Streetwise Professor

March 23, 2015

The Systemic Risk, or Not, of Commodity Trading Firms

Filed under: Commodities,Derivatives,Economics,Energy,Financial crisis,Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 2:03 pm

My latest white paper, “Not too big to fail: Systemic Risk, Regulation, and the Economics of Commodity Trading Firms” was released today. A video of me discussing it can be found here (as can my earlier white papers on commodity traders and LNG trading).

The conclusion in a nutshell: commodity trading firms do not pose systemic risks, and therefore it is inappropriate to subject them to bank-like prudential regulations, including capital requirements. Commodity trading firms are not systemically risky because (a) they aren’t really that big, (b) they are not that highly leveraged, (c) their leverage is not fragile, (d) the financial distress of a big trader is unlikely to result in contagious runs on others, or fire sale problems, and (e) their financial performance is not highly pro cyclical. Another way to see it is that banks are fragile because they engage in maturity and liquidity transformations, whereas commodity trading firms don’t: they engage in different transformations altogether.

Commodity traders are in line to be subject to Capital Requirement Directive IV starting in 2017. If the rules turn out to be binding, they will cause firms to de-lever by shrinking, or issue more equity (which may force them to forego private ownership, which aligns the interests of owners and managers). These will be costs, not offset by any systemic benefit. All pain, no gain.

It is my understanding that banks obviously think differently, and are calling for “consistent” regulations across banks, commodity traders, and other intermediaries. Since these firms differ on many dimensions, imposing the same regulations on all makes little sense. Put differently, apropos Emerson, a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds. Or bankers who want to handicap competitors.

The white paper has received some good coverage, including the Financial Times, Reuters, and Bloomberg. I will be writing more about it when I return to the states later in the week.

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March 17, 2015

The Biggest Loser, Iran Deal Edition: That Would Be Russia

Filed under: Commodities,Economics,Energy,Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 11:52 am

I am following around Iranian negotiator Javad Zarif, arriving this morning in Geneva, and then going to Brussels next week. Don’t worry, I won’t go biking. Certainly not in the absurd getup that Zarif’s interlocutor-or should I say Sancho Panza-John Kerry did here on the shores of Lac Leman. The man is obviously immune to mockery.

I am resigned that Sancho-I mean John-and Javad (remember, they are on a first name basis!) will reach some sort of deal that will clear Iran’s path to becoming a nuclear power in the near-to-medium term, with all of the malign consequences that entails. Which leads me to contemplate some of those consequences.

One of which relates to the price of oil (and natural gas), the malignity of which depends on whether you are long or short oil (and gas). Of course, one of the countries that is very long oil (and gas) is Russia, and from its perspective the consequences of a deal will be very malign. Which makes one wonder if Putin (or whoever is really in charge these days!) will attempt to do something to derail it. (Or are they too distracted by the folly in Ukraine? Or by dog fights under the carpet?)

The crucial issue is how rapidly, and by how much, Iranian output will ramp up if a deal is reached. There is both a political dimension to this, and an operational one.

The political issue is how rapidly a deal will result in the dismantling of the myriad sanctions that impede Iran’s ability to sell oil:

“Don’t expect to open the tap on oil,” one Gulf-based Western diplomat told Reuters. It is much easier to lift financial sanctions because so many components of Iran’s oil trade have been targeted, the diplomat said.

. . . .

But for Iran to sell significantly more crude and repatriate hard currency earnings, many U.S. and European restrictions on its shipping, insurance, ports, banking, and oil trade would have to be lifted or waived.

Yet because they represent the bulk of world powers’ leverage over Iran, initial relief would probably be modest, said Zachary Goldman, a former policy advisor at the U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Terrorism and Financial Intelligence, where he helped develop Iransanctions policy.

Goldman predicted the first step would be to allow Tehran to use more of its foreign currency reserves abroad, now limited to specific bilateral trade.

“It’s discrete, and it doesn’t involve dismantling the architecture of sanctions that has been built up painstakingly over the last five years,” said Goldman, who now heads the Center on Law and Security at New York University.

