Streetwise Professor

December 30, 2010

A Putin Torpedo Fired at the WTO?

Filed under: Economics,Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 4:08 pm

I’ve been skeptical all along about Russia’s–read Putin’s–intentions regarding Russia’s entry into the WTO, and if it does enter, its intention to adhere to the rules.  Today a couple of stories from the horse’s mouth bolster this skepticism.

From the first story:

Prime Minister Vladimir Putin said on Wednesday that questions remain over Russia‘s entry into the the World Trade Organisation but that Russia can be expected to join the trade rules body in 2011.

Putin told reporters that Russia could use protectionist measures other than tariffs to support domestic industries once it joins the WTO, and expressed concern about the effects of membership on Russia’s automotive industry.

From the more extensive article:

Putin said questions remain over Russia’s campaign for membership of the WTO, which has been helped by Obama’s public backing. The eventual membership is also expected to boost foreign investment.

“There is no final result yet but we have agreed the main parameters with our main partners,” Putin said.

Russia “can be expected” to join the WTO in 2011, he told reporters, in line with predictions by other officials.

The government has raised a number of export duties as part of Putin’s new economic policy aimed at the revival of Russia’s industrial might. Putin indicated that Russia could implement protectionist measures even after WTO accession.

Putin said he was especially concerned with the post-accession future of the auto industry which saw massive state support and foreign investment. He said levels of protection in the United States, western Europe and China were higher than in Russia.

“If we see that our car industry is not treated on equal terms we will find such protection mechanisms,” Putin said. He later specified that the measures would be applicable under the WTO rules and will relate to technical regulation.

Putin’s remarks were likely to raise concerns among WTO members over Russia’s behavior in the global trade body and complicate talks currently underway in Geneva.

One reasonable hypothesis is that Putin wants to complicate talks.  As I’ve written before, protectionism is one of the tools that Putin uses to allocate rents in order to sustain political equilibrium.  A rule-based system is antithetical to such a discretionary approach which is essential to maintaining the balance between competing factions and interests within Russia.  Russian admission to WTO–with the responsibilities and constraints that go along with it–has serious disadvantages from Putin’s perspective. (That said, there is truth in Putin’s criticism of the policies adopted in the US and elsewhere to prop up domestic auto sectors.  And few governments have not attempted to manipulate or evade WTO strictures to benefit powerful domestic constituencies.)

There may be another motive as well.  WTO is more amenable to Medvedev and his (in Russian terms) more economically liberal, modernizationist, faction.  And if this article from Argumenty Nedeli is to believed, Putin is “seething” over Medvedev’s uppitness in thinking that he just might like a second presidential term (no link: via JRL):

This year made it plain that maintenance of the so called tandem in the operational condition until 2012 is Dmitry
Medvedev’s job now. Moreover, it is also clear that Medvedev is up to the task. Before Vladimir Putin, retirement of the head of state was extremely painful so that no leader resigned if and as long as he could help it. Putin demonstrated in 2008 how it could be done without any loss of political influence.

Medvedev will probably strengthen this trend and set the precedent of planned rotation of the presidential power within a narrow circle of senior functionaries.In any event, the premier’s team is still seething over reports in the media on presidential aspirations of Medvedev in connection with 2012. It is believed in the circles close to the premier that this information is constantly leaked to the media from at least two groups close to the president -his friends (Ivanov, Vinnichenko, etc.) and pro-American lobby (Voloshin,
Dvorkovich, Prikhodko).

There is also the third group of support, external one. The premier’s team perceives it to be located in Washington where the current U.S. Administration will definitely welcome Medvedev’s re-election.

It is said in the meantime that the circles close to the premier persuade Putin to refrain from an open and direct
confrontation with Medvedev. The premier seems to be listening to the advice. His latest initiatives clearly aim to weaken Medvedev and the clout he wields.

Undermining WTO would certainly be consistent with aims “to weaken Medvedev.”

That said, I take all tea-leaf reading about what goes on in the Russian government with considerable caution.  Who knows what games are being played.  But Putin’s provocative remarks about WTO are consistent with his interest and his system of rule, and at the same time put Medvedev in something of a compromising position.  Given that Medvedev is arguably less invested in the Putin system, and is certainly critical of it rhetorically, Putin’s words could have broader implications.

December 27, 2010

Overexposed?

Filed under: Clearing,Commodities,Derivatives,Economics,Exchanges,Financial crisis,Politics — The Professor @ 1:51 pm

Just before Christmas, the Basel Committee on Banking Supervision released its “Consultative Document on Capitalisation of bank exposures to central counterparties.”  In plain English, it sets out principles on how to determine the amount of capital banks must put aside to protect against the risk of a clearinghouse default, or the risk that the margins a clearinghouse collects are inadequate to cover the loss of a defaulting trader or traders.

A couple of days back I commented on the token 2 percent capital charge against trade exposures.  Here I’ll take up the more complicated issue of the capital charges for the banks that are clearinghouse members that must stump up funds to cover the loss (over margin) arising from the default of any other member firm.

In a nutshell: the rules illustrate the fundamental problems with Basel in all its incarnations.

The proposal sets different levels of capital charges, depending on whether the amount of funds precommitted to the clearinghouse (its own resources, or its own monies plus any monies invested by member firms) are larger or smaller than the CCP’s “hypothetical capital.”  If the CCP’s own resources (e.g., contributed capital, retained earnings) exceed the hypothetical capital, the amount of capital a bank  exposed to the default by another member must hold is 1.6 percent of its default fund contribution.  If the hypothetical capital exceeds the CCP’s own resources, but is less than the sum of those resources and precommitted default fund contributions, the capital charge is proportional to 1.6 percent of the difference between the total prefunding and hypothetical capital plus 100 percent of the difference between the hypothetical capital and the CCP’s own resources; this is effectively a 100 percent capital charge on the marginal dollar in the default fund.  When the hypothetical capital exceeds the sum of the CCP’s resources and its members’ prefunded contributions to the default fund, the capital charge is proportional to the sum of 100 percent of the members’ prefunded contribution to the default fund and 1.92 percent of the difference between hypothetical capital and the total prefunded contributions. (These calculations assume that the CCP meets to-be-released CPSS-IOSCO standards.  The capital charge for non-complying CCPs is based on a risk weight of 1250 percent.)

Using the “waterfall” analogy, the capital charge on default fund contributions is 1.6 percent if the first element of the waterfall–the CCP’s own financial resources–exceeds hypothetical capital.  If the hypothetical capital exceeds the resources in the first element of the waterfall, the capital charge depends on how much of a call the hypothetical exposure represents on the banks’ default fund contributions.  If the hypothetical capital exceeds the resources in the second element of the waterfall, the capital charge depends on how much of a call the hypothetical exposure represents on the bank’s obligation to commit additional funds in the event of an exhaustion of the CCP’s resources and default fund contributions.

