Streetwise Professor

November 27, 2018

The Overlords of the Overton Window

Filed under: Economics,Politics — cpirrong @ 8:28 pm

Facebook, YouTube, and in particular Twitter have been bingeing on banning of late.  The targets of these proscriptions have been anything but random: those who do not perform proskynesis before the current gods of the left.  This means that conservatives and libertarians are disproportionately affected, but even some who do not fall into those political categories are at risk.

The environment has become so hostile that at least one prominent figure, Instapundit (Glenn Reynolds, a law professor, of all things), has said “you can’t fire me, I quit!” and left Twitter.  Others less prominent have made similar decisions, and others have self-censored.

In essence, the operators of social media platforms present a Hobson’s Choice: You can censor yourself, or they will censor you.  The end result is the same: systemic biases against expression of certain political, religious, and socio-cultural opinions on the most widely used social media platforms. Twitter, Facebook, and Google are the Overlords of the Overton Window, and largely dictate the range of acceptable public discourse.

The Overton Window has always existed, but what is acceptable to express has heretofore been the result of a more decentralized, emergent process.  There was give-and-take.  There were actually multiple windows, and entry and exit were easier.  There was no centralized authority who could dictate what was acceptable: what was acceptable emerged.

What is disturbing, and positively Orwellian, about the Window today is the aggressive role of an extremely ideological, self-appointed set of censors who face little competition and who largely can control access to the means by which opinion is now expressed.  The centripetal force of virtual social networks give exceptional power to those who control access to those networks. By conditioning access on adherence to their views, the psychopaths who control these networks (and tell me honestly that you don’t believe that Zuckerberg and Dorsey are psychopaths) can coerce acceptance of their beliefs.  The technology of networks tends towards monopoly, and those who control these monopolies exercise disproportionate control over the expression of opinion, belief, and thought.

That is, traditionally the Overton Window was more consensual.  It is now increasingly the dictat of a narrow and insular set of individuals who by the whims of competition in network markets have achieved considerable power.

One of the most explicit examples of how this operates relates to the issue of transgenders–an issue you that probably was so obscure to you that it never penetrated your consciousness until recently.  Twitter has recently banned people–including someone who would best be described as a hard-core feminist–for challenging this newly decreed orthodoxy.  Twitter has just announced a policy of banning people who “misgender” (e.g., call individuals with testicles “he” though they identify as women) or “deadname” (e.g., use the name Robert to refer to someone born with testicles and named Robert by his parents, but who now identifies as Roberta).

This is revealing on several dimensions.  First, it reveals that social media has an Animal Farm-like hierarchy.  Female feminists are pretty high up on the hierarchy, but somewhere below transgenders.  So if a female feminist transgresses the transgender norm, she becomes a non-person.  Better stick to attacking those lower in the hierarchy, like straight white males!

Second, a marginal (and arguably minuscule, in terms of numbers) group is sanctified, and obeisance to that group becomes a litmus test for acceptance, and freedom from attack/banning.  Question the sanctified, and you are a non-person, and anathematized.

The marginal and extremely unconventional nature of the group is extremely important to the process.  Who cares if you affirm that ice cream is great?  But affirming that the extremely marginal and unusual are great does not come naturally, and indeed, it is costly to those of a more traditional bent.  It is also costly because it takes some effort to figure out what you are supposed to affirm, especially since it is outside your realm of experience.

But the cost is the point!  You have to pay the cost in order to avoid ostracism.  To demonstrate your fealty.  Bending the knee is deeply symbolic precisely because people naturally rebel against it.  Because it is psychically costly.  Those with strength of will are ostracized, and those made of softer stuff validate the beliefs of the overlords by worshipping their gods.

This is the way that cults operate.  Acquiescing to bizarre beliefs and engaging in bizarre rituals demonstrates fealty to the cult.

And don’t think that this will end when all users of Twitter and Facebook get their minds right and adopt Mark’s and Jack’s dictated opinions regarding transgenders (which are likely purely instrumental).  At such point, transgenders become totally useless.  Totally. New tests of loyalty and conformity will become necessary.  A new group will be sanctified.  I shudder to think what it will be, but I guarantee it will happen.  And at that time transgenders will become as irrelevant as past causes célèbres, e.g., gays.  (Don’t hear much about them anymore, do you? Old news.  Hence not useful.)

One often-heard viewpoint expressed by usually conservative and libertarian people is that this is, if not OK, something we have to accept because it is not the government that is imposing restrictions on freedom of expression.  These are private individuals in control of private entities.

This is seductive logic, but it is extremely defective because it ignores objective realities.

The concern about government restriction on freedom of speech is that it has a monopoly of force that it can use to overawe and oppress.  Further, government restrictions on speech reduce accountability of government, and therefore undermine checks on its power.

We should have similar grave concerns about private individuals and private enterprises that utilize their right to control access to near-monopoly platforms to overawe and oppress.  Further, these are intensely political entities whose controlling personalities desire to exercise political power, preferably with limited or no accountability.

