Streetwise Professor

November 6, 2019

Blowing No-Arbitrage Pricing Theory to Hell. Is There Anything Fintech Can’t Do?

Filed under: Derivatives,Economics — cpirrong @ 7:00 pm

Standard no-arbitrage derivatives pricing theory rules out certain trading strategies because they are seemingly unrealistic. For example, if the set of trading strategies is unrestricted, the following strategy is guaranteed to make any arbitrarily large profit (pick a number, any number! e.g., $10 quadrillion) prior to some finite time T almost surely–and don’t call me Shirley!: specifically, at time s, hold 1/(Ts) shares of stock in your trading portfolio, and cash out when you’ve made $10 quadrillion.

Obviously, this requires you to hold an arbitrarily large–and arbitrarily expensive–position in the stock. No problem: just borrow! Further, this obviously exposes you to risk of infinite loss: the variance of your portfolio value goes to infinity as you approach T. Again, no problem!: just borrow! The self-financing constraint is satisfied, so dream of how you’ll spend your immense riches.

Well, borrowing infinite sums seems a tad unrealistic, so it is standard to rule out such doubling strategies. One good explanation is in the very good book by J. Michael Steele, Stochastic Calculus and Financial Applications:

Nothing is wrong with the model or with the verification of the self-financing property, yet something has gone wrong. The problem is that our model diverges from the real world in a way that any decent banker would spot in an instant. Just consider what happens as the time gets nearer to T if the investor in charge of the portfolio V(t) has not yet reached his goal. In that case, the investor borrows more and more heavily, and he pours the borrowed funds into the risky asset. Any banker worth his salt who observes such investment behavior will pull the investor’s credit line immediately. The simplest rules of lending practice are enough to prohibit the management of a portfolio by any strategy [a(t), b(t)] like that defined by equations (14.36) and (14.38).

But maybe not, thanks to the miracles of fintech! Apparently a glitch in the Robinhood app has given users in the know “infinite leverage”:

The cheat code was being shared on social media site Reddit, with one trader claiming he took a $1,000,000 position in stock using only a $4,000 deposit. Through Robinhood Gold, the start-up’s subscription service, users can borrow money from the company to make trades. The backdoor was essentially free money and was being called “infinite leverage” and the “infinite money cheat code” by Reddit users who discovered it.

Looks like we can’t rule out “doubling” strategies, and impose a credit constraint restrict trading strategies to what Steele denotes the set SF+ (“self-financing plus”). I guess Robinhood isn’t “a decent banker.” LOL.

This is what happens when you make coders bankers. They blow no-arbitrage pricing theory all to hell.

Looks like imma gonna haveta rework my lecture notes for my PhD derivatives pricing course.

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September 20, 2019

Back to the Fed Future, or You Had One Job

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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September 17, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yeah. This is what I was talking about.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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September 14, 2019

Bakkt in the (Crypto) Saddle

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

The ICE contract is distinctive in a couple of ways.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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August 4, 2019

Pork Wednesday: A Tale of Gilded Age LaSalle Street, With a Heavy Dose of Irony

Filed under: Commodities,Derivatives,Economics,Exchanges — cpirrong @ 7:05 pm

On Friday, someone tweeted a picture of the front page of the Chicago Tribune from 126 years prior–2 August, 1893. It depicts the trading floor of the Chicago Board of Trade when a pork corner collapsed:

Actually, two corners collapsed on that day: the one in pork, and another in lard. The “provisions” markets (as the futures in pork and its products were called) had been successfully cornered repeatedly in the year running up to August, but the corners failed in August because the Panic of 1893 (which began in May of that year) weakened demand and made it impossible to sustain prices. From 31 July to 2 August, the price of pork futures fell from $19.25/barrel to $10.50, and lard fell from 9 cents/lb. to 5.9 cents/lb. The pork price fell $9 in 30 minutes.

The night prior to the collapse, the cornerers (notably John Cudahy, of the Cudahy family of meat packers) tried to hammer out an agreement with their bankers to secure financing to fund the deal, but Cudahy’s brother Michael (who ran the family packing establishment) refused to sign. Lacking the ability to fund their positions, the cornerers had to sell, and prices collapsed. (A la Silver Thursday when the Hunt Brothers ran out of money and had to sell. So perhaps this event should be called Pork Wednesday.)

