Streetwise Professor

July 28, 2014

Deciding Not to Decide on Providing Intel to Ukraine: The Negation of Presidential Leadership

Filed under: History,Military,Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 10:57 am

The NYT ran a long article yesterday describing the administration’s Hamlet-like agonizing over whether to provide Ukraine with real time intelligence useful for targeting rebel forces. (For the record, I called for this in the immediate aftermath of the flight of Yanukovych. It should be an easy decision.)

One part jumped out at me:

“We’ve been cautious to date about things that could directly hit Russia — principally its territory,” but also its equipment, the official said. A proposal to give the Ukrainians real-time information “hasn’t gotten to the president yet,” the official said, in part because the White House has been focused on rallying support among European allies for more stringent economic sanctions against Moscow, and on gaining access for investigators to the Malaysia Airlines crash site.

There in a nutshell is the passivity of this president, and his negation of executive leadership.

An active and engaged leader would not be waiting for things to reach him. He would be demanding that a full range of options be presented to him immediately, if not sooner. This situation has been metastasizing for months. What’s more, in the aftermath of the MH17 atrocity, and the rebels’ ongoing use of artillery and MLRS systems against civilian targets, the suppression of their weapons systems is both a military and humanitarian imperative. The time for action passed long ago, but it is incomprehensible that 10 days after MH17 that Obama has personally avoided considering, let alone ordering, a reasonable, measured US action that would materially assist Ukraine to defend itself, and which would not put one US serviceman or woman at risk.

Also look at the excuse: he’s focused on the diplomatic channel. This is particularly rich a week after Obama flacks in the administration and media responded to criticisms about his fundraiser-dominated schedule by saying that he can multi-task. So, he can’t simultaneously push the Europeans and evaluate steps to aid the Ukrainian government? What happened to that vaunted multi-tasking capability?

Further, military and diplomatic measures are complementary, and need to be processed in parallel rather than serially.

Another thing that stands out in the article is the hand-wringing about “provoking Russia”:

“The debate is over how much to help Ukraine without provoking Russia,” said a senior official participating in the American discussions.

Look. To Putin, anything short of outright capitulation by Ukraine, and the complete abandonment of Ukraine by the US and the EU is a provocation. Let’s not forget what “provoked” this crisis in the first place: Ukraine’s temerity in moving to sign a trade deal with the EU. Continued Ukrainian resistance is all the provocation Putin needs. Anything the US or EU does will have the merest of effects on Putin’s insatiable desire to subjugate Ukraine.

That’s not quite true, actually. Continued passivity, and waiting for the USPS to deliver military options to POTUS, encourages Putin’s aggressiveness. Weakness and passivity are extremely provocative to Putin.

As to another objection-that disloyal individuals in the Ukrainian leadership will provide the information to Russia: this is a non-issue. Yes, such leaks could undermine the effectiveness of the intelligence, by permitting the rebels to move to avoid a strike. But if they are moving, they aren’t shooting. What’s more, given the realities of communication, it is highly unlikely that  truly real-time information useful for targeting could make it to the rebels before it reached the Ukrainian air or artillery units tasked to strike them. Further, attempts by disloyal elements to communicate with the rebels could actually facilitate their discovery, especially if the information is tightly compartmentalized.

As for the Ukrainians getting to rambunctious if they have better information, the US has the option to cut off the information at any time, and to place conditions on its use. If anything, provision of this intelligence will focus Ukrainian military efforts leading to less risk of misguided strikes on civilians or Russia.

In sum, this should be about as easy a decision as a commander in chief should have to make. But because he has clearly signaled that he wants to distance himself from serious involvement with the Ukrainian military efforts against insurrectionists, subordinates and bureaucrats are consciously choosing not to present him with the options that a real leader would be demanding from them.

Print Friendly

July 27, 2014

Ezra Church, 150 Years Later

Filed under: Civil War,History,Military — The Professor @ 8:36 pm

Tomorrow is the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Ezra Church, the third of Hood’s assaults against Sherman’s army that attempted to stop the encirclement of Atlanta.

The story of the battle is relatively simple. After cutting the rail line leading into the city from the east, Sherman moved in what has been characterized as one of his whip-like movements to cut the line running in from Macon to the west. As always, the Army of the Tennessee was the tip of the whip. As it moved south to the west of the city, Hood moved Stephen D. Lee’s and Alexander P. Stewart’s corps out of the city’s defenses in the hopes of surprising the Army of the Tennessee (now under the command of very Eastern general Oliver O. Howard, much to the chagrin of very Western general John A. Logan). But the Union troops anticipated the attack, deployed from their marching formation and formed a V-shaped line. Like veterans on all fronts by the summer of 1864, they immediately started to dig in. Not so much dig, really as collect logs, lumber, and even the pews from Ezra Church, which they piled up to form a makeshift breastwork. Here are some contemporary woodcuts that show the impromptu entrenchments:



Toshiba Digital Camera

The battle itself was never really in doubt. The Confederates gained ground on the Union right flank, but Logan (back in command of the XVth Corps) led a counterattack by two regiments (the 40th Illinois and 6th Iowa) which drove off the Rebels. The Iowans lost Major Ennis, a beloved officer who had served since Shiloh.

The 46th Ohio fought at Ezra Church. One of its members, Sergeant Harry Davis, won the Medal of Honor by advancing in front of the lines to wrest a flag from its dying bearer, as illustrated here in another contemporary print:


Other than the fleeting success on the Union right, the Confederate assaults made no progress. The casualties tell the tale. The Union lost about 650 men, the Confederates almost 5 times as many. Of the three assaults in July, this was the one with most disparate losses and the least tactical success. Whereas the Confederates did achieve some local successes at Peachtree Creek and Atlanta. They achieved none at Ezra Church.

