Streetwise Professor

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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April 8, 2019

CDS: A Parable About How Smart Contracts Can Be Pretty Dumb

Filed under: Blockchain,Derivatives,Economics,Exchanges,Regulation,Russia — cpirrong @ 7:04 pm

In my derivatives classes, here and abroad, I always start out by saying that another phrase for “derivative” is contingent claim. Derivatives have payoffs that are contingent on something. For most contracts–a garden variety futures or option, for example–the contingency is a price. The payoff on WTI futures is contingent on the price of WTI at contract expiration. Other contracts have contingencies related to events. A weather derivative, for instance, which pays off based on heating or cooling degree days, or snowfall, or some other weather variable. Or a contract that has a payoff contingent on an official government statistic, like natural gas or crude inventories.

Credit default swaps–CDS–are a hybrid. They have payoffs that are contingent on both an event (e.g., bankruptcy) and a price (the price of defaulted debt). Both contingencies have proved very problematic in practice, which is one reason why CDS have long been in such disrepute.

The price contingency has proved problematic in part for the same reason that CDS exist. If there were liquid, transparent markets for corporate debt, who would need CDS?: just short the debt if you want to short the credit (and hedge out the non-credit related interest rate risk). CDS were a way to trade credit without trading the (illiquid) underlying debt. But that means that determining the price of defaulted debt, and hence the payoff to a CDS, is not trivial.

To determine a price, market participants resorted to auctions. But the auctions were potentially prone to manipulation, a problem exacerbated by the illiquidity of bonds and the fact that many of them were locked up in portfolios: deliverable supply is therefore likely to be limited, exacerbating the manipulation problem.

ISDA, the industry organization that largely governs OTC derivatives, introduced some reforms to the auction process to mitigate these problems. But I emphasize “mitigate” is not the same as “solve.”

The event issue has been a bane of the CDS markets since their birth. For instance, the collapse of Russian bond prices and the devaluation of the Ruble in 1998 didn’t trigger CDS payments, because the technical default terms weren’t met. More recently, the big issue has been engineering technical defaults (e.g., “failure to pay events”) to trigger payoffs on CDS, even though the name is not in financial distress and is able to service its debt.

ISDA has again stepped in, and implemented some changes:

Specifically, International Swaps and Derivatives Association is proposing that failing to make a bond payment wouldn’t trigger a CDS payout if the reason for default wasn’t tied to some kind of financial stress. The plan earned initial backing from titans including Goldman Sachs Group Inc.JPMorgan Chase & Co.Apollo Global Management and Ares Management Corp.

“There must be a causal link between the non-payment and the deterioration in the creditworthiness or financial condition of the reference entity,” ISDA said in its document.

Well that sure clears things up, doesn’t it?

ISDA has been criticized because it has addressed just one problem, and left other potential ways of manipulating events unaddressed. But this just points out an inherent challenge in CDS. In the case Cargill v. Hardin, the 7th Circuit stated that “the techniques of manipulation are limited only by the ingenuity of man.” And that goes triple for CDS. Ingenious traders with ingenious lawyers will find new techniques to manipulate CDS, because of the inherently imprecise and varied nature of “credit events.”

CDS should be a cautionary tale for something else that has been the subject of much fascination–so called “smart contracts.” The CDS experience shows that many contracts are inherently incomplete. That is, it is impossible in advance to specify all the relevant contingencies, or do so with sufficient specificity and precision to make the contracts self-executing and free from ambiguity and interpretation.

Take the “must be a causal link between the non-payment and the deterioration in the creditworthiness or financial condition of the reference entity” language. Every one of those words is subject to interpretation, and most of the interpretations will be highly contingent on the specific factual circumstances, which are likely unique to every reference entity and every potential default.

This is not a process that can be automated, on a blockchain, or anywhere else. Such contracts require a governance structure and governance mechanisms that can interpret the contractual terms in light of the factual circumstances. Sometimes those can be provided by private parties, such as ISDA. But as ISDA shows with CDS, and as financial exchanges (e.g., the Chicago Board of Trade) have shown over the years in simpler contracts such as futures, those private governance systems can be fragile, and themselves subject to manipulation, pressure, and rent seeking. (Re exchanges, see my 1994 JLE paper on exchange self-regulation of manipulation, and my 1993 JLS paper on the successes and failures of commodity exchanges.)

Sometimes the courts govern how contracts are interpreted and implemented. But that’s an expensive process, and itself subject to Type I and Type II errors.

Meaning that it can be desirable to create contracts that have payoffs that are contingent on rather complex events–as a way of allocating the risk of such events more efficiently–but such contracts inherently involve higher transactions costs.

This is not to say that this is a justification for banning them, or sharply circumscribing their use. The parties to the contracts internalize many of the transactions costs (though arguably not all, given that there are collective action issues that I discussed 10 years ago). To the extent that they internalize the costs, the higher costs limit utility and constrain adoption.

