Streetwise Professor

May 1, 2018

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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April 18, 2018

CEFC: The Rise and Fall of a Financial House of Cards

Filed under: China,Commodities,Economics,Russia — The Professor @ 12:34 am

This 1 March article from Caixin–which has since disappeared down the memory hole in China–is a stunning exposé about the ostensible purchaser of a 14.1 percent stake in Rosneft.  It portrays the company as a financial shell game that basically kited trade finance credit to grow like Topsy, and accumulate a collection of assets around the world–many of which it is now unloading.   The company also utilized shadow finance to raise funds via a securities affiliate.  It needed to grow rapidly to generate the financial churn that it used to finance itself. Now it is unraveling because the powers that be in China have, for some reason, decided this will happen–presumably because a forced unwind executed in a highly opaque manner is far preferable to an uncontrolled collapse that was impending.

That Glencore, Qatar, Intessa, Rosneft, and Russian and Chinese banks would agree to sell to such an entity, and/or to lend it money to permit it to purchase the Rosneft stake indicates either a shocking lack of due diligence, or more likely, a desperation to exit the deal and the lack of a more reputable buyer.  Given CEFC’s implosion, and the even more fraught circumstances of government-linked Russian companies, I’d be hard pressed to identify any company that can or will step into CEFC’s shoes.

An even more important issue here is why the Chinese authorities have yanked the reins on CEFC, and hard.  This follows the seizure of Anbang Insurance, and the regulatory pressure on HNA.

My suspicion is that the government realized that CEFC was a house of cards, and the financial strains of the Rosneft acquisition would bring the house tumbling down.  Indeed, it seems that the company was having real difficulties securing the funding, and if it had failed that would have been a major embarrassment to China. But this only raises more important questions, such as, what inferences should be drawn from the government’s intervention?  In particular, what inferences should be drawn about the state of the Chinese financial system?

One possible inference is that the CEFCs and Anbangs are the exceptions, and the government will intervene before they threaten the broader system.  That’s the comforting inference.  The more disturbing inference is that there are many houses of cards in China waiting to fall, and that the government can neither crack down on them all or let any fall, so it intervenes on a just-in-time basis.  This kicks the can down the road, and buys time to attempt to get the leverage in the system somewhat under control.

I say attempt, because this strategy is fraught with moral hazard.  A controlled wind-down cushions the blow for creditors, and the expectation that the government will do this in the future provides little disincentive to cut back on the extension of credit today.  Protecting creditors from the consequences of lending to the likes of CEFC ensures that they will continue to lend to similar companies in the future.  But letting companies fail in a way that imposes big losses on creditors threatens a crisis in the financial system.

I paid attention to CEFC initially because of the Rosneft angle.  But I think a far more important angle is what CEFC’s rise and fall say about the Chinese financial system, and the ability of firms to grow rapidly and to a huge size on the basis of the most dodgy financing mechanisms.  If CEFC is at all representative, the implications for the Chinese financial system are dire.  Which could explain the haste with which the government consigned the story to the memory hole.

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April 10, 2018

What SDN Hath Wrought: How Trump Rocked Not Just Rusal, But Most of Russia

Filed under: Commodities,Economics,Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 8:42 pm

I clearly underestimated the impact that the sanctions imposed on Deripaska, Rusal, and others would have.  The initial reaction Monday by many was to puke everything Russian.  Everything.  The ruble. The overall Russian stock market.  Russian debt.  Every major Russian company.  They all crashed. The carnage was widespread and indiscriminate and extended far beyond those directly targeted.

Rusal was the biggest loser, and extended its losses today.  Overall, its stock price is down almost 55 percent.  Ivan Glasenberg resigned from the board, and just now two Russian non-executive directors also resigned.  The company is clearly toxic/radioactive.  I don’t see it surviving without massive state support, and perhaps nationalization.   But even then . . . who outside of Russia and China will buy its aluminum?  (Note China is already suffering an overcapacity problem in the metal, which US trade restrictions would only make worse.)

I thought I might have misjudged seriously that Potanin would gain at Deripaska’s expense: on Monday Norilsk Nickel was down almost 20 percent, and Potanin was the biggest absolute loser.  Norilsk has since bounced back, and recovered much of its loss: it is now down about 7.5 percent from Friday.  But the “shootout” auction will still be between two gunmen who have been grievously wounded by fire from an unexpected direction.

Many other Russian companies that were pounded yesterday have also bounced back.  Severstal is actually trading above the pre-sanctions-news price.  Rosneft and Novatek have also recovered most of their losses.

Sberbank remains down–down more than 16 percent.  The bank disingenuously stated that the selloff was overdone because its exposure to sanctioned companies represented only 2.5 percent of its assets.  Well, since it is leveraged about 12-to-1, that represents 30 percent of its shareholder equity, which would justify a pretty big selloff.

The ruble remains down.  Indeed, it extended its loss today, and actually experienced a greater percentage decline today (almost 5 percent) than it did Monday (around 3 percent).  Perhaps this reflects the central bank’s statement that it would not intervene in support.  But it does indicate that this is perceived as a Russia-wide shock, and not one limited to a few billionaires and their companies.

The broader selloff, somewhat overdone as it was (as reflected by today’s recovery in many names) suggests a widespread estimation that other shoes will drop, and that billionaires that escaped the first round are still at risk for the Oleg treatment.

This raises the question of how the targets were chosen. Leonid Bershidsky argues that Deripaska and Rusal were targeted because taking Rusal’s aluminum off the market (as is happening, with the LME saying it will not warrant Rusal metal not already in warehouses) would be a much more effective way of supporting the US aluminum industry than selective tariffs.  This does have a certain logic, but if that is the logic, it would speak very poorly of the the US government, for it would imply the masking of a protectionist measure behind an allegedly principled reaction to Russian turpitude. It also doesn’t explain the other targets.

