Streetwise Professor

September 10, 2014

SEFs: The Damn Dogs Won’t Eat It!

Filed under: Derivatives,Economics,Exchanges,Politics,Regulation — The Professor @ 8:37 pm

There’s an old joke about a pet food manufacturer that mounts an all out marketing campaign for its new brand of dog food. It pulls out all the stops. Celebrity endorsements. Super Bowl Ad. You name it. But sales tank. The CEO calls the head of marketing onto the carpet and demands an explanation for the appalling sales. The marketing guy  answers: “It’s those damn dogs. They just won’t eat the stuff.”

That joke came to mind when reading about the CFTC’s frustration at the failure of SEFs to get traction. Most market  participants avoid using central limit order books (CLOBs), and prefer to trade by voice or Requests for Quotes (RFQs):

“The biggest surprise for me is the lack of interest from the buyside for [central limit order books or CLOB],” Michael O’Brien, director of global trading at Eaton Vance, said at the International Swaps and Derivatives Association conference in New York. “The best way to break up the dual market structure and boost transparency is through using a CLOB and I’m surprised at how slow progress has been.”

About two dozen Sefs have been established in the past year, but already some of these venues are struggling to register a presence. Instead, incumbent market players who have always dominated the swaps market are winning under the new regulatory regime, with the bulk of trading being done through Bloomberg, Tradeweb and interdealer brokers including IcapBGC and Tradition.

“It’s still very early,” Mr Massad told the FT. “The fact that we’re getting a decent volume of trading is encouraging but we are also looking at various issues to see how we can facilitate more trading and transparency.”

Regulators are less concerned about having a specific numbers of Sefs since the market is still sorting out which firms can serve their clients the best under the new regulatory system. What officials are watching closely is the continued use of RFQ systems rather than the transparent central order booking structure.

Not to say I told you so, but I told you so. I knew the dogs, and I knew they wouldn’t like the food.

This is why I labeled the SEF mandate as The Worst of Dodd Frank. It was a solution in search of a non-existent problem. It took a one-sized fits all approach, predicated on the view that centralized order driven markets are the best way to execute all transactions. It obsessed on pre-trade and post-trade price transparency, and totally overlooked the importance of counterparty transparency.

There is a diversity of trading mechanisms in virtually every financial market. Some types of trades and traders are economically executed in anonymous, centralized auction markets with pre- and post-trade price transparency. Other types of trades and traders-namely, big wholesale trades involving those trading to hedge or to rebalance portfolios, rather than to take advantage of information advantages-are most efficiently negotiated and executed face-to-face, with little (or delayed) post-trade price disclosure. This is why upstairs block markets always existed in stocks, and why dark pools exist now. It is one reason why OTC derivatives markets operated side-by-side with futures markets offering similar products.

As I noted at the time, sophisticated buy siders in derivatives markets had the opportunity to trade in futures markets but chose to trade OTC. Moreover, the buy side was very resistant to the SEF mandate despite the fact that they were the supposed beneficiaries of a more transparent (in some dimensions!) and more competitive (allegedly) trading mechanism. The Frankendodd crowd argued that SEFs would break a cabal of dealers that exploited their customers and profited from the opacity of the market.

But the customers weren’t buying it. So you had to believe that either they knew what they were talking about, or were the victims of Stockholm Syndrome leaping to the defense of the dealers that held them captive.

My mantra was a diversity of mechanisms for a diversity of trades and traders.  Frankendodd attempts to create a monoculture and impose a standardized market structure for all participants. It says to the buy side: here’s your dinner, and you’ll like it, dammit! It’s good for you!

But the buy side knows what it likes, and is pushing away the bowl.

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Family Feud: Lifting the Oil Export Ban

Filed under: Commodities,Energy,Politics,Regulation — The Professor @ 7:42 pm

Larry Summers has called for an end to the crude oil export ban in the US. This is pretty much a no-brainer for even a pedestrian economist, let alone one of Summers’s intelligence, not to say one as intelligent as Summers thinks he is.

No-brainer or not, eliminating the ban (which isn’t a total ban, in any event) will have only modest effects. This is because although crude cannot be exported freely, refined products can be. Lifting the ban will mainly entail a substitution of crude exports for product exports, which will result in modest impacts on final product prices.

Here’s a crude outline of how opening up exports will play out (pun intended).

  1. The price of crude in the US will rise, and the price in Europe (notably Brent) will fall, until the price differential is approximately equal to transport costs of a buck or two, in contrast to the current differential of approximately $6.50. This isn’t immaterial, but it’s not a huge change either, given current prices in the $90s.
  2. The amount of crude refined in the US will decline, and the amount of crude refined overseas will rise. Refining margins in Europe will rise and those in the US will fall. The differentials in product prices will remain about the same, because products will be exported after the ban is lifted just as they are now, though export volumes will decline. Prices will differ by transportation costs post-lifting, just as they do now.
  3. The effect on product prices in the US (e.g., the price of gasoline) is a priori impossible to sign, because there are offsetting effects. US refiner input prices will rise, but margins will fall. The net price effect of higher costs and lower margins can’t be determined a priori.
  4. One factor will definitely lead to lower product prices. Post-free trade in crude, there will be a better match between crude slates and refineries. US refineries are more complex, and optimized to process heavier crudes from Mexico and Venezuela. Most are not optimized to process the large quantities of very light crudes that are flowing from Eagle Ford and the Bakken. In contrast, European refineries are better able to process lighter crudes. This better match of refineries to crude will reduce costs and increase productivity, which tends to reduce product prices.
  5. The main factor that will determine whether product prices rise or fall will be the effect of the lifting of the ban on the total output of crude: if more crude is produced, more products will be produced, and prices will decline. The lifting of the ban will reduce Brent prices, which will reduce North Sea output (and Nigerian output too). The lifting of the ban will increase US prices, which will cause US output to rise. The net effect on total crude output depends on the relative elasticities of supply. If, for instance, Brent supply is very elastic and US supply is very inelastic, total crude output could well fall, which would tend to increase gasoline and distillate prices in the US. If the elasticities are reversed, total supply would likely rise leading to lower product prices.
  6. If I had to guess, I would say that given that the product price changes will be negative but small, and hard to detect in the normal fluctuations of prices. The combined price effect shared between the US and non-US markets for light crudes is relatively small (on the order of 5 percent of price) and the offsetting effect on foreign and domestic output leaves a net effect on output (and hence prices) that will be relatively small.
  7. Tom Friedman supports lifting the ban, which makes me think twice. Friedman also says that lifting the ban will cause crude prices to drop by $25/bbl and thereby crush Putin and Iran and ISIS, thereby saving Ukraine and the MIddle East. Tom Friedman is an idiot. Pay no attention.

