Streetwise Professor

February 10, 2016

I[gor], Robot (Hater)

Filed under: Commodities,Derivatives,Economics,Energy,Exchanges,Russia — The Professor @ 9:40 pm

Igor Sechin comes in a close second to Rogozin the Ridiculous in providing Russian comic relief. Perhaps there are others in Russia that excel them, and I am only aware of these two because they have a bigger presence in the West, but both can be relied upon for some levity–unintentional, to be sure.

Sechin no longer has the outrageous mullet to amuse, but his public utterances suffice. Today at International Petroleum Week in London are a case in point. The mood at the event was gloomy, with pretty much everyone predicting that we are in a prolonged era of low prices, and everyone had their favorite culprit. But Sechin’s scapegoat was unique: Robots! Well, “robot traders”, anyways:

He blamed ‘financial players’ and automated ‘robot’ traders for driving down the price, saying the collapse to near $30 had little to do with supply and demand.

I presume he means algo traders and HFT. Just how these “robots” trading at subsecond frequencies have mesmerized producers and consumers to behave so as to lead to relentless buildups of inventory–including a looming topping out of capacity at Cushing–is beyond my mere economist’s skills to fathom.

Maybe Igor can commiserate with US cattle producers, who blame HFT for causing excessive volatility in beef prices.

Igor also seems to misunderstand that the “US” is not analogous to Saudi Arabia as a producer (although the phrasing is ambiguous, but I interpret this to include the US in “they”):

“At the end of 2014 some Middle East producers followed the US in their desire to increase production,” Mr Sechin told London’s International Petroleum Week. “They have deliberately created this situation and they are committed to low prices.”

The US oil sector is not a unitary decision maker in the way the Saudis are. The US industry is extremely fragmented and diffuse, with dozens of producers acting independently. They are price takers, not price makers. Very different from KSA or other producers with NOCs. (Relatedly, this is why calling the US the “new swing producer” analogous to the Saudis is dumb.)

It’s also more than a little hypocritical of him to criticize others for increasing output: Russian production has been increasing steadily over this same period.

Sechin also engaged in a little wishful thinking:

He forecast prices would recover later this year as US shale output slows. “We believe that in the coming years US shale will lose its grip on the market,” he said.

Good luck with that, Igor. US shale output has proved to be far more resilient than anyone had expected. Productivity gains and lower input costs have mitigated the impact of low prices. More importantly, the shale sector has the ability to ramp up output rapidly if prices do rise, either due to a rise in demand, or an attempt by other major producers to cut output. Indeed, this is likely the real reason the Saudis resist cutting output: they know it is futile because the supply of non-OPEC output is much more elastic than it used to be. This makes the demand for the output of the major producers, notably the Saudis (and the Russians!) more elastic than it used to be. This implies that it is not in the individual interest of any major producer to cut output unilaterally.

Which brings us to the most informative and refreshingly different part of Sechin’s remarks: his discussion of the prospects of a coordinated output cut involving OPEC and Russia.

This idea has captivated traders, who chase the idea like Randy Chasing the Dragon, shooting (the price!) up every time the rumor is floated, only to watch it fly away from their grasp. Once upon a time, Igor was notorious for encouraging such notions. Not this time around:

The most powerful figure in Russia’s oil industry on Wednesday signalled his steadfast opposition to combining with Opec to reverse the crude price rout through co-ordinated cuts in production.

. . . .
“Who are we supposed to be talking to about cuts?” Mr Sechin said when asked by the Financial Times if he was considering working with Opec, the producers’ cartel, to try to shore up the oil price. “Will Saudi Arabia or Iran cut production?”

Methinks that the real story is that the Saudis have made it clear that they trust neither the Russians nor (especially) other members of OPEC to adhere to any agree upon cuts, even assuming a deal can be cut, which is highly doubtful. So Sechin is acting as if he is the one rejecting the idea, primarily because he knows that it is DOA.

Not that this will stop all those Randys from chasing the next rumor of a coordinated cut.

Which raises the questions: Is Randy a robot? Are robots programmed to buy whenever a rumor of a Russo-Saudi oil deal is announced?

Maybe Igor will enlighten us in his next public appearance. Maybe he can do it to some musical accompaniment. Might I suggest this?:

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January 31, 2016

CCPs & RTGS: Devil Take the Hindmost?

Filed under: Clearing,Derivatives,Economics,Politics,Regulation — The Professor @ 6:37 pm

The frantic sewing of parachutes in a plane that is 30,000 feet in the air continues apace. Last week the Office of Financial Research (a Son of Frankendodd) released its 2015 Annual Report. This tome received attention mainly because it raised alarm about potential systemic risks arising from central clearing mandates. An improvement, I guess, but like most official evaluations of the systemic risks of CCPs, it misses the real problems.

It gets off on the wrong foot by misstating the real benefits of CCPs. According to OFR, the top two benefits of clearing are related to the ability of CCPs, and via them regulators, to get more complete, accurate, and timely information on derivatives positions and trading prices. But these can be achieved by transaction reporting alone, without going the full monty to clearing, which also entails collateralization (including both initial and variation margining) and mutualization of default risk. (Trade reporting has turned into a nightmare, which I will write about further soon. But the point is that you don’t need clearing to get the benefits OFR touts.)

But the main problem, yet again, is that OFR focuses on the “single point of failure”/interconnectedness/default loss contagion channel for CCP systemic risk. This is not immaterial, but it is not the main thing. The main thing is that CCPs create potentially massive contingent demands for liquidity, where the liquidity contingency is likely to occur precisely at the worst time–when the system is undergoing a financial crisis.

Further, OFR gets it wrong when it states that CCPs “reduce the risk of counterparty default.” CCPs redistribute the risk of the insolvency or illiquidity of a large financial institution away from its derivatives counterparties towards its other creditors. It protects one group of creditors at the expense of others.

It is very much open to question whether this reallocation is systemically stabilizing, or is instead a means whereby one relatively concentrated group of market participants can advantage themselves at the expense of others.

Reading Izabella Kaminska’s excellent FT Alphaville post on Real Time Gross Settlement (RTGS) mechanisms makes plain that this phenomenon of substituting liquidity risk for credit risk, and redistributing credit risk away from core banks, is not limited to derivatives clearing. RTGS replaced deferred net settlement (DNS) because of banks’ and central banks’ concern that in the latter, interbank credit balances could accumulate, resulting in a default loss to settlement banks in the event that an net payer bank failed before the next netting cycle. RTGS eliminates interbank credit exposure.

But, of course, this doesn’t make credit exposure go away. It redistributes it to settlement banks’ other creditors. To a first approximation, the total losses from the inability of a bank to meet its obligations are the same under RTGS and DNS. The difference is who gets a chair when the music stops. Settlement banks–and crucially, the central banks–like RTGS because they almost always are going to get a chair.

