Streetwise Professor

August 20, 2016

On Net, This Paper Doesn’t Tell Us Much About What We Need to Know About the Effects of Clearing

Filed under: Clearing,Derivatives,Economics,Financial crisis,Politics,Regulation — The Professor @ 4:26 pm

A recent Office of Financial Research paper by Samim Ghamami and Paul Glasserman asks “Does OTC Derivatives Reform Incentivize Central Clearing?” Their answer is, probably not.

My overarching comment is that the paper is a very precise and detailed answer to maybe not the wrong question, exactly, but very much a subsidiary one. The more pressing questions include: (i) Do we want to favor clearing vs. bilateral? Why? What metric tells us that is the right choice? (The paper takes the answer to this question as given, and given as “yes.”) (ii) How do the different mechanisms affect the allocation of risk, including the allocation of risk outside the K banks that are the sole concern in the paper? (iii) How will the rules affect the scale of derivatives trading (the paper takes positions as given) and the allocation across cleared and bilateral instruments? (iv) Following on (ii) and (iii) will the rules affect risk management by end-users and what is the implication of that for the allocation of risk in the economy?

Item (iv) has received too little attention in the debates over clearing and collateral mandates. To the extent that clearing and collateral mandates make it more expensive for end-users to manage risk, how will the end users respond? Will they adjust capital structures? Investment? The scale of their operations? How will this affect the allocation of risk in the broader economy? How will this affect output and growth?

The paper also largely ignores one of the biggest impediments to central clearing–the leverage ratio.  (This regulation receives on mention in passing.) The requirement that even segregated client margins be treated as assets for the purpose of calculating this ratio (even though the bank does not have a claim on these margins) greatly increases the capital costs associated with clearing, and is leading some banks to exit the clearing business or to charge fees that make it too expensive for some firms to trade cleared derivatives. This brings all the issues in (iv) to the fore, and demonstrates that certain aspects of the massive post-crisis regulatory scheme are not well thought out, and inconsistent.

Of course, the paper also focuses on credit risk, and does not address liquidity risk issues at all. Perhaps this is a push between bilateral vs. cleared in a world where variation margin is required for all derivatives transactions, but still. The main concern about clearing and collateral mandates (including variation margin) is that they can cause huge increases in the demand for liquidity precisely at times when liquidity dries up. Another concern is that collateral supply mechanisms that develop in response to the mandates create new interconnections and new sources of instability in the financial system.

The most disappointing part of the paper is that it focuses on netting economies as the driver of cost differences between bilateral and cleared trading, without recognizing that the effects of netting are distributive. To oversimplify only a little, the implication of the paper is that the choice between cleared and bilateral trading is driven by which alternative redistributes the most risk to those not included in the model.

Viewed from that perspective, things look quite different, don’t they? It doesn’t matter whether the answer to that question is “cleared” or “bilateral”–the result will be that if netting drives the answer, the answer will result in the biggest risk transfer to those not considered in the model (who can include, e.g., unsecured creditors and the taxpayers). This brings home hard the point that these types of analyses (including the predecessor of Ghamami-Glasserman, Zhu-Duffie) are profoundly non-systemic because they don’t identify where in the financial system the risk goes. If anything, they distract attention away from the questions about the systemic risks of clearing and collateral mandates. Recognizing that the choice between cleared and bilateral trading is driven by netting, and that netting redistributes risk, the question should be whether that redistribution is desirable or not. But that question is almost never asked, let alone answered.

One narrower, more technical aspect of the paper bothered me. G-G introduce the concept of a concentration ratio, which they define as the ratio of a firm’s contribution to the default fund to the firm’s value at risk used to determine the sizing of the default fund. They argue that the default fund under a cover two standard (in which the default fund can absorb the loss arising from the simultaneous defaults of the two members with the largest exposures) is undersized if the concentration ratio is less than one.

I can see their point, but its main effect is to show that the cover two standard is not joined up closely with the true determinants of the risk exposure of the default fund. Consider a CCP with N identical members, where N is large: in this case, the concentration ratio is small. Further, assume that member defaults are independent, and occur with probability p. The loss to the default fund conditional on the default of a given member is X. Then, the expected loss of the default fund is pNX, and under cover two, the size of the fund is 2X.  There will be some value of N such that for a larger number of members, the default fund will be inadequate. Since the concentration ratio varies inversely with N, this is consistent with the G-G argument.

But this is a straw man argument, as these assumptions are obviously extreme and unrealistic. The default fund’s exposure is driven by the extreme tail of the joint distribution of member losses. What really matters here is tail dependence, which is devilish hard to measure. Cover two essentially assumes a particular form of tail dependence: if the 1st (2nd) largest exposure defaults, so will the 2nd (1st) largest, but it ignores what happens to the remaining members. The assumption of perfect tail dependence between risks 1 and 2 is conservative: ignoring risks 3 through N is not. Where things come out on balance is impossible to determine. Pace G-G, when N is large ignoring 3-to-N is likely very problematic, but whether this results in an undersized default fund depends on whether this effect is more than offset by the extreme assumption of perfect tail dependence between risks 1 and 2.

Without knowing more about the tail dependence structure, it is impossible to play Goldilocks and say that this default fund is too large,  this default fund is too small, and this one is just right by looking at N (or the concentration ratio) alone. But if we could confidently model the tail dependence, we wouldn’t have to use cover two–and we could also determine individual members’ appropriate contributions more exactly than relying on a pro-rata rule (because we could calculate each member’s marginal contribution to the default fund’s risk).

So cover two is really a confession of our ignorance. A case of sizing the default fund based on what we can measure, rather than what we would like to measure, a la the drunk looking for his keys under the lamppost, because the light is better there. Similarly, the concentration ratio is something that can be measured, and does tell us something about whether the default fund is sized correctly, but it doesn’t tell us very much. It is not a sufficient statistic, and may not even be a very revealing one. And how revealing it is may differ substantially between CCPs, because the tail dependence structures of members may vary across them.

In sum, the G-G paper is very careful, and precisely identifies crucial factors that determine the relative private costs of cleared vs. bilateral trading, and how regulations (e.g., capital requirements) affect these costs. But this is only remotely related to the question that we would like to answer, which is what are the social costs of alternative arrangements? The implicit assumption is that the social costs of clearing are lower, and therefore a regulatory structure which favors bilateral trading is problematic. But this assumes facts not in evidence, and ones that are highly questionable. Further, the paper (inadvertently) points out a troubling reality that should have been more widely recognized long ago (as Mark Roe and I have been arguing for years now): the private benefits of cleared vs. bilateral trading are driven by which offers the greatest netting benefit, which also just so happens to generate the biggest risk transfer to those outside the model. This is a truly systemic effect, but is almost always ignored.