The key variable here is the hypothetical capital.  This is calculated using the “Current Exposure Method,” which is defined here.  The current exposure is the sum of the mark-to-market value of a position (net of collateral) and “amount for potential future credit exposure calculated on the basis of the total notional principal amount.”  This notional principal-based amount depends on the instrument in question, with the exposure of interest rate derivatives being a small proportion (0 to 1.5 percent, depending on maturity) of notional, and at the other extreme, commodity exposure ranging between 10 and 15 percent of notional, again depending on maturity.  Hypothetical capital for a given notional amount held by a particular clearing member times the weight is equal to that product, multiplied by 1.6 percent (a 20 percent risk weight times an 8 percent capital ratio).

Given that CCPs mark positions to market frequently, and require posting of initial margin, the mark-to-market portion of the hypothetical capital is/will be zero, or quite close to it.  This means that hypothetical capital for CCPs will be, almost always, a multiple of notional amount.

However, notional amount is a poor–very poor–proxy for the risk of underlying positions.  The default risk posed by a given notional amount can vary substantially even within the five categories set out in the Basel rules.  For instance, different currencies have different risks, and those risks differ than the risks in gold; different equity products (e.g., different indices) have different risks; and different commodities can have substantially different risks (compare, for instance, natural gas or electricity with oil or corn).  But the rules treat everything within a given type-maturity bucket as equally risky.  Moreover, the weights across categories are highly dubious.  Is three month silver seven times riskier than three month gold?  Is three month oil ten times riskier than three month gold?

Furthermore, the risk posed to a CCP’s capital and the capital of its members also depends on the riskiness of individual clearing members (via their balance sheets).  The hypothetical capital calculation does not take this into account, although in a footnote (note 21) the document does suggest the possibility that the risk weight in the hypothetical capital calculation can be adjusted to reflect for the rating of CCP members: the document says bank supervisors “may increase the risk weight . . . if . . . the clearing members of the CCP are not highly rated.”  As written, this seems like a blanket adjustment based on the collective rating strength of the members, rather than an adjustment that reflects differences in ratings among members.  And I shall pass over without comment the reliance on ratings as a measure of credit quality.

Lastly, the hypothetical capital merely sums these (imperfect) exposure amounts across the members of a CCP.  This does not reflect the correlation of exposures across members; arguably the 20 percent risk weight is a correlation adjustment, but a very rough one that does not vary in a discriminating fashion with the way that individual exposures contribute to a CCP’s total exposure.  (As one example: a CCP clearing credit derivatives on financial institutions has a very different structure of exposures, and interrelationships between them, than a CCP clearing commodity products.)

In sum, capital charges depend on hypothetical capital, and hypothetical capital does not vary in an economically sensible way with the risks that CCP exposures pose to member banks.

Given the substantial increase in capital requirements for CCP members of clearinghouses with resources less than hypothetical capital, the rules will provide a strong incentive to make CCP capital (retained earnings plus contributed capital) somewhat greater than this hypothetical capital.  But given that this hypothetical capital is only tenuously related to CCP risk (for the reasons discussed above), this provides little assurance that CCP capital is adequate to absorb the actual potential default losses.

This further means that the capital charge of a member bank attributable to its participation in a default fund bears little association with the true risk to the bank’s capital arising from its CCP membership.  A bank that is a member of a CCP that has capital in excess of hypothetical capital may still be very much at risk to suffer losses via its default fund contributions, and its commitment to replenish default funds.  Its capital charge will not reflect this exposure, however.  This will permit banks to take higher exposures to other risks.  This, in turn, will have perverse feedback effects because the true exposure of members to each other depends crucially on the riskiness of member balance sheets.  Capital charges that do not reflect true CCP exposure risk frees up capital that can be used to take on other risks that inflate the riskiness of the CCP.

As I’ve noted, and as Deus Ex Macchiato emphasizes, based on a directive from the G-20, the new capital regime is intended in part to shove derivatives risks from bilateral deals to central clearing.  That’s troublesome given that, if my analysis is correct, the CCP capital requirements don’t adequately reflect actual risks.  It is by no means clear that the new rules won’t actually reduce the amount of capital held against derivatives risks.  And remember, blather about CCPs reducing interconnectedness aside, this risk taken off of balance sheets by shifting bilateral exposures to CCPs goes right back to CCP member banks via their capital and default fund contributions.  It would be nice to have some confidence that this risk recycling actually results in an increase in the capitalization of derivatives risks.  If it doesn’t, the supposed systemic risk-reducing benefits of clearing will prove chimerical–or worse. It could indeed lead to an increase in the scale of derivatives trading, and the amount of derivatives risk that banks bear.

It’s also worthwhile to contemplate the implications of these proposed rules for incentives on various decision margins.  For instance, with marking to market and some initial margining, capital charges will not vary with initial margin levels.  Thus, even though reducing initial margins would increase the exposure of CCP capital and member default fund obligations (prefunded and contingent), a CCP could reduce initial margins without increasing the capital charges its members incur for their CCP exposures.  Given that members may benefit from lower initial margins (margins are costly, and lower margins may lead to greater trading activity and higher revenues for member banks), this would tend to provide an incentive to reduce initial margins.

Against this, one could make a couple of arguments.  One is that the CCP members will recognize that reducing margins reduces the buffers protecting the other stages of the waterfall and thereby raises their risks.  This will lead them to resist such efforts.

But if you believe that bank self-interest is sufficient to ensure that they choose the right level of collateralization, you should also believe that capital rules are altogether superfluous.  After all, the ostensible rationale for these rules is that financial institutions don’t internalize the costs of the risks that they bear, and hence when left to their own devices will take on risks that are outsized relative to their capitals.  So if you believe that capital requirements are essential due to some mispricing of risk, you also have to believe that undermargining is a serious concern if capital requirements do not properly account for the relation between collateral levels and the amount of risk that CCP members bear.

You could also argue that regulation of margins directly, via CPSS-IOSCO standards and prudential regulation of CCPs, will overcome this problem.  Given the complexities of margin, the information advantage that CCP members have over prudential regulators, and the vulnerability of prudential regulators to capture and pressure, this is a very thin reed to lean on.