Even with a nuclear deal, oil sanctions would probably effectively stay in place until early 2016, said Bob McNally, a former White House adviser under George W. Bush and now president of the Rapidan Group energy consultancy.

The operational issue is how rapidly Iran can reactivate its idled fields, and how much damage they have suffered while they have been off-line. The Iranians claim that 1mm barrels per day can come online within months. The IEA concurs:

Turning lots of production back on suddenly can be complicated—and time consuming—even if wells and reservoirs are maintained studiously. It could be even harder in complex Iranian fields that have been pumping for decades.

Still, some analysts have concluded that a good deal of that lost output could return more quickly than often anticipated. The International Energy Agency, for example, has said that it expects a relatively rapid burst of exports if sanctions are lifted.

“They’ve deployed considerable ingenuity in getting around sanctions and keeping fields in tiptop shape. We think Iran could pretty much come back to the market on a dime,” Antoine Halff, head of the IEA’s oil industry and markets division, recently told an audience at the Center for Strategic Studies in Washington.

Perhaps up to 2mm bpd of additional output could come back later. Then there is the issue of how a relaxation or elimination of sanctions would affect output in the long run as (a) western investment flows into the Iranian oil sector, and (b) other producers, and notably OPEC, respond to Iran’s return to the market.

In the short run, the 1mm bpd number  (corresponding to about 1.1 percent of world output) looks reasonable, and given a demand elasticity of approximately 10, that would result in a 10 percent decline in oil prices. Additional flows in the medium term would produce additional declines.

Even if Iran’s return to the market is expected to take some time, due to the aforementioned complications of undoing sanctions, much of the price effect would be immediate. The mechanism is that an anticipated rise in future output reduces the demand to store oil today: the anticipated increase in future output reduces future scarcity relative to current scarcity, reducing the benefit of carrying inventories. There will be de-stocking, which will put downward pressure on spot prices. Moreover, since an increase in expected future output reduces future scarcity relative to current scarcity, future prices will fall more than the spot price, meaning that contango will decline.

Some of the price decline effect may have already occurred due to anticipation of the clinching of a deal: the May Brent price has declined about $10/bbl in the last month. However, the movement in the May-December spread is not consistent with the recent price decline being driven by the market’s estimation that the odds  that Iranian output will increase in the future have risen. The May-December spread has fallen from -$4.47 (contango) to -$6.36. This is consistent with a near-term supply-demand imbalance rather than an anticipated change in the future balance in favor of greater supply. So too is the increase in inventories seen in recent weeks.

Predicting the magnitude of the price response to the announcement of a deal-or the breakdown of negotiations-is difficult because that requires knowing how much has already been priced in. My lack of a yacht that would make a Russian oligarch jealous indicates quite clearly that I lack such penetrating insight. However, the directional effect is pretty clear-down (for a deal, up for a breakdown).

Which is very bad news for the Russian government and economy, which are groaning under the effects of the oil price decline that has already occurred. Indeed, Iran’s return to the market would weigh on prices for years, reducing the odds that Russia could count on a 2009-like rebound to retrieve its fortunes.

Add to this the fact that a lifting of sanctions would open Iran’s vast gas reserves (second only to Russia’s) to be supplied to Europe and Asia, dramatically reducing the profitability of Russian gas sales in the future, and Iran’s return to the energy markets is a near term and long term threat to Russia.

Which makes Putin’s apparent indifference to a deal passing strange. The Russians freak out over developments (e.g., the prospect for an antitrust investigation of Gazprom, or pipsqueak pipeline projects like Nabucco) that pose a much smaller threat than the reemergence of Iran as a major energy producer. But they have not done anything overt to scupper a deal, nor have they unleashed their usual screeching rhetoric.

What gives? Acceptance of the inevitable? A belief that in the long run the deal will actually increase the likelihood of chaos in the Middle East that will redound to Russia’s benefit? Strategic myopia (i.e., an obsession with reassembling Sovokistan, starting with Donbas) that makes the leadership blind to broader strategic considerations? Distraction by internal disputes? Or does Putin (or whoever is calling the shots!) have something up his (their) sleeve(s)?

