Streetwise Professor

March 1, 2015

The Clayton Rule on Speed

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s my description of spoofing:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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February 8, 2015

When It Comes to Oil, the “I” in BIS is Superfluous

Filed under: Commodities,Derivatives,Economics,Energy,Regulation — The Professor @ 9:56 pm

The Bank for International Settlements  is creating some waves with a teaser about a forthcoming report that claims to show that financialization is largely responsible for the recent fall in oil prices. Even by the standards of argument usually seen criticizing financializaton, this one is particularly lame.

BIS notes that the upstream business is heavily leveraged: “The greater debt burden of the oil sector may have influenced the recent dynamics of the oil market by exposing producers to solvency and liquidity risks.” The BIS summarizes the well-known fact that yields on oil company bonds have skyrocketed, and claims that this has contributed to the price decline. But it is plainly obvious that cause and effect overwhelmingly goes the other way: it is the sharp decline in prices that damaged the financial conditions of E&P firms. The closest that BIS can come to showing the direction of causation going from debt to price is this: “Debt service requirements may induce continued physical production of oil to maintain cash flows, delaying the reduction in supply in the market.”

At most, this means that future output may be higher in the future than it would have been had these firms been less leveraged, thereby weighing on future prices and through inter temporal linkages (e.g., storage) on current prices. It is difficult indeed to attribute the earlier price declines that caused the financial distress to this effect. Moreover, the BIS suggests that oil output from existing wells can be turned off like a water faucet. Given that the costs of capping a well are not trivial, this is not true: except under rather extreme circumstances, producers will continue to operate wells (which flow at an exogenously determined rate) even when prices fall substantially. Thus, this channel is not a plausible contributor to an appreciable fraction of the 50 percent decline in prices since July.

Then BIS turns its attention to hedging:

Since 2010, oil producers have increasingly relied on swap dealers as counterparties for their hedging transactions. In turn, swap dealers have laid off their exposures on the futures market as suggested by the trend increase in the CFTC short futures positions of swap dealers over the 2009-13 period.

However, at times of heightened volatility and balance sheet strain for leveraged entities, swap dealers may become less willing to sell protection to oil producers. The co-movement in the dealers’ positions and bouts of volatility suggests that dealers may have behaved procyclically – cutting back positions whenever financial conditions become more turbulent. In Graph 2, three such episodes can be seen: the onset of the Great Recession in 2008, the euro area crisis combined with the war in Libya in 2011, and the recent price slump. In response to greater reluctance by dealers to take the other side of sales, producers wishing to hedge their falling revenues may have turned to the derivatives markets directly, without going through an intermediary. This shift in the liquidity of hedging markets could have played a role in recent price dynamics.

BIS’s conjecture regarding producers hedging directly can be tested directly. The CFTC Commitment of Traders data, which BIS relies on, also includes a “Producers, Merchants, Processors and Users” category. If BIS is correct and producers have gone to the futures market directly rather than hedged through dealers, PMPU short interest should have ticked up. So why they are guessing rather than looking at the data is beyond me.

What’s more, using declines in swap dealer futures positions to infer pro-cyclicality seems rather odd. Swap dealer futures hedges of swap positions means that they are not taking on a lot of risk to the balance sheet. That is the risk that is being passed on to the futures market, not the risk that is being kept on the balance sheet.

The decline in swap dealer short futures positions more likely reflects a reduced hedging demand by producers. For instance, at present we are seeing a sharp drop in drilling activity in the US, which means that there is less future production to hedge and hence less hedging activity. The fact that the decline in swap dealer short futures is much more pronounced now than in 2008-2009 is consistent with that, as is the big rise in these positions during the shale boom starting in 2009. This is exactly what you’d expect if hedging demand is driven primarily by E&P companies in the US. Regardless, the BIS release does not disclose any rigorous analysis of what drives swap dealer positions or hedging positions overall, so the “reluctance of dealers” argument is at best an untested hypothesis, and more likely a wild-assed guess. Using drilling activity, or capex, or E&P company borrowing as control variables would help quantify what is really driving hedging activity.

And the conclusion is totally inane: “This [unproven] shift in the liquidity of hedging markets could have played a role in recent price dynamics.” Well, maybe. But maybe the fact that the moon will be in the seventh house on Valentine’s Day could have played a role too. Seriously: what is the mechanism by which this (unproven) shift in liquidity in hedging markets affected price dynamics?

Further, if E&P company balance sheet woes are making it harder for them to find hedge counterparties, this would impair their ability to fund new drilling, and tend to support prices. This would offset the alleged we’ve-got-to-keep-pumping-to-pay-the-bills effect.

