Streetwise Professor

June 25, 2016

Brexit: Epater les Eurogarchs

Confounding all elite prognostication (more on this aspect below), British voters repudiated their self-anointed better-thans and voted to leave the EU.

Market reaction was swift and brutal. The pound sold off dramatically, as did UK stocks. Interestingly, though, Continental stock markets fell substantially more. Bank stocks took the brunt. Volatility indices spiked. Oil was down modestly.

These reactions were not due, in my view, to the direct effect of a British exit from the EU, via conventional channels (e.g., increased costs of trade resulting in inefficiencies and a decline in productivity due to failure to exploit comparative advantage, resulting in a decline in incomes). Instead, they reflect a substantial increase in risk, and in particular geopolitical risk. The unexpected result increases substantially the odds of a falling apart of the EU–or at the very least, of it losing quite a few of its parts. That’s why German, French, and Dutch markets sold off more than the UK.

I was in Denmark last month, speaking to shipowners. Several said that if the UK were to leave the EU, Denmark is likely to go as well: since Denmark is not on the Euro, it is easier for it to leave than Eurozone nations, and the Danes have had their fill of European immigration policy, among other things.

But there is now talk of core countries–including France–leaving. What’s more, the Brexit vote demonstrates the depth and intensity of populist, nationalist sentiment, something the elites had convinced themselves was a marginal force that could be contained by insulting it as racist and isolationist. That was tried in the UK, and failed spectacularly. Now everyone should be on notice that the smug, supercilious, and superior are sitting on a caldera.

It is this fear that the British departure creates a bad precedent that is leading some European leaders to advocate a punitive approach to negotiations with Britain. As a one-off, this makes no sense: a battle of trade barriers and regulations and red tape would harm continentals too. But if the Euros view this as a repeated game, punishment of the British to deter others from getting any notions in their heads about following their lead has some appeal.

But this is a finite game: there are only so many countries in Europe. The Euro threats make sense as a rational strategy only if there is some appreciably probability that the leadership is viewed as crazy, and will punish even when that is self-harming. Come to think of it . . .

As for the immediate effects, Brexit has the biggest potential to cause disruptions and inefficiencies in the financial sector, because of London’s dominance. Clearing is one example. How will LCH fit into the fragmented regulatory landscape? Recall the tortuous negotiations between the US and EU over recognizing each other’s CCPs. Will that have to be repeated between the UK and the EU, and under the clouds of recrimination and punishment strategies? As another example, MiFID II is scheduled to go into effect before Britain leaves. Will it be implemented, then changed? Post-exit British firms will no longer be subject to the regulatory and judicial bodies in charge of enforcing these regulations: how will they fill that breach?

Regardless of the specifics, there will inevitably be greater regulatory and legal fragmentation, and this will increase complexity and cost. But it also creates opportunities. The UK can now engage in regulatory competition with the EU (and the US), which is a different thing altogether from trying to influence regulatory policy from inside the tent (which Cameron attempted with a notable lack of success). This is constrained to some degree by supranational regulation (e.g., Basel), but London prospered quite well as a financial center post-War, pre-EU by offering regulatory advantages over the US and European countries. (Remember Eurodollars!) (One specific thought: would the UK proceed with something as inane and costly as the MiFID commodity position limits? Or applying CRD IV capital requirements on commodity traders? Since these initiatives were driven by the continentals, I seriously doubt it.)

This is all very complicated, and will be played out in the context of a larger game between Britain and the EU (and between the EU and individual EU countries). Hence the outcome is wholly unpredictable. But having Britain as an independent player will change dramatically the regulatory game. The greater competition is likely to result in less regulation, and crucially less stupid regulation. Further, even to the extent that one jurisdiction insists on stupid regulations (with the EU being the odds-on favorite here), the existence of competing jurisdictions means that many will be able to escape the stupidity.

As for the broader political lesson here, it is a decisive repudiation of a self-satisfied soi disant elite by the great unwashed. The EU has been neuralgic about democracy since its inception, and Brexit shows you exactly why their fears of it are justified. The people have spoken. The bastards. And the Euros will try mightily to make sure that never ever happens again.

There’s been a lot of commentary along these lines. Gerard Baker’s piece in the WSJ is probably the best I’ve read. This piece also from the WSJ is pretty good too.

This is a global phenomenon: the Trump insurgency in the US is another example. What is most disturbing–and most revealing–about the reaction of the elites to these outbursts of popular opposition to their direction and instruction is their lack of self-examination and humility, and their immediate resort to scorn and insult directed at those who had the temerity to defy them. Immediately after the results were clear, those voting leave were tarred as old/white/stupid/poor/uneducated/racist.