My aforementioned pining for a super yacht that would make Abramovich turn green again betrays my inability to penetrate such mysteries. But it is quite a puzzle, for at least insofar as the immediate economic consequences are concerned, Russia would be the Biggest Loser from a deal that clears Iran’s return to the oil market.

H/T to @libertylynx for the idea for this post.

 

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March 10, 2015

Resource Rents, Russian Aggression, and the Nature of Putinism

Filed under: Commodities,Economics,Energy,History,Military,Russia — The Professor @ 9:00 pm

This nice piece from the WaPo points out the link between oil prices and Russian aggressiveness:

From this perspective, Russia is not so much an insecure superpower as it is a typical petrostate with a short-term horizon that gets aggressive and ambitious once it accumulates substantive oil revenues. Back in the early 2000s when the price of oil was $25 a barrel, Putin was a friend of the United States and didn’t mind NATO enlargement in 2004. According to Hendrix’s research, this is exactly how petrostates behave when the oil prices are low: In fact, at oil prices below $33 a barrel, oil exporters become much more peaceful than even non-petrostates. Back in 2002 when the Urals price was around $20, in his Address to the Federal Assembly Putin enumerated multiple steps to European integration and active collaboration aimed at creating a single economic space with the European Union among Russia’s top priorities. In 2014 – with the price of oil price around $110 – Putin invaded Ukraine to punish it for the attempts to create that same single economic space with the E.U.

I made these basic points eight years ago, in a post titled “Cocaine Blues.”

The graph depicts Gaddy’s estimates of the energy rents accruing to the Soviet–and Russian–economy. Each of the two spikes in the graph corresponds to a period of Soviet/Russian adventurism. The first shot of oil/cocaine during the 1970s oil shock fueled Soviet aggressiveness around the world. The second oil/cocaine shot–the post-2003 runup in oil prices–is powering Putin’s recent revanchism.

There were some follow up posts on the same theme.

This post from Window on Eurasia quotes a Russian social scientist who disputes the importance of oil prices in explaining Russian behavior in the Putin era. Instead, Vladislav Inozemtsev identifies the lack of formal institutions as the characteristic feature of Putinism.

But these things are not mutually exclusive. Indeed, another SWP theme from about this same time period (2007-2008) is that Russia is a natural state in which Putin uses control over resource rents to maintain a political equilibrium. Resource rents permit personalized rule and impede the development of formal, impersonal institutions.

In other words, in Russia, resource rents, and especially oil/energy rents matter, both for its political structure and evolution, and its behavior as an international actor.

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Chinese Chutzpah: Using IP to Ice Cotton Competition

Filed under: Commodities,Derivatives,Economics,Energy,Exchanges,Regulation — The Professor @ 7:32 pm

China is notorious for flouting intellectual property rights. From stolen technology (including notably military gear) to designer knock-offs, China pirates everything and everyone. It is therefore a rather jaw-dropping act of chutzpah for to Chinese Zhengzhou Commodities Exchange to send a nasty cease-and-desist letter to the Singapore subsidiary of ICE demanding that ICE not copy ZCE’s cotton and sugar contracts:

Intercontinental Exchange has been forced to delay the launch of its new Singapore platform after a Chinese exchange threatened legal action to stop the US group launching two commodity futures that are copies of contracts offered in China.

The move by the Zhengzhou Commodity Exchange is likely to send shockwaves through the global futures industry because it signals that China will not tolerate foreign exchanges copying its futures contracts, and comes despite the practice of offering “lookalike” contracts being accepted around the world for years.

The ICE contracts are not copies, exactly. Similar to its “NYMEX lookalike” contracts, which cash settle against the expiring NYMEX future, the ICE Singapore commodity contracts are to be cash settled based on the settlement price of the expiring ZCE future. The ZCE future is delivery-settled. Meaning that the delivery mechanism ensures convergence between physical and futures prices, and the lookalike contract can ensure convergence by cash-settling against the delivery-settled contract.

The issues here are common to all intellectual property controversies. Strong intellectual property rights impede competition. Against that, free riding off the creativity or investment of others can impede innovation.

