Streetwise Professor

March 10, 2015

Chinese Chutzpah: Using IP to Ice Cotton Competition

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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March 1, 2015

The Clayton Rule on Speed

Filed under: Commodities,Derivatives,Economics,Exchanges,HFT,Politics,Regulation — The Professor @ 1:12 pm

I have written often of the Clayton Rule of Manipulation, named after a cotton broker who, in testimony before Congress, uttered these wise words:

“The word ‘manipulation’ . . . in its use is so broad as to include any operation of the cotton market that does not suit the gentleman who is speaking at the moment.”

High Frequency Trading has created the possibility of the promiscuous application of the Clayton Rule, because there is a lot of things about HFT that do not suit a lot of gentlemen at this moment, and a lot of ladies for that matter. The CFTC’s Frankendodd-based Disruptive Practices Rule, plus the fraud based manipulation Rule 180.1 (also a product of Dodd-Frank) provide the agency’s enforcement staff with the tools to pursue a pretty much anything that does not suit them at any particular moment.

At present, the thing that least suits government enforcers-including not just CFTC but the Department of Justice as well-is spoofing. As I discussed late last year, the DOJ has filed criminal charges in a spoofing case.

Here’s my description of spoofing:

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

Order cancellation is a crucial component of the spoofing strategy, and this has created widespread suspicion about the legitimacy of order cancellation generally. Whatever you think about spoofing, if such futures market rule enforcers (exchanges, the CFTC, or the dreaded DOJ) begin to believe that traders who cancel orders at a high rate are doing something nefarious, and begin applying the Clayton Rule to such traders, the potential for mischief-and far worse-is great.

Many legitimate strategies involve high rates of order cancellation. In particular, market making strategies, including market making strategies pursued by HFT firms, typically involve high cancellation rates, especially in markets with small ticks, narrow spreads, and high volatility. Market makers can quote tighter spreads if they can adjust their quotes rapidly in response to new information. High volatility essentially means a high rate of information flow, and a need to adjust quotes frequently. Moreover, HFT traders can condition their quotes in a given market based on information (e.g., trades or quote changes) in other markets. Thus, to be able to quote tight markets in these conditions, market makers need to be able to adjust quotes frequently, and this in turn requires frequent order cancellations.

Order cancellation is also a means of protecting market making HFTs from being picked off by traders with better information. HFTs attempt to identify when order flow becomes “toxic” (i.e., is characterized by a large proportion of better-informed traders) and rationally cancel orders when this occurs. This reduces the cost of making markets.

This creates a considerable tension if order cancellation rates are used as a metric to detect potential manipulative conduct. Tweaking strategies to reduce cancellation rates to reduce the probability of getting caught in an enforcement dragnet increases the frequency that a trader is picked off and thereby raises trading costs: the rational response is to quote less aggressively, which reduces market liquidity. But not doing so raises the risk of a torturous investigation, or worse.

What’s more, the complexity of HFT strategies will make ex post forensic analyses of traders’ activities fraught with potential error. There is likely to be a high rate of false positives-the identification of legitimate strategies as manipulative. This is particularly true for firms that trade intensively in multiple markets. With some frequency, such firms will quote one side of the market, cancel, and then take liquidity from the other side of the market (the pattern that is symptomatic of spoofing). They will do that because that can be the rational response to some patterns of information arrival. But try explaining that to a suspicious regulator.

The problem here inheres in large part in the inductive nature of legal reasoning, which generalizes from specific cases and relies heavily on analogy. With such reasoning there is always a danger that a necessary condition (“all spoofing strategies involve high rates of order cancellation”) morphs into a sufficient condition (“high rates of order cancellation indicate manipulation”). This danger is particularly acute in complex environments in which subtle differences in strategies that are difficult for laymen to grasp (and may even be difficult for the strategist or experts to explain) can lead to very different conclusions about their legitimacy.

The potential for a regulatory dragnet directed against spoofing catching legitimate strategies by mistake is probably the greatest near-term concern that traders should have, because such a dragnet is underway. But the widespread misunderstanding and suspicion of HFT more generally means that over the medium to long term, the scope of the Clayton Rule may expand dramatically.

This is particularly worrisome given that suspected offenders are at risk to criminal charges. This dramatic escalation in the stakes raises compliance costs because every inquiry, even from an exchange, demands a fully-lawyered response. Moreover, it will make firms avoid some perfectly rational strategies that reduce the costs of making markets, thereby reducing liquidity and inflating trading costs for everyone.

The vagueness of the statute and the regulations that derive from it pose a huge risk to HFT firms. The only saving grace is that this vagueness may result in the law being declared unconstitutional and preventing it from being used in criminal prosecutions.

Although he wrote in a non-official capacity, an article by CFTC attorney Gregory Scopino illustrates how expansive regulators may become in their criminalization of HFT strategies. In a Connecticut Law Review article, Scopino questions the legality of “high-speed ‘pinging’ and ‘front running’ in futures markets.” It’s frightening to watch him stretch the concepts of fraud and “deceptive contrivance or device” to cover a variety of defensible practices which he seems not to understand.

In particular, he is very exercised by “pinging”, that is, the submission of small orders in an attempt to detect large orders. As remarkable as it might sound, his understanding of this seems to be even more limited than Michael Lewis’s: see Peter Kovac’s demolition of Lewis in his Not so Fast.