Totally lacking was the question: “If argument and evidence are so clearly on our side, why did we fail so miserably in convincing people of the obvious?” To these self-perceived elites, their superiority is self-evident and any opposition can only be attributed to mental defect or bad faith.

Not only is this superficial and immature–nay, juvenile and narcissistic–it is amazingly self-destructive. You were rejected because it was widely believed–with good reason–that you were aloof, condescending, and lacking in understanding of and empathy for the concerns of millions of people not of your social set. What better way to cement that reputation than by proceeding to piss all over those people? You think that will help them get their minds right, and vote for you next time? Think that, and you truly are delusional.

And mark well: this elite condescension is not heard just in the Midlands, but it comes through loud and clear in France, Germany, the Netherlands, and other countries in Europe. Consequently, this reaction actually increases the odds of an EU crisis. Those who refuse to respond constructively and thoughtfully to adverse feedback are likely to see things get worse, rather than better.

This condescension also helps explain the surprise at the Brexit outcome. So convinced of their virtue and intelligence, the Remain side could not comprehend that large numbers of people could take the opposite side. Secure in their bubble, talking only to one another, they had no idea of what was going on outside it. The Pauline Kael effect, with a British accent.

Further, the concerted effort in the establishment media to malign the Leavers succeeded in silencing many of them–but not in changing their minds. (Most disturbingly, the Remain side took strange comfort in the murder of Jo Cox.) They were bludgeoned into stubborn silence, which lulled the establishment into believing that the opposition was marginal and marginalized: this helps explain the pre-vote 90 percent betting odds on Remain, with the betting being dominated by those inside the bubble. But the silent bided their time and exacted their revenge.

Payback, as they say, is a bitch. But are the elites learning from this lesson? The first indications are negative.

The EU epitomizes what Thomas Sowell referred to as the Vision of the Anointed. This review summarizes the book of that title well, and although Sowell focuses on the US, what he said applies in spades to the EU, and Europhiles:

In The Vision of the Anointed, the distinguished economist and social theorist Thomas Sowell makes an important contribution to classical-liberal and conservative thought by scrutinizing the ways in which a self-consciously elite, or “anointed,” group uses ideas to maintain its power in American political life. Sowell regards American political discourse as dominated by people who are sure that they know what is good for society and who think that the good must be attained by expanded government action. This modern-liberal elite exerts its influence through institutions that live by words: the universities and public schools, the media, the liberal clergy, the bar and bench. Its dominance results from its command of the information that words convey and the attitudes that words inspire.

People who live by words should live also by arguments, butas Sowell richly documentsthe modern-liberal elite is not so good at arguing as it is at finding substitutes for argument. Sowell analyzes the major substitutes. Suppose that you doubt the necessity or usefulness of some great new government program. You may first be presented with a quantity of decontextualized “facts” and abused statistics, all indicating the existence of a “crisis” that only government can resolve. If you are not converted by this show of evidence, an attempt will probably be made to shift the viewpoint: outsiders may doubt that there is a crisis of, say, homelessness, but “spokesmen for the homeless” purportedly have no doubts.

. . . .

If even these methods fail to win you over, attention will be redirected from the political issue to your own failure of imagination or morality. It will be insinuated that people like you are simplistic or perversely opposed to change, lacking in compassion and allied with the “forces of greed.” (As Sowell observes, it is always the payers rather than the spenders of taxes who are considered vulnerable to the charge of greed.) [Emphasis added.]

The Anointed are a self-identified elite. They think that elite is a synonym for “meritorious,” “intelligent,” “wise,” or “morally superior.” But “elite” refers first and foremost to a place in a hierarchy, and the merit, intelligence, wisdom, and morality of those at the top of a hierarchy depends on the system. Hayek noted over 70 years ago that in a statist, crypto-socialist system the worst get to the top, i.e., the elite is a collection of the worst. The Eurogarchy shows just how right Hayek was.

For all the paeans sung to it, the EU has become far more than a means of reducing barriers to the flow of goods, capital, and people: that could have been accomplished with something as simple as the commerce clause to the US Constitution. Instead, the Anointed have constructed a vast hyper-state that controls and regulates every aspect of commercial activity, and much beyond. Cost raising and incentive sapping explicit restrictions on trade and investment across historical borders have been replaced by border-spanning onerous and minute regulations that raise costs and dull incentives: innovation has been especially hard hit. Moribund growth in the post-crisis EU should raise questions, but the Eurogarchs plunge ahead with their vast regulatory schemes.