BIS also offers this pearl of wisdom:

Rather, the steepness of the price decline and very large day-to-day price changes are reminiscent of a financial asset. As with other financial assets, movements in the price of oil are driven by changes in expectations about future market conditions.

What, commodities have not previously been subject to large price moves and high volatility? Who knew? I’ll bet if I dug for a while I could find BIS studies casting doubt on the prudence of bank participation commodity markets because the things are so damned volatile. And what accounts for the extremely low volatility in the first half of 2014, something BIS itself documented? Is financialization that fickle?

Moreover, why shouldn’t oil prices be driven by changes in expectations about future market conditions? It’s a storable commodity (both above and below ground), and storage links the present with the future. Furthermore, investments today affect future production. Current decisions and hence current prices should reflect expected future conditions precisely because of the inter-temporal nature of production and consumption decisions.

In fact, oil is not a financial asset, properly understood. The fact that the oil market goes into backwardation is sufficient to demonstrate that point. But it is hardly a sign of inefficiency, or of a lamentable corruption of the oil markets by the presence of financial players, that expectations of future conditions affect current prices. In fact, it would be inefficient if expectations did not affect current prices.

I understand that what the BIS just put out is only a synopsis of a more complete analysis that will be released next month. Maybe the complete paper will be an improvement on what they’ve released so far. (It would have to be.) But that just raises another problem.

Research by press release is a lamentable practice, but one that is increasingly common. Release the entire paper along with the synopsis, or just shut up until you do. BIS is getting a big splash with its selective disclosure of its purported results, while making it impossible to evaluate the quality of the research. The impression has been created, and by the time March rolls around and the paper is released it will be much harder to challenge that established impression by pointing out flaws in the analysis: that’s much more easily done at the time of the initial announcement when minds are open. This is the wrong way to conduct research, especially on policy-relevant issues.

Update: I had a moment to review the CFTC COT data. It does not support the BIS’s claim of a shift from dealer-intermediated hedging to direct hedging. From its peak on 1 July, 2014 to the end of 2014, Open interest in the NYMEX WTI contract fell from 1.78 million contracts to 1.46 million, or 18 percent. PMPU short positions fell from 352K to 270K contracts, or about 24 percent. Swap dealer shorts fell from 502K to 326K, or about 36 percent. Thus, it appears that the fall in short commercial positions were broad-based. Given that PMPU positions include merchants hedging inventories (which have been rising as prices have been falling) not too much can be made of the smaller proportional decline in PMPU positions vs. swap dealer positions. Similarly, dealer shorts include are hedges of swaps done with hedge funds, index funds, and others, and hence are not a clean measure of the amount of hedging done by producers via swaps.

I am also skeptical whether producers who can no longer find a bank to sell them a swap can readily switch to direct hedging. One of the advantages of entering into a swap is that it often has less stringent margining than futures. How can cash-flow stressed producers fund the margins and potential margin calls?

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February 7, 2015

Obama Bigfoots Net Neutrality: Wasn’t Screwing Up Health Care Enough of a Legacy?

Filed under: Economics,History,Politics,Regulation — The Professor @ 8:38 pm

Last week the Chairman of the Federal Communications System announced that the FCC will pursue net neutrality regulation by subjecting the Internet to Title II of the Federal Cable and Telecommunications Act. This will essentially treat the Internet as a utility, rather than as an information service as has been the case since 1996. Like telecoms, Internet Service Providers would effectively become common carriers subject to a panopoly of restrictions on the prices they can charge and their ability to control access to their infrastructures.

The issue is an extremely complex one, and moreover, one that has been subjected to a barrage of simplistic, propagandistic, rhetoric. To cut through the rhetoric to see the economics, I recommend this article by Gary Becker, Dennis Carlton, and Hal Sider.

Becker, Carlton, and Hal characterize the goals of net neutrality as follows:

In the FCC’s view,

its proposed net neutrality rules would “prohibit a broadband Internet access provider from discriminating against, or in favor of, any content, application or service.” Broadband access providers would be prohibited from: (1) prioritizing traffic and charging differential prices based on the priority status; (2) imposing congestion-related charges; (3) adopting business models that offer exclusive content or that establish exclu- sive relationships with particular content providers; and (4) charging content providers to access the Internet based on factors other than the bandwidth supplied. [References omitted.]

In a nutshell, NN rules and Title II would limit the pricing policies of ISPs, limit their ability to regulate access to their networks, and limit their ability to vertically integrate upstream or downstream (e.g., by purchasing content providers).