There will be one major effect, which Summers alludes to, and which I have emphasized when I teach about the export restriction in my Energy Policy course for EMBAs: the main effect of the change in policy will be to redistribute rents within the domestic oil industry. It will reduce the profitability of US refiners, especially some independents who are feasting on the abundant supply of light crude. It will increase the profitability of domestic crude producers.

In other words, contrary to a lot of the rhetoric, this isn’t about “big oil” vs. main street. It’s about Downstream Medium Oil vs. Upstream  Medium Oil. The big integrated majors basically see money shifted from one pocket to the other: since the lifting of the ban will increase total surplus in the energy market, the integrated majors will benefit, but the benefit will be smallish. The independent refiners will be losers, and pure upstream companies will be winners.

This is, in other words, a sort of family feud. A battle between different branches of the US energy sector family. But as any cop called to the scene of a domestic dispute will tell you, these can be pretty intense.

In sum, ending the ban would make the pizza slightly bigger, but you won’t notice it much at the pump, if you notice it at all. The main effect would be to change the size of the slices. But since conflicts over how the pizza is divided drive politics, the export ban will generate  political battles of an intensity out of proportion to its modest effects  on overall wealth and welfare.

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September 8, 2014

Cleaning Up After the Dodd, Frank & Gensler Circus

A lot of CFTC news lately. Much of it involves the agency, under new chairman Timothy Massad, dealing with the consequences of Frankendodd and the overzealous efforts of his predecessor Gary Gensler to implement it.

One of Massad’s priorities relates to clearinghouses (CCPs):

CFTC Chairman Timothy Massad said in a Sept. 5 interview that his agency will bolster examinations of clearinghouses, which process trillions of dollars in transactions and are potentially vulnerable to market shocks or cyber attacks. The agency is working with the Federal Reserve on the effort, he said.

New rules requiring banks and other firms to use clearinghouses owned by LCH.Clearnet Group Ltd., CME Group Inc. (CME) and Intercontinental Exchange Inc. (ICE) have been “a great thing” and have helped regulators “monitor and mitigate risks, but it doesn’t eliminate risk,” according to Massad.

“We’ve got to be very focused on the health of clearinghouses,” he said.

It’s nice to see that the CFTC, as well as prudential regulators, recognize that CCPs are of vital systemic importance. But as I’ve said many times, on four continents: In a complex, interconnected financial system, making CCPs less likely to default  does not necessarily increase the safety of the financial system. Making one part of the system safer does not make the system safer. It can prevent one Armageddon scenario, but increase the likelihood of others.

Gensler babbled repeatedly about the clearing mandate reducing the interconnectedness of the financial system. In fact, it just reconfigures the interconnections. The very measures that are intended to ensure CCPs get paid what they are owed even in periods of crisis can redirect crushing stresses to other vulnerable parts of the financial system. CCPs may end up standing, surrounded by the rubble of the rest of the financial system.

CCPs are deeply enmeshed in a complex web of credit and payment relationships. Mechanisms intended to reduce CCP credit exposure-multilateral netting, high initial margins, rigorous variation margining-feed back into other parts of that web.

There are so many interconnected parts. Today Risk ran an article about how LCH relies heavily on two settlement banks, JPM and Citi. Although LCH will not confirm it, it appears that these two banks process  about 85 percent of the payments between clearing members and LCH. This process involves the extension of intraday credit. This creates exposures for these two big SIFIs, and makes the LCH’s viability dependent on the health of these two banks: if one of them went down, this could cause extreme difficulties for LCH and for the clearing members. That is, OTC derivatives clearing adds a new way in which the financial system’s health and stability depend on the health of big banks, and creates new risks that can jeopardize the health of the big banks.

So much for eliminating interconnectedness, Gary. It’s just been moved around, and not necessarily in a good way.

Again, mitigating systemic risk requires taking a systemic perspective. The fallacy of composition is a major danger, and a very alluring one. The idea that the system gets safer when you make a major part of it safer is just plain wrong. The system is more than just the sum of its parts. Moreover, it can actually be the case that making one part of the system stronger, but more rigid, as clearing arguably does, makes the system more vulnerable to catastrophic failure. Or at least creates new ways that it can fail.

Another issue on Massad’s plate is addressing the conflict between his agency and Europe on giving regulatory approval to each other’s CCPs. It looks like this issue will not get resolved by the drop dead date in December. This will result in substantially higher costs (primarily in the form of higher capital requirements and higher margins), the fragmentation of OTC derivatives markets, and greater counterparty concentration (as US firms avoid European CCPs and vice versa).

The CFTC is also trying to fix its fundamentally flawed position limit proposal, and particularly the defective, overly restrictive, and at times clueless hedging exemptions. Mencken defined Puritanism as “The haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.” The CFTC’s hedging exemption, as currently constituted, reflects a sort of financial Puritanism: “The haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be speculating.” To avoid this dread possibility, the exemptions are so narrow that they eliminate some very reasonable risk management strategies, such as using gas forwards to hedge electricity price exposures.