I would approve of a supra-national organization that reduced the impediments to individuals consummating mutually beneficial bargains and exchanges. But that is not what the EU is. It is a dirigiste organization predicated on the belief that a technocratic elite knows better, and can direct and guide far more effectively than the invisible hand. Although its demise could lead to something worse, there are definitely better alternatives. Hence, the discomfort of the EU worshippers is music to my ears.

European leaders–Merkel most notably–are fond of saying “More Europe,” meaning more centralization and more suppression of local control. If they want Europe to survive as a political entity, they need to reverse their mantra to “Less Europe.” They need to reverse the creation of a hyper-state. They need to be more respectful of local, national sentiments and differences. Brexit shows that if they fail to do so, they are running the serious risk of having no “Europe” at all.

Are they heeding the lesson? Early signs suggest no. So be it. They are reaping what they sowed, and if they decide to sow more, so shall they reap.

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July 6, 2015

Greece Quick Hits

Filed under: Economics,Financial Crisis II — The Professor @ 6:00 pm

Hit Number 1. One of Krugman’s stock arguments to defend deficit spending and the accumulation of massive amounts of debt is “don’t worry!: we owe it to ourselves.” (I will pass over in silence at the Ricardian implications of that statement, which undermine Krugman’s argument that deficits are expansionary.) Krugman is also cheerleading for a Grexit.

It is therefore beyond ironic that a major reason that Greece faces Armageddon is the debt Greeks owe to themselves. The immediate source of Greece’s peril is the impending collapse of its banking system. The banks hold about €11 billion in Greek government bonds and about €14 billion in Greek Treasury Bills, money, per Krugman’s formulation, that Greeks owe to themselves. Greek banks are scraping by only because the ECB has agreed to fund these bonds. If Greece defaults, this funding goes away, and the banks will collapse. And it’s not just sovereign debt. The remainder of the nearly €400 billion on Greek bank balance sheets is loans to Greeks, i.e., money Greeks “owe themselves.” Many of those loans are underwater too.

In other words, money Greeks owe themselves will almost certainly bring down the banking system, and with it the Greek economy, once the ECB safety net goes away. But I’m sure Krugman will find a way to say that’s a good thing. Or that the problem was that they didn’t borrow enough from themselves. Or something.

Hit Number 2. The game theorist likely behind the let’s-play-crazy referendum and negotiating strategy, Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis, has resigned. But don’t get excited. His replacement is a hardcore Marxist. But no worries. The FT assures us that he’s a pragmatist.  As if it really makes a difference whether a Menshevik or Bolshevik is in charge of economic policy.

Forget the debt issue. That will be resolved, for worse or for worser. The real reason that Greece is well and truly screwed is its statist, leftist, and frequently Marxist political culture. Greece needs to grow. Replacing one Marxist with another Marxist ensures that it won’t.

But look at the bright side. Now Venezuela has company.

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July 5, 2015

1. Referendum. 2. ???? 3. Prosperity!

Filed under: Economics,Financial Crisis II,Politics — The Professor @ 8:38 pm

The Greeks voted a resounding No! in today’s referendum, thereby rejecting a deal that had been taken off the table.

Figuring out the Syrzia plan is something of a puzzle. It reminds me of the old South Park Underwear Gnomes bit, hence the  title of this post. One can see the desired objective (a more prosperous future liberated from a crushing debt burden) and one can see the initial move (referendum), but the middle steps are a complete mystery.

At first blush-and second, and third-it appears that what the Greek government is doing is crazy and self-destructive. This suggests two alternatives:

  1. The Greek government is crazy and self-destructive.
  2. The Greek government is pretending to be crazy and self-destructive for tactical reasons.

I say crazy because the Greeks are claiming that they are willing to accept economic Armageddon instead of making far less costly concessions to the Europeans. But if there is even a small probability that people are of this type (i.e., they much prefer to die on their feet than live on their knees), pretending to be this way and getting a reputation for being this way can be an effective way of extracting concessions from an adversary. It is often rational to defer to craziness.

This gambit works best if a repeat player is matched against a series of one-shot players: the repeat player benefits from creating a reputation, the one-shot players don’t. That’s not the case here, though. The solvent Euros (e.g., the Germans and Dutch) also have an incentive to build a reputation for being tough in negotiations, because they are repeat players. They reason that if they concede to the Greeks, the Southern Euros (Spain, Portugal, Italy in particular) will try to extract concessions as well. So they have an incentive to play tough with the Greeks even though if this was a one-off situation it would make sense to make more concessions.

Which all means that I have no idea how this will play out.

Furthermore, this is primarily a game about redistribution rather than creating wealth. This maximizes the potential for conflict, and increases the incentives for rent seeking and rent dissipation. The exact outcome is difficult to predict, but the basic contours of this outcome are pretty predictable: everybody ends up poorer and miserable.

