Streetwise Professor

July 2, 2015

See You In the Funny Papers

Filed under: Clearing,Commodities,Derivatives,Economics,Exchanges — The Professor @ 6:01 pm

Here’s a first. I appear in a comic strip history of the CME-ICE rivalry in Bloomberg Markets Magazine. Quite the likeness!

Other than the fact that I appeared at all, the most amusing part of the, er, article, is the panel depicting CME’s Terry Duffy getting the news that ICE was making a rival bid for CBOT via a note slipped under his hotel room door at the FIA at Boca at 0600. I had eaten dinner with Duffy and CME CEO Craig Donohue the night before. They were in a little better mood then than they were the next day.

Bloomberg’s Matt Leising called me at about 0630 to ask me about the development. That led to an appearance on Bloomberg TV, where I was interviewed right before Jeff Sprecher. He watched me give the¬†interview, and was not pleased with my prediction that CME would eventually prevail, but have to pay a lot more: I saw him say to the woman next to him (who I later found out was his wife, Kelly Loeffler) “who is this guy?” That was exactly how it worked out though, and apparently there were no hard feelings because Sprecher spoke at a conference I organized at UH a couple of years later. Either that, or he didn’t connect me with “this guy.”

Evenhanded guy that I am, I invited Craig Donohue to speak at a conference a year or two after that. His speech was interrupted by some Occupy types (remember them?), whom my tiger of an assistant Avani and I bodily shoved out of the room while the rest of the audience sat in stunned silence (not knowing what was going on).

So yeah. My involvement with CME and ICE sometimes does sound like something out of the funny pages. Now it’s official.

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June 15, 2015

Always Follow the Price Signals. I Did on Brent-WTI.

Filed under: Commodities,Derivatives,Economics,Energy,Politics,Regulation — The Professor @ 8:18 pm

As a blogger, I am long the option to point out when I call one right. Of course, I am short the option for you all to point out when I call one wrong, but I can’t help it if that option is usually so far out of the money (or if you don’t exercise it when it is in) ūüėČ

I will exercise my option today, after reading this article by Greg Meyer in the FT:

West Texas Intermediate crude, once derided as a broken oil benchmark, is enjoying a comeback.

Volumes of futures tracking the yardstick have averaged 1m contracts a day this year through May, up more than 45 per cent from the same period of 2014, exchange data show. WTI has also sped ahead of volumes in rival Brent crude, less than two years after Brent unseated WTI as the most heavily traded oil futures market.

. . . .

WTI has also regained a more stable connection with global oil prices after suffering glaring discounts because of transport constraints at its delivery point of Cushing, Oklahoma. The gap led some to question WTI as a useful gauge of oil prices.

‚ÄúI guess the death of the WTI contract was greatly exaggerated,‚ÄĚ said Andy Lipow of consultancy Lipow Oil Associates.

But in the past two years, new pipeline capacity of more than 1m barrels a day has relinked Cushing to the US Gulf of Mexico coast, narrowing the discount between Brent and WTI to less than $4 a barrel.

Mark Vonderheide, managing partner of Geneva Energy Markets, a New York trading firm, said: ‚ÄúWith WTI once again well connected to the global market, there is renewed interest from hedgers outside the US to trade it. When the spread between WTI and Brent was more than $20 and moving fast, WTI was much more difficult to trade.‚ÄĚ

Things have played out exactly as I forecast in August, 2011:

One of the leading crude oil futures contracts‚ÄďCME Group‚Äôs WTI‚Äďhas been the subject of a drumbeat of criticism for months due to the divergence of WTI prices in Cushing from prices at the Gulf, and from the price of the other main oil benchmark‚ÄďBrent.¬† But whereas WTI‚Äôs problem is one of logistics that is in the process of being addressed, Brent‚Äôs issues are more fundamental ones related to adequate supply, and less amenable to correction.

Indeed, WTI‚Äôs ‚Äúproblem‚ÄĚ is actually the kind an exchange would like to have.¬† The divergence between WTI prices in the Midcontinent and waterborne crude prices reflects a surge of production in Canada and North Dakota.¬† Pipelines are currently lacking to ship this crude to the Gulf of Mexico, and Midcon refineries are running close to full capacity, meaning that the additional supply is backing up in Cushing and depressing prices.

