Streetwise Professor

February 2, 2016

Russian “Privatization”? Only If Putin Is Desperate Indeed

Filed under: Commodities,Economics,Energy,Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 10:11 pm

Putin held a meeting with the CEOs of seven state-owned enterprises to discuss the sale of minority stakes in their companies (a move sometimes mischaracterized as “privatization”). Putin frankly admitted that the impetus for this discussion is Russia’s dire budgetary situation. Putin caused some confusion by saying the “new owners of privatized assets must have Russian jurisdiction,” leading some to conclude that he was ruling out foreign investment. Peskov clarified the next day, saying that Russia welcomed foreign investors, but “If the question is about a foreign investor, that’s one thing. If it’s about a Russian investor, it must not be another offshore scheme.”

I consider it likely that this initiative will be stillborn, at least insofar as sales of stakes to foreigners are concerned. Putin said that the sales must not take place at “knockdown prices.” Well, in the current environment, the prices (especially for Rosneft and VTB) are likely to be very low indeed.

This is especially so since foreign investors will demand a substantial discount to compensate for expropriation risk. Savvy investors with long memories will recall that Putin justified expropriating Shell’s Sakhalin II project by saying that the terms of the Sakhalin PSA were unfair to Russia, and that Shell had exploited Russia’s economic desperation when it signed the deal at a previous time of low energy prices. Putin (or whoever succeeds him) could easily resurrect such rhetoric in the future when oil prices rebound. Further, minority shareholders in Russian enterprises–especially state enterprises–have few protections against schemes that divert assets, or which dilute their holdings.

Given that prices are likely to be very low, if there are sales to foreigners, it will indicate (1) that Russia is desperate indeed, and (2) Putin et al consider it unlikely that sanctions will be relaxed anytime soon.

If there are sales, it is likely to be to Russian oligarchs, and in particular those with extensive holdings outside Russia. Just as Putin dragooned them into paying for Sochi and other prestige projects, he could well pressure them into overpaying for stakes in the state enterprises. This would allow him to kill two birds with one stone. It would help stanch the budgetary bleeding. It would also advance Putin’s longstanding goal of onshoring Russian capital. That would fit with the “owners must have Russian jurisdiction” remark.  And Putin has substantial leverage to get oligarchs to do his bidding–literally.

Even if partial sales take place, it will be merely a stopgap budgetary measure: it will not indicate a fundamental reconsideration of Russian economic policy.  Putin is still obviously a firm believer in the state control/state champion model, despite its manifest inefficiency. Putin prefers the control over resources that state control provides to having an efficient economy. Which is why he finds himself in his current straits.

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January 26, 2016

Liquidity Is King, or Why CME’s Failure in Cocoa Doesn’t Amount to a Hill of Beans

Filed under: Commodities,Derivatives,Economics,Exchanges — The Professor @ 9:55 pm

The WSJ reports that the CME Group’s new Euro-Denominated cocoa futures contract is floundering, due to a pronounced lack of liquidity. (h/t @libertylynx) The incumbent ICE Futures Europe Sterling-denominated and ICE Futures US USD-denominated contracts dwarf the CME contract’s volume, even though European hedgers face some currency risks in using these contracts.

This is not a surprise, not by a long shot. It is always very difficult for upstart contract to make inroads, let alone dominate, in competition with an established incumbent. Liquidity is king, and the established contracts have a liquidity advantage that new entrants almost never overcome, even if the new contract is superior on some dimensions.

The only real example of the displacement of an incumbent is Eurex’s wresting of the Bund contract from LIFFE in 1997-1998. That story, which I analyze in a forthcoming paper in the Journal of Applied Corporate Finance, is the exception that proves the rule.

First, because it was supported by German banks who direct a lot of order flow to it, Eurex (and its predecessor, Deutsche Terminborse) had a base of liquidity on which to build.

Second, because it was electronic, it was possible for Eurex to offer faster and easier access to US users once the CFTC approved Eurex’s application to install terminals in the US.

Third, and most important, Eurex exploited LIFFE’s smug complacency. Eurex aggressively cut fees, and LIFFE did not match: it was convinced that its superior liquidity, and the inherent superiority of floor trading, would prevent its customers from defecting to Eurex to save a few DM per contract in fees.

Wrong! As I document in the JACF paper, the liquidity cost difference between the markets wasn’t that great by 1997 (due to the German bank support and the influx of US customers), and taking into account the lower trading fees it was actually cheaper to trade on Eurex. Volume started to leak to Eurex, and the leak turned into a flood. LIFFE belatedly cut fees, but by then it was too late. The market had tipped completely to Eurex, and LIFFE had a near-death experience.

I can speak first hand of LIFFE’s overconfidence. In 1992, I produced a study for DTB that showed that its electronic market’s liquidity was comparable to that of the floor-based LIFFE. The study was not intended for release: it was commissioned to determine whether it was advisable for DTB to add a new membership type analogous to locals in order to improve liquidity. But the results were so surprisingly favorable for DTB that they released the study, much to the derision of LIFFE and the futures trading community generally, which was truly in the grip of the Cult of the Floor.

The CEO of LIFFE was quoted in the FT and Risk Magazine to the effect that I was an ivory tower academic who had no idea the way the real world works, because everybody knows the floor is more liquid and always will be. Real bulletin board material. Literally, in my case.

He who laughs last. When Eurex launched its assault on LIFFE in 1997, it distributed my 1992 study broadly. I doubt that had much of an impact on the final outcome, but it couldn’t have hurt.

The LIFFE CEO ended up resigning after LIFFE capitulated, and voted to close the floor and go electronic. I was a good boy. I resisted the very strong temptation to send him clippings of the FT and Risk articles.

Every other exchange learned a lesson at LIFFE’s expense, and responded to a fee cutting entrant by cutting fees immediately. For instance, the CBT saw off Eurex’s attempt to compete in the Treasury market in short order by cutting fees to zero, raising them after Eurex capitulated.

