Streetwise Professor

September 18, 2018

He Blowed Up Real Good. And Inflicted Some Collateral Damage to Boot

I’m on my way back from my annual teaching sojourn in Geneva, plus a day in the Netherlands for a speaking engagement.  While I was taking that European non-quite-vacation, a Norwegian power trader, Einar Aas, suffered a massive loss in cleared spread trades between Nordic and German electricity.  The loss was so large that it blew through Aas’ initial margin and default fund contribution to the clearinghouse (Nasdaq), consumed Nasdaq’s €7 million capital contribution to the default fund, and €107 million of the rest of the default fund–a mere 66 percent of the fund.  The members have been ordered to contribute €100 million to top up the fund.

This was bound to happen. In a way, it was good that it happened in a relatively small market.  But it provides a sobering demonstration of what I’ve said for years: clearing doesn’t eliminate losses, but affects the distribution of losses.  Further, financial institutions that back CCPs–the members–are the ultimate backstops.  Thus, clearing does not eliminate contagion or interconnections in the financial network: it just changes the topology of the network, and the channels by which losses can hit the balance sheets of big players.

Happening in the Nordic/European power markets, this is an interesting curiosity.  If it happens in the interest rate or equity markets, it could be a disaster.

We actually know very little about what happened, beyond the broad details.  We know Aas was long Nordic power and short German power, and that the spread widened due to wet weather in Norway (which depresses the price of hydro and reduces demand) and an increase in European prices due to increases in CO2 prices.  But Nasdaq trades daily, weekly, monthly, quarterly, and annual power products: we don’t know which blew up Aas.  Daily spreads are more volatile, and exhibit more extremes (kurtosis), but since margins are scaled to risk (at least theoretically–more on this below) what matters is the market move relative to the estimated risk.  Reports indicate that the spread moved 17x the typical move, but we don’t know what measure of “typical” is used here.  Standard deviation?  Not a very good measure when there is a lot of kurtosis (or skewness).

I also haven’t seen how big Aas’ initial margins were.  The total loss he suffered was bigger than the hit taken by the default fund, because under the loser-pays model, the initial margins would have been in the first loss position.

The big question in my mind relates to Nasdaq’s margin model.  Power price distributions deviate substantially from the Gaussian, and estimating those distributions is challenging in part because they are also conditional on day of the year and hour of the day, and on fundamental supply-demand conditions: one model doesn’t fit every day, every hour, every season, or every weather enviornment.  Moreover, a spread trade has correlation risk–dependence risk would be a better word, given that correlation is a linear measure of dependence and dependencies in power prices are not linear.  How did Nasdaq model this dependence and how did that impact margins?

One possibility is that Nasdaq’s risk/margin model was good, but this was just one of those things.  Margins are set on the basis of the tails, and tail events occur with some probability.

Given the nature of the tails in power prices (and spreads) reliance on a VaR-type model would be especially dangerous here.  Setting margin based on something like expected shortfall would likely be superior here.  Which model does Nasdaq use?

I can also see the possibility that Nasdaq’s margin model was faulty, and that Aas had figured this out.  He then put on trades that he knew were undermargined because Nasdaq’s model was defective, which allowed him to take on more risk than Nasdaq intended.

In my early work on clearing I indicted that this adverse selection problem was a concern in clearing, and would lead CCPs–and those who believe that CCPs make the financial system safer–to underestimate risk and be falsely complacent.  Indeed, I argued that one reason clearing could be a bad idea is that it was more vulnerable to adverse selection problems because the need to model the distribution of gains/losses on cleared positions requires detailed knowledge, especially for more exotic products.  Traders who specialize in these products are likely to have MUCH better understanding about risks than a non-specialist CCP.

Aas cleared for himself, and this has caused some to get the vapors and conclude that Nasdaq was negligent in allowing him to do so.  Self-clearing is just an FCM with a house account, but with no client business: in some respects that’s less risky than a traditional FCM with client business as well as its own trading book.

Nasdaq required Aas to have €70 million in capital to self-clear.  Presumably Nasdaq will get some of that capital in an insolvency proceeding, and use it to repay default fund members–meaning that the €114 million loss is likely an overestimate of the ultimate cost borne by Nasdaq and the clearing members.

Further, that’s probably similar to the amount of capital that an FCM would have had to have to carry a client position as big as Aas’.   That’s not inherently more risky (to the clearinghouse and its default fund) than if Aas had cleared through another firm (or firms).  Again, the issue is whether Nasdaq is assessing risks accurately so as to allow it to set clearing member capital appropriately.

But the point is that Aas had to have skin in the game to self-clear, just as an FCM would have had to clear for him.

Holding Aas’ positions constant, whether he cleared himself or through an FCM really only affected the distribution of losses, but not the magnitude.  If Aas had cleared through someone else, that someone else’s capital would have taken the hit, and the default fund would have been at risk only if that FCM had defaulted.  But the total loss suffered by FCMs would have been exactly the same, just distributed more unevenly.