Furthermore, as even its proponents acknowledge, RTGS is much more liquidity intensive. To be able to make every payment in real time, a settlement bank either has to have the cash on hand, or the ability to borrow it on demand intraday from the central bank. Liquidity needs scale with gross payments, which are substantially larger than net payments. Thus, like CCPs, RTGS substitutes liquidity risk for default risk.

This risk is exacerbated by the fact that a prisoner’s dilemma problem exists in RTGS. Participants concerned about the creditworthiness of other banks have an incentive to delay payments and hoard liquidity, since once a payment goes into the system, it is final and the payer is at risk to loss of the entire gross amount if a bank that owes it fails before it pays. This can lead to a seizing up of the liquidity supply mechanism, as the prisoner’s dilemma logic kicks in and everyone starts to hoard.

Since holding cash in sufficient amounts to meet all payment obligations is extremely expensive, RTGS has evolved to permit central banks to lend intraday on a collateralized basis. But as was seen in the 2008 crisis, collateralization poses its own risks, including ballooning haircuts that can set off price spirals due to collateral fire sales. Further, due to the potential for the breakdown of long and large collateral chains, this creates an interconnection risk, and represents a further coupling of the system. And it is coupling, remember, that is at the root of most catastrophic accidents. Secured lending can create a false sense of security.

Izabella’s post also points out another problem with RTGS, which is common to central clearing. It creates a much more tightly coupled system that is very vulnerable to operational risk. This risk crystalized in October, 2014, when a seemingly innocuous change to the system (deleting a member bank) caused the failure of the UK’s CHAPS  settlement system for a day. Ironically, this was the result of an interaction between one part of the system, and another part (the Liquidity Savings Mechanism) that was intended to economize on the liquidity demands of RTGS, and essentially created an RTGS-DNS hybrid. As in most “normal accidents”, unexpected interactions between seemingly unrelated parts of a complex system led to its failure.

There is another way to see all of this. Both central clearing and RTGS are intended to create “no credit” systems. That is true only in a very limited sense–a profoundly unsystemic sense. Yes, CCPs and RTGS are designed so that participants in those arrangements don’t have credit exposure to one another. But those participants aren’t the entire system, just a part of it: the exposure is pushed away from them to others. Further, the method for reducing credit exposure among the participants is to require extensive reliance on liquidity mechanisms that are prone to breakdown in stressed market conditions. Further, these liquidity mechanisms are based on credit: banks (or the CCP) borrow from other banks, or from central banks in order to obtain liquidity. Further, the credit moves into shadowier places.

Not to sound like a broken record, but things like CCPs and RTGS redistribute and transform risks, rather than eliminate them altogether. Unfortunately, these transformations do not necessarily reduce the risk of a systemic crisis, and arguably increase it in some cases. The failure of officialdom, and large swathes of the banking sector, to recognize or address this reflects in large part a failure to take a systemic perspective. Perhaps cynically, this can be explained by the fact that the central banks and banks that drive these reform efforts mistake their own interests for the interest of the system as a whole: le système, c’est nous. As a result, “Devil take the hindmost” could well be applied as the motto of RTGS and central clearing.

This illustrates a broader problem in public policy. Government is too often invoked as a deus ex machina that internalizes externalities. But the fact that most regulatory change efforts are driven by, or ultimately controlled by, a small subset of interested parties who have the most concentrated stake in an issue. Given the diffuseness of other impacted parties this is inevitable. But it means that in practical terms internalizing externalities via regulation of something as complex as the financial system is a chimerical goal. The externality hot potato gets tossed from one segment of the financial sector to another. Government regulation, as opposed to self-regulatory initiatives, mainly affect the makeup of the subset of participants who are involved in influencing the process, and the distribution of the bargaining power. This works through the entire process, from the crafting of legislation, to the writing of regulations, to their implementation. This is why we get things like RTGS or CCP mandates, which make a certain set of participants better off, but which it is heroic indeed to believe are truly welfare increasing.




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January 26, 2016

Liquidity Is King, or Why CME’s Failure in Cocoa Doesn’t Amount to a Hill of Beans

Filed under: Commodities,Derivatives,Economics,Exchanges — The Professor @ 9:55 pm

The WSJ reports that the CME Group’s new Euro-Denominated cocoa futures contract is floundering, due to a pronounced lack of liquidity. (h/t @libertylynx) The incumbent ICE Futures Europe Sterling-denominated and ICE Futures US USD-denominated contracts dwarf the CME contract’s volume, even though European hedgers face some currency risks in using these contracts.

This is not a surprise, not by a long shot. It is always very difficult for upstart contract to make inroads, let alone dominate, in competition with an established incumbent. Liquidity is king, and the established contracts have a liquidity advantage that new entrants almost never overcome, even if the new contract is superior on some dimensions.

The only real example of the displacement of an incumbent is Eurex’s wresting of the Bund contract from LIFFE in 1997-1998. That story, which I analyze in a forthcoming paper in the Journal of Applied Corporate Finance, is the exception that proves the rule.

First, because it was supported by German banks who direct a lot of order flow to it, Eurex (and its predecessor, Deutsche Terminborse) had a base of liquidity on which to build.

Second, because it was electronic, it was possible for Eurex to offer faster and easier access to US users once the CFTC approved Eurex’s application to install terminals in the US.

Third, and most important, Eurex exploited LIFFE’s smug complacency. Eurex aggressively cut fees, and LIFFE did not match: it was convinced that its superior liquidity, and the inherent superiority of floor trading, would prevent its customers from defecting to Eurex to save a few DM per contract in fees.

Wrong! As I document in the JACF paper, the liquidity cost difference between the markets wasn’t that great by 1997 (due to the German bank support and the influx of US customers), and taking into account the lower trading fees it was actually cheaper to trade on Eurex. Volume started to leak to Eurex, and the leak turned into a flood. LIFFE belatedly cut fees, but by then it was too late. The market had tipped completely to Eurex, and LIFFE had a near-death experience.

I can speak first hand of LIFFE’s overconfidence. In 1992, I produced a study for DTB that showed that its electronic market’s liquidity was comparable to that of the floor-based LIFFE. The study was not intended for release: it was commissioned to determine whether it was advisable for DTB to add a new membership type analogous to locals in order to improve liquidity. But the results were so surprisingly favorable for DTB that they released the study, much to the derision of LIFFE and the futures trading community generally, which was truly in the grip of the Cult of the Floor.

The CEO of LIFFE was quoted in the FT and Risk Magazine to the effect that I was an ivory tower academic who had no idea the way the real world works, because everybody knows the floor is more liquid and always will be. Real bulletin board material. Literally, in my case.

He who laughs last. When Eurex launched its assault on LIFFE in 1997, it distributed my 1992 study broadly. I doubt that had much of an impact on the final outcome, but it couldn’t have hurt.

The LIFFE CEO ended up resigning after LIFFE capitulated, and voted to close the floor and go electronic. I was a good boy. I resisted the very strong temptation to send him clippings of the FT and Risk articles.