In these models that focus on a subset of the financial system, netting is always a feature. In the financial system at large, it can be a bug. Would that the OFR started to investigate that issue.

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July 30, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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July 6, 2016

Brexit: Breaking the Cartel of Nations. Could Position Limits Be a Harbinger?

Filed under: Clearing,Commodities,Derivatives,Economics,Politics,Regulation — The Professor @ 7:50 pm

One of the ideas that I floated in my first post-Brexit post was that freed from some of the EU’s zanier regulations, it could compete by offering a saner regulatory environment. One of the specific examples I gave was position limits, for as bad as the US position limit proposal is, it pales in comparison to the awfulness of the EU version. And lo and behold! Position limits are first on the list of things to be trimmed, and the FCA appears to be on board with this:

Britain-based commodity exchanges may have some leeway in the way they manage large positions after the UK exits the European Union, but they will still have to comply with EU rules from 2018, experts say.

Position limits, a way of controlling how much of an individual commodity trading firms can hold, are being introduced for the first time in the Markets in Financial Instruments Directive II (MiFID II) from January 2018.

Britain voted to leave the EU last month, but its exit has to be negotiated with the remaining 27 members, a process that is meant to be completed within two years of triggering a formal legal process.

“It is too early to say what any new UK regime will look like particularly given pressure for equivalence,” James Maycock, a director at KPMG, said, referring to companies having to prove that rules in their home countries are equivalent to those in the EU.

“But UK commodity trading venues may have more flexibility in setting position limits if they are not subject to MiFID II.”

. . . .

Britain’s Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) said in a statement after the Brexit vote that firms should continue to prepare for EU rules. But it has previously expressed doubts about position limits on all commodity contracts.

“We do not believe that it is necessary, as MiFID II requires, to have position limits for every single one of the hundreds of commodity derivatives contracts traded in Europe. Including the least significant,” said Tracey McDermott, former acting chief executive at the FCA in February this year.

“And I know there are concerns, frankly, that the practical details of position reporting were not adequately thought through in the negotiations on the framework legislation.”

Here’s hoping.

This could explain a major driver behind the Eurogarchs intense umbrage at Brexit. Competition from the UK, particularly in the financial sector, will provide a serious brake on some of the EU’s more dirigiste endeavors. This is especially true in financial/capital markets because capital is extremely mobile. Further, I conjecture that Europe needs The City more than The City needs Europe. Hollande and others in Europe are talking about walling off the EU’s financial markets from perfidious Albion, but the most likely outcome of this is to create a continental financial ghetto or gulag, A Prison of Banks.

If financial protectionism of the type Hollande et al dream of could work, French, German and Dutch bankers should be dancing jigs right now. But they seem to be the most despondent and outraged at Brexit.

A (somewhat tangential) remark. Another reason for taking umbrage is that the UK has served as a safety valve for European workers looking to escape the dysfunctional continental labor markets. This is especially true for many younger, high skill/high education French, Germans, etc. (especially the French). With the safety valve cut off, there will be more angry people putting pressure on European governments.

This could be a good thing, if it forces the Euros (especially the French) to loosen up their growth-and-employment-sapping labor laws. But in the short to medium term, it means more political ferment, which the Euro elite doesn’t like one bit.

This all leads to a broader point. Cooperation is a double edged sword. The EU’s main selling point is that intra-European cooperation has led to a reduction in trade barriers that has increased competition in European goods markets. But the EU has also functioned as a Cartel of Nations that has restricted competition on many dimensions.

I note that one major international cooperative effort spearheaded by the Europeans is the attempt to reduce and perhaps eliminate competition between nations on tax. “Tax harmonization” sounds so Zen, but it really means cutting off any means of escape from the depredations of the state. But tax is just one area where governments don’t like to compete with one another. Much regulatory harmonization and coordination and imposed uniformity is intended to reduce inter-state competition that limits the ability of governments to redistribute rents.

This is one reason to believe that Britain’s exit will have some big upsides, not just for the UK but for Europe generally. It will invigorate competition between jurisdictions that statists hate. And it is precisely these upsides which send the dirigistes into paroxysms of anger and despair. Feel their pain, and rejoice in it.

 

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June 30, 2016

Financial Network Topology and Women of System: A Dangerous Combination

Filed under: Clearing,Derivatives,Economics,Financial crisis,Politics,Regulation — The Professor @ 7:43 pm

Here’s a nice article by Robert Henderson in the science magazine Nautilus which poses the question: “Can topology prevent the next financial crisis?” My short answer: No.  A longer answer–which I sketch out below–is that a belief that it can is positively dangerous.

The idea behind applying topology to the financial system is that financial firms are interconnected in a network, and these connections can be represented in a network graph that can be studied. At least theoretically, if you model the network formally, you can learn its properties–e.g., how stable is it? will it survive certain shocks?–and perhaps figure out how to make the network better.

Practically, however, this is an illustration of the maxim that a little bit of knowledge is a dangerous thing.

Most network modeling has focused on counterparty credit connections between financial market participants. This research has attempted to quantify these connections and graph the network, and ascertain how the network responds to certain shocks (e.g., the bankruptcy of a particular node), and how a reconfigured network would respond to these shocks.

There are many problems with this. One major problem–which I’ve been on about for years, and which I am quoted about in the Nautilus piece–is that counterparty credit exposure is only one type of many connections in the financial network: liquidity is another source of interconnection. Furthermore, these network models typically ignore the nature of the connections between nodes. In the real world, nodes can be tightly coupled or loosely coupled. The stability features of tightly and loosely connected networks can be very different even if their topologies are identical.

As a practical example, not only does mandatory clearing change the topology of a network, it also changes the tightness of the coupling through the imposition of rigid variation margining. Tighter coupling can change the probability of the failure of connections, and the circumstances under which these failures occur.

Another problem is that models frequently leave out some participants. As another practical example, network models of derivatives markets include the major derivatives counterparties, and find that netting reduces the likelihood of a cascade of defaults within that network. But netting achieves this by redistributing the losses to other parties who are not explicitly modeled. As a result, the model is incomplete, and gives an incomplete understanding of the full effects of netting.

