Streetwise Professor

December 17, 2020

Water, Water Everywhere–and Don’t Let the UN Anywhere Near It

Filed under: Commodities,Derivatives,Economics,Politics,Regulation — cpirrong @ 2:04 pm

For a perfect illustration of why the UN (and most NGOs and most of those talking about Great Resets and the like) represent a grave threat to the lives, health, and livelihoods of those whom they claim to want to help, consider this ignorant drivel on the introduction of water futures on the CME from  Pedro Arrojo-Agudo, the UN’s “special rapporteur on the human rights to safe drinking water and sanitation.” (Hey! He’s not just an everyday run of the mill rapporteur! He’s a special rapporteur!).

According to Bloomberg, water futures “risks a price run-up for a resource that ‘belongs to everyone’ and is a vital tool in combating the Covid-19 pandemic.” Further:

“The news that water is to be traded on Wall Street futures market shows that the value of water, as a basic human right, is now under threat,” Arrojo-Agudo said in a statement. “It is closely tied to all of our lives and livelihoods, and is an essential component to public health.”

Beyond the fact that the reference to “Wall Street futures market” is ignorant (and an offense to Chicagoans!), this short statement is packed with more substantive economic ignorance.

Oh, the blather sounds good: water is “a human right” that “belongs to everyone.” Yay! But it’s exactly this kind of crypto-socialist blather that wreaks great harm when put into actual policy.

For one thing, something that “belongs to everyone” ends up belonging to no one. Or more precisely winds up being grossly misallocated or misused or wasted. Those who don’t own have no incentive to utilize wisely. They have too little incentive to avoid polluting. They have little incentive to increase availability or quality. Indeed, I warrant that many–and arguably the lion’s share–of the problems that Mr. Arrojo-Agudo is rapporteuring about (or whatever it is that rapporteurs do) are directly attributable to the lack of property rights in water, or grossly suboptimal rights. Relatedly, they are directly attributable to the lack of market mechanisms built on property rights to allocate a scarce resource–clean water–and the reliance on political mechanisms plagued by rent seeking and corruption to do so.

It’s not easy to design and enforce property rights for water, for a variety of reasons. Some of these reasons inhere in the nature for water. For example, designing and enforcing rights to an aquifer are challenging. But many of the problems are political, and public choice in nature. Look at the conflicts over water in the American West for myriad illustrations.

But grasping the nettle of these challenges, and even doing it imperfectly, is distinctly preferable to the policies that arise from an “it belongs to everyone” attitude. That is a recipe for dissipation, waste, and pollution. Water socialism works just as badly as all the other kinds.

As for the “speculative bubble” fears, such creatures are far more common in the fevered imaginations of the likes of UN rapporteurs, NGO nudniks, etc., than in the wild. They hysteria over an oil price bubble in 2007-2008 is an example. This is something that even Paul Krugman and I agree on. Show me a commodity price bubble, and I have a high degree of confidence that it can be explained by fundamental factors. Indeed, interventions intended to combat these bubbles almost always lead to less efficient resource utilization than the alleged bubbles themselves. Price “bubbles” in commodities are usually simply the bearers of bad fundamental tidings.

That is, attempting to suppress “price run-ups” makes things worse, not better.

I’ve already opined that I consider it unlikely that the CME/Nasdaq water futures will register much trading volume, for relatively technical reasons. The same reasons apply to other possible water futures contracts. So Mr. Arrojo-Agudo should direct his nervous energy to other subjects.

But the anti-property, anti-market mindset that the UN rapporteur embodies is a grave threat to prosperity and health. This mindset makes people poorer and more miserable wherever it rules policy. Which is why the UN, NGOs, Great Resetters, and the like pose a far greater danger than all the speculative bubbles ever stacked one atop the other.

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October 22, 2020

VOLT Redux

Filed under: Clearing,Derivatives,Economics,Exchanges,Regulation — cpirrong @ 6:44 pm

The very first substantive post on this blog, almost 15 years ago, was about a failure of the electronic trading system at the Tokyo Stock Exchange.

Whoops, they did it again!

Apparently believing that misery loves company, Euronext has also experienced failures.

Euronext’s problems seem quite more frightening, because they involve the out-trade from hell: reversing the polarity on transactions:

“It has been identified that some of the 19/10 trades sent yesterday to the CCPs (central counterparty clearing house) had the wrong buy/sell direction”, Euronext said.

Thought you were long? Hahahahahaha. You’re short, sucker!

I hate it when that happens! (Yes, Euronext reversed the trades after it realized the problem.)

The lessons of my “Value of Lost Trade” (“VOLT”) piece still hold. It is inefficiently costly to drive the probability of a failure to zero. Whether exchanges have the efficient probability of failure (or really, the efficient vector of failure probabilities, because there are multiply types of failure) depends on the value of foregone trades when a system is down (or the cost of other types of errors, such as reversing trade direction).

Meaning that system failures will continue to occur, and long after this blog fades away.

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September 26, 2020

Water, Water, Not Everywhere and Still Not a Drop to Drink, Or, The Very Natural State

Filed under: Climate Change,Derivatives,Economics,Exchanges,Politics,Regulation — cpirrong @ 2:53 pm

The WSJ reports that the CME Group is launching a cash-settled futures contract on California water, with Nasdaq providing the cash price index. I predict, with a high degree of confidence, that this will not be a commercial success. That is, it will not generate substantial trading volume.

Why not? For the same reason that listed weather derivatives hardly ever trade. Information flow is a necessary (but not sufficient) condition to make people want to trade. For weather derivatives, there is very little information flow until shortly prior to the pricing month. For example, what information arrives between today and tomorrow that leads to updates in forecasts about what the weather in Chicago will be in December 2020, let alone December 2021? Virtually none. Given the nature of weather dynamics, information flow occurs almost exclusively quite close to the contract date (e.g., in late-November 2020 or 2021, if not in December itself). There is little information that arrives today that would motivate people to trade today contracts with payoffs contingent on future weather, even for a future only months away.

So they don’t.

I predict a similar phenomenon for water derivatives. Most of the fundamental shocks are weather-driven, and those will be concentrated close to the pricing month, leading to little demand to trade prior thereto.