One last thing.  Beating me to the punch, David at DEM compares the default fund to the mezzanine tranche of a CDO.  He further notes that “mezz tranches in Basel are punitively treated.”  He interprets the Basel proposal thusly:

The Committee tentatively proposes to use this idea, and figure out whether the CCP’s first line of defence – margin – is enough to cover the capital that would be required for its portfolio of exposures. If it is, then default fund contributions aren’t that risky; if not, then they are acting in part like capital (i.e. margin is too low), and thus they should be treated as pretty risky.

The idea is a reasonable one. But the details are delicate. I haven’t run any numbers yet, and for once I’m excited about seeing how they come out. Will the major CCPs turn out to have enough margin based on the Basel methodology?

My analysis above suggests that the answer to this question is no.  That in reality, the proposal will have no bearing on whether CCP margins are accurate or adequate.  Or put differently, capital charges will depend tenuously–very tenuously, at best–with the adequacy of margins.

And taking the CDO analogy further, we know that there is a good reason to treat mezzanine exposures punitively.  They are very risky–tail risky.  In particular, as the whole subprime fiasco demonstrated, mezz tranche risk is systematic risk: they perform very badly precisely in those states of the world in which returns on financial assets generally are low.  They are like short, out of the money puts on the market portfolio.  Put differently, default funds take a hit precisely in those states of the world in which banks in general are likely to be in bad shape. (And as puts, these exposures have embedded leverage.)

I fail to see how the proposed CCP capital rules really take this systematic tail risk into account.  If you believe that some other market or regulatory failure makes capital requirements necessary, banks by themselves won’t take the systematic tail risk into account voluntarily.  So if the capital requirements don’t get them to internalize that risk, they’ll take on too much of it.

Which means that the new rules will not induce the proper scaling of derivatives trading activity.  The markets will be too big.

In sum, IMO the Basel proposal does not give incentives to (a) choose margins appropriately, (b) control the risks on bank balance sheets (which feedback to CCP risks), (c) rightsize the derivatives markets, or (d) allocate trading activity efficiently across firms and products.  All of which is worrisome, and reinforces my concern that clearing mandates have, at best, exchanged new risks for old, with no confidence that the exchange ratio is one-for-one.

December 26, 2010

The Last Shovelful of Dirt

Filed under: Commodities,Derivatives,Economics,Exchanges — The Professor @ 4:00 pm

No doubt when you were quaffing down a warm cup of hot chocolate on Christmas, you were thinking to yourself: “I wonder how that cocoa corner played out.”  Well, maybe not.

But anyways, wonder no more.  In mid-December, Armajaro, the British hedge fund run by Tony Ward, delivered the bulk of the 110,000 tons of cocoa tendered against the expiring contract.

The deliveries occurred at a price of about 2000 BP/tonne; Armajaro took deliveries at prices of around 2700 BP/tonne. On deliveries of about 240,000 tons, that corresponds to a loss of 168 million BP, or about $260 million.

That, boys and girls, is what they call “burying the corpse.”*

Armajaro’s losses on the deliveries it took might actually exceed this outsized sum if they made any deliveries or cash sales at spot prices prior to December.  Prices were below 1800 BP/tonne in November; only tragic political turmoil in the Ivory Coast has buoyed prices of late.  But even chaos in the most important cocoa producer (something not anticipated in July) has not been enough to drive prices back to the inflated levels seen in July.

In his recent article on the cocoa market, FT commodities editor Javiar Blas duly notes that Armajaro delivered a huge quantity of cocoa.  But he lets pass in deafening silence the fact that this large delivery completely undercuts his previous “reporting” on Armajaro’s actions.  In this case, “reporting” meaning “credulously repeating Tony Ward’s fantastical cover story.”  A cover story, I might add, which was transparently fantastical when it was first spun in July–as I pointed out then.  You might remember the bologna about expectations of a bad crop (which would in no way make it rational to take huge deliveries in the face of a steep backwardation) and pre-sales of the deliveries (which would have, in fact, enhanced the profitability of a manipulative strategy, and the existence of which, in any event, is belied by December’s deliveries). Self-evident and self-serving tripe then, and now.

Blas writes:

In any case, investors will do well not to focus on Armajaro’s selling, but on the buying side. If big physical players turn to the exchange for supplies over the short term, it could be a signal that the cocoa market is heating up again.

Yeah, if I were him I wouldn’t want anybody focusing on Armajaro’s selling either.  Sorry, but “move on, nothing to see here” doesn’t quite cut it.

Armajaro’s escapade sparked considerable popular pique .  I had quite a few people contact me to register their outrage at Ward’s machinations.  Someone started an anti-Armajaro Facebook group, and a couple of British artists also tried to publicize the shenanigans.

The exchange and the British regulators–not so much.  And the FT–definitely not so much at all.  Quite the contrary.  It’s sad commentary when some ordinary folks on Facebook have better BS detectors than those operating the market, those supposedly overseeing it, and those who get paid to report on it.

* And no, Mr. Nissen, I didn’t coin that phrase.  But I wish I had.

December 25, 2010

Merry Christmas!

Filed under: Uncategorized — The Professor @ 6:43 am

Merry Christmas to all of my SWP friends.  I deeply appreciate your visiting and reading and commenting; your active participation has made SWP very rewarding.  May you have a joyous Christmas and a Happy New Year.

December 23, 2010

They Need Shooters More Than Tooters

Filed under: History,Military,Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 10:00 am

Daniel Harvey Hill was an acerbic, cantankerous general in the Confederate Army during the Civil War.  (And, interestingly a former college professor and future university president.)  When a member of a North Carolina regiment in Hill’s command applied for transfer to the regimental band, Hill denied it with the endorsement: “Shooters needed more than tooters.”*

Apparently D.H. Hill’s spirit has been reincarnated in Russia:

With only two weeks remaining before the new year, the moment of truth on conscription has come. Even now, as police in the major cities are busy trying to prevent clashes between ethnic Russians and people from the North Caucasus, many police officers are being diverted from their primary duties to rounding up conscripts. Recruiters are feeling a lot of pressure because the law requires that the 2010 conscription be completed by Dec. 31, and they are way off on their numbers.

This may explain an early morning raid on a dormitory at the Moscow Conservatory of Music to round up about 40 flutists and clarinetists.

Somehow the thought of an army of conservatory students hardly sends shivers of fear down the spine.  And can you imagine how those gentle souls will be treated in the barracks–so no doubt shivers of fear are definitely going down their spines.

This manifestation of desperation, combined with the too-ing and fro-ing over a contract army, reveals the hollowness of the Russian military.  It also makes Medvedev’s and Putin’s tooting (or would that be tweeting, in the case of the former) over the expenditure of over $600 billion on new weapons over the next ten years look utterly farcical.  Who, pray tell, is going to operate this vast panoply of weaponry?  Somehow, clarinetists in fear for their lives, ignorant (and angry) villagers from the Caucasus, and the left-tail kids not clever enough to avoid the draft, or with such bad prospects outside the army as to make it the best option, is not the stuff out of which a modern military is made.