Thus, any network model is inherently a very partial one, and is therefore likely to be a very poor guide to understanding the network in all its complexity.

The limitations of network models of financial markets remind me of the satirical novel Flatland, where the inhabitants of Pointland, Lineland, and Flatland are flummoxed by higher-dimensional objects. A square finds it impossible to conceptualize a sphere, because he only observes the circular section as it passes through his plane. But in financial markets the problem is much greater because the dimensionality is immense, the objects are not regular and unchanging (like spheres) but irregular and constantly changing on many dimensions and time scales (e.g., nodes enter and exit or combine, nodes can expand or contract, and the connections between them change minute to minute).

This means that although network graphs may help us better understand certain aspects of financial markets, they are laughably limited as a guide to policy aimed at reengineering the network.

But frighteningly, the Nautilus article starts out with a story of Janet Yellen comparing a network graph of the uncleared CDS market (analogized to a tangle of yarn) with a much simpler graph of a hypothetical cleared market. Yellen thought it was self-evident that the simple cleared market was superior:

Yellen took issue with her ball of yarn’s tangles. If the CDS network were reconfigured to a hub-and-spoke shape, Yellen said, it would be safer—and this has been, in fact, one thrust of post-crisis financial regulation. The efficiency and simplicity of Kevin Bacon and Lowe’s Hardware is being imposed on global derivative trading.

 

God help us.

Rather than rushing to judgment, a la Janet, I would ask: “why did the network form in this way?” I understand perfectly that there is unlikely to be an invisible hand theorem for networks, whereby the independent and self-interested actions of actors results in a Pareto optimal configuration. There are feedbacks and spillovers and non-linearities. As a result, the concavity that drives the welfare theorems is notably absent. An Olympian economist is sure to identify “market failure,” and be mightily displeased.

But still, there is optimizing behavior going on, and connections are formed and nodes enter and exit and grow and shrink in response to profit signals that are likely to reflect costs and benefits, albeit imperfectly. Before rushing in to change the network, I’d like to understand much better why it came to be the way it is.

We have only rudimentary understanding of how network configurations develop. Yes, models that specify simple rules of interaction between nodes can be simulated to produce networks that differ substantially from random networks. These models can generate features like the small world property. But it is a giant leap to go from that, to understanding something as huge, complex, and dynamic as a financial system. This is especially true given that there are adjustment costs that give rise to hysteresis and path-dependence, as well as shocks that give rise to changes.

Further, let’s say that the Olympian economist Yanet Jellen establishes that the existing network is inefficient according to some criterion (not that I would even be able to specify that criterion, but work with me here). What policy could she adopt that would improve the performance of the network, let alone make it optimal?

The very features–feedbacks, spillovers, non-linearities–that can create suboptimality  also make it virtually impossible to know how any intervention will affect that network, for better or worse, under the myriad possible states in which that network must operate.  Networks are complex and emergent and non-linear. Changes to one part of the network (or changes to the the way that agents who interact to create the network must behave and interact) can have impossible to predict effects throughout the entire network. Small interventions can lead to big changes, but which ones? Who knows? No one can say “if I change X, the network configuration will change to Y.” I would submit that it is impossible even to determine the probability distribution of configurations that arise in response to policy X.

In the language of the Nautilus article, it is delusional to think that simplicity can be “imposed on” a complex system like the financial market. The network has its own emergent logic, which passeth all understanding. The network will respond in a complex way to the command to simplify, and the outcome is unlikely to be the simple one desired by the policymaker.

In natural systems, there are examples where eliminating or adding a single species may have little effect on the network of interactions in the food web. Eliminating one species may just open a niche that is quickly filled by another species that does pretty much the same thing as the species that has disappeared. But eliminating a single species can also lead to a radical change in the food web, and perhaps its complete collapse, due to the very complex interactions between species.

There are similar effects in a financial system. Let’s say that Yanet decides that in the existing network there is too much credit extended between nodes by uncollateralized derivatives contracts: the credit connections could result in cascading failures if one big node goes bankrupt. So she bans such credit. But the credit was performing some function that was individually beneficial for the nodes in the network. Eliminating this one kind of credit creates a niche that other kinds of credit could fill, and profit-motivated agents have the incentive to try to create it, so a substitute fills the vacated niche. The end result: the network doesn’t change much, the amount of credit and its basic features don’t change much, and the performance of the network doesn’t change much.

But it could be that the substitute forms of credit, or the means used to eliminate the disfavored form of credit (e.g., requiring clearing of derivatives), fundamentally change the network in ways that affect its performance, or at least can do so in some states of the world. For example, it make the network more tightly coupled, and therefore more vulnerable to precipitous failure.

The simple fact is that anybody who thinks they know what is going to happen is dangerous, because they are messing with something that is very powerful that they don’t even remotely understand, or understand how it will change in response to meddling.

Hayek famously said “the curious task of economics is to demonstrate to men how little they really know about what they imagine they can design.” Tragically, too many (and arguably a large majority of) economists are the very antithesis of what Hayek says that they should be. They imagine themselves to be designers, and believe they know much more than they really do.

Janet Yellen is just one example, a particularly frightening one given that she has considerable power to implement the designs she imagines. Rather than being the Hayekian economist putting the brake on ham-fisted interventions into poorly understood symptoms, she is far closer to Adam Smith’s “Man of System”:

The man of system, on the contrary, is apt to be very wise in his own conceit; and is often so enamoured with the supposed beauty of his own ideal plan of government, that he cannot suffer the smallest deviation from any part of it. He goes on to establish it completely and in all its parts, without any regard either to the great interests, or to the strong prejudices which may oppose it. He seems to imagine that he can arrange the different members of a great society with as much ease as the hand arranges the different pieces upon a chess-board. He does not consider that the pieces upon the chess-board have no other principle of motion besides that which the hand impresses upon them; but that, in the great chess-board of human society, every single piece has a principle of motion of its own, altogether different from that which the legislature might chuse to impress upon it. If those two principles coincide and act in the same direction, the game of human society will go on easily and harmoniously, and is very likely to be happy and successful. If they are opposite or different, the game will go on miserably, and the society must be at all times in the highest degree of disorder.