Indeed, the more even distribution that occurred due to mutualization which spread the default loss among multiple FCMs might actually be preferable to having one FCM bear the brunt.

The real issue here is incentives.  My statement was that holding Aas’ positions constant, who he cleared through or whether he cleared at all affected only the distribution of losses.  Perhaps under different structures Aas might not have been able to take on this much risk.  But that’s an open question.

If he had cleared through another FCM, that FCM would have had an incentive to limit its positions because its capital was at risk.  But Aas’ capital was at risk–he had skin in the game too, and this was necessary for him to self-clear.  It’s by no means obvious that an FCM would have arrived at a different conclusion than Aas, and decided that his position represented a reasonable risk to its capital.

Here again a key issue is information asymmetry: would the FCM know more about the risk of Aas’ position, or less?  Given Aas’ allegedly obsessive behavior, and his long-time success as a trader, I’m pretty sure that Aas knew more about the risk than any FCM would have, and that requiring him to clear through another firm would not have necessarily constrained his position.  He would have also had an incentive to put his business at the dumbest FCM.

Another incentive issue is Nasdaq’s skin in the game–an issue that has exercised FCMs generally, not just on Nasdaq.  The exchange’s/CCP’s relatively thin contribution to the default fund arguably reduces its incentive to get its margin model right.  Evaluating whether Nasdaq’s relatively minor exposure to default risk led it to undermargin requires a more thorough analysis of its margin model, which is a very complex exercise which is impossible to do given what we know about the model.

But this all brings me back to themes I flogged to the collective shrug of many–indeed almost all–of the regulatory and legislative community back in the aftermath of the Crisis, when clearing was the silver bullet for future crises.   Clearing is all about the allocation and pricing of counterparty credit risk.  Evaluation of counterparty credit risk in a derivatives context requires a detailed understanding of the price risks of the cleared products, and dependencies between these price risks and the balance sheet risks of participants in cleared markets.  Classic information problems–adverse selection and moral hazard (too little skin in the game)–make risk sharing costly, and can lead to the mispricing of risk.

The forensics about Aas blowing up real good, and the lessons learned from that experience, should focus on those issues.  Alas, I see little recognition of that in the media coverage of the episode, and betting on form, I would wager that the same is true of regulators as well.

The Aas blow up should be a salutary lesson in how clearing really works, what it can do, and what it can’t.   Cynic that I am, I’m guessing that it won’t be.  And if I’m right, the next time could be far, far worse.

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September 5, 2018

Nothing New Under the Sun, Ag Processing and Trading Edition

Filed under: Commodities,Economics,Politics,Regulation — cpirrong @ 2:30 pm

New Jersey senator Corey Booker has introduced legislation to impose “a temporary moratorium on mergers and acquisitions between large farm, food, and grocery companies, and establish a commission to strengthen antitrust enforcement in the agribusiness industry.”  Booker frets about concentration in the industry, noting that the four-firm concentration ratios in pork processing, beef processing, soybean crushing, and wet corn milling are upwards of 70 percent, and four major firms “control” 90 percent of the world grain trade.

My first reaction is: where has Booker been all these years?  This is hardly a new phenomenon.  Exactly a century ago–starting in 1918–in response to concerns about, well, concentration in the meat-packing industry, the Federal Trade Commission published a massive 6 volume study of the industry  The main theme was that the industry was controlled by five major firms.  A representative subject heading in this work is “[m]ethods of the five packers in controlling the meat-packing industry.”  “The five packers” is a recurring refrain.

The consolidation of the packing industry in the United States in the late-19th and early-20th centuries was a direct result of the communications revolution, notably the development of railroads and refrigeration technology that permitted the exploitation of economies of scale in packing.   The industry was not just concentrated in the sense of having a relatively small number of firms–it was geographically concentrated as well, with Chicago assuming a dominant role in the 1870s and later, largely supplanting earlier packing centers like Cincinnati (which at one time was referred to as “Porkopolis”).

In other words, concentration in meat-packing has been the rule for well over a century, and reflects economies of scale.

Personal aside: as a PhD student at Chicago, I was a beneficiary of the legacy of the packing kings of Chicago: I was the Oscar Mayer Fellow, and the fellowship paid my tuition and stipend.  My main regret: I never had a chance to drive the Weinermobile (which should have been a perk!).  My main source of relief: I never had to sing an adaption of the Oscar Mayer Weiner Song: “Oh I wish I were an Oscar Mayer Fellow, that’s what I really want to be.”

Back to the subject at hand!

Booker also frets about vertical integration, and this is indeed a difference between the 2018 meat industry and the 1918 version: as the Union Stockyards in Chicago attested–by the smell, if nothing else–the big packers did not operate their own feedlots, but bought livestock raised in the country and shipped to Chicago for processing.

I am a skeptic about market power-based explanations of vertical integration, and there is no robust economic theory that demonstrates that vertical integration is anti-competitive.  The models that show how vertical integration can be used to reduce competition tend to be highly stylized toys dependent on rather special assumptions, and hence are very fragile and don’t really shed much light on the phenomenon.

