Streetwise Professor

October 28, 2014

Convergence to Agreement With Matt Levine

Filed under: Commodities,Derivatives,Economics,Exchanges,Regulation — The Professor @ 10:10 am

Matt Levine graciously led his daily linkwrap with a response to my post on his copper column:

It’s not that hard to manipulate copper.

Craig Pirrong, who knows a lot more about commodities markets than I do [aw, shucks], objects to my take on copper. My view is sort of efficient-markets-y: If one person buys up all the copper in the LME warehouses and then tries to raise the price, the much much greater supply of copper that’s not in those warehouses will flow into the warehouses and limit his ability to do that. And I still think that’s broadly true, but broadly true may not be the point. Pirrong quite rightly points out that there’s lots of friction along the way, and the frictions may matter more than the limits in actual fact.

. . . .

So there are limits to cornering, but they may not be binding on an actual economic actor: You can’t push prices up very much, or forvery long, but you may be able to push them up high enough and for long enough to make yourself a lot of money.

I agree fully there are limits to cornering. The supply curve isn’t completely inelastic. People can divert supplies (at some cost) into deliverable position. The cornerer presents the shorts with the choice: pay me to get out of your positions, or incur the cost of making delivery. Since those delivery costs are finite, the amount the cornerer can extract is limited too.

I agree as well that corners typically elevate prices temporarily: after all, the manipulator needs to liquidate his positions in order to cash out, and as soon as that happens price relationships snap back. But that temporary period can last for some time. Weeks, sometimes more.

What’s more, when the temporary price distortions happen matters a lot. Some squeezes occur at the very end of a contract. This is what happened in Indiana Farm Bureau in 1973. A more recent example is the expiry of the October, 2008 crude oil contract, in which prices spiked hugely in the last few minutes of trading.

The economic harm of these last minute squeezes isn’t that large. There are few players in the market, most hedgers have rolled or offset, and the time frame of the price distortion is too short to cause inefficient movements of the commodity.

But other corners are more protracted, and occur at precisely the wrong time.

Specifically, some corners start to distort prices well before expiration, and precisely when hedgers are looking to roll or offset. Short, out-of-position hedgers looking to roll or offset try to buy either spreads or outrights. The large long planning to corner the market doesn’t liquidate. So the hedgers bid up the expiring contract. Long still doesn’t budge. So the shorts bid it up some more. Eventually, the large long relents and sells when prices and spreads get substantially out of line, and the hedgers exit their positions but at a painfully artificial price. I have documented price distortions in some episodes of 10 percent or more. That’s a big deal, especially when one considers the very thin margins on which commodity trading is done. Combine that price distortion with the fact that a large number of shorts pay that distorted price to get out of their positions, and the dollar damages can be large. Depending on the size of the contract, and the magnitude of the distortion, nine or ten figures large.  (I analyze the liquidation/roll process theoretically in a paper titled “Squeeze Play” that appeared in the Journal of Alternative Investments a few years ago.)

But this is all paper trading, right, so real reapers of wheat and miners of copper aren’t damaged, right? Well, for the bigger, more protracted squeezes that’s not right.

Most hedgers are “out-of-position” they are using a futures contract to hedge something that isn’t deliverable. For example, shippers of Brazilian beans or holders of soybean inventories in Iowa use CBT soybean futures as a hedge. They are therefore long the basis. Corners distort the basis: the futures price rises to reflect the frictions and bottlenecks and technical features of the delivery mechanism, but the prices of the vastly larger quantities of the physical traded and held elsewhere may rise little, if at all. So the out-of-position hedgers don’t gain on their inventories, but they pay an inflated price to exit their futures.

This is why corners are a bad thing. They undermine  the most vital function of futures markets: hedging/risk transfer. Hedgers pay the biggest price for corners precisely because the delivery market is only a small sliver of the world market for a commodity, and because the network effects of liquidity cause all hedging activity to tip to a single market (with a very few exceptions). Thus, the very inside baseball details of the delivery process in a specific, localized market have global consequences. That’s why temporary and not very big and localized are not much comfort when it comes to the price distortions associated with market power manipulations.

 

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October 27, 2014

Matt Levine Passes Off a Bad Penny

Filed under: Commodities,Derivatives,Economics,Exchanges,Regulation — The Professor @ 5:36 pm

Bloomberg’s Matt Levine is usually very insightful about markets, and about financial skullduggery. Alas, in his article on developments in the copper market, Matt is passing off a bad penny.

The basic facts are these. A single firm, reportedly well-known (and arguably infamous) metals trading fund Red Kite, has accumulated upwards of 50 percent (and at times as much as 90 percent) of copper in LME warehouses that is deliverable against LME futures contracts. Such an accumulation can facilitate a corner of the market, or could be a symptom of a corner: a large long takes delivery of virtually the entire deliverable stock (and perhaps all of it) to execute a corner. So the developments in LME copper bear the hallmarks of a squeeze, or an impending one.

What’s more, the price relationships in the market are consistent with a squeeze: the market is in backwardation. I have not had time to determine whether the backwardation is large, controlling for stocks (as would occur during a corner), but the sharp spike in backwardation in recent days is symptomatic of a corner, or fears of a corner.

