Streetwise Professor

January 12, 2016

Lily Tomlin Didn’t Know the Half of It: In the Age of Obama, It’s Impossible to Keep Up on Your Cynicism

Filed under: History,Military,Politics — The Professor @ 7:18 pm

Lily Tomlin once said “We try to be cynical, but it’s hard to keep up.” She didn’t know the half of it, because she said this before the age of Obama.

Tonight Obama gives his last (thank God!) State of the Union Address. To guilt us all about the widespread reluctance to admit tens of thousands of Syrian refugees, Obama is trotting out a poor boy who lost his family–and his arms–to an bomb strike in Syria.

This is the most rank emotional manipulation I have ever seen in politics, and that is saying a lot. It is cynical beyond belief.

For one thing, as tragic as his story is, this boy is not representative of the refugees that will attempt to get in the US. It is well known that the refugees in Europe are disproportionately young adult males, not women and young wounded waifs.

You could get a more representative example of would-be refugees in front of the Cologne Cathedral on New Year’s Eve.

For another, Obama’s policies in Syria have been cynical beyond belief, and have dramatically worsened the humanitarian crisis in the country. As is his wont in such matters, he chose the worst option. He did not intervene decisively early in the crisis, thereby allowing it to spin out of control. That is defensible. But he also has supported the arming (via the CIA) of opposition groups in Syria, including Islamist groups. This has increased the intensity of, and extended, the war.

Don’t take my word for it. Walter Russell Mead, a very middle-of-the-road guy who started with high hopes for Obama, wrote a scathing article about Obama’s Syria cynicism back in November.

It hasn’t gotten better. Indeed, tonight’s farce shows that it’s gotten even worse.

All of this takes place against the background of the Iranian seizure of two US riverine patrol craft, two Swedish-built CB90 boats.

There is zero doubt-zero-that the Iranians did this to troll Obama’s SOTU. But the show must go on! So rather than make an issue out of this that might detract attention from Obama’s swan song star turn, the administration, with the appalling assistance of the Pentagon, is saying “no big deal! Just an accident!”

Here is one story puked up by the Pentagon:

Pentagon spokesman Peter Cook told The Associated Press that the boats were moving between Kuwait and Bahrain when the U.S. lost contact with them.

“We have been in contact with Iran and have received assurances that the crew and the vessels will be returned promptly,” Cook said.

U.S. officials said that the incident happened near Farsi Island, situated in the middle of the Persian Gulf. They say it stemmed from some type of mechanical trouble with one of the boats, causing them to run aground. The troops were picked up by Iran.

I have only two words in reply. Bull. Shit.

First, there is no way both boats had mechanical issues. If only one had problems, the other could tow it.

Second–and more outrageously–these are bleeping riverine boats intended to operate in very shallow waters. They draw .8 meters. That’s less than 3 feet, boys and girls. They wouldn’t go aground in your back yard after a heavy rain.

Third, in these days of GPS, a navigation error can be ruled out.

My conclusion: they were seized. Without a fight. Which tells you something about the Rules of Engagement vis a vis Iran that we operate under in the Gulf.

Josh Earnest actually had the audacity to say that it is incidents like this that make the Iran deal worthwhile.

I’d explain what he means, but I’m hopelessly trapped by archaic Western concepts like “logic,” so I can’t.

How many cheeks does Obama have to turn to domestic critics? Zero. How many to Iran? I can’t count that high.

Of course this will only stoke the Sunni freaks in the Gulf into even greater frenzies of paranoia about Obama’s Shia sympathies, thereby intensifying an already fraught situation.

So what’s the State of the Union? I’ll let you know when I get caught up on my cynicism. This may take a while.

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January 10, 2016

Protectionism in the Oil Patch: When Someone Says “Fair Markets”, Check Your Wallet

Filed under: Commodities,Economics,Energy,Politics,Regulation — The Professor @ 9:28 pm

The decline in oil prices is producing a predictable political outcome: attempts to prop up the domestic US industry. Some initiatives would make sense regardless of the financial distress of the US upstream sector: the Clinton and Obama administrations in particular have imposed a variety of inefficient regulations and restrictions on US hydrocarbon production, and it would be desirable to roll these back, as is being proposed:

Among the proposals under discussion: Expediting the process for exporting liquefied natural gas, and upgrading infrastructure to move energy to market more quickly and cheaply.

Another top priority for the two Republicans is loosening environmental and other regulations.

But then there’s just the plain stupid:

Some lawmakers are floating the possibility of taking retaliatory trade measures against Saudi Arabia, which has flooded the market with cheap oil in what some analysts see as a bid to drive America’s growing shale oil industry out of business.

. . . .

North Dakota Rep. Kevin Cramer (R) said lawmakers could begin to mull retaliatory tariffs against Saudi Arabia in the future but emphasized he is not advocating for that yet.

“I’m very hesitant to go down that path at this time but clearly that would be a possible option should the Saudis not play fair. Because as much as I advocate for free and open markets, I also advocate for fair markets,” he said.

Saudi Arabia, taking advantage of its low extraction costs, has refused to curb oil production in a bid to expand market share and undercut competitors. This has raised the prospect of the U.S. government taking action to level the playing field for domestic companies.

