward sloping demand curve, meaning that the location of the opportunity set, rather than how agents choose a point on that budget set, is the more important factor in causing the demand curve to slope down.

Indeed, there is a danger of falling prey to the fallacy of composition: even if certain behaviors are observed at the level of the individual does not imply that they will characterize behavior at larger elements of aggregation. Allowing for individual irrationality certainly adds modeling degrees of freedom, but that’s more of a bug than a feature, especially given the now vast number of alleged behavioral biases. There is always the risk of cherry picking this bias or that to explain a particular phenomenon, and then cherry picking another (which could be completely at odds with the first one) to explain another. This creates the risk that behavioral economics is empirically vacuous.

Further, there are already plenty of degrees of freedom even within the standard economics maximizing agent framework. Information environment–note that the most die-hard advocate of neoclassical economics and the exemplar of the Chicago School, introduced costly information in the form of search costs to explain price dispersion, which is inexplicable in the Marshallian costless information, perfect competition framework. Preferences–which raises a question: is habit persistence rational or irrational? Strategic interaction–one of the problems with game theory is that virtually any outcome is possible with rational actors depending on the details of the game, the information environment, beliefs, etc. Many phenomenon that seemed anomalous in one type of model with rational actors have been explained by tweaking one of these features all the while retaining the rational actor assumption.

So I’ve yet to see how deviating from the maximizing agent framework (and maximization is really what rationality means) improves the ability of economics to improve the empirical performance of its predictions regarding aggregate/market behavior. Meaning that the contributions of behavioral economics to positive economics are dubious, in the sense that they are unnecessary, and often subject to abuse.

But what really distinguishes behavioral economics is its avowedly normative thrust. People are irrational, and would be better off in objectively measurable ways if these behavioral biases were corrected. Furthermore, many behavioral economists, and Thaler specifically, are quite confident in their ability to identify and correct these biases–and make people better off–through “nudges”.

I have two major objections to this. The first is the fallacy of composition problem mentioned earlier. Nudged agents interact in markets, organizations, and institutions. Individual behavioral changes will lead to changes in prices and market outcomes. It does not follow that “better” individual behavior will result in “better” market outcomes–that’s the fallacy of composition in action. Economies are emergent orders, and small changes in individual behavior can lead to very different emergent outcomes. The law of unintended consequences is ruthless in its operation in emergent settings.

My second objection is more straightforward. Behavioral economics of the nudge variety is relentlessly progressive, in the political sense. There are the elite nudgers, and the irrational hoi polloi who can be improved by the beneficent interventions of the nudgers. Moreover, the elite are apparently not just benevolent, but also devoid of their own behavioral biases.

To which I reply: one of the major biases identified by behavioral economists is the overconfidence bias. Mightn’t the nudgers be particularly prone to that bias? The likely commission of the fallacy of composition suggests that they are. As does the dreary experience of social and behavioral engineering efforts large and small, where technocratic elites in their overweening confidence wreaked great havoc around the world.

Ironically, I would assert that behavioral economics actually feeds the overconfidence bias among its practitioners. A seemingly powerful intellectual tool has the tendency to do that. In economics, I would proffer Keynesianism as an example.

Shall we consider other biases as well? Given that there are many of them, we could be here for a while. Suffice it to say that once you admit the nudgers are themselves imperfect decision makers, the case for nudging becomes very weak indeed. When you add the fact that even Spock-like nudgers operate with seriously limited information (about outcomes of emergent social processes in particular), the case becomes weaker still.

Behavioral economics therefore is just what a would-be technocratic elite ordered. It provides a justification for their existence, and also for an existence that should be independent of check by popular institutions. For it would be irrational, wouldn’t it, to subject rational, bias-free technocrats to the whims of irrational individuals crippled by various behavioral biases? Decision making elites unconstrained by popular forces is the essence of progressivism (and in its extreme form, totalitarianism).

Behavioral economics is particularly precious to the elite in this populist age when technocratic elites are under attack from the hoi polloi. The Nobel committees are notoriously political, and often make political statements through their choices. I would not be surprised if the Thaler award has a strong political undercurrent, given the palpable elite panic at resurgent populism, and the decidedly elitist, progressive thrust of behavioral economics generally, and its Thaler-inspired nudge variety in particular.

