Streetwise Professor

March 1, 2018

I’ve Been Talking About Igor For Years Now, Thank You

Filed under: Commodities,Energy,Russia — The Professor @ 10:20 am

The FT ran a long profile of Igor Sechin today.

Nothing in the piece should be news to those who have followed my coverage of his escapades over the years. (I still miss the mullet!)

There are some interesting numbers in the piece that do speak volumes.  Such as Rosneft’s market cap–$65 billion. (ExxonMobil–$324b. Shell–$266b.) The number of employees–almost 300,000. (ExxonMobil–73,500.  Shell–92,000.)  The fact that Rosneft paid $55b for TNK BP–and still has a market cap of only $65b.

Rosneft is a Frankenstein’s monster that has been stitched together over the years from stolen body parts.  Igor is therefore a fitting name for its CEO.

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February 24, 2018

Are Trustless Transactions a Good Thing? I Don’t Know Until You Tell Me How Much They Cost

Filed under: Commodities,Cryptocurrency,Economics — The Profesor 2 @ 11:04 am

One of the most annoying crypto-tropes is the unconditional statement that Bitcoin and its competitors are great because they eliminate the need for trust in transactions. It is annoying because it is repeated ad nauseum despite the fact that it is seriously analytically incomplete. There is no free lunch: the banishment of trust comes at a cost, and a proper comparative analysis of cryptocurrency vis a vis alternatives (e.g., traditional bank-based payment mechanisms, fiat currency) requires a comparison of the costs of each. Which mechanism performs particular types of transactions more efficiently? Which mechanism performs particular economic functions more cheaply?

In Bitcoin, the economic function performed is the elimination of fraud (e.g., double spending, spending what you don’t have) in an anonymous setting. This is achieved via proof of work, which involves the use of real resources–notably, large quantities of electricity and computing power. That is, trustlessness comes at a cost.

The relevant question is whether this cost is higher or lower than the cost of performing the same economic functions (elimination of double spending, spending what you don’t have) using alternative mechanisms, such as traditional bank payment systems that rely on trust.

Trust is not free either. In essence, economic actors can be incentivized to act in a trustworthy way if they earn a stream of rents that would be lost if they betray trust.  But creating a stream of rents requires an increase in the price of an output and a reduction in the prices of the inputs of the trusted entity.  These price adjustments reduce output below the level that would be attained if transactions could be executed costlessly. (Proof-of-stake mechanisms use a variant of this to address double spend problems.)

The answer to this question is likely to differ, depending on the type of transaction at issue. For example, Bitcoin et al are likely to be cheaper for transactions for which anonymity or concealment of the identities of the parties from third parties  is highly desired by one or both of the transactors (which is a condition that may characterize many illicit transactions).*

It has yet to be shown, and there is room for serious doubt, that cryptocurrencies scale as efficiently as traditional trusted payment systems. Unless it scales, crypto will not be a viable replacement for large scale transactions, especially commercial transactions which represent the vast bulk of payments.

Another potential difference in cost involves security.  It is costly for trusted institutions to prevent theft and loss, but as has been seen of late, theft and loss are serious issues for crypto too. It is not clear which  mechanism mitigates theft and loss most cheaply.

Economics is all about the analysis of the costs and benefits of alternative means of achieving particular objectives. An analysis that hypes a feature of one such alternative (no trust required!) without comparing its costs with that for other ways of achieving the same objective (fraud-free transactions) is fundamentally flawed. Yet that is the default mode of discourse in cryptocurrency.

*The use of cryptocurrency in illicit transactions is close to the top of many elite/official criticisms of cryptocurrency–as it is in elite/official criticisms of fiat currency (“the war on cash”). I am at best ambivalent about this critique because the government decides what is illicit, and tends to overcriminalize transactions between consenting adults, and to overtax. As a Swiss friend told me when we were discussing the war on cash: “I would fight any attempt to eliminate cash. Cash is freedom!”

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February 22, 2018

VIX VapoRubOut

Filed under: Commodities,Derivatives,Economics,Exchanges — The Profesor 2 @ 12:28 pm

Bloomberg’s Odd Lots podcast from a few days ago discusses “How one of the Most Profitable Trades of the Last Few Years Blew Up in a Single Day.” Specifically, how did short volatility trades perform so well for so long, and then unravel so dramatically in a short period of time?

In fact, these two things are directly related. This trade performed well for a long time precisely because it was effectively selling insurance against an infrequent, severe event–in this case, a volatility spike. In essence, those who shorted volatility (primarily by selling VIX futures either directly or indirectly through exchange traded products like the XIV note) were providing insurance against a volatility spike, collected premiums for a long time, and then ended up paying out large amounts when a spike actually occurred. It is analogous to a company insuring against earthquakes: it’s rolling in the dough collecting premiums until a big earthquake actually happens, at which time the company has to pay out big time.

If you look at a graph of the VIX, you’ll see that the VIX can be well-described as a mean reverting process (i.e., it doesn’t behave like a random walk or a geometric random walk, but tends to return to a base level after it diverges from that level) subject to large upward shocks.  After the spikes, mean reversion kicks in, and the index returns roughly to its previous level.



So if you are short the VIX, you pay out during those spikes.

And that’s not all.  The VIX is strongly negatively correlated with the overall market.  That is, VIX tends to increase when the market goes down:


This means that providing insurance against volatility spikes is costly: the volatility short seller commits to making payouts in bad states of the world.  Thus, risk averse suppliers of volatility insurance will demand a premium to bear the risk inherent in that position.  Put crudely, a short VIX position has a large positive beta, meaning that the expected return (risk premium) on this position will be positive, and large.

The flip side of this is that those with a natural short volatility exposure incur a large cost to bear this risk, and might be willing to hedge (insure) against it.  Indeed, given the fact that such natural short exposures incur losses in bad states of the world, those facing them are willing to pay a premium to hedge them.