Moreover, successful futures contracts rest on functional physical markets. As this recent article from The American Spectator summarizes, it is a travesty to characterize the means of allocating water in California as “a market.” Instead, it is an intensely politicized process.

If you don’t consider the AmSpec reliable, do a little digging into the scholarly literature about water allocation in the West, notably things written by my friend Gary Libecap. The conclusions are depressingly similar.

The politicization of water allocation is not new. It has existed since the beginning not just in California, but the West generally. Control of water confers enormous political power. You think politicians are going to give that up?

Again, this is not a new thing. Read up on the “California Water Wars.” Or, for a more entertaining take, watch Chinatown, which is a fictionalization/mythologization of the conflict of visions between William Mulholland and Frederick Eaton over water in Los Angeles. Spoiler: the romantic vision died (literally drowned), and the corrupt vision prevailed.

California politicians will become charismatic Catholics before they give up control over water. In a way, it reminds me of the effect of sanctions in say Saddam’s Iraq. Restrictions on supply resulting from sanctions empowered the regime. It could use its power to grant access to a vital resource in order to obtain obeisance. Similarly, California politicians can use their power to grant access to the vital resource of water to obtain political support, and exercise political power.

In a way, this is the quintessence of something I used to write about in regards to Russia: “the natural state.” Here, the analogy is even more trenchant, given that it relates to a natural resource.

The natural state operates by creating artificial scarcity, which in turn creates rents. The natural state allocates those rents in exchange for political patronage.

To do things that would undermine the rents–that is, to alleviate the scarcity–would undermine political power. That will NOT happen voluntarily. Markets for water would be a good thing–which is precisely why they don’t exist, and are unlikely to exist, especially in places like California where water is scarce and hence real markets would be most beneficial.

So CME/Nasdaq California water futures face two huge obstacles. First, even if even a simulacrum of a cash market for water existed, the nature of information flows is not conducive to active trading of water futures. Second, there is not even a simulacrum of a water market in California. What exists in place of a market is a political, and highly politicized, mechanism. That is also inimical to building a successful futures contract on top of it.

PS. Riffing of the Rime of the Ancient Mariner in the title provides an opportunity for another Python reference!


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May 20, 2020

Whoops! WTI Didn’t Do It Again, or, Lightning Strikes Once

The June 2020 WTI contract expired with a whimper rather than a bang yesterday, thereby not repeating the cluster of the May contract expiry. In contrast to the back-to-back 40 standard deviation moves in April, June prices exhibited little volatility Monday or Tuesday. Moreover, calendar spreads were in a modest contango–in contrast to the galactangos experienced in April, and prices never got within miles of negative territory.

Stronger fundamentals certainly played a role in this uneventful expiry. Glimmers of rebounding demand, and sharp supply reductions, both in the US and internationally, caused a substantial rally in flat prices and tightening of spreads in the first weeks of May. This alleviated fears about exhaustion of storage capacity. Indeed, the last EIA storage number for Cushing showed a draw, and today’s API number suggests an even bigger draw this week. (Though I must say I am skeptical about the forecast power of API numbers.). Also, the number of crude carriers chartered for storage has dropped. (H/T my daughter’s market commentary from yesterday). So the dire fundamental conditions that set the stage for that storm of negativity were not nearly so dire this week.

But remember that fundamentals only set the stage. As I pointed out in my posts in the immediate aftermath of the April chaos, technical factors related to the liquidation of the May contract, arguably manipulative in nature, the ultimate cause of the huge price drop on the penultimate trading day, and the almost equally large rebound on the expiry day.

The CFTC read the riot act in a letter to exchanges, clearinghouses, and FCMs last week. No doubt the CME, despite it’s Frank Drebin-like “move on, nothing to see here” response to the May expiry monitored the June expiration closely, and put a lot of pressure on those with open short positions to bid the market aggressively (e.g., bid at reasonable differentials to Brent futures and cash market prices). A combination of that pressure, plus the self-protective measures of market participants who didn’t want to get caught in another catastrophe, clearly led to earlier liquidations: open interest going into the last couple of days was well below the level at a comparable date in the May.

So fundamentals, plus everyone being on their best behavior, prevented a recurrence of the May fiasco.

It should be noted that as bad as April 20 was (and April 21, too), the carnage was not contained to those days, and the May contract alone. The negative price shock, and its potentially disastrous consequences for “fully collateralized” long-only funds, like the USO, led to a substantial early rolls of long positions in the June during the last days of April. Given the already thin liquidity in the market, these rolls caused big movements in calendar spreads–movements that have been completely reversed. On 27 April, the MN0 spread was -$14.45: it went off the board at a 54 cent backwardation. Yes, fundamentals were a major driver of that tightening, but the early roll in the US (and some other funds) triggered by the May expiration clearly exacerbated the contango. Collateral damage, as it were.

What is the takeaway from all this? Well, I think the major takeaway is not to overgeneralize from what happened on 20-21 April. The underlying fundamentals were truly exceptional (unprecedented, really)–and hopefully the likelihood of a repeat of those is vanishingly small. Moreover, the CME should be on alert for any future liquidation-related game playing, and market players will no doubt be more cautious in their approach to expiration. It would definitely be overlearning from the episode to draw expansive conclusions about the overall viability of the WTI contract, or its basic delivery mechanism.

That mechanism is supported by abundant physical supplies and connections to diverse production and consumption regions. Indeed, this was a situation where the problem was extremely abundant supply–which is an extreme rarity in physical commodity futures markets. Other contracts (Brent in particular) have chronic problems with inadequate and declining supply. As for WTI being “landlocked,” er, there are pipelines connecting Cushing to the Gulf, and WTI from Cushing has been exported around the world in recent years. With the marginal barrel going for export, seaborne crude prices drive WTI. With a better-monitored and managed liquidation process, especially in extraordinary circumstances, the WTI delivery mechanism is pretty good. And I say that as someone who has studied delivery mechanisms for around 30 years, and has designed or consulted on the design of these contracts.

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April 30, 2020

WTI-WTF? Part 3: Did CLK20 Get TAS-ed?

