Streetwise Professor

October 3, 2015

People. Get. A. Grip: Glencore Is Not the Next Lehman

Filed under: Commodities,Derivatives,Economics,Energy,Financial crisis,History,Regulation — The Professor @ 6:53 pm

There is a lot of hysterical chatter out there about Glencore being the next Lehman, and its failure being the next Lehman Moment that plunges the financial system into chaos. Please. Get. A. Grip.

Comparing the firms shows there’s no comparison.

Let’s first talk size, since this is often framed as an issue of “too big to fail.” In November, 2007, Lehman’s total assets were $691 billion. As of August, Glencore’s were $148 billion. Lehman was about 4.5 times bigger. Moreover, Glencore’s assets include a lot of short term assets (inventories and the like) that are relatively liquid. Looking at Glencore as a $100 billion firm is more realistic. Lehman was much bigger.

Then let’s talk leverage. Lehman had 3 percent equity, 97 percent debt. Glencore about one third-two thirds. Stripping out the short term debt and short term assets, it’s about 50-50.

Then let’s talk off-balance sheet. Lehman was a derivatives dealer with huge OTC derivatives exposures both long and short. Glencore’s derivatives book is much smaller, more directional, and much in listed derivatives.

Lehman had derivatives liabilities of about $30 billion after netting and collateral were taken into account, and $66 billion if not (which matters if netting is not honored in bankruptcy). Glencore has $2 billion and $20 billion, respectively.

Lets talk about funding. Lehman was funding long term assets with short term debt (e.g., overnight repos, corporate paper). It had a fragile capital structure. Glencore’s short term debt is funding short term assets, and its longer term assets are funded by longer term debt. A much less fragile capital structure.  Lower leverage and less fragile capital means that Glencore is much less susceptible to a run that can ruin a company that is actually solvent. That also means less likelihood that creditors are going to take a big loss due to a run (as was the case with Lehman).

As a major dealer, Lehman was also more interconnected with every major systemically important financial institution. That made contagion more likely.

But I don’t think these firm-specific characteristics are the most important factors. Market conditions today are significantly different, and that makes a huge difference.

It wasn’t the case that Lehman failed out of a clear blue sky and this brought down the entire financial system through a counterparty or informational channel. Lehman was one of a series of casualties of a financial crisis that had been underway for more than a year. The crisis began in earnest in August, 2007. Every market indicator was flashing red for the next 12 months. The OIS-Libor spread blew out. The TED spread blew out. Financial institution CDS spreads widened dramatically. Asset backed security prices were plummeting. Auction rate securities were failing. SPVs holding structured products were having difficulty issuing corporate paper to fund them. Bear Sterns failed. Fannie and Freddie were put into receivership. Everyone knew AIG was coughing up blood.

Lehman’s failure was the culmination of this process: it was more a symptom of the failure of the financial system, than a major cause. It is still an open question why its failure catalyzed an intensified panic and near collapse of the world system. One explanation is that people inferred that the failure of the Fed to bail it out meant that it wouldn’t be bailing out anyone else, and this set off the panic as people ran on firms that they had thought were working with a net, the existence of which they now doubted. Another explanation is that there was information contagion: people inferred that other institutions with similar portfolios to Lehman’s might be in worse shape than previously believed and hence ran on them (e.g., Goldman, Morgan Stanley, Citi) when Lehman went down. The counterparty contagion channel has not received widespread support.

In contrast, Glencore’s problems are occurring at a time of relative quiescence in the financial markets. Yes commodity markets are down hard, and equities have had spasms of volatility lately, but the warning signs of liquidity problems or massive credit problems in the banking sector are notably absent. TED and OIS-Libor spreads have ticked up mildly in recent months, but are still at low levels. A lot of energy debt is distressed, but that does not appear to have impaired financial institutions’ balance sheets the same way that the distress in the mortgage market did in 2007-2008.

Furthermore, there is not even a remote possibility of an implicit bailout put for Glencore, whereas it was plausible for Lehman (and hence the failure of the put to materialize plausibly caused such havoc). There are few signs of information contagion. Other mining firms stocks have fallen, but that reflects fundamentals: Glencore has fallen more because it is more leveraged.

Put differently, the financial system was more fragile then, and Lehman was clearly more systemically important, because of its interconnections and the information it conveyed about the health of other financial institutions and government/central bank policy towards them. The system is more able to handle a big failure now, and a smaller Glencore is not nearly as salient as Lehman was.

In sum, Glencore vs. Lehman: Smaller. Less leveraged. Less fragile balance sheet. Less interconnected. And crucially, running into difficulties largely by itself, due to its own idiosyncratic issues, in a time of relative health in the financial system, as opposed to being representative of an entire financial system that was acutely distressed.

With so many profound differences, it’s hard to imagine Glencore’s failure would lead to the same consequences as Lehman. It wouldn’t be fun for its creditors, but they would survive, and the damage would largely be contained to them.

So if you need something to keep you up at night, unless you are a Glencore creditor or shareholder, you’ll need to find something else. It ain’t gonna be Lehman, Part Deux. But I guess financial journos need something to write about.

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September 28, 2015

Regulation Confronts Reality In the Commodity Markets. Reality Is Losing.

Filed under: Clearing,Commodities,Derivatives,Economics,Energy,Financial crisis,Regulation — The Professor @ 6:36 pm

Following the commodities markets today was like drinking from a fire hose. Many big stories, with “up” and “down” being the operative words. Alcoa split up. Shell announcing that it was giving up on its Arctic plans after its controversial test well failed to find commercially viable reserves. Oil price down around 3 percent, etc.

But the biggest news items were Glencore’s continuing downward spiral, and ESMA’s release of its technical recommendations for application of MiFID to non-financial firms, including commodity firms.

