Streetwise Professor

October 12, 2016

A Pitch Perfect Illustration of Blockchain Hype

Filed under: Clearing,Commodities,Derivatives,Economics,Regulation — The Professor @ 7:31 pm

If you’ve been paying the slightest attention to financial markets lately, you’ll know that blockchain is The New Big Thing. Entrepreneurs and incumbent financial behemoths alike are claiming it will transform every aspect of financial markets.

The techno-utopianism makes me extremely skeptical. I will lay out the broader case for my skepticism in a forthcoming post. For now, I will discuss a specific example that illustrates odd combination of cluelessness and hype that characterizes many blockchain initiatives.

Titled “Blockchain startup aims to replace clearinghouses,” the article breathlessly states:

Founded by two former traders at Societe Generale, SynSwap is a post-trade start-up based on hyperledger technology designed to disintermediate central counterparties (CCPs) from the clearing process, effectively removing their role in key areas.

“For now we are focusing on interest rate swaps and credit default swaps, and will further develop the platform for other asset classes,” says Sophia Grami, co-founder of SynSwap.

Grami explains that once a trade is captured, SynSwap automatically processes the whole post-trade workflow on its blockchain platform. Through smart contracts, it can perform key post-trade functions such as matching and affirmation, generation of the confirmation, netting, collateral management, compression, default management and settlement.

“CCPs have been created to reduce systemic risk and remove counterparty risk through central clearing. While clearing is key to mitigate risks, the blockchain technology allows us to disintermediate CCPs while providing the same risk mitigation techniques,” Grami adds.

“Central clearing is turned into distributed clearing. There is no central counterparty anymore and no entity is in the middle of a trade anymore.”

The potential disruptive force blockchain technology could have for derivatives clearing could bring back banks that have pulled away from the business due to heightened regulatory costs.

I have often noted that CCPs offer a bundle of many services, and it is possible to considering unbundling some of them. But there are certain core functions of CCP clearing that this blockchain proposal does not offer. Most importantly, CCPs mutualize default risk: this is truly one of the core features of a CCP. This proposal does not, meaning that it provides a fundamentally different service than a CCP. Further, CCPs hedge and manage defaulted positions and port customer positions from a defaulted intermediary to a solvent one: this proposal does not. CCPs also manage liquidity risk. For instance, a defaulter’s collateral may not be immediately convertible into cash to pay winning counterparties, but the CCP maintains liquidity reserves and lines that it can use to intermediate liquidity in these circumstances. The proposal does not. The proposal mentions netting, but I seriously doubt that the blockchain–hyperledger, excuse me–can perform multilateral netting like a CCP.

There are other issues. Who sets the margin levels? Who sets the daily (or intraday) marks which determine variation margin flows and margin calls to top up IM? CCPs do that. Who does it for the hyper ledger?

So the proposal does some of the same things as a CCP, but not all of them, and in fact omits the most important bits that make central clearing central clearing. To the extent that these other CCP services add value–or regulation compels market participants to utilize a CCP that offers these services–market participants will choose to use a CCP, rather than this service. It is not a perfect substitute for central clearing, and will not disintermediate central clearing in cases where the services it does not offer and the functions it does not perform are demanded by market participants, or by regulators.

The co-founder says “[c]entral clearing is turned into distributed clearing.” Er, “distributed clearing”–AKA “bilateral OTC market.” What is being proposed here is not something really new: it is an application of a new technology to a very old, and very common, way of transacting. And by its nature, such a distributed, bilateral system cannot perform some functions that inherently require multilateral cooperation and centralization.

This illustrates one of my general gripes about blockchain hype: blockchain evangelists often claim to offer something new and revolutionary but what they actually describe often involves re-inventing the wheel. Maybe this wheel has advantages over existing wheels, but it’s still a wheel.

Furthermore, I would point out that this wheel may have some serious disadvantages as compared to existing wheels, namely, the bilateral OTC market as we know it. In some respects, it introduces one of the most dangerous features of central clearing into the bilateral market. (H/T Izabella Kaminska for pointing this out.) Specifically, as I’ve been going on about for about 8 years now, the rigid variation margining mechanism inherent in central clearing creates a tight coupling that can lead to catastrophic failure. Operational or financial delays that prevent timely payment of variation margin can force the CCP into default, or force it or its members to take extraordinary measures to access liquidity during times when liquidity is tight. Everything in a cleared system has to perform like clockwork, or an entire CCP can fail. Even slight delays in receiving payments during periods of market stress (when large variation margin flows occur) can bring down a CCP.

In contrast, there is more play in traditional bilateral contracting. It is not nearly so tightly coupled. One party not making a margin call at the precise time does not threaten to bring down the entire system. Furthermore, in the bilateral world, the “FU Option” is often quite systemically stabilizing. During the lead up to the crisis, arguments over marks could stretch on for days and sometimes weeks, giving some breathing room to stump up the cash to meet margin calls, and to negotiate down the size of the calls.

The “smart contracts” aspect of the blockchain proposal jettisons that. Everything is written in the code, the code is the last word, and will be self-executing. This will almost certainly create tight coupling: The Market has moved by X; contract says that means party A has to pay Party B Y by 0800 tomorrow or A is in default. (One could imagine writing really, really smart contracts that embed various conditions that mimic the flexibility and play in face-to-face bilateral markets, but color me skeptical–and this conditionality will create other issues, as I’ll discuss in the future post.)

When I think of these “smart contracts” one image that comes to mind is the magic broomsticks in The Sorcerer’s Apprentice. They do EXACTLY what they are commanded to do by the apprentice (coder?): they tote water, and end up toting so much water that a flood ensues. There is no feedback mechanism to get them to stop when the water gets too high. Again, perhaps it is possible to create really, really smart contracts that embed such feedback mechanisms.

But then one has to consider the potential interactions among a dense network of such really, really smart contracts. How do the feedbacks feed back on one another? Simple agent models show that agents operating subject to pre-programmed rules can generate complex, emergent orders when they interact. Sometimes these orders can be quite efficient. Sometimes they can crash and collapse.