This has caused an uproar among end users, including firms like Cargill that have been hedging since the end of the freaking Civil War. Perhaps their survival suggests they might know something about the subject.

In the “be careful what you ask for” category, the CFTC is wrestling with a very predictable consequence of one of its decisions. In an attempt to wall off the US from major shocks originating overseas, the Gensler CFTC adopted rules that would have subjected foreign firms dealing with foreign affiliates of US banks to US regulations if the parents provided guarantees for those affiliates. Foreign firms definitely didn’t want to be subjected to the tender mercies of the CFTC and Frankendodd regs. So to maintain this business, the parents stripped away the guarantees.

Problem solved, right? The elimination of the guarantee would eliminate a major potential channel of contagion between the dodgy furriners and the US financial system, right? That was the point, right?

Apparently not. The CFTC has major agida over this:

Timothy Massad, the new CFTC chairman, said in an interview he is concerned aboutrecent moves by several large Wall Street firms to sidestep CFTC oversight by changing the terms of some swap agreements made by foreign affiliates.

“The concern has always been that activity that takes place abroad can result in the importation of risk into the U.S.,” Mr. Massad said. He said there is a concern that a U.S. bank’s foreign losses would ultimately find their way to U.S. shores, infecting the parent company in possibly destabilizing ways.

. . . .

The moves mean any liability for those swaps lies solely with the offshore operation, which the banks have said will protect the U.S. parent from contagion. Yet without that tie to the U.S. parent, the contracts won’t fall under U.S. jurisdiction and so won’t be subject to strict rules set by the 2010 Dodd-Frank financial-overhaul law, including requirements that contracts historically traded over the telephone be traded publicly on U.S. electronic platforms [i.e., the SEF mandate].

By de-guaranteeing, the US banks have eliminated the most direct channel of contagion from over there to over here. But apparently the CFTC is worried that unless its regulations are followed overseas, there will be other, albeit more indirect, backdoors into the US.

In essence, then, the CFTC believes its regulations are by far superior to those in Europe and elsewhere, and that unless its regulations are implemented everywhere, the US is at risk.

Not too arrogant, eh?

A few observations should make you question this arrogance, and in a  big way.

First, note that the most likely effect of the CFTC getting its way of exporting its regulations into any transaction and any entity involving any affiliate of a US financial institution is that foreign entities will just avoid dealing with any such affiliate. This will balkanize the global derivatives market: ‘mericans will deal with ‘mericans, and Euros with Euros, and never the twain shall meet. This will likely result in greater counterparty concentration. Such developments would create systemic vulnerabilities, and even though the direct counterparty credit channel could not bring that risk back to US banks, the myriad other connections between foreign banks and American ones would.

Second, note the last sentence of the quoted paragraph: “including requirements that contracts historically traded over the telephone be traded publicly on U.S. electronic platforms.” So apparently attempts to avoid the SEF mandate infuriate the CFTC. But the SEF mandate has nothing to do with systemic risk. For this reason, and others, I named this mandate “The Worst of Frankendodd.” But so intent is the CFTC on pursuing this systemically irrelevant unicorn that it is questioning moves by US banks that actually reduce their exposure to problems in foreign markets.

Timothy Massad has the unwelcome task of cleaning up after the elephant parade at the Dodd, Frank & Gensler Circus. Clearing mandates, coordinating with overseas regulators, position limits, and the elimination of affiliate guarantees are only some of the things that he has to clean up. I hope he’s got a big shovel and a lot of patience.

 

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August 26, 2014

Merkel to Ukraine: Here’s Your Hat. What’s Your Hurry?

Filed under: Economics,Politics,Regulation,Russia — The Professor @ 8:50 pm

To compound Merkel’s obsequiousness to Putin, and her pushing Ukraine into his embrace, she broadly hinted that Ukraine should join Putin’s pet project, The Eurasian Union. Since Putin has made it clear that membership in the Eurasian Union and the Real EU are mutually exclusive, this is tantamount to turning Europe’s back on Ukraine and leaving it to Putin’s tender mercies.

Merkel’s remarks make it clear that her primary motive for abandoning Ukraine to Putin is to keep good relations with Russia, and to avoid riling Vlad:

“And if Ukraine says we are going to the Eurasian Union now, the European Union would never make a big conflict out of it, but would insist on a voluntary decision,” Merkel added.

“I want to find a way, as many others do, which does not damage Russia. We [Germany] want to have good trade relations with Russia as well. We want reasonable relations with Russia. We are depending on one another and there are so many other conflicts in the world where we should work together, so I hope we can make progress”

Nauseating. Like my grandfather said about a hostess trying to hint to  a guest who had overstayed his welcome that he leave: “Here’s your hat, Bob. Why are you in such a hurry to leave?”

For his part, during the Eurasian Union summit in Minsk, Putin made it clear that Ukraine had to choose between one EU or the other, and if it chose wrong, Russia would punish it. This is the fate that Merkel is willing to consign Ukraine to, so that Siemens can continue to sell to Russia, and Adidas can provide all the track suits that the gopniks desire:

In his public comments, Mr. Putin highlighted the dangers he said Russia faces if Ukraine pursues closer ties to the West. Since the onset of the crisis, Mr. Putin has accused the West of meddling in Ukraine’s internal affairs and trying to spoil its relations with Moscow.

Mr. Putin said that a trade agreement between Kiev and Europe will flood the Ukrainian market with European goods, which may then find their way into Russia. “In this situation Russia cannot stand idle. And we will be prompted…to take retaliatory measures, to protect our market,” Mr. Putin said.

The interesting thing about this is just what it betrays about what Putin thinks about Russian competitiveness. Yes, Russia is so great. Russia is so strong. Russia is a beacon to the world. But it can’t produce things its own people and businesses want.

Note the phrase: “take retaliatory measures, to protect our market.” Remind me again: didn’t Russia join the WTO? Apparently Putin is unclear on the concept.

Further note whom Putin is protecting Russian markets against: Europe. Apparently Angela is unclear on some concepts too.