“I’m not prone to a lot of government intervention in terms of propping industry up, per se. What would be the most helpful is to roll back regulations that get in the way of further development and profitability,” said Cramer, who cited the Endangered Species Act as one burdensome regulation.

“Obviously they have access to our market and I suppose to some degree there is a role that can be played there. I’m not at the point where I’m ready to advocate tariffs or restricting their access necessarily,” he added.

Any tariff on Saudi imports would be special interest protectionism pure and simple, tarted up in the usual rhetoric (and whining) used to justify protectionist measures. “Fair markets” is a sure tell. Anyone who says “I’m for free markets but they should be fair markets” is a liar, and should drop the pretense. Any such person is all about protecting a favored industry or firm. When someone, regardless of party, says “fair markets”, I strongly advise you to check your wallet, because they are trying to rob you.

And why should Saudi Arabia “refuse to curb oil production”? Indeed, “curbing oil production” is the exercise of market power, for which the US (rightly) criticized OPEC and the Saudis in the past. What’s more, low cost producers are the ones who should sustain output in the face of a demand decline: high cost producers are the ones who should cut back.

Furthermore, although North Dakota is an oil long, the US as whole is an oil short, still producing only about 1/2 of its consumption, despite the spurt in oil production in the past 5-6 years. So low oil prices are still in the interests of the US.

It should also be noted that the “flooding the market with cheap oil” meme is vastly overstated. Saudi output in June, 2014, right before the price collapse began, was about 10mm bpd. It is now about 10.5 mm bpd. That difference represents a whopping .5 percent of world output. Even given an elasticity of 10 (which is probably too high) that could cause at most at 5 percent decline in prices. As I write, Brent just went below $33/bbl, and hence is down almost exactly 70 percent off its pre-collapse levels. So this collapse is not the result of the Saudis flooding the market.

Nor are the Saudis engaged in some predatory pricing strategy. At least I doubt that they are, because such a strategy would be irrational.

The price decline is the result of increased output in a variety of places (including the US), but mainly due to a steep decline in demand growth, especially from China.

Yes, the upstream sector in the US is suffering severe financial distress. So be it. That’s the nature of the business, and the nature of a market system generally. Resources should exit sectors that suffer demand declines. They should not be propped up through trade restrictions, especially trade restrictions that will impose far greater costs on the US economy as a whole than they will benefit one sector in that economy.

It is also perversely ironic that the very same Republicans (I am speaking of the individual legislators, like Murkowski and Cramer, not the party as a whole) who pushed for ending the idiotic export ban are now mooting an equally idiotic restriction in imports. This makes it plain that it’s not about principle, in the least. It’s all special interest politics. That’s not surprising, but it’s not admirable. And it’s not any better when Republicans push it than when Democrats and Obama do.

So yes, eliminate or cut back inefficient restrictions that a relentlessly anti-hydrocarbon administration has imposed, in order to eliminate unnecessary burdens on US oil and gas production that hurt both US producers and consumers in the US and around the world. But don’t impose large costs on American consumers of oil in order to prop up the US upstream sector. The sector should shrink if the demand for its product declines due to increased production elsewhere, or reduced demand. So be it.

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January 7, 2016

Be Ready For Praying Mantis II: Other Than That, Stay the Hell Out

Filed under: History,Military,Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 9:35 pm

There is no good guy and no bad guy in the conflict between Iran and Saudi Arabia (and its GCC allies). In its essentials, it is a struggle for regional dominance between two benighted and malign powers.

The theater of the conflict is Iraq and Syria. Iran has some advantages, most notably, it is allied with the government of Syria (now supported by Russia), and for sectarian and geographical reasons has advantages in Iraq. In Syria, Saudi Arabia and its allies must resort to funding and arming the opposition. Its options in Iraq are more limited, but it is likely objectively pro-ISIS.

Neither Iran nor Saudi Arabia can pose a conventional military threat to the other. Iran’s air force is a collection of museum pieces (F-4s, F-14s and F-5s!) seized from the Shah and kept together with bubble gum an duct tape, and some Russian aircraft gifted to them by a desperate Saddam 25 years ago. Iran’s ground forces have no power projection capability. Its units have struggled in Syria and Iraq, and were noted during the Iran-Iraq war mainly for their ability to absorb appalling casualties. Iran’s navy also lacks any power projection capability. Logistics would also render impossible any Iranian attack on KSA.

Saudi Arabia has a very well-equipped air force, with 70 F-15E strike aircraft, 86 F-15C and D air superiority fighters, 72 Eurofighter Typhoon multirole aircraft, and 80 Tornado ground attack planes. This is more than adequate to defend KSA against anything that Iran could throw against it on air, sea, and land. But KSA’s ground forces are, like most Arab armies, woefully ineffective, and mainly intended for regime protection. The Saudis are bogged down in neighboring Yemen, and could not hope to project any force into Iraq, let alone Iran.

Even if Iran develops a nuclear weapon, it will have little effect on the balance of power. The Saudis will almost certainly obtain one as well, and a nuclear weapon is more of a regime protection weapon than an instrument of power projection.