The line between public and private that is often drawn here is completely imaginary.  No, these are not government entities.  But they are entities that desire to exercise great influence over the government, through various means. and to exercise control over individuals in ways governments have only fantasized about.  (The symbiosis between Google and the government of the PRC is not an accident, comrades.)

Checking their power is therefore completely consistent with a belief in the primacy of individual liberty.  Indeed, given the steady erosion in limits on government, shackling those who exert disproportionate influence on government and the political process is all the more vital to those who champion individual freedom.  (This is exactly why Facebook and Twitter and Google should be the LAST entities you want determining what is, and what is not, acceptable political speech, and what is fake news, and why the insistence by politicians that they do so is the bootleggers-and-baptists problem from hell.)

Those who care about individual liberty must strive to reduce the power to coerce, regardless of whether that coercive power is wielded by a government, or an individual, or a non-government entity.  Coercion is the thing.  Not the identity of the coercer.

Further, as I’ve noted several times before, the classical liberal/limited government tradition has recognized the dangers of private monopoly, and has constrained it through the imposition of open access and non-discrimination requirements.  If such requirements are justified for innkeepers and stagecoaches and railroads, they are more than justified for social media platforms, especially given the public goods nature (in the strict economics sense of the term) of their output–something that cannot be said of innkeepers and stagecoaches and railroads.

So, echoing Lenin, what is to be done?  One thing is clear: direct approaches are fruitless.  If Glenn Reynolds censors himself, that just saves Jack Dorsey the trouble.  The end result is the same: Jack wins.

A la Liddell-Hart, Fuller, or Sun-Tzu, an indirect approach is necessary. I’m not sure what that approach should be, but these military thinkers (no, that’s not always an oxymoron) have identified key aspects of it.  Identify the enemy’s center of gravity (and we should indeed view these people and companies as our entities).  Then don’t attack their strong points, but find their blind spots, their vulnerabilities, and strike at those.  Find the back door to the center of gravity.

And in thinking through the problem, don’t get hung up on false distinctions between public and private.  This is only to play into the hands of those who want to dominate you.

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November 25, 2018

There Is a Great Deal of Ruin In a Nation, Venezuelan Edition (With Broader Lessons)

Filed under: Economics,Politics — cpirrong @ 8:03 pm

Igor is not pleased with Maduro’s Venezuela, which is stiffing him:

The head of Russian oil company Rosneft (ROSN.MM), Igor Sechin, flew to Caracas this week to meet Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro and complain over delayed oil shipments designed to repay loans, two sources briefed on the conversation said on Saturday.

The visit, which was not publicly disclosed, is one of the clearest signs of strain between crisis-stricken Venezuela and its key financier Russia.

Over the last few years, Moscow has become Venezuela’s lender of last resort, with the Russian government and Rosneft handing Venezuela at least $17 billion in loans and credit lines since 2006, according to Reuters calculations.

State oil company PDVSA is repaying almost all of those debts with oil, but a meltdown in its oil industry has left it struggling to fulfill obligations.

Sechin and a large delegation of executives met with officials at PDVSA in a Caracas hotel this week. Sechin also met with Venezuela’s leftist leader Maduro, and chided him over oil-for-loans shipments that are behind schedule.

“He brought information showing that they were meeting obligations with China but not with them,” said one source with knowledge of the talks.

Two things strike me about this story.

First: Hahahahaha.  Suckers.

I remember vividly snickering at those who thought the Chinese and Russians were sooooo smart to extend credit to the Venezuelans..  How this was a geopolitical masterstroke.

Really?  How’s that working out?  Obviously not well.  Ask Igor!

Tell me again how it is GENIUS! to lend money to a country that is imploding because it is in the thrall of an insane crypto-socialist ideology.  Venezuela’s trajectory was obvious at the time the Chinese and Russians thought they would lend it money.  Seriously: lending to socialists is hardly ever a paying proposition, and lending to Bolivarian socialists was certainly so.

But by all means, keep pouring money down ratholes! Be my guest!

Second.  The Venezuelan experience demonstrates the truth in Adam Smith’s aphorism about there being “a great deal of ruin in a nation.”  The torment of Venezuela is extreme.  The populace lives in utter penury, which only grows worse by the day.  The inflation rate is currently in the 6 figures, and is on track to reach 7 figures late by the end of this year, or early in the next.   This is Weimar-Hungary-Zimbabwe territory.  Crime is rampant.  Human degradation is everywhere.

Yet the Maduro regime is largely secure.  It maintains the loyalty of the security forces, and this has deterred a serious popular uprising.   Indeed, the economic catastrophe is not causing Maduro to relent: to the contrary, it spurs him to crack down even more intensely.

This situation has been developing for years.  Indeed, you can pinpoint the decisive moment, and it relates to Sechin’s current target–national oil company PDVSA. In the aftermath of an abortive US-supportive coup in 2002, Maduro’s predecessor Hugo Chavez responded to opposition within the company by purging the technically and managerially competent, and replacing them with loyalists.  What was once one of the most competent national oil companies in the world began its descent into failure, and the entire country followed in its wake.

