Streetwise Professor

July 17, 2017

Alphonse and Gaston Meet LMEshield–and Provide a Cautionary Tale for Blockchain Evangelists

Filed under: Blockchain,Commodities,Derivatives,Economics,Politics — The Professor @ 7:28 pm

This article isn’t explicitly about blockchain, but in a way it is. It describes the halting progress of the LME’s LMEShield digital warehouse receipt system, and ascribes its problems to the Alphonse-Gaston problem:

“It’s all about liquidity and a tipping point,” said an executive with a warehouse company.

“If Party A is using the system, they can’t trade if Party B is not using the system. It’s a redundant system until market masses are using it.”

After you, Alphonse. No! After you, Gaston! I insist! (Warning! Francophobia and Mexaphobia at the link!)

In essence, LMEshield is attempting to perform one of the same functions as blockchain–providing a secure, digital record of ownership. LMEshield’s technological implementation is not blockchain or distributed ledger, per se. It is a permissioned network operated by a trusted party, and does not employ a distributed ledger, rather than being an unpermissioned network not involving a trusted party, run on a DL.

But it is not that technological difference that is causing the problem: it is the challenge of coordinating the adoption of the use of the system. This coordination problem exists here even though there is an entity–the LME–that has an incentive to promote adoption and build a critical mass so that tipping takes over. Despite a promoter, the virtuous cycle has not taken hold. The adoption problem is even more challenging without a promoter.

This problem will be present in all attempts to create a secure digital record of ownership, regardless of the technology used to achieve this goal.* There is more than one technology to skin this cat, and it is not the technology that will in the end determine whether the cat gets skinned: it is the ability to overcome the coordination problem.**

And as I’ve noted before, if tipping does occur, that just creates another conundrum: tipping effectively creates a natural monopoly (or at best a small numbers natural oligopoly), which raises questions of market power, rent seeking, and governance.

Bitcoin world is providing an illustration of the challenges of governance (as well as raising questions about the scalability of blockchain). Block size has become a big constraint on the capacity to process transactions, leading to a spike in transactions charges and long lags in processing transactions. There are basically two proposals to address this issue: expand the size of blocks, or allow some processing to occur off the blockchain. This has divided Bitcoin world into camps, and raises the possibility that if the dispute is not resolved Bitcoin could experience a hard fork (i.e., split into two or more incompatible networks). Miners (mainly Chinese) want to expand block size: Core (the developers who maintain the software) want to externalize some processing. Both sides are talking their book–go figure–which illustrates that distributive considerations and politicking, rather than efficiency, will have an outsized effect on the outcome.

Keep both LMEshield and the Bitcoin block size debate in mind when somebody offers you pie-in-the-sky, techno-evangalist predictions of how blockchain/DLT Is Going to Change the World. It’s not the technology alone that matters. Indeed, that may be one of the least challenging issues.

Also keep in mind that there is nothing new under the sun. The functions that blockchain/DLT are intended to–or dreamed to–perform are inherent in all transactional settings, including in particular financial and commodity transactions. Blockchain/DLT is a different way of skinning the cat, but the cat has been skinned one way or ‘tother since the dawn of these markets. Maybe in some cases, blockchain/DLT will do it more efficiently. Maybe elements of blockchain/DLT will be blended into more traditional ways of performing these functions. Maybe some applications will prove resistant to blockchain/DLT.

But the crucial thing to keep in mind is that blockchain/DLT will not banish the fundamental challenges of coordinated adoption and governance of a system that scales. And note that if it doesn’t scale, it won’t replace existing systems (which do), and if it does scale, it will pose the same organization, governance, and market power issues that legacy systems do.

*There is no guarantee that DLT is even a technological advance on existing technology. As I discuss further on, some implementations (notably Bitcoin) have exhibited severe problems in scaling. If it don’t scale, it will fail.

**I own a cat. I like my cat. I like cats generally. If colloquialisms offend, this is not the place for you. Particularly colorful if somewhat archaic American colloquialisms that I learned at my grandfather’s knee. Alphonse and Gaston is also something I picked up from my grandfather. Today it would cause an outbreak of fainting, shrieking, and pearl clutching (though maybe not–after all, the characters are Europeans), but if you can’t separate the basic comedic idea from what was acceptable in 1903 (the year of my grandfather’s birth, as well as the date of that clip) but isn’t acceptable today, you’re the one with the issues.

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July 6, 2017

The Qatar LNG Expansion Announcement: Vaporware Meets LNG?

Filed under: Commodities,Economics,Energy,Politics — The Professor @ 4:04 pm

Qatar sent shock waves through the LNG market by announcing plans to increase output by 30 percent. Although large energy firms (including Rex Tillerson’s old outfit) expressed interest in working with Qatar on this, color me skeptical.

I can think of two other explanations for the announcement, particularly at this time.

The first is that this may be akin to a vaporware announcement. Back in the day, it was common for software firms to announce a new product or a big update of an existing product in order to try to deter others from entering that market. If entry in fact did not occur, the product announced with such fanfare would never appear. Similar to this strategy, I think it is very plausible that Qatar is trying to deter entry or expansion by North American, Australian, and African producers by threatening to add a big slug of capacity in a few years. Perhaps the developers won’t be scared off, but their bankers may be.

The surge in LNG capacity around the world has severely undercut Qatar’s competitive position, and forced it to make contractual concessions. It also threatens to erode prices for a considerable period. Even more entry would exacerbate these problems. This gives Qatar a strong incentive to try to scare off some of that capacity, and a vaporware strategy is worth a try in order to achieve that.

The second is based on the current set-to between Qatar and the Saudis and the rest of the GCC. They are all but blockading Qatar, and have made demands that bring to mind Austria-Hungary’s demands against Serbia in July, 1914: the ultimatum is designed to be rejected to give a pretext for escalation. Qatar needs to demonstrate that it is immune to the pressure. An announcement of grandiose expansion plans is a good way to signal that it is immune to pressure and not only plans to continue business as usual, but to go further. In a part of the world where showing weakness is an invitation for the wolves to pounce, putting on a bold front is almost a necessity when the wolves are already circling.

