Streetwise Professor

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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May 13, 2016

Surprise, Surprise, Surprise: Guess Who Squeezed (and May be Squeezing) Brent

Filed under: Commodities,Derivatives,Economics,Energy,Regulation — The Professor @ 7:44 pm

Cue Gomer Pyle. It is now being reported that Glencore was not just bigfooting fuel oil in Singapore, but it was the firm stomping on Brent as well. It took delivery of 15 or more cargoes of the 37 available for June loading. There is also talk that the firm had accumulated a position in excess of the 37, and had already had contracts to sell Brent to refineries in Asia and Europe.

Thus all the elements of a squeeze were in place. A position bigger than deliverable supply, and a grave pre-dug to bury the corpse. It was able to liquidate some of its position (25 cargoes or so, or more than 15 million barrels) at an artificially high price (as indicated by the flip from contango to backwardation in the last couple of weeks of trading).

The July contract has also flipped into a backwardation, suggesting that the play is on again.

Two (and perhaps three, if Glencore is behind what’s going on now) squeezes in short order is pretty audacious, even for Glencore. Makes me wonder if this is part of the company’s resurrection plan. Trading needs to perform in order to offset the carnage in the mining operation. That means taking more risks. Including regulatory and legal risks. Though truth be told, both the UK and Singapore have been quite supine in responding to market power manipulations for years. For instance, with all the squeezes that have taken place on the LME over the years, what have UK regulators ever done? What have they ever done in Brent? Or in the softs, where some pretty big squeezes have taken place in cocoa and coffee in recent years?

Inspector Clouseau would be proud.

The bigger risks are economic and commercial. Squeezes can be very profitable, but they can go horribly wrong. Recall that Glencore’s qua Glencore’s genesis was Marc Rich’s failed attempt to squeeze the LME zinc market in 1992. Marc Rich & Co. lost around $200 million, which resulted in a coup led by Ivan Glasenbeg that ousted Rich, and the renaming of the company as Glencore.

But desperate times sometimes call for desperate measures. Yasuo Hamanaka comes to mind. When his massive rogue trading operation was teetering on the precipice, needing a big profit in a hurry he carried out a massive corner of LME copper in December 1995. He wrote his co-conspirator “this is our last arms” (quoting from memory). In other words, do or die.

I’m not saying that Glencore’s problems are at all similar to Hamanaka’s, but the company does have big issues, and a need to make a lot of money in a hurry. The kind of issues that can lead big risk takers to take bigger risks, and push the envelope. The envelopes in Brent and Singapore fuel oil are pretty expansive, but Glencore seems to be pushing them nonetheless. Not part of the official resurrection plan, but most likely part of it nonetheless.

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May 10, 2016

Glencore Mucking About in the Dirtiest Market in the World

Filed under: Commodities,Derivatives,Economics,Energy,Regulation — The Professor @ 5:30 pm

The WSJ has an interesting story about Glencore big-footing the Singapore fuel oil market:

In a lightly trod corner of the oil market, Glencore PLC is leaving a big footprint.

During two of the past five quarters, the commodities trader has bought up large volumes of fuel oil at Asia’s main trading hub in Singapore at a time of day when it has an outsize effect on an Asia-wide price benchmark.

Trades made during the daily “Platts window”—the final few minutes of trading—are reported to Platts, an energy-price publisher, which uses the data to calculate a daily benchmark used to price millions of barrels of fuel oil across Asia.

In the first quarter, Glencore bought 20.7 million barrels of Singapore-traded fuel oil in the window—44% of all the Platts-window buying—according to the publisher, which is owned by S&P Global Inc. During that period, fuel-oil prices in Singapore rose 7.5%, according to Platts, outpacing Brent crude oil, up 6.2%, and U.S.-traded crude oil, up 3.5%.

“The fuel-oil bull play has been a fairly regular feature of the market-on-close window for many years,” said John Driscoll, chief strategist at JTD Energy Services in Singapore and a former fuel oil-trader. “Singapore is the world’s largest marine-fuels market and serves as the central pricing hub for petroleum products east of Suez. These conditions tend to favor bullish traders who have the resources and conviction to aggressively bid the window for a sustained period of time.”

The Journal soft-pedals what is going on here:

Some traders, shipbrokers and commodity experts say Glencore’s purchases have hallmarks of a trading gambit sometimes employed in the lightly regulated world of fuel-oil trading. In it, traders buy large quantities of physical fuel oil to benefit a separate position elsewhere, such as in the derivatives market or elsewhere in the physical market.

I’ll be a little more blunt. Yes, this looks for all the world like a manipulative play, along the lines of my 2001 Journal of Business piece “Manipulation of Cash-Settled Futures Contracts.” Buy up large quantities in the physical market to drive up the price of a price marker that is used to determine payoffs in cash-settled OTC swaps. (It’s possible to do something similar on the short side.) This works because the supply curve of the physical is upward sloping. Buy a lot, drive the market up the supply curve thereby elevating the price of the physical. If you are also long a derivative with a payoff increasing in the cash price, even though you lose money on the physical play, you can make even more money on the paper position if that position is big enough.