But the basic point remains. Specifying precisely and interpreting accurately the contingencies in some contingent claims contracts is more expensive than in others. There are many types of contracts that offer potential benefits in terms of improved allocation of risk, but which cannot be automated. Trying to make such contracts smart is actually pretty dumb.


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April 7, 2019

The LNG Market’s Transformation Continues Apace–and Right On Schedule

Filed under: Commodities,Derivatives,Economics,Energy,Exchanges,Regulation — cpirrong @ 7:14 pm

In 2014, I wrote a whitepaper (sponsored by Trafigura) on impending changes to the liquefied natural gas (LNG) market. The subtitle (“racing towards an inflection point”) captured the main thesis: the LNG market was on the verge of a transformation. The piece made several points.

First, the traditional linkage in long term LNG contracts to the price of oil (Brent in particular) was an atavism–a “barbarous relic” (echoing Keynes’ characterization of the gold standard) as I phrased it more provocatively in some talks I gave on the subject. The connection between oil values and gas values had become attenuated, and often broken altogether, due in large part to the virtual disappearance of oil as a fuel for electricity generation, and the rise in natural gas in generation. Oil linked contracts were sending the wrong price signals. Bad price signals lead to inefficient allocations of resources.

Second, the increasing diversity in LNG production and consumption was mitigating the temporal specificities that impeded the development of spot markets. The sector was evolving to the stage in which participants could rely on markets to provide security of demand and supply. Buyers were not locked into a small number of sellers, and vice versa.

Third, a virtuous liquidity cycle would provide a further impetus to development of shorter term trading. Liquidity begets liquidity, and reinforces the willingness of market participants to rely on markets for security of demand and supply, which in turn frees up more volumes for shorter term trading, which enhances liquidity, and so forth.

Fourth, development of more liquid spot markets will make market participants willing to enter into contracts indexed to prices from those markets, in lieu of oil-linkages.

Fifth, the development of spot markets and gas-on-gas pricing will encourage the development of paper hedging markets, and vice versa.

Sixth, the emergence of the US as a supplier would also accelerate these trends. There was already a well-developed and transparent market for natural gas in the US, and a broad and deep hedging market. With US gas able to swing between Asia and Europe and South America depending on supply and demand conditions in these various regions, it was likely to be the marginal source of supply around the world and would hence set price around the world. Moreover, the potential for geographic arbitrages creates short term trading opportunities.

When pressed about timing, I was reluctant to make a firm forecast because it is always hard to predict when positive feedback mechanisms will take off. But my best guess was in the five year range.

Those predictions, including the time horizon, are turning out pretty well. There have been a spate of articles recently about the evolution of LNG as a traded commodity, with trading firms like Vitol, Trafigura, and Gunvor, and majors with a trading emphasis like Shell and Total, taking the lead. Here’s a recent example from the FT, and here’s one from Bloomberg. Industry group GIIGNL reports that spot volumes rose from 27 percent of total volumes in 2017 to 32 percent in 2018.

There are also developments on the contractual front. Last year Trafigura signed a 15 year offtake deal with US exporter Cheniere linked to Henry Hub. In December, Vitol signed a deal with newcomer Tellurian linked to Henry Hub, and last week Tellurian inked heads of agreement with Total for volumes linked to the Platts JKM (Japan-Korea-Marker).* Shell even entered into a deal linked with coal. There was one oil-linked deal signed recently (between NextDecade and Shell), but to give an idea of how things have changed, this met with puzzlement in the industry:

The pricing mechanism that raised eyebrows this week in Shanghai was NextDecade’s Brent-linked deal with Shell. NextDecade CEO Matt Schatzman said he wanted to sell against Brent because his Rio Grande LNG venture will rely on gas that’s a byproduct of oil drilling in the Permian Basin, where output will likely increase along with oil prices.


Total CEO Patrick Pouyanne said he didn’t understand that logic.
“Continuing to price gas linked to oil is somewhat the old world,” Pouyanne said on Wednesday. “I was most surprised to see new contracts linked to Brent, especially from the U.S. Someone will have to explain this to me.”

I agree! In fact, the NextDecade logic is daft. High oil prices that stimulate oil production will lead to lower gas prices due to the linkage that Schatzman outlines. If you have doubts about that, look at the price of natural gas in the Permian right now–it has been negative, often by $6.00/mmbtu or more. This joint-production aspect will tend to make oil and gas prices less correlated, or even negatively correlated.

But it’s hard to believe how much the conventional wisdom has changed in 5 years. The whitepaper was released in time for the LNG Asia Summit in Singapore, and I gave a keynote speech at the event to coincide with its release. The speech was in front of the shark tank at the Singapore Aquarium, and from the reception I got I was worried that I might get the same treatment from the audience as Hans Blix did from Kim Jung Il in Team America.