Glencore’s stock was down hard at the open, and at one point was down 31 percent. It’s CDS are now trading up-front (always a bad sign), and the spread widened from an already big 550 bp to 757 bp. At conventional recovery rates, this gives a (risk neutralized) probability of default of better than 50 percent. The Biggest Loser was Glencore’s CEO, Ivan Glasenberg, AKA, Ex-Glencore Billionaire.

The CDS are now trading wider than when Glencore had it s last near-death experience at the height of the financial crisis. Arguably the firm’s situation is worse now. It cannot attribute its woes to stressed financial market conditions generally, in which pretty much everyone saw spreads blow out to one degree or another. This is unique to it and the mining sector. It is a verdict on the firm/sector.

Moreover, in 2008 the firm was private, and Glasenberg and the other owners were able to stanch the bleeding by injecting additional capital into the firm. The ominous thing for Ivan et al now is that they tried that again a couple of weeks ago (along with announcing other measures to reduce debt and conserve cash) and it only bought a temporary respite before the blood started gushing again.

Moreover-and this is crucial-Glencore 2015 is a very different creature than Glencore 2008. It was more of a pure trader then: it is a mining firm with a big trading arm now. This means that its exposure to flat prices (of coal and copper in particular) is much bigger now. In fact, most commodity firms saw little drop off in profits in 2008-2009, and several saw profits increase. The fundamentals facing trading firms in 2008-2009 were not nearly as bad as the fundamentals facing mining firms today. That’s because their flat price exposures weren’t large, and margins and volumes (which drive trading profits) are not as sensitive to macro conditions as flat prices. Given the lack of any prospects for a rebound in flat prices, Glencore’s prospects for a recovery are muted.

Some tout Glasenberg et al’s trading acumen. But it is one thing to be able to sniff out arbs/relative mispricings and structure clever trades to exploit them. (Or to hold one’s nose while doing deals with dodgy regimes around the world.) It is something altogether different to predict where prices are going to go. Glencore made a bet on China, and now that bet is not looking good. At all.

In a nutshell, this is pretty much out of Glencore’s hands. It is along for the ride.

The irony here is that Glasenberg sold the Xstrata merger and the new business model as a way of using the less cyclical profitability of the trading venture as a way of dampening the cyclicality of the mining operation. As it is developing, an extremely adverse cyclical downturn in the mining operation is impairing the viability of the trading operation. How the trading operation can flourish within a financially distressed corporation is an open question. Maybe the company will have to pull an Alcoa, and separate the trading from the mining operations, to keep the latter from dragging down the former.

A key takeaway here relates to the other story I mentioned: ESMA’s release of its recommendations regarding the application of MiFID to non-financials. The objective is to mitigate systemic risk. I was always skeptical that commodity traders posed any such risk (and have been making that argument for 3+ years), and so far the Glencore meltdown is supporting that skepticism. There has been no evidence of spillovers/contagion from Glencore to financial institutions, or to the broader market, a la Lehman.

But ESMA has proposed Technical Standards that would impose the full panoply of CRD-IV capital requirements on commodity traders (and other non-financial firms) that cannot avail themselves of an exemption (on which I will say more momentarily).

  1. If firms cannot make use of an exemption under MiFID II, capital requirements under the new banking regulatory framework will apply to them. This new framework consists of Regulation EU No 575/2013 (CRR) and Directive 2013/36/EU (CRD IV), repealing Directives 2006/48/EC and 2006/49/EC. While CRD IV is addressed to CAs and includes, inter alia, qualitative provisions on the Internal Capital Adequacy Assessment Process (ICAAP) and the Supervisory Review and Evaluation Process (SREP), the new CRR imposes quantitative requirements and disclosure obligations pursuant to Basel III recommendations on credit institutions and investment firms, including own funds definition, minimum own funds requirements and liquidity requirements. However, under Article 498(1) of CRR, some commodity dealers falling within the scope of MiFID are transitionally exempt from the CRR’s provisions on own funds requirements until 31 December 2017 at the latest, if their main business consists exclusively of providing investment services or activities relating to commodity derivatives.
  2. Moreover, firms falling within the scope of MiFID II will be considered to be financial counterparties rather than non-financial counterparties under Article 2(8) of EMIR. Therefore, they will not be able to benefit from the clearing thresholds or the hedging exemption available to the latter under Article 10 of EMIR. An additional consequence of being classified as a financial counterparty will be that the trading obligation (i.e. the obligation to trade derivatives which are subject to the clearing obligation and sufficiently liquid on trading venues only, cf. Article 28 of MiFIR) would apply in full without being subject to a threshold.

So, even if you aren’t a bank, you will be treated like a bank, unless you can get the exemption. Apropos what I said the other day about impoverished carpenters, hammers, nails, etc.

To get an exemption, a firm’s non-hedging derivatives business must fall below a particular threshold amount, e.g., 3 percent of the oil market, 4 percent of the metals market. ESMA recommends that hedges be determined using EMIR criteria. The big problem with this is that only months ago ESMA itself recognized that the EMIR framework is unworkable:

  1. It appears that the complex mechanism introduced by EMIR for the NFC+ [Non-Financial Company Plus] classification has so far led to significant difficulties in the identification, monitoring and, as a consequence, possible supervision of these entities by their competent authorities.
  2. As a result, in the context of the revision of EMIR, ESMA would see some merit in the simplification of the current framework for the determination of NFC+.
  3. One route that the Commission may wish to explore is to move from the current two-step process (Hedging/Non Hedging and clearing threshold) to a one-step process, where counterparties would qualify as NFC+ when their outstanding positions exceeds certain thresholds per asset class, irrespective of the qualification of the trades as hedging or non-hedging. This idea is further developed in Section 4.2 which addresses the way in which NFCs qualify their transactions as hedging and non-hedging.

In other words, ESMA judged that it is impossible for regulators to distinguish firms’ hedging derivatives from its speculative ones. Given these difficulties, just a few months ago ESMA recommended jettisoning the entire mechanism that it now proposes to use to determine whether commodity firms are exempt from MiFID, and the associated capital and clearing requirements.

