Streetwise Professor

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 31, 2015

A Devastating Critique of the Worst of Frankendodd: The SEF Mandate

Filed under: Derivatives,Economics,Exchanges,Financial crisis,Politics,Regulation — The Professor @ 9:05 pm

On the day of its passage, I proclaimed the Swaps Execution Facility (SEF) Mandate to be the Worst of Frankendodd. Somewhat later, I called the Made Available for Trade (MAT) process to be the Worst of the Worst. Nothing that has happened since has led me to change my mind. To the contrary.

Many considerations led me to these conclusions. Most notably, the SEF mandate, especially as implemented by the CFTC, substituted government judgment for user choice in how to execute swaps transactions. In particular, the mandate imposed a one-size-fits-all execution model on a very diverse marketplace. In the swaps market, heterogeneous participants with varying objectives want to engage in heterogeneous transactions, and over time a variety of execution methods evolved to accommodate this diversity. The mandate ran roughshod over this evolved ecosystem.

Congress, and especially the CFTC, took the futures market with centralized exchanges as its model. They liked the futures markets’ pre-trade and post-trade price transparency. (Remember Gentler and his damn apples?) They liked counterparty opacity (i.e., anonymity). They liked centralized execution and a central limit order book. They liked continuous markets.

But swaps markets evolved precisely because those features did not serve the needs of market participants. The sizes of most swap transactions, and the desire of participants to transact in such size relatively infrequently, are not handled efficiently in a continuous market. Moreover, the counterparty transparency available to the parties of bilateral trades each to evaluate the trading motives of the other, thereby limiting exposure to opportunistic informed trading: this enhances market liquidity. Limited post-trade transparency makes it cheaper for dealers who took on an exposure in a trade with a customer to hedge that risk. The inter dealer broker model also facilitates the efficient transfer of risk among dealer banks.

But those arguments were unavailing. Congress and the CFTC were deeply suspicious of the bank-dominated swaps markets. They viewed this structure as uncompetitive (despite the fact that there were more firms engaged in that market than in most major sectors of the economy), and the relationship between dealers and end users as one of greatly unequal power, with the former exploiting the latter. The protests of end users over the mandate did not move them in the slightest.

I predicted several consequences of the mandate. Fragmentation along geographical/jurisdictional lines was the most notable: I predicted that non-US entities that could avoid the strictures of Frankendodd would do so.  I also predicted a decline in swaps trading activity, due to the higher costs of an ill-adapted trading system.

These things have come to pass. What’s more, it’s hard to discern any offsetting benefits whatsoever. Indeed, when compliance costs and the costs of investing in and operating SEF infrastructure are considered, the deadweight losses almost certainly run into the many billions annually.

If you want detailed chapter and verse describing just how misguided the mandate is, you now have it. Thursday CFTC Commissioner Christopher Giancarlo released a white paper that exposes the flaws in the mandate as implemented by the CFTC, and recommends reforms. It is essential reading to anyone involved in, or even interested in, the swap markets.

Commissioner Giancarlo may be talking his ex-book as an executive of IDB GFI, but in this case that means he knows what he’s talking about. He carefully demonstrates the economic purposes and advantages of pre-Dodd Frank swaps market structure and trading protocols, and shows how the CFTC’s implementation of the mandate undermined these.

The most important part of the white paper is its demonstration of the fact that the CFTC made the worst even worse than it needed to be. Whereas Congress envisioned that a variety of different execution methods and platform would meet its purposes, CFTC effectively ruled out all but two: a central limit order book (CLOB) and request for quote (RFQ). It even imposed unduly restrictive requirements for RFQ trading. As the commissioner proves, the statute didn’t require this: CFTC chose it. Actually, it would be more accurate to say that Gensler chose it. Giancarlo does not name names, for obvious reasons, but I operate under no such constraints, so there it is.

Commissioner Giancarlo also goes into great deal laying out the perverse consequences of the mandate, including in addition to the fragmentation of liquidity and the inflation of costs the creation of counterproductive tensions in relations between American and foreign regulators. Perhaps the most important part of the paper is the discussion of fragility and systemic risk. By creating a more baroque, complex, rigid, illiquid, and fragmented marketplace, the CFTC’s SEF regulations actually increase the likelihood and severity of a market disruption that could have systemic consequences. This is exactly contrary to the stated purpose of Dodd-Frank.

Seemingly no detail goes unaddressed. Take, for instance, the discussion of the provision that voids swaps that fail to clear ab initio, i.e., a swap that fails to clear for any reason-even a trivial clerical error that is readily fixed-treated as if it never existed. In addition to raising transactions costs, this provision increases risks and fragility. For instance, a dealer that uses one swap to hedge another loses the hedge if one of the swaps is rejected from clearing. If this happens during unsettled market conditions, the dealer may need to re-establish the hedge at a less favorable price. Since there are no free lunches, the costs associated with these risks will inevitably be passed on to end users.

