Streetwise Professor

February 27, 2021

Obama: Advocate for Injustice, Fanning the Flames of Division

Filed under: Civil War,Politics — cpirrong @ 8:07 pm

In his inimitably supercilious and churlish fashion, last week Obama endorsed slavery reparations, and blamed his inability to implement them during his administration on white racism:

“So if you ask me theoretically: ‘Are reparations justified?’ The answer is yes,” he said. “There’s not much question that the wealth of this country, the power of this country was built in significant part — not exclusively, maybe not even the majority of it — but a large portion of it was built on the backs of slaves.”

“What I saw during my presidency was the the politics of white resistance and resentment, the talk of welfare queens and the talk of the undeserving poor and the backlash against affirmative action,” Obama said on the podcast. “All that made the prospect of actually proposing any kind of coherent, meaningful reparations program struck me as, politically, not only a non-starter but potentially counter-productive.”

These statements are factually incorrect, bigoted, and extremely divisive, demonstrating exactly why race relations degraded more during Obama’s administration than in any other since Woodrow Wilson–a figure with whom Obama shares many similarities, none of them good. (I compared Obama and Wilson during the very early years of the former’s administration.)

Where to begin deconstructing this vicious farrago? I guess with the most vicious part–the claim that white racism doomed his high-minded dreams for reparations. Look at this part again:

the politics of white resistance and resentment, the talk of welfare queens and the talk of the undeserving poor and the backlash against affirmative action

Obama must have been having an acid flashback to the Reagan years when he said this. “Welfare queens”? Really? Who the hell has said that in the past 30 years?–that’s a trope from about 1982. Similarly “undeserving poor” and “backlash against affirmative action.” FFS–these are all anachronisms that had f-all to do with disputes over reparations in the 2010s.

Obama’s bigotry is also revealed by his failure even to countenance the possibility that resistance to reparations (not just among whites, but Asians, Hispanics, and even blacks) was and is rooted in a belief that the entire idea is monstrously unjust, and wildly impractical.

In terms of injustice, the argument for reparations is rooted in ideas of collective guilt. Not surprising from Obama and his ilk, but a profoundly unjust and anti-Western idea, and one which as wreaked untold miseries (including in the form of death camps and gulags and killing fields) wherever it has held sway.

Further, reparations impose no penalty on those responsible for slavery or who benefited from it, and pay no recompense to those who suffered from it directly, all of whom have been dead for at least decades, and most for centuries.

Think of any living white American. Not a single one is personally responsible for any sin committed by any dead white American prior to 1865. Moreover, virtually no living white Americans conceivably benefited in any material way from slavery.

Take me and my family for instance. The first of my father’s ancestors to arrive in the US did so in 1867. Most of the rest came here in the 1870s. How did they benefit from slavery? And if at all, by how much?

On my mother’s side, one great grandfather arrived in 1848–and settled in Ohio (and fought in the Civil War, including the March to the Sea, which freed numerous slaves). The remainder of her ancestors arrived to these shores between 1620 (yes, on the Mayflower) and the late-18th century. But every single one resided in a northern colony or state which were free states by the late-18th century; never held slaves; and were almost to a man and woman near subsistence farmers living on or near the frontier. So how did they benefit from slavery?

Pretty much every white American can to a considerable degree make a plausible claim that there is no plausible chain of causation between their current economic circumstances and slavery. The descendent of Irish immigrants fleeing the potato famine. Italians or Jews or Slavs arriving at Ellis Island in the last quarter of the 19th century and the first quarter of the 20th. Even the descendants of poor whites in the South: there is some debate in the economic history literature that slavery might actually have made them poorer, not richer.

There is also the issue of the incredible cost paid by all Americans in the 1860s to end slavery. The Civil War resulted in the deaths of upwards of 400,000 men serving in Union armies: As Lincoln said, “every drop of blood drawn with the lash, shall be paid by another drawn by the sword.” Shall be, and was. Hundreds of thousands more suffered horrific wounds, and debilitating diseases that scarred them for life: approximately 400,000 collected disability pensions, despite the fact that the government presented many obstacles to those making claims. Untold numbers suffered extreme emotional trauma–a subject only now receiving much attention (including in the drama Mercy Street). Even beyond the losses suffered by those who died or were maimed emotionally or physically, these casualties affected the economic circumstances of their families, and their descendants.

So how is it just to force those living now who did not benefit from slavery even indirectly, and who may well have suffered some loss from it or from the war fought to end it, to pay compensation? Should I get a credit for my Civil War veteran ancestors’ disabilities (a lost arm, lifelong rheumatism)? It cannot be rationalized even on the twisted logic of collective guilt, for this living collective is neither neither guilty of sins committed by some dead collective, nor the recipient of ill-gotten gains.

Obama tries to get around these issues thus:

“There’s not much question that the wealth of this country, the power of this country was built in significant part — not exclusively, maybe not even the majority of it — but a large portion of it was built on the backs of slaves.”

This is a monstrous untruth. In fact, the reverse is true. “Slavery made America rich” is a leftist mantra. It is also categorically false, as has been demonstrated by massive scholarship over the years.

The economic historical literature on the subject is vast, but Deirdre McCloskey summarizes it well:

Yet the economic idea implied—that exploitation made us rich—is mistaken. Slavery made a few Southerners rich; a few Northerners, too. But it was ingenuity and innovation that enriched Americans generally, including at last the descendants of the slaves.

It’s hard to dispel the idea embedded in Lincoln’s poetry. TeachUSHistory.org assumes “that northern finance made the Cotton Kingdom possible” because “northern factories required that cotton.” The idea underlies recent books of a new King Cotton school of history: Walter Johnson’s River of Dark Dreams (Harvard University Press), Sven Beckert’s Empire of Cotton: A Global History (Knopf), and Edward Baptist’s The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism (Basic Books).

The rise of capitalism depended, the King Cottoners claim, on the making of cotton cloth in Manchester, England, and Manchester, New Hampshire. The raw cotton, they say, could come only from the South. The growing of cotton, in turn, is said to have depended on slavery. The conclusion—just as our good friends on the left have been saying all these years—is that capitalism was conceived in sin, the sin of slavery.

Yet each step in the logic of the King Cotton historians is mistaken. The enrichment of the modern world did not depend on cotton textiles. Cotton mills, true, were pioneers of some industrial techniques, techniques applied to wool and linen as well. And many other techniques, in iron making and engineering and mining and farming, had nothing to do with cotton. Britain in 1790 and the U.S. in 1860 were not nation-sized cotton mills. (Emphasis added.)

. . . .

Economists have been thinking about such issues for half a century. You wouldn’t know it from the King Cottoners. [Or Obama.] They assert, for example, that a slave was “cheap labor.” Mistaken again. After all, slaves ate, and they didn’t produce until they grew up. Stanley Engerman and the late Nobel Prize winner Robert Fogel confirmed in 1974 what economic common sense would suggest: that productivity was incorporated into the market price of a slave. It’s how any capital market works. If you bought a slave, you faced the cost of alternative uses of the capital. No supernormal profits accrued from the purchase. Slave labor was not a free lunch. The wealth was not piled up.

The King Cotton school has been devastated recently in detail by two economic historians, Alan Olmstead of the University of California at Davis and Paul Rhode of the University of Michigan. [Obama apparently missed this.] They point out, for example, that the influential and leftish economist Thomas Piketty grossly exaggerated the share of slaves in U.S. wealth, yet Edward Baptist uses Piketty’s estimates to put slavery at the center of the country’s economic history. Olmstead and Rhode note, too, from their research on the cotton economy that the price of slaves increased from 1820 to 1860 not because of institutional change (more whippings) or the demand for cotton, but because of an astonishing rise in the productivity of the cotton plant, achieved by selective breeding. Ingenuity, not capital accumulation or exploitation, made cotton a little king.

One could go on and on. Critically, cotton production represented a relatively small fraction of US income and wealth. As McCloskey (and others) note, American economic growth derived from myriad factors, of which cotton and slavery represented a modest and arguably trivial part.

