Streetwise Professor

November 14, 2022

Regulate This! Yeah? How?

Filed under: Cryptocurrency,Economics,Exchanges,Politics,Regulation — cpirrong @ 12:30 pm

As day follows night, the vaporization of FTX has spurred calls for regulation of crypto markets. Well, what kind of regulation, exactly? It matters.

It appears highly likely that SBF and his Merry Gang (of pervy druggies?) broke oodles of laws, in multiple jurisdictions. Class action lawsuits are definitely incoming, and the DOJ’s SDNY attorneys’ office is commencing a criminal investigation. No doubt criminal investigations will follow in other locations. So what would more laws accomplish, and what kind of laws and regulations would help?

It is interesting to note that SBF was going around DC and the media talking up regulating the industry, and winning effusive plaudits (but not from CZ!) for doing so, but his proposals didn’t come within a million miles of his alleged wrongdoing. I’m sure you’re shocked.

On CNBC, Bankman-Fried endorsed three regulatory endeavors: stablecoin auditing, “markets regulation” of spot trading, and token registration (at about the 4:30 mark):

None of which touches on the fundamental issue in the FTX fiasco, and in crypto market structure generally: the role of “exchanges” in supplying broker dealer and banking services, including liquidity, maturity, and credit transformations.

No doubt SBF was adding to his savior glow by pushing regulation that he knew was utterly irrelevant to the core of his business (and the business of all other crypto “exchanges”). And look at how many suckers fell for it.

So what would help? As I noted at the outset, FTX, Bankman-Fried, et al likely violated numerous laws. So what additional laws would reduce the likelihood and severity of such actions?

In thinking about this, remembering the distinction between ex ante and ex post regulation is important. Ex post regulation involves the imposition of sanctions on malfeasors after they have been found to have committed offense: the idea is to deter bad conduct through punishment after the fact. In contrast, ex ante regulation attempts to prevent bad acts by imposing various constraints on potential wrongdoers.

The choice between ex ante and ex post depends on a variety of factors. Two of the most important (and related) are whether the bad actor is judgment proof (i.e., will have the resources to recompense those he has harmed) and the probability of detection. (These are related because a low probability of detection requires a higher penalty to achieve deterrence, but a higher penalty increases the chances that the wrongdoer is judgment proof).

In the case of things like what has apparently happened here, the probability of detection is high (1.00 actually), but the magnitude of the harm is so great and the (negative) correlation between the harm and the wrongdoer’s ability to pay is so high (essentially -1.00) that ex post deterrence is problematic.

(Judgment proof-ness is actually a justification for criminal law and the use of incarceration as punishment. Deterrence through fines doesn’t work with broke bad guys, so non-monetary punishment is necessary–but often not sufficient!)

So there is a case for ex ante regulation here, just as there is a case for ex ante regulation of banks and intermediaries like broker dealers and FCMs. Banking examiners, regulatory audits, customer seg rules, and the like.

But these are obviously not panaceas. Bank fraud still occurs with depressing regularity, and the things that facilitate it, like valuation challenges, accounting shenanigans, and so on, occur in spades in crypto. And, even in highly regulated US markets, violation of seg rules and misuse of customer assets occurs: yeah, I’m looking at you John Corzine/MF Global.

The big problems in crypto markets are essentially agency problems, especially since the crucial agents–crypto “exchanges”–are so concentrated and so vertically integrated into both execution and various forms of financial transformations.

Ex ante regulation focused on such issues could be a boon, and could help stabilize crypto markets generally. The spillovers we are seeing from FTX’s vaporization are essentially a reputational contagion: the mini (so far) runs on other “exchanges” reflect FUD about their probity and solvency. (NB: Binance, as the biggest “exchange,” and as opaque as FTX, is a serious run risk. BlockFi and AAX may already be in the crosshairs here: glitch in the systems upgrade. Riiiiigggghhhht.)

The challenge is that the demise of financial intermediaries is well-described by a famous Hemingway quote:

“How did you go bankrupt?” Bill asked. “Two ways,” Mike said. “Gradually, then suddenly.”

An intermediary can go along swimmingly, meeting all seg requirements and the like, and a big market move or bad bet or an operational SNAFU can put it on the brink very suddenly–and encourage gambling for resurrection by using customer funds to extend and pretend. So don’t expect such regulation to be a panacea, and prevent the recurrence of FTXs. Regulation or no, this happens with intermediaries that engage in liquidity, maturity, and credit transformations that are inherently fragile. (And may be fragile by design, as Doug Diamond has pointed out.)

On the regulation issue, one fascinating sidebar is my old bête noire, Gary Gensler. You don’t need to play 6 Degrees From SBF to ensnare most of the Democratic establishment: one or two degrees will do, and Gensler definitely qualifies.

In addition to the MIT connection, Gensler apparently had other interactions with Bankman-Fried. And of course Gensler is a player in the Democratic Party (he was Hillary’s campaign’s finance chair, after all), and Bankman-Fried was a major Dem donor (second largest after Soros in the most recent cycle, and he had talked about spending up to a billion in the 2024 campaign).

Questions have been raised.

When initially questioned about FTX, Gensler was very defensive:  “Building the evidence, building the facts often takes time.”

I am reserving judgment, but I hope someone takes the time to examine the links and interactions between SBF/FTX and Gensler (and other DC creatures)–and build the evidence and facts, if it comes to that.

My guess is that Gensler will try to pull a judo move and use this fiasco as a justification for expanding the power of the SEC. Indeed, I expect him to be in high dudgeon precisely to deflect attention from his (and his party’s) links to SBF. Don’t let him get away with it.