Nor does it explain the non-targets.  Novatek and Timchenko are much more tightly connected to Putin than Deripaska and Rusal. And Novatek LNG competes with US LNG, so there would be a protectionist rationale for hitting it.  Yet Novatek was not subject to SDN treatment, and as noted earlier its stock price has largely rebounded.  Perhaps a journalist friend in Moscow is right that Total’s big investment in it and its Yamal project has given it some immunity.

Similarly, Rosneft and Sechin are much more in the inner sanctum than Deripaska/Rusal.  Yet it too has escaped SDN.  Perhaps the risk of creating an oil shock is too great.

The “perhapses” indicate, however, that the rhyme and reason of the administration’s actions is not obvious.  And perhaps (there’s that word again) that’s what really has the market–and many rich Russians–spooked.  Given the capriciousness of the list, everyone is at risk.

Russia’s official reaction was of course negative, but one voice has been missing: Putin’s.  It’s not quite akin to Stalin, 22 June-3 July, 1941 (when he remained out of sight after the shock of Barbarossa), but it does suggest uncertainty as to how to respond.  Not a B’rer Rabbit reaction, at least not yet.

This uncertainty is no doubt fed by the realization of the vulnerability of the Russian economy to US policy.  I’ve written before that the US could crush Russia like an overripe grape by, for instance, cutting it off from SWIFT or the dollar system altogether.  This shows that it can wreak havoc with far more limited measures.

It’s also interesting that Xi made rather conciliatory remarks yesterday.  A coincidence? Perhaps (again). But Friday’s sanction action shows that Trump can act unpredictably and punishingly.  That likely concentrates minds in Beijing as well as in Moscow.

Whatever the logic of Friday’s thunderbolt, it should put paid to the Trump-is-Putin’s-pawn and Putin-has-something-on-Trump theories.  Indeed, a desire to terminate with prejudice those narratives is as good an explanation for the administration’s action as anything.  Not that reality will interfere with the conspiratorial ravings of those in the Democratic Party and the media and the neocon NeverTrumpers.  They are just too invested and obsessed, and nothing short of a preemptive nuclear strike on Moscow is likely to change that–and even then . . . . And with Trump threatening to attack Syria despite Russian warnings against it, maybe we’ll soon put that theory to the test as well.

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April 8, 2018

Caught in the Crossfire: Oleg Deripaska and Ivan Glasenberg

Filed under: Commodities,Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 7:15 pm

On Friday, the US Treasury Department sanctioned several Russian billionaires, commonly but misleadingly referred to as oligarchs. Topping the list was Rusal’s/EN+’s Oleg Deripaska.  Also included were Suleiman Kerimov , Alexey Miller of Gazprom, and Viktor Vekselberg of Renova (which holds a substantial stake in Rusal).

Presumably the intent behind choosing these specific targets, and the sanctions law which led to their selection, is to somehow punish Putin, and to cause him to change his behavior.  The sanctions will probably fail in achieving these objectives, and could actually be a net benefit for Putin.

When it comes to Russian billionaires, there are distinct classes.

There are Putin’s favored billionaires–his buddies like Timchenko and the Rotenbergs (who share St. Petersburg roots with Putin).  To a large extent these figures are billionaires because of Putin–they are beneficiaries of his largesse.  As further evidence of their privileged position, he compensated them through favoritism to offset their losses when they were targeted for sanctions early on.

There are the billionaires Putin hates (or hated).  These are the 90s oligarchs proper, men like Khodorkovsky, Berezovsky, and Gusinsky, who are in exile or dead.

Then there are those billionaires he tolerates, because they steer clear of politics and pony up to pay for Putin pet projects (e.g., the Sochi Olympics).  Deripaska, Vekselberg, and Kerimov are in this category.

Deripaska in particular is hardly a Putin favorite, and at times Oleg has tested Putin’s tolerance–as evidenced by the pen throwing incident at Pikalevo in 2009, where Putin chastised Deripaska publicly, likening him to a cockroach who ran at Putin’s approach.

Punishing this group is unlikely to cause Putin any loss of sleep. And indeed, he may reap some benefits.  The sanctions make these men and their firms more dependent on him and Russian state support–and he can extract a price for this support.  Furthermore, it pays into his narrative of Russia being unfairly targeted by a hostile West (and the US in particular).  Indeed, the peripheral political role of those sanctioned allows Putin to make the colorable claim that the US harbors an animus against Russia and Russians generally: he will therefore be able to claim that this is just another example of American Russophobia.

Perhaps most importantly, Putin has been attempting rather pathetically to get wealthy Russians to repatriate their fortunes: truth be told, the US government is making a more persuasive case for that than anything Putin has done or even could do.  Putin is therefore somewhat in the position of B’rer Rabbit, and the US in the position of B’rer Fox.

All of these factors strongly suggest that the US action is at best symbolic, and perhaps counterproductive.  They certainly are insufficient to induce Putin to ratchet down his confrontation with the US, and may indeed play into his justification for such a confrontation.

Putting motivations and incentives aside, the sanctions will not have much impact–if any–on Russian capabilities to implement Putin’s confrontational strategy.

So again, a flamboyantly symbolic act, with little practical benefit accruing to the US.

This is not to say that the individual targets will not suffer–they will.  It’s just that Putin won’t feel their pain, or will use it to advance his own purposes.