Matt Levine wrote a typically amusing piece highlighting the role of Trade at Settle (TAS) contracts in the 4/20/20 oil futures debacle:

But actually a lot of oil changed hands at those negative prices. Not because a bunch of investors came to the market all at once looking to sell, and no one would buy from them at negative prices, but for a more technical reason. Some oil traders use “trade-at-settlement” contracts: Instead of buying (or selling) oil futures at the market price at the time of your trade, you agree in advance to buy (or sell) them at whatever the official 2:30 p.m. settlement price is that day. 1  This is a good trade, for you, if your job is to obtain the day’s settlement price: For instance, if you run an index fund or exchange-traded fund that is benchmarked to that price, using TAS futures guarantees you the benchmark price. If you invest in oil futures and your boss fires you if you miss the benchmark, you might use TAS futures, that sort of thing. If you are a savvy oil trader attuned to minute-by-minute changes in supply and demand and trying to capture as much value as possible from your skills, you’ll probably just trade the futures at their current prices, selling if the price is too high and buying if it’s too low. But a lot of oil traders are doing something else, something a bit more passive, and for them the ability to guarantee the settlement price is useful.

He goes on to ponder whether the TAS mechanism could be manipulated, and whether manipulation could have contributed to the settlement fire that Red Adair couldn’t have put out:

The basic pattern—agree in advance to buy (sell) stuff at the official settlement price at some fixed future time, and then sell (buy) a bunch of that stuff in the minutes leading up to the official settlement time with the effect of pushing down (up) the price at which you are buying (selling)—is incredibly common, and the gradation from “sensibly pre-hedging the exposure you will get at settlement” to “sloppily pre-hedging the exposure you will get at settlement” to “manipulating the market to push down the price you will get at settlement” is blurry. If you type in a chat room “lol I’m gonna pound out 500 contracts to push down the settlement price and make fortune on my TAS trades, I am really ripping those muppets’ faces off, hope I don’t go to prison bro, hashtag fraud hashtag crime hashtag manipulation,” you will get in trouble. But if you don’t type that, and you quietly sell the 500 contracts and the price goes down, then as far as anyone knows that was just pre-hedging.

So could somebody have popped CLK20 with a TASer last Monday?

Funny you should ask. I wrote a paper on TAS manipulation a while ago. My interest was sparked by the CFTC’s action against Dutch trading firm Optiver, which the agency accused of doing exactly the kind of thing Levine writes about in crude, gasoline, and heating oil futures back in March, 2008. You can read the complaint–and listen to some actual “ripping those muppets’ faces off” trader braggadocio.

How does manipulation work here? First, to make manipulation profitable, there has to be an asymmetric price response to purchases and sales. If the manipulator’s purchases impact prices the same as sales, just buying and selling a lot can’t move prices in a profitable direction. Indeed, the manipulator would have to pay transactions costs (crossing the spread, brokerage, etc.) and this would cause the trading to be unprofitable.

The model in the paper derives conditions under which purchases and sales of TAS have a smaller impact on prices than do trades in the underlying futures. The basic idea is that if information is short-lived, or if there is intense competition among informed traders, new information will be incorporated into prices very quickly. Under those circumstances, informed traders will not want to trade TAS: their information will already be incorporated into the price by the time settlement occurs. Thus, TAS is a mechanism that allows traders to signal that they are uninformed: many “muppets” choose to trade TAS, and the informed don’t. Thus, the price impact of TAS trades is smaller than the price impact of regular outright trades: trades move prices because of the possibility that they are motivated by private information, so trades that are unlikely to be privately informed move prices less than trades that are more likely to be so.

This creates the asymmetry that makes manipulation possible: the manipulator buys, say, the TAS and then sells in quantity immediately before and during the settlement period and profits as Levine describes.

This type of manipulation is particularly pernicious because manipulative trades have persistent price impacts because they cannot be distinguished from informed trades (or liquidity trades, for that matter). Note that in Optiver, prices did not reverse after the firm’s trades,

This strategy is likely to be particularly profitable when markets are relatively illiquid, as in an illiquid market outright trades have bigger price impacts. Liquidity (measured by the bid-ask spread, quantity at the top of the book, price impact coefficients, etc.) has plummeted for everything since the CovidCrisis began, and the decline in CL liquidity has been particularly pronounced. Moreover, contracts close to expiration are less liquid anyways. Add to this the extreme physical constraints (which mean that small shocks to fundamentals have big price impacts) and the raging uncertainty about the logistical situation at Cushing, and it is likely that small volumes at the settle could have big impacts on prices.

To this I would add that an unexpected shortfall in buy orders (due to shorts exercising market power) at the settle could have price impacts, and exacerbate the price impacts of sell orders by exacerbating order imbalances.

Thus, the potential for a big asymmetry in price impact was pronounced on that fatal Monday.

In sum, it is not implausible that the market did indeed get TASed. Or at the very least, a TASer jolt contributed to the collapse. (Sort of like in this video!)

A final remark on the economic benefits and costs of TAS trading. TAS is a form of “cream skimming”–i.e., the skimming off of uninformed order flow. This tends to make the order flow in the regular continuous market more toxic, which reduces liquidity in that market. For this reason, other cream skimming mechanisms used primarily in equity markets (payment for order flow, dark pools, block trades) are frequently criticized. (This is why some regulators, particular in Europe, have attempted to curb such activity and force more trading into “lit” venues.)

I showed in my Market Macrostructure paper that things aren’t so simple. If the regular market isn’t perfectly competitive, the increased competition from a cream skimming mechanism can improve welfare. Moreover, there are distributive effects here: the uninformed traders who can utilize the TAS mechanism (e.g., those who are hedging exposures tied to the settlement price) benefit, while uninformed traders who can’t lose. Informed traders can lose too. Moreover–and this is a point that is almost always overlooked–some informed trading is essentially rent seeking (e.g., trading on information that will be released shortly anyways, and accelerating its incorporation into prices has little effects on resource allocation decisions). Reducing rent seeking informed trading is a good thing.

All in all, the role of the TASer is yet another piece of the 4/20/20 WTI WTF puzzle. The forensic analysis of this entire episode will be fascinating.

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April 21, 2020

WTI-WTF? Part II (of How Many???)

Filed under: Clearing,Commodities,Derivatives,Economics,Energy,Regulation — cpirrong @ 2:23 pm

Just another day at the Globex, folks. May WTI up a mere $49.88 on its last trading day at the time I write this paragraph, a while before the close. (Sorry, can’t calculate a percentage change . . . because the base number is negative!) That’s just sick. But at least it’s positive! ($12.25. No, $9.96. No . . .) (This reminds me of a story from Black Monday. My firm did a little index arb. We called the floor to get a price quote on the 19th. Our floor guy said “On this part of the pit it’s X. Over there it’s X+50. Over there it’s X-20. I have no fucking idea what the fucking price is.”)