I have spent a good deal of my professional career studying manipulation, so I find these things of academic interest. They are also fascinating from a historical perspective. Not only was this front page news in Chicago, it was front page news around the country: this paper from Omaha is just one example. This is not surprising, given the importance of agriculture in the economy at the time. Agriculture was the biggest industry and employer in the country, and food represented the largest share of consumption, so the vicissitudes of trading on the CBOT and the New York Cotton Exchange were of deep interest to most Americans. Events like those of 2 August, 1893 were a major impetus behind efforts to regulate (or ban) futures trading. These efforts failed until the post-WWI agricultural depression.

And look how big the pork pit was! It would give the 1990s-era T-bond and T-note pits a run for their money.

Further, the ag futures markets were of such economic importance at the time that they created systemic risks. The collapse of the pork and lard corner, occurring in particular as it did when banks were under suspicion due to the Panic, and when there was no deposit insurance or lender of last resort, caused runs on several banks in Chicago due to fears that they had extended credit to the cornerers or one of the four brokerage firms that failed due to the collapse, and hence were insolvent. Two prominent private banks run by Jews failed. The owner of one, Herman Scheffner, committed suicide by drowning himself in Lake Michigan. The owner of the other, Lazarus Silverman, had staved off a run at the onset of the Panic in May, but could not secure funding in New York in August, and suspended payments on 3 August. The failure of these banks, and the heavy withdrawals at others, contributed to a decline in economic activity in Chicago and the Midwest and exacerbated the prolonged depression that gripped the country from 1893 to 1897.

Lazarus Silverman’s story is of particular interest to me, in part due to a family connection (by marriage) and in part due to the compelling nature of the story itself. Silverman had immigrated from Bavaria before the Civil War, and started a business as a bank note broker which developed into one of the premier private banks in Chicago. His bank on Dearborn Street was quite the edifice:

He advised Senator John Sherman on monetary questions, and was a major financier of the development of iron ore in the Mesabi Range. An early investor in Chicago real estate, he was one of the giants of the Chicago financial community during the Gilded Age.

Although his assets exceeded the liabilities of the failed bank, it could not avoid bankruptcy. Nonetheless, due to his great stature and respect in the community, he was basically allowed to serve as his own bankruptcy trustee. Even though the bank’s debts were discharged in bankruptcy and he was therefore under no legal obligation to do so, he spent the remainder of his life repaying its unsecured creditors. After the failure, he conducted his real estate business out a building he had commissioned and whichA now houses the Standard Club.

I have often wondered if Silverman ever pondered the irony that he, a devout Jew who would not conduct business on Saturday (despite the fact that was a working day back then), whose business had survived the Civil War, the Chicago Fire, and the Panic of 1873, was brought low by the collapse of a corner in pork and lard.

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July 7, 2019

Spot Month Limits: Necessary, But Not Sufficient, to Prevent Market Power Manipulation

Filed under: Commodities,Derivatives,Economics,Energy,Exchanges,Regulation — cpirrong @ 6:50 pm

In my recent post on position limits, I suggested that at most spot month limits are justified as a means of constraining market power manipulation. It is important to note, however, that setting spot month limits at levels that approximate stocks in deliverable position may not be sufficient to prevent the exercise of market power during the delivery period, with the resultant deleterious effects on prices.

The basic motivation for position limits equal to stocks is predicated on a model of manipulation that makes particular assumptions about market participants’ beliefs. I pointed out the importance of this assumption in my 1993 Journal of Business article on market power manipulation. In one model of that paper, I assume that market participants believe that a large long who takes delivery will resell what is delivered, and will not consume it. In the other model, market participants believe that the large long will consume (or otherwise withhold from the market) some fraction of what shorts deliver to him.

Under the first set of beliefs, it is indeed a necessary condition for profitable manipulation that a long’s position exceed inventories in deliverable position. It is this kind of manipulation that spot month limits pegged to inventories can prevent.

However, under the second set of beliefs, a large long with a position smaller than inventories in deliverable position can exercise market power and inflate prices. Spot month limits based on inventories cannot prevent this type of manipulation.