Deripaska’s case is particularly striking.  The sanctions were clearly a surprise: Rusal stock fell 20 percent on the news, which would not have happened had it been anticipated.  [Update: as of Monday morning Central Time, Rusal is down 50 percent, and the company has asked customers to stop payment while it tries to right the business.] Moreover, Rusal/EN+/Deripaska were subjected to the most harsh form of sanctions–Special Designated Nationals (SDN) sanctions.  These are more punishing than those imposed on Rosneft, for instance.  Under SDN, any US person (including corporations) is forbidden to transact with the sanctioned individual or entity.  Moreover, secondary sanctions can be imposed on non-US entities that deal with an SDN target.  US firms can be precluded from dealing with foreign firms subject to secondary sanctions.  This makes it far more risky for non-US firms to cushion the blow against (say) Rusal: such firms may have to make the choice between transacting with US firms (especially banks and other financial institutions) and transacting with Rusal.  Many will likely say: “Lots of luck, Oleg! Been nice doin’ business with ya!”

Topping the list of firms facing this grim choice is Glencore, which has a marketing deal with Rusal through 2018.  This deal was expected to be renewed, except on a smaller scale for 2019 forward.  (On a smaller scale because Rusal has been moving away from selling primary aluminum which Glencore markets to selling value added wire rods, billets, and slabs directly to industrial customers.)  Glencore also owns 8.75 percent of Rusal, which it had announced it will convert into EN+ shares.

Of course one of Glencore’s strategies has always been to go where other companies daren’t.  Its appetite for political risk is clearly much larger than its peers in mining, and even its Swiss commodity trading peers.  But tempting fate with Uncle Sam on sanctions is a different matter, and thus I would consider a renewal of the marketing deal to be unlikely, and Glencore may also be looking to unload its Rusal/EN+ shares, although to whom and at what price are rather difficult questions to answer.  Probably to Russian entities (or a buyback financed by Russian state banks), and perhaps the Chinese, and for a song.

Glencore shares fell modestly on Friday, so the blow is not perceived as being too heavy.  But the company is likely the biggest loser other than Oleg himself.

The grievous blow directed at Deripaska also raises an issue that has not attracted much attention in the US or Europe–the fate of Norilsk Nickel.  Nornickel has been subject of a long running battle for control between Deripaska and Vladamir Potanin.  Roman Abramovich had indicated his intent to sell a block of shares that he had purchased as part of a peace deal between Deripaska and Potanin, and this raised the possibility of a “shootout” auction for the block between the two.

Well, methinks Oleg is plumb out of bullets right now, and so Potanin will prevail.  Which means that even a Russian billionaire can benefit from US sanctions on Russian billionaires.

(Curiously, although Potanin was on the “Forbes List of Potential Sanction Targets” announced earlier this year–as was Deripaska–he was not hammered the way Oleg was.  I have no idea why.)

All in all, there are loser and winners from Friday’s sanctions.  The losers are clearly Deripaska and to a lesser degree a non-Russian (despite the first name!), Ivan Glasenberg. One like winner is a Russian billionaire, and other winners are likely Chinese.

One person who is clearly not a loser, and may even be a winner, is the ostensible target–Vladimir Putin.

So other than throwing a few Russians to the US hounds baying for Russian blood, it’s really hard to see the point of this exercise.  It doesn’t advance American interests in any meaningful way.  Anyone looking for any change in Russian behavior–in Putin’s behavior–in the coming months will almost certainly be disappointed.  This is more another act in the ongoing American political melodrama than a serious policy move.

To alter a saying which Putin is fond of  quoting: the hounds will bay but the caravan–Putin’s caravan–will move on.

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March 1, 2018

I’ve Been Talking About Igor For Years Now, Thank You

Filed under: Commodities,Energy,Russia — The Professor @ 10:20 am

The FT ran a long profile of Igor Sechin today.

Nothing in the piece should be news to those who have followed my coverage of his escapades over the years. (I still miss the mullet!)

There are some interesting numbers in the piece that do speak volumes.  Such as Rosneft’s market cap–$65 billion. (ExxonMobil–$324b. Shell–$266b.) The number of employees–almost 300,000. (ExxonMobil–73,500.  Shell–92,000.)  The fact that Rosneft paid $55b for TNK BP–and still has a market cap of only $65b.

Rosneft is a Frankenstein’s monster that has been stitched together over the years from stolen body parts.  Igor is therefore a fitting name for its CEO.

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February 24, 2018

Are Trustless Transactions a Good Thing? I Don’t Know Until You Tell Me How Much They Cost

Filed under: Commodities,Cryptocurrency,Economics — The Profesor 2 @ 11:04 am

One of the most annoying crypto-tropes is the unconditional statement that Bitcoin and its competitors are great because they eliminate the need for trust in transactions. It is annoying because it is repeated ad nauseum despite the fact that it is seriously analytically incomplete. There is no free lunch: the banishment of trust comes at a cost, and a proper comparative analysis of cryptocurrency vis a vis alternatives (e.g., traditional bank-based payment mechanisms, fiat currency) requires a comparison of the costs of each. Which mechanism performs particular types of transactions more efficiently? Which mechanism performs particular economic functions more cheaply?

In Bitcoin, the economic function performed is the elimination of fraud (e.g., double spending, spending what you don’t have) in an anonymous setting. This is achieved via proof of work, which involves the use of real resources–notably, large quantities of electricity and computing power. That is, trustlessness comes at a cost.

The relevant question is whether this cost is higher or lower than the cost of performing the same economic functions (elimination of double spending, spending what you don’t have) using alternative mechanisms, such as traditional bank payment systems that rely on trust.

Trust is not free either. In essence, economic actors can be incentivized to act in a trustworthy way if they earn a stream of rents that would be lost if they betray trust.  But creating a stream of rents requires an increase in the price of an output and a reduction in the prices of the inputs of the trusted entity.  These price adjustments reduce output below the level that would be attained if transactions could be executed costlessly. (Proof-of-stake mechanisms use a variant of this to address double spend problems.)