Iran’s main weapon is subversion, but this is difficult to employ against a police state like KSA. Indeed, the execution of Nimr Nimr that precipitated the latest crisis was no doubt a signal to Iran that the Saudis were willing to use extreme measures to crush any uprising in the Shia population in the eastern provinces. Also look at the brutal crackdown in Bahrain to see how the KSA and its allies deal with Iran-fomented Shia internal dissent.

So there will be an intensified shadow war between KSA and Iran, fought mainly in Syria and Iraq. Things have intensified now because the Iran deal and the Russian intervention in Syria disturbed the previous equilibrium in the region: this was one of the main reasons the Iran deal, and the administration’s subsequently fecklessness in responding to Iranian provocations, was so ill-advised. The most likely outcome is an intensified struggle resulting in a renewed stalemate.

In terms of oil, the most likely outcome is that the Saudis will figure that Iran suffers from lower oil prices more than they do, so they will not cut output. The Iranians have every incentive to produce as much as they can.

There are loud calls from some quarters that we intervene on behalf of our Saudi “allies.” With allies like this, we need no enemies, given lavish Saudi support for Islamism (and terrorist groups) around the world: indeed, I consider the Iranians’ in-your-face chants of “Death to America” more palatable than the Saudis’ two-faced duplicity. The relationship between the US and KSA is transactional, at best, and is unfortunately suborned by Saudi money which greases far too many palms in DC and Europe.

Stalemate is probably a good outcome from the US perspective. Getting in the middle means we will get it from both sides.

Our main interest is continued flow of oil through the Persian/Arab Gulf. A policy similar to that adopted by the Reagan Administration during the Iran-Iraq War, which largely took a hands-off approach to the conflict on the ground, and focused on assuring the free navigation of the Gulf, is a prudent one. If either side tries to escalate by attacking shipping or laying mines, like during the Tanker War, the US can intervene and smack them down as it did in Operation Praying Mantis.

We have no interest in a civilizational and sectarian war, and probably couldn’t intervene effectively even if we decided to. Neither country is capable of achieving a decisive victory over the other. The main stakes are who gets to rule (albeit indirectly) over a ruined Syria and a dysfunctional Iraq. So limit our involvement to keeping the oil flowing and deterring and preventing terrorist spillover. And definitely don’t take the side of Wahhabi freaks, or think that they are allies worthy of the name.

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January 6, 2016

Ten Years After

Filed under: Uncategorized — The Professor @ 3:38 pm

Today is the 10th anniversary of Streetwise Professor. Hard to believe. What a long, strange trip it’s been.

I started the blog with the intent of focusing on topics directly related to my academic research on derivatives, commodities, and exchanges. I’ve done quite a bit of that, and indeed, blog posts were often the first draft of material that turned up in research papers, or at least, were a way of thinking out loud that shaped what later appeared in more formal work. But, of course, the range of topics I’ve written about has metastasized over the years. I never would have predicted when I first envisioned the blog that Russia would have consumed so much time and attention. And probably a good thing too, because that probably brought more traffic to SWP than any other single topic, and people who came here for my Russia rants stayed for other topics. But it’s not just Russia. I’ve written about politics (Thanks, Obama!), China, broader economic issues, history, military matters, climate change, sports and even punk rock. It’s my blog, and I’ll write what I want to.

2006 was a propitious time to start a blog, because the subsequent decade has been chock-full of history, especially in financial and commodity markets. The biggest financial crisis in recent history spawned a huge onslaught of regulation, which provided a lot of grist for my mill. (Thanks, Frankendodd!) Furthermore, the End of History that some forecast at the beginning of the 2000s definitely did not occur in the 2006-2016 decade. Indeed, the world has been as unsettled as in any decade since the 1930s. In 2009 or so, I wondered whether these times were more like the 30s or the 70s, and sadly, the former answer wins. But that has provided considerable material to work with.

In areas related to things I actually know something about–commodity prices, energy, speculation, manipulation, HFT, derivatives market regulation, and clearing–I think it’s fair to say that SWP has had some impact on policy, or at least the way people think about policy. I know that there are more than a few followers in the financial and legal community, and among regulators around the world.

Along the way I’ve made quite a few friends, for which I’m grateful. It has been gratifying over the years to have people approach me and mention this post or that. I have to confess that some people have remembered posts that I forgot writing 😉

I’ve also made a few enemies, for which I’m also grateful. It’s part of the way I know I’ve made an impact, but more importantly, I’ve made enemies mainly by calling out rather forcefully the frauds, follies, fecklessness–and fuck-ups–of those who presume to rule us. (I have it on very good authority, for instance, that I was banned from the CFTC building by Gensler.) Their anger is a sign that I’ve hit the mark.

I would like to extend my sincere appreciation to those who have read the blog, particularly those who have read it regularly over the years, and especially those hardy souls who have ventured into the comment section.

What will then next ten years bring? Since I was so mistaken in my expectations about SWP when I started, I will forego a prediction now, other than to say that I will go where the spirit leads me (recognizing that sometimes the spirit is an evil one :-P). I think eclecticism has worked, and I’ll keep it up.

Thanks again for reading, and I hope you stick around. I hope I give you reason to stick around.

PS. Talk about some sort of fate. I remember distinctly sitting in front of my computer ten years ago, wondering what to call this damn thing. Then this song played, and I knew immediately that Streetwise Professor was the perfect name. And what should begin playing on Pandora when I started the third paragraph? Yup. Lars Frederiksen and the Bastards, playing Streetwise Professor. Too funny.

