Streetwise Professor

May 29, 2016

To the NYT It Would Be News That Socialism Causes Economic Catastrophe

Filed under: Climate Change,Commodities,Economics,Energy,Politics,Regulation — The Professor @ 2:05 pm

Venezuela is on the verge of economic collapse and social disintegration. Here’s the NYT’s diagnosis:

The growing economic crisis — fueled by low prices for oil, the country’s main export; a drought that has crippled Venezuela’s ability to generate hydroelectric power; and a long decline in manufacturing and agricultural production — has turned into an intensely political one for President Nicolás Maduro. This month, he declared a state of emergency, his second this year, and ordered military exercises, citing foreign threats.

Do you see what’s missing? Not a single mention of socialism, Chavism, Bolivarian socialism, etc.

Other countries have suffered similar shocks without descending into dystopian chaos like Venezuela. Many countries in South America, for instance (notably Columbia and Brazil), have suffered from the decline in commodity prices and the drought, and are doing poorly economically, but are not plagued by empty store shelves, myriad shuttered factories and stores, and the imminent threat of social violence. Brazil has suffered from a lack of hydropower due to the drought, but has imported LNG to keep the lights on. Venezuela can’t afford to.

Further, Venezuela’s descent into catastrophe started long ago, and serious problems were clearly manifest in 2014 and before when the price of oil was over $100/bbl and the drought had not reduced hydropower output.

Venezuela’s current crisis had its roots with Chavez’s triumph in the 2002-2003 general strike, and the subsequent firing of 18,000 PDVSA employees. In the years that followed, foreign investors were expropriated, as were domestic businesses, all in the name of socialism. The government has imposed price controls on an every widening array of goods. As shortages increased and inflation spiked, the government increased the scope of price controls and enforced them in a draconian way, including through the dispatching of red shirted goons to seize offending businesses.

The results of all this should have been eminently predictable: shortages and a collapse of economic activity. It is those policies that caused the “long decline in manufacturing and agricultural production.”

If the NYT read it’s own freaking archives, it might have realized that this problem was looming well before the oil price decline and the drought:

Venezuela is one of the world’s top oil producers at a time of soaring energy prices [hahaha], yet shortages of staples like milk, meat and toilet paper are a chronic part of life here, often turning grocery shopping into a hit or miss proposition.

Some residents arrange their calendars around the once-a-week deliveries made to government-subsidized stores like this one, lining up before dawn to buy a single frozen chicken before the stock runs out. Or a couple of bags of flour. Or a bottle of cooking oil. (Emphasis added.)

Mind well the date of the article: April 21, 2012. Four years ago. When the Brent price was about $118/bbl.

This title of the NYT piece is hilarious: “With Venezuelan Food Shortages, Some Blame Price Controls.”

Hey, NYT: by “some” do you mean people with an economics IQ of above 80? (A category which would exclude the editorial staff and most of the news room.)

What is happening in Venezuela is a perfect illustration of something that Adam Smith recognized 240 years ago. It takes perverse government policy to turn an adverse supply or demand shock into shortages and economic catastrophe:

Whoever examines with attention the history of the dearths and famines which have afflicted any part of Europe, during either the course of the present or that of the two preceding centuries, of several of which we have pretty exact accounts, will find, I believe, that a dearth never has arisen from any combination among the inland dealers in corn, nor from any other cause but a real scarcity, occasioned sometimes perhaps, and in some particular places, by the waste of war, but in by far the greatest number of cases by the fault of the seasons; and that a famine has never arisen from any other cause but the violence of government attempting, by improper means, to remedy the inconveniences of a dearth. (Emphasis added.)

That is a perfect description of what is happening in Venezuela.

But various economic morons on the left (but I repeat myself) like Bernie Sanders, Jeremy Corbyn, Sean Penn, and Danny Glover (to name just a few) have been cheering Chavism and Bolivarian socialism for attacking the inequalities spawned by capitalism red in tooth and claw. In a perverse way, it has indeed succeeded in reducing inequality–by making everyone largely equal in their abject misery.

Perhaps there is a silver lining to the food shortages. They reduce the need for toilet paper, which ran out long ago (due to price controls, naturally).

The New York Times prides itself on carrying all the news that’s fit to print. Apparently the news about the impact of price controls hasn’t reached it yet, even though observant folks picked up on it about the time of Diolcetian’s Edict on Prices, a mere 1715 years ago.

