Streetwise Professor

January 24, 2017

Two Contracts With No Future

Filed under: China,Commodities,Derivatives,Economics,Energy,Exchanges,Politics,Regulation — The Professor @ 7:14 pm

Over the past couple of days two major futures exchanges have pulled the plug on contracts. I predicted these outcomes when the contracts were first announced, and the reasons I gave turned out to be the reasons given for the decisions.

First, the CME announced that it is suspending trading in its new cocoa contract, due to lack of volume/liquidity. I analyzed that contract here. This is just another example of failed entry by a futures contract. Not really news.

Second, the Shanghai Futures Exchange has quietly shelved plans to launch a China-based oil contract. When it was first mooted, I expressed extreme skepticism, due mainly to China’s overwhelming tendency to intervene in markets sending the wrong signal–wrong from the government’s perspective that is:

Then the crash happened, and China thrashed around looking for scapegoats, and rounded up the usual suspects: Speculators! And it suspected that the CSI 300 Index and CSI 500 Index futures contracts were the speculators’ weapons of mass destruction of choice. So it labeled trades of bigger than 10 (!) contracts “abnormal”–and we know what happens to people in China who engage in unnatural financial practices! It also increased fees four-fold, and bumped up margin requirements.

The end result? Success! Trading volumes declined 99 percent. You read that right. 99 percent. Speculation problem solved! I’m guessing that the fear of prosecution for financial crimes was by far the biggest contributor to that drop.

. . . .

And the crushing of the CSI300 and CSI500 contracts will impede development of a robust oil futures market. The brutal killing of these contracts will make market participants think twice about entering positions in a new oil futures contract, especially long dated ones (which are an important part of the CME/NYMEX and ICE markets). Who wants to get into a position in a market that may be all but shut down when the market sends the wrong message? This could be the ultimate roach motel: traders can check in, but they can’t check out. Or the Chinese equivalent of Hotel California: traders can check in, but they can never leave. So traders will be reluctant to check in in the first place. Ironically, moreover, this will encourage the in-and-out day trading that the Chinese authorities say that they condemn: you can’t get stuck in a position if you don’t hold a position.

In other words, China has a choice. It can choose to allow markets to operate in fair economic weather or foul, and thereby encourage the growth of robust contracts in oil or equities. Or it can choose to squash markets during economic storms, and impede their development even in good times.

I do not see how, given the absence of the rule of law and the just-demonstrated willingness to intervene ruthlessly, that China can credibly commit to a policy of non-intervention going forward. And because of this, it will stunt the development of its financial markets, and its economic growth. Unfettered power and control have a price. [Emphasis added.]

And that’s exactly what has happened. Per Reuters’ Clyde Russell:

The quiet demise of China’s plans to launch a new crude oil futures contract shows the innate conflict of wanting the financial clout that comes with being the world’s biggest commodity buyer, but also seeking to control the market.

. . . .

The main issues were concerns by international players about trading in yuan, given issues surrounding convertibility back to dollars, and also the risks associated with regulation in China.

The authorities in Beijing have established a track record of clamping down on commodity trading when they feel the market pricing is driven by speculation and has become divorced from supply and demand fundamentals.

On several occasions last year, the authorities took steps to crack down on trading in then hot commodities such as iron ore, steel and coal.

While these measures did have some success in cooling markets, they are generally anathema to international traders, who prefer to accept the risk of rapid reversals in order to enjoy the benefits of strong rallies.

It’s likely that while the INE could design a crude futures contract that would on paper tick all the right boxes, it would battle to overcome the trust deficit that exists between the global financial community and China.

What international banks and trading houses will want to see before they throw their weight behind a new futures contract is evidence that Beijing won’t interfere in the market to achieve outcomes in line with its policy goals.

It will be hard, but not impossible, to guarantee this, with the most plausible solution being the establishment of some sort of free trade zone in which the futures contract could be legally housed.

Don’t hold your breath.

It is also quite interesting to contemplate this after all the slobbering over Xi’s Davos speech. China is protectionist and has an overwhelming predilection to intervene in markets when they don’t give the outcomes desired by the government/Party. It is not going to be a leader in openness and markets. Anybody whose obsession with Trump leads them to ignore this fundamental fact is truly a moron.



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December 30, 2016

For Whom the (Trading) Bell Tolls

Filed under: Clearing,Commodities,Derivatives,Economics,Energy,Exchanges,History — The Professor @ 7:40 pm

It tolls for the NYMEX floor, which went dark for the final time with the close of trading today. It follows all the other New York futures exchange floors which ICE closed in 2012. This leaves the CME and CBOE floors in Chicago, and the NYSE floor, all of which are shadows of shadows of their former selves.