In sum, the proposal for “distributed clearing to disintermediate CCPs” illustrates some of the defects of the blockchain movement. It overhypes what it does. It claims to be something new, when really it is a somewhat new way of doing something quite common. It does not necessarily perform these familiar functions better. It does not consider the systemic implications of what it does.

So why is there so much hype? Well, why was a thing? More seriously, I think that there is an interesting sociological dynamic here. All the cool kids are talking about blockchain, and nobody wants to admit to not being cool. Further, when a critical mass of supposed thought leaders are doing something, others imitate for fear of being left behind: if you join and it turns out to be flop, well, you don’t stand out–everybody, including the smartest people, screwed up. You’re in good company! But if you don’t join and it becomes a hit, you look like a Luddite idiot and get left behind. So there is a bias towards joining the fad/jumping on the bandwagon.

I think there will be a role for blockchain. But I also believe that it will not be nearly as revolutionary as its most ardent proponents claim. And I am damn certain that it is not going to disintermediate central clearing, both because central clearing does some things “decentralized clearing” doesn’t (duh!), and because regulators like those things and are forcing their use.

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October 6, 2016

Igor for the Win!, or Privatization With Russian Characteristics

Filed under: Commodities,Economics,Energy,Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 5:19 pm

Today Russia announced that Rosneft has been approved to purchase Bashneft. This despite the Economics Ministry’s earlier attempts to prevent state-owned Rosneft from participating in a “privatization” of a company that had been de-privatized (through expropriation), and Putin’s statement that this was not the best option.

But there’s more! The company was handed to Rosneft on a platter. Rosneft didn’t have to win an auction. There was no competitive tender process. It was just Christmas in October for Igor.

This speaks volumes about how Russia is run. (I won’t say “governed” or “managed.”) In a natural state way, a favored insider was rewarded despite the fact that all economic considerations push the other way. For one thing, privatization has been touted as a way of alleviating Russia’s severe budgetary problems. This will not do that. The decision occurred at a time when all indications are that the economic stringency will endure. There is no prospect for a serious rebound in oil prices, and there is also little prospect of an easing in sanctions. Indeed, Putin’s obduracy in Ukraine and his escalation in Syria may result in the imposition of additional sanctions. Putin’s spending priorities are increasing the economic strain. He plans to increase defense spending by $10 billion, and reduce social spending by less than that. Furthermore, Rosneft is a wretchedly run company that will generate far less value from Bashneft than would another owner, including a private Russian firm like Lukoil.

In brief, a cash-strapped Putin passed up an opportunity to generate some revenue and handed over Bashneft to a company that destroys value rather than enhances it. Such are the ways of a natural state that functions by allocating rents to courtiers. Privatization, with Russian characteristics.

In sum, in the Bashneft deal, Igor wins. And Russia loses.

The only thing that could potentially redeem this is if there was a quid pro quo, namely, that Sechin would relent to the sale of big stake in Rosneft to outside investors. Nothing of the sort was announced today, and perhaps they are waiting for some time to pass so as not to suggest that there was a deal. But I doubt it. I am guessing that Igor will win that argument too.

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September 26, 2016

Laissez les bons temps rouler!

Filed under: Commodities,Derivatives,Economics,Energy — The Professor @ 12:07 pm

One of the great myths of commodity futures trading is the “roll return,” which Bloomberg writes about here (bonus SWP quote–but he left out the good stuff!, so I’ll have to fill that in here). Consider the oil market, which is currently in a contango, with the November WTI future ($45.99/bbl) trading below the December ($46.52/bbl). This is supposedly bad for those with a long ETF position, or an index position that includes many commodities in contango, because when the position is “rolled” forward in a couple weeks as the November contracts moves towards expiration, the investor will sell the November contract at a lower price than he buys the December, thereby allegedly causing a loss. The investor could avoid this, supposedly, by holding inventory of the spot commodity.

The flip side of this allegedly occurs when the market is in backwardation: the expiring contract is sold at a higher price than the next deferred contract is bought, thereby supposedly allowing the investor to capture the backwardation, whereas since spot prices tend to be trending down in these conditions, holders of the spot lose.

This is wrong, for two reasons. First, it gets the accounting wrong, by starting in the middle of the investment. The profit or loss on the November crude futures position depends on the difference between the price at which the November was sold in early October and bought in early September, not the difference between the price at which the November is sold and the December is bought in early October. Similarly, in November, the P/L on the December position will be the difference between sell and buy prices for the December futures, not the difference between the prices of the December and January futures in early December.  You need to compare apples to apples: the “roll return” compares apples and oranges.

On average and over time, the investor engaged in this rolling strategy earns the risk premium on oil (or the portfolio of commodities in the index). This is because the futures price is the expected spot price at expiration plus a risk premium. The rolling position receives the spot price at expiration and pays the expected spot price at the time the position is initiated, plus a risk adjustment. On average the spot price parts cancel out, leaving the risk premium.

Second, the expected change in the price of the spot commodity compensates the holder for the costs of carrying inventory, which include financing costs (very small, at present), and warehousing costs, insurance, etc. Net of these costs, the P/L on the position includes a risk premium for exposure to spot price risk, and in a well-functioning market, this will be the same as the risk premium in the corresponding future.

Moving away from commodities illustrates how the alleged difference between a rolled futures position and a spot position is largely chimerical. Consider a position in S&P 500 index futures when the interest rate is above the dividend yield. (Yes, children, that was true once upon a time!) Under this condition, the S&P futures would be in contango, and there would be an apparent roll loss when one sells the expiring contract and buying the first deferred. Similarly, comparing the futures price to the spot index at the time the future is bought, the future will be above the spot, and since at expiration the future and the spot index converge to the same value, the future will apparently underperform the investment in the underlying. But this underperformance is illusory, because it neglects to take into account the cost of carrying the cash index position (which is driven by the difference between the funding rate and the dividend yield). When buys and sells are matched appropriately, and all costs and benefits are accounted for properly, the performance of the two positions is the same.

Conversely, in the current situation using the roll return illogic, the rolled position in S&P futures will apparently outperform an investment in the cash index, because the futures market is in backwardation. But this backwardation exists because the dividend yield exceeds the rate of financing an investment in the cash index. The apparent difference in performance is explained by the fact that the futures position doesn’t capture the dividend yield. Once the cost of carrying the cash index position (which is negative, in this case) is taken into consideration, the performance of the positions is identical.