So CME shouldn’t feel bad. It has plenty of company in launching a contract that fails to make headway against an established incumbent. Indeed, the experience should be comforting, because it is the dominant incumbent in USD STIRs, govvies, equity indexes, FX, grain, precious metal, livestock, and energy futures. It benefits massively from the liquidity entry barrier. Compared to that, the failure to penetrate ICE’s cocoa monopoly doesn’t amount to a hill of beans.

 

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Swaps Execution: The Dogs Still Don’t Eat the Dog Food When They Have the Choice

Filed under: Commodities,Derivatives,Economics,Politics,Regulation — The Professor @ 9:03 pm

The Bank of England has received a lot of attention for its just-released study on the liquidity impact of swap execution facilities (SEFs). It finds that:

as a result of SEF trading, activity increases and liquidity improves across the swap market, with the improvement being largest for USD mandated contracts which are most affected by the mandate. The associated reduction in execution costs is economically significant. For example, execution costs in USD mandated contracts, where SEF penetration is highest, drop, for market end-users alone, by $3 million–$4 million daily relative to EUR mandated contracts and in total by about $7 million–$13 million daily.

The basic methodology is to use a difference-in-difference approach to compare measures of liquidity pre-and-post SEF mandate, and which exploits the fact that non-US banks can avoid the mandate by avoiding trading with US banks: this avoidance issue will is important, and I will discuss it later.

The study is carefully done, but I am not persuaded. For one thing, the measures of liquidity employed are driven by data availability (transactions prices), and are not the ideal measures of liquidity. The primary liquidity measures employed are really measures of price dispersion, rather than preferred measures of liquidity such as bid-ask spreads, depth, or price impact (although greater (lower) price dispersion could be associated with lower (greater) price impact).

There is also the issue that transaction characteristics are endogenous. For instance, it may be the case that it is cheaper to do large deals off-SEF than on-SEF. These deals will tend to be done at prices that are further away from the mean price (or the end-of-day midpoint price), and in the volume-weighted measures employed in the paper, these deals get a bigger weight in the liquidity measures. Thus, price dispersion may be greater pre-mandate, and in Europe, where the mandate can be avoided not because SEFs improve liquidity, but because it is prohibitively costly to transact large deals on SEFs. That is, the results could be symptomatic of a loss of liquidity on some dimensions, rather than proof that the mandate improves liquidity.

The paper documents that there is less dealer intermediation where the mandate is binding. This could also reflect changes in transactions characteristics. Dealers are more likely to be needed to intermediate big deals, or deals that are exceptional on some other dimension.

The paper doesn’t break down transaction characteristics by mandate-impacted and non-mandate-impacted subsamples, and in particular doesn’t include a measure of the dispersion of transactions sizes. As a result, it’s not possible to determine whether the mandate has altered the mix of transaction characteristics.

This relates to another finding of the study: namely, that the mandate has led to the fragmentation of the interest rate swap markets along geographic/currency lines, with SEFs gaining far lower penetration in Euro-denominated swaps that are dominated by European banks who can avoid the mandate by trading with one another, and by trading with European end-users. There is confirmation of this result from Tabb Group, which finds that “European derivatives market continues to resist electronic trading.”

Well, this raises the dog food question: If the dog food is as great as the ads say, why don’t the dogs eat it? if SEFs are so much more liquid, why don’t traders flock to them?

When given a choice between a statistical finding, and revealed preference, I go with the latter. Those who actually internalize the cost of trading largely avoid SEFs. This suggests that they are actually costlier to use, at least for some users, such as those who want to trade in large size, or have other idiosyncratic needs. The choices of those who have the choice strongly suggests that the statistical evidence purportedly showing lower execution costs on SEFs is flawed and misleading.

With this in mind, it was gratifying indeed to see CFTC Chairman Massad stating that he favors allowing market participants to decide whether they transact swaps electronically or using traditional voice execution. There was never a compelling case-or even a weak one-for forcing diverse market users with diverse transactional needs to use a one-size-fits-all execution method. Massad’s free-to-choose approach is therefore a vast and welcome improvement over his predecessor Gary Gensler’s monomaniacal determination to bash everybody over the head with a CLOB.

Update. Here’s a more detailed description of the Tabb Group study I linked to above. One important takeaway: European end users really hate electronic execution, and really love voice execution:

Despite the cost benefits of e-trading, institutional investors still prefer to interact with their dealers via phone. Nearly 80 [!] per cent of the more than 200 European investors interviewed as part of the Greenwich Associates 2015 European Fixed-Income Study confirmed their trading protocol of choice was the phone.

“These trades often require white-glove treatment, and clients work with dealers that are best at limiting market impact and providing the support needed to get the trade done,” says Greenwich Associates Managing Director Andrew Awad (pictured). “As a result, clients still place a high value on the support provided by swaps salespeople in executing complex and large trades.”

This strongly suggests that there are likely to be considerable differences between deals done on SEFs and those done the old fashioned way. Not particularly the point about “limiting market impact.” Those who want to do trades that are “complex and large” go to dealers to trade bilaterally to avoid price impact. If they are not able to do that, because of an electronic execution mandate, they will almost certainly trade differently. Fewer big, complex trades. If that is correct, then the Bank of England study is comparing grapes to grapefruit. If so, the difference in price dispersion documented in the study does not demonstrate greater liquidity on SEFs: it demonstrates worse liquidity, at least for some kinds of trades.

Mind you: end users were the supposed beneficiaries of the SEF mandate. According to GiGi et al, they were being shamelessly exploited by dealers, and SEFs would set them free. Apparently they like their chains just fine, thank you very much.

Again: revealed preference rules. Believe it over a stat every time.