Behavioral economics is very congenial to top-down approaches to social problems. It is viewed by deep skepticism with people like me who believe that the knowledge problem; emergence and the law of unintended consequences; and the deforming effects and perverse incentives of power (to name just three things) make top down solutions disastrous in most cases.

So the Thaler Nobel is accurately reflective of the influence of behavioral economics on the profession, and on the profession’s contribution to policy debates. And that is a disturbing reality.

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September 19, 2017

Motivated Seller

Filed under: Economics,Energy,Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 8:18 pm

I conjectured that Qatar’s sale of half of its Rosneft stake reflected at least in part the dramatic change in the emirate’s circumstances between December (when it initially bought in) and September (when it sold off), specifically the cold war with Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and the rest of the Gulf Cooperation Council (oxymoron alert!) that broke out over the summer. This conflict has put substantial financial strains on Qatar, which would suggest it bailed on Rosneft (at what price???) to raise cash and reduce risk.

This story from Bloomberg is consistent with that: private depositors have been fleeing Qatar’s banks, and the state is stepping in, putting about $11 billion into these banks. Liquidating investments like the Rosneft stake is one way of raising that cash, and reducing debt. (This raises the possibility that if the crisis drags on, Qatar may sell the rest of its 4.7 percent share of Rosneft.) That is, Qatar could have been a very motivated seller–war clouds can do that to a country. And if it was a motivated seller, CEFC probably obtained its position at a good price, perhaps even a fire sale price. That’s not evident from the reported terms of the transaction, which means that there are side deals.

One other thing about the Qatar-GCC standoff. There are reports that Trump kept the cold war from going hot:

Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates considered military action in the early stages of their ongoing dispute with Qatar before Donald Trump called leaders of both countries and warned them to back off, according to two people familiar with the U.S. president’s discussions.

The Saudis and U.A.E. were looking at ways to remove the Qatari regime, which they accused of sponsoring terrorism and cozying up to Iran, according to the people, who asked not to be identified because the discussions were confidential. Trump told Saudi and U.A.E. leaders that any military action would trigger a crisis across the Middle East that would only benefit the Iranians, one of the people said.

Donald Trump, peacemaker. Not that he’ll get credit. Note that early on, Trump’s pro-Saudi message clashed with Tillerson’s more neutral approach. This story suggests that Trump’s private and public positions may have been different, and that he was really on board with Tillerson all along. Alternatively, Trump initially tweeted his gut reaction, but Tillerson and others quickly persuaded him to moderate his course. Either way, the outcome conflicts with the prevailing narrative about Trump.

 

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State Firms Are Running From Private Banks in Russia: Are Putin’s Hands On or Off?

Filed under: Economics,Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 7:59 pm

Russia’s private banks  are in pretty dire shape. The biggest one, Otkritie, was bailed out. Others have been designated as systemically important (i.e., TBTF), reflecting their size and their marginal financial condition. Further, the FT reports that some private banks are undergoing a run of sorts. Interestingly, the run is being led by state corporations, which are withdrawing billions (of dollars, not rubles)–one unidentified state corporation is leading the way. Such withdrawals sounded the death knell of Otkrite, and are jeopardizing other big private lenders.

In the conventional view of Russia as a centrally directed “vertical of power,” such potentially destabilizing moves by state entities would not take place without Putin’s acquiescence. Indeed, in this view, such moves would most likely occur at his direction.

If that is the case here, one is led to wonder about the motivation given (a) the potential for sparking a banking crisis in Russia, and (b) the cost to the central bank/government of dealing with such a banking crisis: the central bank lent Otkrite about $12 billion over the summer. Certainly, the large state banks (VTB, Sberbank, Gazprombank) would appreciate a reduction in competition for funding, although they are evidently not the only immediate beneficiaries: private bank Promsvyazbank has experienced a surge in deposits from state companies. The inflow to Promsvyazbank followed its designation as a systemically important bank, which may have convinced the state firms that their deposits are effectively backed by the RCB.