Back in 1992, Metallgesellschaft blew up precisely because the trader in charge of their oil trading convinced management that a stack-and-roll “hedging” strategy would make money in a backwardated market, because he would be consistently selling the future near expiration for a price that exceeded the next-deferred that he was buying. This “logic” was again comparing apples to oranges. By implementing that “logic” to the tune of millions of barrels, Metallgesellschaft became the charter member of the billion dollar club–it was the first firm to have lost $1 billion trading derivatives.

So don’t obsess about roll returns or try to figure out ways to invest in cash commodities when the market is in a contango/carry. Futures are far more liquid and cheaper to trade, so if you want exposure to commodity prices do it through futures directly or indirectly (e.g., through ETFs or index funds). Decide on the allocation to commodities based on the risk it adds to your portfolio and the risk premium you can earn. Don’t worry about the roll. If you decide that commodities fit in your portfolio, laissez les bon temps roullez!

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September 16, 2016

De Minimis Logic

CFTC Chair Timothy Massad has come out in support of a one year delay of the lowering of the de minimis swap dealer exemption notional amount from $8 billion to $3 billion. I recall Coase  (or maybe it was Stigler) writing somewhere that an economist could pay for his lifetime compensation by delaying implementation of an inefficient law by even a day. By that reckoning, by delaying the step down of the threshold for a year Mr. Massad has paid for the lifetime compensation of his progeny for generations to come, for the de minimis threshold is a classic analysis of an inefficient law. Mr. Massad (and his successors) could create huge amounts of wealth by delaying its implementation until the day after forever.

There are at least two major flaws with the threshold. The first is that there is a large fixed cost to become a swap dealer. Small to medium-sized swap traders who avoid the obligation of becoming swap dealers under the $8 billion threshold will not avoid it under the lower threshold. Rather than incur the fixed cost, many of those who would be caught with the lower threshold will decide to exit the business. This will reduce competition and increase concentration in the swap market. This is perversely ironic, given that one ostensible purpose of Frankendodd (which was trumpeted repeatedly by its backers) was to increase competition and reduce concentration.

The second major flaw is that the rationale for the swap dealer designation, and the associated obligations, is to reduce risk. Big swap dealers mean big risk, and to reduce that risk, they are obligated to clear, to margin non-cleared swaps, and hold more capital. But notional amount is a truly awful measure of risk. $X billion of vanilla interest rate swaps differ in risk from $X billion of CDS index swaps which differ in risk from $X billion of single name CDS which differ in risk from $X billion of oil swaps. Hell, $X billion of 10 year interest rate swaps differ in risk from $X billion of 2 year interest rate swaps. And let’s not even talk about the variation across diversified portfolios of swaps with the same notional values. So notional does not match up with risk in a discriminating way.  Further, turnover doesn’t measure risk very well either.

But hey! We can measure notional! So notional it is! Yet another example of the regulatory drunk looking for his keys under the lamppost because that’s where the light is.

So bully for Chairman Massad. He has delayed implementation of a regulation that will do the opposite of some of the things it is intended to do, and merely fails to do other things it is supposed to do. Other than that, it’s great!

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September 12, 2016

The New Deal With Chinese Characteristics

Filed under: China,Commodities,Economics,History,Politics,Regulation — The Professor @ 1:03 pm

When I was in Singapore last week I spoke at the FT Asia Commodities Summit. Regardless of whether the subject was ags or energy or metals, China played an outsized role in the discussion. In particular, participants focused on China’s newish “supply side” policy.

There is little doubt that the policy–which focuses on reducing capacity, or at least output in steel, coal, and other primary industries–has had an impact on prices. Consider coking coal:

Coking coal, the material used by steelmakers to fire their blast furnaces, has become the best performing commodity of 2016 after surging more than 80 per cent over the past month on the back of production curbs and flooding in China.

Premium hard Australian coking coal delivered to China hit $180.9 a tonne on Friday, this highest level since price reporting agency Steel Index began publishing assessments in 2013. It has risen 131 per cent since the start of the year, outpacing gold, silver, iron ore and zinc — other top performing commodities.

The main driver of the rally — which has also roiled thermal coal — is Beijing’s decision to restrict the number of working days at domestic mines to 276 days per year from 330 previously.

This policy is aimed at the improving the profitability of producers so they can repay loans to local banks. But it has reduced output and forced traders and steel mills to buy imported material from what is known as the seaborne market.

80 percent. In a month.

Or thermal coal:

Newcastle thermal coal is heading for the first annual gain in six years as China seeks to cut overcapacity and curb pollution. While the timing of the output adjustment is unavailable, it may start in September or October after recent price gains, Citigroup said in the report dated Sept. 8. Bohai-Rim is 26 percent higher from a year ago, when it was 409 yuan, while Newcastle has climbed as much as 40 percent this year.

The phrase “supply side reform” actually fits rather awkwardly here, at least to a Western ear. That phrase connotes the reduction of regulatory and tax burdens as a means of promoting economic growth. But Supply Side Reform With Chinese Characteristics means increasing the government’s role in managing the economy.

A better description would be that this is The New Deal With Chinese Characteristics. FDR’s New Deal was largely a set of measures to cartelize major US industries, in an effort to raise prices. The economic “thinking” behind this was completely wrongheaded, and motivated by the idea that there was “ruinous competition” in product and labor markets that required government intervention to fix. Apparently the higher prices and wages were supposed to increase aggregate demand. Or something. But although the New Deal foundered on Constitutional shoals only a few years after its passage, in its brief existence it had proven to be an economic nightmare rent by contradictions. For instance, if you increase prices in an upstream industry, that is detrimental to the downstream sector for which the upstream industry’s outputs are inputs. According to scholarship dating back to Milton Friedman and Anna Schwartz, and continuing through recent work by Cole and Ohanian,  interference in the price mechanism and forced cartelization slowed the US’s recovery from the monetary shock that caused the Great Depression.

