Streetwise Professor

March 3, 2018

Trump Cuts the Hair Suspending the Trade Sword of Damocles

Filed under: China,Economics,Energy,Politics,Regulation — The Professor @ 11:04 am

Overall, I have found the Trump administration’s economic policies to be favorable.  The tax bill was pretty good, even though it was worse than the administration’s original proposal.  The chipping away at the encrustation of regulation has been highly beneficial.

But there was always a sword of Damocles hanging by a thread over our heads: protectionism. Heretofore, that sword has remained dangling, but last week the hair broke (perhaps by Trump’s hair-trigger temper) when he announced plans to impose substantial tariffs on imported steel and aluminum.

This is egregiously bad policy, even on its own terms. Like all tariffs, these will impose far greater costs on consumers than they will generate benefits for producers.  Since steel and aluminum are intermediate goods, the first consumers are manufacturers that use the metals.  The cost will be borne in the form of lower output from these firms, lower employment and wages in the consuming industries, and higher prices for the final goods.

These tariffs are a failure on their own terms, and demonstrate Trump’s economic ignorance. Trump wants to bolster American manufacturing: these tariffs will harm US manufacturing overall, even though they benefit relatively small subsectors thereof.   This is because US manufacturing is a big consumer of these materials.  As an example, Trump touts the American energy revolution and promotes American energy exports.  Well, the energy business is a huge consumer of steel in particular, in everything from pipelines to rigs to drill pipe to storage tanks to oil refineries to LNG liquefaction plants.  By helping one shrunken sector of the US economy, Trump is imposing substantial harm on a growing one–and one that he touts, no less.

A common retort to criticisms like mine is that the trade playing field is unfair, and that countries like China in particular advantage domestic producers at the expense of foreigners.  Well, they do that in many sectors, but even though that is inefficient, it redounds to the benefit of other sectors in the US economy: for example, subsidizing aluminum benefits US auto manufacturers, who increasingly utilize aluminum (in part to achieve compliance with self-inflicted regulatory harms, namely CAFE standards).

What is little understood is that a tax on imports is a tax on trade: it reduces both imports and exports.  Similarly, subsidizing exports increases trade–including exports by the country importing the subsidized good.

This is true over the long run: in the short run capital flows adjust as well as trade flows.  For example, Chinese subsidies can lead to an increased US trade deficit (Chinese trade surplus), which means that the Chinese accumulate US dollar claims–pieces of paper (or, more accurately, electronic book entries).  Then one of two things happens.  Either the dollar claims prove worthless, or the Chinese spend the dollars on US goods.  So we either get goods in exchange for worthless pieces of paper (or electronic records), or we export goods later.

If retaliatory measures like Trump’s tariffs could result in some bargain or accommodation that levels the playing field, then perhaps the benefit would exceed the cost (although ironically much of the overall benefit will redound to those who tip the playing field, because they bear the brunt of the cost of doing so). The track record on this is hardly encouraging, however. I predict that the likelihood is that Trump’s actions will not materially reduce imbalances in the trade playing field, and that as a result they will be highly detrimental to the US economy–including the sectors which Trump claims to champion.

When Trump was a candidate, I was highly critical of his views on trade, e.g.:

Perhaps to give him more intellectual credit than he deserves, Trump is a died-in-the-wool mercantilist who believes trade is a zero sum game, and who favors protectionism and beggar-thy-neighbor currency policies. He talks like it is the late-80s, and Japan is still an economic juggernaut that will overwhelm the US, completely overlooking the fact that Japan’s crypto-mercantilist policies gifted it a 25 year long lost decade, and that neo-mercantilist China is on the brink of the same fate. If it is lucky.


What is bizarre is that the sin of “giving our industrial markets to the Japanese” was somewhat dated by 1999, but Trump pounds on that theme today, when it is well past its sell date. Decades past. Just yesterday, in  Greenville, SC, he said something to the effect that “the Japanese are up here [holding his hand over his head] and we are down here [holding his hand by his knee].” Fact: Japanese per capita GDP is $36K, and US per capital GDP is exactly 50 percent higher, at $54K. But facts don’t matter. The image of Japanese domination (now accompanied by the image of Chinese domination) resonates intensely among Jacksonians.

I was hoping that he would not act on these impulses, or that he would be constrained from doing so. No such luck. Impulsive ignorance has won out.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

March 1, 2018

Putin: Living Down to Caricature

Filed under: Economics,Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 10:11 am

The old caricature of the Soviet Union–which like most caricatures merely exaggerated a fundamental reality–was that it was “Upper Volta with missiles.”  In his State of the State address today, Vladimir Putin gave ample proof that the caricature applies to contemporary (I won’t say “modern”) Russia as well.

