Streetwise Professor

July 16, 2018

Oil Spreads Go Non-Linear (Due to Infrastructure Constraints), To the Chagrin of Many Traders: The Pirrong Commodity Catechism in Action

Filed under: Commodities,Economics,Energy,Exchanges — cpirrong @ 3:59 pm

When I wrote about the demise of GEM Trading a few weeks ago, I hypothesized that sharp movements in various spreads had been its undoing.  A story in Reuters says that GEM was not the only firm rocked by these changes.  Big boys–including BP, Vitol, Trafigura, and Gunvor–have also suffered, and the losses have caused traders their jobs at Gunvor and BP:

The world’s biggest oil traders are counting hefty losses after a surprise doubling in the price discount of U.S. light crude to benchmark Brent WTCLc1-LCOc1 in just a month, as surging U.S production upends the market.

Trading desks of oil major BP and merchants Vitol , Gunvor and Trafigura have recorded losses in the tens of millions of dollars each as a result of the “whipsaw” move when the spread reached more than $11.50 a barrel in June, insiders familiar with their performance told Reuters.

The sources did not give precise figures for the losses, but they said they were enough for Gunvor and BP to fire at least one trader each.

The story goes on to say that binding infrastructure constraints are to blame, which is certainly the case.  But implicit in the article is a theme that I have emphasized for literally years (I recall incorporating this into my class lectures in about 2004).  Specifically, bottlenecks imply that marginal transformation costs (e.g., marginal costs of transporting oil between Cushing and the GOM) tend to rise very steeply when capacity constraints are reached.  That is, when you are operating at say 90 percent of capacity, variations in utilization have little impact on marginal transformation costs, but going from 95 to 96 can cause costs to explode, and basically go vertical as capacity is reached.

This has an implication for spreads.  Another part of the Pirrong Commodities Catechism is that spreads equal marginal transformation costs, and are essentially the shadow prices on constraints.  The behavior of marginal transformation costs therefore has implications for spreads: in particular, spreads can be very stable despite variations in the utilization of transformation assets, but as utilization nears capacity, the spreads become much more volatile.  Moreover, and relatedly, small changes in fundamentals can lead to big moves in spreads when constraints start to bind.  The relationship between fundamentals and spreads is non-linear as capacity constraints become binding, and well, here spreads have gone non-linear, to the chagrin of many traders.

Put differently, spread trades aren’t always “widowmakers” (as the article calls them)–sometimes they are quite safe and boring.  But when bottlenecks begin to bind, they can become deadly.

There is one odd statement in the article:

“As the exporter of U.S. crude, traders are naturally long WTI and hedge their bets by shorting Brent. When the spreads widen so wildly, you lose money,” said a top executive with one of the four trading firms.

Well, why would you hedge WTI risk with Brent?  You could hedge your WTI inventory by selling . . . WTI futures.  The choice to “hedge” WTI by selling Brent is effectively a choice to speculate on the spread.  That brings to mind the old Holbrook Working adage that hedging is speculation on the basis.  The difference here is that most, say, country grain elevators about which Working was mainly writing had no choice in hedging instrument (at least not in liquid ones), and perforce had to live with basis risk if they wanted to eliminate flat price risk.  Here, BP and Gunvor and the rest had the choice between two liquid instruments, and if the “top executive’s” statement is correct, deliberately chose the one that exposed them to greater spread (basis) risk.

So this isn’t an example of “sometimes stuff happens when you hedge.”  The firms chose to expose themselves to a particular risk.  They took a punt on the spread, which was effectively a punt that infrastructure constraints would ease.  They lost.

In my 2014 white paper on commodity trading firms (sponsored by Trafigura, ironically) I noted that to the extent that they speculate, commodity trading firms tend to speculate on the spreads, rather than flat prices, because that’s where they have something of an information advantage.  But as this episode shows, that advantage does not immunize them against risk.

This also makes me wonder about the risk models that the firms use, which in turn affect the sizes of positions traders can put on, and where they put them on.  I, er, speculate that these risk models don’t take into account the non-linearity of spread risk.  If that’s true, traders would have been able to put on bigger positions than they would have been had the risk models accurately reflected those risks, and further, that they were incentivized to do these trades because the risk was underpriced.