The motivation for the Chinese policy is apparently not so much to facilitate the rationalization of capacity in sectors with too much of it, but to increase revenue of firms in these sectors in order to permit them to pay back debt to banks and the holders of wealth management products (which often turn out to be banks too). Further, the policy is also driven by a need to sustain employment in these industries. Thus, the policies are intended to prop up the financially weakest and least efficient companies, rather than cull them.

So step back for a minute and contemplate what this means. Through a variety of policies, including most notably financial repression (that made capital artificially cheap) and credit stimulus, China encouraged massive investment in the commodities and primary goods sectors. These policies succeeded too well: they encouraged massive over-investment. So to offset that, and to mitigate the financial consequences for lenders, local governments, and workers, China is intervening to restrict output to raise prices. Rather than encouraging the correction of past errors, the new policy is perpetuating them, and creating new ones.

Remind me again how China’s government got the reputation as master economic managers, because I’m not seeing it. This is an example of a wasteful response to wasteful over-investment: waste coming and going. Further, it involves an increase in government intervention, which obviously has those in favor a more liberal (in the Smithian sense) free market policy rather distraught, and which foreshadows even more waste in the future.

The policy is also obviously fraught with tensions, because it pits those consuming primary and intermediate goods against those producing them–and against the banks who are now more likely to get their money back. That is, it is a backdoor bank (and WMP) bailout, the costs of which will be borne by the consumers of the goods produced by industries that were supersized by past government profligacy.

Ironically, the policy also stokes something that the government purports to hate: speculation. Policy volatility encourages speculation on the goods and industries affected by these policies. The large movements in prices in the coal and iron-steel sectors in response to policy changes provide a strong incentive to speculate on future policy changes.

Further, it creates the potential for moral hazard in the future. Future lenders (and purchasers of WMP) will look back on this policy and conclude that the government may well undertake backdoor bailouts if the companies they have lent to run into difficulties. This is hardly conducive to prudent lending and investment.

This is not foresighted policy. It is extemporizing to fix near-term problems, most of which were created by past measures to fix near-term problems. There is a Three Stooges aspect to the entire endeavor.

Of course, it’s an ill wind that blows no one any good. Glencore is no doubt very grateful for Chairman Xi’s heavy-handed policy intervention. It has probably played a larger role in bringing the company back from the brink than did the company’s prudent efforts to cut debt. But it is probably too late, alas, for Peabody Coal, and Arch Coal, and all those “coal people” whom former empathizer in chief Bill Clinton mocked last week. The ingrates!

The bottom line is that China is the 800 pound gorilla of the commodity markets, and shifts in its policies can lead to huge moves in commodity prices. Given that these policy shifts are driven by the crisis du jour (e.g., commodity producer shakiness threatening to make banks and local governments shaky) rather than good economics, and that these policy shifts are difficult to predict given the opacity and centralization of Chinese decision making, they add to substantial additional volatility in commodity prices and commodity markets: who can read the gorilla’s mind (which he changes often)?, and woe to those who read it wrong.

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September 6, 2016

HKEx: Improving Warehousing in China, or Creating a Shadow Banking Vehicle?

Filed under: Clearing,Commodities,Derivatives,Economics,Regulation — The Professor @ 9:33 pm

I am on my last day in Singapore, where I participated in the rollout of Trafigura’s Commodities Demystified hosted by IE Singapore.  The event was very well attended (an overflow crowd) and the presentation and new publication (which builds off the conceptual framework of my 2013 white paper The Economics of Commodity Trading Firms) was well-received. It helps fill a yawning gap in knowledge about what commodity traders are and what they do.

In addition to that event, I spoke as a panelist at the FT’s Commodities Asia Summit. One of the main speakers was Charles Li, CEO of Hong Kong Exchanges and Clearing, who laid out his ambitions for plans in mainland China. Things started out well. Whereas expectations were that HKEx would create a modest spot metals trading platform in China (because it doesn’t have and is unlikely to receive a license for trading futures), Li stated that HKEx (which owns the LME) would attempt to create a “lookalike” LME metals warehousing system. In the aftermath of the Qingdao fiasco this could be a very salutary development.

I would suggest caution, however. This may be easier said than done. While Li was describing this, my mind immediately turned to a paper I wrote over 2 decades ago about the successes and failures of commodity exchanges. One of the signal failures occurred when the Chicago Board of Trade attempted to tame the depredations of grain warehouses in the 1860s. Public storage was rife with all sorts of fraud and illicit dealing. The quality and quantity of grain being stored was a mystery, and warehousemen played all sorts of games to exploit their customers. The CBT, acting in the interests of traders who relied on the warehouses, attempted to impose rules and regulations on them, but failed utterly. Eventually the State of Illinois had to pass legislation to rein in some of the warehousemen’s more outrageous actions. Furthermore, larger traders integrated into warehousing, and eventually public storage became primarily ancillary to futures trading (i.e., to facilitate delivery against futures).

The CBT’s problem is that it did not have an adequate stick to beat the warehousemen into compliance. They were kicked out of the exchange, but the gains of being able to trade futures were smaller than the gains from operating warehouses outside the CBT’s rules.

Public warehousing has proved problematic in commodities to the present day. The LME’s travails with aluminum warehousing are just one example, but others abound in commodities including coffee, cocoa, and cotton. In cotton, for instance, even though warehouses are subject to federal regulation, there are chronic complaints that warehousemen do not load out cotton promptly, in order to enhance storage revenues.

So I wish Mr. Li luck. He’ll need it, especially since lacking the ability to deny those violating the warehouse rules from futures trading, he won’t even have the stick that proved inadequate for the CBT. Public warehousemen has long proved to be a very recalcitrant group, over time, place, and commodity.

Li specifically criticized the speculative nature of China’s futures exchanges, and claimed that his new venture would be for physical players, and that it would not be “another financial speculation forum.” But his follow on remarks gave a sense of cognitive dissonance. He said the system would allow banks and hedge funds to participate in the market.