Put simply, there is smoke here. But Matt Levine seems intent on denying that. Weirdly, he focuses on the allegations involving Goldman’s actions in aluminum:

Loosely speaking, the problem of aluminum was that it was in deep contango: Prices for immediate delivery were low, prices for future delivery were high, and so buying aluminum and chucking it in a warehouse to deliver later was profitable. So people did, and the warehouses got pretty jammed up, and other people who wanted aluminum for immediate use found it all a bit unsporting.

. . . .

The LME warehouse system is an interesting abstract representation of a commodity market, but you can get into trouble if you confuse it with the actual commodity market. One example of the trouble: Goldman and its cronies were accused of manipulating aluminum prices up by putting too much aluminum in LME warehouses.

Well, yes. But the point is that there are many different kinds of manipulation. Many, many different kinds. An Appeals Court in the US opined in the Cargill case that they number of ways of manipulating was limited only by the imagination of man. Too true. The facts in aluminum and the facts in copper are totally different, and the alleged forms of manipulation are totally different, so the events in aluminum are a red herring (although it is copper that is the red metal)

Levine also makes a big, big deal out of the fact that the amount of copper in LME warehouses is trivial compared to the amount of copper produced in the world, let alone the amount of copper that remains in the earth’s crust. This matters hardly at all.

What matters is the steepness of the supply curve into warehouses. If that supply curve is upward sloping, a firm with a big enough futures position can corner the market, and distort prices, even if the amount of copper actually in the warehouses, or attracted to the warehouses by a cornerer’s artificial demand, is small relative to the size of the world copper market.

Case in point. In December 1995 Hamanaka/Sumitomo cornered the LME copper contract holding a position in LME warrants that was substantially smaller than what one firm now owns. Hamanaka’s/Sumitomo’s physical and futures positions were small relative to the size of the world copper market, measured by production and consumption. But they still had market power in the relevant market because it was uneconomic to attract additional copper into LME warehouses.

Another example. Ferruzzi cornered the CBT soybean contract in July, 1989, owning a mere 8 million bushels of beans in Chicago and Toledo. But since it was uneconomic to move additional supplies into those delivery points, it was profitable for, and possible for, Ferruzzi to corner the expiring contract.

World supply may have an effect on the slope of the supply curve into warehouses, but that slope can be positive (thereby creating the conditions necessary to corner) even if the share of metal in warehouses is small. The slope of the supply curve depends on the bottlenecks associated with getting metal into warehouses, and the costs of diverting metal that should go to consumers into warehouses. These bottlenecks and costs can be acute, even if the amount of warehoused metal is small. Diverting copper that should go to a fabricator or wire mill to an LME warehouse is inefficient, i.e., costly. It only happens, therefore, if the price is distorted sufficiently to offset this higher cost.

Levine ends his post thus:

One example of the trouble: Goldman and its cronies were accused of manipulating aluminum prices up by putting too much aluminum in LME warehouses.The worries about copper — that it could be cornered, pushing prices up — stem from there being too little copper in those warehouses. Both of those things can’t be true.

Yes they can, actually. Different commodities at different times with different fundamental conditions are vulnerable to different kinds of manipulation. It is perfectly possible for it to be true that aluminum was vulnerable to a manipulative scheme that exploited the bottlenecks of taking the white metal out of warehouses starting some years ago, and that copper is vulnerable to a manipulative scheme that exploits the bottlenecks of getting the red metal into warehouses now. No logical or factual contradiction whatsoever.

I know you are better than this, Matt. Don’t let your justifiable skepticism of allegations of manipulation make you a poster child for the Gresham’s Law of Internet Commentary.

 

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October 24, 2014

Someone Didn’t Get the Memo, and I Wouldn’t Want to be That Guy*

Filed under: Commodities,Derivatives,Economics,Exchanges — The Professor @ 9:23 am

Due to the five year gap in 30 year bond issuance, in mid-September the CME revised the deliverable basket for the June 2015 T-bond contract. It deleted the 6.25 of May, 2015 because its delivery value would have been so far below the values of the other bonds in the deliverable set. This would have made the contract more susceptible to a squeeze because only that bond would effectively be available for delivery due to the way the contract works.

The CME issued a memo on the subject.

Somebody obviously didn’t get it:

It looks like a Treasury futures trader failed to do his or her homework.

The price of 30-year Treasury futures expiring in June traded for less than 145 for about two hours yesterday before shooting up to more than 150. The 7.3 percent surge in their price yesterday, on the first day these particular contracts were traded, was unprecedented for 30-year Treasury futures, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. Volume amounted to 1,639 contracts with a notional value of $164 million.

What sets these futures apart from others is they’re the first ones where the U.S. government’s decision to stop issuing 30-year bonds from 2001 to 2006 must be accounted for when valuing the derivatives. The size and speed of yesterday’s jump indicates the initial traders of the contracts hadn’t factored in the unusual rules governing these particular products, said Craig Pirrong, a finance professor at the University of Houston.

“That is humongous,” said Pirrong, referring to the 7.3 percent jump. “We’re talking about a move you might see over weeks or a month occur in a day.” Pirrong said he suspected it was an algorithmic trader using an outdated model. “I would not want to be that guy,” the professor said.

Here’s a quick and dirty explanation. Multiple bonds are eligible for delivery. Since they have different coupons and maturities, their prices can differ substantially. For instance, the 3.5 percent of Feb 39 sells for about $110, and the 6.25 of 2030 sells for about $146. If both bonds were deliverable at par, no one would ever deliver the 6.25 of 2030, and it would not contribute in any real way to deliverable supply. Therefore, the CME effectively handicaps the delivery race by assigning conversion factors to each bond. The conversion factor is essentially the bond’s price on the delivery date assuming it yields 6 percent to maturity. If all bonds yield 6 percent, their delivery values would be equal, and the deliverable supply would be the total amount of deliverable bonds outstanding. This would make it almost impossible to squeeze the market.