Further, to the extent that slavery did massively benefit a small Southern elite, well the Civil War pretty much took care of that, no? The war devastated the planter class. Yes, more millionaires lived in sugar plantations along the Mississippi River in Louisiana than anywhere else in the US in 1860, but in 1865 the grand houses were burned; the stables emptied; the animals slaughtered or seized–and the slaves gone. They sowed the wind, and reaped the whirlwind.

Take Braxton Bragg as an example. The much-hated Confederate general married into a wealthy Louisiana planter family, but his time in the slaveholding aristocracy was short lived: Union troops confiscated his plantation in 1862, and after the war Bragg scraped by selling insurance and working as an engineer for a struggling Texas railroad. And he was one of the fortunate.

Wars also consume resources that could have been invested in productive activities: the massive expenditure of wealth to fund the Civil War reduced future US income, rather than increased it.

All meaning that Obama’s argument that modern Americans have been been unjustly enriched by the past injustices of slavery, and thus should pay reparations, is a complete falsehood. (A falsehood propagated by the loathsome 1619 Project as well.)

There are also the practical questions of to whom reparations would be paid, and the justice of any formula for rewarding them.

Are payments to be made on the basis of the one drop rule? That would be mordantly ironic, no?

Most descendants of slaves in the US are also the descendants of non-slaves, mainly whites, some of whom were more likely beneficiaries of slavery than you or I. There is considerable variation in the ratio of slave ancestry among Americans who currently identify as black. How will a reparations scheme reflect such variation? (Depending on how it does so, it could lead to another irony–a replacement of a historical reluctance of some who identify as white (especially in the South–read some Faulkner) to admit African ancestry, with a rush to find a slave ancestor: maybe investing in a genetic testing company is a way to speculate on the prospects for reparations!)

However these knotty issues are resolved, the resolution will be highly arbitrary–and hence add yet another element of injustice to an already irretrievably unjust enterprise.

Then there is the question of what is the counterfactual against which harm can be calculated. It could even be said there is no plausible counterfactual: Person X, descended from slaves, would not exist in the counterfactual world in which slavery never existed. So how can you calculate the harm suffered by X? And maybe there is no harm. Some portion of Person X’s genetic material would exist in some other people, living in Africa in far worse conditions than Person X. Person X could therefore be said to be the beneficiary of the horrors his enslaved ancestors suffered. But, of course, said ancestors cannot be compensated for these horrors.

Any just system of compensation and taxation to pay it (for reparations is at root a massive redistributive scheme) should have at least some connection between the harm suffered and the compensation paid, and between the responsibility for inflicting the harm, or the benefit received therefrom, and the tax paid. For all of the reasons discussed herein, slavery reparations cannot be just. Indeed, they are guaranteed to be unjust.*

And it is that fundamental injustice–which is an inherent feature of the entire concept of reparations–is what makes it extraordinarily divisive. Even people of good will will not voluntarily submit to such a fundamental injustice, and indeed, people of good will will resist the imposition of such an injustice.

Obama’s failure to recognize this, and his assertion that opposition to reparations is rooted in base, racist motives speaks volumes about the man–and about what he thinks about the majority of Americans. And it does not speak well. Pushing for reparations will inevitably and severely exacerbate racial tensions, and divide the nation. Claiming that opposition to reparations can only be due to racism will divide it even more. This is the last thing we need now. But Obama apparently decided he had inadequate time in office to accomplish his mission, so he is devoting his post-presidency to fan the flames of enmity in America.

*There are also issues of economic efficiency. Reparations are purely redistributive. It can have no effect on the behavior that caused the harm–because all those behaving thus are long dead. But redistributive programs impose deadweight costs. These include, inter alia, the deadweight costs of taxation required to pay reparations; the costs of administering the program, including the costs to detect and punish fraud; and the rent seeking costs incurred by those attempting to secure the transfer. These deadweight costs make everyone poorer. And this does not even consider the cost of the strife that a battle over reparations would engender.

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February 22, 2021

GameStop: Round Up the Usual Suspects

Filed under: Clearing,Derivatives,Economics,Politics,Regulation — cpirrong @ 7:52 pm

Shuttling between FUBARs, it’s back to GameStop!

Last week there were House hearings regarding the GameStock saga. As is usual with these things, they were more a melange of rampant narcissism and political posing and outright stupidity than a source of information. Everyone had an opportunity to identify and then flog their favorite villains and push their favorite “solutions.” All in all, very few constructive observations or remedies came out of the exercise. I’m sure you’re shocked.

Here are a few of the main issues that came up.

Shortening the securities settlement cycle. The proximate cause of Robinhood’s distress was a huge margin call. Market participants post margins to mitigate the credit risk inherent in a two day settlement cycle. Therefore, to reduce margins and big margin calls, let’s reduce the settlement cycle! Problem solved!

No, problem moved. Going to T+0 settlement would require buyers to stump up the cash and sellers to secure the stock on the same day of the transaction. Almost certainly, this wouldn’t result in a reduction of credit in the system, but just cause buyers to borrow money to meet their payment obligations. Presumably the lenders would not extend credit on an unsecured basis, but would require collateral with haircuts, where the haircuts will vary with risk: bigger haircuts would require the buyers to put up more of their own cash.

I would predict that to a first approximation the amount of credit risk and the amount of cash buyers would have to stump up would be pretty much the same as in the current system. That is, market participants would try to replicate the economic substance of the way the market works now, but use different contracting arrangements to obtain this result.

I note that when the payments system went to real time gross settlement to reduce the credit risk participants faced through the netting mechanism with daily settlement, central banks stepped in to offer credit to keep the system working.

It’s also interesting to note that what DTCC did with GameStop is essentially move to T+0 settlement by requiring buyers to post margin equal to the purchase price:

Robinhood made “optimistic assumptions,” Admati said, and on Jan. 28, Tenev woke up at 3:30 a.m. and faced a public crisis. With a demand from a clearinghouse to deposit money as a safety measure hedging against risky trades, he had to get $1 billion from investors. Normally, Robinhood only has to put up $2 for every $100 to vouch for their clients, but now, the whole $100 was required. Thus, trading had to be slowed down until the money could be collected.

That is, T+0 settlement is more liquidity/cash intensive. As a result, a movement to such a system would lead to different credit arrangements to provide the liquidity.

As always, you have to look at how market participants will respond to proposed changes. If you require them to pay cash sooner by changing the settlement cycle, you have to ask: where is the cash going to come from? The likely answer: the credit extended through the clearing system will be replaced with some other form of credit. And this form is not necessarily preferable to the current form.

Payment for order flow (“PFOF”). There is widespread suspicion of payment for order flow. Since Robinhood is a major seller of order flow, and since Citadel is a major buyer, there have been allegations that this practice is implicated in the fiasco:

Reddit users questioned whether Citadel used its power as the largest market maker in the U.S. equities market to pressure Robinhood to limit trading for the benefit of other hedge funds. The theory, which both Robinhood and Citadel criticized as a conspiracy, is that Citadel Securities gave deference to short sellers over retail investors to help short sellers stop the bleeding. The market maker also drew scrutiny because Citadel, the hedge fund, together with its partners, invested $2 billion into Melvin Capital Management, which had taken a short position in GameStop.

To summarize the argument, Citadel buys order flow from Robinhood, Citadel wanted to help out its hedge fund bros, something, something, something, so PFOF is to blame. Association masquerading as causation at its worst.

PFOF exists because when some types of customers are cheaper to service than others, competitive forces will lead to the design of contracting and pricing mechanisms under which the low cost customers pay lower prices than the high cost customers.

In stock trading, uninformed traders (and going out on a limb here, but I’m guessing many Robinhood clients are uninformed!) are cheaper to intermediate than better informed traders. Specifically, market makers incur lower adverse selection costs in dealing with the uninformed. PFOF effectively charges lower spreads for executing uninformed orders.

This makes order flow on lit exchange markets more “toxic” (i.e., it has a higher proportion of informed order flow because some of the uninformed flow has been siphoned off), so spreads on those markets go up.