So we’ll see where this goes. But I think there’s a good likelihood that this is a big bluff.

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July 4, 2017

Donald Trump, LNG Impressario: Demolishing the Putin Puppet Narrative

Filed under: Commodities,Economics,Energy,Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 9:50 am

If Trump has a signature policy issue, it is promoting US energy to achieve what he calls “energy dominance.” The leading edge of this initiative is the promotion of LNG. Immediately prior to his appearance at the G20 Summit (where ironically he will be tediously hectored on trade by the increasing insufferable Angela Merkel), he will speak Thursday at the “Three Seas Summit” in Poland, where he will tout American LNG exports as both an economic and security fillip to Europe, and in particular eastern Europe.

“I think the United States can show itself as a benevolent country by exporting energy and by helping countries that don’t have adequate supplies become more self-sufficient and less dependent and less threatened,” he said.

This strikes at the foundation of Putin’s economic and geopolitical strategy. Export revenues from gas and oil keep his country afloat and his cronies flush. He uses gas in particular as a knout to bludgeon recalcitrant eastern Europeans (Ukraine in particular) and as a lever to exercise influence in western Europe, Germany in particular.

Gazprom routinely sniffs that LNG is more costly than Russian gas, and that LNG will not appreciable erode its market share. That’s true, but illustrates perfectly the limitations of market share as a measure of economic impact. The increased availability of LNG, particularly from the US, increases substantially the elasticity of supply into Europe. This, in turn, substantially increases the elasticity of demand. As the low cost producer (pipeline gas being cheaper), Russia/Gazprom will continue to be the source of the bulk of the methane molecules burned in Europe, but this increased elasticity of demand will reduce Gazprom’s pricing power and hence its revenues.

Furthermore, the effect on short-run elasticities will be particularly acute. Pre-LNG, there were few sources of additional supply available in a period of days or weeks that could substitute for Russian gas cutoff during some geopolitical power play. With LNG, the threat of shutting off the gas has lost much of its sting: especially as LNG evolves towards a traded market, supplies can swing quickly to offset any regional supply disruption, including one engineered by Putin for political purposes. So LNG arguably reduces Putin’s political leverage even more than it reduces his economic leverage. This is particularly true given complementary European policy changes that permit the flow of gas to regions not serviced by LNG directly.

Trump is getting some pushback from domestic interests in the US (notably the chemical industry) because greater exports would support prices and deprive these industries of the cheap fuel and feedstock that has powered their growth (something totally unpredictable a decade ago, when the demise of the US petrochemical industry was a real possibility). But (a) Trump seems totally committed to his pro-export course, and (b) complementary efforts to reduce restrictions on supply will mitigate the price impact. So I expect the opposition of the likes of the Industrial Energy Consumers of America to be little more than a speed bump in his race to promoting energy exports.

This all reveals Trump for the mercantilist he is: imports bad, exports good. This is economically illiterate and incoherent, but it’s Trump trade policy in a nutshell. Economic coherence aside, however, Donald Trump, LNG Impressario totally demolishes the Putin puppet narrative. Not that you’d notice–the hysteria continues unabated, because reality doesn’t matter to the soi disant reality-based community.

Here we have Trump devoting the bulk of his non-Twitter-directed energies (and he is high energy!) to promoting an economic policy that hits Putin at his most vulnerable spot, economically and geopolitically. Whatever his Russia-related rhetoric, pace Orwell, he is objectively anti-Putin.

Not that this causes neo-McCarthyites even to experience cognitive dissonance, let alone to engage in a serious re-evaluation. To them, Trump is literally a Kremlin operative in Putin’s thrall. And nothing–not even Trump venturing to the heart of the area Putin and his ilk believe to be in Russia’s sphere of influence and loudly (very loudly) proclaiming that he is offering American gas to free Europe from its energy thralldom–will divert them from their non-stop narrative.

As an aside, I do Joseph McCarthy a grave disservice by comparing today’s mainstream media, the Democratic Party, Neocons, and large swathes of the Republican establishment to him. There was actually a far more substantial factual basis for his paranoia than there is for that of the anti-Trump brigades.

There is an irony here, though. I have often sneered at Putin (and when he was president, Medvedev), for acting like a glorified Secretary of Commerce, going around being the pitchman for Russian economic interests, in energy in particular. Stylistically, Trump is doing somewhat the same. But substantively, in Making American Energy (LNG particularly) Great, Trump is giving Putin a good swift kick in the stones.

Not that the promoters of the New Red Scare are paying the slightest heed. Which demonstrates that theirs is a completely partisan and grotesquely intellectually dishonest campaign.

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July 1, 2017

All Flaws Great and Small, Frankendodd Edition

On Wednesday I had the privilege to deliver the keynote at the FOW Trading Chicago event. My theme was the fundamental flaws in Frankendodd–you’re shocked, I’m sure.

What I attempted to do was to categorize the errors. I identified four basic types.

Unintended consequences contrary to the objectives of DFA. This could also be called “counter-intended consequences”–not just unintended, but the precise opposite of the stated intent. The biggest example is, well, related to bigness. If you wanted to summarize a primary objective of DFA, it would be “to reduce the too big to fail problem.” Well, the very nature of DFA means that in some ways it exacerbates TBTF. Most notably, the resulting regulatory burdens actually favor scale, because they impose largely fixed costs. I didn’t mention this in my talk, but a related effect is that increasing regulation leads to greater influence activities by the regulated, and for a variety of reasons this tends to favor the big over the medium and small.

Perhaps the most telling example of the perverse effects of DFA is that it has dramatically increased concentration among FCMs. This exacerbates a variety of sources of systemic risk, including concentration risk at CCPs; difficulties in managing defaulted positions and porting the positions of the customers of troubled FCMs; and greater interconnections across CCPs. Concentration also fundamentally undermines the ability of CCPs to mutualize default risk. It can also create wrong-way risks as the big FCMs are in some cases also sources of liquidity support to CCPs.

I could go on.

Creation of new risks due to misdiagnoses of old risks. The most telling example here is the clearing and collateral mandates, which were predicated on the view that too much credit was extended via OTC derivatives transactions. Collateral and netting were expected to reduce this credit risk.

