Streetwise Professor

October 4, 2016

Going Deutsche: Beware Politicians Adjudicating Political Bargains Gone Bad

A few years ago, when doing research on the systemic risk (or not) of commodity trading firms, I thought it would be illuminating to compare these firms to major banks, to demonstrate that (a) commodity traders were really not that big, when compared to systemically important financial institutions, and (b) their balance sheets, though leveraged, were not as geared as banks and unlike banks did not involve the maturity and liquidity transformations that make banks subject to destabilizing runs. One thing that jumped out at me was just what a monstrosity Deutsche Bank was, in terms of size and leverage and Byzantine complexity. Its

My review (conducted in 2012 and again in 2013) looked back several years.  For instance, in 2013, the bank’s leverage ratio was around 37 to 1, and its total assets were over $2 trillion.

Since then, Deutsche has reduced its leverage somewhat, but it is still huge, highly leveraged (especially in comparison to its American peers), and deeply interconnected with all other major financial institutions, and a plethora of industrial and service firms.

This makes its current travails a source of concern. The stock price has fallen to record low levels, and its CDS spreads have spiked to post-crisis highs. The CDS curve is also flattening, which is particularly ominous. Last week, Bloomberg reported signs of a mini-run, not by depositors, but by hedge funds and others who were moving collateral and cleared derivatives positions to other FCMs. (I’ve seen no indication that people are looking to novate OTC deals in order to replace Deutsche as a counterparty, which would be a real harbinger of problems.)

Ironically, the current crisis was sparked by chronic indigestion from the last crisis, namely the legal and regulatory issues related to US subprime. The US Department of Justice presented a settlement demand of $14 billion dollars, which if paid, would put the bank at risk of breaching its regulatory capital requirements: the bank has only reserved $5 billion. Deutsche’s stock price and CDS have lurched up and down over the past few days, driven mainly by news regarding how these legal issues would be resolved.

The $14 billion US demand is only one of Deutsche’s sources of legal agita, most of which are also the result of pre-crisis and crisis issues, such as the IBOR cases and charges that it facilitated accounting chicanery at Italian banks.

Deutsche’s problems are political poison in Germany, for Merkel in particular. She is in a difficult situation. Bailouts are no more popular in Europe than in the US, but if anyone is too big to fail, it is Deutsche. Serious problems there could portend another financial crisis, and one in which the epicenter would be Germany. Merkel and virtually all other politicians in Germany have adamantly stated there would be no bailouts: politically, they have to. But such unconditional statements are not credible–that’s the essence of the TBTF problem. If Deutsche teeters, Germany–no doubt aided by the ECB and the Fed–will be forced to act. This would have seismic political effects, particularly in Europe, and especially particularly in southern Europe, which believes that it has been condemned to economic penury to protect German economic interests, not least of which is Deutsche Bank.

No doubt the German government, the Bundesbank, and the ECB are crafting bailouts that don’t look like bailouts–at least if you don’t look too closely. One idea I saw floated was to sell off Deutsche assets to other entities, with the asset values guaranteed. Since direct government guarantees would be too transparent (and perhaps contrary to EU law), no doubt the guarantees will be costumed in some way as well.

The whole mess points out the inherently political nature of banking, and how the political bargain (in the phrase of Calomaris and Haber in Fragile by Design) has changed. As they show quite persuasively (as have others, such as Ragu Rajan), the pre-crisis political bargain was that banks would facilitate income redistribution policy by provide credit to low income individuals. This seeded the crisis (though like any complex event, there were myriad other contributing causal factors), the political aftershocks of which are being felt to this day. Banking became a pariah industry, as the very large legal settlements extracted by governments indicate.

The difficulty, of course, is that banks are still big and systemically important, and as the Deutsche Bank situation demonstrates, punishing for past misdeeds that contributed to the last crisis could, if taken too far, create a new one. This is particularly true in the Brave New World of post-crisis monetary policy, with its zero or negative interest rates, which makes it very difficult for banks to earn a profit by doing business the old fashioned way (borrow at 3, lend at 6, hit the links by 3) as politicians claim that they desire.

It is definitely desirable to have mechanisms to hold financial malfeasors accountable, but the Deutsche episode illustrates several difficulties. The first is that even the biggest entities can be judgment proof, and imposing judgments on them can have disastrous economic externalities. Another is that there is a considerable degree of arbitrariness in the process, and the results of the process. There is little due process here, and the risks and costs of litigation mean that the outcome of attempts to hold bankers accountable is the result of a negotiation between the state and large financial institutions that is carried out in a highly politicized environment in which emotions and narratives are likely to trump facts. There is room for serious doubt about the quality of justice that results from this process. Waving multi-billion dollar scalps may be emotionally and politically satisfying, but arbitrariness in the process and the result means that the law and regulation will not have an appropriate deterrence effect. If it is understood that fines are the result of a political lottery, the link between conduct and penalty is tenuous, at best, meaning that the penalties will be a very poor way of deterring bad conduct.

Further, it must always be remembered that what happened in the 2000s (and what happened prior to every prior banking crisis) was the result of a political bargain. Holding bankers to account for abusing the terms of the bargain is fine, but unless politicians and regulators are held to account, there will be future political bargains that will result in future crises. To have a co-conspirator in the deals that culminated in the financial crisis–the US government–hold itself out as the judge and jury in these matters will not make things better. It is likely to make things worse, because it only increases the politicization of finance. Since that politicization is is at the root of financial crises, that is a disturbing development indeed.

So yes, bankers should be at the bar. But they should not be alone. And they should be joined there by the very institutions who presume to bring them to justice.

Print Friendly

September 16, 2016

De Minimis Logic

CFTC Chair Timothy Massad has come out in support of a one year delay of the lowering of the de minimis swap dealer exemption notional amount from $8 billion to $3 billion. I recall Coase  (or maybe it was Stigler) writing somewhere that an economist could pay for his lifetime compensation by delaying implementation of an inefficient law by even a day. By that reckoning, by delaying the step down of the threshold for a year Mr. Massad has paid for the lifetime compensation of his progeny for generations to come, for the de minimis threshold is a classic analysis of an inefficient law. Mr. Massad (and his successors) could create huge amounts of wealth by delaying its implementation until the day after forever.

There are at least two major flaws with the threshold. The first is that there is a large fixed cost to become a swap dealer. Small to medium-sized swap traders who avoid the obligation of becoming swap dealers under the $8 billion threshold will not avoid it under the lower threshold. Rather than incur the fixed cost, many of those who would be caught with the lower threshold will decide to exit the business. This will reduce competition and increase concentration in the swap market. This is perversely ironic, given that one ostensible purpose of Frankendodd (which was trumpeted repeatedly by its backers) was to increase competition and reduce concentration.

The second major flaw is that the rationale for the swap dealer designation, and the associated obligations, is to reduce risk. Big swap dealers mean big risk, and to reduce that risk, they are obligated to clear, to margin non-cleared swaps, and hold more capital. But notional amount is a truly awful measure of risk. $X billion of vanilla interest rate swaps differ in risk from $X billion of CDS index swaps which differ in risk from $X billion of single name CDS which differ in risk from $X billion of oil swaps. Hell, $X billion of 10 year interest rate swaps differ in risk from $X billion of 2 year interest rate swaps. And let’s not even talk about the variation across diversified portfolios of swaps with the same notional values. So notional does not match up with risk in a discriminating way.  Further, turnover doesn’t measure risk very well either.

But hey! We can measure notional! So notional it is! Yet another example of the regulatory drunk looking for his keys under the lamppost because that’s where the light is.

So bully for Chairman Massad. He has delayed implementation of a regulation that will do the opposite of some of the things it is intended to do, and merely fails to do other things it is supposed to do. Other than that, it’s great!

Print Friendly

August 20, 2016

On Net, This Paper Doesn’t Tell Us Much About What We Need to Know About the Effects of Clearing

Filed under: Clearing,Derivatives,Economics,Financial crisis,Politics,Regulation — The Professor @ 4:26 pm

A recent Office of Financial Research paper by Samim Ghamami and Paul Glasserman asks “Does OTC Derivatives Reform Incentivize Central Clearing?” Their answer is, probably not.