Every other exchange learned a lesson at LIFFE’s expense, and responded to a fee cutting entrant by cutting fees immediately. For instance, the CBT saw off Eurex’s attempt to compete in the Treasury market in short order by cutting fees to zero, raising them after Eurex capitulated.

So CME shouldn’t feel bad. It has plenty of company in launching a contract that fails to make headway against an established incumbent. Indeed, the experience should be comforting, because it is the dominant incumbent in USD STIRs, govvies, equity indexes, FX, grain, precious metal, livestock, and energy futures. It benefits massively from the liquidity entry barrier. Compared to that, the failure to penetrate ICE’s cocoa monopoly doesn’t amount to a hill of beans.


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Swaps Execution: The Dogs Still Don’t Eat the Dog Food When They Have the Choice

Filed under: Commodities,Derivatives,Economics,Politics,Regulation — The Professor @ 9:03 pm

The Bank of England has received a lot of attention for its just-released study on the liquidity impact of swap execution facilities (SEFs). It finds that:

as a result of SEF trading, activity increases and liquidity improves across the swap market, with the improvement being largest for USD mandated contracts which are most affected by the mandate. The associated reduction in execution costs is economically significant. For example, execution costs in USD mandated contracts, where SEF penetration is highest, drop, for market end-users alone, by $3 million–$4 million daily relative to EUR mandated contracts and in total by about $7 million–$13 million daily.

The basic methodology is to use a difference-in-difference approach to compare measures of liquidity pre-and-post SEF mandate, and which exploits the fact that non-US banks can avoid the mandate by avoiding trading with US banks: this avoidance issue will is important, and I will discuss it later.

The study is carefully done, but I am not persuaded. For one thing, the measures of liquidity employed are driven by data availability (transactions prices), and are not the ideal measures of liquidity. The primary liquidity measures employed are really measures of price dispersion, rather than preferred measures of liquidity such as bid-ask spreads, depth, or price impact (although greater (lower) price dispersion could be associated with lower (greater) price impact).

There is also the issue that transaction characteristics are endogenous. For instance, it may be the case that it is cheaper to do large deals off-SEF than on-SEF. These deals will tend to be done at prices that are further away from the mean price (or the end-of-day midpoint price), and in the volume-weighted measures employed in the paper, these deals get a bigger weight in the liquidity measures. Thus, price dispersion may be greater pre-mandate, and in Europe, where the mandate can be avoided not because SEFs improve liquidity, but because it is prohibitively costly to transact large deals on SEFs. That is, the results could be symptomatic of a loss of liquidity on some dimensions, rather than proof that the mandate improves liquidity.

The paper documents that there is less dealer intermediation where the mandate is binding. This could also reflect changes in transactions characteristics. Dealers are more likely to be needed to intermediate big deals, or deals that are exceptional on some other dimension.

The paper doesn’t break down transaction characteristics by mandate-impacted and non-mandate-impacted subsamples, and in particular doesn’t include a measure of the dispersion of transactions sizes. As a result, it’s not possible to determine whether the mandate has altered the mix of transaction characteristics.

This relates to another finding of the study: namely, that the mandate has led to the fragmentation of the interest rate swap markets along geographic/currency lines, with SEFs gaining far lower penetration in Euro-denominated swaps that are dominated by European banks who can avoid the mandate by trading with one another, and by trading with European end-users. There is confirmation of this result from Tabb Group, which finds that “European derivatives market continues to resist electronic trading.”

Well, this raises the dog food question: If the dog food is as great as the ads say, why don’t the dogs eat it? if SEFs are so much more liquid, why don’t traders flock to them?

When given a choice between a statistical finding, and revealed preference, I go with the latter. Those who actually internalize the cost of trading largely avoid SEFs. This suggests that they are actually costlier to use, at least for some users, such as those who want to trade in large size, or have other idiosyncratic needs. The choices of those who have the choice strongly suggests that the statistical evidence purportedly showing lower execution costs on SEFs is flawed and misleading.

With this in mind, it was gratifying indeed to see CFTC Chairman Massad stating that he favors allowing market participants to decide whether they transact swaps electronically or using traditional voice execution. There was never a compelling case-or even a weak one-for forcing diverse market users with diverse transactional needs to use a one-size-fits-all execution method. Massad’s free-to-choose approach is therefore a vast and welcome improvement over his predecessor Gary Gensler’s monomaniacal determination to bash everybody over the head with a CLOB.

Update. Here’s a more detailed description of the Tabb Group study I linked to above. One important takeaway: European end users really hate electronic execution, and really love voice execution:

Despite the cost benefits of e-trading, institutional investors still prefer to interact with their dealers via phone. Nearly 80 [!] per cent of the more than 200 European investors interviewed as part of the Greenwich Associates 2015 European Fixed-Income Study confirmed their trading protocol of choice was the phone.

“These trades often require white-glove treatment, and clients work with dealers that are best at limiting market impact and providing the support needed to get the trade done,” says Greenwich Associates Managing Director Andrew Awad (pictured). “As a result, clients still place a high value on the support provided by swaps salespeople in executing complex and large trades.”

This strongly suggests that there are likely to be considerable differences between deals done on SEFs and those done the old fashioned way. Not particularly the point about “limiting market impact.” Those who want to do trades that are “complex and large” go to dealers to trade bilaterally to avoid price impact. If they are not able to do that, because of an electronic execution mandate, they will almost certainly trade differently. Fewer big, complex trades. If that is correct, then the Bank of England study is comparing grapes to grapefruit. If so, the difference in price dispersion documented in the study does not demonstrate greater liquidity on SEFs: it demonstrates worse liquidity, at least for some kinds of trades.

Mind you: end users were the supposed beneficiaries of the SEF mandate. According to GiGi et al, they were being shamelessly exploited by dealers, and SEFs would set them free. Apparently they like their chains just fine, thank you very much.

Again: revealed preference rules. Believe it over a stat every time.


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January 23, 2016

Russian Oil Hedging: A Little Late for Herpicide

Filed under: Commodities,Derivatives,Economics,Energy,Russia — The Professor @ 5:29 pm

My grandfather had a wealth of colorful expressions, most of which were the product of his Appalachian upbringing. One, however, was a little different. Whenever it was too late to do something about a particular problem, he’d say: “Well, it’s a little late for herpicide.” In context, I understood what he meant, but the exact meaning escaped me. I asked him one time, and it turns out that Herpicide was a (quack) hair loss cure in the ’30s or ’40s. The company’s add campaign pictured a cue ball-bald man with the caption: “A Little Late for Herpicide.” I guess now it would be “A Little Late for Rogaine.”

This expression came to mind when I read in the FT that “Russia considers hedging part of its oil revenues.” It would have been a good idea when the price was $100, or $90, or even $50. At $30 (or below, as happened on Wednesday and Thursday), well, it’s a little late for hedgicide. Yes, oil could indeed go lower, but hedging today would lock in prices that are low by historical levels.