In equilibrium, this means that short volatility positions will earn a risk premium.  Since short sellers of volatility futures will have to earn a return to compensate them for the associated risks,  the VIX futures price will exceed the expected future value of VIX at futures expiration.  Thus, VIX futures will be in a Keynesian contango (with the futures above the expected future spot).  Given that VIX itself is a non-traded risk (one cannot buy or sell the actual VIX in the same way one can buy or sell a stock index), this means that the forward curve will also be in contango.*  Further, one would expect that long VIX futures positions lose money on average, and given the spikiness of realized VIX, lose money most of the time with the gains occurring infrequently and being relatively large when they do occur.

And of course, short positions have the exact opposite performance.  Shorts sell VIX futures at a premium over the price at which they expect to cover, and hence make money on average.  Furthermore, losses tend to be relatively infrequent, but when they occur they tend to be large.

And that’s exactly what happened in the period leading up to February 5.  During most of that period, VIX shorts were making money.  When the spike occurred on 2/5/18, however, they were hammered.

But this was not an indication of a badly performing market, or irrational trading.  Given the behavior of volatility and the existence of individuals and firms with a natural short volatility position that some wanted to hedge, this is exactly what you’d expect.  Participants (mainly institutional investors, including university endowments) were willing to take the opposite side of those hedges and receive a risk premium in return. Those short positions would earn positive returns most of the time, but when the returns go negative, they tend to do so in a big way. Again, just like earthquake insurance.

One of the inventors of VIX claims that he doesn’t understand why products such as VIX futures or ETPs that have long or short volatility exposures exist. Really? They exist because they facilitate the transfer of risk from those who bear it at a higher cost to those who bear it at a lower cost.  Absent these markets, the short volatility exposures wouldn’t go away: those with such natural exposures would continue to bear it, and would periodically incur large losses.  Those losses would not be as obvious as when volatility products are traded, but they would actually be more costly.  The pain that volatility short sellers incurred earlier this month might be bad, but it was less than the pain that would have existed if they weren’t there to absorb that risk.

One interesting question is whether technical factors actually exacerbated the size of the volatility spike.  Some sellers of volatility short ETPs (like the XIV exchange traded note that is basically a short position on the front two month VIX futures) hedge that exposure by going short VIX futures.  To the extent that the delta of the ETPs remains constant (i.e., the sensitivity of the value of the product to changes in forward volatility remains constant) that’s not an issue: the hedge positions are static.  However, the XIV in particular had a knock-out feature: payment of the note is accelerated when the value of the position falls to 20 percent of face amount.  The XIV experienced such an acceleration event on the 5th, and to the extent the issuer (UBS) had hedged its volatility exposure this could have caused it to buy a large number of futures, because as soon as the note was paid off, the short VIX position was unnecessary as a hedge, and UBS would have bought futures to close that hedge.  This would have been a discontinuous move in its position, moreover: oh, the joys of hedging barrier options (which is essentially what the acceleration feature created). This buying into a spike could have exacerbated the spike.  Whether UBS actually did this, or whether liquidating its hedge position was big enough to have an appreciable knock-on effect on prices is not known.  But it could have made the volatility event more severe than it would have been otherwise.

Bottom line. These markets exist for a reason–to transfer risk.  Moreover, they behaved exactly as expected, and those who participated got–and paid–in the expected way.  Insurance sellers (those short volatility futures) collected premiums to compensate for the risk incurred.  Most of the time the risk was not realized, because of its “spikey” nature, and those sellers realized positive returns.  When the spike happened, they paid out.  There is never a free lunch.  Yes, the insurance sellers dined out on somebody else most of the time, but when they had to pick up the tab, it was a big one.

*Keynes caused untold confusion by using “normal backwardation” to describe a situation where the futures price is below the expected spot price. In market parlance, backwardation occurs when the futures price is below the actual spot price.  Keynesian backwardation and contango refer to a risk premium, which is not directly observable in the market, whereas actual contango and backwardation are.  It is possible for a market to be in contango, but in a Keynesian backwardation.  Similarly, it is possible for a market to be in backwardation, but a Keynesian contango.  If interest rates exceed dividend yields, stock index futures are an example of the former situation.   No arbitrage forces the market into a contango, but long positions earn a risk premium (a normal backwardation).

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January 23, 2018

Why Are ABCD Singing the Blues?

Filed under: Commodities,Economics,Russia — The Professor @ 9:49 pm

It’s pretty clear that the major agricultural trading firms, notably the ABCDs–ADM, Bunge, Cargill, and Dreyfus–are going through a rough patch of tight margins and low profits.  One common response in any industry facing these conditions is consolidation, and in fact there is a major potential combination in play: ADM approached Bunge about an acquisition..

I am unsatisfied with most of the explanations given.  A widely cited “reason” is that grain and oilseed prices are low due to bumper crops.  Yes, bumper crops and the resulting low prices can be a negative for producers, but it does not explain hard times in the midstream.  Ag traders do not have a natural flat price exposure. They are both buyers and sellers, and care about margin.

Indeed, ceteris paribus, abundant supplies should be a boon to traders.  More supply means they are handling more volume, which is by itself tends to increase revenue, and more volume means that handling capacity is being utilized more fully, which should contribute to firmer margins, which increases revenues even further.

Greg Meyer and Neil Hume have a long piece in the FT about the potential ADM-Bunge deal. Unfortunately, they advance some implausible reasons for the current conditions in the industry. For example, they say: “At the same time, a series of bumper harvests has weakened agricultural traders’ bargaining power with customers in the food industry.” Again, that’s a flat price story, not a spread/margin story.  And again, all else equal, bumper harvests should lead to greater capacity utilization in storage, logistics, transportation, and processing, which would actually serve to increase traders’ bargaining power because they own assets used to make those transformations.

