Streetwise Professor

August 6, 2019

Do What I Say or I’ll Blow the Yuan’s Brains All Over This Town: Not a Credible Threat

Filed under: China,Economics,Politics — cpirrong @ 6:14 pm

The recent market tumult was precipitated by Trump’s announcement of new tariffs on China. But the effect of Trump’s action on the markets paled in comparison to the response to China’s retort: allowing the yuan to breach 7/USD. Today the market recovered some, because the yuan appreciated.

A couple of points. First of all, the yuan’s do-si-do demonstrates that it is a managed/controlled currency. Whether you call it a manipulated currency is a matter of semantics. It is not primarily moving in response to market forces, but instead to the dictates of the (laughably mis-named) People’s Bank of China, and hence to the whims of the CCP and Xi.

Second, and more importantly, although the move past 7 was clearly a threat by China to wage a currency war in response to Trump’s tariff gambits (and the market took it as such), this threat is not credible. It reminds me of this classic, but no doubt politically incorrect, scene from Blazing Saddles: “Drop it, or I’ll blow the yuan’s brains all over this town.”*

The threat is not credible, because like Cleavon Little’s cranium in Blazing Saddles, China would be hurt most if it carried through on the threat. Yes, a depreciating yuan would favor Chinese exports and offset (for a while, anyways) the effect of tariffs. But a weak yuan would wreak havoc on many Chinese firms that have borrowed in dollars. Given the dodgy state of the Chinese banking system, this could readily metastasize into a full-blown financial and/or currency crisis. It would also spark inflation and totally undermine the stated (but largely unrealized) goal of moving China towards a consumer-driven economy.

There are no doubt many (perhaps even a majority) in the US (and the West generally) who will be as stupid as the townspeople of Rock Ridge. I doubt Trump is one of them. Or if he is, I doubt he would lay down his guns: he’d be happy to see Xi pull the trigger. So I expect him to call the bluff.

One last thing. Framing the US-Chinese relationship in terms of “trade war” is stupidity befitting Governor Le Petomane. Trade is just one front in a far broader great power contest between a revisionist power and the status quo power. After decades of complacency, interrupted by spasms of romanticism, the US recognizes China as its primary strategic competitor and threat. The contest is being joined on many fronts, analogous to the Cold War. The main distinctions are that China is not nearly the same nuclear threat that the USSR was back in the day, but China is far more formidable economically than the USSR ever was. Hence there is an economic dimension to this competition that was largely lacking 1945-1991.

Trade is not the war. Trade is a weapon in a larger war.

*In fact, most of Blazing Saddles is beyond the pale today. There is no way it could be made in 2019. This is a sad testament on the utter inability of our alleged elite to see past the superficialities in order to grasp the true message of Brooks’ classic film. As a result, IDGAF if anyone gets the vapors over my reference to the most politically incorrect scene in a very politically incorrect–but brilliant–movie.

August 4, 2019

Pork Wednesday: A Tale of Gilded Age LaSalle Street, With a Heavy Dose of Irony

Filed under: Commodities,Derivatives,Economics,Exchanges — cpirrong @ 7:05 pm

On Friday, someone tweeted a picture of the front page of the Chicago Tribune from 126 years prior–2 August, 1893. It depicts the trading floor of the Chicago Board of Trade when a pork corner collapsed:

Actually, two corners collapsed on that day: the one in pork, and another in lard. The “provisions” markets (as the futures in pork and its products were called) had been successfully cornered repeatedly in the year running up to August, but the corners failed in August because the Panic of 1893 (which began in May of that year) weakened demand and made it impossible to sustain prices. From 31 July to 2 August, the price of pork futures fell from $19.25/barrel to $10.50, and lard fell from 9 cents/lb. to 5.9 cents/lb. The pork price fell $9 in 30 minutes.

The night prior to the collapse, the cornerers (notably John Cudahy, of the Cudahy family of meat packers) tried to hammer out an agreement with their bankers to secure financing to fund the deal, but Cudahy’s brother Michael (who ran the family packing establishment) refused to sign. Lacking the ability to fund their positions, the cornerers had to sell, and prices collapsed. (A la Silver Thursday when the Hunt Brothers ran out of money and had to sell. So perhaps this event should be called Pork Wednesday.)