It’s impossible to know for sure, without knowing Glencore’s OTC book, but it is hard to come up with another reason for buying so much during the window.

Those on the other side of the OTC trade (if it exists) know who their counterparty is. It is interesting to note the “ethos” of this market. Nobody is running to court, and nobody is shouting manipulation. The losers take their lumps, and figure that revenge is the best reward.

Platts reacted with its usual blah, blah, blah:

“The Singapore refined-oil-product markets are highly liquid, attracting dozens of buyers and sellers from across the world, and our assessments of those markets remain robust,” Platts said in a statement. “It’s worth highlighting that our rigorous standards in our oil benchmarks are fully open to public scrutiny, and a result of information provided to us on a level playing field.”

As a transactions-based methodology, Platts windows are not vulnerable to some kinds of manipulation (e.g., of the Lie-bor variety) but they are definitely vulnerable to the large purchases or sales of a big trader looking to move the price to benefit an OTC position. The most that Platts can do is provide more delivery capacity to make the supply curve more elastic, but as I show in the 2001 paper, as long as the supply curve is upward sloping, or the demand curve is downward sloping a trader with a big enough derivatives position and a big enough pocketbook has the incentive and ability to manipulate the price.

Once upon a time, in the 90s in particular, the Brent market was periodically squeezed. Platts (and the industry) responded by broadening the Brent basket to include Forties, Oseberg, and Ekofisk. For a while that seemed to have made squeezes harder. But the continued decline of North Sea production has made the market vulnerable again. Indeed, all the signs suggest that the June Brent contract that went off the board last week was squeezed: it went into a steep backwardation during the last few days of trading, and the market returned to contango as soon as that contract expired.

The fact is that market power problems are endemic in commodity markets. The combination of relatively small and constrained physical markets and big paper markets create the opportunity and the incentive to exercise market power. It looks like that happened in Brent, and looks like it is a chronic problem in Singapore FO, reputed to be one of the dirtiest markets in the world.

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May 5, 2016

If You Believe the Official Reason for Cutting Off Chinese Economic Statistics, I Have a Great Wall to Sell You

Filed under: China,Commodities,Economics,Energy,Politics — The Professor @ 9:33 pm

Since October of last year, China’s National Bureau of Statistics has not published detailed data on metals markets. And it’s not just metals:

Data on oil products such as liquefied petroleum gas, naphtha and fuel oil have been withdrawn. So too have regional figures for coal, steel and electricity output.


The ostensible reason is that statistics bureau personnel were selling data for personal gain.

If you believe that, I will sell you a large wall. It’s so big they say you can see it from space! Only one like it! I sell it to you for a song.

“Anti-corruption” is the cover/pretext that the Chinese government now uses to eliminate those who have fallen from political favor. The most likely explanation for the “anti-corruption” drive aimed at economic statistics agencies is not to eliminate politically inconvenient people: it is to eliminate politically inconvenient data.

The fraudulence of Chinese official economic statistics is well known. One of the challenges of creating false official statistics for aggregate numbers like GDP growth is making it consistent with data on specific industries or sectors. The divergence between GDP growth and electricity production, for instance, has often been remarked upon.

How to solve this problem? Stop producing the underlying sector/industry/product specific data. How to do that without giving away the real reason? Use the all-purpose excuse: fighting corruption.

This has an air of plausibility: after all, corruption is rife in China. But this really doesn’t pass the smell test, especially given the timing: note that the data embargo started when concerns about the Chinese economy became acute at the end of last year.

The Chinese are desperate to maintain the illusion of 6.7 percent growth, quarter in, quarter out. Maintaining that illusion has become harder and harder as questioning of the consistency of various data sources has become more insistent. Shutting off the flow of sector/industry/product data is a brute force way of dealing with that problem.

This is another signal of the real state of the Chinese economy. The government wouldn’t have jacked up the stimulus unless the true state of affairs was far more dire than official statistics suggest. The government wouldn’t be suppressing data from the primary goods sectors unless it was also giving the lie to the official line.

Bottom line: question everything relating to the economy in China right now. Be especially skeptical about anything done under the banner of fighting corruption. That banner should be a red flag warning that the Chinese Communist Party is trying to suppress inconvenient people, or inconvenient truths. If they say it’s about corruption, it’s really about something else.


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April 29, 2016

Rounding Up the Usual Suspects, With Chinese Characteristics

Filed under: China,Commodities,Derivatives,Economics,Energy,Exchanges,Politics,Regulation — The Professor @ 8:32 pm

Commodity prices on Chinese exchanges, especially for ferrous metals, have been skyrocketing in recent weeks. Rebar, iron ore and coking coal have been particularly active, but thermal coal and cotton have been jacked too.

In response, the Chinese authorities are cracking down on speculation.  Exchanges have raised margins in order to attempt to rein in trading. The government is making ominous statements about speculation and manipulation. And we know what can happen to speculators who fall afoul of the government.