When there is hidden liquidity (due to non-displayed orders or iceberg orders), it makes perfect sense for traders to attempt to learn about market depth. This can be valuable information for liquidity providers, who get to know about competitive conditions in the market and can gauge better the potential profitability of supply ing liquidity. It can also be valuable to informed strategic traders, whose optimal trading strategy depends on market depth (as Pete Kyle showed more than 30 years ago): see a nice paper by Clark-Joseph on such “exploratory trading”, which sadly has been misrepresented by many (including Lewis and Scopino) to mean that HFT firms front run, a conclusion that Clark-Joseph explicitly denies. To call either of these strategies front running, or deem them deceptive or fraudulent is disturbing, to say the least.

Scopino and other critics of HFT also criticize the alleged practice of order anticipation, whereby a trader infers the existence of a large order being executed in pieces as soon as the first pieces trade. I say alleged, because as Kovac points out, the noisiness of order flow sharply limits the ability to detect a large latent order on the basis of a few trades.

What’s more, as I wrote in some posts on HFT just about a year ago, and in a piece in the Journal of Applied Corporate Finance, it’s by no means clear that order anticipation is inefficient, due to the equivocal nature of informed trading. Informed trading reduces liquidity, making it particularly perverse that Scopino wants to treat order anticipation as a form of insider trading (i.e., trading on non-public information). Talk about getting things totally backwards: this would criminalize a type of trading that actually impedes liquidity-reducing informed trading. Maybe there’s a planet on which that makes sense, but its sky ain’t blue.

Fortunately, these are now just gleams in an ambitious attorney’s eye. But from such gleams often come regulatory progeny. Indeed, since there is a strong and vocal constituency to impede HFT, the political economy of regulation tends to favor such an outcome. Regulators gonna regulate, especially when importuned by interested parties. Look no further than the net neutrality debacle.

In sum, the Clayton Rule has been around for the good part of a century, but I fear we ain’t seen nothing yet. HFT doesn’t suit a lot of people, often because of ignorance or self-interest, and as Mr. Clayton observed so long ago, it’s a short step from that to an accusation of manipulation. Regulators armed with broad, vague, and elastic authority (and things don’t get much broader, vaguer, or more elastic than “deceptive contrivance or device”) pose a great danger of running amok and impairing market performance in the name of improving it.

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February 4, 2015

Turn Out the Lights, The Party’s Over

Filed under: Clearing,Commodities,Derivatives,Economics,Exchanges,History — The Professor @ 8:12 pm

What party, you ask? The one with the mosh pit at LaSalle and Jackson in Chicago.  The one held in the building that’s in the background image of this page.

That’s right. Today the CME Group announced it was ending floor trading of futures (with the exception of the S&P 500) in Chicago and New York. Floor trading of options will continue.

As a Chicagoan who knew the floor in its glory days, this is a sad day. The floor was an amazing place. (Even though the floors will remain open until July, the past tense is appropriate in that sentence.)  A seemingly chaotic place full of shouting and gesticulating men (and yes, it was an overwhelmingly male place). Despite the chaos, it was an extraordinarily efficient way to buy and sell futures. In the bond pit in the 80s and 90s, $100,000,000 notional could be bought in sold with a shout and a wave. Over and over and over.

The economics of the pits were fascinating, but the sociology was as well. They were truly little societies. There were the exchange rules that were in the book, and there were the rules not written in any book that you adhered to, or else. Face-to-face interactions day after day over periods of years created a unique dynamic and a unique culture with its own norms and hierarchies and rituals. And soon it will be but a memory.

Even though I am wistful at the passing of this remarkable institution, I was ahead of the curve in predicting its eventual demise. I worked at an FCM in 1986, when the CME, CBT, and Reuters announced the initial Globex initiative. This got me interested in electronic trading, and when I became an academic a few years later, I researched the subject. In 1994 I wrote one of the early papers documenting that electronic markets could be as liquid and deep as floor-based markets, and I conjectured that parity in liquidity and superiority in speed and cost of access would result in the ultimate victory of computers over the floor. The collective response in the industry was scorn: everyone knew the floor was more liquid, and always would be. The information environment on the floor could never be duplicated on the screen, they said. This view was epitomized by the CEO of LIFFE, Daniel Hodgson, who ridiculed me in the FT as an ivory tower academic.

The first sign that the floor’s days were numbered occurred in 1998, when computerized Eurex wrested the Bund futures contract from LIFFE. (Eurex used my research as part of its marketing push.) LIFFE suffered a near death experience, barely surviving by shutting the floor and going fully electronic. (Mr. Hodgson was shown the door, and I resisted the temptation of sending him a certain FT clipping.)

Computerized trading was only slowly making inroads in the US at the time, in part because the incumbent exchanges resisted its operation during regular floor trading hours. But the fear of the machines was palpable by the mid-1990s. The CBT built its massive trading floor in 1997 in part because the members believed that if it spent so much on a new building the exchange couldn’t afford to render it useless by going electronic. Ironic that a group of traders who lived and breathed real world economics would fall victim to the sunk cost fallacy, and be blind to the gales of competition and creative destruction.