This is a category error. For one thing, it embodies a fallacy of composition: reducing credit in one piece of an interconnected financial system that possesses numerous ways to create credit exposures does not necessarily reduce credit risk in the system as a whole. For another, even to the extent that reducing credit extended via derivatives transactions reduces overall credit exposures in the financial system, it does so by creating another risk–liquidity risk. This risk is in my view more pernicious for many reasons. One reason is that it is inherently wrong-way in nature: the mandates increase demands for liquidity precisely during those periods in which liquidity supply typically contracts. Another is that it increases the tightness of coupling in the financial system. Tight coupling increases the risk of catastrophic failure, and makes the system more vulnerable to a variety of different disruptions (e.g., operational risks such as the temporary failure of a part of the payments system).

As the Clearing Cassandra I warned about this early and often, to little avail–and indeed, often to derision and scorn. Belatedly regulators are coming to an understanding of the importance of this issue. Fed governor Jerome Powell recently emphasized this issue in a speech, and recommended CCPs engage in liquidity stress testing. In a scathing report, the CFTC Inspector General criticized the agency’s cost-benefit analysis of its margin rules for non-cleared swaps, based largely on its failure to consider liquidity effects. (The IG report generously cited my work several times.

But these are at best palliatives. The fundamental problem is inherent in the super-sizing of clearing and margining, and that problem is here to stay.

Imposition of “solutions” to non-existent problems. The best examples of this are the SEF mandate and position limits. The mode of execution of OTC swaps was not a source of systemic risk, and was not problematic even for reasons unrelated to systemic risk. Mandating a change to the freely-chosen modes of transaction execution has imposed compliance costs, and has also resulted in a fragmented swaps market: those who can escape the mandate (e.g., European banks trading € swaps) have done so, leading to bifurcation of the market for € swaps, which (a) reduces competition (another counter-intended consequence), and (b) reduces liquidity (also counter-intended).

The non-existence of a problem that position limits could solve is best illustrated by the pathetically flimsy justification for the rule set out in the CFTC’s proposal: the main example the CFTC mentioned is the Hunt silver episode. As I said during my talk, this is ancient history: when do we get to the Trojan War? If anything, the Hunts are the exception that proves the rule. The CFTC also pointed to Amaranth, but (a) failed to show that Amaranth’s activities caused “unreasonable and unwarranted price fluctuations,” and (b) did not demonstrate that (unlike the Hunt case) that Amaranth’s financial distress posed any threat to the broader market or any systemic risk.

It is sickly amusing that the CFTC touts that based on historical data, the proposed limits would constrain few, if any market participants. In other words, an entire industry must bear the burden of complying with a rule that the CFTC itself says would seldom be binding. Makes total sense, and surely passes a rigorous cost-benefit test! Constraining positions is unlikely to affect materially the likelihood of “unreasonable and unwarranted price fluctuations”. Regardless, positions are not likely to be constrained. Meaning that the probability that the regulation reduces such price fluctuations is close to zero, if not exactly equal to zero. Yet there would be an onerous, and ongoing cost to compliance. Not to mention that when the regulation would in fact bind, it would potentially constrain efficient risk transfer.

The “comma and footnote” problem. Such a long and dense piece of legislation, and the long and detailed regulations that it has spawned, inevitably contain problems that can lead to protracted disputes, and/or unpleasant surprises. The comma I refer to is in the position limit language of the DFA itself: as noted in the court decision that stymied the original CFTC position limit rule, the placement of the comma affects whether the language in the statute requires the CFTC to impose limits, or merely gives it the discretionary authority to do so in the even that it makes an explicit finding that the limits are required to reduce unwarranted and unreasonable price fluctuations. The footnotes I am thinking of were in the SEF rule: footnote 88 dramatically increased the scope of the rule, while footnote 513 circumscribed it.

And new issues of this sort crop up regularly, almost 7 years after the passage of Dodd-Frank. Recently Risk highlighted the fact that in its proposal for capital requirements on swap dealers, the CFTC (inadvertently?) potentially made it far more costly for companies like BP and Shell to become swap dealers. Specifically, whereas the Fed defines a financial company as one in which more than 85 percent of its activities are financial in nature, the CFTC proposes that a company can take advantage of more favorable capital requirements if its financial activities are less than 15 percent of its overall activities. Meaning, for example, a company with 80 percent financial activity would not count as a financial company under Fed rules, but would under the proposed CFTC rule. This basically makes it impossible for predominately commodity companies like BP and Shell to take advantage of preferential capital treatment specifically included for them and their ilk in DFA. To the extent that these firms decide to incur costs (higher capital costs, or the cost of reorganizing their businesses to escape the rule’s bite) and become swap dealers nonetheless, that cost will not generate any benefit. To the extent that they decide that it is not worth the cost, the swaps market will be more concentrated and less competitive (more counter-intended effects).

The position limits proposed regs provide a further example of this devil-in-the-details problem. The idea of a hedging carveout is eminently sensible, but the specifics of the CFTC’s hedging exemptions were unduly restrictive.

I could probably add more categories to the list. Different taxonomies are possible. But I think the foregoing is a useful way of thinking about the fundamental flaws in Frankendodd.

I’ll close with something that could make you feel better–or worse! For all the flaws in Frankendodd, MiFID II and EMIR make it look like a model of legislative and regulatory wisdom. The Europeans have managed to make errors in all of these categories–only more of them, and more egregious ones. For instance, as bad as the the US position limit proposal is, it pales in comparison to the position limit regulations that the Europeans are poised to inflict on their firms and their markets.


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June 28, 2017

Puzzling Statements From Rosneft and Russneft

Filed under: Commodities,Derivatives,Energy,Russia — The Professor @ 6:21 pm

Yesterday Rosneft was the target of a cyberattack (ransomware to be specific). The company ominously tweeted:

Screen Shot 2017-06-28 at 6.58.23 PM

So the first thing that came to mind was that some legal adversary (presumably Sistema) was hacking Rosneft in retaliation for Rosneft’s lawsuit?

How weird is that? Paranoid? A threat? A paranoid threat?