Transactions cost-based theories are much more plausible and empirically successful, and I would imagine that vertical integration in meat packing is driven by TCE considerations.  I haven’t delved into the subject, but I would guess that vertical integration enhances quality control and monitoring, and reduces the asymmetric information problems that are present in spot transactions, where a grower has better information about the quality of the cattle, and the care, feeding, and growing conditions than a buyer.

I’d also note that some of the other industries Booker mentions–notably bean and corn processing–have not seen upstream integration at all.

This variation in integration across different types of commodities suggests that transactional differences result in different organizational responses.  Grain and livestock are very different, and these likely give rise to different transactions costs for market vs. non-market transactions in the two sectors.  It is difficult to see how the potential for monopsony power differs across these sectors.

Insofar as the major grain traders are concerned, again–this is hardly news.  It was hardly news 40 years ago when Dan Morgan wrote Merchants of Grain.

Furthermore, Booker’s concerns seem rather quaint in light of the contraction of merchant margins, about which I’ve written a few posts.  Ironically, as my most recent ABCD post noted, downstream vertical integration by farmers into storage and logistics is a major driver of this trend.

To the extent that consolidation is in play in grains (and also in softs, such as sugar), it is a reflection of the industry’s travails, rather than driven by a drive to monopolize the industry.  Consolidation through merger is a time-tested method for squeezing out excess capacity in a static or declining industry.

Booker’s bill almost certainly has no chance of passage.  But it does reflect a common mindset in DC.  This is a mindset that is driven by simplistic understandings of the drivers of industrial structure, and is especially untainted by any familiarity with transactions cost economics and what it has to say about vertical integration.

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August 28, 2018

Shed a Tear for Central Bankers Facing Obsolescence? Uhm, No. Jump for Joy.

Filed under: Economics,Financial crisis,History,Regulation — cpirrong @ 7:00 pm

Scott Sumner rightly skewers this central bankers’/macroeconomists’ angst:

That’s according to a paper presented Saturday by Harvard Business School economist Alberto Cavallo at the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City’s annual symposium in Jackson Hole, Wyoming.

Cavallo’s main finding was that competition from Amazon has led to a greater frequency of price changes at more traditional retailers like Walmart Inc., and also to more uniformity in pricing of the same items across different locations. He found that the shift has led to a greater influence of movements in the U.S. dollar exchange rate and gas prices on retail prices.

. . . .

The Cavallo study also showed that from 2008 to 2017, as online purchases accounted for an ever-growing share of total retail sales, the average duration of prices of goods sold at large U.S. retailers like Walmart fell from about 6.5 months to about 3.7 months.

The implications have subtle significance for monetary policy because so-called “sticky prices” — the notion that sellers aren’t able to change prices right away in response to changes in supply and demand — is precisely what gives interest rates power in mainstream models to have any effect on the economy at all. In those models, if prices adjust instantaneously in response to shocks, then there is no role for central bankers to guide supply and demand back into equilibrium.

“For monetary models and empirical work, my results suggest that the focus needs to move beyond traditional nominal rigidities,” Cavallo wrote. “Labor costs, limited information, and even ’decision costs’ (related to inattention and the limited capacity to process data) will tend to disappear as more retailers use algorithms to make pricing decisions.”

Come on.  The right response to Cavallo’s finding is NOT: “OH NOES! Monetary policy will be less effective when prices aren’t as sticky!”  The right response is: “Thank God we won’t need to rely on monetary policy–which can go horribly wrong because central bankers are humans operating with limited information and flawed theoretical understanding–to counteract shocks!”

Sticky prices create a potentially–and I emphasize potentially–beneficial role for monetary policy.  When prices are sticky, monetary shocks–including shocks to the demand for money–can have real effects.  Monetary authorities can in theory–and again I emphasize in theory–counteract these shocks and keep output closer to the optimum level.

However, the actual results often fall far short of the theoretical potential, because (as Sumner argues happened in 2007-2008, and Friedman and Schwartz argued happened regularly in US monetary history from 1867-1960) monetary authorities may misdiagnose economic conditions, and adopt a suboptimal policy, especially when they operate based on flawed heuristics, such as using the level of interest rates as a measure of whether monetary policy is tight or loose.

Thus, having more flexible pricing that allows nominal prices to adjust to shocks to the demand and supply of money makes us less reliant on central banking wizards–a very good thing, when they are often quite like the Wizard of Oz.

As Scott notes, more flexible/less-sticky prices do not eliminate the impact of monetary policy altogether, though for the most part that role should be less interventionist and more rule-based.

One nominal rigidity that more flexible goods prices won’t eliminate is that most debt will be denominated in nominal terms, and thus its real value will change with the prices of goods and services.  More flexible good prices may actually exacerbate the economic impact of nominal debt on real activity.  Although it is possible to imagine financial innovations that lead to more effective indexing or debt, whether the innovation is adopted widely remains to be seen, and there is room for doubt given the coordination issues involved.  Moreover.  there will still be a stock of existing nominal debt to work off even if new debt is indexed in more clever ways.