And I think this is what really drives the hostility to PFOF. The smarter order flow that has to trade on lit markets doesn’t like the two tiered pricing structure. They would prefer order flow be forced onto lit markets (by restricting PFOF). This would cause the uninformed order flow to cross subsidize the more informed order flow.

The segmentation of order flow may make prices on lit markets less informative. Although the default response among finance academics is to argue that more informative is better, this is not generally correct. The social benefit of more accurate prices (e.g., does that lead to better investment decisions) have not been quantified. Moreover, informed trading (except perhaps, ironically, for true insider trading) involves the use of real resources (on research, and the like). Much of the profit of informed trading is a transfer from the uninformed, and to the extent it is, it is a form of rent seeking. So the social ills of less informative prices arising from the segmentation of order flow are not clearcut: less investment into information may actually be a social benefit.

There is a question of how much of the benefit of PFOF gets passed on to retail traders, and how much the broker pockets. Given the competitiveness of the brokerage market–especially due to the entry of the likes of Robinhood–it is likely a large portion gets passed on to the ultimate customer.

In sum, don’t pose as a defender of the little guy when attacking PFOF. They are the beneficiaries. Those attacking PFOF are actually doing the bidding of large sophisticated and likely better informed investors.

HFT. This one I really don’t get. There is HFT in the stock market. Something bad happened in the stock market. Therefore, HFT caused the bad thing to happen.

The Underpants Gnomes would be proud. I have not seen a remotely plausible causal chain linking HFT to Robinhood’s travails, or the sequence of events that led up to them.

But politicians gonna politician, so we can’t expect high order logical thinking. The disturbing thing is that the high order illogical thinking might actually result in policy changes.

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February 21, 2021

Touching the Third Rail: The Dangers of Electricity Market Design

In the aftermath of the Texas Freeze-ageddon much ink and many pixels have been spilled about its causes. Much–most?–of the blame focuses on Texas’s allegedly laissez faire electricity market design.

I have been intensely involved (primarily in a litigation context) in the forensic analysis of previous extreme electricity market shocks, including the first major one (the Midwest prices spike of June 1998) and the California crisis. As an academic I have also written extensively about electricity pricing and electricity market design. Based on decades of study and close observation, I can say that electricity market design is one of the most complex subjects in economics, and that one should step extremely gingerly when speaking about the topic, especially as it relates to an event for which many facts remain to be established.

Why is electricity market design so difficult? Primarily because it requires structuring incentives that effect behavior over both very long horizons (many decades, because investments in generation and transmission are very long lived) and extremely short horizons (literally seconds, because the grid must balance at every instant in time). Moreover, there is an intimate connection between these extremely disparate horizons: the mechanisms designed to handle the real time operation of the system affect the incentives to invest for the long run, and the long run investments affect the operation of the system in real time.

Around the world many market designs have been implemented in the approximately 25 year history of electricity liberalization. All have been found wanting, in one way or another. They are like Tolstoy’s unhappy families: all are unhappy in their own way. This unhappiness is a reflection of the complexity of the problem.

Some were predictably wretched: California’s “reforms” in the 1990s being the best example. Some were reasonably designed, but had their flaws revealed in trying conditions that inevitably arise in complex systems that are always–always–subject to “normal accidents.”

From a 30,000 foot perspective, all liberalized market designs attempt to replace centralization of resource allocation decisions (as occurs in the traditional integrated regulated utility model) with allocation by price. The various systems differ primarily in what they leave to the price system, and which they do not.

As I wrote in a chapter in Andrew Kleit’s Energy Choices (published in 2006) the necessity of coordinating the operation of a network in real time almost certainly requires a “visible hand” at some level: transactions costs preclude the coordination via contract and prices of hundreds of disparate actors across an interconnected grid in real time under certain conditions, and such coordination is required to ensure the stability of that grid. Hence, a system operator–like ERCOT, or MISO, or PJM–must have residual rights of control to avoid failure of the grid. ERCOT exercised those residual rights by imposing blackouts. As bad as that was, the alternative would have been worse.

Beyond this core level of non-price allocation, however, the myriad of services (generation, transmission, consumption) and the myriad of potential conditions create a myriad of possible combinations of price and non-price allocation mechanisms. Look around the world, and you will see just how diverse those choices can be. And those actual choices are just a small subset of the possible choices.

As always with price driven allocation mechanisms, the key thing is getting the prices right. And due to the nature of electricity, this involves getting prices right at very high frequency (e.g., the next five minutes, the next hour, the next day) and at very low frequency (over years and decades). This is not easy. That is why electricity market design is devilish hard.

One crucial thing to recognize is that constraints on prices in some time frames can interfere with decisions made over other horizons. For example, most of the United States (outside the Southeast) operates under some system in which prices day ahead or real time are the primary mechanism for scheduling and dispatching generation over short horizons, but restrictions on these prices (e.g., price caps) mean that they do not always reflect the scarcity value of generating or transmission capacity. (Much of the rest of the world does this too.) As a result, these prices provide too little incentive to invest in capacity, and the right kinds of capacity. The kludge solution to this is to create a new market, a capacity market, in which regulators decide how much capacity of what type is needed, and mandate that load servers acquire the rights to such capacity through capacity auctions. The revenues from these auctions provide an additional incentive for generators to invest in the capacity they supply.

The alternative is a pure energy market, in which prices are allowed to reflect scarcity value–and in electricity markets, due to extremely inelastic demand and periodic extreme inelasticity of supply in the short run, that scarcity value can sometimes reach the $1000s of dollars.

Texas opted for the energy market model. However, other factors intervened to prevent prices from being right. In particular, heavy subsidies for renewables have systematically depressed prices, thereby undercutting the incentives to invest in thermal generation, and the right kind of thermal generation. This can lead to much bigger price spikes than would have occurred otherwise–especially when intermittent renewables output plunges.

Thus, a systematic downward price distortion can greatly exacerbate upward price spikes in a pure energy model. That, in a nutshell, is the reason for Texas’s recent (extreme) unhappiness.

As more information becomes available, it is clear that the initiator of the chain of events that left almost half the state in the dark for hours was a plunge in wind generation due to the freezing of wind turbines. Initially, combined cycle gas generation ramped up output dramatically to replace the lost wind output. But these resources could not sustain this effort because the cold-related disruptions in gas production, transmission, and distribution turned the gas generators into fuel limited resources. The generators hadn’t broken down, but couldn’t obtain the fuel necessary to operate.

It is certainly arguable that Texas should have recognized that the distortion in prices that arose from subsidization of wind (primarily at the federal level) that bore no relationship whatsoever to the social cost of carbon made it necessary to implement the kapacity market kludge, or some other counterbalance to the subsidy-driven wrong prices. It didn’t, and that will be the subject of intense debate for months and years to come.

It is essential to recognize however, that the underlying reason why a kludge may be necessary is that the price wasn’t right due to government intervention. When deciding how to change the system going forward, those interventions–and their elimination–should be front and center in the analysis and debate, rather than treated as sacrosanct.

There is also the issue of state contingent capacity. That is, the availability of certain kinds of capacity in certain states of the world. In electricity, the states of the world that matter are disproportionately weather-related. Usually in Texas you think of hot weather as being the state that matters, but obviously cold weather matters too.

It appears that the weatherization of power plants per se was less of an issue last week than the weatherization of fuel supplies upstream from the power plants. It is an interesting question regarding the authority of ERCOT–the operator of the Texas grid–extends to mandating the technology utilized by gas producers. My (superficial) understanding is that it is unlikely to, and that any attempt to do so would lead to a regulatory turf battle (with the Texas Railroad Commission, which regulates gas and oil wells in Texas, and maybe FERC).

There is also the question of whether in an energy only market generators would have the right incentive to secure fuel supplies from sources that are more immune to temperature shocks than Texas’s proved to be last week. Since such immunity does not come for free, generator contracts with fuel suppliers would require a price premium to obtain less weather-vulnerable supplies, and presumably a liability mechanism to penalize non-performance. The price premium is likely to be non-trivial. I have seen estimates that weatherizing Texas wells would cost on the order of $6-$9 million per well—which would double or more than the cost of a well. Further, it would be necessary to incur additional costs to protect pipelines and gas processing facilities.