When there are Men (or Women!) of System about, and the political system gives them free rein, analytical tools like topology can be positively dangerous. They make some (unjustifiably) wise in their own conceit, and give rise to dreams of Systems that they attempt to implement, when in fact their knowledge is shockingly superficial, and implementing their Systems is likely to create the highest degree of disorder.

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June 29, 2016

Will the EU Cut Off Its Nose to Spite Its Face on Clearing, Banking & Finance?

Filed under: Clearing,Commodities,Derivatives,Economics,Exchanges,Politics,Regulation — The Professor @ 7:45 pm

French President Francois Hollande is demanding that clearing of Euro derivatives take place in the Eurozone. Last year the European Central Bank had attempted to require this, claiming that it could not be expected to provide liquidity to a non-Eurozone CCP like London-based LCH.

The ECB lost that case in a European court, but now sees an opportunity to prevail post-Brexit, when London will be not just non-Eurozone, but non-EU. Hollande is cheerleading that effort.

It is rather remarkable to see the ECB, which was only able to rescue European banks desperate for dollar funding during the crisis because of the provision of $300 billion in swap lines from the Fed, claiming that it can’t supply € liquidity to a non-Eurozone entity. How about swap lines with the BoE, which could then provide support to LCH if necessary. Or is the ECB all take, and no give?

Hollande (and other Europeans) are likely acting partly out of protectionist motives, to steal business for continental entities from London (and perhaps the US). But Hollande was also quite upfront about the punitive, retaliatory, and exemplary nature of this move:

“The City, which thanks to the EU, was able to handle clearing operations for the eurozone, will not be able to do them,” he said. “It can serve as an example for those who seek the end of Europe . . . It can serve as a lesson.” [Emphasis added.]

That will teach perfidious Albion for daring to leave the EU! Anyone else harboring such thoughts, take note!

The FT article does not indicate the location of M. Hollande’s nose, for he obviously just cut it off to spite his face.

In a more serious vein, this is no doubt part of the posturing that we will see ad nauseum in the next two plus years while the terms of the UK’s departure are negotiated. Stock up with supplies, because this is going to take a while, since (1) everything is negotiable, (2) almost all negotiations go to the brink of the deadline, or beyond, and (3) these negotiations will be particularly complicated because the Eurogarchs will be conducting them with an eye on how the outcome affects the calculations of other EU members contemplating following Britain out the door–and because immigration issues will loom over the negotiations.

When evaluating a negotiation, it’s best to start with the optimal, surplus maximizing “Coasean bargain” (a term which Coase actually didn’t like, but it is widely used). This, as Elon Musk would say, is a no brainer: allow € clearing in London, through LCH. That is, a maintenance of the status quo.

What are the alternatives? One would be that € clearing for those subject to EU regulation and some non-EU firms would take place in the Eurozone (say Paris or Frankfurt), some € clearing might take place in London or the US, and most dollar and other non-€ clearing would take place in London and the US.  This would require the EU to permit its banks to clear economically in the UK or US, by granting equivalence to non-EU CCPs for non-€ trades, or something similar.

There are several inefficiencies here. First, it would fragment netting sets and increase the probability that one CCP goes bust. For instance, if a bank that is a member of an EU and a non-EU CCP (as would almost certainly be the case of the large European banks that do business in all major currencies) defaulted, it is possible that it could have a loss on its € deals and a gain on its non-€ deals (or vice versa). If those were cleared in a single CCP, the gain and loss could be offset, thereby reducing the CCP’s loss, and perhaps resulting in no loss to the CCP at all: this is what happened with Lehman at the CME, where losses on some of its positions were greater than collateral, but losses on others were smaller, and the total loss was less than total collateral. However, if the business was split, one of the CCPs could suffer a loss that could potentially put it in jeopardy, or force members to stump up additional contributions to the default fund during a time when they are financially stressed.

Second, default management would be more difficult, risky and costly if split across two or more CCPs. It would be easier to put in place dirty hedges for a broader portfolio than two narrower ones, and to allocate or auction off a combined portfolio than fragmented ones. Moreover, it would be necessary to coordinate default management across CCPs in a situation where their interests are not completely aligned, and indeed, where interests may be strongly in conflict. Furthermore, there would be duplication of personnel, as CCP members would be required to dispatch people to two different CCPs to manage the default.

Third, even during “peacetime,” fragmented clearing would sacrifice collateral and capital efficiencies and increase operational costs and complexity.

But it could be worse! Maybe the Europeans will cut off their noses and ears (and maybe some other parts lower down), and deny a UK CCP equivalence for any transaction undertaken by an EU bank. The outcome would be EU banks clearing in Europe, and most everybody else clearing outside of Europe. This would result in multiple inefficiently small CCPs clearing in all currencies that would exacerbate all of the negative consequences just outlined: netting set inefficiencies would be even worse, default risk management even more difficult, and peacetime collateral, capital, and operational efficiencies would be even worse.

Oh, and this alternative would require the ECB to obtain dollar and sterling (and other currency) liquidity lines to allow it to provide non-€ liquidity to its precious little CCP. How hypocritical is that? (Not that hypocrisy would cost Hollande et al any sleep. It hasn’t yet.)

The fact is that CCPs exhibit strong economies of scale and scope, and although mega-CCPs concentrate risk, fragmentation creates its own special problems.

So the wealth-maximizing outcome would be for the EU to come to an accommodation on central clearing that would effectively perpetuate the pre-Brexit status quo. Wealth maximization exercises a strong pull, meaning that this is the most likely outcome, although there will likely be a lot of posturing, bluffing, threatening, etc., before this outcome is achieved (and at the last minute).

I would expect that EU banks would support the Coasean bargain, further increasing its political viability. Yes, Deutsche Borse would be pushing for a EU-centric outcome, and some Europols would take pride at having their own (sub-scale and/or sub-scope) CCP, but the greater cost and risk imposed on banks would almost certainly induce them to put heavy pressure behind a status quo-preserving deal.

This raises the issue of negotiation of banking and capital market issues more generally. There has been a lot of attention paid to the fact that British banks would probably lose passporting rights into the EU post-exit, and this would be costly for them. But European banks actually rely even more on passporting to get access to London. Since London is still almost certain to remain the dominant financial center (especially since the UK government will have a tremendous incentive to facilitate that), European banks would suffer as much or more than UK ones if the passporting system was eliminated (and a close substitute was not created).