Next week I will participate in a conference in Chicago. I’ll be talking about clearing, but one of the other speakers will discuss regulating latency arbitrage in the electronic markets that displaced the floors. In some ways, all the hyperventilating over latency arbitrages due to speed advantages measured in microseconds and milliseconds in computerized markets is amusing, because the floors were all about latency arbitrage. Latency arbitrage basically means that some traders have a time and space advantage, and that’s what the floors provided to those who traded there. Why else would traders pay hundreds of thousands of dollars to buy a membership? Because that price capitalized the rent that the marginal trader obtained by being on the floor, and seeing prices and order flow before anybody off the floor did. That was the price of the time and space advantage of being on the floor.  It’s no different than co-location. Not in the least. It’s just meatware co-lo, rather than hardware co-lo.

In a paper written around 2001 or 2002, “Upstairs, Downstairs”, I presented a model predicting that electronic trading would largely annihilate time and space advantages, and that liquidity would improve as a result because it would reduce the cost of off-floor traders to offer liquidity. The latter implication has certainly been borne out. And although time and space differences still exist, I would argue that they pale in comparison to those that existed in the floor era. Ironically, however, complaints about fairness seem more heated and pronounced now than they did during the heyday of the floors.  Perhaps that’s because machines and quant geeks are less sympathetic figures than colorful floor traders. Perhaps it’s because being beaten by a sliver of a second is more infuriating than being pipped by many seconds by some guy screaming and waving on the CBT or NYMEX. Dunno for sure, but I do find the obsessing over HFT time and space advantages today to be somewhat amusing, given the differences that existed in the “good old days” of floor trading.

This is not to say that no one complained about the advantages of floor traders, and how they exploited them. I vividly recall a very famous trader (one of the most famous, actually) telling me that he welcomed electronic trading because he was “tired of being fucked by the floor.” (He had made his reputation, and his first many millions on the floor, by the way.) A few years later he bemoaned how unfair the electronic markets were, because HFT firms could react faster than he could.

It will always be so, regardless of the technology.

All that said, the passing of the floors does deserve a moment of silence–another irony, given their cacophony.

I first saw the NYMEX floor in 1992, when it was still at the World Trade Center, along with the floors of the other NY exchanges (COMEX; Coffee, Sugar & Cocoa; Cotton). That space was the location for the climax of the plot of the iconic futures market movie, Trading Places. Serendipitously, that was the movie that Izabella Kaminska of FT Alphaville featured in the most recent Alphachat movie review episode. I was a guest on the show, and discussed the economic, sociological, and anthropological aspects of the floor, as well as some of the broader social issues lurking behind the film’s comedy. You can listen here.


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November 8, 2016

WTI Gains on Brent: You Read It Here First!

Filed under: Commodities,Derivatives,Economics,Energy,Exchanges,Politics,Regulation — The Professor @ 8:22 pm

Streetwiseprofessor, August 2011:

WTI’s problems arise from the consequences of too much supply at the delivery point, which is a good problem for a contract to have.  The price signals are leading to the kind of response that will eliminate the supply overhang, leaving the WTI contract with prices that are highly interconnected with those of seaborne crude, and with enough deliverable supply to mitigate the potential for squeezes and other technical disruptions.

. . . .

Which means that those who are crowing about Brent today, and heaping scorn on WTI, will be begging for WTI’s problems in a few years.  For by then, WTI’s issues will be fixed, and it will be sitting astride a robust flow of oil tightly interconnected with the nexus of world oil trading.

Bloomberg, November 2016:

In the battle for supremacy between the world’s two largest oil exchanges, one of them is enjoying a turbo charge from the U.S. government.

Traders bought and sold an average of almost 1.1 billion barrels of West Texas Intermediate crude futures each day in 2016, a surge of 35 percent from a year earlier. The scale of the gain was partly because of the U.S. government lifting decades-old export limits last year, pushing barrels all over the world, according to CME Group Inc., whose Nymex exchange handles the contracts. By comparison, ICE Futures Europe’s Brent contract climbed by 13 percent.

WTI and Brent have been the oil industry’s two main futures contracts for decades. In the past, the American grade’s global popularity was restrained by the fact that exports were heavily restricted. Now, record U.S. shipments are heading overseas, meaning WTI’s appeal as a hedging instrument is rising, particularly in Asia, where CME has expanded its footprint.

“You have turbo-charged WTI as a truly waterborne global benchmark,” Derek Sammann global head of commodities and options products at CME Group, said in a phone interview regarding the lifting of the ban. “You’re seeing the global market reach out and use WTI — whether that’s traders in Europe, Asia and the U.S.”

This should surprise no one–but the conventional wisdom had largely written off WTI in 2011. Given that economic price signals were providing a strong incentive to invest in infrastructure to ease the bottleneck between the Midcon and the sea, it was inevitable that WTI would become reconnected with the waterborne market.

Once the physical bottleneck was eased, the only remaining bottleneck was the export ban. But whereas the export ban was costless prior to the shale boom (because it banned something that wasn’t happening anyways), it became very costly when US supply (especially of light, sweet crude) ballooned. As Peltzman, Becker and others pointed out long ago, politicians do take deadweight costs into account. In a situation like the US oil market, which pitted two large and concentrated interests (upstream producers and refiners) against one another, reducing deadweight costs probably made the difference (as the distributive politics were basically a push).  Thus, the export ban went the way of the dodo, and the tie between WTI and the seaborne market became all that much tighter.