In an energy only market, the ability to sell at high prices during supply shortfalls would provide the incentive to secure supplies that allow producing during extreme weather events. The question then becomes whether this benefit times the probability of an extreme event is larger or smaller than the (non-trivial) cost of weatherizing fuel supply.

We have a pretty good idea, based on last week’s events, of what the benefit is. We have a pretty good idea of the cost of hardening fuel supplies and generators. The most imprecise input to the calculation is the probability of such an extreme event.

Then the question of market design–and specifically, whether weatherization should be mandated by regulation or law, and what form that mandate should take–becomes whether generation operators or regulators can estimate that probability more accurately.

In full awareness of the knowledge problem, my priors are that multiple actors responding to profit incentives will do a better job than a single actor (a regulator) operating under low power incentives, and subject to political pressure (exerted by not just generators, but those producing, processing, and transporting gas, industrial consumers, consumer lobbyists, etc., etc., etc., as well). Put differently, as Hayek noted almost 75 years ago, the competitive process and the price system is a way of generating information and using it productively, and has proved far more effective in most circumstances than centralized planning.

I understand that this opinion will be met with considerable skepticism. But note a few things. For one, a regulator’s mistakes have systematic effects. Conversely, some private parties may overestimate the risk and others underestimate it: the composite signal is likely to be more accurate, and less vulnerable to the miscalculation of a single entity. For another, on the one hand skeptics excoriate a regulator for its failures–but confidently predict that some other future regulator will get it right. I’m the skeptic on that.

Recent events also raise another issue that could undermine reliance on the price system. Many very unfortunately people entered into contracts in which their electricity bills were tied to wholesale prices. As a result, the are facing bills for a few days of electricity running into the many thousands of dollars because wholesale prices spiked. This is indeed tragic for these people.

That spike by the way, is up to $10,000/MWh. $10/KWh. Orders of magnitude bigger than you usually pay.

It is clear that the individuals who entered these contracts did not understand the risks. And this is totally understandable: if you are going to argue that regulators or generators underplayed the risks, you can’t believe that they typical consumer won’t too. I am sure there will be lawsuits relating in particular to the adequacy of disclosure by the energy retailers who sold these contracts. But even if the fine print in the contracts disclosed the risks, many consumers may not have understood them even if they read it.

One of the difficulties with getting prices right in electricity markets which has plagued market design is getting consumers to see the price signals so that they can limit use when supply is scarce. But this will periodically involve paying stratospheric prices.

From a risk bearing perspective this is clearly inefficient. The risk should be transferred to the broader financial markets (though hedging mechanisms, for instance) because the risk can be diversified and pooled in those markets. But this is at odds with the efficient consumption perspective. This is not a circle that anyone has been able to square heretofore.

Moreover, the likely regulatory response to the extreme misfortune experienced by some consumers will be to restrict wholesale prices so that they do not reflect scarcity value. That is, an energy only market has a serious time consistency problem: regulators cannot credibly commit to allow prices to reflect scarcity value, come what may. This means that an energy only market may not be politically sustainable, regardless of its economic merits. I strongly suggest that this will happen in Texas.

In sum, as the title of the book I mentioned earlier indicates, electricity market design is about choices. Moreover, those choices are often of the pick-your-poison variety. This means that avoiding one kind of problem–like what Texas experienced–just opens the door to other problems. Evaluation of electricity market design should not over-focus on the most recent catastrophe while being blind to the potential catastrophes lurking in alternative designs. But I realize that’s not the way politics work, and this will be an intensely political process going forward. So we are likely to learn the wrong lessons, or grasp at “solutions” that pose their own dangers.

As a starting point, I would undo the most clearcut cause of wrong prices in Texas–subsidization of wind and other renewables. Alas, even if stopped tomorrow the baleful effect those subsidies will persist long into the future, because they have impacted decisions (investment decisions) on the long horizon I mentioned earlier. But other measures–such as mandated reserve margins and capacity markets, or hardening fuel supplies–will also only have effects over long horizons. For better or worse, and mainly worse, Texas will operate under the shadow of political decisions made long ago. And made primarily in DC, rather than Austin.

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February 18, 2021

How Low Can Prices Go, and Why?

Filed under: Climate Change,Economics,Energy,Politics,Regulation — cpirrong @ 6:04 pm

A quick follow up to the previous post.

I noted that negative prices have been a thing in Texas for years. Indeed they are in every market with substantial renewables penetration.

This is particularly true in the US, where the Production Tax Credit pays qualifying renewables facilities $23/MWh to produce, regardless of prices. Meaning that a recipient of the PTC will continue to produce even if prices are -$22.99/MWh.

So why do prices go negative? In particular, why do other producers who do not get the credit continue to produce even when there are negative prices? Why don’t enough of them cut output to make sure that prices don’t fall below variable cost?

The answer in a word is: indivisibilities. Or, if you prefer, non-convexities.

Specifically, many thermal generators incur costs to shut down or start up. These are basically fixed costs, of the avoidable variety. A unit currently operating can avoid shutdown costs by continuing to operate. A unit currently idle can avoid startup costs by remaining idle. Minimum run times and ramping constraints are other examples of non-convexities.

So, for example, when demand is low and wind turbines continue to blend birds (and generate electricity), prices can go negative but a gas or coal or nuke plant may continue to operate (and incur fuel costs as well as incremental O&M) because it is cheaper to PAY to sell output (and pay variable costs as well) than it is to shut down.

If the cost of adjusting output of a plant to or from zero was zero, whenever prices fall below marginal operating cost the plant would shut down. This would put a floor on prices equal to marginal cost. However, if there is a fixed cost of adjusting output to or from zero, it can make sense to continue to operate even when prices do not cover variable costs–and when prices are negative–in order to avoid paying this cost of shutting down (and/or the cost of starting back up again when prices are higher).

Generation technology is such that efficient baseload plants (i.e., units with lower per MW variable costs) tend to have higher shutdown and startup costs, and more acute operating constraints that give rise to other forms of non-convexity. As in all things in life, there tends to be a trade-off: low variable costs must be traded off against higher avoidable costs/less flexibility to adjust output. Thus, negative prices hit such units especially hard. They are faced with the bleak choice between paying to sell what they produce, or paying a cost to avoid producing. Obviously this choice is bleaker, the costlier it is to avoid producing. For many, the cost of shutting down is big enough that they continue to spin even when prices are negative.

Economists have long known that non-convexities can interfere with the operation of a price system. If you look at classic Arrow-Debreu proofs of the welfare theorems (i.e., that competitive prices call for the efficient level of production and consumption), you’ll see that they assume that production technologies are convex. That is, they assume away things like shutdown and startup costs. When production technologies are characterized by non-convexities (e.g., fixed avoidable costs), the proofs don’t go through.

Indeed, an equilibrium in prices and output may not exist if indivisibility problems are sufficiently severe: in my earliest academic life, my work on applying core theory focused on this issue. If an equilibrium does exist, it may be inefficient.

Put simply, the invisible hand can get really shaky if indivisibility problems are severe.

Liberalized electricity markets (e.g., PJM and other ISOs) have devised various means of addressing these indivisibilities. The results are not first best, but the mechanisms allow an energy market with prices approximately equal to marginal cost to survive.

The subsidization of wind, especially through the PTC, greatly exacerbates indivisibility/non-convexity problems because its effects fall with particular force on generating units with more pronounced indivisibilities. These tend to be the most efficient, and also the ones most essential for maintaining reliable system operation.

This means that although renewables subsidies punish investment in thermal generation generally, they punish investment in units that operate nearly continuously at low cost with particular severity. Having these units available nearly 24/7/365 is vital for keeping electricity prices low, and for ensuring a highly reliable power system.