But June has been crushed–down $7.35 (about 35 percent). Now the May-June spread is a mere $.83 contango. That makes as little sense as yesterday’s settling galactic contango (galactango!) of $57.06. (Note that June-July is trading at at $7.71 and July-August at $2.65.

I’m guessing that dynamic circuit breakers are impeding price movements, meaning that the prices we see are not necessarily market clearing prices at that instant.

A few follow-ons to yesterday’s post.

First, the modeling of the dynamics of a contract as it approaches expiration when the delivery supply/demand curve is inelastic, and some traders might have positions large enough to exploit those conditions to exercise market power, is extremely complicated. The only examples I am aware of are Cooper and Donaldson in the JFQA almost 30 years ago, and my paper in the Journal of Alternative Investments almost a decade ago.

Futures markets are (shockingly!) forward looking. Expectations and beliefs matter. There are coordination problems. If I believe everyone else on my side of the market is going to liquidate prior to expiration, I realize that the party on the other side of the contract will have no market power at expiration. So I should defer liquidating–which if everyone reasons the same way could lead to everyone getting caught in a long or sort manipulation at expiration. Or, if I believe everyone is going to stick it out to the end, I should get out earlier (which if everybody else does the same results in a stampede for the exits.)

In these situations, anything can happen, and the process of coordinating expectations and actions is likely to be chaotic. Cooper-Donaldson and Pirrong lay out some plausible stories (based on particular specifications of beliefs and the trading mechanism), but they are not the only stories. They mainly serve to highlight how game theoretic considerations can lead to very complex outcomes in situations with market power and inelasticity.

One thing that is sure is that these game theoretic considerations don’t matter much if the elasticities of delivery supply and demand are large. Then no individual can distort prices very much by delivering too much or taking delivery of too much. Then the coordination and expectations problems aren’t so relevant. However, when delivery supply or demand curves are very steep–as is the case in Cushing now due to the storage constraint–they become extremely relevant.

Perhaps one analogy is getting out of a theater. When there are many exits, there won’t be queues to get out and little chance of tragedy even if someone yells “fire.” If there is only one exit, however, hurried attempts of everyone to leave at once can lead to catastrophe. Moreover, perverse crowd dynamics occur in such situations. That’s where we were yesterday.

About 90 percent of open interest liquidated yesterday. That is why today is returning to some semblance of normality–the exit isn’t so crowded (because so many got trampled yesterday). But that begs the question of why the panicked rush yesterday? That’s where the game theoretic “anything could happen” answer is about the best we can do.

About that storage constraint. My post yesterday focused on someone with a large short futures position raising the specter of excessive deliveries by not liquidating that position, thereby triggering a cascade of descending offers until the short graciously accepted at a highly profitable price.

But there is another market power play possible here. A firm controlling storage could crash prices (and spreads) by withholding that capacity from the market. The most recent data from the EIA indicates about 55 mm bbl of oil storage at Cushing. That’s about 80 percent of nameplate capacity (also per EIA.). Due to operational constraints (e.g., need working space to move barrels in and out; can’t mix different grades in the same tank) that’s probably effectively full. Therefore, someone with ownership of a modest amount of space could withhold it drive up the spread. If that party had on a bull spread position . . .

Third, we are into Round Up the Usual Suspects mode:

And first in line is the US Oil ETF. There has been a lot of idiotic commentary about this. They were forced to take delivery! (Er, delivery notices aren’t possible before trading ends.) They were forced to dump huge numbers of contracts yesterday! (Er, they publish a regular roll schedule, and were out of the May a week before yesterday’s holocaust. They also report positions daily, and as of yesterday were 100 pct in the June.)

Not to say that USO can be implicated in hinky things going on in the June right now, but as for May–that dog don’t hunt.

Fourth–WTF, June WTI? Well, my best explanation is that the carnage in the May served to concentrate minds regarding June. No doubt risk managers, or risk systems, forced some longs out as the measured and perceived risk for June shot up yesterday. Others just decided that discretion was the better part of valor. The extremely unsettled positions no doubt impaired liquidity (i.e., just as some wanted to get out, others were constrained by risk limits formal or informal from getting in), leading to big price movements in response to these flows. If that’s a correct diagnosis, we should see something of a bounceback, but perhaps not too much given the perception (and reality) of an extremely asymmetric risk profile, with going into expiry short being a lot more dangerous than going into it long. (This is why expectations about future conditions at delivery can impact prices well before delivery.)

Fifth, on a personal note, in an illustration of the adage that the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree (and also of Merton’s Law of Multiples) my elder daughter Renee completely independently of me used “WTI WTF” in her daily market commentary yesterday. I’m so proud! She also raised the possibility of negative prices some time ago. Good call!

And I finish this just in time to bring you the final results. CLK goes off the board settling at $10.01, up a mere $47.64. CLM settles at $11.57, down -$8.86. The closing KM20 spread, $1.56.

Someday we’ll look back on this and . . . . Well, we’ll look back on it, anyways.

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April 20, 2020


Today was one of the most epochal days in the history of oil trading, which is saying something. The front month May contract–which expires tomorrow (21 April, 2020)–(a) settled at a negative price of -$37.63, (b) declined $55.90 from the previous day’s settlement, and (c) exhibited a trading range of $58.17, which is about 3.5x Friday’s settlement price.

Even these eye-popping numbers don’t tell the full story. The last traded price was -$13.10. Note that the settlement price is based on the volume weighted average price during the last two minutes of trading, so an average price of $-37.63 in the last two minutes and a last traded price of -$13.10 means prices moved more that $25/bbl in these minutes.

And we’re not done yet! As I write at 1841 CDT, the price is up to -$5.00–an increase of $32.63.

That there’s what they call volatility, folks.

To put these numbers in perspective, the largest trading range on the any day of the last three trading days of CL contracts from 2000-2019 is $26.65, a day around the time of the financial crisis and the aftermath of Hurricane Ike (October 2008 contract): here’s what I wrote about that event. The median intra-day range on the last three days is $1.6, the mean is $1.5, and the standard deviation is $1.47. So we are around a 40 standard deviation event here.