To say the least, the overwhelming sentiment was that oil links were here to stay, and that any major changes to the industry were decades, rather than a handful of years, away. Fortunately, the sharks went hungry and I’m around to say I told you so 😉

I surmise that the main reason that the conventional wisdom was that the old contracting and pricing mechanisms would be sticky was an insufficient appreciation for the nature of liquidity, and how this could induce tipping to a new market organization and new contract and trading norms. These were ideas that I brought from my work in the industrial organization of financial trading markets (“market macrostructure” as I called it), and they were no doubt alien to most people in the LNG industry. Just as ideas about spot trading of oil were alien to most people in the oil industry when Marc Rich and others introduced it in the 1970s.

Given the self-reinforcing nature of these developments, I believe that the trend will continue, and likely accelerate. Other factors will feed this process. I’ve written in the past about how some traditional contract terms, notably destination clauses, are falling by the wayside due to regulatory pressure in Japan and elsewhere. The number of sources and sinks is increasing, which makes the market thicker and mitigates further temporal specificities. The achievement of scale and greater trading opportunities will encourage investment in infrastructure, notably storage, that facilitates trading. Right now most LNG trading involves only one of the transformations I’ve written about (transformation in space): investment in storage infrastructure will facilitate another (transformation in time).

It’s been kind of cool (no pun intended, given that LNG is supercooled) to watch this happen in real time. It is particularly interesting to me, as an industrial organization economist, given that many issues that I’ve studied over the years (transactions cost economics, the economics of commodity trading, the nature and dynamics of market liquidity) are all present. I’m sure that the next several years will provide more material for what has already proved to be a fascinating case study in the evolution of contracting and markets.

*Full disclosure: My elder daughter works for Tellurian, and formerly worked for Cheniere. I have profited from many conversations with her over the last several years. One of my former PhD students is now at Cheniere.

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March 25, 2019

Oliver Wyman Misdiagnoses the Causes of the Commodity Traders’ Malaise, and Prescribes Nostrums to Treat It

Filed under: Blockchain,Commodities,Derivatives,Economics,Energy — cpirrong @ 6:15 pm

There are many silly things written about commodity traders, and alas many of the purveyors of this silliness get paid large amounts of money for it. Case in point, this just-released Oliver Wyman study, “Commodity Trading Goes Back to the Future.”

The piece begins with a well-recognized fact (that I’ve written about frequently in the past): commodity trading firm margins are down, relative to 2014-15, and especially 2008-9. It goes off the rails in totally misdiagnosing the cause:

Signs of the coming dramatic shakeout that will result from the commodity trading margin squeeze are already at hand. Trading margins have fallen by more than 20 percent from their recent peak in 2015.

This trading margin meltdown will continue as commodity markets become more mature, stable, and liquid. Over the past decade, the volume of commodity contracts traded nearly tripled and the value of contracts traded on standard electronic platforms doubled. Commodity market data is also increasingly readily available and widely socialized, as a greater number of players sell information and provide services to commodity traders. These new sources of data allow commodity traders to estimate much more precisely events that impact their trading strategies, such as when commodities will arrive at a specific destination and when local stockpiles will be high or low.

The combination of increased transparency and gluts in almost every commodity should keep volatility in the relatively tight band it has been confined to since 2012.

Where to begin? For starters, the electronic trading volumes of futures and futures option contracts has jack-you-know-what to do with the margins on physical commodity trading. Ditto the market data from these transactions. To throw these topics into a discussion of physical commodity trading profitability is to shoot your credibility in the head on page 2.

Further, as I’ve written extensively, particularly with regards to the ABCDs, “gluts in almost every commodity” do not necessarily imply compressed physical trading margins–in fact, they usually do the reverse. What has happened is that commodity transformation capacity has outstripped commodity transformation demand.

So that’s a self-inflicted double tap. Quite a trick!

Relatedly, low flat price volatility is a complete red herring. What matters to physical traders–who transform commodities in space, time, and form–is the volatility of relative prices, specifically the spreads between transformed and untransformed commodity prices.

Triple tap. Even more impressive!

Indeed, the irrelevance of gluts is readily evident from Exhibit 1, a graph of margins by year. When were the biggest margins in oil and oil products? Glut years–2009, and 2014-2015. The traders made easy money on simple storage plays. As Trafigura illustrated in its half-year report last September, it is the disappearance of the contango (i.e., the disappearance of the oil glut) that crushed margins.

Amazingly, the word “contango” does not appear in the OW report. That just screams credibility, I tells ya.

The report also discusses increased price transparency as a source of pressure on margins, but I am unpersuaded that there has been any meaningful increase in cash market transparency, at least not enough to make a difference. Take the grain markets. Yes, you can go online and see what local elevators are bidding in the US. But bids and transactions are very different things, and in these markets there can be huge differences between offers and bids. Having studied the US grain markets for almost 30 years, I don’t see a material increase in cash price transparency in that time. And I can say pretty much the same about cotton and oil.