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January 2, 2016

Fools Rush in Where Angels Fear to Tread: Avoiding the Islamic Civil War Is Prudence, Not Isolationism

Filed under: History,Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 7:43 pm

The combination dumpster fire, shit show, and clusterfuck AKA the Middle East got even more disastrous today when the Saudis beheaded a prominent Shia cleric (along with 46 Sunni radicals). The reaction from Iran was immediate: the Saudi embassy was sacked by outraged Shia.

And the reaction from certain quarters in the US was almost as swift: the usual (neocon) suspects in the US (e.g., Max Boot) immediately swung into action, shrieking loudly about the Iranian violation of the sanctity of the Saudi embassy (I wonder what really goes on there, besides, you know, slavery and stuff) but saying nary a word about the morals or justice or reasonableness of going medieval on Nimr al Nimr.

It is beyond bizarre that certain quarters of the right are so obsessed with Iran that they are willing to go all in with the Saudis and the other oil ticks of the GCC. How can they be blind to the facts that (a) the most direct terrorist threats that we face are all Sunni, and specifically Wahhabi-influenced, (b) these threats receive material and ideological support from Saudi Arabia, and (c) the Saudis have spent billions propagating their hateful creed, including supporting the very mosques in the US and Europe where terrorists are radicalized and recruit?

I stipulate that Iran under the Mullahs is dangerous. I further stipulate that Assad is evil. I further stipulate that Putin is a malign force.

It does not follow, however, that their enemies–the Wahhabi Sunni extremists–are good guys, or that following the enemy-of-my-enemy strategy is even remotely wise.

This is particularly true in the case of Syria, which is a proxy war between the Saudis and the other oil ticks (and the Sunni Turks) and the Iranians. Opposing Assad means throwing in on the side of the very same types of jihadis that are trying to kill us in Paris, Brussels, and San Bernardino. Empowering them today is a recipe for disaster tomorrow.

Just how far the anti-Iran cabal is willing to go is illustrated by their deification of Zarhan Alloush, whose extreme Sunni-sectarian background (he openly advocated a genocide of the Alawites in Syria) has been whitewashed in order to transform him into some martyred potential interlocutor of peace.

Insane.

There is a civil war in Islam. Indeed, there are multiple civil wars. Sunni vs. Shia. But even within the Islamist Sunni “community” there are deep divisions and vicious, brutal fights.

Intervening in a civil war, especially one between extreme sectarians with mindsets completely alien to our own–and indeed, actively hostile to our own–is a recipe for disaster.

But those who counsel staying out–such as Ted Cruz–are pilloried as “isolationists.” Rushing in where angels fear to tread is not isolationism. It’s prudence.

Cruz in fact was-and is-an ardent foe of the Iran deal. So he’s not dew-eyed about the mullahs, or an isolationist. But he’s smart enough to realize that you have to pick your battles, and even if you don’t like Iran (which he doesn’t), that doesn’t mean you have to fight their proxy in Syria.

Indeed, one of the reasons that the Iran deal was a disaster was precisely that it stoked the conflict between Iran and the Saudis. This was predictable, and predicted: well over a year ago I argued that one of the reasons the deal was a bad idea is that it would intensify the conflict in the Gulf specifically, and the Muslim civil war generally, because the Saudis would feel the need to take matters into their own hands and fight Iran before Iran became too strong. We are seeing that happen right before our eyes.

What’s particularly maddening about the interventionist crowd is that they have no specific strategy. This is epitomized by this Garry Kasparov article. Kasparov waxes eloquent about American exceptionalism, and our need to do something:

But the Iraq War was a rebuke to bad planning and lousy implementation, not a refutation of the idea that America can be an essential force for good in the world. America must do better, not do nothing.

OK. I’ll stipulate that doing nothing is not good. But it’s a long way from saying “do something!” to specifying just what that something is, and showing that it will make things better, not worse. After all, in this very paragraph Kasparov admits that we are capable of “bad planning and lousy implementation”: what’s to say we won’t have a repeat? Vacuous generalities about spreading democracy and freedom are exactly what gets us into trouble.

It is particularly irritating that Kasparov invokes Reagan’s name (as many neocons do, though he didn’t care for them, and the feeling was quite mutual). Reagan indeed engaged in soaring rhetoric about freedom and democracy. But he had a concrete strategy that he developed over years and implemented methodically when in office. The new interventionists have the rhetoric. The strategy, not so much.

Further, the situation Reagan faced–a Cold War with a military peer and ideological rival–is completely different than the one we currently face in the Middle East. There are no one size fits all solutions, and anyone who claims to know how Reagan would respond to these completely different circumstances is just full of it. That’s unknown and unknowable.

Perhaps as a chess player, Kasparov is used to there being  black pieces, and white pieces. But in the Middle East, there is no such clean divide. It is just different shades of anti-western and anti-modern sectarians looking to extirpate their enemies–who include us, by the way. Democracy and freedom are on no one’s agenda there, and we shouldn’t pretend otherwise. We made that mistake in Iraq: why repeat it again.

