Streetwise Professor

May 29, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*Full disclosure. Number One Daughter works for Cheniere.

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May 11, 2015

Gazprom Agonistes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“The Russians are unreliable. They are always flipping things around for their own interest,” said one Chinese oil executive.

Who knew?

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

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

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

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May 5, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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April 20, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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April 18, 2015

A Greek Gas Farce

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

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


Some thoughts off the top.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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April 5, 2015

Not So Krafty?

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

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

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

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

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


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April 4, 2015

The IECA Libels Me: I Am Oddly Flattered

Filed under: Commodities,Derivatives,Economics,Energy,Exchanges,Politics,Regulation — The Professor @ 10:22 am

The Industrial Energy Consumers of America has submitted a comment letter on the CFTC’s position limit rule making. The letter contains this libel:

If one looks at the agenda from the February 26, 2015 meeting (see below), other than CFTC presenters, every presenter has views that are not consistent with CFTC action to set speculative position limits. Professor Pirrong has a long history of client paid studies in this area and will need to identify who paid for the underlying data and study for his results to be credible on this subject.

If “this area” is the subject of speculation and position limits, this statement is categorically false. I have not done one “client paid study” on these issues. Period.

In fact, most of my writing on speculation has either been in my academic work (as in my 2011 book), or here on the blog. I have been arguing this issue on my own time.

Actually, I did do one client paid study on these issues about 11 or 12 years ago. For the IECA, in fact, which was just certain that the NYMEX’s expanded accountability limits for natural gas had caused volatility to increase. They hired me to study this issue. I did, using methods that I had employed in peer reviewed research, and found that IECA’s firm beliefs were flatly contradicted by the data: data that IECA paid for, analyzed using methods that were disclosed to it. IECA decided not to release the study. Surprise, surprise. So IECA knows from direct experience that my opinions are not for sale.

So just who here is hiding something? Hint: it ain’t me.

I could provide other examples. The GFMA study on commodity traders is a well known case: it was written up in the Financial Times. Another example that is not as well known was my work on a project for the Board of Trade in 1991-1992, in which I studied the delivery mechanism for corn and soybeans. (The resulting report was published as Grain Futures Markets: An Economic Appraisal.) I concluded that the delivery mechanism was subject to manipulation, and recommended the addition of delivery points at economic par differentials to Chicago. This was not the desired answer. On the day I presented my results to the committee of the CBT that commissioned the study, the chief economist of the exchange pressured me to change my recommendations. I refused. The meeting that followed became heated. So heated, in fact, that the head of the committee and I almost literally came to blows when I refused to back down: committee members from Cargill and ADM actually took the guy bodily from the room until he calmed down.

So the track record is abundantly clear: I call them like I see them, even if it isn’t what the client wants to hear.

In fact, it is IECA’s ad hominem that lacks credibility. My white papers for Trafigura are not related to the issue of speculation at all. To the contrary, they are related to the issue of physical commodity trading. I did a study for CME in 2009 on the performance of the WTI futures contract. Nothing related to speculation. Data sources disclosed, and the methodologies are clearly set out. Again, if IECA has specific critiques of any of these analyses, bring it on. Anytime. Anywhere. And they can leave their libelous insinuations behind.

Perhaps IECA head Paul Cicio is still sore over how I smacked him around at a House Ag committee hearing in July 2008. Cicio said it was obvious that speculation had inflated energy prices. He used the metaphor of a swimming pool: if a bunch of speculators jump in, it has to raise the water level. I retorted that this shows the exact opposite, because all the speculators get out of the pool before contracts go spot. Long speculators are sellers of futures as delivery approaches, meaning they are out of the pool (the physical market) as delivery approaches, and hence can’t be inflating spot prices.

If Cicio is still sore, all I have to say is: Get over it.

To reiterate: IECA’s statement in a document submitted to a government regulatory agency is categorically false, and libelous.

And oddly flattering. You don’t go out of your way to libel the irrelevant. The fact that this organization feels compelled to slur me by name and attack my credibility (even though the attack is false) means that they must believe that I pose a threat to them. I sure as hell hope so.

Word to the wise. Don’t bring a wet noodle to a gunfight. (I cleaned that up.) You’re going to lose.


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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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