There isn’t a one-size-fits-all answer to this trade-off. In the case of exchange traded contracts, I tend to lean towards weak intellectual property rights.  The network effects of liquidity tend to weaken competition, and to give incumbents a strong advantage over entrants. There is already a substantial stream of rents to being first that gives strong (and maybe overly-strong) incentives to innovate, making strong intellectual property rights superfluous, and indeed damaging because they place another burden on already weak competition.

The US courts arrived at a similar conclusion, ruling that NYMEX did not have property rights over its settlement prices that it could use to preclude ICE from using them to cash settle its contracts. This is one factor that has encouraged a relatively robust competition in energy derivatives, which is the exception rather than the rule.

In sum, I hope ICE is able to prevail in its battle with ZCE. In part on economic grounds, and in part on the grounds that it burns me to see IP pirates protect their turf by asserting IP, especially over something for which IP is unwarranted.

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March 1, 2015

The Clayton Rule on Speed

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s my description of spoofing:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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February 15, 2015

As An Oil Analyst, Mullet Man Igor Sechin Makes a Better KGB Agent

Filed under: Commodities,Derivatives,Economics,Energy,Russia — The Professor @ 11:10 am

Igor Sechin, he of the ape drape, has taken to the pages of the Financial Times to diagnose the causes of the recent collapse in oil prices. I am sure you will be  shocked to learn that it is those damned speculators:

In today’s distorted oil markets, prices do not reflect reality. They are driven instead by financial speculation, which outweighs the real-life factors of supply and demand. Financial markets tend to produce economic bubbles, and those bubbles tend to burst. Remember the dotcom bust and the subprime mortgage crisis? Furthermore, they are prone to manipulation. We have not forgotten the rigging of the Libor interest rate benchmark and the gold price.

. . . .

Financial bubbles, market manipulations, excessive regulation, regional disparities — so grotesque are these distortions that you might question whether there is any such thing as an oil “market” at all. There is the semblance of a market: buyers and sellers and prices. But they are performing a charade.

What is to be done? First, financial players should no longer be allowed to have such a big influence on the price of oil. In the US, Senators Carl Levin and John McCain have called for steps to prevent price manipulation, though whether they will be implemented, and when, remains an open question.

In any case, the authorities should go further, ensuring that at least 10 or 15 per cent of oil trades involve actually delivering some physical oil. At present almost all “oil trades” are conducted by financial traders, who exchange nothing but electronic tokens or pieces of paper.

No, condemnations of speculation are not the last refuge of scoundrels attempting to assign blame for sharp movements in commodity prices: they are the first and only refuge. Prices going up? Speculators! Prices going down? Speculators! Poor, poor little companies like doughty Rosneft and even international cartels like OPEC are mere straws at the tossed before the speculative gales.

Sechin’s broadside is refreshingly untainted by anything resembling actual evidence. The closest he comes is to invoke long run considerations, relating to the costs of drilling new wells. But supply and demand are both very inelastic in the short run, meaning that even modest demand or supply shocks can have large price impacts that cause prices to deviate substantially from long run equilibrium values driven by long run average costs.

It is also hard to discern a credible mechanism whereby diffuse and numerous financial speculators could cause prices to be artificially low for a considerable period of time. (It is straightforward to construct models of how a local market can be manipulated downwards, but these are implausible for a global market. Moreover as I showed years ago, markets that are vulnerable to upward manipulation by longs are relatively invulnerable to downward manipulation by shorts.)

And the empirical implications of any such artificiality are sharply inconsistent with what we observe now. Artificially low prices would induce excessive consumption, which would in turn result in a drawdown in inventories. This is the exact opposite of what we see now. Inventories are growing rapidly in the US in particular (where we have the best data). There are projections that Cushing storage capacity will be filled by May. Internationally, traders are leasing supertankers to store oil. These are classic effects of demand declines or supply increases or both that are expected to be transient.

