Streetwise Professor

May 15, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

. . . .


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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May 8, 2018

Libor Was a Crappy Wrench. Here–Use This Beautiful New Hammer Instead!

Filed under: Derivatives,Economics,Exchanges,Financial crisis,Regulation — The Professor @ 8:02 pm

When discussing the 1864 election, Lincoln mused that it was unwise to swap horses in midstream.  (Lincoln used a variant of this phrase many times during the campaign.) The New York Fed and the Board of Governors are proposing to do that nonetheless when it comes to interest rates.  They want to transition from reliance on Libor to a new Secured Overnight Financing Rate (SOFR, because you can never have enough acronyms), despite the fact that there are trillions of dollars of notional in outstanding derivatives and more trillions in loans with payments tied to Libor.

There are at least two issues here.  The first is if Libor fades away, dies, or is murdered, what is to be done with the outstanding contracts that it is written into? Renegotiations of contracts (even if possible) would be intense, costly, and protracted, because any adjustment to contracts to replace Libor could result in the transfer of tens of billions of dollars among the parties to these contracts.  This is particularly like because of the stark differences between Libor and SOFR.  How would you value the difference between a stream of cash flows based on a flawed mechanism intended to reflect term rates on unsecured borrowings with a stream of cash flows based on overnight secured borrowings?  Apples to oranges doesn’t come close to describing the difference.

Seriously: how would you determine the value so that you could adjust contracts?  A conventional answer is to hold some sort of auction (such as that used to determine CDS payoffs in a default), and then settle all outstanding contracts based on the clearing price in the auction (again like a CDS auction).  But I can’t see how that would work here.

Let’s say you have a contract entitling you to receive a set of payoffs tied to Libor.  You participate in an auction where you bid an amount that you would be willing to pay/receive to give up that set of payoffs for a set of SOFR payoffs.  What would you bid?  Well, in a conventional auction your bid would be based on the value of holding onto the item you would give up (here, the Libor payments).  But if Libor is going to go away, how would you determine that opportunity cost?

Not to mention that there is an immense variety of payoff formulae based on Libor, meaning that there would have to be an immense variety of (impractical) auctions.

So it will come down to bruising negotiations, which given the amounts at stake, would consume large amounts of real resources.

The second issue is whether the SOFR rate will perform the same function as well as Libor did.  Market participants always had the choice to use some other rate to determine floating rates in swaps–T-bill rates, O/N repo rates, what have you.  They settled on Libor pretty quickly because Libor hedged the risks that swap users faced better than the alternatives.  A creditworthy bank that borrowed unsecured for 1, 3, 6, or 12 month terms could hedge its funding costs pretty well by using a Libor-based swap: a swap based on some alternative (like an O/N secured rate) would have been a dirtier hedge.  Similarly, another way that banks hedged interest rate risk was to lend at rates tied to their funding cost–which varied closely with Libor.  Well, the borrowers (e.g., corporates) could swap those floating rate loans into fixed by using Libor-based swaps.

That is, Libor-based swaps and other derivatives came to dominate because they were better hedges for interest rate risks faced by banks and corporates than alternatives would have been.  There was an element of reflexivity here too: the availability of Libor-based hedging instruments made it desirable to enter into borrowing and lending transactions based on Libor, because you could hedge them. This positive feedback mechanism created the vexing situation faced today, where there are immense sums of contracts that embed Libor in one way or another.

SOFR will not have this desirable feature–unless the Fed wants to drive banks to do all their funding secured overnight! That is, there will be a mismatch between the new rate that is intended replace Libor as a benchmark in derivatives and loan transactions, and the risks that that market participants want to hedge.

In essence, the Fed identified the problem with Libor–its vulnerability to manipulation because it was not based on transactions–and says that it has fixed it by creating a benchmark based on a lot of transactions.  The problem is that the benchmark that is “better” in some respects (less vulnerable to a certain kind of manipulation) is worse in others (matching the risk that market participants want to hedge).  In a near obsessive quest to fix one flaw, the Fed totally overlooked the purpose of the thing that they were trying to fix, and have created something of dubious utility because it does a poorer job of achieving that purpose.  In focusing on the details of the construction of the benchmark, they’ve lost sight of the big picture: what the benchmark is supposed to be used for.

