Streetwise Professor

June 6, 2023

Stop Me If You’ve Heard This Before: Those Damned Speculators Are Screwing Up the Oil Market!

Filed under: China,Commodities,Derivatives,Economics,Energy,Russia — cpirrong @ 1:05 pm

Saudi Arabia is fussed at the low level of oil prices. So true to form with those unsatisfied with price, they are rounding up the usual suspects. Or in this case, suspect–speculators!

I’m sure you never saw that coming, right?

As the world’s biggest oil producers gather here Sunday to decide on a production plan, the spotlight is on the cartel kingpin’s fixation on Wall Street short sellers. Abdulaziz has lashed out repeatedly this year against traders whose bets can cause prices to fall. Last week he warned them to “watch out,” which some analysts saw as an indication that the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries and its allies may reduce output at their June 4 meeting. A production cut of up to 1 million barrels a day is on the table, delegates said Saturday. 

Claude Rains is beaming, somewhere.

I’m so old that I remember when oil prices were beginning their upward spiral in 2007-8 (peaking in early-July), in an attempt to deflect attention from OPEC and Saudi Arabia, one of Abdulaziz’s predecessors blamed the price rise on speculators too.

Is there anything they can’t do?

Not that I’m conceding that speculators systematically or routinely cause the price of anything to be “too high” or “too low,” but if you do think that they influence price, they should be Abdulaziz’s best buddies. After all, they are net long now and almost always are. (Cf. CFTC Commitment of Traders Reports.)

If the Saudis (and other OPEC+ members) have a beef with anybody, it is with their supposed ally, Russia. Russia had supposedly agreed to cut output in order to maintain prices, but strangely enough, there is no evidence of reductions in Russian supplies reaching the world market, even despite price caps on Russian oil and the fact that they are selling it at a steep discount to non-Russian oil. Perhaps Russia has really cut output, but (a) that doesn’t really boost the world oil price if Russian exports haven’t been cut, and (b) it would mean that Russian domestic consumption is down, which would contradict Moscow’s narrative that the economy is hunky-dory, and relatively unscathed by sanctions.

But I think that the more likely story is that Russia is playing Lucy and the football with OPEC.

Which would be a return to form: see my posts from years ago. And I mean years ago. Apparently Won’t Get Fooled Again isn’t on Abdulaziz’s play list.

The other culprit behind lower oil prices is China: its tepid recovery is weighing on all commodity prices–not just oil. A fact that Abdulaziz should be able to understand.

But it’s much easier to shoot the messenger, and that’s what speculators are now–and almost always are. Venting at them probably makes Abdulaziz feel better, but even if he were to get his way that wouldn’t change the fundamental situation a whit.

Bashing speculators is what people who don’t like the price do. And since there’s always someone who doesn’t like the price (consumers when it’s high, producers when it’s low) bashing speculators has been and will continue to be the longest running show in finance and markets.

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May 30, 2023

I Sorta Agree With Jerome Powell and Gary Genlser on Something: Sign of the Impending Apocalypse?

Filed under: Clearing,Derivatives,Economics,Exchanges,Regulation — cpirrong @ 1:00 pm

The Fed and the SEC have expressed concerns about Treasury “basis trades” wherein a firm purchases a cash Treasury security funded by repo-ing it out and sells Treasury futures. Their concern is somewhat justified. As mentioned in the linked article, and analyzed in detail in my paper in the Journal of Applied Corporate Finance (“Apocalypse Averted“) the spike in the cash-futures Treasury basis caused by COVID (or more accurately, the policy response to COVID) caused a liquidity crisis. The sharp basis change led to big margin calls (thereby creating a demand for liquidity) and also set off a feedback loop: the unwinding of positions exacerbated the basis shock, and thereby reinforced the liquidity shock.

This is just an example of the inherent systemic risk created by margining, collateralization, and leverage. The issue is not a particular trade per se–it is an inherent feature of a large swathe of trades and instruments. What made the basis trade a big issue in March 2020 was its magnitude. And per the article, it has become big again.

This is not a surprise. Treasuries are a big market, and leveraging a small arb pickup is what hedge funds and other speculators do. It is a picking-up-nickels-in-front-of-a-steamroller kind of trade. It’s usually modestly profitable, but when it goes bad, it goes really bad.

All that said, the article is full of typical harum-scarum. It says the trade is “opaque and risky.” I just discussed the risks, and its not particularly opaque. That is, the “shadowy” of the title is an exaggeration. It has been a well-known part of the Treasury market since Treasury futures were born. Hell, there’s a book about it: first edition in 1989.

Although GiGi is not wrong that basis trades can pose a systemic risk, he too engages in harum-scarum, and flogs his usual nostrums–which ironically could make the situation worse:

“There’s a risk in our capital markets today about the availability of relatively low margin — or even zero margin — funding to large, macro hedge funds,” said Gensler, in response to a Bloomberg News inquiry about the rise of the investing style.