More disconcertingly, he highlighted the effects of financial repression in China (without using the phrase), which leads investors looking for higher returns than are available in the banking sector to turn to alternative investment vehicles. Li specifically mentioned wealth management products, and suggested that metals stored in the warehouses his new venture would oversee could form the basis for such products. I understood him to say that while the warehouses would facilitate the typical function of commodity storage, i.e., filling and emptying in order to accommodate temporary supply and demand shocks, there would also be the possibility that metal would be locked up for long periods to provide the basis for these wealth management products. What I envision is something like physical metal ETFs that have been introduced in the West. These are primarily in precious metals. JP Morgan proposed a similar vehicle for copper, but backed off due to the pressure from Carl Levin and others a couple of summers ago.

In other words, the new warehousing system would be part of the shadow banking system thereby providing a new speculative vehicle for Chinese investors desperate to circumvent financial repression. Hence my cognitive dissonance.

I would also note that even a purely physical spot exchange can be a speculative venue, through buying and selling and borrowing/carrying warehouse receipts. The New York Gold Exchange of Black Friday infamy was hugely speculative, even though it was purely a spot physical exchange.

I also heard Li to say that the venture would guarantee transactions, though I didn’t fully catch what would be guaranteed. Would the exchange be insuring those storing their metal against a Qingdao type event? If so, that’s a pretty audacious plan, and one fraught with risk.

This was just a speech at a conference. It will be interesting to see a fully-fleshed out plan. It will be particularly interesting to see how the enforcement mechanism for the warehouse regulation will work, and it will be especially particularly interesting to see whether this venture is indeed just viewed as a mechanism for improving the efficiency of the physical metals market in China, or whether it will be a clever way to tap into the intense interest of investors large and small in China to speculate and find better returns than those on offer in the banking system. That is, will this be another speculative venue, but one masquerading as a staid market for physical players. Given the way China works, I’d bet on the latter. Pun intended.

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August 23, 2016

Carl Icahn Rails Against the Evils of RIN City

Filed under: Climate Change,Commodities,Economics,Energy,Politics,Regulation — The Professor @ 12:15 pm

Biofuel Renewable Identification Numbers–“RINs”–are back in the news because of a price spike in June and July (which has abated somewhat). This has led refiners to intensify their complaints about the system. The focus of their efforts at present is to shift the compliance obligation from refiners to blenders. Carl Icahn has been quite outspoken on this. Icahn blames everyone, pretty much, including speculators:

“The RIN market is the quintessential example of a ‘rigged’ market where large gas station chains, big oil companies and large speculators are assured to make windfall profits at the expense of small and midsized independent refineries which have been designated the ‘obligated parties’ to deliver RINs,” Icahn wrote.

“As a result, the RIN market has become ‘the mother of all short squeezes,”‘ he added. “It is not too late to fix this problem if the EPA acts quickly.”

Refiners are indeed hurt by renewable fuel mandates, because it reduces the derived demand for the gasoline they produce. The fact that the compliance burden falls on them is largely irrelevant, however. This is analogous to tax-incidence analysis: the total burden of a tax, and the distribution of a tax, doesn’t depend on who formally pays it. In the case of RINs, the total burden of the biofuels mandate and the distribution of that burden through the marketing chain doesn’t depend crucially on whether the compliance obligation falls on refiners, blenders, or your Aunt Sally.

Warning: There will be math!

A few basic equations describing the equilibrium in the gasoline, ethanol, biodiesel and RINs markets will hopefully help structure the analysis*. First consider the case in which the refiners must acquire RINs:

Screen Shot 2016-08-23 at 10.20.03 AM

Equation (1) is the equilibrium in the retail gasoline market. The retail price of gasoline, at the quantity of gasoline consumed, must equal the cost of blendstock (“BOB”) plus the price of the ethanol blended with it. The R superscript on the BOB price reflects that this is the price when refiners must buy a RIN. This equation assumes that one gallon of fuel at the pump is 90 percent BOB, and 10 percent ethanol. (I’m essentially assuming away blending costs and transportation costs, and a competitive blending industry.) The price of a RIN does not appear here because either the blender buys ethanol ex-RIN, or buys it with a RIN and then sells that to a refiner.

Equation (2) is the equilibrium in (an assumed competitive) ethanol market. The price an ethanol producer receives is the price of ethanol plus the price of a RIN (because the buyer of ethanol gets a RIN that it can sell, and hence is willing to pay more than the energy value of ethanol to obtain it). In equilibrium, this price equals the the marginal cost of producing ethanol. Crucially, with a binding biofuels mandate, the quantity of ethanol produced is determined by the blendwall, which is 10 percent of the total quantity sold at the pump.

Equation (3) is equilibrium in the biodiesel market. When the blendwall binds, the mandate is met by meeting the shortfall between mandate and the blendwall by purchasing RINs generated from the production of biodiesel. Thus, the RIN price is driven to the difference between the cost of producing the marginal gallon of biodiesel, and the price of biodiesel necessary to induce consumption of sufficient biodiesel to sop up the excess production stimulated by the need to obtain RINs. In essence, the price of biodiesel plus the cost of a RIN generated by production of biodiesel must equal the marginal cost of producing it. The amount of biodiesel needed is given by the difference between the mandate quantity and the quantity of ethanol consumed at the blendwall. The parameter a is the amount of biofuel per unit of fuel consumed required by the Renewable Fuel Standard.

Equation (4) is equilibrium in the market for blendstock–this is the price refiners get. The price of BOB equals the marginal cost of producing it, plus the cost of obtaining RINs necessary to meet the compliance obligation. The marginal cost of production depends on the quantity of gasoline produced for domestic consumption (which is 90 percent of the retail quantity of fuel purchased, given a 10 percent blendwall). The price of a RIN is multiplied by a because that is the number of RINs refiners must buy per gallon of BOB they sell.

Equation (5) just says that the value of ethanol qua ethanol is driven by the relative octane values between it and BOB.

The exogenous variables here are the demand curve for retail gasoline; the marginal cost of producing ethanol; the marginal cost of producing BOB (which depends on the price of crude, among other things); the marginal cost of biodiesel production; the demand for biodiesel; and the mandated quantity of RINs (and also the location of the blendwall). Given these variables, prices of BOB, ethanol, RINs, and biodiesel will adjust to determine retail consumption and exports.

