Streetwise Professor

March 1, 2015

The Clayton Rule on Speed

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s my description of spoofing:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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February 15, 2015

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

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

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

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

. . . .

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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February 8, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

Then BIS turns its attention to hedging:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

BIS also offers this pearl of wisdom:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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February 4, 2015

Turn Out the Lights, The Party’s Over

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Today was that day.

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

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

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

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

You can’t make that up.

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

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

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

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

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

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January 25, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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January 18, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The result will be a simulacrum of the Soviet economy.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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January 15, 2015

Alexei Miller Blows More Gas

Filed under: Commodities,Economics,Politics,Regulation — The Professor @ 8:07 pm

As is its wont when desperate, Russia is throwing around threats. And Gazprom and its CEO Alexei Miller are the usual heavies in this role, like mouth-breathers that mafiosi send around to talk to you about how you have such a nice family and it would be a shame if something happened to it.

Yesterday, Miller told Europe it better support Gazprom’s initiative to circumvent Ukraine by shipping gas through Turkey by building a connector between Turkey and Greece, or else:

“Our European partners have been informed of this and now their task is to create the necessary gas transport infrastructure from the Greek and Turkish border,” said Miller, according to a Gazprom statement. [Can the Russians please give this “partners” thing a rest? With partners like them, who needs Ebola?]

“They have a couple of years at most to do this. It’s a very, very tight deadline. In order to meet the deadline, the work on building new trunk gas pipelines in European Union countries must start immediately today,” Miller warned.

Or else what, Alexei?:

“Otherwise, these volumes of gas could end up in other markets.”


Like where? And don’t tell me China. Heard that one. Over and over and over again.

Look, if you make threats, you need to make them credible. Miller is basically saying that if gas can’t move to Europe via Turkey, Gazprom won’t ship it via Ukraine. If it comes to that, and if Europe is the most valuable destination for Russian gas, Gazprom will sell it there, and ship it via Ukrainian pipes. It can’t afford not to.

This is  a bluff that even the Euroweenies will have no problem calling. This is particularly true if market conditions are like at present, where LNG prices have cratered in Asia, and gas imports are now viable. When the big Australian and US projects come on line later this year, there is a real possibility of an LNG glut which would undercut Russian leverage, not just in Europe, but in China too. (And you know that the Chinese will squeeze Putin’s kiwis like a hungry python.)

What’s more, the whole Turkish route looks like a stitch up job done at the last moment when Bulgaria toed the European line and rejected South Stream. There are so many problems.

First, even ignoring the Turkey-Greece link (and yeah, they always play so well together), it is by no means clear that Turkey has the domestic infrastructure to get the gas from the Black Sea shore to the Aegean. From an Oxford Institute for Energy Studies report (h/t Number One Daughter):

The BOTS [the Turkish national gas company] transport system’s throughput capacity is not sufficiently developed to accept and ship all the contracted gas volume from the eastern suppliers due to the limited installed capacity of the existing compressor stations. BOTAS is able to take some 90% of the gas from the Trans-Balkan Gas Pipeline (the Western Line) and the Blue Stream pipeline from Russia, but has struggled to cope with volumes contracted from Azerbaijan and Iran. Therefore, the company has had to pay billions of dollars for ‘untaken’ gas.

That’s given current flows: it will obviously take a substantial investment in Turkey to handle large additional flows via the new pipeline.

Second, just who is going to pay for this? It ain’t like Gazprom is rollin’ in the dough. To the contrary, like all Russian corporations, Gazprom is in desperate straits. It’s not sanctioned now, but that could change with one wrong move in Ukraine. Moreover, its hard currency revenue picture is dire. Gazprom shipments to Europe were down more than 9 percent last year, no gas is yet flowing to China, and the best part is still to come: Gazprom prices-at its own insistence!-are tied to lagged oil prices. So it is looking at a potential revenue decline from European sales in the 60 percent ballpark.

Schadenfreude doesn’t even come close to describing my feelings at contemplating Gazprom getting what it asked for-nay, insisted on: an oil price link. It made this link a matter of principle, and marshaled one inane argument after another to justify it.

How’s that working out for y’all? Be careful what you ask for!

Third, there’s the little matter of price. Isn’t there always? Immediately after the ballyhooed announcement of the Turkish project, it became known that the Russians and Turks were far apart on price. Look at the history of Vapor Pipe (analogous to vaporware) deals announced with China going back to 2006: they didn’t materialize because of an inability to come to agreement on price. (Even the deal signed when Putin was under the gun has not fully resolved price issues.) This “deal” has every prospect of having the same issues, especially since the Turks realize Russia’s weak bargaining hand here.