Putin and many (most?) other Russians inveigh about Russophobia. When he says things like that, it’s hard to think of a bigger Russophobe than Putin. He evidently does believe that Russians are inferior, and in need of protection.

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August 17, 2014

This Never Happens, Right?: Regulators Push a Flawed Solution

Filed under: Clearing,Derivatives,Economics,Politics,Regulation — The Professor @ 6:06 pm

Regulators are pushing ISDA and derivatives market participants really hard to incorporate a stay on derivatives trades of failing SIFIs. As I wrote a couple of weeks ago, this is a problem if bankruptcy law involving derivatives is not changed because the prospect of having contracts stayed, and thus the right of termination abridged, could lead counterparties to run from a weak counterparty before it actually defaults. This is possible if derivatives remain immune from fraudulent conveyance or preference claims.

Silla Brush, who co-wrote an article about the issue in Bloomberg, asked me a good question via Twitter: why should derivatives counterparties run, if they are confident that their positions with the failing bank will be transferred to a solvent one during the resolution process?

I didn’t think of the answer on the fly, but upon reflection it’s pretty clear. If counterparties were so confident that such a transfer will occur, a stay would be unnecessary: they would not terminate their contracts, but would breathe a sigh of relief and wait patiently while the transfer takes place.

If regulators think a stay is necessary, it is because they fear that counterparties would prefer to terminate their contracts than await their fate in a resolution.

So a stay is either a superfluous addition to the resolution process, or imposes costs on derivatives counterparties who lack confidence in that process.

If this is true, the logic I laid out before goes through. If you impose a stay, if market participants would prefer to terminate rather than live with the outcome of a resolution process, they have an incentive to run a failing bank, and find a way to get out of their derivatives positions and recover their collateral.

This can actually precipitate the failure of a weak bank.

I say again: constraining the actions of derivatives counterparties at the time of default can have perverse effects if their actions prior to default are not constrained.

This means that you need to fix bankruptcy rules regarding derivatives in a holistic way. And this is precisely the problem. Despairing at their ability to achieve a coherent, systematic fix of bankruptcy law in the present political environment, regulators are trying to implement piecemeal workarounds. But piecemeal workarounds create more problems than they correct.

But of course, the regulators pressing for this are pretty much the same people who rushed clearing mandates and other aspects of Frankendodd into effect without thinking through how things would work in practice.

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Nationalize the Clearinghouses?

Filed under: Clearing,Commodities,Derivatives,Economics,Politics,Regulation — The Professor @ 3:48 pm

Stephen Lubben has garnered a lot of attention with his recent paper “Nationalize the Clearinghouses.” Don’t get nervous, CME, ICE, LCH: he doesn’t mean now, but in the event of your failure.

A few brief comments.

First, I agree-obviously, since I’ve been saying this going back to the 90s-that the failure of a big CCP would be a catastrophic systemic event, and that a failure is a set of positive measure. Thus, planning for this contingency is essential. Second, I further agree that establishing a procedure that lays out in advance what will be done upon the failure of a CCP is vital, and that leaving things to be handled in an ad hoc way at the time of failure is a recipe for disaster (in large part because how market participants would respond to the uncertainty when a CCP teeters on the brink). Third, it is evident that CCPs do not fit into the recovery and resolution schemes established for banks under Frankendodd and EMIR. CCPs are very different from banks, and a recovery or resolution mechanism designed for banks would be a bad, bad fit for clearers.

Given all this, temporary nationalization, with a pre-established procedure for subsequent privatization, is reasonable. This would ensure continuity of operations of a CCP, which is essential.

It’s important not to exaggerate the benefits of this, however. Stephen states: nationalization “should provide stakeholders in the clearinghouses with strong incentives to oversee the clearinghouse’s management, and avoid such a fate.” I don’t think that the ex ante efficiency effects of nationalization will be that large. After all, nationalization would occur only after the equity of the CCP (which is pretty small to begin with) is wiped out, and the default fund plus additional assessments have been blown through. Shooting/nationalizing a corpse doesn’t have much of an incentive effect on the living ex ante.

Stephen recommends that upon nationalization that CCP memberships be canceled. This is superfluous, given the setup of CCPs. Many CCPs require members to meet an assessment call up to the amount of the original contribution to the default fund. Once they have met that call, they can resign from the CCP: that’s when the CCP gives up the ghost. Thus, a CCP fails when members exercise their option to check out. There are no memberships to cancel in a failed CCP.

Lubben recommends that there be an “expectation of member participation in the recapitalization of the clearinghouse, once that becomes systemically viable.” In effect, this involves the creation of a near unlimited liability regime for CCP members. The existing regime (which involves assessment rights, typically capped at the original default fund contribution amount) goes beyond traditional limited liability, but not all the way to a Lloyds of London-like unlimited liability regime. Telling members that they will be “expected” to recapitalize a CCP (which has very Don Corleone-esque overtones) essentially means that membership in a CCP requires a bank/FCM to undertake an unlimited exposure, and to provide capital at times they are likely to be very stressed.

This is problematic in the event, and ex ante.

Stephen qualifies the recapitalization obligation (excuse me, “expectation”) with “once that becomes systemically viable.” Well, that could be a helluva long time, given that the failure of a CCP will be triggered by the failure of 2 or more systemically important financial institutions. (And let’s not forget that given the fact that FCMs are members of multiple clearinghouses, multiple simultaneous failures of CCPs is a very real possibility: indeed, there is a huge correlation risk here, meaning that surviving members are likely to be expected to re-capitalize multiple CCPs.) Thus, even if the government keeps a CCP from failing via nationalization, the entities that it expects to recapitalize the seized clearinghouse will will almost certainly be in dire straits themselves at this juncture. A realistic nationalization plan must therefore recognize that the government will be bearing counterparty risk for the CCP’s derivatives trades for some considerable period of time. Nationalization is not free.