All in all, an interesting casebook study of commodity trading–what can go wrong, and why.

Correction: Andrew Gowers, head of corporate affairs at Trafigura says in the comments that (a) Trafigura did not suffer a loss, and (b) the company had told this to Reuters prior to the publication of the article.  I have contacted the editor of the story for an explanation.

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July 6, 2018

Chinese Oil Futures: Performing As Predicted

Filed under: China,Commodities,Derivatives,Economics,Energy — cpirrong @ 6:27 pm

The recent introduction of Shanghai oil futures has resulted in a lot of churn in the front month, and very little activity in even the 1st and 2nd nearby:

China’s new oil futures are a hit with investors but they’re facing commitment issues.

While daily volume in the yuan-denominated contract has increased five-fold since its debut in late-March amid steady growth in open interest, almost all trading is focused in front-month, September futures.

. . . .

It suggests that, for now, traders are using the futures principally to speculate on short-term price fluctuations, as opposed to hedge long-term consumption or production, according to Jia Zheng, a portfolio manager at Shanghai Minghong Investment Co.

Which is pretty much what I predicted on the day of the launch:

Will it succeed?  Well, that depends on how you measure success.  No doubt it will generate heavy volume.  Speculative enthusiasm runs deep in China, and retail traders trade a lot.  They would probably make a guano futures contract a success, if it were launched: they will no doubt be attracted to crude.

. . . .

If you are looking for a metric of success as a commercial tool (rather than of its success as a money making venture for the exchange) look at open interest, not volume.  And look in particular in open interest in the back months.  This will take some time to build, and in the meantime I imagine that there will be a lot of awed commentary about trading volume.  But that’s not the main indicator of the utility of a contract as a commercial risk management and price discovery tool.

 

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June 28, 2018

A Tarnished GEM: A Casualty of Regulation, Spread Explosions, or Both?

Filed under: Clearing,Commodities,Derivatives,Economics,Energy,Exchanges,Regulation — The Professor @ 6:28 pm

Geneva Energy Markets LLC, a large independent oil market maker, has been shuttered.  Bloomberg and the FT have stories on GEM’s demise.  The Bloomberg piece primarily communicates the firm’s official explanation: the imposition of the Basel III leverage ratio on GEM’s clearer raised the FCM’s capital requirement, and it responded by forcing GEM to reduce its positions sharply.  The FT story contains the same explanation, but adds this: “Geneva Energy Markets, which traded between 50m and 100m barrels a day of oil, has sold its trading book after taking ‘significant losses’ in oil futures and options, a person close to the company said.”

These stories are of course not mutually exclusive, and the timing of the announcement that the firm is shutting down months after it had already been ordered to reduce positions suggests a way of reconciling them. Specifically, the firm had suffered loss that made it impossible to support even its shrunken positions.

The timing is consistent with this.  GEM is primarily a spread trader, and oil spreads have gone crazy lately.  In particular, spread position short nearby WTI has been killed in recent days due to the closure of Canadian oil sands production and the relentless exports of US oil.  The fall in supply and continued strong demand have led to a rapid fall in oil stocks, especially at Cushing.  This has been accompanied (as theory says it should be!) by a spike in the WTI backwardation, and a rise in the WTI-Brent differential (and other quality spreads with a WTI leg).  If GEM was short the calendar spread, or had a position in quality spreads that went pear-shaped with the explosion in WTI, it could have taken a big hit.  Or at least a big enough hit to make it unviable to continue to operate at a profitable scale.

Here’s a cautionary tale.  Stop me if you’ve heard it before:

“The notional value of our book was in excess of $50 billion,” Vonderheide said. “However, the actual risk of the book was always relatively low, with at value-at-risk at around $2 million at any given time.”

If I had a dollar for every time that I’ve heard/read “No worries! Our VaR is really low!” only to have the firm fold (or survive a big loss) I would be livin’ large.  VaR works.  Until it doesn’t.  At best, it tells you the minimum loss you can suffer with a certain probability: it doesn’t tell you how much worse than that it can get.  This is why VaR is being replaced or supplemented with other measures that give a better measure of downside risk (e.g., expected shortfall).