The answer to this question is likely to differ, depending on the type of transaction at issue. For example, Bitcoin et al are likely to be cheaper for transactions for which anonymity or concealment of the identities of the parties from third parties  is highly desired by one or both of the transactors (which is a condition that may characterize many illicit transactions).*

It has yet to be shown, and there is room for serious doubt, that cryptocurrencies scale as efficiently as traditional trusted payment systems. Unless it scales, crypto will not be a viable replacement for large scale transactions, especially commercial transactions which represent the vast bulk of payments.

Another potential difference in cost involves security.  It is costly for trusted institutions to prevent theft and loss, but as has been seen of late, theft and loss are serious issues for crypto too. It is not clear which  mechanism mitigates theft and loss most cheaply.

Economics is all about the analysis of the costs and benefits of alternative means of achieving particular objectives. An analysis that hypes a feature of one such alternative (no trust required!) without comparing its costs with that for other ways of achieving the same objective (fraud-free transactions) is fundamentally flawed. Yet that is the default mode of discourse in cryptocurrency.

*The use of cryptocurrency in illicit transactions is close to the top of many elite/official criticisms of cryptocurrency–as it is in elite/official criticisms of fiat currency (“the war on cash”). I am at best ambivalent about this critique because the government decides what is illicit, and tends to overcriminalize transactions between consenting adults, and to overtax. As a Swiss friend told me when we were discussing the war on cash: “I would fight any attempt to eliminate cash. Cash is freedom!”

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February 22, 2018

VIX VapoRubOut

Filed under: Commodities,Derivatives,Economics,Exchanges — The Profesor 2 @ 12:28 pm

Bloomberg’s Odd Lots podcast from a few days ago discusses “How one of the Most Profitable Trades of the Last Few Years Blew Up in a Single Day.” Specifically, how did short volatility trades perform so well for so long, and then unravel so dramatically in a short period of time?

In fact, these two things are directly related. This trade performed well for a long time precisely because it was effectively selling insurance against an infrequent, severe event–in this case, a volatility spike. In essence, those who shorted volatility (primarily by selling VIX futures either directly or indirectly through exchange traded products like the XIV note) were providing insurance against a volatility spike, collected premiums for a long time, and then ended up paying out large amounts when a spike actually occurred. It is analogous to a company insuring against earthquakes: it’s rolling in the dough collecting premiums until a big earthquake actually happens, at which time the company has to pay out big time.

If you look at a graph of the VIX, you’ll see that the VIX can be well-described as a mean reverting process (i.e., it doesn’t behave like a random walk or a geometric random walk, but tends to return to a base level after it diverges from that level) subject to large upward shocks.  After the spikes, mean reversion kicks in, and the index returns roughly to its previous level.

 

 

So if you are short the VIX, you pay out during those spikes.

And that’s not all.  The VIX is strongly negatively correlated with the overall market.  That is, VIX tends to increase when the market goes down:

 

This means that providing insurance against volatility spikes is costly: the volatility short seller commits to making payouts in bad states of the world.  Thus, risk averse suppliers of volatility insurance will demand a premium to bear the risk inherent in that position.  Put crudely, a short VIX position has a large positive beta, meaning that the expected return (risk premium) on this position will be positive, and large.

The flip side of this is that those with a natural short volatility exposure incur a large cost to bear this risk, and might be willing to hedge (insure) against it.  Indeed, given the fact that such natural short exposures incur losses in bad states of the world, those facing them are willing to pay a premium to hedge them.

In equilibrium, this means that short volatility positions will earn a risk premium.  Since short sellers of volatility futures will have to earn a return to compensate them for the associated risks,  the VIX futures price will exceed the expected future value of VIX at futures expiration.  Thus, VIX futures will be in a Keynesian contango (with the futures above the expected future spot).  Given that VIX itself is a non-traded risk (one cannot buy or sell the actual VIX in the same way one can buy or sell a stock index), this means that the forward curve will also be in contango.*  Further, one would expect that long VIX futures positions lose money on average, and given the spikiness of realized VIX, lose money most of the time with the gains occurring infrequently and being relatively large when they do occur.

And of course, short positions have the exact opposite performance.  Shorts sell VIX futures at a premium over the price at which they expect to cover, and hence make money on average.  Furthermore, losses tend to be relatively infrequent, but when they occur they tend to be large.

And that’s exactly what happened in the period leading up to February 5.  During most of that period, VIX shorts were making money.  When the spike occurred on 2/5/18, however, they were hammered.

But this was not an indication of a badly performing market, or irrational trading.  Given the behavior of volatility and the existence of individuals and firms with a natural short volatility position that some wanted to hedge, this is exactly what you’d expect.  Participants (mainly institutional investors, including university endowments) were willing to take the opposite side of those hedges and receive a risk premium in return. Those short positions would earn positive returns most of the time, but when the returns go negative, they tend to do so in a big way. Again, just like earthquake insurance.

One of the inventors of VIX claims that he doesn’t understand why products such as VIX futures or ETPs that have long or short volatility exposures exist. Really? They exist because they facilitate the transfer of risk from those who bear it at a higher cost to those who bear it at a lower cost.  Absent these markets, the short volatility exposures wouldn’t go away: those with such natural exposures would continue to bear it, and would periodically incur large losses.  Those losses would not be as obvious as when volatility products are traded, but they would actually be more costly.  The pain that volatility short sellers incurred earlier this month might be bad, but it was less than the pain that would have existed if they weren’t there to absorb that risk.