The motivation for all of this is a belief that the broadband industry is not competitive, and that price discrimination, access limitations, and vertical integration are means of exercising market power to the detriment of consumers downstream and suppliers of content upstream.

As Becker et al point out, however, evidence that competition is weak is lacking. Most consumers have choices of broadband providers, and the development of wireless services such as 4G is increasing consumer choice.  (Personally, I would estimate that I have gone from relying 100 percent on wired access to 50 percent wired-50 percent wireless. The focus of Facebook and other social media and content suppliers on mobile indicates how important wireless is becoming.) Moreover, there is considerable switching of suppliers, which is further indication of competition.

Further, as a general matter, price discrimination is often-one might say usually-welfare enhancing when there products are differentiated and the costs of these products differ. Different forms of content utilize different amounts of bandwidth. Services vary in their need for speed (e.g., streaming vs. ordinary web-browsing vs. email). It is more costly to deliver bandwidth-intensive services. Limiting the ability to charge prices that reflect differences in cost and value lead to misallocations in the use of existing bandwidth capacity, and tend to reduce incentives to invest in capacity. Moreover, the “two-sided” nature of the Internet tends to make price discrimination welfare-improving. (This paper by Weismen and Kulick makes the very useful distinction between “differential pricing” and “price discrimination.” The former is based on differences in cost, the latter on differences in demand elasticity across customers.) In addition, when there are strong economies of scale, price discrimination (e.g., Ramsey pricing) can be a first-best or second-best way of allowing producers to cover fixed costs.

Put differently, net neutrality/common carrier access treats the internet as a commons which limits the use of prices to allocate scarce resources. Yes there can be cases in which this is beneficial (as in a textbook natural monopoly, but sometimes not even then), but suppressing the price system and price signals is usually a horrible idea. The rebuttable presumption should be that we rely more, not less, on prices to allocate scarce resources and provide incentives to consume, produce, and invest. Net neutrality betrays a strong animus to the price system and the use of prices to allocate resources.

Vertical arrangements are also frequently looked on with deep suspicion. I wrote about this a lot in the context of exchange ownership of clearing some years ago. But usually vertical arrangements, including restrictive contracts and vertical integration, are contractual means to address inefficiencies in price competition. They are typically ways of internalizing externalities or constraining opportunistic behavior. Moreover, they are often particularly important in information-intensive goods, because of the difficulties of enforcing property rights in information and the pervasiveness of free riding on information goods.

Some of the horror stories NN advocates tell involve an ISP denying access to a service or content downstream consumers value high: usually the story involves a small startup proving a bandwidth intensive service that can’t afford to pay premium access charges. But in a world where venture capital and other forms of funding is constantly on the lookout for the next big thing, these concerns seem vastly overblown. Moreover, permitting ISPs to own content providers is one way of addressing this issue. The demand for ISP services is derived from the value customers get from the content and services an ISP delivers. It is self-defeating for them to exclude truly valuable content because it reduces demand, and they have incentives to structure pricing and terms of access and vertical arrangements with content providers to maximize value. If there are gains from trade, in a reasonably competitive market there are strong forces pushing entities at all segments of the value chain to reap those gains.

Suppressing price signals and limiting the ability to craft creative arrangements to capture gains from trade are bad ideas, except under exceptional circumstances. So color me deeply skeptical on NN. Other features inherent in intrusive regulatory systems like Title II due to public choice considerations only deepen that skepticism. Such systems are extremely conducive to rent seeking. Though usually sold as ways to enhance competition, in practice they are typically exploited by incumbents to restrict competition. They tend to be strongly biased against innovation-precisely because much innovation of the creative destruction variety is intensely threatening to incumbents who have an advantage in influencing regulators. Classical Peltzman-Becker models of regulation show that regulators have an incentive to suppress cost-justified price differentials in order to redistribute rents, thereby creating distortions.

Other than that, NN and Title II are great.

If the substance isn’t bad enough, the process is even worse. FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler was originally leaning towards a less intrusive approach to net neutrality that would avoid dropping the Title II bomb. But Obama orchestrated a campaign behind the scenes to pressure an ostensibly independent agency to go all medieval (or at least all New Deal) on the Internet. Obama added to the backstage pressure with a very public call for intrusive regulation that put Wheeler and the other two Democrats on the Commission in an impossible position. (Another illustration of the consequences of Presidential elections: it’s not just the commander that matters, but the anonymous foot soldiers and the camp followers too.)