It’s like the Fed has said: “Libor was one crappy wrench, so we’ve gone out and created this beautiful hammer. Use that instead!”

Or, to reprise an old standby, the Fed is like the drunk looking for his car keys under the lamppost, not because he lost them there, but because the light is better.  There is more light (transactions) in the O/N secured market, but that’s not where the market’s hedging keys are.

This is an object lesson in how governments and other large bureaucracies go astray.  The details of a particular problem receive outsized attention, and all efforts are focused on fixing that problem without considering the larger context, and the potential unintended consequences of the “fix.” Government is especially vulnerable to this given the tendency to focus on scandal and controversy and the inevitable narrative simplification and decontextualization that scandal creates.

The current ‘bor administrator–ICE–is striving to keep it alive.  These efforts deserve support.  Secured overnight rate-based benchmarks are ill-suited to serve as the basis for interest rate derivatives that are used to hedge the transactions that Libor-based derivatives do.

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May 1, 2018

Cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs: Round Up the Usual Suspects

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Not according to this article:

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

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

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

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

Weirdly, the article recognizes this

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

It then fails to grasp the implications of this.

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

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

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

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

So: release the suspect!

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

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Rusal: Premature Celebration

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Begging the Question on VIX Manipulation

Filed under: Derivatives,Economics,Exchanges,Regulation — The Professor @ 9:29 am

Stung by yet another allegation of manipulation of the VIX, Cboe Chairman and CEO Ed Tilly and President and COO Chris Concannon fired off an open letter defending the exchange and VIX.  To say it begs the key questions is an understatement.

Here’s their explanation of the April 18 event:

During the opening auction on April 18th, a single market participant submitted orders to buy approximately 212,000 SPX options across a wide range of strike prices. Five additional market participants submitted buy orders totaling 20,000 options. The size and structure of these buy orders appeared consistent with the weights prescribed by the VIX Index formula. Offsetting this buy interest were sell orders submitted by nine participants for a total of 118,000 contracts. This left a buy order imbalance of 114,000 SPX options. This buy order imbalance contributed to the opening prices of the option series that were used to calculate the final VIX settlement value. Based on the orders that were submitted, we believe the auction process functioned as intended, notwithstanding that the final settlement value was higher than what market participants may have otherwise expected.

Although oddly disconnected from the discussion of the 18 April spike in the VIX, this statement ostensibly directed at the Griffin and Shams paper claiming to find frequent manipulations of the VIX strongly suggests that they are denying there was a manipulation on 18 April as well:

Finally, we would like to again address the claims of possible manipulation of the settlement process. We reiterate that we believe these claims are without merit, and that the academic paper’s analysis and conclusions are based upon a fundamental misunderstanding about how VIX derivatives are traded and settled. The trading behavior the author considered suspicious is
consistent with normal and legitimate trading behavior.

The explanation of what happened a couple of weeks ago begs the question because in no way does it disprove that a manipulation took place.  Indeed, what they describe is exactly how a large trader could and would “bang the auction” to influence the settlement price of VIX derivatives, in order to profit on positions in those derivatives.  What Tilly and Concannon describe involves a single large trader submitting a huge order on one side of a market with liquidity constraints.  That is almost certain to affect the auction price. That’s how that kind of manipulation works.

Note that the order–again, entered by a single participant–represented about 90 percent of the buy side interest, and more than 80 percent of the order imbalance.  Further, Tilly and Concannon’s touting of the Cboe’s efforts to improve liquidity at the auctions (perhaps inadvertently) concedes that the liquidity at the auctions is presently inadequate, which would mean that a huge order imbalance would almost certainly move prices–as occurred on the 18th–and be anticipated to move prices.  “There’s no problem (’the auction process functioned as intended’), but we’re fixing it!” hardly inspires confidence.

Any participant with the heft to enter such a large order would surely be sophisticated enough to know that it would be highly likely to move prices.  Note that non-manipulative traders would typically want to mitigate price impact, not trade in a way that exacerbates it.  So why do this?

Thus, there is evidence to support all of the elements of a manipulation case, but one.  There is evidence for artificial price, causation, and ability to cause.  The missing element is intent.  I’d be open to suggestions as to why this one market participant would enter such a large order but for an intent to distort prices.  Any such explanation would have to show how this was the most economical way of achieving some non-manipulative objective, such as hedging.