So under the power vertical view, this could be perceived as a boon to state banks who may see more deposits from state firms and less competition for funding. It could also reflect bleak choices facing the government and central bank: the weakness of the private banks means that they need to shrink their balance sheets, and the withdrawals by state firms are a way of forcing that outcome. But whence the funds to pay off the fleeing depositors? Asset sales?: fire sales could cause contagion that damages other banks, including the state banks. The central bank?: that would mean that this could be a first step to bailouts and eventual liquidation (or dramatic shrinkage) of the private banking sector.

The alternative explanation is that the state firms are acting on their own hook, and in their own interest, without direction from the top, or without receiving permission despite the potentially systemically risky implications of these moves. In some ways, that would be even more intriguing, as it would suggest a serious degradation of the degree of central control in Russia–or that such control has been overstated all along.

A shaky banking sector will test the RCB, and the government. How it plays out–a relatively orderly wind-down of wobbly lenders directed from the center, or an uncoordinated sauve qui peut by big depositors–will say a lot about the state of the Russian economy, the Russian financial system, and crucially, the true nature of the Putin system. Is the Kremlin orchestrating this behind the scenes, or is it taking place without Putin’s directing hand? Inquiring minds want to know!

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August 5, 2017

A Brief European Tour

Filed under: Economics,Energy,Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 2:46 pm

Emmanuel Macron’s popularity has come off considerably since his victory in May. This is to be expected. He was the beneficiary of metropolitan France’s giddiness at the vanquishing of Le Pen, and the perceived slap at Trump (more on this in a bit). That intoxication has passed, and France is still France, riven as it always has been by deep political divides even among the elite.

I must confess that I may have misjudged M. Macron. I pegged him as a cipher whom Merkel would dominate. But if anything, Macron is proving to lean more towards Napoleonic ambitions, labeling himself “Jupiter” who aims to overawe the petty squabbling political nation.

Macron left some angered, and others nonplused, by his bonhomie with Trump during the president’s visit to France on Bastille Day. This actually makes perfect sense, and is the best demonstration of his intent to be his own man, rather than a Merkel flunky. As Empress Angela’s pretensions continue to swell, Macron knows that he needs a counterweight. He further knows that Merkel disdains Trump, and Trump don’t think much of her either. So the clever thing to do is to build a relationship to Trump. It signals independence. It will aggravate Angela. And it will provide Macron with some muscle in his dealings with Germany, and with the EU.

Speaking of the Germans, they are in a lather over the recently passed, and grudgingly signed, US sanctions on Russia. (Socialist) Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel called the sanctions “more than problematic” and accused the US of using the sanctions to advance its economic interests.

Vats good for ze goose is good for ze gander, eh, Fritz? German policy is all about advancing the interests of Germany, Inc. (or more properly, Germany AG). So spare me the sanctimony.

And as a factual matter, Sigmar is full of it. He states the US position to be “we want to drive Russian gas out of the European market so we can sell American gas.” This takes a very narrow and distorted view of the effect of sanctions on US companies, and energy companies in particular. The gains to US LNG are speculative, and would not be realized for some time. Other US firms–notably the oil majors–will suffer more with certainty, and suffer now, as a result of the new sanctions. Consequently, US energy firms fought the sanctions bill aggressively, and won some concessions.  So the idea that the sanctions effort was a Trojan Horse intended to advance US commercial interests is laughable. Congress proceeded with sanctions in spite of US economic interests, rather than because of them.

I think psychologists refer to what Herr Gabriel did there as “projection.”

One other thing about the sanctions bill. After it became law, Putin responded by ordering a reduction of 755 in staff at US diplomatic missions in Russia, and kicked the American diplomats out of some dachas. This is a good a confession of his strategic weakness. He really had no retaliatory measure available that would have really hurt the US without hurting Russia substantially more. So he was forced to resort to a purely symbolic measure. Something to think about the next time that you read about Putin the Colossus. Yes, he can be a pain, but when it comes down to it, he is playing with a very weak hand.

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July 26, 2017

Europe Has Always Been at War With the Diesel Engine!

Filed under: China,Climate Change,Economics,Energy,Politics,Regulation — The Professor @ 7:26 pm

Europe is at war with the diesel engine. Paris, Madrid, and Athens will ban diesels starting in 2025. Even Stuttgart (home of Daimler and Porsche) and Munich (home of BMW) are following suit. France and Britain have pledged to eliminate internal combustion engine cars by 2040.   The cars–diesel in particular–are too polluting, you see. And so the Euros are intent on replacing them with electric vehicles.