Since bonds differ in duration, and actual yields differ from 6 percent, the conversion factors narrow but do not eliminate disparities in the delivery values of bonds. One bond will be cheapest-to-deliver. Roughly speaking, the CTD bond will be the one with the lowest ratio of price to conversion factor.

That’s where the problem comes in. For the June contract, if the 6.25 of 2030 was eligible to deliver, its converted price would be around $142. Due to the issuance/maturity gap, the converted prices of all the other bonds is substantially higher, ranging between $154 and $159.

This is due a duration effect. When yields are below 6 percent, and they are now way below, at less than 3 percent, low duration bonds become CTD: the prices of low duration bonds rise less (in percentage terms) for a given decline in yields than the prices of high duration bonds, so they become relatively cheaper. The 6.25 of 2030 has a substantially lower duration than the other bonds in the deliverable basket because of its lower maturity (more than 5 years) and higher coupon. So it would have been cheapest to deliver by a huge margin had CME allowed it to remain in the basket. This would have shrunk the deliverable supply to the amount outstanding of that bond, making a squeeze more likely, and more profitable. (And squeezes in Treasuries do occur. They were rife in the mid-to-late-80s, and there was a squeeze of the Ten Year in June of 2005. The 2005 squeeze, which was pretty gross, occurred when there was less than a $1 difference in delivery values between the CTD and the next-cheapest. The squeezer distorted prices by about 15/32s.)

The futures contract prices the CTD bond. So if someone-or someone’s algo-believed that the 6.25 of 2030 was in the deliverable basket, they would have calculated the no-arb price as being around $142. But that bond isn’t in the basket, so the no-arb value of the contract is above $150. Apparently the guy* who didn’t get the memo merrily offered the June future at $142 in the mistaken belief that was near fair value.

Ruh-roh.

After selling quite a few contracts, the memo non-reader wised up, and the price jumped up to over $150, which reflected the real deliverable basket, not the imaginary one.

This price move was “humongous” given that implied vol is around 6 percent. That’s an annualized number, meaning that the move on a single day was more than a one-sigma annual move. I was being very cautious by saying this magnitude move would be expected to occur over weeks or months. But that’s what happens when the reporter catches me in the gym rather than at my computer.

This wasn’t a fat-finger error. This was a fat-head error. It cost somebody a good deal of money, and made some others very happy.

So word up, traders (and programmers): always read the memos from your friendly local exchange.

*Or gal, as Mary Childs pointed out on Twitter.

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October 19, 2014

It *Was* Too Quiet Out There

Filed under: Commodities,Derivatives,Economics,Energy,Financial crisis — The Professor @ 5:28 pm

Four weeks ago I gave the keynote talk at Energy Risk Asia in Singapore. My talk was a look back at commodity market developments in the past year, followed by a look forward.

The theme of the look back was “A Perfect Calm.” I noted that volatility levels across all markets, not just commodities, were at very low levels. Equity vols, as measured by the VIX, had been in the 10 percent range in August and had only ticked up to around 12 percent by late-September. Commodity volatilities were even more remarkable. Historically, the low level of commodity volatilities (the 5th percentile) have been around the median of equity vols and well above currency and bond vols. During the first half of the year, however, commodity vols were below the 5th percentile of equity vols, and below the 95th percentile of currency and bond vols. Pretty amazing.

I argued that this reflected a happy combination of supply and demand factors. In energy and ags in particular, abundant supplies put a drag on volatility. But volatility from the demand side was low too. The low VIX levels are a good proxy for macro uncertainty, or the lack thereof. Put both of those together, and you get a perfect calm.

But perfect calms are the exception, rather than the rule. The last slide in my talk looked forward, and cribbed a movie cliche: It was titled “It’s Quiet Out There. Too Quiet.” I noted that periods of very low volatility frequently bear the seeds of their destruction. When risk measures are low, firms and traders lever up and increase position sizes. A bit of economic turbulence increases volatilities, which leads to breaches in risk limits, which forces deleveraging and reductions in positions. This tends to lead to reduced liquidity, exaggerated price moves, yet higher volatility, leading to more deleveraging and repositioning, and on it goes. That is, there can be a positive feedback loop. Transitions from low to high volatility can be very abrupt.

It looks like that’s what has happened in the weeks since my return. Equity markets are down substantially. Commodities, notably energy, have slumped: Brent is down to around $88. Volatilities have spiked. The VIX reached over 31 percent last week, and the crude oil VIX went from about 15 percent at the end of August to over 37 percent last week.

The spark appears to have been mounting evidence of a slowdown in Europe and China. Ebola might have been a contributing factor in the last week or two, but in my view the economic weakness is the main driver.

I admit to being like the title character in My Cousin Vinnie. He had difficulty sleeping in the Alabama country quiet, but slept like a lamb in a raucous county jail. Times like these are more interesting, anyways.

So it turns out it was too quiet out there.

And remember. Today is the 27th anniversary of the ’87 Crash (one of the formative experiences of my professional life). Octobers are often . . . interesting (the most dangerous word in the English language). So the markets bear watching closely. If you aren’t interested in them, they may well be interested in you.