I am not a huge fan of Kissinger, James Baker, and Brent Scowcroft, but on these issues they have a more measured understanding of the realities. They recognize the importance of idealistic goals, but temper that with a recognition that realistic means are needed to achieve them.

Scowcroft:

Scowcroft does not believe that the promotion of American-style democracy abroad is a sufficiently good reason to use force. “I thought we ought to make it our duty to help make the world friendlier for the growth of liberal regimes,” he said. “You encourage democracy over time, with assistance, and aid, the traditional way. Not how the neocons do it.”

(The whole piece is worth reading.)

Kissinger and Baker:

Like most Americans, we believe that the United States should always support democracy and human rights politically, economically and diplomatically, just as we championed freedom for the captive peoples of the Soviet empire during the Cold War. Our values impel us to alleviate human suffering. But as a general principle, our country should do so militarily only when a national interest is also at stake. Such an approach could properly be labeled “pragmatic idealism.”

. . .

Sixth, and most important, the United States must develop a firm and differentiated understanding of its vital national interests. Not every upheaval in the region has the same origin or remedy. The Arab Spring has the potential to become a great opportunity for the people of the region and the world. Over time, fostering democracy may provide an alternative to Islamic extremism; it may also, in the short term, empower some of its supporters. We need to develop a realistic concept of what is achievable and in what time frame.

The last point is a jab at the End of History strain of neoconservatism, which is universalist and believes that everyone wants to be like us, and that the world is inevitably destined to be like us, as the result of some progressive, Hegelian process.

No and no.

Insofar as Syria in particular is concerned. Our national interest there is limited, and the cost of doing anything is prohibitive. Putin’s intervention there is not a bug, but a feature: if he is a fool who rushes in, we should take grim satisfaction, not engage in hysterical reactions like Kasparov (and Max Boot and Michael Weiss). (Relatedly, Boot slandered Cruz, tweeting that he has affection for Assad. This is scurrilous: not wanting to fight him does not imply affection, especially since those whom Assad is fighting are Islamic extremists.)

In sum, the isolationism charge is a canard when hurled at people who don’t want to get deeper into Syria, and who don’t want to take sides between medieval combatants in a sectarian civil war. Saying that the Iranians are bad is not sufficient to justify intervening on the side of their Wahhabi foes–who are just as bad, and are in fact more directly involved in attacking the US and the West than are the Iranians.

To paraphrase Kissinger again (specifically, his remarks about the Iran-Iraq War): we should hope that they both lose. In the meantime, we should look for ways of shielding ourself from the fallout. Jumping into the fray is not the way to do that.

 

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December 29, 2015

Spoof Me Once, Shame on You: Spoof Me Twice, Shame on Me

Filed under: Commodities,Derivatives,Economics,Exchanges,Regulation — The Professor @ 6:41 pm

I’ve often written that HFT firms are the best able to detect spoofers, and to take preventative measures (which reduce the profitability of spoofing, and hence its prevalence). The whole business of HFT is extracting signals from orders and order flow, and trading accordingly. Spoofing is based on manipulating the order flow–in essence, injecting noise into it. HFT firms evaluate their executions, and attempt to identify patterns that predict both winning and losing trades. If spoofers systematically impose losses on HFT firms, eventually the latter will figure it out.

This is the first article that I’ve read that supports this contention:

Inside Ken Griffin’s $25 billion empire, Citadel’s cyber investigators had isolated a new enemy: spoofers.

It was late 2013, and at the firm’s Chicago headquarters, a team of researchers discovered that a rival company’s algorithm was outmaneuvering their automated trader. The algo was placing futures orders it had no intention of filling to entice firms like Citadel into the transactions, then canceling them, leaving Citadel with money-losing trades. Citadel’s plan: to pit its computers against the spoofer in a high-stakes duel over market manipulation.

. . . .

Vertex Analytics may have devised a way to make high-frequency trading more transparent and spoofing easier to detect. The Chicago-based technology firm can represent graphically every order and transaction on CME’s markets, obviating the need to go through pounds of paper searching for a telltale sequence of

Vertex’s approach was a revelation for Robert Korajczyk, a finance professor for more than 30 years at Northwestern University, where he’s studied asset pricing and liquidity.

“My first reaction to seeing the graphics capabilities was ‘This can’t be done,’” Korajczyk said. “However, Vertex can do it.”

. . . .

Citadel isn’t the only firm that took measures against spoofers without regulators’ help.

In 2012, Chicago-based HTG Capital Partners detected a pattern of large canceled orders followed by aggressive trades in the opposite direction that left them with losing positions, according to an affidavit released last month. The firm created tools to help identify when spoofing was taking place, the affidavit said.

Transmarket Group has created an “anti-manipulation guide” that tells traders how to spot spoofing, according to a copy seen by Bloomberg News. The Chicago-based firm lists specific examples of spoofing in the natural gas market on CME as part of the guide.

The article spends a lot of time discussing enforcement actions against spoofers, and the difficulties of making a case. Even ignoring my doubts (expressed in earlier posts) whether the social costs of spoofing really warrant expensive enforcement efforts, the fact that sophisticated and knowledgeable players have the incentive to detect this kind of conduct, and take defensive measures (and perhaps offensive–at least that’s what the description of Citadel “pit[ting] its computers” against spoofers suggests) means that the frequency and scale of spoofing activity is likely to decline significantly. It is a pathogen that found a niche, but the hosts’ immune systems are adapting, and it will become less dangerous in short order.