This economic cluelessness by the NYT is precisely why its criticism of me doesn’t bother me. Such boundless economic ignorance (which is shared by a vast swathe of its readers, including notably Elizabeth Warren) renders its criticism meaningless. Anyone so stupid, or so ideologically blinded, that they fail to recognize that Venezuela’s problems have everything to do with perverse government policy has nothing to say about economics that is worth paying the slightest heed.

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May 28, 2016

Obama’s Sly–and Cowardly–Slander in Hiroshima

Filed under: History,Military,Politics — The Professor @ 3:45 pm

Obama gave his long-awaited speech in Hiroshima yesterday. No, he did not apologize for Truman’s decision to drop the bomb. In many ways, what he says was actually worse.

Most of the speech was vapid banalities. War is bad. (Who knew?) War has been part of the human condition since the beginning of recorded history. (Really?)

Most of the rest was moral preening and the uttering of grandiose but completely empty and unrealistic solutions to the scourge of nuclear weapons. According to Obama, nothing short of a “moral revolution” is required.

What, pray tell, in the vast sweep of human history gives the faintest hope that such a “moral revolution” is remotely possible? Perhaps Obama has enlisted the help of invisible magic unicorns. Or angels.

Indeed, given Obama’s track record with gaseous speeches such as these, you might want to become a prepper, rent a backhoe, and start building your bomb shelter. For instance, Obama’s searching criticism of the history of the relationship between the West and the Muslim world, an his soaring call in his Cairo speech for a fundamental transformation–a revolution, if you will–in that relationship ushered in a period of even greater violence in the Muslim world, and a serious decline in the relationship between Islam and the West.

The Middle Eastern dystopia that slouched in the wake of Obama’s Cairo speech makes me shudder for what will follow in the aftermath of this one. Reading Obama’s Hiroshima speech in light of the dismal aftermath of his Cairo vaporings should lead the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists to move the Doomsday Clock to within a few seconds of midnight.

As for why Obama’s speech was in some ways worse than an outright apology, it was an exercise in moral equivalence that did not distinguish between the combatants in WWII, but lumped them into one mass engaged in a conflict that was undistinguishable from the conflicts that mankind has waged since pre-historical times:

The world war that reached its brutal end in Hiroshima and Nagasaki was fought among the wealthiest and most powerful of nations. Their civilizations had given the world great cities and magnificent art. Their thinkers had advanced ideas of justice and harmony and truth. And yet the war grew out of the same base instinct for domination or conquest that had caused conflicts among the simplest tribes, an old pattern amplified by new capabilities and without new constraints.

In the span of a few years, some 60 million people would die. Men, women, children, no different than us. Shot, beaten, marched, bombed, jailed, starved, gassed to death. There are many sites around the world that chronicle this war, memorials that tell stories of courage and heroism, graves and empty camps that echo of unspeakable depravity.

The difference between WWII, and the War of Austrian Succession, say, let alone some unrecorded tribal conflict, is blindingly obvious, and that difference matters. Why people were “shot, beaten, marched, bombed, jailed, starved, gassed to death” matters. And the responsibility matters, and it is indisputable that the responsibility for this ghastly record is by no means equally shared: it rests disproportionately on Germany and yes, Japan. To ignore these fundamental facts is unpardonable. To do so in the context of a speech at Hiroshima insinuates that the act that ended one part of the war was morally indistinguishable from the events that led up to it, and therefore obscures any moral line between those who initiated the conflict and carried it out with horrific brutality, and those who ended it.

Then there is this wretched paragraph:

The wars of the modern age teach us this truth. Hiroshima teaches this truth. Technological progress without an equivalent progress in human institutions can doom us. The scientific revolution that led to the splitting of an atom requires a moral revolution as well.

This suggests in a very Hegelian/progressive way that the dropping of the atomic bomb was the result of some some inexorable technological process that had slipped human control. It is a statement about a historical process that is utterly ahistorical–more of Obama’s trademark historicism, in other words. It does not put the decision in the very specific historical context of the time. It suggests that the decision to drop the bomb was worse than the alternatives, but does so in a cowardly way because it does not address those alternatives and argue that they were better than dropping the bomb.