I recently completed a paper that incorporates this insight into a standard signalling model. In the model, there are two kinds of longs: (a) “strong stoppers,” who have a real demand for the deliverable commodity, place a higher value on it than others, and who will consume at least some of what is delivered to them, and (b) manipulators, who have no real demand for the deliverable and who will resell what is delivered. Shorts do not know which type is standing for delivery.

In the model, a long submits an offer to sell his futures position at a specified price prior to expiration. The strong stopper submits an offer above the price that would prevail in the absence of a strong stopper (reflecting his high valuation of the commodity). I show that under different out-of-equilibrium beliefs there is a pooling equilibrium in with the manipulator mimics a strong stopper, and submits a high offer price at which he is willing to liquidate.

In the pooling equilibrium, the shorts deliver a quantity that exceeds the quantity that they would deliver if they knew the long was a strong stopper: this reflects the fact that they realize that the manipulator will resell what is delivered, and the shorts can repurchase it at a depressed price. However, in this equilibrium the manipulator sells some of his futures position at a supercompetitive price, and earns a supercompetitive profit even though he has to “bury the corpse” of a manipulation.

Crucially, the manipulation can succeed even if the long’s position is smaller than inventories, as long as the flow supply curve is upward sloping at such quantities. The flow supply curve can be upward sloping merely due to the theory of storage: an anticipated depletion of stocks increases the value of the remaining inventory. Therefore, if shorts anticipate a positive probability that a long will consume what is delivered, the theory of storage implies that the supply of deliveries is an increasing function of the futures price at expiration.

Thus, a futures position in excess of inventories in deliverable position may be a sufficient condition to exercise market power, but it is not a necessary one. If shorts are uncertain about a long’s motive for taking delivery, and some longs are strong stoppers who will consume what is delivered and thereby deplete inventories, manipulators can mimic strong stoppers and extract a supercompetitive price even with a position smaller than inventories.

One implication of this analysis is that reliance on spot month position limits is not sufficient to prevent market power manipulations. Additional measures, what I have called “ex post deterrence” since my 1996 Washington and Lee Law Review article, are also necessary. In my earlier work I argued that they are necessary because it was unlikely that position limits could adjust to reflect inevitable changes in inventories. This new paper shows that even if they could so adjust limits, they would be inadequate. Market power manipulation facilitated by fraud (i.e., falsely pretending to have a real demand for the commodity) can occur even if position limits prevent a long from obtaining a position during the delivery period that exceeds stocks in deliverable position.

This analysis also implies that equating “deliverable supply” with “inventory in deliverable position” is wrong. The supply available at the competitive price may be smaller than inventories–and indeed, far smaller than inventories–when shorts do not know the “type” of long standing for delivery.

The traditional model of deliverable supply is predicated on a view of manipulation shaped by the big corners of history, in which there was little doubt about the motivations of a large long. But as the court in the Cargill case noted, “[t]he methods and techniques of manipulation are limited only by the ingenuity of man.” Exploiting shorts’ ignorance about his motive for taking delivery, a long can ingeniously exercise market power even with a position smaller than deliverable supply.

This is a possibility that is only dimly recognized in the existing regulatory structure in the US. Most importantly, it implies that a reliance on preventative measures like position limits alone is inadequate to reduce efficiently the frequency and severity of market power manipulation. Ex post measures are required as well.

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June 13, 2019

Debunking A Valiant–But Failed–Defense of Frankendodd

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

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

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

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

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

But then he contradicts himself on competition:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

With regards to Amaranth, Dan states

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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June 3, 2019

Renewables VPPAs: An Interesting Pricing Problem For Aspiring Scholars

Filed under: Climate Change,Commodities,Derivatives,Economics,Energy — cpirrong @ 7:13 pm

Virtual Power Purchasing Agreements (VPPAs) have been around for a while, and play a particularly important role in securing financing for renewable energy projects, as this article from Reuters regarding VPPAs in Europe indicates. They are essentially long term swaps whereby one party (e.g., a wind or solar operation) receives a fixed price for power, and pays a floating price, usually based (in the US) on the spot price in an RTO/ISO market (e.g., PJM, or MISO).