I would agree, however, with GEM managing partner Mark Vonderheide (whom I know slightly):

“The new regulation is seriously damaging the liquidity in the energy market,” Vonderheide said. “If the regulation was intending to create a safer and more efficient market, it has done completely the opposite.”

It makes it costlier to make markets, which erodes market liquidity, thereby making it costlier for firms to hedge, and more difficult to enter and exit positions.  Liquidity reductions resulting from this type of regulation tend to be most acute during periods of high volatility–which can exacerbate the volatility, perversely.  Moreover, like much of Frankendodd and its foreign fellow monsters, it tends to hit small to medium sized firms worse than bigger ones, and thereby contributes to greater concentration in the markets–exactly the opposite of the stated purpose.

As Reagan said: “The most terrifying words in the English language are: I’m from the government and I’m here to help.” Just ask GEM about that.

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May 24, 2018

Gazprom and Its Connected Contractors: The Credit Mobilier Scheme, With Russian Variations

Filed under: Commodities,Economics,Energy,History,Russia — The Professor @ 6:05 pm

A couple of SWP friends were kind enough to send me a copy of the swan song of one Alex Fak, an erstwhile senior analyst at Sberbank.  Alex lost his job because he committed a mortal sin: telling the truth, in this instance about the monstrosity that I have savaged for years–Gazprom.

Alex said that the oft-heard question “why does Gazprom do such stupid things?” is off base because it presumes that the company is run in the interest of shareholders: if it were, its unmatched record of value destruction would indeed be stupid.  However, Mr. Fax opined that the company’s actions over the decades are definitely not stupid if you evaluate them from the perspective of its contractors, who make massive amounts of money building obscenely negative NPV projects.

Why does this persist, in the Putin era, which allegedly cracked down on oligarchic thievery? Well, one reason is that the biggest contractors happen to be owned by–wait for it–the two biggest friends of Vova: Gennady Timchenko (a hockey buddy) and Arkady Rotenberg (a judo buddy).*  Putin did not eliminate oligarchs, so much as replace them with his cronies.  Calling out such connected men by name is no doubt why Mr. Fax is an ex-Sberbank analyst.  And saying this kind of thing puts him at risk of being an ex-person.

The Gazprom MO described by Mr. Fak  represents a continuation of, and a mega-sizing of, the bizness model of the 1990s, when the “red directors” of state-owned firms tunneled out huge amounts of funds by having their firms buy supplies and services at seriously inflated prices from firms owned by their relatives.

Indeed, in the pre-Cambrian days of this blog–2006(!)–I hypothesized that Gazprom and its contractors were in effect a Russian version of Credit Mobilier, the construction firm that the Union Pacific hired to build the railroad.

The WaPo article also mentions that Gazprom’s pipeline construction costs are two to three times industry norms. To me this suggests a Credit Mobilier-Union Pacific type situation, where inflated prices for materials and equipment flow into the pockets of companies owned by Gazprom managers. Just thinkin’.

Thomas C. Durant was the president of the Union Pacific–and the major shareholder in Credit Mobilier.  The UP paid Credit Mobilier around $94 million, and Credit Mobilier incurred only about $50 million in costs to build the UP.   The Gazprom arrangement is somewhat different given that neither Timchenko nor Rotenberg are executives at the Russian gas giant, but the basic idea is very similar. (I also noted early on that Transneft, the oil pipeline monopoly, operates on the same model.)  Gazprom and its contractors operate on the Credit Mobilier model, with Russian variations.

Once upon a time Gazprom CEO Alexei Miller boasted that he would make Gazprom the world’s first trillion dollar company.  Today it’s market cap is south of $55 billion.  Hey! anybody can be off by two orders of magnitude, right?

This is not surprising, because maximizing value to shareholders is not, nor has it ever been, the objective of Gazprom.  The objective is, and always has been, to divert resources to the politically connected via wasteful capital expenditures (that happen to be the revenues of the likes of Timchenko and Rotenberg).  Alex Fak understood this, and paid the price for shouting that the emperor had no clothes.