This all means that it’s not quite right to say that CME’s WTI contract has been “turbocharged by the federal government.” Shale it what has turbocharged everything. The US government just accommodated policy to a new economic reality. It was along for the ride, as are CME and ICE.

ICE’s response was kind of amusing:

“ICE Brent Crude remains the leading global benchmark for oil,” the exchange said in an e-mailed response to questions. “With up to two-thirds of the world’s oil priced off the Brent complex, the Brent crude futures contract is a key hedging mechanism for oil market participants.”

Whatever it takes to get them through the day, I guess. Reading that brought to mind statements that LIFFE made about the loss of market share to Eurex in early-1998.

The fact is that there is hysteresis in the choice of the pricing benchmark. As exiting contracts mature and new contracts are entered, market participants will have an opportunity to revisit their choice of pricing benchmark. With the high volume and liquidity of WTI, and the increasingly tight connection between WTI and world oil flows, more participants will shift to WTI pricing.

Further, as I noted in the 2011 post (and several that preceded it) Brent’s structural problems are far more severe. Brent production is declining, and this decline will likely accelerate in a persistent low oil price environment: not only has shale boosted North American supply, it has contributed to the decline in North Sea supply. Brent’s pricing mechanism is already extremely baroque, and will only become more so as Platts scrambles to find more imaginative ways to tie the contract to new supply sources. It is not hard to imagine that in the medium term Brent will be Brent in name only.

Since WTI will likely rest on a strong and perhaps increasing supply base, Brent’s physical underpinning will become progressively shakier, and more Rube Goldberg-like. These different physical market trajectories will benefit WTI derivatives relative to Brent, and will also induce a shift towards using WTI as a benchmark in physical trades. Meaning that ICE is whistling past the graveyard. Or maybe they are just taking Satchel Paige’s advice: “Don’t look back. Something might be gaining on you.” And in ICE Brent’s case, that’s definitely true, and the gap is closing quickly.



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June 29, 2016

Will the EU Cut Off Its Nose to Spite Its Face on Clearing, Banking & Finance?

Filed under: Clearing,Commodities,Derivatives,Economics,Exchanges,Politics,Regulation — The Professor @ 7:45 pm

French President Francois Hollande is demanding that clearing of Euro derivatives take place in the Eurozone. Last year the European Central Bank had attempted to require this, claiming that it could not be expected to provide liquidity to a non-Eurozone CCP like London-based LCH.

The ECB lost that case in a European court, but now sees an opportunity to prevail post-Brexit, when London will be not just non-Eurozone, but non-EU. Hollande is cheerleading that effort.

It is rather remarkable to see the ECB, which was only able to rescue European banks desperate for dollar funding during the crisis because of the provision of $300 billion in swap lines from the Fed, claiming that it can’t supply € liquidity to a non-Eurozone entity. How about swap lines with the BoE, which could then provide support to LCH if necessary. Or is the ECB all take, and no give?

Hollande (and other Europeans) are likely acting partly out of protectionist motives, to steal business for continental entities from London (and perhaps the US). But Hollande was also quite upfront about the punitive, retaliatory, and exemplary nature of this move:

“The City, which thanks to the EU, was able to handle clearing operations for the eurozone, will not be able to do them,” he said. “It can serve as an example for those who seek the end of Europe . . . It can serve as a lesson.” [Emphasis added.]

That will teach perfidious Albion for daring to leave the EU! Anyone else harboring such thoughts, take note!

The FT article does not indicate the location of M. Hollande’s nose, for he obviously just cut it off to spite his face.

In a more serious vein, this is no doubt part of the posturing that we will see ad nauseum in the next two plus years while the terms of the UK’s departure are negotiated. Stock up with supplies, because this is going to take a while, since (1) everything is negotiable, (2) almost all negotiations go to the brink of the deadline, or beyond, and (3) these negotiations will be particularly complicated because the Eurogarchs will be conducting them with an eye on how the outcome affects the calculations of other EU members contemplating following Britain out the door–and because immigration issues will loom over the negotiations.

When evaluating a negotiation, it’s best to start with the optimal, surplus maximizing “Coasean bargain” (a term which Coase actually didn’t like, but it is widely used). This, as Elon Musk would say, is a no brainer: allow € clearing in London, through LCH. That is, a maintenance of the status quo.

What are the alternatives? One would be that € clearing for those subject to EU regulation and some non-EU firms would take place in the Eurozone (say Paris or Frankfurt), some € clearing might take place in London or the US, and most dollar and other non-€ clearing would take place in London and the US.  This would require the EU to permit its banks to clear economically in the UK or US, by granting equivalence to non-EU CCPs for non-€ trades, or something similar.