This is even more bizarre because multiple companies–including Russian companies like Evraz and several banks, Ukrainian companies, and major international firms like Maersk–were hit simultaneously and the news spread rapidly. But apparently those running Rosneft’s social media live in a bubble and think (a) everything is about them, and (b) their commercial enemies are out to get them (which could well be a clinical case of projection). The Tweet certainly suggests that the Sistema litigation is a huge deal at Rosneft, which is telling in its own way.

Regardless of the explanation, this has to be the most bizarre corporate Tweet I have ever seen. And I’ve read some of Elon’s (before he blocked me!)

In other news that makes me question the competence of the management of Russian oil companies, consider this gem from Russneft:

Russneft, Russia’s mid-sized oil producer, is looking to clinch an oil hedging deal with VTB, Russia’s second biggest bank, Russneft Senior Vice President Olga Prozorovskaya said on Tuesday.

Mikhail Gutseriyev, a Russneft co-owner, told an annual shareholders meeting separately that he had earned $700 million on a previous oil hedge deal. Sources told Reuters earlier that Gutseriyev had been hedging at Sberbank.

“We are waiting for (the right) moment … and we will do (oil) hedging in the nearest future. We will hedge in such a way that we will get a couple of hundreds of million dollars in profit,” Gutseriyev said. [Emphasis added.]

Perhaps something was lost in translation, but on its face the statement makes no sense: hedging is not a profit making activity, but is a risk reduction activity. Indeed, in most markets a short hedger (which an oil producer would be) lowers average profits by hedging (because hedging pressure generally depresses the forward price below the expected spot price), but may choose to hedge nonetheless because of the benefits of lower profit variability (which arise from factors such as financial distress costs, agency costs, and taxes).

So methinks Gospodin Gutseriyev is unclear on the concept of hedging.

Attempting to be charitable here, perhaps what he means is that by selling forward its anticipated output Russneft will lock in a profit in the hundreds of millions. Dunno, but read literally the statement suggests that Russneft needs some schooling on what hedging can actually achieve.


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June 17, 2017

We Can Now Bound From Above the Price of German Principles

Filed under: Commodities,Economics,Energy,History,Military,Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 12:30 pm

If you really concentrate, I’m sure you can stretch your memory to recall those long past days when Angela Merkel was hailed as the new Leader of the Free World, most notably because of her stalwart stance on Russia, in contrast to Trump, who was deemed a squish on Russia at best, and a collaborationist at worst. But that was so . . . May. Now in mid-June, the Germans and much of the rest of Europe and their fellow travelers here in the US are totally losing it over the 98-2 vote in the US Senate (the two dissenters being ideological bookends Rand Paul and Bernie Sanders) to strengthen the sanctions regime on Russia, and notably, to limit Trump’s ability to relax sanctions unilaterally.

So: In May, soft on Russia bad, hard on Russia good. In June, hard on Russia bad. In May, Trump had too much power. In June, limiting Trump’s power is inexcusable.

What changed? Actually nothing changed. This is volte face reflects an enduring constant: German commercial interests. The Senate sanctions bill would impose potential penalties on those assisting in the construction of Russian pipelines, most notably NordStream 2. NordStream 2 is a joint project between Gazprom and a handful of major European, and particularly German, corporate behemoths.

German explanations of the motivation behind the Senate’s action betray extreme psychological projection. Echoing Gazprom (an action which if you were to do it in the US would immediately bring down upon on your head screams of “RUSSIAN TROLL”), several European policymakers have claimed that this action was intended to advance the interests of US LNG exporters.

Um, no. Not even close. The objections of the US to NordStream date back to the Obama administration, which was hardly a major promoter of the US natural gas industry. Further, the main drivers in the Senate were people like McCain, for whom economic considerations are tertiary, at best: McCain et al have had it in for Russia generally and NordStream particularly for geopolitical reasons, and their opposition dates back years. Moreover, the bill reflects the current anti-Russia hysteria in the US, which in turn reflects a strange mix of political factors, not least of which is the clinical insanity of the Democratic Party post-November, 2016.

Indeed, US opposition to Russian gas pipelines into Europe dates back to the Reagan administration. The US tried to stop the pipelines through Ukraine that Putin is now trying to outflank with NordStream, because it thought the pipelines provided an economic benefit to the USSR and made Europe hostage to Russian economic pressure. This was in fact a source of one of the few disagreements between Thatcher (who supported the pipelines) and Reagan.

How much did the US hate the USSR-Europe gas pipelines, you ask? Enough to blow them up. Blow them up real good: “The result was the most monumental non-nuclear explosion and fire ever seen from space.”

Those who claim economic motivations say a lot more about themselves than they do about the US Senate: adopting a policy to advance German/European economic interests is exactly what they would do, and they are projecting this motivation on the US.  Indeed, the Germans’ hysterical reaction demonstrates just how important economic considerations are to them, and how marginal are geopolitical considerations vis-a-vis Russia.

If you think the Russians are as big a threat as the Germans and other gas-poor nations say, they should be deeply grateful for the emergence of US LNG which reduces their dependence on the evil Russkies. But the Germans say: we don’t want your methadone, we’d rather continue to buy smack from this really nasty dealer.

The hypocrisy and projection don’t stop there. Of course German economic policy is strongly oriented towards boosting its exports, often at the cost of beggaring its supposed European brothers and sisters (especially the swarthy ones down south). What’s good for zee goose, kameraden. .  .

Further, recall (if you can remember back that far) that one reason for the German/European freakout over Trump in May was his refusal to acknowledge solidarity with our allies by mouthing the words “Article 5.” All for one! One for all!


Well, eastern Europeans–the Poles in particular–think that NordStream basically sells them out to the Russians in order to benefit Germany. The Germans have totally blown off this criticism, and have subjected the Poles and Baltic States to considerable criticism and pressure for their opposition to NordStream. So much for European solidarity. It’s all for one, all right: that one being Germany. That one for all . . . not so much.

It gets better! Merkel and other Euros are fond of saying “more Europe.” Well, that’s exactly what the dispute and the sanctions are about, isn’t it? The economics of NordStream 2 are dubious, but it presents a nearly existential threat to Ukraine. The entire reason for the conflict in Donbas and the seizure of Crimea (conflicts that Merkel is allegedly attempting to mediate) were Ukraine’s attempt to move closer to Europe.