Hedging would make sense for Russia, just as it does for a highly-leveraged corporate. It clearly incurs financial distress costs when prices are very low. Hedging would reduce the expected costs of financial distress.

Presumably Russia would implement a program like Mexico’s, buying large quantities of out-of-the-money puts. This would allow it to capture the upside but obtain protection on the downside. It would also avoid a problem that it might face if it sold swaps/forwards: finding a counterparty. Selling a put to Russia doesn’t involve counterparty risk. Buying swaps from them would. Although this would be a right-way risk, one could readily see Russia balking on performance if oil prices were to spike, putting a short swap position well out of the money. It would have the cash to pay: the willingness to pay, not so much. Further, although Russia’s ability to pay is closely related to oil prices, it is exposed to other risks that could impair that ability, and these risks would create credit risks for anyone buying swaps from Russia.

Buying puts does create an issue, though: this would require Russia paying a rather hefty premium upfront, at a time when it is cash-strapped. As an illustration of its financial straits, note that it is attempting to avoid having to come up with cash to stabilize troubled megabank VEB. Borrowing to pay the premium is also problematic, given its dicey creditworthiness. Russia’s CDS spread is around 370bp (which, although it has turned up as oil prices took their latest plunge, is still below post-Crimea levels, and even below the levels seen in August). Current sanctions and the prospect of the crystallization of future political risks may also make lenders reluctant to front Russia the premium money.

One interesting thing to consider is how hedging would affect Russia’s output decisions going forward. Hedging, whether by buying puts or selling swaps, would reduce its incentive to cut output in low price environments. As I’ve written before, Russia doesn’t have a strong incentive to cut output anyways because  market share, market demand elasticity, and the cost of shutting down production in Siberia make it a losing prospect (as its refusal to cut output in 2009 and in the past 18 months clearly indicate). However, whatever weak incentives Russia has to cut (in cooperation with the Saudis for instance) would be even weaker if it was hedged. If cooperation on output between OPEC and Russia has proved hard up to now, it would be harder still if Russia was hedged.

A Russian hedging program, if big enough, could affect market pricing, but not the price of oil (at least not directly*): hedging is a transfer of risk, and a big Russian hedge would affect the price of oil risks. Its hedging pressure would tend to increase market risk premia (i.e., reduce forward prices relative to expected spot prices). If done using puts, it would also tend to steepen the put-wing volatility skew and increase volatility risk premium. Adding its hedging pressure to the market would also necessitate the entry of additional speculative capital into the market in order to mitigate these effects. Sechin has criticized speculators in the past: hedging Russian oil price risk would be prohibitively expensive without them.

Although Russia has mooted the possibility, I doubt it will follow through. I would imagine that the combination of the cash cost of options and criticism within the ruling clique of locking in low prices will cause them to pass. If and when oil prices rise substantially, I predict they will forego hedging because they will convince themselves that prices won’t fall again, just as they did post-2009.

In sum, this sounds like an idea that the technocrats have advanced that will die at the hands of the siloviki, like various privatization initiatives.

* The spot price of oil depends on output and demand. Hedging affects spot prices to the extent that it affects output. One way that could happen is that if it reduced Russia’s incentive to cut output. Another way it could happen is that hedging increases Russia’s capacity to finance investments in oil production by reducing capital costs. In this case, investment would be higher and output would be higher.

In each of these scenarios hedging reduces spot oil prices in some states of the world, not because of the direct effects of forward selling, but because the hedging provides incentives to increase output. This is a good thing.

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January 20, 2016

Rube Krugman Argues From a Price Change, With Predictably Absurd Results

Filed under: Commodities,Derivatives,Economics,Energy — The Professor @ 1:50 pm

The oil collapse continues apace, after a one day breather on Monday. As I write, WTI and Brent are off almost 8 percent. Equity indices around the world are going in the same direction.

This recent co-movement between crude (and other commodities, especially non-precious metals) has unleashed torrents of twaddle. One of the most egregious pieces thereof was a recent Krugman column:

When oil prices began their big plunge, it was widely assumed that the economic effects would be positive. Some of us were a bit skeptical. But maybe not skeptical enough: taking a global view, there’s a pretty good case that the oil plunge is having a distinctly negative impact. Why?

Well, think about why we used to believe that oil price declines were expansionary. Part of the answer was that they reduced inflation, freeing central banks to loosen monetary policy — not a relevant issue at a time when inflation is below target almost everywhere.

Beyond that, however, the usual view was that falling oil prices tended to redistribute income away from agents with low marginal propensities to spend toward agents with high marginal propensities to spend. Oil-rich Middle Eastern nations and Texas billionaires, so the story went, were sitting on huge piles of wealth, were therefore unlikely to face liquidity constraints, and could and would smooth out fluctuations in their income. Meanwhile, the benefits of lower oil prices would be spread widely, including to many consumers living paycheck to paycheck who would probably spend the windfall.

Now, part of the reason this logic doesn’t work the way it used to is that the rise of fracking means that there is a lot of investment spending closely tied to oil prices — investment spending that has relatively short lead times and will therefore fall quickly.

Where to begin? I guess the place to start is to note that Krugman commits a cardinal economic error (you’re shocked, I’m sure): he argues from a price change. What is frightening is that if you believe his characterization of the received wisdom in macroeconomics, this is the standard way of thinking about these things in macro.

Prices do not move exogenously. Prices can go down because of supply shocks. They can go down because of demand shocks. The price movement is the same direction, but the implications are very different. In particular, the implications for co-movements between oil prices and asset prices are very different. You cannot analyze based on the fact of the price change alone: your analysis must be predicated on what is driving that change.

A price decline because of a favorable supply shock is generally positive for the broader world economy. Yes it is bad for oil producers, but especially for advanced and most emerging economies who are oil/commodity shorts, a supply-driven price decline is beneficial and should be associated with higher stock prices, economic growth, etc. The production possibility frontier shifts out, leading to higher incomes overall although in a world with incomplete risk sharing there are distributive effects. But the adverse consequences for producers are almost always swamped by consumer gains.  In this scenario, growth and asset prices on the one hand, and commodity prices on the other, move in opposite directions.

Things are very different for demand shocks-driven price changes. A price decline because of an adverse demand shock is generally negative for the broader world economy, because it is a weakening world economy that is the major source of the demand decline. This is a matter of correlation, not causation. Causation runs from a weakening economy to lower demand for oil (and other commodities) to lower commodity prices and lower asset prices.  Oil price (and asset price) changes are an effect not a cause.

The current situation is much closer to the latter case than the former. Yes, there have been oil production increases in the last couple of years, but if world economic growth had continued on its pre-mid-2014 pace, demand would have grown sufficiently to absorb this increase. In fact, the decline in oil and other commodity prices starting around June 2014 occurred right about the time that world growth forecasts declined appreciably. Subsequent months have seen a litany of bad growth news from the main sources of commodity demand growth in the boom years, most notably, of course, China. And the news from China keeps getting worse. This is reflected in cratering stock prices there, and other indicia of economic activity. (Notably all of these indicia are pretty much non-official. Official Chinese statistics should be nominated for the next Nobel Prize in Fiction.)

