Streetwise Professor

April 21, 2020

WTI-WTF? Part II (of How Many???)

Filed under: Clearing,Commodities,Derivatives,Economics,Energy,Regulation — cpirrong @ 2:23 pm

Just another day at the Globex, folks. May WTI up a mere $49.88 on its last trading day at the time I write this paragraph, a while before the close. (Sorry, can’t calculate a percentage change . . . because the base number is negative!) That’s just sick. But at least it’s positive! ($12.25. No, $9.96. No . . .) (This reminds me of a story from Black Monday. My firm did a little index arb. We called the floor to get a price quote on the 19th. Our floor guy said “On this part of the pit it’s X. Over there it’s X+50. Over there it’s X-20. I have no fucking idea what the fucking price is.”)

But June has been crushed–down $7.35 (about 35 percent). Now the May-June spread is a mere $.83 contango. That makes as little sense as yesterday’s settling galactic contango (galactango!) of $57.06. (Note that June-July is trading at at $7.71 and July-August at $2.65.

I’m guessing that dynamic circuit breakers are impeding price movements, meaning that the prices we see are not necessarily market clearing prices at that instant.

A few follow-ons to yesterday’s post.

First, the modeling of the dynamics of a contract as it approaches expiration when the delivery supply/demand curve is inelastic, and some traders might have positions large enough to exploit those conditions to exercise market power, is extremely complicated. The only examples I am aware of are Cooper and Donaldson in the JFQA almost 30 years ago, and my paper in the Journal of Alternative Investments almost a decade ago.

Futures markets are (shockingly!) forward looking. Expectations and beliefs matter. There are coordination problems. If I believe everyone else on my side of the market is going to liquidate prior to expiration, I realize that the party on the other side of the contract will have no market power at expiration. So I should defer liquidating–which if everyone reasons the same way could lead to everyone getting caught in a long or sort manipulation at expiration. Or, if I believe everyone is going to stick it out to the end, I should get out earlier (which if everybody else does the same results in a stampede for the exits.)

In these situations, anything can happen, and the process of coordinating expectations and actions is likely to be chaotic. Cooper-Donaldson and Pirrong lay out some plausible stories (based on particular specifications of beliefs and the trading mechanism), but they are not the only stories. They mainly serve to highlight how game theoretic considerations can lead to very complex outcomes in situations with market power and inelasticity.

One thing that is sure is that these game theoretic considerations don’t matter much if the elasticities of delivery supply and demand are large. Then no individual can distort prices very much by delivering too much or taking delivery of too much. Then the coordination and expectations problems aren’t so relevant. However, when delivery supply or demand curves are very steep–as is the case in Cushing now due to the storage constraint–they become extremely relevant.

Perhaps one analogy is getting out of a theater. When there are many exits, there won’t be queues to get out and little chance of tragedy even if someone yells “fire.” If there is only one exit, however, hurried attempts of everyone to leave at once can lead to catastrophe. Moreover, perverse crowd dynamics occur in such situations. That’s where we were yesterday.

About 90 percent of open interest liquidated yesterday. That is why today is returning to some semblance of normality–the exit isn’t so crowded (because so many got trampled yesterday). But that begs the question of why the panicked rush yesterday? That’s where the game theoretic “anything could happen” answer is about the best we can do.

About that storage constraint. My post yesterday focused on someone with a large short futures position raising the specter of excessive deliveries by not liquidating that position, thereby triggering a cascade of descending offers until the short graciously accepted at a highly profitable price.

But there is another market power play possible here. A firm controlling storage could crash prices (and spreads) by withholding that capacity from the market. The most recent data from the EIA indicates about 55 mm bbl of oil storage at Cushing. That’s about 80 percent of nameplate capacity (also per EIA.). Due to operational constraints (e.g., need working space to move barrels in and out; can’t mix different grades in the same tank) that’s probably effectively full. Therefore, someone with ownership of a modest amount of space could withhold it drive up the spread. If that party had on a bull spread position . . .

Third, we are into Round Up the Usual Suspects mode:

And first in line is the US Oil ETF. There has been a lot of idiotic commentary about this. They were forced to take delivery! (Er, delivery notices aren’t possible before trading ends.) They were forced to dump huge numbers of contracts yesterday! (Er, they publish a regular roll schedule, and were out of the May a week before yesterday’s holocaust. They also report positions daily, and as of yesterday were 100 pct in the June.)

Not to say that USO can be implicated in hinky things going on in the June right now, but as for May–that dog don’t hunt.

Fourth–WTF, June WTI? Well, my best explanation is that the carnage in the May served to concentrate minds regarding June. No doubt risk managers, or risk systems, forced some longs out as the measured and perceived risk for June shot up yesterday. Others just decided that discretion was the better part of valor. The extremely unsettled positions no doubt impaired liquidity (i.e., just as some wanted to get out, others were constrained by risk limits formal or informal from getting in), leading to big price movements in response to these flows. If that’s a correct diagnosis, we should see something of a bounceback, but perhaps not too much given the perception (and reality) of an extremely asymmetric risk profile, with going into expiry short being a lot more dangerous than going into it long. (This is why expectations about future conditions at delivery can impact prices well before delivery.)

Fifth, on a personal note, in an illustration of the adage that the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree (and also of Merton’s Law of Multiples) my elder daughter Renee completely independently of me used “WTI WTF” in her daily market commentary yesterday. I’m so proud! She also raised the possibility of negative prices some time ago. Good call!

And I finish this just in time to bring you the final results. CLK goes off the board settling at $10.01, up a mere $47.64. CLM settles at $11.57, down -$8.86. The closing KM20 spread, $1.56.

Someday we’ll look back on this and . . . . Well, we’ll look back on it, anyways.

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March 24, 2020

It Really Does Pain Me to Say I Told You So About Clearing, But . . .

In the aftermath of the last crisis, I played the role of Clearing Cassandra, warning that in the next crisis, supersizing of derivatives clearing would create systemic risks not because clearinghouses would fail, but because of the consequences of what they would do to survive: hike initial margins and collect huge variation margin payments that would suck liquidity out of the system at the same time liquidity supply contracted. This, in turn, would lead to asset fire sales, that would distort asset prices which would lead to further knock-on effects.

I wrote a lot about this 2008-2012, but here is a convenient link. Key quote from the abstract:

The author also believes that the larger collateral mandates and frequent marking‐to‐market will make the financial system more vulnerable since margin requirements tend to be “pro‐cyclical.” And more rigid collateralization mechanisms can restrict the supply of funding liquidity, and lead to spikes in funding liquidity demand that can reduce the liquidity of traded instruments and generate destabilizing feedback loops. 

Well, the next crisis is here, and these (conditional) predictions are being borne out. In spades.

Here’s what I wrote a few days ago as a contribution to the Regulatory Fundamentals Group newsletter:

In the aftermath of the last crisis of 2008-2009, G20 nations decided to mandate clearing of standardized OTC derivatives transactions.  The current coronavirus crisis is the first since those reforms were implemented (via Dodd-Frank in the US, for example), and this therefore gives the first opportunity to evaluate the performance of the supersized clearing ecosystem in “wartime” conditions.  