There are several inefficiencies here. First, it would fragment netting sets and increase the probability that one CCP goes bust. For instance, if a bank that is a member of an EU and a non-EU CCP (as would almost certainly be the case of the large European banks that do business in all major currencies) defaulted, it is possible that it could have a loss on its € deals and a gain on its non-€ deals (or vice versa). If those were cleared in a single CCP, the gain and loss could be offset, thereby reducing the CCP’s loss, and perhaps resulting in no loss to the CCP at all: this is what happened with Lehman at the CME, where losses on some of its positions were greater than collateral, but losses on others were smaller, and the total loss was less than total collateral. However, if the business was split, one of the CCPs could suffer a loss that could potentially put it in jeopardy, or force members to stump up additional contributions to the default fund during a time when they are financially stressed.

Second, default management would be more difficult, risky and costly if split across two or more CCPs. It would be easier to put in place dirty hedges for a broader portfolio than two narrower ones, and to allocate or auction off a combined portfolio than fragmented ones. Moreover, it would be necessary to coordinate default management across CCPs in a situation where their interests are not completely aligned, and indeed, where interests may be strongly in conflict. Furthermore, there would be duplication of personnel, as CCP members would be required to dispatch people to two different CCPs to manage the default.

Third, even during “peacetime,” fragmented clearing would sacrifice collateral and capital efficiencies and increase operational costs and complexity.

But it could be worse! Maybe the Europeans will cut off their noses and ears (and maybe some other parts lower down), and deny a UK CCP equivalence for any transaction undertaken by an EU bank. The outcome would be EU banks clearing in Europe, and most everybody else clearing outside of Europe. This would result in multiple inefficiently small CCPs clearing in all currencies that would exacerbate all of the negative consequences just outlined: netting set inefficiencies would be even worse, default risk management even more difficult, and peacetime collateral, capital, and operational efficiencies would be even worse.

Oh, and this alternative would require the ECB to obtain dollar and sterling (and other currency) liquidity lines to allow it to provide non-€ liquidity to its precious little CCP. How hypocritical is that? (Not that hypocrisy would cost Hollande et al any sleep. It hasn’t yet.)

The fact is that CCPs exhibit strong economies of scale and scope, and although mega-CCPs concentrate risk, fragmentation creates its own special problems.

So the wealth-maximizing outcome would be for the EU to come to an accommodation on central clearing that would effectively perpetuate the pre-Brexit status quo. Wealth maximization exercises a strong pull, meaning that this is the most likely outcome, although there will likely be a lot of posturing, bluffing, threatening, etc., before this outcome is achieved (and at the last minute).

I would expect that EU banks would support the Coasean bargain, further increasing its political viability. Yes, Deutsche Borse would be pushing for a EU-centric outcome, and some Europols would take pride at having their own (sub-scale and/or sub-scope) CCP, but the greater cost and risk imposed on banks would almost certainly induce them to put heavy pressure behind a status quo-preserving deal.

This raises the issue of negotiation of banking and capital market issues more generally. There has been a lot of attention paid to the fact that British banks would probably lose passporting rights into the EU post-exit, and this would be costly for them. But European banks actually rely even more on passporting to get access to London. Since London is still almost certain to remain the dominant financial center (especially since the UK government will have a tremendous incentive to facilitate that), European banks would suffer as much or more than UK ones if the passporting system was eliminated (and a close substitute was not created).

Thus, if the negotiations were only about clearing, banking, and capital markets, mutual self-interest (and political economy, given the huge influence of the finance sector on policymakers) would strongly favor a deal that would largely maintain the status quo. But of course the negotiations are not about these issues alone. As I’ve already noted, the EU may try to punish the British even if it also takes a hit because of the effect this might have on the calculations of others who might bolt from the Union.

Furthermore, the most contentious issue–immigration–is very much in play. Merkel, Hollande, and others have said that to obtain a Norway-style relationship with the EU, the UK would have to agree to unlimited movement of people. But that issue is the one that drove the Leave vote, and agreeing to this would be viewed as a gutting of the referendum, and a betrayal. It will be hard for the UK to agree to that.

Perhaps even this could be finessed if the EU secured its borders, but Merkel’s insanity on this issue (and the insanity of other Eurogarchs) makes this unlikely, short of a populist political explosion within the EU. But if that happens, negotiations between the EU and the UK will likely be moot, because there won’t be much of the EU left to negotiate with, or worth negotiating with.

In sum, if it were only about banking and clearing, economic self-interest would lead all parties to avoid mutually destructive protectionism in these areas. But highly emotional issues, political power, and personal pride are also present, and in spades. Thus, I am reluctant to bet much on the consummation of the economically efficient deal on financial issues. The financial sector is just one bargaining chip in a very big game.


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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.

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June 12, 2016

Squeezing Dr. Copper

Filed under: Commodities,Derivatives,Economics,Exchanges,Regulation — The Professor @ 2:21 pm

Andy Home has an interesting piece in Reuters. He provides information that strongly suggests that the LME copper contract has been squeezed. All of the tell-tale signs are there:

What the exchange terms a dominant long position emerged on the copper market last week.