This is moderately intelligent, at least as a forecast rather than as a diagnosis:

Major commodity producers and consumers like national oil companies and miners will charge higher premiums and claim more margin as they expand their global reach and become more sophisticated market participants. Simultaneously, physical infrastructure service providers and new online platforms will impinge on traders’ traditional roles. These players are making traders less essential by removing bottlenecks in order to correct supply imbalances and connecting more commodity producers and consumers directly

But that has everything to do with increased transformation capacity chasing a limited supply of transformation opportunities, and nothing to do with gluts or increased price transparency.

But every moderately sensible statement is undone by silly ones, like this:

As commodity markets become more liquid and accessible, commodity traders are relying more and more on algorithmic trading, coupling predictive analytics with robotic trade execution. Traders are improving their ability to hedge and speculate by developing codes that more nimbly identify trades and execute them across a broader set of
tradable instruments

Yeah. Robotic execution of physical trades. Right. These statements have some applicability to paper spec/prop trading. Virtually none to trading of physical barrels and bushels.

After completely misdiagnosing the disease, Dr. Wyman has a cure–BIG DATA!

Well, I guess that’s something: they could have prescribed blockchain.

Yes, improved data analytics may permit those who employ them to pick up a few more pennies in front of the steamrollers, but its beyond a stretch to claim that this will affect industry profitability overall.

The report in fact hedges its bets, acknowledging that there is no proof that BD is not just more BS:

It is often unclear if anticipated relationships between data feeds and commodity prices actually exist, and even if they do it is not certain the volume of data is sufficient to make meaningful predictions. For example, it is incredibly difficult to analyze global satellite imagery
to identify precisely the daily flow of commodities given the frequency at which images are being taken. Depending on the specific market, these signals are often also relatively limited compared to just market sentiment when forecasting in the horizon of interest

Who knew?

Nonetheless, OW boldy recommends that traders “completely revamp” their operating models, and closes with:

Traders need to make maximizing the potential of information
advantages their top priority. Previously unthinkable digital
capabilities will determine who will be the industry’s leaders
in the long term.

And no doubt, big fat consulting contracts with Oliver Wyman are ESSENTIAL!!!! to make this leap.

Yes, data analytics will no doubt prove of use, and they will become a necessary tool in traders’ kits. But they are unlikely to be transformative–because the big determinants of trader margins are the demand for transformations in space, time, and form, and the capacity available to perform them. Further, the industry is a very competitive one, with relatively free entry and exit, meaning that any persistent increases in margins will be eroded by new entry, and persistent decreases by exit.

The pool of entrants has plausibly increased, as the one sensible part of the OW piece says. That will tend to lead the traditional players to contract (or at least lose share). Some of the entrants are not mentioned by Wyman, such as the farmers in North and South American who are integrating into traditional merchant niches.

These are the first order drivers of past, current and future commodity trading profitability. Big data is an attention grabbing subject, but at the end of the day, it will be a second order (if that) driver of physical commodity trading profits.

But I guess consultants gotta eat too, right? But that’s no excuse for anyone to pay them, especially for drivel like this report.

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January 29, 2019

Bo Knows Hedging. Not!

Filed under: China,Commodities,Derivatives,Economics,Energy — cpirrong @ 7:42 pm

Chinese oil major Sinopec released disappointing earnings, driven primarily by a $688 million loss at its trading arm, Unipec. The explanation was as clear as mud:

“Sinopec discovered in its regular supervision that there were unusual financial data in the hedging business of Unipec,” it said in a statement. “Further investigations have indicated that the misjudgment about the global crude oil price trend and inappropriate hedging techniques applied for certain parts of hedging positions” resulted in the losses.

Er, the whole idea behind hedging is to make one indifferent to “global . . . price trend[s].” A hedger exchanges flat price risk–which, basically, is exposure to global trends–for basis risk–which is driven by variations in the difference between prices of related instruments that follow the same broad trends. Now it’s possible that someone running a big book could lose $688 million on a big move in the basis, but highly unlikely. Indeed, there have been no reports of extreme basis moves in crude lately that could explain such a loss. (There were some basis moves in some markets last year that were sufficiently pronounced to attract press attention but (a) even these did not result in any reports of high nine figure losses, and (b) nothing similar has been reported lately.)

The loss did correspond, however, with a large downward move in oil prices. Meaning that Unipec probably was long crude. Some back of the envelope scribbling suggests it was long to the tune of about 17 million barrels ($688 million loss at a time of an oil price decline of about $40/bbl.) Given that Unipec/Sinopec is almost certainly a structural short (since Sinopec is primarily a refiner), to lose that much it had to acquire a big enough long futures/swaps position to offset its natural short, and then buy a lot more.