Hell, the Russians and Turks can’t even agree on the gas price for this year. They are going to magically lock in a long term price/pricing formula? As if.

So this Turkey route looks like . . . a turkey. Miller is blowing gas. Yet again. I’d be astounded if 1 percent of what that guy says in public turns out to be true.

One last thing. There was a report in the Daily Mail yesterday claiming that shipments of Russian gas via Ukraine to 6 southern European countries had been cut off. This was duly repeated breathlessly by the usual Kremlin echo chambers like Zero Hedge and Infowars. But I have yet to see confirmation in any other source, and I pinged an industry contact who can’t find confirmation either.

It sounds like this is another way of delivering a threat, directed at the most vulnerable parts of the EU, including a country (Greece) that is in political turmoil and which could cause no end of headaches to the Euros-and the Euro. This happens at a time when the wets in Europe are making noises about easing off on sanctions. So I’m getting the impression that this is a story planted in the Daily Mail with the same purpose that Don Corleone places a horse’s head in someone’s bed.

Update. Do I feel like an idiot. Apparently ZH linked to a Daily Mail story from 6 years ago and made it sound like it was from yesterday. When you click through the link, the current date appears at the top of the story. That’s beyond bizarre even for ZH. Shame on me. [The story is that someone emailed asking if I’d seen that ZH story. I hadn’t, but clicked through the link. Like I say, shame on me.]


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January 13, 2015

It’s Deja Vu All Over Again, or the Putin Hamster Wheel, Crisis Edition

Filed under: Commodities,Economics,Energy,Financial crisis,Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 8:12 pm

I was glancing over some posts from the 2008-2009 crisis period, and was struck at the similarities between what happened in Russia then and what is happening now. The imploding ruble. Capital flight. Discussions of whether capital controls were necessary to stem the rout. The heavily stressed banking system. The government’s desperate attempts to support the the banking system and big firms. The attempts of Rosneft and Gazprom to use the crisis as an excuse to feed at the government trough. Putin’s crazed and frequently paranoid ramblings, and a broader national paranoia.

Russia scraped by last time, in part because oil prices rebounded starting in mid-2009, and because the world economy (notably China) also fought its way out of the crisis. The stimulus-driven Chinese rebound was especially important, because it supported commodity prices, which was vital for a commodity producer like Russia.

Will it scrape by this time? Well, there is a lot of ruin in a country, as Adam Smith informed us, so it’s always risky to predict a collapse. And Russia has rebounded from even worse situations (think 1998).

That said, things aren’t nearly so favorable for Russia this time around. First, there is the self-inflicted wound: the invasion of Ukraine and the sanctions that followed. This is harming the banking and extractive sectors in particular. The fundamentals are bad enough for these sectors: sanctions exacerbate the problems. Second, Russia can’t look to a return to rapid Chinese demand growth to save it this time. China’s slowdown (which is have broad based effects, including on Tesla which has seen Chinese sales on which it was counting decline substantially) is at the root of the current commodity downturn, and since it is likely that this growth slowdown will persist Russia can’t look for succor from that quarter. Third, as bad as Russia’s institutional environment and governance were in 2009, they are even worse now. The ossification of Putinism (and Putin himself!) and his deep fear of overthrow are leading to regress, rather than progress in the development of the rule of law, secure property rights, and civil society, and the reduction of corruption, cronyism and rent seeking. The horrible institutions and governance will be a drag on growth. Fourth, the fiscal situation is weaker. Reserves are relatively smaller now, and Putin’s electoral promises to raise social payments and his commitment to increase dramatically armaments expenditures represent a significant departure from the fiscal probity of the Kudrin years.

Russia emerged tenuously from the last crisis, and never regained the pre-crisis rate of growth. Its post-2009 growth performance was lackluster, given the fundamental environment and Russia’s stage of development. In my view, the conditions for a recovery are even less favorable this time. Some-and arguably the lion’s share-of the reasons for that are self-inflicted, or more accurately, inflicted by one Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin, whom the Russian populace has chosen to inflict on itself. Consequently, though Russia will hit bottom and rebound, I think it is likely that this rebound will be even weaker than the last one. The national equivalent of a dead cat bounce.

Not that the current situation is not without its moments of levity. Today, for instance, oligarch Mikhail Prokhorov announced he is putting the Brooklyn Nets up for sale. Prokhorov’s wealth has been running in reverse for the past several years, and in the current circumstances, the Nets are arguably his most salable asset. His Russian holdings, not so much.