Addressing the issue of intent would require knowledge of the large trader’s positions in VIX-related instruments.  Tilly and Concannon are silent on that issue, which makes their confident disavowal of manipulation incomplete and hence unpersuasive.  Discussing the auction alone, disconnected from the VIX derivatives markets tied to the auction, is inadequate to dispel suspicions of manipulation.

Perhaps the exchange execs are right, and this “whale” (as the FT referred to the trader) was not manipulating.  But the information in the public record, including the information in their letter, is not sufficient to demonstrate this claim. The question-begging defense will therefore likely feed suspicions about VIX, rather than lay them to rest, as the letter’s authors intended.

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March 23, 2018

Will Chinese Oil Futures Transform the Oil Market? Highly Unlikely, and Like All Things China, They Will Be Hostage to Government Policy Whims

Filed under: China,Derivatives,Economics,Energy,Exchanges,Regulation,Russia — The Professor @ 11:08 am

After literally years of delays and false starts, the International Energy Exchange (a subsidiary of the Shanghai Futures Exchange) will launch its yuan-denominated, China-delivery crude oil futures contract on Monday.

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

Whether it will be a viable and successful contract for commercial market participants is far more doubtful.  Its potential to become an international benchmark is even more remote.

For one thing, most successful commodity futures contracts specify delivery in a major production area that is connected to multiple consumption regions, but the INE contract is at a major consumption location.  This will increase basis risk for non-Chinese commercials, even before taking into account the exchange rate issue.  Considering the cash basis (the cash-futures basis is more complicated), basis risk between a delivery location and a location supplied by that delivery point is driven by variability in transformation costs, most notably transportation costs.   The variance in the basis between two consumption locations supplied by a delivery point is equal to the variance in the difference between the transformation costs to the two locations, which is equal to the sum of the variances, minus 2x the covariance.  This is typically bigger than either of the variances.  Thus, non-Chinese hedgers will typically be worse off using the INE contract than the CME’s WTI or DME’s Oman or ICE’s Brent, even before liquidity is considered.

In this respect, the INE’s timing is particularly inauspicious, because the US crude oil export boom, which is seeing large volumes go to Asia and China specifically, has more tightly connected WTI prices with Asian prices.

I deliberately say “transformation costs” (rather than just transport costs) above because there can be disparities between international prices and prices in China due to regulations, currency conversion issues, and taxes.  I don’t know the details regarding the relevant tax and regulatory regime for oil specifically, but I do know that for cotton and other ags the tax and quota regime has and does lead to wide and variable differences between China prices and ICE prices, and that periodic changes in this regime create additional basis volatility.

Related to transformation costs, the INE has implemented one bizarre feature that is likely to undermine contract performance.  Specifically, it is setting a high storage rate on delivery warehouses.  The ostensible purpose of this is to restrain speculation and reduce price volatility:

One of its strategies to deter excessive price swings is to set related crude storage costs in China at levels that are at least twice the rate elsewhere. That’s seen discouraging speculators interested in conducting so-called cash and carry trades, which seek to take advantage of differences between the spot price and futures of a commodity.

This will be highly detrimental to the contract’s performance, and will actually contravene the intended purpose.  Discouraging storage will actually increase volatility.  It will also increase the volatility in the basis between the INE price and the prices of other oil in China.  The fact that discouraging storage will make the contract more vulnerable to corners and squeezes will further increase this basis volatility.  This will undermine the utility of the contract as a hedging mechanism.

Where will hedging interest for the contract come from?  Unlike in say the US, there will not be a large group of producers will big long positions that they need to hedge (in part because their banks insist on it).  Similarly, there is unlikely to be a large population of traders with inventory positions, as most of the Chinese crude is purchased by refiners.  The incentives of refiners to hedge crude costs are limited, because they have a natural hedge: although they are short crude, they are long products.  To the extent that refiners can pass on crude costs through products prices, their incentives to hedge are limited: this is why there is a big net short futures exposure (directly and indirectly) by producers, merchants and processors in WTI and Brent: sellers of crude (producers and merchants) have an incentive to hedge by going short futures because they have no natural internal hedge, and the big refiners’ natural hedge mutes their incentive to take long positions of commensurate size.