 

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January 23, 2016

Russian Oil Hedging: A Little Late for Herpicide

Filed under: Commodities,Derivatives,Economics,Energy,Russia — The Professor @ 5:29 pm

My grandfather had a wealth of colorful expressions, most of which were the product of his Appalachian upbringing. One, however, was a little different. Whenever it was too late to do something about a particular problem, he’d say: “Well, it’s a little late for herpicide.” In context, I understood what he meant, but the exact meaning escaped me. I asked him one time, and it turns out that Herpicide was a (quack) hair loss cure in the ’30s or ’40s. The company’s add campaign pictured a cue ball-bald man with the caption: “A Little Late for Herpicide.” I guess now it would be “A Little Late for Rogaine.”

This expression came to mind when I read in the FT that “Russia considers hedging part of its oil revenues.” It would have been a good idea when the price was $100, or $90, or even $50. At $30 (or below, as happened on Wednesday and Thursday), well, it’s a little late for hedgicide. Yes, oil could indeed go lower, but hedging today would lock in prices that are low by historical levels.

Hedging would make sense for Russia, just as it does for a highly-leveraged corporate. It clearly incurs financial distress costs when prices are very low. Hedging would reduce the expected costs of financial distress.

Presumably Russia would implement a program like Mexico’s, buying large quantities of out-of-the-money puts. This would allow it to capture the upside but obtain protection on the downside. It would also avoid a problem that it might face if it sold swaps/forwards: finding a counterparty. Selling a put to Russia doesn’t involve counterparty risk. Buying swaps from them would. Although this would be a right-way risk, one could readily see Russia balking on performance if oil prices were to spike, putting a short swap position well out of the money. It would have the cash to pay: the willingness to pay, not so much. Further, although Russia’s ability to pay is closely related to oil prices, it is exposed to other risks that could impair that ability, and these risks would create credit risks for anyone buying swaps from Russia.

Buying puts does create an issue, though: this would require Russia paying a rather hefty premium upfront, at a time when it is cash-strapped. As an illustration of its financial straits, note that it is attempting to avoid having to come up with cash to stabilize troubled megabank VEB. Borrowing to pay the premium is also problematic, given its dicey creditworthiness. Russia’s CDS spread is around 370bp (which, although it has turned up as oil prices took their latest plunge, is still below post-Crimea levels, and even below the levels seen in August). Current sanctions and the prospect of the crystallization of future political risks may also make lenders reluctant to front Russia the premium money.

One interesting thing to consider is how hedging would affect Russia’s output decisions going forward. Hedging, whether by buying puts or selling swaps, would reduce its incentive to cut output in low price environments. As I’ve written before, Russia doesn’t have a strong incentive to cut output anyways because  market share, market demand elasticity, and the cost of shutting down production in Siberia make it a losing prospect (as its refusal to cut output in 2009 and in the past 18 months clearly indicate). However, whatever weak incentives Russia has to cut (in cooperation with the Saudis for instance) would be even weaker if it was hedged. If cooperation on output between OPEC and Russia has proved hard up to now, it would be harder still if Russia was hedged.

A Russian hedging program, if big enough, could affect market pricing, but not the price of oil (at least not directly*): hedging is a transfer of risk, and a big Russian hedge would affect the price of oil risks. Its hedging pressure would tend to increase market risk premia (i.e., reduce forward prices relative to expected spot prices). If done using puts, it would also tend to steepen the put-wing volatility skew and increase volatility risk premium. Adding its hedging pressure to the market would also necessitate the entry of additional speculative capital into the market in order to mitigate these effects. Sechin has criticized speculators in the past: hedging Russian oil price risk would be prohibitively expensive without them.

Although Russia has mooted the possibility, I doubt it will follow through. I would imagine that the combination of the cash cost of options and criticism within the ruling clique of locking in low prices will cause them to pass. If and when oil prices rise substantially, I predict they will forego hedging because they will convince themselves that prices won’t fall again, just as they did post-2009.

In sum, this sounds like an idea that the technocrats have advanced that will die at the hands of the siloviki, like various privatization initiatives.

* The spot price of oil depends on output and demand. Hedging affects spot prices to the extent that it affects output. One way that could happen is that if it reduced Russia’s incentive to cut output. Another way it could happen is that hedging increases Russia’s capacity to finance investments in oil production by reducing capital costs. In this case, investment would be higher and output would be higher.

In each of these scenarios hedging reduces spot oil prices in some states of the world, not because of the direct effects of forward selling, but because the hedging provides incentives to increase output. This is a good thing.

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January 20, 2016

Rube Krugman Argues From a Price Change, With Predictably Absurd Results

Filed under: Commodities,Derivatives,Economics,Energy — The Professor @ 1:50 pm

The oil collapse continues apace, after a one day breather on Monday. As I write, WTI and Brent are off almost 8 percent. Equity indices around the world are going in the same direction.

This recent co-movement between crude (and other commodities, especially non-precious metals) has unleashed torrents of twaddle. One of the most egregious pieces thereof was a recent Krugman column:

When oil prices began their big plunge, it was widely assumed that the economic effects would be positive. Some of us were a bit skeptical. But maybe not skeptical enough: taking a global view, there’s a pretty good case that the oil plunge is having a distinctly negative impact. Why?

Well, think about why we used to believe that oil price declines were expansionary. Part of the answer was that they reduced inflation, freeing central banks to loosen monetary policy — not a relevant issue at a time when inflation is below target almost everywhere.

Beyond that, however, the usual view was that falling oil prices tended to redistribute income away from agents with low marginal propensities to spend toward agents with high marginal propensities to spend. Oil-rich Middle Eastern nations and Texas billionaires, so the story went, were sitting on huge piles of wealth, were therefore unlikely to face liquidity constraints, and could and would smooth out fluctuations in their income. Meanwhile, the benefits of lower oil prices would be spread widely, including to many consumers living paycheck to paycheck who would probably spend the windfall.

Now, part of the reason this logic doesn’t work the way it used to is that the rise of fracking means that there is a lot of investment spending closely tied to oil prices — investment spending that has relatively short lead times and will therefore fall quickly.