But just imagine the bribery possibilities that come with spending $600 billion!  And all the propaganda that can be spun around shiny new weapons (never mind the lack of trained, career servicemen to use them properly).  Russia: graft meets the Wizard of Oz (“pay no attention to that little man behind the curtain!”) Look at things that way, and what appears to be quite insane makes perfect sense.

* Hill’s biographers, Bridges and Gallagher titled their book “Lee’s Maverick General.”  They relate another version of the story, in which the band requested a group furlough, which Hill denied with the endorsement “Shooters before tooters.”

December 22, 2010

What Could Possibly Go Wrong?

Filed under: Clearing,Economics,Exchanges,Financial crisis,Politics — The Professor @ 1:21 pm

The Basel Committee on Banking Regulation has rolled out Grandson of Basel I, its response to the financial crisis.  One thing that interests me is Basel III’s treatment of exposures to central counterparties.  In two words: very generously:

To address the systemic risk arising from the interconnectedness of banks and other financial institutions through the derivatives markets, the Committee is supporting the efforts of the Committee on Payments and Settlement Systems (CPSS) and the International Organization of Securities Commissions (IOSCO) to establish strong standards for financial market infrastructures, including central counterparties. The capitalisation of bank exposures to central counterparties (CCPs) will be based in part on the compliance of the CCP with such standards, and will be finalised after a consultative process in 2011. A bank’s collateral and mark-to-market exposures to CCPs meeting these enhanced principles will be subject to a low risk weight, proposed at 2%; and default fund exposures to CCPs will be subject to risk-sensitive capital requirements. These criteria, together with strengthened capital requirements for bilateral OTC derivative exposures, will create strong incentives for banks to move exposures to such CCPs.

Two percent of eight percent is a little more than nothing.  It means a financial institution must hold 16 cents in capital against $100 in exposure to a CCP.

This is actually higher than the current system.  Under Federal Reserve rules, for instance, exposures to CCPs receive a zero risk weight.

This move by the Basel Committee is of a piece with legislative and regulatory efforts around the globe to drive derivatives from bilateral arrangements to cleared ones, under the belief that the former are inherently more systemically risky than the latter.  But the danger is thinking about one risk being inherently greater than another.  Indeed, it is this very kind of categorical thinking that has made previous Basel rules the incubators of crisis.

In earlier incarnations of Basel, government debt was considered very safe–so no risk weight.  Mortgage debt was considered very safe–so a relatively small risk weight.  Agency debt was considered inherently safe relative to corporate debt–so again, a small risk weight relative to the 100 percent applied to corporate debt. Ditto interbank exposures.

Thus, in an effort to make banks “safe”, the Basel rules incentivized banks to invest in government debt, mortgages and better yet, AAA mortgage CDOs, and agency debt, and to engage in massive interbank lending.  And what happened?  These supposedly categorically safe instruments were the sources of the ongoing systemic turmoil.

Now, the Gnomes of Basel are telling the world that cleared derivatives are categorically, inherently safer than bilateral derivatives.  As a result, they are trying to structure the incentive system to drive derivatives onto CCPs.

Based on their track record: be afraid.  Be very afraid.

The problem with Basel generally is that its architects don’t seem to take into account the incentives their rules create.  Historically governments, agencies, mortgages, etc., have been relatively safe.  So give them a favorable treatment.  But this gives financial institutions subject to the rules and who also are driven by perverse incentives to add risk arising from government guarantees (implicit and explicit) the motivation to construct portfolios and design instruments and make lending decisions that are “safe” according to Basel, but which are in fact far riskier than the capital charges reflect.  Moreover, even if a particular category of investment is relatively safe by some measure, if everybody is given an incentive to hold it, when something goes wrong in that category the systemic effects of the problem are far worse than if institutions weren’t facing a common incentive system that encouraged them to engage in correlated trades.

The same dynamic is going on with CCPs.  CCPs went through the recent crisis relatively unscathed.  So Basel is relying on that historical fact to justify the expansion of CCPs, and is implementing incentives to encourage that growth.  But this means that the new CCPs will not be your grandfather’s CCPs.  They will be different–and far riskier.  The incentive system will encourage the shifting of more risk, and more exotic and difficult to measure and manage risks onto CCPs.

Thinking cynically (and believe me, it comes easily), given that it appears that banks have won major victories in the Basel process, I can readily imagine the following train of thought going through bankers’ heads.  Mandates in the US and EU are going to force greater use of clearing.  How can we make this work for us?  Well, if we essentially have to hold no capital against cleared derivatives exposures (yes, I know about margin, CCP capital requirements etc.), maybe the mandate won’t be so bad–and indeed, it might free up some capital and allow us to put on even bigger positions.

I am not alone in my skepticism about Basel III generally.  London Banker has it about right:

And yet, have you heard any regulator take responsibility for regulatory failures yet? I haven’t. In fact, I’ve seen no historic analysis of capital requirements, deregulation of credit markets, securitisation, derivatives, demutualisation, or any of the other regulatory policy innovations which should reasonably be matters for review in assessing the causes of the current crisis.

As the bankers and regulators do not seem keen to be reflective about their own policies and conduct, it’s hard to imagine that they can craft constructive reforms to make the system safer or more efficient in future.

I’ve downloaded the draft Basel Accord III, released this week, for leisure reading. Sadly, I’m trending to the view that all harmonised regulation is likely to end in disaster [welcome to the club!] as it precludes independent judgement and sensible challenge to orthodoxy. Once something has been agreed by a big enough committee, it becomes impossible to question whether it makes sense. Ultimately the unintended consequences of incentives and distortions mean it won’t make sense, but by then it’s far too late to change course and break from the herd.

I also agree pretty much with Falkenblog in his appraisal of the supposed innovation of Basel III–leverage limits, A/K/A non-risk based capital requirements:

The key is that drinker engage in moderation only when they realize hangovers are not worth any temporary high. Unless they believe that in their hearts, they will get around your regulations the same way college kids–who generally are below the 21 year old drinking age–tend to get around restrictions promoting their sobriety. Any top-down rule to prevent excess will simply waste time because you can hide the leverage at the other end, say be investing in assets that are leverage, or who have suppliers who implicitly leverage them (as in the dot-com bubble). Such rules might even make things worse by giving people a false sense of security if nothing bad happens for 10 years, as often is the case.