Ironically, prices never appear to be just right, by the lights of the Chinese authorities. Last summer, and earlier this year, speculators were allegedly causing stock prices and commodity prices to be too low. Now they are causing commodity prices to be too high.

This is a case of the Chinese authorities playing Claude Rains in Casablanca, and ordering a roundup of the usual suspects. Speculators make convenient targets, and they appear to be the proximate cause: after all, their trades produce the rapidly rising prices.

But the speculators are merely the messengers. If the Chinese authorities want to find the real culprits, they need to look in the mirror, for the speculators are responding to the most recent lurch in Chinese economic policy.

Put simply, after the economic slowdown of the second half of 2015 (a slowdown masked by fraudulent official statistics, but evident nonetheless), the government pushed the panic button and fell back on its standard remedy: injecting a burst of credit.  Some estimates put the Chinese debt to GDP at 237 percent. Since GDP is likely also an overstated measure of national income, due to fraudulent statistics and the fact that the losses on past investments have not been recognized (in part because much of the credit is pumped  into zombie companies that should be bankrupt) this ratio understates the true burden of the debt.

The surge in credit is being extended in large part through extremely fragile and opaque shadow banking channels, but the risk is ending up on bank balance sheets. To engage in regulatory arbitrage of capital rules, banks are disguising loans as “investments” in trust companies and other non-bank intermediaries, who then turn around and lend to corporate borrowers.  Just call a loan a “receivable” and voila, no nasty non performing loan problems.

There is one very reasonable inference to draw from this palpably panicked resort to stimulus, and the fact that many companies in commodity intensive industries are in desperate financial straits and the government is loath to let them go under: today’s stimulus and the implied promise of more in the future whenever the economy stutters will increase the demand for primary commodities. The speculators are drawing this inference, and responding accordingly by bidding up the prices of steel, iron ore, and coal.

Some commentors, including some whom I respect, point out that the increase does not appear to be supported by fundamentals, because steel and coal output, and capacity utilization, appear to be flat. But the markets are forward looking, and the price rises are driven by expectations of a turnaround in these struggling sectors, rather than their current performance. Indeed, the flat performance is one of the factors that has spurred the government to action.

When the Chinese responded to the 2008-2009 crisis by engaging in a massive stimulus program, I said that they were creating a Michael Jackson economy, one that was kept going by artificial means, to the detriment of its long term health. The most recent economic slowdown has engendered a similar response. Its scale is not quite as massive as 2008-2009, but it’s just begun. Furthermore, the earlier stimulus utilized a good portion of the nation’s debt capacity, and even though smaller, the current stimulus risks exhausting that capacity and raising the risk of a banking or financial crisis. It is clear, moreover, each yuan of stimulus today generates a smaller increase in (officially measured) output. Thus, in my view, the current stimulus will only provide a temporary boost to the economy, and indeed, will only aggravate the deep underlying distortions that resulted from past attempts to control the economy. This will make the ultimate reckoning even more painful.

But the speculators realize that the stimulus will raise commodity demand for some time. They further recognize that the stimulus signals that the authorities are backsliding on their pledges to reorient the economy away from heavy industry and investment-driven growth, and this is bullish for primary materials demand going forward: the resort to credit stimulus today makes it more likely that the authorities will continue to resort to it in the future. So they are bidding up prices today based on those predictions.

In other words, as long as the Michael Jackson economy lives and stays hooked, its suppliers will profit.

So yet again, commodity markets and the speculators who trade on them are merely a lurid facade distracting attention from the underlying reality. And the reality in China is that the government cannot kick the stimulus habit. The government may scream about (and worse) the usual suspects, but it is the real cause of the dizzying rise in Chinese commodity prices, and the burst of speculation.

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April 13, 2016

You Can’t Handle the Truth! Censoring Politically Inconvenient Research at the CFTC

Filed under: Commodities,Derivatives,Economics,Energy,Exchanges,Politics,Regulation — The Professor @ 2:29 pm

I had missed that the CFTC’s Office of the Inspector General had found that the Office of the Chief Economist had “prohibited relevant but potentially controversial research” on position limits. According to the OIG, during a routine interview with a CFTC staff economist, without being asked, the economist told the OIG that s/he had been prevented from doing research on position limits. According to the OIG, “several OCE economists identified position limits as an example of a topic on which economic research is no longer permitted.” One said: ”you can’t write a report on something that destroys three years of (CFTC) work.”

The basic conclusion is damning:

Several other economists confirmed their impression that OCE is now censoring research topics that might conflict with the official positions ofthe CFTC. Some ofthis censorship occurs on the part ofindividual staffeconomists themselves-when selecting potential topics, they now choose non-controversial ones. However, multiple OCE economists also reported that the Chief Economist has declined to permit research on certain topics relevant to the CFTC mission, including position limits.