So far, despite the extreme price movements across the entire derivatives universe–equities, fixed income, currencies, and commodities (especially oil)–there have been no indications that clearinghouses have faced either financial or operational disruption.  No clearing members have defaulted, and as of now, there have been no serious concerns than any are on the verge of default. 

That said, there are two major reasons for concern.

First, the unprecedented volatility and uncertainty show no signs of dissipating, and as long as it continues, major financial institutions–including clearing firms–are at risk.  The present crisis did not originate in the banking/shadow banking sector (as the previous one did), but it is now demonstrably affecting it.  There are strong indicators of stress in the financial system, such as the blowouts in FRA-OIS spreads and dollar swap rates (both harbingers of the last crisis).  Central banks have intervened aggressively, but these worrying signs have eased only slightly.  

Second, as I wrote repeatedly during the debate over clearing mandates in the post-2008 crisis period, the most insidious systemic risk that supersized clearing creates is not the potential for the failure of a clearinghouse (triggered by the failure of one or more clearing members).  Instead, the biggest clearing-related systemic risk is that the very measures that clearinghouses take to ensure their integrity–specifically, frequent variation margining/marking-to-market–lead to large increases in the demand for liquidity precisely during circumstances when liquidity is evaporating.  Margin payments during the past several weeks have hit unprecedented–and indeed, previously unimaginable–levels.  The need to fund these payments has inevitably increased the demand for liquidity, and contributed to the extraordinary demand for liquidity and the concomitant indicators stressed liquidity conditions (e.g., the spreads and extraordinary central bank actions mentioned earlier).  It is impossible to quantify this impact at present, but it is plausibly large.  

In sum, the post-2008 Crisis clearing system is operating as designed during the 2020 Crisis, but it is unclear whether that is a feature, or a bug.  

It is becoming more clear: Bug, and the bugs are breeding. There have been multiple stories over the last couple of days of margin calls on hedging positions causing fire sales, with attendant price dislocations in markets like for mortgages. Like here, here, and here. I guarantee there are more than have been reported, and there will be still more. Indeed, I bet if you look at any pricing anomaly, it has been created by, or exacerbated by, margin calls. (Look at the muni market, for instance.)

But those in charge still don’t get it. CFTC chairman Heath Tarbert delivers happy talk in the WSJ, claiming that everything is hunky dory because all them margins bein’ paid! and as a result, derivatives markets are functioning, CCPs aren’t failing, etc.

This is exactly the kind of non-systemic thinking about systemic risk that I railed about a decade ago. Mr. Tarbert has a siloed view: he is assigned some authority over a subset of the financial system, sees that it is working fine, and concludes that rules regarding that subset are beneficial for the system as a whole.

Wrong. Wrong. Wrong. Wrong. WRONG.

You have to look at the system as a whole, and how the pieces of the system interact.

In the post-last-crisis period I wrote about the “Levee Effect”, namely, that measures designed to protect one part of the financial system would flood others, with ambiguous (at best) systemic consequences. The cascading margins and the effects of those margin calls are exactly what I warned about (to the accompaniment a collective shrug by those who mattered, which is why we are where we are).

What we are seeing is unintended consequences–unintended, but not unforeseeable.

Speaking of unintended consequences, perhaps one good effect of September’s repo market seizure was that it awoke the Fed to its actual job–providing liquidity in times of stress. The facilities put in place in the aftermath of the September SNAFU are being expanded–by orders of magnitude–to deal with the current spike in liquidity demand (including the part of the spike due to margin issues). Thank God the Fed didn’t have to think this up on the fly.

It also appears that either (a) the restrictions on the Fed imposed by Frankendodd are not operative now, or (b) the Fed is saying IDGAF so sue me and blowing through them. Either way, such liquidity seizure are what the Fed was created to address.

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March 13, 2020

Wuhan Virus and the Markets–WTF?

What a helluva few weeks it’s been, eh boys and girls? By way of post mortem (hopefully?) rather than prediction, here’s my take.

Under “normal” circumstances, two factors drive asset valuations: expectations of cash flows, and the rate at which investors discount those cash flows. COVID-19–Wuhan Virus, to call it by its proper name–has has profound influence on both.

WV has caused a major aggregate supply shock, and an aggregate demand shock, and these amplify one another. The aggregate supply shock stems from shutdown of productive capacity due to social distancing. And people who aren’t working aren’t earning and aren’t spending, hence the aggregate demand shock.

These developments obviously reduce the income streams from assets (e.g., corporate profits). That’s a negative for stocks.

As an aside, these factors defy traditional policy prescriptions. Monetary and fiscal policy are focused on addressing aggregate demand deficiencies, i.e., trying to move demand-deficient economies (where demand deficiencies arise from price rigidity and nominal shocks) back to the production possibilities frontier. Supply shocks shrink the PPF. Pushing the PPF back to its normal state in current circumstances is a function of public health policy, and even that is likely to be problematic given the huge uncertainties (that I discuss below) and the dubious competence of government authorities (which I discussed last week).

The pandemic nature of WV also makes it the systematic shock par excellence. It hits everyone and every asset class, and cannot be diversified away. A big increase in systematic risk results in a big increase in risk premia, meaning that the already depressed expected cash flows on risky assets get discounted at a higher rate, leading to lower valuations.

A lot higher rate, evidently. Why? Most likely because of the extreme uncertainty about the virus. Data on how infectious it is, how many people have been infected, the fatality rate, how it will be affected by warmer weather, etc., are extremely unreliable. In other words, we know almost nothing about the salient considerations.

This is in part due to lack of testing, and to inherent defects in the testing: those who get tested are disproportionately likely to be symptomatic, exposed, or hypochondriacal, leading to extreme sample selection biases. The tests are apparently unreliable, with high rates of false positives and false negatives. The RNA tests cannot detect past infections. It is in part due to the novelty of the virus. Is it like influenza, and will hence burn out when temperatures warm? Or not?

Another major source of uncertainty is due to the fact that the initial outbreak in China was covered up by the evil CCP regime. (Which now, in an Orwellian twistedness that only totalitarian regimes can muster, is boasting that it will save the world. And which is blaming the United States for its own abject failures. Which is why I insist on calling it the Wuhan Virus–so go ahead, call me a racist. IDGAF.) Thus, data from Ground Zero is lacking, or wildly unreliable. (Ground One–Iran–is equally duplicitous, and equally malign.)

This huge uncertainty regarding a major systematic factor leads to even greater discount rates–and hence to lower stock prices.

And then there is the truly disturbing factor. These textbook causal channels (lower expected cash flows, higher discount rates) have in turn caused changes in asset prices that force portfolio adjustments that move us into the realm of positive feedback mechanisms (which usually have negative effects!) and non-linearities. This represents a shift from “normal” times to decidedly abnormal ones.