But the yawning gap between the Cushing price at prices at the Gulf is sending a signal that more transportation capacity is needed, and the market is responding with alacrity.  If only the regulators were similarly speedy.

. . . .

Which means that those who are crowing about Brent today, and heaping scorn on WTI, will be begging for WTI‚Äôs problems in a few years.¬† For by then, WTI‚Äôs issues will be fixed, and it will be sitting astride a robust flow of oil tightly interconnected with the nexus of world oil trading.¬† But the Brent contract will be an inverted paper pyramid, resting on a thinner and thinner point of crude production.¬† There will be gains from trade‚Äďlarge ones‚Äďfrom redesigning the contract, but the difficulties of negotiating an agreement among numerous big players will prove nigh on to impossible to surmount.¬† Moreover, there will be no single regulator in a single jurisdiction that can bang heads together (for yes, that is needed sometimes) and cajole the parties toward agreement.

So Brent boosters, enjoy your laugh while it lasts.  It won’t last long, and remember, he who laughs last laughs best.

This really wasn’t that hard a call to make. The price signals were obvious, and its always safe to bet on market participants responding to price signals. That’s exactly what happened. The only surprising thing is that so few publicly employed this logic to predict that the disconnection between WTI and ocean borne crude prices would be self-correcting.

Speaking of not enjoying the laugh, the exchange where Brent is traded-ICE-issued a rather churlish statement:

Atlanta-based ICE blamed the shift on ‚Äúincreased volatility in WTI crude oil prices relative to Brent crude oil prices, which drove more trading by non-commercial firms in WTI, as well as increased financial incentive schemes offered by competitors‚ÄĚ.

The first part of this statement is rather incomprehensible. Re-linking WTI improved the contract’s effectiveness as a hedge for crude outside the Mid-continent (PADD 2), which allowed hedgers to take advantage of the WTI liquidity pool, which in turn attracted more speculative interest.

Right now the only potential source of disconnect is the export ban. That is, markets corrected the infrastructure bottleneck, but politics has failed to correct the regulatory bottleneck. When that will happen, I am not so foolish to predict.

 

 

 

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June 13, 2015

Definitive Proof That The New York Times’ David Kocieniewski Is A Total Moron*

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

Not that further proof is needed, but still.

You may recall that NYT “reporter” (and by “reporter,” I mean “hack”) David Kocieniewski slimed me on the front page of the NYT on 31 December, 2013. In a nutshell, Kocieniewski accused me of being in the pocket of oil traders, and that this had led me to skew my research and policy positions. Specifically, he insinuated that I opposed¬†position limits and defended¬†speculation in energy markets because I had been suborned by oil traders who profited from high prices, like those that occurred in 2008 (before the crash). Kocieniewski’s main piece of “evidence” was that I had written a white paper sponsored by Trafigura. According to Kocieniewski, as an oil trader, Trafigura benefited from high prices.

At the time I pointed out that this demonstrates Kocieniewski’s appalling ignorance, as Trafigura is not a speculator, and is typically short futures (and other derivatives) to hedge its inventories of oil (and other commodities). Companies like Trafigura have no real interest in the direction of oil prices directly. They make money on margins and volumes. The relationship between these variables and the level of flat prices depends on what makes flat prices high or low. ¬†I further said that if anything, commodity traders are likely to prefer a low price environment because (1) low prices reduce working capital needs, which can be punishing when prices are high, and (2) low price environments often create trading opportunities, in particular storage/contango plays that can be very profitable for those with access to storage assets.

Well, imagine my surprise (not!) when I saw this headline and article:

Crude slide bolsters Trafigura’s profits and trading margins

Trafigura has posted record half-year profits and a doubling of trading margins, illustrating how one of the world’s largest commodity trading houses has been a big beneficiary of the collapse in oil prices.

Profits at the group rose almost 40 per cent in the six months to 31 March, reaching $654m, while margins hit 3.1 per cent, as the Switzerland-based company used its global network of traders and storage facilities to buy cheap crude and take advantage of dislocations in the oil market.

. . . .
It was not the only company to benefit. Other trading groups including Vitol, the largest independent oil trader, and Gunvor have posted strong results for this period. Even Shell, BP and Total managed better-than-expected first quarter results thanks to the performance of muscular trading operations.