So the distortions caused by renewables subsidies, particularly of the pay-to-produce variety, are more severe than “we have too much renewables capacity and too little thermal capacity.” Yes, that’s a problem, but the distorted price signals also distort the types of generation invested in. In particularly, they are particularly punitive to generation with more acute indivisibilities. Since these also tend to be low operating cost, high reliability technologies, that is a very costly distortion indeed.

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Who Is To Blame for SWP’s (and Texas’s) Forced Outage?

Filed under: Climate Change,Economics,Energy,Politics,Regulation — cpirrong @ 12:44 pm

I am back following a forced outage, due to forced outages of Texas electricity generators caused by the cold snap–brutal by Texas standards, routine compared to what I experienced in my 40+ years up north–that is just relaxing its grip. Having some foresight, I had laid in some firewood, and that kept things from getting unbearable. Other than the power outage, water pressure was an issue: I thought my faucets needed a prostate check, but as of about 10AM the flow is back.

So, with fingers crossed, I have the opportunity to comment on what happened. As with so many things–everything?–today, the commentary has been highly partisan, and largely wrong. Blame wind power (or the lack thereof)! Uh-uh! Blame fossil fuel generation!

The facts are fairly straightforward. In the face of record demand (reflected in a crazy spike in heating degree days)

supply crashed. Supply from all sources. Wind, but also thermal (gas, nuclear, and coal). About 25GW of thermal capacity was offline, due to a variety of weather-related factors. These included most notably steep declines in natural gas production due to well freeze-offs and temperature-related outages of gas processing plants which combined to turn gas powered units into energy limited, rather than capacity limited, resources. They also included frozen instrumentation, water issues, and so on.

Wind was down too. Wind defenders have been saying that wind did great! because it sucked less than ERCOT (the Electricity Reliability Council of Texas) had forecast; that is, wind generation was somewhat higher than the low levels that ERCOT had predicted. The defenders were spinning, even if the turbines were not.

However, wind performance was objectively worse than thermal. In the weeks prior to the Big Freeze, wind was operating at ~50-65 percent of installed capacity, and supply ~40-60 percent of Texas load. When the freeze hit on Monday (and I was throwing another log on the fire), due to turbines freezing, capacity utilization fell to around ~10 percent to ~5 percent, and wind was generating ~3-10 percent of ERCOT load. Meaning that the relative performance of wind vs. thermal was worse during the cold wave, even as bad as thermal performance was. Further meaning that if wind had represented a larger fraction of Texas generating capacity, the situation would have been even grimmer.

The last few days wind defenders have been saying that the problem wasn’t with wind per se, but the failure to winterize adequately wind generators in Texas. After all, there are windmills in Antarctica! (Not to mention Sweden, etc.).

This brings to mind what Adam Smith wrote in the Wealth of Nations:

By means of glasses, hotbeds, and hotwalls, very good grapes can be raised in Scotland, and very good wine too can be made of them at about thirty times the expense for which at least equally good can be brought from foreign countries.

That is, you need to consider cost. Yes, winterizing windmills to withstand the conditions observed in Texas this week is inside the production possibilities frontier, but winterizing is not free. It is a question of whether the benefits exceed the cost.

The same thing is true with regards to thermal generation (and natural gas production). After all, power plants in far colder climes (it was below zero in Missouri, for example) hummed along in even more frigid conditions. Similarly, gas continues to flow every year in winter conditions in Canada and Siberia. But achieving these results is not free. It is a question of cost vs. benefit.

The cost of not winterizing power plants that shut down due to temperature-related outages (rather than limitations on fuel supply) were certainly material. Power prices spiked to around $9,000/MWh, and were routinely over $1,000/MWh. For a 500MW plant, losing an hour at a $9000 price means $4.5 million in revenue forgone. Even at $1,000, that’s $500K up the flue. (That’s the gross loss. The net loss is harder to calculate, given that natural gas prices also spiked).

That’s a lot of money, but whether it would have been worthwhile to incur the cost to ensure operation under the conditions we observed also depends on the probability of the event. Given the extremes observed, the probability is pretty small. Meaning that it might have been rational for generators to forego the expense: zero failure rate is never optimal. This is in contrast to a generator in say Minnesota, for which such conditions are the norm.

I would imagine that there will be a pretty intense review of utilities’ decisions regarding winterizing their plants. The cost should be fairly easy to estimate. By applying market prices or the value of lost load (VOLL) it should be similarly straightforward to estimate the cost of such weather induced outages. The probability, however, will be much harder. It is inherently difficult to estimate the probability of extreme events, especially when they are seasonal in nature.

Similar considerations hold for gas processing plants and gas wells. The opportunity cost, and the cost of upgrades, are fairly straightforward to quantify. The probability that the upgrades will actually pay off (by avoiding shutdowns) is far more amorphous.

The events of this week also bring to the fore longstanding debates regarding the appropriate generation mix in Texas. Yes, thermal experienced unprecedented outages, but as noted above, it performed both absolutely (measured by capacity utilization) and relatively (measured by decline in utilization) better than wind. Texas would have been better off with less wind and more thermal. Maybe not enough to avoid blackouts altogether, but enough to mitigate substantially their severity.

Texas has had longstanding concerns about reserve margins. The main drivers have been the retirement of substantial amounts of coal generating capacity, and relatively low rates of increase in natural gas generation (a measly 3.5 percent over the past 4 years) at the same time wind capacity has more than doubled and solar capacity has increased by 2000 percent.

The problems here are twofold. First, wind and solar availability and output are often negatively correlated with demand. (Solar wasn’t doing much at 10PM on Monday, now was it?) Second, and more insidiously, wind and solar generation depress prices–often to below zero–at other times, which undermines the economics of thermal generation. Hence, the low rate of investment in gas, and the actual disinvestment in coal.

As I said, this is a longstanding problem. I remember hosting a roundtable on this issue at UH in 2005 or 2006. Generators were already raising alarms that negative prices were a powerful disincentive to investment.

Things have only worsened since, and perverse policy is to blame. It is unarguable that wind and solar capacity have increased to extremely inefficient levels due to lavish subsidies, especially at the federal level. As a result, Texas has a grotesquely inefficient resource mix.

And with the new administration, the outlook is even worse. It has embraced increasing demand for electricity (electrify everything!–echoing the malign and evil Bill Gates) and subsidizing the production of electricity using unreliable renewables.

Texas’s travails raise questions about the viability of ERCOT’s “energy only” market design, in which generator revenues are solely from the sale of energy (or ancillary services). In this model, price spikes are intended to incentivize investment in generation (and upgrades to enhance availability rates). But price signals distorted by excessive renewables are a strong disincentive to investment.

The standard kludge in these circumstances is capacity requirements plus a capacity market. This was mooted in my roundtable so many years ago. If price signals are allowed to work, a capacity market is unnecessary and inefficient. But prices have been so distorted that it will receive serious attention going forward.

This is unfortunate, in the extreme, as the better approach would be to destroy the price distortions at their source–subsidies for renewables. Alas, in the current political environment it is likely that the nation will move strongly in the opposite direction, making the problem worse not better. Perhaps Texas could find ways of counteracting national policies–e.g., by imposing a state “reliability tax” on renewables–but this is likely to be politically impossible (although it would be a nice illustration of the theory of the second best!) Meaning that in the end, we will kludge our way to increasing reserve margins.

Not a cheery picture, but what is these days?

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February 13, 2021

Democracy! Fortified With Essential Vitamins and Minerals! Eat It! Mom Says It’s Good For You!

Filed under: Politics — cpirrong @ 7:37 pm

Some days back, Time Magazine (who knew it still existed!) published a piece that admitted–in a triumphalist way–that there was indeed a “conspiracy” involving a “cabal” to affect the outcome of the 2020 presidential election. (Time’s words–not mine.). But, Time assures us, this is a good thing! It did not undermine democracy, it “fortified” it.

Whew. I was worried there for a minute.

The story can be easily summarized, although the Time article is tediously long. A group–i.e., a cabal–of corporations, unions, and political activists, including radical activists, coordinated–i.e., conspired–to change radically election laws in dozens of states. These changes redirected authority over state elections from the legislatures (as mandated by the Constitution) to the executive and the courts. Most importantly, these changes fast-tracked the most fundamental change to voting processes in the US ever adopted–a wholesale shift to mail in voting, which is inherently more vulnerable to manipulation and fraud.