It is hard to have sympathy for either side. The Greeks have a corrupt and bloated state, and its people have a socialist, welfare/entitlement state mindset, and they borrowed lavishly to achieve a lifestyle that their productivity could not support. The Europeans gladly lent more to a corrupt and bloated state, and a people with a socialist-tinged, welfare/entitlement state mindset than they could afford to repay. They jointly made their bed, and now they have to lie in it. So be it.

The least likely outcome is that Greece makes fundamental changes and conjures up a growth miracle, like postwar Japan or Germany, or Taiwan or Korea. The socialist/statist/welfarist impulses are too deeply rooted, and its interlocutors-the Euros-are also too statist to compel or persuade the Greeks to change their ways.

A couple of years ago I said that Europe had a choice between amputation and gangrene in dealing with Greece. They chose not to amputate. They now have to live with the consequences.

 

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April 18, 2015

A Greek Gas Farce

Filed under: Commodities,Energy,Financial Crisis II,History,Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 11:44 am

Der Spiegel reported that Greek officials claim that the country is on the verge of signing a deal with Russia that would give the Greeks €5 billion upfront, to be repaid from transit fees on a yet-to-be-built Turkish Stream pipeline: the Russians deny any deal. The quoted (but anonymous) Greek official said that this would “turn the tide” for Greece.

Really?

Some thoughts off the top.

First, Greece owes €320 billion, including payments of €30 billion in 2015 alone. It is “scraping the bottom of the barrel” by borrowing from various state entities (e.g., the public transport system) to meet April payroll. It has a budget deficit of €23 billion. Deposits at Greek banks fell by about €20 billion last week. This creates a liability for the Bank of Greece to Target2 (i.e., to the members of the ECB). A measly €5 billion will buy it a few weeks time, at best.

Second, it’s not as if creditors (e.g., the EU and the IMF and Target2 members) are going to give Greece discretion over how to spend this money. And they have many levers to pull. So it would set the stage for more arguments between the creditors and the debtor.

Third, the Russians are likely to write terms that secure the debt and give it priority over other creditors (at least with respect to any future transit fees). (Just remember how tightly the Russians crafted the Yanuk Bonds.) The Euros will flip out over any such terms. This would set up an epic The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly three-way standoff.

Fourth, this initiative would be directly contrary to European energy policy, which is finally attempting to reduce dependence on Russia and limit vulnerability to Russian gasmail and the use of energy as a wedge to create divisions within the EU.

Fifth, what are the odds that the pipeline will get built? The Europeans are against it. It requires the Greeks and the Turks to play well together, and we know how that usually works out. It requires additional investment in infrastructure in Turkey, which is problematic. Further, the Russian track record on these sorts of projects leaves much to be desired.

So what happens if the pipeline isn’t built, or is delayed significantly. No doubt the Russians will anticipate this contingency in the debt agreement, and write things in such a way that they have security or priority, which will just spark another battle with Greece’s European creditors.

In sum, such a deal would hardly be a solution to Greece’s problems. Indeed, it only escalates conflicts between Greece and the EU.

Which may be Putin’s purpose, exactly. Exacerbating Greek-EU conflict over a matter involving Russia directly at a time when Greece could scupper the extension of sanctions against Russia suits Putin perfectly. The fact that the pipeline is as much pipe dream as realistic project doesn’t matter a whit. This is all about stirring trouble. And that’s Putin’s speciality.

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October 13, 2014

You Might Have Read This Somewhere Before. Like Here.

The FT has a long article by John Dizard raising alarms about the systemic risks posed by CCPs. The solution, in other words, might be the problem.

Where have I read that before?

The article focuses on a couple of regulatory reports that have also raised the alarm:

No, I am referring to reports filed by the wiring and plumbing inspectors of the CCPs. For example, the International Organization for Securities Commissions (a name that could only be made duller by inserting the word “Canada”) issued a report this month on the “Securities Markets Risk Outlook 2014-2015”. I am not going to attempt to achieve the poetic effect of the volume read as a whole, so I will skip ahead to page 85 to the section on margin calls.

Talking (again) about the last crisis, the authors recount: “When the crisis materialised in 2008, deleveraging occurred, leading to a pro-cyclical margin spiral (see figure 99). Margin requirements also have the potential to cause pro-cyclical effects in the cleared markets.” The next page shows figure 99, an intriguing cartoon of a margin spiral, with haircuts leading to more haircuts leading to “liquidate position”, “further downward pressure” and “loss on open positions”. In short, do not read it to the children before bedtime.