Europe has always been at war with diesel!

Um, not really. Like Oceania and East Asia, Europe and diesel were once fast allies. In its early days of the fight against climate change, Europe figured that since diesel engines burn fuel more efficiently than gasoline ones, they could reduce carbon emissions by forcing or inducing people to switch to diesel. They gave tax breaks and incentives that led to 1/3 of the European car fleet being diesel.

Then reality crept in. Diesels create more particulates, which create nasty pollution, particularly in urban areas. The Euros thought they could address this by strict emissions standards. So strict, that auto companies couldn’t meet them economically. So they lied and cheated. Brace yourself: even morally superior German companies lied and cheated! So Europe bribed people to pollute their cities. Well played!

Further, even by its own objectives the policy was a failure. Even though diesel has lower CO2 emissions, it has higher soot emissions–and soot contributes to warming. Whoops! Further, the CO2 advantage of diesel has been narrowing over the years, due to improvements in gasoline engine technology. So at best the impact of diesel on warming has been a push, and maybe a net bad.

But never fear! The same geniuses who forced diesel down Europe’s throat have a solution to the evils of diesel: they will force electric cars down people’s throats.

What could possibly go wrong?

Well, off the top of my head.

First, in the near term, a good portion of electric cars will be powered by electricity generated by coal. This is especially true if China goes Europe’s way.

Second, the green wet dream is for renewables to replace coal. Don’t even get me started. Renewables are diffuse and intermittent–they don’t scale well. They have caused problems in the power grid wherever (e.g., Europe, California) they have accounted for over 10 percent or so of generation. They consume vast amounts of land: air pollution (if you believe CO2 is a pollutant) is replaced by sight pollution and the destruction of natural habitat and foodstuff producing land. Renewables are a static technology (e.g., the amount of wind generation is limited by physical laws), whereas internal combustion technology has been improving continuously since its introduction in the 19th century. Really economic renewables generation will require a revolution in large-scale storage technology–a revolution that people have been waiting for for decades, but which hasn’t appeared.

Third, disposal of batteries is an environmental nightmare.

Fourth, mining the materials to produce batteries is an environmental nightmare–and is likely to benefit many kleptocrats around the world. Are greens really all that excited about massive mines for rare earths (notoriously polluting) and copper springing up to provide the materials for their dream machines? Will they pass laws against, say, blood cobalt? (And when they do, will they acknowledge–even to themselves–their culpability? Put me down as a “no.”)

Fifth, depending on the fuel mix, carbon emissions over an EV’s lifetime are not that much lower than those of an internal combustion car using existing technology–and that technology (as noted above) will improve.

Like I say, top of my head. But there’s an even bigger reason:

Sixth, unintended consequences, or more prosaically, shit happens. Just like the diesel box of chocolates was full of things the Euro better thans didn’t expect, and didn’t like upon consuming, the EV craze will also present unintended and unexpected effects, and in this type of circumstance, these effects are usually negative.

But they know better! How do we know? Because they keep telling us so! And because they keep telling us what to do!  Despite the fact that their actual record of performance is a litany of failures. (I cleaned that up. My initial draft had a word starting with “cluster.”)

Given such a track record, people with any decency would exercise some restraint and have some humility before embarking on another attempt to dictate technology. But no, that’s not the elite’s way. That’s not the bureaucrats’ way. They have learned nothing and forgotten nothing and will continue to prove that until someone stops them. Sadly, short of revolution it’s hard to see how that can happen.

Almost all attempts by states to dictate technology are utter fiascos. The knowledge problem is bigger here than anywhere, and the feedbacks are devilishly complex and hard to predict. Look at something seemingly as prosaic and well-understood as the production of oil and gas. Ten or twelve years ago, only a few visionaries glimpsed the potential of fracking, and I doubt that even they would admit that they foresaw the transformation that has occurred. Trying to dictate a technology that is dependent on myriad other technologies, and which may be rendered obsolete by technologies not yet developed, is something that only fools do.

But alas, there are many fools in high places.