In addition, the entities involved undertook a concerted campaign to disseminate “information” (aka propaganda), primarily via social media, to validate their efforts. These efforts involved extensive use of memes and graphics–and I guarantee you they spent far more money on this than did Russian troll operations or Macedonian content farmers in 2016. In addition to using social media (especially Facebook and Twitter) to disseminate their propaganda, the social media companies engaged in a concerted effort to stifle communication (on social media and elsewhere) by conservatives and Trump supporters, further unbalancing the information playing field.

The article also demonstrates that the participants in this effort planned and coordinated in advance massive demonstrations in the event of a Biden loss, and only ordered their street muscle to stand down when Fox News inexplicably called Arizona for Biden.

This last detail is particularly illuminating in light of the hysterical, non-stop fulminating about the events at the Capitol on 6 January. These people had a nationwide insurrection planned in advance. Given the experience of the summer, when many American cities burned, it is almost certain that these “protests” would have resulted in massive destruction of property and loss of life, and widespread assaults on government buildings and personnel. So spare me the breast beating about a largely spontaneous, ineffectual, and mainly farcical outbreak of violent protest at the Capitol. (To the extent that this was not spontaneous, the role of leftist provocateurs cannot be dismissed.) The people screaming the loudest about what went on in DC were completely ready and willing to unleash far worse on the rest of the country.

The effort was so extensive and so well-funded that it was almost certainly decisive in determining the election outcome. That outcome being so close in decisive states, such massive efforts to change voting procedures and reshape the information environment certainly changed the results.

Don’t want to take my word for it? Well, then take the word of the Time article, which unashamedly boasts that these efforts determined the result, and quotes participants boasting that their efforts determined the result.

The Time article, in other words, was so much spiking the football and doing an end zone dance the likes of which the NFL banned years ago.

Let me put it another way. Anyone who argues that the risible Russian efforts of 2016 elected Donald Trump instead of Hillary Clinton cannot credibly argue that these far more massive and less farcical efforts–which, recall, resulted in wholesale changes in US election procedures–did not elect Joe Biden.

There are alternative ways of characterizing the US political system in light of these revelations. Oligarchic and fascist are the leading competitors in my mind. I lean towards the latter, because classic fascism is essentially corporatist in nature, and involves a fusion of large corporations, labor unions, activists, and government bureaucrats to advance their interests and accumulate power–including the power to crush those who dissent. (That fusion is what “corporatism” really means.)

Such a fusion is exactly what the Time article describes. And if you don’t want to rely on the Time article alone to reach that conclusion–well, open your fucking eyes. The evidence is all around you.

Case in point, the new head of the US Chamber of Commerce said it supported Democrats in 2020 because they better represented the Chamber’s “priorities”:

Oh I know they do, Suzie Q (not Anon!).

The hypocrisy of all this just adds insult to injury. I’m so old that I can remember that campaign finance reform–which most of the cabal piously supports–was supposed to eliminate the malign influence of money in politics. Hahahahahaha. These conspirators (and again, I am just adopting Time’s phraseology) spent hundreds of millions of dollars, much donated by the likes of Zuckerberg, to influence malignly US politics.

Actually, the hypocrisy demonstrates the real agenda behind campaign finance “reform”: these “reforms” hamstring those who would otherwise compete with the Zuckerbergs, labor unions, activists, and corporations who support “fortifying” the state and themselves.

I also remember the wailing and gnashing of teeth and rending of garments over the Citizens United decision, which (per Wikipedia) “held that the free speech clause of the First Amendment prohibits the government from restricting independent expenditures for political communications by corporations, including nonprofit corporations, labor unions, and other associations.” It seems that those who wailed, gnashed, and rent the most about Citizens United used the ruling ruthlessly to mount a massive “political communications” effort.

Note to conservatives: be careful what you ask for.

My dismal conclusion: government has grown so powerful, and the stakes in elections are consequently so massive, that the republic’s institutions are effectively powerless against oligarchic, corporatist, and indeed objectively fascist forces, hell bent on controlling those institutions–and on controlling you.

Which leads to my further dismal conclusion: in 2020 these forces deprived you of your political voice; in 2021 and beyond, they will deprive you of your basic freedoms. Or in the attempt, will spark an insurrection for which the events of 6 January will be at most a pathetic simulacrum.

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February 1, 2021

Battle of the Borgs

Filed under: Clearing,Commodities,Derivatives,Economics,Exchanges,Regulation — cpirrong @ 6:39 pm

One metaphor that might shed some light on how seemingly small events can have cascading–and destructive–effects in financial markets is to think of the financial system as consisting of borgs programmed to ensure their survival at all costs.

One type of borg is the clearinghouses/CCP borg. The threat to them is the default of their counterparties. They use margins to protect against these defaults (thereby creating a loser pays/no credit system). When volatility increases, or gap risk increases, or counterparty concentration risk increases–or all three increase–the CCP Borg responds to this greater risk of credit loss by raising margins–sometimes by a lot–in order to protect itself.

This puts other borgs (e.g., Hedge Fund Borgs) under threat. They try to borrow money to pay the CCP Borg’s margin demands. Or they sell liquid assets to raise the cash.

These actions can move prices more–including the prices of things that are totally different from what caused the CCP Borg to raise margins on. This can cause increases in volatility that triggers reactions by other Managed Money Borgs. For example, these Borgs may utilize a Value-at-Risk system to detect threats, and which is programmed to cause the MM Borg to reduce positions (i.e., try to buy and sell stuff) in order to reduce VaR, which can move prices further, triggering more volatility. Moreover, the simultaneous buying and selling of a lot of various things by myriad parties can affect correlations between prices of these various things. And correlation is an input into the borgs’ model, so this can lead to more borg buying and selling.

All of these price changes and volatility changes can impact other borgs. For example, increases in volatilities and correlations in many assets that results from Managed Money Borgs’ buying and selling will feed back to the CCP Borgs, whose self-defense models are likely to require them to increase their margins on many more instruments than they increased margins on in the first place.

This is how seemingly random, isolated shocks like retail trader bros piling into heavily shorted, but seemingly trivial, stocks can spill over into the broader financial system. Borgs programmed to survive, acting in self-defense, take actions that benefit themselves but have detrimental effects on other borgs, who act in self-defense, which can have detrimental effects on other borgs, and . . . you get the picture.

This is a quintessential example of “normal accidents” in a complex system with tightly coupled components. Other examples include reactor failures and plane crashes.

I note–again, reprising a theme of the Frankendodd Years of this blog–that clearing and margins are a major reason for tight coupling, and hence greater risk of normal accidents.

I note further that it is precisely the self-preservation instincts of the borgs that makes it utterly foolish and clueless to say that creating stronger borgs with more powerful tools of self-preservation, and which interact with other borgs, will reduce systemic risk. This is foolish and clueless precisely because it is profoundly unsystemic thinking because it views the borgs in isolation and ignores how the borgs all interact in a tightly coupled system. Making borgs stronger can actually make things worse when their self-preservation programs kick in, and the self-preservation of one borg causes it to attack other borgs.

Why do teenagers in slasher flicks always go down into the dark basement after five of their friends have been horribly mutilated? Well, that makes about as much sense as a lot of financial regulators have in the past decades. Despite literally centuries of bad historical experiences, they have continued to try to make stronger, mutually interacting, borgs. Like Becky’s trip down the dark basement stairs, it never ends up well.

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January 29, 2021

GameStop-ped Up Robinhood’s Plumbing

The vertigo inducing story of GameStop ramped it up to 11 yesterday, with a furore over Robinhood’s restriction of trading in GME to liquidation only, and the news that it had sold out of its customers’ positions without the customers’ permission. These actions are widely perceived as an anti-populist capitulation to Big Finance.