One should always be careful in interpreting reports about losses on hedge positions, because they may be offset by gains elsewhere that are not explicitly recognized in the accounting statements. That said, as the Metalgesellschaft example cited in the article shows, for a badly constructed hedge, or a speculative position masquerading as a hedge, the derivatives losses may swamp the gains on the offsetting position. In the MG case, Merton Miller famously argued that the company’s losses on its futures were misleading because daily margining of futures crystalized those losses but the gains on the gasoline and heating oil sales contracts the futures were allegedly hedging were not marked-to-market and recognized and did not give rise to a cash inflow. I less famously–but more correctly ;-)–did the math and showed that the gains on the sales contracts were far smaller than the losses on the futures, and what’s more, that the “hedged” position was actually riskier than the unhedged exposure because it was actually a huge calendar spread play: the “hedge” was stacked on nearby futures, and the fixed price sales contracts had obligations extending out years. This position lost money when the market flipped from a backwardation to a contango.

Mert did not appreciate this when I pointed it out to him, and indeed, he threw me out of his office and pointedly ignored me from that point forward. This led to some amusing lunches at the Quandrangle Club at UC.

So perhaps the losses are overstated due to accounting treatment, but I think it’s likely that the loss is still likely a large one.

The Unipec president–Chen Bo–has been suspended. I guess Bo didn’t know hedging.

Bo wasn’t the only guy to get whacked. The company’s “Communist Party Secretary” did too. So Marxists don’t understand hedging either. Who knew?

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December 5, 2018

Judge Sullivan Channels SWP, and Vindicates Don Wilson and DRW

Filed under: Derivatives,Economics,Exchanges,Regulation — cpirrong @ 10:52 am
After two years of waiting after a trial, and five years since the filing of a complaint accusing them of manipulation, Don Wilson and his firm DRW have been smashingly vindicated by the decision of Judge Richard J. Sullivan (now on the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals).

Since it’s been so long, and you have probably forgotten, the CFTC accused DRW and Wilson of manipulating IDEX swap futures by entering large numbers (well over 1000) of orders to buy the contract during the 15 minute window used to determine the daily settlement price.  These bids were an input into the settlement price determination, and the CFTC claimed that they were manipulative, and intended to “bang the close.”  The bids were above the contemporaneous prices in the OTC swap market.

The Defendants claimed that the bids were completely legitimate, and that they hoped that they would be executed because the contract was mispriced because of a fundamental difference between a cleared, marked-to-market, daily-margined futures contract and an uncleared swap.  The former has a “convexity bias” and the latter doesn’t.  DRW did some IDEX deals with MF Global and Jefferies at rates close to the OTC swap rate, which it thought were an arbitrage opportunity, and they wanted to do more.  And, of course, they  received margin inflows to the extent that the contract settlement price reflected the convexity effect: thus, to the extent that the bids moved the settlement price in that direction, they expedited the realization of the arbitrage profit.

Here was my take in September, 2013:

Basically, there’s an advantage to being short the futures compared to being short the swap.  If interest rates go up, the short futures position profits, and the short can invest the resulting variation margin inflow at the higher interest rate.  If interest rates go down, the short futures position loses, but the short can borrow to cover the margin call at a low interest rate.  The  swap short can’t play this game because the OTC swap is not marked-to-market.  This advantage of being short the future should lead to a difference between the futures yield and the swap yield.

DRW recognized this difference between the swap and the futures.  Hence, it did not enter quotes into the futures market that were equal to swap yields.  It entered quotes at a differential to the swap rate, to reflect the convexity adjustment.  IDC used these bids to determine the settlement price, and hence daily variation margin payments.  Thus, the settlement prices reflected the convexity adjustment.  Not 100 percent, because DRW was trying to make money arbing the market.  But the settlement prices were closer to fair value as a result of DRW’s quotes than they would have been otherwise.

CFTC apparently believes that the swap futures and the swaps are equivalent, and hence DRW should have been entering quotes equal to swap yields.  By entering quotes that differed from swap rates, DRW was distorting the settlement price, in the CFTC’s mind anyways.

Put prosaically, in a way that Gary Gensler (the lover of apple analogies) can understand, CFTC is alleging that apples and oranges are the same, and that if you bid or offer apples at a price different than the market price for oranges, you are manipulating.

Seriously.

The reality, of course, is that apples and oranges are different, and that it would be stupid, and perhaps manipulative, to quote apples at the market price for oranges.

Here’s Judge Sullivan’s analysis:

[t]here can be no dispute that a cleared interest rate swap contract is economically distinguishable from, and therefore not equivalent to, an uncleared interest rate swap, even when the two contracts otherwise have the same price point, duration, and notional amount.  Put another way, because there is some additional value to the long party . . . in a cleared swap that does not exist in an uncleared swap, the economic value of the two contracts are distinct.

Pretty much the same, but without the snark.

But Judge Sullivan’s ruling was not snark-free!  To the contrary:

It is not illegal to be smarter than your counterparties in a swap transaction, nor is it improper to understand a financial product better than the people who invented that product.

I also wrote:

In other words, DRW contributed to convergence of the settlement price to fair value relative to swaps.  Manipulative acts cause a divergence between the settlement price and fair value.

. . . .

In a sane world-or at least, in a world with a sane CFTC (an alternative universe, I know)-what DRW did would be called “arbitrage” and “contributing to price discovery and price efficiency.”