Ex ante, two problems arise. First, the prospect of unlimited liability will make banks very reluctant to become members of CCPs. Nationalization plus a recapitalization obligation is the wrong-way risk from hell: banks will be expected to pony up capital precisely when they are in desperate straits. My friend Blivy jokingly asked whether there will soon be more CCPs than clearing firms. An “expectation” of recapitalizing a nationalized CCP is likely to make that a reality, rather than a joke.

Second, the nationalization scheme creates a moral hazard. Users of CCPs (i.e., those trading cleared derivatives) will figure that they will be made whole in the event of a failure: the government and eventually the (coerced) banks will make the creditors of the CCP whole. They thus have less incentive to monitor a CCP or the clearing members.

Thus, other issues have to be grappled with. Specifically, should there be “bail-ins” of the creditors of a failed CCP, most notably through variation margin haircutting? Or should there be initial margin haircutting, which would intensify the incentives to monitor (as well as spread the default risk more broadly, and not force it disproportionately on those receiving VM payments, who are  likely to be hedgers) ? Hard questions, but ones that need to be addressed.

It is good to see that serious people like Stephen are now giving serious consideration to this issue. It is unfortunate that the people responsible for mandating clearing didn’t give these issues serious consideration when rushing to pass Frankendodd and EMIR.

Again: legislate in haste, repent at leisure.

 

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July 30, 2014

ISDA Should Stay Its Hand, Not Derivatives In Bankruptcy

Filed under: Derivatives,Economics,Financial crisis,Regulation — The Professor @ 8:39 pm

I’ve been meaning to write about how derivatives are treated in bankruptcy, but it’s a big topic and I haven’t been able to get my hands around it. But this article from Bloomberg merits some comment, because it suggests that market participants, led by ISDA, are moving to a partial change that could make things worse if the bankruptcy code treatment of derivatives remains the same.

Derivatives benefit from a variety of “safe harbors” in bankruptcy. They are treated very differently than other financial contracts. If a firm goes bankrupt, its derivatives counterparties can offset winning against losing trades, and determine a net amount. In contrast, with normal debts, such offsets are not permitted, and the bankruptcy trustee can “cherry pick” by not performing on losing contracts and insisting on performance on winning ones. Derivatives counterparties can immediately access the collateral posted by a bankrupt counterparty. Other secured debtors do not have immediate access to collateral. Derivatives counterparties are not subject to preference or fraudulent conveyance rules: the bankruptcy trustee can claw back cash taken out of a firm up to 90 days prior to its bankruptcy, except in the case of cash taken by derivatives (and repo) counterparties. Derivatives counterparties can immediately terminate their trades upon the bankruptcy of a trading partner, collect collateral to cover the bankrupt’s obligations, and become an unsecured creditor on the remainder.

It is this ability to terminate and grab collateral that proved so devastating to Lehman in 2008. Cash is a vital asset for a financial firm, and any chance Lehman had to survive or be reorganized disappeared with the cash that went out the door when derivatives were terminated and collateral seized. It is this problem that ISDA is trying to fix, by writing a temporary stay on the ability of derivatives counterparties to terminate derivatives contracts of a failed firm into standard derivatives contract terms.

That sounds wonderful, until you go back to previous steps in the game tree. The new contract term affects the calculations of derivatives counterparties before a tottering firm actually declares bankruptcy. Indeed, as long as preference/fraudulent conveyance safe harbor remains, the new rule actually increases the incentives of the derivatives counterparties to run on a financially distressed, but not yet bankrupt, firm. This increases the likelihood that a distressed firm actually fails.

The logic is this. If the counterparties keep their positions open until the firm is bankrupt, the stay prevents them from terminating their positions, and they are at the mercy of the resolution authority. They are at risk of not being able to get their collateral immediately. However, if they use some of the methods that Duffie describes in How Big Banks Fail, derivatives counterparties can reduce their exposures to the distressed firm before it declares bankruptcy, and crucially, get their hands on their collateral without having to worry about a stay, or having the money clawed back as a preference or fraudulent conveyance.

Thus, staying derivatives in a bankrupt firm, but retaining the safe harbor from preference/fraudulent conveyance claims, gives derivatives counterparties an incentive to run earlier. Under the contracts with the stay, they are in a weaker position if they wait until a formal insolvency than they are under the current way of doing business. They therefore are more likely to run early if derivatives are stayed.

This means that this unbalanced change in the terms of derivatives contracts actually increases the likelihood that a financial firm with a large derivatives book will implode due to a run by its counterparties. The stay may make things better conditional on being in bankruptcy, but increase the likelihood that a firm will default. This is almost certainly a bad trade-off. We want rules that reduce the likelihood of runs. This combination of contract terms and bankruptcy rules increases the likelihood of runs.

This illustrates the dangers of piecemeal changes to complex financial systems. Strengthening one part can make the entire system more vulnerable to failure. Changing one part effects how the other parts work, and not always for the better.

Rather than fixing single parts one at a time, it is essential to recognize the interdependencies between the pieces. The bankruptcy rules have a lot of interdependencies. Indeed, the rules on preferences/fraudulent conveyance are necessary precisely because of the perverse incentives that would exist prior to bankruptcy if claims are stayed in bankruptcy, but creditors can get their money out of a firm before bankruptcy. Stays alone can make things worse if the behavior of creditors prior to a formal filing is not constrained. All the pieces have to fit together.

The Bloomberg article notes that the international nature of the derivatives business complicates the job of devising a comprehensive treatment of derivatives in bankruptcy: harmonizing bankruptcy laws across many countries is a nightmare. But the inability to change the entire set of derivatives-related bankruptcy rules doesn’t mean that fixing one aspect of them by a contractual change makes things better. It can actually make things worse.  It is highly likely that imposing a stay in bankruptcy, but leaving the rest of the safe harbors intact, will do exactly that.