Zero margin? Really? Is there anyone–especially a hedge fund–that can repo Treasuries with zero haircut? (A haircut–borrowing say $99 on $100 in collateral is effectively margin). And how exactly do you trade Treasury futures without a margin?

As for nostrums, “The SEC has been seeking to push more hedge-fund Treasury trades into central clearinghouses.” Er, that would exacerbate the problem, not mitigate it.

Recall that it was the increase in margins and variation margins on Treasury futures, and the increased haircuts on Treasuries, that generated the liquidity shock that the Fed addressed by a massive increase in liquidity supply–the overhang of which lasted beyond the immediate crisis and laid the groundwork for both the inflationary surge and the problems at banks like SVB.

Central clearing of cash Treasuries layers on another potential source of liquidity demand–and liquidity demand shocks. That increases the potential for systemic shocks, rather than reduces it.

In other words, even after all these years, GiGi hasn’t grasped the systemic risks inherent in clearing, and still sees it as a systemic risk panacea.

In other words, even though I agree with Gensler (and the Fed) that basis trades are a source of systemic risk that warrant watching, I disagree enough with GiGi on this issue that the apocalypse that could result from our complete agreement on anything will be averted–without the intervention of the Fed.

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May 21, 2023

Reading the US Government CDS Tea Leaves

Filed under: Derivatives,Economics,Politics — cpirrong @ 5:10 pm

As the periodic debt ceiling game of chicken proceeds, you might read about the credit default swap (CDS) rate on US government debt. This is commonly (even by economists) used to quantify the market’s estimate of probability that the US government will default. Although it is related to this probability, it is not a direct measure of the “true” probability. So interpret with extreme care. Especially in the case of US government debt.

As a little background, a CDS is a contract that pays off if the underlying entity–in this case, the US government–defaults on its obligations. In that event, the purchaser of protection receives the face value of the debt minus the price of the defaulted security. If the defaulted security is worth 40 cents on the dollar at default, the “recovery rate” is 40 percent and the protection buyer receives 60 cents on the dollar.

If the protection currently costs X, you might reason that your expected payoff is p(1-R), where p is the probability of default and R is the recovery rate. Thus, you can estimate p=X/(1-R).

The problem with this logic is that p is not the real world–“physical measure” or “true”–probability of default. It is the probability of default in the so-called “equivalent measure.” Roughly speaking, this p includes a risk adjustment, a risk premium if you will. In theory the p estimated this way could be less than the actual probability of default, meaning that the premium is negative. But usually the p implied this way will be above the objective probability of default. Put simply, just like when you insure your car you will pay a premium that exceeds your expected claims, with CDS the protection purchaser will pay a premium that exceeds the expected payoff.

Indeed, the risk premium embedded in Treasury CDS is likely to be quite large. The reason is that this type of CDS will pay off in bad states of the world–and likely very bad states of the world. That is, if the US government defaults, economic chaos and a recession (perhaps a severe one) is a likely outcome. The marginal utility of income (or wealth) is high when income (or wealth) is low, as during a large recession. Thus, protection sellers are required to perform on their contracts when the marginal utility of income/wealth is higher, so they are going to charge a high price in order to assume such an obligation. The worse the economic consequences of default, the higher the risk premium, and hence the price, that they will charge.

That is, the USG CDS price must exceed the expected payout, likely by a lot, because the payouts occur in bad economic times.

Corporate CDS spreads tend to be “upward biased” measures of default rates for companies, precisely because payoffs tend to be more likely during bad economic times because that’s when companies default. This bias is likely to be especially great for USD CDS precisely because a default will likely cause a severe economic contraction.

Another way to visualize this is to realize that there is considerable “systematic risk” in USG CDS. The risk in CDS payouts cannot be diversified away, and are highly correlated with the overall financial markets. Put differently, a US government default is not really an insurable risk. Classic insurance works by diversification and pooling of independent risks. That is not possible with USG CDS.

There’s another factor at play here–counterparty risk. How much would you pay for insurance from a financially shaky insurance company? Probably not much, because it may not be around to pay when you need it.

Since a US government default is likely to have severe consequences for the financial sector, there is a material probability that the seller of protection will be unable to perform in the event of a USG default.

This would tend to work in the opposite way as the risk adjustment described earlier, that is, it would tend to reduce the cost of protection. The protection is worth less because of the risk it would not be there when you need it. This reduces your willingness to pay for it.

These risk adjustment and counterparty risk issues are likely to be particularly acute for US Treasuries, given the potentially serious economic consequences of a government default. Meaning that USG CDS rates are very unreliable measures of the likelihood of a government default: they are impacted by both the probability of default and the economic consequences thereof.

Yes, a rising CDS spread–like we’ve seen recently–likely reflects a rising estimate of the true probability of a default. But you just can’t back out that probability from the rate.