My overarching comment is that the paper is a very precise and detailed answer to maybe not the wrong question, exactly, but very much a subsidiary one. The more pressing questions include: (i) Do we want to favor clearing vs. bilateral? Why? What metric tells us that is the right choice? (The paper takes the answer to this question as given, and given as “yes.”) (ii) How do the different mechanisms affect the allocation of risk, including the allocation of risk outside the K banks that are the sole concern in the paper? (iii) How will the rules affect the scale of derivatives trading (the paper takes positions as given) and the allocation across cleared and bilateral instruments? (iv) Following on (ii) and (iii) will the rules affect risk management by end-users and what is the implication of that for the allocation of risk in the economy?

Item (iv) has received too little attention in the debates over clearing and collateral mandates. To the extent that clearing and collateral mandates make it more expensive for end-users to manage risk, how will the end users respond? Will they adjust capital structures? Investment? The scale of their operations? How will this affect the allocation of risk in the broader economy? How will this affect output and growth?

The paper also largely ignores one of the biggest impediments to central clearing–the leverage ratio.  (This regulation receives on mention in passing.) The requirement that even segregated client margins be treated as assets for the purpose of calculating this ratio (even though the bank does not have a claim on these margins) greatly increases the capital costs associated with clearing, and is leading some banks to exit the clearing business or to charge fees that make it too expensive for some firms to trade cleared derivatives. This brings all the issues in (iv) to the fore, and demonstrates that certain aspects of the massive post-crisis regulatory scheme are not well thought out, and inconsistent.

Of course, the paper also focuses on credit risk, and does not address liquidity risk issues at all. Perhaps this is a push between bilateral vs. cleared in a world where variation margin is required for all derivatives transactions, but still. The main concern about clearing and collateral mandates (including variation margin) is that they can cause huge increases in the demand for liquidity precisely at times when liquidity dries up. Another concern is that collateral supply mechanisms that develop in response to the mandates create new interconnections and new sources of instability in the financial system.

The most disappointing part of the paper is that it focuses on netting economies as the driver of cost differences between bilateral and cleared trading, without recognizing that the effects of netting are distributive. To oversimplify only a little, the implication of the paper is that the choice between cleared and bilateral trading is driven by which alternative redistributes the most risk to those not included in the model.

Viewed from that perspective, things look quite different, don’t they? It doesn’t matter whether the answer to that question is “cleared” or “bilateral”–the result will be that if netting drives the answer, the answer will result in the biggest risk transfer to those not considered in the model (who can include, e.g., unsecured creditors and the taxpayers). This brings home hard the point that these types of analyses (including the predecessor of Ghamami-Glasserman, Zhu-Duffie) are profoundly non-systemic because they don’t identify where in the financial system the risk goes. If anything, they distract attention away from the questions about the systemic risks of clearing and collateral mandates. Recognizing that the choice between cleared and bilateral trading is driven by netting, and that netting redistributes risk, the question should be whether that redistribution is desirable or not. But that question is almost never asked, let alone answered.

One narrower, more technical aspect of the paper bothered me. G-G introduce the concept of a concentration ratio, which they define as the ratio of a firm’s contribution to the default fund to the firm’s value at risk used to determine the sizing of the default fund. They argue that the default fund under a cover two standard (in which the default fund can absorb the loss arising from the simultaneous defaults of the two members with the largest exposures) is undersized if the concentration ratio is less than one.

I can see their point, but its main effect is to show that the cover two standard is not joined up closely with the true determinants of the risk exposure of the default fund. Consider a CCP with N identical members, where N is large: in this case, the concentration ratio is small. Further, assume that member defaults are independent, and occur with probability p. The loss to the default fund conditional on the default of a given member is X. Then, the expected loss of the default fund is pNX, and under cover two, the size of the fund is 2X.  There will be some value of N such that for a larger number of members, the default fund will be inadequate. Since the concentration ratio varies inversely with N, this is consistent with the G-G argument.

But this is a straw man argument, as these assumptions are obviously extreme and unrealistic. The default fund’s exposure is driven by the extreme tail of the joint distribution of member losses. What really matters here is tail dependence, which is devilish hard to measure. Cover two essentially assumes a particular form of tail dependence: if the 1st (2nd) largest exposure defaults, so will the 2nd (1st) largest, but it ignores what happens to the remaining members. The assumption of perfect tail dependence between risks 1 and 2 is conservative: ignoring risks 3 through N is not. Where things come out on balance is impossible to determine. Pace G-G, when N is large ignoring 3-to-N is likely very problematic, but whether this results in an undersized default fund depends on whether this effect is more than offset by the extreme assumption of perfect tail dependence between risks 1 and 2.

Without knowing more about the tail dependence structure, it is impossible to play Goldilocks and say that this default fund is too large,  this default fund is too small, and this one is just right by looking at N (or the concentration ratio) alone. But if we could confidently model the tail dependence, we wouldn’t have to use cover two–and we could also determine individual members’ appropriate contributions more exactly than relying on a pro-rata rule (because we could calculate each member’s marginal contribution to the default fund’s risk).

So cover two is really a confession of our ignorance. A case of sizing the default fund based on what we can measure, rather than what we would like to measure, a la the drunk looking for his keys under the lamppost, because the light is better there. Similarly, the concentration ratio is something that can be measured, and does tell us something about whether the default fund is sized correctly, but it doesn’t tell us very much. It is not a sufficient statistic, and may not even be a very revealing one. And how revealing it is may differ substantially between CCPs, because the tail dependence structures of members may vary across them.

In sum, the G-G paper is very careful, and precisely identifies crucial factors that determine the relative private costs of cleared vs. bilateral trading, and how regulations (e.g., capital requirements) affect these costs. But this is only remotely related to the question that we would like to answer, which is what are the social costs of alternative arrangements? The implicit assumption is that the social costs of clearing are lower, and therefore a regulatory structure which favors bilateral trading is problematic. But this assumes facts not in evidence, and ones that are highly questionable. Further, the paper (inadvertently) points out a troubling reality that should have been more widely recognized long ago (as Mark Roe and I have been arguing for years now): the private benefits of cleared vs. bilateral trading are driven by which offers the greatest netting benefit, which also just so happens to generate the biggest risk transfer to those outside the model. This is a truly systemic effect, but is almost always ignored.

In these models that focus on a subset of the financial system, netting is always a feature. In the financial system at large, it can be a bug. Would that the OFR started to investigate that issue.

Print Friendly

August 5, 2016

Bipartisan Stupidity: Restoring Glass-Steagall

Filed under: Economics,Financial crisis,Financial Crisis II,Politics,Regulation — The Professor @ 6:35 pm

Both parties officially favor a restoration of Glass-Steagall, the Depression-era banking regulation that persisted until repealed under the Clinton administration in 1999. When both Parties agree on an issue, they are likely wrong, and that is the case here.

The homage paid to Glass-Steagall is totem worship, not sound economic policy. The reasoning appears to be that the banking system was relatively quiescent when Glass-Steagall was in place, and a financial crisis occurred within a decade after its repeal. Ergo, we can avoid financial crises by restoring G-S. This makes as much sense as blaming the tumult of the 60s on auto companies’ elimination of tail fins.

Glass-Steagall had several parts, some of which are still in existence. The centerpiece of the legislation was deposit insurance, which rural and small town banking interests had been pushing for years. Deposit insurance is still with us, and its effects are mixed, at best.

One of the parts of Glass-Steagall that was abolished was its limitation on bank groups: the 1933 Act made it more difficult to form holding companies of multiple banks as a way of circumventing branch banking restrictions that were predominant at the time. This was perverse because (1) the Act was ostensibly intended to prevent banking crises, and (2) the proliferation of unit banks due to restrictions on branch banking was one of the most important causes of the banking crisis that ushered in the Great Depression.

The contrast between the experiences of Canada and the United States is illuminating in this regard. Both countries were subjected to a huge adverse economic shock, but Canada’s banking system, which was dominated by a handful of banks that operated branches throughout the country, survived, whereas the fragmented US banking system collapsed. In the 1930s, too big to fail was less of a problem than to small to survive. The collapse of literally thousands of banks devastated the US economy, and this banking crisis ushered in the Depression proper. Further, the inability of branched national banks to diversify liquidity risk (as Canada’s banks were able to do) made the system more dependent on the Fed to manage liquidity shocks. That turned out to be a true systemic risk, when the Fed botched the job (as documented by Friedman and Schwartz). When the system is very dependent on one regulatory body, and that body fails, the effect of the failure is systemic.