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October 13, 2014

You Might Have Read This Somewhere Before. Like Here.

The FT has a long article by John Dizard raising alarms about the systemic risks posed by CCPs. The solution, in other words, might be the problem.

Where have I read that before?

The article focuses on a couple of regulatory reports that have also raised the alarm:

No, I am referring to reports filed by the wiring and plumbing inspectors of the CCPs. For example, the International Organization for Securities Commissions (a name that could only be made duller by inserting the word “Canada”) issued a report this month on the “Securities Markets Risk Outlook 2014-2015”. I am not going to attempt to achieve the poetic effect of the volume read as a whole, so I will skip ahead to page 85 to the section on margin calls.

Talking (again) about the last crisis, the authors recount: “When the crisis materialised in 2008, deleveraging occurred, leading to a pro-cyclical margin spiral (see figure 99). Margin requirements also have the potential to cause pro-cyclical effects in the cleared markets.” The next page shows figure 99, an intriguing cartoon of a margin spiral, with haircuts leading to more haircuts leading to “liquidate position”, “further downward pressure” and “loss on open positions”. In short, do not read it to the children before bedtime.

This margin issue is exactly what I’ve been on about for six years now. Good that regulators are finally waking up to it, though it’s a little late in the day, isn’t it?

I chuckle at the children before bedtime line. I often say that I should give my presentations on the systemic risk of CCPs while sitting by a campfire holding a flashlight under my chin.

I don’t chuckle at the fact that other regulators seem rather oblivious to the dangers inherent in what they’ve created:

While supervisory institutions such as the Financial Stability Oversight Council are trying to fit boring old life insurers into their “systemic” regulatory frameworks, they seem to be ignoring the degree to which the much-expanded clearing houses are a threat, not a solution. Much attention has been paid, publicly, to how banks that become insolvent in the future will have their shareholders and creditors bailed in to the losses, their managements dismissed and their corporate forms put into liquidation. But what about the clearing houses? What happens to them when one or more of their participants fail?

I call myself the Clearing Cassandra precisely because I have been prophesying so for years, but the FSOC and others have largely ignored such concerns.

Dizard starts out his piece quoting Dallas Fed President Richard Fisher comparing macroprudential regulation to the Maginot Line. Dizard notes that others have made similar Maginot Line comparisons post-crisis, and says that this is unfair to the Maginot Line because it was never breached: the Germans went around it.

I am one person who has made this comparison specifically in the context of CCPs, most recently at Camp Alphaville in July. But my point was exactly that the creation of impregnable CCPs would result in the diversion of stresses to other parts of the financial system, just like the Maginot line diverted the Germans into the Ardennes, where French defenses were far more brittle. In particular, CCPs are intended to eliminate credit risk, but they do so by creating tremendous demands for liquidity, especially during crisis times. Since liquidity risk is, in my view, far more dangerous than credit risk, this is not obviously a good trade off. The main question becomes: During the next crisis, where will be the financial Sedan?

I take some grim satisfaction that arguments that I have made for years are becoming conventional wisdom, or at least widespread among those who haven’t imbibed the Clearing Kool Aid. Would that have happened before legislators and regulators around the world embarked on the vastest re-engineering of world financial markets ever attempted, and did so with their eyes wide shut.

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October 7, 2014

Manipulation Prosecutions: Going for the Capillaries, Ignoring the Jugular

Filed under: Commodities,Derivatives,Economics,Energy,Exchanges,Politics,Regulation — The Professor @ 7:32 pm

The USDOJ has filed criminal charges against a trader named Michael Coscia for “spoofing” CME and ICE futures markets. Frankendodd made spoofing a crime.

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

Is this inefficient? Yeah, I guess. Is it a big deal? Color me skeptical, especially since the activity is self-correcting. The strategy works if those at the inside market, who these days are likely to be HFT firms, consider the away from the market spoofing orders to be informative. But they aren’t. The HFT firms at the inside market who respond to the spoof will lose money. They will soon figure this out, and won’t respond to the spoofs any more: they will deem away-from-the-market orders as uninformative. Problem solved.

But the CFTC (and now DOJ, apparently) are obsessed with this, and other games for ticks. They pursue these activities with Javert-like mania.

What makes this maddening to me is that while obsessing over ticks gained by spoofs or other HFT strategies, regulators have totally overlooked corners that have distorted prices by many, many ticks.

I know of two market operations in the last ten years plausibly involving major corners that have arguably imposed mid-nine figure losses on futures market participants, and in one of the case, possibly ten-figure losses. Yes, we are talking hundreds of millions and perhaps more than a billion. To put things in context, Coscia is alleged to have made a whopping $1.6 million. That is, two or three orders of magnitude less than the losses involved in these corners.

And what have CFTC and DOJ done in these cases? Exactly bupkus. Zip. Nada. Squat.

Why is that? Part of the explanation is that previous CFTC decisions in the 1980s were economically incoherent, and have posed substantial obstacles to winning a verdict: I wrote about this almost 20 years ago, in a Washington & Lee Law Review article. But I doubt that is the entire story, especially since one of the cases is post-Frankendodd, and hence the one of the legal obstacles that the CFTC complains about (relating to proving intent) has been eliminated.

The other part of the story is too big to jail. Both of the entities involved are very major players in their respective markets. Very major. One has been very much in the news lately.