Wow. In Kocieniewskiworld, “Crude slide bolsters Trafigura’s profits” would be a metaphysical impossibility. Here on earth, that’s an eminently predictable event. Which I predicted. Not that that makes me a genius, just more knowledgeable about commodity markets¬†than David Kocieniewski (which is a very low bar).

Not that there was ever anything to it in the first place, but this pretty much blows to hell the entire premise of Dim Dave’s story. Proof yet again that if you read the NYT for economics stories, you’ll wind up dumber after reading than before.

* As well as an unethical slug who blatantly violated the NYT’s ethics guidelines. Not that his editor gave a damn, making him as much of an unethical slug as Kocieniewski.

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June 11, 2015

The Ethanol Mandate is Enough to Drive Me to Drink

Filed under: Climate Change,Commodities,Economics,Energy,Politics,Regulation — The Professor @ 6:13 pm

About 19 months ago I wrote about RINsanity, i.e., the United States’ nutty¬†ethanol (and other biofuel) program. RINsanity has long outlived the phenomenon (Lin-sanity) that inspired the neologism. A couple of weeks ago, the EPA announced the ethanol and biodiesel quotas . . . for 2014. Who said time travel is impossible? That Einstein. What an idiot! ¬†(The EPA also announced quotas¬†for 2015 and 2016.)

In a nutshell, despite protestations to the contrary, the EPA largely conceded to the reality of the E10 “blend wall” (the fact that the vast bulk of auto engines are incapable of burning fuel with more than 10 percent ethanol), and announced quotas that were (a) smaller than the market expected, and (b) smaller than the statutory amounts that Congress specified in its farseeing omniscience 10 years ago. At the same time, the EPA decreed larger quotas for biodiesel.

As a result, the market did the splits. The price of ethanol RIN credits that count towards the ethanol quota plunged, while the price of biodiesel RIN credits that count towards the biodiesel quota rose. Scott Irwin and Darrell Good have all the gory details here. (Those are the guys to follow on this issue, folks. I’m just kibitzing.)

As a result, pretty much everyone is upset. The nauseating biofuel lobby is screaming bloody murder because the ethanol quota is too small, and is threatening to go to court. Those holding ethanol credits are fuming due to the forty plus percent price decline.

This all points out the dysfunctional nature of environmental markets in which the supply is set by some opaque politicized bureaucratic process unhinged from economic reality. (The European CO2 credit market is another classic example.) The Congressional mandate set quotas (supplies) years in advance based on forecasts of future fuel demand that turned out to be wildly incorrect. So the EPA played Mr. Fixit, and through some unknown process, divined what Congress meant to do-really!-and announced some surprising numbers that caused prices to plummet.

The EPA’s reaction? It is shocked! Shocked! to find gambling going on at Rick’s (ethanol served here!):

The EPA didn’t intend for the program to create a speculative market, and an agency spokesperson declined to comment on RIN price movement.

‚ÄúRINs are used to demonstrate compliance under the Renewable Fuel Standard program,‚ÄĚ the EPA said. The agency manages an electronic system that tracks the RINs, but not their prices on the open market.

Earth to EPA! Earth to EPA! (And hey-aren’t you supposed to be earth’s stewards? So what are you doing orbiting Pluto?): if you create a scarce resource (ethanol credits) a market-and yes, one with speculation!-will appear. This is inevitable as the sun rising in the east. Another unintended but metaphysically certain event.

Indeed, the kind of speculation that these markets foster is particularly bizarre, because of the necessity of speculating on the feedback between the market and the EPA’s decisions on the amount of the scarce resource it creates. A big part of the RIN prices is market participants’ expectations about what the EPA will decide. If the EPA’s decision takes the market price into account, in some unknown (and almost certainly unarticulated) way, the reasoning chain becomes mind-numbingly complex very quickly. Mr. Market guesses what the EPA will do. That affects prices. The EPA takes the price, and guesses what this says about what the market knows about fundamentals . . . and what the market thinks about what the EPA is going to do. It adjusts its decision accordingly. Market participants have to make judgments about the feedback between the price and the EPA’s decision, which can affect the EPA’s decision, and on and on, ad infinitum. (This is analogous to Keynes’s beauty contest metaphor, and Soros’s theory of market “reflexivity.” Sign of the apocalypse alert: I gave Keynes and Soros a favorable mention in a single blog post.)