I used to be head of ‘economic risk capital allocations’ for a bank, and we had very low risk for mortgages. I left before the madness started, but I can see how it morphed because it would be easy for the business line managers pushing product to point to historical losses in mortgages and say they are basically riskless (eg, the Stiglitz and Orzag analysis). Now, some smart people (eg, Greg Lipmann, Andy Redleaf, Peter Schiff, among many others) saw the past data were not relevant once you start lending to people with no money down, or people with no documents, and that depending on collateral prices rising basically was a game of musical chairs. But within large organizations like banks and GSEs these people were demoted, as happened to David A. Andrukonis, the risk manager at Fannie Mae who was fired for getting in the way of Bill Syron’s $38MM windfall. A big idea that is plausible and has many beneficiaries is very hard to resist in real time, and such ideas don’t end via argument, but rather conspicuous failure.

So, define risk–not its correlates like leverage, but actual risk–first. Make sure it isn’t backward-looking, looking at the past couple of crises, but by say anticipating the next bubble in muni debt or education. Unless you can convince people that such risks are real, any leverage rule will be made irrelevant via the creativity of people designing contracts taking into account the letter of the law. That’s really hard, you might say, and we have to do something now. Doing something is not better, unless you are pandering to the mob is a primary objective. If risk management were merely following some simple asset-to-liabilities test, someone would have figured that out by now.

I particularly like the part that says: “Make sure it isn’t backward-looking, looking at the past couple of crises, but by say anticipating the next bubble in muni debt or education.”  That echoes my concern about the CCP exposure weights, which seem to be symptomatic of more of the same, backward-looking, last crisis thinking, rather than looking forward and trying to anticipate how these rules, in combination with clearing mandates, will change the magnitudes of risks and where they reside.  Incentivizing the offloading of risk to CCPs increases the likelihood that they will be the source of the next crisis.

I’d also note that the whole reason for moving to risk-based capital requirements, imperfect as they are, is that simple asset-to-liabilities rules (which is what the leverage ratio is) didn’t price risk at the margin, and hence encouraged excessive risk taking.

It is particularly curious that Tyler Cowen, a (perhaps lukewarm) supporter of leverage limits, and to whom Falkenblog was responding, didn’t heed the recent post of his fellow Marginal Revolution co-blogger Alex Tabbarok, who emphasized the importance of understanding the relevant decision margin:

Lesson two of economics is think on the margin. Lesson nineteen, which we don’t always get to in Econ 101, is to remember that there are many margins.

Basel in all its generations has always mispriced risks at the margin, and the vaunted leverage ratio doesn’t price risk on any margin.  So I’m sure that will work out swell.

December 21, 2010

Helluva 100th Birthday Present

Filed under: Economics,Politics — The Professor @ 9:08 pm

Today a divided FCC voted out a rule on net neutrality.  I consider it somewhat ironic that the agency did this a week and a day before Ronald Coase’s 100th birthday.  Coase, of course, being the great scholar who 51 years ago who showed decisively that the entire rationale for FCC regulation of airwaves was fundamentally flawed.

Given that Coase is–amazingly–still an active scholar*, it would be gratifying and edifying if he would weigh in on how the FCC, and Washington generally, hasn’t learned much since 1959.

* Coase has a new book on China’s development as an emerging capitalist economy that will be released in May, 2011.

It’s Not Transparently Clear That Transparency Increases Competition

Filed under: Commodities,Derivatives,Economics,Exchanges,Politics — The Professor @ 8:56 pm

Today’s post on SEFs led to a nice email exchange with Alex Yavorsky of Moody’s Investor Services.  It got me thinking about an aspect of transparency that has gone unremarked, to my knowledge.

In the mom-and-apple-pie treatment of transparency so beloved by Gary Gensler, Ken Griffin, the NYT, and others, improved transparency unambiguously increases competition.  With regards to OTC derivatives, the story is that lack of pre-trade transparency makes it necessary for customers to shop around for quotes.  Search costs can create market power: firms can charge higher prices because customers realize that even if they think the price is too high, they have to incur search costs to find a better deal, so they pay up in order to avoid the search costs.

There are models of monopolistic competition (e.g., some theory by Stiglitz from the ’80s, if memory serves) that generate this kind of result.  In these models, free entry generates zero profit but prices exceed the perfectly competitive price.  Transparency that reduces search costs reduces market power and moves prices closer to the competitive equilibrium.

But transparency doesn’t always work that way.  Indeed, greater price transparency can lead to less competitive outcomes.  In particular, transparency can facilitate collusion, and opacity can make it more difficult to collude.

The basic problem with collusion is the prisoners’ dilemma: each individual member of a cartel has an incentive to undercut the collusive price.   In order to deter this kind of conduct, colluders employ punishment strategies, cutting prices in response to a defection.  If a potential defector realizes that he cannot profit from his defection because others will respond immediately and slash prices, he can be deterred from cutting prices the first place.

But for these strategies to work, it must be necessary to detect defections.  Price transparency makes it possible to detect violations of the collusive agreement.  Forcing everybody to post prices publicly is a great way to support collusion: if everybody–including your supposed competitors–can see your price, they can see if you are defecting from a price setting agreement.  In contrast, if buyers and sellers can negotiate prices in private, it is much harder to detect defections.   Secret price cuts strike at the vitals of any collusive agreement.

The inane NYT article on OTC derivatives mentions, in a typically clueless way, the NASDAQ dealer collusion on spreads.  This actually illustrates the role that price transparency can play in facilitating collusion.  NASDAQ dealers posted their quotes on the NASDAQ system.  Any dealer who defected from the agreement to avoid odd-eighth quotes was immediately detected, and this spurred a variety of forms of retaliation–some revealed in rather entertaining fashion on recordings of traders’ phone lines.  Such collusion would have been much, much harder to sustain in the absence of an “automatic quotation” system that made price quotes transparent.

A fully transparent CLOB could–not necessarily would have, but could–result in the same outcome.  It would be a great way of coordinating pricing activities among OTC dealers.  In contrast, the supposedly scary dark OTC markets as they operate presently are very adverse to collusion.  Secret price cuts are quite easy in this environment.  (Moreover, since at present there are other terms of OTC deals, such as credit and collateral terms, that can be varied, it is possible to undercut a putative collusive agreement even while adhering to price terms by giving easy credit and collateral terms.  The increased standardization of deal terms as a result of the clearing mandate also would tend to make collusion easier.)

In the end, what made the NASDAQ market competitive was opening up access to the market.  Prior to the SEC’s order handling rules (put in place in 1997), dealers were under no obligation to submit customer limit orders to the NASDAQ system.  This limited the competition dealers faced in supplying liquidity.  The order handling rules required dealers to incorporate customer limit orders into their quote streams.  This led to the entry of new liquidity suppliers that dramatically narrowed spreads and reduced market maker profits.  It also encouraged the technological revolution–HFTs and algo trading–that has revolutionized liquidity supply.