Makes perfect sense. In some universe.*

At the very least the ESMA plan will impose a huge compliance burden on firms who will have to justify their categorizations of derivatives positions as hedges or no. Given the complexities of risk management (e.g., managing risk on a portfolio basis means that saying what trade is a hedge is difficult, if not impossible, the rapid and frequent adjustments of positions inherent in most trading operations, etc.) this will be a nightmare.

So the good news is: You can get an exemption from capital and clearing requirments! Yay!

The bad news is: The entity proposing the exemption says that the process for getting the exemption is unworkable, and you’ll have not just a compliance headache, but a compliance migraine.

So at the very same time that the financial travails of a big commodity firm cast serious doubt on the systemic riskiness of these firms, European regulators advance regulations intended to fix this (non-existent) problem, and are doing so in a way that they themselves have cast serious doubt on.

Put differently: regulation is confronting reality in the commodity markets at this very moment, and reality is coming off second best.

* It also hardly inspires confidence that ESMA fails basic arithmetic. Note that the threshold in oil is 3 percent, then consider this from its Briefing on Non-Financial Topics: “If a firm’s speculative trading activity is less than 50% of its total trading, it may be MiFID II exempt providing its market share is less than 20% of each threshold in the market share test e.g. 0.8% for metals, 0.3% for oil etc.” Um, last time I checked .2 x 3%=0.6%, not 0.3%.


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September 26, 2015

Capital My Boy, Capital: Or, the Day of the MiFIDs

Filed under: Commodities,Derivatives,Economics,Energy,Financial crisis,Politics,Regulation — The Professor @ 6:42 pm

As the EU’s Markets in Financial Instruments Directive II (“MiFID II”) slouches towards its destiny in Brussels, one of the last items on the agenda is capital requirements for commodity traders. It appears that the entity responsible for providing technical advice to the European Commission, European Securities and Markets Authority (“ESMA”–my God when it comes to acronyms the US military has nothing on the EU) is like the proverbial poor carpenter who owns only a hammer, so that everything looks like a nail. Or in ESMA’s case, that every firm that intermediates looks like a bank, and must be regulated accordingly, including through capital requirements. Thus, firms that serve as intermediaries in physical commodities are likely to be subject to the same type of capital requirements as firms that engage in financial intermediation, like banks, and be forced to hold a higher proportion of equity in their capital structures than they currently do.

This raises the question: what “market failure” (to use a shorthand that I dislike but which gets at the basic idea) justifies the regulation of the capital structures of firms?

One can make the case for banks and some other financial intermediaries. Banks have fragile capital structures because they engage in liquidity and maturity transformations that make them vulnerable to runs. Runs on a particular institution can impose costs on other institutions, and the resulting financial crises can have devastating effects on the broader economy. The effects on the broader economy occur because financially impaired banks cannot produce their most valuable output, credit, and contractions of credit can cause a broad downturn. Banks don’t internalize these effects, and thus may choose capital structures that are too fragile. Capital requirements can ameliorate this externality.

Commodity trading firms intermediate, but they are totally different than banks. I set out the reasons in detail in this white paper (sponsored by Trafigura*-with bonus video!). A few of the key points. Commodity trading firms (“CTFs”-hey, I can play the acronym game too!) aren’t too big to fail because they aren’t that big, by comparison to banks in particular. More importantly, they don’t have fragile capital structures because although CTFs transform commodities in space, time, and form, they don’t engage in financial transformations in maturity or liquidity like banks do. They aren’t even that highly leveraged, in comparison to European banks in particular. Further, whereas a bank can’t produce its main product (credit) if it is financially distressed, the human and physical assets of a commodity trading firm can continue to transform commodities even if the firm is financially distressed: it can operate under insolvency protection or its assets can be spun off to another firm.

This is not to say commodity trading firms can’t go bust. They can: we might see that in a big way if Glencore’s travails worsen. It is to say the fallout will be limited to their creditors and shareholders, and will not be the catalyst for a financial crisis.

Consequently, there is no justification for regulating the capital structures of these entities. But Europe, in its wisdom, apparently thinks otherwise.

The numbers are big. Based on public data from 2010-2012 for five big European energy companies with trading arms alone, I estimate that the additional equity required is in the vicinity of $120 billion with a “b”. Smaller entities will take smaller hits, but it will add up and probably put the final number in the $150 billion-$200 billion range. Some Swiss entities won’t be hit directly on their main trading businesses, but they have derivatives affiliates in the UK that will be. They might decide that the weather is better elsewhere.

The big driver in the number is the Operational Risk category, which is based off 15 percent of revenues averaged over the last three years. This number is big for commodity traders because they buy and sell a lot, which generates revenues that typically dwarf their incomes (because margins are on the order of 1-2 percent).

Operational risk is a catch-all category that encompasses things other than price and credit risks, such as rogue trader risk (of which there was an example just this week), a systems failure that results in a loss, etc. Yes bigger firms with bigger revenues are likely to have bigger operational losses, but these risks don’t scale with commodity firm revenues.

I have been told that there is whispering in Brussels against these numbers, because they are based on revenues derived when oil was north of $100/bbl. At lower prices, the operational risk charge will be smaller.

Thanks for proving my point, you whisperers! Please speak up, so everyone can hear!

Operational risks are more related to the scale of the physical business (e.g., the number of barrels traded)  which is much more stable than the price of oil. So a revenue-based operational risk charge expands and contracts like an accordion with the price of commodities, but the operational risk that the charge is supposed to absorb doesn’t fluctuate nearly so much. Given the costs of increasing equity, it is likely that firms will hold equity based on high commodity price-based revenues, leading to equity capitalization that is excessive in most environments. (Well, since the regulation generates no meaningful benefits, any requirement is excessive, but it will be extremely excessive given the way it is set up.)

You might say: “Who cares?” After all, in a Modigliani-Miller world, capital structure is irrelevant. Requiring firms to issue more equity and less debt doesn’t impose costs.