Both Gazprom and Rosneft are world leaders in destroying value, rather than creating it.  But this is a feature, not a bug, given the natural state political economy of Russia, which prioritizes rent creation and redistribution to the elite. And this is precisely why Russia’s pretensions to great power status rest on economic quicksand.  That should be blindingly obvious, and I am sure that Putin understands this at some level.  But revealed preference suggests that he values enriching his friends more than implementing the economic changes that would make his nation economically and militarily competitive.

*The sums tunneled from Gazprom to Timchenko make me laugh when I think about the oft-repeated allegation that oil trader Gunvor (half-owned by Timchenko) was a source of massive personal wealth for Putin (via Timchenko).  There was much more money to be made much closer to home, and completely outside the scrutiny of bankers and regulators.

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May 17, 2018

Rosneft: The Farce Continues

Filed under: Commodities,Economics,Energy,Russia — The Professor @ 7:22 pm

Remember when the Russian government said it was going to privatize a piece of Rosneft? Hahahaha. That is so 2016–please try to keep up!  In its announcement of “Rosneft 2022” the company proposes to buy back about $2 billion in shares, which is just about 20 percent of the piece sold off in 2016–no, wait–2017–no, wait–2018.  Adding even more hilarity is that the buyback plan was apparently at the insistence of Qatar, the last buyer standing which agreed to buy most of the shares initially privatized, much to the relief of the banks (Intesa and unnamed Russian ones) who were wearing a big piece of the risk.

I’m guessing that this was one of the terms Qatar laid down to absorb the entire hand-me-down stake for the original 2016 price, even though in Euro terms Rosneft’s shares are substantially lower today (despite a rallying oil price!)

Quite the vote of confidence there, eh?  Well, not that that’s surprising.  The conspicuous failure of any Chinese buyer to step into the shoes of disgraced CEFC tells you just how much confidence Rosneft inspires these days.

I am hard pressed to recall such a farcical series of events involving a major company.  If this one of  Russia’s state champions, just think of the shape the palookas are in!

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May 15, 2018

Contrary to What You Might Have Read, the Oil Market (Flat Prices and Calendar Spreads) Is Not Sending Mixed Signals

Filed under: Commodities,Derivatives,Economics,Energy — The Professor @ 9:27 pm

In recent weeks, the flat price of crude oil (both WTI and Brent) has moved up smartly, but time spreads have declined pretty sharply.  A common mistake by oil market analysts is to consider this combination of movements anomalous, and an indication of a disconnect between the paper and the physical markets.  This article from Reuters is an example:

Oil futures prices have soared past three-year highs, OPEC’s deal has cut millions of barrels of inventory worldwide and investors are betting in record numbers that prices could rocket past $80 and even hit $90 a barrel this year.

But physical markets for oil shipments tell a different story. Spot crude prices are at their steepest discounts to futures prices in years due to weak demand from refiners in China and a backlog of cargoes in Europe. Sellers are struggling to find buyers for West African, Russian and Kazakh cargoes, while pipeline bottlenecks trap supply in west Texas and Canada.

The divergence is notable because traditionally, physical markets are viewed as a better gauge of short-term fundamentals. Crude traders who peddle cargoes to refineries worldwide say speculators are on shaky ground as they drive futures markets above $70 a barrel, their highest levels for three-and-a-half years, on concerns about tighter supply from Venezuela and the potential impact of U.S. sanctions on supply from Iran.

Investors have piled millions of dollars in record wagers in the options market, betting on a further rally on the back of rising geopolitical tensions, particularly in Iran, Saudi Arabia and Venezuela, and the global decline in supply.

“Guys who are trading futures have a view that draws are coming and big draws are coming,” a U.S.-based crude trader at a global commodity merchant said, adding that demand could ramp up as global refinery maintenance ends.

. . . .

BIG DISCONNECT

Those on the front lines of the physical market are not convinced. Traders say the surge in U.S. exports to more than 2 million bpd has saturated some markets, leaving benchmark prices ripe for a correction.

“There is a huge disconnect between futures and fundamentals,” a trader with a Chinese independent refiner said. “I won’t be surprised if prices correct by $20 a barrel.”