The white paper suggests many reforms, most of which comport with my original critique. Most importantly, it recommends that the CFTC permit a much broader set of execution methods beyond CLOB and RFQ, and that the CFTC let the market evolve naturally rather than dictate market structure or products. Further, it recommends that market participants be allowed to determine by contract and consent acceptable practices relating to, inter alia, confirmations, the treatment of swaps rejected from clearing, and compression. More generally, it advocates a true principles-based approach, rather than the approach adopted by the CFTC, i.e., a highly prescriptive approach masquerading as a principled based one.

One hopes that these very sound ideas get a fair hearing, and actually result in meaningful improvements to the SEF regulations but I am skeptical. The Frankendodd SEF monster has long since escaped the confines of the castle on 21st Street. Moreover, in the poisoned and reductionist political environment in DC, Dodd Frank is treated by many (Elizabeth Warren and the editorial board of the NYT in particular) as something carved on stone tablets that Barney brought down from Mount Sinai, rather than Capitol Hill. The Warren-NYT crowd considers any change tantamount to worshipping the Golden Calf of Wall Street.

But to reform the deformed and inform the uninformed you have to start somewhere, and the Giancarlo white paper is an excellent start. One hopes that it provides the foundation for reasoned reform of the most misbegotten part of Dodd Frank. I challenge the die hard defenders of every jot and tittle of this law to meet Giancarlo’s thorough and thoughtful contribution with one of their own. But I’m not holding my breath.

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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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December 22, 2014

Pimco Gets Impaled on a Volatility Spike

Filed under: Derivatives — The Professor @ 9:41 pm

This is crazy to me: selling massive quantities of volatility when volatility is at very low levels.

Frustrated with buying volatility protection for years with no big payout, investors in 2014 decided to sell volatility protection themselves. Also known as shorting “vol”, the strategy typically entails selling options — a type of derivative that pays out if a particular asset moves by more than a pre-agreed amount.

“Those investors who had been looking to hedge their portfolios in the past, now looking for yield, switched their hedges for speculative short positions,” says Mr Verastegui. “They decided to be on the other side of the trade, and moved from being long to being short vol.”

Bill Gross, the founder and former chief investment officer of Pimco, became the prime exemplar for the trade when he announced at a prominent conference that his firm was betting against sharp market moves.

“We sell insurance, basically, against price movements,” he told Bloomberg News.

While selling volatility was, according to Mr Gross, “part and parcel” of a Pimco investment strategy that rested on sluggish US growth and low interest rates, it nevertheless raised eyebrows among his peers and competitors.

I’ll say. No doubt not only were eyebrows raised in Pimco, but much hair was torn out as well. No doubt this hastened Gross’s departure.

Look at the graph in the article and you can see the risks. Volatility frequently spikes. You sell vol at low levels-and the levels were historically low in the spring and summer-and you have a big risk of getting hammered when volatility spikes. And note that when volatility is at low levels, it doesn’t tend to spike down. It only spikes down after it has spiked up.

Indeed, the spikes in part reflect a positive feedback mechanism. When volatility starts to rise sharply, a lot of the shorts start to feel the pain and liquidate their positions. Due to the relatively limited liquidity in options markets, especially in stressed market conditions, these liquidations push up implied volatilies further, inflicting even greater losses on the shorts.

Shorting options is a widow maker trade. And wouldn’t you know, that many of the financial disasters in history involve shorting options (sometimes embedded in securities, as was the case with Orange County in the early-90s). Usually this is done to reach for yield. Sometimes it is done by those desperate for cash who sell premium to raise it: Nick Leeson and Hamanaka are examples.

Buffet sells long term volatility. That makes some sense. But selling large quantities of short term vol in a low volatility environment is like picking up nickels-hell, pennies-in front of a steamroller. And it looks like Bill Gross got flattened. Or more accurately, Pimco investors got flattened. Bill Gross, of course, made out like a bandit: he was paid $290 million in 2013.


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CFIUS to Rosneft: You Can Do What You Like, Just Don’t Do It Here*

Filed under: Commodities,Derivatives,Economics,Energy,Russia — The Professor @ 7:29 pm

Bowing to the inevitable, Rosneft and Morgan Stanley scuppered their agreement to sell MOST’s energy trading operations to the Russian company. The official explanation was that the deal failed to get approvals from US regulators.

Go figure.