These contracts present interesting pricing issues because of the unique nature of electricity as a commodity, and the unique nature of renewable generation in particular. Electricity is not an asset per se, and electricity price risk is not hedgeable, even theoretically, through a dynamic trading strategy in the way that the price risk in a stock option is. This means that electricity markets are “incomplete,” and that Black-Scholes-Merton-like formulas that derive prices that do not depend on risk premia do not exist for power derivatives.

The risk premia embedded in power prices can be large, though they have been falling over the years. I wrote extensively about this subject for about 10 years (late-90s to late-00s), including this article. That paper provides a way of extracting risk premia from the prices of traded claims (e.g., monthly power forward contracts). One virtue of that approach is that the primary state variable in the model is not price, but load (which is translated into price via the supply curve). Thus, the relevant price of risk is the price of load risk, which can be used in the valuation of load-dependent claims. Such claims could be full requirements deals, for example.

One challenge to the approach is that the realistic horizon of the market price of risk function estimate is that of the visible forward curve, which is typically far less than the maturity of long term electricity deals. The prices in such contracts effectively reflect a market price of risk negotiated between the two parties, in the absence of corresponding forward curve data.

Renewables VPPAs face an even bigger challenge: the variability of the output of a renewables asset. There is not only price risk (or market load risk) associated with a given region: there is the output risk of the facility, which may be material given the vicissitudes of wind and sun. Thus, the dimensionality of the pricing problem is higher, which is a problem given that the methods I employed in my 2008 paper (co-authored by Martin Jermakyan) are subject to “the curse of dimensionality.”

Furthermore, given the joint dependency on market price (or load) and project output, these are correlation-dependent claims. That is, what is the dependence between market price and wind output? This could be a particularly big issue given that high wind output is often associated with negative prices. Guaranteeing a fixed price therefore involves something of a wrong way risk.

The long tenor of VPPAs makes these issues even more devilish, given that pricing involves forecasting the relevant dynamics and parameters (including those associated with dependence among the state variables) over long horizons–horizons over which entry can occur and technology can change, making historical data of little relevance in estimation. Indeed, there is an element of endogeneity: the prices in VPPAs can affect the economics of entry, which can affect future price behavior, which is (theoretically, anyways) an input into the “right” VPPA fixed price.

All in all, a very interesting and challenging pricing problem, that like the simpler problems Martin and I tackled some years ago, require the use of advanced pricing techniques, numerical methods, and econometrics even to conceptualize, let alone solve. Sounds like an interesting problem–or problems–for aspiring scholars in energy pricing.

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April 25, 2019

A Barbarous Relic, Indeed

Filed under: Commodities,Derivatives,Economics,Energy — cpirrong @ 3:37 pm

In my 2014 whitepaper, I called oil-indexing of LNG contracts a “barbarous relic.” The basic idea is that since oil prices and gas prices are driven by very different supply and demand fundamentals (and increasingly so), oil values and gas values diverge systematically, by large and varying amounts. This means that oil-indexed contracts sent misleading signals that lead to misallocations of consumption and production. These divergences also lead to disputes between the contracting parties, resulting in transactions and renegotiation costs.

A Reuters article from today illustrates that the distorting effects of oil indexation are real, and causing the kinds of dislocations I wrote about 5 years ago:


Asia’s liquefied natural gas market is being distorted as the cost of LNG bought under long-term contracts linked to oil prices jumps to double spot gas cargoes amid tighter U.S. sanctions on Iran’s crude exports and cuts in OPEC oil supply.


The price gap between LNG traded in the spot market and term cargoes linked to benchmark Brent crude oil has stretched to its widest in about 8 years, driving some buyers locked in to term deals to try to delay shipments or look to adjust contracts.

That is, oil-specific fundamentals (OPEC, Iran sanctions waivers) push oil up at the same time that abundant supplies and seasonal factors push LNG prices down.

This is leading to changes in consumption that are almost certainly inefficient because they are a response to crazy price signals:


The price distortion is driving some buyers in China and Japan to request delays in term cargoes, several industry sources told Reuters, although they added that producers had so far resisted making large concessions.
Others are looking to utilize so-called downward quantity tolerances (DQT) in their term contracts from LNG sellers, three of the sources said, requesting anonymity as they were not allowed to talk about the specifics of contracts in public.