This isn’t true of all forms of manipulation, but the very nature of spoofing–which involves doing things that are intended to be detected–makes it vulnerable to detection and countermeasures. This means that the system tends to be self-correcting, and this mitigates the need for enforcement. Unfortunately, it appears that enforcement officials (both civil and criminal) think otherwise, and have prioritized the prosecution of spoofing. Combined with the outrageous overcharging and over-penalizing that I’ve mentioned before, this is a disturbing development.

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Helluva Way to Run a War: The Pentagon & Obama Go to the Mattresses

Filed under: History,Military,Politics — The Professor @ 1:24 pm

I have long hypothesized that an intense war between the White House and the Pentagon has been raging for years.

Exhibit 1 in support of this hypothesis is the simple fact that Obama is on his fourth defense secretary, whereas no other major department has had more than two. The most recently defenestrated SecDef, Chuck “Hapless” Hagel, recently blasted the administration, savaging it for micromanaging, and entrusting the micromanaging to certifiable idiots like Susan Rice, whose major qualification, of course, is her willingness to say anything–anything–in defense of the administration, no matter how ludicrous.

Hagel’s complaints about micromanagement merely echo those of his predecessors, Bob Gates and Leon Panetta. And of course, there are many other stories (some discussed here) that provide further support.

Hagel also claims that the White House tried to “destroy” him with a slanderous leak campaign. The White House no doubt did this pour encourager les autres: no independent thought will be tolerated! This apparently had the desired effect. One candidate,  Michele Flournoy, withdrew her name from consideration precisely because of her concerns about micromanagement by The Incompetent One.

All of this of course should make you look askance at anyone who would take the job.

Today brought another story of the Pentagon-White House War: Reuters reports that the Defense Department has been doing everything in its power, and pulling every bureaucratic trick imaginable, to impede Obama’s obsession with emptying Gitmo.

The most lurid war story came out some days ago, when Seymour Hersh wrote a long piece in the London Review of Books claiming that the Defense Department actively opposed administration policy in Syria. One must always take Hersh stories with a large grain of salt, but this one has a high degree of verisimilitude. The Pentagon was aghast at Obama’s support for jihadi groups fighting Assad, and for its deference to Turkey which was supporting every jihadist in sight–including ISIS.

The strongest piece of evidence in favor of the Hersh claims is the failed Pentagon program to arm allegedly moderate opposition groups. The Pentagon knows how to arm, equip, and train insurgent forces: indeed, this was the original purpose of Special Forces. The only possible reason that the Pentagon could have fucked it up as badly as it did in Syria is that it wanted to fuck it up.

Another piece of evidence in favor of Hersh is that he writes that ex-DIA head Michael Flynn was the most aggressive opponent of Obama’s Syria policy (with Dempsey playing a more devious Yes Minister role). Flynn has been very outspoken recently, including this recent interview.

So there you have it folks. The Defense Department and Obama and his thugs have gone to the mattresses. Helluva way to run a war. Or wars.

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December 26, 2015

Is Russia Like the One Hoss Shay?

Filed under: Economics,Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 7:59 pm

This piece in War on the Rocks challenges seven common beliefs about Russia. Two were of particular interest.

The first challenges the view the Russia is brittle. As someone who long ago advanced this hypothesis, I challenge the challenge. The basic problem is that I don’t think author Michael Kofman really understands the concept of brittleness. Here’s what he says:

With each new outbreak in what has become an almost routine series of political, economic, or foreign policy crises, a segment of the Russia-watcher community invariably begins to make predictions of Putin’s imminent demise. Unfortunately, the science of predicting regime change seems to lag significantly behind astrology. We should remember that few predicted the Soviet Union’s rapid demise, the start of the Arab Spring, or anticipated the rapid fall of Victor Yanukovich in Ukraine following the start of the Maidan.

There are two ongoing case studies on the merit of such predictions. The first is Pakistan, a country that by the same theory should have collapsed long ago under the weight of its many problems. The second is North Korea, which soldiers on despite decades of predictions and estimates of the regime’s imminent implosion. As former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates remarked on our ability to predict the nature and location of the next conflict, “our record has been perfect” given that “we’ve never once gotten it right.” The same should be said of our ability to judge regime brittleness. The point is not that neo-Kremlinology or assessments of political stability are a waste of time, but that this is a single layer of analysis that should be taken with a healthy dose of skepticism.

The point about brittleness is exactly that the process is not linear and that collapse occurs suddenly and unpredictably. Brittle systems survive most things, but when they fail, they fail completely and suddenly . . . like the USSR, Arab regimes, and Yanukovych.

Brittleness arises from coordination games in authoritarian regimes. Preference falsification is one mechanism. Coercive mechanisms and social pressures induce people to claim allegiance to an authoritarian regime, or remain silent, even when they don’t like it. This can be self-reinforcing, because people don’t receive contradictory information, and think that their own dissatisfaction is not widely held, and thereby remain silent (or feign support) which convinces others that their dissatisfaction is not widely held, and on and on. This system is stable, until some shock (a military adventure gone wrong, for instance, or an economic calamity, or an incompetent response to a natural disaster) induces enough people to express their opposition to convince the remainder that their dissatisfaction is indeed widely shared. The equilibrium then flips from uniform support or acquiescence to widespread opposition.