And don’t think that these links can be exposed through a FOIA. Gensler has long been known for using his private email to conduct official business. (Which is precisely why I didn’t bother FOAI-ing him years ago regarding my suspicions of his interactions with David Kocieniewski.) So deeper digging is required, and it should commence, post haste.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

November 10, 2022

Another Blizzard in Crypto Winter, or, Tinker Bell Economics: To Call Crypto a “Trustless” System is a Joke

Filed under: Blockchain,Clearing,Cryptocurrency,Regulation — cpirrong @ 11:42 am

Another blizzard hit the winter-bound crypto industry, with the evisceration of crypto wonder boy Sam Bankman-Fried’s (SBF to crypto kiddies) FTX and its associated hedge fund Alameda Capital. (Which should be renamed Alameda No Capital.) The coup coup de grâce was delivered by SBF’s former frenemy (now full fledged enemy), Binance’s Changpeng Zhao (CZ, ditto). But it is now evident that FTX was a Rube Goldberg monstrosity and all CZ did was remove–call into question, really–one piece of the contraption which led to its failure.

The events bring out in sharp detail many crucial aspects of the crypto landscape. (I won’t say “ecosystem”–a nauseating word.).

One is crypto market structure. FTX (and Binance for that matter) are commonly referred to as “exchanges,” giving rise to thoughts of the CME or NYSE. But they are much more than that. FTX (and other crypto “exchanges”) are in fact highly integrated financial institutions that combine the functions of trade execution platform (an exchange qua exchange), a broker dealer/FCM, clearinghouse, and custodian. And in FTX’s case, it also was affiliated with a massive crypto-focused hedge fund, the aforementioned Alameda.

Crucially, as part of its broker dealer/FCM operation, FTX engaged in margin lending to customers. Indeed, it permitted very high leverage:

FTX offers high leverage products and tokens. The exchange currently offers 20x maximum leverage, down from its previous 101x leverage products. This is still one of the highest maximum leverage a crypto exchange offers when compared to FTX’s other competitors. Leveraged long and short tokens for BTC, ETH, MATIC, and others are also offered by the exchange; for example, the ETHBULL token allows investors to trade a 3x long position in Ethereum.

FTX also engaged in the equivalent of securities lending: it lent out the BTC, etc., that customers held in their accounts there.

These are traditional broker dealer functions, and historically they are functions that have led to the collapse of such firms–more on that below.

FTX supersized the risks of these activities through one of its funding mechanisms, the FTT token. Ostensibly the benefits of owning FTT were reduced trading fees on the exchange, “airdrops” (a distribution of “free” tokens to those holding sufficient quantities on account with FTX, a promise to return a certain fraction of trading revenues to token holders by repurchasing (“burning”), and some limited governance/voting rights. The burning also served the function of limiting supply. (I plan to write a separate post on the economics of valuation of these tokens, though I do touch on some issues below.)

So FTT is (or should I say “was”?) stock-not-stock. Not a listed security, but an instrument that paid dividends in various forms.

FTT was in some ways the snowman here. For one thing, FTX allowed customers to post margin in FTT.

Huh, whut?

Risky collateral is always problematic. (Look at the reluctance of counterparties to accept anything but cash as collateral even from pension funds as in the UK.) Allowing posting of your own liability as collateral is more than problematic–it is insane. Very Enron-y!

Why? A subject I’ve written on a lot in the past: wrong way risk.

If for any reason FTT goes down, the value of collateral posted by customers goes down. Which means that your assets (loans to customers) go down in value.

A doom machine, in other words.

The integrated structure of FTX exacerbated this risk, and bigly. If customers start to get nervous about its viability, they start to pull the assets (BTC, ETH, etc.) they have on account there. Which is a problem if you’ve lent them out! (Recall that AIG’s biggest problem wasn’t CDS, but securities lending.)

And this has happened, with customers attempting to pull billions from the firm, and FTX therefore being forced to stop withdrawals.

And things can get even worse. The travails of a big broker dealer can impact prices, not just of its liabilities like FTT but of assets generally (stocks and bonds in a traditional market, crypto here) and given the posting of risky assets of collateral that can make the collateral shortfalls even worse. Fire sale effects are one reason for these price movements. In the case of crypto, the failure of a major crypto firm calls into question the viability of the asset class generally, with some of them being affected particularly acutely.

The integrated structure of crypto firms is also a problem. Customer assets are held in omnibus accounts, not segregated ones. Yeah yeah crypto firms say your assets on account are yours, but that’s true in a bookkeeping sense only. They are held in a pool. This structure incentivizes customers to run when the firm looks shaky. Which can turn looks into reality. That’s what has happened to FTX.

The connection with a hedge fund trading crypto is also a big problem. (The blow up of hedge funds operated by big banks was a harbinger of the GFC in August, 2008, recall.). And it is increasingly apparent that this was a major issue with FTX that interacted with the factors mentioned above. FTX evidently lent large amounts–$16 billion!–of customer assets to Alameda Research. Apparently to prop it up after huge losses in the first blizzards of Crypto Winter. (In retrospect, SBF’s buying binge earlier this year looks like gambling for resurrection.)

SBF described this as “a poor judgment call.”

You don’t say! I hear that’s what Napoleon said while trudging back from Russia in November 1812. Probably Custer’s last words, but we’ll never know!

Also probably an illegal judgment call.

But it gets better! Alameda held large quantities of FTT, also apparently emergency funding provided by FTX. And it used billions of FTT as collateral for its trades and borrowing.

And this was the string that CZ pulled that caused the whole thing to unravel. When he announced that he had learned of Alameda’s large FTT position, and that as a result he was selling FTT the doom machine kicked into operation, and at hyper speed: doom occurred within days.

Looking at this in the immediate aftermath, my thought was that FTX was basically MF Global with an exchange operation. A financially fragile broker dealer combined with an exchange.