It also suggests that the man who made the decision was morally defective, and in need of some moral reformation. This is utterly unfair. Truman had a wrenching choice to make.  A decent successor to his office would recognize that, and give it proper deference. But Obama did not do this, and instead continued his tiresome role as a moral titan instructing lesser beings. All in all, an utterly appalling performance, but a totally unsurprising one.

Obama’s amnesia is, unfortunately, widely shared. American attitudes about Hiroshima and Nagasaki have changed dramatically since the war, and no doubt Obama’s implicit condemnation will be viewed favorably by large numbers of Americans, perhaps a majority. In some respects, this reflects the fact that in the experience of most Americans, the Japanese are a peaceful, quiet, diligent and inoffensive people: few are familiar with the bestiality of Japanese conduct from 1931 through August, 1945. Therefore, it is hard for many to comprehend how something as horrific as Hiroshima and Nagasaki could possibly be justified.

But to do this is to totally misunderstand the basic fact that modern Japan and modern Japanese are pacific, benign and enlightened precisely because of the bomb. Only the utter destruction of a militarist society that was enthusiastically supported by the vast bulk of the citizenry, and which spawned untold miseries across Asia, could have turned the Japanese into a pacific people. Nothing short of the bomb (or an invasion that would have led to more destruction and more death) would have scared the Japanese straight.

Although Obama did not apologize, many other commentators have used the occasion of Obama’s speech to regurgitate their condemnation of the dropping of the bomb and to suggest that an apology is the least that the US owes the Japanese, and the world. It would take me seventy years to go through the verbal sludge that has oozed forth in the last seven days, so I will limit myself to a brief discussion of the worst.

This piece was written by one Jeffrey Lewis, who styles himself in his Twitter bio as “one of the pointier heads in all of nuclear wonkdom.” It would be more accurate to say “one of the emptier heads in all of nuclear wonkdom.” Or at least I hope to God that’s the case, because we’re doomed if he isn’t. For Mr. Pointy Head wrote one of the most cosmically stupid lines I have read in my life:

The historical debate in the United States over Hiroshima, as best I can tell, began as a debate over responsibility for the Cold War.

It is the case that this has been a debate in the fever swamps of the left, who are sure that Truman dropped the bomb as the opening salvo of the Cold War, and that Stalin was the real target. But in the saner precincts of the United States (and even in those very rare academic precincts that can be considered sane) the historical debate began, and continues, as a debate over whether dropping the bomb was the best way to end WWII in the Pacific. The key issues in the debate were from the beginning and remain things like: Would moving away from unconditional surrender have led to an end of the war? How many casualties would the Allies have suffered if they had invaded? How many casualties would the Japanese have suffered if the Allies had invaded? How many Japanese would have died if the US had attempted to continue to firebomb and starve Japan into submission, instead of dropping the bomb? Would dropping the bomb on an uninhabited location, with Japanese witnesses, have convinced the Japanese to surrender?

But if you read Lewis’s piece, you’ll note that something is missing: World War Two! How anyone can discuss the dropping of the bomb and ignore altogether the Solomons, New Guinea, the Philippines (especially Manila), Iwo Jima, Okinawa, Kamikazes, Operations Downfall, Coronet and Olympic, western POWs, huge populations under brutal Japanese control in China and elsewhere in Asia, etc., etc., etc., boggles the mind. But no. In Lewis’s mind it’s all about the Cold War.

The closest that Lewis comes to recognizing the reality of the grim choice facing Truman is this smart-assed line: “And that’s why your granddad didn’t die on some god-forsaken beach code-named after a car.” Would that Paul Fussell or Eugene Sledge or other less literary veterans who were spared unspeakable horrors by the bomb were alive to put this little puke in his place.

Lewis is a product of the same leftist miasma that produced Barack Obama. I have little doubt that his views resonate with Obama, and that the President primarily chooses not to express such views as forthrightly as Lewis does out of political expediency, rather than out of conviction. But in truth, Obama said much the same in his remarks in Hiroshima. By orating about Hiroshima in soaring moral terms completely untethered to the horrific choices facing Harry Truman and the American military leadership, Obama slanders them and does a grave disservice to the truth.

 

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May 23, 2016

Storing Oil at a Loss? Analysis Akin to the Drunk Looking for His Keys Under the Streetlight

Filed under: Commodities,Derivatives,Economics,Energy — The Professor @ 12:48 pm

This article claims that “Oil traders are borrowing from banks to store crude at a loss.” Almost certainly not.