Preference falsification is a brittleness mechanism that works through the broad populace. Natural state mechanisms work through the elite. Elite support for the regime is predicated on the beliefs that it commands control over enough resources that can be distributed to the elite, and that this control will endure for some time. When an adverse economic shock reduces the stream of rents that is used to buy elite support, or if the durability of the regime comes into question (due, for instance, to a health crisis at the top of the regime), the elite can suddenly withdraw support or challenge the existing leadership, leading to regime collapse.

Both of these mechanisms are non-linear. Small shocks can lead to large changes. Since the shocks are unpredictable, the shattering of a brittle regime is unpredictable as well.

Highly personalized and institutionally impoverished systems tend to be more brittle, in large part because these systems are more dependent on the vagaries of individual health, personality, and sanity. In this respect, it is interesting to consider the case of Stalin. The Soviet system survived Stalin’s death in part because it did have developed institutions that facilitated succession. Putin, in contrast, has followed the more traditional authoritarian approach of becoming the indispensable person. Such as system is inherently more brittle.

The second point I’d like to challenge is related to the first, namely, whether Putin (and the Russian government generally) is obsessed with regime survival. Kofman argues that this is an empirically empty hypothesis.

This is incorrect. Putin is clearly obsessed with regime change. Look at his rhetoric on color revolutions and the Arab uprisings. He sees dark plots everywhere, most of them emanating from the US. His fears are matched by actions. Putin’s resumption of the presidency, and the relentless campaign to control civil society and eliminate independent media especially in the aftermath of the late-2011 protests are the clearest examples domestically, and the hysterical response to Ukraine, Syria and even backwaters like Montenegro are the foreign policy manifestations of this fear. The obsession with stability at home and abroad is also symptomatic of of concerns about regime survival.

The domestic reactions are classical authoritarian responses to anxieties about brittleness. Controlling information enforces the preference falsification equilibrium. The confident don’t fear open expression of discontent. Those who know that stability depends the shared belief that the regime has near universal support, do.

Obsession with regime survival is an acknowledgement of brittleness: that’s why these concepts are related (though Kofman does not connect them, which is revealing). Michael Kofman may not believe that Russia is brittle, but Putin’s behavior strongly suggests that he does.

Again, the whole point about brittle regimes is that the timing of their demise is almost impossible to predict, as that brittleness is a non-linear process that involves the risk of a large and sudden change in equilibria in response to a modest shock. Non-brittle systems muddle along. Brittle regimes don’t: they sometimes fall to pieces all at once, like the one hoss shay.

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December 25, 2015

Four Corners Offense: The Social History of Commodity Corners

I’ve been spending something of a busman’s holiday, reading this and that about commodity market corners in days long past. I started out looking into some of the big cotton corners at the beginning of the last century, namely the Brown-Hayne corner of 1903 and the Patten corner of 1910. These are the subject of a new book, The Cotton Kings: Capitalism and Corruption in Turn-of-the-Century New York and New Orleans. The book is entertaining history, but could use some more economics. It is journalistic in style, rather than analytical.

Reading about Patten’s cotton corner led me to read about his wheat corner of 1909, his corn corner of 1908, and his oats corner of 1902. Mr. Patten was a busy man.

And a reviled one. He was known as “The Wheat King,” whom the The Literary Review accused of  “The Crime of Making Bread Dear.” He was the model for the villain in the very influential D. W. Griffith short film, “A Corner in Wheat.”

This early short was one of the first films, if not the first, to address a serious social subject. Its theme would be very familiar today: the two Americas, rich and poorSergei Eisenstein admired Griffith, and employed his “parallel editing” technique (which he referred to as Griffith’s “montage of collision”): some film historians consider Griffith’s technique more subtle and less heavy-handed than Eisenstein’s.

(Unbeknownst to me when I was growing up in Evanston, Illinois, Patten was a longtime resident of the city, and its former mayor. He built a mansion there, and funded the Patten Gymnasium, where I swam in the summers.)

Patten was a nationally known figure. The Justice Department indicted him under the Sherman Act for his cotton corner, and the case attracted front page attention in national newspapers, including the New York Times, when it went to the Supreme Court. (Patten was fined $4000, or less than .1 percent of what he allegedly made in his corner. Not much deterrence effect there, eh?)

Patten was not alone in being a figure of national renown–and infamy. Commodity speculators were the banksters of their day. The Matt Taibbi of the 1880s, Henry Demarest Lloyd, wrote about cornerers at the Chicago Board of Trade in a famous essay. Frank Norris wrote a famous roman à clef, The Pit, based on the Leiter wheat corner of 1898.