The largest daily price change during the last 3 trading days is $16.37, with a median of $.73 and a standard deviation of $1.45.

The calendar spread is also extreme, settling at $58.06 between the June and the May. Meaning that if you had storage, you could get paid to take delivery, sell it forward, and lock in that $58.06 (net of what the storage costs you). I guess you could call that the megacontango.

All in all, a historically unprecedented day.

The proximate cause of these wild gyrations, and unprecedented negative prices is, of course, the collapse of demand and the looming exhaustion of storage space, including at the delivery point of Cushing, OK. But although this is a necessary condition for today’s events, it is not a full explanation.

The storage issue has been known for weeks, and discussed intensely. It had been priced in to a considerable degree: contango was already at a historically high level. What information about the availability of storage arrived between Friday and today? Unlikely to be anything that could cause such chaotic price movements.

The likely cause is the difficulty of liquidating about 100,000 open contracts (100 million barrels!) in such extreme technical conditions. It is plausible, and indeed likely, that strategic behavior–perhaps rising to the level of manipulation–is the major cause of how prices moved today against the background of conditions that were widely known on Friday.

Let me start out by noting that something similar, though not as extreme, occurred during the demand collapse and associated flooding of storage during the Financial Crisis. As I documented here, the expiries of the January, February, and March 2009 WTI contracts saw what were then historically unprecedented price collapses. So did other US grades of oil. Here’s a picture from the linked document:

The big downward spikes in the front month-back month spreads correspond with the days around expiry.

How does strategic behavior/market power/manipulation play into this? The model of short manipulation in my 1996 book (only $169 paperback–buy two!) and 1993 J. of Business article formalizes the argument, but the intuition is fairly straightforward. Manipulation exploits frictions and bottlenecks. (My article/book refer to “frictional manipulations.”). There is now a huge friction/bottleneck in Cushing–constrained storage. This bottleneck makes the demand curve for crude at Cushing extremely inelastic, and means that the movement of even small excess quantities of oil into that location will cause prices to decline dramatically.

In these conditions, a trader, or a group of traders with modest-sized short positions can exercise market power by delivering even a small amount of oil over and above the quantity that should flow to Cushing. This drives down the price and allows the trader or traders to cover his (their) position(s) at artificially low prices.

In this situation, the storage bottleneck is the gasoline, the exercise of the market power is the match. With 100,000,000 barrels of open long positions needing to liquidate, given the storage constraint, the resulting conflagration can be epic.

This is, at this stage, a hypothesis. It is a possible explanation of the beyond extreme movements observed today. Under the circumstances, it is a very plausible explanation, and one that deserves scrutiny. And given the amount of money that changed hands today (~$6 billion on a mark-to-market basis) I’m sure that it will get it.

The only parallel I can think of is the onion market in 1955, when the movement of a couple of superfluous carloads of onions into Chicago, and delivery thereof against futures, caused the price to crash below the cost of the bags that they had to be delivered in. There was no demand for the onions (being perishable, and people eat only so many hot dogs), so many of the excess plants ended up getting dumped into the Chicago River. (Which, in 1955, probably improved the water quality.) (Another irony being that Chicago means “stinky onions” in the Miami-Illinois Indian language.)

In 1955, demand was inelastic because onions are perishable (i.e., they can’t be stored). In a way, the lack of storage space makes oil perishable. Even if that analogy isn’t perfect, the economics are the same: an economic constraint (the non-storability of, or the lack of storage space) leads to extremely inelastic demand that makes short market power manipulation possible.

Tomorrow is the last trading day for CLK20. Strap it up! It’s going to be a wild ride.

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March 13, 2020

Wuhan Virus and the Markets–WTF?

What a helluva few weeks it’s been, eh boys and girls? By way of post mortem (hopefully?) rather than prediction, here’s my take.

Under “normal” circumstances, two factors drive asset valuations: expectations of cash flows, and the rate at which investors discount those cash flows. COVID-19–Wuhan Virus, to call it by its proper name–has has profound influence on both.

WV has caused a major aggregate supply shock, and an aggregate demand shock, and these amplify one another. The aggregate supply shock stems from shutdown of productive capacity due to social distancing. And people who aren’t working aren’t earning and aren’t spending, hence the aggregate demand shock.

These developments obviously reduce the income streams from assets (e.g., corporate profits). That’s a negative for stocks.

As an aside, these factors defy traditional policy prescriptions. Monetary and fiscal policy are focused on addressing aggregate demand deficiencies, i.e., trying to move demand-deficient economies (where demand deficiencies arise from price rigidity and nominal shocks) back to the production possibilities frontier. Supply shocks shrink the PPF. Pushing the PPF back to its normal state in current circumstances is a function of public health policy, and even that is likely to be problematic given the huge uncertainties (that I discuss below) and the dubious competence of government authorities (which I discussed last week).

The pandemic nature of WV also makes it the systematic shock par excellence. It hits everyone and every asset class, and cannot be diversified away. A big increase in systematic risk results in a big increase in risk premia, meaning that the already depressed expected cash flows on risky assets get discounted at a higher rate, leading to lower valuations.

A lot higher rate, evidently. Why? Most likely because of the extreme uncertainty about the virus. Data on how infectious it is, how many people have been infected, the fatality rate, how it will be affected by warmer weather, etc., are extremely unreliable. In other words, we know almost nothing about the salient considerations.

This is in part due to lack of testing, and to inherent defects in the testing: those who get tested are disproportionately likely to be symptomatic, exposed, or hypochondriacal, leading to extreme sample selection biases. The tests are apparently unreliable, with high rates of false positives and false negatives. The RNA tests cannot detect past infections. It is in part due to the novelty of the virus. Is it like influenza, and will hence burn out when temperatures warm? Or not?

Another major source of uncertainty is due to the fact that the initial outbreak in China was covered up by the evil CCP regime. (Which now, in an Orwellian twistedness that only totalitarian regimes can muster, is boasting that it will save the world. And which is blaming the United States for its own abject failures. Which is why I insist on calling it the Wuhan Virus–so go ahead, call me a racist. IDGAF.) Thus, data from Ground Zero is lacking, or wildly unreliable. (Ground One–Iran–is equally duplicitous, and equally malign.)