But even if nominal rigidities disappear, monetary shocks can still cause real fluctuations.  Remember that the Lucasian Rational Expectations models and their successors do not include rigid prices, yet they exhibit real responses to nominal shocks.  Indeed, that was the entire reason why Lucas and his contemporaries devised these models in the first place, as a way of resolving the Friedman conundrum: “money is a veil, but when the veil flutters, the economy stutters.”

In such a world, however, the role of central banks is much more limited.  In such a world, rule-based, rather than discretionary, policies that reduce the frequency and intensity of nominal shocks, are warranted.  That doesn’t leave much for central bankers to do.  They can’t be masters of the universe!

Central bankers no doubt look with dread on such a world.  That dread is implicit in the fretting over more flexible pricing reducing and perhaps eliminating the role of activist central bankers.  But their dread should be our joy.

 

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August 25, 2018

Elon Musk Channels Emily Litella: Nevermind (About That Going Private Thingy)

Filed under: Economics,Energy,Regulation — cpirrong @ 6:49 pm

Elon Musk took to YouTube to make a big announcement about his plans to take Tesla private:

 

Just kidding.  Like a thief in the night, Elon disclosed that he was not proceeding with his brilliant plan in a blog post that was posted at 11ET last night–Friday night.

Quite the weasel move.  I say when you screw up, man up.  But not our Elon.  He took the coward’s way out with a Friday night–late night–news dump.  Hell, he didn’t even Tweet it.

Of course the statement is filled with argle-bargle rationalizing the decision, and the previous big announcement about funding secured, $420/share, and all that.

He is sticking with the story that there was plenty of funding available.  Really?  Plenty of funding to take out shareholders at $420/share, and allow most of the existing shareholders to remain owners of the private firm in a magical structure never seen before, and almost surely a violation of the securities laws, and allow access to continued funds to fuel Tesla’s cash burn?

Musk of course had an alternative explanation for his U-turn: going private on the terms he had envisioned (or hallucinated) would be “even more time-consuming and distracting than initially anticipated.”

Yes, attempting the impossible usually is pretty time-consuming.

What next? Well, Tesla’s structural financial problems remain.  The company is facing the daunting challenge of navigating between the Scylla of Musk’s promise of no new capital raise and the Charybdis of the incessant cash burn.  Not to mention the problem of a delusional megalomaniac CEO.

Charley Grant of the WSJ has been skeptical of Musk–well, by journalist standards anyways–but he misdiagnoses his and the company’s current predicament.  Grant says that Musk made two mistakes in 2016–buying Solar City, and plunging ahead with the Model 3.  But Musk really had no choice on either: letting SCTY fail or ditching the everyman’s EV would have undermined Musk’s aura in 2016–and that aura is what has kept the capital flowing since.  If he had not done these things, Musk would have faced two years ago the problems he does now.

The other night I watched a BBC documentary about the Wars of the Roses, in which narrator (and historian) Dan Jones argued that Richard III wasn’t evil–the choices he made (killing Lord Rivers, kidnapping and then likely killing the princes in the Tower) weren’t really choices.  If he hadn’t done those things he would have faced immediate doom.  By doing them he bought some time–and delayed his doom.  Richard did what was necessary to survive to fight again another day.

Methinks Musk’s situation is similar.

I was amused that Morgan Stanley had announced Thursday that it was advising Musk on the going private plan, and then Musk pulls the plug about 40 hours later.  Does it really take that long to say “are you out of your fucking mind?”  Or did it take them that long to recover from the giggles? Or maybe Elon just sat on the bad news from MS until he could release it with the least attention possible.

The only real questions remaining are: (a) what caused Elon’s synapses to conceive of this brilliant plan?, and (b) will there be legal consequences?

Insofar as (a) is concerned: LSD? Lack of sleep? Impending mental breakdown? Or was there something more desperately Machiavellian about it?  Regardless, I can’t think of an explanation that bodes well for Tesla.

With regards to (b).  It is so blindingly obvious now (and should have been from word one) that his announcement Tweets were materially false.  They had large impacts on the price of Tesla stock.  They followed years of other dubious announcements, both on Twitter and in SEC filings and investor disclosures. If the SEC lets this slide it will make a mockery of the securities laws, and suggest that there are different standards for some people.

Some have suggested that the SEC is reluctant to take actions that will kill Tesla, or crater its stock price.  Well, why should Tesla be any different than other companies?  SEC actions have cratered other firms. (Dynegy is an example that comes to mind.)   The stock price falls were features, not bugs.  The SEC actions cratered these other firms because they revealed widespread wrongdoing and material falsity in corporate disclosures that had caused stock prices to be greatly inflated.  Why would the SEC want to perpetuate inflation in Tesla’s stock price?  If the stock price can’t handle the truth, well, that would be the problem that the SEC is supposed to be addressing, wouldn’t it?