The responsibility for actually carrying out the attack lies with Stephen D. Lee. Hood was performing the role of army commander, remaining at his headquarters in Atlanta.

Speaking of Hood, my Battle of Atlanta post generated several thoughtful comments about him. Serendipitously, this weekend I saw a program on CSPAN3 (yes, I am that much of a geek about this stuff) in which a biographer of Hood, Stephen Hood (a distant relation) made a pretty persuasive case that Hood has been unfairly maligned. He presented evidence that many of the anecdotes told at Hood’s expense were specious. He was particularly critical of historian Wiley Sword (whom I know some) for distorting the evidence in his savage attacks on Hood’s generalship, his humanity, and indeed his mental health. He further claims that there is no evidence that Hood actually used opiates, though of course absence of evidence is not definitive evidence of absence.

Overall, his defense was somewhat persuasive, though it cannot and did not answer the brutal facts of Franklin and Nashville. When time permits, I might dig into the sources cited by Hood and Sword to see who gets the better of the argument. Maybe I’ll have a chance to do that by the end of November, when the sesquicentennial of Franklin rolls around.

Print Friendly

July 26, 2014

Is Girkin in a Pickle? Or Is Putin?

Filed under: Military,Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 9:40 pm

The Daily Beast (what a moronic name, but whatever) ran an article yesterday quoting the commander in the Donetsk People’s Republic, Igor Girkin, whinging about the impending doom of his forces, and the lack of support from Putin. (And no, I will not indulge his vanity by referring to him by his self-chosen nom de guerre.)

Maybe. But coming as it did barely a week after the destruction of MH17 by Girkin’s forces, I can think of another explanation. By seemingly attacking Putin, Girkin is actually helping him.

Putin has been striving mightily to maintain the fiction that the forces in Donetsk and Luhansk are not under his control. That they are an indigenous movement battling against the fascist regime in Kiev.

The need to do this has only increased in the aftermath of the shoot down of the Malaysian jetliner, and the murder of 298 individuals. Now the connection between Russia and the rebels is even more threatening to Putin.

What better way to do this than have the head of the rebels complain about a lack of Russian support?

So maybe Girkin’s complaints are genuine. But it is all to convenient for Putin for him to claim that he has been abandoned by the Russian president, precisely at the time when connections with the rebels are a threat to Putin. Yes, that could cause problems for Putin with the nationalists in Russia, but he likely figures that he can control internal dissenters. The international dynamic is more threatening. The Girkin complaint therefore on balance works for Putin.

Note that this is occurring at a time when if anything, Russian support for the insurgents in the Donbas is increasing, with the US claiming that Russia is shelling Ukraine from Russian territory, and arranging to dispatch even more powerful multiple rocket launch systems over the border.

So take anything that Girkin says with a huge dose of skepticism. Paradoxically, Putin is better able to provide more support to the rebels, the more plausibly he can disclaim that he is supporting them. Girkin is providing Putin the cover he needs.

We are dealing with KGB/FSB and GRU spooks here: Putin, obviously, and Girkin is allegedly a long-time FSB operative. Deception and misdirection are their most tried and true methods. You cannot take anything they say at face value. Public pronouncements are constructed to achieve a strategic or tactical objective. Right now, Putin needs to blur the connection with the Russian combatants in Ukraine. And lo and behold, Girkin delivers. It is Putin that is in the pickle, and Girkin is doing his best to get him out.

Print Friendly

July 25, 2014

Benchmark Blues

Pricing benchmarks have been one of the casualties of the financial crisis. Not because the benchmarks-like Libor, Platts’ Brent window, ISDA Fix, the Reuters FX window or the gold fix-contributed in an material way to the crisis. Instead, the post-crisis scrutiny of the financial sector turned over a lot of rocks, and among the vermin crawling underneath were abuses of benchmarks.

Every major benchmark has fallen under deep suspicion, and has been the subject of regulatory action or class action lawsuits. Generalizations are difficult because every benchmark has its own problems. It is sort of like what Tolstoy said about unhappy families: every flawed benchmark is flawed in its own way. Some, like Libor, are vulnerable to abuse because they are constructed from the estimates/reports of interested parties. Others, like the precious metals fixes, are problematic due to a lack of transparency and limited participation. Declining production and large parcel sizes bedevil Brent.

But some basic conclusions can be drawn.

First-and this should have been apparent in the immediate aftermath of the natural gas price reporting scandals of the early-2000s-benchmarks based on the reports of self-interested parties, rather than actual transactions, are fundamentally flawed. In my energy derivatives class I tell the story of AEP, which the government discovered kept a file called “Bogus IFERC.xls” (IFERC being an abbreviation for Inside Ferc, the main price reporting publication for gas and electricity) that included thousands of fake transactions that the utility reported to Platts.

Second, and somewhat depressingly, although benchmarks based on actual transactions are preferable to those based on reports, in many markets the number of transactions is small. Even if transactors do not attempt to manipulate, the limited number of transactions tends to inject some noise into the benchmark value. What’s more, benchmarks based on a small number of transactions can be influenced by a single trade or a small number of trades, thereby creating the potential for manipulation.

I refer to this as the bricks without straw problem. Just like the Jews in Egypt were confounded by Pharoh’s command to make bricks without straw, modern market participants are stymied in their attempts to create benchmarks without trades. This is a major problem in some big markets, notably Libor (where there are few interbank unsecured loans) and Brent (where large parcel sizes and declining Brent production mean that there are relatively few trades: Platts has attempted to address this problem by expanding the eligible cargoes to include Ekofisk, Oseberg, and Forties, and some baroque adjustments based on CFD and spread trades and monthly forward trades). This problem is not amenable to an easy fix.

