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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June 15, 2016

Where’s the CFTC’s Head AT?: Fools Rush in Where Angels Fear to Tread

Filed under: Commodities,Derivatives,Economics,Exchanges,Financial crisis,HFT,Regulation — The Professor @ 1:07 pm

The CFTC is currently considering Regulation AT (for Automated Trading). It is the Commission’s attempt to get a handle on HFT and algorithmic trading.

By far the most controversial aspect of the proposed regulation is the CFTC’s demand that algo traders provide the Commission with their source code. Given the sensitivity of this information, algo/HFT firms are understandably freaking out over this demand.

Those concerns are certainly legitimate. But what I want to ask is: what’s the point? What can the Commission actually accomplish?

The Commission argues that by reviewing source code, it can identify possible coding errors that could lead to “disruptive events” like the 2013 Knight Capital fiasco. Color me skeptical, for at least two reasons.

First, I seriously doubt that the CFTC can attract people with the coding skill necessary to track down errors in trading algorithms, or can devote the time necessary. Reviewing the code of others is a difficult task, usually harder than writing the code in the first place; the code involved here is very complex and changes frequently; and the CFTC is unlikely to be able devote the resources necessary for a truly effective review. Further, who has the stronger incentive? A firm that can be destroyed by a coding error, or some GS-something? (The prospect of numerous individuals perusing code creates the potential for a misappropriation of intellectual property which is what really has the industry exercised.) Not to mention that if you really have the chops to code trading algos, you’ll work for a prop shop or Citadel or Goldman or whomever and make much more than a government salary.

Second, and more substantively, reviewing individual trading algorithms in isolation is of limited value in determining their potentially disruptive effects. These individual algorithms are part of a complex system, in the technical/scientific meaning of the term. These individual pieces interact with one another, and create feedback mechanisms. Algo A takes inputs from market data that is produced in part by Algos B, C, D, E, etc. Based on these inputs, Algo A takes actions (e.g., enters or cancels orders), and Algos B, C, D, E, etc., react. Algo A reacts to those reactions, and on and on.

These feedbacks can be non-linear. Furthermore, the dimensionality of this problem is immense. Basically, an algo says if the state of the market is X, do Y. Evaluating algos in toto, the state of the market can include the current and past order books of every product, as well as the past order books (both explicitly as a condition in some algorithms, or implicitly through the empirical analysis that the developers use to find profitable trading rules based on historical market information), as well as market news. This state changes continuously.

Given this dimensionality and feedback-driven complexity, evaluating trading algorithms in isolation is a fools errand. Stability depends on how the algorithms interact. You cannot determine the stability of an emergent order, or its vulnerability to disruption, by looking at the individual components.

And since humans are still part of the trading ecosystem, how software interacts with meatware matters too. Fat finger problems are one example, but just normal human reactions to market developments can be destabilizing. This is true when all of the actors are human: it’s also true when some are human and some are algorithmic.

Look at the Flash Crash. Even in retrospect it has proven impossible to establish definitively the chain of events that precipitated it and caused it to unfold the way that it did. How is it possible to evaluate prospectively the stability of a system under a vastly larger set of possible states than those that existed on the day of the Flash Crash?

These considerations mean that  the CFTC–or any regulator–has little ability to improve system stability even if given access to the complete details of important parts of that system. But it’s potentially worse than that. Ill-advised changes to pieces of the system can make it less stable.

This is because in complex systems, attempts to improve the safety of individual components of the system can actually increase the probability of system failure.

In sum, markets are complex systems/emergent orders. The effects of changes to parts of these systems are highly unpredictable. Furthermore, it is difficult, and arguably impossible, to predict how changes to individual pieces of the system will affect the behavior of the system as a whole under all possible contingencies, especially given the vastness of the set of contingencies.

Based on this reality, we should be very chary about letting any regulator attempt to micromanage pieces of this complex system. Indeed, any regulator should be reluctant to undertake this task. But regulators frequently overestimate their competence, and financial regulators have proven time and again that they really don’t understand that they are dealing with a complex system/emergent order that does not respond to their interventions in the way that they intend. But fools rush in where angels fear to tread, and if the Commission persists in its efforts to become the Commissar of Code, it will be playing the fool–and it will not just be algo traders that pay the price.

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June 12, 2016

Squeezing Dr. Copper

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It seems to have worked.