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May 9, 2023

Oh No Not This BS Again: The EU Looks to Regulate Commodity Trading Firms Like Banks

Filed under: Clearing,Commodities,Derivatives,Economics,Energy,Politics,Regulation — cpirrong @ 1:09 pm

In response to the liquidity crunch in the commodity trading sector (especially in energy trading) last year, the European Union is looking to regulate commodity traders more like banks:

For decades, Europe’s commodity traders have avoided being regulated on par with other financial firms. A new proposal currently working its way through the European Union legislative system could change that.

To close “loopholes,” dontcha know:

The loophole allows industrial companies like utilities and food processors — but also commodity trading houses — to take derivative positions without the scrutiny facing investment firms. Designed to reduce the burden of managing price risk, it also means that traders aren’t subject to rules on setting aside capital or limiting positions the same way banks and hedge funds are. 

2022 certainly saw unprecedented liquidity pressures in the commodity trading sector, as firms that had sold derivatives (especially on gas and power) to hedge their exposures from supplying the European market saw huge margin calls that greatly strained credit lines and led a coalition of traders to request ECB support (which the ECB declined).

The crucial part of the previous paragraph is “to hedge.” The danger of restricting or increasing the cost of such activities through regulation of the type that is apparently under consideration is that it will constrain hedging activities, thereby (a) making these firms more vulnerable to solvency, as opposed to liquidity problems, and (b) raising the costs of commodity intermediation.

Note that the companies that received state support that are mentioned in the article are not commodity traders qua commodity traders, e.g., Vitol or Trafigura or Gunvor. They are energy suppliers who were structurally short gas and did not hedge, and hence were facing serious solvency issues when gas prices exploded in late-2021 (before the Russian invasion) and winter and spring 2022 (when the invasion occurred). That is, firms that didn’t hedge were the ones that faced insolvency and received state support. (Curiously, Uniper is missing from the list of companies in the Bloomberg article, although Fortum Oyj was collateral damage from Uniper’s collapse.)

The relevant issue in determining whether commodity trading firms should be regulated like banks or hedge funds is not whether the traders can go bust: they can. It is whether (a) they are financially fragile like banks, and (b) whether they are systemically important.

These are exactly the same issue I addressed in my Trafigura white papers in 2013 and especially 2014. To summarize, commodity trading firms engage in completely different transformations than banks and many hedge funds. Commodity traders transform commodities in space, time, and form: banks engage in liquidity and maturity transformations. The difference is crucial.

Liquidity and maturity transformations are inherently fragile–they are the reasons that bank runs occur, as the recent failures of SVB, First Republic, and Signature Bank remind us. That is, the balance sheets of banks are fragile because they finance long term, illiquid assets with liquid short term liabilities.

Commodity traders’ balance sheets are completely different. The “pure” asset light traders especially: they fund short term (“self-liquidating”) relatively liquid assets (commodity inventories) with short term relatively liquid liabilities. Further, hedging is a crucial ingredient in this structure: banks are willing to finance the inventories because the price risks can be hedged.

This is not to say that commodity traders cannot fail–they can. But they do not face the same kinds of fragility (vulnerability to runs) that entities that engage in maturity and liquidity transformations do. It is this fragility that provides the rationale for bank capital requirements and limitations on the scope of their activities. This rationale is lacking for commodity trading firms. They are intermediaries, but not all intermediaries are alike.

Further, as I also pointed out almost a decade ago, major financial firms dwarf even the largest commodity trading firms. Even a Trafigura, say, is not remotely as large or systemically important as, say, Credit Suisse. Yes, a bankruptcy of a big trader would inflict losses on its lenders, but these losses would tend to be spread widely throughout the global banking sector given that most loans and credit lines to commodity traders are widely syndicated. And the potential for these kinds of losses are exactly reason that banks hold capital and that it is prudent to impose capital requirements on banks.

As I noted in the 2014 study, virtually the entire merchant energy sector in the United States imploded in 2002-3. Lenders ate losses, but the broader economic effect was minimal, the assets of the failed firms continued to operate, and the lights stayed on.

In sum, analogizing commodity traders to banks is seriously intellectually flawed, and what’s good or justified for one is not necessarily for the other because of the huge differences between them.

Pace Bloomberg, the events of 2021-2022 did not “expose” some new, unknown risk. The liquidity risk inherent in hedging has long been known, and I analyzed it in the white papers. Indeed, it’s been a focus of my research for years, and is the underlying reason for my criticism of clearing and collateral mandates–including those embraced enthusiastically by the EU.

Thus, a more constructive approach for Europe would be not to apply mindlessly regulatory restrictions found in banking to commodity firms, but to investigate ways to facilitate liquidity supply to commodity traders under extreme situations. Direct access of commodity traders to central bank funding is inadvisable, but central bank facilitation of bank supply of margin funding to commodity traders during such extraordinary circumstances worthy of investigation.

Recall that the Federal Reserve’s response to a funding crisis originating in the Treasury futures markets was instrumental in containing the systemic risks arising from COVID in March 2020 (as described in my Journal of Applied Corporate Finance article, “Apocalypse Averted“). The Fed’s actions were extemporized (just as they were during the 1987 Crash). The EU and ECB would do well to use that experience, and that of 2021-2022, to devise contingency arrangements in advance of future shocks. That would be a more constructive approach to the risks inherent in commodity risk management than to impose regulations that could impede risk management.