And the analogy was even closer than I knew: FTX’s using customer assets to “fund risky bets” revealed this morning is also exactly what MF Global did. Except that Corzine was a piker by comparison. He filched almost exactly only 1/10th of what FTX did ($1.6 billion vs. $16 billion). (Maybe SBF should take comfort from the fact that Corzine walks free–though I don’t recommend that he walk free at LaSalle and Jackson or Wacker and Adams). (I further note that SBF is a huge Democrat donor. Like Corzine, his political connections may save him from the pokey, though by all appearances he should spend a very long stretch there.)

In sum, FTX’s implosion is just a crypto-flavored example of the collapse of an intermediary the likes of which has been seen multiple times over the (literally) centuries. As I’ve written before, there is nothing new under the financial sun.

The episode also throws a harsh light on the supposed novelty of crypto. Remember, the crypto narrative is that crypto is decentralized, and does not rely on trusted institutions: it is trustless in other words.

Wrong! As I’ve written before, economic forces lead to centralization and intermediation in crypto markets, just as in traditional financial markets. Market participants utilize the services of firms like FTX and Binance, and have to trust that those firms are acting prudently. If that trust is lost, disaster ensues.

In brief, crypto trading could be decentralized, but it isn’t. For reasons I wrote about years ago. (Also see here.)

Indeed, the issue is arguably even more acute in crypto markets, for a reason that SBF himself laid out in now infamous interview with Matt Levine on Odd Lots. Specifically, that token valuation relies on magic–belief, actually.

That is, tokens are valuable if people believe they are valuable–that is, if they have trust in their value. Furthermore, there is a sort of information cascade logic that can create market value: if people see that a token sells at a positive price–especially if it sells at a very large positive price–and they observe that supposedly smart people hold it, they conclude it must have some intrinsic value. So they pile in, increasing the value, validating beliefs, and extending the information cascade.

But this is Tinker Bell economics. If people stop believing, Tinker Bell dies.

And when someone very influential like CZ says “I don’t believe” death is rapid: the information cascade stops, then reverses. Especially given how FTT was the keystone of the FTX arch.

In brief, crypto theory is completely different than crypto reality. Crypto markets share all major features with the demonized traditional “trust-based” financial system. To the extent they differ, they are even more based on trust, given the ubiquity of Token Tinker Bell Economics.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

September 17, 2022

Gary Gensler Does Crypto. And Clearing (Again). And Climate.

Gary Gensler has long lusted to get his regulatory hooks into cryptocurrency. To do so as head of the SEC, he has to find a way to transform crypto (e.g., Bitcoin, Ether, various tokens) into securities, as defined under laws dating from the 1930s. Although Gensler has stated that crypto regulation is a long way off–presumably because it is no mean feat to jam an innovation of the 2010s into a regulatory framework of the 1930s–he thinks that he may have found a way to get at the second largest crypto, Ether.

Gensler pictured here:

Sorry! Sorry! Understandable mistake! Here’s his actual image:

Crypto Regulation. Excellent!

Ether just switched from a “proof of work” model–the model employed by Bitcoin–to a “proof of stake” model. Gensler recently said that Ether may therefore qualify as a security under the Howey test, established in a 1946 Supreme Court decision–handed down when computers filled large rooms, had no memory, and caused the lights to dim in entire cities when they were powered up.

Per Gensler:

Securities and Exchange Commission Chairman Gary Gensler said Thursday that cryptocurrencies and intermediaries that allow holders to “stake” their coins might pass a key test used by courts to determine whether an asset is a security. Known as the Howey test, it examines whether investors expect to earn a return from the work of third parties. 

“From the coin’s perspective…that’s another indicia that under the Howey test, the investing public is anticipating profits based on the efforts of others,” Mr. Gensler told reporters after a congressional hearing. He said he wasn’t referring to any specific cryptocurrency. 

To call that a stretch is an understatement. A huge one. Because the function of proof of stake is entirely different than the function of a security.

Proof of work and proof of stake are alternative ways of operating an anonymous, trustless crypto currency. As I’ve written in several pieces here and elsewhere, eliminating the need for trusted institutions to guarantee transactions does not come for free. Those tempted to defraud must incur a cost if they do in order to be deterred. A performance bond sacrificed on non-performance or deceit is a common way to do that. Proofs of stake and work both are effectively performance bonds. With proof of work, a “miner” incurs a cost (electricity, computing resources) to get the right to add blocks to the blockchain: if a majority of other miners don’t concur with the proposal, the block is not validated, the proposing miner gets no reward, and sacrifices the expenditure required to make the proposal. Proof of stake is a more traditional sort of bond: you lose your stake if your proposal is rejected.

A security is something totally different, and serves a completely different function. (NB. I favor the “functional model of regulation” proposed by Merton many years ago. Regulation should be based on function, not institution.). The function of a security is to raise capital with a marketable instrument that can be bought and sold by third parties at mutually agreed upon prices.

So with a lot of squinting, you can say that both securities and staking mechanism involve “the efforts of others,” but to effect completely different purposes and functions. The fundamental difference in function/purpose means that even if they have something in common, they are totally different and the regulatory framework for one is totally inappropriate to the regulation of the other.

This illustrates an issue that I often come across in my work on commodities, securities, and antitrust litigation: the common confusion of sufficient and necessary conditions. Arguably profiting from the efforts of others could be a necessary condition to be considered a security. It is not, however, a sufficient condition–as Gensler is essentially advocating.

But what’s logic when there’s a regulatory empire to build, right?

I’m also at a loss to explain how Gensler could think that proof of stake involves the “efforts” (i.e., work) of others, but proof of, you know, work doesn’t.

Gensler’s “logic” would probably even embarrass Sir Bedevere:

“What also floats in water?” “A security!”

Gensler might have more of a leg to stand on when it comes to tokens. But with Bitcoin, Ether, and other similar things, hammering the crypto peg into the securities law hole is idiotic.

But never let logic stand in the way of Gary’s pursuit of his precious:

GiGi is not solely focused on crypto of course. He has many preciouses. This week the SEC released a proposed rule to mandate clearing of many cash Treasury trades.