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

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

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

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

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

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June 8, 2016

The CFTC Puts a Little Less Rat In It

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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May 29, 2016

To the NYT It Would Be News That Socialism Causes Economic Catastrophe

Filed under: Climate Change,Commodities,Economics,Energy,Politics,Regulation — The Professor @ 2:05 pm

Venezuela is on the verge of economic collapse and social disintegration. Here’s the NYT’s diagnosis:

The growing economic crisis — fueled by low prices for oil, the country’s main export; a drought that has crippled Venezuela’s ability to generate hydroelectric power; and a long decline in manufacturing and agricultural production — has turned into an intensely political one for President Nicolás Maduro. This month, he declared a state of emergency, his second this year, and ordered military exercises, citing foreign threats.

Do you see what’s missing? Not a single mention of socialism, Chavism, Bolivarian socialism, etc.

Other countries have suffered similar shocks without descending into dystopian chaos like Venezuela. Many countries in South America, for instance (notably Columbia and Brazil), have suffered from the decline in commodity prices and the drought, and are doing poorly economically, but are not plagued by empty store shelves, myriad shuttered factories and stores, and the imminent threat of social violence. Brazil has suffered from a lack of hydropower due to the drought, but has imported LNG to keep the lights on. Venezuela can’t afford to.

Further, Venezuela’s descent into catastrophe started long ago, and serious problems were clearly manifest in 2014 and before when the price of oil was over $100/bbl and the drought had not reduced hydropower output.

Venezuela’s current crisis had its roots with Chavez’s triumph in the 2002-2003 general strike, and the subsequent firing of 18,000 PDVSA employees. In the years that followed, foreign investors were expropriated, as were domestic businesses, all in the name of socialism. The government has imposed price controls on an every widening array of goods. As shortages increased and inflation spiked, the government increased the scope of price controls and enforced them in a draconian way, including through the dispatching of red shirted goons to seize offending businesses.

The results of all this should have been eminently predictable: shortages and a collapse of economic activity. It is those policies that caused the “long decline in manufacturing and agricultural production.”

If the NYT read it’s own freaking archives, it might have realized that this problem was looming well before the oil price decline and the drought:

Venezuela is one of the world’s top oil producers at a time of soaring energy prices [hahaha], yet shortages of staples like milk, meat and toilet paper are a chronic part of life here, often turning grocery shopping into a hit or miss proposition.

Some residents arrange their calendars around the once-a-week deliveries made to government-subsidized stores like this one, lining up before dawn to buy a single frozen chicken before the stock runs out. Or a couple of bags of flour. Or a bottle of cooking oil. (Emphasis added.)

Mind well the date of the article: April 21, 2012. Four years ago. When the Brent price was about $118/bbl.

This title of the NYT piece is hilarious: “With Venezuelan Food Shortages, Some Blame Price Controls.”

Hey, NYT: by “some” do you mean people with an economics IQ of above 80? (A category which would exclude the editorial staff and most of the news room.)

What is happening in Venezuela is a perfect illustration of something that Adam Smith recognized 240 years ago. It takes perverse government policy to turn an adverse supply or demand shock into shortages and economic catastrophe:

Whoever examines with attention the history of the dearths and famines which have afflicted any part of Europe, during either the course of the present or that of the two preceding centuries, of several of which we have pretty exact accounts, will find, I believe, that a dearth never has arisen from any combination among the inland dealers in corn, nor from any other cause but a real scarcity, occasioned sometimes perhaps, and in some particular places, by the waste of war, but in by far the greatest number of cases by the fault of the seasons; and that a famine has never arisen from any other cause but the violence of government attempting, by improper means, to remedy the inconveniences of a dearth. (Emphasis added.)

That is a perfect description of what is happening in Venezuela.

But various economic morons on the left (but I repeat myself) like Bernie Sanders, Jeremy Corbyn, Sean Penn, and Danny Glover (to name just a few) have been cheering Chavism and Bolivarian socialism for attacking the inequalities spawned by capitalism red in tooth and claw. In a perverse way, it has indeed succeeded in reducing inequality–by making everyone largely equal in their abject misery.

Perhaps there is a silver lining to the food shortages. They reduce the need for toilet paper, which ran out long ago (due to price controls, naturally).

The New York Times prides itself on carrying all the news that’s fit to print. Apparently the news about the impact of price controls hasn’t reached it yet, even though observant folks picked up on it about the time of Diolcetian’s Edict on Prices, a mere 1715 years ago.

This economic cluelessness by the NYT is precisely why its criticism of me doesn’t bother me. Such boundless economic ignorance (which is shared by a vast swathe of its readers, including notably Elizabeth Warren) renders its criticism meaningless. Anyone so stupid, or so ideologically blinded, that they fail to recognize that Venezuela’s problems have everything to do with perverse government policy has nothing to say about economics that is worth paying the slightest heed.