It is important to note that making hedging costlier instead of making it cheaper increases the risk of extreme price disruptions. Constraining risk management means that commodity traders will supply less intermediation especially during high risk periods. This will swell margins and make commodity supply less elastic, both of which will tend to exaggerate price movements during periods of stress.

I always wonder about the political economy of such regulatory proposals. Yes, no doubt regulatory reflex is a driver: “We have to do something. Let’s take something off the shelf and make it fit!” But my experience in 2012-2014 also motivates a more cynical take.

The genesis of the Trafigura white papers was an abortive white paper I wrote for the Global Financial Markets Association, a banking industry group. The GFMA approached me to investigate the systemic riskiness of commodity trading firms, and I came up with the wrong answer, so they spiked the study. Somehow or another Trafigura got wind of this, and that was the genesis of the influential (if I do say so myself) papers I wrote for the firm.

The point being that in 2012 the banks were pushing to regulate commodity trading firms with capital requirements and the like in order to raise the costs of competitors, and were looking for intellectual cover for that endeavor–cover I did not provide after a deep dive into the commodity trading sector.

Hence, I wonder if this reprise of the ideas that were largely shelved in the mid-2010s is an example of “let no crisis go to waste,” i.e., whether there are interests in Europe pressing to regulate commodity firms for shall we say less than public spirited reasons.

The proposals are apparently very protean at this stage. But it will be interesting to see where they progress from here. And I’ll weigh in accordingly.

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January 12, 2023

Just Because It’s Not All Bad Doesn’t Mean It’s All Good, Man

Filed under: Clearing,Derivatives,Economics,Energy,Exchanges — cpirrong @ 12:02 pm

A coda to my previous post. The EU natural gas price regulation avoids many of the faults of price controls, largely as a result of its narrow focus on a single market: TTF natural gas futures. That said, the fact that it potentially applies to one market means that there are still potentially negative consequences.

These negative consequences are not so much to the allocation of natural gas per se, but to the allocation of natural gas price risk. Futures markets are first and foremost markets for risk, and the price regulation has the potential to interfere with their operation.

In particular, the prospect of being locked into a futures position when the price cap binds will make market participants less likely to establish positions in the first place: traders dread being stuck in a Roach Motel, or Hotel California (you can check out but you can never leave). Thus, less risk will be hedged/transferred, and the market will become less liquid. Relatedly, price caps can lead to perverse dynamics when the price approaches the cap as market participants look to exit positions to avoid being locked in. This can lead to enhanced volatility which can perversely cause the triggering of the cap.

Caps also interfere with clearing. There is a potential for large price movements when the cap no longer binds. Thus, in the EU gas situation, ICE Clear Europe has said that it will have to charge substantially higher initial margins (an estimated $33-47 billion more), and indeed, may choose to exit the EU.

These negative effects are greater, the closer prices are to the cap. Europe’s good luck with weather this winter has provided a relatively large gap between the market price and the cap, so the negative impacts are relatively unlikely to be realized. But that’s a matter of luck rather than a matter of economic principle.

Risk transfer is a vital economic function that generates substantial economic value. The cost of interfering with this mechanism is material, and should not be ignored when evaluating the EU policy. That policy avoids many of the standard problems with price caps, but its narrow focus to the futures market means that it has the potential to create economic costs not typically considered in evaluations of price controls. Meaning that not even Saul Goodman would come to its defense.

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January 9, 2023

The Least Bad Price Control Ever?

Filed under: Commodities,Derivatives,Economics,Energy,Exchanges — cpirrong @ 4:13 pm

At the very end of last year the European Union finally agreed on a rule capping natural gas prices. And what a strange duck it is–unlike any price cap I’ve seen before, which is probably for the best for reasons I discuss below.

Rather than a simple ceiling on the price of natural gas–which is what many EU nations were clamoring for–the rule limits trading in front month, three month, and one year TTF futures if (a) the front-month TTF derivative settlement price exceeds EUR 275 for two week(s) and (b) the TTF European Gas Spot Index as published by the European Energy Exchange (EEX) is EUR 58 higher than the reference price during the last 10 trading days before the end of the period referred to in (a).  The “reference price” is: “the daily average price of the price of the LNG assessments “Daily Spot Mediterranean Marker (MED)”, the “Daily Spot Northwest Europe Marker (NWE)”, published by S&P Global Inc., New York and of the price of the daily price assessment carried out by ACER pursuant to Article 18 to 22 of Council Regulation .”

So in other words: (a) the TTF price has to be really high for two weeks straight, and (b) the TTF price has to be really high relative to the European LNG price over that period.