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August 20, 2018

Goodhart’s Law on Steroids, PCP, and Crack: Chinese GDP

Filed under: China,Commodities,Economics,Politics — cpirrong @ 6:46 pm

Goodhart’s Law states that if a measure becomes a target, it ceases being an informative measure.  If you want to see an illustration of Gooodhart’s Law in action on a humungous scale, just look at China.

Michael Pettis has a piece in Bloomberg which, in brief, says that China has a GDP target.   If it appears that the country will fall short of the target, local governments get the high sign to invest in infrastructure, construction, and the like.  Local governments control credit creation (by guaranteeing bank debts) so banks are willing to lend to finance this investment: further, frequently the government will jawbone banks, or will twiddle the knobs in the banking system (e.g., lowering reserve requirements) to get banks to supply the necessary funds.

The investments are guaranteed (though what revenue stream or assets back the guarantees Pettis doesn’t say, and there are reasons to doubt the value of these guarantees in a crunch).  Hence, banks never have to write down the debt even if the investments turn out to be junk, with a value far less than the cost incurred to create the underlying assets.

So basically, the Chinese government can produce any GDP number it wants.  Voila, apropos Goodhart, the GDP number is useless.

You’d like GDP to measure the value of goods and services (including investment goods) created.  Instead, in China on the fixed asset side in particular, it measures cost, which may bear little relationship to value when economic decisions are made according to the process that Pettis describes.  In market economies where banks and borrowers have hard budget constraints, investments that don’t pan out are written down, and the losses are deducted from income.  That doesn’t happen in China.

So what is national income in China?  I’d start with consumption, though even there due to issues with price indices/inflation measurement that may be overstated.  Then I’d add a constant X times reported fixed investment, where X<1.  Probably a lot less than 1, to take into account the fact that much investment has a cost that exceeds value.  Further, I’d deduct some fraction of accumulated past investment to reflect writedowns that should be made, but aren’t.

The focus of this analysis should be on determining X.  X should be a function of something related to estimated shortfall of GDP from target absent stimulus: the bigger the shortfall, the smaller X (because more bad investment is likely when the shortfall is big, as it’s then that the government encourages investment to make up the shortfall).  It could be a function of the increase in fixed asset investment, or construction investment, with a smaller X when investment in those categories shoots up.

A few other remarks.

First, it is stories like Pettis’ that convince me that modern China represents the most colossal misallocation of capital in history.

Second, it also makes me skeptical about Scott Sumner’s use of state-owned-enterprise (SOE) share of employment as a measure of centralized control of the economy. Most of the capital, and related employment, that results from the GDP targeting channel that Pettis analyzes flows through private firms.  The government controls/affects resource allocation via incentives given to local governments, which in turn incentivize banks and private firms to achieve the government objective.

Spitballing here, but I think a better measure would be something along the lines of the ratio of the volatility in fixed investment to the volatility in GDP.  Or maybe the ratio of the volatility in credit creation to the volatility of GDP.  Chinese GDP volatility, especially post-crisis, is laughably low.  The channel that Pettis identifies stabilizes GDP (reducing its volatility) by changing investment/credit creation in response to changing economic conditions (thereby increasing its volatility).  The only problem with this measure is that there is a real risk it will become infinite.

In (relatively) market-oriented economies, investment is the most volatile component of GDP, so the ratio I propose would be positive in those economies.  But that could serve as a market economy benchmark against which to compare China.  I’m guessing that China’s ratio would be substantially larger.

Third, when looking at the demand for commodities, the potential for shortfalls of economic performance from government target should be decisive.  These shortfalls induce the turning of the credit spigot which juices the demand for commodities.

In sum, what matters in China is not whether or not GDP hits the target–it will! The question is what the government has to do to hit it.

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August 16, 2018

Why ABCD Sing the Blues, Part II: Increased Farm Scale Leads to Greater Competition in Capacity and Less Monopsony Power

Filed under: Commodities,Derivatives,Economics,Politics,Regulation — cpirrong @ 6:34 pm

In “Why Are ABCD Singing the Blues?” I called bull on the claim that ag trading firms were suffering through a rough period because of big crops and low prices.  I instead surmised that gains in capacity, in storage and throughput facilities, had outstripped growth in the amount of grain handled, and that this was pressuring margins.  In yesterday’s WSJ, Jacob Bunge (no relation, apparently, to the grain trading family) had a long and dense article that presents a lot of anecdotal support for that view.  The piece also provides other information that allows me to supplement and expand on it.

In a nutshell, due to increased economies of scale in farming, farms have grown larger.  Many farms have grown to the point that they can achieve efficient scale in storage and logistics to warrant investment in storage facilities and trucks, and thus can vertically integrate into the functions traditionally performed by Cargill and the others.  This has led to an expansion in storage capacity and logistical capacity overall, which has reduced the derived demand for the storage and logistics assets owned and operated by the ABCDs.  Jacob’s article presents a striking example of an Illinois farmer that bought a storage facility from Cargill.