The floor continued to thrive, but inexorably the machines gained on it. By the early-2000s electronic volumes exceeded floor volumes for most contracts, especially in the financials. By the end of the first decade of the millennium, the floors were almost vacant. I remember going to the crude oil pit in NY in early-2009, and where once well over 100 traders stood, engaged in frenzied buying and selling, now a handful of guys sat on the steps of the pit, reading the Post and the Daily News.

When the CME demutualized, and when it acquired CBT and NYMEX, it made commitments to keep the floors open for some period of time. But the commitments were not in perpetuity, and declining floor volumes made it evident that eventually the day would come that the CME would shut down the floors.

Today was that day.

This was inevitable, but in the 80s and 90s the floor trading community, and the futures business generally, couldn’t possibly imagine that machines could ever do what they did. But the technology of the floor was essentially static. Yes, the technology of getting orders to the pit evolved along with telecommunications, but once the orders got there, they were executed in the same way that they had been since 1864 or so.* That execution technology was highly evolved and efficient, but static. In the meantime, Moore’s Law and innovation in hardware, software, and communications technology made electronic trading faster and smarter. Electronic trading lacked some of the information that could be gleaned looking in the eyes of the guy standing across the pit, or knowing who was bidding or offering, but it made accessible to traders vast sources of disparate information that was impossible to absorb on the floor. By the late-00s, HFT essentially computerized what was in locals’ heads, and did it faster with more information and fewer errors and less emotion. Guys that were all about competition were displaced by the competition of a more efficient technology.

Floor trading will live on for a while, in the options pits. Combination trades in options are complex in ways that there are efficiencies in doing them on the floor. But eventually machines will master that too. ICE closed its options pits a couple of years ago (four years after it closed its futures pits), and one day the CME will do so too.

The news of the CME announcement reminded me of something that happened almost exactly 10 years ago, 21 February 2005. Around that time, the management of  the International Petroleum Exchange was discussing the closure of the floor. (It decided to do so on 7 March.) Floor traders were very anxious about their future. Totally oblivious to this, Greenpeace decided to mount a protest on the IPE floor to commemorate the Kyoto Protocol. Bad decision. Bad timing. The barrow boys of the London floors, already in a sour mood, didn’t take kindly to this invasion, and mayhem ensued. Punches were thrown. Bones were broken. Furniture was thrown. There was much comedy:

“The violence was instant,” reported one aggrieved recipient of a rain of blows to the head. “I’ve never seen anyone less amenable to listening to our point of view.”

You can’t make that up.

From what I understand, the response was much more subdued in Chicago and New York today. But then again, Occupy or GMO protesters didn’t attempt to sally onto the floor to flog their causes. If they had, they just might have caught a flogging like the enviros did in London a decade back.

Being of a historical bent, I will look back on the floors with fascination. I am grateful to have known them personally, and to have known many who trod the boards in the pit in their colorful jackets, shouting themselves hoarse and at constant risk of being stabbed in the neck with a pencil wielded by a hyperactive peer.

Today is a good day to watch Floored or The Pit. Or even play a game of Pit. The films will give you something of a feel, but just a bit.

2015. The year Chicago lost Ernie Banks and the floor. But life moves on. Machines do not have the color of the floor, but they perform the markets’ vital functions more efficiently now. And not everything has changed in Chicago. The Cubs are still horrible.

*The exact beginning of floor trading on the CBT is unknown. The Board of Trade of the City of Chicago was formed in 1848, but futures trading proper probably did not begin until the Civil War. Sometime in the 1862-1864 period floor trading as we know it today-or should I say knew it?-developed. The first formal trading rules were promulgated in 1867. If you look at pictures from the 19th century or early-20th century, other than the clothes things don’t look much different than they did in the 1980s or 1990s. Electronic boards replaced chalk boards, but other than that, things look very similar.

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January 31, 2015

A Devastating Critique of the Worst of Frankendodd: The SEF Mandate

Filed under: Derivatives,Economics,Exchanges,Financial crisis,Politics,Regulation — The Professor @ 9:05 pm

On the day of its passage, I proclaimed the Swaps Execution Facility (SEF) Mandate to be the Worst of Frankendodd. Somewhat later, I called the Made Available for Trade (MAT) process to be the Worst of the Worst. Nothing that has happened since has led me to change my mind. To the contrary.

Many considerations led me to these conclusions. Most notably, the SEF mandate, especially as implemented by the CFTC, substituted government judgment for user choice in how to execute swaps transactions. In particular, the mandate imposed a one-size-fits-all execution model on a very diverse marketplace. In the swaps market, heterogeneous participants with varying objectives want to engage in heterogeneous transactions, and over time a variety of execution methods evolved to accommodate this diversity. The mandate ran roughshod over this evolved ecosystem.

Congress, and especially the CFTC, took the futures market with centralized exchanges as its model. They liked the futures markets’ pre-trade and post-trade price transparency. (Remember Gentler and his damn apples?) They liked counterparty opacity (i.e., anonymity). They liked centralized execution and a central limit order book. They liked continuous markets.