In fact, the alleged “disconnect” is readily explained based on recent developments in the market, notably the prospect for interruption/reduction in Iranian supplies due to the reimposition of sanctions by the US.  The situation in Venezuela is exacerbating this situation.  Two things are particularly important in this regard.

First, the Iranian situation is a threat to future supplies, not current supplies: the potential collapse in Venezuela is also a threat to future supplies (although current supplies are dropping too).  A reduction in expected future supplies increases future scarcity relative to current scarcity.  The economically efficient response to that is to share the pain, that is, to shift some supply from the present to the future by storage.  To reward storage, the futures price rises relative to the spot price–that is, the time spread declines.  However, since the driving shock (the anticipated reduction in future supplies) will result in greater scarcity, the flat price must rise.

A second effect works in the same direction. This is a phenomenon that I worked out in a 2008 paper that later was expanded into a chapter my book on commodity price dynamics.  Both the US actions regarding Iran, and the current tumult in Venezuela increase uncertainty about future supplies.  The efficient way to respond to this increase in fundamental uncertainty is to increase inventories, relative to what they would have been absent the increase.  This requires a decline in current consumption, which requires an increase in flat prices.  But incentivizing greater storage requires a fall in calendar spreads.

An additional complicating factor here is the feedback between inventories or calendar spreads (which are often used as a rough proxy for inventories, given the opacity and relative infrequency of stocks numbers) and OPEC decisions.  To the extent OPEC uses inventories or calendar spreads as a measure of the tightness of the supply-demand balance, and interprets the fall in calendar spreads and the related increase in inventories (or decline in the rate of inventory reductions), it could respond to what is happening now by restricting supplies . . . which would exacerbate the future scarcity. Relatedly, a known unknown is how current spread movements reflect market expectations about how OPEC will respond to spread movements.  The feedback/reflexivity here (that results from a price maker/entity with market power using spreads/inventory as a proxy for supply-demand balance, and market participants forming expectations about how the price maker will behave) greatly complicates things.  Misalignments between OPEC behavior and market expectations (and OPEC expectations about market expectations, and on an on with infinite regress) can lead to big jumps in prices.

Putting to one side this last complication, contrary to what many analysts and market participants claim, the recent movements in flat prices and spreads are not sending mixed signals.  They are a rational response to the evolution in market conditions observed in recent weeks: a decline in expected future supply, and an increase in fundamental risk.  The theory of storable commodities predicts that such conditions will lead to higher flat prices and lower calendar spreads.

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May 4, 2018

Stick a Fork In It: It’s Done

Filed under: Commodities,Economics,Energy,Russia — The Professor @ 10:02 am

Glencore has just announced that the deal to sell Rosneft shares to CEFC has been terminated.  Furthermore, the QIA-Glencore consortium is being wound up, with virtually all of the shares going to QIA:

The members of the Consortium have agreed to dissolve the Consortium originally put in place in December 2016 for the purposes of acquiring a 19.5% stake in Rosneft and will take direct ownership of the underlying Rosneft shares.  In connection with that, the Consortium has today entered into an agreement to transfer a 14.16% stake in Rosneft to a wholly owned subsidiary of QIA (the “Transaction”) the consideration for which will to be used for the settlement of the Consortium’s liabilities. This agreement will become effective on 7 May 2018.

On completion of the Transaction, the Consortium will be wound up and the margin guarantees provided by Glencore will be terminated.  At that point, Glencore will retain an equity stake in Rosneft shares commensurate with its original equity investment announced in January 2017, which amounts to 0.57%, and QIA will hold an equity stake of 18.93%.

Meaning that in reality, as I noted at the outset of the deal, Glencore was basically a straw buyer–a beard–to provide the appearance of western corporate participation in the deal.

The price is also interesting:

The consideration for the Transaction attributable to Glencore’s interest in the Consortium (being 50% of the consideration for the Transaction) is approximately EUR 3.7 billion.

Well, the original December 2016 price was EUR 10.2 billion, meaning that this price is at a 25 percent discount from the original deal.

Who ate this difference?  Glencore?  I doubt it, but if it did, it would raise huge questions about its disclosures (or lack thereof) at the time of the original deal.  Regardless, this is yet another example of Glencore playing with fire.  What comes after trifecta?