Thus, if the negotiations were only about clearing, banking, and capital markets, mutual self-interest (and political economy, given the huge influence of the finance sector on policymakers) would strongly favor a deal that would largely maintain the status quo. But of course the negotiations are not about these issues alone. As I’ve already noted, the EU may try to punish the British even if it also takes a hit because of the effect this might have on the calculations of others who might bolt from the Union.

Furthermore, the most contentious issue–immigration–is very much in play. Merkel, Hollande, and others have said that to obtain a Norway-style relationship with the EU, the UK would have to agree to unlimited movement of people. But that issue is the one that drove the Leave vote, and agreeing to this would be viewed as a gutting of the referendum, and a betrayal. It will be hard for the UK to agree to that.

Perhaps even this could be finessed if the EU secured its borders, but Merkel’s insanity on this issue (and the insanity of other Eurogarchs) makes this unlikely, short of a populist political explosion within the EU. But if that happens, negotiations between the EU and the UK will likely be moot, because there won’t be much of the EU left to negotiate with, or worth negotiating with.

In sum, if it were only about banking and clearing, economic self-interest would lead all parties to avoid mutually destructive protectionism in these areas. But highly emotional issues, political power, and personal pride are also present, and in spades. Thus, I am reluctant to bet much on the consummation of the economically efficient deal on financial issues. The financial sector is just one bargaining chip in a very big game.

 

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June 25, 2016

Brexit: Epater les Eurogarchs

Confounding all elite prognostication (more on this aspect below), British voters repudiated their self-anointed better-thans and voted to leave the EU.

Market reaction was swift and brutal. The pound sold off dramatically, as did UK stocks. Interestingly, though, Continental stock markets fell substantially more. Bank stocks took the brunt. Volatility indices spiked. Oil was down modestly.

These reactions were not due, in my view, to the direct effect of a British exit from the EU, via conventional channels (e.g., increased costs of trade resulting in inefficiencies and a decline in productivity due to failure to exploit comparative advantage, resulting in a decline in incomes). Instead, they reflect a substantial increase in risk, and in particular geopolitical risk. The unexpected result increases substantially the odds of a falling apart of the EU–or at the very least, of it losing quite a few of its parts. That’s why German, French, and Dutch markets sold off more than the UK.

I was in Denmark last month, speaking to shipowners. Several said that if the UK were to leave the EU, Denmark is likely to go as well: since Denmark is not on the Euro, it is easier for it to leave than Eurozone nations, and the Danes have had their fill of European immigration policy, among other things.

But there is now talk of core countries–including France–leaving. What’s more, the Brexit vote demonstrates the depth and intensity of populist, nationalist sentiment, something the elites had convinced themselves was a marginal force that could be contained by insulting it as racist and isolationist. That was tried in the UK, and failed spectacularly. Now everyone should be on notice that the smug, supercilious, and superior are sitting on a caldera.

It is this fear that the British departure creates a bad precedent that is leading some European leaders to advocate a punitive approach to negotiations with Britain. As a one-off, this makes no sense: a battle of trade barriers and regulations and red tape would harm continentals too. But if the Euros view this as a repeated game, punishment of the British to deter others from getting any notions in their heads about following their lead has some appeal.

But this is a finite game: there are only so many countries in Europe. The Euro threats make sense as a rational strategy only if there is some appreciably probability that the leadership is viewed as crazy, and will punish even when that is self-harming. Come to think of it . . .

As for the immediate effects, Brexit has the biggest potential to cause disruptions and inefficiencies in the financial sector, because of London’s dominance. Clearing is one example. How will LCH fit into the fragmented regulatory landscape? Recall the tortuous negotiations between the US and EU over recognizing each other’s CCPs. Will that have to be repeated between the UK and the EU, and under the clouds of recrimination and punishment strategies? As another example, MiFID II is scheduled to go into effect before Britain leaves. Will it be implemented, then changed? Post-exit British firms will no longer be subject to the regulatory and judicial bodies in charge of enforcing these regulations: how will they fill that breach?

Regardless of the specifics, there will inevitably be greater regulatory and legal fragmentation, and this will increase complexity and cost. But it also creates opportunities. The UK can now engage in regulatory competition with the EU (and the US), which is a different thing altogether from trying to influence regulatory policy from inside the tent (which Cameron attempted with a notable lack of success). This is constrained to some degree by supranational regulation (e.g., Basel), but London prospered quite well as a financial center post-War, pre-EU by offering regulatory advantages over the US and European countries. (Remember Eurodollars!) (One specific thought: would the UK proceed with something as inane and costly as the MiFID commodity position limits? Or applying CRD IV capital requirements on commodity traders? Since these initiatives were driven by the continentals, I seriously doubt it.)

This is all very complicated, and will be played out in the context of a larger game between Britain and the EU (and between the EU and individual EU countries). Hence the outcome is wholly unpredictable. But having Britain as an independent player will change dramatically the regulatory game. The greater competition is likely to result in less regulation, and crucially less stupid regulation. Further, even to the extent that one jurisdiction insists on stupid regulations (with the EU being the odds-on favorite here), the existence of competing jurisdictions means that many will be able to escape the stupidity.

As for the broader political lesson here, it is a decisive repudiation of a self-satisfied soi disant elite by the great unwashed. The EU has been neuralgic about democracy since its inception, and Brexit shows you exactly why their fears of it are justified. The people have spoken. The bastards. And the Euros will try mightily to make sure that never ever happens again.

There’s been a lot of commentary along these lines. Gerard Baker’s piece in the WSJ is probably the best I’ve read. This piece also from the WSJ is pretty good too.

This is a global phenomenon: the Trump insurgency in the US is another example. What is most disturbing–and most revealing–about the reaction of the elites to these outbursts of popular opposition to their direction and instruction is their lack of self-examination and humility, and their immediate resort to scorn and insult directed at those who had the temerity to defy them. Immediately after the results were clear, those voting leave were tarred as old/white/stupid/poor/uneducated/racist.

Totally lacking was the question: “If argument and evidence are so clearly on our side, why did we fail so miserably in convincing people of the obvious?” To these self-perceived elites, their superiority is self-evident and any opposition can only be attributed to mental defect or bad faith.