Note too the negotiations, and the related transactions costs.

With the growing liquidity in various gas benchmarks (JKM, TTF) and the integration of the world LNG with an existing highly liquid benchmark in the US (Henry Hub), oil indexing is getting to be more of a relic, and more barbarous by the day.

Reuters recently ran another article that identifies a factor that will further encourage the development of LNG spot trade, and gas-on-gas pricing:


The world’s biggest liquefied natural gas (LNG) producers including Shell, Total and Petronas are increasingly selling from global supply pools instead of dedicated projects as buyers leverage a fuel surplus to force ever more flexible deals.


This marks an accelerated turning from traditional long-term contracts that lock customers into taking regular volumes from specific projects under oil-linked pricing formulas.


Global oversupply that has pulled spot LNG prices LNG-AS down by more than 50 percent over the past half-year has producers succumbing to consumer demands for fuel on shorter notice and without sourcing or destination restrictions.


“A more dynamic and liquid LNG market, and the need for greater flexibility by traditional LNG buyers, is providing opportunities for shipping optimisation and trading, and enabling new entrants such as LNG traders,” said Saul Kavonic, head of energy research for Australia at Credit Suisse.

Majors like Shell, Total, Exxon and Chevron are moving aggressively into LNG. (One motive for the Chevron bid for Anadarko was the latter’s Mozambique LNG project.) Aramco is also moving into the market. Large players like this do not need to rely on project finance that banks and the capital markets are willing to supply only if the price risk can be managed via long term contracts with prices that can be hedged on the oil market. It is feasible for them to sell out of a portfolio of projects on a shorter-term or gas indexed basis.

This will make the LNG look even more like the oil market, in which the majors (and national oil companies) supply the market out of a portfolio of production sources. Indeed, in some respects LNG is even more amenable to a portfolio-based strategy. LNG is far more physically homogeneous than oil, allowing a given project to serve a larger fraction of demanders. Moreover, the seasonality of gas demand, and the susceptibility of gas demand to big but rather localized shocks (e.g., the effects of Fukushima, a drought in the Amazon that reduces hydroelectric supply) creates a need for flexibility that is best met through gas portfolios that provide locational and timing optionality.

Such developments will make oil-linking even more of a barbarous relic than it already is–which is saying something.

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April 15, 2019

Chartering Practices in LNG Shipping: Deja Vu All Over Again

Filed under: Commodities,Derivatives,Economics,Energy — cpirrong @ 7:28 pm

One of the strands of thought that combined in my analysis of the evolution of LNG market structure is the idea of temporal and contractual specificities. This traces back to my dissertation, in what was published in a JLE article titled “Contracting Practices in Bulk Shipping Markets.” In that article, I addressed something that is a puzzle from the context of transactions costs economics: since the most common forms of asset specificity (especially site specificity) are not present for ships, why are many bulk carriers subject to arrangements that TCE posits address specificity problems, specifically long term contracts or vertical integration?

My answer was that even with mobile assets the parties could find themselves in small numbers bargaining situations and vulnerable to holdup due to temporal specificities: I need a ship at place X NOW, and maybe there is only 1 ship nearby. Or, I have a ship at place Y, but maybe there is only one viable cargo there. Long term contracts can mitigate this problem, but they create a form of externality. If most ships suitable for a given cargo are tied up under long term contracts, and most shippers have contracted for vessels for an extended period, the number of free ships and cargoes at any time will be small, thereby creating opportunism problems in spot contracting, which leads to more long term contracting. In essence, there is a spot (“voyage chartering”) equilibrium where most ships are traded on a spot basis, or a long term contracting equilibrium where they are not.

The article posits that these problems depend primarily on the specificity of the ship to particular cargoes and the “thickness” of trade routes. Cargoes suitable for standard bulk carriers on heavily-transited routes should sail on a spot charter basis: cargoes requiring specialized ships, and/or those on relatively isolated routes, are likely to require longer term ship chartering arrangements, or vertical integration.