When some investors engage in leveraged trading strategies, big price moves can force them to unwind/liquidate these strategies because they can no longer fund their large losses. These unwinds move asset prices yet more (as those who placed a lower valuation on these assets must absorb them from the levered, high-value owners who are forced to sell them). Which can force further unwinds, in perhaps completely unrelated assets.

Not knowing the extent or nature of these trading strategies, or the degree of leverage, it is virtually impossible to understand how these effects may cascade through the markets.

The most evident indicators of these stresses are in the funding markets. And we are seeing such stresses. The FRA-OIS spread (known in a previous incarnation–e.g., 2008–as the LIBOR-OIS spread) has blown out. Dollar swap rates are blowing out. The most vanilla of spreads–the basis net of carry between Treasury futures and the cheapest-to-deliver Treasury–have blown out. Further, the Fed has pumped in huge amounts liquidity into the system, and these alarming spread movements have not reversed. (One shudders to think they would have been worse absent such intervention.)

One thing to keep an eye on is derivatives clearing. As I warned repeatedly during the drive to mandate clearing, the true test of this mechanism is during periods of market disruption when large price moves trigger large margin calls.

Heretofore the clearing system seems to have operated without disruption. I note, however, that the strains in the funding markets likely reflect in part the need for liquidity to make margin calls. Big margin calls that must be met in near real-time contribute to stresses in the funding markets. Clearinghouses themselves may survive, but at the cost of imposing huge costs elsewhere in the financial system. (In my earlier writing on the systemic impacts of clearing mandates, I referred to this as the Levee Effect.)

The totally unnecessary side-show in the oil markets, where Putin and Mohammed bin Salman are waging an insane grudge match, is only contributing to these margin call-related strains. (Noticing a theme here? Authoritarian governments obsessed with control and “stability” have a preternatural disposition to creating chaos.)

Perhaps the only saving grace now, as opposed to 2008, is that the shock did not arise originally from the credit and liquidity supply sector, i.e., banks and shadow banks. But the credit/liquidity supply sector is clearly under strain, and if parts of it break under that strain yet another round of extremely disruptive knock-on effects will occur. Fortunately, this is one area where central banks can palliate, if not eliminate, the strains. (I say can, because being run by humans, there is no guarantee they will.)

Viruses operate according to their own imperatives, and the imperatives of one virus can differ dramatically from those of others. Pandemic shocks are inherently systematic risks, and the nature of the current risk is only dimly understood because we do not understand the imperatives of this particular virus. Indeed, it might be fair to put it in the category of Knightian Uncertainty, rather than risk. The shock is big enough to trigger non-linear feedbacks, which are themselves virtually impossible to predict.

In other words. We’ve been on a helluva ride. We’re in for a helluva right. Strap it tight, folks.

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September 20, 2019

Back to the Fed Future, or You Had One Job

In the Gilded Age, American financial crises (“panics,” in the lexicon of the day) tended to occur in the fall. Agriculture played a predominant role in the economy, and marketing of the new crop in the fall led to a spike in the demand for cash and credit. In that era, however, the supply of cash and credit was not particularly elastic, and these demand spikes sometimes turned into panics when supply did not (or could not) respond accordingly.

The entire point of the Fed, which was created in the aftermath of one of these fall panics (the Panic of 1907, which occurred in October), was to make currency supply more elastic and thereby reduce the potential for panics. In essence, the Fed had one job: lender of last resort to ensure a match of supply and demand for currency/credit, when the latter was quite volatile.

This week’s repospasm is redolent of those bygone days. Now, the spikes in demand for liquidity are not driven by the crop cycle, but by the tax and corporate reporting cycles. But they recur, and several have occurred in the autumn, or on the cusp thereof (this being the last week of summer).

One of my mantras in teaching about commodities is that spreads price bottlenecks. Bottlenecks can occur in the financial markets too. The periodic spikes in repo rates–not just this week, but in December, and March–relative to other short term rates scream “bottleneck.” Many candidates have been offered, but regardless of the ultimate source of the clog in the plumbing, the evidence from the repo market is that there are indeed clogs, and they recur periodically.

The Fed’s rather belated and stumbling response suggests that it is not fully prepared to respond to these bottlenecks, despite the fact that their regularity suggests that the clogs are chronic. As the saying goes, “you had one job . . . ” and the Fed fell down on this one.

And maybe the problem is that the Fed no longer just has one job, and it has shunted the job that was the reason for its creation to the back of the priority list. Nowadays, the Fed has statutory obligations to control employment and inflation, and views its main job as managing aggregate demand, rather than tending to the financial system’s plumbing.

This is concerning, as dislocations in short-term funding markets can destabilize the system. These markets are systemically important, and failure to ensure their smooth operation can result in crises–panics–that undermine the ability of the Fed to perform its prioritized macroeconomic management task.

One of the salutary developments post-crisis has been the reduced reliance of banks and investment banks on flighty short-term funding. The repo markets are far smaller than they were pre-2008, and the unsecured interbank market has all but disappeared (representing only about .3 percent of bank assets, as compared to around 6 percent in 2006). But this is not to say that these markets are unimportant, or that bottlenecks in these markets cannot have systemic consequences. For the want of a nail . . . .

Moreover, the post-crisis restructuring of the financial system and financial regulation has created new potential sources of liquidity shocks, namely a supersizing of potential demands for liquidity to pay variation margin. When you have a market shock (e.g., the oil price shock) occurring simultaneously with the other sources of increased demand for liquidity, the bottlenecks can have very perverse consequences. We should be thankful that the shock wasn’t a Big One, like October, 1987.

Hopefully this week’s tumult will rejuvenate the Fed’s focus on mitigating bottlenecks in funding markets. Maybe the Fed doesn’t have just one job now, but this is an important job and is one that it should be able to do in a fairly routine fashion. After all, that job is what it was created to perform. So perform it.

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September 17, 2019

Funding Market Tremors: Today May Not Have Been “The Big One,” But It Was Bad Enough

The primary reason for my deep skepticism about the wisdom of clearing mandates was liquidity risk. As I said repeatedly, in order to reduce counterparty risk, clearing necessarily increased liquidity risk through the variation margining mechanism. Further, it was–and is–my opinion that liquidity risk is a far graver systemic concern that counterparty risk.

A major liquidity event has occurred in the last couple of days: rates in the repurchase market–the major source of short term funding for vast amounts of trading activity–shot up to levels (around 5 percent) nearly double the Fed’s target ceiling for that rate. Some trades took place at far higher rates than that (e.g., 9.25 percent).

Market participants have advanced several explanations, including big cash demands due to corporate tax payments coming due. Izabella Kaminska at FTAlphavile offered this provocative alternative, which resonates with my clearing story: the large price movements in oil and fixed income markets in the aftermath of the attack on the Saudi resulted in large margin calls in futures and cleared OTC markets that increased stresses on the funding markets.

To which one might say: I sure as hell hope that’s not it, because although there was a lot of price action yesterday, it wasn’t The Big One. (The fact that Fred Sanford’s palpitations occurred because he couldn’t get his hands on cash makes that bit particularly apropos!)