This margin issue is exactly what I’ve been on about for six years now. Good that regulators are finally waking up to it, though it’s a little late in the day, isn’t it?

I chuckle at the children before bedtime line. I often say that I should give my presentations on the systemic risk of CCPs while sitting by a campfire holding a flashlight under my chin.

I don’t chuckle at the fact that other regulators seem rather oblivious to the dangers inherent in what they’ve created:

While supervisory institutions such as the Financial Stability Oversight Council are trying to fit boring old life insurers into their “systemic” regulatory frameworks, they seem to be ignoring the degree to which the much-expanded clearing houses are a threat, not a solution. Much attention has been paid, publicly, to how banks that become insolvent in the future will have their shareholders and creditors bailed in to the losses, their managements dismissed and their corporate forms put into liquidation. But what about the clearing houses? What happens to them when one or more of their participants fail?

I call myself the Clearing Cassandra precisely because I have been prophesying so for years, but the FSOC and others have largely ignored such concerns.

Dizard starts out his piece quoting Dallas Fed President Richard Fisher comparing macroprudential regulation to the Maginot Line. Dizard notes that others have made similar Maginot Line comparisons post-crisis, and says that this is unfair to the Maginot Line because it was never breached: the Germans went around it.

I am one person who has made this comparison specifically in the context of CCPs, most recently at Camp Alphaville in July. But my point was exactly that the creation of impregnable CCPs would result in the diversion of stresses to other parts of the financial system, just like the Maginot line diverted the Germans into the Ardennes, where French defenses were far more brittle. In particular, CCPs are intended to eliminate credit risk, but they do so by creating tremendous demands for liquidity, especially during crisis times. Since liquidity risk is, in my view, far more dangerous than credit risk, this is not obviously a good trade off. The main question becomes: During the next crisis, where will be the financial Sedan?

I take some grim satisfaction that arguments that I have made for years are becoming conventional wisdom, or at least widespread among those who haven’t imbibed the Clearing Kool Aid. Would that have happened before legislators and regulators around the world embarked on the vastest re-engineering of world financial markets ever attempted, and did so with their eyes wide shut.

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September 29, 2014

McNamara on Pirrong & Clearing: Serious, Fair, But Ultimately Unpersuasive

Stephen Lubben passed along this paper on central clearing mandates to me. It would only be a modest overstatement to say that it is primarily a rebuttal to me. At the very least, I am the representative agent of the anti-clearing mandate crowd (and a very small crowd it is!) in Steven McNamara’s critique of opposition to clearing mandates.

McNamara’s arguments are fair, and respectfully presented. He criticizes my work, but in an oddly complimentary way.

I consider it something of a victory that he feels that it’s necessary to go outside of economics, and to appeal to Rawlsian Political Theory and Rawls’s Theory of Justice to counter my criticisms of clearing mandates.

There are actually some points of commonality between McNamara and me, which he fairly acknowledges. Specifically, we both emphasize the incredible complexity of the financial markets generally, and the derivatives markets in particular. Despite this commonality, we reach diametrically opposed conclusions.

Where I think McNamara is off-base is that he thinks I don’t pay adequate attention to the costs of financial crises and systemic risk. I firmly disagree. I definitely am very cognizant of these costs, and support measures to control them. My position is that CCPs do not necessarily reduce systemic risk, and may increase it. I’ve written several papers on that very issue. The fact that I believe that freely chosen clearing arrangements are more efficient than mandated ones in “peacetime” (i.e., normal, non-crisis periods) (something McNamara focuses on) only strengthens my doubts about the prudence of mandates.

McNamara addresses some of the arguments I make about systemic risk  in his paper, but it does not cite my most recent article that sets them out in a more comprehensive way.  (Here’s an ungated working paper version: the final version is only slightly different.) Consequently, he does not address some of my arguments, and gets some wrong: at least, in my opinion, he doesn’t come close to rebutting them.

Consider, for instance, my argument about multilateral netting. Netting gives derivatives priority in bankruptcy. This means that derivatives counterparties are less likely to run and thereby bring down a major financial institution. McNamara emphasizes this, and claims that this is actually a point in favor of mandating clearing (and the consequent multilateral netting). My take is far more equivocal: the reordering of priorities makes other claimants more likely to run, and on balance, it’s not clear whether multilateral netting  reduces systemic risk. I point to the example of money market funds that invested in Lehman corporate paper. There were runs on MMFs when they broke the buck. Multilateral netting of derivatives would make such runs more likely by reducing the value of this corporate paper (due to its lower position in the bankruptcy queue). Not at all clear how this cuts.