Now consider the case when the blender pays for the RINs:

Screen Shot 2016-08-23 at 10.20.25 AM

Equation (6) says that the retail price of fuel is the sum of the value of the BOB and ethanol blended to create it, plus the cost of RINs required to meet the standard. The blender must pay for the RINs, and must be compensated by the price of the fuel. Note that the BOB price has a “B” superscript, which indicates that the BOB price may differ when the blender pays for the RIN from the case where the refiner does.

Without exports, retail consumption, ethanol production, biodiesel production, and BOB production will be the same regardless of where the compliance burden falls. Note that all relevant prices are determined by the equilibrium retail quantity. It is straightforward to show that the same retail quantity will clear the market in both situations, as long as:

Screen Shot 2016-08-23 at 10.20.35 AM

That is, when the refiner pays for the RIN, the BOB price will be higher than when the blender does by the cost of the RINs required to meet the mandate.

Intuitively, if the burden is placed on refiners, in equilibrium they will charge a higher price for BOB in order to cover the cost of complying with the mandate. If the burden is placed on blenders, refiners can sell the same quantity at a lower BOB price (because they don’t have to cover the cost of RINs), but blenders have to mark up the fuel by the cost of the RINs to cover their cost of acquiring them. here the analogy with tax incidence analysis is complete, because in essence the RFS is a tax on the consumption of fossil fuel, and the amount of the tax is the cost of a RIN.

This means that retail prices, consumption, production of ethanol, biodiesel and BOB, refiner margins and blender margins are the same regardless of who has the compliance obligation.

The blenders are complete ciphers here. If refiners have the compliance burden, blenders effectively buy RINs from ethanol producers and sell them to refiners. If the blenders have the burden, they buy RINs from ethanol producers and sell them to consumers. Either way, they break even. The marketing chain is just a little more complicated, and there are additional transactions in the RINs market, when refiners shoulder the compliance obligation.

Under either scenario, the producer surplus (profit, crudely speaking) of the refiners is driven by their marginal cost curves and the quantity of gasoline they produce. In the absence of exports, these things will remain the same regardless of where the burden is placed. Thus, Icahn’s rant is totally off-point.

So what explains the intense opposition of refiners to bearing the compliance obligation? One reason may be fixed administrative costs. If there is a fixed cost of compliance, that will not affect any of the prices or quantities, but will reduce the profit of the party with the obligation by the full amount of the fixed cost. This is likely a relevant concern, but the refiners don’t make it centerpiece of their argument, probably because shifting the fixed cost around has no efficiency effects, but purely distributive ones, and purely distributive arguments aren’t politically persuasive. (Redistributive motives are major drivers of attempts to change regulations, but naked cost shifting arguments look self-serving, so rent seekers attempt to dress up their efforts in efficiency arguments: this is one reason why political arguments over regulations are typically so dishonest.) So refiners may feel obliged to come up with some alternative story to justify shifting the administrative cost burden to others.

There may also be differences in variable administrative costs. Fixed administrative costs won’t affect prices or output (unless they are so burdensome as to cause exit), but variable administrative costs will. Further, placing the compliance obligation on those with higher variable administrative costs will lead to a deadweight loss: consumers will pay more, and refiners will get less.

Another reason may be the seen-unseen effect. When refiners bear the compliance burden, the cost of buying RINs is a line item in their income statement. They see directly the cost of the biofuels mandate, and from an accounting perspective they bear that cost, even though from an economic perspective the sharing of the burden between consumers, refiners, and blenders doesn’t depend on where the obligation falls. What they don’t see–in accounting statements anyways–is that the price for their product is higher when the obligation is theirs. If the obligation is shifted to blenders, they won’t see their bottom line rise by the amount they currently spend on RINS, because their top line will fall by the same amount.

My guess is that Icahn looks at the income statements, and mistakes accounting for economics.

Regardless of the true motive for refiners’ discontent, the current compliance setup is not a nefarious conspiracy of integrated producers, blenders, and speculators to screw poor independent refiners. With the exception of administrative cost burdens (which speculators could care less about, since it will not fall on them regardless), shifting the compliance burden will not affect the market prices of RINs or the net of RINs price that refiners get for their output.

With respect to speculation, as I wrote some time ago, the main stimulus to speculation is not where the compliance burden falls (because again, this doesn’t affect anything relevant to those speculating on RINs prices). Instead, one main stimulus is uncertainty about EPA policy–which as I’ve written, can lead to some weird and potentially destabilizing feedback effects. The simple model sheds light on other drivers of speculation–the exogenous variables mentioned above. To consider one example, a fall in crude oil prices reduces the marginal cost of BOB production. All else equal, this encourages retail consumption, which increases the need for RINs generated from biodiesel, which increases the RINs price.

The Renewable Fuels Association has also raised a stink about speculation and the volatility of RINs prices in a recent letter to the CFTC and the EPA. The RFA (acronyms are running wild!) claims that the price rise that began in May cannot be explained by fundamentals, and therefore must have been caused by speculation or manipulation. No theory of manipulation is advanced (corner/squeeze? trade-based? fraud?), making the RFA letter another example of the Clayton Definition of Manipulation: “any practice that doesn’t suit the person speaking at the moment.” Regarding speculation, the RFA notes that supplies of RINs have been increasing. However, as has been shown in academic research (some by me, some by people like Brian Wright)  that inventories of a storable commodity (which a RIN is) can rise along with prices in a variety of circumstances, including a rise in volatility, or an increase in anticipated future demand. (As an example of the latter case, consider what happened in the corn market when the RFS was passed. Corn prices shot up, and inventories increased too, as consumption of corn was deferred to the future to meet the increased future demand for ethanol. The only way of shifting consumption was to reduce current consumption, which required higher prices.)

In a market like RINs, where there is considerable policy uncertainty, and also (as I’ve noted in past posts) complicated two-way feedbacks between prices and policy, the first potential cause is plausible. Further, since a good deal of the uncertainty relates to future policy, the second cause likely operates too, and indeed, these two causes can reinforce one another.

Unlike in the 2013 episode, there have been no breathless (and clueless) NYT articles about Morgan or Goldman or other banks making bank on RIN speculation. Even if they have, that’s not proof of anything nefarious, just an indication that they are better at plumbing the mysteries of EPA policy.