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May 23, 2016

Storing Oil at a Loss? Analysis Akin to the Drunk Looking for His Keys Under the Streetlight

Filed under: Commodities,Derivatives,Economics,Energy — The Professor @ 12:48 pm

This article claims that “Oil traders are borrowing from banks to store crude at a loss.” Almost certainly not.

The calculation is based on contangos in Brent crude. But the vast bulk of the oil being stored at sea is in Singapore, and is not BFOE, from what I can gather.  This makes all the difference.

This is an example of what has long been a puzzle in economics in which futures prices in a central market (like Brent futures) are at less than full carry but inventories are held at other locations, or in non-deliverable grades (in the central market).  People are puzzled because they don’t take into account transformation costs. It would be impossible for some locations/grades to be at a carry that incentivizes holding inventory while other locations/grades are in backwardation if there are no frictions (costs) in transforming a commodity from one location to another, or from one grade to another: take the stuff out from storage in the market that is at full carry, move it to the central market that is in backwardation, and capture that backwardation (i.e., the premium for immediate consumption/delivery). But if there are frictions, the costs of transforming (e.g., shipping) the commodity to the central market may exceed the backwardation/premium for immediate delivery, making it unprofitable to make that transformation to capture that premium.

This means that a commodity that is costly to transport, or where there are bottlenecks in the logistical or refining processes, will have different forward curves at different locations (or for different grades). Where inventories are held, the price structure will cover storage costs: where the price structure doesn’t cover storage costs, inventories will not be held. Similarly, if some grades of a commodity are stored, the forward curve specific to that grade will cover storage costs.

A good example is Iranian heavy crude in the spring and summer of 2008. At a time when light sweet crudes (WTI and Brent) were in backwardation, and oil prices were reaching record highs, 14 or so supertankers of Iranian crude were swinging at anchor. Why? The demand was for light sweet crude to make low sulphur diesel to meet new European regulations: due to bottlenecks in refining in Europe (European refineries being unable to economically process heavy sour Iranian crude into LSD), there was strong demand for sweet crude that was cheap to refine into LSD, and little was in storage.  As a result,  WTI and Brent prices were high, and their futures curves were in backwardation. However, there was weaker demand for heavy sour crude because of its unsuitability for producing LSD. Also, many refineries that were optimized to process sour Iranian crude were down for maintenance. As a result, Iranian crude sold at a very large discount to WTI and Brent, and the forward price structure for that crude made it economical to store it.

Moving forward to the present, storing non-Brent crude in Asia can be economical even if time spreads do not cover the cost of storage Brent in NW Europe. Even though the lack of carry in the Brent market indicates a high demand for BFOE, the cost of transporting crude from Asia may make it uneconomical to ship it to Europe to meet the high demand for oil there. Moreover, the grades of crude being stored on tankers in Asia may not be competitive with Brent. Similarly, demand is not high enough in Asia to make it profitable to refine all of the supply there. So it is uneconomic to move it to Europe, and it is uneconomic to refine all of it. Therefore, store some of it in Asia even when Brent time spreads are narrow.

Furthermore, the apparent squeezes in Brent mean that some of the demand for it is artificial, and that Brent spreads do not reflect the competitive economics of storage. That is, if there are squeezes or even anticipations of squeezes, Brent calendar spreads are artificially high due to the exercise of market power. It is particularly misguided to use Brent spreads to evaluate the economics of non-Brent storage in this case. (The major reason that squeezes can work is that it is impossible to transform non-Brent crude into Brent.)

Oil traders operate on very thin margins. They are not going to make uneconomic trades. Period. If they are storing oil on ships in Singapore, it is because it pays to do so.

So why the claim that they are storing at a loss?

It’s like the old story of the drunk looking for his car keys under the streetlamp, because the light is better there. It is easy for outsiders to observe Brent spreads, or WTI spreads: just look at a Bloomberg screen, or even futures settlement prices. Singapore spreads, not so much. Traders search to collect information about prices and price structures in an opaque market like Singapore, and can use that to evaluate the economics of storage opportunities. But you or I or journalists or even analysts at Morgan Stanley have a far tougher time doing that.

So the outsiders look under the Brent futures streetlight, and conclude that storing oil doesn’t pay. But the oil isn’t under the streetlight. It’s being stored in the dark. And those who can see in the dark are storing it there because they can see that it pays.