Clearing of course has always been a mania of Gary’s. His deep affection for me no doubt dates from my extensive writing on his Ahab-like pursuit of clearing mandates in derivatives more than a decade ago. Clearing is Gensler’s hammer, and he sees in every financial problem a nail to be driven.

The problem at issue here is the periodic episodes of large price moves and illiquidity in the Treasury market in recent years, most notably in March 2020 (the subject of a JACF article by me).

Clearing is a mechanism to mitigate counterparty credit risk. There is no evidence, nor reasonable basis to believe, that counterparty credit risk precipitated these episodes, or that these episodes (whatever their cause) raised the risk of a chain reaction via a counterparty credit risk channel in cash Treasuries.

Moreover, as I have said ad nauseum, clearing and the associated margining mechanism is a major potential source of financial instability.

Indeed, as I point out in the JACF article, clearing and margin in Treasury futures and other fixed income securities markets is what threatened to turn the price (and basis) movement sparked by Covid (and policy responses to Covid) into a systemic event that required Fed intervention to prevent.

I note that as I discussed at the time, margining also contributed greatly to the instability surrounding the GameStop fiasco.

Meaning that in the name of promoting financial market stability Gensler and the SEC (the vote on the proposal was unanimous) are in fact expanding the use of the very mechanism that exacerbated the problem they are allegedly addressing.

Like the Bourbons, Gensler has learned nothing, and forgotten nothing. He has not forgotten his misbegotten notions of the consequences of clearing, and hasn’t learned what the real consequences are.

Of course these two issues do not exhaust the catalog of Gensler’s regulatory imperium. Another big one is his climate change reporting initiative. I’ll turn to that another day, but in the meantime definitely check out John Cochrane’s dismantling of that piece of GiGi’s handiwork.

As Gideon John Tucker said famously 156 years ago: “No man’s life, liberty or property are safe while the Legislature is in session.” Nor are they when Gary Gensler heads a regulatory agency.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

May 14, 2022

So What Lunatic Thought That Algorithmizing A Doom Loop Was A Good Idea?

Filed under: Cryptocurrency,Economics — cpirrong @ 6:45 pm

Despite all the hype over DeFi, there is nothing really new under the financial sun. Yes, the platform or technologies may differ, but most (if not all) of what is being hyped as revolutionary today is closely analogous to something that has been around for a long time.

Case in point: stablecoins. As I pointed out in a post several years ago (and as many others have pointed out as well), they are functionally equivalent to notes issued by banks prior to the National Banking Act of 1863. And they have the same fundamental problem: they are liabilities backed by opaque balance sheets that make them subject to runs. Uncertainty about the value of assets backing the notes can induce a run.

How to address this? Well, an algo right? Because don’t algorithms fix everything?

That is the idea behind stablecoin TerraUSD and its companion cryptocurrency TerraLuna. The algo was that the holder of the TerraUSD has the right to exchange $1 of TerraUSD for $1 of TerraLuna. Since the value of TerraLuna fluctuates, the number of TerraLuna exchanged for $1 of TerraUSD must fluctuate as well to maintain the peg. So in essence, TerraUSD is backed by Terra Luna. And TerraLuna is backed by: GEE! LOOK AT THAT SQUIRREL!

But here’s the thing. Regardless of what it is backed by, or not, or what people think that it is backed by, it almost certainly has a downward sloping demand curve: More Luna, lower price. And that’s where the problem lies.

The Magic Algo broke down when many people tried to exchange TerraUSD for Luna, and the supply of Luna exploded . . . and hence the value of Luna crashed. (The story behind what caused the surge of redemptions is convoluted, and really is beside the point for explaining the flaw in the algo: spikes in demand to liquidate can occur for many reasons–sunspots, anyone?–and any one of them can cause the problem.)

The crashing Luna increased the incentive to liquidate TerraUSD which accelerated the downward spiral.

If this problem sounds familiar, it should, and is another illustration of nothing new under the financial sun. Anybody know what I’m thinking about?

That’s right. Enron. Enron set up various special purpose entities in which it placed dodgy assets. Enron protected investors in the SPEs by promising to sell Enron stock to cover losses. When the losses crystalized, Enron had to sell more and more stock, driving down its stock price, a process that eventually resulted in Enron’s messy demise.

The analogy isn’t exact, but it surely rhymes. A scheme intended to prop up the value of one thing by promising to sell more of another thing is inherently unstable because performing on the guarantee undermines the value of what you are guaranteeing it with (because you have to issue more of it), which makes the guarantee worth less, which creates incentives to run to cash in on the guarantee while you can, which triggers a lot of issuance of what you are guaranteeing it with, driving down its value.

It’s an inherently unstable structure. It’s arguably less stable than a traditional stablecoin aka digital bank note because it essentially mandates fire sales in increasing quantities in response to liquidation shocks. With a downward sloping demand curve (e.g., for Luna) the fire sales cause price declines that can–and in this case did–cause the entire structure to implode.

So why did anybody think algorithmizing a doom loop was a good idea? Lunatics, apparently. Quite literally.

I guess I understand the allure of algos, especially to the tech/computer savvy. They seem transparent. Superficially they take out guesswork and human error and human judgment and weird human behavior. But it is exactly their mechanical nature that some find appealing that can lead to disaster, because they often encode positive feedback loops that are triggered by humans behaving like humans when they interact with the algorithm. And in financial markets, positive feedback almost always has negative effects.

And that is what the TerraUSD-Terra Luna algo did.