McNamara mentions my concerns about collateral transformation services, and gives them some credence, but not quite enough in my view.

He views mutualization of risk as a good thing, and doesn’t address my mutualization is like CDO trenching point (which means that default funds load up on systemic/systematic risk). Given his emphasis on the risks associated with interconnections, I don’t think he pays sufficient concern to the fact that default funds are a source of interconnection, especially during times of crisis.

Most importantly, although he does discuss some of my analysis of margins, he doesn’t address my biggest systemic risk concern: the tight coupling and liquidity strains that variation margining creates during crises. This is also an important source of interconnection in financial markets.

I have long acknowledged-and McNamara acknowledges my acknowledgement-that we can’t have any great certainty about how whether clearing mandates will increase or reduce systemic risk. I have argued that the arguments that it will reduce it are unpersuasive, and often flatly wrong, but are made confidently nonetheless: hence the “bill of goods” title of my clearing and systemic risk paper (which the editor of JFMI found provocative/tendentious, but which I insisted on retaining).

From this “radical” uncertainty, arguing in a Rawlsian vein, McNamara argues that regulation is the right approach, given the huge costs of a systemic crisis, and especially their devastating impact on the least among us. But this presumes that the clearing mandate will have its intended effect of reducing this risk. My point is that this presumption is wholly unfounded, and that on balance, systemic risks are likely to increase as the result of a mandate, especially (and perhaps paradoxically) given the widespread confidence among regulators that clearing will reduce it.

McNamara identifies me has a hard core utilitarian, but that’s not quite right. Yes, I think I have decent formal economics chops, but I bring a Hayekian eye to this problem. Specifically, I believe that in a complex, emergent system like the financial markets (and derivatives are just a piece of that complex emergent system), top down, engineered, one-size-fits-all solutions are the true sources of system risk. (In fairness, I have made this argument most frequently here on the blog, rather than my more formal writings, so I understand if McNamara isn’t aware of it.) Attempts to design such systems usually result in major unintended consequences, many of them quite nasty. In some of my first remarks on clearing mandates at a public forum (a Columbia Law School event in 2009), I quoted Hayek: “The curious task of economics is to demonstrate to men how little they really know about what they imagine they can design.”

I’ve used the analogy of the Sorcerer’s Apprentice to make this point before, and I think it is apt. Those intending to “fix” something can unleash forces they don’t understand, with devastating consequences.

At the end of his piece, McNamara makes another Rawlsian argument, a political one. Derivatives dealer banks are too big, to politically influential, corrupt the regulatory process, and exacerbate income inequality. Anything that reduces their size and influence is therefore beneficial. As McNamara puts it: clearing mandates are “therefore a roundabout way to achieve a reduction in their status as ‘Too Big to Fail,’ and also their economic and political influence.”

But as I’ve written often on the blog, this hope is chimerical. Regulation tends to create large fixed costs, which tends to increase scale economies and therefore lead to greater concentration. That clearly appears to be the case with clearing members, and post-Frankendodd there’s little evidence that the regulations have reduced the dominance of big banks and TBTF. Moreover, more expansive regulation actually increases the incentive to exercise political influence, so color me skeptical that Dodd-Frank will contribute anything to the cleaning of the Augean Stables of the American political system. I would bet the exact opposite, actually.

So to sum up, I am flattered but unpersuaded by Steven McNamara’s serious, evenhanded, and thorough effort to rebut my arguments against clearing mandates, and to justify them on the merits. Whether it is on “utilitarian” (i.e., economic) or Rawlsian grounds, I continue to believe that arguments and evidence weigh heavily against clearing mandates as prudent policy.  But I am game to continue the debate, and Steve McNamara has proved himself to be a worthy opponent, and a gentleman to boot.

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September 8, 2014

Cleaning Up After the Dodd, Frank & Gensler Circus

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Apparently not. The CFTC has major agida over this:

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

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

. . . .

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

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

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

Not too arrogant, eh?

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

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

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

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

 

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March 29, 2014

Margin Sharing: Dealer Legerdermain, or, That’s Capital, Not Collateral.

Concerns about the burdens of posting margins on OTC derivatives, especially posting by clients who tend to have directional positions, have led banks to propose “margin sharing.”  This is actually something of a scam.  I can understand the belief that margin requirements resulting from Frankendodd and Emir are burdensome, and need to be palliated, but margin sharing is being touted in an intellectually dishonest way.

The basic idea is that under DFA and Emir, both parties have to post margin.  Let’s say A and B trade, and both have to post $50mm in initial margins.  The level of margins is chosen so that the “defaulter (or loser) pays”: that is, under almost all circumstances, the losses on a defaulted position will be less than $50mm, and the defaulter’s collateral is sufficient to cover the loss.  Since either party may default, each needs to post the $50mm margin to cover losses in the event it turns out to be the loser.