I did some quick back-of-the-envelope calculations. WTI and Brent variation margin flows (futures and options) were on the order of $35 billion. Treasuries on CME maybe $10 billion. S&P futures, about $1 billion. About $2 billion on Eurodollar futures.

The Eurodollar numbers can help give a rough idea of margin flows on cleared interest rate swaps. Eurodollar futures open interest is about $12 trillion. Cleared OTC notional volume (not just USD, but all IRS) is around $80 trillion. But $1mm in notional of a 5 year swap is equivalent to 20 Eurodollar futures with notional amount of $20 trillion. So, as a rough estimate, variation margin flows in the cleared IRS market are on the order of 100x for Eurodollars. That represents a non-trivial $200 billion.

Yes, there are potentials for offsets, so these numbers are not additive. For example, a firm might have offsetting positions in EDF and cleared IRS. Or be short oil and long Treasuries. But variation margin flows on the order of $300 billion are not unrealistic. And since market moves were relatively large yesterday, that represents an increment over the typical day.

So we are talking real money, which could certainly contribute to an increased demand for liquidity. But again, yesterday was not remotely a truly epic day that one could readily imagine happening.

A couple of points deserve emphasis. The first is that perhaps it was coincidence or bad luck, but the big variation margin flows coincided with other sources of increased demand for liquidity. But hey, stuff happens, and sometimes stuff happens all at once. The system has to be able to withstand such simultaneous stuff.

The second is related, and very concerning. The spikes in rates observed periodically in the repo market (not just here, but notoriously in China) suggest that this market can go non-linear. Thus, even if the increased funding needs caused by the post Abqaiq fallout wasn’t The Big One, in a non-linear market, even modest increases in funding needs can have huge impacts on funding costs.

This highlights another concern: inter-market feedback. A shock in one market (e.g., crude) puts stress on the funding market that leads to spikes in repo rates. But these spikes can feedback into prices in other markets. For example, if the inability to fund positions causes fire sales that cause big price moves that cause big variation margin flows which put further stress on the funding markets.

Yeah. This is what I was talking about.

Today’s events nicely illustrate another concern I raised years ago. Clearing/margining make markets more tightly coupled: the need to meet margin calls within hours increases the potential stress on the funding markets. As I tell my classes, unlike in the pre-Frankendodd days, there is no “fuck you” option when your counterparty calls for margin. You don’t pay, you are in default.

This tight coupling makes the market more vulnerable to operational failings. On Black Monday, 1987, for example, the FedWire went down a couple of times and this contributed to the chaos and the potential for catastrophic failure.

And guess what? There was a (Fed-related!) operational problem today. The NY Fed announced that it would hold a repo operation to supply $75 billion of liquidity . . . then had to cancel it due to “technical difficulties.”

I hate it when that happens! But that’s exactly the point: It happens. And the corollary is: when it happens, it happens at the worst time.

The WSJ article also contains other sobering information. Specifically, post-crisis regulatory “reforms” have made the funding markets more rigid/less-flexible and supple. This would tend to exacerbate non-linearities in the market.

We’re from the government and we’re here to help you! The law of unintended (but predictable) consequences strikes again.

Hopefully things will normalize quickly. But the events of the last two days should be a serious wake-up call. The funding markets going non-linear is the biggest systemic risk. By far. And to the extent that regulatory changes–such as mandated clearing–have increased the potential for demand surges in those markets, and have reduced the ability of those markets to respond to those surges, in their attempt to reduce systemic risks, they have increased them.

I have often been asked what would cause the next financial crisis. My answer has always been: the regulations intended to prevent a recurrence of the last one. Today may be a case in point.

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September 14, 2019

Bakkt in the (Crypto) Saddle

ICE is on the verge of launching Bitcoin futures. The official start date is 23 September.

The ICE contract is distinctive in a couple of ways.

First, it is a delivery settled contract. Indeed, this feature is what made the ICE product so long in coming. The exchange had to set up a depository, the Bakkt Warehouse. This required careful infrastructure design and jumping through regulatory hoops to establish the Bakkt Trust Company, and get approval from the NY Department of Financial Services.

Second, the structure of the contracts offered is similar to that of the London Metal Exchange. There are daily contracts extending 70 days into the future, as well as more conventional monthly contracts. (LME offers daily contracts going out three months, then 3-, 15-, and 27-month contracts). The daily contracts settle two days after expiration, again similar to LME.

The whole initiative is quite fascinating, as it represents a dual competitive strategy: Bakkt is simultaneously competing in the futures space (against CME in particular), and against spot crypto exchanges.

What are its prospects? I would have to say that Bakkt is a better mousetrap.

It certainly offers many advantages as a spot platform over the plethora of existing Bitcoin/crypto exchanges. These advantages include ICE’s reputation, the creation of a warehouse with substantial capital backing, and regulatory protections. Here is a case in which regulation can be a feature, not a bug.

Furthermore, for decades–over a quarter-century, in fact–I have argued that physical delivery is a far superior mechanism for price discovery and ensuring convergence than cash settlement. The myriad issues that were uncovered in natural gas when rocks were overturned in the post-Enron era, the chronic controversies over Platts windows, and the IBORs have demonstrated the frailty, and vulnerability to manipulation of cash settlement mechanisms.

Crypto is somewhat different–or at least, has the potential to be–because the CME’s cash settlement mechanism is based off prices determined on several BTC exchanges, in much the same way as the S&P500 settlement mechanism is based on prices determined at centralized auction markets.

But the crypto exchanges are not the NYSE or Nasdaq. They are a rather dodgy lot, and there is some evidence of manipulation and inflated volumes on these exchanges.

It’s also something of a puzzle that so many crypto exchanges survive. The centripetal forces of liquidity tend to cause trading in a particular instrument to gravitate to a single platform. The fact that this hasn’t happened in crypto is anomalous, and suggests that normal economic forces are not operating in this market. This raises some concerns.

Bakkt potentially represents a double-barrel threat to CME. Not only is it competing in futures, if it attracts a considerable amount of spot trading activity (due to a superior trading, clearing, settlement and custodial platform, reputational capital, and regulatory safeguards) this will undermine the reliability of CME’s cash settlement mechanism by attracting volume away from the markets CME uses to determine final settlement prices. This could make these market prices less reliable, and more subject to manipulation. Indeed, some–and maybe all–of these exchanges could disappear if ICE’s cash market dominates. CME would be up a creek then.

That said, one of the lessons of inter-exchange competition is that the best mousetrap doesn’t always win. In particular, CME has already established liquidity in the futures market, and as even as formidable competitor as Eurex found out in Treasuries in the early-oughties, it is difficult to induce a shift of liquidity to a competitor.