Not only is this superficial and immature–nay, juvenile and narcissistic–it is amazingly self-destructive. You were rejected because it was widely believed–with good reason–that you were aloof, condescending, and lacking in understanding of and empathy for the concerns of millions of people not of your social set. What better way to cement that reputation than by proceeding to piss all over those people? You think that will help them get their minds right, and vote for you next time? Think that, and you truly are delusional.

And mark well: this elite condescension is not heard just in the Midlands, but it comes through loud and clear in France, Germany, the Netherlands, and other countries in Europe. Consequently, this reaction actually increases the odds of an EU crisis. Those who refuse to respond constructively and thoughtfully to adverse feedback are likely to see things get worse, rather than better.

This condescension also helps explain the surprise at the Brexit outcome. So convinced of their virtue and intelligence, the Remain side could not comprehend that large numbers of people could take the opposite side. Secure in their bubble, talking only to one another, they had no idea of what was going on outside it. The Pauline Kael effect, with a British accent.

Further, the concerted effort in the establishment media to malign the Leavers succeeded in silencing many of them–but not in changing their minds. (Most disturbingly, the Remain side took strange comfort in the murder of Jo Cox.) They were bludgeoned into stubborn silence, which lulled the establishment into believing that the opposition was marginal and marginalized: this helps explain the pre-vote 90 percent betting odds on Remain, with the betting being dominated by those inside the bubble. But the silent bided their time and exacted their revenge.

Payback, as they say, is a bitch. But are the elites learning from this lesson? The first indications are negative.

The EU epitomizes what Thomas Sowell referred to as the Vision of the Anointed. This review summarizes the book of that title well, and although Sowell focuses on the US, what he said applies in spades to the EU, and Europhiles:

In The Vision of the Anointed, the distinguished economist and social theorist Thomas Sowell makes an important contribution to classical-liberal and conservative thought by scrutinizing the ways in which a self-consciously elite, or “anointed,” group uses ideas to maintain its power in American political life. Sowell regards American political discourse as dominated by people who are sure that they know what is good for society and who think that the good must be attained by expanded government action. This modern-liberal elite exerts its influence through institutions that live by words: the universities and public schools, the media, the liberal clergy, the bar and bench. Its dominance results from its command of the information that words convey and the attitudes that words inspire.

People who live by words should live also by arguments, butas Sowell richly documentsthe modern-liberal elite is not so good at arguing as it is at finding substitutes for argument. Sowell analyzes the major substitutes. Suppose that you doubt the necessity or usefulness of some great new government program. You may first be presented with a quantity of decontextualized “facts” and abused statistics, all indicating the existence of a “crisis” that only government can resolve. If you are not converted by this show of evidence, an attempt will probably be made to shift the viewpoint: outsiders may doubt that there is a crisis of, say, homelessness, but “spokesmen for the homeless” purportedly have no doubts.

. . . .

If even these methods fail to win you over, attention will be redirected from the political issue to your own failure of imagination or morality. It will be insinuated that people like you are simplistic or perversely opposed to change, lacking in compassion and allied with the “forces of greed.” (As Sowell observes, it is always the payers rather than the spenders of taxes who are considered vulnerable to the charge of greed.) [Emphasis added.]

The Anointed are a self-identified elite. They think that elite is a synonym for “meritorious,” “intelligent,” “wise,” or “morally superior.” But “elite” refers first and foremost to a place in a hierarchy, and the merit, intelligence, wisdom, and morality of those at the top of a hierarchy depends on the system. Hayek noted over 70 years ago that in a statist, crypto-socialist system the worst get to the top, i.e., the elite is a collection of the worst. The Eurogarchy shows just how right Hayek was.

For all the paeans sung to it, the EU has become far more than a means of reducing barriers to the flow of goods, capital, and people: that could have been accomplished with something as simple as the commerce clause to the US Constitution. Instead, the Anointed have constructed a vast hyper-state that controls and regulates every aspect of commercial activity, and much beyond. Cost raising and incentive sapping explicit restrictions on trade and investment across historical borders have been replaced by border-spanning onerous and minute regulations that raise costs and dull incentives: innovation has been especially hard hit. Moribund growth in the post-crisis EU should raise questions, but the Eurogarchs plunge ahead with their vast regulatory schemes.

I would approve of a supra-national organization that reduced the impediments to individuals consummating mutually beneficial bargains and exchanges. But that is not what the EU is. It is a dirigiste organization predicated on the belief that a technocratic elite knows better, and can direct and guide far more effectively than the invisible hand. Although its demise could lead to something worse, there are definitely better alternatives. Hence, the discomfort of the EU worshippers is music to my ears.

European leaders–Merkel most notably–are fond of saying “More Europe,” meaning more centralization and more suppression of local control. If they want Europe to survive as a political entity, they need to reverse their mantra to “Less Europe.” They need to reverse the creation of a hyper-state. They need to be more respectful of local, national sentiments and differences. Brexit shows that if they fail to do so, they are running the serious risk of having no “Europe” at all.

Are they heeding the lesson? Early signs suggest no. So be it. They are reaping what they sowed, and if they decide to sow more, so shall they reap.

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June 15, 2016

Where’s the CFTC’s Head AT?: Fools Rush in Where Angels Fear to Tread

Filed under: Commodities,Derivatives,Economics,Exchanges,Financial crisis,HFT,Regulation — The Professor @ 1:07 pm

The CFTC is currently considering Regulation AT (for Automated Trading). It is the Commission’s attempt to get a handle on HFT and algorithmic trading.

By far the most controversial aspect of the proposed regulation is the CFTC’s demand that algo traders provide the Commission with their source code. Given the sensitivity of this information, algo/HFT firms are understandably freaking out over this demand.

Those concerns are certainly legitimate. But what I want to ask is: what’s the point? What can the Commission actually accomplish?

The Commission argues that by reviewing source code, it can identify possible coding errors that could lead to “disruptive events” like the 2013 Knight Capital fiasco. Color me skeptical, for at least two reasons.

First, I seriously doubt that the CFTC can attract people with the coding skill necessary to track down errors in trading algorithms, or can devote the time necessary. Reviewing the code of others is a difficult task, usually harder than writing the code in the first place; the code involved here is very complex and changes frequently; and the CFTC is unlikely to be able devote the resources necessary for a truly effective review. Further, who has the stronger incentive? A firm that can be destroyed by a coding error, or some GS-something? (The prospect of numerous individuals perusing code creates the potential for a misappropriation of intellectual property which is what really has the industry exercised.) Not to mention that if you really have the chops to code trading algos, you’ll work for a prop shop or Citadel or Goldman or whomever and make much more than a government salary.