In the event the cap is triggered, “Orders for front-month TTF derivatives with prices above EUR 275 may not be accepted as from the day after the publication of a market correction notice.” So basically this is a limit up mechanism applied to front month futures alone that basically caps the front month price alone. Moreover, it will not go into effect until mid-February, meaning that the last two weeks of February would have to be really cold in order to trigger it. (The chart below shows how far below prices currently are below the flat price cap trigger.)

These conditions are so unlikely to be met that one might get the idea that the cap is intended never to be triggered, and if it is, its impact is meant to be limited to front month futures. And you’d probably be right. Some nations definitely wanted a traditional cap on the price of gas inside the EU, but the Germans and Dutch especially realized this would be a potential disaster as it would cause of of the usual baleful effects of price controls, notably shortages.

The rule as passed does not constrain the physical/cash market for natural gas anywhere in the EU. This is the market that allocates actual molecules of gas, and it will continue to operate even if the front month futures market is frozen. The freezing of futures may well interfere with price discovery in the physical/cash market, but regardless, prices there can rise to whatever level necessary to match supply and demand. As a result, the cap will not achieve the objectives of those pressing for a traditional price ceiling, and won’t result in the consequences feared by the Germans and Dutch.

So the cap is unlikely ever to be triggered, and if it does, won’t interfere with the operation of the physical market or have much of an impact on the prices that clear that market. So what’s the point?

One point is political: the Euros can say they have imposed a cap, thereby appeasing the suckers who don’t understand how meaningless it is.

Another point is distributive–which is also political. The document setting out and justifying the rule spends a tremendous amount of effort discussing a very interesting fact: namely, that when prices spiked last year, basis levels got way out of line with historical precedents. Notably, TTF traded at a big premium relative to LNG prices, and to prices at other hubs in the EU. Sensibly, the document attributes these extreme basis levels to infrastructure constraints within the EU, namely constraints on gasification capacity, and pipeline constraints for moving gas within the EU. (Although I note that squeezing the TTF could have exacerbated these basis moves.)

Again, the rule won’t have any impact on the basis levels in the physical market. So again–what’s the point? Well almost in passing the document notes that many natural gas contracts throughout the EU are priced at the TTF front month futures price plus/minus a differential. What the rule does is prevent prices on these contracts from being driven by the TTF front month price when those infrastructure constraints cause TTF to trade at a big premium to LNG or to prices at other hubs. So for example, a buyer in Italy won’t pay the market clearing TTF price when that would have traded at a big premium and high flat price level: instead, the buyer in Italy will pay the capped TTF front month price.

In other words, the mechanism mitigates the impact of a very common pricing mechanism adopted in normal times against the impacts of very abnormal times. A buyer outside of NW Europe takes on basis risk by purchasing at TTF plus a differential, but usually that basis risk is sufficiently small as to be outweighed by the benefits of trading in a more liquid market (with TTF being the most liquid gas market in Europe, just as Henry Hub is in the US). However, the stresses of the past year plus have greatly increased that basis risk. The price cap limits the basis risk on legacy contracts tied to TTF, without unduly interfering with the physical market. The marginal molecules will still be priced in the (unconstrained) physical market.

So there you have it. Beneath all the political posturing and smoke and mirrors, all the rule does is limit the potential “windfall” gains of those who sold gas forward basis front month TTF, and limit the “windfall” losses of those who bought basis front month TTF. If demand spikes and the infrastructure constraints bind (or if someone exploits these constraints to squeeze TTF futures) causing the basis to blow out, the rule will constraint the impact on those who benchmarked contracts to the front month TTF.

In some respects this isn’t surprising. All regulation, in the end, is distributive.

Putting it all together, this is probably the least bad price control I’ve seen. It is unlikely to go into effect, and even if it does its impact is purely distributive rather than allocative.

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November 28, 2022

I Remain DeFiant: DeFi Is Not the Answer (to Price Discovery) in Crypto

The meltdown of FTX continues to spark controversy and commentary. A recent theme in this commentary is that the FTX disaster represents a failure of centralization that decentralized finance–DeFI–could correct. Examples include contributions by the very smart and knowledgeable Campbell Harvey of Duke, and an OpEd in today’s WSJ.

I agree that the failure of FTX demonstrates that the crypto business as it is, as opposed to how it is often portrayed, is highly centralized. But the FTX implosion does not demonstrate that centralization of crypto trading per se is fundamentally flawed: FTX is an example of centralization done the worst way, without any of the institutional and regulatory safeguards employed by exchanges like CME, Eurex, and ICE.

Indeed, for reasons I have laid out going back to 2018 at the latest, the crypto market was centralized for fundamental economic reasons, and it makes sense that centralization done right will prevail in crypto going forward.

The competitor for centralization advocated by Harvey and the WSJ OpEd and many others is “DeFi”–decentralized finance. This utilizes the nature of blockchain technology and smart contracts to facilitate crypto trading without centralized intermediaries like exchanges.