One interesting question is whether technical factors actually exacerbated the size of the volatility spike.  Some sellers of volatility short ETPs (like the XIV exchange traded note that is basically a short position on the front two month VIX futures) hedge that exposure by going short VIX futures.  To the extent that the delta of the ETPs remains constant (i.e., the sensitivity of the value of the product to changes in forward volatility remains constant) that’s not an issue: the hedge positions are static.  However, the XIV in particular had a knock-out feature: payment of the note is accelerated when the value of the position falls to 20 percent of face amount.  The XIV experienced such an acceleration event on the 5th, and to the extent the issuer (UBS) had hedged its volatility exposure this could have caused it to buy a large number of futures, because as soon as the note was paid off, the short VIX position was unnecessary as a hedge, and UBS would have bought futures to close that hedge.  This would have been a discontinuous move in its position, moreover: oh, the joys of hedging barrier options (which is essentially what the acceleration feature created). This buying into a spike could have exacerbated the spike.  Whether UBS actually did this, or whether liquidating its hedge position was big enough to have an appreciable knock-on effect on prices is not known.  But it could have made the volatility event more severe than it would have been otherwise.

Bottom line. These markets exist for a reason–to transfer risk.  Moreover, they behaved exactly as expected, and those who participated got–and paid–in the expected way.  Insurance sellers (those short volatility futures) collected premiums to compensate for the risk incurred.  Most of the time the risk was not realized, because of its “spikey” nature, and those sellers realized positive returns.  When the spike happened, they paid out.  There is never a free lunch.  Yes, the insurance sellers dined out on somebody else most of the time, but when they had to pick up the tab, it was a big one.

*Keynes caused untold confusion by using “normal backwardation” to describe a situation where the futures price is below the expected spot price. In market parlance, backwardation occurs when the futures price is below the actual spot price.  Keynesian backwardation and contango refer to a risk premium, which is not directly observable in the market, whereas actual contango and backwardation are.  It is possible for a market to be in contango, but in a Keynesian backwardation.  Similarly, it is possible for a market to be in backwardation, but a Keynesian contango.  If interest rates exceed dividend yields, stock index futures are an example of the former situation.   No arbitrage forces the market into a contango, but long positions earn a risk premium (a normal backwardation).

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January 23, 2018

Why Are ABCD Singing the Blues?

Filed under: Commodities,Economics,Russia — The Professor @ 9:49 pm

It’s pretty clear that the major agricultural trading firms, notably the ABCDs–ADM, Bunge, Cargill, and Dreyfus–are going through a rough patch of tight margins and low profits.  One common response in any industry facing these conditions is consolidation, and in fact there is a major potential combination in play: ADM approached Bunge about an acquisition..

I am unsatisfied with most of the explanations given.  A widely cited “reason” is that grain and oilseed prices are low due to bumper crops.  Yes, bumper crops and the resulting low prices can be a negative for producers, but it does not explain hard times in the midstream.  Ag traders do not have a natural flat price exposure. They are both buyers and sellers, and care about margin.

Indeed, ceteris paribus, abundant supplies should be a boon to traders.  More supply means they are handling more volume, which is by itself tends to increase revenue, and more volume means that handling capacity is being utilized more fully, which should contribute to firmer margins, which increases revenues even further.

Greg Meyer and Neil Hume have a long piece in the FT about the potential ADM-Bunge deal. Unfortunately, they advance some implausible reasons for the current conditions in the industry. For example, they say: “At the same time, a series of bumper harvests has weakened agricultural traders’ bargaining power with customers in the food industry.” Again, that’s a flat price story, not a spread/margin story.  And again, all else equal, bumper harvests should lead to greater capacity utilization in storage, logistics, transportation, and processing, which would actually serve to increase traders’ bargaining power because they own assets used to make those transformations.

Here’s how I’d narrow down where to look for more convincing explanations. All else equal, compressed margins arise when capacity utilization is low. In a time of relatively high world supply, lower capacity utilization would be attributable to increases in capacity that have outstripped gains in throughput caused by larger crops.  So where is that increased capacity?

There are some hints of better explanations along these lines in the FT article.  One thing it notes is that farmer-owned storage capacity has increased.  This reduces returns on storage assets.  In particular, when farmers have little on-farm storage they must sell their crops soon after harvest, or pay grain merchants to store it.  If they sell their crops, the merchant can exploit the optionality of choosing when to sell: if they store at a local elevator, they pay for the privilege. Either way, the middleman earns money from storage, either in trading profits (from exploiting the timing option inherent in storage) or in storage fees. If farmers can store on-farm, they don’t have to sell right after harvest, and they can exploit the timing options, and don’t have to pay for storage.  Either way, the increased on-farm storage capacity reduces the demand for, and utilization of, merchant-owned storage. This would adversely impact traders’ margins.

The article also mentions “rivals add[ing] to their crop-handling networks.” This would suggest that competitive entry/expansion by other firms (who?) is contributing to the compressed margins.  This would in turn suggest that ABCD margins in earlier years were abnormally high (which attracts entry), or that the costs of these unnamed “rivals” have gone down, allowing them to add capacity profitably even though margins are thinner.

Or maybe it’s that the margins are still healthy where the capacity expansions are taking place. Along those lines, I suspect that there is a geographic component to this. ADM in particular has its biggest asset footprint in North America. Bunge has a big footprint here too, although it also considerable assets in Brazil.  The growth of South America (relative to North America) as a major soybean and corn exporting region, and Russia as a major wheat exporting region, reduce the derived demand for North American handling capacity (although logistical constraints on Russian exports means that Russian export increases won’t match its production increases, and there are bottlenecks in South America too).