The vulnerability of small unit banks was again demonstrated in the S&L fiasco of the 1980s (a crisis in which deposit insurance played a part).

So that part of Glass-Steagall should remain dead and buried.

The part of Glass-Steagall that was repealed, and which its worshippers are most intent on restoring, was the separation of securities underwriting from commercial banking and the limiting of banks securities holdings to investment grade instruments.

Senator Glass believed that the combination of commercial and investment banking contributed to the 1930s banking crisis. As is the case with many legislators, his fervent beliefs were untainted by actual evidence. The story told at the time (and featured in the Pecora Hearings) was that commercial banks unloaded their bad loans into securities, which they dumped on an unsuspecting investing public unaware that they were buying toxic waste.

There are only two problems with this story. First, even if true, it would mean that banks were able to get bad assets off their balance sheets, which should have made them more stable! Real money investors, rather than leveraged institutions were wearing the risk, which should have reduced the likelihood of banking crises.

Second, it wasn’t true. Economists (including Kroszner and Rajan) have shown that securities issued by investment banking arms of commercial banks performed as well as those issued by stand-alone investment banks. This is inconsistent with the asymmetric information story.

Now let’s move forward almost 60 years and try to figure whether the 2008 crisis would have played out much differently had investment banking and commercial banking been kept completely separate. Almost certainly not. First, the institutions in the US that nearly brought down the system were stand alone investment banks, namely Lehman, Bear-Sterns, and Merrill Lynch. The first failed. The second two were absorbed into commercial banks, the first by having the Fed take on most of the bad assets, the second in a shotgun wedding that ironically proved to make the acquiring bank–Bank of America–much weaker. Goldman Sachs and Morgan-Stanley were in dire straits, and converted into banks so that they could avail themselves of Fed support denied them as investment banks.

The investment banking arms of major commercial banks like JP Morgan did not imperil their existence. Citi may be something of an exception, but earlier crises (e.g., the Latin American debt crisis) proved that Citi was perfectly capable of courting insolvency even as a pure commercial bank in the pre-Glass-Steagall repeal days.

Second, and relatedly, because they could not take deposits, and therefore had to rely on short term hot money for funding, the stand-alone investment banks were extremely vulnerable to funding runs, whereas deposits are a “stickier,” more stable source of funding. We need to find ways to reduce reliance on hot funding, rather than encourage it.

Third, Glass-Steagall restrictions weren’t even relevant for several of the institutions that wreaked the most havoc–Fannie, Freddie, and AIG.

Fourth, insofar as the issue of limitations on the permissible investments of commercial banks is concerned, it was precisely investment grade–AAA and AAA plus, in fact–that got banks and investment banks into trouble. Capital rules treated such instruments favorably, and voila!, massive quantities of these instruments were engineered to meet the resulting demand. They way they were engineered, however, made them reservoirs of wrong way risk that contributed significantly to the 2008 doom loop.

In sum: the banking structures that Glass-Steagall outlawed didn’t contribute to the banking crisis that was the law’s genesis, and weren’t materially important in causing the 2008 crisis. Therefore, advocating a return to Glass-Steagall as a crisis prevention mechanism is wholly misguided. Glass-Steagall restrictions are largely irrelevant to preventing financial crises, and some of their effects–notably, the creation of an investment banking industry largely reliant on hot, short term money for funding–actually make crises more likely.

This is why I say that Glass-Steagall has a totemic quality. The reverence shown it is based on a fondness for the old gods who were worshipped during a time of relative economic quiet (even though that is the product of folk belief, because it ignores the LatAm, S&L, and Asian crises, among others, that occurred from 1933-1999). We had a crisis in 2008 because we abandoned the old gods, Glass and Steagall! If we only bring them back to the public square, good times will return! It is not based on a sober evaluation of history, economics,  or the facts.

An alternative tack is taken by Luigi Zingales. He advocates a return to Glass-Steagall in part based on political economy considerations, namely, that it will increase competition and reduce the political power of large financial institutions. As I argued in response to him over four years ago, these arguments are unpersuasive. I would add another point, motivated by reading Calamaris and Haber’s Fragile by Design: the political economy of a fragmented financial system can lead to disastrous results too. Indeed, the 1930s banking crisis was caused largely by the ubiquity of small unit banks and the failure of the Fed to provide liquidity in such a system that was uniquely dependent on this support. Those small banks, as Calomaris and Haber show, used their political power to stymie the development of national branched banks that would have improved systemic stability. The S&L crisis was also stoked by the political power of many small thrifts.*

But regardless, both the Republican and Democratic Parties have now embraced the idea. I don’t sense a zeal in Congress to do so, so perhaps the agreement of the Parties’ platforms on this issue will not result in a restoration of Glass-Steagall. Nonetheless, the widespread fondness for the 83 year old Act should give pause to those who look to national politicians to adopt wise economic policies. That fondness is grounded in a variety of religious belief, not reality.

*My reading of Calomaris and Haber leads me to the depressing conclusion that the political economy of banking is almost uniformly dysfunctional, at all times and at all places. In part this is because the state looks upon the banking system to facilitate fiscal objectives. In part it is because politicians have viewed the banking system as an indirect way of supporting favored domestic constituencies when direct transfers to these constituencies are either politically impossible or constitutionally barred. In part it is because bankers exploit this symbiotic relationship to get political favors: subsidies, restrictions on competition, etc. Even the apparent successes of banking legislation and regulation are more the result of unique political conditions rather than economically enlightened legislators. Canada’s banking system, for instance, was not the product of uniquely Canadian economic insight and political rectitude. Instead, it was the result of a political bargain that was driven by uniquely Canadian political factors, most notably the deep divide between English and French Canada. It was a venal and cynical political deal that just happened to have some favorable economic consequences which were not intended and indeed were not necessarily even understood or foreseen by those who drafted the laws.

Viewed in this light, it is not surprising that the housing finance system in the US, which was the primary culprit for the 2008 crisis, has not been altered substantially. It was the product of a particular set of political coalitions that still largely exist.

The history of federal and state banking regulation in the US also should give pause to those who think a minimalist state in a federal system can’t do much harm. Banking regulation in the small government era was hardly ideal.

Print Friendly

June 30, 2016

Financial Network Topology and Women of System: A Dangerous Combination

Filed under: Clearing,Derivatives,Economics,Financial crisis,Politics,Regulation — The Professor @ 7:43 pm

Here’s a nice article by Robert Henderson in the science magazine Nautilus which poses the question: “Can topology prevent the next financial crisis?” My short answer: No.  A longer answer–which I sketch out below–is that a belief that it can is positively dangerous.

The idea behind applying topology to the financial system is that financial firms are interconnected in a network, and these connections can be represented in a network graph that can be studied. At least theoretically, if you model the network formally, you can learn its properties–e.g., how stable is it? will it survive certain shocks?–and perhaps figure out how to make the network better.

Practically, however, this is an illustration of the maxim that a little bit of knowledge is a dangerous thing.

Most network modeling has focused on counterparty credit connections between financial market participants. This research has attempted to quantify these connections and graph the network, and ascertain how the network responds to certain shocks (e.g., the bankruptcy of a particular node), and how a reconfigured network would respond to these shocks.

There are many problems with this. One major problem–which I’ve been on about for years, and which I am quoted about in the Nautilus piece–is that counterparty credit exposure is only one type of many connections in the financial network: liquidity is another source of interconnection. Furthermore, these network models typically ignore the nature of the connections between nodes. In the real world, nodes can be tightly coupled or loosely coupled. The stability features of tightly and loosely connected networks can be very different even if their topologies are identical.

As a practical example, not only does mandatory clearing change the topology of a network, it also changes the tightness of the coupling through the imposition of rigid variation margining. Tighter coupling can change the probability of the failure of connections, and the circumstances under which these failures occur.

Another problem is that models frequently leave out some participants. As another practical example, network models of derivatives markets include the major derivatives counterparties, and find that netting reduces the likelihood of a cascade of defaults within that network. But netting achieves this by redistributing the losses to other parties who are not explicitly modeled. As a result, the model is incomplete, and gives an incomplete understanding of the full effects of netting.