The calculation is based on contangos in Brent crude. But the vast bulk of the oil being stored at sea is in Singapore, and is not BFOE, from what I can gather.  This makes all the difference.

This is an example of what has long been a puzzle in economics in which futures prices in a central market (like Brent futures) are at less than full carry but inventories are held at other locations, or in non-deliverable grades (in the central market).  People are puzzled because they don’t take into account transformation costs. It would be impossible for some locations/grades to be at a carry that incentivizes holding inventory while other locations/grades are in backwardation if there are no frictions (costs) in transforming a commodity from one location to another, or from one grade to another: take the stuff out from storage in the market that is at full carry, move it to the central market that is in backwardation, and capture that backwardation (i.e., the premium for immediate consumption/delivery). But if there are frictions, the costs of transforming (e.g., shipping) the commodity to the central market may exceed the backwardation/premium for immediate delivery, making it unprofitable to make that transformation to capture that premium.

This means that a commodity that is costly to transport, or where there are bottlenecks in the logistical or refining processes, will have different forward curves at different locations (or for different grades). Where inventories are held, the price structure will cover storage costs: where the price structure doesn’t cover storage costs, inventories will not be held. Similarly, if some grades of a commodity are stored, the forward curve specific to that grade will cover storage costs.

A good example is Iranian heavy crude in the spring and summer of 2008. At a time when light sweet crudes (WTI and Brent) were in backwardation, and oil prices were reaching record highs, 14 or so supertankers of Iranian crude were swinging at anchor. Why? The demand was for light sweet crude to make low sulphur diesel to meet new European regulations: due to bottlenecks in refining in Europe (European refineries being unable to economically process heavy sour Iranian crude into LSD), there was strong demand for sweet crude that was cheap to refine into LSD, and little was in storage.  As a result,  WTI and Brent prices were high, and their futures curves were in backwardation. However, there was weaker demand for heavy sour crude because of its unsuitability for producing LSD. Also, many refineries that were optimized to process sour Iranian crude were down for maintenance. As a result, Iranian crude sold at a very large discount to WTI and Brent, and the forward price structure for that crude made it economical to store it.

Moving forward to the present, storing non-Brent crude in Asia can be economical even if time spreads do not cover the cost of storage Brent in NW Europe. Even though the lack of carry in the Brent market indicates a high demand for BFOE, the cost of transporting crude from Asia may make it uneconomical to ship it to Europe to meet the high demand for oil there. Moreover, the grades of crude being stored on tankers in Asia may not be competitive with Brent. Similarly, demand is not high enough in Asia to make it profitable to refine all of the supply there. So it is uneconomic to move it to Europe, and it is uneconomic to refine all of it. Therefore, store some of it in Asia even when Brent time spreads are narrow.

Furthermore, the apparent squeezes in Brent mean that some of the demand for it is artificial, and that Brent spreads do not reflect the competitive economics of storage. That is, if there are squeezes or even anticipations of squeezes, Brent calendar spreads are artificially high due to the exercise of market power. It is particularly misguided to use Brent spreads to evaluate the economics of non-Brent storage in this case. (The major reason that squeezes can work is that it is impossible to transform non-Brent crude into Brent.)

Oil traders operate on very thin margins. They are not going to make uneconomic trades. Period. If they are storing oil on ships in Singapore, it is because it pays to do so.

So why the claim that they are storing at a loss?

It’s like the old story of the drunk looking for his car keys under the streetlamp, because the light is better there. It is easy for outsiders to observe Brent spreads, or WTI spreads: just look at a Bloomberg screen, or even futures settlement prices. Singapore spreads, not so much. Traders search to collect information about prices and price structures in an opaque market like Singapore, and can use that to evaluate the economics of storage opportunities. But you or I or journalists or even analysts at Morgan Stanley have a far tougher time doing that.

So the outsiders look under the Brent futures streetlight, and conclude that storing oil doesn’t pay. But the oil isn’t under the streetlight. It’s being stored in the dark. And those who can see in the dark are storing it there because they can see that it pays.

 

 

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May 13, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

Inspector Clouseau would be proud.