Where to begin? I guess the place to start is to note that Krugman commits a cardinal economic error (you’re shocked, I’m sure): he argues from a price change. What is frightening is that if you believe his characterization of the received wisdom in macroeconomics, this is the standard way of thinking about these things in macro.

Prices do not move exogenously. Prices can go down because of supply shocks. They can go down because of demand shocks. The price movement is the same direction, but the implications are very different. In particular, the implications for co-movements between oil prices and asset prices are very different. You cannot analyze based on the fact of the price change alone: your analysis must be predicated on what is driving that change.

A price decline because of a favorable supply shock is generally positive for the broader world economy. Yes it is bad for oil producers, but especially for advanced and most emerging economies who are oil/commodity shorts, a supply-driven price decline is beneficial and should be associated with higher stock prices, economic growth, etc. The production possibility frontier shifts out, leading to higher incomes overall although in a world with incomplete risk sharing there are distributive effects. But the adverse consequences for producers are almost always swamped by consumer gains.  In this scenario, growth and asset prices on the one hand, and commodity prices on the other, move in opposite directions.

Things are very different for demand shocks-driven price changes. A price decline because of an adverse demand shock is generally negative for the broader world economy, because it is a weakening world economy that is the major source of the demand decline. This is a matter of correlation, not causation. Causation runs from a weakening economy to lower demand for oil (and other commodities) to lower commodity prices and lower asset prices.  Oil price (and asset price) changes are an effect not a cause.

The current situation is much closer to the latter case than the former. Yes, there have been oil production increases in the last couple of years, but if world economic growth had continued on its pre-mid-2014 pace, demand would have grown sufficiently to absorb this increase. In fact, the decline in oil and other commodity prices starting around June 2014 occurred right about the time that world growth forecasts declined appreciably. Subsequent months have seen a litany of bad growth news from the main sources of commodity demand growth in the boom years, most notably, of course, China. And the news from China keeps getting worse. This is reflected in cratering stock prices there, and other indicia of economic activity. (Notably all of these indicia are pretty much non-official. Official Chinese statistics should be nominated for the next Nobel Prize in Fiction.)

But rather than go back to basics, Krugman assembles a Rube Goldberg contraption to explain what is going on. And of course, austerity and the liquidity trap play a starring role:

But there is, I believe, something else going on: there’s an important nonlinearity in the effects of oil fluctuations. A 10 or 20 percent decline in the price might work in the conventional way. But a 70 percent decline has really drastic effects on producers; they become more, not less, likely to be liquidity-constrained than consumers. Saudi Arabia is forced into drastic austerity policies; highly indebted fracking companies find themselves facing balance-sheet crises.

Or to put it differently: small oil price declines may be expansionary through usual channels, but really big declines set in motion a process of forced deleveraging among producers that can be a significant drag on the world economy, especially with the whole advanced world still in or near a liquidity trap.

Since because of his cardinal error Krugman does not identify what caused the price decline that begins his chain of “reasoning,” it’s hard to understand fully what he means. The most charitable interpretation is that there was a favorable supply shock that was so big that it caused such a large price decline in oil that this caused world “aggregate demand” to decline because of the severe adverse consequences on indebted and liquidity constrained producing countries and companies.

Inane. For one thing, these economies and sectors are very small in comparison to the world economy. Commodity producing countries have historically suffered major financial crises with little, if any, effect on growth world-wide, or on asset prices world-wide. The US oil and gas sector has also undergone some severe crises (e.g., 1986-1987) with limited fallout on US and world growth: the impacts tended to be concentrated regionally in the producing states, such as Texas. Not much fun there, but the rest of the country and the world didn’t much notice. In fact, they benefited from the favorable oil supply shock.

For another, even if there is some asymmetry between the “liquidity constraints” of producers and consumers, Krugman has been arguing strenuously that US and European consumers are liquidity constrained, hence his constant attacks on austerity. In Krugman’s argue-from-a-price-change story, that liquidity constraint has eased, and therefore one would expect to see improvement in consumption growth in places like the US, but the reverse is in fact true. The US economy is slowing rather noticeably.

No. The back-to-basics-trace-the-cause-of-the-price-change story is much more plausible. And here’s the irony. The epicenter of the commodity demand and world growth shock is China, which has binged on credit stimulus since 2009 in a way that Krugman should approve. But that cannot go on forever, and indeed, the main source of problems in China is the recognition that it can’t go on forever. China faces colossal balance-sheet issues that make deleveraging inevitable. When that happens, the commodity crisis will enter a new phase. How bad it is depends on how well the Chinese handle it. Given their mania for central control, I do not believe they will handle it well.

Macro panjandrums, like Oliver Blanchard, are puzzled, because official data do not yet reflect any large decline in growth. But that’s because official data are backward looking, and markets look forward relentlessly. They are signaling current and future problems, which official data will eventually validate. (And that’s when the data aren’t made up, as is notoriously the case in China.)

Commodity prices are particularly important, because commodities are consumed in the here and now. When demand declines, consumption declines, and prices decline contemporaneously. For all the talk about financialization, that can’t overcome the decisions of billions of commodity consumers around the world. Thus, at present, the high positive correlation between commodity prices and asset prices, like in 2008-2009, is a symptom and harbinger of broader economic problems. You don’t need Rube Krugman contraptions to explain that.

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January 10, 2016

Protectionism in the Oil Patch: When Someone Says “Fair Markets”, Check Your Wallet

Filed under: Commodities,Economics,Energy,Politics,Regulation — The Professor @ 9:28 pm

The decline in oil prices is producing a predictable political outcome: attempts to prop up the domestic US industry. Some initiatives would make sense regardless of the financial distress of the US upstream sector: the Clinton and Obama administrations in particular have imposed a variety of inefficient regulations and restrictions on US hydrocarbon production, and it would be desirable to roll these back, as is being proposed:

Among the proposals under discussion: Expediting the process for exporting liquefied natural gas, and upgrading infrastructure to move energy to market more quickly and cheaply.