Judge Sullivan agreed: “Put simply, Defendants’ explanation of their bidding practices as contributing to price discovery in an illiquid market makes sense.”

Judge Sullivan also excoriated the CFTC and lambasted its case.  He blasted it for trying to read the artificial price element out of manipulation law (“artificial price” being one of four elements established in several cases, including inter alia Cargill v. Hardin, and more recently in the 2nd Circuit, in Amaranth–a case that was an expert in).  Relatedly, he slammed it for conflating intent and artificiality.  All of these criticisms were justified.

It is something of a mystery as to why the CFTC chose this case to make its stand on manipulation.  As I noted even before it was formally filed (my post was in response to DRW’s motion to enjoin the CFTC from filing a complaint) the case was fundamentally flawed–and that’s putting it kindly.  It was doomed to fail, but the CFTC pursued it with Ahab-like zeal, and pretty much suffered the same ignominious fate.

What will be the follow-on effects of this?  Well, for one thing, I wonder whether this will get the CFTC to re-think its taking manipulation cases to Federal court, rather than adjudicating them internally in front of agency ALJs.  For another, I wonder if this will make the CFTC more gun-shy at bringing major manipulation actions–even solid ones.  Losing a bad case should not be a deterrent in bringing good ones, but the spanking that Judge Sullivan delivered is likely to lead CFTC Enforcement–and the Commission–quite chary of running the risk of another one any time soon.  And since enforcement officials are strongly incentivized to, well, enforce, they will direct their energies elsewhere.  I would therefore not be surprised to see yet a further uptick in spoofing actions, an area where the Commission has been more successful.

In sum, the wheels of justice indeed ground slowly in this case, but in the end justice was done.  Don Wilson and DRW did nothing wrong, and the person who matters–Judge Sullivan–saw that and his decision demonstrates it clearly.

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November 24, 2018

This Is What Happens When You Slip Picking Up Nickels In Front of a Steamroller

Filed under: Commodities,Derivatives,Energy,Exchanges — cpirrong @ 7:14 pm
There are times when going viral is good.  There are times it ain’t.  This is one of those ain’t times.  Being the hedgie equivalent of Jimmy Swaggert, delivering a tearful apology, is not a good look.

James Cordier ran a hedge fund that blowed up real good.   The fund’s strategy was to sell options, collect the premium, and keep fingers crossed that the markets would not move bigly.  Well, OptionSellers.com sold NG and crude options in front of major price moves, and poof! Customer money went up the spout.

Cordier refers to these price moves as “rogue waves.”  Well, as I said in my widowmaker post from last week, the natural gas market was primed for a violent move: low inventories going into the heating season made the market vulnerable to a cold snap, which duly materialized, and sent the market hurtling upwards.   The low pressure system was clearly visible on the map, and the risk of big waves was clear: a rogue wave out of the blue this wasn’t.

As for crude, the geopolitical, demand, and output (particularly Permian) risks have also been crystalizing all autumn.  Again, this was not a rogue wave.

I’m guessing that Cordier was short natural gas calls, and short crude oil puts, or straddles/strangles on these commodities.  Oopsie.

Selling options as an investment strategy is like picking up nickels in front of a steamroller.  You can make some money if you don’t slip.  If you slip, you get crushed.  Cordier slipped.

Selling options as a strategy can be appealing.  It’s not unusual to pick up quite a few nickels, and think: “Hey.  This is easy money!” Then you get complacent.  Then you get crushed.

Selling options is effectively selling insurance against large price moves.  You are rewarded with a risk premium, but that isn’t free money.  It is the reward for suffering large losses periodically.

It’s not just neophytes that get taken in.  In the months before Black Monday, floor traders on CBOE and CME thought shorting out-of-the-money, short-dated options on the S&Ps was like an annuity.  Collect the premium, watch them expire out-of-the-money, and do it again.   Then the Crash of ’87 happened, and all of the modest gains that had accumulated disappeared in a day.

Ask Mr. Cordier–and his “family”–about that.

 

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November 17, 2018

Read Financial Journalism For the Facts, Not the Analysis

Filed under: Commodities,Derivatives,Economics,Energy — cpirrong @ 7:19 pm
One of the annoying things about journalism is its predilection to jam every story into an au courant narrative.  Case in point, this Bloomberg story attributing a fall in bulk shipping rates (as measured by the Baltic Freight Index) to the trade war.  Leading the story is the fact that iron ore and coal charter rates have fallen about 40 percent since August. The connection between these segments in particular to the trade war is hard to fathom, and the article really doesn’t try to make the case, beyond quoting a shipping industry flack.