This huge uncertainty regarding a major systematic factor leads to even greater discount rates–and hence to lower stock prices.

And then there is the truly disturbing factor. These textbook causal channels (lower expected cash flows, higher discount rates) have in turn caused changes in asset prices that force portfolio adjustments that move us into the realm of positive feedback mechanisms (which usually have negative effects!) and non-linearities. This represents a shift from “normal” times to decidedly abnormal ones.

When some investors engage in leveraged trading strategies, big price moves can force them to unwind/liquidate these strategies because they can no longer fund their large losses. These unwinds move asset prices yet more (as those who placed a lower valuation on these assets must absorb them from the levered, high-value owners who are forced to sell them). Which can force further unwinds, in perhaps completely unrelated assets.

Not knowing the extent or nature of these trading strategies, or the degree of leverage, it is virtually impossible to understand how these effects may cascade through the markets.

The most evident indicators of these stresses are in the funding markets. And we are seeing such stresses. The FRA-OIS spread (known in a previous incarnation–e.g., 2008–as the LIBOR-OIS spread) has blown out. Dollar swap rates are blowing out. The most vanilla of spreads–the basis net of carry between Treasury futures and the cheapest-to-deliver Treasury–have blown out. Further, the Fed has pumped in huge amounts liquidity into the system, and these alarming spread movements have not reversed. (One shudders to think they would have been worse absent such intervention.)

One thing to keep an eye on is derivatives clearing. As I warned repeatedly during the drive to mandate clearing, the true test of this mechanism is during periods of market disruption when large price moves trigger large margin calls.

Heretofore the clearing system seems to have operated without disruption. I note, however, that the strains in the funding markets likely reflect in part the need for liquidity to make margin calls. Big margin calls that must be met in near real-time contribute to stresses in the funding markets. Clearinghouses themselves may survive, but at the cost of imposing huge costs elsewhere in the financial system. (In my earlier writing on the systemic impacts of clearing mandates, I referred to this as the Levee Effect.)

The totally unnecessary side-show in the oil markets, where Putin and Mohammed bin Salman are waging an insane grudge match, is only contributing to these margin call-related strains. (Noticing a theme here? Authoritarian governments obsessed with control and “stability” have a preternatural disposition to creating chaos.)

Perhaps the only saving grace now, as opposed to 2008, is that the shock did not arise originally from the credit and liquidity supply sector, i.e., banks and shadow banks. But the credit/liquidity supply sector is clearly under strain, and if parts of it break under that strain yet another round of extremely disruptive knock-on effects will occur. Fortunately, this is one area where central banks can palliate, if not eliminate, the strains. (I say can, because being run by humans, there is no guarantee they will.)

Viruses operate according to their own imperatives, and the imperatives of one virus can differ dramatically from those of others. Pandemic shocks are inherently systematic risks, and the nature of the current risk is only dimly understood because we do not understand the imperatives of this particular virus. Indeed, it might be fair to put it in the category of Knightian Uncertainty, rather than risk. The shock is big enough to trigger non-linear feedbacks, which are themselves virtually impossible to predict.

In other words. We’ve been on a helluva ride. We’re in for a helluva right. Strap it tight, folks.

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February 28, 2020

Commodity Indexation and Financialization: The Debate Goes On Because the Literature is Flawed

Filed under: Commodities,Derivatives,Economics,Energy,Regulation — cpirrong @ 3:41 pm

A recent RFS paper by Brogaard, Riggenberg, and Sovich purports to show that the rise of commodity index investing has had adverse effects on the real economy. Like most of the papers that analyze index investing, this one is seriously flawed and does not support the broad conclusions it asserts.

Like virtually all of the papers in this literature, it relies on crude before-after comparisons based on some magic year (2004? 2005? 2006?) during which commodity index investing became important. Even assuming that the rise in index investing was a sort of exogenous shock, this crude method of attributing causation has problems. After all, a lot of other stuff happened after, say, 2004. The rise of China as the predominate force in commodity markets, for instance.

Perhaps this problem would be less troublesome were commodities assigned randomly to “treatment” (part of an index) and “non-treatment” (non-index) groups. But this is definitely not the case. There are systematic differences between index and non-index commodities, so it is difficult to know whether the effects documented in Brogaard et al are due to a correlation between these systematic differences and the performance measures they utilize.

Ah. The performance measures. That raises yet more issues. The paper claims that firms with exposure to index commodities experienced lower returns on assets (i.e., operational income/assets) post-indexation than their non-index-exposed counterparts.

So what is the implicit model of the market in which these firms operate? If the presumption is that the markets are relatively competitive, why would you expect profit margins to change over a period of several years? Even assuming that indexation increased costs via the channels posited by the authors, in equilibrium this would lead to (a) an initial decline in profits, (b) exit (meaning fewer assets and lower output), and (c) a return of profits to the competitive level. Meaning that actually looking at assets or output would be a better measure of how indexation affects cost than profit margins.

If, conversely, the presumption is that these markets were imperfectly competitive prior to the indexation shock, the fall in profit rates could be a good thing, rather than a bad thing. It could indicate that indexation resulted in more intense competition/lower market power.

This is particularly interesting, given that this was a period in which measured profit rates were rising generally in the economy, a phenomenon which some (not I, but some) attribute to declining competition. Now, there are big problems with that literature (problems that the late great Harold Demsetz identified in the 1970s, but which modern scholars have forgotten), but take it at face value. Declining profits/margins could be interpreted as a signal of increased competitiveness and efficiency. A feature, not a bug.

And via a channel exactly contrary to that posited by Brogaard et al. They posit that indexation reduced the informational efficiency of commodity prices. But an increase in informational efficiency would tend to reduce market power–and reduce margins/profits. Note that many firms HATE the introduction of futures, or increased trading of futures, of their main inputs or outputs. Precisely because futures trading increases the informational content of prices which undermines an information asymmetry that generates profits for major producers and consumers.

Which brings me to that information channel. Brogaard et al measure informativeness using the autocorrelation in commodity returns.


They basically find that autocorrelations went up, which they interpret to mean that commodity futures markets became weak form inefficient (or further from weak form efficiency).

Again: really?