This player controlled 50-80 percent of all LME open stocks, excluding metal earmarked for physical load-out, and had bulked this up with cash positions to the point that its overall position represented in excess of 90 percent of all available stocks.

That position was being rolled forward daily, forcing shorts to pay the backwardation price as they too rolled their positions.

The cash premium over three-month metal, the backwardation, had flexed out as wide as $27.75 per ton the previous week as the long tightened its grip on the London market’s nearby date structure.

Someone, it seems, was not prepared to pay the roll price and decided to deliver physical metal against their position. [LME stocks rose almost 40 percent in a few days.]

And they did so in a way to generate the maximum bang for their buck.

It seems to have worked.

That cash premium has evaporated. As of Thursday’s close, the cash-to-three-months spread was valued at $15 per ton contango.

The ripple effects have spread down the curve, LME broker Marex Spectron noting that the July-December spread eased $10 to $35 per ton contango over the course of Thursday.

The latest positioning reports, denoting the state of play as of Wednesday’s close, show the dominant long still holding 50-80 percent of stocks <0#LME-WHL> but with no equivalent cash position <0#LME-WHC>.

All the signs are there: a large long position, here both in physical metal and prompt LME contracts; a spike in the backwardation; a movement of metal into deliverable position; followed by a collapse in the backwardation. Also, the large long apparently liquidated the bulk of his position in LME contracts, as is necessary to profit. Right out of the book.

These episodes are chronic in the commodity markets, and on the LME in particular. They impose real deadweight losses (the costly movement of copper into LME warehouses being an example), and undermine the effectiveness of derivatives contracts as a hedging mechanism. Would that regulators pursued this conduct more vigorously, rather than obsessing over spoofing games, or chasing the “excessive speculation” will-o-the-wisp.

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June 8, 2016

The CFTC Puts a Little Less Rat In It

Filed under: Commodities,Derivatives,Economics,Energy,Exchanges,Politics,Regulation — The Professor @ 7:10 pm

A couple of weeks ago the CFTC voted to revise its position limits regulation. My verdict: it makes the regulation less bad. Sort of like a strawberry tart, without so much rat in it.

The most important part of the revision is to permit exchanges and SEFs to recognize certain non-enumerated hedges as bona fide hedges that don’t count towards the position limit. In the original proposal, only eight hedges were enumerated, and only enumerated hedges were treated as bona fide hedges.

This drew substantial criticism from industry, particularly from end users, because the list of enumerated hedges was quite limited, and failed to incorporate many commonly utilized risk management strategies. Thus, more participants were at risk of being constrained by position limits, even though their purpose for trading was primarily to manage risk.

The CFTC’s fix was to permit market participants to apply annually to an exchange (“designated contract market”) or SEF for a non-enumerated bona fide hedge. The participant submits information about the hedging strategy to the exchange or SEF, which reviews it and determines whether it meets the criteria for bona fide hedges and grants an exemption for positions entered pursuant to this strategy.

This does help hedgers escape limits intended to constrain speculators. But the review process isn’t free. Moreover, the process of application and approval will take some time, which limits the flexibility of market participants. They have to foresee the kinds of strategies they would like to employ well in advance of actually implementing them.

At most this mitigates a harm, and at a cost. The speculative position limit provides no discernible benefit in terms of market stability or manipulation prevention (for which there are superior substitutes), but imposes a heavy compliance burden on all market users, even those who would almost certainly never be constrained by the limit. Moreover, the rule constrains risk transfer, thereby undermining one of the primary purposes of futures and swap markets. The bona fide hedging rule as originally proposed would have constrained risk transfer further, so basically expanding the universe of bona fide hedges removes a piece of rat or two from the tart. But it’s still appalling.

The revision also clarifies the definition of bona fide hedge, eliminating the “incidental test” and the “orderly trading requirement.” As currently proposed, to be a bona fide hedge, a position must reduce price risk. (I deliberately chose that particular link for reasons that I might be at liberty to share sometime.) That is, it cannot be used to manage other risks such as logistics or default risks. This is what the statute says, and was the way that the old regulation 1.3(z)(1) was written and interpreted.

Perhaps the most important result of this process is that it stands as a rebuke to Elizabeth Warren for the calumnies and slanders she heaped upon the Energy and Environmental Markets Advisor Committee, and me personally. One of the main complaints of participants in the EEMAC meetings was that the bona fide hedging rule as originally proposed was unduly restrictive. I dutifully recorded those complaints in the report that I wrote, which caused Senator Warren to lose it. (I cleaned that up. Reluctantly.) (The report is circulating in samizdat form. I will find a link and post.)

Well, apparently all of the Commissioners, including two strong supporters of the position limit rule, Massad and Bowen, found the criticisms persuasive and, to their credit, responded constructively to them. So, Liz, if supporting a broadening of bona fide position limits makes one an industry whore, that epithet applies to the Democratic appointees on the Commission. I presume you will take it up with them in your tempered, reasoned way.