The Orwellian switch from Europe and Diesel Have Always Been Allies to Europe Has Always Been at War With Diesel is particularly revealing because rather than recognize that the experience of Europe’s pro-diesel policy makes a mockery of policymakers pretenses of foresight, the failure of that policy is spurring them to embark on an even more speculative binge of coercion!

If you think CO2 is an issue, tax CO2 and let the market figure out the optimal way of reducing emissions: there are many margins on which to adjust, including technical innovation, fuel substitution, changes in lifestyle. Yet these madmen (and women) and fools insist on dictating technology right after their past dictates have proved failures. Worse than that: they are issuing new ukases because their old ones were crashing failures.

We are in the best of hands.

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July 17, 2017

Alphonse and Gaston Meet LMEshield–and Provide a Cautionary Tale for Blockchain Evangelists

Filed under: Blockchain,Commodities,Derivatives,Economics,Politics — The Professor @ 7:28 pm

This article isn’t explicitly about blockchain, but in a way it is. It describes the halting progress of the LME’s LMEShield digital warehouse receipt system, and ascribes its problems to the Alphonse-Gaston problem:

“It’s all about liquidity and a tipping point,” said an executive with a warehouse company.

“If Party A is using the system, they can’t trade if Party B is not using the system. It’s a redundant system until market masses are using it.”

After you, Alphonse. No! After you, Gaston! I insist! (Warning! Francophobia and Mexaphobia at the link!)

In essence, LMEshield is attempting to perform one of the same functions as blockchain–providing a secure, digital record of ownership. LMEshield’s technological implementation is not blockchain or distributed ledger, per se. It is a permissioned network operated by a trusted party, and does not employ a distributed ledger, rather than being an unpermissioned network not involving a trusted party, run on a DL.

But it is not that technological difference that is causing the problem: it is the challenge of coordinating the adoption of the use of the system. This coordination problem exists here even though there is an entity–the LME–that has an incentive to promote adoption and build a critical mass so that tipping takes over. Despite a promoter, the virtuous cycle has not taken hold. The adoption problem is even more challenging without a promoter.

This problem will be present in all attempts to create a secure digital record of ownership, regardless of the technology used to achieve this goal.* There is more than one technology to skin this cat, and it is not the technology that will in the end determine whether the cat gets skinned: it is the ability to overcome the coordination problem.**

And as I’ve noted before, if tipping does occur, that just creates another conundrum: tipping effectively creates a natural monopoly (or at best a small numbers natural oligopoly), which raises questions of market power, rent seeking, and governance.

Bitcoin world is providing an illustration of the challenges of governance (as well as raising questions about the scalability of blockchain). Block size has become a big constraint on the capacity to process transactions, leading to a spike in transactions charges and long lags in processing transactions. There are basically two proposals to address this issue: expand the size of blocks, or allow some processing to occur off the blockchain. This has divided Bitcoin world into camps, and raises the possibility that if the dispute is not resolved Bitcoin could experience a hard fork (i.e., split into two or more incompatible networks). Miners (mainly Chinese) want to expand block size: Core (the developers who maintain the software) want to externalize some processing. Both sides are talking their book–go figure–which illustrates that distributive considerations and politicking, rather than efficiency, will have an outsized effect on the outcome.

Keep both LMEshield and the Bitcoin block size debate in mind when somebody offers you pie-in-the-sky, techno-evangalist predictions of how blockchain/DLT Is Going to Change the World. It’s not the technology alone that matters. Indeed, that may be one of the least challenging issues.

Also keep in mind that there is nothing new under the sun. The functions that blockchain/DLT are intended to–or dreamed to–perform are inherent in all transactional settings, including in particular financial and commodity transactions. Blockchain/DLT is a different way of skinning the cat, but the cat has been skinned one way or ‘tother since the dawn of these markets. Maybe in some cases, blockchain/DLT will do it more efficiently. Maybe elements of blockchain/DLT will be blended into more traditional ways of performing these functions. Maybe some applications will prove resistant to blockchain/DLT.

But the crucial thing to keep in mind is that blockchain/DLT will not banish the fundamental challenges of coordinated adoption and governance of a system that scales. And note that if it doesn’t scale, it won’t replace existing systems (which do), and if it does scale, it will pose the same organization, governance, and market power issues that legacy systems do.