Taking their argument literally, it means that speculators were able to eliminate predictable movements in prices prior to indexation, but weren’t able to do so afterwards. This stretches credulity to its limits. After all, “financialization” of commodities also saw the entry of banks and hedge funds into commodity trading. We’re supposed to believe they left easy money on the table?

This purported reduction in price efficiency raises another issue. When I read about return autocorrelations I think time-varying expected returns. So the Brogaard et al result suggests that index commodity returns became more time-varying after indexation became a thing.

Arguably the primary impact of indexation was to integrate more closely commodity prices and stock and bond prices, and in particular, ensure that systematic risk was priced more consistently across commodities and financials. We know that equities and bonds have time varying returns. It is plausible that the documented increase in time variation in expected commodity returns reflects this integration, and is yet another feature rather than a bug.

If so, commodity prices that more accurately reflect the pricing of risk should lead to better investment decisions, not worse decisions. Further, these better investment decisions need not be associated, over several years, the operational performance measures they employ.

Indeed, along the lines of a paper that I wrote a few years back, indexation improves the allocation of risk and reduces the cost of commodity price risk to firms. In equilibrium, this would lead to lower rates of return. Which is exactly what Brogaard et al find.

Pursuing this further, I note that the authors do not use sensitivity to commodity prices as a means of determining whether firms are exposed to commodity prices, on the basis that hedging can reduce price exposure. Yes, but consider the following. Hedging is costly. Hedgers frequently pay a risk premium to speculators. This leads them to hedge less, which leads to high exposure. If indexation reduces hedging cost (as my paper implies), at the margin, firms will hedge more, and bear less risk. This reduces expected profits (which incorporate compensation for risk).

This has at least two implications. First, the average profit rate of firms exposed to hedgeable commodity prices (which are precisely the commodities that are included in indices) should decline post-indexation: this is consistent with the Brogaard et al finding. Second, firms should hedge more–leading to lower exposure to commodity prices. Brogaard et al do not test this latter implication. (Admittedly, this raises complications. Firms may limit commodity exposure in ways other than hedging, and a lower cost of hedging can lead to a substitution of hedging for these other means, leading to offsetting effects which reduce the commodity exposure impact of cheaper hedging.)

The upshot of all this is that the conclusions that the authors advance–namely, that indexation resulted in poorer real outcomes in terms of performance and investment–are not supported by their empirical findings. That is, there are alternative hypotheses that are consistent with the empirical findings that are diametrically opposed to their hypothesis.

This paper is well done within the analytical confines that its authors select. But that’s exactly the problem with this literature. The analytical confines exclude important channels of cause and effect. Most importantly, these confines make implicit assumptions about the degree and nature of competition that either make their results problematic, or mean that their results have diametrically opposed implications to those of the chosen analytical framework.

Meaning that the debate on the effects of indexation are still very much open, and that finance and economics scholars have largely failed to devise reliable tests to distinguish indexation-is-bad hypotheses from indexation-is-good hypotheses. Which is precisely why the debate is still open.

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February 2, 2020

Position Limits: What a Long, Strange Trip It’s Been

Filed under: Commodities,Derivatives,Economics,Music,Politics,Regulation — cpirrong @ 12:43 pm

On Thursday, the CFTC voted along party lines to approve a proposal on position limits. The party line vote reveals a salient fact: the proposal represents a virtual abandonment of the Commission’s earlier proposals (2011, 2013, 2016). Indeed, virtually all of the features that I criticized in the earlier proposals are gone, and the current proposal largely mirrors the recommendations of the Energy and Environmental Markets Advisory Committee that I served on (before being uninvited by current EEMAC chair Dan Berkovitz). (More on EEMAC below.)

Most importantly, limits outside the “spot month” (which is actually just a few days for some commodities) for energy and metals commodities are gone. Good riddance. They remain for nine legacy ag futures contracts (corn, cotton, and the like), but the any-and-all limits have been expanded substantially.

The rule expands hedging exemptions beyond the prior proposals, and in doing so meets the objections of companies like Vitol. Interestingly, the proposal tidies up the definition of a “bona fide hedge” and makes explicit, rather than implicit, the principle that bona fide hedges are solely for the reduction of price risk.

The Commission did eliminate the “risk management” hedging exemption for swaps dealers, based on an interpretation of Congressional intent and a reading of statute that limits hedging to the management of risk of physical commodity positions. On principled grounds, I object to this. A swap dealer buying an oil swap from an E&P firm facilitates the hedging of a physical position, and hedging that swap via the futures markets serves a classical risk transfer function. A dealer selling an index swap to a pension fund isn’t hedging a physical risk, but it is still serving a risk transfer function and the distinction between physical commodity hedges and non-physical hedges is rather Talmudic.

The practical effect is unknown. In terms of index swaps, most swap dealers are out of the nearby contract when an index (e.g., GSCI) rolls, which is well before the spot month for energy and metals that make up the bulk of most indices. Hedges of the ag portion of these swaps could be affected by the any-and-all limits and the elimination of the risk management exemption, but the dramatic increase in the size of these limits may well greatly reduce any impact. A dealer hedging a swap with payments based on final settlement prices of say NYMEX crude or natural gas could be impacted by the elimination of the exemption, but the spot month limits may be large enough to cushion the impact here as well.

The most interesting feature of the proposal is its rather tortured attempt to address the “necessity” issue that derailed previous proposals in court.

The most important aspect of this is that it appears that the Commission has essentially conceded that a necessity finding is, well, necessary. That raises the issue of the criteria for establishing necessity.

One criterion could be that a limit is necessary only if the risk of speculation causing unwarranted price fluctuations is sufficiently great.

An alternative criterion is that a limit is necessary as long as the risk of unwarranted price fluctuations exists at all, if the contract is important enough.

The Commission took the latter approach, and limited its limits to commodities it deemed were sufficiently important (measured by volume and open interest) so that any unwarranted price fluctuation could lead to impairment of price discovery and risk transfer on a large scale. The closest that the Commission came to taking likelihood of disruption into account is its restriction of the limits to physical delivery contracts that could be cornered or squeezed. This is a logical problem (cash-settled contracts give rise to manipulation too) but this is of secondary importance. But it could be read to limit the Commission’s interpretation as to the source of unwarranted fluctuations to market power manipulation, which would be a good limitation indeed.