Third, and perhaps even more depressingly, even transaction-based benchmarks derived from markets with a decent amount of trading activity are vulnerable to manipulation, and the incentive to manipulate is strong. Some changes can be made to mitigate these problems, but they can’t be eliminated through benchmark design alone. Some deterrence mechanism is necessary.

The precious metals fixes provide a good example of this. The silver and gold fixes have historically been based on transactions prices from an auction that Walras would recognize. But participation was limited, and some participants had the market power and the incentive to use it, and have evidently pushed prices to benefit related positions. For instance, in the recent allegation against Barclays, the bank could trade in sufficient volume to move the fix price sufficiently to benefit related positions in digital options. When there is a large enough amount of derivatives positions with payoffs tied to a benchmark, someone has the incentive to manipulate that benchmark, and many have the market power to carry out those manipulations.

The problems with the precious metals fixes have led to their redesign: a new silver fix method has been established and will go into effect next month, and the gold fix will be modified, probably along similar lines. The silver fix will replace the old telephone auction that operated via a few members trading on their own account and representing customer orders with a more transparent electronic auction operated by CME and Reuters. This will address some of the problems with the old fix. In particular, it will reduce the information advantage that the fixing dealers had that allowed them to trade profitably on other markets (e.g.,. gold futures and OTC forwards and options) based on the order flow information they could observe during the auction. Now everyone will be able to observe the auction via a screen, and will be less vulnerable to being picked off in other markets. It is unlikely, however, that the new mechanism will mitigate the market power problem. Big trades will move markets in the new auction, and firms with positions that have payoffs that depend on the auction price may have an incentive to make those big trades to advantage those positions.

Along these lines, it is important to note that many liquid and deep futures markets have been plagued by “bang the close” problems. For instance, Amaranth traded large volumes in the settlement period of expiring natural gas futures during three months of 2006 in order to move prices in ways that benefited its OTC swaps positions. The CFTC recently settled with the trading firm Optiver that allegedly banged the close in crude, gasoline, and heating oil in March, 2007. These are all liquid and deep markets, but are still vulnerable to “bullying” (as one Optiver trader characterized it) by large traders.

The incentives to cause an artificial price for any major benchmark will always exist, because one of the main purposes of benchmarks is to provide a mechanisms for determining cash flows for derivatives. The benchmark-derivatives market situation resembles an inverted pyramid, with large amounts cash flows from derivatives trades resting on a relatively small number of spot transactions used to set the benchmark value.

One way to try to ameliorate this problem is to expand the number of transactions at the point of the pyramid by expanding the window of time over which transactions are collected for the purpose of calculating the benchmark value: this has been suggested for the Platts Brent market, and for the FX fix. A couple of remarks. First, although this would tend to mitigate market power, it may not be sufficient to eliminate the problem: Amaranth manipulated a price that was based on a VWAP over a relatively long 30 minute interval. In contrast, in the Moore case (a manipulation case involving platinum and palladium brought by the CFTC) and Optiver, the windows were only two minutes long. Second, there are some disadvantages of widening the window. Some market participants prefer a benchmark that reflects a snapshot of the market at a point in time, rather than an average over a period of time. This is why Platts vociferously resists calls to extend the duration of its pricing window. There is a tradeoff in sources of noise. A short window is more affected by the larger sampling error inherent in the smaller number of transactions that occurs in a shorter interval, and the noise resulting from greater susceptibility to manipulation when a benchmark is based on smaller number of trades. However, an average taken over a time interval is a noisy estimate of the price at any point of time during that interval due to the random fluctuations in the “true” price driven by information flow. I’ve done some numerical experiments, and either the sampling error/manipulation noise has to be pretty large, or the volatility of the “true” price must be pretty low for it to be desirable to move to a longer interval.

Other suggestions include encouraging diversity in benchmarks. The other FSB-the Financial Stability Board-recommends this. Darrel Duffie and Jeremy Stein lay out the case here (which is a lot easier read than the 750+ pages of the longer FSB report).

Color me skeptical. Duffie and Stein recognize that the market has a tendency to concentrate on a single benchmark. It is easier to get into and out of positions in a contract which is similar to what everyone else is trading. This leads to what Duffie and Stein call “the agglomeration effect,” which I would refer to as a “tipping” effect: the market tends to tip to a single benchmark. This is what happened in Libor. Diversity is therefore unlikely in equilibrium, and the benchmark that survives is likely to be susceptible to either manipulation, or the bricks without straw problem.

Of course not all potential benchmarks are equally susceptible. So it would be good if market participants coordinated on the best of the possible alternatives. As Duffie and Stein note, there is no guarantee that this will be the case. This brings to mind the as yet unresolved debate over standard setting generally, in which some argue that the market’s choice of VHS over the allegedly superior Betamax technology, or the dominance of QWERTY over the purportedly better Dvorak keyboard (or Word vs. Word Perfect) demonstrate that the selection of a standard by a market process routinely results in a suboptimal outcome, but where others (notably Stan Lebowitz and Stephen Margolis) argue that  these stories of market failure are fairy tales that do not comport with the actual histories. So the relevance of the “bad standard (benchmark) market failure” is very much an open question.

Darrel and Jeremy suggest that a wise government can make things better:

This is where national policy makers come in. By speaking publicly about the advantages of reform — or, if necessary, by using their power to regulate — they can guide markets in the desired direction. In financial benchmarks as in tap water, markets might not reach the best solution on their own.