But swaps markets evolved precisely because those features did not serve the needs of market participants. The sizes of most swap transactions, and the desire of participants to transact in such size relatively infrequently, are not handled efficiently in a continuous market. Moreover, the counterparty transparency available to the parties of bilateral trades each to evaluate the trading motives of the other, thereby limiting exposure to opportunistic informed trading: this enhances market liquidity. Limited post-trade transparency makes it cheaper for dealers who took on an exposure in a trade with a customer to hedge that risk. The inter dealer broker model also facilitates the efficient transfer of risk among dealer banks.

But those arguments were unavailing. Congress and the CFTC were deeply suspicious of the bank-dominated swaps markets. They viewed this structure as uncompetitive (despite the fact that there were more firms engaged in that market than in most major sectors of the economy), and the relationship between dealers and end users as one of greatly unequal power, with the former exploiting the latter. The protests of end users over the mandate did not move them in the slightest.

I predicted several consequences of the mandate. Fragmentation along geographical/jurisdictional lines was the most notable: I predicted that non-US entities that could avoid the strictures of Frankendodd would do so.  I also predicted a decline in swaps trading activity, due to the higher costs of an ill-adapted trading system.

These things have come to pass. What’s more, it’s hard to discern any offsetting benefits whatsoever. Indeed, when compliance costs and the costs of investing in and operating SEF infrastructure are considered, the deadweight losses almost certainly run into the many billions annually.

If you want detailed chapter and verse describing just how misguided the mandate is, you now have it. Thursday CFTC Commissioner Christopher Giancarlo released a white paper that exposes the flaws in the mandate as implemented by the CFTC, and recommends reforms. It is essential reading to anyone involved in, or even interested in, the swap markets.

Commissioner Giancarlo may be talking his ex-book as an executive of IDB GFI, but in this case that means he knows what he’s talking about. He carefully demonstrates the economic purposes and advantages of pre-Dodd Frank swaps market structure and trading protocols, and shows how the CFTC’s implementation of the mandate undermined these.

The most important part of the white paper is its demonstration of the fact that the CFTC made the worst even worse than it needed to be. Whereas Congress envisioned that a variety of different execution methods and platform would meet its purposes, CFTC effectively ruled out all but two: a central limit order book (CLOB) and request for quote (RFQ). It even imposed unduly restrictive requirements for RFQ trading. As the commissioner proves, the statute didn’t require this: CFTC chose it. Actually, it would be more accurate to say that Gensler chose it. Giancarlo does not name names, for obvious reasons, but I operate under no such constraints, so there it is.

Commissioner Giancarlo also goes into great deal laying out the perverse consequences of the mandate, including in addition to the fragmentation of liquidity and the inflation of costs the creation of counterproductive tensions in relations between American and foreign regulators. Perhaps the most important part of the paper is the discussion of fragility and systemic risk. By creating a more baroque, complex, rigid, illiquid, and fragmented marketplace, the CFTC’s SEF regulations actually increase the likelihood and severity of a market disruption that could have systemic consequences. This is exactly contrary to the stated purpose of Dodd-Frank.

Seemingly no detail goes unaddressed. Take, for instance, the discussion of the provision that voids swaps that fail to clear ab initio, i.e., a swap that fails to clear for any reason-even a trivial clerical error that is readily fixed-treated as if it never existed. In addition to raising transactions costs, this provision increases risks and fragility. For instance, a dealer that uses one swap to hedge another loses the hedge if one of the swaps is rejected from clearing. If this happens during unsettled market conditions, the dealer may need to re-establish the hedge at a less favorable price. Since there are no free lunches, the costs associated with these risks will inevitably be passed on to end users.

The white paper suggests many reforms, most of which comport with my original critique. Most importantly, it recommends that the CFTC permit a much broader set of execution methods beyond CLOB and RFQ, and that the CFTC let the market evolve naturally rather than dictate market structure or products. Further, it recommends that market participants be allowed to determine by contract and consent acceptable practices relating to, inter alia, confirmations, the treatment of swaps rejected from clearing, and compression. More generally, it advocates a true principles-based approach, rather than the approach adopted by the CFTC, i.e., a highly prescriptive approach masquerading as a principled based one.

One hopes that these very sound ideas get a fair hearing, and actually result in meaningful improvements to the SEF regulations but I am skeptical. The Frankendodd SEF monster has long since escaped the confines of the castle on 21st Street. Moreover, in the poisoned and reductionist political environment in DC, Dodd Frank is treated by many (Elizabeth Warren and the editorial board of the NYT in particular) as something carved on stone tablets that Barney brought down from Mount Sinai, rather than Capitol Hill. The Warren-NYT crowd considers any change tantamount to worshipping the Golden Calf of Wall Street.

But to reform the deformed and inform the uninformed you have to start somewhere, and the Giancarlo white paper is an excellent start. One hopes that it provides the foundation for reasoned reform of the most misbegotten part of Dodd Frank. I challenge the die hard defenders of every jot and tittle of this law to meet Giancarlo’s thorough and thoughtful contribution with one of their own. But I’m not holding my breath.

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January 27, 2015

Quiet, Please. Paranoids at Work.

Filed under: Economics,Exchanges,Military,Russia — The Professor @ 1:34 pm

The indictment in the Russian espionage* case is available online, and having had a chance to read the portion related to HFT, it’s now clear to me what the Russians were up to. Contrary to certain idiots desperate for attention who are breathlessly claiming that this was part of a plot to bring down Wall Street and the American financial system, this was all about Russian paranoia about the vulnerability of their own financial system to the devilishly clever HFT.