The most memorable part of Putin’s speech was a growling, defiant boast–complete with animation–that Russia had introduced new nuclear missiles that could not be defeated by missile defenses.  He also brandished new cruise missiles (which seem to breach the INF treaty, despite previous Russian claims to the contrary) and a submersible drone carrying a massive nuclear warhead.

The rest of his speech was boilerplate about promising to halve Russia’s impoverished population (an implicit acknowledgement that it had grown in his most recent term), and raising expenditures on infrastructure and health care (which has also suffered greatly in recent years).  Lost in the rhetoric was the Russia has stagnated economically under his rule.  The country is a caught in a double trap: the middle income trap and the resource economy trap.  Further, Putin has no real prospect of escaping either, let alone both.

The speech reveals, I think, that Putin understands all this.  Frankly, he realizes that the only reason Russia matters now is its nuclear arsenal, and the widespread belief that it is willing to use it.  He further realizes that this reality will only grow in the remainder of his political life, as Russia falls further and further behind economically.  So he brandishes his missiles, and mouths platitudes about economic development.  Upper Volta with missiles–and nuclear sub drones!–indeed.

As such, the speech gives a clear foreshadowing of what is in store for post-re-election. International pugnacity combined with domestic political and economic Potemkin villages. The Putin Hamster Wheel keeps spinning.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

February 27, 2018

Well Played Igor, Well Played–But Not Well Paid, Collateral Notwithstanding

Filed under: Economics,Energy,Politics,Russia — The Profesor 2 @ 7:33 pm

I recall being quite amused at those who panicked over Rosneft investing large amounts of money in Venezuela’s cratering national oil company PDVSA, thinking that it gave the Russians a vital foothold in America’s back yard. They’ve outsmarted us again! said this lot.

My thought was the exact opposite: they were utter fools for plunging billions into a country and a company run by socialist lunatics (excuse me, “Bolivarian” lunatics), and figured that it would not go well:

Rosneft lent large money to a deadbeat. It’s not going to get paid back so it is seizing assets, and will end up losing money. Playing repo man is hardly the road to riches. It just mitigates the losses from making a bad loan, and it is the bad loan that is the real story here.

But it gets better!  Repo Man Igor outsmarted himself by getting Rosneft’s collateral in the US in the form of a lien on Citgo’s US refineries.  But given sanctions, the probability that he will be able to repossess them can be rounded up to zero.

Now oil trading firm Mercuria senses weakness, and is involved in an effort to take the collateral off Igors hands:

Commodity trader Mercuria has asked the US Treasury for permission to buy out a $1.5bn loan between Russia’s Rosneft and Venezuela’s state oil company, which had raised the prospect of Moscow taking control of refineries on US soil.

. . . .

“Rosneft would have faced an uphill struggle to get approval to exercise a stake in Citgo so this avoids a potential diplomatic strain between the US and Russia if this deal goes ahead,” said Mr Mallinson.

“If this signals that Russia is looking to reduce its loans to Venezuela rather than offering more support that leaves Caracas with nowhere obvious to turn.”

Rosneft has said it is unwilling to extend further loans to PDVSA, many of which have been secured against crude supplies, as the country’s economic crisis starts to hit oil output from the country. The Russian company is seen as keen to reduce its exposure to Venezuela as oil output falls, with the country seen as precariously close to defaulting on its debts.

Well played, Igor. Bravo! The move was so brilliant, that now he’s desperate–sorry, “keen” doesn’t quite cover it–to get out.

Rosneft’s bargaining leverage is pretty much nonexistent.  PDVSA is circling the drain, with a collapse in oil output and revenues.  It can’t pay back the Russians. The collateral is off limits to them.  So Rosneft faces a choice between a big fat zero, and whatever Mercuria et al deign offer it. Perhaps Rosneft can scare up other bidders, but the company holds a very weak hand, and will be lucky to walk away with kopecs on the ruble.

Keep this in mind whenever anyone tries to convince you of Putin’s or Sechin’s strategic brilliance. In this case, they have brilliantly succeeded in flushing several billion into the Venezuelan cesspool, with no real recourse or exit strategy.

They can take some comfort, though, having lent Venezuela a mere $5 billion. The even more brilliant Chinese lent 11 times as much. So there’s that, Igor!

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

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!”

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

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).

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

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.