Some OCE economists expressed uncertainty as to the purpose of OCE’s research program if the Office is prevented from studying topics relevant to current CFTC rulemaking. Yet OCE economists reported that the Chief Economist has rejected or delayed research paper topic ideas if tey were related to pending rulemaking or could challenge the validity of agency regulations. One OCE economist described the policymaking process as one in which a decision is made and then analysis is done in a fashion designed to support the decision. There is a perception within OCE that the ChiefEconomist is “more Commission-friendly,” and that he discourages research that might offend Commissioners.

During “multiple” discussions with the OIG, the Chief Economist at first admitted that this was so, then backtracked:

He agreed that he had initially rejected a research proposal on position limits on the basis that it was politically controversial. The Chief Economist later stated his belief that the CFTC did not have the data or the in-house expertise to do this project in any event. The Chief Economist explained that this was a matter of discretion, and that he did in fact permit research into politically controversial topics. He provided an example ofresearch into high-frequency trading and instances ofself-trading. When asked, the Chief Economist agreed that the Chairman actively supported this line ofresearch. The Chief Economist also stated that he wanted to be able to take to the Chairman and Commissioners anything he or OCE did.


Chairman Massad has recently rejected the OIG’s conclusion, the statements of multiple staff economists, and the initial gaffe (i.e., truth telling) by the Chief Economist. It wasn’t politics, you see. It was priorities:

“Our Office of the Chief Economist has many excellent economists, the morale there is very good and the work they produce is very good. They often produce things that might conflict with the views I have and the views other commissioners have, but we don’t have any kind of political screen on what we do,” said Massad, testifying before the Senate Committee on Appropriations on April 12.

“We do have, however, priority setting. It’s a small division and we must set priorities. We can’t always have a staff person just do the research they would like to do, as opposed to research we really need to focus on. That’s the only way in which we focus their work,” he added.

To state the obvious: priorities are inherently political. The statement about priorities therefore does not refute the belief of the staff economists that the decision to forbid research on position limits was ultimately political.

Chairman Massad’s assertion also is flatly inconsistent with the opinions expressed by multiple individuals, including his own Chief Economist (before he got his mind right, anyways). Thus, there is certainly a widespread perception in the OCE that permissible research means politically correct research. Either this perception is correct, or Chairman Massad has done a poor job of communicating to the economists the criteria by which research resources are allocated.

In a Washington where everything is politicized, and in particular where Senator Elizabeth Warren clearly attempts to censor those expressing dissenting opinions, and attempts to intimidate and slander those who dare to express such opinions, it is utterly plausible that the economists’ perceptions are very well grounded in reality. I view the economists’ complaint as facially valid, but potentially rebuttable. Mr. Massad’s testimony does not even come close to rebutting their assertions. Indeed, knowing how to decode words like “priorities” from GovSpeak, if anything his testimony buttresses the complaint, rather than rebuts it.

But let me suspend disbelief for a moment, and take Chairman Massad at his word. Just what does that imply?

First, it implies that a position limits initiative that would impose substantial burdens on the industry is of insufficient importance to justify a researcher or two to spend a portion of their time to study. Not to denigrate the value of the economists’ time, but in the scheme of things this does not represent a huge expenditure of resources. If position limits are of that little importance, what is the potential benefit of the regulation? Why does the Commission persist in pushing it if it is not even worth the time of a few staff economists?

Second, what does this say about the Commission’s commitment to carrying out its statutory obligation to conduct a cost-benefit analysis of the regulation?

Third, and relatedly, if the Chief Economist is correct and his staff does not possess “the data or the in-house expertise to do this project” how would it even be possible for the OCE, and the Commission, to perform a valid cost-benefit analysis? In particular, since the proposed research appears to speak to the issue of the benefits and necessity of limits, how can the Commission generally, and Chairman Massad in particular, credibly claim that they have determined that limits offer sufficient benefit to make them necessary, or to exceed their cost, if its own Chief Economist claims that his office has neither the data nor the expertise to perform valid research on the effects of limits?

Position limits have been a political project from Day 1. They remain a political project, as Senator Warren’s recent jeremiad (directed substantially at yours truly) demonstrates. The economic case for them remains dubious at best. Given this history and this context, the assertion that prohibiting CFTC staff economists from researching the issue was politically motivated is all too plausible.

The Risk article that I linked to quotes Gerry Gay, who was Chief Economist under Wendy Gramm in the Bush I administration. Gerry notes that prior to 1993, economics and economists had pride of place within the CFTC. It was viewed as “an economist’s shop.”

That is a fair statement. What happened in 1993? The Clinton administration took over, and (as Gerry notes) de-emphasized economics. I remember distinctly an article in Futures Magazine that solicited the opinion of many industry figures as to the changes the new administration would bring. Ex-CFTC Commissioner Philip McBride Johnson’s statement sticks in my mind. This is almost an exact quote, though it is from memory: “We can now get rid of the economists and put the lawyers back in charge.”