Ironically, regulation–price controls specifically–may provide the biggest incentive for refiners to hedge.  To the extent they cannot pass on crude cost increases through higher product prices, they have an incentive to hedge because then they have more of a true short exposure in crude.  Moreover, this hedging incentive is option-like: the incentive is greater the closer the price controls are to being binding.  I remember that refined product price restrictions have been a big deal in China in the past, resulting in periodic standoffs between the government and Sinopec in particular, which sometimes involved fuel shortages and protests by truckers.  I don’t know what the situation is now, but that really doesn’t matter: what matters is policy going forward, and Chinese policies are notoriously changeable, and often arbitrary.  So the interest of Chinese refiners in hedging will vary with government pricing policy whims.

If hedging interest does develop in China, it is likely to be the reverse of what you see in WTI and Brent, with hedgers net long instead of net short.  This would tend to lead to a “Keynesian contango” (the Canton Contango? Keynesian Cantongo?), with futures prices above expected future spot prices, although the vagaries of Chinese speculators make it difficult to make strong predictions.

Will the contract develop into an international benchmark? Left to its own devices, this is highly unlikely.  The factors discussed above that create basis risk undermine its utility as an international benchmark, even within Asia.  But we are talking about China here, and the government seldom leaves things to their own devices.  I would not be surprised if the government explicitly requires or strongly pressures domestic firms to buy crude basis Shanghai futures, rather than Brent or WTI.  This contract obviously involves national prestige, and being launched at a time of intense dispute on trade between the US and China I suspect that the government is highly motivated to ensure that it doesn’t flop.

Requiring domestic firms to buy basis Shanghai could also force foreign sellers to do some of their hedging on INE.

Another issue is one I raised in the past, when China peremptorily terminated trading in stock index futures.  The prospect of being forced out of a position at the government’s whim makes it very risky to hold positions, particularly in long-dated contracts.

All in all, I don’t consider the new contract to be transformative–something that will shake up the world oil market.  It will do better than the laughable Russian Urals oil futures contract (in which volume over six months was one-third of the projected daily volume), but I doubt that it will develop into much more than another venue for speculative churn.  But like all things China, government policy will have an outsized influence on its development. Refined product pricing policy will affect hedging demand.  Attempts to force firms to use it as a pricing mechanism in contracts will affect its use as a benchmark, which will also affect hedging demand.

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

Update. I had a moment to catch up on Chinese price regulations.  The really binding regulations, which resulted in shortages and the periodic battles between Sinopec and the government date from around 2007-8, when (a) oil prices were skyrocketing, and (b) I was in China teaching a course to Sinopec and CNPC execs, and so heard first-hand accounts.   These battles continued, but less intensely post-Crisis because the controls weren’t binding when prices collapsed.  Moreover, the government adopted a policy that effectively implemented a peg between crude and refined prices, but only adjusted the peg every 22 days and only if the crude price had moved 4 percent.  Subsequently, in 2013, Beijing revised the policy, and eliminated the 4 percent trigger and shortened the averaging period to 10 days. Then in 2015, after the collapse in oil prices, China suspended this program.  A few months later, it introduced a revised program that makes no adjustments to the price when crude falls below $40 or rises above $130.

Several takeaways.  First, at present the adjustment mechanism reduces the incentives of refiners to hedge crude prices.  Under the earlier adjustment system, the lags and thresholds would have created some bizarre optionality that would have made hedging decisions vary with prices in a highly non-linear way.  The system in effect from 2015 to 2016 would have created little incentive to hedge because the pricing system imposed hardly any constraints on margins that were allowed to vary with crude prices.

Second, the current system with the $40 floor and $130 ceiling actually increases the incentive to hedge (relative to the previous system) by buying futures when prices start to move up towards $130 (if that ever happens again).  That’s actually a perverse outcome (triggering buying in a rising price environment, and selling in a falling price environment–positive feedback loop).

Third, and most importantly, the policy changes often, in response to changing market conditions, which reinforces my point about the new futures contract being subject to government policy whims.  It also creates a motive for a perverse kind of speculation–speculation on policy, which can affect prices, which results in changes in policy.