Print Friendly, PDF & Email

January 17, 2018

No Yodeling Required!: Swiss Sanity on Citizenship

Filed under: Economics,Politics — The Professor @ 7:39 pm

Not long after finishing my immigration post, I came across this article that cracked me up:

Dutch vegan who applied for a Swiss passport has had her application rejected because the locals found her too annoying

Nancy Holten, 42, moved to Switzerland from the Netherlands when she was eight years old and now has children who are Swiss nationals.

However, when she tried to get a Swiss passport for herself, residents of Gipf-Oberfrick in the canton of Aargau rejected her application.

I guess they can’t kick her out, but they can deprive her of citizenship.  (And “Oberfrick”–heh.)

This is an amusing illustration of a broader Swiss principle: who gets to be Swiss depends on their contribution to Switzerland, and their ability to integrate with those already there.  A more serious illustration comes from a recent change in Swiss citizenship law:

On 20 June 2016, the Swiss Parliament voted on the new Swiss Citizenship Act, which will come into force together with the relevant Ordinance on 1 January 2018. The main aim of the new law is to limit the issuance of Swiss citizenship to well-integrated foreign nationals only. Furthermore, the Citizenship Act also aims to harmonise the residence requirements and implement into a law the authorities’ practice. [Emphasis added.]

. . . .

Under current law, the basic requirements to obtain Swiss citizenship can be summarised as follows: a. The applicant must have resided a minimum of 12 years in Switzerland (of which at least three years within the five years prior to the application) and a certain amount of time (usually between two to five years) in a specific canton and in a specific commune prior to being able to apply. Shorter periods apply to certain categories of applicants aged between 10 and 20 years for whom the years spent in Switzerland between their 10th and 20th birthdays count double in the calculation of the 12- year period required at the federal level. b. The applicant must prove that he/she is well integrated in Switzerland. As per the current practice of the Swiss authorities, the following requirements usually need to be fulfilled: the applicant must have a clean criminal record, prove that he/she fulfils all financial obligations, in particular with respect to tax payment, has a good reputation, has a good knowledge of a Swiss national language (i.e. French, German or Italian), has a basic knowledge of Swiss geography and history, and knows how the Swiss political system functions. c. Additional requirements may need to be met according to the respective cantonal and/or communal laws.

. . . .

Only applicants holding a C-type permit (permanent residence permit) may apply for Swiss citizenship (currently, holders of B-type residence permits may also apply). The applicant must have resided a total of 10 years in Switzerland (not 12 years as today). The ordinance to the SCA now details the concept of ‘good integration’. According to the ordinance, an applicant is deemed as being well integrated if he/she:

• has good oral and written language skills in one of the national languages;

• respects the public order and security;

• respects the Swiss federal constitution;

• participates in the economic life or undergoes education, i.e. the applicant is employed or attends a school/university;

• ensures that his/her family members are integrated;

• is not a threat to the internal and external security of Switzerland;

• is familiar with Swiss living conditions.

Applicants with a criminal record or who are dependent on Swiss social welfare will most likely be rejected.

Indeed, regarding the last point, the new law precludes citizenship for those who have been on public assistance in any time in the past three years.

Fortunately, it appears that yodeling is not a requirement!

Note that none of these criteria are based on nation of origin.  There will no doubt be a relationship between the likelihood of meeting these criteria, and whether one emigrates from a s***hole, but the law does not discriminate or create quotas on the basis of national origin (which is likely by itself to be a very crude proxy for ability to contribute, and which is part of US law primarily as the result of ethnic politics).

Certain aspects of the Swiss naturalization system are not practical for the US.  In particular, the role of cantonal and communal authorities in authorizing citizenship (as the Annoying Dutch Vegan found out to her chagrin) is a non-starter here.  This conflicts with the US Constitution, and is at odds with the much greater mobility of Americans vs. Swiss.  But the principle of conditioning citizenship on integration, fluency in a national language, non-dependence on public assistance, lack of a criminal record, etc., is certainly possible in the US, and makes sense.  It is certainly a more rational and sober policy than one that revolves around nauseating pap about “dreamers” and the like: whenever a debate centers on agitprop and euphemisms you know it is fundamentally dishonest and manipulative.

You can’t paint the Swiss as mouth-breathing populist, nationalist wackos: if anything, they are a little too control-freakish for me (and most Americans, I’d wager).  Indeed, the Swiss have been very successful at balancing a deep integration in the world economy and international institutions with a pride in their own national traditions and mores, and a desire to preserve them.  They have avoided many of the problems that somewhat similar nations (notably Sweden and the Netherlands) have experienced with their immigration policies. (There’s nothing like Malmo or Gothenburg or Rotterdam in Switzerland.)  The Swiss have struck a reasonable balance between openness to foreigners and national pride, and are not consumed by the neurotic complexes and self-loathing that have paralyzed many Swedes, Dutch, Germans, etc. (and the governments of these nations).