ISDA appears to want to address in the worst way the problems that derivatives can cause in bankruptcy. And unfortunately, it just might succeed. ISDA should stay its hand, and not derivatives in bankruptcy, unless other parts of the bankruptcy code are adjusted in response to the new contract term.

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July 29, 2014

The FUD Factor At Work

Filed under: Commodities,Economics,Energy,Politics,Regulation,Russia — The Professor @ 9:35 am

Going back to the original round of sanctions, I have been arguing that the terms of US sanctions have been left deliberately vague in order to make  banks and investors very cautious about dealing with sanctioned firms. Spreading fear, uncertainty, and doubt-FUD-leverages the effect of sanctions.

When I read the last round of sanctions, I had many questions, and hence many doubts about actually how far the sanctions would reach. I was not alone. Professionals-lawyers at banks and Wall Street law firms-are also uncertain:

But compliance officers at some U.S. banks and broker-dealers say the sanctions, issued by Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC), are not clear enough. That has left financial institutions guessing, in certain instances, at how to comply. They worry they are vulnerable to punitive action by U.S. regulators.

Fear, uncertainty, and doubt, all in one paragraph. The fear part is particularly interesting, and quite real, especially in the aftermath of the truly punitive action by U.S. regulators in the BNP-Paribas case.

OFAC-The Office of Foreign Asset Control, which is in charge of overseeing the sanctions-is in no hurry to clarify matters:

Another senior compliance officer at a major U.S. bank said bankers “are frustrated that OFAC is not providing more guidance.”

The day after the sanctions were issued, OFAC held a conference call with hundreds of financial services industry professionals in an effort to answer concerns. Although some issues were cleared up, others were left undecided, said two sources who were on the call.

Dear Mr. Senior Compliance Officer: that’s on purpose. Believe me.

A new round of sanctions may be imminent. I am hoping to be proven wrong in my forecasts, because reports are that the Europeans are going to do something serious. Add serious doubts to serious action, and American and European banks won’t touch most Russian banks or major companies with a 10 foot pole while wearing a hazmat suit. That will cause some major economic problems for Putin and Russia. Not 1998-magnitude problems, but maybe something bordering on 2008 problems, although a $100+ oil price will help contain the damage, despite the added difficulties that sanctions will create for the Russians to cash the checks for that oil.

Then it will be Vlad’s move. What that move will be, I do not know.

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July 25, 2014

Benchmark Blues

Pricing benchmarks have been one of the casualties of the financial crisis. Not because the benchmarks-like Libor, Platts’ Brent window, ISDA Fix, the Reuters FX window or the gold fix-contributed in an material way to the crisis. Instead, the post-crisis scrutiny of the financial sector turned over a lot of rocks, and among the vermin crawling underneath were abuses of benchmarks.

Every major benchmark has fallen under deep suspicion, and has been the subject of regulatory action or class action lawsuits. Generalizations are difficult because every benchmark has its own problems. It is sort of like what Tolstoy said about unhappy families: every flawed benchmark is flawed in its own way. Some, like Libor, are vulnerable to abuse because they are constructed from the estimates/reports of interested parties. Others, like the precious metals fixes, are problematic due to a lack of transparency and limited participation. Declining production and large parcel sizes bedevil Brent.

But some basic conclusions can be drawn.

First-and this should have been apparent in the immediate aftermath of the natural gas price reporting scandals of the early-2000s-benchmarks based on the reports of self-interested parties, rather than actual transactions, are fundamentally flawed. In my energy derivatives class I tell the story of AEP, which the government discovered kept a file called “Bogus IFERC.xls” (IFERC being an abbreviation for Inside Ferc, the main price reporting publication for gas and electricity) that included thousands of fake transactions that the utility reported to Platts.

Second, and somewhat depressingly, although benchmarks based on actual transactions are preferable to those based on reports, in many markets the number of transactions is small. Even if transactors do not attempt to manipulate, the limited number of transactions tends to inject some noise into the benchmark value. What’s more, benchmarks based on a small number of transactions can be influenced by a single trade or a small number of trades, thereby creating the potential for manipulation.

I refer to this as the bricks without straw problem. Just like the Jews in Egypt were confounded by Pharoh’s command to make bricks without straw, modern market participants are stymied in their attempts to create benchmarks without trades. This is a major problem in some big markets, notably Libor (where there are few interbank unsecured loans) and Brent (where large parcel sizes and declining Brent production mean that there are relatively few trades: Platts has attempted to address this problem by expanding the eligible cargoes to include Ekofisk, Oseberg, and Forties, and some baroque adjustments based on CFD and spread trades and monthly forward trades). This problem is not amenable to an easy fix.

Third, and perhaps even more depressingly, even transaction-based benchmarks derived from markets with a decent amount of trading activity are vulnerable to manipulation, and the incentive to manipulate is strong. Some changes can be made to mitigate these problems, but they can’t be eliminated through benchmark design alone. Some deterrence mechanism is necessary.

The precious metals fixes provide a good example of this. The silver and gold fixes have historically been based on transactions prices from an auction that Walras would recognize. But participation was limited, and some participants had the market power and the incentive to use it, and have evidently pushed prices to benefit related positions. For instance, in the recent allegation against Barclays, the bank could trade in sufficient volume to move the fix price sufficiently to benefit related positions in digital options. When there is a large enough amount of derivatives positions with payoffs tied to a benchmark, someone has the incentive to manipulate that benchmark, and many have the market power to carry out those manipulations.

The problems with the precious metals fixes have led to their redesign: a new silver fix method has been established and will go into effect next month, and the gold fix will be modified, probably along similar lines. The silver fix will replace the old telephone auction that operated via a few members trading on their own account and representing customer orders with a more transparent electronic auction operated by CME and Reuters. This will address some of the problems with the old fix. In particular, it will reduce the information advantage that the fixing dealers had that allowed them to trade profitably on other markets (e.g.,. gold futures and OTC forwards and options) based on the order flow information they could observe during the auction. Now everyone will be able to observe the auction via a screen, and will be less vulnerable to being picked off in other markets. It is unlikely, however, that the new mechanism will mitigate the market power problem. Big trades will move markets in the new auction, and firms with positions that have payoffs that depend on the auction price may have an incentive to make those big trades to advantage those positions.