One thing I should have mentioned in the post is the heterogeneity of refiners in China.  There are the big guys (Sinopec, CNPC, CNOOC), and there are the independents, often referred to as “teapot refineries.”  Teapots might have more of an incentive to hedge, given that they are in more tenuous financial straits–but those very tenuous straits might make it difficult for them to come up with the cash to pay margins.  And even they still have the natural hedge as long as price controls don’t bite.  It’s worth noting, however, that Chinese firms have a penchant for speculating too. I wouldn’t be surprised if some of the teapots turn plunger on INE.

Government policy towards the independents has been notoriously volatile–I know, right? In 2015, China granted the independents the right to import oil directly.  Then in late-2016 it thought that the independents were dizzy with success, and threatened to suspend their import quotas if they violated tax or environmental rules.  As always, there are competing and ever changing motives for Chinese policy.  They’ve lurched from wanting to protect the big three and drive consolidation of industry to wanting to provide competitive discipline for the big three to wanting to rein in the competition especially when the independents sparked a price war with the big firms.  These policy lurches will almost certainly affect the commercial utilization of the new futures market, even by Chinese firms.

Updated update. The thought that cash-and-carry trades are some dangerous speculative strategy puzzled me–it’s obviously not a directional play, so why would it affect price levels. But perhaps I foolishly took the official explanation at face value.  Chinese firms have been notorious for using various storage stratagems as ways of circumventing capital controls and obtaining shadow financing.  Perhaps the real reason for the high storage rate is to deter use of the futures market to play such games.  Or perhaps there is a tax angle.  Back in the day futures spreads were a favored tax strategy in the US (before the laws were changed and the IRS cracked down), and maybe cash-and-carry could facilitate similar games under the Chinese tax code.  Just spitballing here, but the stated rationale is so flimsy I have to think there is something else going on.

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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 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 21, 2017

Not Exactly What I Asked Santa For, But I’ll Take It

Filed under: Derivatives,Economics,Politics — The Professor @ 10:13 pm

Miracle of miracles, Congress has passed, and Trump will sign (perhaps after the New Year) a tax bill. It’s hardly perfect, but it’s an improvement on the existing system, and is about the best we could expect to get in the current political climate.

What do we want from a tax system, and how does this bill get us closer to that? One goal of the tax system–and the one that I prioritize–is to minimize the deadweight cost of raising the necessary revenue. All real world taxes involve distortions–deadweight losses–because they warp incentives at the margin. For instance, a tax on labor income drives a wedge between the marginal benefit of working an hour (the after tax wage) and the marginal cost (the value of lost leisure). This induces people to work too little and to consume too much leisure (or equivalently, consume too much leisure and too little goods and services) because they don’t capture the full benefit of their labor. Really inefficient tax systems are rife with such distortions. The US tax code provides numerous examples.

Taxes on capital or the returns to capital–taxes on dividends, corporate profits, and capital gains–are highly distorting. Steven Landsberg explains this as intuitively as anyone. The basic idea is that capital taxes are a form of double taxation that distort incentives to save and invest vs. consume. As Landsberg puts it, it is a surtax. With capital taxation, we have an incentive to consume too much and save and invest too little.

For about 30 years, economists have understood that in certain circumstances, the optimal rate of tax on returns to capital is zero. That is, a consumption tax is optimal.

There are caveats to this conclusion. Information-driven considerations can lead to a positive capital tax rate. For example, if people can disguise labor income as capital income to escape the income tax on labor earnings, a positive capital tax can be efficient in conjunction with a personal income tax. Disguising consumption as investment (is a new personal computer an investment or consumption?) can lead to a similar result. Distributive considerations (which inherently involve value judgments, I should note, whereas efficiency considerations do not) can also make it desirable to tax capital.

But even given these caveats, it is almost certainly the case that an efficient tax system imposes relatively low taxes on capital.

This efficiency effect is also related to another (possible) goal of the taxation system–to affect the distribution of income/wealth/consumption. For the impact of the tax on capital returns on investment affects who actually bears the burden of the tax.

This is an example of one of the issues that non-economists have a devil of a time understanding: tax incidence. Who bears the burden of a tax is not necessarily the party on whom the tax is levied. Taxes on labor aren’t necessarily paid by workers. Sales taxes assessed on firms aren’t necessarily paid by those firms. Who bears the tax burden depends on elasticities of supply and demand for the thing that is taxed.