Here’s the relevant part of the indictment:

Screen Shot 2015-01-27 at 1.16.05 PM

ETFs on Russian stocks, including Market Vectors Russian Index ($RSX) are traded in the US, and HFT firms are major participants in ETF trading. What Badenov-sorry, I mean Buryakov-and his co-conspirators are worried about is that “trading robots”-why not trading drones?-could be used to trade Russian ETFs in a way that destabilized the Russian market. They are also curious about who trades ETFs on Russian stocks. Further, they want to gauge the NYSE’s interest in limiting these robots, presumably to learn whether the robots actually posed a threat to Russia.

In other words, this is Russian paranoia talking. More defensive than offensive. Still rather amusing.

Note that the Vnesheconombank employee, Buryakov, is the “expert” here, and the SVR agent operating under diplomatic cover, Igor Sporyshev, is the go between with the “news organization.”

As I noted yesterday, Russian cyber and hacking capabilities are formidable, and they don’t need a couple of disgruntled guys to garner secrets about the vulnerability of Wall Street. Instead, Bulyakov was just channeling fears about the vulnerability of the Russian financial markets.

That was in May, 2013. Just think of how paranoid they are today.

* Tellingly, these guys weren’t charged with committing espionage. Bulyakov was charged with failing to register as a foreign agent. Enough to put him in jail, and an excuse to fire this shot at Putin, but a charge that is likely easier to prove and which doesn’t require the government reveal too much about sources and methods.

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January 26, 2015

If the Russians Want to Know About HFT, They Don’t Need Spies

Filed under: Economics,Exchanges,Military,Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 8:08 pm

Attorney General Holder today announced espionage charges against three Russians, one of whom was arrested today in New York. Two were Russian diplomatic officials, and the third-the one arrested-was an employ of a Russian bank, reported to be Vneshekonombank. The FBI had the men under surveillance since 2012.

So just what were these agents after? Information about potential future sanctions targets for one thing. But they were also after information on high frequency trading of exchange traded funds, or in acronymspeak, HFT of ETFs:

According to the complaint, Sporyshev told Buryakov to tell an unnamed Russian state-owned news organization to ask about how the New York Stock Exchange used exchange-traded funds and potential limits on the use of high-frequency automated trading systems.

Why, pray tell, would this be of such great interest to the Russians? Economic sabotage? Or a money making opportunity?

And why the need for such cloak-and-dagger? There are Russians working in pretty much every HFT shop on and off Wall Street: remember Sergey Aleynikov in Flash Boys? Can’t they find one susceptible to blackmail, bribery, or appeals to patriotism?

Further, what really could be learned by having an “unnamed Russian state-owned news organization” (can you say “RT”? I knew you could) ask someone (presumably the NYSE itself) about “limits on the use of” HFT that couldn’t be obtained by reading public disclosures?

The best of all: it’s not as if the Russians couldn’t find out-and haven’t found out-pretty much anything about NYSE (or NASDAQ or any other exchange) operations without leaving home. They have been fingered for hacking many financial firms, including NASDAQ. (CME has also been hacked, although Russians have not been specifically implicated.) That would be a much more informative, and much less risky, way of divining HFT secrets.

And it’s not as if Russians in Russia aren’t aware of the details of HFT. The Moscow Exchange is actively trying to attract HFT firms (h/t @libertylynx), and has introduced capabilities such as co-location in order to do so. (But perhaps the Moscow Exchange rep is speaking in code. No doubt Fort Meade and Langley have their best men working on this.) Just Google “HFT Moscow Exchange” and you’ll find numerous links describing HFT activities there.

And if they want to learn about ETFs, why not just buy some books? Or do a little surfing? And there are Russian stock ETFs. (Note my clever insertion of the Market Vectors Russia ETF tag.)

You know that HFT and ETFs are hardly Russian espionage priorities. US intelligence and intelligence capabilities, defense technology, and even other types of economic espionage are of far greater interest. The triviality of the targets of this cell, compared to other things of much greater sensitivity, just reveals how pervasive Russian intelligence operations in the US likely are. So why go after this rather hapless group? And why now?

Viewed in context, it’s pretty clear. We rolled up what is likely the least important and sensitive operation the FBI is monitoring at this time and had the Attorney General announce it as a bit of Kabuki theater to communicate our displeasure with the Russians. We have had this group under surveillance since 2012, and could have netted them anytime. That time was now because of the escalating tensions with Russia. It is a signal that we can do things that would hurt the Russians much worse.

Will Putin listen? Doubtful. So what will we do next? That will be interesting to see.

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January 25, 2015

From Birth to Adulthood in a Few Short Years: HFT’s Predictable Convergence to Competitive Normalcy

Filed under: Commodities,Derivatives,Economics,Exchanges,HFT — The Professor @ 2:05 pm

Once upon a time, high frequency trading-HFT-was viewed to be a juggernaut, a money-making machine that would have Wall Street and LaSalle Street in its thrall. These dire predictions were based on the remarkable growth in HFT in 2009 and 2010 in particular, but the narrative outlived the heady growth.