That is: (1) Ukraine takes “more Europe” seriously, and enters into an agreement with the EU that would open up trade with an eye on Ukraine joining the union in the future, (2) Putin takes exception to this, and initiates a series of actions that culminate with the ouster of Yanukovych followed by the seizure of Crimea, and a hot war in Donbas, (3) the US Senate attempts to penalize Russian actions by sanctions, and (4) the Europeans scream bloody murder at US intrusion into their policy domain.

In other words, when forced to put their money (and their gas) where their mouths are, the Europeans jettison “more Europe”. And then turn around and slag the US for taking them at their word.

Hey, they can do what they want. And the US can do what it wants. Just spare me the sanctimonious bullshit about standing up to Russia, European solidarity, more Europe, and on and on. It’s all about the Euros, baby–€–and German € in particular. Every “principle” that supposedly earned Merkel the designation as Leader of the Free World went out the window in a nanosecond, once some big German companies were going to have to pay a price for those principles.

We can now bound from above the price of German principles. The upper bound is in the billions of Euros. I am sure that the true price is far lower than that.

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June 8, 2017

Rosneft Follies, Redux

Filed under: Commodities,Economics,Energy,Russia — The Professor @ 1:16 pm

Sarah Mcfarlane dropped a long piece in the WSJ claiming that the already sketchy Rosneft-QIA-Glencore deal was even sketchier than it appeared at the time, hard as that is to believe. Specifically, according to Sarah (and Summer Said), Putin and the emir of Qatar, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, agreed in that Russia would repurchase the stake at a future date:

Moscow agreed with Qatar that Russia would buy back at least a portion of the stake from the rich Persian Gulf emirate, the people said. The Qatar Investment Authority and Glencore, the Swiss-based commodities giant, formed a partnership to buy the 19.5% stake in Russia’s energy jewel at a time when Mr. Putin’s government needed cash.

The people with knowledge of the deal say the buyback arrangement was negotiated with involvement from Mr. Putin and the emir of Qatar, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani. Russia and Qatar saw it as an opportunity to build a bridge between countries that had taken up opposite sides in the Syrian civil war, the people said. One of the people said the buyback would happen in the next 10 years.

Color me skeptical. For one thing, Glencore is a principal in the deal, and it would have to sign off too: the story does not assert, claim, suggest, or imply that Glencore did so. Both Glencore and QIA vigorously deny the story, for whatever that’s worth, as do the Russians. (As an aside, a source in Russia tells me that Ivan Glasenberg refused to discuss anything about the deal recently. Why the UK authorities and the LSE are so willing to accept the extremely deficient disclosure by a major UK issuer relating to a major transaction is beyond me. Maybe they are trying to convince Saudi Aramco that if it lists in London, it can do pretty much anything anywhere, no questions asked! BP’s silence is also curious.)

For another thing, Putin saying “I’ll buy it back later” without a mechanism to determine price is meaningless. I smile when I think about the number of times going back to at least 2006 the Russians announced that they had almost completed a gas deal with China: all that remained to determine was the price! And this went on year, after year, after year.  In other words, no agreement on pricing means no real agreement.

This is pretty funny:

Qatar wanted its Rosneft stake to be temporary, the people said. The emirate believes it will profit from selling the shares back to Russia at a later date, the people said, betting that oil prices will rise and push up Rosneft’s share price. Qatar saw the political benefits of giving Russia access to quick cash as a sort of loan to address a budget deficit that had widened due to lower oil prices, the people said.

In the 7 months (to the day) since the deal was announced, this has turned out to be a bad bet: Rosneft’s stock is down about 12 percent in Euros. (It’s down about 18 percent in rubles.)

This raises some other crucial issues. The €2.8 billion that QIA and Glencore put down represents about 26 percent of the value of the deal. Meaning that about one-half of the equity cushion is gone. Thus, the indemnities and guarantees that the Russian banks provided Glencore (there is no clarity on whether they similarly indemnified the QIA portion of the loan, but its non-recourse nature suggests they did) are getting pretty close to being in the money. Given the recent bloodbath in the oil market there is a decent probability that the loan will be underwater in the near to medium term.

Intesa’s statement suggests that QIA is indemnified/guaranteed too:

An Intesa spokesman said the loan to the Qatar/Glencore partnership “is covered by a robust package of guarantees.” Intesa is trying to spread the risk of its loan by syndicating it to other banks, but a person familiar with the matter said the bank hasn’t yet found willing banks.

The syndication part makes me laugh. Um, you’re kinda supposed to arrange the syndication at the front end, either before the deal or shortly (I mean days) afterwards. Seven months later, when you have zero negotiating leverage because you already are wearing the entire loan? With about half the equity cushion gone? With the loans being backed by Russian banks that are (a) not in the most robust health, and (b) under a cloud due to Russian sins real, and recently, feverishly imagined? Yeah, that will be an easy sell! I’m sure other banks are just lining up for a piece of that!

In bocca al lupo, signori!

The story suggests that Putin pressured Sechin to stitch together this Frankenstein’s monster to address pressing budget issues. I have no doubt that this was done under duress, but less because of budget than because of prestige and reputation. Putin had said that a stake in the company would be privatized in 2016, and to a non-Russian buyer. So Putin put his reputation on the line, and Sechin had to come through.

But virtually all the downside risk resides in Russia (something I pointed out early). So although the deal (a) generated some cash inflow that did address some budget issues, and (b) provided some reputational benefits (for a few weeks, anyway), it did nothing to mitigate the Russian government’s exposure to Rosneft’s downside, but did give away the upside. In essence, Putin and Sechin got their PR play by giving away a put on Rosneft. That’s what enticed QIA and Glencore.

In other news from the bizarre world of Russian–and Rosneft specifically–transactions, the Rosneft/Sechin-Sistema litigation rolls on. Indeed, Sechin increased his demands by more than 50 percent, from $1.9b to $3b. My same Russian source says all of Russia is mystified by this, but he did provide a valuable tidbit.