There are differences between crypto and other more traditional financial products (cash and derivatives) that may make that liquidity-based first mover advantage less decisive. For one thing, as I noted earlier, heretofore cash crypto has proved an exception to the winner-takes-all rule. Maybe the same will hold true for crypto futures: since I don’t understand why cash has been an exception to the rule, I’d be reluctant to say that futures won’t be (although CBOE’s exit suggests it might). For another, the complementarity between cash and futures in this case (which ICE is cleverly exploiting in its LME-like contract structure) could prove decisive. If ICE can get traction in the fragmented cash market, that would bode well for its prospects in futures.

Entry into a derivatives or cash market in competition with an incumbent is always a highly leveraged bet. Odds are that you fail, but if you win it can prove enormously lucrative. That’s essentially the bet that ICE is taking in BTC.

The ICE/Bakkt initiative will prove to be a fascinating case study in inter-exchange competition. Crypto is sufficiently distinctive, and the double-barrel ICE initiative sufficiently innovative, that the traditional betting form (go with the incumbent) could well fail. I will watch with interest.

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June 13, 2019

Debunking A Valiant–But Failed–Defense of Frankendodd

Filed under: Clearing,Commodities,Derivatives,Economics,Energy,Exchanges,Regulation — cpirrong @ 7:40 pm

I have known CFTC Commissioner Dan Berkovitz for almost 20 years, when he was a senior staffer on the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, and he reached out to me for guidance on market manipulation issues. I think it’s fair to say that we disagree on most important issues. He supports many regulations I strongly oppose, but despite that our relationship has been cordial and mutually respectful.

Dan’s recent speech at the FIA Commodities Symposium in Houston focuses on issues that we happen to disagree on, and needless to say, I am unpersuaded. Indeed, I think his remarks demonstrate quite clearly the fundamental intellectual failings with the regulatory measures he favors.

He focuses on two issues: competition in OTC derivatives, and speculative position limits. With respect to OTC derivatives, he says

There are now 105 swap dealers and 23 swap execution facilities registered with the Commission. Almost 89% of interest rate swaps and 96% of broad index credit default swaps are cleared through a central clearinghouse. Nearly 98% of all swap transactions involve at least one registered swap dealer. The CFTC’s swap trading rules have led to more competition, more electronic trading, better price transparency, and lower spreads for swaps traded on regulated platforms

But then he contradicts himself on competition:

Despite this progress, we have seen an increase in concentration in the trading and clearing of swaps among the bank swap dealers.  [Emphasis added.] Although we have more competition in the swaps market since the passage of Dodd-Frank, in the form of tighter bid-ask spreads and lower transaction costs, we have fewer competitors.  [Which makes me question whether the tighter spreads are the result of more competition, or other factors.] High levels of concentration present systemic risks and provide fewer choices for end-users.  [But wasn’t the point of DFA to reduce systemic risk by reducing concentration? GiGi sure said so.] One of the purposes of the Commodity Exchange Act (“Act” or “CEA”) is to promote fair competition.  The Commission therefore has an obligation to address this issue.

How concentrated are our derivative markets?  For swaps trading, five registered bank swap dealers are party to 70% of all swaps and 80% of the total notional amount traded. And for clearing services, the five largest FCMs—all affiliated with large banks—clear about 80% of cleared swaps.[  The eight largest firms clear 96% of cleared swaps.  I am concerned about what could happen if one of those providers fails.  I am also concerned about the impact on the price of derivatives for end users.

Even prior to Frankendodd, I predicted that the regulations would lead to greater concentration, precisely because regulatory burdens create fixed costs, which favor scale. The concentration among FCMs is particularly worrisome from a systemic risk perspective, and has been exacerbated by the way clearing regulations have been implemented. Not all of these are the CFTC’s fault: it has attempted to push back on the Fed’s implementation of the liquidity ratio, which creates unnecessary capital charges associated with segregated margins. Dan alludes to that issue thus: “We must find ways to increase bank capital standards without discouraging the availability of clearing and other risk-management tools available to end users.” But the basic conclusion remains: measures intended to reduce concentration in order to reduce systemic risk have not achieved that objective, and have in fact likely increased concentration.

The biggest weakness in Dan’s speech is his valiant, but tellingly and painfully strained, justification for position limits.

The CFTC has a long history with speculative position limits, and their benefits to the market are well established.  Section 3 of the Act identifies risk management and price discovery as fundamental purposes of U.S. derivatives markets. Meaningful position limits coupled with appropriate hedge exemptions are crucial to advancing those purposes.  Position limits help prevent corners, squeezes, and other forms of manipulation.  They prevent distortions in the prices of many major commodities in interstate commerce—ranging, for example, from wheat to gold to coffee to oil.  The Hunt brothers’ attempts to corner the silver market, the Ferruzzi squeeze of the soybean market, and the Amaranth hedge fund’s excessively large positions in the natural gas futures and swaps markets are clear examples of why position limits are needed to prevent the price distortions and real-world impacts that can result from excessive speculation.  Episodes such as these validate Congress’ and the CFTC’s long-held view that position limits are “necessary as a prophylactic measure” to deter sudden or unreasonable price fluctuations and preserve the integrity of price discovery and risk mitigation on U.S. derivatives markets.

Insofar as prevention of market power manipulations (squeezes and corners) are concerned, this can be achieved through spot month limits and does not require restrictions on the positions held prior to the delivery month, and across all months, as the Commission’s previous proposals would impose. Meaning that the proposed regulations are over-inclusive and an unduly restrictive means of achieving their stated objective.

Further, insofar as the examples are concerned, they provide no support for the types of expansive limits that have been proposed. None.

As I’ve said repeatedly about the Hunt episode (the CFTC’s favorite go-to example): when do we get to the Trojan War? That episode is ancient history, and is more the exception that proves the rule than a warning of a clear and present danger. I have said this repeatedly only because the CFTC brings up the example repeatedly. If they stop, I will!

Ferruzzi is interesting, because Ferruzzi cornered a market with position limits, from which the company had an exemption. Indeed, it was the CFTC’s and CBOT’s revocation of Ferruzzi’s hedge exemption during the spot month that broke the company’s corner (and launched my academic career in commodities!–thanks to all!) I can think of other examples in which long hedgers with exemptions executed market power manipulations, and indeed, long hedgers with exemptions are the most dangerous manipulators. Meaning that position limits on speculators are beside the point when it comes to addressing market power manipulation.

With regards to Amaranth, Dan states

The Amaranth episode provides another clear example of how large speculative positions can distort market prices.  At one point, Amaranth held 100,000 natural gas contracts, or approximately 5% of all natural gas used in the U.S. in a year. “Amaranth accumulated such large positions and traded such large volumes of natural gas futures that it distorted market prices, widened the spreads, and increased price volatility.”

The quotations are to a Senate Permanent Subcommittee report (which Dan was an author) . I can say definitively that the analysis underlying those conclusions is completely unpersuasive, and would fail to pass muster in any manipulation litigation. The analysis lacks statistical rigor, and demonstrates neither “artificial” prices or that Amaranth caused these artificial prices (intentionally or otherwise).