Putting aside whether government regulators are indeed so wise in their judgments, there is  the issue of how “better” is measured. Put differently: governments may desire a different direction than market participants.

Take one of the suggestions that Duffie and Stein raise as an alternative to Libor: short term Treasuries. It is almost certainly true that there is more straw in the Treasury markets than in any other rates market. Thus, a Treasury bill-based benchmark is likely to be less susceptible to manipulation than any other market. (Though not immune altogether, as the Pimco episode in June ’05 10 Year T-notes, the squeezes in the long bond in the mid-to-late-80s, the Salomon 2 year squeeze in 92, and the chronic specialness in some Treasury issues prove.)

But that’s not of much help if the non-manipulated benchmark is not representative of the rates that market participants want to hedge. Indeed, when swap markets started in the mid-80s, many contracts used Treasury rates to set the floating leg. But the basis between Treasury rates, and the rates at which banks borrowed and lent, was fairly variable. So a Treasury-based swap contract had more basis risk than Libor-based contracts. This is precisely why the market moved to Libor, and when the tipping process was done, Libor was the dominant benchmark not just for derivatives but floating rate loans, mortgages, etc.

Thus, there may be a trade-off between basis risk and susceptibility to manipulation (or to noise arising from sampling error due to a small number of transactions or averaging over a wide time window). Manipulation can lead to basis risk, but it can be smaller than the basis risk arising from a quality mismatch (e.g., a credit risk mismatch between default risk-free Treasury rates and a defaultable rate that private borrowers pay). I would wager that regulators would prefer a standard that is less subject to manipulation, even if it has more basis risk, because they don’t internalize the costs associated with basis risk. Market participants may have a very different opinion. Therefore, the “desired direction” may depend very much on whom you ask.

Putting all this together, I conclude we live in a fallen world. There is no benchmark Eden. Benchmark problems are likely to be chronic for the foreseeable future. And beyond. Some improvements are definitely possible, but benchmarks will always be subject to abuse. Their very source of utility-that they are a visible price that can be used to determine payoffs on vast sums of other contracts-always provides a temptation to manipulate.

Moving to transactions-based mechanisms eliminates outright lying as a manipulation strategy, but it does not eliminate the the potential for market power abuses. The benchmarks that would be least vulnerable to market power abuses are not necessarily the ones that best reflect the exposures that market participants face.

Thus, we cannot depend on benchmark design alone to address manipulation problems. The means, motive, and opportunity to manipulate even transactions-based benchmarks will endure. This means that reducing the frequency of manipulation requires some sort of deterrence mechanism, either through government action (as in the Libor, Optiver, Moore, and Amaranth cases) or private litigation (examples of which include all the aforementioned cases, plus some more, like Brent).  It will not be possible to “solve” the benchmark problems by designing better mechanisms, then riding off into the sunset like the Lone Ranger. Our work here will never be done, Kimo Sabe.*

* Stream of consciousness/biographical detail of the day. The phrase “Kimo Sabe” was immortalized by Jay Silverheels-Tonto in the original Lone Ranger TV series. My GGGGF, Abel Sherman, was slain and scalped by an Indian warrior named Silverheels during the Indian War in Ohio in 1794. Silverheels made the mistake of bragging about his feat to a group of lumbermen, who just happened to include Abel’s son. Silverheels was found dead on a trail in the woods the next day, shot through the heart. Abel (a Revolutionary War vet) was reputedly the last white man slain by Indians in Washington County, OH. His tombstone is on display in the Campus Martius museum in Marietta. The carving on the headstone is very un-PC. It reads:

Here lyes the body of Abel Sherman who fell by the hand of the Savage on the 15th of August 1794, and in the 50th year of  his age.

Here’s a picture of it:


The stream by which Abel was killed is still known as Dead Run, or Dead Man’s Run.

Print Friendly

July 24, 2014

The Stamp of Authority: Definitive Proof that the “Separatists” Are Truly Russian

Filed under: Military,Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 7:24 pm

Stamps. That’s the proof.

Russians are obsessed with stamps. Nothing is official unless it is stamped. The most trivial document must be stamped. Preferably several times.

Stamps have magical power. They transform a simple piece of paper with dry, nondescript prose into something talismanic.

Consider this from a long (and horribly written and edited) WSJ piece on the process of brokering a deal between Malaysia and the mouth breathers of the Donetsk People’s Republic to obtain the black boxes from MH17:

Just after 1 a.m., Col. Sakri signed an agreement with a top separatist official confirming the handover of the black boxes.

The stamp of the National Security Council of Malaysia is misspelled, “Sekurity,” suggesting a hasty effort to fulfill bureaucratic protocol by having the stamp made locally.

I know exactly what happened. The deal was painstakingly negotiated over hours. Then the time for signing came. And the mouth breathers said: “It’s not official unless it is stamped.” The Malaysians looked at one another, then replied: “Stamped? WTF?” “It must have your stamp.” So the Malaysians scrambled around, desperately seeking someone who would make them a stamp. They found Ivan the Stampmaker, who of course would pronounce “c” as “s” and spell a hard “c” with a “k”.  But the mouth breathers didn’t know any better-indeed, they might have been suspiciously of a “c”-and were satisfied. They had their stamp. The deal was well and truly official.

It is absurd. It is Kafkaesque.

It is Russian.