But rather than go back to basics, Krugman assembles a Rube Goldberg contraption to explain what is going on. And of course, austerity and the liquidity trap play a starring role:

But there is, I believe, something else going on: there’s an important nonlinearity in the effects of oil fluctuations. A 10 or 20 percent decline in the price might work in the conventional way. But a 70 percent decline has really drastic effects on producers; they become more, not less, likely to be liquidity-constrained than consumers. Saudi Arabia is forced into drastic austerity policies; highly indebted fracking companies find themselves facing balance-sheet crises.

Or to put it differently: small oil price declines may be expansionary through usual channels, but really big declines set in motion a process of forced deleveraging among producers that can be a significant drag on the world economy, especially with the whole advanced world still in or near a liquidity trap.

Since because of his cardinal error Krugman does not identify what caused the price decline that begins his chain of “reasoning,” it’s hard to understand fully what he means. The most charitable interpretation is that there was a favorable supply shock that was so big that it caused such a large price decline in oil that this caused world “aggregate demand” to decline because of the severe adverse consequences on indebted and liquidity constrained producing countries and companies.

Inane. For one thing, these economies and sectors are very small in comparison to the world economy. Commodity producing countries have historically suffered major financial crises with little, if any, effect on growth world-wide, or on asset prices world-wide. The US oil and gas sector has also undergone some severe crises (e.g., 1986-1987) with limited fallout on US and world growth: the impacts tended to be concentrated regionally in the producing states, such as Texas. Not much fun there, but the rest of the country and the world didn’t much notice. In fact, they benefited from the favorable oil supply shock.

For another, even if there is some asymmetry between the “liquidity constraints” of producers and consumers, Krugman has been arguing strenuously that US and European consumers are liquidity constrained, hence his constant attacks on austerity. In Krugman’s argue-from-a-price-change story, that liquidity constraint has eased, and therefore one would expect to see improvement in consumption growth in places like the US, but the reverse is in fact true. The US economy is slowing rather noticeably.

No. The back-to-basics-trace-the-cause-of-the-price-change story is much more plausible. And here’s the irony. The epicenter of the commodity demand and world growth shock is China, which has binged on credit stimulus since 2009 in a way that Krugman should approve. But that cannot go on forever, and indeed, the main source of problems in China is the recognition that it can’t go on forever. China faces colossal balance-sheet issues that make deleveraging inevitable. When that happens, the commodity crisis will enter a new phase. How bad it is depends on how well the Chinese handle it. Given their mania for central control, I do not believe they will handle it well.

Macro panjandrums, like Oliver Blanchard, are puzzled, because official data do not yet reflect any large decline in growth. But that’s because official data are backward looking, and markets look forward relentlessly. They are signaling current and future problems, which official data will eventually validate. (And that’s when the data aren’t made up, as is notoriously the case in China.)

Commodity prices are particularly important, because commodities are consumed in the here and now. When demand declines, consumption declines, and prices decline contemporaneously. For all the talk about financialization, that can’t overcome the decisions of billions of commodity consumers around the world. Thus, at present, the high positive correlation between commodity prices and asset prices, like in 2008-2009, is a symptom and harbinger of broader economic problems. You don’t need Rube Krugman contraptions to explain that.

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December 29, 2015

Spoof Me Once, Shame on You: Spoof Me Twice, Shame on Me

Filed under: Commodities,Derivatives,Economics,Exchanges,Regulation — The Professor @ 6:41 pm

I’ve often written that HFT firms are the best able to detect spoofers, and to take preventative measures (which reduce the profitability of spoofing, and hence its prevalence). The whole business of HFT is extracting signals from orders and order flow, and trading accordingly. Spoofing is based on manipulating the order flow–in essence, injecting noise into it. HFT firms evaluate their executions, and attempt to identify patterns that predict both winning and losing trades. If spoofers systematically impose losses on HFT firms, eventually the latter will figure it out.

This is the first article that I’ve read that supports this contention:

Inside Ken Griffin’s $25 billion empire, Citadel’s cyber investigators had isolated a new enemy: spoofers.

It was late 2013, and at the firm’s Chicago headquarters, a team of researchers discovered that a rival company’s algorithm was outmaneuvering their automated trader. The algo was placing futures orders it had no intention of filling to entice firms like Citadel into the transactions, then canceling them, leaving Citadel with money-losing trades. Citadel’s plan: to pit its computers against the spoofer in a high-stakes duel over market manipulation.

. . . .

Vertex Analytics may have devised a way to make high-frequency trading more transparent and spoofing easier to detect. The Chicago-based technology firm can represent graphically every order and transaction on CME’s markets, obviating the need to go through pounds of paper searching for a telltale sequence of

Vertex’s approach was a revelation for Robert Korajczyk, a finance professor for more than 30 years at Northwestern University, where he’s studied asset pricing and liquidity.

“My first reaction to seeing the graphics capabilities was ‘This can’t be done,’” Korajczyk said. “However, Vertex can do it.”

. . . .

Citadel isn’t the only firm that took measures against spoofers without regulators’ help.

In 2012, Chicago-based HTG Capital Partners detected a pattern of large canceled orders followed by aggressive trades in the opposite direction that left them with losing positions, according to an affidavit released last month. The firm created tools to help identify when spoofing was taking place, the affidavit said.

Transmarket Group has created an “anti-manipulation guide” that tells traders how to spot spoofing, according to a copy seen by Bloomberg News. The Chicago-based firm lists specific examples of spoofing in the natural gas market on CME as part of the guide.

The article spends a lot of time discussing enforcement actions against spoofers, and the difficulties of making a case. Even ignoring my doubts (expressed in earlier posts) whether the social costs of spoofing really warrant expensive enforcement efforts, the fact that sophisticated and knowledgeable players have the incentive to detect this kind of conduct, and take defensive measures (and perhaps offensive–at least that’s what the description of Citadel “pit[ting] its computers” against spoofers suggests) means that the frequency and scale of spoofing activity is likely to decline significantly. It is a pathogen that found a niche, but the hosts’ immune systems are adapting, and it will become less dangerous in short order.

This isn’t true of all forms of manipulation, but the very nature of spoofing–which involves doing things that are intended to be detected–makes it vulnerable to detection and countermeasures. This means that the system tends to be self-correcting, and this mitigates the need for enforcement. Unfortunately, it appears that enforcement officials (both civil and criminal) think otherwise, and have prioritized the prosecution of spoofing. Combined with the outrageous overcharging and over-penalizing that I’ve mentioned before, this is a disturbing development.