Second, and more substantively, reviewing individual trading algorithms in isolation is of limited value in determining their potentially disruptive effects. These individual algorithms are part of a complex system, in the technical/scientific meaning of the term. These individual pieces interact with one another, and create feedback mechanisms. Algo A takes inputs from market data that is produced in part by Algos B, C, D, E, etc. Based on these inputs, Algo A takes actions (e.g., enters or cancels orders), and Algos B, C, D, E, etc., react. Algo A reacts to those reactions, and on and on.

These feedbacks can be non-linear. Furthermore, the dimensionality of this problem is immense. Basically, an algo says if the state of the market is X, do Y. Evaluating algos in toto, the state of the market can include the current and past order books of every product, as well as the past order books (both explicitly as a condition in some algorithms, or implicitly through the empirical analysis that the developers use to find profitable trading rules based on historical market information), as well as market news. This state changes continuously.

Given this dimensionality and feedback-driven complexity, evaluating trading algorithms in isolation is a fools errand. Stability depends on how the algorithms interact. You cannot determine the stability of an emergent order, or its vulnerability to disruption, by looking at the individual components.

And since humans are still part of the trading ecosystem, how software interacts with meatware matters too. Fat finger problems are one example, but just normal human reactions to market developments can be destabilizing. This is true when all of the actors are human: it’s also true when some are human and some are algorithmic.

Look at the Flash Crash. Even in retrospect it has proven impossible to establish definitively the chain of events that precipitated it and caused it to unfold the way that it did. How is it possible to evaluate prospectively the stability of a system under a vastly larger set of possible states than those that existed on the day of the Flash Crash?

These considerations mean that  the CFTC–or any regulator–has little ability to improve system stability even if given access to the complete details of important parts of that system. But it’s potentially worse than that. Ill-advised changes to pieces of the system can make it less stable.

This is because in complex systems, attempts to improve the safety of individual components of the system can actually increase the probability of system failure.

In sum, markets are complex systems/emergent orders. The effects of changes to parts of these systems are highly unpredictable. Furthermore, it is difficult, and arguably impossible, to predict how changes to individual pieces of the system will affect the behavior of the system as a whole under all possible contingencies, especially given the vastness of the set of contingencies.

Based on this reality, we should be very chary about letting any regulator attempt to micromanage pieces of this complex system. Indeed, any regulator should be reluctant to undertake this task. But regulators frequently overestimate their competence, and financial regulators have proven time and again that they really don’t understand that they are dealing with a complex system/emergent order that does not respond to their interventions in the way that they intend. But fools rush in where angels fear to tread, and if the Commission persists in its efforts to become the Commissar of Code, it will be playing the fool–and it will not just be algo traders that pay the price.

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June 12, 2016

Squeezing Dr. Copper

Filed under: Commodities,Derivatives,Economics,Exchanges,Regulation — The Professor @ 2:21 pm

Andy Home has an interesting piece in Reuters. He provides information that strongly suggests that the LME copper contract has been squeezed. All of the tell-tale signs are there:

What the exchange terms a dominant long position emerged on the copper market last week.

This player controlled 50-80 percent of all LME open stocks, excluding metal earmarked for physical load-out, and had bulked this up with cash positions to the point that its overall position represented in excess of 90 percent of all available stocks.

That position was being rolled forward daily, forcing shorts to pay the backwardation price as they too rolled their positions.

The cash premium over three-month metal, the backwardation, had flexed out as wide as $27.75 per ton the previous week as the long tightened its grip on the London market’s nearby date structure.

Someone, it seems, was not prepared to pay the roll price and decided to deliver physical metal against their position. [LME stocks rose almost 40 percent in a few days.]

And they did so in a way to generate the maximum bang for their buck.

It seems to have worked.

That cash premium has evaporated. As of Thursday’s close, the cash-to-three-months spread was valued at $15 per ton contango.

The ripple effects have spread down the curve, LME broker Marex Spectron noting that the July-December spread eased $10 to $35 per ton contango over the course of Thursday.

The latest positioning reports, denoting the state of play as of Wednesday’s close, show the dominant long still holding 50-80 percent of stocks <0#LME-WHL> but with no equivalent cash position <0#LME-WHC>.

All the signs are there: a large long position, here both in physical metal and prompt LME contracts; a spike in the backwardation; a movement of metal into deliverable position; followed by a collapse in the backwardation. Also, the large long apparently liquidated the bulk of his position in LME contracts, as is necessary to profit. Right out of the book.

These episodes are chronic in the commodity markets, and on the LME in particular. They impose real deadweight losses (the costly movement of copper into LME warehouses being an example), and undermine the effectiveness of derivatives contracts as a hedging mechanism. Would that regulators pursued this conduct more vigorously, rather than obsessing over spoofing games, or chasing the “excessive speculation” will-o-the-wisp.

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June 8, 2016

The CFTC Puts a Little Less Rat In It

Filed under: Commodities,Derivatives,Economics,Energy,Exchanges,Politics,Regulation — The Professor @ 7:10 pm

A couple of weeks ago the CFTC voted to revise its position limits regulation. My verdict: it makes the regulation less bad. Sort of like a strawberry tart, without so much rat in it.

The most important part of the revision is to permit exchanges and SEFs to recognize certain non-enumerated hedges as bona fide hedges that don’t count towards the position limit. In the original proposal, only eight hedges were enumerated, and only enumerated hedges were treated as bona fide hedges.

This drew substantial criticism from industry, particularly from end users, because the list of enumerated hedges was quite limited, and failed to incorporate many commonly utilized risk management strategies. Thus, more participants were at risk of being constrained by position limits, even though their purpose for trading was primarily to manage risk.

The CFTC’s fix was to permit market participants to apply annually to an exchange (“designated contract market”) or SEF for a non-enumerated bona fide hedge. The participant submits information about the hedging strategy to the exchange or SEF, which reviews it and determines whether it meets the criteria for bona fide hedges and grants an exemption for positions entered pursuant to this strategy.

This does help hedgers escape limits intended to constrain speculators. But the review process isn’t free. Moreover, the process of application and approval will take some time, which limits the flexibility of market participants. They have to foresee the kinds of strategies they would like to employ well in advance of actually implementing them.