This would suggest that the circumstances of the well-known traders that have more of a North American (or western European) asset base are not representative of the profitability of grain trading overall. If that’s the case, consolidation-induced capacity “rationalization” (and that’s a major reason to merge in a stagnant industry) would occur disproportionately in the US, Canada, and western Europe.  This would also suggest that owners of storage and handling facilities in South America and Russia are doing quite well at the same time that owners of such assets in traditional exporting regions are not doing well.

So I am not satisfied with the conventional explanations for the big ag traders’ malaise during a time of plenty. I conjecture that the traditional players have been most impacted by changes in the spatial pattern of production that has reduced the derived demand to use their assets, which are more heavily concentrated in legacy production regions facing increased competition from increased output in newer regions.

Ironically, I’m too capacity constrained to do more than conjecture. But it’s a natural for my Université de Genève students looking for a thesis topic or course paper topic. Hint, hint. Nudge, nudge.

 

 

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January 2, 2018

Buyer Beware: Bart Does Crypto

Filed under: Commodities,Derivatives,Economics,Energy,Regulation — The Professor @ 8:08 pm

Back in the day, Bart Chilton was my #2 whipping boy at the CFTC (after Gary Gensler AKA GiGi). Bart took umbrage (via email) at some of my posts, notably this one. Snort.

Bart was the comedian in that dynamic duo. He coined (alert: pun foreshadowing!) such memorable phrases as “cheetah” to criticize high frequency traders (cheetah-fast cheater–get it? Har!) and “massive passives” to snark at index funds and ETFs. Apparently Goldilocks could never find a trading entity whose speed was just right: they were either too fast or too slow. He blamed cheetahs for causing the Flash Crash, among other sins, and knocked the massive passives for speculating excessively and distorting prices.

But then Bart left the CFTC, and proceeded to sell out. He took a job flacking for HFT firms. And now he is lending his name (I won’t say reputation) to an endeavor to create a new massive passive. This gives new meaning to the phrase sell out.

Bart’s massive passive initiative hitches a ride on the crypto craze, which makes it all the more dubious. It is called “OilCoin.” This endeavor will issue said coins, and invest the proceeds in “reserve barrels” of oil. Indeed, the more you examine it, the more dubious it looks.

In some ways this is very much like an ETF. Although OilCoin’s backers say it will be “regulatory compliant,” but even though it resembles an ETF in many ways, it will not have to meet (nor will it meet, based on my reading of its materials) listing requirements for ETFs. Furthermore, one of the main selling points emphasized by the backers is its alleged tax advantages over standard ETFs. So despite the other argle bargle in the OilCon–excuse me, OilCoin–White Paper, it’s primarily a regulatory and tax arb.

Not that there’s necessarily anything wrong with that, just that it’s a bit rich that the former stalwart advocate of harsher regulation of passive commodity investment vehicles is part of the “team” launching this effort.

I should also note some differences that make it worse than a standard ETF, and worse than other pooled investment vehicles like closed end funds. Most notably, ETFs have an issue and redemption mechanism that ensures that the ETF market price tracks the value of the assets it holds. If an ETF’s price exceeds the value of the assets the ETF holds, an “Authorized Participant” can buy a basket of assets that mirrors what the ETF holds, deliver them to the ETF, and receive ETF shares in return. If an ETF’s price is below the market value of the assets, the AP can buy the ETF shares on the market, tender them to the ETF, and receive an equivalent share of the assets that the ETF holds. This mechanism ties the ETF market price to the market prices of its assets.

The OilCoin will not have any such tight tie to the assets its operators invest in. Insofar as investment policy is concerned:

In addition to investing in oil futures, the assets supporting OilCoin will also be invested in physical oil and interests in oil producing properties in various jurisdictions in order to hold a diversified pool of assets and avoid the risk of holding a single, concentrated position in exchange traded futures contracts. As a result, OilCoin’s investment returns will approximate but not precisely track the price movement of a spot barrel of crude oil.

I note the potential illiquidity in “physical oil” and in particular “interests in oil producing properties.” It will almost certainly be very difficult to value this portfolio. And although the White Paper suggests a one barrel of oil to one OilCoin ratio, it is not at all clear how “interests in oil producing properties” will figure into that calculation. A barrel of oil in the ground is a totally different thing, with a totally different value, than a barrel of oil in storage above ground, or an oil futures contract that is a claim on oil in store. This actually has more of a private equity feel than an ETF feel to it. Moreover, even above ground barrels can differ dramatically in price based on quality and location.

Given the illiquidity and heterogeneity of the “oil” that backs OilCoin, it is not surprising that the mechanism to keep the price of the OilCoin in line with “the” price of “oil” is rather, er, elastic, especially in comparison to a standard ETF: the motto of OilCoin should be “Trust Us!” (Pretty funny for crypto, no?) (Hopefully it won’t end up like this, but methinks it might.)

Here’s what the White Paper says about the mechanism (which is a generous way of characterizing it):

OilCoin’s investment returns will approximate but not precisely track the price movement of a spot barrel of crude oil.

. . . .

In order to ensure measurable intrinsic value and price stability, each OilCoin will maintain an approximate one-to-one ratio with a single reserve barrel of oil. [Note that a “reserve barrel of oil” is not a barrel of any particular type of oil at any particular location.] This equilibrium will be achieved through management of the oil reserves and the number of OilCoin in circulation.

As demand for OilCoin causes the price of a single OilCoin to rise above the spot price of a barrel of oil on global markets [what barrel? WTI? Brent? Mayan? Whatever they feel like on a particular day?], additional OilCoin may be issued in private or open market transactions and the proceeds will be invested in additional oil reserves. Similarly, if the price of an OilCoin falls below the price of a barrel of oil, oil reserves may be liquidated with the proceeds used to purchase OilCoin privately or in the open market. This method of issuing or repurchasing OilCoin and the corresponding investment in or liquidation of oil reserves will provide stability to the market price of OilCoin relative to the spot price of a barrel of crude oil and will provide verifiable assurances that the value of oil reserves will approximate the aggregate value of all issued OilCoin.