Well, they are in a way–but NOT the way that is being widely portrayed. What is going on is an illustration of the old adage that clearing and settlement in securities markets (like the derivatives markets) is like the plumbing–you take it for granted until the toilet backs up.

You can piece together that Robinhood was dealing with a plumbing problem from a couple of stories. Most notably, it drew down on credit lines and tapped some of its big executing firms (e.g., Citadel) for cash. Why would it need cash? Because it needs to post margin to the Depositary Trust Clearing Corporation (DTCC) on its open positions. Other firms are in similar situations, and directly or indirectly GME positions give rise to margin obligations to the DTCC.

The rise in price alone increased margin requirements because given volatility, the higher the price of a stock, the larger the dollar amount of potential loss (e.g., the VaR) that can occur prior to settlement. This alone jacks up margins. Moreover, the increase in GME volatility, and various adders to margin requirements–most notably for gap risk and portfolio concentration–ramp up margins even more. So the action in GME has led to a big increase in margin requirements, and a commensurate need for cash. Robinhood, as the primary venue for GME buyers, had/has a particularly severe position concentration/gap problem. Hence Robinhood’s scramble for liquidity.

Given these circumstances, liquidity was obviously a constraint for Robinhood. Given this constraint, it could not handle additional positions, especially in GME or other names that create particularly acute margin/liquidity demands. It was already hitting a hard constraint. The only practical way that Robinhood (and perhaps other retail brokers, like TDAmeritrade) could respond in the short run was trading for liquidation only, i.e., allow customers to sell their existing GME positions, and not add to them.

By the way, trading for liquidation is a tool in the emergency action toolbook that futures exchanges have used from time-to-time to deal with similar situation.

To extend the plumbing analogy, Robinhood couldn’t add any new houses to its development because the sewer system couldn’t handle the load.

I remember some guy saying that clearing turns credit risk into liquidity risk. (Who was that guy? Pretty observant!) For that’s exactly what we are seeing here. In times of market dislocation in particular, clearing, which is intended to mitigate credit risk, creates big increases in demand for liquidity. Those increases can cause numerous knock on effects, including dislocations in markets totally unrelated to the original source of the dislocation, and financial distress at intermediaries. We are seeing both today.

It is particularly rich to see the outrage at Robinhood and other intermediaries expressed today by those who were ardent advocates of clearing as the key to restoring and preserving financial stability in the aftermath of the Financial Crisis. Er, I hate to say I told you so, but I told you so. It’s baked into the way clearing works, and in particular the way that clearing works in stressed market conditions. It doesn’t eliminate those stresses, but transfers them elsewhere in the financial system. Surprise!

The sick irony is that clearing was advocated as a means to tame big financial institutions, the banks in particular, and reduce the risks that they can impose on the financial system. So yes, in a very real sense in the GME drama we are seeing the system operate to protect Big Finance–but it’s doing so in exactly the way many of those screaming loudest today demanded 10 years ago. Exactly.

Another illustration of one of my adages to live by: be very careful what you ask for.

Margins are almost certainly behind Robinhood’s liquidating some customer accounts. If those accounts become undermargined, Robinhood (and indeed any broker) has the right to liquidate positions. It’s not even in the fine print. It’s on the website:

If you get a margin call, you need to bring your portfolio value (minus any cryptocurrency positions) back up to your minimum margin maintenance requirement, or you risk Robinhood having to liquidate your position(s) to bring your portfolio value (minus any cryptocurrency positions) back above your margin maintenance requirement.

Another Upside Down World aspect of the outrage we are seeing is the stirring defenses of speculation (some kinds of speculation by some people, anyways) by those in politics and on opinion pages who usually decry speculation as a great evil. Those who once bewailed bubbles now cheer for them. It’s also interesting to see the demonization of short sellers–whom those with average memories will remember were lionized (e.g., “The Big Short”) for blowing the whistle on the housing boom and the bank-created and -marketed derivative products that it spawned.

There are a lot of economic issues to sort through in the midst of the GME frenzy. There will be in the aftermath. Unfortunately, and perhaps not surprisingly given the times, virtually everything in the debate has been framed in political terms. Politics is all about distributive effects–helping my friends and hurting my enemies. It’s hard, but as an economist I try to focus on the efficiency effects first, and lay out the distributive consequences of various actions that improve efficiency.

What are the costs and benefits of short selling? Should the legal and regulatory system take a totally hands off approach even when prices are manifestly distorted? What are the costs and benefits of various responses to such manifest price distortions? What are the potential unintended consequences of various policy responses (clearing being a great example)? These are hard questions to answer, and answering them is even harder in the midst of a white-hot us vs. them political debate. And I can say with metaphysical certainty that 99 percent of the opinions I have seen expressed about these issues in recent days are steeped in ignorance and fueled by emotion.

There are definitely major problems–efficiency problems–with Big Finance and the regulation thereof. Ironically, many of these efficiency problems are the result of previous attempts to “solve” perceived problems. But that does not imply that every action taken to epater les banquiers (or frapper les financiers) will result in efficiency gains, or even benefit those (often with justification) aggrieved at the bankers. I thus fear that the policy response to GameStop will make things worse, not better.

It’s not as if this is new territory. I am reminded of 19th century farmers’ discontent with banks, railroads, and futures trading. There was a lot of merit in some of these criticisms, but all too often the proposed policies were directed at chimerical wrongs, and missed altogether the real problems. The post-1929 Crash/Great Depression regulatory surge was similarly flawed.

And alas, I think that we are doomed to repeat this learning the wrong lessons in the aftermath of GameStop and the attendant plumbing problems. Virtually everything I see in the public debate today reinforces that conviction.

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January 28, 2021

Let the GameStop Games Begin!

Filed under: Economics,Exchanges,History,Politics,Regulation — cpirrong @ 9:33 am

Short sellers have been hate objects since the earliest days of the U.S. stock market–witness the checkered lives of the likes of Daniel Drew or Jacob Little. It is therefore no surprise that the travails of their latter day descendants–hedge funds like Melvin Capital–that have resulted from the huge runups in the prices of stocks like GameStop ($GME) have been the source of considerable schadenfreude. I would suggest, however, that this will end in tears not just for the hedgies, but for those who contributed to their massive losses.

Long story short (no pun intended).  Small investors pile in a stock (GME, and some others like Blackberry), driving up its price.  Hedge funds think the stock is overpriced, so they go short.  A group of small investors thinks that this is an opportunity to punish the short sellers (a lot of mutual disdain/hate here), so via the reddit group WallStreetBets they coordinate to buy more, driving up the price further.  This imposes big losses on the shorts, who buy to cover, driving up the price further, imposing more losses on the remaining shorts, driving them to cover, etc., etc. 

It brings to mind an old doggerel poem from the Chicago Board of Trade in the 19th century:

He who buys what isn’t his’n, Must buy it back or go to prison.

In the case of GameStop, the price action went hyperbolic:

That chart ends at yesterday’s close. Things have been even more crazy overnight, with the price hitting $500/share. There have been gyrations caused by the shutdown of the chatrooms and some retail platforms stopping trading in this and other heavily shorted stocks. But the fundamental dynamic in play now–shorts slitting their own throats in panicked buying to cover–means that attempts to constrain the long herd will not have a lasting impact.

The short interest that had to (and has to) be covered is huge–short interest in GME was 140 percent of outstanding shares–and a larger share of the float. (How can there be more shorts than shares? The same share can be borrowed and lent multiple times!) The effects of the short covering are seen not only in the price, but in the stratospheric cost of borrowing shares. Earlier this week it was about 30 percent–juice loan territory. Now it is at 100 percent.

In many respects, this is reminiscent of some of the more storied episodes in Wall Street history, or more recently the 2008 VW corner which punished shorts severely. But there is a major difference. In some of the earlier episodes (including major corners of shorts in railroad stocks in the 19th century, or battles between shorts and stock pools in the 1920s, or the VW case), there was a single dominant long squeezing the overextended shorts. Here, it seems that the driving force is a relatively large group of small longs, acting with a common purpose.