Print Friendly

The EU’s Non-Paper and Its Non-Sanctions Show Europe is Non-Serious About Russia

Filed under: Military,Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 7:01 pm

There was a brief frisson of excitement late last night and this morning, because of a rather startling headline in the FT: “Ukraine Crisis: EU to Weigh Far-Reaching Sanctions on Russia.” Oh joy! Maybe they are actually growing a pair:

The sanctions measure, contained in a 10-page options memo prepared by the European Commission and distributed to national capitals, also proposes barring the Russian banks from listing new issues on European exchanges, preventing them from using London or other EU stock markets to raise funds from non-Europeans.

But the Euros didn’t want to go too far:

The proposal would not initially include a similar prohibition for Russian sovereign bond auctions out of fear the Kremlin could retaliate by ordering an end to Russian purchases of EU government debt, the document states.

These conclusions were based on a leaked document that had been circulated among the member states before a highly guarded meeting held today to consider future measures against Russia.

Then further details came out about the document, and when that happened, frisson was replaced by resignation, and an understanding that the Euros are still short more than a pair: their testicular deficit makes the Greek budget deficit pale in comparison.

As it turns out, the document was what in Eurospeak is referred to as a “non-paper.” (Doc embedded here.) Yes, they have things called “non-papers.” How Orwellian is that?

So just what would a non-paper be? This is what it be:

These surreal-sounding documents crop up quite often in Brussels. Non-papers are discussion documents drawn up either by one of the EU’s institutions or by a Union government. They are designed to stimulate discussion on a particular issue and do not represent the official position of the institution or country which drafted them. Non-papers have no official status, but can be very useful in starting debates on particularly sensitive issues, allowing EU decision-makers to talk about issues they would find it politically difficult to take a firm line on. They can also be used to test the water on subjects without obliging countries to take a stand, thus avoiding potential diplomatic rows.

So, at best, non-papers are the start to a conversation. A straw man proposal to shoot at. The country circulating one does not even really take ownership of what is proposed in it. It’s a “so what do you think of this?” sort of thing.

In other words, hardly an action item on the immediate agenda. And definitely not anything being “weighed” seriously, even in the aftermath of the murder of 298 people, and the ongoing maskirovka invasion of Ukraine. It represents the outer limit of maybe, someday: it doesn’t represent anything likely, today.

So rather than moving on the quite robust sanctions proposed in the non-paper, the Euros moved forward with a flaccid enhancement of its sanctions. While the caskets were being carried off of a transport plane in the Netherlands, the stalwart Euros took a strong stand: they added some individuals and a few non-Russian companies to their list of the sanctioned. In other words, rather than taking the advice of the non-paper and doing something robust, the Euros voted in favor of non-sanctions, thereby proving that they are non-serious.

This is apparently the sort of sanctions that Merkel and others consider “prudent.” Not prudent in the sense of accomplishing anything. Quite the contrary, prudent in the sense of not accomplishing anything, because accomplishing something might make Vlad cross, and we can’t have that, can we?

If this is the most the Euros can muster when the corpses of those murdered are still above ground, just imagine how little they can do when the bodies are finally buried. Actually, I think that the prospect of any serious action against Putin will be interred long before the last poor victim reaches her final resting place.

This ineffectual action (but I give it too much credit by calling it ineffectual; or an action) followed a week of rather sordid bickering between the grandees of Europe. No country was willing to agree to measures which imposed more costs on it than on another EU nation. So when the UK urged France to forego the billion plus dollar sale of the Mistrals, the French refused, and heatedly pointed out that the British were hypocrites because they were not volunteering to do anything that would cut off the flow of oligarch cash into London. This was the diplomatic version of: “Don’t call me a crack whore: You’re the real crack whore.”

But I do a grave insult to crack whores by comparing them to European governments.

(With respect to the Mistrals, note well that the French give the same reason for delivering them as Russia gave for delivering arms to Assad: “we are obligated to perform on existing contracts.”)

This matters not just because the pressure on Putin is reduced if the Europeans go AWOL. It also matters because Obama has made it abundantly clear that he will not get too far out front of the Europeans. Numerous anonymous administration officials were busy peddling that message. Meaning that since the Europeans are doing a little more than nothing, Obama will not say to hell with them, and shame them (if they are capable of shame) by implementing measures that will grievously harm Russia. He will do a little more than a little more than nothing, so they won’t look bad.

Meaning that if Putin’s Botox-frozen face was capable of cracking a smile, he’d be grinning from ear to ear. Because he knows he is living the psychopath’s dream: getting away with murder. 298 and counting, to be precise.

Print Friendly

July 22, 2014

The Sesquicentennial of the Most Compelling-and Perhaps Most Important-Battle of the Civil War

Filed under: Civil War,History,Military,Politics — The Professor @ 8:14 pm

Today is the 150th anniversary of what I consider to be the most compelling battle of the Civil War: the Battle of Atlanta.

I find it compelling because it was a true soldier’s battle that demonstrated the unmatched martial virtues of the combatants, especially those in the Union Army of the Tennessee.

It was a soldiers battle because it was not fought according to any plan. There was a plan, and a rather impressive one on paper, but one that did not even make it to the point of first contact with the enemy. Instead, Confederate General John Bell Hood’s plan dissolved before a shot was fired due to the confusion of a night march, the fatigue of soldiers who had been engaged in combat for virtually every day of the previous two-and-a-half months, and wooded terrain crossed by watercourses and millponds.

Hood desired to reprise Jackson’s flank attack at Chancellorsville, a mere 14.5 months prior. But whereas Jackson attacked in depth, with three divisions one behind the other, Hood’s four attacking divisions were were strung out in a long, scraggly line scattered across several miles of Georgia scrub pine forest. Due to the trials of the march, the forbidding terrain, and the need to make haste, Hood’s divisions (commanded by Bate, Walker, Cleburne, and Maney) attacked mainly as brigades operating on their own hook, only tenuously connected with each other, if connected at all.