*There is no guarantee that DLT is even a technological advance on existing technology. As I discuss further on, some implementations (notably Bitcoin) have exhibited severe problems in scaling. If it don’t scale, it will fail.

**I own a cat. I like my cat. I like cats generally. If colloquialisms offend, this is not the place for you. Particularly colorful if somewhat archaic American colloquialisms that I learned at my grandfather’s knee. Alphonse and Gaston is also something I picked up from my grandfather. Today it would cause an outbreak of fainting, shrieking, and pearl clutching (though maybe not–after all, the characters are Europeans), but if you can’t separate the basic comedic idea from what was acceptable in 1903 (the year of my grandfather’s birth, as well as the date of that clip) but isn’t acceptable today, you’re the one with the issues.

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July 6, 2017

SWP Acid Flashback, CCP Edition

Filed under: Clearing,Derivatives,Economics,Financial crisis,Regulation — The Professor @ 6:09 pm

Sometimes reading current news about clearing specifically and post-crisis regulation generally triggers acid flashbacks to old blog posts. Like this one (from 2010!):

[Gensler’s] latest gurgling appears on the oped page of today’s WSJ.  It starts with a non-sequitur, and careens downhill from there.  Gensler tells a story about his role in the LTCM situation, and then claims that to prevent a recurrence, or a repeat of AIG, it is necessary to reduce the “cancerous interconnections” (Jeremiah Recycled Bad Metaphor Alert!) in the financial system by, you guessed it, mandatory clearing.

Look.  This is very basic.  Do I have to repeat it?  CLEARING DOES NOT ELIMINATE INTERCONNECTIONS AMONG FINANCIAL INSTITUTIONS.  At most, it reconfigures the topology of the network of interconnections.  Anyone who argues otherwise is not competent to weigh in on the subject, let alone to have regulatory responsibility over a vastly expanded clearing system.  At most you can argue that the interconnections in a cleared system are better in some ways than the interconnections in the current OTC structure.  But Gensler doesn’t do that.   He just makes unsupported assertion after unsupported assertion.

Jeremiah’s latest gurgling appears on the oped page of today’s WSJ.  It starts with a non-sequitur, and careens downhill from there.  Gensler tells a story about his role in the LTCM situation, and then claims that to prevent a recurrence, or a repeat of AIG, it is necessary to reduce the “cancerous interconnections” (Jeremiah Recycled Bad Metaphor Alert!) in the financial system by, you guessed it, mandatory clearing. Look.  This is very basic.  Do I have to repeat it?  CLEARING DOES NOT ELIMINATE INTERCONNECTIONS AMONG FINANCIAL INSTITUTIONS.  At most, it reconfigures the topology of the network of interconnections.  Anyone who argues otherwise is not competent to weigh in on the subject, let alone to have regulatory responsibility over a vastly expanded clearing system.  At most you can argue that the interconnections in a cleared system are better in some ways than the interconnections in the current OTC structure.  But Gensler doesn’t do that.   He just makes unsupported assertion after unsupported assertion.

So what triggered this flashback? This recent FSB (no! not Putin!)/BIS/IOSCO report on . . . wait for it . . . interdependencies in clearing. As summarized by Reuters:

The Financial Stability Board, the Committee on Payments and Market Infrastructures, the International Organization of Securities Commissioners and the Basel Committee on Banking Supervision, also raised new concerns around the interdependency of CCPs, which have become crucial financial infrastructures as a result of post-crisis reforms that forced much of the US$483trn over-the-counter derivatives market into central clearing.

In a study of 26 CCPs across 15 jurisdictions, the committees found that many clearinghouses maintain relationships with the same financial entities.

Concentration is high with 88% of financial resources, including initial margin and default funds, sitting in just 10 CCPs. Of the 307 clearing members included in the analysis, the largest 20 accounted for 75% of financial resources provided to CCPs.

More than 80% of the CCPs surveyed were exposed to at least 10 global systemically important financial institutions, the study showed.

In an analysis of the contagion effect of clearing member defaults, the study found that more than half of surveyed CCPs would suffer a default of at least two clearing members as a result of two clearing member defaults at another CCP.