Here’s how I’d narrow down where to look for more convincing explanations. All else equal, compressed margins arise when capacity utilization is low. In a time of relatively high world supply, lower capacity utilization would be attributable to increases in capacity that have outstripped gains in throughput caused by larger crops.  So where is that increased capacity?

There are some hints of better explanations along these lines in the FT article.  One thing it notes is that farmer-owned storage capacity has increased.  This reduces returns on storage assets.  In particular, when farmers have little on-farm storage they must sell their crops soon after harvest, or pay grain merchants to store it.  If they sell their crops, the merchant can exploit the optionality of choosing when to sell: if they store at a local elevator, they pay for the privilege. Either way, the middleman earns money from storage, either in trading profits (from exploiting the timing option inherent in storage) or in storage fees. If farmers can store on-farm, they don’t have to sell right after harvest, and they can exploit the timing options, and don’t have to pay for storage.  Either way, the increased on-farm storage capacity reduces the demand for, and utilization of, merchant-owned storage. This would adversely impact traders’ margins.

The article also mentions “rivals add[ing] to their crop-handling networks.” This would suggest that competitive entry/expansion by other firms (who?) is contributing to the compressed margins.  This would in turn suggest that ABCD margins in earlier years were abnormally high (which attracts entry), or that the costs of these unnamed “rivals” have gone down, allowing them to add capacity profitably even though margins are thinner.

Or maybe it’s that the margins are still healthy where the capacity expansions are taking place. Along those lines, I suspect that there is a geographic component to this. ADM in particular has its biggest asset footprint in North America. Bunge has a big footprint here too, although it also considerable assets in Brazil.  The growth of South America (relative to North America) as a major soybean and corn exporting region, and Russia as a major wheat exporting region, reduce the derived demand for North American handling capacity (although logistical constraints on Russian exports means that Russian export increases won’t match its production increases, and there are bottlenecks in South America too).

This would suggest that the circumstances of the well-known traders that have more of a North American (or western European) asset base are not representative of the profitability of grain trading overall. If that’s the case, consolidation-induced capacity “rationalization” (and that’s a major reason to merge in a stagnant industry) would occur disproportionately in the US, Canada, and western Europe.  This would also suggest that owners of storage and handling facilities in South America and Russia are doing quite well at the same time that owners of such assets in traditional exporting regions are not doing well.

So I am not satisfied with the conventional explanations for the big ag traders’ malaise during a time of plenty. I conjecture that the traditional players have been most impacted by changes in the spatial pattern of production that has reduced the derived demand to use their assets, which are more heavily concentrated in legacy production regions facing increased competition from increased output in newer regions.

Ironically, I’m too capacity constrained to do more than conjecture. But it’s a natural for my Université de Genève students looking for a thesis topic or course paper topic. Hint, hint. Nudge, nudge.



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January 2, 2018

Buyer Beware: Bart Does Crypto

Filed under: Commodities,Derivatives,Economics,Energy,Regulation — The Professor @ 8:08 pm

Back in the day, Bart Chilton was my #2 whipping boy at the CFTC (after Gary Gensler AKA GiGi). Bart took umbrage (via email) at some of my posts, notably this one. Snort.

Bart was the comedian in that dynamic duo. He coined (alert: pun foreshadowing!) such memorable phrases as “cheetah” to criticize high frequency traders (cheetah-fast cheater–get it? Har!) and “massive passives” to snark at index funds and ETFs. Apparently Goldilocks could never find a trading entity whose speed was just right: they were either too fast or too slow. He blamed cheetahs for causing the Flash Crash, among other sins, and knocked the massive passives for speculating excessively and distorting prices.

But then Bart left the CFTC, and proceeded to sell out. He took a job flacking for HFT firms. And now he is lending his name (I won’t say reputation) to an endeavor to create a new massive passive. This gives new meaning to the phrase sell out.

Bart’s massive passive initiative hitches a ride on the crypto craze, which makes it all the more dubious. It is called “OilCoin.” This endeavor will issue said coins, and invest the proceeds in “reserve barrels” of oil. Indeed, the more you examine it, the more dubious it looks.

In some ways this is very much like an ETF. Although OilCoin’s backers say it will be “regulatory compliant,” but even though it resembles an ETF in many ways, it will not have to meet (nor will it meet, based on my reading of its materials) listing requirements for ETFs. Furthermore, one of the main selling points emphasized by the backers is its alleged tax advantages over standard ETFs. So despite the other argle bargle in the OilCon–excuse me, OilCoin–White Paper, it’s primarily a regulatory and tax arb.

Not that there’s necessarily anything wrong with that, just that it’s a bit rich that the former stalwart advocate of harsher regulation of passive commodity investment vehicles is part of the “team” launching this effort.

I should also note some differences that make it worse than a standard ETF, and worse than other pooled investment vehicles like closed end funds. Most notably, ETFs have an issue and redemption mechanism that ensures that the ETF market price tracks the value of the assets it holds. If an ETF’s price exceeds the value of the assets the ETF holds, an “Authorized Participant” can buy a basket of assets that mirrors what the ETF holds, deliver them to the ETF, and receive ETF shares in return. If an ETF’s price is below the market value of the assets, the AP can buy the ETF shares on the market, tender them to the ETF, and receive an equivalent share of the assets that the ETF holds. This mechanism ties the ETF market price to the market prices of its assets.

The OilCoin will not have any such tight tie to the assets its operators invest in. Insofar as investment policy is concerned:

In addition to investing in oil futures, the assets supporting OilCoin will also be invested in physical oil and interests in oil producing properties in various jurisdictions in order to hold a diversified pool of assets and avoid the risk of holding a single, concentrated position in exchange traded futures contracts. As a result, OilCoin’s investment returns will approximate but not precisely track the price movement of a spot barrel of crude oil.