In other words, the CFTC is likely intimidated by-and arguably captured by-those it is intended to police because they are very major players.

The only recent exception I can think of-and by recent, I mean within the last 10 years-is the DOJ’s prosecution of BP for manipulating the propane market. But BP was already in the DOJ’s sights because of the Texas City explosion. Somebody dropped the dime on BP for propane, and DOJ used that to turn up the heat on BP. BP eventually agreed to a deferred prosecution agreement, in which it paid a $100 million fine to the government, and paid $53 million into a restitution fund to compensate any private litigants.

The Commodity Exchange Act specifically proscribes corners. Corners occur. But the CFTC never goes after corners, even if they cost market participants hundreds of millions of dollars. Probably because corners that cost market participants nine or ten figures can only be carried out by firms that can hire very expensive lawyers and who have multiple congressmen and senators on speed dial.

Instead, the regulators go after much smaller fry so they can crow about how tough they are on wrongdoers. They go after shoplifters, and let axe murderers walk free. Going for the capillaries, ignoring the jugular.

All this said, I am not a fan of criminalizing manipulation. Monetary fines-or damages in private litigation-commensurate to the harm imposed will have the appropriate deterrent effect.

The timidity of regulators in going after manipulators is precisely why a private right of action in manipulation cases is extremely important. (Full disclosure: I have served as an expert in such cases.)

One last comment about criminal charges in manipulation cases. The DOJ prosecuted the individual traders in the propane corner. Judge Miller in the Houston Division of the  Southern District of Texas threw out the cases, on the grounds that the Commodity Exchange Act’s anti-manipulation provisions are unconstitutionally vague. Now this is only a district court decision, and the anti-spoofing case will be brought under new provisions of the CEA adopted as the result of Dodd-Frank. Nonetheless, I think it is highly likely that Coscia will raise the same defense (as well as some others). It will be interesting to see how this plays out.

But regardless of how it plays out, regulators’ obsession with HFT games stands in stark contrast with their conspicuous silence on major corner cases. Given that corners can cause major dislocations in markets, and completely undermine the purposes of futures markets-risk transfer and price discovery-this imbalance speaks very ill of the priorities-and the gumption (I cleaned that up)-of those charged with policing US futures markets.

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October 6, 2014

Laughing Gaz(prom)

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

Silly me, I thought the “gaz” in Gazprom was methane. But reading this article in Platts, I’m thinking it’s nitrous oxide.  I had to read it several times before I could catch a glimpse of what Sergei Komlev, head of Gazprom Export’s contract structuring and price formation department, was getting at. I now see the basic problem is that he thinks the price of gas in Europe is too low. And the culprit? Speculators! Paper traders! “Virtual gas”!

Come on Sergei, you can’t get originality points for that one. Round up the usual suspects and all that.

Anyways, FWIW, here are Sergei’s deep, N20 inspired thoughts on the subject:

“Paradoxically, gas price erosion is taking place at a time when physical supplies are tight,” Komlev said, adding that some European market analysts had acknowledged that hubs were overflowing with largely “paper” gas.

This became possible with the development of the spot gas market as hubs developed a new class of customer such as banks and commodity traders, Komlev said.

But “as no one is in a position to predict the weather, traded volumes of ‘paper’ gas significantly surpassed real world demand for gas because of the abnormally warm winter in 2014,” he said.

This artificial oversupply had put significant pressure on the market, resulting in a collapse in spot prices, he said.

“As a result, our European customers are facing negative margins as they have to supply gas to end-consumers at lower prices than they pay for physical deliveries under long-term contracts,” he said.

“When some time ago our clients sold our contract volumes on a forward curve for many months ahead they targeted this new class of customers first,” he said.

I’m doubled over in convulsions here, and I haven’t even taken a hit. Is there such a thing as second hand N20?

Let me translate what really happened. Speculators went long. Weather was unusually warm. Prices fell, and speculators took a bath. Simple story. As for “tight physical supplies”, later on Sergei lets on that gas demand in Europe fell 20 percent in the 1st half of 2014.

Sorry, but “paper gas” doesn’t heat a single home or turn a single turbine. It doesn’t oversupply. It doesn’t overdemand. It just transfers price risk. As contracts go prompt, the price of paper gas converges to the price of physical gas, which is driven by supply and demand fundamentals-most notably the weather. What frosts (or is it burns?) Sergei is that the price converged to a low price which is out of line with the oil-linked prices in Gazprom contracts. This has imposed pain on Gazprom’s customers, who are clamoring to renegotiate their contracts, which Sergei and Gazprom no likey.

Like the proverbial blind hog and the acorn, Sergei did root up a bit of the truth:

Long-term contracts were shaped at a time when spot gas markets in Europe were not developed, and the gas price — linked to oil prices — “was practically independent of supply/demand dynamics,” Komlev said.

I repeat: The oil linked price was/is “practically independent of supply/demand dynamics.”

Exactly! That’s the problem! That’s why a move to hub-based pricing, where gas prices can reflect gas values, is so necessary: it ensures that contract prices reflect supply/demand dynamics. Prices that don’t reflect values lead to distortions in output and consumption and investment, and to conflicts between buyers and sellers that inflate transactions costs.

Komlev went on to say that since price in the contracts was not flexible, and was out of line with gas values, it was necessary to permit quantity flexibility in Gazprom contracts. If the company is dragged kicking and screaming into the 21st century, and must index its contractual gas prices to-wait for it-gas prices, it will eliminate the quantity optionality.