Yes. In a Modigliani-Miller world, which, like the Coase world, points out the things that must be true for the irrelevance result to hold. A theoretical world, in other words, not the real world we live in.

Firms care about capital structure because in a world with economic frictions capital structure can generate or destroy value. Imposing a capital structure that firms would not freely choose therefore imposes costs.

Firms affected by the new regs will adjust on many margins. Some will decamp from Europe, for other locales like Singapore. Others who cannot be so footloose will restructure their businesses to mitigate the impact. For instance, they might try to restructure to ring fence the trading activities that are subject to MiFID. Their ability to do so will depend on whether the Commission makes physical forwards subject to the regulation. Again, since these firms did not choose these locations or structures in the absence of the regulation, these changes will involve an increase in cost and a destruction in value, with no corresponding benefit that offsets this cost even  in part.

Privately held firms may face the biggest conundrum. There is a good reason for private ownership: it aligns the incentives of owners and managers because the managers are the owners. This is a more feasible option for commodity firms than large entities in other industries because commodity price risks can be laid off to the broader financial market using derivatives hedges. The downside of private ownership is that it limits access to public capital markets for equity funding. Clever financing policies (e.g., the issuance of very long term debt that provides long term funding without a loss of control) can finesse this problem, but requiring a big boost in equity would likely force firms either to contract their balance sheets and reduce their size (again, creating an economic cost because these firms will be artificially small), or go public, and incur increased agency costs (because of a poorer alignment of incentives).

In brief, application of bank-like capital requirements on commodity traders would be all pain, no gain. The efficiency of commodity intermediation would decline. This will harm producers (who get lower prices) and consumers (who pay higher prices) because middlemen’s margins must rise to cover the higher costs caused by the burdensome regulation of their capital structures. This will not be offset by any reduction in systemic risk.

There’s an early post-WWII SciFi novel titled Day of the Triffids, in which a plague of blindness leads to the rise of an aggressive species of plant. Well, MiFID rhymes with triffid, and Day of the MiFID would be a candidate for a sequel. Why? Because blindness about the realities of commodity trading is allowing an aggressive variety of plant (Brussels bureaucrats-believe me, the metaphor fits!) to wreak havoc on the poor folk who trade, produce, and consume commodities.

Well played, Europe! Well played!

* For those whose intellect cannot conceive of any other reason than personal gain to explain an individual’s opinion, do remember that I arrived at most of the conclusions contained in the white paper when I was retained to analyze the systemic risk of commodity traders by a bank trade association that very much wanted me to conclude the opposite, and who therefore spiked the study. But the truth gets out eventually.

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September 9, 2015

The Future of Chinese Futures

Filed under: China,Commodities,Derivatives,Economics,Energy,Politics,Regulation — The Professor @ 8:19 pm

China has created some amazingly successful futures markets in recent years. By contract volume, the top 5 ag futures are traded in Zhengzhou, Dalian, or Shanghai, as are 4 out of the top 5 metals contracts. Once upon a time, China also had the most heavily traded equity futures contracts. Once upon a time, like two months ago.

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

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

The stock market (led, as is usually the case, by index futures) was bearing bad news, so the Chinese decided to shoot the messenger. Then back over it a few times with a tank and bury it in cement. Just to make sure.

There is a wider lesson here. Namely, China may talk the reform talk, but doesn’t walk the reform walk. It likes one way bets:  markets when they are rising, not when they are falling. And not just the futures markets have been told to get their minds right. Chinese authorities-and by authorities, I mean security services-have told fund managers not to sell, only buy. A market with Chinese characteristics, apparently: all buyers and no sellers. Kind of zen actually, in the spirit of “what is the sound of one hand clapping?”

This urge to exercise ham-fisted control is exactly the kind of thing that will impede China’s development going forward. It will undermine the ability of capital markets to do their jobs of incentivizing the accumulation of capital and directing it to the highest value uses.

China’s predilection for control has manifested itself in futures markets in other ways. You might recall some months ago that I wrote about China’s threats against Singapore and ICE if the American exchange offered lookalike contracts on ZCE cotton and sugar at its new Singapore affiliate. Yesterday ICE announced the contracts it will launch in Singapore, and cotton and sugar lookalikes were conspicuous by their absence.

No competition for us, thank you. We’re Chinese.

This protectionism may help ensure the success of China’s new futures market initiative: an oil futures contract. Protectionism and pricing in yuan and constraints on the ability of mainland firms to trade overseas make it likely that the contract will succeed. The Chinese are overoptimistic, however, if they believe this contract will supplant WTI and/or Brent. LME and COMEX copper, and ICE cotton and sugar, to give some examples, have thrived even as Chinese markets in these commodities grew. Moreover, myriad restrictions on the ability of foreigners to trade in China and the currency issue will make the Shanghai contract impractical as a hedging and speculative vehicle for non-Chinese firms and funds: the main non-Chinese trading will likely be arbitrage plays between Shanghai, CME/NYMEX and ICE, which will ironically serve to boost to the US exchanges’ volumes.

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

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

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


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August 26, 2015

Donald Trump Can Only Aspire to Match Obama’s Economic Ignorance

Filed under: Climate Change,Economics,Energy,Politics,Regulation — The Professor @ 8:00 pm

Yesterday I said Trump and O’Reilly were in a cage match to determine the world champion of economic ignorance. There is another contender of course, the current occupant of the office to which Trump aspires. Actually, I would say that Obama is the undefeated reigning world champ, and that the O’Reilly-Trump set-to was merely to see who might contend for the title in the future.