Insofar as requiring some percentage of oil contracts (by which I presume he means futures and swaps) be satisfied by delivery, the mere threat of delivery ties futures prices to physical market fundamentals at contract expiration. What’s more, the fact that paper traders are largely out of the market when contracts go spot means that they cannot directly affect the supply or demand for the physical commodity.

Sechin’s FT piece is based on a presentation he gave at International Petroleum Week. Rosneft thoughtfully, though rather stupidly given the content, posted Sechin’s remarks and slides on its website. It makes for some rather amusing reading. Apparently shale oil companies are like dotcoms, and shale oil was a bubble. According to Igor, US shale producers are overvalued. His evidence? A comparison of EOG and Hess to Lukoil. The market cap of the EOG is substantially higher than Lukoil’s, despite its lower reserves and production, and lack of refining operations. Therefore: Bubble! Overvaluation!

Gee, I wonder if the fact that Lukoil is a Russian company, and that Russian company valuations are substantially below those of international competitors, regardless of the industry, has anything to do with it? In fact, it has everything to do with it. Sechin’s comparison of a US company with a Russian one points out vividly the baleful consequences of Russia’s lawless business climate. It’s not that EOG and other shale producers are bubbles: it’s that Lukoil (and other Russian companies) are black holes.  (It was the very fact that Russia’s lack of property rights, the rule of law, and other institutional supports of a market economy that got me interested in looking at the country in detail in the first place almost a decade ago.)

I was also amused by Sechin’s ringing call for greater transparency in the energy industry. This coming from the CEO of one of the most opaque companies in the most opaque countries in the world.

Reading anything by Sechin purporting to be an objective analysis of markets or market conditions is always good for a chuckle. His FT oped and IPW remarks are no exception. As a market analyst, he makes a better KGB operative. Enjoy!

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February 8, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

Then BIS turns its attention to hedging:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

BIS also offers this pearl of wisdom:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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February 4, 2015

Turn Out the Lights, The Party’s Over

Filed under: Clearing,Commodities,Derivatives,Economics,Exchanges,History — The Professor @ 8:12 pm

What party, you ask? The one with the mosh pit at LaSalle and Jackson in Chicago.  The one held in the building that’s in the background image of this page.

That’s right. Today the CME Group announced it was ending floor trading of futures (with the exception of the S&P 500) in Chicago and New York. Floor trading of options will continue.

As a Chicagoan who knew the floor in its glory days, this is a sad day. The floor was an amazing place. (Even though the floors will remain open until July, the past tense is appropriate in that sentence.)  A seemingly chaotic place full of shouting and gesticulating men (and yes, it was an overwhelmingly male place). Despite the chaos, it was an extraordinarily efficient way to buy and sell futures. In the bond pit in the 80s and 90s, $100,000,000 notional could be bought in sold with a shout and a wave. Over and over and over.

The economics of the pits were fascinating, but the sociology was as well. They were truly little societies. There were the exchange rules that were in the book, and there were the rules not written in any book that you adhered to, or else. Face-to-face interactions day after day over periods of years created a unique dynamic and a unique culture with its own norms and hierarchies and rituals. And soon it will be but a memory.

Even though I am wistful at the passing of this remarkable institution, I was ahead of the curve in predicting its eventual demise. I worked at an FCM in 1986, when the CME, CBT, and Reuters announced the initial Globex initiative. This got me interested in electronic trading, and when I became an academic a few years later, I researched the subject. In 1994 I wrote one of the early papers documenting that electronic markets could be as liquid and deep as floor-based markets, and I conjectured that parity in liquidity and superiority in speed and cost of access would result in the ultimate victory of computers over the floor. The collective response in the industry was scorn: everyone knew the floor was more liquid, and always would be. The information environment on the floor could never be duplicated on the screen, they said. This view was epitomized by the CEO of LIFFE, Daniel Hodgson, who ridiculed me in the FT as an ivory tower academic.

The first sign that the floor’s days were numbered occurred in 1998, when computerized Eurex wrested the Bund futures contract from LIFFE. (Eurex used my research as part of its marketing push.) LIFFE suffered a near death experience, barely surviving by shutting the floor and going fully electronic. (Mr. Hodgson was shown the door, and I resisted the temptation of sending him a certain FT clipping.)