Thus, any network model is inherently a very partial one, and is therefore likely to be a very poor guide to understanding the network in all its complexity.

The limitations of network models of financial markets remind me of the satirical novel Flatland, where the inhabitants of Pointland, Lineland, and Flatland are flummoxed by higher-dimensional objects. A square finds it impossible to conceptualize a sphere, because he only observes the circular section as it passes through his plane. But in financial markets the problem is much greater because the dimensionality is immense, the objects are not regular and unchanging (like spheres) but irregular and constantly changing on many dimensions and time scales (e.g., nodes enter and exit or combine, nodes can expand or contract, and the connections between them change minute to minute).

This means that although network graphs may help us better understand certain aspects of financial markets, they are laughably limited as a guide to policy aimed at reengineering the network.

But frighteningly, the Nautilus article starts out with a story of Janet Yellen comparing a network graph of the uncleared CDS market (analogized to a tangle of yarn) with a much simpler graph of a hypothetical cleared market. Yellen thought it was self-evident that the simple cleared market was superior:

Yellen took issue with her ball of yarn’s tangles. If the CDS network were reconfigured to a hub-and-spoke shape, Yellen said, it would be safer—and this has been, in fact, one thrust of post-crisis financial regulation. The efficiency and simplicity of Kevin Bacon and Lowe’s Hardware is being imposed on global derivative trading.


God help us.

Rather than rushing to judgment, a la Janet, I would ask: “why did the network form in this way?” I understand perfectly that there is unlikely to be an invisible hand theorem for networks, whereby the independent and self-interested actions of actors results in a Pareto optimal configuration. There are feedbacks and spillovers and non-linearities. As a result, the concavity that drives the welfare theorems is notably absent. An Olympian economist is sure to identify “market failure,” and be mightily displeased.

But still, there is optimizing behavior going on, and connections are formed and nodes enter and exit and grow and shrink in response to profit signals that are likely to reflect costs and benefits, albeit imperfectly. Before rushing in to change the network, I’d like to understand much better why it came to be the way it is.

We have only rudimentary understanding of how network configurations develop. Yes, models that specify simple rules of interaction between nodes can be simulated to produce networks that differ substantially from random networks. These models can generate features like the small world property. But it is a giant leap to go from that, to understanding something as huge, complex, and dynamic as a financial system. This is especially true given that there are adjustment costs that give rise to hysteresis and path-dependence, as well as shocks that give rise to changes.

Further, let’s say that the Olympian economist Yanet Jellen establishes that the existing network is inefficient according to some criterion (not that I would even be able to specify that criterion, but work with me here). What policy could she adopt that would improve the performance of the network, let alone make it optimal?

The very features–feedbacks, spillovers, non-linearities–that can create suboptimality  also make it virtually impossible to know how any intervention will affect that network, for better or worse, under the myriad possible states in which that network must operate.  Networks are complex and emergent and non-linear. Changes to one part of the network (or changes to the the way that agents who interact to create the network must behave and interact) can have impossible to predict effects throughout the entire network. Small interventions can lead to big changes, but which ones? Who knows? No one can say “if I change X, the network configuration will change to Y.” I would submit that it is impossible even to determine the probability distribution of configurations that arise in response to policy X.

In the language of the Nautilus article, it is delusional to think that simplicity can be “imposed on” a complex system like the financial market. The network has its own emergent logic, which passeth all understanding. The network will respond in a complex way to the command to simplify, and the outcome is unlikely to be the simple one desired by the policymaker.

In natural systems, there are examples where eliminating or adding a single species may have little effect on the network of interactions in the food web. Eliminating one species may just open a niche that is quickly filled by another species that does pretty much the same thing as the species that has disappeared. But eliminating a single species can also lead to a radical change in the food web, and perhaps its complete collapse, due to the very complex interactions between species.

There are similar effects in a financial system. Let’s say that Yanet decides that in the existing network there is too much credit extended between nodes by uncollateralized derivatives contracts: the credit connections could result in cascading failures if one big node goes bankrupt. So she bans such credit. But the credit was performing some function that was individually beneficial for the nodes in the network. Eliminating this one kind of credit creates a niche that other kinds of credit could fill, and profit-motivated agents have the incentive to try to create it, so a substitute fills the vacated niche. The end result: the network doesn’t change much, the amount of credit and its basic features don’t change much, and the performance of the network doesn’t change much.

But it could be that the substitute forms of credit, or the means used to eliminate the disfavored form of credit (e.g., requiring clearing of derivatives), fundamentally change the network in ways that affect its performance, or at least can do so in some states of the world. For example, it make the network more tightly coupled, and therefore more vulnerable to precipitous failure.

The simple fact is that anybody who thinks they know what is going to happen is dangerous, because they are messing with something that is very powerful that they don’t even remotely understand, or understand how it will change in response to meddling.

Hayek famously said “the curious task of economics is to demonstrate to men how little they really know about what they imagine they can design.” Tragically, too many (and arguably a large majority of) economists are the very antithesis of what Hayek says that they should be. They imagine themselves to be designers, and believe they know much more than they really do.

Janet Yellen is just one example, a particularly frightening one given that she has considerable power to implement the designs she imagines. Rather than being the Hayekian economist putting the brake on ham-fisted interventions into poorly understood symptoms, she is far closer to Adam Smith’s “Man of System”:

The man of system, on the contrary, is apt to be very wise in his own conceit; and is often so enamoured with the supposed beauty of his own ideal plan of government, that he cannot suffer the smallest deviation from any part of it. He goes on to establish it completely and in all its parts, without any regard either to the great interests, or to the strong prejudices which may oppose it. He seems to imagine that he can arrange the different members of a great society with as much ease as the hand arranges the different pieces upon a chess-board. He does not consider that the pieces upon the chess-board have no other principle of motion besides that which the hand impresses upon them; but that, in the great chess-board of human society, every single piece has a principle of motion of its own, altogether different from that which the legislature might chuse to impress upon it. If those two principles coincide and act in the same direction, the game of human society will go on easily and harmoniously, and is very likely to be happy and successful. If they are opposite or different, the game will go on miserably, and the society must be at all times in the highest degree of disorder.

When there are Men (or Women!) of System about, and the political system gives them free rein, analytical tools like topology can be positively dangerous. They make some (unjustifiably) wise in their own conceit, and give rise to dreams of Systems that they attempt to implement, when in fact their knowledge is shockingly superficial, and implementing their Systems is likely to create the highest degree of disorder.

Print Friendly

June 25, 2016

Brexit: Epater les Eurogarchs

Confounding all elite prognostication (more on this aspect below), British voters repudiated their self-anointed better-thans and voted to leave the EU.

Market reaction was swift and brutal. The pound sold off dramatically, as did UK stocks. Interestingly, though, Continental stock markets fell substantially more. Bank stocks took the brunt. Volatility indices spiked. Oil was down modestly.

These reactions were not due, in my view, to the direct effect of a British exit from the EU, via conventional channels (e.g., increased costs of trade resulting in inefficiencies and a decline in productivity due to failure to exploit comparative advantage, resulting in a decline in incomes). Instead, they reflect a substantial increase in risk, and in particular geopolitical risk. The unexpected result increases substantially the odds of a falling apart of the EU–or at the very least, of it losing quite a few of its parts. That’s why German, French, and Dutch markets sold off more than the UK.

I was in Denmark last month, speaking to shipowners. Several said that if the UK were to leave the EU, Denmark is likely to go as well: since Denmark is not on the Euro, it is easier for it to leave than Eurozone nations, and the Danes have had their fill of European immigration policy, among other things.

But there is now talk of core countries–including France–leaving. What’s more, the Brexit vote demonstrates the depth and intensity of populist, nationalist sentiment, something the elites had convinced themselves was a marginal force that could be contained by insulting it as racist and isolationist. That was tried in the UK, and failed spectacularly. Now everyone should be on notice that the smug, supercilious, and superior are sitting on a caldera.

It is this fear that the British departure creates a bad precedent that is leading some European leaders to advocate a punitive approach to negotiations with Britain. As a one-off, this makes no sense: a battle of trade barriers and regulations and red tape would harm continentals too. But if the Euros view this as a repeated game, punishment of the British to deter others from getting any notions in their heads about following their lead has some appeal.