Switzerland therefore represents a plausible example/role model for a reasoned immigration debate in the US. Yet it is almost never mentioned here.

And it’s not just immigration.  The Swiss health care system has much to recommend it–far more than the dysfunctional system that prevails in the US.  The Swiss model would be a great starting place for a transformation of US healthcare.  I’d prefer an even more market-based system, but politics is the art of the practical, and I realize that my ideal is not gonna happen. But the Swiss model meets many of the goals of the left in a much more efficient way than our current system, and certainly dominates monstrosities like the UK or Canadian systems.

It would be impossible–and indeed, highly objectionable–to try to make the US like Switzerland. For myriad reasons. But there are some things we can take from Switzerland, or should at least consider seriously. Not that I’m holding my breath.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

January 15, 2018


Filed under: Economics,Politics,Uncategorized — The Professor @ 8:30 pm

A few comments on ShitholeGate.

First, I dunno if Trump said it. It sounds in character, but the sources for it (being anonymous and/or Dick Durbin) are hardly unimpeachable.

Second, there must be a shortage of fainting couches, smelling salts, and pearls for clutching in DC and media land, given the collective swooning and shock at the thought that a president used a four letter word.

Uhm, LBJ anybody? Nixon?

Third, there are logically coherent and logically incoherent objections to what Trump allegedly said about questioning the wisdom of admitting more people from shitholes than non-shitholes (e.g., Norway–though at one time, my ancestors apparently disagreed!)

The logically coherent objection is: “Yes, these are horrible, abjectly miserable places, which is why we should take in people from them, on humanitarian grounds.”

The logically incoherent objection is: “How dare you call them shitholes! They are wonderful places full of wonderful people! But we are rescuing people from lives of misery by taking in the poor and huddled masses from these places.” If they’re so great, why the intense desire to leave?

Suffice it to say, the logically incoherent objection has been the dominant narrative on the left.

The logically coherent objection creates its own issues: logical coherence is necessary for it to be a reasonable policy position, but by no means sufficient.

One of the issues is: what is the limiting principle? Or is there none?: do you favor no restrictions on immigration whatsoever? If that’s your position–be open about your support for open borders. Don’t try to have it all ways.

If you do favor restrictions, what criteria will you apply for determining who can immigrate to the US? What are the benefits? The costs? What is the incidence of those costs and benefits? Again, be open about it–speaking in gauzy generalities is dishonest, and makes it impossible to evaluate your position.

A related issue is that those who object to, or even have reservations about, open borders or even relatively liberal immigration policy are routinely excoriated as racists and bigots. Yes, some are. But many are not, even though they have a strong preference for traditional American culture which is deeply rooted in European cultures and ethnicity. Do you believe that is a legitimate preference?  If not, do you advocate the rejection of democratic means to decide immigration matters because those with illegitimate views might prevail? Further, African Americans are to a large extent more opposed to immigration than white Americans. Is that due to racism? Or is it a telling indication that the views on immigration also (and arguably primarily) fall along economic/class lines?

This touches upon another element of incoherence in the immigration debate: assimilation. Many (and arguably most, now) advocates of liberal immigration policies are hostile to the notion of assimilation, again imputing racist motives and cultural bigotry to those who believe that current immigrants should assimilate the way that their grandparents and great-grandparents and generations before them did. But hostility to assimilation and hostility to those who favor assimilation means that it’s OK for some (immigrants) to prefer their own culture, ethnicity or race, but it’s not OK for others (the native born) to do so.

This is another variation on the incoherence of identity politics. The most ardent advocates of identity politics scorn intensely those who feel that their identity is threatened by mass immigration, especially mass immigration without assimilation. In the identity politics animal farm, all identities are equal, but some are more equal than others.

Along these lines, it is pretty apparent that the political elites who are most ardent in support of very liberal immigration policies are those who are least likely to be disclocated by large flows of immigrants, and may indeed benefit from it. Those they scorn–many of whom voted for Trump–are the ones most likely to be adversely impacted, either economically or socially/culturally.  Ironic coming from people who are also likely to claim that they favor redistribution in order to reduce economic inequality.