Yes, part of Obama’s insistence reflected his beliefs: after all, he is a big government control freak. And yes, part reflects the fact that some of his biggest supporters and donors are rabid NN supporters-primarily because they will benefit if they don’t have to pay the full cost that they impose.

But what convinced Obama to make this a priority was his personal vanity and his determination to engage in political warfare by pursuing initiatives that he can implement unilaterally without Congressional involvement. Read this and weep:

While Obama administration officials were warming to the idea of calling for tougher rules, it took the November elections to sway Mr. Obama into action.

After Republicans gained their Senate majority, Mr. Obama took a number of actions to go around Congress, including a unilateral move to ease immigration rules. Senior aides also began looking for issues that would help define the president’s legacy. Net neutrality seemed like a good fit.

Soon, Mr. Zients paid his visit to the FCC to let Mr. Wheeler know the president would make a statement on high-speed Internet regulation. Messrs. Zients and Wheeler didn’t discuss the details, according to Mr. Wheeler.

Mr. Obama made them clear in a 1,062-word statement and two-minute video. He told the FCC to regulate mobile and fixed broadband providers more strictly and enact strong rules to prevent those providers from altering download speeds for specific websites or services.

In the video, Mr. Obama said his stance was confirmation of a long-standing commitment to net neutrality. The statement boxed in Mr. Wheeler by giving the FCC’s two other Democratic commissioners cover to vote against anything falling short of Mr. Obama’s position.

That essentially killed the compromise proposed by Mr. Wheeler, leaving him no choice but to follow the path outlined by the president.

Read this again: “Senior aides also began looking for issues that would help define the president’s legacy. Net neutrality seemed like a good fit.” So to achieve a legacy, the Narcissist in Chief decides to interfere with the most successful, innovative industry of the past half-century, and perhaps ever.

What, screwing up the health care industry isn’t enough of a legacy?

I guess not. No price is to high to pay to stick it to the evil Republicans. And if you get stuck too, well, omelet, eggs, and all that. You are expendable when there’s a legacy at stake.

What comes out of the FCC as a result of Obama’s arm-twisting will be a beginning, not an end. It will no doubt set off a flurry of legal challenges.(Among lawyers and lobbyists, as always in such things, there is much rejoicing.)  Congress may get involved, and although Obama can block anything for the next two years, it  may take longer than that to finalize the rules (look at how long it is taking to get a simple-by-comparison position limit rule through the CFTC), and a new president in 2017 might not be so enamored with burnishing Barry’s legacy. Well, one can hope, can’t one? Looking for silver linings here.

I had thought that old school Progressive and New Deal style regulation had been largely discredited in the 70s and 80s. Indeed, Democrats (including Carter and Ted Kennedy) played vital roles in dismantling regulations in transportation in particular. But Obama is going all back to the future, and attempting to impose a regulatory paradigm that was all the rage when men all wore fedoras to what is arguably the most dynamic and innovative industry ever. Because, legacy.

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January 31, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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January 15, 2015

Alexei Miller Blows More Gas

Filed under: Commodities,Economics,Politics,Regulation — The Professor @ 8:07 pm

As is its wont when desperate, Russia is throwing around threats. And Gazprom and its CEO Alexei Miller are the usual heavies in this role, like mouth-breathers that mafiosi send around to talk to you about how you have such a nice family and it would be a shame if something happened to it.

Yesterday, Miller told Europe it better support Gazprom’s initiative to circumvent Ukraine by shipping gas through Turkey by building a connector between Turkey and Greece, or else:

“Our European partners have been informed of this and now their task is to create the necessary gas transport infrastructure from the Greek and Turkish border,” said Miller, according to a Gazprom statement. [Can the Russians please give this “partners” thing a rest? With partners like them, who needs Ebola?]

“They have a couple of years at most to do this. It’s a very, very tight deadline. In order to meet the deadline, the work on building new trunk gas pipelines in European Union countries must start immediately today,” Miller warned.

Or else what, Alexei?:

“Otherwise, these volumes of gas could end up in other markets.”

Hahahahahaha.

Like where? And don’t tell me China. Heard that one. Over and over and over again.

Look, if you make threats, you need to make them credible. Miller is basically saying that if gas can’t move to Europe via Turkey, Gazprom won’t ship it via Ukraine. If it comes to that, and if Europe is the most valuable destination for Russian gas, Gazprom will sell it there, and ship it via Ukrainian pipes. It can’t afford not to.