Another top priority for the two Republicans is loosening environmental and other regulations.

But then there’s just the plain stupid:

Some lawmakers are floating the possibility of taking retaliatory trade measures against Saudi Arabia, which has flooded the market with cheap oil in what some analysts see as a bid to drive America’s growing shale oil industry out of business.

. . . .

North Dakota Rep. Kevin Cramer (R) said lawmakers could begin to mull retaliatory tariffs against Saudi Arabia in the future but emphasized he is not advocating for that yet.

“I’m very hesitant to go down that path at this time but clearly that would be a possible option should the Saudis not play fair. Because as much as I advocate for free and open markets, I also advocate for fair markets,” he said.

Saudi Arabia, taking advantage of its low extraction costs, has refused to curb oil production in a bid to expand market share and undercut competitors. This has raised the prospect of the U.S. government taking action to level the playing field for domestic companies.

“I’m not prone to a lot of government intervention in terms of propping industry up, per se. What would be the most helpful is to roll back regulations that get in the way of further development and profitability,” said Cramer, who cited the Endangered Species Act as one burdensome regulation.

“Obviously they have access to our market and I suppose to some degree there is a role that can be played there. I’m not at the point where I’m ready to advocate tariffs or restricting their access necessarily,” he added.

Any tariff on Saudi imports would be special interest protectionism pure and simple, tarted up in the usual rhetoric (and whining) used to justify protectionist measures. “Fair markets” is a sure tell. Anyone who says “I’m for free markets but they should be fair markets” is a liar, and should drop the pretense. Any such person is all about protecting a favored industry or firm. When someone, regardless of party, says “fair markets”, I strongly advise you to check your wallet, because they are trying to rob you.

And why should Saudi Arabia “refuse to curb oil production”? Indeed, “curbing oil production” is the exercise of market power, for which the US (rightly) criticized OPEC and the Saudis in the past. What’s more, low cost producers are the ones who should sustain output in the face of a demand decline: high cost producers are the ones who should cut back.

Furthermore, although North Dakota is an oil long, the US as whole is an oil short, still producing only about 1/2 of its consumption, despite the spurt in oil production in the past 5-6 years. So low oil prices are still in the interests of the US.

It should also be noted that the “flooding the market with cheap oil” meme is vastly overstated. Saudi output in June, 2014, right before the price collapse began, was about 10mm bpd. It is now about 10.5 mm bpd. That difference represents a whopping .5 percent of world output. Even given an elasticity of 10 (which is probably too high) that could cause at most at 5 percent decline in prices. As I write, Brent just went below $33/bbl, and hence is down almost exactly 70 percent off its pre-collapse levels. So this collapse is not the result of the Saudis flooding the market.

Nor are the Saudis engaged in some predatory pricing strategy. At least I doubt that they are, because such a strategy would be irrational.

The price decline is the result of increased output in a variety of places (including the US), but mainly due to a steep decline in demand growth, especially from China.

Yes, the upstream sector in the US is suffering severe financial distress. So be it. That’s the nature of the business, and the nature of a market system generally. Resources should exit sectors that suffer demand declines. They should not be propped up through trade restrictions, especially trade restrictions that will impose far greater costs on the US economy as a whole than they will benefit one sector in that economy.

It is also perversely ironic that the very same Republicans (I am speaking of the individual legislators, like Murkowski and Cramer, not the party as a whole) who pushed for ending the idiotic export ban are now mooting an equally idiotic restriction in imports. This makes it plain that it’s not about principle, in the least. It’s all special interest politics. That’s not surprising, but it’s not admirable. And it’s not any better when Republicans push it than when Democrats and Obama do.

So yes, eliminate or cut back inefficient restrictions that a relentlessly anti-hydrocarbon administration has imposed, in order to eliminate unnecessary burdens on US oil and gas production that hurt both US producers and consumers in the US and around the world. But don’t impose large costs on American consumers of oil in order to prop up the US upstream sector. The sector should shrink if the demand for its product declines due to increased production elsewhere, or reduced demand. So be it.

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December 29, 2015

Spoof Me Once, Shame on You: Spoof Me Twice, Shame on Me

Filed under: Commodities,Derivatives,Economics,Exchanges,Regulation — The Professor @ 6:41 pm

I’ve often written that HFT firms are the best able to detect spoofers, and to take preventative measures (which reduce the profitability of spoofing, and hence its prevalence). The whole business of HFT is extracting signals from orders and order flow, and trading accordingly. Spoofing is based on manipulating the order flow–in essence, injecting noise into it. HFT firms evaluate their executions, and attempt to identify patterns that predict both winning and losing trades. If spoofers systematically impose losses on HFT firms, eventually the latter will figure it out.

This is the first article that I’ve read that supports this contention:

Inside Ken Griffin’s $25 billion empire, Citadel’s cyber investigators had isolated a new enemy: spoofers.

It was late 2013, and at the firm’s Chicago headquarters, a team of researchers discovered that a rival company’s algorithm was outmaneuvering their automated trader. The algo was placing futures orders it had no intention of filling to entice firms like Citadel into the transactions, then canceling them, leaving Citadel with money-losing trades. Citadel’s plan: to pit its computers against the spoofer in a high-stakes duel over market manipulation.

. . . .

Vertex Analytics may have devised a way to make high-frequency trading more transparent and spoofing easier to detect. The Chicago-based technology firm can represent graphically every order and transaction on CME’s markets, obviating the need to go through pounds of paper searching for a telltale sequence of

Vertex’s approach was a revelation for Robert Korajczyk, a finance professor for more than 30 years at Northwestern University, where he’s studied asset pricing and liquidity.

“My first reaction to seeing the graphics capabilities was ‘This can’t be done,’” Korajczyk said. “However, Vertex can do it.”

. . . .

Citadel isn’t the only firm that took measures against spoofers without regulators’ help.