That’s no way to run a market, but the alternatives are ¬†likely worse.¬†One alternative would be to set quotas for years far into the future, and then not adjust them based on the evolution of other fundamentals that cannot be foreseen when the quotas are set.

It’s pretty clear that events like have just rocked the biofuel world are an inherent part of the system. Somewhat arbitrary, inherently difficult to predict (in part because they are politicized), and “reflexive” decisions are a major determinant of supply. These decisions are made at discrete times. It is extremely likely that there will be disconnections between the quantity the market thinks the EPA will select¬†and what the EPA actually chooses. Given the inelasticity of demand for energy products, these supply surprises lead to big price impacts.

All of which goes to show that a better use of ethanol is imbibing it to cope with the craziness of a faux market.

Of course it’s not just that the market is crazy: it’s crazy that there is a market. Ethanol is an economic and environmental and humanitarian monstrosity. Yes, ethanol would play a role without subsidies or mandates. But a much smaller role. Forcing and inducing its use is costly, not environmentally beneficial, and raises the price of food, which hits the poorest the hardest. So this crazy market shouldn’t exist in the first place. I think I need another drink.

 

 

 

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May 29, 2015

I Think I Read These Predictions About the Impending Revolution in LNG Trading Somewhere Before

Filed under: Commodities,Derivatives,Economics,Energy — The Professor @ 2:42 pm

The FT, Goldman, Jonathan Stern at the Oxford Institute of Energy Research, Vitol, and others are now predicting that the emergence of the US as an LNG exporter, and the looming surplus driven by that plus supplies from Australia, PNG, and elsewhere, are inexorably pushing this commodity away from traditional oil-based long term contracts towards spot trading.

Huh. I remember reading something along those lines last September. Oh, yeah. Here it is. (Also available in Spanish!) I guess it’s more accurate to say I remember writing something exactly along those lines in September.

The opening of the Cheniere* and later the Freeport and Cameron LNG trains in the Gulf will be particularly important. The US is likely to be at the margin in Asia, Latin America and perhaps Europe. Prices are set at the margin, meaning that the LNG pricing mechanism can be integrated into the already robust US/Henry Hub pricing mechanism. Giving the tipping effects discussed in my paper, the transition in the pricing mechanism and the development of a robust spot market is likely to take place relatively rapidly.

I know there is skepticism in the industry about this, but I am pretty confident in my prediction. Experiences in other markets, notably iron ore and to some degree coal, indicate how rapid these transitions can be.

Funny story (to me anyways). I gave the keynote speech at LNG World Asia in Singapore in September, and I laid out my views on this subject. I gave the talk in front of¬†the giant shark tank at the Singapore Aquarium, and I could help but think of Team America, Kim Jung Il, and Hans Blix. I’m sure there were a few people in the audience who would have liked to feed me to the sharks for calling oil-linked pricing “a barbarous relic” and encouraging them to embrace the brave new world of LNG trading.

But whether they like it or not, it’s coming. The inflection point is nigh.

*Full disclosure. Number One Daughter works for Cheniere.

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May 11, 2015

Gazprom Agonistes

Filed under: Commodities,Economics,Energy,Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 12:26 pm

It has been a hellish few months for Gazprom. It’s profits were down 86 percent on lower prices and volumes and the weak ruble. Although the ruble has rebounded, the bad price news will persist for several months at least, given the lagged relationship between the price oil and the price of gas in the company’s oil-linked contracts. The company has been a die-hard defender of the link: another example of be careful what you ask for.

Moreover, the EU finally moved against the firm, filing antitrust charges. Although many of the European Commission’s antitrust actions, especially against US tech firms, are a travesty, the Gazprom brief is actually well-grounded. At the core of the case is Gazprom’s pervasive price discrimination, which is made possible by its vertical integration into transportation and contractual terms preventing resale of gas. Absent these measures, a buyer in a low-price country could resell to a higher price country, thereby undercutting Gazprom’s price discrimination strategy.

It is interesting to note that the main rationale for Gazprom’s vertical integration is one which was identified long ago, based on basic price theory, rather than more elaborate transactions cost economics or property rights economics theories of integration. Back in the 1930s ¬†economists identified price discrimination as a rationale for Alcoa’s vertical integration. There was some formal work on this in the 70s.