Obama’s gobsmacking ignorance-served up with a heaping side of superciliousness-was on full display at the “Clean Energy Summit” in Las Vegas on Monday. Time is finite, and my energy is only intermittently renewable, so I can’t possibly deconstruct these vaporings in detail. So I will limit myself to a few high-level comments:

  1. Obama’s claims that his policies on renewable energy and carbon will make a meaningful impact on climate is a massive fraud that would land you or me in jail. Obama’s own EPA acknowledges that the policy will reduce global mean temperatures by an imperceptible and irrelevant .02 degrees by 2100. Farenheit? Celsius? Who cares? It matters not. It is rounding error on any scale.
  2. Obama’s mantra is all about the jobs that his renewables policies are creating and will create. Jobs are costs, not benefits.
  3. Further, Obama is clueless about the seen vs. unseen. To the extent that these policies raise the cost of electricity, they will have adverse consequences on wealth and income in consuming sectors, and in sectors that could produce electricity more efficiently, but for the subsidized competition from renewables.
  4. And yes, these policies will increase costs. Renewables are intermittent and diffuse and therefore require backup resources to ensure reliability; there is often a long distance between renewable sources and demand, meaning that new investments in icky transmission are required; and there is often a negative correlation between renewable production and electricity demand (e.g., the wind usually stops blowing when it’s really hot). Just look to Germany, with its Energiewende fiasco if you have any doubts. There is a strong correlation between electricity costs and fraction of electricity from renewables, and although this could be due in part to an endogeneity issue (those with more costly electricity sources utilize more renewables), this does not explain the entire effect.
  5. Obama and other boosters of renewables boast about falling costs of solar. Wind is conspicuously absent from this discussion, even though it represents the bulk of renewables generation. Further. Fine! When these inexorable efficiency gains make solar economical as a large-scale source of electricity, it will be able to compete without subsidy. This is no reason to subsidize now. This technical progress in solar argument is a non sequitur of the first magnitude.
  6. Obama and other boosters rave about capacity additions attributable to renewables. Well, due to the intermittence issue, capacity utilization is very low. It takes a lot more than 1MW of renewable capacity to replace 1MW of thermal or nuclear capacity. Indeed, if the wind ain’t blowing, all the windmills in the world can’t replace one conventional plant.
  7. Obama’s ignorance is on full display when he claims that conventional electricity generation was not characterized by “a lot of innovation.” This is just a crock. Compare heat rates of plants 20 years ago to those of today: in California, for instance, thermal efficiency has improved by 17 percent over the last 13 years. Heard of combined cycle, Barry? There has been considerable innovation in electricity generation. Well, not at the light switch plate, which is probably the extent of Barry’s familiarity with the electricity value chain.
  8. Obama mistakes opposing subsidies with being anti-free market. Welcome to bizarro world. And, as is his wont, he did so in an Alinskyite fashion, demonizing his opponents (the always handy Koch Brothers) in a very personal way.

I could go on, but that would be an S&M exhibition, and this is (usually!) a SFW site.

Suffice it to say that in Las Vegas Obama gave a demonstration that proves that when it comes to economic illiteracy, Trump can only aspire to fill Obama’s shows.

And yeah. Take a moment to absorb just what that means.

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August 3, 2015

Adding to Atlas’s Burden: The EPA’s CO2 Rule

Filed under: Climate Change,Commodities,Economics,Energy,Politics,Regulation — The Professor @ 6:41 pm

Acting under the aegis of its most malign agency, the EPA, in its unbending effort to hamstring the US economy, the Obama administration today released its long dreaded CO2 rule. The Rule mandates a 32 percent decrease in CO2 emissions by 2030. This outcome will be achieved by a dramatic reduction in the use of coal powered generation, and its replacement by renewables.

The administration touts its generosity by pointing out that compliance with the Rule has been extended by 2 years.

Great. We get screwed in 7 years, instead of just 5. Gee. Thanks. How thoughtful. You really shouldn’t have.

The Rule is tarted up with a cost-benefit analysis which purports to show massive benefits and modest costs. The benefit is in the form of improved health, in particular through the reduction in respiratory ailments.

But every step of this analysis is literally incredible. Consider the steps. First is an estimate of how the regulation affects climate. The second is an estimate of how climate affects health. The third is an estimate of the value of these health benefits. None of these calculations is remotely plausible, or even is it plausible that they can be made realistically, given the incredible complexity of climate and health.

And note the bait and switch here. The Rule is touted as a solution to the Phenomenon Once Known As Global Warming. But the Rule itself admits that the effect on temperature will be point zero one eight degrees centigrade by 2100. This is effectively zero, meaning that the “Climate Change” benefit of the Rule is zero.

The health benefits come from reductions in particulates from coal generating plants. So why not regulate particulates specifically?

This all points out that cost benefit analysis for large federal rules is basically Kabuki theater. Some laws require this analysis, but since courts give so much deference (under Chevron) to agencies, that this analysis is not subject to any serious scrutiny. Consequently, the process is ritual, not a serious check on agency discretion.

The Rule is grotesquely inefficient even if you believe this Making Shit Up And Calling it Science!® “cost-benefit analysis.” An efficient rule would achieve its results at lowest cost. But the command-and-control EPA rule does not do this.

Originally, the Rule was expected to lead to a substitution of natural gas for coal. But we can’t have that, can we, given that natural gas is a fossil fuel (even if Nancy Pelosi doesn’t think so)? So the current rule encourages the use of renewables.

The economics of renewables (especially wind) are atrocious. They are intermittent and diffuse. Intermittency strains reliability, and requires maintaining backup generation. Germany (and other countries, including Spain) have gone all in on renewables, and it has been a disaster. Energiewende has saddled Germany with high costs and lower quality power that has imposed great costs on German manufacturing. (Fluctuations in wind and sunlight induce fluctuations in frequency that wreak havoc with precision manufacturing processes.) California is already on the verge of reliability problems when the sun sets during winter months due to a sudden drop in solar generation (aka the swan problem) that requires a sudden ramp up of conventional generation: but the supply of solar during daylight hours undermines the economics of conventional generation. Wind power in Texas is leading to frequent bouts of negative prices which reduce the profitability of conventional generation necessary to maintain reliability.