But the advocates of margin sharing say this is wasteful, because only one party will default.  So the $50mm posted by the firm that doesn’t end up defaulting is superfluous.  Instead, just have the parties post $25mm each, leaving $50mm in total, which according to the advocates of margin sharing, is what is needed to cover the cost of default.  Problem solved!

But notice the sleight of hand here.  Under the loser pays model, all the $50mm comes out of the defaulter’s margin: the defaulter pays,  the non-defaulter receives all that it is owed, and makes no contribution from its own funds.  Under the margin sharing model, the defaulter may pay only a fraction of the loss, and the non-defaulter may use some of its $25mm contribution to make up the difference.   Both defaulter and non-defaulter pay.

This is fundamentally different from the loser pays model.  In essence, the shared margin is a combination of collateral and capital.  Collateral is meant to cover a defaulter’s market losses.  Capital permits the non-defaulter to absorb a counterparty credit loss.  Margin sharing essentially results in the holding of segregated capital dedicated to a particular counterparty.

I am not a fan of defaulter pays.  Or to put it more exactly, I am not a fan of mandated defaulter pays.  But it is better to confront the problems with the defaulter pays model head on, rather than try to circumvent it with financial doubletalk.

Counterparty credit issues are all about the mix between defaulter pays and non-defaulter pays.  Between collateral and capital.  DFA and Emir mandate a corner solution: defaulter pays.  It is highly debatable (but lamentably under-debated) whether this corner solution is best.  But it is better to have an open discussion of this issue, with a detailed comparison of the costs and benefits of the alternatives.  The margin sharing proposal blurs the distinctions, and therefore obfuscates rather than clarifies.

Call a spade a spade. Argue that there is a better mix of collateral and capital.  Argue that segregated counterparty-specific capital is appropriate.  Or not: the counterparty-specific, segregated nature of the capital in margin sharing seems for all the world to be a backhanded, sneaky way to undermine defaulter pays and move away from the corner solution.  Maybe counterparty-specific, segregated capital isn’t best: but maybe just a requirement based on a  firm’s aggregate counterparty exposures, and which doesn’t silo capital for each counterparty, is better.

Even if the end mix of capital and collateral that would result from collateral sharing  is better than the mandated solution, such ends achieved by sneaky means lead to trouble down the road.  It opens the door for further sneaky, ad hoc, and hence poorly understood, adjustments to the system down the line.  This increases the potential for rent seeking, and for the abuse of regulator discretion, because there is less accountability when policies are changed by stealth.  (Obamacare, anyone?)  Moreover, a series of ad hoc fixes to individual problems tends to lead to an incoherent system that needs reform down the road-and which creates its own systemic risks.  (Again: Obamacare, anyone?)  Furthermore, the information produced in an honest debate is a public good that can improve future policy.

In other words, a rethink on capital vs. collateral is a capital idea.  Let’s have that rethink openly and honestly, rather than pretending that things like margin sharing are consistent with the laws and regulations that mandate margins, when in fact they are fundamentally different.

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March 11, 2014

CCP Insurance for Armageddon Time

Matt Leising has an interesting story in Bloomberg about a consortium of insurance companies that will offer an insurance policy to clearinghouses that will address one of the most troublesome issues CCPs face: what to do when the waterfall runs dry.  That is, who bears any remaining losses after the defaulters’ margins, defaulters’ default fund contributions, CCP capital, and non-defaulters’ default fund contributions (including any top-up obligation) are all exhausted.

Proposals include variation margin haircuts, and initial margin haircuts.  Variation margin haircuts would essentially reduce the amount that those owed money on defaulted contracts would receive, thereby mutualizing default losses among “winners.”  Initial margin haircuts would share the losses among both winners and losers.

Given that the “winners” include many hedgers who would have suffered losses on other positions, I’ve always found variation margin haircutting problematic: it would reduce payoffs precisely in those states of the world in which the marginal utility of those payoffs is particularly high.  But that has been the industry’s preferred approach to this problem, though it has definitely not been universally popular, to say the least.  Distributive battles are never popularity contests.

This is where the insurance concept steps in.  The insurers will cover up to $6 to $10 billion in losses (across multiple CCPs) once all other elements of the default waterfall-including non-defaulters’ default fund contributions and CCP equity-are exhausted.  This will sharply limit, and eliminate in all but the most horrific scenarios, the necessity of mutualizing losses among non-clearing members via variation or initial margin haircutting.