Gazprom is attempting to argue that as an arm of the Russian state, it is not subject to European competition rules. Good luck with that. There is therefore a decent chance that by negotiation or adverse decision that Gazprom will essentially become a common carrier/have to unbundle gas sales and transportation, and forego destination clauses that limit resale. This will reduce its ability to engage in price discrimination, either for economic or political reasons.

The company is also having problems closer to home, where it is engaged in a battle with an old enemy (Sechin/Rosneft) and some new ones (Timchenko/Novatek), and it is not faring well.

Gazprom and Putin have always held out China as the answer to all its problems. There were new gas “deals” between Russia and China signed during Xi’s visit to the 70th Victory Day celebration. (Somehow I missed the role China, let alone the Chinese Communists, played in defeating the Nazis.) But the word “deal” always has to be in quotes, because they never seem to be finalized. Remember the “deal” closed with such fanfare last May? I expressed skepticism about its firmness, with good reason. There is a dispute over the interest rate on the $25 billion loan that was part of the plan. Minor detail, surely.

Further, Gazprom doesn’t like the eastern route agreed to last year. It involves massive new greenfield investments in gas fields as well as transportation. It has therefore been pushing for a western route (the Altai route) that would take gas from where Gazprom already has it (in western Siberia) to where China doesn’t want it (its western provinces, rather than the more vibrant and populous¬†east). The “deal” agreed to in Moscow relates to this western route, but as is almost always the case, price is still to be determined.

If you don’t have a price, you don’t have a deal. And the Chinese realize they have the whip hand. Further, they are less than enamored with Russia as a negotiating partner. Who could have ever predicted this? I’m shocked! Shocked!:

Chinese and Russian executives and advisers said that in addition to the challenge of negotiating prices acceptable to both sides, energy deals between the countries have also been hampered by mutual distrust and Chinese concerns about antagonising the US.

‚ÄúThe Russians are unreliable. They are always flipping things around for their own interest,‚ÄĚ said one Chinese oil executive.

Who knew?

Putin is evidently losing patience with the company, and its boss Alexei Miller, is far less powerful than Sechin and Timchenko. When it was a strategic asset in Europe, and offered real possibilities in Asia, it could defend itself. Now that leverage is diminishing, its future is much cloudier.

The impending new supplies of LNG coming online in the US and Australia dim its future prospects further.

In sum, Gazprom is beset by many agonies. Couldn’t happen to a better company.

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May 5, 2015

Blaming SRO Lapses on For-Profit Status: A Straw Man Dining on Red Herring

Filed under: Commodities,Derivatives,Economics,Regulation — The Professor @ 8:28 pm

The frenzy over the Sarao spoofing indictment has led to the CME Group receiving considerable criticism about the adequacy of its oversight of its markets and trading system. One argument that has been advanced is that the CME’s for-profit status (and the for-profit status of other exchanges) is incompatible with its role as a self-regulatory organization. A piece by Brooke Masters titled “Exchanges Need to Balance Policing and Profitability” in the FT a few days ago puts it this way:

The Sarao case highlights the potential problems with the current US system of relying on ‚Äúself-regulatory organisations‚ÄĚ, including the exchanges, to do much of the frontline policing of markets. They are supposed to make sure traders abide by the rules and refer serious misbehaviour on to government regulators.

This system may have worked when exchanges were owned by their members, but now that they have to generate profits for shareholders, conflicts have emerged. A market that cracks down too hard or too quickly could drive away paying customers. The CME controls the futures market allegedly used by Mr Sarao, but the temptation to go soft could be far greater in areas where trading venues compete.

This is a straw man dining on red herring. The for-profit status of exchanges has little, if anything, to do with the incentives of an exchange to self-regulate. Indeed, for some types of conduct, investor ownership and for-profit status likely improves exchange policing efforts substantially.

I addressed these issues 21¬†years ago, and then again 15 years ago, in articles published in the Journal of Law and Economics, and 22 years ago in a piece in the Journal of Legal Studies. In the older JLE article, titled “The Self-Regulation of Commodity Exchanges: The Case of Market Manipulation,” I demonstrated incentives are crucial, and for some types of conduct the incentives to police were weak even for non-profit exchanges.