In sum, in the last third of the 19th century and the first quarter of the 20th, commodity markets generally, and commodity market corners in particular, were the subject of intense interest. In some respects, it is not surprising that commodity corners were the subject of close journalistic coverage, serious fiction, social critical literature, and film during this era. Agricultural commodities were much more central to Americans as both consumers and producers. In 1900, 41 percent of the American workforce was employed in agriculture: now it is under 2 percent, and agriculture represents less than .7 of GDP. Half of American consumption spending went to food and textiles in 1900: a century later, that figure was down to 20 percent. Relatively speaking, the commodity derivatives markets (the Chicago Board of Trade, the Minneapolis Chamber of Commerce, Kansas City Board of Trade, the New York and New Orleans cotton exchanges, etc.) were more important and more developed that the capital markets, including the New York Stock Exchange, than is the case today: by the 1990s, when I was researching commodity exchanges and doing work with some, the commodity traders lamented that the explosion of financial futures had led the managements of exchanges to lose touch with the realities of commodities.

That said, one can see many echoes of the distant debates about and social criticism of commodity trading and corners in current controversies over financial markets. Just as outrage over the alleged excesses of the 2000s gave birth to the spate of post-Crisis financial regulation, fury over the Leiters and Pattens and Browns led to the first major regulations of financial markets in the United States: the Cotton Futures Act of 1914, and the Grain Futures Act of 1922 (which morphed into the Commodity Exchange Act, which is still with us, and which was amended by Frankendodd). Both Acts followed major government studies, the Commissioner of Corporations’ Report on Cotton Exchanges, and the Federal Trade Commission’s Report on the Grain Trade. Both of these are very well done, and provide very detailed descriptions of both the cash and futures markets. They are priceless resources. In some respects, because of them, we know more about the operation of commodity markets in the first decades of the 20th century than we do of their operation in the first decades of the 21st.

Maybe someday I’ll write a book about all of this, one that integrates the economics, history, and political economy. It’s of great personal interest, but not highly valued in the economics or finance professions today. I was amused when I came upon the link to an AER article about the Cotton Futures Act: it is beyond imagining that something similar would appear there today. But as I hope the foregoing shows, plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. Issues of the relationship between financial markets and the real economy, the political economy of financial markets, and the influence of financial titans on political and judicial institutions, are still with us. In 1909, a film like A Corner in Wheat grappled with the social impact of finance in a very provocative and arguably simplistic way: in 2009-2015 movies like Too Big to Fail, Margin Call, and The Big Short do the same.

Don’t hold your breath, but maybe someday you’ll read about this in depth in print, rather than superficially in pixels.

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December 23, 2015

The WaPo Caters a Pity Party

Filed under: Politics — The Professor @ 11:41 am

This story in the WaPo is utterly infuriating, on many levels.

In a nutshell: A British “Asian” Muslim family was denied entry into the United States by DHS.

Rather than even acknowledging the possibility that DHS had a legitimate security interest in doing so, in an alleged news story the WaPo leapt into action, blaming Trump:

Ever since Donald Trump called for a “total and complete” ban on Muslims entering the United States, many people have decried the idea of excluding people from the country just because of their religion. Would such a policy, some wondered, be constitutional? Would it be American? Would it be decent?

Now, a British Muslim family headed to Disneyland has been prevented from traveling to the United States by the Department of Homeland Security. The Guardian reported that a family of 11, headed to the California resort from Britain’s Gatwick Airport, was unable “to board the plane even though they had been granted travel authorization online ahead of their planned 15 December flight.”

Trump had zero to do with this. FFS, it was the Obama administration’s DHS that barred them from the flight, and we have had plenty of evidence that the administration, and the DHS in particular, is consumed by political correctness that leads it to avoid anything that can be even remotely called profiling of Muslims. And it’s not as if the Obama administration genuflects to Trump: Obama has in fact sharply criticized Trump’s ban-all-Muslims gambit. If this DHS has issues with you, that’s saying something.

The WaPo raises the issue of whether the family was all UK citizens. As if that should matter.  let’s not forget that the UK has a huge homegrown radical Islam problem, rooted deeply in the Asian community. The UK government acknowledges this.

Another huge red flag is the fact that the family immediately went into full-blown victim mode:

“We were devastated,” Mahmood told the British TV station ITV. “We’d planned this trip for two months — the kids were excited — and all of a sudden some person just comes and says ‘you’re not allowed to board the plane,’ with no explanation.”

“We were alienated,” he added, “the way we were just taken out the room.”

Mahmood said the children were “devastated” and had “tears in their eyes.”

In an interview with the BBC, Mahmood said he was taken aside by a British border control official just before his family was due to board the flight — and that the children knew almost instantly what was happening.

“We were the only family that were Asian, Muslim appearance. It was embarrassing that we were the only family that were taken out,” he said. “When they saw me shaking my head, the younger ones started crying. They knew straight away.”

No American officials told them why they weren’t being allowed to enter the United States, Mahmood told the Guardian, but he said the reason was “obvious.”

“It’s because of the attacks on America — they think every Muslim poses a threat,” he told the newspaper.

All of this is hyperbolic and manipulative, but the last sentence is particularly egregious. Um, Mahmoud’s experience made the news because it is clearly the exception, not the rule. “Every Muslim” is not denied entry: very few are. Mahmood & family were denied entry.

There is another exception reported in the story, a certain Mansoor who was denied entry to the US, and who also played the victim for all it’s worth.

But rather than take a skeptical or merely even-handed approach to Mahmood and Mansoor, the WaPo catered the pity party.

And that does bring Trump into the story: this clueless political correctness in the political class and its media enablers is exactly what drives Trumpism.

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