The Rule acknowledges reliability issues, but the response is totally inadequate:

[T]he rule requires states to address reliability in their state plans. The final rule also provides a “reliability safety valve” to address any reliability challenges that arise on a case-by-case basis.

That’s just great. EPA says: “Yeah, we know renewables create reliability issues. Not our problem! You figure it out, states.” Note that this is problematic because the electrical grid is interconnected, meaning that retiring a coal plant in one state can have serious effects on reliability in numerous other states. So how do individual state plans efficiently address these inherently interstate issues? And as for the “safety valve”, the case-by-case analysis is likely to be cumbersome and costly.

Let’s get down to cases. By its own calculations, the proposed Rule will have a risible effect on global temperature. Therefore, there is no cost benefit justification for the control of CO2 per se, the ostensible purpose of the rule. If there are substantial benefits from reducing particulate emissions, then tax these emissions at a rate commensurate with these costs and let utilities and others find the most economical way of complying.

But that’s not the point, is it? Obama and the EPA don’t want efficiency. They have an intense ideological animus against fossil fuels, and a romantic attachment to renewables: many of the Democrats’ largest donors are have a strong investment in renewables. Pigouvian approaches would likely result in the failure to litter the landscape with bird blending windmills and massive solar panels, so they prefer command and control approaches instead.

And did I mention that Obama insinuated that if you oppose the Rule you are racist?

This new Rule is a piece with the last 6 plus years of grotesquely inefficient legislation and regulations. Frankendodd. Obamacare. Net Neutrality. Each of these add huge amounts of new weight that the Atlas of the American economy must bear. An economy subjected to such burdens will survive, but it will not thrive. The EPA’s new Rule will provide no meaningful benefit, and any benefits that it does generate will be gained at excessive cost. But that is the Obama way. That is the leftist way.


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July 21, 2015

The Fifth Year of the Frankendodd Life Sentence

Filed under: Clearing,Derivatives,Economics,Exchanges,Financial crisis,Politics,Regulation — The Professor @ 7:52 pm

Today is Frankendodd’s fifth birthday. Hardly time for celebration. It is probably more appropriate to say that this is the fifth year in the Frankendodd life sentence.

So where do we stand?

The clearing mandate is in force, and a large fraction of derivatives, especially interest rate and credit index derivatives are cleared. This was intended to reduce systemic risk, and as I’ve written since before the law was passed and signed, this was a chimerical goal. Indeed, in my view the systemic risk effects of the mandate are at best a push (merely shifting around the source of systemic risk), and at worse the net effects of the mandate are negative.

Belatedly regulators are coming around to the recognition of the risks posed by CCPs. They understand that CCPs have concentrated risk, and hence the failure of one of these entities would be catastrophic. So there is a frenzy of activity to try to make CCPs less likely to fail, and to ensure their rapid recovery in the event of problems. Janet Yellen has spoken on the subject, as has the head of the Office of Financial Research, Robert Dudley of the NY Fed, and numerous European regulators. Efforts are underway in the US, Europe, and Asia to increase CCP resources, and craft recovery and resolution procedures.

This is an improvement, I guess, over the KoolAid quaffing enthusiasm for the curative effects of CCPs that virtually all regulators indulged in post-crisis. But it distinctly reminds me of people madly sewing parachutes after the rather dodgy plane has taken off.

Further, these efforts miss a very major point. The main source of systemic risk from the clearing mandate derives from the huge liquidity strains that clearing (notably variation margin on a rigid time schedule) will create when the market is stressed. There has been some attention to ensuring CCPs have access to liquidity in the event of a default, but that’s not the real issue either. The real issue is funding large margin calls during a crisis.

Moreover, as I’ve also discussed, efforts to make CCPs more resilient can increase pressures elsewhere in the financial system (the “levee effect.”) Relatedly, regulators have not fully come to grips with the redistributive aspects of clearing–including in particular how netting, which they adore, can just relocate systemic risks.

I therefore stand by my prediction that a regulation-inflated clearing system will the source of the next systemic crisis.

Moving on, I called the SEF mandate the worst of Dodd-Frank. In the US, the majority of swap trades are done on SEFs, though mainly through RFQs rather than the central limit order books that Barney and Co. dreamed about in 2010.

There was never a remotely plausible systemic risk reducing rationale for the SEF mandate. Hence, if SEFs are inefficient ways to execute transactions, the mandate is all pain, no gain. As an indication of that this is indeed the case, note that virtually all European banks and end users stopped trading Euro-denominated swaps with US counterparties exactly when the mandate kicked in. The swaps mandate was too onerous, and anyone who could escape it did.

In a piece in Risk, I referred to the Made Available to Trade part of the SEF mandate the worst of the worst of Dodd-Frank. It made no sense to force all market participants to trade a particular kind of swap on SEFs just because one SEF decided to list it. Apparently that realization is slowly sinking in. The CFTC recently held a meeting on the MAT issue, and it seems as if there is a good chance that the CFTC will eventually determine what has to be traded on SEFs.

It is an indication of my loathing for MAT as it currently exists that I consider that an improvement.

Still moving on, Frankendodd was intended to reduce concentration and interconnectedness in the financial system. The actual result cannot really be called a mere unintended consequence: it was the exact opposite of the intended effect. Completely predictably (and predicted) the huge regulatory overhead increased concentration rather than reduced it. This is particularly true with respect to clearing. Gary Gensler’s dream of letting a thousand clearing firms bloom has turned into a nightmare, in which the clearing business is concentrated in a handful of big financial institutions, exacerbating too big to fail problems. And clearing has turned out to be the Mother of All Interconnections, because every big financial institution is connected to all big CCPs, and because pretty much everyone has to funnel the bulk of their derivatives trades through clearinghouses.