I have spent a good deal of my professional career studying manipulation, so I find these things of academic interest. They are also fascinating from a historical perspective. Not only was this front page news in Chicago, it was front page news around the country: this paper from Omaha is just one example. This is not surprising, given the importance of agriculture in the economy at the time. Agriculture was the biggest industry and employer in the country, and food represented the largest share of consumption, so the vicissitudes of trading on the CBOT and the New York Cotton Exchange were of deep interest to most Americans. Events like those of 2 August, 1893 were a major impetus behind efforts to regulate (or ban) futures trading. These efforts failed until the post-WWI agricultural depression.

And look how big the pork pit was! It would give the 1990s-era T-bond and T-note pits a run for their money.

Further, the ag futures markets were of such economic importance at the time that they created systemic risks. The collapse of the pork and lard corner, occurring in particular as it did when banks were under suspicion due to the Panic, and when there was no deposit insurance or lender of last resort, caused runs on several banks in Chicago due to fears that they had extended credit to the cornerers or one of the four brokerage firms that failed due to the collapse, and hence were insolvent. Two prominent private banks run by Jews failed. The owner of one, Herman Scheffner, committed suicide by drowning himself in Lake Michigan. The owner of the other, Lazarus Silverman, had staved off a run at the onset of the Panic in May, but could not secure funding in New York in August, and suspended payments on 3 August. The failure of these banks, and the heavy withdrawals at others, contributed to a decline in economic activity in Chicago and the Midwest and exacerbated the prolonged depression that gripped the country from 1893 to 1897.

Lazarus Silverman’s story is of particular interest to me, in part due to a family connection (by marriage) and in part due to the compelling nature of the story itself. Silverman had immigrated from Bavaria before the Civil War, and started a business as a bank note broker which developed into one of the premier private banks in Chicago. His bank on Dearborn Street was quite the edifice:

He advised Senator John Sherman on monetary questions, and was a major financier of the development of iron ore in the Mesabi Range. An early investor in Chicago real estate, he was one of the giants of the Chicago financial community during the Gilded Age.

Although his assets exceeded the liabilities of the failed bank, it could not avoid bankruptcy. Nonetheless, due to his great stature and respect in the community, he was basically allowed to serve as his own bankruptcy trustee. Even though the bank’s debts were discharged in bankruptcy and he was therefore under no legal obligation to do so, he spent the remainder of his life repaying its unsecured creditors. After the failure, he conducted his real estate business out a building he had commissioned and whichA now houses the Standard Club.

I have often wondered if Silverman ever pondered the irony that he, a devout Jew who would not conduct business on Saturday (despite the fact that was a working day back then), whose business had survived the Civil War, the Chicago Fire, and the Panic of 1873, was brought low by the collapse of a corner in pork and lard.

August 3, 2019

Renewables Are Expensive Because You Can’t Stick ‘Em Where the Sun Don’t Shine (or the Wind Don’t Blow)

Filed under: Climate Change,Economics,Energy,Politics,Regulation — cpirrong @ 4:45 pm

I’m sure you’ve read articles claiming that the cost of renewables electricity generation is approaching that (or even lower than) the cost of traditional thermal generation. I am deeply skeptical of these claims even when evaluated on their own terms (which focus on generation costs alone), but find them particularly misleading because they ignore other costs attributable to the facts that renewables are intermittent and diffuse, and that the siting of renewables generation is sharply constrained because they are energy limited resources; the distribution of energy is dictated by nature; and typically is not closely related to the distribution of load.

In other words, renewables are costly because you can’t stick them where the sun don’t shine (or the wind don’t blow).

Case in point: Australia. As even Bloomberg (a tiresome renewables fanzine) reports:

Australia’s financing of cleaner power is slowing because the country’s aging grid isn’t being upgraded quick enough to accept new, intermittent generation and transport it efficiently to demand centers.