In fact, HFT has followed the trajectory of any technological innovation in a highly competitive environment. At its inception, it was a dramatically innovative way of performing longstanding functions undertaken by intermediaries in financial markets: market making and arbitrage. It did so much more efficiently than incumbents did, and so rapidly it displaced the old-style intermediaries. During this transitional period, the first-movers earned supernormal profits because of cost and speed advantages over the old school intermediaries. HFT market share expanded dramatically, and the profits attracted expansion in the capital and capacity of the first-movers, and the entry of new firms. And as day follows night, this entry of new HFT capacity and the intensification of competition dissipated these profits. This is basic economics in action.

According to the Tabb Group, HFT profits declined from $7 billion in 2009 to only $1.3 billion today. Moreover, HFT market share in both has declined from its peak of 61 percent in equities in 2009 (to 48.4 percent today) and 64 percent in futures in 2011 (to 60 percent today). The profit decline and topping out of market share are both symptomatic of sector settling down into a steady state of normal competitive profits and growth commensurate with the increase in the size of the overall market in the aftermath of a technological shock. Fittingly, this convergence in the HFT sector has been notable for its rapidity, with the transition from birth to adulthood occurring within a mere handful of years.

A little perspective is in order too. Equity market volume in the US is on the order of $100 billion per day. HFT profits now represent on the order of 1/250th of one percent of equity turnover. Since HFT profits include profits from derivatives, their share of turnover of everything they trade overall is smaller still, meaning that although they trade a lot, their margins are razor thin. This is another sign of a highly competitive market.

We are now witnessing further evidence of the maturation of HFT. There is a pronounced trend to consolidation, with HFT pioneer Allston Trading exiting the market, and DRW purchasing Chopper Trading. Such consolidation is a normal phase in the evolution of a sector that has experienced a technological shock. Expect to see more departures and acquisitions as the industry (again predictably) turns its focus to cost containment as competition means that the days of easy money are fading in the rearview mirror.

It’s interesting in this context to think about Schumpeter’s argument in Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy.  One motivation for the book was to examine whether there was, as Marx and earlier classical economists predicted, a tendency for profit to diminish to zero (where costs of capital are included in determining economic profit).  That may be true in a totally static setting, but as Schumpeter noted the development of new, disruptive technologies overturns these results.  The process of creative destruction can result in the introduction of a sequence of new technologies or products that displace the old, earn large profits for a while, but are then either displaced by new disruptive technologies, or see profits vanish due to classical/neoclassical competitive forces.

Whether it is by the entry of a new destructively creative technology, or the inexorable forces of entry and expansion in a technologically static setting, one expects profits earned by firms in one wave of creative destruction to decline.  That’s what we’re seeing in HFT.  It was definitely a disruptive technology that reaped substantial profits at the time of its introduction, but those profits are eroding.

That shouldn’t be a surprise.  But it no doubt is to many of those who have made apocalyptic predictions about the machines taking over the earth.  Or the markets, anyways.

Or, as Herb Stein famously said as a caution against extrapolating from current trends, “If something cannot go on forever, it will stop.” Those making dire predictions about HFT were largely extrapolating from the events of 2008-2010, and ignored the natural economic forces that constrain growth and dissipate profits. HFT is now a normal, competitive business earning normal, competitive profits.  And hopefully this reality will eventually sink in, and the hysteria surrounding HFT will fade away just as its profits did.

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November 4, 2014

This Cuts No ICE With Me

Filed under: Commodities,Derivatives,Economics,Energy,Exchanges,Regulation — The Professor @ 9:24 pm

I admire  Jeffrey Sprecher. ICE has been an amazing success story, and a lot of that has to do with his rather unique combination of vision and ability to execute.

But he is not above talking his book, and he delivered some self-serving, and in fact anti-competition, remarks in ICE’s earnings call held earlier today:

The head of Intercontinental Exchange, the world’s second-largest exchange group by market value, launched an unusually explicit criticism of its bigger competitor’s business strategy as he touted growth in his flagship oil contract.

Commercial customers such as refineries and airlines propelled this growth “as we see our competitors adopting incentives that attract the type of algorithm . . . trading that typically drives commercial users away,” Mr Sprecher said.

Mr Sprecher said “payment for order flow schemes” such as CME’s expanded the market by “attracting traders that really don’t want to hold the risk of your products but just want . . . to get paid to be there.”

If Mr. Sprecher actually believes that, he should be glad that CME (to speak of competitors plural is rather amusing) is implementing a program that per his telling drives away the paying customers, the commercial users.  That’s doubly true since those commercial users would presumably go to ICE. How is CME supposed to make money giving away trading incentives to traders whose presence those who repel those who pay full fare? If that’s what CME is doing, Mr. Sprecher should remember the old adage about not intervening when your enemy is intent on committing a blunder.

Sprecher was touting the fact that ICE’s Brent contract had now surpassed the older CME WTI contract in open interest. Well, this is good for ICE, certainly, but Sprecher and his exchange really have had very little to do with it: this is further proof that it’s usually better to be lucky, than good. Brent’s relative rise is the result of structural factors, most notably the prolonged logistical bottleneck that isolated WTI from waterborne crudes: that bottleneck is largely gone, replaced instead by a regulatory bottleneck, the US export ban.