What had mystified me was how Rosneft could go after Sistema when it bought Bashneft from the state. Well, apparently Igor was in such a hurry to complete the deal that Rosneft didn’t begin the audit/due diligence until after the deal was completed! 

Why was Igor in a hurry? My guess is that Putin had opposed Rosneft’s purchase in August, and changed his mind in September, and Sechin wanted to move before Putin changed his mind again.

Perhaps Igor was thinking that if the audit uncovered irregularities, he could get a Russian court to give him a mulligan and claw back the money. In which case, the current litigation might have been part of the plan (at least as a contingency) all along.

I’m still puzzled, though, because some of the things Sechin goes on about (e.g., the sale of Bashneft’s oilfield services business to a Sistema entity, and the subsequent contract between Bashneft and that entity for said services) was known about before. So maybe Igor is just throwing everything into the litigation claim, even when it doesn’t make any sense. After all, this isn’t being heard in a London court or arbitration in a European country: although this is an intra-Russian dispute, Sechin definitely has home field advantage.

Keep this all in mind whenever anyone (and now it seems that means pretty much everyone) tries to scare you about the Russian bogeyman. The follies of one of Russia’s premier companies, a so-called national champion, illustrate just what a ramshackle, and at times clownish, contraption the Russian state is. Putin does a great Wizard of Oz imitation, but when Toto pulls back the curtain as has happened with the Rosneft/Glencore/QIA deal, you’ll see that there’s a little man blowing a lot of smoke.



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May 25, 2017

OPEC and Inventories: An Exercise in Game Theoretic Futility

Filed under: Commodities,Economics,Energy — The Professor @ 11:37 am

OPEC met today, and agreed to extend its output cuts for another nine months. OPEC’s focus is on “rebalancing the market,” that is, on inducing a decline in world oil stocks to a level well below their current inflated value. This is far easier said than done, and indeed may be impossible because of the inability of OPEC to commit to a path of future output. This is because inventory changes result from changes in the temporal supply and demand balance.

In a competitive market, stocks accumulate when there are unexpected increases in supply or declines in demand, and crucially, these shocks are expected to be highly transitory. Similarly, market participants draw down on stocks when there are unexpected declines in supply or increases in demand that are expected to be highly transitory.

The “transitory” part of the story is very important. It makes sense to store when expected future supply is less than current supply, i.e., when future scarcity is greater than current scarcity. It makes sense to draw down on storage when future scarcity is expected to be low relative to today: why carry inventory to a time of greater abundance? Markets move things from where/when they are abundant to where/when they are scarce. Highly persistent shocks to supply and demand don’t affect the temporal balance, and hence to don’t lead to temporal reallocations. Temporary shocks (or shocks to future supply/demand) also change the temporal balance, and lead to inventory changes.

In my empirical work on the copper market (where inventory data is pretty good), I document that a net supply shock with a half-life of about 1 month drives inventory changes. Much more persistent shocks (e.g., those with a half-life of a year) have virtually no impact on inventory.

Inventories can also decline if expected future supply rises, or expected future demand declines. An increase in expected future supply reduces the future value of oil, and makes it less valuable to hold oil today for future use. Or to put it another way, it is desirable to smooth consumption, so if expected future supply (and hence future consumption) goes up, it makes sense to increase consumption today. This can only be done by drawing down on inventory. (Time travel that would allow bringing the abundant future supply back to the present would do the same thing, but alas, that’s impossible.)

OPEC’s desire to cause a drawdown in inventory would therefore require it to commit to a path of output. Further, this path would involve bigger cuts today than in the future in order to cause a temporal imbalance involving an increase in future supply relative to current supply.

But it is unlikely that this commitment could be credible, precisely because of the reason that OPEC gives for fretting about inventories: that they constrain its pricing power. Assume that inventories do drop substantially. According to its own logic, OPEC would feel less constrained about cutting output even further because non-OPEC supplies (in the form of stocks) have declined. Thus, if inventories indeed fall, OPEC’s logic implies that it would cut output further in the future.

But this path is inconsistent with the path that would be necessary to induce the inventory decline in the first place. Indeed, market participants, looking forward to what OPEC would do in the event that stocks were to decline substantially, would choose to hold on to inventories rather than consume them. Meaning that OPEC would fail in its objective of reducing stocks. In the game between OPEC and other market participants, OPEC’s own rhetoric about inventories and supply/demand balance severely undercuts its ability to cause others to consume inventories rather than continue to hold them.

In sum, OPEC is likely to have little if any ability to influence inventories. To influence inventories, it would have to commit to an output path, but that commitment is not subgame perfect/time consistent.

Instead, inventories will be driven by factors outside of OPEC’s control, namely, unexpected transitory changes in supply and demand. But the effect of even those shocks will depend on how market participants believe OPEC will behave when inventories are low. The supply changes will mainly result from shocks to non-OPEC producers (e.g., US shale producers) and to politically unstable OPEC nations like Libya, Nigeria, and Venezuela. Inventory changes may also result from information about the durability of output cut agreements and cheating: a surprise increase in the estimates of future cheating would tend to cause inventories to decline today. Thus, perversely from OPEC’s perspective, its wish of lower inventories may come true only when it is widely believed that OPEC output discipline will soon collapse.

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April 21, 2017

The Left Loses Its Mind (Again!) Over Citgo and Trump

Filed under: Commodities,Economics,Energy,Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 5:23 pm

Donald Trump is the left’s Theory of Everything. To be more precise, it is the left’s Theory of Everything Bad.

Latest (nut) case in point: Rachel Maddow is blaming Trump for the riots in Venezuela. No-really!

The theory: the Federal Election Commission revealed that Citgo, a US subsidiary of Venezuela’s national oil company/basketcase PDVSA had donated $500,000 to Trump’s inauguration. According to Maddow, this sent Venezuela’s citizenry, which is reeling under an economic catastrophe wrought by Chavez, Maduro, and “Bolivarian Socialism”–a cause that the left from Bernie Sanders to Danny Glover to many others has swooned over for years–into paroxysms of rage at the thought that their national patrimony was paying to honor the evil Trump.