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December 25, 2015

Four Corners Offense: The Social History of Commodity Corners

I’ve been spending something of a busman’s holiday, reading this and that about commodity market corners in days long past. I started out looking into some of the big cotton corners at the beginning of the last century, namely the Brown-Hayne corner of 1903 and the Patten corner of 1910. These are the subject of a new book, The Cotton Kings: Capitalism and Corruption in Turn-of-the-Century New York and New Orleans. The book is entertaining history, but could use some more economics. It is journalistic in style, rather than analytical.

Reading about Patten’s cotton corner led me to read about his wheat corner of 1909, his corn corner of 1908, and his oats corner of 1902. Mr. Patten was a busy man.

And a reviled one. He was known as “The Wheat King,” whom the The Literary Review accused of  “The Crime of Making Bread Dear.” He was the model for the villain in the very influential D. W. Griffith short film, “A Corner in Wheat.”

This early short was one of the first films, if not the first, to address a serious social subject. Its theme would be very familiar today: the two Americas, rich and poorSergei Eisenstein admired Griffith, and employed his “parallel editing” technique (which he referred to as Griffith’s “montage of collision”): some film historians consider Griffith’s technique more subtle and less heavy-handed than Eisenstein’s.

(Unbeknownst to me when I was growing up in Evanston, Illinois, Patten was a longtime resident of the city, and its former mayor. He built a mansion there, and funded the Patten Gymnasium, where I swam in the summers.)

Patten was a nationally known figure. The Justice Department indicted him under the Sherman Act for his cotton corner, and the case attracted front page attention in national newspapers, including the New York Times, when it went to the Supreme Court. (Patten was fined $4000, or less than .1 percent of what he allegedly made in his corner. Not much deterrence effect there, eh?)

Patten was not alone in being a figure of national renown–and infamy. Commodity speculators were the banksters of their day. The Matt Taibbi of the 1880s, Henry Demarest Lloyd, wrote about cornerers at the Chicago Board of Trade in a famous essay. Frank Norris wrote a famous roman à clef, The Pit, based on the Leiter wheat corner of 1898.

In sum, in the last third of the 19th century and the first quarter of the 20th, commodity markets generally, and commodity market corners in particular, were the subject of intense interest. In some respects, it is not surprising that commodity corners were the subject of close journalistic coverage, serious fiction, social critical literature, and film during this era. Agricultural commodities were much more central to Americans as both consumers and producers. In 1900, 41 percent of the American workforce was employed in agriculture: now it is under 2 percent, and agriculture represents less than .7 of GDP. Half of American consumption spending went to food and textiles in 1900: a century later, that figure was down to 20 percent. Relatively speaking, the commodity derivatives markets (the Chicago Board of Trade, the Minneapolis Chamber of Commerce, Kansas City Board of Trade, the New York and New Orleans cotton exchanges, etc.) were more important and more developed that the capital markets, including the New York Stock Exchange, than is the case today: by the 1990s, when I was researching commodity exchanges and doing work with some, the commodity traders lamented that the explosion of financial futures had led the managements of exchanges to lose touch with the realities of commodities.

That said, one can see many echoes of the distant debates about and social criticism of commodity trading and corners in current controversies over financial markets. Just as outrage over the alleged excesses of the 2000s gave birth to the spate of post-Crisis financial regulation, fury over the Leiters and Pattens and Browns led to the first major regulations of financial markets in the United States: the Cotton Futures Act of 1914, and the Grain Futures Act of 1922 (which morphed into the Commodity Exchange Act, which is still with us, and which was amended by Frankendodd). Both Acts followed major government studies, the Commissioner of Corporations’ Report on Cotton Exchanges, and the Federal Trade Commission’s Report on the Grain Trade. Both of these are very well done, and provide very detailed descriptions of both the cash and futures markets. They are priceless resources. In some respects, because of them, we know more about the operation of commodity markets in the first decades of the 20th century than we do of their operation in the first decades of the 21st.

Maybe someday I’ll write a book about all of this, one that integrates the economics, history, and political economy. It’s of great personal interest, but not highly valued in the economics or finance professions today. I was amused when I came upon the link to an AER article about the Cotton Futures Act: it is beyond imagining that something similar would appear there today. But as I hope the foregoing shows, plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. Issues of the relationship between financial markets and the real economy, the political economy of financial markets, and the influence of financial titans on political and judicial institutions, are still with us. In 1909, a film like A Corner in Wheat grappled with the social impact of finance in a very provocative and arguably simplistic way: in 2009-2015 movies like Too Big to Fail, Margin Call, and The Big Short do the same.

Don’t hold your breath, but maybe someday you’ll read about this in depth in print, rather than superficially in pixels.

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December 22, 2015

Embarrassing Silliness on Commodity Market Financialization in the FT

Filed under: Commodities,Derivatives,Economics,Energy — The Professor @ 8:04 pm

Satyajit Das writes some smart things. He also writes some silly things. This article in the FT is definitely in the silly category. Embarrassing is more like it.

Das claims that “increased financialisation” has “exacerbated” the downturn in commodities. What does he mean exactly?

Let’s start with the what Das means by financialization. (I’m ‘Merican and I’ll spell it like a ‘Merican, dammit!) This has become a term of art to mean traditional financial investors (pension funds, hedge funds, retail investors etc.) taking on direct exposure to commodity price risks, usually via derivatives (including ETFs). But Das treats anything touching finance as financialization. His use of the word is so broad as to be meaningless.

Cash flows from future sales were monetised to raise large amounts of debt to finance expansion. The collateral value of commodities secured expansion in borrowing and trading.

Uhm, when has this not been true in commodities? Commodity production tends to be highly capital intensive, which requires, you know, capital, which requires tapping the capital markets to, you know, fund. Since the dawn of capital markets, lenders and equity investors have mobilized savings to supply capital to miners, drillers, etc., to fund the digging of mines and the drilling of wells, based on the expectation of being paid back from cash flows from future sales. That’s exactly what finance is. If that is “financialization,” pretty much everything is “financialized” and the term is so general as to lack all meaning and analytical bite.  Modern markets have always been financialized in this way.

Natural resource firms have long been major users of the capital markets. Indeed, many of the earliest stock and bond markets developed to finance commodity investments, and mining and E&P firms have long been leading names in major stock and bond markets. In that respect, commodities have been financialized a lot more for a lot longer than most sectors of the economy.

In fact, it is the very capital intensity of extractive industries (which made natural resource firms reliant on capital markets from the first) that  explains the boom-bust cycle. Most of the costs of natural resource extraction industries are sunk costs. Literally sunk: very expensive, very long-lived holes in the ground that can’t be undug and used for something else. If demand turns down after these investments are made, it usually makes economic sense to continue operating , because the variable costs of operation tend to be relatively low and can be covered even when prices are low. Since the capacity is long-lived, exit does not occur, meaning that low prices can persist for long periods. But that’s economically efficient when investment is largely irreversible.

Which brings me to Das’s next groaner:

The need to maintain cash flow to service debt requires production levels to be maintained, even if it is below cost. This delays the withdrawal of supply and correction of prices. It also destroys the value of equity, making it difficult for firms to raise new capital to reduce debt.