Algos can be exactly like the broomsticks in the Sorcerer’s Apprentice. They do exactly what they are told. And as in the Sorcerer’s Apprentice, that can be a big problem.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

March 11, 2022

Direct Clearing at FTX: A Corner Solution, and Likely a Dead End With Destabilizing Potential

In a weird counterpoint to the LME nickel story, another big clearing-related story that is causing a lot of consternation in derivatives circles is FTX exchange’s proposal to move to a direct clearing model that would dispense with FCMs as intermediaries. Instead of having an FCM interposed between a customer and the clearinghouse, the customer interfaces directly with the FTX Derivatives Clearing Organization (DCO).

What is crucial here is how this is supposed to work: FTX will utilize near real time mark-to-market and variation margin payments. Moreover, the exchange will automate the liquidation of undermargined positions, again basically in real time.

The mechanics are described here.

FTX describes this as being the next big thing in the derivatives markets, and a way of addressing systemic risks. Basically the pitch is simple: “real time margining allows us to operate a pure no credit/loser pays system.”

FTX touts this as a feature, but as the nickel experience demonstrates (and other previous episodes demonstrate) it is not. Margining generally can be destabilizing, especially during stressed market conditions, and the model FTX is advancing exacerbates the destabilizing potential of margining.

The mechanical means of addressing margin shortfalls on a real time frequency increases the tight coupling on the exchange, and is tailor made to create destabilizing positive feedback loops: prices move a lot leading to margin shortfalls in real time that trigger real time trades that accentuate the price movement. It is like seeding the market with huge numbers of stop orders, which are inherently destabilizing. Further, they can create incentives to manipulate. Anyone who can get some idea of where the stops are can “gun the stops” and trigger big price moves.

This instability potential can be exacerbated by the ability of traders to hold collateral in the form of the “underlying” (i.e., crypto, at present). Well, the collateral value can fluctuate, and that can contribute to margin shortfalls which again trigger stops.

Market participants can mitigate getting stopped out by substantially over-margining, i.e., holding a lot of excess margin in their FTX account. But this is a cash inefficient way of trading.

It’s not clear to me whether FTX will pay interest on collateral. It seems not. Hmmm. Implementing a model that incentivizes holding a lot of extra cash at FTX and not paying interest. Cynic that I am, that seems to be a great way to bet on higher interest rates! Maybe that’s FTX’s real game here.

I would also note that the “no leverage” story here reflects a decidedly non-systemic view (something that I pointed out years ago in my critiques of clearing mandates). Yes, real time margining plus holding of substantial excess margin reduces to a small level the amount of leverage extended by the CCP/DCO. But that is different than reducing the amount of margin in the system as a whole. People who have borrowing capacity and optimal total leverage targets can fund their deposits at FTX with leverage from other sources. They can offset the leverage they normally obtain from FCMs by taking more leverage from other sources.

In sum, FTX is arguing that its mechanism of direct clearing and real time margining creates a far more effective “no credit” clearing system than the existing FCM-intermediated structure. That’s likely true. But as I’ve banged on about for years, that’s not necessarily a good thing. The features that FTX touts as advantages have very serious downsides–especially in stressed market conditions where they tend to accelerate price moves rather than dampen them.

Insofar as this being a threat to the existing intermediated system, which many in the industry appear to fear, I am skeptical. In particular, the cash inefficiency of this mechanism will make it unattractive to many market participants. Not to be Panglossian, but the existing intermediated system evolved as it did for good economic reasons. It trades off credit risk and liquidity risk. It does so in a somewhat discriminating way because it takes into account the creditworthiness of market participants (something that FTX brags is unnecessary in its system). FTX is something of a corner solution that the market has not adopted despite the opportunity to do so. As a result, I don’t think that corner solution will have widespread appeal going forward.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

November 7, 2021

You Can’t Spell “Cryptocurrency” Without “Crypt”

Filed under: Cryptocurrency,Exchanges,Politics,Regulation — cpirrong @ 7:25 pm

The libertarian/anarchist roots of cryptocurrency, especially Bitcoin, are well known. The supposed allure is that crypto would allow individuals to transact without requiring on state issued fiat currencies (which are subject to various government controls and monitoring) or state-sanctioned financial institutions. Crypto is in theory anonymous, decentralized, and peer-to-peer, outside of the purview or control of the state. A way to Go Galt, virtually.

In the early days of crypto, which of course are not that long ago, I expressed extreme skepticism about that vision. It could be realized only if crypto remained unimportant and utilized by few: if it were ever to become close to realizing the vision on a broad scale, it would be a threat to governments and they would intervene to control it, neuter it, co-opt it, or destroy it.

There’s an irony here. If you believe the ideological argument for crypto–that it is justified as a means of escaping a tyrannical government-sanctioned and controlled financial system–you also have to understand that governments would not permit crypto to survive as the true believers desire it to.

And we are at that point. Crypto has flourished in the last several years. Not surprisingly, governments are moving to crack down on it.

China–again not surprisingly–was the first to attack crypto in a systematic way, implementing a blanket ban on crypto transactions. But other governments are not far behind, including the US.

Indeed, perhaps you didn’t know this, but the marvelous “infrastructure” bill just passed by the House includes a provision mandating reporting of crypto transactions. The language is unsurprisingly murky, but the intent is quite clear: to bring crypto into the view of the federal government’s Panopticon, especially its tax Panopticon.

In both China and the US the regulatory/legal attack is focused on intermediaries (e.g., exchanges, brokers) that facilitate transactions. In theory, true peer-to-peer transactions (e.g., transactions between anonymous wallets) can be used to circumvent this, but the very fact that intermediation has proved so integral to the operation of the crypto market (which is in itself a refutation of the anarchist vision, as I pointed out in a post about Ethereum creator Vitalik Buterin) demonstrates that the regulations will seriously compromise the ability of crypto to achieve that vision. Moreover, this is just a first step, but one which strongly indicates intent: if non-intermediated transactions flourish, governments will devise means to bring them to heel too.

There’s also something else to keep an eye on: central bank digital currency. It is no coincidence, comrades, that the first country to crack down on non-government crypto–China–is also in the lead in implementing–mandating, actually–a government digital currency.