I could go on. Let me just re-iterate another risk of Frankendodd: standardization–the regulators’ fetish–is  a major source of systemic risk. Monocultures are particularly vulnerable to catastrophic failure, and the international regulatory standardization that was birthed in Pittsburg in 2009, and enacted in Frankendodd and MiFID and Emir, has created a regulatory monoculture. Some are grasping the implications of this. But too few, and not the right people.

I’ve focused here on the sins of commission. But there are also the sins of omission. Frankendodd did nothing about the Fannie and Freddie monster, which is coming back from the dead. F&F was a real systemic risk, but the same political dynamic that fed it in the 1990s and pre-2008 is at work again. Get ready for a repeat.

Frankendodd should have just focused on raising capital requirements for banks and other financial institutions with liquidity and maturity mismatches, and driven a stake through Fannie and Freddie. Instead, it sought to impose a detailed engineered solution on an emergent order. This inevitably ends badly.

So maybe it would be more accurate to say that we’re in our fifth year on death row. Someday the warden will come knocking.

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July 18, 2015

Nothing Says Panic Quite Like Three TARPs

Filed under: China,Economics,Energy,Politics,Regulation — The Professor @ 3:41 pm

The invaluable Christopher Balding has been tracking closely the massive financial support the Chinese government has been injecting into the banking system, the shadow banking system, local governments, and the stock market. In a blog post earlier this week, he estimated that this support totaled at least $692 billion, rising to $933 billion if the Reserve Ratio cut is counted as a subsidy to the banking system.

These funds went to the local government bond program I wrote about in June, an  investment in pension funds, PBOC 6 month loans to banks, and PBOC loans to the Chinese Securities Financing Corporation, which in turn will lend these funds to buy stock on margin.

But it’s hard to keep up! Christopher kindly shared with me his most recent calculation, which shows that the Chinese government keeps pumping in the money, most notably an additional $200 billion in loans to intermediaries who will use these funds for margin lending, and a rumored (but not yet confirmed) $160 billion in additional support for provincial municipal bonds. This brings the total to $1.3 trillion.

In RMB, that totals over 8 trillion (with a “t”, boys and girls). To Sinofy Evertt Dirksen: A trillion here and a trillion there, and pretty soon you are talking real money.

Another metric: $1.3 trillion is approximately three TARPs. Maybe we should start using that as a new unit of measurement, as in, “Chinese authorities intervened in the market and banking system today, providing an additional .5 TARPs in state funding.”

Yet another metric: $1.3 trillion is almost exactly $1000 per Chinese citizen. TARP was about $1500 per American. But China’s per capita GDP is (depending on whether you use exchange rates or PPP) about 1/5th or 1/7th of US GDP per capita. Thus, a low middle income country is spending roughly 3 to 5 times more per person as a percentage of per capita income than the high income US did. (Given that Chinese GDP is likely overstated-another issue that Christopher has analyzed in detail-the true multiples are even higher.)

Such massive spending-arguably the most gargantuan stimulus package ever-is not the sign of a confident leadership. It is a clear sign of panic.

Remember the extreme panic in DC and Wall Street in the post-Lehman period that culminated with TARP? Even in that hysterical environment, people questioned the need for and advisability of TARP. But in the end panic won out. That is the only reason TARP passed: people were scared stiff at what would happen if it didn’t.

Now think of how panicked the Chinese must be to implement measures that dwarf TARP. That’s what economists call revealed preference. Or, in this instance, revealed panic.

This gives the lie to official statistics, which showed a (patently unbelievable even absent this massive stimulus) .1 percentage point decline in the growth rate. Also giving the lie to the official statistics is the collapse in China-driven commodity prices, notably iron ore and coal, and oil as well. The slowdown in commodity economies further discredits the official Chinese data.

The Chinese stock market is getting most of the attention. This is the drunk-looking-under-the-streetlamp-for-his-keys phenomenon. The stock market is visible, and people can relate to it: this is why the government is using massive carrots (notably the support for margin lending) and even bigger sticks to try to arrest the decline. This would suppress the most visible manifestation of crisis. But the real dangers are lurking out of sight, in the leveraged sector (most notably the rats’ nest of non-bank lenders, but the banks are concealing a lot too), SOEs, and a real economy whose performance is masked by dodgy official statistics.

I’ve long referred to China as the Michael Jackson Economy, kept going by intense dosages of economic/financial drugs, cosmetic surgeries, and stimulants. The Chinese authorities are now administering the biggest dosages ever. This is an indication that the patient is doing quite badly. Further, although such actions may delay the inevitable, they make the end all the more horrific.

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July 15, 2015

The Joint Report on the Treasury Spike: Unanswered Questions, and You Can’t Stand in the Same River Twice

Filed under: Derivatives,Economics,HFT,Regulation — The Professor @ 11:39 am

The Treasury, Fed (Board of Governors and NYFed), SEC, and CFTC released a joint report on the short-lived spike in Treasury prices on 15 October, 2014. The report does a credible job laying out what happened, based on a deep dive into the high frequency data. But it does not answer the most interesting questions.

One thing of note, which shouldn’t really need mentioning, but does, is the report’s documentation of the diversity of algorithmic/high frequency trading carried out by what the report refers to as PTFs, or proprietary trading firms. This diversity is illustrated by the fact that these firms were both the largest passive suppliers of liquidity and the largest aggressive takers of liquidity during the October “event.” Indeed, the report documents the diversity within individual PTFs: there was considerable “self-trading,” whereby a particular PTF was on both sides of a trade. Meaning presumably that these PTFs had both aggressive and passive algos working simultaneously. So talking about “HFT” as some single, homogeneous thing is radically oversimplistic and misleading.

But let’s cut to the chase: Whodunnit? The report’s answer?: It’s complicated. The report says there was no single cause (e.g., a fat finger problem or whale trader).

This should not be surprising. In emergent orders, which financial markets are, large changes can occur in response to small (and indeed, very small) shocks: these systems can go non-linear. Complex feedbacks make attribution of cause impossible.  Although there is much chin-pulling (both in the report, and more generally) about the impact of technology and changes in market structure, the fundamental sources of feedback, and the types of participants in the ecosystem, are largely independent of technology.