This suggests a high degree of interconnectedness among the central clearing system’s largest and most significant clearing members,” the committees said in their analysis.

To reiterate: as I said in 2010 (and the blog post echoed remarks that I made at ISDA’s General Meeting in San Fransisco shortly before I wrote the post), clearing just reconfigures the topology of the network. It does not eliminate “cancerous interconnections”. It merely re-jiggers the connections.

Look at some of the network charts in the FSB/BIS/IOSCO report. They are pretty much indistinguishable from the sccaaarrry charts of interdependencies in OTC derivatives that were bruited about to scare the chillin into supporting clearing and collateral mandates.

The concentration of clearing members is particularly concerning. The report does not mention it, but this concentration creates other major headaches, such as the difficulties of porting positions if a big clearing member (or two) defaults. And the difficulties this concentration would produce in trying to auction off or hedge the positions of the big clearing firms.

Further, the report understates the degree of interconnections, and in fact ignores some of the most dangerous ones. It looks only at direct connections, but the indirect connections are probably more . . . what’s the word I’m looking for? . . . cancerous–yeahthat’s it. CCPs are deeply embedded in the liquidity supply and credit network, which connects all major (and most minor) players in the market. Market shocks that cause big price changes in turn cause big variation margin calls that reverberate throughout the entire financial system. Given the tight coupling of the liquidity system generally, and the particularly tight coupling of the margining mechanism specifically, this form of interconnection–not considered in the report–is most laden with systemic ramifications. As I’ve said ad nauseum: the connections that are intended to prevent CCPs from failing are exactly the ones that pose the greatest threat to the entire system.

To flash back to another of my past writings: this recent report, when compared to what Gensler said in 2010 (and others, notably Timmy!, were singing from the same hymnal), shows that clearing and collateral mandates were a bill of goods. These mandates were sold on the basis of lies large and small. And the biggest lie–and I said so at the time–was that clearing would reduce the interconnectivity of the financial system. So the FSB/BIS/IOSCO have called bullshit on Gary Gensler. Unfortunately, seven years too late.

 

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The Qatar LNG Expansion Announcement: Vaporware Meets LNG?

Filed under: Commodities,Economics,Energy,Politics — The Professor @ 4:04 pm

Qatar sent shock waves through the LNG market by announcing plans to increase output by 30 percent. Although large energy firms (including Rex Tillerson’s old outfit) expressed interest in working with Qatar on this, color me skeptical.

I can think of two other explanations for the announcement, particularly at this time.

The first is that this may be akin to a vaporware announcement. Back in the day, it was common for software firms to announce a new product or a big update of an existing product in order to try to deter others from entering that market. If entry in fact did not occur, the product announced with such fanfare would never appear. Similar to this strategy, I think it is very plausible that Qatar is trying to deter entry or expansion by North American, Australian, and African producers by threatening to add a big slug of capacity in a few years. Perhaps the developers won’t be scared off, but their bankers may be.

The surge in LNG capacity around the world has severely undercut Qatar’s competitive position, and forced it to make contractual concessions. It also threatens to erode prices for a considerable period. Even more entry would exacerbate these problems. This gives Qatar a strong incentive to try to scare off some of that capacity, and a vaporware strategy is worth a try in order to achieve that.

The second is based on the current set-to between Qatar and the Saudis and the rest of the GCC. They are all but blockading Qatar, and have made demands that bring to mind Austria-Hungary’s demands against Serbia in July, 1914: the ultimatum is designed to be rejected to give a pretext for escalation. Qatar needs to demonstrate that it is immune to the pressure. An announcement of grandiose expansion plans is a good way to signal that it is immune to pressure and not only plans to continue business as usual, but to go further. In a part of the world where showing weakness is an invitation for the wolves to pounce, putting on a bold front is almost a necessity when the wolves are already circling.

So we’ll see where this goes. But I think there’s a good likelihood that this is a big bluff.

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July 4, 2017

Donald Trump, LNG Impressario: Demolishing the Putin Puppet Narrative

Filed under: Commodities,Economics,Energy,Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 9:50 am

If Trump has a signature policy issue, it is promoting US energy to achieve what he calls “energy dominance.” The leading edge of this initiative is the promotion of LNG. Immediately prior to his appearance at the G20 Summit (where ironically he will be tediously hectored on trade by the increasing insufferable Angela Merkel), he will speak Thursday at the “Three Seas Summit” in Poland, where he will tout American LNG exports as both an economic and security fillip to Europe, and in particular eastern Europe.