A sufficient statistic to infer that the Commission conceded much in its necessity finding is Dan Berkovitz’s freak out on the issue in his dissent.

As a manipulation-related aside, I will note that the spot month limits are justified by the notion that a position in excess of deliverable supply is necessary to execute a market power manipulation (i.e., a corner or squeeze). I have some recent research (which I’ll post and write about soon) showing that this may be a sufficient condition, but not a necessary one. Meaning that the limits will not be sufficient to eliminate market power manipulation.

The recent proposal, assuming it is finally approved as a rule in something resembling its current form, represents the end of a saga that has had a major influence on my life. I began writing about the speculation issue when it became a source of renewed political controversy in 2006. I wrote my first major post in response to a Senate Permanent Subcommittee Report (large authored by Dan Berkovitz) on oil speculation in August 2006.

As oil prices spiraled upwards in 2007 and 2008, I wrote more about the issue, and gained more notoriety. This resulted in my testifying before the House Ag Committee in July 2008 (a day or two before oil prices reached their all time high) and led to a WSJ oped.

Then the Financial Crisis happened, and I focused more on clearing issues, with periodic forays into the speculation debate. But Frankendodd included a provision on speculative position limits in commodities, and the CFTC rolled out a proposal in 2011.

I wrote a comment letter on the proposal. That letter (and others I wrote subsequently) were sufficiently important that in the final rulemaking and in later proposals it or other things I’ve written were cited dozens of times (my name gets 50 hits in the 2016 proposal).

But the impact of the letter on my life went beyond that. Gene Scalia–son of Justice Antonin Scalia, and now Secretary of Labor–retained me to write a declaration criticizing the inadequate cost-benefit analysis in the proposal (it being something required under the law.)

Perhaps most importantly, Blythe Masters at J. P. Morgan liked it, and called to tell me so. She then proposed that I write an analysis of the systemic risk of commodity trading firms for SIFMA. I did–and came up with the wrong answer. So SIFMA spiked the report. But word leaked out, which prompted Trafigura to retain me to write a study (with a subsequent follow-on study) of the economics of commodity trading firms.

I don’t think I’m exaggerating to say that this study proved to be very influential, perhaps because of the lack of competition: writing on the sector was, and remains, very sparse. I have traveled, lectured, and taught around the world based on people wanting to hear what I wrote about in that piece.

The study was also the hook for the New York Times hit piece on me in December, 2013. See! I took money from evil speculators while writing in opposition to limits on speculation! Never mind that I had been consistently opposed to limits years before, and never mind that Trafigura (and other oil traders) are not speculators and use the futures markets mainly for hedging.

(As an aside, I am convinced, but cannot prove, that Gary Gensler was the moving force behind the piece. After all, why else would the NYT devote front page space to an obscure academic? And under the theory of there-are-no-coincidences-comrade, comments on the 2013 revised proposal were due in January, 2014. So December 2013 was the perfect time to kneecap a gadfly. By the way, Gary, how’s that gig as Treasury Secretary working out. Oh. Right. Well maybe you can chair Hillary’s legal defense fund.)

Asides aside, other than frightening my aged parents this article actually was all for the good. It validated me as an influential voice. It also got many very reputable people to rush to my defense, including Thomas Sowell, one of my long-time heroes.

The article raised its head a few years later when I was serving on EEMAC, and was asked to write the (Frankendodd-mandated) report on the committee’s deliberations. I was the dutiful scribe, and honestly recorded the committee’s adamant opposition to the then-outstanding proposal (which included all the bad features jettisoned in the new proposal).

This caused Elizabeth Warren to lose her [insert vulgar metaphor of your choosing here]. This article in particular cracked me up (and still cracks me up): Why Elizabeth Warren Is On the Warpath This Week.

Well, why was she on “the warpath”? Well–me, now that you ask:

The committee, which was established by Dodd-Frank, has nine members. Though it is supposed to express a “wide diversity of opinion” and “a broad spectrum of interests,” eight of the nine members represent companies or industries with a financial interest in killing the position limits rule, or have a personal financial interest themselves. 

. . . .

The recent inclusion of Craig Pirrong on the committee is perhaps the most flagrant example. Pirrong, who co-wrote the first draft of the report with James Allison, is a professor of finance at the University of Houston, who has been paid by several industry participants and trade groups for his research into commodity speculation. He was also a paid research consultant for the International Swaps and Derivatives Association, the very group that got the initial rule overturned by the courts.

The CFTC report relies mostly on Pirrong’s research and a presentation he made to the committee last year, which did not include the opinion of anyone who believes in the dangers of excessive commodity speculation. In fact, 10 of the 13 witnesses at EEMAC meetings came from industry, two were representatives of CFTC, and the other was Pirrong. The meetings never mentioned that there would even be a final report. [Er, it’s in the law, you knobs.]

As Public Citizen’s Tyson Slocum, the only non-industry committee member and the only one to dissent from the recommendation, points out, Pirrong was not on the committee until after he co-authored the report. Pirrong “is so new to the EEMAC,” Slocum wrote in a minority dissent, “that I only learned he was a member when he was listed as a co-author.” 

This kerfuffle warranted another mention in the NYT, and I’ve been told that Warren used it (and me) in a fundraising pitch.

I’m so proud. One’s enemies are the best comment on one’s character.

What cracks me up is that it wasn’t a right-wing snarkmeister like me that included “Warpath” in the title of an article about Liz Warren. It was the (by then) far-left New Republic. Freudian slip? Whatever, it’s hilarious.

Alas, understandably but not commendably, Commissioner and EEMAC chair Christopher Giancarlo buckled under the political pressure and withdrew the report. But this was almost certainly a non-event: the proposal was dead in the water, and was only salvaged by saving major pieces overboard. And I’ve sailed on.

What a long strange trip it’s been. The speculation debate has had a first-order impact on the arc of my life for more than a decade. Although the Commission proposal will likely put an end to one chapter of that debate, as I wrote in my first piece in 2006, speculation controversy is a hardy perennial, and will no doubt recur the next time some major commodity price spikes or craters. And maybe I’ll be around to draw more fire–and deliver some–when that happens. And until then, I’ll keep Truckin’ on whatever fits my fancy.

Nota bene: I’m not a Dead Head by any means. But if the song fits . . . Well, not the drugs part!

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