How will it end? Well, the stock is obviously overvalued, and driven by “technical factors” (as is sometimes said euphemistically). It will crash to earth. When? Well, when the shorts get out. Who will lose? Well, the shorts are likely a big portion of the purchasers at these nosebleed levels, so they will be the biggest losers. But there will be some latecomers and trend followers who will have followed the Pied Piper of rising price, and will lose in the inevitable crash.

Should we really care? There is some possibility that the disruption in GME and other heavily shorted stocks could have knock-on effects. Hedge funds suffering large losses may have to dump other positions, causing those prices to decline. (The events surrounding the Northern Pacific corner, for example, sparked the Panic of 1901.)

One fascinating aspect of this is how it demonstrates the deep populist discontent that is in abroad in the land. The hedge fund laments have been met with a barrage of scorn and ridicule, with a major theme being “you a$$h0les got bailed out in 2008 while the little guy got hammered–how you likin’ it now?” Completely understandable. Revenge of the nerds, as it were.

But, alas, I do not think the visceral satisfaction will last. Things like this inevitably result in litigation. The WallStreetBets lot are in for major lawsuits filed by the losing hedge funds, and perhaps others (e.g., investors who had sold call options).

Following the trend and herd trading is not manipulation–as long as the herd doesn’t explicitly coordinate with the intent to move the price to uneconomic levels. However, many on WallStreetBets expressed an intent to drive up the price in order to impose losses on their bêtes noires, and apparently coordinated their buying activity to achieve this result. Intent and cooperation make the manipulation. Note that the explicit communication and coordination could also transform this into a Section 1 Sherman Act claim–with the attendant triple damages.

Now the hedge funds will never collect even a fraction of their losses. But for them, the process will be the punishment inflicted on their foes. Pour encourager les autres.

The SEC is not committing to any action right now. It merely says it is “monitoring” the situation. The DOJ has also been silent.

However, they will be under tremendous pressure to act. Ultimately, the decision will be political–precisely because of the political nature of the populist resentment. The hedge funds and Wall Street generally will be howling for the government to file cases. But if the government does so, there will be widespread popular outrage that the government is taking the side of the Wall Street elite. Again.

This will be the first thing on Gary Gensler’s plate at the SEC. He is in a no win situation. (Breaks me all up.)

In sum, the events of the past days have been fascinating from both an economic and a political perspective. They represent a back-to-the-future moment of colossal battles between longs and shorts, but with a major twist: whereas the historical battles tended to be between colossi, this one pits an army of Davids against a few colossal hedge funds. This in turn gives rise to a political narrative, which again has historic echoes–the little guy vs. Financial Capital. It’s like the 19th century, all over again.

The battle will play out for some time. For a few days or weeks in the markets, and in the courts for years after that.

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January 25, 2021

LNG Skyrockets: Is Excessive Reliance on Spot Markets to Blame, and Will This Cause Contracting Practices to Change?

Filed under: China,CoronaCrisis,Derivatives,Economics,Exchanges,LNG — cpirrong @ 8:26 pm

After languishing in the doldrums in the Covid era, and at times touching historic lows, the price of LNG delivered to Asia skyrocketed in recent weeks before plunging almost as precipitously:

As always happens with such big price moves, there has been an effort to round up suspects. Here, since the visible price increase occurred in the spot market, the leading culprit is the spot market–something that has been growing rapidly in recent years, after being largely non-existent prior to 2014 or so.

For example, Reuters’ Clyde Russell writes:

What is more likely is that some buyers misjudged the availability of spot cargoes, and when hit with a surge in demand found themselves unable to secure further supply, thus bidding up the prices massively for the few cargoes still available.

Frank Harris of Wood Mackenzie opines:

“Buyers are going to become aware that you may not always be physically able to source a cargo in the spot market regardless of price,” Mr Harris says. “The most likely outcome is it shatters some of the complacency that’s crept into the market over the last 12-18 months.”

It is incorrect to say that a shortage of spot cargoes per se is responsible for the price spike registered in the spot market. It is the supply of LNG in toto, relative to massive increase in demand due to frigid weather, that caused the price increase. How that supply was divided between spot and non-spot trades is a secondary issue, if that.

The total supply of LNG, and the spatial distribution of that supply, was largely fixed when the cold snap unexpectedly hit. So in the very short run relevant here (days or weeks), supply in Asia was extremely inelastic, and a demand increase would inevitably cause the value of the marginal molecule to rise dramatically. Price is determined at the margin, and the price of the marginal molecule would be determined in the spot market regardless of the fraction of supply traded in that market. Furthermore, the price of that marginal molecule would likely be the same regardless of whether 5 percent or 95 percent of volume traded spot.

If anything, the growing prevalence of spot contracting in recent years mitigated the magnitude of the price spike. Traditional long term contracts, especially those with destination clauses, limited the ability to reallocate supplies efficiently to meet regional demand shocks. The more LNG effectively unavailable to be reallocated to the buyers that experienced the biggest demand shocks, the less elastic supply in the spot market, and the bigger the price increase that occurs in response to a given demand shock. That is, having less gas contractually committed, especially under contracts that limited the ability of the buyers to sell on to those who value it more highly, mitigates price spikes.

That said, the fundamental factors that limit the total availability of physical gas, and constrain the ability to move it from low demand locations to high demand locations in the short time frames necessary to meet weather-driven demand changes (ships can’t magically and instantaneously move from the Atlantic Basin to the Far East), mean that regardless of the mix of spot vs. contract gas prices would have spiked.

Some have suggested that the price spike will lead to less spot contracting. Clyde Russell again:

The question is whether utilities, such as Japan’s JERA, continue with their long-term vision of moving more toward a spot and short-term market, or whether the old security blanket of oil-linked, but guaranteed, supplies regains some popularity.

It’s likely LNG buyers don’t want a repeat of the recent extreme volatility, but perhaps they also don’t want to return to the restrictive crude-linked contracts that largely favoured producers by guaranteeing volumes at relatively high prices.

The compromise may be the increasing popularity of short-term, flexible contracts, which can vary from a few months to a few years and be priced against different benchmarks.

Well, maybe, but color me skeptical. For one thing, contracts require a buyer and a seller. Yes, buyers who didn’t have long term contracts probably regretted paying high spot prices–but the sellers with uncommitted volumes really liked it. The spike may increase the appetite for buyers to enter long term contracts, but decrease the appetite of sellers to enter them. It’s not obvious how this will play out.

I note that the situation was reversed in 2020–buyers regretted long term contracts, but sellers were glad to have them. Ex post regret is likely to be experienced with equal frequency by buyers and sellers, so it’s hard to see how that tips contracting one way or the other.

This conjecture about the price spike leading to more long term contracting also presupposes that the only way of managing price risks is through fixed price contracts (or oil-indexed) contracts for physical supply. But that’s not true. Derivatives allow the separation of who bears price risk from the physical contracting decision. A firm buying spot (and who is hence short LNG) can hedge price risk by purchasing JKM swaps. This has the additional advantage of allowing the adjustment of the size of the hedge in response to more timely information regarding likely quantity requirements, price projections, and risk appetite than is possible with a long term contract. That is, derivatives permit unbundling of price risk from obtaining physical supplies, whereas long term contracts bundle those to a considerable degree. Moreover, derivatives plus short term/spot acquisition of physical supplies allows more flexible management of supply, and management of supply based on shorter term forecasts of need: these shorter term forecasts are inherently more accurate than forecasts over contracting horizons of years or even decades.

So rather than lead to more long term contracts, I predict that this recent price spike is more likely provide a fillip to the LNG derivatives market. Derivatives are a more flexible and cheaper way to manage price risk than long term contracts.

This is what happened in the pipe gas market in the US post-deregulation. Spot/short term volumes grew dramatically even though price spikes were a regular feature of the market: market participants used gas futures and swaps and options to manage these price risks, and benefited from the greater flexibility and precision of obtaining supplies on a shorter term basis. This shifted a lot of the price risk to the financial sector–which is the great benefit of the much bewailed “financialization” of commodity markets.

The same is likely to occur in LNG.

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