Throw the customers into that b’rer patch, Sergei. Truth be told, fixed quantity forward supply contracts are quite the thing in the US, and have been since the dysfunctional price controls on gas were discarded in the 1980s. Companies can buy and sell base load volumes using fixed quantity long term contracts (perhaps at indexed prices); respond to near term fundamental conditions with short-term (e.g., month ahead) forward contracts entered into during something analogous to “bid week” and respond to intra-month/daily supply and demand swings with spot transactions. They can also get various customized contracts that are seasonally shaped, or have some optionality that permits efficient responses to supply and demand shocks (though the CFTC’s proposed Seven Prong-Prong, not Pirrong-test for determining whether supply contracts with quantity optionality are swaps subject to Frankendodd could wreak havoc with that).

A liberated gas market offers a variety of contract terms, including contracts that embed various sorts of quantity optionality. But the point is that heterogeneous suppliers and demanders can utilize a variety of contracts tailored to meet their idiosyncratic needs, as opposed to Gazprom contracts, which remind me of nothing so much as an ill-fitting Soviet suit.

I do have to thank Sergei. I haven’t had such a good laugh in a long time, with or without chemical assistance. But I doubt he-and Gazprom-will be laughing for long. The disconnect between oil and gas prices has become too large and too persistent for their beloved oil linkage to survive much longer.

Speaking of oil-linked prices, this is an issue in LNG markets too. I recently authored a white paper on the subject. I’ll provide a link and write a post on that subject in the next few days.

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October 5, 2014

Damage Control at the CFTC

Filed under: Clearing,Derivatives,Economics,Politics,Regulation — The Professor @ 7:39 pm

The WSJ recently ran an article describing the ongoing standoff between the EU and the CFTC over swaps clearing. The Europeans have refused to certify any US clearinghouse as being subject to regulations equivalent to those under which European CCPs do. For its part, the CFTC has refused to recognize EU CCPs. The Europeans have pointedly recognized CCPs from a variety of other nations, including Japan, Hong Kong and India: things are so bad between the US and Europe that I wouldn’t be surprised if the Euros certified a North Korean CCP before they did the same for CME or another US CCP.

Failure to certify will mean that it will become prohibitively expensive for US firms to clear swaps in Europe, and vice versa. This will exacerbate the already worrisome fragmentation of swaps markets along jurisdictional lines.

The Euros are furious at the US’s rather imperialistic attitude on derivatives regulation, especially under the Gensler chairmanship of the CFTC. As new commissioner Christopher Giancarlo points out in a scathing speech delivered at the recent FIA meetings in Geneva, this imperialism was not limited to clearing issues alone. It also involved attempts to dictate how trades are executed, that is, the “Worst of Frankendodd” SEF mandate:

Making things worse, the CFTC swaps trading rules contain a host of peculiar limitations based on practices in the US futures markets that have not been adopted in the EU11 or anywhere else. Several of these peculiar CFTC swaps trading rules are contrary to common practice in global markets and are unlikely to be replicated by non-US regulators, including:

  • Trading only on order books and request for quote (RFQ) systems to TWO then THREE counterparties;12
  • Exchange-certified “made available to trade” determinations;13
  • Swap Execution Facility (SEF) position-limit maintenance and enforcement;14
  • Limitations on counterparty transparency;15 and
  • 10 CFTC Staff Advisory No. 13-69 (Nov. 14, 2013), available at http://www.cftc.gov/ucm/groups/public/@lrlettergeneral/documents/letter/13-69.pdf.

Now I have long been a critic of these rules. And so my criticism is not new and is not directed at the staff of the CFTC who worked hard to adapt existing trading models to meet greatly expedited implementation deadlines.

Here’s the key paragraph:

The avowed purpose of the CFTC’s broad assertion of jurisdiction is to insulate the United States from systemic risk. Yet, on the ostensible grounds of ring-fencing the US economy from harm, the CFTC purports to tell global swaps markets involving US persons to adopt particular CFTC trading mechanics that do almost nothing to reduce counterparty risk. In the words of one former senior CFTC advisor, the Interpretative Guidance “yoked together rules designed to reduce risk with rules designed to promote market transparency. Yet it provided almost no guidance about how to think about the extraterritorial application of market transparency rules independent of risk. As a result, [the CFTC prescribed] how to apply US rules abroad based on considerations that are tangential to the purposes of those rules.”

How do like them apples? (Those who remember the Gensler regime will know what I’m referring to.) As Giancarlo notes, a US obsession with swaps execution, that has nothing to do with reducing systemic risk, is causing jurisdictional fragmentation that likely increases systemic risk. What’s more, I would add that this is nuts even on its own terms. The idea behind SEFs was to increase competition in swaps execution. But fragmenting the market between the US and Europe reduces competition.

Giancarlo also rightly criticizes the fact that the CFTC issued an “Interpretive Guidance” and a “Staff Advisory” rather than a formal rule. In theory firms could disregard this “guidance”, but in practice that would be a very dangerous and risky thing to do. Meaning that the CFTC has effectively imposed an indefensible policy without going through the processes that are intended to mitigate policy mistakes. Unfortunately, a federal judge recently ruled against an industry legal challenge to the CFTC’s imposition of its dictates through such procedural legedermain.