One of the exemplars of the DeFi argument is “automated market making” (“AMM”) of crypto. This article provides details, but the basic contours are easily described. Market participants contribute crypto to pools consisting of pairs of assets. For example, a pool may consist of Ether (ETH) and the stablecoin Tether (USDT). The relative price of the assets in the pool is determined by a formula, e.g., XETH*XUSDT=K, where K is a constant, XETH is the amount of ETH in the pool and XUSDT is the amount of Tether. If I contribute 1 unit of ETH to the pool, I am given K units of USDT, so the relative price of ETH (in terms of Tether) is K: the price of Tether (in terms of Ether) is 1/K.

Fine. But does this mechanism provide price discovery? Not directly, and not in the same way a centralized exchange like CME does for something like corn futures. DeFi/AMM essentially relies on an arbitrage mechanism to keep prices aligned across exchanges (like, FTX once up an time and Binance now) and other DeFi AMMs. If the price of Ether on one platform is K but the price on another is say .95K, I buy ETH on the latter platform and sell Ether on the former platform. (Just like Sam and Caroline supposedly did on Almeda!) This tends to drive prices across platforms towards equality.

But where does the price discovery take place? To what price do all the platforms converge? This mechanism equalizes prices across platforms, but in traditional financial markets (TradFi, for the consagneti!) price discovery tends to be a natural monopoly, or at least has strong natural monopoly tendencies. For example, it the days prior to RegNMS, virtually all price discovery in NYSE stocks occurred on the NYSE, even though it accounted only for about 75-80 percent of volume. Satellite markets used NYSE prices to set their own prices. (In the RegNMS market, the interconnected exchanges are the locus of price discovery.)

Why is this?: the centripetal forces of trading with private information. Something that Admati-Pfleiderer analyzed 30+ years ago, and I have shown in my research. Basically, informed traders profit most by trading where most uninformed traders trade, and the uninformed mitigate their losses to the informed by trading in the same place. These factors reinforce one another, leading to a consolidation of informed trading in a single market, and the consolidation of uninformed trading on the same market except to the extent that the uninformed can segment themselves by trading on platforms with mechanisms that make it costly for the informed to exploit their information, such as trade-at-settlement, dark pools, and block trading. (What constitutes “informed” in crypto is a whole other subject for another time.)

It is likely that the same mechanism is at work in crypto. Although trading consolidation is not as pronounced there as it is in other asset classes, crypto has become very concentrated, with Binance capturing around 75-80 percent of trading even before the FTX bankruptcy.

So theory and some evidence suggests that price discovery takes place on exchanges, and that DeFi platforms are satellite markets that rely on arbitrage directly or indirectly with exchanges to determine price. (This raises the question of whether the AMM mechanism is sufficiently costly for informed traders to insure that their users are effectively noise traders.)

The implication of this is that DeFi is not a close substitute for centralized trading of crypto. (I note that DeFi trading of stocks and currencies is essentially parasitical on price discovery performed elsewhere.) So just because SBF centralized crypto trading in the worst way doesn’t mean that decentralization is the answer–or will prevail in equilibrium as anything more than an ancillary trading mechanism suited for a specific clientele, and not be the primary locus of price discovery.

The future of crypto will therefore almost certainly involve a high degree of centralization–performed by adults, operating in a rigorous legal environment, unlike SBF/FTX. That’s where price discovery will occur. In my opinion, DeFi will play an ancillary role, just as off-exchange venues do today in equities, and did prior to RegNMS.

One last remark. One thing that many in the financial markets deplore is the fragmentation of trading in equities. It is allegedly highly inefficient. Dark pools, etc., have been heavily criticized.

Fragmentation and decentralization is also a criticism leveled against OTC derivatives markets–here it has been fingered as a source of systemic risk, and this criticism resulted in things like OTC clearing mandates and swap execution facility mandates.

It’s fair to say, therefore, that in financial market conventional wisdom, decentralization=bad.

But now, a failure of a particular centralized entity is leading people to tout the virtues of decentralization. Talk about strange new respect!

All of these criticisms are largely misguided. As I’ve written extensively in the past, fragmentation in TradFi is a way of accommodating the diverse needs of diverse market participants. And just because some hopped up pervs found that running a centralized “exchange” was actually a great way to steal money from those blinded by their BS doesn’t mean that centralization is inherently unfitted for crypto because decentralized mechanisms also exist.

If crypto trading is to survive, well-operated centralized platforms will play an outsized role, supplemented by decentralized ones. Crypto is not so unique that the economic forces that have shaped market structure in stocks and derivatives will not operate there.

So don’t overgeneralize from a likely (and hopefully!) extreme case driven by the madness of woke crowds.

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November 16, 2022

Biden’s Latest Energy Brainwave: Engrossing Diesel!

Filed under: Commodities,Derivatives,Economics,Energy,Politics — cpirrong @ 7:38 pm

The latest Biden energy brain wave is a possible requirement that fuel suppliers hold a minimum level of diesel inventory:

US President Joe Biden is considering forcing the nation’s fuel suppliers to keep a minimum level of inventory in tanks this winter as a means of preventing heating oil shortages and keeping prices affordable. It may actually do the opposite. 