ICE should not gloat for too long, though, because it is quite likely that the export ban will go, one way or another. What’s more, the resource base supporting the Brent contract is dwindling, and rapidly, whereas the Midcontinent of the US is experiencing a crisis of abundance, if it is experiencing a crisis at all. Logistical bottlenecks created by such crises tend to be transitory, and even regulatory bottlenecks can be overcome. In a few years, WTI will be deeply connected with the waterborne market, albeit in a non-traditional direction. And Brent will be at the mercy of inexorably declining production, and the ability of Platts and an often fractious community of producers and traders to figure out a contractual fix. (Adding Urals to the Brent basket? Really?) So Brent is riding high now, but over the medium to long term, CME will be one breaking out the shades, because WTI will have the brighter future.

As for incentives offered by upstart markets to unseat incumbents, as CME is attempting to do to ICE in Brent, this is a classic competitive tactic, and almost necessary in futures markets. The network effect of order flow means that (as I say in Gregory Meyer’s FT piece) bigger incumbent contracts have a big competitive advantage. The only way that  a competing contract can possibly build order flow and liquidity is to offer incentives, both to market makers (including HFT and algo traders!) who supply liquidity and to the hedgers and speculators that consume liquidity. (I wrote about this last year. Amusingly, I had forgotten about that post until Greg reminded me of it:-P)

Even that is a dicey proposition. Many have tried, and most have failed. But sometimes the upstart the succeeds, and at other times has forced the incumbent to meet the incentives to keep market share, and that can be expensive for the incumbent. That’s probably what Sprecher really doesn’t like. It’s not that incentives don’t work (as the criticism quoted above suggests): it’s that they just might. And if CME’s incentives work it could be an costly proposition for ICE to respond in kind.

In other words, Sprecher is really criticizing a reasonable competitive tactic, because like any dominant incumbent, he doesn’t like competition. That’s his job, but that kind of criticism cuts no ice with me. Or ICE, either, as much as I admire its achievement.

 

 

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October 28, 2014

Convergence to Agreement With Matt Levine

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

Matt Levine graciously led his daily linkwrap with a response to my post on his copper column:

It’s not that hard to manipulate copper.

Craig Pirrong, who knows a lot more about commodities markets than I do [aw, shucks], objects to my take on copper. My view is sort of efficient-markets-y: If one person buys up all the copper in the LME warehouses and then tries to raise the price, the much much greater supply of copper that’s not in those warehouses will flow into the warehouses and limit his ability to do that. And I still think that’s broadly true, but broadly true may not be the point. Pirrong quite rightly points out that there’s lots of friction along the way, and the frictions may matter more than the limits in actual fact.

. . . .

So there are limits to cornering, but they may not be binding on an actual economic actor: You can’t push prices up very much, or forvery long, but you may be able to push them up high enough and for long enough to make yourself a lot of money.

I agree fully there are limits to cornering. The supply curve isn’t completely inelastic. People can divert supplies (at some cost) into deliverable position. The cornerer presents the shorts with the choice: pay me to get out of your positions, or incur the cost of making delivery. Since those delivery costs are finite, the amount the cornerer can extract is limited too.

I agree as well that corners typically elevate prices temporarily: after all, the manipulator needs to liquidate his positions in order to cash out, and as soon as that happens price relationships snap back. But that temporary period can last for some time. Weeks, sometimes more.

What’s more, when the temporary price distortions happen matters a lot. Some squeezes occur at the very end of a contract. This is what happened in Indiana Farm Bureau in 1973. A more recent example is the expiry of the October, 2008 crude oil contract, in which prices spiked hugely in the last few minutes of trading.

The economic harm of these last minute squeezes isn’t that large. There are few players in the market, most hedgers have rolled or offset, and the time frame of the price distortion is too short to cause inefficient movements of the commodity.

But other corners are more protracted, and occur at precisely the wrong time.

Specifically, some corners start to distort prices well before expiration, and precisely when hedgers are looking to roll or offset. Short, out-of-position hedgers looking to roll or offset try to buy either spreads or outrights. The large long planning to corner the market doesn’t liquidate. So the hedgers bid up the expiring contract. Long still doesn’t budge. So the shorts bid it up some more. Eventually, the large long relents and sells when prices and spreads get substantially out of line, and the hedgers exit their positions but at a painfully artificial price. I have documented price distortions in some episodes of 10 percent or more. That’s a big deal, especially when one considers the very thin margins on which commodity trading is done. Combine that price distortion with the fact that a large number of shorts pay that distorted price to get out of their positions, and the dollar damages can be large. Depending on the size of the contract, and the magnitude of the distortion, nine or ten figures large.  (I analyze the liquidation/roll process theoretically in a paper titled “Squeeze Play” that appeared in the Journal of Alternative Investments a few years ago.)

But this is all paper trading, right, so real reapers of wheat and miners of copper aren’t damaged, right? Well, for the bigger, more protracted squeezes that’s not right.

Most hedgers are “out-of-position” they are using a futures contract to hedge something that isn’t deliverable. For example, shippers of Brazilian beans or holders of soybean inventories in Iowa use CBT soybean futures as a hedge. They are therefore long the basis. Corners distort the basis: the futures price rises to reflect the frictions and bottlenecks and technical features of the delivery mechanism, but the prices of the vastly larger quantities of the physical traded and held elsewhere may rise little, if at all. So the out-of-position hedgers don’t gain on their inventories, but they pay an inflated price to exit their futures.