Capital tax incidence is particularly unintuitive because there is a dynamic element to it. But the basic point is that even though a capital tax is formally levied on the owners of capital (or the return streams), over a long enough horizon the burden falls almost entirely on labor.

This is due to the impact of the capital tax on investment mentioned above. Tax capital, you get less investment. With less investment, there is less capital. With less capital, labor is less productive. Lower productivity translates into lower wages. Meaning that even though no supplier of labor writes a check to Uncle Sam to pay for the tax on capital, s/he pays it nonetheless, in the form of lower real wages.

The impact tends to increase over time, because the capital stock does not adjust immediately in response to a capital tax that depresses after-tax returns. But in standard models, the long run equilibrium after-tax return on capital is a constant (determined by the marginal utility of consumption, time preferences, and the long run growth rate of the economy). So if you raise capital taxes, a constant after-tax return requires a rise in the pre-tax return, which requires a fall in the capital stock. That’s what causes wages to fall. And the quicker the capital stock can adjust, the more rapidly the capital tax rise reduce wages.

And of course this works in the opposite direction if you cut capital taxes: the after tax return to capital initially rises, spurring investment, which raises productivity and hence wages.

Indeed, under some fairly standard assumptions, the a cut in capital taxes cause wages to rise more than the lost revenue in capital taxes. Meaning that in the long run, labor pays more than 100 percent of a tax formally levied on capital.

Again, these effects are not immediate, but if you see a surge of investment in the next couple of years, you can surmise that wages will surge too over that time frame.

This result can be expressed in elasticity terms. The supply of capital is perfectly elastic in the long run. Perfectly elastically supplied inputs do not bear any burden of a tax, even if that tax is formally levied on those inputs: instead, the burden is paid by the suppliers of other inputs (e.g., labor) or consumers (in the form of higher prices).

And even to the extent that owners of capital benefit in the short term, they are people too. And yes, many of them are wealthy, but many are workers who are also capitalists due to their participation in pension plans or 401Ks.

The focus of the recently passed tax bill is the reduction of capital taxes, most notably through reductions in the corporate tax rate to 21 percent (from 35 percent–very high by world standards), and through the immediate expensing of some investment expenditures.  This is the main reason the tax bill is a big improvement. Yes, I would prefer a Full Monty consumption tax, but this reduction in capital taxation is a movement towards a more efficient tax system, and one that will increase wages over time more rapidly than under the existing rates.

An efficient tax system should also focus on broadening the tax base and reducing marginal rates, because it is marginal rates that distort decisions to work and save. The current bill does a little on this dimension.

Tax preferences for certain kinds of consumption or investment are also usually a bad idea. The mortgage interest deduction is a classic example of this: the non-taxation of employee health insurance premiums paid by employers is another. The former encourages excessive consumption of/investment in housing. The latter favors employer-provided health coverage, which distorts labor markets (e.g., through job lock).  It also induces overconsumption of health care as compared to other goods and services.

The tax bill trims–but does not eliminate–the favored tax treatment of mortgage interest. So that’s good, but not great. It does nothing  on the health care premium issue, which is unfortunate.

The tax bill also limits corporate deductions of interest payments on debt. This is desirable, because it mitigates the incentive to finance with debt rather than equity. The bill should have gone further.

One largely hidden bad in the bill is the elimination of operating loss carry backs and limits on operating loss carry forwards. I understand the motivation here–it was done to offset revenue losses from other tax cuts. However, this will deter risk taking and lead to more hedging designed to reduce the variability of corporate income solely for the purpose of reducing taxes.

This effect is a little subtle, so I’ll try to explain. With no carry backs or carry forwards, them marginal tax rate when a company loses money is zero, and the marginal tax rate on positive corporate profits is the full corporate rate (now 21 percent). Thus, if a company has a positive probability of losing money, its marginal tax rate is non-decreasing with income, and increasing over some range. Due to Jensen’s inequality, this increasing marginal tax rate means that expected tax payments are increasing in the variance of corporate income.* Thus, increasing risk is costly because it transfers money (on average) to the government. Therefore, firms are more likely to pass up higher returning but riskier projects, and more likely to pay bankers to design hedging products to reduce corporate income volatility (which uses real resources, i.e., causes a deadweight loss), or to engage in diversifying mergers that reduce returns on average but also reduce the variability of corporate income.