Well actually actually, there’s no “may” about it. It will, if the administration indeed forces away.

As I’ve written previously, there are times when economic conditions make it optimal to hold low (and perhaps no) inventories. When the supply/demand balance is expected to improve in the future, holding inventories moves a commodity from when it is relatively scarce, to when it is relatively abundant. It is better to do the opposite. But since you cannot transport future production to meet present consumption, the best thing to do is to draw down inventories–perhaps to zero.

There is no reason to believe that the market has “failed” to respond efficiently to fundamental conditions. There is absolutely no reason to believe that Joe Biden or anyone who works for him has solved the Knowledge Problem and knows how to allocate scarce diesel over time better than the markets do. Do you really think Joe et al know that the supply/demand balance in diesel is actually going to get worse, when the market judgment is the opposite? If you do, seek help.

So yes, if carried out, this action would increase spot prices because the only way to increase inventories is to reduce current consumption, and the only way to increase current consumption is through higher spot prices. Further, this action would tend to depress deferred prices because it will increase future consumption.

So if he does this, it would be totally correct to put one of those “I did that” stickers on a diesel pump.

It’s ironic to note that mandatory government stockholding programs, sometimes seen in agricultural markets, are intended to increase prices (to help farmers, for instance). It’s also ironic that Biden is floating this after months of drawing down on government inventories of crude in the SPR–in order to reduce prices.

What Biden is proposing could be seen as a government run corner: the antitrust case of U.S. v. Patten (1913) identifies one of the salient features of a corner as “withholding [a commodity] from sale for a limited time” with the purpose of “artificially enhancing the price.” Biden is proposing “withholding” diesel from the market.

Or, using more archaic language, it is government run “engrossing” or “forestalling,” something that speculators are often (wrongly) accused of, as Adam Smith wrote about in The Wealth of Nations.

The only good news to report here is apparently market participants think this idea is so stupid that not even this administration will implement it. Diesel flat prices and calendar spreads haven’t moved much after Biden’s announcement.

But it would be much better if the administration actually had some good ideas rather than a stream of bad ones, some of which are so obviously bad that they will never come to fruition.

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October 17, 2022

Clearing Is Not A Harmless Bunny: I Told You That I Told You That I Told You [ad infinitum] That I Told You So

Filed under: Clearing,Derivatives,Economics,Financial crisis,Regulation — cpirrong @ 10:54 am

I have long called myself “the Clearing Cassandra” for my repeated and unheeded warnings about the dangers of letting the Trojan Horse of clearing (and the margining of uncleared trades) into the financial citadel. Specifically, clearing/margining can create financial shocks (and indeed financial crises) rather than preventing them (which is the supposed justification for mandating them).

We have seen several examples of this in the past several years, including the COVID (lockdown) shock of March 2020 (a subject of a JACF article of mine) and the recent energy market tremors. The most recent example, and in many ways the most telling one, is the recent instability in the UK that led the Bank of England to intervene to prevent a full-on crisis. The tumult fed a spike in UK government yields and contributed to a plunge in the Pound.

The instability was centered on UK pension funds engaged in a strategy called Liability Directed Investment (LDI)–which should now be renamed Liquidity Danger Investment. In a nutshell, in LDI defined benefit pension funds hedge the interest rate risk in their liabilities through interest rate swaps that are cleared or otherwise margined daily on a mark-to-market basis, rather than investing in fixed income securities that generate cash flows that match the liabilities. The funds hold non-fixed income assets (sometimes referred to as “growth assets”) in lieu of fixed income. (I discuss the whys of that portfolio strategy below.)

On a MTM basis, the funds are hedged: a rise in interest rates causes a decline in the present value of the liabilities, which matches a decline in the value of the swaps. Even if there is a duration match, however, there is not a liquidity match. A rise in interest rates generates no cash inflow on the liabilities (even though they have declined in value), but the clearing/margining of the swaps leads to a variation margin outflow: the funds have to stump up cash to meet VM obligations.

And this has happened in a big way due to interest rate increases driven by central bank tightening and the deteriorating fiscal situation in the UK (which has been exacerbated substantially by the energy situation, and the British government’s commitment to absorb a large fraction of energy costs). This led to big margin calls . . . which the funds did not have cash to cover. So, cue a fire sale: the funds dumped their most liquid assets–UK government gilts–which overwhelmed the risk bearing capacity/liquidity of that market, leading to a further spurt in interest rates . . . which led to more VM obligations. Etc., etc., etc.

In other words, a classic liquidity spiral.

The BofE intervened by buying gilts in massive amounts. This helped stem the spiral, though the problem was so acute that the BofE had to extend its purchases beyond the period it initially announced.

So yet again, central bank intervention was necessary to provide liquidity to put out fires created by margining.

FFS. When will people who should know better figure this out? How many times is it necessary to hit the mule upside the head with a 2×4?