Computerized trading was only slowly making inroads in the US at the time, in part because the incumbent exchanges resisted its operation during regular floor trading hours. But the fear of the machines was palpable by the mid-1990s. The CBT built its massive trading floor in 1997 in part because the members believed that if it spent so much on a new building the exchange couldn’t afford to render it useless by going electronic. Ironic that a group of traders who lived and breathed real world economics would fall victim to the sunk cost fallacy, and be blind to the gales of competition and creative destruction.

The floor continued to thrive, but inexorably the machines gained on it. By the early-2000s electronic volumes exceeded floor volumes for most contracts, especially in the financials. By the end of the first decade of the millennium, the floors were almost vacant. I remember going to the crude oil pit in NY in early-2009, and where once well over 100 traders stood, engaged in frenzied buying and selling, now a handful of guys sat on the steps of the pit, reading the Post and the Daily News.

When the CME demutualized, and when it acquired CBT and NYMEX, it made commitments to keep the floors open for some period of time. But the commitments were not in perpetuity, and declining floor volumes made it evident that eventually the day would come that the CME would shut down the floors.

Today was that day.

This was inevitable, but in the 80s and 90s the floor trading community, and the futures business generally, couldn’t possibly imagine that machines could ever do what they did. But the technology of the floor was essentially static. Yes, the technology of getting orders to the pit evolved along with telecommunications, but once the orders got there, they were executed in the same way that they had been since 1864 or so.* That execution technology was highly evolved and efficient, but static. In the meantime, Moore’s Law and innovation in hardware, software, and communications technology made electronic trading faster and smarter. Electronic trading lacked some of the information that could be gleaned looking in the eyes of the guy standing across the pit, or knowing who was bidding or offering, but it made accessible to traders vast sources of disparate information that was impossible to absorb on the floor. By the late-00s, HFT essentially computerized what was in locals’ heads, and did it faster with more information and fewer errors and less emotion. Guys that were all about competition were displaced by the competition of a more efficient technology.

Floor trading will live on for a while, in the options pits. Combination trades in options are complex in ways that there are efficiencies in doing them on the floor. But eventually machines will master that too. ICE closed its options pits a couple of years ago (four years after it closed its futures pits), and one day the CME will do so too.

The news of the CME announcement reminded me of something that happened almost exactly 10 years ago, 21 February 2005. Around that time, the management of  the International Petroleum Exchange was discussing the closure of the floor. (It decided to do so on 7 March.) Floor traders were very anxious about their future. Totally oblivious to this, Greenpeace decided to mount a protest on the IPE floor to commemorate the Kyoto Protocol. Bad decision. Bad timing. The barrow boys of the London floors, already in a sour mood, didn’t take kindly to this invasion, and mayhem ensued. Punches were thrown. Bones were broken. Furniture was thrown. There was much comedy:

“The violence was instant,” reported one aggrieved recipient of a rain of blows to the head. “I’ve never seen anyone less amenable to listening to our point of view.”

You can’t make that up.

From what I understand, the response was much more subdued in Chicago and New York today. But then again, Occupy or GMO protesters didn’t attempt to sally onto the floor to flog their causes. If they had, they just might have caught a flogging like the enviros did in London a decade back.

Being of a historical bent, I will look back on the floors with fascination. I am grateful to have known them personally, and to have known many who trod the boards in the pit in their colorful jackets, shouting themselves hoarse and at constant risk of being stabbed in the neck with a pencil wielded by a hyperactive peer.

Today is a good day to watch Floored or The Pit. Or even play a game of Pit. The films will give you something of a feel, but just a bit.

2015. The year Chicago lost Ernie Banks and the floor. But life moves on. Machines do not have the color of the floor, but they perform the markets’ vital functions more efficiently now. And not everything has changed in Chicago. The Cubs are still horrible.