OilCoin’s price stability program will be managed by the OilCoin management team with a view to supporting the liquidity and functional operation of the OilCoin marketplace and to maintaining an approximate but not precise correlation between the price of a single OilCoin and the spot price of a single barrel of oil [What type of barrel? Where? For delivery when?]. While maintaining price stability of digital currencies through algorithmic purchase and sale may be appropriate in certain circumstances, and while it is possible as a technical matter to link such an algorithm to a programmed purchase and sale of oil assets, such an approach would be likely to result in (i) the decoupling of the number of OilCoin in circulation from an approximately equivalent number of reserve barrels of oil, and (ii) a highly volatile stock of oil reserve assets adding unnecessary and avoidable transaction costs which would reduce the value of OilCoin’s supporting oil reserve assets. Accordingly, it is expected that purchases and sales of OilCoin and oil reserves to support price stability will be made on a periodic basis [Monthly? Annually? When the spirit moves them?] as the price of OilCoin and the price of a single barrel of oil [Again. What type of barrel? Where? For delivery when?] diverge by more than a specified margin [Specified where? Surely not in this White Paper.]

[Emphasis added.]

Note the huge discretion granted the managers. (“May be issued.” “May be liquidated.” Whenever they fell like it, apparently, as long as there is a vague connection between their actions and “the spot price of crude oil “–and remember there is no such thing as “the” spot price) A much less precise mechanism than in the standard ETF. Also note the shell game aspect here. This refers to “the” price of “a barrel of oil,” but then talks about “diversified holdings” of oil. The document goes back and forth between referring about “reserve barrels” and “barrels of oil on the global market.”

Note further that there is no third party mechanism akin to an Authorized Party that can arb the underlying assets against the OilCoin to make sure that it tracks the price of any particular barrel of oil, or even a portfolio of oil holdings. This means that OilCoin is really more like a closed end fund, but one  that is not subject to the same kind of regulation as closed end funds, and which can apparently invest in things other than securities (e.g., interests in oil producing properties), some of which may be quite illiquid and hard to value and trade. One other crucial difference from a closed end fund is that OilCoin states it may issue new coins, whereas closed end funds typically cannot have secondary offerings of common shares.

Closed end funds can trade at substantial premiums and discounts to the underlying NAV, and I would wager that OilCoin will as well. Relating to the secondary issue point, unlike a closed end fund, OilCoin can issue new coins if they are at a premium–or if the managers feel like it. Again, the amount of discretion possessed by OilCoin’s managers is substantially greater than for a closed end fund or ETF (or an open ended fund for that matter). (There is also no indication that the managers will be precluded from investing the funds in their own “oil producing interests.” That potential for self-dealing is very concerning.)

There is also no indication in the White Paper as to just what an OilCoin gives a claim on, or who has the control rights over the assets, and how these control rights can be obtained. My reading of the White Paper does not find any disclosure, implicit or explicit, that OilCoin owners have any claim on the assets, or that someone could buy 50 percent plus one of the OilCoins, boot the existing management, and get control of the operation of the investments, or any mechanism that would allow acquisition of a controlling interest, and liquidation of the thing’s assets. (I say “thing” because what legal form it takes is not stated in the White Paper.)  These are other differences from a closed end fund or ETF–and mean that OilCoin is not subject to the typical mechanisms that protect investors from the depredations of promoters and managers.

A lot of crypto is all about separating fools from their money. OilCoin certainly has that potential. What is even more insidious about it is that the backers state that it is a different kind of crypto currency because it is backed by something: in the words of the White Paper, OilCoin is “supported” by the “substantial intrinsic value of assets” it holds. The only problem is that there is no indication whatsoever that the holder of the cryptocurrency can actually get their hands on what backs it. The “support” is more chimerical than real.

So my basic take away from this is that OilCoin is a venture that allows the managers to use the issue of cryptocurrency to fund totally unconstrained speculations in oil subject to virtually none of the investor protections extended to the purchasers of securities in corporations, investors of closed end funds, or buyers of ETFs. All sickeningly ironic given the very public participation of a guy who inveighed against speculation in oil and the need for strict regulation of those investing other people’s money.

My suggestion is that if you are really hot for an ICO backed by a blonde, buy whatever Paris Hilton is touting these days, and avoid BartCoin like the plague.

 

 

 

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December 4, 2017

Bitcoin Futures: What? Me Worry?

Filed under: Clearing,Commodities,Derivatives,Economics,Energy,Exchanges,Regulation — The Professor @ 9:53 pm

The biggest news in derivatives world is the impending launch of Bitcoin futures, first by CBOE, then shortly thereafter by CME.

Especially given the virtually free entry into cryptocurrencies I find it virtually impossible to justify the stratospheric price, and how the price has rocketed over the past year. This is especially true given that if cryptocurrencies do indeed begin to erode in a serious way the demand for fiat currencies (and therefore cause inflation in fiat currency terms) central banks and governments will (a) find ways to restrict their use, and (b) introduce their own substitutes. The operational and governance aspects of some cryptocurrencies are also nightmarish, as is their real resource cost (at least for proof-of-work cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin). The slow transaction times and relatively high transaction fees of Bitcoin mean that it sucks as a medium of exchange, especially for retail-sized transactions. And its price volatility relative to fiat currencies–which also means that its price volatility denominated in goods and services is also huge–undermines its utility as a store of value: that utility is based on the ability to convert the putative store into a relatively stable bundle of goods.