This is why corners are a bad thing. They undermine  the most vital function of futures markets: hedging/risk transfer. Hedgers pay the biggest price for corners precisely because the delivery market is only a small sliver of the world market for a commodity, and because the network effects of liquidity cause all hedging activity to tip to a single market (with a very few exceptions). Thus, the very inside baseball details of the delivery process in a specific, localized market have global consequences. That’s why temporary and not very big and localized are not much comfort when it comes to the price distortions associated with market power manipulations.

 

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October 27, 2014

Matt Levine Passes Off a Bad Penny

Filed under: Commodities,Derivatives,Economics,Exchanges,Regulation — The Professor @ 5:36 pm

Bloomberg’s Matt Levine is usually very insightful about markets, and about financial skullduggery. Alas, in his article on developments in the copper market, Matt is passing off a bad penny.

The basic facts are these. A single firm, reportedly well-known (and arguably infamous) metals trading fund Red Kite, has accumulated upwards of 50 percent (and at times as much as 90 percent) of copper in LME warehouses that is deliverable against LME futures contracts. Such an accumulation can facilitate a corner of the market, or could be a symptom of a corner: a large long takes delivery of virtually the entire deliverable stock (and perhaps all of it) to execute a corner. So the developments in LME copper bear the hallmarks of a squeeze, or an impending one.

What’s more, the price relationships in the market are consistent with a squeeze: the market is in backwardation. I have not had time to determine whether the backwardation is large, controlling for stocks (as would occur during a corner), but the sharp spike in backwardation in recent days is symptomatic of a corner, or fears of a corner.

Put simply, there is smoke here. But Matt Levine seems intent on denying that. Weirdly, he focuses on the allegations involving Goldman’s actions in aluminum:

Loosely speaking, the problem of aluminum was that it was in deep contango: Prices for immediate delivery were low, prices for future delivery were high, and so buying aluminum and chucking it in a warehouse to deliver later was profitable. So people did, and the warehouses got pretty jammed up, and other people who wanted aluminum for immediate use found it all a bit unsporting.

. . . .

The LME warehouse system is an interesting abstract representation of a commodity market, but you can get into trouble if you confuse it with the actual commodity market. One example of the trouble: Goldman and its cronies were accused of manipulating aluminum prices up by putting too much aluminum in LME warehouses.

Well, yes. But the point is that there are many different kinds of manipulation. Many, many different kinds. An Appeals Court in the US opined in the Cargill case that they number of ways of manipulating was limited only by the imagination of man. Too true. The facts in aluminum and the facts in copper are totally different, and the alleged forms of manipulation are totally different, so the events in aluminum are a red herring (although it is copper that is the red metal)

Levine also makes a big, big deal out of the fact that the amount of copper in LME warehouses is trivial compared to the amount of copper produced in the world, let alone the amount of copper that remains in the earth’s crust. This matters hardly at all.

What matters is the steepness of the supply curve into warehouses. If that supply curve is upward sloping, a firm with a big enough futures position can corner the market, and distort prices, even if the amount of copper actually in the warehouses, or attracted to the warehouses by a cornerer’s artificial demand, is small relative to the size of the world copper market.

Case in point. In December 1995 Hamanaka/Sumitomo cornered the LME copper contract holding a position in LME warrants that was substantially smaller than what one firm now owns. Hamanaka’s/Sumitomo’s physical and futures positions were small relative to the size of the world copper market, measured by production and consumption. But they still had market power in the relevant market because it was uneconomic to attract additional copper into LME warehouses.

Another example. Ferruzzi cornered the CBT soybean contract in July, 1989, owning a mere 8 million bushels of beans in Chicago and Toledo. But since it was uneconomic to move additional supplies into those delivery points, it was profitable for, and possible for, Ferruzzi to corner the expiring contract.

World supply may have an effect on the slope of the supply curve into warehouses, but that slope can be positive (thereby creating the conditions necessary to corner) even if the share of metal in warehouses is small. The slope of the supply curve depends on the bottlenecks associated with getting metal into warehouses, and the costs of diverting metal that should go to consumers into warehouses. These bottlenecks and costs can be acute, even if the amount of warehoused metal is small. Diverting copper that should go to a fabricator or wire mill to an LME warehouse is inefficient, i.e., costly. It only happens, therefore, if the price is distorted sufficiently to offset this higher cost.

Levine ends his post thus:

One example of the trouble: Goldman and its cronies were accused of manipulating aluminum prices up by putting too much aluminum in LME warehouses.The worries about copper — that it could be cornered, pushing prices up — stem from there being too little copper in those warehouses. Both of those things can’t be true.

Yes they can, actually. Different commodities at different times with different fundamental conditions are vulnerable to different kinds of manipulation. It is perfectly possible for it to be true that aluminum was vulnerable to a manipulative scheme that exploited the bottlenecks of taking the white metal out of warehouses starting some years ago, and that copper is vulnerable to a manipulative scheme that exploits the bottlenecks of getting the red metal into warehouses now. No logical or factual contradiction whatsoever.

I know you are better than this, Matt. Don’t let your justifiable skepticism of allegations of manipulation make you a poster child for the Gresham’s Law of Internet Commentary.

 

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