That said, they caught McPherson’s Army of the Tennessee in a very vulnerable spot. They were assailed from the direct flank (like Jackson had done to O.O. Howard’s hapless XIth Corps at Chancellorsville) and from the rear and front. Most Civil War armies would have fled when hit in force from flank and rear. But in one of the most sublime displays of soldiership in any war, Grant’s old army did not panic. Indeed, with little direction from any officer above brigade or division level, its soldiers reacted to the situation with aplomb. When attacked from the rear, they faced to the rear and beat off the attack. When attacked from the flank, they refused their lines and repelled it.

Some units, particularly those in the XVIIth Corps, were attacked sequentially from the flank, rear, and front. Resolutely, they responded to each threat. When attacked from the rear, they jumped to the front of their earthworks and beat off the assault, sometimes hand-to-hand. In one of the fights, Colonel Belknap of the 15th Iowa reached over the ramparts to grab Colonel Lampley of the 45th Alabama, wrestled him over the earthworks, and made him prisoner. Lampley had been screaming at his men for not following him. Belknap berated him: “Look at your men! They are all dead! What are you cursing them for?” (To demonstrate that martial prowess does not imply moral virtue, Belknap went on to become a corrupt Secretary of War under Grant. He resigned before being impeached for peculation in the matter of Indian trading posts.)

After being attacked in the rear, when attacked from their (previous) front (i.e., from the direction of Atlanta), the XVII Corps men cooly jumped to the proper side of their works, and easily drove off the attack.

When the Confederates assaulted from the flank, they withdrew stubbornly, fighting first from one side of the trenches, then the other, until they eventually formed on Bald Hill.

There the climax of the battle occurred. In ferocious assaults that continued into the dusk and then into the dark, the Rebels tried time and again to drive the Federals from their redoubt and trenches on the hill. But every time, the Illinoisans, Ohioans, Iowans, and Wisconsin men drove them back.

I am not aware of better fighting on any battlefield of the Civil War, or indeed of any other conflict.

Although the conflict around Bald Hill (sadly leveled by the construction of I-20 in the ’50s) is the most stirring part of the battle, the conflict is better known for the action around the Troup Hurt House. The Union counterattack that drove the Confederates from their lodgment in the Federal lines near that mansion is memorialized in the Cyclorama which is still on display in Walker Park in Atlanta. This was indeed an inspiring action that again demonstrated the sterling qualities of the soldiers in each army, but in my view pales in comparison with what occurred to the south on Bald Hill.

Throughout the battle, Confederates attacked ferociously, and the Union troops responded bravely and cooly, even when caught in the most exposed and dangerous positions. I defy anyone to identify a battle in which such a large number of troops (on the order of 30,000) responded as marvelously as did the troops of the XVth, XVIth, and XVIIth Corps of the Army of the Tennessee.

For the most part, they did this on their own initiative, and the initiative of company, regimental, brigade, and sometimes division officers. Their army commander, John B. McPherson, was shot dead early in the engagement. His replacement, John “Black Jack” Logan, provided inspirational leadership, but his tactical role was modest at best. The XVIIth Corps commander, Frank Blair, was far to the rear (which led many to question his courage).

Soldiers fought. Soldiers extemporized. Soldiers won.

Such individual initiative has been the hallmark of American soldiers since 1775. The Army of the Tennessee boys were recalcitrant soldiers in the traditional sense, resentful of discipline, and disdainful of spit and polish. But could they fight! They never lost a battle.

The Army of Northern Virginia is usually considered the exemplar of American armies in the Civil War, and it was indeed a marvel. But man for man, officer for officer, it could not compare to the Army of the Tennessee, especially at its July, 1864 apogee.

I have a personal connection to that Army. My great-grandmother’s brother, John Hatfield, fought in the 46th Ohio Veteran Volunteer Infantry. This unit was in Walcutt’s brigade of the 4th Division (Harrow’s) of the XVth Corps (formerly commanded by Sherman, then by Logan). It performed the signal service of defending the Union flank and rear against the attack of Smith’s Texas Brigade of Cleburne’s division. (John’s brother, Eli, had his arm shattered at the shoulder by a Minie ball at the Battle of Dallas on 28 May, 1864. My great-grandmother, who died when I was 4, talked of “Uncle Eli with the dead arm.” Medical records in the archives reveal that Eli was shot too close to the shoulder to permit amputation, so the surgeon removed all the shattered bone in his arm from the shoulder to the elbow. Ever after, the arm hung limp at his side.)

It is particularly inspiring to me at times like to consider the heroism of men like John and Eli Hatfield; their fellows in Sherman’s army; and even their foes in Hood’s Army of Tennessee. Some redeeming things came out of the carnage of the red clay hills of Georgia 150 summers ago, and these things were not sullied by craven politicians: indeed, it redeemed many of the errors and sins of the political class of 1860s America. That battle sealed the fate of Atlanta (though 6 weeks of grueling combat were to come before the city fell), which in turn sealed the fate of the Confederacy, for the fall of Atlanta secured Lincoln’s re-election, and thus the ultimate victory of the Union. And of course, that victory extinguished slavery in the United States. To have participated in such a thing is a credit to any man.

Would that today, we living Americans could be worthy of those who bled and died on a scorching day in the red clay of central Georgia, 150 years ago.