This is  a bluff that even the Euroweenies will have no problem calling. This is particularly true if market conditions are like at present, where LNG prices have cratered in Asia, and gas imports are now viable. When the big Australian and US projects come on line later this year, there is a real possibility of an LNG glut which would undercut Russian leverage, not just in Europe, but in China too. (And you know that the Chinese will squeeze Putin’s kiwis like a hungry python.)

What’s more, the whole Turkish route looks like a stitch up job done at the last moment when Bulgaria toed the European line and rejected South Stream. There are so many problems.

First, even ignoring the Turkey-Greece link (and yeah, they always play so well together), it is by no means clear that Turkey has the domestic infrastructure to get the gas from the Black Sea shore to the Aegean. From an Oxford Institute for Energy Studies report (h/t Number One Daughter):

The BOTS [the Turkish national gas company] transport system’s throughput capacity is not sufficiently developed to accept and ship all the contracted gas volume from the eastern suppliers due to the limited installed capacity of the existing compressor stations. BOTAS is able to take some 90% of the gas from the Trans-Balkan Gas Pipeline (the Western Line) and the Blue Stream pipeline from Russia, but has struggled to cope with volumes contracted from Azerbaijan and Iran. Therefore, the company has had to pay billions of dollars for ‘untaken’ gas.

That’s given current flows: it will obviously take a substantial investment in Turkey to handle large additional flows via the new pipeline.

Second, just who is going to pay for this? It ain’t like Gazprom is rollin’ in the dough. To the contrary, like all Russian corporations, Gazprom is in desperate straits. It’s not sanctioned now, but that could change with one wrong move in Ukraine. Moreover, its hard currency revenue picture is dire. Gazprom shipments to Europe were down more than 9 percent last year, no gas is yet flowing to China, and the best part is still to come: Gazprom prices-at its own insistence!-are tied to lagged oil prices. So it is looking at a potential revenue decline from European sales in the 60 percent ballpark.

Schadenfreude doesn’t even come close to describing my feelings at contemplating Gazprom getting what it asked for-nay, insisted on: an oil price link. It made this link a matter of principle, and marshaled one inane argument after another to justify it.

How’s that working out for y’all? Be careful what you ask for!

Third, there’s the little matter of price. Isn’t there always? Immediately after the ballyhooed announcement of the Turkish project, it became known that the Russians and Turks were far apart on price. Look at the history of Vapor Pipe (analogous to vaporware) deals announced with China going back to 2006: they didn’t materialize because of an inability to come to agreement on price. (Even the deal signed when Putin was under the gun has not fully resolved price issues.) This “deal” has every prospect of having the same issues, especially since the Turks realize Russia’s weak bargaining hand here.

Hell, the Russians and Turks can’t even agree on the gas price for this year. They are going to magically lock in a long term price/pricing formula? As if.

So this Turkey route looks like . . . a turkey. Miller is blowing gas. Yet again. I’d be astounded if 1 percent of what that guy says in public turns out to be true.

One last thing. There was a report in the Daily Mail yesterday claiming that shipments of Russian gas via Ukraine to 6 southern European countries had been cut off. This was duly repeated breathlessly by the usual Kremlin echo chambers like Zero Hedge and Infowars. But I have yet to see confirmation in any other source, and I pinged an industry contact who can’t find confirmation either.

It sounds like this is another way of delivering a threat, directed at the most vulnerable parts of the EU, including a country (Greece) that is in political turmoil and which could cause no end of headaches to the Euros-and the Euro. This happens at a time when the wets in Europe are making noises about easing off on sanctions. So I’m getting the impression that this is a story planted in the Daily Mail with the same purpose that Don Corleone places a horse’s head in someone’s bed.

Update. Do I feel like an idiot. Apparently ZH linked to a Daily Mail story from 6 years ago and made it sound like it was from yesterday. When you click through the link, the current date appears at the top of the story. That’s beyond bizarre even for ZH. Shame on me. [The story is that someone emailed asking if I’d seen that ZH story. I hadn’t, but clicked through the link. Like I say, shame on me.]

 

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December 15, 2014

Is This Prosecution a Spoof of a Real Manipulation Case?

Filed under: Derivatives,Economics,Regulation — The Professor @ 10:05 pm

Michael Coscia, the defendant in the maiden criminal manipulation “spoofing” prosecution, is calling for dismissal of the case on the grounds that the relevant Frankendodd language is “hopelessly vague.”  This is the obvious argument for him to make. The defendants in the BP propane criminal case walked because Judge Miller decided that the anti-manipulation language of the Commodity Exchange Act was “unconstitutionally vague” as applied to the facts of the case. In some respects, the blame for this goes back to the horrible CFTC decision in the case in re Indiana Farm Bureau. In any event, spoofing does indeed sound like a pretty damn vague allegation. Given that, it will be quite interesting to see whether the DOJ fares better in a Chicago courtroom than it did here in Houston in 2009.