Insofar as the events of 15 October are concerned, the report documents a substantial decline in market depth on both the futures market, and the main cash Treasury platforms (BrokerTec and eSpeed) in the hour following the release of the retail sales report. The decline in depth was due to PTFs reducing the size (but not the price) of their limit orders, and banks/dealers widening their quotes. Then, starting about 0930, there was a substantial order imbalance to the buy side on the futures: this initial order imbalance was driven primarily by banks/dealers. About 3 minutes later, aggressive PTFs kicked in on the buy side on both futures and the cash platforms.  Buying pressure peaked around 0939, and then both aggressive PTFs and the banks/dealers switched to the sell side. Prices rose when aggressors bought, and fell when they sold.

None of this is particularly surprising, but the report begs the most important questions. In particular, what caused the acute decline in depth in the hour leading up to the big price movement, and what triggered the surge in buy orders?

The first conjecture that comes to mind is related to informed trading and adverse selection. For some reason, PTFs (or more accurately, their algos) in particular apparently detected an increase in the toxicity of order flow, or observed some other information that implied that adverse selection risk was increasing, and they reduced their quote sizes to reduce the risk of being picked off.

Did order flow become more toxic in the roughly hour-long period following the release of the retail number? The report does not investigate that issue, which is unfortunate. Since liquidity declines were also marked in the minutes before the Flash Crash, it is imperative to have a better understanding of what drives these declines. There are metrics of toxicity (i.e., order flow informativeness). Liquidity suppliers (including HFT) monitor it in real time.  Understanding these events requires an analysis of whether variations in toxicity drive variations in liquidity, and in particular marked declines in depth.

Private information could also explain a surge in order imbalances. Those with private information would be the aggressors on the side of the net imbalance. In this case, the first indication of an imbalance is in the futures, and comes from the banks and asset managers. PTF net buying kicks in a few minutes later, suggesting they were extracting information from the banks’ and asset managers’ trading.

This raises the question: what was the private information, and what was the source of that information?

One problem with the asymmetric information story is the rapid reversal of the price movement. Informed trades have persistent effects. I’ve even seen in the data from some episodes that arguably manipulative (and hence uninformed) trades that could not be identified as such had persistent price impacts. So did new information arrive that led the buyers to start selling?

A potentially more problematic explanation of events (and I am just throwing out a hypothesis here) is that increased order flow toxicity due to informed trading eroded liquidity, and this created the conditions in which pernicious algorithms could thrive. For instance, momentum triggering (and momentum following) algorithms could have a bigger impact when the market lacks depth, as then smallish imbalances can move prices substantially, which then triggers trend following. When prices get sufficiently out of line, these algos might turn off or switch directions, or other contrarian algorithms might kick in.

These questions cannot be answered without knowing the algorithms, on both the passive and aggressive sides. What information did they have, and how did they react to it? Right now, we are just seeing their shadows. To understand the full chronology here–the decline in depth/liquidity, the surge in order imbalances from banks/dealers around 0930, the following surge in aggressive PTF buying, and the reversal in signed net order flow–it is necessary to understand in detail the entire algo ecosystem. We obviously don’t understand it, and likely never will.

Even if it was possible to go back and get a granular understanding of the algorithms and their interactions, this would be of limited utility going forward because the emergent ecosystem evolves continuously and rapidly. Indeed, no doubt the PTFs and banks carried out their own forensic analyses of the events of 15 October, and changed their algorithms accordingly. This means that even if we knew the  causal connections and feedbacks that produced the abrupt movement and reversal in Treasury prices, that knowledge will not really permit anticipation of future episodes, as the event itself will have changed the system, its connections, and its feedbacks. Further, independent of the effect of 15 October, the system will have evolved in the past 9 months. Given the dependence of the behavior of such systems on their very fine details, the system will behave differently today than it did then.

In sum, the joint report provides some useful information on what happened on 15 October, 2014, but it leaves the most important questions unanswered. What’s more, the answers regarding this one event would likely be only modestly informative going forward because that very event likely caused the system to change. Pace Heraclitus, when it comes to financial markets, “You cannot step twice into the same river; for other waters are continually flowing in.”




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July 12, 2015

The Chinese SEC, as in, Securities Execution Commission

Filed under: China,Economics,Politics,Regulation — The Professor @ 7:45 pm

Trying to staunch the bleeding in the stock market, China is unleashing the full power of a police state. A Securities Execution Commission, if you will:

China’s police ministry is teaming up with the securities regulator to probe short selling, as the government works to stem a stock plunge that has erased $3.9 trillion in market value.

The Ministry of Public Security said it will help the China Securities Regulatory Commission investigate evidence of “malicious” short selling of stocks and indexes, according to a statement on its website Thursday. Vice Public Security Minister Meng Qingfeng visited the regulator’s offices in Beijing on Thursday, the official Xinhua News Agency said earlier on its microblog.

The move comes after the securities regulator pledged to “strictly” punish market manipulation and China’s state-run media blamed short selling, rumor-mongering and foreign meddling for fueling the stock slide. The ruling Communist Party has announced an unprecedented series of measures to boost shares, including banningmajor shareholders, executives and directors from selling stakes.

Whenever a police ministry “teams up” with securities regulators, watch out. You can bet-and it wouldn’t be speculation!-that some poor schmoes are going to do hard time for manipulative short selling. And China being China, it is not beyond the realm of possibility that some really unlucky bastards will wind up in front of a firing squad or inside a mobile execution van.

And isn’t it always the way? Stock price declines are always blamed on short sellers. Always. And with stocks, manipulation accusations are thrown about on the way down, but never on the way up.

If the Chinese authorities want to find a market manipulator, they need to look no further than the nearest mirror.  Which is precisely why they are so intent on finding someone else to blame.

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