Print Friendly

Obama Laying Groundwork Through Leaks of Charging Putin With the Geopolitical Equivalent of 3d Degree Manslaughter

Filed under: History,Military,Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 6:49 pm

There were disturbing, but not surprising, signs today that the Obama administration is backing away from holding Putin & Russia to account in any serious way for the MH17 Massacre.

First, Obama had a call with Dutch PM Rutte while on AF1 on his way to (wait for it!) a West Coast fundraising junket. (You are shocked, I’m sure.) He said that he was “concerned” about continued Russian infiltration of weapons into Ukraine. Not gravely concerned. Not deeply concerned. That is soooo last week. Just, “Concerned”. Prediction: Next week it will be “meh.”

Second, the AP ran this very disturbing article, which describes a briefing by anonymous “Senior U.S. intelligence officials.” They bend over backwards to minimize Russia’s-and Putin’s-culpability:

But the officials said they did not know who fired the missile or whether any Russian operatives were present at the missile launch. They were not certain that the missile crew was trained in Russia, although they described a stepped-up campaign in recent weeks by Russia to arm and train the rebels, which they say has continued even after the downing of the commercial jetliner.

In terms of who fired the missile, “we don’t know a name, we don’t know a rank and we’re not even 100 percent sure of a nationality,” one official said, adding at another point, “There is not going to be a Perry Mason moment here.”

White House deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes said the U.S. was still working to determine whether the missile launch had a “direct link” to Russia, including whether there were Russians on the ground during the attack and the degree to which Russians may have trained the separatists to launch such a strike.

“We do think President Putin and the Russian government bears responsibility for the support they provided to these separatists, the arms they provided to these separatists, the training they provided as well and the general unstable environment in eastern Ukraine,” Rhodes said in an interview with CNN.

Note the emphasis on stating what we (allegedly) don’t know, not on what we do. Note the use of the word “direct” in discussing the linkage to Russia. Classical defense attorney tactics in creating reasonable doubt about the truth of a top charge, like capital murder.

High level intelligence officials brief the press anonymously for two reasons: (1) to kneecap the administration in opposition to policies they dislike, or (2) to prepare the ground for future administration announcements or actions. The fact that the statements of the anonymous officials dovetail with what Rhodes says, (1) is highly unlikely. The fact that multiple officials are saying this further undermines possibility (1). So (2) it is.

Briefings like this do not occur by accident. They are planned. They have a purpose. And here the purpose is to shape expectations, and to lay the groundwork for Obama (and the Euros) to  move on from the horrid, ugly scenes in Donetsk and back away from any confrontation with Putin.

I therefore predict that within a very short interval, we shall see Obama sally forth, and deliver an indictment of Putin for the geopolitical equivalent of Third Degree Manslaughter: “causing the death of another person either through criminal negligence or through the commission of an unlawful act not amounting to a felony.”

Obama-with the Euros nodding furiously in agreement-will accuse Putin of negligently creating the conditions that led to the deaths of 298 innocent people, but no more. Since this is a mere misdemeanor, no harsh penalty will be demanded. Putin will be sentenced to a period of isolation from the international community, not to exceed six months. Which Vlad will probably consider this a vacation, given how much he loathes pretty much every European “leader,” not to mention Obama.

Note: this is not even a plea bargain. Putin will have to make no allocution. It is a preemptive surrender by the prosecutor.

I predict this result primarily because I believe Obama and the Euros have zero appetite to confront Putin. They can live with the low-level warfare in eastern Ukraine. (Not so low-level for the Ukrainians, of course, who have a much harder time living with it: indeed, they often die with it. But they should look out for themselves, because Obama, Merkel, Hollande, et al are casting them in the role of Czechoslovakia in a gala production of Munich!) Conversely, they blanch at the prospect of going eyeball to eyeball with Putin, even with economic weapons alone.

Of course the Panic! in the Kremlin Disco gang interpret the AP interview as “an unforced error.” A mistake that mis-states administration policy. They are invested in the belief that a steely Obama will force Putin to capitulate in panic.

Deluded fools. Denial ain’t a river in Egypt. I understand Obama and the Euros. More importantly, Putin understands Obama and the Euros. They will run to form. Meaning that they will run.

I do not write this with joy, to the contrary.

Print Friendly

July 21, 2014

Doing Due Diligence in the Dark

Filed under: Exchanges,HFT,Regulation — The Professor @ 8:39 pm

Scott Patterson, WSJ reporter and the author of Dark Pools, has a piece in today’s journal about the Barclays LX story. He finds, lo and behold, that several users of the pool had determined that they were getting poor executions:

Trading firms and employees raised concerns about high-speed traders at Barclays PLC’s dark pool months before the New York attorney general alleged in June that the firm lied to clients about the extent of predatory trading activity on the electronic trading venue, according to people familiar with the firms.

Some big trading outfits noticed their orders weren’t getting the best treatment on the dark pool, said people familiar with the trading. The firms began to grow concerned that the poor results resulted from high-frequency trading, the people said.

In response, at least two firms—RBC Capital Markets and T. Rowe Price Group Inc —boosted the minimum number of shares they would trade on the dark pool, letting them dodge high-speed traders, who often trade in small chunks of 100 or 200 shares, the people said.

This relates directly to a point that I made in my post on the Barclays story. Trading is an experience good. Dark pool customers can evaluate the quality of their executions. If a pool is not screening out opportunistic traders, execution costs will be high relative to other venues who do a better job of screening, and users who monitor their execution costs will detect this. Regardless of what a dark pool operator says about what it is doing, the proof of the pudding is in the trading, as it were.

The Patterson article shows that at least some buy side firms do the necessary analysis, and can detect a pool that does not exclude toxic flows.