Giancarlo has a concrete proposal to eliminate the impasse:

But we can go further. I intend to do everything I can to encourage the CFTC to replace its cross-border Interpretative Guidance with a formal rulemaking that recognizes outcomes-based substituted compliance for competent non-US regulatory regimes. As part of that effort, I will seek the withdrawal of the CFTC staff’s November 2013 Advisory that fails not only the letter and spirit of the “Path Forward,” but also contradicts the conceptual underpinnings of the CFTC’s Interpretive Guidance.

I hope that happens, but the question is whether it will happen in time. Unless the impasse is resolved soon, the “Balkanization” that Giancarlo laments will only get worse. Once that division becomes established, it will be difficult to reverse later, even if the the US and EU eventually recognize the equivalence of each other’s CCPs.

The good news here is that new Chair Timothy Massad also appears to be substantially less rigid, dictatorial, and imperious than his predecessor Gensler. Perhaps we shall see a more reasonable approach to derivatives regulation, especially on cross-border issues. This will not be sufficient to undo the many defects of Frankendodd, but it may at least mitigate the damage.

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September 29, 2014

McNamara on Pirrong & Clearing: Serious, Fair, But Ultimately Unpersuasive

Stephen Lubben passed along this paper on central clearing mandates to me. It would only be a modest overstatement to say that it is primarily a rebuttal to me. At the very least, I am the representative agent of the anti-clearing mandate crowd (and a very small crowd it is!) in Steven McNamara’s critique of opposition to clearing mandates.

McNamara’s arguments are fair, and respectfully presented. He criticizes my work, but in an oddly complimentary way.

I consider it something of a victory that he feels that it’s necessary to go outside of economics, and to appeal to Rawlsian Political Theory and Rawls’s Theory of Justice to counter my criticisms of clearing mandates.

There are actually some points of commonality between McNamara and me, which he fairly acknowledges. Specifically, we both emphasize the incredible complexity of the financial markets generally, and the derivatives markets in particular. Despite this commonality, we reach diametrically opposed conclusions.

Where I think McNamara is off-base is that he thinks I don’t pay adequate attention to the costs of financial crises and systemic risk. I firmly disagree. I definitely am very cognizant of these costs, and support measures to control them. My position is that CCPs do not necessarily reduce systemic risk, and may increase it. I’ve written several papers on that very issue. The fact that I believe that freely chosen clearing arrangements are more efficient than mandated ones in “peacetime” (i.e., normal, non-crisis periods) (something McNamara focuses on) only strengthens my doubts about the prudence of mandates.

McNamara addresses some of the arguments I make about systemic risk  in his paper, but it does not cite my most recent article that sets them out in a more comprehensive way.  (Here’s an ungated working paper version: the final version is only slightly different.) Consequently, he does not address some of my arguments, and gets some wrong: at least, in my opinion, he doesn’t come close to rebutting them.

Consider, for instance, my argument about multilateral netting. Netting gives derivatives priority in bankruptcy. This means that derivatives counterparties are less likely to run and thereby bring down a major financial institution. McNamara emphasizes this, and claims that this is actually a point in favor of mandating clearing (and the consequent multilateral netting). My take is far more equivocal: the reordering of priorities makes other claimants more likely to run, and on balance, it’s not clear whether multilateral netting  reduces systemic risk. I point to the example of money market funds that invested in Lehman corporate paper. There were runs on MMFs when they broke the buck. Multilateral netting of derivatives would make such runs more likely by reducing the value of this corporate paper (due to its lower position in the bankruptcy queue). Not at all clear how this cuts.

McNamara mentions my concerns about collateral transformation services, and gives them some credence, but not quite enough in my view.

He views mutualization of risk as a good thing, and doesn’t address my mutualization is like CDO trenching point (which means that default funds load up on systemic/systematic risk). Given his emphasis on the risks associated with interconnections, I don’t think he pays sufficient concern to the fact that default funds are a source of interconnection, especially during times of crisis.

Most importantly, although he does discuss some of my analysis of margins, he doesn’t address my biggest systemic risk concern: the tight coupling and liquidity strains that variation margining creates during crises. This is also an important source of interconnection in financial markets.

I have long acknowledged-and McNamara acknowledges my acknowledgement-that we can’t have any great certainty about how whether clearing mandates will increase or reduce systemic risk. I have argued that the arguments that it will reduce it are unpersuasive, and often flatly wrong, but are made confidently nonetheless: hence the “bill of goods” title of my clearing and systemic risk paper (which the editor of JFMI found provocative/tendentious, but which I insisted on retaining).

From this “radical” uncertainty, arguing in a Rawlsian vein, McNamara argues that regulation is the right approach, given the huge costs of a systemic crisis, and especially their devastating impact on the least among us. But this presumes that the clearing mandate will have its intended effect of reducing this risk. My point is that this presumption is wholly unfounded, and that on balance, systemic risks are likely to increase as the result of a mandate, especially (and perhaps paradoxically) given the widespread confidence among regulators that clearing will reduce it.

McNamara identifies me has a hard core utilitarian, but that’s not quite right. Yes, I think I have decent formal economics chops, but I bring a Hayekian eye to this problem. Specifically, I believe that in a complex, emergent system like the financial markets (and derivatives are just a piece of that complex emergent system), top down, engineered, one-size-fits-all solutions are the true sources of system risk. (In fairness, I have made this argument most frequently here on the blog, rather than my more formal writings, so I understand if McNamara isn’t aware of it.) Attempts to design such systems usually result in major unintended consequences, many of them quite nasty. In some of my first remarks on clearing mandates at a public forum (a Columbia Law School event in 2009), I quoted Hayek: “The curious task of economics is to demonstrate to men how little they really know about what they imagine they can design.”