In a way this is sad, because although Prokhorov is a jerk like most NBA owners, he is also somewhat amusing. In contrast, other owners are just jerks.

But back to the main show. When looking at Russia today, Yogi Berra comes to mind. It’s deja vu all over again. Only worse.

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Call Me Buffy

Filed under: Commodities,Economics,Energy — The Professor @ 7:31 pm

When it comes to the Saudi predatory pricing meme, I feel like Buffy the Vampire Slayer. No matter how many times I drive a stake through its heart, in the next episode it reappears in a different guise.

Here’s yet another example. 

I stipulate that the current low price environment is imposing substantial financial losses on shale producers. I further stipulate that they are currently slashing capex, which will lead to production growth declines at the least, and perhaps production declines  (depending on the race between reduced number of new wells and the increase in well productivity), while prices remain low. I stipulate further still that these effects would be reduced, if the Saudis had cut output to support prices.

Yet it does not follow that the Saudis are not cutting output because they are attempting to drive out shale producers. Because they can’t do so for long. The capital that is leaving the industry now can come back in when demand rebounds. This will limit the price upside, thereby depriving the Saudis of any payoff to recoup the losses they are incurring now.

Instead, the Saudis, just like everybody else in the industry, are coping with the consequences of a decline in demand the best way they can. Given Saudi market share, the elasticity of demand for oil, and crucially, the elasticity of supply of shale oil (which is relatively high, due to the relative flexibility of the technology and the availability of a large amount of prospects), the demand for Saudi oil is relatively elastic. This makes output cuts money losing: the cuts don’t increase price enough to offset the lower number of barrels sold. So keep producing, and pray for a demand turnaround.

Tune in soon for the next installment of Buffy the Saudi Conspiracy Theory Slayer. Alas, I think it will be a long running series, and there’s not a lot of variation in the plot lines, because the economics don’t really change.

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January 11, 2015

Twitter Lunacy on Keystone Makes The Bigtime: The Senate Floor. Which Is No Coincidence.

Filed under: Climate Change,Commodities,Economics,Energy,Politics — The Professor @ 1:22 pm

A few weeks ago I ridiculed one of the arguments raised against Keystone XL: Namely, that oil transported on the pipeline will be exported. I pointed out that this is idiocy. The very purpose of the pipeline is to transport it to the very complex refineries at the Gulf of Mexico. These refineries are clearly able to outbid anyone for oil sands crude transported on Keystone XL, and they will. Moreover, export through the Gulf to Asia, is far more costly than export to Asia via Canada’s west coast.

The main targets of my ridicule in that post were various Internet and Twitter economic geniuses. Hardly an august group. But their voices have been heard! For now the Democrats in Congress are making this argument the centerpiece of their opposition to pro-Keystone legislation:

As Republicans revive the Keystone debate in Congress, opponents are trying to shift the focus to where the Canadian pipeline’s oil will end up once it reaches Texas: China or U.S. gas tanks?

Massachusetts Democrat Edward Markey stood on the floor of the Senate this week next to a giant sign reading “Keystone Export Pipeline” as he argued against a bill to approve the project.

Ed Markey. I should have known.

You can just see TransCanada CEO Russ Girling’s frustration at having to deal with such economic inanity:

Russ Girling, head of pipeline builder TransCanada Corp. (TRP) issued a lengthy statement saying it doesn’t make any sense to export the oil once it reaches the U.S. coast of the Gulf of Mexico, home to the world’s biggest concentration of refineries.

But TransCanada has concluded that this argument, inane as it is, is politically effective:

Girling said the company’s internal polling shows the export issue raises the most concern for Americans. In an interview last month with Bloomberg News, Girling acknowledged that critics found a “nerve that resonates” in that argument.

So much for the influence of economic reasoning on political debate.

I mentioned the Twidiots earlier. There’s something interesting here, and clearly illustrates a pattern. Specifically, that there are no coincidences, comrade. Especially in social media. Or to put it differently, there are too many coincidences for them to be coincidences.

The Twitter storm of the Keystone export meme coincided closely in time with Obama making the same point, and led into the Democratic leadership making this argument the center of their anti-Keystone campaign. In combination with other such “coincidences” strongly suggests manipulation of social media to support political strategies, and in particular administration political strategies. The Twitter storm that broke out in support of the (equally inane) administration free community college initiative over the last few days is another example.

Meaning that pushing back on Twitter stupidity may not be a waste of time. For such stupidity is often merely the handmaiden of some asinine political agenda.


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