Glad that the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States,which consists of Treasury, Justice, Homeland Security, Defence, State, Commerce, the US Trade Representative and the Office of Science and Technology Policy, saw off Igor and Co. Putting the FU in CFIUS.

That said, even if the regulatory approvals had been forthcoming, I don’t see how the deal would have worked. As I wrote in September, I didn’t see how a company without access to long term dollar credit (due to sanctions) could operate economically such a credit-intensive business as oil trading. Hell, today Rosneft’s other big announcement was that it paid off some loans it took on when it acquired TNK-BP. When a company announces a loan repayment like it’s some sort of triumph, you know that they aren’t in any position to buy and run a trading business.

Put differently, if CFIUS hadn’t have gotten Rosneft, the sanctions would have.

This might actually be a blessing to Morgan Stanley. The current high volatility, contango, low price environment is actually quite favorable for trading. Low prices reduce working capital needs. Contango makes for profitable storage opportunity. Volatility creates trading opportunities. MOST might actually get more now than Rosneft had agreed to pay.

*Title inspired by Springsteen’s Blinded by the Light.

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December 15, 2014

Is This Prosecution a Spoof of a Real Manipulation Case?

Filed under: Derivatives,Economics,Regulation — The Professor @ 10:05 pm

Michael Coscia, the defendant in the maiden criminal manipulation “spoofing” prosecution, is calling for dismissal of the case on the grounds that the relevant Frankendodd language is “hopelessly vague.”  This is the obvious argument for him to make. The defendants in the BP propane criminal case walked because Judge Miller decided that the anti-manipulation language of the Commodity Exchange Act was “unconstitutionally vague” as applied to the facts of the case. In some respects, the blame for this goes back to the horrible CFTC decision in the case in re Indiana Farm Bureau. In any event, spoofing does indeed sound like a pretty damn vague allegation. Given that, it will be quite interesting to see whether the DOJ fares better in a Chicago courtroom than it did here in Houston in 2009.

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December 11, 2014

The Height of Absurdity: The Operation of the Government Hinges on Blanche Lincoln’s Brainchild

Filed under: Commodities,Derivatives,Economics,Financial crisis,Politics,Regulation — The Professor @ 9:20 pm

There’s a whole lotta stupid in Frankendodd. A whole lot. The SEF Mandate is at the top of the list, but the “Swaps Pushout” isn’t far behind.

The Pushout was the brainchild of ex-Arkansas Senator Blanche Lincoln. (NB: I understand the risks of using “brain” in the same sentence as “Blanche Lincoln”.) Blanche, she of the historic 21 point annihilation in the 2010 midterms.

In brief, the Pushout required federally insured banks to move-“push out”-some swaps dealing activities to separate subsidiaries that do not have access to federal deposit insurance. This does not apply to all swaps, mind you. Not even to the bulk of them (interest rate swaps, many CDS). But just to commodity derivatives (other than gold), equity derivatives, and un-cleared CDS.

I took particular interest in this because-again-it slammed commodity derivatives. It was one of several provisions (position limits being another prominent example) that explicitly targeted commodities. Apparently the belief is that commodity derivatives are uniquely risky and subject to abuse, which is just untrue.

Consider a dealer making a market in a commodity index swap. That swap is easily hedged in the futures markets. Ditto with a NYMEX lookalike gas or oil swap. Yes, maybe an unhedged commodity swap is riskier than your typical unhedged IRS, but so what? That’s not the way dealers typically trade (they typically run matched books, or nearly matched books), and capital requirements and other regulations mean that riskier positions incur additional costs that mitigate the incentive to take on excessive risks.

So commodity derivatives (or equity derivatives) don’t create exceptional risks that justify exceptional treatment. What’s more, creating stand-alone affiliates to handle this business entails additional costs. More people. Duplication of infrastructure. Additional capital. There are also scope economies (deriving in particular from capital efficiencies that arise from greater netting opportunities that arise from holding multiple, relatively uncorrelated, positions in a single book). Sacrificing those scope economies will lead to fewer commodity swaps dealers, which in turn makes hedging costlier and the market for these swaps less competitive.

In other words, like many parts of Frankendodd, the Pushout was all pain, no gain. And the pain, mind you, will be suffered not so much by the dealer banks, but by the firms in the real economy that use commodity derivatives to hedge their price risks.

That said, it never seemed to be that big a deal, given the relatively small scale of commodity derivatives and equity derivatives in comparison to IRS and other trades that banks were allowed to keep on the books of insured entities. Small beer compared to the rest of the havoc wreaked by the rampaging Frankendodd Monster.