That’s exactly what happened then, and with a few exceptions during the Bush II years, has remained true ever since. Just as Clemenceau said that war is too important to be left to the generals, the DC set established that regulating the markets is too important to be left to the economists. What’s more, particularly in the Obama administration, starting with Gensler’s tenure as head of the Commission, it was determined that certain kinds of lawyers had to be in charge, and they had to follow marching orders from politicians. Do not forget that Gensler was only able to overcome skepticism about his Goldman background by pledging fealty to the Democratic senators on the relevant committees, and to their agenda. Truly independent regulators get crushed. (Remember the fate of FCC head Tom Wheeler when he strayed just a little bit off the party line on net neutrality?)

Keep that in mind when attempting to determine the true story of the disapproved research on position limits. It has been determined that you can’t handle the truth.

Update: Note well that the CFTC economists’ concerns about acceptable research extend beyond position limits. It is clear that several believe that policy-relevant research is discouraged, at least if it could contradict existing or pending regulations. If that’s in fact true, it would be fair to ask why the hell the CFTC has economists anyways. Economics has a vital role in informing policy on markets. The economists could pay their lifetime salaries many times over by stopping or correcting one misguided regulation, or even one misguided piece of a broader regulation. (I recall a quote from Coase that an economist could pay for his lifetime salary by just delaying a bad regulation a day.) The only real reason to have economists at the CFTC or any agency is to provide critical evaluation of pending or existing rules and regulations. It is beyond absurd to preclude economists from working on exactly those things, when they could upset some politically-driven regulation.

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April 4, 2016

Barbarian at the Gate, Exchange Edition

Filed under: Commodities,Derivatives,Economics,Energy,Exchanges,Regulation — The Professor @ 11:04 am

ICE’s Jeffrey Sprecher has a way of getting inside the heads of his competitors. He is obviously in the head of LSE CEO Xavier Rolet, before he’s even formally announced a rival offer for the LSE:

The boss of the London Stock Exchange has dismissed the owner of the New York Stock Exchange as a “slash and burn” organisation which would throw parts of the British bourse “in the bin”.

. . . .

He branded ICE’s ownership of Euronext, the pan-European exchange, as a “disaster,” claiming it had “eviscerated” the four-country exchange platform for cost-cutting.

Mr Rolet, who acknowledged that the LSE’s board would consider any “serious proposal,” made clear that he is not interested in a bid from an “interloper”.

“I don’t want just anyone, particularly not some ‘slash and burn’ type  organisation, to come in and kill all of the stuff we’ve done over the last few years,” he said.

“It is not a company based in Atlanta… that is going to worry about the financing of European industry… It’s just not going to be part of their strategy.

“Which is why they chucked out Euronext. They kept the clearing business that they had, and they kept the derivatives engine. And that is not a strategy for British industry. I doubt that this [Aim] would be part of the strategy of any frankly global exchange…Our 1000 Companies programme, that costs money. Our Elite programme, that costs money. All that stuff would be chucked in the bin.”

Rolet sounds like the typical 1980s CEO quaking in fear of a hostile takeover, fussing over every little piece of the empire he built. Which is exactly why everything about Sprecher that Rolet condemns as a bug is a feature.

ICE has an excellent record at making acquisitions work. A crucial reason for that is that Sprecher focuses ruthlessly on value and value creation, and doesn’t have sentimental attachments to particular businesses, especially those that are inefficient and bloated, and which don’t fit strategically within the organization he has built.

He recognized that Euronext was an excessively costly firm in a low margin commoditized business that didn’t offer any synergies to his core derivatives business. So he acquired EuronextLiffe, put Euronext on a diet, and spun it off for a decent price. He kept LIFFE and Euronext’s clearing business and integrated them into the ICE structure in a way that should make other acquirers (I’m looking at you, UAL!) green with envy.

As for sentimental musings about “financing European industry”, if it is so valuable, it would pay. If it doesn’t pay, it’s not valuable. No evident externalities here, and if there are, it’s fantasy to believe that any individual company will be able to internalize it.

As for programs that “cost money”: the question is if they generate an adequate return on that investment. If Aim, or the 1000 Companies program, or the Elite program don’t generate a compensatory return, they deserve to be binned or restructured. If they can earn a compensatory return, believe me, Sprecher won’t bin them. Rolet’s lament bears all the signs of a man who is personally invested in pet projects that he knows don’t pass the value creation test.

Rolet, in other words, sees Sprecher as a latter day Barbarian at the Gates. But if you give it even a superficial look, it is evident that by every measure ICE has been singularly successful at creating value in a very dynamic and competitive exchange and clearing space. If Jeff Sprecher is a barbarian, then civilized CEOs are vastly overrated. Give me the barbarians any day.

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March 29, 2016

Vertical Integration in LNG? Strike That: Reverse It

Filed under: Commodities,Economics,Energy — The Professor @ 8:24 pm

The LNG market has taken an even harder fall than the oil market, with prices down from a peak of over $20/mmBTU a couple of years ago to around $4 now. Slower demand growth plus the entry of megaprojects in Australia and the US have done a double whammy. Indeed, some big projects have been canceled of late due to the grim price environment.