Along these lines, it is important to note that many liquid and deep futures markets have been plagued by “bang the close” problems. For instance, Amaranth traded large volumes in the settlement period of expiring natural gas futures during three months of 2006 in order to move prices in ways that benefited its OTC swaps positions. The CFTC recently settled with the trading firm Optiver that allegedly banged the close in crude, gasoline, and heating oil in March, 2007. These are all liquid and deep markets, but are still vulnerable to “bullying” (as one Optiver trader characterized it) by large traders.

The incentives to cause an artificial price for any major benchmark will always exist, because one of the main purposes of benchmarks is to provide a mechanisms for determining cash flows for derivatives. The benchmark-derivatives market situation resembles an inverted pyramid, with large amounts cash flows from derivatives trades resting on a relatively small number of spot transactions used to set the benchmark value.

One way to try to ameliorate this problem is to expand the number of transactions at the point of the pyramid by expanding the window of time over which transactions are collected for the purpose of calculating the benchmark value: this has been suggested for the Platts Brent market, and for the FX fix. A couple of remarks. First, although this would tend to mitigate market power, it may not be sufficient to eliminate the problem: Amaranth manipulated a price that was based on a VWAP over a relatively long 30 minute interval. In contrast, in the Moore case (a manipulation case involving platinum and palladium brought by the CFTC) and Optiver, the windows were only two minutes long. Second, there are some disadvantages of widening the window. Some market participants prefer a benchmark that reflects a snapshot of the market at a point in time, rather than an average over a period of time. This is why Platts vociferously resists calls to extend the duration of its pricing window. There is a tradeoff in sources of noise. A short window is more affected by the larger sampling error inherent in the smaller number of transactions that occurs in a shorter interval, and the noise resulting from greater susceptibility to manipulation when a benchmark is based on smaller number of trades. However, an average taken over a time interval is a noisy estimate of the price at any point of time during that interval due to the random fluctuations in the “true” price driven by information flow. I’ve done some numerical experiments, and either the sampling error/manipulation noise has to be pretty large, or the volatility of the “true” price must be pretty low for it to be desirable to move to a longer interval.

Other suggestions include encouraging diversity in benchmarks. The other FSB-the Financial Stability Board-recommends this. Darrel Duffie and Jeremy Stein lay out the case here (which is a lot easier read than the 750+ pages of the longer FSB report).

Color me skeptical. Duffie and Stein recognize that the market has a tendency to concentrate on a single benchmark. It is easier to get into and out of positions in a contract which is similar to what everyone else is trading. This leads to what Duffie and Stein call “the agglomeration effect,” which I would refer to as a “tipping” effect: the market tends to tip to a single benchmark. This is what happened in Libor. Diversity is therefore unlikely in equilibrium, and the benchmark that survives is likely to be susceptible to either manipulation, or the bricks without straw problem.

Of course not all potential benchmarks are equally susceptible. So it would be good if market participants coordinated on the best of the possible alternatives. As Duffie and Stein note, there is no guarantee that this will be the case. This brings to mind the as yet unresolved debate over standard setting generally, in which some argue that the market’s choice of VHS over the allegedly superior Betamax technology, or the dominance of QWERTY over the purportedly better Dvorak keyboard (or Word vs. Word Perfect) demonstrate that the selection of a standard by a market process routinely results in a suboptimal outcome, but where others (notably Stan Lebowitz and Stephen Margolis) argue that  these stories of market failure are fairy tales that do not comport with the actual histories. So the relevance of the “bad standard (benchmark) market failure” is very much an open question.

Darrel and Jeremy suggest that a wise government can make things better:

This is where national policy makers come in. By speaking publicly about the advantages of reform — or, if necessary, by using their power to regulate — they can guide markets in the desired direction. In financial benchmarks as in tap water, markets might not reach the best solution on their own.

Putting aside whether government regulators are indeed so wise in their judgments, there is  the issue of how “better” is measured. Put differently: governments may desire a different direction than market participants.

Take one of the suggestions that Duffie and Stein raise as an alternative to Libor: short term Treasuries. It is almost certainly true that there is more straw in the Treasury markets than in any other rates market. Thus, a Treasury bill-based benchmark is likely to be less susceptible to manipulation than any other market. (Though not immune altogether, as the Pimco episode in June ’05 10 Year T-notes, the squeezes in the long bond in the mid-to-late-80s, the Salomon 2 year squeeze in 92, and the chronic specialness in some Treasury issues prove.)

But that’s not of much help if the non-manipulated benchmark is not representative of the rates that market participants want to hedge. Indeed, when swap markets started in the mid-80s, many contracts used Treasury rates to set the floating leg. But the basis between Treasury rates, and the rates at which banks borrowed and lent, was fairly variable. So a Treasury-based swap contract had more basis risk than Libor-based contracts. This is precisely why the market moved to Libor, and when the tipping process was done, Libor was the dominant benchmark not just for derivatives but floating rate loans, mortgages, etc.

Thus, there may be a trade-off between basis risk and susceptibility to manipulation (or to noise arising from sampling error due to a small number of transactions or averaging over a wide time window). Manipulation can lead to basis risk, but it can be smaller than the basis risk arising from a quality mismatch (e.g., a credit risk mismatch between default risk-free Treasury rates and a defaultable rate that private borrowers pay). I would wager that regulators would prefer a standard that is less subject to manipulation, even if it has more basis risk, because they don’t internalize the costs associated with basis risk. Market participants may have a very different opinion. Therefore, the “desired direction” may depend very much on whom you ask.