At most this mitigates a harm, and at a cost. The speculative position limit provides no discernible benefit in terms of market stability or manipulation prevention (for which there are superior substitutes), but imposes a heavy compliance burden on all market users, even those who would almost certainly never be constrained by the limit. Moreover, the rule constrains risk transfer, thereby undermining one of the primary purposes of futures and swap markets. The bona fide hedging rule as originally proposed would have constrained risk transfer further, so basically expanding the universe of bona fide hedges removes a piece of rat or two from the tart. But it’s still appalling.

The revision also clarifies the definition of bona fide hedge, eliminating the “incidental test” and the “orderly trading requirement.” As currently proposed, to be a bona fide hedge, a position must reduce price risk. (I deliberately chose that particular link for reasons that I might be at liberty to share sometime.) That is, it cannot be used to manage other risks such as logistics or default risks. This is what the statute says, and was the way that the old regulation 1.3(z)(1) was written and interpreted.

Perhaps the most important result of this process is that it stands as a rebuke to Elizabeth Warren for the calumnies and slanders she heaped upon the Energy and Environmental Markets Advisor Committee, and me personally. One of the main complaints of participants in the EEMAC meetings was that the bona fide hedging rule as originally proposed was unduly restrictive. I dutifully recorded those complaints in the report that I wrote, which caused Senator Warren to lose it. (I cleaned that up. Reluctantly.) (The report is circulating in samizdat form. I will find a link and post.)

Well, apparently all of the Commissioners, including two strong supporters of the position limit rule, Massad and Bowen, found the criticisms persuasive and, to their credit, responded constructively to them. So, Liz, if supporting a broadening of bona fide position limits makes one an industry whore, that epithet applies to the Democratic appointees on the Commission. I presume you will take it up with them in your tempered, reasoned way.

But I note that Ms. Warren has been notably silent on the Commission’s action. Go figure.

It is now likely that the position limit rule will finally slouch its way into the rulebook. This is unfortunate. All that can be said is that due to this action it isn’t as bad as it could have been, and as bad as it is, it is nothing compared to the monstrosity that is being created in Europe.

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May 23, 2016

Storing Oil at a Loss? Analysis Akin to the Drunk Looking for His Keys Under the Streetlight

Filed under: Commodities,Derivatives,Economics,Energy — The Professor @ 12:48 pm

This article claims that “Oil traders are borrowing from banks to store crude at a loss.” Almost certainly not.

The calculation is based on contangos in Brent crude. But the vast bulk of the oil being stored at sea is in Singapore, and is not BFOE, from what I can gather.  This makes all the difference.

This is an example of what has long been a puzzle in economics in which futures prices in a central market (like Brent futures) are at less than full carry but inventories are held at other locations, or in non-deliverable grades (in the central market).  People are puzzled because they don’t take into account transformation costs. It would be impossible for some locations/grades to be at a carry that incentivizes holding inventory while other locations/grades are in backwardation if there are no frictions (costs) in transforming a commodity from one location to another, or from one grade to another: take the stuff out from storage in the market that is at full carry, move it to the central market that is in backwardation, and capture that backwardation (i.e., the premium for immediate consumption/delivery). But if there are frictions, the costs of transforming (e.g., shipping) the commodity to the central market may exceed the backwardation/premium for immediate delivery, making it unprofitable to make that transformation to capture that premium.

This means that a commodity that is costly to transport, or where there are bottlenecks in the logistical or refining processes, will have different forward curves at different locations (or for different grades). Where inventories are held, the price structure will cover storage costs: where the price structure doesn’t cover storage costs, inventories will not be held. Similarly, if some grades of a commodity are stored, the forward curve specific to that grade will cover storage costs.

A good example is Iranian heavy crude in the spring and summer of 2008. At a time when light sweet crudes (WTI and Brent) were in backwardation, and oil prices were reaching record highs, 14 or so supertankers of Iranian crude were swinging at anchor. Why? The demand was for light sweet crude to make low sulphur diesel to meet new European regulations: due to bottlenecks in refining in Europe (European refineries being unable to economically process heavy sour Iranian crude into LSD), there was strong demand for sweet crude that was cheap to refine into LSD, and little was in storage.  As a result,  WTI and Brent prices were high, and their futures curves were in backwardation. However, there was weaker demand for heavy sour crude because of its unsuitability for producing LSD. Also, many refineries that were optimized to process sour Iranian crude were down for maintenance. As a result, Iranian crude sold at a very large discount to WTI and Brent, and the forward price structure for that crude made it economical to store it.

Moving forward to the present, storing non-Brent crude in Asia can be economical even if time spreads do not cover the cost of storage Brent in NW Europe. Even though the lack of carry in the Brent market indicates a high demand for BFOE, the cost of transporting crude from Asia may make it uneconomical to ship it to Europe to meet the high demand for oil there. Moreover, the grades of crude being stored on tankers in Asia may not be competitive with Brent. Similarly, demand is not high enough in Asia to make it profitable to refine all of the supply there. So it is uneconomic to move it to Europe, and it is uneconomic to refine all of it. Therefore, store some of it in Asia even when Brent time spreads are narrow.

Furthermore, the apparent squeezes in Brent mean that some of the demand for it is artificial, and that Brent spreads do not reflect the competitive economics of storage. That is, if there are squeezes or even anticipations of squeezes, Brent calendar spreads are artificially high due to the exercise of market power. It is particularly misguided to use Brent spreads to evaluate the economics of non-Brent storage in this case. (The major reason that squeezes can work is that it is impossible to transform non-Brent crude into Brent.)

Oil traders operate on very thin margins. They are not going to make uneconomic trades. Period. If they are storing oil on ships in Singapore, it is because it pays to do so.

So why the claim that they are storing at a loss?

It’s like the old story of the drunk looking for his car keys under the streetlamp, because the light is better there. It is easy for outsiders to observe Brent spreads, or WTI spreads: just look at a Bloomberg screen, or even futures settlement prices. Singapore spreads, not so much. Traders search to collect information about prices and price structures in an opaque market like Singapore, and can use that to evaluate the economics of storage opportunities. But you or I or journalists or even analysts at Morgan Stanley have a far tougher time doing that.

So the outsiders look under the Brent futures streetlight, and conclude that storing oil doesn’t pay. But the oil isn’t under the streetlight. It’s being stored in the dark. And those who can see in the dark are storing it there because they can see that it pays.

 

 

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