*The exact beginning of floor trading on the CBT is unknown. The Board of Trade of the City of Chicago was formed in 1848, but futures trading proper probably did not begin until the Civil War. Sometime in the 1862-1864 period floor trading as we know it today-or should I say knew it?-developed. The first formal trading rules were promulgated in 1867. If you look at pictures from the 19th century or early-20th century, other than the clothes things don’t look much different than they did in the 1980s or 1990s. Electronic boards replaced chalk boards, but other than that, things look very similar.

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January 25, 2015

From Birth to Adulthood in a Few Short Years: HFT’s Predictable Convergence to Competitive Normalcy

Filed under: Commodities,Derivatives,Economics,Exchanges,HFT — The Professor @ 2:05 pm

Once upon a time, high frequency trading-HFT-was viewed to be a juggernaut, a money-making machine that would have Wall Street and LaSalle Street in its thrall. These dire predictions were based on the remarkable growth in HFT in 2009 and 2010 in particular, but the narrative outlived the heady growth.

In fact, HFT has followed the trajectory of any technological innovation in a highly competitive environment. At its inception, it was a dramatically innovative way of performing longstanding functions undertaken by intermediaries in financial markets: market making and arbitrage. It did so much more efficiently than incumbents did, and so rapidly it displaced the old-style intermediaries. During this transitional period, the first-movers earned supernormal profits because of cost and speed advantages over the old school intermediaries. HFT market share expanded dramatically, and the profits attracted expansion in the capital and capacity of the first-movers, and the entry of new firms. And as day follows night, this entry of new HFT capacity and the intensification of competition dissipated these profits. This is basic economics in action.

According to the Tabb Group, HFT profits declined from $7 billion in 2009 to only $1.3 billion today. Moreover, HFT market share in both has declined from its peak of 61 percent in equities in 2009 (to 48.4 percent today) and 64 percent in futures in 2011 (to 60 percent today). The profit decline and topping out of market share are both symptomatic of sector settling down into a steady state of normal competitive profits and growth commensurate with the increase in the size of the overall market in the aftermath of a technological shock. Fittingly, this convergence in the HFT sector has been notable for its rapidity, with the transition from birth to adulthood occurring within a mere handful of years.

A little perspective is in order too. Equity market volume in the US is on the order of $100 billion per day. HFT profits now represent on the order of 1/250th of one percent of equity turnover. Since HFT profits include profits from derivatives, their share of turnover of everything they trade overall is smaller still, meaning that although they trade a lot, their margins are razor thin. This is another sign of a highly competitive market.

We are now witnessing further evidence of the maturation of HFT. There is a pronounced trend to consolidation, with HFT pioneer Allston Trading exiting the market, and DRW purchasing Chopper Trading. Such consolidation is a normal phase in the evolution of a sector that has experienced a technological shock. Expect to see more departures and acquisitions as the industry (again predictably) turns its focus to cost containment as competition means that the days of easy money are fading in the rearview mirror.

It’s interesting in this context to think about Schumpeter’s argument in Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy.  One motivation for the book was to examine whether there was, as Marx and earlier classical economists predicted, a tendency for profit to diminish to zero (where costs of capital are included in determining economic profit).  That may be true in a totally static setting, but as Schumpeter noted the development of new, disruptive technologies overturns these results.  The process of creative destruction can result in the introduction of a sequence of new technologies or products that displace the old, earn large profits for a while, but are then either displaced by new disruptive technologies, or see profits vanish due to classical/neoclassical competitive forces.

Whether it is by the entry of a new destructively creative technology, or the inexorable forces of entry and expansion in a technologically static setting, one expects profits earned by firms in one wave of creative destruction to decline.  That’s what we’re seeing in HFT.  It was definitely a disruptive technology that reaped substantial profits at the time of its introduction, but those profits are eroding.

That shouldn’t be a surprise.  But it no doubt is to many of those who have made apocalyptic predictions about the machines taking over the earth.  Or the markets, anyways.

Or, as Herb Stein famously said as a caution against extrapolating from current trends, “If something cannot go on forever, it will stop.” Those making dire predictions about HFT were largely extrapolating from the events of 2008-2010, and ignored the natural economic forces that constrain growth and dissipate profits. HFT is now a normal, competitive business earning normal, competitive profits.  And hopefully this reality will eventually sink in, and the hysteria surrounding HFT will fade away just as its profits did.