Of course this sounds great in concept.  But one thing not discussed in the article is price.  How expensive will the coverage be?  Will CCPs find it sufficiently affordable to buy, or will they decide to haircut margins in some way instead because that is cheaper?

As I say in Matt’s article, although this proposal addresses one big headache regarding CCPs in extremis, it does not address another major concern: the wrong way risk inherent in CCPs.  Losses are likely to hit the default fund in crisis scenarios, which is precisely when the CCP member firms (banks mainly) are least able to take the hit.

It would have been truly interesting if insurers would have been willing to share losses with CCP members.  That would have mitigated the wrong way risk problem.  But the insurers were evidently not willing to do that.   This is likely because they are concerned about the moral hazard problems.  Members would have less incentive to mitigate risk if some of that risk is offloaded onto insurers who don’t influence CCP risk management and margining the way member firms do.

In sum, the insurers are taking on the risk in the extreme tail.  This of course raises the question of whether they are able to bear such risk, as it is likely to crystalize precisely during Armageddon Time. The consortium attempts to allay those concerns by pointing out that they have no derivatives positions (translation: We are not AIG!!!)  But there is still reason to ponder whether these companies will be solvent during the wrenching conditions that will exist when potentially multiple CCPs blow through their entire waterfalls.

Right now this is just a proposal and only the bare outlines have been disclosed.  It will be fascinating to see whether the concept actually sells, or whether CCPs will figure it is cheaper to offload the risk in the extreme tail on their customers rather than on insurance companies in exchange for a premium.

I’m also curious: will Buffett participate.  He’s the tail risk provider of last resort, and his (hypocritical) anti-derivatives rhetoric aside, this seems like it’s right down his alley.

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March 4, 2014

Derivatives Priorities in Bankrutpcy: A Hobson’s Choice?

And now for something completely different . . . finance.  (More Russia/Ukraine later.)

The Bank of England wants to put a stay on derivatives contracts entered into by an insolvent bank, thereby negating some of the priorities in bankruptcy accorded to derivatives counterparties:

he U.K. central bank wants lenders and the International Swaps and Derivatives Association Inc., an industry group, to agree to temporarily halt claims on banks that become insolvent and need intervention, Andrew Gracie, executive director of the BOE’s special resolution unit, said in an interview.

“The entry of a bank into resolution should not in itself be an event of default which allows counterparties to start accelerating contracts and triggering cross-defaults,” Gracie said. “You would get what you saw in Lehmans — huge amounts of uncertainty and an uncontrolled cascade of closeouts and cross defaults in the market.”

The priority status of derivatives trades is problematic at best: although it increases the fraction of the claims that derivatives counterparties receive from a bankrupt bank, this effect is primarily redistributive.  Other creditors receive less.  On the plus side, in the absence of priorities, counterparties could be locked into contracts entered into as hedges that are of uncertain value and which may not pay off for some time.  This complicates the task of replacing the hedge entered into with the bankrupt bank.   On balance, given the redistributive nature of priorities, and the fact that some of those who lose due to the fact that derivatives are privileged may be systemically important or may run, there is something to be said for this change.

But the redistributive nature of priorities makes me skeptical that this will really have that much effect on whether a bank gets into trouble in the first place.  In particular, since runs and liquidity crises are what really threatens the stability of banks, the change of priorities likely will mainly just affect who has the incentive to run on a troubled institution, without affecting all that much the overall probability of a run.

Under the current set of priorities, derivatives counterparties have an incentive to stick longer with a troubled bank, because in the event it becomes insolvent they have a priority claim.  But this makes other claimants on a failing bank more anxious to run, because they know that if the bank does fail derivatives counterparties will get a lion’s share of the remaining assets.  By reducing the advantages that the derivatives couunterparties have, they are more likely to run and pull value from the failing firm, whereas other claimants are less likely to run than under the current regime.  (Duffie’s book on the failure of an OTC derivatives dealer shows how derivatives counterparties can effectively run.)

In other words, in terms of affecting the vulnerability of a bank to a destabilizing run, the choice of priorities is something of a Hobson’s choice.  It affects mainly who has an incentive to run, rather than the likelihood of a run over all.

The BoE’s initiative seems to be symptomatic of something I’ve criticized quite a bit over the past several years: the tendency to view derivatives in isolation.  Triggering of cross-defaults and accelerating contracts is a problem because they can hasten the collapse of a shaky bank.  So fix that, and banks become more stable, right? But maybe not because it changes the behavior and decisions of others who can also bring down a financial institution. This is why I am skeptical that these sorts of changes will affect the stability of banks much one way or the other.  They might affect where a fire breaks out, but not the likelihood of a fire overall.

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