But this is a finite game: there are only so many countries in Europe. The Euro threats make sense as a rational strategy only if there is some appreciably probability that the leadership is viewed as crazy, and will punish even when that is self-harming. Come to think of it . . .

As for the immediate effects, Brexit has the biggest potential to cause disruptions and inefficiencies in the financial sector, because of London’s dominance. Clearing is one example. How will LCH fit into the fragmented regulatory landscape? Recall the tortuous negotiations between the US and EU over recognizing each other’s CCPs. Will that have to be repeated between the UK and the EU, and under the clouds of recrimination and punishment strategies? As another example, MiFID II is scheduled to go into effect before Britain leaves. Will it be implemented, then changed? Post-exit British firms will no longer be subject to the regulatory and judicial bodies in charge of enforcing these regulations: how will they fill that breach?

Regardless of the specifics, there will inevitably be greater regulatory and legal fragmentation, and this will increase complexity and cost. But it also creates opportunities. The UK can now engage in regulatory competition with the EU (and the US), which is a different thing altogether from trying to influence regulatory policy from inside the tent (which Cameron attempted with a notable lack of success). This is constrained to some degree by supranational regulation (e.g., Basel), but London prospered quite well as a financial center post-War, pre-EU by offering regulatory advantages over the US and European countries. (Remember Eurodollars!) (One specific thought: would the UK proceed with something as inane and costly as the MiFID commodity position limits? Or applying CRD IV capital requirements on commodity traders? Since these initiatives were driven by the continentals, I seriously doubt it.)

This is all very complicated, and will be played out in the context of a larger game between Britain and the EU (and between the EU and individual EU countries). Hence the outcome is wholly unpredictable. But having Britain as an independent player will change dramatically the regulatory game. The greater competition is likely to result in less regulation, and crucially less stupid regulation. Further, even to the extent that one jurisdiction insists on stupid regulations (with the EU being the odds-on favorite here), the existence of competing jurisdictions means that many will be able to escape the stupidity.

As for the broader political lesson here, it is a decisive repudiation of a self-satisfied soi disant elite by the great unwashed. The EU has been neuralgic about democracy since its inception, and Brexit shows you exactly why their fears of it are justified. The people have spoken. The bastards. And the Euros will try mightily to make sure that never ever happens again.

There’s been a lot of commentary along these lines. Gerard Baker’s piece in the WSJ is probably the best I’ve read. This piece also from the WSJ is pretty good too.

This is a global phenomenon: the Trump insurgency in the US is another example. What is most disturbing–and most revealing–about the reaction of the elites to these outbursts of popular opposition to their direction and instruction is their lack of self-examination and humility, and their immediate resort to scorn and insult directed at those who had the temerity to defy them. Immediately after the results were clear, those voting leave were tarred as old/white/stupid/poor/uneducated/racist.

Totally lacking was the question: “If argument and evidence are so clearly on our side, why did we fail so miserably in convincing people of the obvious?” To these self-perceived elites, their superiority is self-evident and any opposition can only be attributed to mental defect or bad faith.

Not only is this superficial and immature–nay, juvenile and narcissistic–it is amazingly self-destructive. You were rejected because it was widely believed–with good reason–that you were aloof, condescending, and lacking in understanding of and empathy for the concerns of millions of people not of your social set. What better way to cement that reputation than by proceeding to piss all over those people? You think that will help them get their minds right, and vote for you next time? Think that, and you truly are delusional.

And mark well: this elite condescension is not heard just in the Midlands, but it comes through loud and clear in France, Germany, the Netherlands, and other countries in Europe. Consequently, this reaction actually increases the odds of an EU crisis. Those who refuse to respond constructively and thoughtfully to adverse feedback are likely to see things get worse, rather than better.

This condescension also helps explain the surprise at the Brexit outcome. So convinced of their virtue and intelligence, the Remain side could not comprehend that large numbers of people could take the opposite side. Secure in their bubble, talking only to one another, they had no idea of what was going on outside it. The Pauline Kael effect, with a British accent.

Further, the concerted effort in the establishment media to malign the Leavers succeeded in silencing many of them–but not in changing their minds. (Most disturbingly, the Remain side took strange comfort in the murder of Jo Cox.) They were bludgeoned into stubborn silence, which lulled the establishment into believing that the opposition was marginal and marginalized: this helps explain the pre-vote 90 percent betting odds on Remain, with the betting being dominated by those inside the bubble. But the silent bided their time and exacted their revenge.

Payback, as they say, is a bitch. But are the elites learning from this lesson? The first indications are negative.

The EU epitomizes what Thomas Sowell referred to as the Vision of the Anointed. This review summarizes the book of that title well, and although Sowell focuses on the US, what he said applies in spades to the EU, and Europhiles:

In The Vision of the Anointed, the distinguished economist and social theorist Thomas Sowell makes an important contribution to classical-liberal and conservative thought by scrutinizing the ways in which a self-consciously elite, or “anointed,” group uses ideas to maintain its power in American political life. Sowell regards American political discourse as dominated by people who are sure that they know what is good for society and who think that the good must be attained by expanded government action. This modern-liberal elite exerts its influence through institutions that live by words: the universities and public schools, the media, the liberal clergy, the bar and bench. Its dominance results from its command of the information that words convey and the attitudes that words inspire.

People who live by words should live also by arguments, butas Sowell richly documentsthe modern-liberal elite is not so good at arguing as it is at finding substitutes for argument. Sowell analyzes the major substitutes. Suppose that you doubt the necessity or usefulness of some great new government program. You may first be presented with a quantity of decontextualized “facts” and abused statistics, all indicating the existence of a “crisis” that only government can resolve. If you are not converted by this show of evidence, an attempt will probably be made to shift the viewpoint: outsiders may doubt that there is a crisis of, say, homelessness, but “spokesmen for the homeless” purportedly have no doubts.

. . . .

If even these methods fail to win you over, attention will be redirected from the political issue to your own failure of imagination or morality. It will be insinuated that people like you are simplistic or perversely opposed to change, lacking in compassion and allied with the “forces of greed.” (As Sowell observes, it is always the payers rather than the spenders of taxes who are considered vulnerable to the charge of greed.) [Emphasis added.]

The Anointed are a self-identified elite. They think that elite is a synonym for “meritorious,” “intelligent,” “wise,” or “morally superior.” But “elite” refers first and foremost to a place in a hierarchy, and the merit, intelligence, wisdom, and morality of those at the top of a hierarchy depends on the system. Hayek noted over 70 years ago that in a statist, crypto-socialist system the worst get to the top, i.e., the elite is a collection of the worst. The Eurogarchy shows just how right Hayek was.

For all the paeans sung to it, the EU has become far more than a means of reducing barriers to the flow of goods, capital, and people: that could have been accomplished with something as simple as the commerce clause to the US Constitution. Instead, the Anointed have constructed a vast hyper-state that controls and regulates every aspect of commercial activity, and much beyond. Cost raising and incentive sapping explicit restrictions on trade and investment across historical borders have been replaced by border-spanning onerous and minute regulations that raise costs and dull incentives: innovation has been especially hard hit. Moribund growth in the post-crisis EU should raise questions, but the Eurogarchs plunge ahead with their vast regulatory schemes.

I would approve of a supra-national organization that reduced the impediments to individuals consummating mutually beneficial bargains and exchanges. But that is not what the EU is. It is a dirigiste organization predicated on the belief that a technocratic elite knows better, and can direct and guide far more effectively than the invisible hand. Although its demise could lead to something worse, there are definitely better alternatives. Hence, the discomfort of the EU worshippers is music to my ears.

European leaders–Merkel most notably–are fond of saying “More Europe,” meaning more centralization and more suppression of local control. If they want Europe to survive as a political entity, they need to reverse their mantra to “Less Europe.” They need to reverse the creation of a hyper-state. They need to be more respectful of local, national sentiments and differences. Brexit shows that if they fail to do so, they are running the serious risk of having no “Europe” at all.

Are they heeding the lesson? Early signs suggest no. So be it. They are reaping what they sowed, and if they decide to sow more, so shall they reap.