Indeed, the CFTC did not pursue Amaranth for distorting natural gas prices through its immense OTC derivatives positions (the 100,000 contracts Dan refers to) outside the delivery month. Instead, it (and FERC) went after the fund and its head trader Brian Hunter for three “bang the close” manipulations in 2006. (Full disclosure: I was an expert for plaintiffs on those manipulations in a private lawsuit.) Position limit regulations would not have prevented those manipulations.

Indeed, other manipulation cases the CFTC has pursued, including bang the settle type cases against Optiver and Parnon and Moore Capital (which I was also an expert in in related private litigation) also would not have been impacted by position limits. That is, limits would not have prevented them. In another recent CFTC case (just settled, and again, I am an expert in related private litigation), the party accused by the CFTC (Kraft) was a long hedger with a hedge exemption.

In brief, neither Dan nor anyone else has presented an example of a post-Trojan War alleged manipulation that position limits would have prevented.

So what’s the point? Can position limits reduce the risk of distortion arising from something non-manipulative?

Dan has an answer, and the answer is “no!” (though he says “record before us demonstrates that the answer is ‘yes.'”)

What speculative position limits are intended to do is to prevent a single market participant from moving markets away from fundamentals of supply and demand through the accumulation of large speculative positions.  [Emphasis added.] In this regard, it’s important to note that speculative position limits focus on the positions held by a single trader or trading entity, not on the overall level of speculation in a market.  The Commission’s task in setting speculative position limits is not to determine how the collective level of speculation in a market might affect prices.  [Emphasis added.] Nor is it to try to determine the “correct” level of speculation that should be permitted in a market.  Instead, the Commission must focus on the single speculator and the impact of large speculative positions on the market.

But this demolishes the argument for limits that was made with increasing intensity around 2006, and peaking (along with oil prices) in mid-2008. Those advocating position limits then could point to no single large trader that was distorting prices. Instead, they blamed (to use Dan’s phrase) “the collective level of speculation” to justify limits–which is exactly what Dan (rightly) says the limits won’t and can’t constrain. Meaning that the CFTC’s proposed limits represent a bait-and-switch: by a limit supporting CFTC commissioner’s own admission, the proposed limits won’t address the supposed ill that led Congress to legislate them in the first place.

To summarize: Position limits outside the spot month are unnecessary to prevent market power manipulations (and other deterrent measures can enhance spot month limits); position limits won’t prevent other kinds of manipulation (e.g., bang the settlement); there are no examples in decades of distortions that position limits of the type proposed might have mitigated; the examples that have been proposed are wrong; the most likely market power manipulators (long hedgers) would be exempted from limits; limits would not have prevented the specific manipulations the CFTC has alleged in recent years; and the limits the CFTC has proposed would not touch the kinds of allegedly multi-trader “collective” excess speculation that caused Congress to mandate position limits in the first place.

Other than that, the case for position limits is rock solid!

Dan Berkovitz manfully attempts justify limits but achieves just the opposite. The arguments and evidence he brings to bear demonstrate how bankrupt the case for limits truly is.

Given that limits will involve substantial compliance costs, and bring no benefits, the song remains the same: position limits are all pain, no gain.

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September 25, 2018

Default Is Not In Our Stars, But In Our (Power) Markets: Defaulting on Power Spread Trades Is Apparently a Thing

Filed under: Clearing,Commodities,Derivatives,Economics,Energy,Regulation — cpirrong @ 6:34 pm
Some other power traders–this time in the US–blowed up real good.   Actually preceding the Aas Nasdaq default by some months, but just getting attention in the mainstream press today, a Houston-based power trading company–GreenHat–defaulted on long-term financial transmission rights contracts in PJM.  FTRs are financial contracts that have cash-flows derived from the spread between prices at different locations in PJM.  Locational spreads in power markets arise due to transmission congestion, so FTRs can be used to hedge the risk of congestion–or to speculate on it.  FTRs are auctioned regularly.  In 2015 GreenHat bought at auction FTRs for 2018.  These positions were profitable in 2015 and 2016, but improvements in PJM transmission caused them to go underwater substantially in 2018.  In June, GreenHat defaulted, and now PJM is dealing with the mess.

The cost of doing so is still unknown.  Under PJM rules, the organization is required to liquidate defaulted positions.  However, the bids PJM received for the defaulted portfolio were 4x-6x the prevailing secondary market price, due to the size of the positions, and the illiquidity of long-term FTRs–with “long term” being pretty much anything beyond a month.  Hence, PJM has requested FERC for a waiver to the requirement for immediate liquidation, and the PJM membership has voted to suspend liquidating the defaulted positions until November 30.

PJM members are on the hook for the defaulted positions.  The positions were underwater to the tune of $110 million as of June–and presumably this was based on market prices, meaning that the cost of liquidating these positions would be multiples of that.  In other words, this blow up could put Aas to shame.

PJM operates the market on a credit system, and market participants can be required to post additional collateral.  However, long-term FTR credit is determined only on an annual basis: “In conjunction with the annual update of historical activity that is used in FTR credit requirement calculations, PJM will recalculate the credit requirement for long-term FTRs annually, and will adjust the Participant’s credit requirement accordingly. This may result in collateral calls if requirements increase.”  Credit on shorter-dated positions are calculated more frequently: what triggered the GreenHat default was a failure to make its payment on its June FTR obligation.

This event is resulting in calls for a re-examination of  PJM’s FTR credit scheme.  As well it should!  However, as the Aas episode demonstrates, it is a fraught exercise to determine the exposure in electricity spread transactions.  This is especially true for long-dated positions like the ones GreenHat bought.

The PJM episode reinforces the Aas episode’s lessons the challenges of handling defaults–especially of big positions in illiquid instruments.  Any auction is very likely to turn into a fire sale that exacerbates the losses that caused the default in the first place.  Moral of the story: mutualizing default risk (either through a CCP, or a membership organization like PJM) can impose big losses on the participants in risk pool.

The dilemma is that the instruments in question can provide valuable benefits, and that speculators can be necessary to achieve these benefits.  FTRs are important because they allow hedging of congestion risk, which can be substantial for both generation and load: locational spreads can be very volatile due to a variety of factors, including the lack of storability of power, non-convexities in generation (which can make it very costly to reduce generation behind a constraint), and generation capacity constraints and inelastic demand (which make it very costly to increase generation or reduce consumption on the other side of the constraint).  So FTRs play a valuable hedging role, and in most markets financial players are needed to absorb the risk.  But that creates the potential for default, and the very factors that make FTRs valuable hedging tools can make defaults very costly.

FTR liquidity is also challenged by the fact that unlike hedging say oil price risk or corn price risk, where a standard contract like Brent or CBT corn can provide a pretty good hedge for everyone, every pair of locations is a unique product that is not hedged effectively by an FTR based on another pair of locations.  The market is therefore inherently fragmented, which is inimical to liquidity.  This lack of liquidity is especially devastating during defaults.

So PJM (and other RTOs) faces a dilemma.  As the Nasdaq event shows, even daily marking to market and variation margining can’t prevent defaults.  Furthermore, moving to a no-credit system (like a CCP) isn’t foolproof, and is likely to be so expensive that it could seriously impair the FTR market.