Anticipating a growth in supply that was likely outstrip demand growth (but not by as much as has actually happened), in 2014 I predicted that an overhang of cargoes would catalyze the development of the spot market. This is in fact occurring. A larger fraction of the trade is being consummated on a short term basis, and longer term contracts are relying less on oil indexing (which I called a barbarous relic, and analogized to the drunk looking for his car keys under the streetlight) and destination clauses (which limit the ability of buyers to resell gas they don’t need), and more on gas-on-gas pricing and destination flexibility.

This is the beginning of a virtuous cycle by which liquidity begets liquidity, making spot trading even cheaper relative to long term supply contracts. As I referred to it in 2014, whereas in the first 50 years of LNG* it was necessary to rely on long term contracts to achieve security of supply and demand, in the next 50 years liquid markets would provide this security, as has been in the case in oil markets for the last nearly 40 years.

The oil market demonstrates that long term contracts are not necessary to support the financing of very capital intensive upstream energy projects. Further, there will be less of a need for megaprojects for some time (given the supply overhang). What’s more, smaller scale liquefaction facilities are becoming commercially viable. For example, the ex-CEO of Cheniere, Charif Souki, has a well-financed startup that is focusing on developing such projects.

Which means that the next decade of LNG will be an evolution towards a market that looks more like the oil market, or other traded commodity markets.

Some don’t see it that way, and seeing the financial struggles of megaprojects are suggesting a move in the opposite direction. For instance, today in Reuters, Clyde Russell pulls the panic alarm and recommends that LNG firms move to vertical integration:

The industry needs to consider going downstream in order to ensure its long-term viability.

Much like oil companies’ move from producing oil into refining it and then retailing fuels, so too will LNG companies have to find ways to establish a sustainable market that will create and maintain demand for their product.

This means investing in re-gasification terminals in developing nations, along with associated pipeline infrastructure and storages.

It may also mean building gas-fired power plants, transmission grids and or even partnering with companies at the retail level to install gas-powered heating systems in buildings and residences.

In the words of Willy Wonka: “Strike that. Reverse it.” (H/T Number One Daughter.)

There are a lot of reasons for vertical integration, none of which apply in the current LNG market. Neoclassical reasons include double marginalization (monopolies at successive levels of the value chain) or circumventing price controls.

Transactions cost reasons include asset specificity that create a bilateral monopoly problem. A classic example is site specificity, as when a power plant is located at the mouth of a coal mine. This reduces transportation costs, but would subject the mine owner to the opportunism of the power plant owner (and vice versa) if they were separate entities. Integration prevents wasteful haggling over quasi-rents.

These conditions don’t hold in LNG. In fact, the reverse is true. Since LNG can be shipped anywhere in the world, since it is an extremely homogenous commodity, and since there are an increasing number of producers, every producer can deal with many buyers, and every buyer can deal with many sellers. This eliminates double marginalization and asset specificity problems.

Moreover, integration can limit the optionality by tying a seller to a small number of consumers. There is  also a multiple equilibrium issue. If a large fraction of buyers and sellers are tied together via integration (or long term contracts), the spot market is less liquid, making it more costly for the remaining firms to rely on spot sales and purchases: this leads them to integrate (or enter into long term contracts), which reduces of the spot market further.

The LNG market is on the cusp of moving in the opposite direction, which would allow it to exploit optionality more effectively. And optionality is becoming more important as gas generation is becoming more common around the world, not just in Asia and Europe, but in Africa as well. This creates more destination options, and these options are valuable due to uncertainties in supply and demand. To take a recent example, drought in Amazonia has led to an increase in demand for gas generation in Brazil: traders like Trafigura have met the demand by sending cargoes there. When the rains return, the cargoes can find another market. As another example, the Fukushima nuclear disaster led to an increase in the demand for gas in Japan. A Russian supply disruption would lead to a spike in demand in Europe.

Given the inherent variability in gas supply and demand, which vary due to the vagaries of the weather, supply shocks, and myriad other factors, and which are crucially imperfectly correlated geographically, destination options are valuable. Flexibility allows gas to move to places experiencing increases in demand or reductions in supply via pipelines. Vertical integration impedes the ability to exploit these options, and hence destroys value.

Thus, vertical integration is the exact wrong way to go in LNG. The biggest virtue of LNG is that it can be shipped anywhere: why undermine that virtue by constraining shipping options? The deepening of market liquidity, which is proceeding apace, will reduce the transactions costs of exploiting optionality. The silver lining in the current glut of LNG is that is speeding the development of liquidity. Meaning that Clyde Russell’s prescription of vertical integration is the exact wrong response to that glut. The glut increases liquidity. Liquidity enhances optionality. Optionality creates value. Don’t stymie this salutary development. Go with it. It will pay off in both the short term and the long term.

* The first cargo of Algerian LNG was shipped in 1964. The birth of the LNG industry is often dated to that shipment, although LNG had been shipped from the US in the 1950s.