Exchanges (which were organized as non-profits) historically made little effort to combat corners, despite their manifest distorting effects, because the biggest costs of manipulation fell on inframarginal demanders of exchange services (namely, hedgers) or third parties (people who do not trade rely on exchange prices when making decisions), but exchange volume and member profitability depended on the marginal demanders (e.g., speculators) who were little affected. Therefore, exchanges didn’t internalize the cost of corners, so didn’t try very hard to stop them. For-profit exchanges would have faced the same problem.

In other cases, exchanges-be they for profit or non-profit-face strong incentives to police harmful conduct. For instance, securities exchanges have an incentive to reduce insider trading that reduces liquidity and hence raises trading costs leading to lower trading volume. Again, this incentive is largely independent of whether the exchange is for-profit or not-for-profit.

Exchange incentives to police a particular type of deleterious conduct depend crucially on how the costs of that conduct are distributed, and how it affects trading volume and trading costs. The effect on volume and trading costs determines whether and by how much the exchange’s owners (be they shareholders or members) internalize the cost of this conduct. This internalization depends primarily on the type of conduct, not on how the exchange is organized or who owns it or whether the exchange can pay its owners dividends.

In fact, for-profit exchanges have stronger incentives to adopt efficient rules relating to certain kinds of conduct than member-owned, not-for-profit ones. In particular, the members of mutual exchanges were intermediaries; brokers and market makers mainly. The intermediaries’ ¬†interests often conflicted with those of exchange users. In particular, self-regulation on member-owned exchanges often took the form of adopting rules and polices that were explicitly intended to benefit their members by restricting competition between them, thereby hurting exchange customers. For instance, member owned exchanges operated commissions cartels for decades: Only forty years ago last Friday (“May Day”) was the NYSE commission cartel that dated from its earliest days dismantled by the SEC. Even after the commission cartels were eliminated, member-owned exchanges adopted other anti-competitive rules that benefited members. Self-regulation was in large part¬†an exercise in cartel management.

Further, powerful members, be they big individual traders or important firms, could often intimidate exchange managers and enforcement personnel. In addition, daily interaction between members contributed to a culture in which screwing a buddy was beyond the pale, but in which many a blind eye was turned when a customer got screwed. Not all the time, but enough, as the FBI sting in ’88-’89 and its aftermath made clear.

So no, there was no Eden of mutual, non-profit exchanges that rigorously enforced rules against abusive trading that was despoiled by the intrusion of the profit-seeking snake. The profit motive was there all along: exchange members were obviously highly profit-driven. It just was manifested in different ways, and not necessarily better ways, than in the current for-profit world.

This also raise the question: just who would own, control, and manage a neo-mutual, non-profit exchange? Big banks, either directly or through their brokerage units? Does anyone think that would solve more problems than it would create? Does anyone honestly believe that there would be fewer conflicts of interest and less potential for abuse in such a setup?

This all gets back to the issue of why exchanges demutualized in the first place. It had zero, zip, nada to do with self-regulation and rule¬†enforcement. It was driven by a seismic technological change. I showed¬†in my 2000 JLE article that non-profit form and mutual ownership economized on transactions costs on floor based exchanges, but were unnecessary in an electronic marketplace. I therefore predicted that exchanges would demutualize and become investor-owned as they shifted from open outcry to electronic trading. That’s exactly what happened over the next several years.

In sum, exchange ownership and organizational form are not the primary or even major determinants of the adequacy of exchange self-policing efforts. The incentives to self-regulate are driven more by economic factors common to both for-profit and not-for-profit exchanges, and the choice of organizational form is driven by transactions cost economizing (including the mitigation of rent seeking) rather than by self-regulatory considerations.  The tension between policing and profit existed even in non-profit exchanges. So those who fret about the adequacy of self-regulation need to get over the idea that going back to the future by re-mutualizing would make a damn bit of difference. If only it were that easy.

 

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April 20, 2015

Cargill: Still Private After All These Years to Solve Agency Problems, or Because of Them?

Filed under: Commodities,Derivatives,Economics,History — The Professor @ 8:29 pm

The commodity trading sector is remarkable for the prevalence of private ownership, even among the largest firms. My recent white paper discusses this issue in some detail. In a nutshell, publicly-held equity is a risk sharing mechanism. The ability of commodity traders to share some of their largest risks-notably, commodity flat price risks-through the derivatives markets reduces the need to rely on public equity. Moreover, private ownership can mitigate agency problems between equity owners and managers: the equity owners are often the managers. As a consequence, private ownership is more viable in the commodity trading sector.