Print Friendly

June 15, 2016

Where’s the CFTC’s Head AT?: Fools Rush in Where Angels Fear to Tread

Filed under: Commodities,Derivatives,Economics,Exchanges,Financial crisis,HFT,Regulation — The Professor @ 1:07 pm

The CFTC is currently considering Regulation AT (for Automated Trading). It is the Commission’s attempt to get a handle on HFT and algorithmic trading.

By far the most controversial aspect of the proposed regulation is the CFTC’s demand that algo traders provide the Commission with their source code. Given the sensitivity of this information, algo/HFT firms are understandably freaking out over this demand.

Those concerns are certainly legitimate. But what I want to ask is: what’s the point? What can the Commission actually accomplish?

The Commission argues that by reviewing source code, it can identify possible coding errors that could lead to “disruptive events” like the 2013 Knight Capital fiasco. Color me skeptical, for at least two reasons.

First, I seriously doubt that the CFTC can attract people with the coding skill necessary to track down errors in trading algorithms, or can devote the time necessary. Reviewing the code of others is a difficult task, usually harder than writing the code in the first place; the code involved here is very complex and changes frequently; and the CFTC is unlikely to be able devote the resources necessary for a truly effective review. Further, who has the stronger incentive? A firm that can be destroyed by a coding error, or some GS-something? (The prospect of numerous individuals perusing code creates the potential for a misappropriation of intellectual property which is what really has the industry exercised.) Not to mention that if you really have the chops to code trading algos, you’ll work for a prop shop or Citadel or Goldman or whomever and make much more than a government salary.

Second, and more substantively, reviewing individual trading algorithms in isolation is of limited value in determining their potentially disruptive effects. These individual algorithms are part of a complex system, in the technical/scientific meaning of the term. These individual pieces interact with one another, and create feedback mechanisms. Algo A takes inputs from market data that is produced in part by Algos B, C, D, E, etc. Based on these inputs, Algo A takes actions (e.g., enters or cancels orders), and Algos B, C, D, E, etc., react. Algo A reacts to those reactions, and on and on.

These feedbacks can be non-linear. Furthermore, the dimensionality of this problem is immense. Basically, an algo says if the state of the market is X, do Y. Evaluating algos in toto, the state of the market can include the current and past order books of every product, as well as the past order books (both explicitly as a condition in some algorithms, or implicitly through the empirical analysis that the developers use to find profitable trading rules based on historical market information), as well as market news. This state changes continuously.

Given this dimensionality and feedback-driven complexity, evaluating trading algorithms in isolation is a fools errand. Stability depends on how the algorithms interact. You cannot determine the stability of an emergent order, or its vulnerability to disruption, by looking at the individual components.

And since humans are still part of the trading ecosystem, how software interacts with meatware matters too. Fat finger problems are one example, but just normal human reactions to market developments can be destabilizing. This is true when all of the actors are human: it’s also true when some are human and some are algorithmic.

Look at the Flash Crash. Even in retrospect it has proven impossible to establish definitively the chain of events that precipitated it and caused it to unfold the way that it did. How is it possible to evaluate prospectively the stability of a system under a vastly larger set of possible states than those that existed on the day of the Flash Crash?

These considerations mean that  the CFTC–or any regulator–has little ability to improve system stability even if given access to the complete details of important parts of that system. But it’s potentially worse than that. Ill-advised changes to pieces of the system can make it less stable.

This is because in complex systems, attempts to improve the safety of individual components of the system can actually increase the probability of system failure.

In sum, markets are complex systems/emergent orders. The effects of changes to parts of these systems are highly unpredictable. Furthermore, it is difficult, and arguably impossible, to predict how changes to individual pieces of the system will affect the behavior of the system as a whole under all possible contingencies, especially given the vastness of the set of contingencies.

Based on this reality, we should be very chary about letting any regulator attempt to micromanage pieces of this complex system. Indeed, any regulator should be reluctant to undertake this task. But regulators frequently overestimate their competence, and financial regulators have proven time and again that they really don’t understand that they are dealing with a complex system/emergent order that does not respond to their interventions in the way that they intend. But fools rush in where angels fear to tread, and if the Commission persists in its efforts to become the Commissar of Code, it will be playing the fool–and it will not just be algo traders that pay the price.

Print Friendly

June 11, 2016

Washington Republicans: Subjectively Pro-Capitalism, Objectively Anti-Capitalism

Filed under: Economics,Financial crisis,Politics,Regulation — The Professor @ 8:11 pm

@libertylynx suggested to me that the GOP is primarily responsible for the current unpopularity of capitalism in the US. I agree that this is largely the case. Here’s my first stab at an explanation.

At root it is due to a yawning gap between rhetoric and action. The GOP poses as the party of small government and free markets, but it is not, really. The disconnect was somewhat present during the Reagan administration, but it became progressively (pun alert!) more pronounced starting with Bush I, and particularly during the George W. Bush administration.

Bush II in particular was a big spender. Some of it was war-driven, but he was also profligate domestically. Perhaps most importantly, given the salience of housing to the 2008-2009 financial crisis which inflicted the most grievous blow to belief in the efficacy and efficiency of markets since the Great Depression, was that the Bush administration perpetuated the bias towards investment in housing exemplified by Fannie and Freddie. A truly market-oriented administration would have terminated Fannie and Freddie with extreme prejudice, but it grew apace during the Bush II administration. When combined with an expansive Fed and a flawed banking regulatory framework, the groundwork for a disaster was in place.

In many respects, this is similar to what happened during and after the Great Depression. That event was widely viewed as a failure of capitalism and the market system, when it was actually the result of a combination of bad Fed policy and a dysfunctional banking system that was the result of a political bargain that resulted in the proliferation of small unit banks that could not withstand a broad shock: see Friedman and Schwartz for an analysis of the former, and Calomiris and Haber for an examination of the latter.  The banking system that collapsed in the 1930s was a political artifact, and would have not developed the way that it did in the absence of a regulatory framework that was tailored to benefit very specific political constituencies.

The strong bias towards housing investment in the United States in the 1990s-2000s was also the result of a political bargain: alas, the same is true today, even despite the crisis. This political bargain was based on a coalition of politically connected firms (Fannie, Freddie, major banks, and construction) and populists. This bargain created incentives that led market participants to invest excessively in housing. When this came a cropper, the blame attached to those market participants who responded to incentives, rather than the political agents and political process that created those incentives.

In DC, Republicans talked a pro-market, small-government game, but did not govern that way. Republicans in Congress liked living a comfortable life in DC. They did not have a stomach for fighting the battle that a true pro-market, small government policy would have caused. They liked the sinecures of power too much to risk them, knowing in particular that pursuing such policies would unleash a storm of media criticism and make them unpopular with the bureaucrats and lobbyists who infest the place. So they made a few symbolic gestures, and spouted pro-free market, small government rhetoric, but really did nothing. The continued existence, let alone the growth, of Fannie and Freddie is testament to that.

When the storm hit in 2008, this came back to haunt them. More importantly, it came back to haunt the cause of free markets and smaller government. Since those giving lip service to those ideals were in charge when the storm hit, it was easy to blame the ideals, even though those spouting the rhetoric had done virtually nothing to advance them. Indeed, they had perpetuated, and in fact exacerbated, the market distortion that was the ultimate cause of the crisis. This presented a perfect opportunity for those in politics (the Democratic Party) and the media (an appendage of the Democratic Party) to attack the ideals that they despised.  It would have been better had the Republicans not pretended to be pro-market, as at least that would have limited some of the damage to popular beliefs and opinions about markets.

There are at least a couple of reasons for the Republican reluctance actually to fight the statist DC consensus, despite their rhetorical embrace of that fight.

One is the scars left by the struggles over the government shutdown in 1995-1996, and the impeachment battle that followed. Both fights were a distraction, and what’s worse, the Republicans handled both badly. They took a horrible beating in the media and elections–rightly so, in retrospect–and it got their minds right. The 1994 insurgents were supplanted by time servers and apparatchiks. Hasterts and Boehners and McConnells, and other assorted boneless wonders you’ve never even heard of. They were masters at the Kabuki performance of pretending to be pro-market and pro-smaller government, but really doing nothing to stem the tide.

The second reason is more fundamental, but in a way can explain the first. Politicians respond to incentives too. A good model for them is a pigeon in a Skinner Box. They soon learn to push the lever that results in the magical appearance of a food pellet, and not to push the lever that doesn’t.