But I note that Ms. Warren has been notably silent on the Commission’s action. Go figure.

It is now likely that the position limit rule will finally slouch its way into the rulebook. This is unfortunate. All that can be said is that due to this action it isn’t as bad as it could have been, and as bad as it is, it is nothing compared to the monstrosity that is being created in Europe.

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April 29, 2016

Rounding Up the Usual Suspects, With Chinese Characteristics

Filed under: China,Commodities,Derivatives,Economics,Energy,Exchanges,Politics,Regulation — The Professor @ 8:32 pm

Commodity prices on Chinese exchanges, especially for ferrous metals, have been skyrocketing in recent weeks. Rebar, iron ore and coking coal have been particularly active, but thermal coal and cotton have been jacked too.

In response, the Chinese authorities are cracking down on speculation.  Exchanges have raised margins in order to attempt to rein in trading. The government is making ominous statements about speculation and manipulation. And we know what can happen to speculators who fall afoul of the government.

Ironically, prices never appear to be just right, by the lights of the Chinese authorities. Last summer, and earlier this year, speculators were allegedly causing stock prices and commodity prices to be too low. Now they are causing commodity prices to be too high.

This is a case of the Chinese authorities playing Claude Rains in Casablanca, and ordering a roundup of the usual suspects. Speculators make convenient targets, and they appear to be the proximate cause: after all, their trades produce the rapidly rising prices.

But the speculators are merely the messengers. If the Chinese authorities want to find the real culprits, they need to look in the mirror, for the speculators are responding to the most recent lurch in Chinese economic policy.

Put simply, after the economic slowdown of the second half of 2015 (a slowdown masked by fraudulent official statistics, but evident nonetheless), the government pushed the panic button and fell back on its standard remedy: injecting a burst of credit.  Some estimates put the Chinese debt to GDP at 237 percent. Since GDP is likely also an overstated measure of national income, due to fraudulent statistics and the fact that the losses on past investments have not been recognized (in part because much of the credit is pumped  into zombie companies that should be bankrupt) this ratio understates the true burden of the debt.

The surge in credit is being extended in large part through extremely fragile and opaque shadow banking channels, but the risk is ending up on bank balance sheets. To engage in regulatory arbitrage of capital rules, banks are disguising loans as “investments” in trust companies and other non-bank intermediaries, who then turn around and lend to corporate borrowers.  Just call a loan a “receivable” and voila, no nasty non performing loan problems.

There is one very reasonable inference to draw from this palpably panicked resort to stimulus, and the fact that many companies in commodity intensive industries are in desperate financial straits and the government is loath to let them go under: today’s stimulus and the implied promise of more in the future whenever the economy stutters will increase the demand for primary commodities. The speculators are drawing this inference, and responding accordingly by bidding up the prices of steel, iron ore, and coal.

Some commentors, including some whom I respect, point out that the increase does not appear to be supported by fundamentals, because steel and coal output, and capacity utilization, appear to be flat. But the markets are forward looking, and the price rises are driven by expectations of a turnaround in these struggling sectors, rather than their current performance. Indeed, the flat performance is one of the factors that has spurred the government to action.

When the Chinese responded to the 2008-2009 crisis by engaging in a massive stimulus program, I said that they were creating a Michael Jackson economy, one that was kept going by artificial means, to the detriment of its long term health. The most recent economic slowdown has engendered a similar response. Its scale is not quite as massive as 2008-2009, but it’s just begun. Furthermore, the earlier stimulus utilized a good portion of the nation’s debt capacity, and even though smaller, the current stimulus risks exhausting that capacity and raising the risk of a banking or financial crisis. It is clear, moreover, each yuan of stimulus today generates a smaller increase in (officially measured) output. Thus, in my view, the current stimulus will only provide a temporary boost to the economy, and indeed, will only aggravate the deep underlying distortions that resulted from past attempts to control the economy. This will make the ultimate reckoning even more painful.

But the speculators realize that the stimulus will raise commodity demand for some time. They further recognize that the stimulus signals that the authorities are backsliding on their pledges to reorient the economy away from heavy industry and investment-driven growth, and this is bullish for primary materials demand going forward: the resort to credit stimulus today makes it more likely that the authorities will continue to resort to it in the future. So they are bidding up prices today based on those predictions.

In other words, as long as the Michael Jackson economy lives and stays hooked, its suppliers will profit.

So yet again, commodity markets and the speculators who trade on them are merely a lurid facade distracting attention from the underlying reality. And the reality in China is that the government cannot kick the stimulus habit. The government may scream about (and worse) the usual suspects, but it is the real cause of the dizzying rise in Chinese commodity prices, and the burst of speculation.

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April 22, 2016

Schrödinger’s Clearinghouse?