In 2012, Chicago-based HTG Capital Partners detected a pattern of large canceled orders followed by aggressive trades in the opposite direction that left them with losing positions, according to an affidavit released last month. The firm created tools to help identify when spoofing was taking place, the affidavit said.

Transmarket Group has created an “anti-manipulation guide” that tells traders how to spot spoofing, according to a copy seen by Bloomberg News. The Chicago-based firm lists specific examples of spoofing in the natural gas market on CME as part of the guide.

The article spends a lot of time discussing enforcement actions against spoofers, and the difficulties of making a case. Even ignoring my doubts (expressed in earlier posts) whether the social costs of spoofing really warrant expensive enforcement efforts, the fact that sophisticated and knowledgeable players have the incentive to detect this kind of conduct, and take defensive measures (and perhaps offensive–at least that’s what the description of Citadel “pit[ting] its computers” against spoofers suggests) means that the frequency and scale of spoofing activity is likely to decline significantly. It is a pathogen that found a niche, but the hosts’ immune systems are adapting, and it will become less dangerous in short order.

This isn’t true of all forms of manipulation, but the very nature of spoofing–which involves doing things that are intended to be detected–makes it vulnerable to detection and countermeasures. This means that the system tends to be self-correcting, and this mitigates the need for enforcement. Unfortunately, it appears that enforcement officials (both civil and criminal) think otherwise, and have prioritized the prosecution of spoofing. Combined with the outrageous overcharging and over-penalizing that I’ve mentioned before, this is a disturbing development.

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December 25, 2015

Four Corners Offense: The Social History of Commodity Corners

I’ve been spending something of a busman’s holiday, reading this and that about commodity market corners in days long past. I started out looking into some of the big cotton corners at the beginning of the last century, namely the Brown-Hayne corner of 1903 and the Patten corner of 1910. These are the subject of a new book, The Cotton Kings: Capitalism and Corruption in Turn-of-the-Century New York and New Orleans. The book is entertaining history, but could use some more economics. It is journalistic in style, rather than analytical.

Reading about Patten’s cotton corner led me to read about his wheat corner of 1909, his corn corner of 1908, and his oats corner of 1902. Mr. Patten was a busy man.

And a reviled one. He was known as “The Wheat King,” whom the The Literary Review accused of  “The Crime of Making Bread Dear.” He was the model for the villain in the very influential D. W. Griffith short film, “A Corner in Wheat.”

This early short was one of the first films, if not the first, to address a serious social subject. Its theme would be very familiar today: the two Americas, rich and poorSergei Eisenstein admired Griffith, and employed his “parallel editing” technique (which he referred to as Griffith’s “montage of collision”): some film historians consider Griffith’s technique more subtle and less heavy-handed than Eisenstein’s.

(Unbeknownst to me when I was growing up in Evanston, Illinois, Patten was a longtime resident of the city, and its former mayor. He built a mansion there, and funded the Patten Gymnasium, where I swam in the summers.)

Patten was a nationally known figure. The Justice Department indicted him under the Sherman Act for his cotton corner, and the case attracted front page attention in national newspapers, including the New York Times, when it went to the Supreme Court. (Patten was fined $4000, or less than .1 percent of what he allegedly made in his corner. Not much deterrence effect there, eh?)

Patten was not alone in being a figure of national renown–and infamy. Commodity speculators were the banksters of their day. The Matt Taibbi of the 1880s, Henry Demarest Lloyd, wrote about cornerers at the Chicago Board of Trade in a famous essay. Frank Norris wrote a famous roman à clef, The Pit, based on the Leiter wheat corner of 1898.

In sum, in the last third of the 19th century and the first quarter of the 20th, commodity markets generally, and commodity market corners in particular, were the subject of intense interest. In some respects, it is not surprising that commodity corners were the subject of close journalistic coverage, serious fiction, social critical literature, and film during this era. Agricultural commodities were much more central to Americans as both consumers and producers. In 1900, 41 percent of the American workforce was employed in agriculture: now it is under 2 percent, and agriculture represents less than .7 of GDP. Half of American consumption spending went to food and textiles in 1900: a century later, that figure was down to 20 percent. Relatively speaking, the commodity derivatives markets (the Chicago Board of Trade, the Minneapolis Chamber of Commerce, Kansas City Board of Trade, the New York and New Orleans cotton exchanges, etc.) were more important and more developed that the capital markets, including the New York Stock Exchange, than is the case today: by the 1990s, when I was researching commodity exchanges and doing work with some, the commodity traders lamented that the explosion of financial futures had led the managements of exchanges to lose touch with the realities of commodities.

That said, one can see many echoes of the distant debates about and social criticism of commodity trading and corners in current controversies over financial markets. Just as outrage over the alleged excesses of the 2000s gave birth to the spate of post-Crisis financial regulation, fury over the Leiters and Pattens and Browns led to the first major regulations of financial markets in the United States: the Cotton Futures Act of 1914, and the Grain Futures Act of 1922 (which morphed into the Commodity Exchange Act, which is still with us, and which was amended by Frankendodd). Both Acts followed major government studies, the Commissioner of Corporations’ Report on Cotton Exchanges, and the Federal Trade Commission’s Report on the Grain Trade. Both of these are very well done, and provide very detailed descriptions of both the cash and futures markets. They are priceless resources. In some respects, because of them, we know more about the operation of commodity markets in the first decades of the 20th century than we do of their operation in the first decades of the 21st.

Maybe someday I’ll write a book about all of this, one that integrates the economics, history, and political economy. It’s of great personal interest, but not highly valued in the economics or finance professions today. I was amused when I came upon the link to an AER article about the Cotton Futures Act: it is beyond imagining that something similar would appear there today. But as I hope the foregoing shows, plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. Issues of the relationship between financial markets and the real economy, the political economy of financial markets, and the influence of financial titans on political and judicial institutions, are still with us. In 1909, a film like A Corner in Wheat grappled with the social impact of finance in a very provocative and arguably simplistic way: in 2009-2015 movies like Too Big to Fail, Margin Call, and The Big Short do the same.