Private crypto is a competitor to government digital money. Governments don’t like competition. So they do their best to destroy it. Furthermore, the Chinese government truly desires to create an actual Panopticon that permits monitoring, rewarding, and punishing all aspects of individual behavior. Government digital currency greatly advances that objective, and private digital currency impedes it. So to advance the former China destroys the latter.

Governments world wide have cognitive dissonance when it comes to cash. On the one hand, it provides a source of revenue–seigniorage. On the other hand, it provides a way to circumvent the tax system as a way of generating revenue–and of monitoring and controlling behavior. Government digital currency allows states to resolve that dilemma. They can have their revenue cake and eat your privacy too.

China is open and unapologetic about its social credit system and its view that government digital currency will allow it to extend and deepen the operation of that system. Other governments are not so blatant, but there have been discussions in the US and Europe and elsewhere about not just the adoption of central bank digital currency, but how that system could be used to compel desired behavior.

A retired Swiss banker friend once held up a 100 CHF note to me and said: “when I hold this, I feel free.” Well, that’s a feature to him, but a bug to governments. When you “hold” government digital currency, you will not be free. Its use can be monitored. It can be wiped out at the speed of light if you use it in a way that offends governments–or if you do other things that offend governments. Think that social credit can’t come to the US? If so, you are a trusting fool. Especially since government digital currency incredibly leverages the power of a social credit system.

In other words, government digital currency is a major step to the implementation of a dystopian Panopticon. Destroying, or at least severely hobbling, non-government digital currency is a crucial first step to the successful introduction of government digital currency. So this provision buried in the “infrastructure” bill, along with other strong signals from the Treasury, OCC, SEC, CFTC, and Congress of an intent to throttle private crypto should be viewed with alarm, and not just if you are a believer in the crypto dream.

There’s another thought that comes to mind, more speculative, but one that cannot be dismissed out of hand. Namely, that what we are seeing is a huge bait-and-switch. Bitcoin’s origins are incredibly murky. Its creation myth is an anarchist one–which makes it very appealing to those who value freedom and independence, and bridle at government coercion and control. What better way to identify and ensnare such people–who are an anathema to control-obsessed governments–than creating cryptocurrency with an anarchist creation story?

And even if governments did not create the bait, they are certainly not above exploiting an emergent phenomenon (if that’s what crypto really is) to advance their anti-liberty agenda. Crypto has gained a cachet in large part because of its anti-authoritarian aura. Once attracted to crypto by this aura, people are much more vulnerable to being seduced into the use of government crypto, with the loss of freedom that implies.

The poem The Spider and the Fly comes to mind.

But although these speculations would have important implications if proven true, in many ways they are beside the point. The point is that governments are turning the screws on anarcho-crypto and moving to create fiat-crypto. These actions are complementary, and bring closer the day in which fiat-crypto will supplant the fiat currency you can hold in your hand. And when that day comes, freedom will be on its death bed, if not dead already.

Remember, you can’t spell “cryptocurrency” without “crypt.”

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

July 12, 2021

Elon’s On Fire!

Filed under: China,Climate Change,Cryptocurrency,Energy,Tesla — cpirrong @ 6:29 pm

No. Wait. That was a Tesla in Taiwan City.

But Elon did ignite some (metaphorical) pyrotechnics in a Delaware Chancery courtroom with his fiery defense of the Solar City deal of 2016. My criticism of the deal at the time–which inspired some of my better lines, IMO–is the gravamen of the shareholder lawsuit against Musk. Namely, that the Tesla purchase of Solar City was a bailout of a sinking Solar City, mainly driven by Elon’s desperation to avoid a blow to his reputation as a visionary genius.

Nothing in what I’ve read about Elon’s testimony changes my mind. Ya sure the Tesla board was totes independent of him. Ya sure he did not dominate the board. Ya sure the deal made sense on the merits. Whatever, dude.

All that said, I surmise that the plaintiffs have a difficult hill to climb. Proving, legally, in court, what we all know to be true is sometimes a very difficult thing. That’s probably a good thing, but that’s a statement about the average–not any particular case.

That said, since the Solar City deal Tesla’s stock price, unlike Elon, has gone to Mars. It’s about 20 percent off its all time high in January, but still about 15 times above its June, 2015 price, which I thought was inflated then. So what do I know?

The most logical explanation to me is that $TSLA is not so much a bet on Tesla qua Tesla, or Musk qua Musk, but on government policies around the world that seem hell bent on forcing us all to drive electric cars, never mind fire risks (and Taiwan City is not a freak event), or the environmental costs of mining, or the insanity of renewables, or the increasing inability of electrical grids to handle existing demands let alone massive new ones such as that arising from electric autos, or on and on and on and on. Tesla is a first mover in electric vehicles, governments are compelling the shift to electric vehicles regardless of all the myriad problems, so Tesla stock booms. It’s not an efficiency story or an innovation story. It’s a wealth creation (for Tesla shareholders) by wealth destruction (the rest of us) story.

A couple of other Tesla/Musk-related comments that have struck me recently but not sufficiently to catalyze a post.

Tesla is having problems in China. Musk assiduously courts China. Musk makes huge sunk investments in China. China shtups Musk.

This storyline alone is sufficient to make you question Musk’s acumen. Did he really think that China would not act opportunistically? FFS. Opportunism ‘R Us is the CCP motto. Look at how the CCP is shtupping domestic tech companies (and those foolish enough to invest in tech company IPOs). If that’s what they do to “their” companies, what can foreign devils expect? Foreign devil Elon apparently thought he was special. He ain’t.