An earlier version of the story included a few paragraphs (deleted in the version now online) about grain shipping, stating that grain charter rates had also fallen, since the decline in shipments from the US to China had depressed the rates for smaller ships.  It was not clear from the unclear writing whether the smaller ships referred to just means that smaller vessels are used to carry grain than ore or coal, or whether it means that among grain carriers, the smaller ones have been hit hardest.  If the former, it’s by no means clear that the trade war should reduce shipping rates for most grain carriers.  Indeed, by disrupting logistics through reducing shipments out of the US, Chinese restrictions on US oilseed imports has forced longer, less efficient voyages, which effectively reduces shipping supply and is bullish for rates.  If the latter, yes, it is possible that the demand for smaller ships that normally operate from the USWC to China has fallen, but this can hardly explain a fall in the Baltic Index, which is based on Capesize, Panamax, and Supramax voyages, not (as of March, 2018) of Handymax let alone Handy-sized vessels.  (Perhaps this is why the paragraphs disappeared.)

Bulk shipping rates are used as an indicator of world economic activity: Lutz Kilian pioneered the use of freight rates as a proxy for world economic conditions.  Thus, it’s more likely that the decline in the BFI is a harbinger of slowing global growth–and growth in China in particular.  There are other indications that this is happening.

Yes, the trade war may be impacting the Chinese economy, but it is more likely that it is just the icing on the cake, with the main ingredients of any Chinese decline (which is indicated by weakening asset prices and lower official GDP numbers, though those always must be taken with mines of salt) being structural and financial imbalances.

If you are going to look to freight markets for evidence of the impact of the trade war, it would be better to look at container rates, which have actually been increasing robustly while bulk rates have declined.

While I’m on the subject of pet peeves relating to journalism, another Bloomberg story comes to mind.  This one is about oil hedging:

The plunge in oil prices may finally make oil producers’ hedging contracts into a financial winner for 2018.

After more than a year of surging prices made the contracts a drag on profits, the slide in West Texas Intermediate crude to around $55 a barrel this month means some of the hedges are edging toward profitability, said Anastacia Dialynas, a Bloomberg NEF analyst.

Uhm, that’s not the point.  Just as this article misses the point:

There’s a downside to oil prices being up that could cost the industry more than $7 billion.

When crude markets slumped, explorers used hedging contracts to lock in payments for future barrels to ride out prices that fell as low as $27 a barrel in 2016. Now, as global tensions and OPEC supply cuts drive prices toward $70 in New York, those financial insurance policies have become a drag on profits, limiting some companies from cashing in on the rally.

Even the title of this week’s article is idiotic: “Hedging Bets.”  What would those be, exactly?  “Hedging bet” (as distinguished from “hedging your bets”) is pretty much an oxymoron.  If hedge is any kind of bet, it is a bet on the basis–but that’s not what these articles are talking about.  They focus on flat prices.

The point of these contracts is to reduce exposure to flat prices, and to reduce the sensitivity of revenue to price fluctuations.  The hedger gives up the upside during high price environments to pay for a cushion on the downside in low price environments.  Thus, if anything, these articles shows hedges are performing as expected.  They are in the money in low price environments, and out in high price ones, thereby offsetting the vicissitudes of revenues from oil production.

The problem with journalism regarding hedging (and these articles are just the latest installments in a large line of clueless pieces) is that it doesn’t view things holistically.  It views the derivatives in isolation, which is exactly the wrong thing to do.

Journalists are not the only ones to commit this error.  Some financial analysts hammer companies that show big accounting losses on hedge positions.  “The company would have made $XXX more if it hadn’t hedged.  Dumb management!” Er, this requires the ability to predict prices, and if you can do this, you wouldn’t be hedging–and if it’s so easy, you shouldn’t be a financial analyst, but a fabulously wealthy trader living large on a yacht that would make a Russian oligarch jealous.

Derivatives losses deserve scrutiny when they are not (approximately) offset by gains elsewhere.  This can occur if the positions are actually speculative, or when there is a big move in the basis.  In the latter case, the relevant question is whether the hedge was poorly designed, and involved more basis risk than necessary, or whether the story should be filed under “stuff happens.”

Which brings me to a recommendation regarding consumption of most financial journalism.  Look at it as a source of factual information that you can analyze using solid economics, NOT as a source of insightful analysis.  Because too many financial journalists wouldn’t know solid economics if it was dropped on them from a great height.

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November 14, 2018

Return of the Widowmaker–The Theory of Storage in Action

Filed under: Commodities,Derivatives,Economics,Energy — cpirrong @ 7:37 pm
I’m old enough to remember when natural gas futures–and the March-April spread in particular–were known as the widowmakers.  The volatility in the flat price and especially the spread could crush you in an instant if you were caught on the wrong side of one of the big movements.

Then shale happened, and the increase in supply, and in particular the increase in the elasticity of supply, dampened flat price volatility.  The buildup in production and relatively temperate weather encouraged the buildup in inventories, which helped tame the HJ spread.  But the storage build in 2018 was well below historical averages–a 15 year low.  Add in a dash of cold weather, and the widowmaker is back, baby.

To put some numbers to it, today the March flat price was up 76 cents/mmbtu, and the HJ spread spiked 71.1 cents.  The spread settled yesterday at  $.883 and settled today at $1.594.  So for you bull spreaders–life is good.  Bear spreaders–not so much.