This long FT piece relies extensively on quotes from Hisander Misra, one of the founders of Chi-X, to argue that many fund managers have been ignorant of the quality of executions they get on dark pools. The article talked to two anonymous fund managers who say they don’t know how dark pools work.

The stated implication here is that regulation is needed to protect the buy side from unscrupulous pool operators.

A couple of comments. First, not knowing how a pool works doesn’t really matter. Measures of execution quality are what matter, and these can be measured. I don’t know all of the technical details of the operation of my car or the computer I am using, but I can evaluate their performances, and that’s what matters.

Second, this is really a cost-benefit issue. Monitoring of performance is costly. But so is regulation and litigation. Given that market participants have the biggest stake in measuring pool performance properly, and can develop more sophisticated metrics, there are strong arguments in favor of relying on monitoring.  Regulators can, perhaps, see whether a dark pool does what it advertises it will do, but this is often irrelevant because it does not necessarily correspond closely to pool execution costs, which is what really matters.

Interestingly, one of the things that got a major dark pool (Liquidnet) in trouble was that it shared information about the identities of existing clients with prospective clients. This presents interesting issues. Sharing such information could economize on monitoring costs. If a a big firm (like a T. Rowe) trades in a pool, this can signal to other potential users that the pool does a good job of screening out the opportunistic. This allows them to free ride off the monitoring efforts of the big firm, which economizes on monitoring costs.

Another illustration of how things are never simple and straightforward when analyzing market structure.

One last point. Some of the commentary I’ve read recently uses the prevalence of HFT volume in a dark pool as a proxy for how much opportunistic trading goes on in the pool. This is a very dangerous shortcut, because as I (and others) have written repeatedly, there is all different kinds of HFT. Some adds to liquidity, some consumes it, and some may be outright toxic/predatory. Market-making HFT can enhance dark pool liquidity, which is probably why dark pools encourage HFT participation. Indeed, it is hard to understand how a pool could benefit from encouraging the participation of predatory HFT, especially if it lets such firms trade for free. This drives away the paying customers, particularly when the paying customers evaluate the quality of their executions.

Evaluating execution quality and cost could be considered a form of institutional trader due diligence. Firms that do so can protect themselves-and their investor-clients-from opportunistic counterparties. Even though the executions are done in the dark, it is possible to shine a light on the results. The WSJ piece shows that many firms do just that. The question of whether additional regulation is needed boils down to the question of whether the cost and efficacy of these self-help efforts is superior to that of regulation.

Print Friendly

The Dogs of Accounting Have to Hound Putin, Not the Average Oligarch With Dirty Money

Filed under: Economics,Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 6:48 pm

An idea to combat Putin and Russia that is gaining traction is to go after dirty Russian money in places like Londongrad and New York and Switzerland. Superficially it is an attractive idea, but upon further analysis it will be ineffectual, and perhaps counterproductive.

I say this as an early recommender of asymmetric financial warfare against Russia. In the immediate aftermath of the invasion of Georgia almost 6 years ago, I wrote that the US should “cry havoc and let slip the accountants of war.” But I recommended pointing the forensic accountants directly at Putin and his chief henchmen. Now, that would include Sechin, Ivanov, Yakunin, and the like.

Going after oligarchs and minigarchs in Belgravia or other similarly fashionable enclaves would certainly discomfit them, but would hardly cause VVP to lose a minute’s sleep, let alone to tame his aggressive ways. Only to the extent that these individuals are straw buyers for Putin would threatening their assets with confiscation for having been acquired illicitly bother the Russian president in the slightest.

Indeed, going after Russians with large investments overseas could actually redound to Putin’s benefit. The ability to spirit their wealth out of the country is the main protection that rich Russian have against Vlad’s predations. He has been campaigning for “on shoring” of Russian wealth squirreled away abroad: he has a variety of reasons to do so. A vigorous investigation of foreign investments and holdings of Russians would help spur the very on shoring that Putin wants (for others, I mean). I can just see him saying: “Come to Vova!” This would be a self-inflicted wound.

Pressuring Putin requires going after his money, and that of his closest cronies, not the wealth of the Abramoviches or Deripaskas. That said, this is a daunting task, given the labyrinth of shell companies and straw buyers that no doubt connects Putin et al to property, investments, and accounts. Indeed, it is likely the case that there is no document with Putin’s name on it: a verbal agreement, backed by the very credible threat of a serious health or legal problem in the event of breach, may suffice. Or if such a document exists, it is in Putin’s safe. (With all the appropriate stamps, of course: it’s not official without stamps!) These documents would say something like “I, Gennady Timchencko, hold in trust for Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin 40 percent of the shares in Gunvor.” Or, “I, Arkady Rotenberg, do pledge to pay to Vladimir V. Putin 20 percent of the gross revenues from state contracts or contracts with OAO Gazprom paid to my companies.” (Putin would probably prefer dividends to ownership per se.)

Thus, attacking Putin’s wealth will be a challenge, and one that no doubt requires the active involvement of US and other intelligence agencies. Moreover, given that definitive ownership would no doubt be difficult to establish, no doubt the US would have to lean on financial institutions which it has strong, but not definitive proof, are the repositories of Putin’s billions, in order to put those monies at risk.

But that’s where investigative efforts should be directed. Harassing even the most obscene, obnoxious oligarch with the dirtiest money in London or the south of France won’t affect Putin’s  policy in Ukraine or anywhere else in the slightest. It might be psychologically satisfying to do this, but it will be ineffectual at best, and counterproductive at worst.


Print Friendly

Next Page »

Powered by WordPress