Personally, I confess to some ambivalence on these matters. The libertarian in me favors free movement of people. At the same time, I recognize the Friedman/Richard Epstein point that the welfare state means that immigration is not the result of mutually beneficial bargains entered into without coercion: immigration attracted by the potential to obtain benefits funded by coercive taxation is problematic indeed. (Friedman and Epstein object to the welfare state in large part because it makes unrestricted immigration infeasible.) Furthermore, I understand the importance of social trust and communication and coordination due to shared assumptions and beliefs, and how those can be facilitated by some homogeneity in ideals and culture and background. Relatedly, a democratic polity operating on a principle of consent has to give preference to current citizens.

Immigration has always been a fraught issue in the US, although the intensity of views about it has waxed and waned over time. Our handling of the issue has never been perfect, but I think that (a) the US historically did a better job of it than any country in history (certainly modern history), and (b) we handled immigration best prior to the rise of the welfare state, and when assimilation was a widely shared ideal. Those conditions do not prevail now, which makes me much more cautious, and indeed skeptical, about relatively untrammeled immigration. As a result, I think it’s fair to ask: how many should we accept from where?, and shouldn’t we be more skeptical about mass immigration from countries that are vastly different economically, culturally, and socially?

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

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.




Print Friendly, PDF & Email

December 27, 2017

Vova the Squeegee Man

Filed under: Economics,Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 4:21 pm

My old buddy Vova is making a rather forced and pathetic attempt to persuade rich Russians to repatriate the money they have invested (squirreled away) overseas:

President Vladimir Putin is using the threat of additional U.S. sanctions to encourage wealthy Russians to repatriate some of their overseas assets, which exceed $1 trillion by one estimate.

I call the attempt forced and pathetic precisely because Putin feels obliged to try to persuade, rather than dictate. And because he is offering inducements:

Putin said on Monday that Russia should scrap the 13 percent profit tax on funds repatriated from abroad and renew an amnesty from penalties for businesses returning capital.

And because he’s raising the bogeyman of western sanctions (from the Bloomberg piece):

“We and our entrepreneurs have repeatedly faced unjustified and illegal asset freezes under the guise of sanctions,” Peskov said on a conference call Tuesday. “The president’s initiative aims to create comfortable conditions for businesses if they want to use this opportunity to repatriate their capital.”

Heretofore, sanctions have limited the ability of the affected entities to tap western financing: they have not involved expropriation or the kind of piratical corporate and government behavior that has been seen in Russia. Investments abroad remain abroad despite the more hostile environment to Russian money in the west because it is still safer than it would be in Russia. That’s why Vova has to beg and bribe to try to get Russians to repatriate. And previous efforts have hardly been successful:

Russia rolled out a similar amnesty program during the worst of the conflict in Ukraine, which coincided with a plunge in oil prices that triggered the country’s longest recession of the Putin era. That 18-month initiative, the results of which haven’t been disclosed, “didn’t work as well as we’d hoped,” Finance Minister Anton Siluanov said. Unlike that plan, this one waives Russia’s 13 percent tax on personal income, according to Dmitry Peskov, Putin’s spokesman.

Note that the mere threat of western sanctions has not been enough: hence the tax waiver.

Insofar as piratical corporate behavior is concerned, I give you Igor Sechin, ladies and gentlemen. What do you think is more intimidating, Sechin plotting–and the system cooperating–to jail a troublesome minister for eight years, or what the US and Europe have done to sanctioned entities? Or his serial extortions of Sistema, which recently agreed to an “amicable” settlement with Rosneft/Sechin? Said “amicable” settlement involved the former paying the latter $1.7 billion dollars to settle a suit . . . over what is rather hard to say. I still don’t get the legal theory under which Rosneft even thought it was entitled payment for Sistema’s alleged past wrongs. Given that this occurred mere days after Putin called for an amicable settlement, it is pretty clear that he was taking Sechin’s side and telling Sistema to cave–and do so with a smile.

This is why Russian money will stay out of Russia, Putin’s pleas notwithstanding.

Another story gives you a partial explanation for Putin’s neediness: “Russia’s Reserve Fund to be fully depleted in 2017.” The rainy day fund is empty, and the outlook remains cloudy.

Thus, for all the hyperventilating about Putin the Colossus, the objective basis for his power is shaky indeed. He can be a pest and troublemaker, but he lacks the economic heft to be much more. Yet for selfish political reasons, Democrats, NeverTrump Republicans, and the media inflate his importance daily. Enough. Putin is rattling his tin cup, hoping that some rich Russians will drop some rubles into it. Maybe if the tax inducement isn’t enough, he can squeegee their windshields.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Next Page »

Powered by WordPress