I note the potential illiquidity in “physical oil” and in particular “interests in oil producing properties.” It will almost certainly be very difficult to value this portfolio. And although the White Paper suggests a one barrel of oil to one OilCoin ratio, it is not at all clear how “interests in oil producing properties” will figure into that calculation. A barrel of oil in the ground is a totally different thing, with a totally different value, than a barrel of oil in storage above ground, or an oil futures contract that is a claim on oil in store. This actually has more of a private equity feel than an ETF feel to it. Moreover, even above ground barrels can differ dramatically in price based on quality and location.

Given the illiquidity and heterogeneity of the “oil” that backs OilCoin, it is not surprising that the mechanism to keep the price of the OilCoin in line with “the” price of “oil” is rather, er, elastic, especially in comparison to a standard ETF: the motto of OilCoin should be “Trust Us!” (Pretty funny for crypto, no?) (Hopefully it won’t end up like this, but methinks it might.)

Here’s what the White Paper says about the mechanism (which is a generous way of characterizing it):

OilCoin’s investment returns will approximate but not precisely track the price movement of a spot barrel of crude oil.

. . . .

In order to ensure measurable intrinsic value and price stability, each OilCoin will maintain an approximate one-to-one ratio with a single reserve barrel of oil. [Note that a “reserve barrel of oil” is not a barrel of any particular type of oil at any particular location.] This equilibrium will be achieved through management of the oil reserves and the number of OilCoin in circulation.

As demand for OilCoin causes the price of a single OilCoin to rise above the spot price of a barrel of oil on global markets [what barrel? WTI? Brent? Mayan? Whatever they feel like on a particular day?], additional OilCoin may be issued in private or open market transactions and the proceeds will be invested in additional oil reserves. Similarly, if the price of an OilCoin falls below the price of a barrel of oil, oil reserves may be liquidated with the proceeds used to purchase OilCoin privately or in the open market. This method of issuing or repurchasing OilCoin and the corresponding investment in or liquidation of oil reserves will provide stability to the market price of OilCoin relative to the spot price of a barrel of crude oil and will provide verifiable assurances that the value of oil reserves will approximate the aggregate value of all issued OilCoin.

OilCoin’s price stability program will be managed by the OilCoin management team with a view to supporting the liquidity and functional operation of the OilCoin marketplace and to maintaining an approximate but not precise correlation between the price of a single OilCoin and the spot price of a single barrel of oil [What type of barrel? Where? For delivery when?]. While maintaining price stability of digital currencies through algorithmic purchase and sale may be appropriate in certain circumstances, and while it is possible as a technical matter to link such an algorithm to a programmed purchase and sale of oil assets, such an approach would be likely to result in (i) the decoupling of the number of OilCoin in circulation from an approximately equivalent number of reserve barrels of oil, and (ii) a highly volatile stock of oil reserve assets adding unnecessary and avoidable transaction costs which would reduce the value of OilCoin’s supporting oil reserve assets. Accordingly, it is expected that purchases and sales of OilCoin and oil reserves to support price stability will be made on a periodic basis [Monthly? Annually? When the spirit moves them?] as the price of OilCoin and the price of a single barrel of oil [Again. What type of barrel? Where? For delivery when?] diverge by more than a specified margin [Specified where? Surely not in this White Paper.]

[Emphasis added.]

Note the huge discretion granted the managers. (“May be issued.” “May be liquidated.” Whenever they fell like it, apparently, as long as there is a vague connection between their actions and “the spot price of crude oil “–and remember there is no such thing as “the” spot price) A much less precise mechanism than in the standard ETF. Also note the shell game aspect here. This refers to “the” price of “a barrel of oil,” but then talks about “diversified holdings” of oil. The document goes back and forth between referring about “reserve barrels” and “barrels of oil on the global market.”

Note further that there is no third party mechanism akin to an Authorized Party that can arb the underlying assets against the OilCoin to make sure that it tracks the price of any particular barrel of oil, or even a portfolio of oil holdings. This means that OilCoin is really more like a closed end fund, but one  that is not subject to the same kind of regulation as closed end funds, and which can apparently invest in things other than securities (e.g., interests in oil producing properties), some of which may be quite illiquid and hard to value and trade. One other crucial difference from a closed end fund is that OilCoin states it may issue new coins, whereas closed end funds typically cannot have secondary offerings of common shares.

Closed end funds can trade at substantial premiums and discounts to the underlying NAV, and I would wager that OilCoin will as well. Relating to the secondary issue point, unlike a closed end fund, OilCoin can issue new coins if they are at a premium–or if the managers feel like it. Again, the amount of discretion possessed by OilCoin’s managers is substantially greater than for a closed end fund or ETF (or an open ended fund for that matter). (There is also no indication that the managers will be precluded from investing the funds in their own “oil producing interests.” That potential for self-dealing is very concerning.)

There is also no indication in the White Paper as to just what an OilCoin gives a claim on, or who has the control rights over the assets, and how these control rights can be obtained. My reading of the White Paper does not find any disclosure, implicit or explicit, that OilCoin owners have any claim on the assets, or that someone could buy 50 percent plus one of the OilCoins, boot the existing management, and get control of the operation of the investments, or any mechanism that would allow acquisition of a controlling interest, and liquidation of the thing’s assets. (I say “thing” because what legal form it takes is not stated in the White Paper.)  These are other differences from a closed end fund or ETF–and mean that OilCoin is not subject to the typical mechanisms that protect investors from the depredations of promoters and managers.

A lot of crypto is all about separating fools from their money. OilCoin certainly has that potential. What is even more insidious about it is that the backers state that it is a different kind of crypto currency because it is backed by something: in the words of the White Paper, OilCoin is “supported” by the “substantial intrinsic value of assets” it holds. The only problem is that there is no indication whatsoever that the holder of the cryptocurrency can actually get their hands on what backs it. The “support” is more chimerical than real.