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December 11, 2014

The Height of Absurdity: The Operation of the Government Hinges on Blanche Lincoln’s Brainchild

Filed under: Commodities,Derivatives,Economics,Financial crisis,Politics,Regulation — The Professor @ 9:20 pm

There’s a whole lotta stupid in Frankendodd. A whole lot. The SEF Mandate is at the top of the list, but the “Swaps Pushout” isn’t far behind.

The Pushout was the brainchild of ex-Arkansas Senator Blanche Lincoln. (NB: I understand the risks of using “brain” in the same sentence as “Blanche Lincoln”.) Blanche, she of the historic 21 point annihilation in the 2010 midterms.

In brief, the Pushout required federally insured banks to move-“push out”-some swaps dealing activities to separate subsidiaries that do not have access to federal deposit insurance. This does not apply to all swaps, mind you. Not even to the bulk of them (interest rate swaps, many CDS). But just to commodity derivatives (other than gold), equity derivatives, and un-cleared CDS.

I took particular interest in this because-again-it slammed commodity derivatives. It was one of several provisions (position limits being another prominent example) that explicitly targeted commodities. Apparently the belief is that commodity derivatives are uniquely risky and subject to abuse, which is just untrue.

Consider a dealer making a market in a commodity index swap. That swap is easily hedged in the futures markets. Ditto with a NYMEX lookalike gas or oil swap. Yes, maybe an unhedged commodity swap is riskier than your typical unhedged IRS, but so what? That’s not the way dealers typically trade (they typically run matched books, or nearly matched books), and capital requirements and other regulations mean that riskier positions incur additional costs that mitigate the incentive to take on excessive risks.

So commodity derivatives (or equity derivatives) don’t create exceptional risks that justify exceptional treatment. What’s more, creating stand-alone affiliates to handle this business entails additional costs. More people. Duplication of infrastructure. Additional capital. There are also scope economies (deriving in particular from capital efficiencies that arise from greater netting opportunities that arise from holding multiple, relatively uncorrelated, positions in a single book). Sacrificing those scope economies will lead to fewer commodity swaps dealers, which in turn makes hedging costlier and the market for these swaps less competitive.

In other words, like many parts of Frankendodd, the Pushout was all pain, no gain. And the pain, mind you, will be suffered not so much by the dealer banks, but by the firms in the real economy that use commodity derivatives to hedge their price risks.

That said, it never seemed to be that big a deal, given the relatively small scale of commodity derivatives and equity derivatives in comparison to IRS and other trades that banks were allowed to keep on the books of insured entities. Small beer compared to the rest of the havoc wreaked by the rampaging Frankendodd Monster.

But this obscure provision could be the one that brings on yet another government shutdown. The most hardcore lefties in the Senate (e.g., Elizabeth Warren) and the House (e.g., Maxine Waters) have drawn a line in the sand over the part of the “Cromnibus Bill” that would repeal the Pushout. If passed, “Cromnibus” would fund the government (except DHS) for the next year, thereby avoiding another shutdown.

But claiming that eliminating the Pushout would be an unconscionable capitulation to Wall Street, the lefties are going to the barricades, and threatening to bring DC to a grinding halt rather than let the Pushout bite the dust. This is not about substance, but symbolism. It is also about a defeated party carrying out a rearguard action on ground where its most rabid partisans can rally.

You cannot make up this stuff. Blanche Lincoln’s populist hobby horse, a desperate effort by a doomed politician, could be the pretext for yet another unproductive partisan confrontation that has virtually nothing to do with the more serious issues associated with funding the government for the next year. (If the Pushout hadn’t passed, would Lincoln have lost by 25 points or 15, rather than 21?) (I note that Gary Gensler worked very closely with Lincoln on Frankendodd: “During drafting sessions, Gensler sometimes sat at the table reserved for staff, advising its Democratic chairwoman, Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas.”)

Cromnibus raises very serious issues. The Swaps Pushout isn’t one of them. But rather than joining the debate on the real issues, or conceding their thumping at the polls, demagogic progs are screaming Swaps Pushout or Fight.

What a travesty.