We’ve seen two default examples in electricity this past summer.  They won’t be the last, due the inherent nature of electricity.


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September 20, 2018

The Smoke is Starting to Clear from the Aas/Nasdaq Blowup

Filed under: Clearing,Commodities,Derivatives,Economics,Energy,Exchanges,Regulation — cpirrong @ 11:08 am
Amir Khwaja of Clarus has a very informative post about the Nasdaq electricity blow-up.

The most important point: Nasdaq uses SPAN to calculate IM.  SPAN was a major innovation back in the day, but it is VERY long in the tooth now (2018 is its 30th birthday!).  Moreover, the most problematic part of SPAN is the ad hoc way it handles dependence risk:

  • Intra-commodity spreading parameters – rates and rules for evaluating risk among portfolios of closely related products, for example products with particular patterns of calendar spreads
  • Inter-commodity spreading parameters – rates and rules for evaluating risk offsets between related product


CME SPAN Methodology Combined Commodity Evaluations

The CME SPAN methodology divides the instruments in each portfolio into groupings called combined commodities. Each combined commodity represents all instruments on the same ultimate underlying – for example, all futures and all options ultimately related to the S&P 500 index.

For each combined commodity in the portfolio, the CME SPAN methodology evaluates the risk factors described above, and then takes the sum of the scan risk, the intra-commodity spread charge, and the delivery risk, before subtracting the inter-commodity spread credit. The CME SPAN methodology next compares the resulting value with the short option minimum; whichever value is larger is called the CME SPAN methodology risk requirement. The resulting values across the portfolio are then converted to a common currency and summed to yield the total risk for the portfolio.

I would not be surprised if the handling of Nordic-German spread risk was woefully inadequate to capture the true risk exposure.  Electricity spreads are strange beasts, and “rules for evaluating risk offsets” are unlikely to capture this strangeness correctly especially given the fact that electricity markets have idiosyncrasies that one-size-fits all rules are unlikely to capture.  I also conjecture that Aas knew this, and loaded the boat with this spread trade because he knew that the risk was grossly underpriced.

There are reports that the Nasdaq margin breach at the time of default (based on mark-to-market prices) was not nearly as large as the €140 million hit to the default fund.  In these accounts, the bulk of the hit was due to the fact that the price at which Aas’ portfolio was auctioned off included a substantial haircut to prevailing market prices.

Back in the day, I argued that one of the real advantages to central clearing was a more orderly handling of defaulted portfolios than the devil-take-the-hindmost process in OTC bilateral markets (cf., the outcome of the LTCM disaster almost exactly 20 years ago–with the Fed midwifed deal being completed on 23 September, 1998). (Ironically spread trades were the cause of LTCM’s demise too.)

But the devil is in the details of the auction, and in market conditions at the time of the default–which are almost certainly unsettled, hence the default.  The CME was criticized for its auction of the defaulted Lehman positions: the bankruptcy trustee argued that the price CME obtained was too low, thereby harming the creditors.   The sell-off of the Amaranth NG positions in September, 2006 (what is it about September?!?) to JP Morgan and Citadel (if memory serves) was also at a huge discount.

Nasdaq has been criticized for allowing only 4 firms to bid: narrow participation was also the criticism leveled at CME and NYMEX clearing in the Lehman and Amaranth episodes, respectively.  Nasdaq argues that telling the world could have sparked panic.

But this episode, like Lehman and Amaranth before it, demonstrate the challenges to auctioning big positions.  Only a small number of market participants are likely to have the capital, or the risk appetite, to take on a big defaulted position in its entirety.  Thus, limited participation is almost inevitable, and even if Nasdaq had invited more bidders, there is room to doubt whether the fifth or sixth or seventh bidder would have been able to compete seriously with the four who actually participated.  Those who have the capital and risk appetite to bid seriously for big positions will almost certainly demand a big discount to  compensate for the risk of holding the position until they can work it off.  Moreover, limited participation limits competition, which should exacerbate the underpricing problem.

Thus, even with a structured auction process, disposing of a big defaulted portfolio is almost inevitably something of a fire sale.  This is a risk borne by the participants in the default fund.  Although the exposure via the default fund is sometimes argued to be an incentive for the default fund participants to bid aggressively, this is unlikely because there are externalities: the aggressive bidder bears all the risks and costs, and provides benefits to the rest of the other members.  Free riding is a big problem.

In theory, equitizing the risk might improve outcomes.  By selling shares in the defaulted portfolio, no single or two bidders would have to absorb the entire position and risk could be spread more efficiently: this could reduce the risk discount in the price.  But who would manage the portfolio?  What are the mechanics of contributing to IM and VM?  Would it be like a bad bank, existing as a zombie until the positions rolled off?

Another follow-up from my previous post relates to the issue of self-clearing.  On Twitter and elsewhere, some have suggested that clearing through a 3d party would have been an additional check.  Surely an FCM would be less likely to fall in love with a position than the trader who puts it on, but the effectiveness of the FCM as a check depends on its evaluation of risk, and it may be no smarter than the CCP that sets margins.   Furthermore, there are examples of FCMs having the same trade in their house account as one of their big customers–perhaps because they think the client is really smart and they want to free ride off his genius.  As a historical example, Griffin Trading had a big trade in the same instrument and direction as its biggest client.  The trade went pear-shaped, the client defaulted, and Griffin did too.

I also need to look to see whether Nasdaq Commodities uses the US futures clearing model, which does not segregate positions.  If it does, and if Aas had cleared through an FCM, it is possible that the FCM’s clients could have lost money as a result of his default.  This model has fellow-customer risk: by clearing for himself, Aas did not create such a risk.

I also note that the desire to expand clearing post-Crisis has made it difficult and more costly for firms to find FCMs.  This problem has been exacerbated by the Supplementary Leverage Ratio.  Perhaps the cost of clearing through an FCM appeared excessive to Aas, relative to the alternative of self-clearing.  Thus, if regulators blanch at the thought of self-clearing (not saying that they should), they should get serious about addressing the FCM cost issue, and regulations that inflate these costs but generate little offsetting benefit.

Again, this episode should spark (no pun intended!) a more thorough reconsideration of clearing generally.  The inherent limitations of margin models, especially for more complex products or markets.  The adverse selection problems that crude risk models can create.  The challenges of auctioning defaulted portfolios, and the likelihood that the auctions will become fire sales.  The FCM capacity issue.

The supersizing of clearing in the post-Crisis world has also supersized all of these concerns.  The Aas blowup demonstrates all of them.  Will CCPs and regulators take heed? Or will some future September bring us the mother of all blowups?

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September 18, 2018

He Blowed Up Real Good. And Inflicted Some Collateral Damage to Boot

I’m on my way back from my annual teaching sojourn in Geneva, plus a day in the Netherlands for a speaking engagement.  While I was taking that European non-quite-vacation, a Norwegian power trader, Einar Aas, suffered a massive loss in cleared spread trades between Nordic and German electricity.  The loss was so large that it blew through Aas’ initial margin and default fund contribution to the clearinghouse (Nasdaq), consumed Nasdaq’s €7 million capital contribution to the default fund, and €107 million of the rest of the default fund–a mere 66 percent of the fund.  The members have been ordered to contribute €100 million to top up the fund.