To start with, there have been violent protests in Venezuela for years. The country is facing economic collapse. PDVSA has been looted by the Chavistas for going on 15 years now, and is a complete wreck. $500K is chump change compared to what the leftist darlings have stolen from the company, or destroyed through their grotesque mismanagement–would that the left shown equal concern over THAT. The country is on the verge of hyperinflation. There are food lines. There is no toilet paper–unless you count the currency the Venezuelan central bank is cranking out like nobody’s business. I could go on and on.

So no, Rachel. The Citgo contribution to the inaugural fund–which represents less than .5 percent of the total raised–is not even a piece of dust on the straw on the camels back: the camel’s back was broken long ago, by the vanguard of socialism that Rachel Maddow and her crowd lionized for years. The rage of the Venezuelan people is directed precisely where it should be: at Maduro, the Bolivarian revolution, and the dirt-napping Chavez.

Maddow’s attempt to lay Venezuela’s social explosion at Trump’s feet is very revealing. She and her ilk think that everything is about us–the US that is. Everything. And now in the minds of her and her ilk, everything in the US is all about Trump. So everything everywhere is all about Trump, and supposedly everyone in the world is as obsessed with Trump as they are, and blame him for all that is bad in the world, like they do.

This is clinical solipsism, broadcast live on MSNBC and CNN daily.

And in fact, Rachel should be ecstatic at Citgo’s donation. The company wasn’t spending the money of the Venezuelan people–it was spending Igor Sechin’s money! Rosneft brilliantly–brilliantly I say!–lent PDVSA $5 billion, and negotiated a 50 percent stake in Citgo as partial security. (Rosneft’s brilliance is only surpassed by the Chinese, who lent Venezuela $55 billion. Hahahaha. Good luck collecting on that one Xi! Well played.) Given PDVSA’s parlous condition, it is highly likely that Rosneft will get control of Citgo, meaning that every dollar it spends now is a dollar less in Igor’s pocket.

So the left should be happy! Trump has picked Russia’s pocket!

But no, they are also obsessing about the possibility that Rosneft will get control of Citgo’s US refineries (which represent a whopping ~2.5 percent of US refining capacity) and its gas stations (who cares?). The refineries ain’t going anywhere, so the impact on the US market will be nil. Anything Rosneft would do in operating these refineries that could hurt the US would hurt Rosneft even more. So don’t count on it happening, and if it does, it would be another own goal that weakens Russia.

Again, the left should be experiencing schadenfreude, not panic. Rosneft lent large money to a deadbeat. It’s not going to get paid back so it is seizing assets, and will end up losing money. Playing repo man is hardly the road to riches. It just mitigates the losses from making a bad loan, and it is the bad loan that is the real story here.

But to figure that out would require actual thinking, which is not exactly the strong point of Rachel, et al. Because they have everything figured out. Trump did it! And if Trump is connected, it’s bad!

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April 15, 2017

Is the Order Handling Rule Necessary to Ensure Intense Competition in Securities Markets?

Filed under: Commodities,Derivatives,Economics,Exchanges,Regulation — The Professor @ 2:01 pm

A couple of weeks back Acting SEC Chairman Mike Piwowar announced a new Special Study of the Securities Markets, a reprise of the 1963 Special Study. This is an excellent idea, given that RegNMS (adopted in 2005) has (as was inevitable) spawned many unintended and unexpected consequences. Revision of this regulation in light of experience is almost certainly warranted, and any such revision should be predicated on sound scholarship, lest it be merely a Trojan Horse for vested interests arguing their books.

I wrote about RegNMS in Regulation at the time of its adoption in a piece titled “The Thirty Years War” (an allusion to the fact that the establishment of the National Market System in 1975 had sparked a continuing clash over securities market structure). Overall, I think that piece stands up well, particularly my concluding paragraph:

Therefore, the proposed rules are not the final battle in a Thirty Years War. I fully expect that in 2075, some professor will write an article about the latest clash in an ongoing Hundred Years War over securities market structure regulation.

It is certainly the case that the controversies and conflicts over market structure have continued unabated since 2005, and show no signs of letting up. (Cf. Flash Boys.) Chairman Piwowar’s call for a new Special Study is testament to that.

More specifically, the major prediction of my article has been fully borne out. I predicted that the Order Protection Rule in particular would break the network effect that resulted in the dominance of the NYSE in the securities it listed. Since RegNMS was passed, the highly concentrated listed stock market (where virtually all price discovering transactions in NYSE stocks occurred on the NYSE) has been utterly transformed, with four exchanges now splitting most of the business, with no exchange doing more than a quarter of the volume.

I further predicted that this would result in the disintermediation of traditional intermediaries–like specialists–and the substantial erosion of economic rents. This too has happened. This is best illustrated by the trajectory of Goldman’s investment in specialist firm Spear, Leeds & Kellogg. Goldman paid $5.4 billion for it in 2000 (before RegNMS) and sold it for a pittance–$30 million–in 2014. I didn’t foresee exactly the nature or identity of the new intermediaries–HFT–but I was broadly aware that there would be entry into market making, and that this would reduce trading costs and undermine incumbents with market power. Further, as I’ve written about recently, the new intermediaries don’t appear to be making rents in the new equilibrium.

The years since RegNMS have seen a dramatic decline in trading costs for investors, and it is likely the case that this decline is largely attributable to the increase in competition. Much of the controversy that has raged since 2005 relates to disputes over trading practices that were an inevitable consequence of the breaking of the NYSE near-monopoly–a process pejoratively referred to as “fragmentation.” In particular, multiple markets necessitate arbitrageurs, who effectively enforce the law of one price. The strategies and tactics arbitraguers use often appear unsavory, and strike many as unfair: arbitrageurs get something even though they appear to do nothing substantive. Moreover, arbitrage uses up real resources. That’s costly, and it would be nice if this could be avoided, but that’s unlikely ever to be so. The trade-off between much greater competition (and reduced welfare losses due to the exercise of market power) and the expenditure of real resources to enforce the law of one price seems to be a great bargain.