The March-April spread is volatile for structural reasons, notably the seasonality of demand combined with relatively inflexible output in the short run.  As I tell my students, the role of storage is to move stuff from when it’s abundant to when it’s scarce–but you can only move one direction, from the present to the future.  You can’t move from the future to the present.  Given the seasonal demand for gas it is scarce in the winter, abundant in the spring, meaning that carrying inventory from winter to spring would be moving supply from when it’s scarce to when it’s abundant.  You don’t want to do that, so the best you can do is limit what you carry over, so you don’t carry it from when it’s scarce to when it’s abundant.

Backwardation is the price signal that gives the incentive to do that: a March price above the April price tells you that you are locking in a loss by carrying inventory from March to April.   Given the seasonality in demand, the HJ spread should therefore be backwardated in most years, and indeed that’s the case.

But this has implications for the volatility in the spread, and its susceptibility to big jumps like experienced today.  Inventory is what connects prices today with prices in the future.  With it being optimal to carry little or no inventory (a “stockout”)  from winter to spring, the last winter month contract price (March) has little to connect it with the first spring contract price (April).  Thus, a transient demand shock–and weather shocks are transient (which is why the world hasn’t burned up or frozen)–during the heating season affects that season’s prices but due to the lack of an inventory connection little of that shock is communicated to spring prices.

And that’s exactly what we saw today.  Virtually all the spread action was driven by the March price move–a 76 cent move–while the April price barely budged, moving up less than a nickel.

That’s the theory of storage in action.  Spreads price constraints.  For example, Canadian crude prices are in the dumper now relative to Cushing because of the constraint on getting crude out of the frozen North.  The March-April natty spread prices the Einstein Constraint, i.e., the impossibility of time travel.  We can’t bring gas from spring 2019 to winter 2019.  Given the seasonality of demand, the best we can do is to NOT bring gas from winter 2019 to spring 2019.  Winter prices must adjust to ration the supply available before the spring (existing inventory and production through March).  The supply is relatively fixed (inventory is definitely fixed, and production is pretty much fixed over that time frame) so an increase in demand due to unexpected cold winter weather can’t be accommodated by an increase in supply, but by an increase in price.  The Einstein Constraint plus relatively inflexible production plus seasonal demand combine to make the inter-seasonal spread an SOB.

There will be a test.  Math will be involved.

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October 18, 2018

Ticked Off About Spoofing? Consider This

Filed under: Commodities,Derivatives,Economics,Exchanges,Politics,Regulation — cpirrong @ 6:51 pm
An email from a legal academic in response to yesterday’s post spurred a few additional thoughts re spoofing.

One of my theories of spoofing is that is a way to improve one’s position in the queue at the best bid or offer.  Why does one stand in a queue?  Why does one want to be closer to the front?

Simple: because there is a rent there to capture.  Where does the rent come from?  When what you are queuing for is underpriced, likely due to some price control.  Think of gas lines, or queues for sausage in the USSR.

In market making, the rent exists because the benefit from executing at the bid or offer exceeds the cost.  The cost arises from (a) adverse selection costs, and (b) inventory cost/risk and other costs of participation.  What is the source of the price control?: the tick size.

Exchanges set a minimum price increment–the “tick.”  When the tick size exceeds the costs of making a market, there is a rent.  This makes it beneficial to increase the probability of execution of an at-the-market limit order, i.e., if the tick size exceeds the cost of executing a passive order, it pays to game to move up in the queue.  Spoofing is one way of gaming.

This has a variety of implications.

One implication is in the cross section: spoofing should be more prevalent, when the non-adverse selection component of the spread (which is measured by temporary price movements in response to trades) is large.  Relatedly, this implies that spoofing should be more likely, the more negatively autocorrelated are transaction prices, i.e., the bigger the bid-ask bounce.

Another implication is in the time series.  Adverse selection costs can vary over time.  Spoofing should be more prevalent during periods when adverse selection costs are low.  These should also be periods of unusually large negative autocorrelations in transaction prices.

Another implication is that if you want to reduce spoofing  . . .  reduce the tick size.  Given what I just discussed, tick size reductions should be focused on instruments with a bigger bid/ask bounce/larger non-adverse selection driven spread component.

That is, why police the markets and throw people in jail?  Mitigate the problem by reducing the incentive to commit the offense.

This story also has implications for the political economy of spoofing prosecution (which was the main thrust of the email I received).  HFT/algo traders who desire to capture the rent created by a tick>adverse selection cost should complain the loudest about spoofing–and are most likely to drop the dime on spoofers.  Casual empiricism supports at least the first of these predictions.

That is, as my correspondent suggested to me, not only are spoofing prosecutions driven by ambitious prosecutors looking for easy and unsympathetic targets, they generate political support from potentially politically influential firms.

One way to test this theory would be to cut tick sizes–and see who squeals the loudest.  Three guesses as to whom this might be, and the first two don’t count.

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