I further note that whereas it was rumored that a Chinese state company would step into the shoes of CEFC, this hasn’t happened.  Yet, anyways.

Some state champion, that Rosneft, eh?

Update.  Some arithmetic.  The sums disclosed by today’s announcement basically indicate that Qatar assumed all but Glencore’s sliver at an amount equal to the original amount of the deal agreed to in December, 2016–including the mystery €2.2 billion which pretty much everybody but me and Ivan Tkachaev at RBC missed.  Qatar originally put up €2.5b, Glencore €.3b, and Intesa €5.2b, which adds up to €8b, or €2.2b short of the announced €10.2b.  The difference apparently came from as yet unnamed Russian banks, this in spite of Putin’s claim that Russian banks would not provide financing for a Rosneft “privatization.”

Today Qatar agreed to pony up €7.4b.  Add to that its original €2.5b and Glencore’s €.3b, and voila!, you have . . . €10.2b.  Miraculous, no?  Everybody remains whole!

Here’s the problem though.  Rosneft has been trading pretty much flat in RUB.  On 9 December, 2016, its share price was 370.8 RUB.  Today, it is 386.75 RUB, about 4 percent higher.  However, the RUB has depreciated about 12 percent against the EUR, going from 65.9707 to 75.155RUB/EUR.  So, in EUR terms, Rosneft is worth about 8.5 percent less than in December, 2016, but Qatar is paying the same price today as was agreed to then.

Why would Qatar do this?  Yes (as Ivan T points out to me) ~€1b is pocket change for the QIA, which has a $320b portfolio.  But still, you don’t get rich by gifting ~10 percent of deals.  So is there a side deal?

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May 2, 2018

When You Play With Fire, Eventually You Get Burned–Even if You are Glencore

Filed under: Commodities,Economics,Politics,Regulation,Russia — The Professor @ 6:10 pm

Even by the standards of the commodity business (and the commodity trading business in particular) Glencore is known for its appetite for political and legal risk, and its willingness to deal with sketchy counterparties.  It does so because by taking on these risks, it gets deals at good prices.  But the bigger the appetite, the greater the indigestion when things go wrong.

In the past several weeks, Glencore has hit the going wrong trifecta.

It has a longstanding relationship–including marketing deals and equity investment–with Rusal, entered when the Russian company’s reputation was particularly dubious in the aftermath of the aluminum wars, and its owners were involved serial litigation.

We know what happened to Rusal–it is in dire straits because of US sanctions.  Yes, the Treasury has indicated that it will take Rusal’s case on appeal, but there is no guarantee that it will grant a stay of execution when the appeal process is completed.

Glencore also partnered with very dubious Israeli businessman Daniel Gertler in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).  Gertler was sanctioned by the US government in December for a history of corrupt dealings in that country.  Glencore bought out Gertler in 2017.  After the sanctions were imposed, Glencore stopped paying Gertler royalties, but now Gertler is suing for $3 billion in royalties that he claims Glencore owes him.

Also in the DRC, Glencore is in a dispute with the government’s mining company, which claims that a Glencore subsidiary operating in the country is undercapitalized.  This is really a battle over rents: in essence, the government claims that foreign miners (including Glencore) overburden operating subsidiaries with debt in order to reduce dividend payments to the government (which is part owner).  The government has moved to dissolve the Glencore subsidiary.

I don’t know enough to comment on the substance of the various legal disputes in Africa.  But I can say that the risks of such disputes are material, and that they can be very costly.

In some respects, the Glencore political/legal risk strategy is like a short vol trade.  It can be a money printing machine when things go well, but when it goes bad, it goes really bad.

In a way Glencore is lucky.  It can withstand these hits now, having clawed its way back from its near death experience in the fall of 2015.  If these hits had occurred back then, well . . .

In sum, when you play with fire, eventually you are going to get burned.  Even if you are Glencore.

PS. The tumult in the Congo could disrupt cobalt supplies.  This would put pressure on one of my fave targets–Tesla–which is already in a parlous state.  Elon gave a crazed performance at today’s Tesla earnings call.  To me it came off as the meltdown of a narcissist who is facing failure and cannot handle being questioned.