In sum, the recent screeching from Carl Icahn and others about the recent ramp-up in RIN prices is economically inane, and/or unsupported by evidence. Icahn is particularly misguided: RINs are a tax, and the burden of the tax depends not at all on who formally pays the tax. The costs of the tax are passed upstream to consumers and downstream to producers, regardless of whether consumers pay the tax, producers pay the tax, or someone in the middle pays the tax. As for speculation in RINs it is the product of government policy. Obviously, there wouldn’t be speculation in RINs if there aren’t RINs in the first place. But on a deeper level, speculation is rooted in a mandate that does not correspond with the realities of the vast stock of existing internal combustion engines; the EPA’s erratic attempt to reconcile those irreconcilable things; the details of the RFS system (e.g., the ability to meet the ethanol mandate using biodiesel credits); and the normal vicissitudes of the energy supply and demand.  Speculation is largely a creation of government regulation, ironically, so to complain to the government about it (the EPA in particular) is somewhat perverse. But that’s the world we live in now.

* I highly recommend the various analyses of the RINs and ethanol markets in the University of Illinois’ Farm Doc Daily. Here’s one of their posts on the subject, but there are others that can be found by searching the website. Kudos to Scott Irwin and his colleagues.

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July 30, 2016

Dogs Fighting Under the Carpet, Ex-Mullet Man Edition

Filed under: Commodities,Economics,Energy,Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 11:54 am

There is a very revealing struggle going on in Russia right now. It is a pitch-perfect illustration of how Putinism works.

At issue is the Russian government’s privatization initiative, and specifically the privatization of the oil company Bashneft (a Russian firm with a very sordid, checkered past, but I repeat myself). Igor Sechin covets Bashneft, in large part because Rosneft production has been falling (estimates for 2016 are a 2 percent decline), and with sanctions and the company’s inefficiency, here is little hope of reversing the decline. Getting ahold of Bashneft would increase Rosneft’s production and reserves, and Bashneft’s production has grown handsomely of late (almost 11 percent in the last year): Sechin could buy what he can’t create.

But government technocrats, led by Deputy Prime Minister Arkady Dvorkovich, are adamantly opposed to a Rosneft takeover. The opposition stems in part because acquisition of Bashneft by a state-owned firm would make a travesty of privatization, and also thwart the goal of using privatization proceeds to address the government’s fiscal strains, which requires outside money. The opposition also reflects the understanding that enhancing Rosneft’s position in the Russian oil industry is detrimental to the future development of that industry. Rosneft is more parasite that creator.

Dvorkovich therefore flipped out when Russian bank VTB invited Rosneft, as well as other state-owned companies like Gazprom Neft, to participate in the privatization auction. It initially appeared that Putin had sided with Dorkovich, and an anonymous spokesman in the Presidential Administration had confirmed this. This was hailed as a huge defeat for Sechin, and perhaps a harbinger of a change in the balance of power within the Russian government.

But not so fast! An “official” said that the exclusion of Rosneft was “unofficial”. But then this week Putin’s spokesman Peskov, who had confirmed only a week before the “understanding” that Rosneft was out of the running, reversed himself, and said that “formally speaking” Rosneft was not a state owned company, and hence it could participate. You see, Rosneft is owned by a holding company, which is owned by the state. So  even though economically this is a distinction without a difference, legally it provides enough of an opening for Igor to slip through.

So who knows what will happen? Maybe Rosneft will be allowed to participate, under the understanding that it will not win. Or maybe the fix is in. Or maybe Putin is just letting Dvorkovich and (ex-)Mullet Man battle it out ender the carpet for a little while longer before ruling. This would allow him to weigh the arguments–and also to force the contenders to make bids for his support. Putin will rule depending on how he wants to balance the competing political factions, and who can offer the most to Putin or others he wants to favor.

And as in the heyday of Kremlinology, outsiders will attempt to discern deeper lessons from the outcome. Who is on top? How committed is Putin to reforming the Russian economy? How wedded is he to the idea of state champions? Or is he willing to concede that given Russia’s economic straits it is necessary to make accommodation to more Western commercial and legal norms?

The problem with the answers to all of these questions is that even if you are right today, nothing is set in stone. Putin could reverse course later. Maybe next month. Maybe next year. This is an inherent problem with autocratic systems: autocrats can’t make credible commitments. The only precedent is that there are no precedents. Today’s decision matters. . . for today.

So whatever the outcome of this current dog fight, it will tell you about the current state of play and the current balance of power, and not much more, because for an autocrat, tomorrow is another day.

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Say “Sayonara” to Destination Clauses, and “Konnichiwa” to LNG Trading

Filed under: Commodities,Derivatives,Economics,Energy,Politics,Regulation — The Professor @ 11:12 am

The LNG market is undergoing a dramatic change: a couple of years ago, I characterized it as “racing to an inflection point.” The gas glut that has resulted from slow demand growth and the activation of major Australian and US production capacity has not just weighed on prices, but has undermined the contractual structures that underpinned the industry from its beginnings in the mid-1960s: oil linked pricing in long term contracts; take-or-pay arrangements; and destination clauses. Oil linkage was akin to the drunk looking for his keys under the lamppost: the light was good there, but in recent years in particular oil and gas prices have become de-linked, meaning that the light shines in the wrong place. Take-or-pay clauses make sense as a way of addressing opportunism problems that arise in the presence of long-lived, specific assets, but the development of a more liquid short-term trading market reduces asset specificity. Destination clauses were a way that sellers with market power could support price discrimination (by preventing low-price buyers from reselling to those willing to pay higher prices), but the proliferation of new sellers has undermined that market power.

Furthermore, the glut of gas has undermined seller market and bargaining power, and buyers are looking to renegotiate deals done when market conditions were different. They are enlisting the help of regulators, and in Japan (the largest LNG purchaser), their call is being answered. Japan’s antitrust authorities are investigating whether the destination clauses violate fair trade laws, and the likely outcome is that these clauses will be retroactively eliminated, or that sellers will “voluntarily” remove them to preempt antitrust action.