So I can find all sorts of reasons for a bearish case, and no plausible one for a bullish case even at substantially lower prices.

If I’m right, BTC is ripe for shorting. Traditional means of shorting (borrowing and selling) are extremely costly, if they are possible at all. As has been demonstrated theoretically and empirically in the academic literature, costly shorting can allow an asset’s price to remain excessively high for an extended period. This could be one thing that supports Bitcoin’s current price.

Thus, the creation of futures contracts that will make it easier to short–and make the cost of shorting effectively the same as the cost of buying–should be bearish for Bitcoin. Which is why I said this in Bloomberg today:

“The futures reduce the frictions of going short more than they do of going long, so it’s probably net bearish,” said Craig Pirrong, a business professor at the University of Houston. “Having this instrument that makes it easier to short might keep the bitcoin price a little closer to reality.”

Perhaps as an indication of how untethered from reality Bitcoin has become, the CME’s announcement of Bitcoin futures actually caused the price to spike. LOL.

Yes, shorting will be risky. But buying is risky too. So although I don’t expect hedge funds or others to jump in with both feet, I would anticipate that the balance of smart money will be on the short side, and this will put downward pressure on the price.

Concerns have been expressed about the systemic risk posed by clearing BTC futures. Most notably, Thomas Petterfy sat by the campfire, put a flashlight under his chin, and spun this horror story:

“If the Chicago Mercantile Exchange or any other clearing organization clears a cryptocurrency together with other products, then a large cryptocurrency price move that destabilizes members that clear cryptocurrencies will destabilize the clearing organization itself and its ability to satisfy its fundamental obligation to pay the winners and collect from the losers on the other products in the same clearing pool.”

Petterfy has expressed worries about weaker FCMs in particular:

“The weaker clearing members charge the least. They don’t have much money to lose anyway. For this reason, most bitcoin interest will accumulate on the books of weaker clearing members who will all fail in a large move,”

He has recommended clearing crypto separately from other instruments.

These concerns are overblown. In terms of protecting CCPs and FCMs, a clearinghouse like CME (which operates its own clearinghouse) or the OCC (which will clear CBOE’s contract) can set initial margins commensurate with the risk: the greater volatility, the greater the margin. Given the huge volatility, it is likely that Bitcoin margins will be ~5 times as large as for, say, oil or S&Ps. Bitcoin can be margined in a way that poses the same of loss to the clearinghouses and FCMs as any other product.

Now, I tell campfire horror stories too, and one of my staples over the years is how the real systemic risk in clearing arises from financing large cash flows to make variation margin payments. Here the main issue is scale. At least at the outset, Bitcoin futures open interest is likely to be relatively small compared to more mature instruments, meaning that this source of systemic risk is likely to be small for some time–even big price moves are unlikely to cause big variation margin cash flows. If the market gets big enough, let’s talk.

As for putting Bitcoin in its own clearing ghetto, that is a bad idea especially given the lack of correlation/dependence between Bitcoin prices and the prices of other things that are cleared. Clearing diversified portfolios makes it possible to achieve a given risk of CPP default with a lower level of capital (e.g., default fund contributions, CCP skin-in-the-game).

Right now I’d worry more about big markets, especially those that are likely to exhibit strong dependence in a stress scenario. Consider what would happen to oil, stock, bond, and gold prices if war broke out between Iran and Saudi Arabia–not an implausible situation. They would all move a lot, and exhibit a strong dependency. Oil prices would spike, stock prices would tank, and Treasury prices would probably jump (at least in the short run) due to a flight to safety. That kind of scenario (or other plausible ones) scares me a helluva lot more than a spike or crash in Bitcoin futures does while the market is relatively modest in size.

Where I do believe there is a serious issue with these contracts is the design. CME and CBOE are going with cash settlement. Moreover, the CME contract will be based on prices from several exchanges, but notably exclude the supposedly most liquid one. The cash settlement mechanism is only as good as the liquidity of the underlying markets used to determine the settlement price. Bang-the-settlement type manipulations are a major concern, especially when the underlying markets are illiquid: relatively small volumes of purchases or sales could move the price around substantially. (There is some academic research by John Griffen that provides evidence that the settlement mechanism of the VIX contracts are subject to this kind of manipulation.)  The Bitcoin cash markets are immature, and hardly seem the epitome of robustness. Behemoth futures contracts could be standing on spindly cash market legs.

This also makes me wonder about the CFTC’s line of sight into the Bitcoin exchanges. Will they really be able to monitor these exchanges effectively? Will CME and CBOE be able to?

(I have thought that the CFTC’s willingness to approve the futures contracts could be attributable to its belief that the existence of these contracts would strengthen the CFTC’s ability to assert authority over Bitcoin cash exchanges.)

What will be the outcome of the competition between the two Chicago exchanges? As I’ve written before, liquidity is king. Further, liquidity is maximized if trading takes place on a single platform. This means that trading activity tends to tip to a single exchange (if the exchanges are not required to respect price priority across markets). Competition in these contracts is of the winner-take-all variety. And if I had to bet on a winner, it would be CME, but that’s not guaranteed.

Given the intense interest in Bitcoin, and cryptocurrencies generally, it was inevitable that an exchange or two or three would list futures on it. Yes, the contracts are risky, but risk is actually what makes something attractive for an exchange to trade, and exchanges (and the CCPs that clear for them) have a lot of experience managing default risks. The market is unlikely to be big enough (at least for some time) to pose systemic risk, and it’s likely that trading Bitcoin on established exchanges in a way that makes it easier to short could well tame its wildness to a considerable degree.

All meaning that I’m not at all fussed about the introduction of Bitcoin futures, and as an academic matter, will observe how the market evolves with considerable fascination.

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