Crypto. Elon’s pronouncements can cause massive movements in cryptocurrency prices. This alone is enough to demonstrate the utter arbitrariness of crypto. Why should the value of anything depend on the musings of a mercurial and megalomaniacal individual other than the things that individual can control? Especially when said mercurial and megalomaniacal individual no doubt derives immense glee from watching people jump to his tune? That incentivizes him to say ever more outlandish things. Which the KoolAid drinkers respond to, which just incentivizes him more.

Why do his musings matter? Because people believe they matter.

In coordination games sunspot equilibria exist. In sunspot equilibria, values/prices change in response to a variable that people think matters, even though it is totally unrelated to fundamentals. Currencies–including cryptocurrencies–have a coordination game aspect where expectations matter. The value of currency (or a cryptocurrency) depends on what people think its value is, or what they expect it to be. If people believe that variable X–e.g., what Elon Musk tweets–matters, then X will matter.

That is apparently the case with crypto: whatever Elon says, cryptos do, at least to a considerable degree. What is more bizarre is that whereas “sunspots” are exogenous, Elon’s pronouncements are endogenous–he says what he says almost surely based on the fact that he knows that what he says will move prices. Yeah, that’s exactly the kind of power you want to give a megalomaniac.

Exogenous/extrinsic uncertainty can lead to excessive volatility. Crypto suggests that endogenous uncertainty a la Musk creates massive excess volatility.

So you want to “invest” in crypto why, exactly? To speculate on Elon’s mood swings and narcissism? To speculate on how other speculators speculate on Elon’s mood swings and narcissism? To speculate on how other speculators speculate on how speculators speculate on Elon’s mood swings and narcissism. (To complete this post, continue ad infinitum.)

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

September 14, 2019

Bakkt in the (Crypto) Saddle

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

The ICE contract is distinctive in a couple of ways.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

June 19, 2019

Can You Spare Me a Zuck Buck? Spare me.

Filed under: Blockchain,Cryptocurrency,Economics,Politics,Regulation — cpirrong @ 3:08 pm

To huge fanfare, Facebook announced the impending release of a new cryptocurrency, “Libra.” Except it isn’t–a crypto, that is. Whereas real cryptocurrencies are decentralized, anonymous, unpermissioned, and lack trusted intermediaries, Libra is centralized, permissioned, non-anomymous and chock-full o’ intermediaries in addition to Facebook. It doesn’t really utilize a blockchain either.

Other than that . . .

For the best (IMO) take on the “Zuck Buck”, I heartily recommend FT Alphaville’s extended take–and takedown. I’ll just add a few comments.

First, when it comes to finance, there is little (if anything) new under the sun, and that is clearly true of Libra. The Alphaville stories provide several historical precedents, to which I’ll just add another. It is basically like pre-National Bank Act banking system in which banks issued bank notes that circulated as hand-to-hand media of exchange, and which were theoretically convertible into currency (gold prior to the Civil War) on demand. Libra is functionally equivalent to such bank notes, with the main distinction that it is represented by bytes rather than pieces of paper.

Facebook attempts to allay concerns about such a system by requiring 100 percent backing by bank deposits or low-default-risk government bonds, but as historical experience (some as recent as 2008) demonstrates, although such systems are less subject to runs than liabilities issued by entities that invest the proceeds in illiquid assets, they are not necessarily run-proof.

Furthermore, the economic model here isn’t that different from the 19th century bank model because the issuer can profit by investing the proceeds from the issue of the currency in interest bearing assets, and pocketing the interest. Those buying the currency forego interest income, and presumably are willing to do so because of it reduces the costs of engaging in various kinds of transactions.

This type of system faces different kinds of difficulties in low and high interest rate environments. In high rate environments, the opportunity cost of holding the currency is high, which leads to lower quantity demanded. In low rate environments, the revenue stream may be insufficient to cover the costs incurred by the intermediaries. This creates an incentive for asset substitution, i.e., to allow backing the currency with higher risk assets (with higher yields) thereby increasing insolvency and run risks.

I note in passing that low interest rates destroyed the traditional FCM model which relied on interest income from customer margins as a major revenue stream (as Facebook is proposing here). Ask John Corzine about that, and look to the experience of MF Global.

Why introduce this in a low interest rate environment? Maybe this is a kind of loss-leader strategy. The opportunity cost of holding Libra is low now (given low rates), so maybe a lot of people will buy in now. Even though the benefits to the issuers/intermediaries may be low now (because the interest income is low), they may be counting on customer stickiness once there is widespread adoption. That is, those who hold Libra when the cost of doing so is low may stick around even when the cost goes up substantially. That is, Facebook and its partners in this endeavor may be counting on some sort of switching cost or some behavioral irrationality to reduce the interest-rate sensitivity of demand for Libra.

Good luck with that. (For another example of nothing new under the sun, read up on disintermediation of traditional banks when interest bearing money market mutual funds came on the scene.)

I would also suggest that Libra has some disadvantages as a medium of exchange. For one thing, since assets will be held in multiple currencies, it creates currency risk for virtually everyone who uses it. For another, it involves additional cost to move from fiat into Libra and from Libra into fiat. This reduces the value of the Libra as a medium of exchange because of the resulting difference in cost in using it for within-network and off-network uses.

This last point relates to something else in the Libra white paper, namely, the claims that the currency will be a boon to the “unbanked.” This makes zero sense.

The reason that some people don’t have bank accounts is that the cost of servicing them (reflected in fees that banks charge) is above the willingness/ability of those people to pay for those services. There is no reason to believe that Libra reduces the cost of servicing the currently unbanked. Furthermore, the value of the services provided is likely to be lower, and substantially so because inter alia (a) the lack of brick an mortar facilities that low income people need for check cashing/depositing and cash depositing, (b) the restricted network of people with whom they can transact, and (c) currency risk.  Relatedly, it’s hard to see how one can move funds into our out of Libra without having access to banking services. I see the unbanked rhetoric as mere SJW eyewash attempting to make this look like some progressive social project.