Don’t hold your breath, but maybe someday you’ll read about this in depth in print, rather than superficially in pixels.

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December 22, 2015

Embarrassing Silliness on Commodity Market Financialization in the FT

Filed under: Commodities,Derivatives,Economics,Energy — The Professor @ 8:04 pm

Satyajit Das writes some smart things. He also writes some silly things. This article in the FT is definitely in the silly category. Embarrassing is more like it.

Das claims that “increased financialisation” has “exacerbated” the downturn in commodities. What does he mean exactly?

Let’s start with the what Das means by financialization. (I’m ‘Merican and I’ll spell it like a ‘Merican, dammit!) This has become a term of art to mean traditional financial investors (pension funds, hedge funds, retail investors etc.) taking on direct exposure to commodity price risks, usually via derivatives (including ETFs). But Das treats anything touching finance as financialization. His use of the word is so broad as to be meaningless.

Cash flows from future sales were monetised to raise large amounts of debt to finance expansion. The collateral value of commodities secured expansion in borrowing and trading.

Uhm, when has this not been true in commodities? Commodity production tends to be highly capital intensive, which requires, you know, capital, which requires tapping the capital markets to, you know, fund. Since the dawn of capital markets, lenders and equity investors have mobilized savings to supply capital to miners, drillers, etc., to fund the digging of mines and the drilling of wells, based on the expectation of being paid back from cash flows from future sales. That’s exactly what finance is. If that is “financialization,” pretty much everything is “financialized” and the term is so general as to lack all meaning and analytical bite.  Modern markets have always been financialized in this way.

Natural resource firms have long been major users of the capital markets. Indeed, many of the earliest stock and bond markets developed to finance commodity investments, and mining and E&P firms have long been leading names in major stock and bond markets. In that respect, commodities have been financialized a lot more for a lot longer than most sectors of the economy.

In fact, it is the very capital intensity of extractive industries (which made natural resource firms reliant on capital markets from the first) that  explains the boom-bust cycle. Most of the costs of natural resource extraction industries are sunk costs. Literally sunk: very expensive, very long-lived holes in the ground that can’t be undug and used for something else. If demand turns down after these investments are made, it usually makes economic sense to continue operating , because the variable costs of operation tend to be relatively low and can be covered even when prices are low. Since the capacity is long-lived, exit does not occur, meaning that low prices can persist for long periods. But that’s economically efficient when investment is largely irreversible.

Which brings me to Das’s next groaner:

The need to maintain cash flow to service debt requires production levels to be maintained, even if it is below cost. This delays the withdrawal of supply and correction of prices. It also destroys the value of equity, making it difficult for firms to raise new capital to reduce debt.

Producing “below cost” (by which I assume he means continuing to produce when prices are below cost) destroys cash flow, rather than maintains it, if cost is measured properly. It is optimal to operate as long as prices cover avoidable costs (e.g., variable costs, and fixed costs that must be incurred as long as output is positive), even if prices are below some measure of accounting cost which typically embeds sunk costs: you can’t judge economic operation by looking at income statements, which have sunk costs baked in.

This kind of continued operation doesn’t “destroy the value of equity.” To the contrary, it is shutting down when price more than covers avoidable cost that destroys the value of equity. The fact that avoidable costs in natural resource extraction tend to be low relative to total costs means that not exiting even when prices are low is economically efficient.  (Another implication of the cost structure of natural resource production is that it is typically efficient to produce either at capacity or shut down altogether.)

Debt costs reflect the sunk costs of investment. Sometimes–like now–cash flows are insufficient to cover the costs of servicing this debt for many firms. That’s what bankruptcy laws are for. If they work well, the continued operation (or not) of insolvent firms will depend on current and expected future margins between price and avoidable costs, not the Ghost of Sunk Costs Past.

Then there’s this:

For industries like shale gas and oil which were cash flow negative even at high oil prices because of the need to invest in new wells to maintain production, reduction in the supply of capital affects the ability of firms to operate.

Again, Das is apparently utterly confused about the proper cash flow concept to apply. If “maintain production at all costs” was truly the mantra of the E&P industry, the problem would not be financialization, but management retardation. Finance would be implicated only to the extent that financiers are similarly retarded and gladly shovel good money to them to permit continued value destruction. If anything, it is the need to access the capital markets that prevents retarded managements from wreaking havoc: few things are more destructive of value than CEOs with bountiful free cash flows that relieve them of capital market discipline. Cutting off capital from negative NPV projects is a boon, not a burden.

Finally we get to derivatives!:

Hedging ameliorated the effect of declining prices. Derivative gains contributed in excess of 30 per cent of revenues in the US shale industry in 2015

And this is a problem why? This is exactly the way “financialization” is supposed to work. It transfers price risks to those (namely, well-diversified financial investors) who can bear them at a lower cost. Yes, investment probably would have been lower, and prices higher, had this risk transfer mechanism not existed. But this doesn’t mean that the level of investment with an efficient risk transfer mechanism is too high: it means that the level of investment without one is too low.

More bad derivatives stuff:

Margin calls further complicate matters. An airline that has hedged future oil purchases at high prices may face margin calls that make unexpected claims on its cash flow.

Yes, cash flow mismatches on hedges can be a problem. Which is exactly why corporate end users strongly preferred (and prefer) OTC hedges which embedded credit to mitigate these problems.

More financialization evils, according to Das:

Financialisation altered fundamental industrial structures. Traditionally high barriers to entry, such as technology, expertise and access to capital, led to domination by large producers who planned and controlled production.

Now specialised resources service firms provide access to technology and the willingness of capital markets and non-traditional lenders to provide finance allows easier entry resulting in a more fragmented industry.

These are features, not bugs! These are benefits of financialization! Breaking down oligopolistic and monopolistic market structures is good, not bad!

At the same time, trading in financial claims on future commodity cash flows has encouraged institutional investment in the sector as part of diversification into new asset classes. Hedge funds and trading firms now act as quasi banks financing and facilitating risk management by commodity market participants.