The biggest cost of this ownership structure is that it constrains the ability to fund large investments in fixed assets. Thus, private ownership can impede a firm’s ability to pursue asset heavy strategies. As I note in this white paper, and my earlier one, commodity firms have used various means to loosen this constraint, including perpetual debt, and spinoffs of equity from asset-heavy subsidiaries.

Another cost is that owners tend to be poorly diversified. But to the extent that the benefits of high powered incentives exceed this cost, private ownership remains viable.

Cargill is the oldest, and one of the largest, of the major privately held commodity traders. (Whether it is biggest depends on whether you want to consider Koch a commodity trader.) It is now commemorating its 150th anniversary: its history began as the American Civil War ended. Greg Meyer and Neil Hume have a nice piece in the FT that discusses some of Cargill’s challenges. Foremost among these is funding its ambitious plans in Indonesia and Brazil.

The article also details the tensions between Cargill management, and the members of the Cargill and McMillan families who still own 90 percent of the firm.

The last family member to serve as chief executive retired in 1995, and now only one family member works full time there. This raises questions about how long the company will remain private, despite management’s stated determination to keep it that way. The families are already chafing due to their inability to diversify. Further, at Cargill private ownership no longer serves to align the incentives of owners and managers, in contrast to firms like Trafigura, Vitol, and Gunvor: even though Cargill is private, the owners aren’t the managers. Thus, the negatives of private ownership are becoming more prominent, and the benefits are diminishing. There is separation of ownership and control, with its associated incentive problems, but there is no compensating benefit of diversification.

Indeed,¬†it is arguable that¬†the company remains private because of agency problems. Current management, which does not own a large fraction of the firm, is not incentivized to de-privatize: there would be no big payday for them from going public, because they own little equity, and they would give up the perquisites attendant to controlling a vast corporation. Moreover, as long as the families can be kept happy, management doesn’t have to worry about capital market discipline or nosy analysts. Thus, management may be well entrenched in the current private structure, and the number of family owners (about 100) could make it difficult to form a coalition that would force the company to go public, or to craft a package that would make it worth management’s while to pursue that option.

In sum, Cargill is a marvelous company, and has been amazingly successful over the years. Its longevity as a private company is remarkable. But there are grounds to wonder whether that structure is still efficient, or whether it persists because it benefits management.

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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¬†‚ā¨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¬†‚ā¨320 billion, including payments of¬†‚ā¨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¬†‚ā¨23 billion. Deposits at Greek banks fell by about ‚ā¨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¬†‚ā¨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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April 5, 2015

Not So Krafty?

Filed under: Commodities,Derivatives,Economics,Regulation — The Professor @ 10:23 am

The CFTC has filed a complaint against Kraft and Mondelez Global, accusing the companies of manipulating the December, 2011 CBT Wheat Futures Contract. A few comments, based on what is laid out in the complaint (and therefore not on a full evaluation of all relevant facts and data):