By and large, the cross-sectional and time series variations in contracting practices line up with these predictions. One interesting case study that in the time series is crude oil. Prior to the development of spot markets in crude, most of it was shipped on oil company owned ships, or tankers obtained under long term charters. The development of spot markets for crude reduced the potential for holdup by freeing up cargoes. The ability to buy oil spot to replace a shipment that a specific carrier might have a time-space advantage in lifting reduced the ability of that carrier to extract rents. This flexibility also reduced the ability of shippers to extract rents from carriers. This reduced scope for rent extraction and opportunism in turn reduced the need for contractual protections, and soon after the spot crude market developed, the crude shipping market rapidly transitioned towards short-term chartering arrangements and vertical integration virtually disappeared.

One of the examples of long term contracting in my article was LNG shipping. LNG ships have always been very specialized due to the nature of the cargo: the only thing you can carry on an LNG carrier is LNG, and you can’t use any other kind of ship to carry it. At the time (late-80s/early-90s), most LNG was shipped between a limited set of sources (mainly Algeria) and sinks (mainly in Europe), and sold under long term contracts (20 years or more, for the most part). Consistent with the theory, LNG ships were also under long term contracts or owned by either the seller or buyer of LNG.

An implication of the analysis is that as in the crude market, the development of an LNG spot market should lead to more short term charters for LNG shipping. And lo and behold, this is occurring:

The market for LNG freight trade is relatively new and many companies are reluctant to talk about trading strategies, which are still being developed.


“We see LNG shipping as a commodity on its own,” said Niels Fenzl, Vice President Transportation and Terminals at Uniper, an energy firm which along with Shell, pioneered freight trade within the LNG market.


“We were one of the first companies who started to trade LNG vessels around two or three years ago and we see more companies are considering trading LNG freight now.”
. . . .

In general, traditional shipowners prefer to stick with long-term charters, which help them finance building new vessels, and let the energy firms and trading houses deal in the riskier short-term sublets.
But, given the potential money to be made, there are shipping companies focused almost entirely on servicing the LNG industry’s immediate or near-term requirements.

“The spot market is our priority now given the current rate environment as we don’t want to lock our ships in long-term charters prematurely in the recovery cycle,” said Oystein M. Kalleklev, CEO of Flex LNG, a shipping firm founded in 2006.


“We also do believe spot is becoming a much bigger part of the LNG shipping market as well as the overall LNG trade.”

Theory in action, yet again. The parallels to the experience in crude 40 years ago are striking.

And again as theory (although a different theory than TCE) would predict, the development of a liquid spot market is catalyzing the development of paper derivatives markets for hedging purposes. As one would expect, and has happened historically, this new market is primarily bilateral, opaque, and illiquid. But the potential for a virtuous liquidity cycle is there.

One problem at present is that the liquidity in the spot charter market is insufficient to provide the basis for an index that can be used to settle derivatives:

The difficulty for the index is having enough deals to base a price on, according to Gibson.


Also, many transactions are discussed privately, making it difficult to find out what price was agreed.

“In order for Uniper to consider trading on LNG freight indices we would need to see what mechanisms are offered to make the trade possible. If they could work in principle, we would look into using those,” Fenzl said.

But as the spot LNG market grows, and this leads to more spot ship chartering, indices will become feasible and better, which will spur growth in the derivatives market. And there will be a further positive feedback loop. The ability to manage freight rate risk through derivatives reduces the need to manage them through bilateral term contracts, which will further boost the spot chartering market.

One of the lessons of my old work (done when I was a small child! I swear!) is that there is a substantial coordination game aspect to contracting. If everyone contracts long term, that is self-sustaining: to go against that and try to buy/sell spot makes one vulnerable to opportunism and bargaining problems. Shocks (like the 1970s oil shock that transformed that market, or the variety of developments that led to more spot LNG trading in recent years) that lead to increased spot volumes can undermine that long term contracting equilibrium, especially if those volumes are sufficient to activate the positive feedback loop.

We are seeing that dynamic in LNG, and that dynamic in LNG is creating a similar dynamic in LNG shipping, a la oil in the 1970s. It’s deja vu, all over again.

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