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

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

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

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May 10, 2016

A Poster Child for the Devolution of American Conservatism Beats Trump With a Leftist Stick

Filed under: History,Politics — The Professor @ 6:22 pm

Trump’s triumph is sending establishment Republicans (on Capitol Hill, ex-Bushies, and writers at publications like the National Review and Weekly Standard) into paroxysms of apoplexy. A recent example is a WaPo piece by ex-Bush speechwriter (and relentless self-promoter) Michael Gerson. It makes for nauseating reading, even if you are not a Trump acolyte (and I am not).

The gravamen of Gerson’s gripe:

What common views or traits unite the most visible Trump partisans? A group including Limbaugh and Christie is not defined primarily by ideology. Rather, the Trumpians share a disdain for “country-club” Republicans (though former House speaker John Boehner apparently likes Trump because they were golfing buddies). They tend to be white and middle-aged. They are filled with resentment.

Above all, they detest weakness in themselves and others. The country, in their view, has grown soft and feeble. Their opponents are losers, lacking in energy. Rather than despising bullying — as Ryan, Romney and all the Bushes do — they elevate it. The strong must take power, defy political correctness, humiliate and defeat their opponents, and reverse the nation’s slide toward mediocrity.

The most annoying part about this is that Gerson–like other Republican Trump critics–uses a line of attack that the left has used against Republicans forever to attack Trump: “they tend to be white and middle-aged. They are filled with resentment.” Every time–every bleeping time–the Republicans have won big in an election (e.g., 1994, 2014) the left has attempted to de-legitimize the victory by claiming it is nothing but the tantrum of privileged, middle-aged whites. (Remember Peter Jennings’ verdict on the Gingrich-led Republican insurgency of 1994?)

And gee, last time I checked, George W. Bush (for whom Gerson wrote) didn’t exactly assemble a New Rainbow Coalition.

What makes things even more irritating is that after regurgitating the standard leftist/Democrat attack on Republicans, many of the anti-Trump crowd also scream “he’s not a real conservative!” No, he probably isn’t, but please tell me just how is using the leftist stick to beat Trump conservative?

Gerson has one thing sort of right: “The great Republican crackup has begun.”

There is a Republican crackup. One problem with Gerson’s sentence is the tense. The crackup began some time ago, and has been ongoing. Gerson also fails to identify who is responsible for the crackup. If he were honest, he would have to quote Pogo: “We have met the enemy, and he is us.”

For the rise of Trump is the direct result of the abject failure of the Republican Party generally, and the Bush Dynasty in particular. For decades they have failed to articulate a coherent, principled, intellectually compelling, or popular governing vision, or a practical program to implement it. For decades they have failed to produce any appealing leaders or candidates.

They are the ones who created the vacuum that Trump has filled with his bombast and outsized personality. And how did they respond to his insurgency? Not with a positive vision. Not with a coherent, reasoned, and appealing alternative to address the issues that Trump (perhaps opportunistically, but clearly astutely) has run on, which obviously strike a deep chord with many who voted reliably Republican in the past.

But never count on this crowd for honesty, or searching self-appraisal. Instead, they have responded with insults–all the while attacking Trump for his insult comic style. They have responded with ad hominem and invective, not with a positive program that could appeal to Trump’s supporters.

And rather than recognize that the failure of their attacks to resonate is a damning verdict on their shortcomings, they respond with attacks on the voters with whom they have failed to connect. Their reactions are all variations on “the people have spoken. The bastards.”

Paul Johnson–as solid as a conservative as there is–is much more astute about these things than Gerson, or the NRO gang, or the whiners on Capitol Hill:

For these reasons it’s good news that Donald Trump is doing so well in the American political primaries. He is vulgar, abusive, nasty, rude, boorish and outrageous. He is also saying what he thinks and, more important, teaching Americans how to think for themselves again.

. . . .

No one could be a bigger contrast to the spineless, pusillanimous and underdeserving Barack Obama, who has never done a thing for himself and is entirely the creation of reverse discrimination. The fact that he was elected President–not once, but twice–shows how deep-set the rot is and how far along the road to national impotence the country has traveled.

Under Obama the U.S.–by far the richest and most productive nation on earth–has been outsmarted, outmaneuvered and made to appear a second-class power by Vladimir Putin’s Russia. America has presented itself as a victim of political and economic Alzheimer’s disease, a case of national debility and geopolitical collapse.

I’m not saying Trump is the cure. In fact, I’m pretty sure he’s not. But I am sure that the #neverTrump crowd is a major part of the disease. The unprincipled and whiney way they have responded to his trouncing them is proof of that.