Producing “below cost” (by which I assume he means continuing to produce when prices are below cost) destroys cash flow, rather than maintains it, if cost is measured properly. It is optimal to operate as long as prices cover avoidable costs (e.g., variable costs, and fixed costs that must be incurred as long as output is positive), even if prices are below some measure of accounting cost which typically embeds sunk costs: you can’t judge economic operation by looking at income statements, which have sunk costs baked in.

This kind of continued operation doesn’t “destroy the value of equity.” To the contrary, it is shutting down when price more than covers avoidable cost that destroys the value of equity. The fact that avoidable costs in natural resource extraction tend to be low relative to total costs means that not exiting even when prices are low is economically efficient.  (Another implication of the cost structure of natural resource production is that it is typically efficient to produce either at capacity or shut down altogether.)

Debt costs reflect the sunk costs of investment. Sometimes–like now–cash flows are insufficient to cover the costs of servicing this debt for many firms. That’s what bankruptcy laws are for. If they work well, the continued operation (or not) of insolvent firms will depend on current and expected future margins between price and avoidable costs, not the Ghost of Sunk Costs Past.

Then there’s this:

For industries like shale gas and oil which were cash flow negative even at high oil prices because of the need to invest in new wells to maintain production, reduction in the supply of capital affects the ability of firms to operate.

Again, Das is apparently utterly confused about the proper cash flow concept to apply. If “maintain production at all costs” was truly the mantra of the E&P industry, the problem would not be financialization, but management retardation. Finance would be implicated only to the extent that financiers are similarly retarded and gladly shovel good money to them to permit continued value destruction. If anything, it is the need to access the capital markets that prevents retarded managements from wreaking havoc: few things are more destructive of value than CEOs with bountiful free cash flows that relieve them of capital market discipline. Cutting off capital from negative NPV projects is a boon, not a burden.

Finally we get to derivatives!:

Hedging ameliorated the effect of declining prices. Derivative gains contributed in excess of 30 per cent of revenues in the US shale industry in 2015

And this is a problem why? This is exactly the way “financialization” is supposed to work. It transfers price risks to those (namely, well-diversified financial investors) who can bear them at a lower cost. Yes, investment probably would have been lower, and prices higher, had this risk transfer mechanism not existed. But this doesn’t mean that the level of investment with an efficient risk transfer mechanism is too high: it means that the level of investment without one is too low.

More bad derivatives stuff:

Margin calls further complicate matters. An airline that has hedged future oil purchases at high prices may face margin calls that make unexpected claims on its cash flow.

Yes, cash flow mismatches on hedges can be a problem. Which is exactly why corporate end users strongly preferred (and prefer) OTC hedges which embedded credit to mitigate these problems.

More financialization evils, according to Das:

Financialisation altered fundamental industrial structures. Traditionally high barriers to entry, such as technology, expertise and access to capital, led to domination by large producers who planned and controlled production.

Now specialised resources service firms provide access to technology and the willingness of capital markets and non-traditional lenders to provide finance allows easier entry resulting in a more fragmented industry.

These are features, not bugs! These are benefits of financialization! Breaking down oligopolistic and monopolistic market structures is good, not bad!

At the same time, trading in financial claims on future commodity cash flows has encouraged institutional investment in the sector as part of diversification into new asset classes. Hedge funds and trading firms now act as quasi banks financing and facilitating risk management by commodity market participants.

So facilitating the flow of capital from savers to investors is a bad thing? Facilitating risk management is bad too? Who knew?

This is just bizarre:

This activity is marked-to-market daily or secured by the value of the commodity. Any change in value can trigger calls for additional collateral complicating cash flow management or force liquidation of holdings. Capital market investors may lack the ability to ride out prolonged corrections. It complicates dealing with financial distress and the necessary restructuring.

Tapping into a deeper pool of capital, which financialization (as defined by Das) allows, spreads the risks and makes it easier to ride out prolonged correction (which, again, are an inherent consequence of the cost structures/operational leverage of natural resource extraction), not harder. And the statement about complicating dealing with financial distress and restructuring is completely conclusory, with no supporting argument or evidence.

Yes, in a world with poorly developed financial markets, large scale investments in industries characterized by irreversibility and large scale (like natural resource extraction) are expensive to fund. “Financialization”–which in Das’s expansive usage, apparently just means lower cost access to bigger pools of investment and risk capital–indeed leads to a bigger natural resources sector. Yes, by its very nature this sector will inevitably go through protracted periods of low prices, which will impose losses on investors. But that’s a risk that they willingly choose to bear, in exchange for an expected return that they consider compensatory.

Das appears to be afflicted with Bastiat Disease, i.e., the inability to distinguish between the seen and the unseen. Das sees the financial carnage that the current natural resources depression has created, but hasn’t considered what would happen if the world was less financialized. What are the unseen consequences of that?

I can tell you: a poorer world.

There are some forms of finance that are wealth-destroying rent seeking. The financing and risk management of the production of minerals and energy are not among them.

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December 7, 2015

Clearing Mandates: Would That Regulators Had Remembered Takeoffs are Optional, But Landings Are Not

Filed under: Clearing,Derivatives,Economics,Politics,Regulation — The Professor @ 9:41 pm

ln 2010 and 2011 I was a clearing Cassandra, sounding warnings about the potential systemic risks arising from clearing mandates. Prominent among those dismissing my criticisms were “macro prudential” regulators, notably the Federal Reserve and the Bank of International Settlements.

Things are rather different now. Regulators, including notably the Fed and the BIS, are now making the rounds expressing recognition, and arguably concerns, about systemic risks in clearing.

Case number one: Fed Governor Daniel Tarullo:

However, as has been frequently observed, if the financial system is to reap these benefits, the central counterparties to which transactions are moving must themselves be sound and stable. Extreme but plausible events, such as the failure of clearing members or a rapid change in the value of instruments traded by a CCP, could expose it to financial distress. If the CCP has insufficient resources to deal with such stress, it may look to its clearing members to provide support. But if the problems arise during a period of generalized financial stress, the clearing members may themselves already have been weakened or, even if they remain sound, the diversion of their available liquidity to the CCP may prevent customers of the clearing members from accessing needed funding. If the CCP fails, the adverse effects on the financial system could be significant, including the prospect that the CCP’s default on its obligations could amplify the stress on other important financial institutions.

. . . .

While the question of what constitutes the optimal default fund standard needs more analysis and debate, I think there is little question that more attention must be paid to strengthening stress testing, recovery strategies, and resolution plans for significant CCPs. The typical CCP recovery strategy does not take a system-wide perspective and is premised on imposing losses on, or drawing liquidity from, CCP members during what may be a period of systemic stress. Many of these members are themselves systemically important firms, which will likely be suffering losses and facing liquidity demands of their own in anything but an idiosyncratic stress scenario at a CCP. Moreover, in at least some cases, uncertainty is increased by the difficulty of estimating with any precision the extent of potential liability of members to the CCP, thereby complicating both their recovery planning and efforts by the official sector to assess system-wide capital and liquidity availability in adverse scenarios.