I just returned from France, and while walking by the Banque de France I thought of a conference held there in the fall of 2013 at which I spoke: the conference was co-sponsored by the BdF, BofE, and ECB. It was intended to be a celebration of the passage and implementation of various post-Crisis regulations, clearing mandates most prominent among them.

I did my buzz kill Clearing Cassandra routine, in which I warned very specifically of the liquidity spiral dangers inherent in clearing as a source of financial instability. I got pretty much the same response as the Trojan Cassandra–a blow off, in other words. Indeed, I quite evidently got under some skins. The next speaker was Benoît Cœuré, a member of the ECB governing council. The first half of his talk was a very intemperate–and futile–attempt at rebuttal. Which I took as a compliment.

Alas, events have repeatedly rebutted Cœuré and Gensler and all the other myriad clearing cheerleaders.

The LDI episode has validated other arguments that I made starting in late-2008. Most notably, clearing was touted as a “no credit” system because the clearinghouse does not extend any credit to counterparties: variation margin/mark-to-market is the mechanism that limits CCP credit exposure. Since one (faulty) narrative of the Crisis was that it was the result of credit extended to derivatives counterparties, clearing was repeatedly touted as a way of reducing systemic risk.

Not so fast! I said. Such a view is profoundly unsystemic because it neglects the fact that market participants can substitute other forms of credit for the credit they no longer get via derivatives trades. And indeed, in the recent LDI episode exemplifies a very specific warning I made over a decade ago: those subject to clearing or margining mandates would borrow on the repo market to fund margin obligations, including both initial margin and variation margin.

And indeed the UK funds did exactly that. This actually increased the connectedness of the financial system (contrary to the triumphant assertions of Gensler and others), and this connectedness via the repo channel was another factor that drove the BofE to intervene.

My beard is not quite this long (though it’s getting there) but this is pretty much spot on:

Clearing is Not a Harmless Bunny

Again: Clearing converts credit risk into liquidity risk. And all financial crises are liquidity crises.

Maybe someday people will figure this out. Hopefully before I snuff it.

And the idiocy of this is especially great with respect to the UK pension funds because they posed relatively little credit risk in the first place. So there was not a substitution of one risk (liquidity risk) for another (credit risk). There was an addition of a new risk with little if any reduction of any other risk.

The LDI strategies were right way risks. Interest rate movements that cause swaps to lose value also increase the value of the funds (by reducing the PV of their liabilities). The funds were not–and are not-leveraged plays on interest rate risk. So the prospects of defaults on derivatives that could be mitigated by clearing were minimal.

Here I have to part ways with someone I usually agree with, John Cochrane, who characterizes the episode as another example of the dangers of leverage. He cites to a BofE document about the LDI episode that indeed mentions leverage, but the story it tells is not the classic lever-up-and-lose-more-when-the-market-moves-against-you one that John suggests. Instead, in figure in the BofE piece that John includes in one of his posts, the increase in interest rates actually makes the pension fund better off in present value terms–even including its LDI-related positions–because its assets go down less in value than its liabilities do. In that sense, the LDI positions are an interest rate hedge. But there is a mismatch in the liquidity impacts.*. It is this liquidity mismatch that causes the problem.

The BofE piece also suggests that the underlying issue here is pension fund underfunding. In essence, the pension funds needed to jack up returns to close their funding gap. So instead of investing in fixed income assets with cash flows that mirrored those of its pension liabilities, the funds invested in higher returning assets like equities. Just investing in fixed income would have locked in the funding gap: investing in equities increased the odds of becoming fully funded. But just investing in equities alone would have subjected the funds to substantial interest rate risk. So the LDI strategies were intended to immunize them against this risk.

Thus, the original sin was the underfunding. LDI was/is not a way of adding interest rate risk through leverage to raise expected returns to close the gap (gambling on interest rate risk for resurrection). Instead it was a way of managing interest rate risk to permit raising returns to close the gap by changing portfolio composition. (No doubt regulators were cool with this because it reduced the probability that pension fund bailouts would be needed, or at least kicked that can down the road, a la US S&L regulators in the 1980s.)

No, the real story here is not the oft-told tale of highly leveraged intermediaries coming to grief when their speculations turn out wrong. Instead, it is a story of how mechanisms intended to limit leverage directly lead to indirect increases in debt and more importantly to increases in liquidity risks. In that way, margining increases systemic risk, rather than reducing it as advertised.

*The BofE document describes an LDI mechanism that is somewhat different than using swaps to manage interest rate risk. Instead, it describes a mechanism whereby positions in gilts are partially funded by repo borrowing. The borrowing is necessary to create a position large enough to create enough duration to match the duration of a fund’s liabilities. But a swap is economically equivalent to a position in the underlying funded by borrowing, so the difference is more apparent than real. Moreover, the liquidity implications of the interest rate hedging mechanism in the BofE document are quite similar to those of a swap.

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September 17, 2022

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

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

Gensler pictured here:

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

Crypto Regulation. Excellent!

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

Per Gensler:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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