I’ve used the analogy of the Sorcerer’s Apprentice to make this point before, and I think it is apt. Those intending to “fix” something can unleash forces they don’t understand, with devastating consequences.

At the end of his piece, McNamara makes another Rawlsian argument, a political one. Derivatives dealer banks are too big, to politically influential, corrupt the regulatory process, and exacerbate income inequality. Anything that reduces their size and influence is therefore beneficial. As McNamara puts it: clearing mandates are “therefore a roundabout way to achieve a reduction in their status as ‘Too Big to Fail,’ and also their economic and political influence.”

But as I’ve written often on the blog, this hope is chimerical. Regulation tends to create large fixed costs, which tends to increase scale economies and therefore lead to greater concentration. That clearly appears to be the case with clearing members, and post-Frankendodd there’s little evidence that the regulations have reduced the dominance of big banks and TBTF. Moreover, more expansive regulation actually increases the incentive to exercise political influence, so color me skeptical that Dodd-Frank will contribute anything to the cleaning of the Augean Stables of the American political system. I would bet the exact opposite, actually.

So to sum up, I am flattered but unpersuaded by Steven McNamara’s serious, evenhanded, and thorough effort to rebut my arguments against clearing mandates, and to justify them on the merits. Whether it is on “utilitarian” (i.e., economic) or Rawlsian grounds, I continue to believe that arguments and evidence weigh heavily against clearing mandates as prudent policy.  But I am game to continue the debate, and Steve McNamara has proved himself to be a worthy opponent, and a gentleman to boot.

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September 10, 2014

SEFs: The Damn Dogs Won’t Eat It!

Filed under: Derivatives,Economics,Exchanges,Politics,Regulation — The Professor @ 8:37 pm

There’s an old joke about a pet food manufacturer that mounts an all out marketing campaign for its new brand of dog food. It pulls out all the stops. Celebrity endorsements. Super Bowl Ad. You name it. But sales tank. The CEO calls the head of marketing onto the carpet and demands an explanation for the appalling sales. The marketing guy  answers: “It’s those damn dogs. They just won’t eat the stuff.”

That joke came to mind when reading about the CFTC’s frustration at the failure of SEFs to get traction. Most market  participants avoid using central limit order books (CLOBs), and prefer to trade by voice or Requests for Quotes (RFQs):

“The biggest surprise for me is the lack of interest from the buyside for [central limit order books or CLOB],” Michael O’Brien, director of global trading at Eaton Vance, said at the International Swaps and Derivatives Association conference in New York. “The best way to break up the dual market structure and boost transparency is through using a CLOB and I’m surprised at how slow progress has been.”

About two dozen Sefs have been established in the past year, but already some of these venues are struggling to register a presence. Instead, incumbent market players who have always dominated the swaps market are winning under the new regulatory regime, with the bulk of trading being done through Bloomberg, Tradeweb and interdealer brokers including IcapBGC and Tradition.

“It’s still very early,” Mr Massad told the FT. “The fact that we’re getting a decent volume of trading is encouraging but we are also looking at various issues to see how we can facilitate more trading and transparency.”

Regulators are less concerned about having a specific numbers of Sefs since the market is still sorting out which firms can serve their clients the best under the new regulatory system. What officials are watching closely is the continued use of RFQ systems rather than the transparent central order booking structure.

Not to say I told you so, but I told you so. I knew the dogs, and I knew they wouldn’t like the food.

This is why I labeled the SEF mandate as The Worst of Dodd Frank. It was a solution in search of a non-existent problem. It took a one-sized fits all approach, predicated on the view that centralized order driven markets are the best way to execute all transactions. It obsessed on pre-trade and post-trade price transparency, and totally overlooked the importance of counterparty transparency.

There is a diversity of trading mechanisms in virtually every financial market. Some types of trades and traders are economically executed in anonymous, centralized auction markets with pre- and post-trade price transparency. Other types of trades and traders-namely, big wholesale trades involving those trading to hedge or to rebalance portfolios, rather than to take advantage of information advantages-are most efficiently negotiated and executed face-to-face, with little (or delayed) post-trade price disclosure. This is why upstairs block markets always existed in stocks, and why dark pools exist now. It is one reason why OTC derivatives markets operated side-by-side with futures markets offering similar products.

As I noted at the time, sophisticated buy siders in derivatives markets had the opportunity to trade in futures markets but chose to trade OTC. Moreover, the buy side was very resistant to the SEF mandate despite the fact that they were the supposed beneficiaries of a more transparent (in some dimensions!) and more competitive (allegedly) trading mechanism. The Frankendodd crowd argued that SEFs would break a cabal of dealers that exploited their customers and profited from the opacity of the market.

But the customers weren’t buying it. So you had to believe that either they knew what they were talking about, or were the victims of Stockholm Syndrome leaping to the defense of the dealers that held them captive.

My mantra was a diversity of mechanisms for a diversity of trades and traders.  Frankendodd attempts to create a monoculture and impose a standardized market structure for all participants. It says to the buy side: here’s your dinner, and you’ll like it, dammit! It’s good for you!

But the buy side knows what it likes, and is pushing away the bowl.

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