Filed under: Clearing,Derivatives,Exchanges,Regulation — The Professor @ 6:31 pm

Three weeks ago I wrote about, and criticized, LSE CEO Xavier Rolet’s statement that “We can cross margin our over-the-counter clearing with their listed derivatives without merging the clearinghouses, and without comingling the risk-management framework. [Emphasis added.]”  Then three days ago I read Philip Stafford’s article in the FT stating “Deutsche Börse and LSE plan to link clearing houses“:

The two sides are working on common risk management and default frameworks for their market utilities, which risk manage billions of dollars of derivatives trades on the market every day. [Emphasis added.]

The exchanges’ long-term aim is for each customer to become a member of both the LSE-controlled LCH and Deutsche Börse’s Eurex clearing houses. The customers, which are typically banks, would agree to hand over their trading data in return for better risk management of their derivatives, according to two people familiar with the talks.

The planned London-based holding company would instruct the two clearing houses on how to proceed with a default after consultations with central banks, one of the people said. The two sides are discussing their plans with their regulators and customers, one person said.

So how do you have a “common risk management framework” without “commingling the risk-management framework”? Is there some fine verbal distinction I am missing? Or perhaps this is like Schrödinger’s CCP, in a state of quantum superposition, both commingled and uncommingled until someone opens the box.

In my post, I mentioned default management as one reason to integrate the 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.

Apparently the recent experience with the default of Maple Bank brought home the benefits of such integration:

One person familiar with the talks highlighted problems created by February’s default of Frankfurt-based bank Maple, which was a member of both exchanges’ clearing houses.

“Right now what you have is a blind process — the liquidation of positions is conducted without co-ordination,” the person said. “Therefore it has a negative price impact in the market as you have two guys running out liquidating positions in the name.”

Huh. Go figure.

“Commingling” makes sense. Coordination is vital, both in daily operations (e.g., setting margins and monitoring to reduce the risk of default) and in extremis (during a default).

Perhaps Rolet was trying to deceive regulators who are so obsessed with too big to fail (sorry, both Eurex and LCH are TBTF already!) and who are blind to the benefits of coordination. If the regulators need to be deceived thus, we are doomed, because then it would be clear they have no clue about the real issues.

One wonders if they will recognize coordination and commingling even after they look in the box. Apparently Rolet thinks not. If they do, Xavier will have a lot of ‘splainin’ to do.

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April 13, 2016

You Can’t Handle the Truth! Censoring Politically Inconvenient Research at the CFTC

Filed under: Commodities,Derivatives,Economics,Energy,Exchanges,Politics,Regulation — The Professor @ 2:29 pm

I had missed that the CFTC’s Office of the Inspector General had found that the Office of the Chief Economist had “prohibited relevant but potentially controversial research” on position limits. According to the OIG, during a routine interview with a CFTC staff economist, without being asked, the economist told the OIG that s/he had been prevented from doing research on position limits. According to the OIG, “several OCE economists identified position limits as an example of a topic on which economic research is no longer permitted.” One said: ”you can’t write a report on something that destroys three years of (CFTC) work.”

The basic conclusion is damning:

Several other economists confirmed their impression that OCE is now censoring research topics that might conflict with the official positions ofthe CFTC. Some ofthis censorship occurs on the part ofindividual staffeconomists themselves-when selecting potential topics, they now choose non-controversial ones. However, multiple OCE economists also reported that the Chief Economist has declined to permit research on certain topics relevant to the CFTC mission, including position limits.

Some OCE economists expressed uncertainty as to the purpose of OCE’s research program if the Office is prevented from studying topics relevant to current CFTC rulemaking. Yet OCE economists reported that the Chief Economist has rejected or delayed research paper topic ideas if tey were related to pending rulemaking or could challenge the validity of agency regulations. One OCE economist described the policymaking process as one in which a decision is made and then analysis is done in a fashion designed to support the decision. There is a perception within OCE that the ChiefEconomist is “more Commission-friendly,” and that he discourages research that might offend Commissioners.

During “multiple” discussions with the OIG, the Chief Economist at first admitted that this was so, then backtracked:

He agreed that he had initially rejected a research proposal on position limits on the basis that it was politically controversial. The Chief Economist later stated his belief that the CFTC did not have the data or the in-house expertise to do this project in any event. The Chief Economist explained that this was a matter of discretion, and that he did in fact permit research into politically controversial topics. He provided an example ofresearch into high-frequency trading and instances ofself-trading. When asked, the Chief Economist agreed that the Chairman actively supported this line ofresearch. The Chief Economist also stated that he wanted to be able to take to the Chairman and Commissioners anything he or OCE did.


Chairman Massad has recently rejected the OIG’s conclusion, the statements of multiple staff economists, and the initial gaffe (i.e., truth telling) by the Chief Economist. It wasn’t politics, you see. It was priorities:

“Our Office of the Chief Economist has many excellent economists, the morale there is very good and the work they produce is very good. They often produce things that might conflict with the views I have and the views other commissioners have, but we don’t have any kind of political screen on what we do,” said Massad, testifying before the Senate Committee on Appropriations on April 12.