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December 10, 2014

Regulators, Finally Getting a Clue

Filed under: Economics,Financial crisis,Politics,Regulation — The Professor @ 8:07 pm

Global regulators are concerned, and apparently mystified, by the evaporation of liquidity in bond and stock markets:

Global financial regulators worry that banks are scaling back costly market making functions and that this could leave investors stranded, as well as squeezing funds to drive economic recovery, a senior official said on Tuesday.

. . . .

David Wright, secretary general of the International Organization of Securities Commissions (IOSCO), which groups market regulators like the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission and Germany’s Bafin, said it was an issue that was being looked at.

“We have seen a ‘Houdini’ disappearance of market makers in general,” Wright added. “First of all we have got to establish the facts, look at the markets … and see if this is a big problem … It’s a new frontier-type issue. I think it’s partly caused by some regulation, but we need to know.”

Partly caused by regulation? What was your first clue, Mr. Wright?

Between the impending Volcker Rule and more stringent capital rules and limitations on off-exchange dealing in stocks, regulators have piled restriction on restriction on market making activities. And they are shocked that liquidity is drying up?

Reminds me of a guy standing with a gasoline can and a blowtorch, and wondering just how his house caught on fire.

The article focuses on Europe, but it’s an issue in the US too. And Canada:

The Bank of Canada warned that investors in the nation’s corporate bond market may be underestimating the difficulty of selling the securities in a market downturn, putting them at risk of greater losses.

Rising holdings of corporate bonds in mutual and exchange-traded funds could exacerbate price swings if the funds are forced to sell in a rout, the central bank said in its semi-annual Financial System Review. Some market participants also “believe” dealers are reducing market-making activity, or acting as the middleman between trades, which may make it harder to unwind large positions, the bank said.

“A potential deterioration of liquidity in Canadian corporate bond markets may not be fully priced in,” according to the report. “Market trends suggest that more sizable price swings might be observed in the future than previously, should investors seek to simultaneously unwind large positions.”

In the aftermath of the post-crisis regulatory bacchanalia, the regulators are finally coming to recognize the unintended consequences of their actions. They are starting to see-sometimes rather dimly, pace Mr. Wright-that regulations intended to make the system less risky are creating new risks.

I’ve used the analogy of the Sorcerer’s Apprentice before. It’s as relevant now, as it ever was.

 

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December 6, 2014

Hit the Road, State Street

Filed under: Clearing,Derivatives,Economics,Financial crisis,Politics,Regulation — The Professor @ 11:51 pm

Following the lead of Bank of New York, State Street announced that it is exiting the swaps clearing business:

State Street (STT) Corp. is closing down its swaps business after clients said new regulations steered them away for using the products.

The bank will shutter its U.S. business for clearing swaps early next year and will shelve plans to start a similar operation in Europe, Anne McNally, a spokeswoman for the Boston-based company, said in an e-mail statement today.

State Street will instead focus on trading other types of derivatives, particularly more traditional exchange-traded futures, that have not been subject to broad new regulations imposed since the 2008 financial crisis.

“Due to market and regulatory factors, our clients have largely evolved their investment strategies towards the use of futures and away from” over-the-counter derivatives, McNally said in the statement.

From even before Frankendodd was passed, I predicted that the swap clearing firm business would be highly concentrated and dominated by the major dealers who had dominated the OTC market. Indeed, I argued that the regulatory overhead created by Frankendodd would actually tend to increase scale economies and make the clearing services business more concentrated and connected.

But Gensler, with the vocal support of BNY, State Street, and Ken Griffen of Citadel-and also MF Global-argued that there was a clearing cabal of dealer firms that was was creating unnecessary barriers to entry into clearing. BNY and State Street claimed that the dealers were forcing ICE Clear to require members to have excessively large amounts of capital, an this prevented them from becoming clearing members. Tear down those walls, and doughty entrants like BNY and State Street and Newedge and others would make the clearing business far more competitive.

This view was channeled in a NY Times story written by Louise Story almost exactly four years ago: I criticized Story’s story pretty harshly. Reflecting this view, the CFTC rules substantially eased the capital requirements and other requirements to become clearing members. Gensler, BNY, STT, etc., thought that this would lead to a much less concentrated, much more competitive clearing business.

But this was to misunderstand the economics of clearing, clearing firm scale and scope economies, and how the complicated regulatory structure CFTC put in place exacerbated these scale economies. Even futures clearing (which is substantially simpler than swaps clearing) has become much more concentrated over the years. Only the truly huge can survive.

BNY and State Street tried, and failed. They couldn’t overcome their inadequate scale even though they could offer complementary collateral management and custodial services. They were just too small.