In brief, more integrated farms have invested in capacity that competes with the facilities owned by Cargill, ADM, Bunge, and smaller firms in the industry.  No wonder their profits have fallen.

The other thing that the article illustrates is that scale plus cheaper communication costs have reduced the monopsony power of the grain merchants.  The operation of the farmer profiled in the piece is so large that many merchants, including some from a distance away, are competing for his business.  Furthermore, the ability to store his own production gives the farmer the luxury of time to sell: he doesn’t have to sell at harvest time to the local elevator at whatever price the latter offers–which was historically low-balled due to the cost of hauling to a more distant elevator.  Choosing the time to sell gives the farmer the value of the optionality inherent in storage–and the traditional merchant loses that option.  Further, more time allows the farmer to seek out and negotiate better deals from a wider variety of players.

The traditional country market for grain can be modeled well as a simple spatial economy with fixed costs (the costs of building/operating an elevator).  Fixed costs limit the number of elevators, and transportation costs between spatially separated elevators gave each elevator some market power in its vicinity: more technically, transportation costs meant that the supply of grain to a country elevator was upward sloping, with the nearby farms willing to sell at lower prices than more distant ones closer to competing elevators.  This gave the elevators monopsony power.  (And no doubt, competition was limited even in multi-elevator towns, because the conditions for tacit collusion were ripe.)

Once upon a time, the monopsony power of elevator operators was a hot-button political issue.  One impetus for the farm cooperative movement was to counteract the monopsony power of the line elevator operators.  The middlemen didn’t like this one bit, and that was the reason that they excluded cooperatives from membership of futures exchanges, like the Chicago Board of Trade: this exclusion raised cooperatives’ costs, and was effectively a raising-rivals-cost strategy.  Brokers also supported excluding cooperatives because as members cooperatives could have circumvented broker commission cartels (i.e., the official, exchange-approved and enforced minimum commission rates).  This is why the Commodity Exchange Act contains this language:

No board of trade which has been designated or registered as a contract market or a derivatives transaction execution facility exclude  from membership in, and all privileges on, such board of trade, any association or corporation engaged in cash commodity business having adequate financial responsibility which is organized under the cooperative laws of any State, or which has been recognized as a cooperative association of producers by the United States Government or by any agency thereof, if such association or corporation complies and agrees to comply with such terms and conditions as are or may be imposed lawfully upon other members of such board, and as are or may be imposed lawfully upon a cooperative association of producers engaged in cash commodity business, unless such board of trade is authorized by the commission to exclude such association or corporation from membership and privileges after hearing held upon at least three days’ notice subsequent to the filing of complaint by the board of trade.

Put differently, in the old days the efficient scale of farms was small relative to the efficient scale of midstream assets, so farmers had to cooperate in order to circumvent merchant monopsony power.  Cooperation was hampered by incentive problems and the political nature of cooperative governance.  (See Henry Hansmann’s Ownership of Enterprise for a nice discussion.) The dramatic increase in the efficient scale of farms now means (as the WSJ article shows) that many farmers have operations as large as the efficient scale of some midstream assets, so can circumvent monopsony power through integration.  This pressures merchants; margins.

Jacob Bunge is to be congratulated for not imitating the laziness of most of those who have “reported” on the grain merchant blues, where by “reporting” I mean regurgitating the conventional wisdom that they picked up from some other lazy journalist.  He went out into the field–literally–and shed a good deal of light on what’s really going on.  And what’s going on is competition and entry, driven in large part by economic and technological forces that have increased the efficient scale of grain and oilseed production.  Thus, the grain handlers are in large part indirect victims of technological change, even though the technology of their business has remained static by comparison.

 

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August 15, 2018

The Zinke Firestorm: Mitigation of the Impacts of Climate Change vs. Using Climate Change as Justification for Reordering the World

Filed under: Climate Change,Economics,Politics — cpirrong @ 2:07 pm

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke ignited a firestorm by blaming California wildfires on environmental extremists who oppose logging and other measures (e.g., controlled burns) to reduce fuel load, and denigrating the contribution of global warming.  For this, he has been accused of heresy, and no doubt many of those accusing him would like to consign him to the flames at the stake.

One particularly disturbing aspect about this debate is its polarity–it’s framed as forestry management vs. climate change.   And here, both Zinke and his critics are culpable.

It doesn’t have to be that way.  Policy on forest management can be analyzed quite independently of climate change.   Indeed, to the extent there is a dependence, logically one should be more supportive of measures to mitigate fire risk if you believe that other factors–including warming–have raised that risk.  That is, the warmists, and those who believe there is a connection between warming and fire risk, should be the biggest supporters of reducing the factors that increase the frequency and intensity of fires–and reducing fuel load would be at the top of the list.  These are measures that can be taken in the here and now, and which do not involve wrenching costs.