 

 

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May 13, 2016

Surprise, Surprise, Surprise: Guess Who Squeezed (and May be Squeezing) Brent

Filed under: Commodities,Derivatives,Economics,Energy,Regulation — The Professor @ 7:44 pm

Cue Gomer Pyle. It is now being reported that Glencore was not just bigfooting fuel oil in Singapore, but it was the firm stomping on Brent as well. It took delivery of 15 or more cargoes of the 37 available for June loading. There is also talk that the firm had accumulated a position in excess of the 37, and had already had contracts to sell Brent to refineries in Asia and Europe.

Thus all the elements of a squeeze were in place. A position bigger than deliverable supply, and a grave pre-dug to bury the corpse. It was able to liquidate some of its position (25 cargoes or so, or more than 15 million barrels) at an artificially high price (as indicated by the flip from contango to backwardation in the last couple of weeks of trading).

The July contract has also flipped into a backwardation, suggesting that the play is on again.

Two (and perhaps three, if Glencore is behind what’s going on now) squeezes in short order is pretty audacious, even for Glencore. Makes me wonder if this is part of the company’s resurrection plan. Trading needs to perform in order to offset the carnage in the mining operation. That means taking more risks. Including regulatory and legal risks. Though truth be told, both the UK and Singapore have been quite supine in responding to market power manipulations for years. For instance, with all the squeezes that have taken place on the LME over the years, what have UK regulators ever done? What have they ever done in Brent? Or in the softs, where some pretty big squeezes have taken place in cocoa and coffee in recent years?

Inspector Clouseau would be proud.

The bigger risks are economic and commercial. Squeezes can be very profitable, but they can go horribly wrong. Recall that Glencore’s qua Glencore’s genesis was Marc Rich’s failed attempt to squeeze the LME zinc market in 1992. Marc Rich & Co. lost around $200 million, which resulted in a coup led by Ivan Glasenbeg that ousted Rich, and the renaming of the company as Glencore.

But desperate times sometimes call for desperate measures. Yasuo Hamanaka comes to mind. When his massive rogue trading operation was teetering on the precipice, needing a big profit in a hurry he carried out a massive corner of LME copper in December 1995. He wrote his co-conspirator “this is our last arms” (quoting from memory). In other words, do or die.

I’m not saying that Glencore’s problems are at all similar to Hamanaka’s, but the company does have big issues, and a need to make a lot of money in a hurry. The kind of issues that can lead big risk takers to take bigger risks, and push the envelope. The envelopes in Brent and Singapore fuel oil are pretty expansive, but Glencore seems to be pushing them nonetheless. Not part of the official resurrection plan, but most likely part of it nonetheless.

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May 10, 2016

Glencore Mucking About in the Dirtiest Market in the World

Filed under: Commodities,Derivatives,Economics,Energy,Regulation — The Professor @ 5:30 pm

The WSJ has an interesting story about Glencore big-footing the Singapore fuel oil market:

In a lightly trod corner of the oil market, Glencore PLC is leaving a big footprint.

During two of the past five quarters, the commodities trader has bought up large volumes of fuel oil at Asia’s main trading hub in Singapore at a time of day when it has an outsize effect on an Asia-wide price benchmark.

Trades made during the daily “Platts window”—the final few minutes of trading—are reported to Platts, an energy-price publisher, which uses the data to calculate a daily benchmark used to price millions of barrels of fuel oil across Asia.

In the first quarter, Glencore bought 20.7 million barrels of Singapore-traded fuel oil in the window—44% of all the Platts-window buying—according to the publisher, which is owned by S&P Global Inc. During that period, fuel-oil prices in Singapore rose 7.5%, according to Platts, outpacing Brent crude oil, up 6.2%, and U.S.-traded crude oil, up 3.5%.

“The fuel-oil bull play has been a fairly regular feature of the market-on-close window for many years,” said John Driscoll, chief strategist at JTD Energy Services in Singapore and a former fuel oil-trader. “Singapore is the world’s largest marine-fuels market and serves as the central pricing hub for petroleum products east of Suez. These conditions tend to favor bullish traders who have the resources and conviction to aggressively bid the window for a sustained period of time.”

The Journal soft-pedals what is going on here:

Some traders, shipbrokers and commodity experts say Glencore’s purchases have hallmarks of a trading gambit sometimes employed in the lightly regulated world of fuel-oil trading. In it, traders buy large quantities of physical fuel oil to benefit a separate position elsewhere, such as in the derivatives market or elsewhere in the physical market.

I’ll be a little more blunt. Yes, this looks for all the world like a manipulative play, along the lines of my 2001 Journal of Business piece “Manipulation of Cash-Settled Futures Contracts.” Buy up large quantities in the physical market to drive up the price of a price marker that is used to determine payoffs in cash-settled OTC swaps. (It’s possible to do something similar on the short side.) This works because the supply curve of the physical is upward sloping. Buy a lot, drive the market up the supply curve thereby elevating the price of the physical. If you are also long a derivative with a payoff increasing in the cash price, even though you lose money on the physical play, you can make even more money on the paper position if that position is big enough.