If Trump could actually send this lot into oblivion, he will have performed a valuable service. Perhaps then something better could take its place. I fear, however, that the establishment Republicans will survive a Trump defeat like cockroaches surviving a nuclear holocaust. Indeed, they are likely to mutate, and come back even more malign, saying “I told you so” over and over again, and seeing vindication in what in reality is a damning condemnation: Trump’s defeat would not be a victory for conservatism, or classical liberalism, but for the governing class and the dead hand of the state. I predict the establishment Republicans who survive in the dark, damp recesses of DC will be the New Bourbons, learning nothing, and forgetting nothing.

Because  if it happens, Trump’s defeat would not clear the way for a viable alternative to the perverse political correctness that Johnson attacks, or the prevalent liberalism that dominates current American politics. It would just represent a continuation of the American political devolution–especially on the right–of the last 30-odd years.  A devolution of which people like Michael Gerson are the poster children.

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Glencore Mucking About in the Dirtiest Market in the World

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Journal soft-pedals what is going on here:

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

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

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

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

Platts reacted with its usual blah, blah, blah:

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

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

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

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

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May 5, 2016

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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May 4, 2016

Schrödinger’s Combat

Filed under: History,Military,Politics — The Professor @ 7:14 pm

A Navy SEAL was killed in Iraq a couple of days ago. And the administration has handled this with all of the mendacity we have come to expect.

First, there was just a vague announcement that an American serviceman had been killed. Then they acknowledged it was a SEAL, and that he died as a result of “direct fire” (meaning, he was shot, rather than being hit by a mortar, for instance). Then they tried to suggest that he was part of an advise and assist mission.

Now, finally, we get the real story. (I say that with the usual caveats necessary when dealing with this lot.) The SEAL, Charles Keating IV, grandson of the Charles Keating of Keating Five infamy, was part of a quick reaction force that flew in to rescue some Americans who were meeting with Peshmerga forces behind the lines when ISIS mounted a surprise attack. There was an intense hours-long firefight, during which PO1/SO1 Keating was killed.

Sounds like combat to me. But no. You don’t have the intellect to understand the nuance that this administration is capable of. Sayeth Obama spokesman Josh Earnest:

“This is an individual who is not in a combat mission, but he was in a dangerous place,” Earnest told a daily briefing. “And his position came under – under attack. He was armed, trained and prepared to defend himself.”

“Unfortunately, he was killed. And he was killed in combat, but that was not a part of his mission,” he continued. “His mission was specifically to offer advice and assistance to those Iraqi forces that were fighting for their own country.”

Oh! It’s all clear to me now!

That is beyond disgusting. The other day I wrote about Schrödinger’s Clearinghouse. Here we have, courtesy of the Obama administration, Schrödinger’s combat, which is infinitely worse. It both is and isn’t combat, simultaneously.

Unfortunately, in this case the box was opened, and SO1 Keating was dead.

And let’s cut the crap.  The job of SEALs generally, and quick reaction forces in particular, is to engage in combat. Army Special Forces do advising. SEALs do killing. Period. To say that “combat . . . was not a part of his mission” is a mendacious falsehood. Every word. Including  the “a.”

Belay that. Especially the “a.” It was the only part of his mission.

Seriously. Everything Earnest said is a lie. Every fucking thing.

Keating’s “position did not come under attack.” Keating was involved in a counterattack to retake a position ISIS had seized from the Peshmerga. Combat was part of his mission. He was not defending himself. He was involved in a counterattack. He quite definitely was not there to advise and assist. He was there as part of a QRF to save those offering “advice and assistance” to those Iraqi forces. And they aren’t even Iraqi forces, as the term should be understood. They are Kurdish Peshmerga, not Iraqi army troops.

How many lies can one man tell in five sentences? I count five. I’m sure he’ll do better next time. Maybe he’ll make to six or seven.

Obama prefers Schrödinger’s combat so that he can have it both ways. He can appear all butch and claim that he is taking the fight to ISIS, while at the same time claim that he is honoring his pledge not to commit ground forces to Iraq or Syria.

Let’s have some honesty. We can handle the truth. The administration owes the American people an honest  accounting of what is going on. No, not operational details. No, not an order of battle. But an indication of the scope and nature of the commitment, the size of the force, and its missions.