  1. A trader executes a market power manipulation (i.e., a corner or a squeeze) by taking excessive, and uneconomic, deliveries on a futures contract. This causes the calendar spread to increase, and the basis at locations where delivery does not (or cannot) occur to fall. The complaint alleges that Kraft took large deliveries. The relevant calendar spread (December-March) rose sharply, and according to Kraft emails cited in the complaint, the basis at Toledo declined. Thus, the facts in the CFTC complaint support a plausible allegation that Kraft and Mondelez executed a market power manipulation/corner/squeeze.
  2. A cornerer takes uneconomic deliveries. That is, the deliveries taken are not the cheapest source of the physical commodity for the cornerer. The complaint does not provide sufficient detail to determine with precision whether this was the case here (but discovery will!), but it does include circumstantial evidence. Specifically, Kraft took delivery on the Mississippi, whereas it needed physical wheat at its mill in Toledo. Further, Kraft did not use most of the wheat it bought via delivery. Instead, it sold it, which is consistent with “burying the corpse.” In addition, given cash bids in Toledo and the futures price at which the defendants took delivery, it is highly likely that it was cheaper for Kraft to buy wheat delivered to its mill in Toledo than it was to take delivery (at an opportunity cost equal to the futures price) and pay load out and freight costs to move the wheat from the Mississippi to Toledo. Again, though, the complaint doesn’t provide direct evidence of this.
  3. A cornerer liquidates a large fraction of its futures position: whereas it loses money on the deliveries it takes, it makes money by liquidating futures at a super competitive price. Kraft liquidated more than half its futures position. This provides further evidence that it did not establish its futures position as a means of securing the cheapest source of cash wheat, and is consistent with the execution of a corner/squeeze.
  4. A processor hedging anticipated cash purchases doesn’t buy calendar spreads. The complaint quotes an email stating that Kraft did.
  5. One clunker in the complaint is the allegation that Kraft’s actions “proximately caused cash wheat prices in Toledo to decline.” Market power manipulation when Toledo is not the cheapest to deliver location (as was evidently the case here, as deliveries did not occur in Toledo) would be expected to reduce the Toledo basis (i.e., the difference between the Toledo cash price and the December futures price), and there is some evidence in the complaint that this occurred. But this is different from causing the flat price of wheat to decline, which is what the CFTC alleges. Any coherent theory of market power manipulation implies that a corner or squeeze would increase, or at least not reduce, the cash price at locations where delivery does not occur, but that the rise in the cash price at these locations is smaller than the rise in the futures price (and in the cash price at the delivery location). This results in a compression of the basis, but a rise (or non-decline) in flat prices.
  6. In sum, the complaint presents a plausible case that Kraft-Mondelez executed a market power manipulation.
  7. But the CFTC doesn’t come out and allege a corner, squeeze, or market power manipulation: these words are totally absent. Instead, the agency relies on its shiny new anti-manipulation authority conferred by Frankendodd under¬†section 6(c)(1) of the Commodity Exchange Act, and CFTC Rule 180.1 that it adopted to implement this authority. This is essentially a Xerox of¬†the SEC’s Rule 10b-5, and proscribes the employment of any “deceptive or manipulative device.” That is, this is basically an anti-fraud rule that has nothing to do with market power and therefore it is ill-adapted to reaching the exercise of market power.
  8. The CFTC no doubt is doing this because under 6(c)(1) and Rule 180.1 the CFTC has a lower burden of proof than under its pre-Frankendodd anti-manipulation authority. Specifically, it does not have to show that Kraft-Mondelez had specific intent to manipulate the market, as was the case prior to Dodd-Frank. Instead, “recklessness” suffices. Further, it does not have to demonstrate that the price of wheat was artificial. In my view, the straightforward application of economics permits determination of both specific intent and price artificiality, but earlier decisions like Indiana Farm and in re Cox¬†make it difficult to for the CFTC to do so. Or at least that’s what CFTC believes.
  9. Although I understand the CFTC’s choice, it has jumped from the frying pan into the fire. Why? Well, to mix metaphors, there is a square peg-round hole problem. As I’ve been shouting about for years, fraud-based manipulations and market power manipulations are very different, and using a statute that targets fraudulent (“deceptive”) actions to prosecute a market power manipulation is likely to end in tears because the legal concept does not fit the allegedly manipulative conduct. The DOJ learned this to its dismay in the Radley case (which grew out of the BP propane corner in 2004). Even though BP executed a garden variety corner, the DOJ alleged that the company engaged in a massive fraud. Judge Miller found this entirely unpersuasive, and shot down the DOJ in flames. The CFTC risks the exact same outcome. Tellingly, it asserts in a conclusory fashion¬†that Kraft-Mondelez employed a “deceptive or manipulative contrivance” but doesn’t say: (a) what that device was, (b) how Kraft’s taking of a large number of deliveries deceived anyone, (c) who was deceived, and (d) how the deception affected prices.

It will be interesting to see what happens going forward. The CFTC is obviously using this as a test case of its new authority. Perhaps it thinks it is being crafty (or would that be Krafty?) but I fear that by using a law and rule targeted against fraudulent conduct to prosecute a market power manipulation, the agency will just be finding a new way to screw up manipulation law, thereby undermining, rather than strengthening, deterrence of market power manipulation.

So will the Beastie Boys be singing about the CFTC? We’ll see, but I’m not hopeful.

 

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