Organized constituencies provide the food pellets in DC. There is no organized constituency for freer markets or substantially smaller government. There are constituencies for particular businesses and industries, and for government largesse. The benefits of free markets and smaller government are large, but diffuse. As Olson and Stigler and Becker and others showed long ago, diffuse and unorganized beneficiaries have little incentive or ability to influence policy. In contrast, particular businesses and industries do. Thus, careerist politicians intent on re-election and a comfortable life have little incentive to pursue market-oriented policies, but instead pursue policies that favor particular constituencies, including business constituencies.

Which means that even though many Republicans talk/talked about being pro-market, they are/were at most really pro-business. And there is a difference. A huge difference, as Adam Smith pointed out centuries ago, and Friedman repeated often decades ago. But that difference is not well-understood, which means that failures that occur when Republicans are in power tend to get blamed on the market system, or capitalism.

The S&L crisis of almost 30 years ago provides a good example. The S&L industry was the creation of law and regulation resulting from a political bargain: again see Calomiris and Haber. Inflation devastated the industry, and in response it called for elimination of restrictions on how S&Ls could invest. This was done in the name of deregulation and freeing markets, but the most important government interventions were left in place. In particular, deposit insurance remained, and government regulators refused to shut down insolvent thrifts. The mixture of freeing up the asset side of the balance sheet when (a) liabilities were insured, and (b) S&Ls had no equity, was toxic in the extreme. With insured liabilities and no equity, S&Ls had a tremendous incentive to add risk, and the deregulation of the asset side of the balance sheet gave them the ability to do so. They took on said risk, it ended badly, and taxpayers were on the hook for $200 billion or so as a result. Real money back then!

Was this a failure of deregulation, and a damning verdict on markets? I would say no: the fraught condition of the S&Ls was the product of previous government regulation and policy, and the perverse incentive to take on risk was inherent in another policy—deposit insurance. An organized political constituency (S&L operators) influenced Congress to loosen some regulations that made the perverse effects of the other regulations and policies even more acute.

In other words: they wanted to deregulate in the worst way, and they did. They did so because the deregulation was designed to benefit particular businesses, not to create a free market in banking. Pace the theory of the second best, elimination of something (restrictions on S&L investment) that would be an imperfection in the absence of other imperfections made things far worse when other imperfections (deposit insurance, forbearing regulators) remained in place.

But the narrative that came out of the S&L debacle was one of market failure, not government failure. Deregulation and markets took the blame, when what had really happened is that politicians responding to incentives (the importuning of an organized constituency) changed the laws in ways that created perverse incentives for business, and ultimately all this perversity begot something wretched indeed. The crisis was played out on Main Street, but its origins lay squarely on Pennsylvania Avenue.

The takeaway from all this is rather depressing. It means there is an inherent political bias against pro-market policies because markets, and the beneficiaries of markets, do not form an organized political force. The difficulty of voters to distinguish pro-business policies from pro-market rhetoric often used to advance them means that economic crises (the Great Depression, the S&L collapse, the 2008 Crisis) that are strongly rooted in government failure are blamed on markets instead, which perversely results in even more government intervention.

So this is why Republicans damage the cause of free markets and small government. They spout pro-market and small government rhetoric, but for reasons of political economy, really do little that actually advances free markets or reduce the size of government. But when some government policy creates incentives that lead to a bad market outcome, their rhetoric boomerangs on markets, not government.

The post-crisis years have been a period of slow growth and economic sclerosis. This is largely attributable to the explosion of regulation that has taken place since 2009. The narrative that helped spark this explosion is that markets failed. Alas, Republicans did much to advance that narrative, albeit inadvertently. But advance it they did, and the malign effects will be felt for decades to come.

In brief, Republican politicians may be subjectively pro-market and pro-capitalism, but objectively they have done grievous harm to markets and capitalism.


Print Friendly

April 2, 2016

The Rube Goldberg Approach to Integrating CCPs: A Recipe for Disaster

Filed under: Clearing,Derivatives,Economics,Exchanges,Financial crisis,Regulation — The Professor @ 12:38 pm

As noted in earlier posts (and by others commenting on the proposed Eurex-LSE merger) the main potential benefit to exchange customers* is the capital and margin savings from netting efficiencies between Eurex futures and LCH swaps. However, regulators and others have expressed concerns that the downside is the creation of an bigger too big to fail clearing entity. A couple of weeks back Silla Brush and John Detrixhe reported that the merger partners are trying to square that circle by cross-margining, but not merging the CCPs:

LCH.Clearnet and Eurex held 150 billion euros ($169.5 billion) of collateral on behalf of their members as of Dec. 31, according to the merger statement. The London-based clearer is developing a system that allows traders to offset their swap positions at LCH.Clearnet with their futures holdings at Eurex. The project, which works even though the two clearinghouses are separate, should enable customers to reduce the total amount of collateral they must set aside.

“We can cross margin our over-the-counter clearing with their listed derivatives without merging the clearinghouses, and without comingling the risk-management framework,” LSE Group CEO Xavier Rolet said in a Bloomberg Television interview on Wednesday. Rolet will step aside if the companies complete their merger.

The devil will clearly be in the details, and I am skeptical, not to say suspicious. In order for the separate but comingled system to work, Eurex’s CCP must have a claim on collateral held by LCH (and vice versa) so that deficiencies in a defaulter’s margin account on Eurex can be covered by excess at LCH (and vice versa). (As an illustration of the basic concept, Lehman had five different collateral pools at CME Clearing–interest rate, equity, FX, commodities, energy. There were deficiencies in two of these, but CME used collateral from the other three to cover them. As a result there was no hit to the default fund.)

How this will work legally is by no means evident, especially inasmuch as this will be a deal across jurisdictions (which could become even more fraught if Brexit occurs). Further, what happens in the event that one of the separate CCPs itself becomes insolvent? I can imagine a situation (unlikely, but possible)  in which CCP A is insolvent due to multiple defaults, but the margin account at A for one of the defaulters has excess funds while its margin account at CCP is deficient. Would it really be possible for B to access the defaulter’s collateral at bankrupt CCP A? Maybe, but I am certain that this question would be answered only after a nasty, and likely protracted, legal battle.

The fact that the CCPs are going to be legally separate entities suggests their default funds will be as well, and that they will be separately capitalized, meaning that the equity of one CCP will not be part of the default waterfall of the other. This increases the odds that one of the CCPs will exhaust its resources and become insolvent. That is, the probability that one of the separate CCPs will become insolvent exceeds the probability that a truly merged one would become so. Since even the separate CCPs would be huge and systemically important, it is not obvious that this is a superior outcome.

I am also mystified by what Rolet meant by “without comingling the risk management framework.” “Risk management framework” involves several pieces. One is the evaluation of market and credit risk, and the determination of the margin on the portfolio. Does Rolet mean that each CCP will make an independent determination of the margin it will charge for the positions held on it, but do so in a way that takes into account the offsetting risks at the position held at the other CCP? Wouldn’t that at least require sharing position information across CCPs? And couldn’t it result in arbitrary and perhaps incoherent determinations of margins if the CCPs use different models? (As a simple example, will the CCPs use different correlation assumptions?) Wouldn’t this have an effect on where firms place their trades? Couldn’t that lead to a perverse competition between the two CCPs?+ It seems much more sensible to have a unified risk model across the CCPs since they are assigning a single margin to a portfolio that includes positions on both CCPs.

Another part of the “risk management framework” is the management of defaulted positions. Separate management of the risk of components of a defaulted portfolio is highly inefficient. Indeed, part of the justification of portfolio margining is that the combined position is less risky, and that some components effectively hedge other components. Managing the risks of the components separately in the event of a default sacrifices these self-hedging features, and increases the amount of trading necessary to manage the risk of the defaulted position. Since this trading may be necessary during periods of low liquidity, economizing on the amount of trading is very beneficial.

In other words, co-mingling risk management is a very good idea if you are going to cross margin.

It seems that Eurex and LSE are attempting to come up with a clever way to work around regulators’ TBTF neuroses. But it is not clear how this workaround will perform in practice. Moreover, it seems to sacrifice many of the benefits of a merged CCP, while creating ambiguities and legal risks. It also will inevitably be more complex than simply merging the two CCPs. Such complexity creates systemic risks.