So my basic take away from this is that OilCoin is a venture that allows the managers to use the issue of cryptocurrency to fund totally unconstrained speculations in oil subject to virtually none of the investor protections extended to the purchasers of securities in corporations, investors of closed end funds, or buyers of ETFs. All sickeningly ironic given the very public participation of a guy who inveighed against speculation in oil and the need for strict regulation of those investing other people’s money.

My suggestion is that if you are really hot for an ICO backed by a blonde, buy whatever Paris Hilton is touting these days, and avoid BartCoin like the plague.




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December 4, 2017

Bitcoin Futures: What? Me Worry?

Filed under: Clearing,Commodities,Derivatives,Economics,Energy,Exchanges,Regulation — The Professor @ 9:53 pm

The biggest news in derivatives world is the impending launch of Bitcoin futures, first by CBOE, then shortly thereafter by CME.

Especially given the virtually free entry into cryptocurrencies I find it virtually impossible to justify the stratospheric price, and how the price has rocketed over the past year. This is especially true given that if cryptocurrencies do indeed begin to erode in a serious way the demand for fiat currencies (and therefore cause inflation in fiat currency terms) central banks and governments will (a) find ways to restrict their use, and (b) introduce their own substitutes. The operational and governance aspects of some cryptocurrencies are also nightmarish, as is their real resource cost (at least for proof-of-work cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin). The slow transaction times and relatively high transaction fees of Bitcoin mean that it sucks as a medium of exchange, especially for retail-sized transactions. And its price volatility relative to fiat currencies–which also means that its price volatility denominated in goods and services is also huge–undermines its utility as a store of value: that utility is based on the ability to convert the putative store into a relatively stable bundle of goods.

So I can find all sorts of reasons for a bearish case, and no plausible one for a bullish case even at substantially lower prices.

If I’m right, BTC is ripe for shorting. Traditional means of shorting (borrowing and selling) are extremely costly, if they are possible at all. As has been demonstrated theoretically and empirically in the academic literature, costly shorting can allow an asset’s price to remain excessively high for an extended period. This could be one thing that supports Bitcoin’s current price.

Thus, the creation of futures contracts that will make it easier to short–and make the cost of shorting effectively the same as the cost of buying–should be bearish for Bitcoin. Which is why I said this in Bloomberg today:

“The futures reduce the frictions of going short more than they do of going long, so it’s probably net bearish,” said Craig Pirrong, a business professor at the University of Houston. “Having this instrument that makes it easier to short might keep the bitcoin price a little closer to reality.”

Perhaps as an indication of how untethered from reality Bitcoin has become, the CME’s announcement of Bitcoin futures actually caused the price to spike. LOL.

Yes, shorting will be risky. But buying is risky too. So although I don’t expect hedge funds or others to jump in with both feet, I would anticipate that the balance of smart money will be on the short side, and this will put downward pressure on the price.

Concerns have been expressed about the systemic risk posed by clearing BTC futures. Most notably, Thomas Petterfy sat by the campfire, put a flashlight under his chin, and spun this horror story:

“If the Chicago Mercantile Exchange or any other clearing organization clears a cryptocurrency together with other products, then a large cryptocurrency price move that destabilizes members that clear cryptocurrencies will destabilize the clearing organization itself and its ability to satisfy its fundamental obligation to pay the winners and collect from the losers on the other products in the same clearing pool.”

Petterfy has expressed worries about weaker FCMs in particular:

“The weaker clearing members charge the least. They don’t have much money to lose anyway. For this reason, most bitcoin interest will accumulate on the books of weaker clearing members who will all fail in a large move,”

He has recommended clearing crypto separately from other instruments.

These concerns are overblown. In terms of protecting CCPs and FCMs, a clearinghouse like CME (which operates its own clearinghouse) or the OCC (which will clear CBOE’s contract) can set initial margins commensurate with the risk: the greater volatility, the greater the margin. Given the huge volatility, it is likely that Bitcoin margins will be ~5 times as large as for, say, oil or S&Ps. Bitcoin can be margined in a way that poses the same of loss to the clearinghouses and FCMs as any other product.

Now, I tell campfire horror stories too, and one of my staples over the years is how the real systemic risk in clearing arises from financing large cash flows to make variation margin payments. Here the main issue is scale. At least at the outset, Bitcoin futures open interest is likely to be relatively small compared to more mature instruments, meaning that this source of systemic risk is likely to be small for some time–even big price moves are unlikely to cause big variation margin cash flows. If the market gets big enough, let’s talk.

As for putting Bitcoin in its own clearing ghetto, that is a bad idea especially given the lack of correlation/dependence between Bitcoin prices and the prices of other things that are cleared. Clearing diversified portfolios makes it possible to achieve a given risk of CPP default with a lower level of capital (e.g., default fund contributions, CCP skin-in-the-game).

Right now I’d worry more about big markets, especially those that are likely to exhibit strong dependence in a stress scenario. Consider what would happen to oil, stock, bond, and gold prices if war broke out between Iran and Saudi Arabia–not an implausible situation. They would all move a lot, and exhibit a strong dependency. Oil prices would spike, stock prices would tank, and Treasury prices would probably jump (at least in the short run) due to a flight to safety. That kind of scenario (or other plausible ones) scares me a helluva lot more than a spike or crash in Bitcoin futures does while the market is relatively modest in size.

Where I do believe there is a serious issue with these contracts is the design. CME and CBOE are going with cash settlement. Moreover, the CME contract will be based on prices from several exchanges, but notably exclude the supposedly most liquid one. The cash settlement mechanism is only as good as the liquidity of the underlying markets used to determine the settlement price. Bang-the-settlement type manipulations are a major concern, especially when the underlying markets are illiquid: relatively small volumes of purchases or sales could move the price around substantially. (There is some academic research by John Griffen that provides evidence that the settlement mechanism of the VIX contracts are subject to this kind of manipulation.)  The Bitcoin cash markets are immature, and hardly seem the epitome of robustness. Behemoth futures contracts could be standing on spindly cash market legs.