Although Bloomberg attempts to blame an old, creaky transmission system, this is misleading in the extreme. It would be far cheaper to upgrade Australia’s transmission system to accommodate thermal generation than it will be to build transmission to increase the fraction of generation coming from renewables.

This is true for at least a couple of reasons.

First, the energy-limited nature of renewables means that you have to site them where the energy is available–sunny or windy places. This imposes a constraint on the location of generation resources that is not relevant for thermal generation. With traditional fossil-fueled generation, you have more flexibility in trading off transmission costs with generation costs (including the cost of brining fuel to plants) than is the case with wind. This flexibility means that all else (notably the spatial distribution of load) equal, transmission costs are lower with thermal generation than renewable power.

Second, the intermittent and inherently more volatile nature of renewables generation increases the variance in the spatial distribution of generation. This variability in the spatial distribution of generation necessarily requires more transmission capacity per unit of load. This, in turn implies a lower average rate of utilization of transmission resources.

The basic idea here can be illustrated relatively simply. Consider a system with two generation resources. One is highly volatile (e.g., a renewable resource). The other is controllable. There is one load location. The transmission capacity from the volatile location to load must be high enough to carry the power when output is high (because the energy input is high due to the vicissitudes of sun or wind). The transmission capacity from the location with controllable generation must also be high enough to transmit enough power to fill the gap left when the renewable output is low.

Note that when renewable output is high, controllable output will be low and the transmission lines from the latter will operate at low capacity. When renewable output is low, the lines serving it will be operating at low capacity.

It’s possible to expand the example to include multiple variable, energy limited, but imperfectly correlated renewables resources, but the outcome is the same. You need more transmission capacity to deal with the spatial volatility in generation, and given load, higher capacity translates into lower average capacity utilization.

Thus, the problem that Australia is confronting isn’t a function of an old grid: it arises from the fact that increased reliance on renewables requires investment in new transmission capacity even in a system where transmission is optimized relative to (thermal) generation and load.

The need to maintain relatively underutilized transmission capacity to deal with the inherent volatility of renewables generation is mirrored by the need to maintain underutilized thermal generation capacity:

While new clean energy projects struggle to gain access to a congested grid, aging coal and gas-fired generators are being kept running for longer to maintain system stability. AGL Energy Ltd. said Friday it would delay the planned closure of its Liddell and Torrens A plants, both around 50 years old, to help the national energy market cope with peak summer demand, which has seen blackouts in parts of southeastern Australia in recent years.

Who knew?

Yet the renewables industry/lobby continues to flog the dogma that they will inevitably be more efficient:

Despite the challenges facing the industry, it’s not all doom and gloom. A number of coal-fired plants will be retired over the next decade and they will only be replaced by the cheapest cost of energy, which is renewables, Clean Energy Finance Corp. Chief Executive Ian Learmonth said in an interview.
“I’m hoping once some of these issues around the grid and regulations are settled that we’ll see another significant uptick in the renewable energy pipeline,” he said.

What costs is Mr. Learmonth including in his assertion that renewables are the “cheapest” source of energy? His statement that settling “issues around the grid” will lead to increased renewables investment suggests that he is ignoring crucial costs, because settling these issues doesn’t come for free.

It’s not as if the transmission issue is unique to Australia. It is present in every locale that has force-fed renewables. Germany is a prominent example. Wind energy is abundant in the North Sea, but believe it or not, there aren’t a lot of electricity consumers there (despite my ardent wish that Merkel and her ilk get into the sea). Major sources of load are in central and southern Germany, so bringing North Sea wind power to load requires massive transmission investments, which inevitably are not just costly, but politically difficult (Der NIMBY, anyone?). These difficulties inflate the cost.

Renewables boosterism operates in an atmosphere of serious unreality because it consistently glosses over–or ignores altogether–the costs arising from intermittency, diffusiveness, the energy-limited nature of wind and solar, and the caprices of nature that cause a mismatch between where the energy exists and where it is needed. When these facts are considered, sticking renewables where the sun don’t shine makes perfect sense.

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