One way to put this is that if the two CCPs are legally separate entities, under separate managements, relations between them (including the arrangements necessary for cross margining and default management) will be governed by contract. Contracts are inevitably incomplete. There will be unanticipated contingencies, and/or contingencies that are anticipated but not addressed in the contract. When these contingencies occur in practice, there is a potential for conflict, disagreement, and rent seeking.

In the case of CCPs, the relevant contingencies not specified in the contract will most likely occur during a default, and likely during stressed market conditions. This is exactly the wrong time to have a dispute, and failure to come to a speedy resolution of how to deal with the contingency could be systemically catastrophic.

One advantage of ownership/integration is that it mitigates contractual incompleteness problems. Managers/owners have the authority to respond unilaterally to contingencies. As Williamson pointed out long ago, efficient “selective intervention” is problematic, but in the CCP context, the benefits of managerial fiat and selective intervention seem to far outweigh the costs.

I have argued that the need to coordinate during crises was one justification for the integration of trade execution and clearing. The argument applies with even greater force for the integration of CCPs that cooperate in some ways (e.g., through portfolio margining).

In sum, coordination of LCH and Eurex clearing through contract, rather than through merger into a single entity is a highly dubious way of addressing regulators’ concerns about CCPs being TBTF. The separate entities are already TBTF. The probability that one defaults if they are separate is bigger than the probability that the merged entity defaults, and the chaos conditional on default, or the measures necessary to prevent default, probably wouldn’t be that much greater for the merged entity: this means that reducing the probability of default is desirable, rather than reducing the size of the entity conditional on default. Furthermore, the contract between the two entities will inevitably be incomplete, and the gaps will be discovered, and extremely difficult to fill in-, during a crisis. This is exactly when a coordination failure would be most damaging, and when it would be most likely to occur.

Thus, in my view full integration dominates some Rube Goldberg-esque attempt to bolt LCH and Eurex clearing together by contract. The TBTF bridge was crossed long ago, for both CCPs. The complexity and potential for coordination failure between separate but not really organizations joined by contract would create more systemic risks than increasing size would. A coordination failure between two TBTF entities is not a happy thought.

Therefore, if regulators believe that the incremental systemic risk resulting from a full merger of LCH and Eurex clearing outweighs the benefits of the combination, they should torpedo the merger rather than allowing LSE and Eurex to construct some baroque contractual workaround.

*I say customers specifically, because it is not clear that the total benefits (including all affect parties) from cross margining, netting, etc., are positive. This is due to the distributive effects of these measures. They tend to ensure that derivatives counterparties get paid a higher fraction of their claims in the event of a default, but this is because they shift some of the losses to others with claims on the defaulter.

Print Friendly

March 9, 2016

Clearing Angst: Here Be Dragons Too

Filed under: Clearing,Derivatives,Economics,Exchanges,Financial crisis,Politics,Regulation — The Professor @ 3:21 pm

We are now well into the Brave New World of clearing and collateral mandates. The US clearing mandate is in place, and the Europeans are on the verge of implementing it. We are also on the cusp of the mandate to collateralize non-cleared swaps.

After years of congratulating themselves on how the Brave New World was going to be so much better than the Bad Old World, the smart set is now coming to grips-grudgingly, slowly-with the dawning realization that not all the financial demons have been slain: here be dragons too. From time to time I’ve written about regulators recognizing this reality. There have been several more examples recently indicating that this has become the new conventional wisdom. For instance, Bloomberg recently editorialized on CCPs becoming the New Too Big to Fail: meet the new systemic risk, not that different from the old systemic risk. The BoE is commencing a review of CCPs, focusing not just on financial risks but operational ones as well. Researchers as Citi are warning that CCPs need more skin in the game. Regulators are warning that CCPs have become a single point of aim for hackers as they have become more central to the financial system. Researchers at three central banks go Down Under back into the not-too-distant past to show how CCPs can get into trouble–and how they can wreak havoc when they try to save themselves. An economist at the Chicago Fed warns that CCPs create new risks as they address old ones. Even the BIS (which had been an unabashed clearing cheerleader) sounds warnings.

I could go on. Suffice it to say that it is now becoming widely recognized that central clearing mandates (and the mandated collateralization of non-cleared derivatives) is not the silver bullet that will slay systemic risk, as someone pointed out more than seven years ago.

This is a good thing, on the whole, but there is a danger. This danger inheres in the framing of the issue as “CCPs are too big to fail, and therefore need to be made fail-safe.”  Yes, the failure of a major CCP is a frightening prospect: as the article linked above about the crisis at the New Zealand Futures and Options Exchange demonstrates, the collapse of even a non-major CCP is not a cheery prospect either.

But the measures employed to prevent failure pose their own dangers. The “loser pays” model is designed to reduce credit risk in derivatives transactions by requiring the posting of initial margins and the payment of variation margins, so that the CCP’s credit exposure is reduced. But balance sheets can be adjusted, and credit exposure through derivatives can be-and will be, to a large extent-replaced by credit exposure elsewhere, meaning that collateralization primarily redistributes credit risk, rather than reduces it.

Furthermore, the nature of the credit can change, and in bad ways. The need to meet large margin calls in the face of large price movements  causes spikes in the demand for credit that are correlated with market disruptions: this liquidity risk is a wrong way risk of the worst sort, because it tends to occur at times when the supply of liquidity is constrained, and it therefore can contribute to liquidity crises/liquidity hoarding and can cause a vicious spiral. In addition, as the article on the NZFOE demonstrates other measures that are intended to save the clearinghouse (partial tearups, in that instance) redistribute default losses in unpredictable ways, and it is by no means clear that those who bear these losses are less systemically important than, or more able to withstand them than, those who would bear them in an uncleared world.

The article on the NZFOE episode points out another salient fact: dealing with a CCP crisis has huge distributive effects. This makes any CCP action the subject of intense politicking and rent seeking by the affected parties, and this inevitably draws in the regulators and the central bankers. This, in turn, will inevitably draw in the politicians. Thus, political considerations, as much or more than economic ones, will drive the response. With supersized CCPs, the political fallout from any measures adopted to save CCPs (including extending credit to permit losers to make margin calls) will be acute and long lived.

Thus, contrary to the way they were hawked in the aftermath of the crisis, CCPs and collateralization mandates are not fire-and-forget measures that reduce burdens on regulators generally, and central banks in particular. They create new burdens, as regulators and central banks will inevitably be forced to resort to extraordinary measures, and in particular extraordinary measures to supply liquidity, to respond to systemic stresses created by the clearing system.

In his academic post-mortem of the clearing during the 1987 Crash, Ben Bernanke forthrightly declared that it was appropriate for the Fed to socialize clearinghouse risks on Black Monday and the following Tuesday. In Bernanke’s view, socializing the risk prevented a more serious crisis.

When you compare the sizes of the CCPs at issue then (CME Clearing, BOTCC, and OCC) to the behemoths of a post-mandate world, you should be sobered. The amount of risk that must be socialized to protect the handful of huge CCPs that currently exist dwarfs the amount that Greenspan (implicitly) took onto the Fed balance sheet in October, 1987.

Put differently, CCPs have become single points of socialization. Anyone who thinks differently, is fooling themselves.

Addendum: The last sentence of the Bernanke article is rather remarkable: “Since it now appears that the Fed is firmly committed to respond when the financial system is threatened, it may be that changes in the clearing and settlement system can be safely restricted to improvements to the technology of clearing and settlement.” The argument in a nutshell is that the Fed’s performance of its role as “insurer of last resort” (Bernanke’s phrase to describe socializing CCP risk) during the Crash of 1987 showed that central banks could readily handle the systemic financial risks associated with clearing. Therefore, managing the financial risks of clearing can easily be delegated to central banks, and CCPs and market users should focus on addressing operational risks.

There is an Alfred E. Newman-esque feel to these remarks, and they betray remarkable hubris about the powers of central banks. I wonder if he thinks the same today. More importantly, I wonder if his successors at the Fed, and their peers around the world, share these views. Given the experience of the past decade, and the massive expansion of derivatives clearing world, I sure as hell hope not.


Print Friendly

Next Page »

Powered by WordPress