This also makes me wonder about the CFTC’s line of sight into the Bitcoin exchanges. Will they really be able to monitor these exchanges effectively? Will CME and CBOE be able to?

(I have thought that the CFTC’s willingness to approve the futures contracts could be attributable to its belief that the existence of these contracts would strengthen the CFTC’s ability to assert authority over Bitcoin cash exchanges.)

What will be the outcome of the competition between the two Chicago exchanges? As I’ve written before, liquidity is king. Further, liquidity is maximized if trading takes place on a single platform. This means that trading activity tends to tip to a single exchange (if the exchanges are not required to respect price priority across markets). Competition in these contracts is of the winner-take-all variety. And if I had to bet on a winner, it would be CME, but that’s not guaranteed.

Given the intense interest in Bitcoin, and cryptocurrencies generally, it was inevitable that an exchange or two or three would list futures on it. Yes, the contracts are risky, but risk is actually what makes something attractive for an exchange to trade, and exchanges (and the CCPs that clear for them) have a lot of experience managing default risks. The market is unlikely to be big enough (at least for some time) to pose systemic risk, and it’s likely that trading Bitcoin on established exchanges in a way that makes it easier to short could well tame its wildness to a considerable degree.

All meaning that I’m not at all fussed about the introduction of Bitcoin futures, and as an academic matter, will observe how the market evolves with considerable fascination.

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October 17, 2017

Financial Regulators Are Finally Grasping the Titanic’s Captain’s Mistake. That’s Something, Anyways

Filed under: Clearing,Commodities,Derivatives,Economics,Financial crisis,Regulation — The Professor @ 7:11 pm

A couple of big clearing stories this week.

First, Gary Cohn, Director of the National Economic Council (and ex-Goldmanite–if there is such a thing as “ex”, sorta like the Cheka), proclaimed that CCPs pose a systemic risk, and the move to clearing post-crisis has been overdone: “Like every great modern invention, it has its limits, and I think we have expanded the limits of clearing probably farther beyond their useful existence.” Now, Cohn’s remarks are somewhat Trump-like in their clarity (or lack thereof), but they seem to focus on one type of liquidity issue: “we get less transparency, we get less liquid assets in the clearinghouse, it does start to resonate to me to be a new systemic problem in the system,” and “It’s the things we can’t liquidate that scare me.”

So one interpretation of Cohn’s statement is that he is worried that as CCPs expand, perforce they end up expanding what they accept as collateral. During a crisis in particular, these dodgier assets become very difficult to sell to cover the obligations of a defaulter, putting the CCP at risk of failure.

Another interpretation of “less liquid assets” and “things we can’t liquidate” is that these expressions refer to the instruments being cleared. A default that leaves a CCP with an unmatched book of illiquid derivatives in a stressed market will have a difficult task in restoring that book, and is at greater risk of failure.

These are both serious issues, and I’m glad to see them being aired (finally!) at the upper echelons of policymakers. Of course, these do not exhaust the sources of systemic risk in CCPs. We are nearing the 30th anniversary of the 1987 Crash, which revealed to me in a very vivid, experiential way the havoc that frequent variation margining can wreak when prices move a lot. This is the most important liquidity risk inherent in central clearing–and in the mandatory variation margining of uncleared derivatives.

So although Cohn did not address all the systemic risk issues raised by mandatory clearing, it’s past time that somebody important raised the subject in a very public and dramatic way.

Commenter Highgamma asked me whether this was from my lips to Cohn’s ear. Well, since I’ve been sounding the alarm for over nine years (with my first post-crisis post on the subject appearing 3 days after Lehman), all I can say is that sound travels very slowly in DC–or common sense does, anyways.

The other big clearing story is that the CFTC gave all three major clearinghouses passing grades on their just-completed liquidity stress tests: “All of the clearing houses demonstrated the ability to generate sufficient liquidity to fulfill settlement obligations on time.” This relates to the first interpretation of Cohn’s remarks, namely, that in the event that a CCP had to liquidate defaulters’ (plural) collateral in order to pay out daily settlements to this with gains, it would be able to do so.

I admit to being something of a stress test skeptic, especially when it comes to liquidity. Liquidity is a non-linear thing. There are a lot of dependencies that are hard to model. In a stress test, you look at some extreme scenarios, but those scenarios represent a small number of draws from a radically uncertain set of possibilities (some of which you probably can’t even imagine). The things that actually happen are usually way different than what you game out. And given the non-linearities and dependencies, I am skeptical that you can be confident in how liquidity will play out in the scenarios you choose.

Further, as I noted above, this problem is only one of the liquidity concerns raised by clearing, and not necessarily the the biggest one. But the fact that the CFTC is taking at least some liquidity issues seriously is a good thing.

The Gensler-era CFTC, and most of the US and European post-crisis financial regulators, imagined that the good ship CCP was unsinkable, and accordingly steered a reckless course heedless to any warning. You know, sort of like the captain of the Titanic did–and that is a recipe for disaster. Fortunately, now there is a growing recognition in policy-making circles that there are indeed financial icebergs out there that could sink clearinghouses–and take much of the financial system down with them. That is definitely an advance. There is still a long way to go, and methinks that policymakers are still to sanguine about CCPs, and still too blasé about the risks that lurk beneath the surface. But it’s something.

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September 9, 2017

The Rosneft “Privatization”: The Farce Continues

Filed under: China,Commodities,Energy,Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 3:32 pm

The Rosneft deal involving Qatar and Glencore, announced with such fanfare in December, and commemorated with Putin awarding medals a few months later, has been undone. A Chinese conglomerate, CEFC (not exactly a giant name in the energy business) has agreed to invest $9.1 billion. As a result, Qatar’s stake will fall by more than half to less than five percent. Glencore, which notionally owned half of the nearly 20 percent stake sold in December, but which went to great pains to point out that it was at risk to the tune of a mere $300 million, will retain only .5 percent of Rosneft. The Italian bank which funded the deal, Intesa, will be paid off and exit the transaction. And as Ivan Tkachaev notes in RBC, it also lets the heretofore unknown Russian banks who provided guarantees to Glencore (and perhaps provided some funding too, given the gap between the price of the deal and the contributions by Intesa, QIA, and Glencore) to eliminate their exposure to Rosneft. (Exposure that Rosneft/Sechin/Putin never admitted, and which was allegedly not supposed to exist in this “privatization.”)