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March 22, 2016

Shocking! Physical Oil Traders Profit From *LOW* Prices! Who Knew?

Filed under: Commodities,Derivatives,Economics,Energy,Politics,Regulation — The Professor @ 1:25 pm

Major oil traders have profited handsomely from the low price environment. Today Gunvor released results, showing a big increase in profits to $1.25 billion. A big part of the increase was driven by profits on sales of its Russian assets, but the company’s news release states that earnings from continuing operations were up 10 percent. Gunvor’s results were driven by a 24 percent increase in traded volumes.

Timing is everything. No doubt Gennady Timchenko is cursing US sanctions even more now than in March, 2014. The sanctions preceded by a few months the epic oil price collapse which has boosted oil traders’ profits.

Vitol also released some limited information about its 2015. It did not release profits numbers, but the FT reports that in the 9 months ending September, its profits were $1.25 billion, about 40 percent more than in the comparable period of 2014. Vitol’s volumes were up 13 percent.

These results come on the heels of earlier good trading results from Glencore and Trafigura. Both companies showed large increases in volumes, up 22 percent in the case of Trafigura.

Revenues of all oil traders have declined because price declines have more than offset the effect of rising volumes. But that  just points out that what matters to traders is volumes, not flat price. Indeed, low flat prices can be a boon, because (a) to the extent they are driven by higher output, they are associated with increased volumes, and (b) they reduce working capital burdens.

The increase in trader volumes far outstripped increases in output of crude or refined products. This raises the question of what is driving the increase. It could be that a higher fraction of output is traded now. Alternatively, or additionally, each barrel may turn over more frequently. I don’t know the answer, but I am going to make some inquiries to learn more.

These bumper profits in the face of an oil price collapse proves, as if further proof is needed, the idiocy of David Kocieniewski and other non-specialist journalists and politicians (yeah, Liz, I’m taking the risk of turning to stone, and looking at you). Kocieniewski, you may recall (I sure do!), said that my opposition to position limits and my support of speculation in commodity markets was tainted due to my writing of a white paper for Trafigura, a notorious speculator that profits from high prices:

What Mr. Pirrong has routinely left out of most of his public pronouncements in favor of speculation is that he has reaped financial benefits from speculators and some of the largest players in the commodities business, The New York Times has found.

. . .

While he customarily identifies himself solely as an academic, Mr. Pirrong has been compensated in the last several years by the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, the commodities trading house Trafigura, the Royal Bank of Scotland, and a handful of companies that speculate in energy, according to the disclosure forms.

Except that as the events of the past couple of years demonstrate, physical traders aren’t speculators and don’t have an interest in (let alone the ability to) drive prices higher.

But why let the facts stand in the way of a good story, right?

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March 21, 2016

The Seen and the Unseen, Hedging Edition (With a Bonus Explanation of Why Airlines Hate Speculators)

Filed under: Commodities,Derivatives,Economics,Energy,Politics,Regulation — The Professor @ 8:16 pm

Most media coverage of hedging is appalling. It tends to focus on the accounting, and not the economics. Unfortunately, managements and analysts too often fall into the same trap.

This WSJ article about hedging by airlines is a case in point:

After decades of spending billions of dollars to hedge against rising fuel costs, more airlines, including some of the world’s largest, are backing off after getting burned by low oil prices.

When oil prices were rising, hedging often paid off for the airlines, helping them reduce their exposure to higher fuel costs. But the speed of the 58% plunge in oil prices since mid-2014 caught the industry by surprise and turned some hedges into big money losers.

Last year, Delta Air Lines Inc., the nation’s No. 2 airline by traffic, racked up hedging losses of $2.3 billion, while United Continental Holdings Inc., the No. 3 carrier, lost $960 million on its bets.

Meanwhile, No. 1-ranked American Airlines Group Inc., which abandoned hedging in 2014, enjoyed cheaper fuel costs than many of its rivals as a result. “Hedging is a rigged game that enriches Wall Street,” said Scott Kirby, the airline’s president, said in an interview.

Now, much of the rest of the industry is rethinking the costly strategy of using complex derivatives to lock in fuel costs, airlines’ second-largest expense after labor.

Roughly speaking, hedgers “lose”–that is, their derivatives positions lose money–about half the time. If the hedge is done properly, that “loss” will be offset by a gain somewhere else on the income statement or balance sheet. The problem is, it’s not identified specifically. In the case of airlines, it shows up as a lower cost of goods sold (fuel expense), but it isn’t identified specifically.

The tendency is to evaluate the wisdom of hedging ex post. But you cannot evaluate hedging that way. You hedge because you don’t know which way prices will go, and because a price move in one direction hurts you more than a price move in the opposite direction of the same magnitude helps you. If you knew which way prices were going to go, you wouldn’t need to hedge.