Much of the criticism of RegNMS relates to the Order Protection Rule, which requires that no order can be executed on market X if a better price is displayed at market Y. The critics (e.g., the Principal Traders Association which ironically represents some of the biggest beneficiaries of RegNMS) argue that this rule (a) has led to a proliferation of order types intended to ensure compliance with the rule, which make the market far more complex, and (b) requires traders to maintain connections with and monitor all trading venues displaying quotes, no matter how small.

These complaints have some merit. The crucial question is whether the equity trading marketplace will be as competitive without the Order Handling Rule as it is with it. This is an open question, and one which should be the focus of the SEC’s inquiry. For if the Order Handling Rule is a necessary condition for robust competition, the costs that the PTA and others identify are likely well worth paying in order to realize the benefits of competition.

My prediction that competition would intensify post-RegNMS was based on my analysis of the effects of the Order Handling Rule, which was in turn based on my work on liquidity network effects done in the late-90s and early-00s. Specifically, in the formal models I derived (e.g., here), the self-reinforcing liquidity effect obtains when investors decide which trading venue to submit an order to on the basis of expected execution cost (i.e., bid-ask spread, price impact). The market with the bigger fraction of trading activity typically offers the lowest execution cost. Therefore, traders submit their orders to the bigger market. This creates a self-reinforcing feedback loop (and a self-fulling prophecy) in which trading activity “tips” to a single exchange. (There are some complexities here, relating to cream skimming of uninformed order flow. See the linked paper for a discussion of that issue.)

Mandating something akin to to the order handling rule forces order flow to the market offering the best price at a particular moment, not the one that offers the best price in expectation. As I phrased it in my Regulation paper, such a rule “socializes order flow”: even if an order is directed to a particular exchange, that exchange does not control that order flow and must direct to any other exchange offering a better price.

I think that both theory and the post-RegNMS experience show that the Order Handling Rule is sufficient to break the liquidity network effect because it socializes order flow. But is it necessary? Maybe not, but it is important to try to find out before jettisoning it.

Here’s a story which suggests that the rule is not necessary in the modern electronic trading environment. One reason why traders may choose to submit orders to where they expect to get the best execution is because of search costs. In a floor-based environment in particular, it is costly to verify which market is offering the best price at any time.  Moreover, since it takes time get quotes from two floor-based markets, by the time that you actually submit your order to the one giving the best quote, the market will have moved and you won’t get the price you thought you were going to get. So economize on search costs and the risks associated with delay by submitting the order to the market that usually offers the best price. Ironically, the inevitable result of this process is that there is only one market left standing.

Search is cheaper and faster–and arguably far cheaper and far faster–in the modern electronic environment. Based on feeds from multiple markets, an electronic trader (and in particular an automated trader) can rapidly compare quotes and send an order to the market offering the best quote, or by viewing depth (something pretty much impossible in the floor days, where much of the liquidity was in the hands of floor brokers) split an order among multiple venues to tap the liquidity in all of them.

In other words, the natural monopoly problem was far more likely in a floor-based environment where pre-trade transparency was so limited that search costs were very high: it was nigh on impossible to know precisely what trading opportunities were or to move fast enough to exploit the one that appeared best at any point in time, so traders submitted their orders to where they expected the opportunities to be the best. In contrast, electronification and automation have created such great pre-trade transparency and the ability to act on it that it is plausibly true that in this environment traders can and will submit their orders to whatever venue is offering the best trading opportunity at a point in time, regardless of whether it usually does so. In this story, technology eliminates the uncertainty and guesswork that created the liquidity network effect.

Maybe. Perhaps even likely. But I can’t be certain. Note that one complaint about the existing market structure is that even though everything has vastly speeded up, some traders are still faster than others. As a result, those who submit a market order in response to seeing a particular displayed price are often dismayed to learn that the market has moved before their order actually reaches the trading venue, and that their order is executed at a worse price than they had anticipated. Freed of the obligations of the Order Handling Rule, these traders may choose to submit their order to where they usually get the best price: if enough do this, the liquidity network effect will reemerge.

Further, the PTA and others have complained that it is costly to monitor and maintain connections with all trading venues as is necessary under the Order Handling Rule. If the Rule is relaxed or eliminated, one would expect that they will disconnect from some venues. If enough do this, the smaller venues will become unviable. After this happens, there will be fewer venues–and some traders may choose to disconnect from the smallest remaining one. This dynamic could result in another feedback loop that results in the survival of a single dominant exchange that exercises market power.

It is therefore not clear to me that elimination of the Order Handling Rule will result in traders having their cake (intense inter-exchange competition) and eating it too (less complexity, lower connection cost). Given the substantial benefits of greater competition that have been realized in the past dozen years, changes to the cornerstone of RegNMS should not be taken lightly. The Special Study, and the SEC, should pay close attention to how competition will evolve if the Order Handling Rule is eliminated. This analysis should take into account the existing technology, but also try to think of how technology will change in the aftermath of an elimination and how this technological change will affect competition.

Most importantly, any analysis must be predicated on an understanding that there are strong centripetal forces in securities trading. Any time traders have an incentive to direct order flow to the venue that is expected to offer the best price, the likely outcome is that only one venue will survive. The incentives of traders in a high speed, largely automated, and electronic market in the absence of an Order Handling Rule need to be considered carefully. It should not be assumed that technology alone will eliminate the incentive to direct orders to the market that is usually best, not the one that is best at any particular instant. This hypothesis should be probed vigorously and skeptically.

Experience in futures markets suggests that liquidity network effects can persist even in high speed, automated, electronic markets: futures contracts in a particular instrument exhibit a strong natural monopoly tendency, and strong tendencies towards tipping. It is arguable that the vertical integration of clearing, and the resulting non-fungibility of otherwise identical contracts traded on different venues, could contribute to this (though I am skeptical about that). But it could also mean that something like the Order Handling Rule (which is not present in futures markets) is necessary to create strong competition between multiple venues even in a highly computerized and automated trading environment.

This is the big issue in any revamping of RegNMS. It should be front and center of any analysis, including in the impending Special Study. The intense competition in the post-RegNMS world is a remarkable achievement, particularly in comparison with the near monopolistic market structure that existed before 2005. It would be a great shame if this were thrown away due to an incomplete analysis of what competition in a modern computerized market would be like in the absence of something like the Order Handing Rule.

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