I’ve been biding my time on some additional Tesla posts.  The time may be near!

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May 1, 2018

Cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs: Round Up the Usual Suspects

Filed under: Commodities,Derivatives,Economics,Exchanges — The Professor @ 10:39 am

Journalism on financial markets generally, and commodity markets in particular, often resorts to rounding up the usual suspects to explain anomalous price movements.  Nowadays, the usual suspect in commodity markets is computerized/algorithmic/high frequency trading.  For example, some time back HFT was blamed for higher volatility in the cattle market, even though such trading represents a smaller fraction of cattle trading than it does for other contracts, and especially since there is precious little in the way of a theoretical argument that would support such a connection.

Another case in point: a flipping of the relationship between London and New York cocoa prices is being blamed on computerized traders.

Computers are dominating the trading of cocoa in New York, sparking a dramatic divergence in the longstanding price relationship with the London market.

Speculative funds have driven the price of the commodity in New York up more than 50 per cent since the start of the year to just under $3,000 a tonne. The New York market, traded in dollars, has traditionally been the preferred market for financial players such as hedge funds.

The London market, historically favoured by traders and commercial players buying and selling physical cocoa, has only risen 34 per cent in the same timeframe.

The big shift triggered by the New York buying is that its benchmark, which normally trades at a discount to London, now sits at a record premium.

So, is the NY premium unjustified by physical market price relationships?  If so, that would be like hundred dollar bills lying on the sidewalk–and someone would pick them up, right?

Not according to this article:

The pronounced shift in price relationships comes as hedge fund managers with physical trading capabilities and merchant traders have exited the cocoa market.

In the past, such a large price difference would have encouraged a trader to buy physical cocoa in London and send it to New York, hence narrowing the relationship. However, current price movements reflected the absence of such players, said brokers.

Fewer does not mean zero.  Cargill, or Olam, or Barry Callebaut or Ecom and a handful of other traders certainly have the ability to execute a simple physical arb if one existed.  Indeed, given the recent trying times in physical commodity trading, such firms would be ravenous to exploit such opportunities.

What’s even more bizarre is that pairs/spread/convergence trading is about the most vanilla (not chocolate!) type of algorithmic trade there is, and indeed, has long been a staple of algorithmic firms that trade only paper.  Meaning that if the spread between this pair of closely related contracts was out of line, if physical traders didn’t bring it back into line, it would be the computerized traders who would.  Yes, there are some complexities here–different delivery locations, different currencies, different deliverable growths with different price differentials, different clearinghouses–but those are exactly the kinds of things that are amenable to systematic–and computerized–analysis.

Weirdly, the article recognizes this

Others use algorithms that exploit the shifts in price relationships between different markets or separate contracts of the same commodity. [Emphasis added.  I should mention that cocoa is one of the few examples of a commodity with separate active contracts for the same commodity.]

It then fails to grasp the implications of this.

One “authority” cited in the article is–get this–Anthony Ward of Armajaro infamy:

Anthony Ward, the commodities trader known in the cocoa market for his large bets, has been among the more well-known fund managers to close his hedge fund, exiting the market at the end of last year. Mr Ward, dubbed “Chocfinger” due to his influence over the cocoa price, blamed the rising power of algorithmic and systems-based trading for making position-taking based on “fundamental” supply and demand factors more difficult.

Methinks that the market isn’t treating Anthony well, and like many losing traders, can’t take the blame himself so he’s looking for a scapegoat. (I note that Ward sold out Armajaro’s cocoa trading business to Ecom for the grand sum of $1 in December, 2013.)

I am skeptical enough that computerized trading can distort flat prices, but those arguments are harder to refute because of the knowledge problem: the whole reason markets exist is that no one knows the “right” price, hence disagreements are inevitable.  But when it comes to something as basic as an intracommodity spread, I find allegations of computer-driven distortions completely implausible.  You can’t arb flat price distortions, but you can arb distorted spreads, and that business is the bread and butter for commodity traders.

So: release the suspect!

PS. For my Geneva students looking for a topic for a class paper, this would be ideal. Perform an analysis to explain the flipping of the spread.