In contrast, carry backs and carry forwards reduce the disparity between the marginal tax rate on gains and losses. This means that expected tax payments are less sensitive to the variance of corporate profits, which reduces distortions in risk taking and risk management decisions.

Another negative in the bill is the retention of tax subsidies for electric vehicles and renewables.

But even despite these negatives, all in all, I say two cheers–or maybe 1.5 cheers-for the tax bill. It’s not exactly what I asked Santa for, but it’s better than a sharp stick in the eye.

But from the wailing on the left, you’d think that’s exactly what happened to them. In both eyes, in fact.

The left’s reaction is hysterical, in both senses of the word. It is hysterical in the sense of:

a psychological disorder (not now regarded as a single definite condition) whose symptoms include conversion of psychological stress into physical symptoms (somatization), selective amnesia, shallow volatile emotions, and overdramatic or attention-seeking behavior.

Especially the “shallow volatile emotions, and overdramatic or attention-seeking behavior” parts. Several Democrats (notably Nancy Pelosi) referred to the tax bill as “Armageddon.” Talk about overdramatic hyperbole. A common shriek (especially on Twitter) is that the tax bill will KILL thousands (or is it millions?) of Americans. People on the left seem to be in a competition to show who can be the most OUTRAGED OVER THIS OUTRAGE.

A good deal of this idiocy reflects a basic misunderstanding of tax incidence (which I discussed above). The left confuses who writes the tax check (corporations) with who actually foots the bill (in the medium and long run, wage earners). Another good deal of this idiocy reflects the bill’s limitation on the deductibility of state and local taxes, which hits high tax states like New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, and California–which also happen to be solidly Democratic. So this is a matter of whose ox is gored.

This is rather amusing, because these same Democrats claim to favor making the rich pay more taxes. But not their rich people, who will be hit hardest by the limits on SALT deductibility. I guess income redistribution should be achieved by taxing all those rich rednecks in Mississippi more heavily.

The left’s reaction is hysterical in the other sense of the word, meaning “extremely funny.” The reaction is so overwrought, so over-the-top, so disproportionate, so emotional, and so lacking in intellectual seriousness that it makes me laugh.

And I guess that’s another reason to support it. If those people think it’s horrible, it must be pretty good, right?

In all seriousness, evaluating the bill using some basic economics rather than what you might learn in primal scream therapy, it’s not bad, especially considering the source–a dysfunctional ruling class in DC. It mitigates some of the worst inefficiencies in the existing tax code. It could go further, but the fact that it goes anywhere at all is rather amazing, and a welcome holiday present.

*For those who said “WTF?” when they read “Jensen’s inequality” perhaps an example will help. Consider a company that has two investment opportunities. One pays $100 for certain. The other pays -$100 with a 50 percent probability, and $310 with a 50 percent probability. The expected return on the risky project is actually higher ($105 vs. $100), so from an efficiency perspective, that’s what we’d like the company to choose.

But it won’t if the corporate tax rate is 35 percent on gains, but the firm receives no payment from the government if it loses money: this means that the marginal tax rate on gains is positive, but the marginal rate on losses is zero. With this tax system, the after-tax return of the certain project is $65. The after tax return of the risky project is .5x-$100+.5x.65x$310=50.75.

The difference here is that the expected tax payment is higher when income is riskier. The expected tax payment in the certainty case is $35. In the risky case, it is .5x.35x$310=$54.25.

Carry backs and carry forwards allow the company to use the losses to offset gains in other years. If the firm faced the same payoff structure year after year, it could always carry back or carry forward the -$100 losses from bad years to offset gains in the good years. Thus, tax payments in the good years would fall to .5x.35x$210=$36.75, and its average after tax return would be $105-$36.75=$68.25>$65. So the company would take the project with the higher return.

Of course, the distortion attributable to the elimination of carry backs and limitation on carry forwards is greater, the higher the corporate tax rate. Thus, the reduction in the statutory rate to 21 percent dampens the effect of the reduction in the carry backs/forwards. But since the corporate tax rate is still positive, risk taking and risk management decisions are still distorted.


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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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