Like the original transaction, this one raises many, many questions. And like the original transaction, no doubt few (if any) of these questions will be answered.

The most notable issue is that the transaction clearly was not done at a market price. The amount invested exactly pays off the Intesa loan, plus about $100 million to cover costs and fees: it would be miraculous if a market-price deal exactly paid off existing loans. Thus, the deal was clearly done to save Intesa from its predicament, which was quite dire given that it could not syndicate the loan, and its association with the deal put the banking some sanctions-related binds.

Further, the deal is a boon to Qatar, which is embroiled in a standoff with the Saudis and the rest of the GCC, and which has suffered some economic difficulties as a result. The deal helps its balance sheet, which was under pressure due to the economic conflict. Further, Qatar needs all the friends it can get right now, and being a major investor in Rosneft did not help its relations with the US.

Not only was the deal not at a market price, it is highly likely that the Chinese overpaid. The price was at a 16 percent premium to the average of Rosneft’s stock price over the previous month. It is extremely rare to pay a premium, let alone that big a premium, for a minority passive stake–especially in a country where minority investors are routinely raped. (And Sechin is a multiple offender in this regard.) Indeed, most such deals are done at a discount, not a premium.

Note that the original deal was at a discount, and Putin explicitly acknowledged it was at a 5 percent discount. He claimed it was the “minimum discount,” but it was a discount nonetheless.

The Chinese are not notorious for overpaying. Thus, it is almost certain that there is some side deal that makes the Chinese whole. Or better than whole. The side deals could be in the form of cash payments from Rosneft (or maybe even Qatar), but I consider this the least likely. Instead, CEFC could obtain oil at preferential prices from Rosneft, or provide financial services to the Russian company at above market prices.

Ivan also reminds me that just days before the CEFC purchase, Rosneft and the Chinese company announced a “Strategic Cooperation Agreement and a contract for the supply of Russian crude oil at the 9th BRICS summit.” Rosneft describes the oil contract thus:

Rosneft and CEFC signed a contract for the supply of Russian crude oil, opening up new opportunities for the strategic partnership. This contract will lead to an increase in direct supplies of crude oil to the strategic Chinese market and ensure a guaranteed cost-efficient export channel for the Company’s crude sales.

Price is not mentioned, but this could provide a mechanism that would allow Rosneft to compensate CEFC for any overpayment on the purchase price of the stake. (Recall that Russia obtained funding for an oil pipeline to China by contracting to deliver oil at discounted prices.)

Again, we will likely never know the details, but there has to be more to this deal than meets the eye.

Here is how the investor describes its business:

In recent years, CEFC China has been accelerating its strategic transformation, focusing on building an international investment bank and an investment group specialized in energy industry and financial services, which has helped boost the Company’s sustained rapid development. The Company has under it two group companies at management level, 7 level-one subsidiaries as investment platforms and an A-share listed company, with a workforce of nearly 30,000.

Underpinned by its European oil and gas terminals, CEFC China secures its position by obtaining upstream oil and gas equities and interests, building professional teams of finance and independent traders and providing financial support with a full range of licenses. The profits in the financial and logistics sectors are driven by its energy operations and financial services. In addition, CEFC China has set up its second headquarters in the Czech Republic to conduct international banking businesses and investment, and acquired controlling shares in banks and shares in important financial groups with its investment focusing on airline, aircraft manufacturing, special steel and food, in order to facilitate international cooperation in production capacity.

Hardly a major oil player, and certainly not a strategic investor that brings to Rosneft any technical expertise or access to upstream resources outside Russia. It’s just a supplier of cash. And as such, and as one that is providing cash to help previous Rosneft investors/lenders get out of a sticky wicket, you can be sure that it got a pretty good deal. Thus, like so many Russian transactions, the interesting action is not that which takes place in plain sight, but that which takes place behind many screens and curtains.

Although Sechin now boasts that Chinese investors are always the ones he wanted, that’s not what he–and notably Putin–said in December and January. Then they were saying how the participation of a noted western company–Glencore–put a stamp of legitimacy on the deal, and showed that Russia was an attractive place for western companies to invest.

Well, Glencore never really invested anything substantial in the first place: if there was any doubt back in December and January that this was a Potemkin privatization involving western companies, there should be no doubt now. And of course, Glencore comes out a huge winner in this. The company earned a lot of goodwill from Putin and Sechin for saving them from the embarrassing situation that they faced in 2016, with a privatization deadline looming and no investors in sight. More tangibly, Glencore obtained–and retains after this deal–a lucrative concession to market Rosneft barrels. It took on very little risk in the first place, and has very little risk now. Glasenberg received a seat on the Rosneft board, and apparently retains it, even though Glencore’s equity stake is now trivial. And Ivan gets to keep that totally cool Order of Friendship medal.

But he better not fall in with the “wrong crowd,” like previous recipient Rex Tillerson, whom Putin is now very sore at! But since I doubt Ivan has any prospect or interest in becoming a diplomat, that’s probably not going to happen. Ivan knows a good deal when he sees one. And this deal was very, very good for him and Glencore.

For Rosneft and Russia, I’m guessing not so much.

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July 17, 2017

Alphonse and Gaston Meet LMEshield–and Provide a Cautionary Tale for Blockchain Evangelists

Filed under: Blockchain,Commodities,Derivatives,Economics,Politics — The Professor @ 7:28 pm

This article isn’t explicitly about blockchain, but in a way it is. It describes the halting progress of the LME’s LMEShield digital warehouse receipt system, and ascribes its problems to the Alphonse-Gaston problem:

“It’s all about liquidity and a tipping point,” said an executive with a warehouse company.