“I think the United States can show itself as a benevolent country by exporting energy and by helping countries that don’t have adequate supplies become more self-sufficient and less dependent and less threatened,” he said.

This strikes at the foundation of Putin’s economic and geopolitical strategy. Export revenues from gas and oil keep his country afloat and his cronies flush. He uses gas in particular as a knout to bludgeon recalcitrant eastern Europeans (Ukraine in particular) and as a lever to exercise influence in western Europe, Germany in particular.

Gazprom routinely sniffs that LNG is more costly than Russian gas, and that LNG will not appreciable erode its market share. That’s true, but illustrates perfectly the limitations of market share as a measure of economic impact. The increased availability of LNG, particularly from the US, increases substantially the elasticity of supply into Europe. This, in turn, substantially increases the elasticity of demand. As the low cost producer (pipeline gas being cheaper), Russia/Gazprom will continue to be the source of the bulk of the methane molecules burned in Europe, but this increased elasticity of demand will reduce Gazprom’s pricing power and hence its revenues.

Furthermore, the effect on short-run elasticities will be particularly acute. Pre-LNG, there were few sources of additional supply available in a period of days or weeks that could substitute for Russian gas cutoff during some geopolitical power play. With LNG, the threat of shutting off the gas has lost much of its sting: especially as LNG evolves towards a traded market, supplies can swing quickly to offset any regional supply disruption, including one engineered by Putin for political purposes. So LNG arguably reduces Putin’s political leverage even more than it reduces his economic leverage. This is particularly true given complementary European policy changes that permit the flow of gas to regions not serviced by LNG directly.

Trump is getting some pushback from domestic interests in the US (notably the chemical industry) because greater exports would support prices and deprive these industries of the cheap fuel and feedstock that has powered their growth (something totally unpredictable a decade ago, when the demise of the US petrochemical industry was a real possibility). But (a) Trump seems totally committed to his pro-export course, and (b) complementary efforts to reduce restrictions on supply will mitigate the price impact. So I expect the opposition of the likes of the Industrial Energy Consumers of America to be little more than a speed bump in his race to promoting energy exports.

This all reveals Trump for the mercantilist he is: imports bad, exports good. This is economically illiterate and incoherent, but it’s Trump trade policy in a nutshell. Economic coherence aside, however, Donald Trump, LNG Impressario totally demolishes the Putin puppet narrative. Not that you’d notice–the hysteria continues unabated, because reality doesn’t matter to the soi disant reality-based community.

Here we have Trump devoting the bulk of his non-Twitter-directed energies (and he is high energy!) to promoting an economic policy that hits Putin at his most vulnerable spot, economically and geopolitically. Whatever his Russia-related rhetoric, pace Orwell, he is objectively anti-Putin.

Not that this causes neo-McCarthyites even to experience cognitive dissonance, let alone to engage in a serious re-evaluation. To them, Trump is literally a Kremlin operative in Putin’s thrall. And nothing–not even Trump venturing to the heart of the area Putin and his ilk believe to be in Russia’s sphere of influence and loudly (very loudly) proclaiming that he is offering American gas to free Europe from its energy thralldom–will divert them from their non-stop narrative.

As an aside, I do Joseph McCarthy a grave disservice by comparing today’s mainstream media, the Democratic Party, Neocons, and large swathes of the Republican establishment to him. There was actually a far more substantial factual basis for his paranoia than there is for that of the anti-Trump brigades.

There is an irony here, though. I have often sneered at Putin (and when he was president, Medvedev), for acting like a glorified Secretary of Commerce, going around being the pitchman for Russian economic interests, in energy in particular. Stylistically, Trump is doing somewhat the same. But substantively, in Making American Energy (LNG particularly) Great, Trump is giving Putin a good swift kick in the stones.

Not that the promoters of the New Red Scare are paying the slightest heed. Which demonstrates that theirs is a completely partisan and grotesquely intellectually dishonest campaign.

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