But this obscure provision could be the one that brings on yet another government shutdown. The most hardcore lefties in the Senate (e.g., Elizabeth Warren) and the House (e.g., Maxine Waters) have drawn a line in the sand over the part of the “Cromnibus Bill” that would repeal the Pushout. If passed, “Cromnibus” would fund the government (except DHS) for the next year, thereby avoiding another shutdown.

But claiming that eliminating the Pushout would be an unconscionable capitulation to Wall Street, the lefties are going to the barricades, and threatening to bring DC to a grinding halt rather than let the Pushout bite the dust. This is not about substance, but symbolism. It is also about a defeated party carrying out a rearguard action on ground where its most rabid partisans can rally.

You cannot make up this stuff. Blanche Lincoln’s populist hobby horse, a desperate effort by a doomed politician, could be the pretext for yet another unproductive partisan confrontation that has virtually nothing to do with the more serious issues associated with funding the government for the next year. (If the Pushout hadn’t passed, would Lincoln have lost by 25 points or 15, rather than 21?) (I note that Gary Gensler worked very closely with Lincoln on Frankendodd: “During drafting sessions, Gensler sometimes sat at the table reserved for staff, advising its Democratic chairwoman, Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas.”)

Cromnibus raises very serious issues. The Swaps Pushout isn’t one of them. But rather than joining the debate on the real issues, or conceding their thumping at the polls, demagogic progs are screaming Swaps Pushout or Fight.

What a travesty.

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December 6, 2014

Hit the Road, State Street

Filed under: Clearing,Derivatives,Economics,Financial crisis,Politics,Regulation — The Professor @ 11:51 pm

Following the lead of Bank of New York, State Street announced that it is exiting the swaps clearing business:

State Street (STT) Corp. is closing down its swaps business after clients said new regulations steered them away for using the products.

The bank will shutter its U.S. business for clearing swaps early next year and will shelve plans to start a similar operation in Europe, Anne McNally, a spokeswoman for the Boston-based company, said in an e-mail statement today.

State Street will instead focus on trading other types of derivatives, particularly more traditional exchange-traded futures, that have not been subject to broad new regulations imposed since the 2008 financial crisis.

“Due to market and regulatory factors, our clients have largely evolved their investment strategies towards the use of futures and away from” over-the-counter derivatives, McNally said in the statement.

From even before Frankendodd was passed, I predicted that the swap clearing firm business would be highly concentrated and dominated by the major dealers who had dominated the OTC market. Indeed, I argued that the regulatory overhead created by Frankendodd would actually tend to increase scale economies and make the clearing services business more concentrated and connected.

But Gensler, with the vocal support of BNY, State Street, and Ken Griffen of Citadel-and also MF Global-argued that there was a clearing cabal of dealer firms that was was creating unnecessary barriers to entry into clearing. BNY and State Street claimed that the dealers were forcing ICE Clear to require members to have excessively large amounts of capital, an this prevented them from becoming clearing members. Tear down those walls, and doughty entrants like BNY and State Street and Newedge and others would make the clearing business far more competitive.

This view was channeled in a NY Times story written by Louise Story almost exactly four years ago: I criticized Story’s story pretty harshly. Reflecting this view, the CFTC rules substantially eased the capital requirements and other requirements to become clearing members. Gensler, BNY, STT, etc., thought that this would lead to a much less concentrated, much more competitive clearing business.

But this was to misunderstand the economics of clearing, clearing firm scale and scope economies, and how the complicated regulatory structure CFTC put in place exacerbated these scale economies. Even futures clearing (which is substantially simpler than swaps clearing) has become much more concentrated over the years. Only the truly huge can survive.

BNY and State Street tried, and failed. They couldn’t overcome their inadequate scale even though they could offer complementary collateral management and custodial services. They were just too small.

State Street announced that it was going to focus on futures clearing, but even here it faces problems. It just lost its biggest customer (Pimco). Moreover, there are scope economies between futures clearing and swap clearing. State Street will be at a disadvantage relative to say Goldman, which can offer customers who trade both swaps and futures one stop shopping for clearing services at lower cost because of these scope economies.

So much for clearing mandates making the financial markets less concentrated and less interconnected: instead we (predictably and predicted) have a derivatives marketplace dominated by a small number of CCPs each dominated by a small number of large bank clearing members who are members of all major CCPs, which makes entire world clearing space concentrated and highly interconnected. That anybody thought the post-crisis regulations would reduce concentration and interconnections in swaps markets is illuminating. It demonstrates that those primarily responsible for implementing Frankendodd didn’t really understand the economics of what they were attempting to regulate, and as a result, they didn’t really know what they were doing.  They thought they were striking a blow against too big to fail and a collusive dealer oligopoly. They were wrong, and State Street’s abandonment of its swaps clearing effort is just further proof of how wrong they were.

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