Putting all this together, I conclude we live in a fallen world. There is no benchmark Eden. Benchmark problems are likely to be chronic for the foreseeable future. And beyond. Some improvements are definitely possible, but benchmarks will always be subject to abuse. Their very source of utility-that they are a visible price that can be used to determine payoffs on vast sums of other contracts-always provides a temptation to manipulate.

Moving to transactions-based mechanisms eliminates outright lying as a manipulation strategy, but it does not eliminate the the potential for market power abuses. The benchmarks that would be least vulnerable to market power abuses are not necessarily the ones that best reflect the exposures that market participants face.

Thus, we cannot depend on benchmark design alone to address manipulation problems. The means, motive, and opportunity to manipulate even transactions-based benchmarks will endure. This means that reducing the frequency of manipulation requires some sort of deterrence mechanism, either through government action (as in the Libor, Optiver, Moore, and Amaranth cases) or private litigation (examples of which include all the aforementioned cases, plus some more, like Brent).  It will not be possible to “solve” the benchmark problems by designing better mechanisms, then riding off into the sunset like the Lone Ranger. Our work here will never be done, Kimo Sabe.*

* Stream of consciousness/biographical detail of the day. The phrase “Kimo Sabe” was immortalized by Jay Silverheels-Tonto in the original Lone Ranger TV series. My GGGGF, Abel Sherman, was slain and scalped by an Indian warrior named Silverheels during the Indian War in Ohio in 1794. Silverheels made the mistake of bragging about his feat to a group of lumbermen, who just happened to include Abel’s son. Silverheels was found dead on a trail in the woods the next day, shot through the heart. Abel (a Revolutionary War vet) was reputedly the last white man slain by Indians in Washington County, OH. His tombstone is on display in the Campus Martius museum in Marietta. The carving on the headstone is very un-PC. It reads:

Here lyes the body of Abel Sherman who fell by the hand of the Savage on the 15th of August 1794, and in the 50th year of  his age.

Here’s a picture of it:

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The stream by which Abel was killed is still known as Dead Run, or Dead Man’s Run.

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July 21, 2014

Doing Due Diligence in the Dark

Filed under: Exchanges,HFT,Regulation — The Professor @ 8:39 pm

Scott Patterson, WSJ reporter and the author of Dark Pools, has a piece in today’s journal about the Barclays LX story. He finds, lo and behold, that several users of the pool had determined that they were getting poor executions:

Trading firms and employees raised concerns about high-speed traders at Barclays PLC’s dark pool months before the New York attorney general alleged in June that the firm lied to clients about the extent of predatory trading activity on the electronic trading venue, according to people familiar with the firms.

Some big trading outfits noticed their orders weren’t getting the best treatment on the dark pool, said people familiar with the trading. The firms began to grow concerned that the poor results resulted from high-frequency trading, the people said.

In response, at least two firms—RBC Capital Markets and T. Rowe Price Group Inc —boosted the minimum number of shares they would trade on the dark pool, letting them dodge high-speed traders, who often trade in small chunks of 100 or 200 shares, the people said.

This relates directly to a point that I made in my post on the Barclays story. Trading is an experience good. Dark pool customers can evaluate the quality of their executions. If a pool is not screening out opportunistic traders, execution costs will be high relative to other venues who do a better job of screening, and users who monitor their execution costs will detect this. Regardless of what a dark pool operator says about what it is doing, the proof of the pudding is in the trading, as it were.

The Patterson article shows that at least some buy side firms do the necessary analysis, and can detect a pool that does not exclude toxic flows.

This long FT piece relies extensively on quotes from Hisander Misra, one of the founders of Chi-X, to argue that many fund managers have been ignorant of the quality of executions they get on dark pools. The article talked to two anonymous fund managers who say they don’t know how dark pools work.

The stated implication here is that regulation is needed to protect the buy side from unscrupulous pool operators.

A couple of comments. First, not knowing how a pool works doesn’t really matter. Measures of execution quality are what matter, and these can be measured. I don’t know all of the technical details of the operation of my car or the computer I am using, but I can evaluate their performances, and that’s what matters.

Second, this is really a cost-benefit issue. Monitoring of performance is costly. But so is regulation and litigation. Given that market participants have the biggest stake in measuring pool performance properly, and can develop more sophisticated metrics, there are strong arguments in favor of relying on monitoring.  Regulators can, perhaps, see whether a dark pool does what it advertises it will do, but this is often irrelevant because it does not necessarily correspond closely to pool execution costs, which is what really matters.

Interestingly, one of the things that got a major dark pool (Liquidnet) in trouble was that it shared information about the identities of existing clients with prospective clients. This presents interesting issues. Sharing such information could economize on monitoring costs. If a a big firm (like a T. Rowe) trades in a pool, this can signal to other potential users that the pool does a good job of screening out the opportunistic. This allows them to free ride off the monitoring efforts of the big firm, which economizes on monitoring costs.

Another illustration of how things are never simple and straightforward when analyzing market structure.

One last point. Some of the commentary I’ve read recently uses the prevalence of HFT volume in a dark pool as a proxy for how much opportunistic trading goes on in the pool. This is a very dangerous shortcut, because as I (and others) have written repeatedly, there is all different kinds of HFT. Some adds to liquidity, some consumes it, and some may be outright toxic/predatory. Market-making HFT can enhance dark pool liquidity, which is probably why dark pools encourage HFT participation. Indeed, it is hard to understand how a pool could benefit from encouraging the participation of predatory HFT, especially if it lets such firms trade for free. This drives away the paying customers, particularly when the paying customers evaluate the quality of their executions.

Evaluating execution quality and cost could be considered a form of institutional trader due diligence. Firms that do so can protect themselves-and their investor-clients-from opportunistic counterparties. Even though the executions are done in the dark, it is possible to shine a light on the results. The WSJ piece shows that many firms do just that. The question of whether additional regulation is needed boils down to the question of whether the cost and efficacy of these self-help efforts is superior to that of regulation.

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