But that requires pragmatism, and that is something that is conspicuous by its absence on the environmentalist left.  Indeed, they largely view mitigation and other pragmatic, gradualist responses to climate change as a serious moral failing requiring a response befitting the Inquisition, culminating in an auto de fe.  That is, the response is religious in nature, and not logical or pragmatic.  Mitigation is about trade-offs, and evaluating costs and benefits.  These are not the terms of religious debate.

Indeed, I surmise that one of the reasons for raging against mitigation–and likely the most important reason, especially among the more strident–is that mitigation undermines the case for the totalitarian measures that many on the environmental left ardently support.  And if you think totalitarian is too harsh a word, I think you are quite wrong.  Fighting climate change is the justification by many on the left for a complete reordering of economic and social systems, achieved by coercion and force if necessary.

If mitigation reduces the harm, the case for such totalitarian measures is undermined.  And since for many on the left the primary value is not the environment per se, but a complete reordering of economic and social systems, this represents a mortal threat to their political agenda.

That is, environmentalism and climate change are largely instrumental–Trojan Horses, as it were.  This is why mitigation strategies are met with such intense hostility.  What’s the point in mitigation, if it deprives you of an opportunity to reorder society?

As a matter of rhetoric, people like Ryan Zinke (and Trump, for that matter) would be better to separate issues relating to mitigation of risk from the climate change issue, or to the extent that they bring up climate change at all, emphasize that mitigation is even more valuable to the extent that climate change does increase the risk of things like wildfires.  Do not let the Trojan Horse into the debate.  Emphasize that such measures can be a pragmatic response to a risk.  I think that would resonate much more with ordinary people, as much as it infuriates ideologues.

 

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August 13, 2018

Elon’s Magical Mystery Tour Gets More Magical By the Day: $80 Billion Is Only the Beginning

Filed under: Economics,Energy,Regulation — cpirrong @ 8:14 pm

The Elon Magical GoPrivate Mystery Tour gets more magical by the day.  Today Elon tried to do some ‘splainin’, but his explanation was effectively a guilty plea.  He said that he left a late-July meeting with the head of the Saudi investment fund convinced that it would fund the transaction.

Legal memo to Elon: “secured in my mind” is not the same as secured, secured, all legal and such.  Even if–especially if–you are a legend in your own mind.

Musk’s explanation is more of a guilty plea than a defense.  The intersection between “funding secured” and “conversations are ongoing” is a set of measure zero.

Then there’s the magical structure.  As I noted in an earlier post, he wants it all ways.  He wants to be a private firm, but still have a herd of small shareholders.  In other words, he wants a structure that does not exist, most likely because it violates the securities laws.

There’s also another issue that has received no real attention, though it should.  All of the figgerin’ I’ve seen so far just totes up the amount of money required to buy out Tesla shareholders at $420/share.

But that’s just the start!  Tesla has been a cash bleeder for years, and has gone to the secondary offering well again and again to raise the money necessary to fund its operations and capex.  There is no prospect of that ending soon–indeed, one of the reasons I suspect Elon is throwing this Hail Mary is the fundamental inconsistency between his recent assertions that no additional capital raises would be necessary and the need for further funds.

So any sugar daddies will not merely have to stump up as much as $80 billion to buy the outstanding equity–they will have to commit to fund it while it continues to be cash flow negative to the sum of ~$500 million-$1 billion per quarter.

Going private deals are usually done for cash-flow positive companies.  They are levered up and use the cash flows to service the debt.  The PE dealmakers extract cash at the beginning, and definitely don’t plan to inject more cash for the indefinite future. That traditional framework obviously can’t work for Tesla.  So not only is the legal structure that Musk has mooted a figment of his imagination, the economic model is also fantastical.

But other than that, the deal sounds totally great, Elon.

One final note that makes me chuckle.  Elon made his big announcement on Twitter.  He has also blocked a lot of people on Twitter–including me in 2013 or 2014.  Well, selective disclosure of public information–giving it to some people earlier than others–violates Reg FD (“Regulation Fair Disclosure”).  So by (a) blocking me (and many others) on , and (b) running his big brain waves through Twitter, Elon might have committed other securities violations.

Hahahaha.

 

 

 

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August 12, 2018

As the old adage says, Erdo: Be careful what you ask for.  You might get it.  

Filed under: Economics,Turkey — cpirrong @ 6:40 pm

Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is clearly insane, by the doing/saying-the-same-thing-repeatedly-and-expecting-different-results standard.

Apparently not content with the mere 22 percent drop in the TRY on Thursday and Friday which was attributable completely to his overheated, boneheaded economic rhetoric and his egging on a confrontation with the US, today he gave not one, not two, but three speeches that put his economic idiocy and bullheadedness on display.  And the markets reacted immediately, with the lira breaching 7 to the USD in early Asian trading.

Among the howlers:

Speaking in the northeastern city of Trabzon on Sunday, Erdogan warned business executives to not “rush to banks to withdraw foreign currency.”

He added that businesses should “know that keeping this nation alive and standing isn’t just our job, but also the job of industrialists, of merchants.”

“We are working day and night for alternative markets.”