“We do have, however, priority setting. It’s a small division and we must set priorities. We can’t always have a staff person just do the research they would like to do, as opposed to research we really need to focus on. That’s the only way in which we focus their work,” he added.

To state the obvious: priorities are inherently political. The statement about priorities therefore does not refute the belief of the staff economists that the decision to forbid research on position limits was ultimately political.

Chairman Massad’s assertion also is flatly inconsistent with the opinions expressed by multiple individuals, including his own Chief Economist (before he got his mind right, anyways). Thus, there is certainly a widespread perception in the OCE that permissible research means politically correct research. Either this perception is correct, or Chairman Massad has done a poor job of communicating to the economists the criteria by which research resources are allocated.

In a Washington where everything is politicized, and in particular where Senator Elizabeth Warren clearly attempts to censor those expressing dissenting opinions, and attempts to intimidate and slander those who dare to express such opinions, it is utterly plausible that the economists’ perceptions are very well grounded in reality. I view the economists’ complaint as facially valid, but potentially rebuttable. Mr. Massad’s testimony does not even come close to rebutting their assertions. Indeed, knowing how to decode words like “priorities” from GovSpeak, if anything his testimony buttresses the complaint, rather than rebuts it.

But let me suspend disbelief for a moment, and take Chairman Massad at his word. Just what does that imply?

First, it implies that a position limits initiative that would impose substantial burdens on the industry is of insufficient importance to justify a researcher or two to spend a portion of their time to study. Not to denigrate the value of the economists’ time, but in the scheme of things this does not represent a huge expenditure of resources. If position limits are of that little importance, what is the potential benefit of the regulation? Why does the Commission persist in pushing it if it is not even worth the time of a few staff economists?

Second, what does this say about the Commission’s commitment to carrying out its statutory obligation to conduct a cost-benefit analysis of the regulation?

Third, and relatedly, if the Chief Economist is correct and his staff does not possess “the data or the in-house expertise to do this project” how would it even be possible for the OCE, and the Commission, to perform a valid cost-benefit analysis? In particular, since the proposed research appears to speak to the issue of the benefits and necessity of limits, how can the Commission generally, and Chairman Massad in particular, credibly claim that they have determined that limits offer sufficient benefit to make them necessary, or to exceed their cost, if its own Chief Economist claims that his office has neither the data nor the expertise to perform valid research on the effects of limits?

Position limits have been a political project from Day 1. They remain a political project, as Senator Warren’s recent jeremiad (directed substantially at yours truly) demonstrates. The economic case for them remains dubious at best. Given this history and this context, the assertion that prohibiting CFTC staff economists from researching the issue was politically motivated is all too plausible.

The Risk article that I linked to quotes Gerry Gay, who was Chief Economist under Wendy Gramm in the Bush I administration. Gerry notes that prior to 1993, economics and economists had pride of place within the CFTC. It was viewed as “an economist’s shop.”

That is a fair statement. What happened in 1993? The Clinton administration took over, and (as Gerry notes) de-emphasized economics. I remember distinctly an article in Futures Magazine that solicited the opinion of many industry figures as to the changes the new administration would bring. Ex-CFTC Commissioner Philip McBride Johnson’s statement sticks in my mind. This is almost an exact quote, though it is from memory: “We can now get rid of the economists and put the lawyers back in charge.”

That’s exactly what happened then, and with a few exceptions during the Bush II years, has remained true ever since. Just as Clemenceau said that war is too important to be left to the generals, the DC set established that regulating the markets is too important to be left to the economists. What’s more, particularly in the Obama administration, starting with Gensler’s tenure as head of the Commission, it was determined that certain kinds of lawyers had to be in charge, and they had to follow marching orders from politicians. Do not forget that Gensler was only able to overcome skepticism about his Goldman background by pledging fealty to the Democratic senators on the relevant committees, and to their agenda. Truly independent regulators get crushed. (Remember the fate of FCC head Tom Wheeler when he strayed just a little bit off the party line on net neutrality?)

Keep that in mind when attempting to determine the true story of the disapproved research on position limits. It has been determined that you can’t handle the truth.

Update: Note well that the CFTC economists’ concerns about acceptable research extend beyond position limits. It is clear that several believe that policy-relevant research is discouraged, at least if it could contradict existing or pending regulations. If that’s in fact true, it would be fair to ask why the hell the CFTC has economists anyways. Economics has a vital role in informing policy on markets. The economists could pay their lifetime salaries many times over by stopping or correcting one misguided regulation, or even one misguided piece of a broader regulation. (I recall a quote from Coase that an economist could pay for his lifetime salary by just delaying a bad regulation a day.) The only real reason to have economists at the CFTC or any agency is to provide critical evaluation of pending or existing rules and regulations. It is beyond absurd to preclude economists from working on exactly those things, when they could upset some politically-driven regulation.

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