What this suggests is that a transparent system without open entry is vulnerable to collusion, but that a transparent system with open entry and access can be extremely competitive.  Although we probably won’t find out given that the CFTC rule (as proposed) does not mandate a CLOB, it is interesting to conjecture how a swaps CLOB would work.  Would it be like the pre-order handling rule NASDAQ, or the post-rule NASDAQ?

That would depend on a couple of things.  One, it would depend on whether the swaps market is amenable to competitive liquidity supply from HFTs or algos the way that the equity market is, or the futures market is becoming.  Two, if it is, it would depend on whether the rules are conducive to entry of such liquidity suppliers and/or competition among platforms leads the CLOB operators to permit such access.

Differences  between the characteristics of swap transactions (size and frequency, most notably) makes me skeptical that equity-like or futures-like liquidity supply would be competitive in this market.  These are products for which big dealers may have a strong advantage in liquidity supply.

Insofar as the second issue is concerned, given the nature of CLOBs and the liquidity network effect, one CLOB would be likely to survive, or at least be extremely dominant.  The operator of this CLOB would have market power, which it can exercise by limiting entry (e.g., a CLOB operated by a group of dealers) or supercompetitive pricing.

This means that the CLOB rule would almost certainly have soon resulted in a battle royale over the terms and pricing of access to the CLOB.  This is seen again and again and again in network industries.  It has happened in the securities industry.  It has happened in the telephone industry.  It is happening as I write in the internet–today the FCC passed a net neutrality rule.

Suffice it to say that the implications of transparency and a CLOB would have been far, far more complex than the simplistic narrative advanced by Gensler et al.  It is by no means clear that mandated CLOBs and transparency would increase competition.  That result depends on a complex interaction between the products (which influences the economics of liquidity supply) and the rules governing the pricing of and access to CLOBs.

As an aside, it’s long been a pet peeve of mine that scholarly and policy debates on financial markets have largely ignored the extensive literature on competition and regulation in other network industries.  (I’ve just begun Spulber’s and Yoo’s book on network economics: it looks very good and its discussion of net neutrality echoes some of the arguments I’ve made regarding competition in OTC markets.)  My next book will be about financial market structure, and one of the themes of the book will be the close analogies between the policy issues in traditional network industries and in the financial markets.

Procrustes Stymied on SEFs

Filed under: Commodities,Derivatives,Economics,Exchanges,Politics — The Professor @ 12:08 pm

In my post on the CFTC’s action (on SEFs) and non-action (on position limits), I erred in my characterization of the SEF rule as passed by the Commission on a 4-1 vote on the 16th of this month.  The rule that had been considered but not voted on at the 9 December meeting would have imposed an essentially CLOB-like model for the execution of swaps.  The initial reporting that I saw on the rule passed on the meeting on the 16th suggested that that rule had similar provisions.  I have heard from several folks who have told me that the rule as passed was actually much less prescriptive and restrictive than the one that had been mooted earlier.  I stand corrected.*

And a good thing too.  The new rule, described here, actually gives market users a choice.

Choice.  Wow.  What a concept.

Specifically, “required transactions” (trades that must be cleared, are not block trades, and which are available for trading) must be executed on either an order book or a request for quote (RFQ) facility.  RFQ facilities must disseminate quotes to at least 5 market participants, all of whom can respond to the quote request.  Alternatively, and RFQ system can be a trading system that displays streaming firm and indicative quotes on a trading screen and operates by:

Transmitting a request for quote to no less than five market participants, based upon an indicative streaming quote, taking into account any resting bids or offers that have been communicated to the requester along with any responsive quotes.

Thus, under the rule, CLOB trading is not mandated, and it is permissible for those making markets to disseminate indicative rather than firm quotes.  The rule does not impose one-size-fits-all-futures-like trading protocols on swaps dealing.

That’s a good thing.  There are a diversity of market participants, and a diversity of execution venues can evolve under the rule to satisfy their diverse needs.  (Again, note the substantial variety of trading mechanisms in the equity market, both within countries and across countries.  Why not for derivatives too?)

This is viewed as a victory for banks.  Maybe banks will benefit, but that’s no reason to lament the result: this is not a zero sum game.  The whole idea behind competition is that it facilitates the consummation of more mutually beneficial transactions than alternative arrangements.  It is perfectly possible for both banks and customers/end users to be better off under the rule than under the more restrictive proposal that was fortunately kicked to the curb. Indeed, that’s what I expect.

That’s also why I find commentary like this mystifying:

The revised rule proposal, passed by the CFTC in a 4-to-1 vote on Dec. 16, allows banks to show negotiable prices on a request-for-quote, or RFQ, system that can be limited to a select number of trading partners. This more flexible model will limit competition among swap-execution facilities and allow volumes to grow, New York-based [Alexander] Yavorsky [of Moody's Investor Services] said in a report today. [Emphasis added.]

Huh?  How can more flexibility–more choice–limit competition among SEFs?  And if competition is reduced (leading, presumably, to higher costs) why would volumes grow?

No.  It works the other way.  The rule as implemented lays the groundwork for competition between systems with varying attributes; it permits competition on the basis of design and features, and the evolution of systems targeted at particular classes of users.

Systems that offer less value than others won’t survive in this competitive environment.  Moreover, I expect a variety of systems–some pure CLOBs, some RFQ systems that essentially facilitate negotiation among swap buyers and sellers–to survive.  I expect several types of systems to survive because this will permit a better match between the characteristics of trading systems and the characteristics of those using them.  Given the diverse characteristics of market users, one size doesn’t fit all.  And now, thanks to this more flexible and pro-competition rule, these diverse users won’t have to make do with that one size that wouldn’t fit anybody very well.

Gary Gensler was doing his best Procrustes impersonation, desiring to force everybody into the same execution bed, regardless of their actual characteristics.  Instead, under the new rule, some will avoid the uncomfortable stretching that would have resulted under Gensler’s preferred rules; others will get to keep their legs.

I understand that the rule was the subject of extended negotiation among the commissioners.  That process definitely improved the end result.  Hopefully a similar process will occur with position limits, although there are apparently still some perverse vestiges of features like the crowding-out provision in the position limit rule that is on the table.  (Perhaps more on that later.)

*It would be very helpful if approved rules were available far more quickly on the CFTC website and in the Federal Register.  There is about a week lag, which makes it very difficult to know with certainty exactly what is in these rules.