Let’s face facts here. The administration tried to hide the circumstances of SO1 Keating’s death for as long as possible. They went with the modified limited hangout until the Guardian got ahold of video of the battle, taken by a Peshmerga fighter.

This is not acceptable.

Nor is it acceptable that the supine press corps in DC, which is obsessed with Trump, and to a lesser degree Hillary and Bernie, lets the administration–and Obama personally–get away with this deliberate deception and evasion day after day after day. Obama has made one statement recently about commitment of US forces in the fight against ISIS. He usually lets SecDef Carter carry his water. If the White House gets questioned, Earnest handles the questions, lies through his grotesque pie hole, and the press is content to let the story die before the news cycle is over. There is more talk about Obama’s performance at the Throne Sniffers’ Dinner–excuse me, the White House Correspondents’ Dinner–than about his being MIA on the issue of the war against ISIS.

This is particularly disgusting given that the administration is taking its fifth anniversary victory lap over the killing of Osama. That’s history. Read a book about it. It doesn’t matter. What matters is happening on the ground–yes, the ground, where boots tread–in Iraq and Syria. The Most Transparent Administration in History (Most Ironic is more like it) owes us answers. Instead, we get the war reporting version of Schrödinger’s Cat.

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May 2, 2016

Zero Hedge: Zero Class

Filed under: Economics,Politics — The Professor @ 8:13 pm

Bloomberg’s Tracy Alloway and Jake Kawa wrote an expose on Zero Hedge last week. There was not a tremendous amount of new material here. I was disappointed that they didn’t have anything about Daniel Ivandjiiski’s father: I am convinced there is a Warsaw Pact intelligence connection there. The story focused on the revelations of an ex-Tyler Durden, Colin Lokey. Looked provided information that supports what I’d written almost five years ago, namely, that ZH is a Russian information operation:

Lokey, who said he wrote much of the site’s political content, claimed there was pressure to frame issues in a way he felt was disingenuous. “I tried to inject as much truth as I could into my posts, but there’s no room for it. “Russia=good. Obama=idiot. Bashar al-Assad=benevolent leader. John Kerry= dunce. Vladimir Putin=greatest leader in the history of statecraft,” Lokey wrote, describing his take on the website’s politics. Ivandjiiski countered that Lokey could write “anything and everything he wanted directly without anyone writing over it.”

The remaining Tyler Turkeys responded in their typically classy way. I am very proud to be featured in their lead:

Others, such as “academics who defend Wall Street to reap rewards” had taken on a different approach, accusing the website of being a “Russian information operation”, supporting pro-Russian interests, which allegedly involved KGB and even Putin ties, simply because we refused to follow the pro-US script. We are certainly ok with being the object of other’s conspiracy theories, in this case completely false ones since we have never been in contact with anyone in Russia, or the US, or any government for that matter. We have also never accepted a dollar of outside funding from either public or private organization – we have prided ourselves in our financial independence because we have been profitable since inception.

Hilarious. Hey guys: next time use my name!

And seriously. There’s a lot more behind what I wrote than “simply because we refused to follow the pro-US script.” Such a disingenuous non-responsive response is as much as a confirmation as I could imagine.

The Tylers continue to strike their pose as courageous battlers against the corrupt capitalism. Ironically, given that they recycle the laughable NYT bullshit story labeling me a tool of Wall Street, I have inflicted far more real pain on those that ZH claims to fight than they have. Whereas they are all talk, by my rough estimate I have contributed materially to cases in which banks, traders and others have paid in the mid-to-high nine figures to settle. The figure could realistically exceed ten figures in the near future.

After taking a swipe at me, the remaining Tylers turn their attention to Lokey. They quote extensively from his text messages (more class!) and label him as a drug addict and drug dealer, and claim that this discredits him as a source.

Um, he wrote for them for a year while he knowing about his past and his alleged instabilities. Doesn’t that kind of discredit what they published for a year?

Based on Lokey’s account, the Bloomberg piece describes ZH as the web equivalent of a sweat shop. This makes it highly unlikely that the remaining two named Durdens, Ivaandjiiski and Tim Backshall, carried the load prior to Lokey’s arrival. Thus, there are probably other ex-Durdens out there with tales to tell.

ZH is a dodgy operation. Bloomberg has turned over the rock a little. But there is much more to learn. Let’s hope Bloomberg, or someone else, turn over a few more.

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April 29, 2016

Rounding Up the Usual Suspects, With Chinese Characteristics

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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