It’s impossible to know for sure, without knowing Glencore’s OTC book, but it is hard to come up with another reason for buying so much during the window.

Those on the other side of the OTC trade (if it exists) know who their counterparty is. It is interesting to note the “ethos” of this market. Nobody is running to court, and nobody is shouting manipulation. The losers take their lumps, and figure that revenge is the best reward.

Platts reacted with its usual blah, blah, blah:

“The Singapore refined-oil-product markets are highly liquid, attracting dozens of buyers and sellers from across the world, and our assessments of those markets remain robust,” Platts said in a statement. “It’s worth highlighting that our rigorous standards in our oil benchmarks are fully open to public scrutiny, and a result of information provided to us on a level playing field.”

As a transactions-based methodology, Platts windows are not vulnerable to some kinds of manipulation (e.g., of the Lie-bor variety) but they are definitely vulnerable to the large purchases or sales of a big trader looking to move the price to benefit an OTC position. The most that Platts can do is provide more delivery capacity to make the supply curve more elastic, but as I show in the 2001 paper, as long as the supply curve is upward sloping, or the demand curve is downward sloping a trader with a big enough derivatives position and a big enough pocketbook has the incentive and ability to manipulate the price.

Once upon a time, in the 90s in particular, the Brent market was periodically squeezed. Platts (and the industry) responded by broadening the Brent basket to include Forties, Oseberg, and Ekofisk. For a while that seemed to have made squeezes harder. But the continued decline of North Sea production has made the market vulnerable again. Indeed, all the signs suggest that the June Brent contract that went off the board last week was squeezed: it went into a steep backwardation during the last few days of trading, and the market returned to contango as soon as that contract expired.

The fact is that market power problems are endemic in commodity markets. The combination of relatively small and constrained physical markets and big paper markets create the opportunity and the incentive to exercise market power. It looks like that happened in Brent, and looks like it is a chronic problem in Singapore FO, reputed to be one of the dirtiest markets in the world.

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May 5, 2016

If You Believe the Official Reason for Cutting Off Chinese Economic Statistics, I Have a Great Wall to Sell You

Filed under: China,Commodities,Economics,Energy,Politics — The Professor @ 9:33 pm

Since October of last year, China’s National Bureau of Statistics has not published detailed data on metals markets. And it’s not just metals:

Data on oil products such as liquefied petroleum gas, naphtha and fuel oil have been withdrawn. So too have regional figures for coal, steel and electricity output.

 

The ostensible reason is that statistics bureau personnel were selling data for personal gain.

If you believe that, I will sell you a large wall. It’s so big they say you can see it from space! Only one like it! I sell it to you for a song.

“Anti-corruption” is the cover/pretext that the Chinese government now uses to eliminate those who have fallen from political favor. The most likely explanation for the “anti-corruption” drive aimed at economic statistics agencies is not to eliminate politically inconvenient people: it is to eliminate politically inconvenient data.

The fraudulence of Chinese official economic statistics is well known. One of the challenges of creating false official statistics for aggregate numbers like GDP growth is making it consistent with data on specific industries or sectors. The divergence between GDP growth and electricity production, for instance, has often been remarked upon.

How to solve this problem? Stop producing the underlying sector/industry/product specific data. How to do that without giving away the real reason? Use the all-purpose excuse: fighting corruption.

This has an air of plausibility: after all, corruption is rife in China. But this really doesn’t pass the smell test, especially given the timing: note that the data embargo started when concerns about the Chinese economy became acute at the end of last year.

The Chinese are desperate to maintain the illusion of 6.7 percent growth, quarter in, quarter out. Maintaining that illusion has become harder and harder as questioning of the consistency of various data sources has become more insistent. Shutting off the flow of sector/industry/product data is a brute force way of dealing with that problem.

This is another signal of the real state of the Chinese economy. The government wouldn’t have jacked up the stimulus unless the true state of affairs was far more dire than official statistics suggest. The government wouldn’t be suppressing data from the primary goods sectors unless it was also giving the lie to the official line.

Bottom line: question everything relating to the economy in China right now. Be especially skeptical about anything done under the banner of fighting corruption. That banner should be a red flag warning that the Chinese Communist Party is trying to suppress inconvenient people, or inconvenient truths. If they say it’s about corruption, it’s really about something else.

 

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April 29, 2016

Rounding Up the Usual Suspects, With Chinese Characteristics

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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