That is, hedging is valuable for an airline if reducing the variability of profits attributable to fuel cost changes raises average profits. How can this happen? One way is bankruptcy costs. If an airline loses $1 billion due to a fuel price spike, it may go bankrupt, and incur the non-trivial costs associated with bankruptcy: this is a deadweight loss. The airline receives no bonus equivalent in magnitude to bankruptcy costs if it gains $1 billion due a fuel price decline. Therefore, reducing the variability of fuel prices reduces the expected deadweight losses (in this case, expected bankruptcy costs), which is beneficial to shareholders and bondholders.

As another example, an airline that becomes more highly leveraged because of an adverse fuel price movement may underinvest (relative to what an unleveraged firm would) due to “debt overhang”: it underinvests because when it is highly leveraged the benefits of investment accrue to bondholders rather than shareholders. Again, there is unlikely to be a symmetric gain when the company becomes unexpectedly less leveraged due to a favorable fuel price movement. Here, reducing variability reduces the expected losses due to underinvestment.

Hedging can also reduce the costs of providing incentives to management through tying pay to performance. Hedging reduces a source of variability in performance that is outside of managers’ control: since they are risk averse they demand compensation for bearing this risk, so hedging it reduces compensation costs, and makes it cheaper to tie pay and performance.

The problem is, none of these things show up on accounting statements with the clarity of a 9 or 10 figure loss on a derivatives position put on as a hedge. The true gains from hedging are often unseen. The true gains are the disasters avoided that would have occurred in the absence of a hedge. There’s no line for that in the financial statements.

The one saving grace of the WSJ article is that it does mention a relevant consideration in passing, but doesn’t understand its full importance:

Another factor in the hedging pullback: a round of megamergers, capacity cuts and more fuel-efficient aircraft have fattened the industry’s profits, leaving carriers in better financial shape—and less vulnerable to a spike in fuel prices.

Two of the factors that make hedging value-enhance that I mentioned before (bankruptcy costs and underinvestment) are more relevant for highly leveraged firms that are at risk of financial distress. Due to the factors mentioned in foregoing quote, airlines have become less financially distressed, and need to hedge less. But that should have been the focus of the article, rather than the losses on previously undertaken hedges.

And that should be what is driving airlines’ decisions to hedge, although the statement of American Airlines’ president Kirby doesn’t provide much confidence that that is the case, at least insofar as AA is concerned.

Airlines are interesting because they have historically been among the biggest long hedgers in the energy market. This is true because they are one major consumer of fuel that (a) cannot pass on (in the short run, anyways) a large fraction of fuel price increases, and (b) are big enough to make justify incurring the non-trivial fixed costs associated with hedging.

Fuel costs are determined by an airline’s routes and schedule, and fuel consumption is therefore fixed in the short to medium term because an airline cannot expand or contract its schedule willy-nilly, or adjust its aircraft fleet in the short run. Thus, fuel is a fixed cost in the short to medium term. Furthermore, the schedule and the existing fleet determine the supply of seats, and hence (given demand) fares. Since supply and hence fares won’t change in the short to medium term if fuel prices rise or fall, airlines can’t pass on fuel price shocks through higher or lower fares, and hence these price shocks go straight to the bottom line. That increases the benefits for financial hedging: airlines have no self-hedges for fuel prices.

This is to be contrasted to, say, oil refiners. Refiners are able to pass on the bulk of oil price changes via product price changes: pass through provides a self-hedge. Yes, crack spreads contract some when oil prices rise (higher prices->lower consumption->lower utilization->lower margins), but refiners are able to shift most of the crude price changes onto downstream consumers. This reduces the need for financial hedges.

Further, many downstream consumers–gasoline consumers like you and me, for instance–don’t consume in a scale sufficient to justify incurring the fixed costs of managing our exposure to gasoline price changes. Therefore, a large fraction of those who are hurt by rises in the flat price of energy don’t benefit from financial hedging.

Conversely, those hurt by falls in flat prices, firms like oil producers and holders of oil inventories, don’t have self-hedges: they are directly exposed to flat prices. Moreover, they are big enough to find it worthwhile to incur the fixed cost of implementing a hedging program.

This leads to an asymmetry between long and short hedging, which is evident in CFTC commitment of traders data for oil. This asymmetry is why long speculators are essential in these markets. Without long speculators, the (predominant) short hedgers would have no one to take the risk they want to get rid of. This would put downward pressure on futures prices, and increase the risk premium embedded in futures prices.

Which is why airlines have been in the forefront of those hating on speculators. Not because speculators distort prices. But because long speculators compete with long hedgers like airlines to take the other side of short hedgers like oil producers and traders holding oil inventories. This competition reduces the risk premium in futures prices.

This makes it costlier for airlines to hedge, but their higher costs are more than offset by lower hedging costs for producers, stockholders, and other short hedgers. This is why speculators are vital to the commodity markets, and thereby raise prices for producers and reduce costs for consumers.

But apparently this is totally lost on Elizabeth Warren and her ilk. But as the WSJ article shows, ignorance about hedging–and hence about the benefits of speculation–is widespread. Unless and until this ignorance is reduced substantially, policy debates will generate much more heat than light.

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