“If Party A is using the system, they can’t trade if Party B is not using the system. It’s a redundant system until market masses are using it.”

After you, Alphonse. No! After you, Gaston! I insist! (Warning! Francophobia and Mexaphobia at the link!)

In essence, LMEshield is attempting to perform one of the same functions as blockchain–providing a secure, digital record of ownership. LMEshield’s technological implementation is not blockchain or distributed ledger, per se. It is a permissioned network operated by a trusted party, and does not employ a distributed ledger, rather than being an unpermissioned network not involving a trusted party, run on a DL.

But it is not that technological difference that is causing the problem: it is the challenge of coordinating the adoption of the use of the system. This coordination problem exists here even though there is an entity–the LME–that has an incentive to promote adoption and build a critical mass so that tipping takes over. Despite a promoter, the virtuous cycle has not taken hold. The adoption problem is even more challenging without a promoter.

This problem will be present in all attempts to create a secure digital record of ownership, regardless of the technology used to achieve this goal.* There is more than one technology to skin this cat, and it is not the technology that will in the end determine whether the cat gets skinned: it is the ability to overcome the coordination problem.**

And as I’ve noted before, if tipping does occur, that just creates another conundrum: tipping effectively creates a natural monopoly (or at best a small numbers natural oligopoly), which raises questions of market power, rent seeking, and governance.

Bitcoin world is providing an illustration of the challenges of governance (as well as raising questions about the scalability of blockchain). Block size has become a big constraint on the capacity to process transactions, leading to a spike in transactions charges and long lags in processing transactions. There are basically two proposals to address this issue: expand the size of blocks, or allow some processing to occur off the blockchain. This has divided Bitcoin world into camps, and raises the possibility that if the dispute is not resolved Bitcoin could experience a hard fork (i.e., split into two or more incompatible networks). Miners (mainly Chinese) want to expand block size: Core (the developers who maintain the software) want to externalize some processing. Both sides are talking their book–go figure–which illustrates that distributive considerations and politicking, rather than efficiency, will have an outsized effect on the outcome.

Keep both LMEshield and the Bitcoin block size debate in mind when somebody offers you pie-in-the-sky, techno-evangalist predictions of how blockchain/DLT Is Going to Change the World. It’s not the technology alone that matters. Indeed, that may be one of the least challenging issues.

Also keep in mind that there is nothing new under the sun. The functions that blockchain/DLT are intended to–or dreamed to–perform are inherent in all transactional settings, including in particular financial and commodity transactions. Blockchain/DLT is a different way of skinning the cat, but the cat has been skinned one way or ‘tother since the dawn of these markets. Maybe in some cases, blockchain/DLT will do it more efficiently. Maybe elements of blockchain/DLT will be blended into more traditional ways of performing these functions. Maybe some applications will prove resistant to blockchain/DLT.

But the crucial thing to keep in mind is that blockchain/DLT will not banish the fundamental challenges of coordinated adoption and governance of a system that scales. And note that if it doesn’t scale, it won’t replace existing systems (which do), and if it does scale, it will pose the same organization, governance, and market power issues that legacy systems do.

*There is no guarantee that DLT is even a technological advance on existing technology. As I discuss further on, some implementations (notably Bitcoin) have exhibited severe problems in scaling. If it don’t scale, it will fail.

**I own a cat. I like my cat. I like cats generally. If colloquialisms offend, this is not the place for you. Particularly colorful if somewhat archaic American colloquialisms that I learned at my grandfather’s knee. Alphonse and Gaston is also something I picked up from my grandfather. Today it would cause an outbreak of fainting, shrieking, and pearl clutching (though maybe not–after all, the characters are Europeans), but if you can’t separate the basic comedic idea from what was acceptable in 1903 (the year of my grandfather’s birth, as well as the date of that clip) but isn’t acceptable today, you’re the one with the issues.

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July 6, 2017

The Qatar LNG Expansion Announcement: Vaporware Meets LNG?

Filed under: Commodities,Economics,Energy,Politics — The Professor @ 4:04 pm

Qatar sent shock waves through the LNG market by announcing plans to increase output by 30 percent. Although large energy firms (including Rex Tillerson’s old outfit) expressed interest in working with Qatar on this, color me skeptical.

I can think of two other explanations for the announcement, particularly at this time.

The first is that this may be akin to a vaporware announcement. Back in the day, it was common for software firms to announce a new product or a big update of an existing product in order to try to deter others from entering that market. If entry in fact did not occur, the product announced with such fanfare would never appear. Similar to this strategy, I think it is very plausible that Qatar is trying to deter entry or expansion by North American, Australian, and African producers by threatening to add a big slug of capacity in a few years. Perhaps the developers won’t be scared off, but their bankers may be.

The surge in LNG capacity around the world has severely undercut Qatar’s competitive position, and forced it to make contractual concessions. It also threatens to erode prices for a considerable period. Even more entry would exacerbate these problems. This gives Qatar a strong incentive to try to scare off some of that capacity, and a vaporware strategy is worth a try in order to achieve that.

The second is based on the current set-to between Qatar and the Saudis and the rest of the GCC. They are all but blockading Qatar, and have made demands that bring to mind Austria-Hungary’s demands against Serbia in July, 1914: the ultimatum is designed to be rejected to give a pretext for escalation. Qatar needs to demonstrate that it is immune to the pressure. An announcement of grandiose expansion plans is a good way to signal that it is immune to pressure and not only plans to continue business as usual, but to go further. In a part of the world where showing weakness is an invitation for the wolves to pounce, putting on a bold front is almost a necessity when the wolves are already circling.

So we’ll see where this goes. But I think there’s a good likelihood that this is a big bluff.

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