This was bound to happen. In a way, it was good that it happened in a relatively small market.  But it provides a sobering demonstration of what I’ve said for years: clearing doesn’t eliminate losses, but affects the distribution of losses.  Further, financial institutions that back CCPs–the members–are the ultimate backstops.  Thus, clearing does not eliminate contagion or interconnections in the financial network: it just changes the topology of the network, and the channels by which losses can hit the balance sheets of big players.

Happening in the Nordic/European power markets, this is an interesting curiosity.  If it happens in the interest rate or equity markets, it could be a disaster.

We actually know very little about what happened, beyond the broad details.  We know Aas was long Nordic power and short German power, and that the spread widened due to wet weather in Norway (which depresses the price of hydro and reduces demand) and an increase in European prices due to increases in CO2 prices.  But Nasdaq trades daily, weekly, monthly, quarterly, and annual power products: we don’t know which blew up Aas.  Daily spreads are more volatile, and exhibit more extremes (kurtosis), but since margins are scaled to risk (at least theoretically–more on this below) what matters is the market move relative to the estimated risk.  Reports indicate that the spread moved 17x the typical move, but we don’t know what measure of “typical” is used here.  Standard deviation?  Not a very good measure when there is a lot of kurtosis (or skewness).

I also haven’t seen how big Aas’ initial margins were.  The total loss he suffered was bigger than the hit taken by the default fund, because under the loser-pays model, the initial margins would have been in the first loss position.

The big question in my mind relates to Nasdaq’s margin model.  Power price distributions deviate substantially from the Gaussian, and estimating those distributions is challenging in part because they are also conditional on day of the year and hour of the day, and on fundamental supply-demand conditions: one model doesn’t fit every day, every hour, every season, or every weather enviornment.  Moreover, a spread trade has correlation risk–dependence risk would be a better word, given that correlation is a linear measure of dependence and dependencies in power prices are not linear.  How did Nasdaq model this dependence and how did that impact margins?

One possibility is that Nasdaq’s risk/margin model was good, but this was just one of those things.  Margins are set on the basis of the tails, and tail events occur with some probability.

Given the nature of the tails in power prices (and spreads) reliance on a VaR-type model would be especially dangerous here.  Setting margin based on something like expected shortfall would likely be superior here.  Which model does Nasdaq use?

I can also see the possibility that Nasdaq’s margin model was faulty, and that Aas had figured this out.  He then put on trades that he knew were undermargined because Nasdaq’s model was defective, which allowed him to take on more risk than Nasdaq intended.

In my early work on clearing I indicted that this adverse selection problem was a concern in clearing, and would lead CCPs–and those who believe that CCPs make the financial system safer–to underestimate risk and be falsely complacent.  Indeed, I argued that one reason clearing could be a bad idea is that it was more vulnerable to adverse selection problems because the need to model the distribution of gains/losses on cleared positions requires detailed knowledge, especially for more exotic products.  Traders who specialize in these products are likely to have MUCH better understanding about risks than a non-specialist CCP.

Aas cleared for himself, and this has caused some to get the vapors and conclude that Nasdaq was negligent in allowing him to do so.  Self-clearing is just an FCM with a house account, but with no client business: in some respects that’s less risky than a traditional FCM with client business as well as its own trading book.

Nasdaq required Aas to have €70 million in capital to self-clear.  Presumably Nasdaq will get some of that capital in an insolvency proceeding, and use it to repay default fund members–meaning that the €114 million loss is likely an overestimate of the ultimate cost borne by Nasdaq and the clearing members.

Further, that’s probably similar to the amount of capital that an FCM would have had to have to carry a client position as big as Aas’.   That’s not inherently more risky (to the clearinghouse and its default fund) than if Aas had cleared through another firm (or firms).  Again, the issue is whether Nasdaq is assessing risks accurately so as to allow it to set clearing member capital appropriately.

But the point is that Aas had to have skin in the game to self-clear, just as an FCM would have had to clear for him.

Holding Aas’ positions constant, whether he cleared himself or through an FCM really only affected the distribution of losses, but not the magnitude.  If Aas had cleared through someone else, that someone else’s capital would have taken the hit, and the default fund would have been at risk only if that FCM had defaulted.  But the total loss suffered by FCMs would have been exactly the same, just distributed more unevenly.

Indeed, the more even distribution that occurred due to mutualization which spread the default loss among multiple FCMs might actually be preferable to having one FCM bear the brunt.

The real issue here is incentives.  My statement was that holding Aas’ positions constant, who he cleared through or whether he cleared at all affected only the distribution of losses.  Perhaps under different structures Aas might not have been able to take on this much risk.  But that’s an open question.

If he had cleared through another FCM, that FCM would have had an incentive to limit its positions because its capital was at risk.  But Aas’ capital was at risk–he had skin in the game too, and this was necessary for him to self-clear.  It’s by no means obvious that an FCM would have arrived at a different conclusion than Aas, and decided that his position represented a reasonable risk to its capital.

Here again a key issue is information asymmetry: would the FCM know more about the risk of Aas’ position, or less?  Given Aas’ allegedly obsessive behavior, and his long-time success as a trader, I’m pretty sure that Aas knew more about the risk than any FCM would have, and that requiring him to clear through another firm would not have necessarily constrained his position.  He would have also had an incentive to put his business at the dumbest FCM.

Another incentive issue is Nasdaq’s skin in the game–an issue that has exercised FCMs generally, not just on Nasdaq.  The exchange’s/CCP’s relatively thin contribution to the default fund arguably reduces its incentive to get its margin model right.  Evaluating whether Nasdaq’s relatively minor exposure to default risk led it to undermargin requires a more thorough analysis of its margin model, which is a very complex exercise which is impossible to do given what we know about the model.

But this all brings me back to themes I flogged to the collective shrug of many–indeed almost all–of the regulatory and legislative community back in the aftermath of the Crisis, when clearing was the silver bullet for future crises.   Clearing is all about the allocation and pricing of counterparty credit risk.  Evaluation of counterparty credit risk in a derivatives context requires a detailed understanding of the price risks of the cleared products, and dependencies between these price risks and the balance sheet risks of participants in cleared markets.  Classic information problems–adverse selection and moral hazard (too little skin in the game)–make risk sharing costly, and can lead to the mispricing of risk.

The forensics about Aas blowing up real good, and the lessons learned from that experience, should focus on those issues.  Alas, I see little recognition of that in the media coverage of the episode, and betting on form, I would wager that the same is true of regulators as well.

The Aas blow up should be a salutary lesson in how clearing really works, what it can do, and what it can’t.   Cynic that I am, I’m guessing that it won’t be.  And if I’m right, the next time could be far, far worse.

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