The arrogance of Facebook is also rather astounding. Again, this is not crypto–it is banking. Yet Facebook presumes that it can do this without the panoply of licenses that banks must have, and without being subject to the same kinds of regulation as banks.

Because why? Trust me? Suuuurrreee, Mark.

Along these lines, note that the most benign interpretation behind Libra is that it is a narrow bank (100 percent reserve banking). But remember the Fed recently denied approval to TNB (“The Narrow Bank”) USA NA even though it was only going to offer deposits to “the most financially secure institutions” and explicitly eschewed providing retail banking services. Yet Marky et al expect the Fed (not to mention banking regulators in every other jurisdiction on the planet) to stand aside and let Facebook offer maybe (but maybe not) narrow banking services (with added currency risk!) to the great unwashed?

On what planet?

Note the furious government reactions to this, not just in the US but in Europe. Zuckerberg et al were totally delusional if they expected anything different, especially in light of Facebooks serial privacy, free-speech, and antitrust controversies.

In sum, in my opinion Libra faces serious economic and political/regulatory obstacles. Having politicians and regulators hate you isn’t bad per se in my book–it can actually represent an endorsement! But the economics of this are incredibly dodgy. My skepticism is only increased by the misleading packaging (crypto! a boon to the unbanked!) and the congenitally misleading packager.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

November 24, 2018

The Most Annoying and Pathetic Geopolitical Entity Ever? I Think So!

Filed under: Cryptocurrency,Economics,Politics — cpirrong @ 7:59 pm
There may be a more annoying geopolitical entity in history than the EU, but I’ll be damned if I can think of one.

In recent weeks, a group of northern EU states centered on the Netherlands have formed the “Hanseatic group” to represent their positions, regarding the Italy situation in particular.  This has outraged the French and the Germans.  In response to the blonde upstarts, French economy minister Bruno le Maire lashed out:

Speaking at a dinner with his Dutch counterpart Wopke Hoekstra in Paris on Thursday, Bruno Le Maire said he was “not comfortable” dealing with the Hanseatic group — eight to 10 countries that have agreed common positions calling for more national responsibility and stronger rules in the eurozone.

“Let’s imagine that France tries to create a club of the southern countries with Portugal, Italy, Spain — what would be the reaction of the other member states? Do you think that it would be a positive one? Do you think it would improve the situation of Europe?” Mr Le Maire told the Financial Times.

“I am not comfortable with the idea of creating new circles, new clubs, new leagues within Europe. If you want to create new divisions between the north and the south, or the west and east, you will never have France on your side,” said Mr Le Maire, who has spearheaded French ambitions to reform the eurozone in a partnership with Germany.

Some Franco-German initiatives, such as a blueprint for a eurozone budget, have met resistance from countries led by the Netherlands. The group has also advocated tougher enforcement of budgetary rules and moves towards debt restructuring in the eurozone to be agreed by EU governments next month.  (Emphasis added.)

Did you catch that?  Franco-German ambitions to reform the eurozone–OK!  Lilliputian resistance–BAD!!!!

When the hypocrisy was pointed out, Bruno a dit non! non! non! C’est totalement différent!

When asked whether the Franco-German alliance was not a “club”, Mr Le Maire said: “That is totally different. This is not a club. This is what is at the core of the European ambition: peace between France and Germany. This is at the core of the European Union.”

So, is M. Le Maire suggesting that absent the EU, jackbooted Germans would soon be marching in the shade along the tree-lined French roads?  If he is, that’s quite the insult to Germany, non?  But if he is, he is utterly delusional: to quote Patton, the post-post-modern Germans couldn’t fight their way out of a piss-soaked paper bag, and what’s more, have no desire even to try.  They’ve found alternative means to achieve dominance over the continent, and the French are now their (junior) allies in that endeavor.  A key part of that strategy is divide-and-conquer, and “clubs” like the Hanseatic one threaten that gambit.

Germano-French ambitions extend beyond Europe.  They want to leverage their dominance in the EU to a position of world influence.  Fortunately, here their efforts have proven again and again to be laughable.

A particularly juicy example is the hilarious efforts of the EU to set up a special purpose vehicle to facilitate trade with Iran in defiance of US sanctions, pour epater le bête orange.  They have made grandiose announcements.  Only one problem: European companies don’t want to touch this with a ten foot pole.  Make that two problems: no European government wants to touch it either:

So up to now the commission has been unable to find a home for the SPV. Not even a post restante address. No EU country has offered to host it. The sad SPV has been wandering between railway stations and airports, without a nationality, a bank account or even a real name. If I passed it on the street, I would put a euro in its hat.

Har!

And as I’ve pointed out since the day of the announcement, it is an utterly pointless exercise because it addresses every issue except the one that matters: secondary sanctions.  Once the US seized upon this mechanism, any attempt to circumvent sanctions by avoiding the dollar became utterly pointless: do a barter deal, or a Euro deal, or a Venezuelan crypto bolivar deal with a sanctioned Iranian company, and the Treasury will still hammer you.  So, if you want to do all your biz in cryptobolivars–knock yourself out! But if you want to do any business with the USD at all, think twice about dealing with a sanctioned entity by an SPV or any other way.  And pretty much every European company has decided that one thought is sufficient.

M. Le Maire seems to be getting a glimmer of a clue that the EU is a geopolitical lightweight:

“I’m not sure the Hanseatic League would be in a position to face the competition with China and the US”, he said. “If we are creating closed clubs, alliances within the EU then we run the risk of losing time and weakening our common project.”

Bruno. Dude: the EU is not in a position to face competition with China and the US.  This is proven daily.

So under German-French “leadership” the EU is likely to lurch along like it has been for years.  Compensating for their inability to achieve their vaulting global ambitions by beating up on the EU’s smaller members.  Annoying.  But in the end, risible and pathetic.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Next Page »

Powered by WordPress