It’s not as if the economics of these clauses have changed overnight: it’s that the changes in market fundamentals have also affected the political economy that drives antitrust enforcement. As contract and spot prices have diverged, and as the pattern of gas consumption and production has diverged from what existed at the time the contracts were formed, the deadweight costs of the clauses have increased, and these costs have fallen heavily on buyers. In a classic illustration of Peltzman-Becker-Stigler theories of regulation, regulators are responding to these efficiency and distributive changes by intervening to challenge contracts that they didn’t object to when conditions were different.

This development will accelerate the process that I wrote about in 2014. More cargoes will be looking for new homes, because the original buyers overbought, and this reallocation will spur short-term trading. This exogenous shock to short term trading will increase market liquidity and the reliability of short term/spot prices, which will spur more short term trading and hasten the demise of oil linking. The virtuous liquidity cycle was already underway as a result of the gas glut, and the emergence of the US as a supplier, but the elimination of destination clauses in legacy Japanese contracts will provide a huge boost to this cycle.

The LNG market may never look exactly like the oil market, but it is becoming more similar all the time. The intervention of Japanese regulators to strike down another barbarous relic of an earlier age will only expedite that process, and substantially so.

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July 23, 2016

For All You Pigeons: Musk Has Announced Master Plan II

Filed under: Climate Change,Commodities,Economics,Energy,Politics,Regulation — The Professor @ 11:29 am

Elon Musk just announced his “Master Plan, Part Deux,” AKA boob bait for geeks and posers.

It is just more visionary gasbaggery, and comes at a time when Musk is facing significant head winds: there is a connection here. What headwinds? The proposed Tesla acquisition of SolarCity was not greeted, shall we say, with universal and rapturous applause. To the contrary, the reaction was overwhelmingly negative, sometimes extremely so (present company included)–but the proposed tie up gave even some fanboyz cause to pause. Production problems continue; Tesla ended the resale price guarantee on the Model S (which strongly suggests financial strains); and the company has cut the price on the Model X SUV in the face of lackluster sales. But the biggest set back was the death of a Tesla driver while he was using the “Autopilot” feature, and the SEC’s announcement of an investigation of whether Tesla violated disclosure regulations by keeping the accident quiet until after it had completed its $1.6 billion secondary offering.

It is not a coincidence, comrades, that Musk tweeted that he was thinking of announcing his new “Master Plan” a few hours before the SEC made its announcement. Like all good con artists, Musk needed to distract from the impending bad news.

And that’s the reason for Master Plan II overall. All cons eventually produce cognitive dissonance in the pigeons, when reality clashes with the grandiose promises that the con man had made before. The typical way that the con artist responds is to entrance the pigeons with even more grandiose promises of future glory and riches. If that’s not what Elon is doing here, he’s giving a damn good impression of it.

All I can say is that if you are fool enough to fall for this, you deserve to be suckered, and look elsewhere for sympathy. Look here, and expect this.

As for the “Master Plan” itself, it makes plain that Musk fails to understand some fundamental economic principles that have been recognized since Adam Smith: specialization, division of labor, and gains from trade among specialists, most notably. A guy whose company cannot deliver on crucial aspects of Master Plan I, which Musk says “wasn’t all that complicated,” (most notably, production issues in a narrow line of vehicles), now says that his company will produce every type of vehicle. A guy whose promises about self-driving technology are under tremendous scrutiny promises vast fleets of autonomous vehicles. A guy whose company burns cash like crazy and which is now currently under serious financial strain (with indications that its current capital plans are unaffordable) provides no detail on how this grandiose expansion is going to be financed.

Further, Musk provides no reason to believe that even if each of the pieces of his vision for electric automobiles and autonomous vehicles is eventually realized, that it is efficient for a single company to do all of it. The purported production synergies between electricity generation (via solar), storage, and consumption (in the form of electric automobiles) are particularly unpersuasive.

But reality and economics aren’t the point. Keeping the pigeons’ dreams alive and fighting cognitive dissonance are.

Insofar as the SEC investigation goes, although my initial inclination was to say “it’s about time!” But the Autopilot accident silence is the least of Musk’s disclosure sins. He has a habit of making forward looking statements on Twitter and elsewhere that almost never pan out. The company’s accounting is a nightmare. I cannot think of another CEO who could get away with, and has gotten away with, such conduct in the past without attracting intense SEC scrutiny.

But Elon is a government golden boy, isn’t he? My interest in him started because he was–and is–a master rent seeker who is the beneficiary of massive government largesse (without which Tesla and SolarCity would have cratered long ago). In many ways, governments–notably the US government and the State of California–are his biggest pigeons.

And rather than ending, the government gravy train reckons to continue. Last week the White House announced that the government will provide $4.5 billion in loan guarantees for investments in electric vehicle charging stations. (If you can read the first paragraph of that statement without puking, you have a stronger stomach than I.) Now Tesla will not be the only beneficiary of this–it is a subsidy to all companies with electric vehicle plans–but it is one of the largest, and one of the neediest. One of Elon’s faded promises was to create a vast network of charging stations stretching from sea-to-sea. Per usual, the plan was announced with great fanfare, but the delivery has not met the plans. Also per usual, it takes forensic sleuthing worthy of Sherlock Holmes to figure out exactly how many stations have been rolled out and are in the works.

The rapid spread of the evil internal combustion engine was not impeded by a lack of gas stations: even in a much more primitive economy and a much more primitive financial system, gasoline retailing and wholesaling grew in parallel with the production of autos without government subsidy or central planning. Oil companies saw a profitable investment opportunity, and jumped on it.

Further, even if one argues that there are coordination problems and externalities that are impeding the expansion of charging networks (which I seriously doubt, but entertain to show that this does not necessitate subsidies), these can be addressed by private contract without subsidy. For instance, electric car producers can create a joint venture to invest in power stations. To the extent government has a role, it would be to take a rational approach to the antitrust aspects of such a venture.

So yet again, governments help enable Elon’s con. How long can it go on? With the support of government, and credulous investors, quite a while. But cracks are beginning to show, and it is precisely to paper over those cracks that Musk announced his new Master Plan.

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