December 19, 2010

A Solution in Search of a Problem

Filed under: Commodities,Derivatives,Economics,Energy,Exchanges,Politics — The Professor @ 7:34 pm

What are positions limits supposed to do, exactly, and how? Here I want to focus on all month limits, not spot month limits.  Spot month limits can constrain market power manipulations.  I think there are better ways to do that, but at least there is a reasonable goal, and a reasonable connection between means and objectives.  Can the same be said for all month limits?  I am extremely skeptical, especially limits of the kind currently under consideration by the CFTC.

Here’s what the CFTC website says:

To protect futures markets from excessive speculation that can cause unreasonable or unwarranted price fluctuations, the Commodity Exchange Act (CEA) authorizes the Commission to impose limits on the size of speculative positions in futures markets.

I’ll take as given the theoretical correctness and empirical relevance of the highly dubious but positive assertion that “excessive speculation that can cause unreasonable or unwarranted price fluctuations,” and focus on the ability of position limits to address this problem.  I’ll focus particularly on the kind of position limits the CFTC is currently considering, which set limits as a fraction of open interest.

It’s first important to note that all limits that have been in force and have been proposed since 1936 have or would have limited the permissible size of the position any individual entity can hold, not the size of speculative positions in aggregate in futures markets.  That’s problematic when one considers several of the most widely cited examples of speculative bubbles in history.  (Again, not endorsing that any or all of these are truly speculative bubbles.  Just seeing if, under the assumption that they were, speculative position limits of the kind implemented and mooted in futures markets would have had the slightest impact.)

A list of such speculative bubbles might include tulips in 17th century Holland, the Mississippi Bubble in 1719,  stocks in the 1920s, the internet boom, and US real estate in the 2000s.  In historical recountings of these episodes, each was characterized by widespread participation by small traders, e.g., housewives speculating on RCA in the 1920s, or individuals putting their 401(k)s in internet high-fliers in the 1990s.  If they were manias, they were popular–or populist–ones.

Limiting the size of the position that any individual could have held would not have constrained seriously the overall amount of speculation in these episodes, because the aggregate speculation was driven by a large number of small positions.  When speculation is excessive because of an excessive number of small or medium-sized deluded traders plunge in the market, and predominately on the same side, limiting the size of any individual position will not constrain this form of excess.

In modern derivatives markets, much speculation takes place through funds or ETFs that aggregate the monies of large numbers of individual speculators into large pools.  If a popular speculative mania leads to an influx of money into these pools, and if there are sufficient economies of scale in managing these pools, then limits on the size of individual positions under the control of one entity could effectively tax speculation, although in a very indirect way.  If the constraint is binding on these pools, it would mean that they are not able to exploit fully their economies of scale.  This would mean that they incur higher costs than in the absence of the constraint.  This would raise the cost of speculation by small investors, which would tend to reduce the amount of speculation they undertake.  How much would depend on (a) the difference between the cost of operating a pool at efficient scale, and the (higher) cost of operating at a scale imposed by the limit, and (b) the elasticity of speculation with respect to transactions costs.

I don’t know for certain what (a) and (b) are.  (I do know that I haven’t seen anyone even point these out to be relevant factors in evaluating position limits.)  My intuition is that they are small, meaning that speculative limits would not appreciably constrain the mass speculative frenzy species of excessive speculation (if it indeed exists or is empirically important).

Moreover, it is not obvious that position limits of the type currently under consideration by the CFTC would even uniformly achieve this objective.  The currently contemplated limits would set maximum position size as a percentage of open interest.  So permissible individual position sizes in big markets (e.g., crude oil) would therefore be larger than permissible individual position sizes in smaller markets (e.g., wheat).  But scale economies relate to absolute size, not percentages of total market size.  And as Adam Smith put it, economies of scale are limited by the extent of the market. This means that the difference between cost at efficient scale and cost at aggregate outputs that differ from integer multiples of the efficient firm scale is declining with market size.  Thus, the kind of constraint under consideration would have a much smaller effect on the amount of speculation in big markets than in small markets, regardless of the elasticity of speculation with respect to transaction cost.  (The analysis is trickier when there is considerable heterogeneity among the cost curves of different pool operators.  Economies of scope–operating pools in different markets–are also relevant.  Index investing raises additional complications.)

This all means that speculative position limits are not well suited to addressing the popular speculative wave species of excessive speculation, especially in large markets (like the energy markets).  This is especially true of position limits based on percentages of open interest.

Given that many of the conventional and political attacks on commodity speculation in the 2000s were–and continue to be–based on variations on the popular mania explanation, imposition of speculative limits will leave their supporters disappointed, for two reasons.  First, because these attacks are dubious theoretically and empirically.  Second, because even if such speculative waves sometimes cause unwarranted price fluctuations, limits on the positions any individual entity can hold will have little, if any effect, on the size, strength, or price impact of these waves.

This means that any defense of position limits must be predicated on a belief that a position, or a handful of large positions, that are large relative to the overall market, can cause unwarranted price fluctuations.

There are examples of this historically, of course.  The Hunts come to mind immediately.

Putting aside manipulation for a moment (and it is hard to see what type of manipulation all month limits would stop), when one trader takes a disproportionately large position, it means that he has a far different view of the future course of prices than other traders.  He’s taking all the action (or a disproportionately large amount of the action) on one side of the market because at the current price, his view on where prices are going is the opposite of consensus opinion (or perhaps because there’s a big imbalance among hedgers).  This is contrarian speculation.  If the contrarian speculator is right–he makes a lot of money.  If he’s wrong–he loses a lot of money.

One justification for constraining this type of trading is a belief that such traders are more likely to be wrong than right.  They are unduly confident in their own abilities to forecast prices, or unduly convinced of the superiority of their information.  Their trading on these false beliefs does drive prices away from where they should be, and when reality intrudes, prices snap back.  Those movements could be characterized as unreasonable or unwarranted price fluctuations.

This is a rather peculiar theory because it presumes a positive correlation between the irrationality of the investor, and the amount of money he has to invest.  How did the dumb become so rich?  Not that it is impossible, just that you’d expect the correlation to go in the other direction (albeit smaller than one in absolute value).

The market is, of course, a stern disciplinarian that punishes such irrational plungers; fools and their money are soon parted.  The Hunts, for example, were poster children for the old joke: “Want to make a small fortune trading commodities?  Start with a large fortune.”  Ditto Amaranth.  Given the potential costs of position limits in constraining legitimate speculation, is it really necessary for the government to try to prevent what the market ruthlessly helps to deter?