The failure of regulators to take a “system-wide perspective” in their analysis of systemic risk generally, and in the effect of clearing mandates on systemic risk in particular, was one of my oft-expressed criticisms.

Tarullo is an interesting case. When I made a presentation  expressing my warnings about the systemic risks of clearing before the Fed Board of Governors in October, 2011, Tarullo was sitting right next to me at the big table in the Fed Board Room. He was, to put it mildly, dismissive of what I had to say.

Glad to see he’s coming around.

Case number two: Fed Governor Jerome Powell. I was particularly pleased to see that Powell recognizes that the picture that was repeatedly used to sell the benefits of clearing is highly misleading because it fails to take a system-wide approach: I criticized this picture in presentations as early as 2011, and also in some published work. Though I would say that Powell still omits many of the other connections between major financial institutions in a cleared world.

More from Powell:

I am a believer in the potential benefits of central clearing under the right circumstances. But central clearing is not a panacea. Charts similar to that in Figure 1 are often used to illustrate the netting of exposures and simplification that central clearing can bring to an OTC market. The tangled and highly opaque picture of a purely bilateral market is replaced by the neat hub-and-spoke network in which a CCP is buyer to every seller, and seller to every buyer, allowing netting and greater transparency for participants and regulators alike. Of course, reality is not so elegant, as Figure 2 illustrates. There are multiple CCPs, even within product classes, and major dealers act as clearing members across a broad network of CCPs. Clearing members also perform a range of services for CCPs, including custody, liquidity provision, and settlement. By design, increased central clearing will concentrate risks in CCPs; it is essential that, as these risks accumulate, the CCPs build up their ability to manage them. It is often noted that CCPs made it through the recent financial crisis without direct government assistance. But many of their major clearing members did receive such assistance. CCPs must now plan for a world in which these large firms will fail and be resolved without government support.

. . . .

All of these efforts are directly aimed at strengthening FMIs. But the strength and resilience of a CCP ultimately depends on the strength and resilience of its clearing members. I’d now like to shift focus to the relationship between these market utilities and the institutions that use them.

Barring an operational event, CCPs only face credit or liquidity risk when one of their members fails to make a payment when due. Thus, one effective way to make a CCP safer is to make its members safer. In that sense, the post-crisis reforms that have greatly strengthened our largest and most systemically important banking institutions have directly benefitted CCPs and other FMIs.

This last part, of course, raises the obvious question: would measures to “[strengthen] our largest and most systemically important banking institutions” been sufficient to address macro prudential concerns about OTC derivatives, making unnecessary clearing mandates?

But the biggest, and most surprising case is the BIS:

Clearing though a CCP creates a centralised network of trading exposures. Conceptually, this may influence systemic risk in two main ways. First, central clearing may affect the propagation of an (exogenous) shock through domino effects: the losses deriving from a counterparty default could trigger further defaults and spread the shock through the system. Second, central clearing, and the associated risk management practices, may affect the likelihood and impact of endogenous “run and deleveraging” mechanisms even in the absence of an initial default. While, in practice, both mechanisms may interact, considering them separately helps us to understand possible changes in the nature of systemic risk.

. . .

For example, the size of a shock would matter for systemic risk to the extent that defaults inflict a liquidity shortage on a CCP. If one or more clearing members fail to meet their clearing obligations, the CCP itself must provide liquidity in order to make timely payments to the original trading counterparties. The CCP’s own liquid assets and backup liquidity lines made available by banks may provide effective insurance against liquidity shocks resulting from the difficulties of one or a few clearing members. But they can hardly provide protection in the event of a systemic shock, when a large number of clearing participants – potentially including the providers of liquidity lines – become liquidity-constrained, thereby triggering domino effects.

. . . .

A centralised structure of trading exposures may also affect the likelihood and nature of endogenous shocks in the form of forced deleveraging, fire sales and runs. The critical issue in this regard is the interaction between CCPs’ risk management practices and those of clearing participants. On the one hand, if stringent risk management by a CCP replaces lax counterparty risk management in bilateral markets, central clearing would tend to reduce the risk of such procyclical behaviour. On the other hand, an unexpected tightening of CCP risk management could still lead to liquidity pressures on participants that could ultimately trigger fire sales and a self-reinforcing deleveraging (Morris and Shin (2008)).

. . . .

Turning to the risk of endogenous deleveraging, the assessment of the impact of post-crisis trends is similarly ambiguous. The fact that an increasing share of trading positions is subject to daily variation margin payments has arguably reduced the risk that counterparties are confronted with sudden big losses, as was for instance the case with AIG. However, the shift towards the centralised risk management of trading positions, including collateralisation and high-frequency margining, is also likely to affect market-wide liquidity dynamics. For example, extreme price movements in cleared financial instruments could result in large variations in the exposure of clearing members to the CCPs and therefore in the need for some of them to make correspondingly large variation margin payments. Such payments can be large, even if margin requirements remain unchanged. But they may be exacerbated if the CCP increases initial margins and/or tightens collateral standards in the face of unusually large price movements.


I made all of these points, or closely related ones, going back as far as 2008-2009, at times to the disdain of the BIS. One example occurred when made a presentation at the Notre Dame Financial Regulation Conference in May, 2011, where two BIS economists said I was being alarmist. Another was at a conference sponsored by the BofE, ECB, and Banque de France in September, 2013.

So it’s nice to see them come to their senses.

The last point in what I quoted is particularly amazing. One BIS position that I have ridiculed was that variation margin flows created no liquidity demands because they were zero sum: every dollar paid by the loser is received by the winner, allowing the collateral to be recycled. Presumably by having the winners lend to the losers. Even overlooking the operational impossibilities of this, what’s the point of variation margin (which reduces credit exposure in derivatives contracts) if variation margins are funded by credit? And there are operational issues. Liquidity is needed precisely because payments are not frictionlessly and instantaneously recycled. Timing mismatches create a need for liquidity and credit.

So it’s particularly nice to see the BIS get beyond its risible dismissal of the possibility that variation margins can create systemic risks via a liquidity channel, and recognize that this is a serious issue. Because it is. The most important risk in clearing, in my opinion, and one that becomes even more important when regulators take other measures to protect CCPs.

All in all, it’s good to see regulators starting to grapple with the potential systemic risks inherent in clearing. It is better than continued cheer-leading, as was the norm from 2009 until very recently.

But that said, the time to start worrying about potential major design flaws in an aircraft isn’t when it is just reaching cruising altitude. Takeoffs are optional, landings are not. It’s best to make sure that a safe landing, rather than a crash, is highly likely before taxiing down the runway. In their wisdom, legislators and regulators in a hurry didn’t do that. They rushed a new, complex, and untested design into the air. Let’s hope that the newfound awareness of the potential risks allows them to make in-flight repairs and adjustments that will make a crash unlikely.


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