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Rusal: Premature Celebration

Filed under: Commodities,Derivatives,Economics,Politics,Regulation,Russia — The Professor @ 9:31 am

Rusal shares rose sharply and aluminum prices fell sharply on the news that the US Treasury had eased sanctions on the company.  The concrete change was an extension in the time granted for those dealing with Deripaska-linked entities to wind down those dealings.  But the market was more encouraged by the Treasury’s statement that the extension was being granted in order to permit it to evaluate Rusal’s petition to be removed from the SDN list.  It is inclusion on that list that sent the company into a downward spiral.

Methinks that the celebration is premature.  Treasury made clear that a stay of execution for Rusal was contingent upon it cutting ties with Deripaska.  Well, just how is that supposed to happen? This is especially the case if any transaction that removes Deripaska from the company not benefit him financially.  Well, then why would he sell?  He would have no incentive to make certain something–the total loss of his investment in Rusal–that is only a possibility now.

Of course, Putin has ways of making this happen, the most pleasant of which would be nationalization without compensation to Deripaska, perhaps followed by a sale to … somebody (more on this below). (Less pleasant ways would involve, say, Chita, or a fall from a great height.)

But if the US were to say that this was sufficient to bring Rusal in from the cold, the entire sanctions regime would be exposed as an incoherent farce.  For the ultimate target of the sanctions is not Deripaska per se, but the government of Russia, for an explicit foreign policy purpose–a “response to the actions and polices of the Government of the Russian Federation, including the purported annexation of the Crimea region of Ukraine.”

Deripaska didn’t personally annex Crimea or support insurrection in the Donbas.  The Russian government did.  The idea behind sanctions was to put pressure on those the Russian government (allegedly) cares about in order to change Putin’s policies.  They are an indirect assault on Putin/the Russian government, but an assault on them nonetheless.

So removing Rusal from the SDN list because it had been seized by the Russian government would make no sense based on the purported purpose of the sanctions.  Indeed, under the logic of the sanctions, the current discomfiture of the Russian government, facing as it does the potential unemployment of tens of thousands of workers, should be a feature not a bug. The sanctions were levied under an act whose title refers to “America’s adversaries,” which would be the Russian state, and were intended to punish said adversaries.

Mission accomplished!  Which is precisely why the Russian government is completely rational to view the Treasury announcement “cautiously,” and to view the US signals as “contradictory.”  The Russians would be fools to believe that nationalization and kicking Deripaska to the curb would free Rusal from the mortal threat that sanctions pose.

Perhaps Treasury has viewed the market carnage, and is trying to find a face-saving way out.  But it cannot do so without losing all credibility, and appearing rash, and quite frankly stupid, for failing to understand the ramifications of imposing SDN on Deripaska.  Also, doing so would feed the political fire that Trump is soft on Russia.

Further, who would be willing to take the risk buying Rusal from Deripaska either directly, or indirectly after nationalization?  They would only do so if they had iron clad guarantees from the US government that no further sanctions would be forthcoming.  But the US government is unlikely to give such guarantees, and I doubt that they would be all that reliable in any event.  Analogous to sovereign debt, just what could anyone do if the US were to say: “Sorry.  We changed our mind.”?

Indeed, the Treasury’s signaling of a change of heart indicates just how capricious it can be.  Any potential buyer would only buy at a substantial discount, given this massive uncertainty.  A discount so big that Deripaska or the Russian government would be unlikely to accept.

And who would the buyers be anyways?  Glencore already has a stake in Rusal, and a long history of dealings.  But it is probably particularly reluctant to get crosswise with the US, especially given its vulnerabilities arising from, say, its various African dealings.

The Chinese?  Well, since China is already on the verge of a trade war in the US, and a trade war involving aluminum in particular, they would have to be especially chary about buying out Deripaska.  Such a deal would present the US with a twofer–an ability to shaft both Russia and China.  And perhaps a three-fer: providing support to the US aluminum industry in the bargain (although of course harming aluminum consuming industries, but that hasn’t deterred Trump so far.)

So short of the US going full Emily Litella (and thus demolishing its credibility), it’s hard to see a viable path to freeing Rusal from SDN sanctions.  Meaning: Put away the party hats.  The celebration is premature.

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