State Street announced that it was going to focus on futures clearing, but even here it faces problems. It just lost its biggest customer (Pimco). Moreover, there are scope economies between futures clearing and swap clearing. State Street will be at a disadvantage relative to say Goldman, which can offer customers who trade both swaps and futures one stop shopping for clearing services at lower cost because of these scope economies.

So much for clearing mandates making the financial markets less concentrated and less interconnected: instead we (predictably and predicted) have a derivatives marketplace dominated by a small number of CCPs each dominated by a small number of large bank clearing members who are members of all major CCPs, which makes entire world clearing space concentrated and highly interconnected. That anybody thought the post-crisis regulations would reduce concentration and interconnections in swaps markets is illuminating. It demonstrates that those primarily responsible for implementing Frankendodd didn’t really understand the economics of what they were attempting to regulate, and as a result, they didn’t really know what they were doing.  They thought they were striking a blow against too big to fail and a collusive dealer oligopoly. They were wrong, and State Street’s abandonment of its swaps clearing effort is just further proof of how wrong they were.

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November 5, 2014

Will Commodity Traders Replace Banks as Swap Dealers? I Think Not

Filed under: Commodities,Derivatives,Economics,Energy,Regulation — The Professor @ 9:09 pm

As many (but not all) banks reduce their paper and physical commodity market activities, it is often suggested that commodity trading firms like Glencore, Vitol, Trafigura and Mercuria will step into the breach, and become swap dealers offering customized risk management structures to clients (and loans to customers to boot). Mercuria CEO Marco Dunand says his company is exploring that:

Last month Swiss trading house Mercuria completed the purchase of U.S. bank JPMorgan’s physical commodities unit. It now wants to expand its provision of hedging services to external customers.

“There’s the desire for the company to enter a bit more into the space of customer service – trying to see whether we can offer some solutions to clients, primarily in Europe,” Dunand told the annual Reuters Commodities Summit.

Others, including Trafigura’s Pierre Lorinet, expressed skepticism.

When asked about this over the past several months, I have been firmly in the skeptic camp. It all comes down to balance sheet.

Yes, commodity traders utilize paper markets extensively, but as hedgers to reduce risks. This allows them to deploy their capital, and leverage it, so that they can carry out their core transformation activities: logistics, storage, processing, and blending. They are really buy-side firms, with relatively thin capital bases.

Derivatives market making, particularly in long tenor deals, or structured ones, is a very capital intensive activity. Indeed, one of the reasons that some banks are cutting back  is that particularly in the existing regulatory environment, the capital commitments for this business make it difficult to operate profitably. If Barclays can’t make money, how can Mercuria?

I can see joint efforts between banks and commodity traders in offering such products, in the same way that banks and traders collaborate to provide commodity prepays. But in those deals, the risk participation of the traders is usually 10 percent or less. Maybe something similar will evolve with commodity derivatives, where the trader faces the customer but most of the risk-and the capital to bear it-resides on bank balance sheets. Perhaps clever bankers will be able to find ways to engage in capital arbitrage in these kinds of deals, but I doubt it.

There is another big impediment: Frankendodd and its European equivalents. Under Dodd-Frank, becoming a swaps market maker brings with it a variety of burdens, including reporting requirements, and most notably capital and collateral requirements. Capital requirements are an anathema to trading firms, precisely because they are typically very capital light. They are also not keen in tying up working capital in margins. One of the factors that drove “futurization” in energy derivatives is that due to the swapaphobia of Congress, swaps were subject to more onerous treatment than swaps: to avoid becoming swap dealers energy market participants eagerly stopped using swaps and switched to economically equivalent futures instead.

The trading arms of two oil majors-BP and Shell-have become swap dealers and will offer risk management products to customers: they were so big, that it was likely infeasible to escape the swap dealer designation. Cargill has become a swap dealer as well, and will make markets. But these are large, asset-heavy firms with the balance sheets to carry these sorts of activities. Although I could see Glencore making a similar choice, I can’t see the rest of the big traders doing the same.

Banks and commodity trading firms are fundamentally different. They are both intermediaries that engage in various transformations, but the transformations that banks and traders perform are quite different. Banks are in the business of bearing credit risk and intermediating market price risks (e.g., by hedging in listed markets exposures they assume through OTC transactions). Traders are in the business of transforming physical commodities. Traders are natural customers of banks, not competitors in credit and risk intermediation. These different functions mean that banks and traders have different capital structures. This further means that it commodity traders cannot readily step into functions that banks exit or cut back.

So methinks banks will remain banks, and traders will remain traders.

 

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