Streetwise Professor

July 31, 2009

Stuff and Nonsense

Filed under: Commodities,Derivatives,Economics,Energy,Exchanges,Financial crisis,Politics — The Professor @ 3:32 pm

Following the CFTC hearings on position limits in energy reminds me of Through the Looking Glass:

‘Let the jury consider their verdict,’ the King said, for about the twentieth time that day.

‘No, no!’ said the Queen. ‘Sentence first – verdict afterwards.’

‘Stuff and nonsense!’ said Alice loudly. ‘The idea of having the sentence first!’

‘Hold your tongue!’ said the Queen, turning purple.

‘I won’t!’ said Alice.

‘Off with her head!’ the Queen shouted at the top of her voice. Nobody moved.

Chairman Gensler is an odd casting choice for the Red Queen, but he clearly has his heart in the part, given his opening remarks at the hearing:

But Gensler, the former Goldman Sachs’ executive who almost didn’t get the chairman’s nomination this year because of his past role in shielding over-the-counter derivatives from regulation, adopted a tough tone throughout the hearing.

“No longer must we debate the issue of whether or not to set position limits,” he said.

Then what are the hearings about?

And there’s this:  ”There seemed, at least, that the commission is hearing support. I think it’s more a question of how, than whether.”

And his understudy, Bart Chilton, is clearly ready for the part:  ”Whatever manner the agency proceeds, ‘going slow’ is not an option.”

Given that position limits are a mantra of the Senators to whom Gensler genuflected to get the job, it’s not really a surprise that they are now deemed inevitable.

Position limits in general are dubious at best.  There is little in the way of viable theories, and even less in the way of persuasive empirical evidence, that speculators distort prices in general, or cause prices to be excessively volatile.  There is no plausible theory or evidence that speculators caused energy prices to be artificially high in 2008.  As a consequence, position limits will almost certainly not reduce volatility for energy products, or reduce the frequency of price spikes.

After all, we’ve had considerable experience with position limits in agricultural commodities.  Note that the CFTC is essentially proposing to extend to energy and other commodities “in finite supply” (again, and examples of other types of commodities are . . . ) the same type of regime that has been in place for ags for years.  Yet, despite these limits, there has been substantial volatility in ag prices–including last year.  Moreover, there have been large spikes and crashes in ag prices despite the existence of a position limit regime there.  This should not be a surprise, as the theory of storable commodity pricing predicts that such price behavior is characteristic of efficiently functioning, competitive markets undistorted by speculation.

This perhaps explains the monomaniacal focus on index investors.  Via hedging exemptions, these types of firms have been able to amass positions in individual commodities (as parts of larger portfolios) in excess of the position limits.  Since position limits are in place in ag commodities, the fanatical opponents of speculation (fanatical in the Churchillian sense of “can’t change their minds and won’t change the subject”) need to focus on participants not subject to the limits.  Never mind that extant empirical evidence provides no support for the hypothesis that index investors are moving prices.  Or that the “theory” that these funds contribute to “demand” are completely bogus.  (It would be interesting for someone to see whether price correlations across components of major commodity indices have increased in recent years; if index investors are the dog and prices are the tail, since index investors act in a mechanical fashion across markets, they should induce very similar price movements across markets.)

Position limits have been around since the Grain Futures Act was supplanted by the Commodity Exchange Act in 1936.  I’m sure you’ve noticed what a dramatic effect they had on volatility–even before the rise of index investors.

So, we’re about to go for yet another run on the hamster wheel.

It is interesting to me to note that something that is almost impossible to be distorted by speculation–shipping rates–experienced almost the same spike and plunge as energy over the 2007-2009 period.  Shipping rates aren’t assets; they are the rental rate on assets.  Even if you have a speculative bubble in the prices of ships (i.e., a lot of ships are built on spec in anticipation of higher rates in the future), this should result in a fall in shipping rates; the entry of large numbers of ships should depress charter rates.  You can’t store the ability of a ship to make a voyage today for use in the future; you either use the space today, or you don’t.  You can’t buy up today’s space in anticipation of a higher rate in the future.  So, when you have price spikes in a non-storable like shipping space, you can’t attribute that to a speculative asset bubble, cuz it ain’t an asset.