It should also be noted that there is a tension between this justification for position limits and the anti-speculative wave justification.  Contrarians by definition take views at odds with the conventional wisdom.  If the conventional wisdom is irrational and not based on fundamentals–as the popular mania critique of speculation believes–we want contrarians to lean against the wind.  Since they are by definition at odds with the views of most others, they will take positions that are disproportionately large on one side of the market. This is the theme of The Big Short, which describes how a handful of traders bet against the real estate bubble.  If such bubbles exist, we want people to lean against it.

Position limits, and those based on concentration in particular, will constrain just that kind of contrarian trading.  So if you worry about bubbles driven by mass speculation, (a) position limits will do little to constrain it, and (b) will make it harder for those not suffering from the popular delusion to trade in ways that limits the price distortions resulting from it. This is a perverse, unintended consequence of limits on large trader positions.

If big speculators are right on average, or right more than they are wrong, limits that constrain their trading will not reduce deviations between actual prices and what prices “should” be, and could in fact increase the frequency and magnitude of these disparities.  So this justification for position limits depends crucially on a view of the correctness of big speculators.  This is something everybody has a speculative opinion on, ironically–but little or no evidence to back it up.

Another justification for limiting the size of an individual trader is that if he is wrong, the failure that results when reality intrudes could have knock-on effects.  The failure of the Hunts, for instance, did have some systemic consequences (as I wrote about some months ago).

But position limits are ill-adapted to addressing this kind of problem.  The real problem is the failure of a really big, leveraged player.  Some players are big, but not leveraged.  If they lose, they have the wherewithal to make good their losses, limiting any systemic consequences resulting from knock-on failures.  If prices move against a big ETF (like USO, for instance), it’s painful for the fund holders, but their positions are effectively fully collateralized, so their losses do not create counterparty default losses that could put others into distress.  Position limits constrain leveraged and unleveraged players alike. (It would be interesting to understand whether the imposition of limits could actually affect the relative importance of leveraged players in the market.  If so, limits could have unintended, adverse consequences.)

Relatedly, with respect to this problem, the metric of big is not big relative to the size of the specific market in which the speculator participates.  It is big relative to the broader financial system.

Consider a couple of polar cases.  For a small market, let’s say Minneapolis wheat, someone could accumulate a position that is huge relative to open interest, without accumulating position that is large relative to the financial system in any way.  During the peak of the price spikes in 2008, the maximum value of the open interest in July Minneapolis wheat was about $650 million.  In the scheme of things, this is chicken feed, even if one person had held the entire position, let alone 10 or 12.5 percent.

Now consider a big market, like crude oil.  At the peak in July, 2008, the value of NYMEX open interest was on the order of $200 billion–nearly 3 orders of magnitude bigger than for MW.  Somebody with 12.5 percent of this market (the upper bound under previous CFTC proposals) would have had a notional position value of about $25 billion–that’s serious money, which, if the position holder is leveraged, could lead to some knock-on problems if it went south. (Of course, $25 billion is an upper bound on the loss a long could suffer.  For both longs and shorts, the uncollateralized credit exposure is far smaller.  Perhaps sufficiently small that even such a large position is not systemically risky even if held by a leveraged player.)

Note that under the new proposals, where OTC markets are included, the disparity would become even more extreme.  The OTC positions tied to CL are large, absolutely and relative to the NYMEX open interest, as compared to OTC positions tied to MW absolutely and relative to MGE open interest.  (How much larger, nobody really knows at present.  That’s one reason why some commissioners are reluctant to act until they know more about the size of the OTC market.)

So under this theory of the systemic risk associated from the failure of a big speculator, you might conclude that a limit would be sensible for crude but not for Minneapolis wheat.   But the commodity position limits will be imposed on markets of all sizes.

In this regard, it is interesting to note that press reports state that the limits the CFTC is considering would hit far more agricultural traders than energy and metals traders.  Given that the latter markets are a lot bigger than the former, and hence would pose a far greater systemic risk, this means that the proposed limits are very poorly adapted to addressing any putative systemic risk posed by “large” speculators.

One last thing.  In October, I had a discussion (disclosed on the CFTC website) with the CFTC position limits team.  I basically argued that in designing such limits, it was imperative that the limits be designed based on a diagnosis of the problem to be solved.  This led to a discussion of potential problems associated with large positions.  A lot of the scenarios that were discussed revolved around how traders with big positions might exploit microstructural frictions to make money.

Yeah, maybe.  But I am skeptical that somebody is going to accumulate a huge position, with all of the capital required and risk entailed, to play liquidity games for ticks.  Moreover, many of the big players that some critics of speculation are obsessed with, e.g., the “massive passives” (ETFs and index funds) that keep Bart Chilton up nights, most certainly do not play these games.  They pretty much trade in a mechanical fashion, rolling on a schedule, and investing and liquidating based on customer money inflows and outflows.   So again, there seems to be a huge disconnect between  the paranoia about massive passives, and the types of behavior that some at the CFTC look to prevent using position limits.

There’s a common pattern to all this.  Come up with a scenario in which speculation distorts prices.  Then evaluate how position limits of the type currently under consideration would operate under this scenario.  And then conclude that these position limits would either not address the purported problem, or could actually be counterproductive and make the purported problem worse.

Given that speculative limits also interfere with the legitimate uses of derivatives markets, the very real possibility that they have virtually no offsetting benefit makes this a very bad policy choice.

Supporters of a specific position limit proposal should be required to provide a reasonable justification for that specific proposal.  This justification should first spell out in detail exactly a scenario or scenarios under which speculation distorts prices.  It should then show how–exactly–their proposed limit will reduce the likelihood of these scenarios.

I’ve gone through several alternatives above, and argued that there is a complete mismatch between the diagnosis and the prescription; position limits appear to me to be the financial equivalent of leeches or faith healing.  But maybe my imagination is unduly limited.  Maybe there are other stories/scenarios that I haven’t considered.  I’d be glad to entertain them–but I would also have to be convinced how a specific position limit proposal would improve market performance under these scenarios.

Of course, I also believe that those advancing these scenarios should provide rigorous theoretical justifications and empirical evidence to demonstrate that their scenarios are real possibilities.  But I’m pretty confident that supporters of limits will be unable to meet even the weaker burden of showing how position limits cure what they identify as ailing the market, no matter how implausible, not to say crack-brained, that diagnosis is.  And until someone proves otherwise, position limits will remain a solution in search of a problem.

* My daughter Renee gave a paper on the political economy of regulation of speculation, focusing on position limits, at the Instituto Bruno Leoni Mises Seminar 2010 in Sestre Levanti, Italy last October.  Her paper compared the drive for position limits in the 1930s to that in the late-2000s.  The audio of her presentation is available online.  Her paper has been accepted for publication in the Journal of Economic Affairs.

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