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January 18, 2015

Putin, Inc.: How Russia’s Current Crisis Will Condemn It to Enduring Stagnation

Filed under: Commodities,Economics,Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 1:59 pm

Russia’s economic position remains parlous. The ruble has continued to weaken, and although the price of oil rallied somewhat late last week, it still remains far below levels necessary to permit growth. The World Bank is predicting a 2.9 percent decline in GDP in 2015. 9.2 percent is more likely.

So what is Putin/Russia going to do? The options are limited. Given the weak economic conditions, and the lack of access of the banking and corporate sectors to international funding, there appears to be only one option. As a lawyer friend sagely put it, the government will essentially have to move massive amounts of liabilities from big banks and large state enterprises onto the government balance sheet. Formally, it will be done through the banks. The banks will extend credit to the corporate sector (including most notably big state firms) and the government will capitalize or guarantee/backstop the banks.

This is certainly the view of Sberbank’s Chairman, German Gref (one of the last liberals-as Russians go-in the power structure):

The head of Russia’s largest bank, German Gref, offered a bleak picture of the fate awaiting the country’s banking sector in 2015 during the set piece Gaidar economic forum in Moscow this week.

“It’s obvious that the banking crisis will be massive,” the Sberbank chief told reporters.

“The state will capitalize the banks and increase its stake in them, and the banks will buy industrial enterprises and become financial-industrial groups,” Gref said Wednesday. “All our economy will be state-run.”

The result will be a simulacrum of the Soviet economy.

Two things are worth noting. The first is that this gives the lie to those who are sanguine about the prospects of a sovereign default in Russia. These optimists downplay the impending downgrades by the rating agencies, and the  fact that Russian CDS are trading well into the junk range by pointing out that Russia’s government debt is relatively small compared to GDP. But one always needs to pay attention to the contingent liabilities, and in the current circumstances these contingent liabilities include a large fraction of the liabilities of the banking and corporate sectors. That’s why Russian 5 year CDS are trading at implied default probabilities of around 10 percent despite modest levels of government indebtedness.

The second notable fact is that once things move onto the government balance sheet, it’s hard to move them off. Companies get quite comfortable with government support and the avoidance of capital market discipline: soft budget constraints-or no budget constraints at all-have their attractions. It’s easier for managers in the elite to influence the members of the elite in government than it is to persuade investors, especially foreign ones. The managers can muster 1000 excuses: think of all the justifications Sechin pushed to stave off privatization of a large stake in Rosneft. Even more excuses will be forthcoming in the midst or even the aftermath of a crisis. What’s more, appeals to patriotism-chauvinism and paranoia, really-will be quite effective. And perhaps most importantly, Putin and his clique will relish exercising even greater control over big firms than they do now. For reasons of power and personal profit.

This means that the prospects for any real structural change in Russia will be even more doubtful than they ever were, and they were never very good, especially in the mature stages of Putinism. Thus, the consequences of the immediate crisis will be severe, but the consequences of the likely response to the crisis will be enduring and quite negative. An even more statist economy even more thoroughly dominated by Putin and his cronies is doomed to stagnation.

We have already seen that to some degree in the aftermath of the last crisis: Russia’s post-2009 growth has been a fraction of its pre-crisis growth. I expect that post-2015, long run growth will ratchet down yet again, as the dead hand of the state and the dying hand of Putin weigh heavily upon the economy.

The geopolitical consequences of this are hard to discern, because there are conflicting forces at work. An economically moribund Russia will have less capacity for adventurism. But a resentful Russia that will blame the crisis and its dreary aftermath on its enemies abroad, and a Putin who will be looking to stoke these resentments for domestic political gain, will be more likely to provoke conflict.

Some years ago Andrei Shleifer said that Russia was becoming a normal,  middle income country. I always thought that was doubtful, especially once Putinism really took hold. I think it is utterly fantastical now. A combination of economic and political factors accentuated by a crisis brought on by sanctions and especially low oil prices will defer indefinitely Russia’s convergence to western-style normalcy.

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