What’s more, shipping rates are driven by global industrial activity.  The eerie similarity of the trajectory of oil prices and shipping rates (as measured by the Baltic Freight Index, for instance) therefore strongly suggests that underlying fundamentals, namely strong world industrial demand, drove both oil prices and shipping prices over the period of the energy price spike.  Indeed, I have some preliminary econometric evidence (more to come later) that shows that the Baltic Freight Index is strongly correlated with, and in fact leads, the price of oil.  (Lutz Killian has similar evidence, up through 2007: mine goes through April, 2009).

And then there’s  the issue of the details of implementation.  Given the complexity of the markets, the greater variety of products and instruments, and the greater variety of market users and strategies, designing a coherent position limit regime will be nigh on to impossible.

One disturbing matter relates to the aboveforementioned index investors, and financial market participants in commodities more generally.  Gensler stated:  ”While I believe that we should maintain exemptions for bona fide hedgers, I am concerned that granting exemptions for financial risk management can defeat the effectiveness of position limits.”

So, “financial risk management”–by which I presume Gensler means investors that use commodity derivatives to improve the risk-return performance of their portfolios–are not bona fide hedgers apparently.

This reflects a widespread mindset, redolent of what Thomas Sowell calls the “physical fallacy” that physical commodity derivatives are properly for physical market players, and that others should not participate.  That is, commodity markets and financial markets should be separate.  To put it more pungently, those holding this mindset endeavor to make the commodity derivatives markets a kind of ghetto, limited to a certain group of players.

This makes no sense from the perspective of financial theory.  Integration of disparate markets with disparate risks improves the sharing of those risks, leading to a more efficient allocation and pricing of those risks.  Segregated markets–ghettoized markets–don’t permit the full scope of risk sharing, and lead people to bear more risks than is necessary.

In earlier posts I have explained why some commodity market participants may prefer that these markets be ghettoes, rather than having them integrated in the broader financial markets.  This can explain the support for position limits from some quarters of the commodity community.  No doubt these are some of the sources of support Gensler has been hearing from.

Thus, the whole position limit hysteria–which is a particular symptom of the broader underlying disturbance of speculator hysteria–is, as Alice said, stuff and nonsense.*

And for saying that, I may anticipate the sentence: “Off with his head!”

*”Stuff ‘n’ Nonsense” is also the title of an excellent Supersuckers rocker.

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    Comment by elmer — August 2, 2009 @ 1:18 pm

  2. In order to manipulate prices you have to secure supply. In the global oil markets that is achieved through the Brent complex of contracts.

    I believe that a transatlantic Commission of Inquiry – maybe Senator Levin’s Sub-Committee on Investigations sitting with a sub Committee of the UK Parliament’s Treasury Select Committee – should oversee a major investigation of the Brent Complex, headed by someone credible like Eliot Spitzer.

    Comment by Chris Cook — August 3, 2009 @ 3:18 pm

  3. Uhm, Chris, I assume you are kidding when you mention “Eliot Spitzer” and “credibility” in the same sentence.

    Levin’s committee did look at Brent in 2002.

    Yes, manipulation involves distortions of supply. This happened with some regularity in the Brent market in the late-90s early-2000s, with periodic squeezes, as I am sure you know better than I. That’s why those looking for manipulation should look for supply distortions, and not just focus on prices. Sadly, however, this advice is almost always ignored.

    I would also say that I am skeptical that long-running high price levels are attributable to manipulation. If it were, the distortions in inventories and other quantity variables would become manifest in a way that even the blind would find it hard to ignore. The Hunts in silver had to eat masses of silver pouring out of Indian trousseaus in order to keep the prices up, and eventually they ran out of money. Ditto your earlier example of tin. These long-running efforts to prop up prices, as distinguished from one-off squeezes, generally lack an end game that permits the manipulator to make money. Thus, those who try usually end up living the old joke: “Want to make a small fortune trading commodities? Start with a large fortune!”

    As a result, I am very skeptical that the prices of last summer in oil (or copper or just about anything) were really the result of manipulation.

    The ProfessorComment by The Professor — August 3, 2009 @ 5:23 pm

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