Just what alternative markets is he talking about? Presumably steel and aluminum, which Trump imposed higher tariffs on on Friday.  But those aren’t the markets that matter now: it’s the currency and capital markets that matter, and every word out of Erdoğan’s mouth freaks out those markets even more.  Not least because talking about metals indicates a complete failure to grasp the true nature of the situation.

Importuning “industrialists and merchants” to take one for the team is futile.  They have already conceded, after taking brutal losses for heeding his earlier call.  The fact that Erdoğan seems oblivious to the fact that his previous nostrums have been disasters only convinces further those at home with money and those in the financial markets that he is utterly clueless–as do his continued imprecations against evil interest rates.

His chucklehead finance minister (whose main attributes appear to be that a) he is Erdoğan’s son-in-law, and b) he is less of a chucklehead than Erdoğan’s son) gave a don’t worry-be happy-everything will work out great talk to a group of assembled business leaders.  A Turkish friend said that Berat (not Borat!) Albayrak’s clownish performance was met by long faces from the assembled bankers and industrialists.

Erdoğan’s other stock response is that Turkey’s economic fundamentals are sound, but the country is being subjected to an economic attack from the US, and that he will fight back.  Arguendo, assume it is true that the US has targeted Turkey.  What is the best response, especially when someone like Trump is doing the targeting? Defiance is foolhardy, though perhaps emotionally gratifying in the short run, both to Erdoğan and his fervent followers.  A prudent leader would execute a tactical withdrawal in the face of overwhelming odds, and live again to fight another day.  You don’t fight battles you can’t win.  And again, Erdoğan’s apparent willingness to do so just stokes the panic.

Erdoğan says that he will find other allies.  Like who, exactly?  Speculation is that Russia, Qatar, and/or China might contribute financial support.

The first name makes me laugh.  Russia has its own issues right now, to put it mildly.  Its access to capital markets is extremely limited, and its currency is also under pressure.  Qatar is still battling an economic embargo with its Arab neighbors.  China’s own financial situation is somewhat tenuous now, and although it has shown a willingness to throw money down ratholes (cf. Venezuela) it is doubtful that it will stump up the tens of billions of dollars necessary to rescue Turkey from the brink, especially in the very limited time–maybe even hours–available.

And all of these candidates will no doubt think twice, and then think again, based on uncertainty of how Trump would react to their riding to the rescue of his current target.

Nope.  Erdo is on his own here.  And that’s the irony of all this.  Erdoğan asked for supreme power in Turkey.  He got it.  Now he owns all of it: the bad as well as the good.  As the old adage says, Erdo: Be careful what you ask for.  You might get it.

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August 10, 2018

Tesla: A Securities Lawsuit, But Not THE Securities Lawsuit

Filed under: Economics,Regulation — cpirrong @ 9:37 pm

Two class action lawsuits have been filed against Tesla and Elon Musk, claiming that he artificially inflated the price of Tesla stock through his going private tweets, thereby unleashing a “nuclear attack” that “completely decimated short sellers.”*

It is a plausible claim.  However, the damages here are likely to be minimal.  Tesla’s stock fell below the pre-tweet price within a day, as reality set in.  Therefore, only those who bought during that brief window of tweet-induced euphoria (and inflation)  would have a claim (and this would include shorts who covered).  Not likely a huge class here.

No, the mother of Tesla class actions awaits a big stock price drop, which would likely follow either a disclosure of past mis-statements and fraud, or an SEC announcement of litigation against the firm.  (Hey, has the statute of limitations run out on the 2013 squeezes?)  I think it’s a matter of time, but who knows?

The whole going private thing looks more bizarre by the day, especially given Elon’s odd ideas about what going private means:

Tesla Inc. Chief Executive Officer Elon Musk and advisers are seeking a wide pool of investors to back a potential take-private of the automaker to avoid concentrating ownership among a few new large holders, according to people familiar with the matter.

Tesla is holding early discussions with banks about the feasibility and structure of a possible deal, the people said, asking not to be identified as the details aren’t public. They are canvassing investors including large asset managers, the people said.

Billionaire founder Musk would prefer to amass a group of investors who could each contribute part of the funds because he wants to avoid having one or two large new stakeholders in the company, the people said. Deliberations are at an early stage and the company hasn’t yet formally hired a bank to work on the process or made a final decision on how to proceed, they said.

In other words, Elon wants his cake and to eat it too.  He wants diffuse ownership and total control, and to deny the diffuse owners the investor protections that a public listing brings with it.

Come to think of it, Elon wants to bring the Russian model to the US–think of Rosneft, Gazprom.

The Tesla board of sheep–I mean, directors–is apparently scrambling furiously to try to recover from Elon’s blunder by “investigating” a going private transaction.  A little late!

I really want to know who Tesla’s O&D insurer is, so I can short it.

*Pedantic pet peeve.  You can’t “completely decimate” anything–that’s an oxymoron. Decimate means execute one out of ten.  It was a punishment exacted against mutinous Roman legions.  I think the word the lawyers are looking for is “annihilate.”

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