So facilitating the flow of capital from savers to investors is a bad thing? Facilitating risk management is bad too? Who knew?

This is just bizarre:

This activity is marked-to-market daily or secured by the value of the commodity. Any change in value can trigger calls for additional collateral complicating cash flow management or force liquidation of holdings. Capital market investors may lack the ability to ride out prolonged corrections. It complicates dealing with financial distress and the necessary restructuring.

Tapping into a deeper pool of capital, which financialization (as defined by Das) allows, spreads the risks and makes it easier to ride out prolonged correction (which, again, are an inherent consequence of the cost structures/operational leverage of natural resource extraction), not harder. And the statement about complicating dealing with financial distress and restructuring is completely conclusory, with no supporting argument or evidence.

Yes, in a world with poorly developed financial markets, large scale investments in industries characterized by irreversibility and large scale (like natural resource extraction) are expensive to fund. “Financialization”–which in Das’s expansive usage, apparently just means lower cost access to bigger pools of investment and risk capital–indeed leads to a bigger natural resources sector. Yes, by its very nature this sector will inevitably go through protracted periods of low prices, which will impose losses on investors. But that’s a risk that they willingly choose to bear, in exchange for an expected return that they consider compensatory.

Das appears to be afflicted with Bastiat Disease, i.e., the inability to distinguish between the seen and the unseen. Das sees the financial carnage that the current natural resources depression has created, but hasn’t considered what would happen if the world was less financialized. What are the unseen consequences of that?

I can tell you: a poorer world.

There are some forms of finance that are wealth-destroying rent seeking. The financing and risk management of the production of minerals and energy are not among them.

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December 21, 2015

Adam Smith Goes to Syria: How Bad Government Policies Turned Drought Into Famine

Filed under: Climate Change,Commodities,Economics,Energy,History,Politics,Regulation — The Professor @ 7:39 pm

The myth that global warming caused a drought which caused the civil war in Syria has been flogged repeatedly by the left, especially in the lead-up to the Paris farce: another example of the “elites” letting no good crisis go to (political) waste. As I discussed in March, there was indeed a drought in Syria, but no credible scientific evidence links the drought to climate change.

Droughts happen. What turned the drought into catastrophe in Syria was the depletion of groundwater by previous government-driven efforts to spur production:

Syria was such a successful producer that it became a net exporter of wheat for the better part of two decades — almost unheard-of in a region where most governments imported cheap wheat from abroad. According to ICARDA Director General Mahmoud Solh, the increased productivity netted the Syrian government more than $350 million a year . The country also kept a strategic reserve of wheat — usually about 3 million metric tons, enough to get it through a lean year or a price spike. In this most stable of dictatorships, nobody dreamed of a war.

But all that productivity came at a price. To produce these remarkable gains, Syria’s agricultural sector “mined” groundwater to irrigate farms. Experts predicted that this would lead to severe water Shortages. When a four-year drought struck in 2006, devastating 60 percent of Syria’s agricultural lands, the country’s groundwater was already depleted.

(This sounds a lot like Soviet agricultural malpractice.)

This brings to mind Adam Smith’s argument that bad government policy turns “dearths” caused by nature into famines:

The seasons most unfavourable to the crop are those of excessive drought or excessive rain. But as corn grows equally upon high and low lands, upon grounds that are disposed to be too wet, and upon those that are disposed to be too dry, either the drought or the rain which is hurtful to one part of the country is favourable to another; and though both in the wet and in the dry season the crop is a good deal less than in one more properly tempered, yet in both what is lost in one part of the country is in some measure compensated by what is gained in the other. In rice countries, where the crop not only requires a very moist soil, but where in a certain period of its growing it must be laid under water, the effects of a drought are much more dismal. Even in such countries, however, the drought is, perhaps, scarce ever so universal as necessarily to occasion a famine, if the government would allow a free trade.

It as not just the  Syrian government that contributed to spiraling food prices which created popular unrest in the Middle East that culminated in 2010-2011 (which the Muslim Brotherhood exploited in Egypt and Syria in particularly): US government policy contributed to the problem. In particular, US biofuels mandates that stimulated the production of ethanol drove up the price of corn by an estimated 30 percent, and as Brian Wright has shown, drove up all other grain prices as well (because corn is a substitute for other grains in both consumption and production). (I strongly recommend reading at least the introduction of the Wright paper: I’d quote in detail, but the online versions embed some devious feature that makes it impossible to copy-and-paste.)

It is sickly ironic that policies intended to reduce global warming pushed by the same crowd that falsely blame the Syrian drought and subsequent civil war on global warming (a) do nothing to reduce global warming, and (b) have done far more to exacerbate poverty and create social unrest  in the Middle East than global warming ever has or ever will.  Ethanol is an unmitigated disaster environmentally, economically, and socially. Yet the people Thomas Sowell trenchantly calls “the anointed” colluded with agricultural lobbies in the United States (encompassing both growers and processors) to inflict this monstrosity on the world.

How dare they–how fucking dare they–presume to lecture anyone on their obligations to “save the planet” and help the poor? Through biofuels policies alone they have inflicted huge misery and privation, and yet they have the audacity to try to exploit one of the consequences of these policies in order to ram more of their brilliant ideas down our throats.

Haven’t they done enough? Can they please now just go away?

Alas, we won’t be so lucky. These are our elites, after all, and we are stuck with them, like a case of malaria. And they are actually proud of stupid policies like biofuel mandates. There is no stupid that can equal the stupid of not just not learning from mistakes, but reveling in them.

Do you still wonder why the Trump phenomenon exists? The global reaction against the elites, of which Trump is just the most prominent example, is yet another baleful consequence of the failure of these so called elites. The reaction may be as bad as the disease, but let the blame fall where it should: squarely on the shoulders of those condescending fools whose allegedly good intentions have paved a superhighway to hell.

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