There is a broader lesson here: Smith’s dictum, empirically validated in Venezuela, implies that expectations that economic pressure on rogue regimes will lead them to moderate their behavior, or result in their overthrow, are chimerical.  Rogue regimes respond to pressure and economic failure by intensifying oppressive measures.  By doing so, they can survive for a very, very long time.

The problem of coordinating opposition against a steely regime is difficult to overcome.  Usually, such regimes fall only when they attempt to respond to popular discontent through “reforms” and a softening of repression (cf. Gorbachev in the USSR).  Hard men like those in Venezuela or Iran understand this lesson, and have no intention of relaxing their grips.

That is, economic failure, whether internally created (as in Venezuela) or the result of internal dysfunction exacerbated by external pressure (as in Iran or North Korea) almost never results in the collapse of repressive regimes.

This is not to say that economic sanctions or other forms of economic pressure are not justified.  It is just that the expectations for such acts must be realistic, and the goals chosen accordingly.  Realistically, economic pressure can reduce the capabilities of rogue regimes to wreak havoc outside their borders.  It cannot truly threaten the existence of these regimes.

Since there is so much ruin in countries–especially highly repressive ones–expecting to change them by ruining them is futile.

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November 24, 2018

The Most Annoying and Pathetic Geopolitical Entity Ever? I Think So!

Filed under: Cryptocurrency,Economics,Politics — cpirrong @ 7:59 pm

There may be a more annoying geopolitical entity in history than the EU, but I’ll be damned if I can think of one.

In recent weeks, a group of northern EU states centered on the Netherlands have formed the “Hanseatic group” to represent their positions, regarding the Italy situation in particular.  This has outraged the French and the Germans.  In response to the blonde upstarts, French economy minister Bruno le Maire lashed out:

Speaking at a dinner with his Dutch counterpart Wopke Hoekstra in Paris on Thursday, Bruno Le Maire said he was “not comfortable” dealing with the Hanseatic group — eight to 10 countries that have agreed common positions calling for more national responsibility and stronger rules in the eurozone.

“Let’s imagine that France tries to create a club of the southern countries with Portugal, Italy, Spain — what would be the reaction of the other member states? Do you think that it would be a positive one? Do you think it would improve the situation of Europe?” Mr Le Maire told the Financial Times.

“I am not comfortable with the idea of creating new circles, new clubs, new leagues within Europe. If you want to create new divisions between the north and the south, or the west and east, you will never have France on your side,” said Mr Le Maire, who has spearheaded French ambitions to reform the eurozone in a partnership with Germany.

Some Franco-German initiatives, such as a blueprint for a eurozone budget, have met resistance from countries led by the Netherlands. The group has also advocated tougher enforcement of budgetary rules and moves towards debt restructuring in the eurozone to be agreed by EU governments next month.  (Emphasis added.)

Did you catch that?  Franco-German ambitions to reform the eurozone–OK!  Lilliputian resistance–BAD!!!!

When the hypocrisy was pointed out, Bruno a dit non! non! non! C’est totalement différent!

When asked whether the Franco-German alliance was not a “club”, Mr Le Maire said: “That is totally different. This is not a club. This is what is at the core of the European ambition: peace between France and Germany. This is at the core of the European Union.”

So, is M. Le Maire suggesting that absent the EU, jackbooted Germans would soon be marching in the shade along the tree-lined French roads?  If he is, that’s quite the insult to Germany, non?  But if he is, he is utterly delusional: to quote Patton, the post-post-modern Germans couldn’t fight their way out of a piss-soaked paper bag, and what’s more, have no desire even to try.  They’ve found alternative means to achieve dominance over the continent, and the French are now their (junior) allies in that endeavor.  A key part of that strategy is divide-and-conquer, and “clubs” like the Hanseatic one threaten that gambit.

Germano-French ambitions extend beyond Europe.  They want to leverage their dominance in the EU to a position of world influence.  Fortunately, here their efforts have proven again and again to be laughable.

A particularly juicy example is the hilarious efforts of the EU to set up a special purpose vehicle to facilitate trade with Iran in defiance of US sanctions, pour epater le bête orange.  They have made grandiose announcements.  Only one problem: European companies don’t want to touch this with a ten foot pole.  Make that two problems: no European government wants to touch it either:

So up to now the commission has been unable to find a home for the SPV. Not even a post restante address. No EU country has offered to host it. The sad SPV has been wandering between railway stations and airports, without a nationality, a bank account or even a real name. If I passed it on the street, I would put a euro in its hat.


And as I’ve pointed out since the day of the announcement, it is an utterly pointless exercise because it addresses every issue except the one that matters: secondary sanctions.  Once the US seized upon this mechanism, any attempt to circumvent sanctions by avoiding the dollar became utterly pointless: do a barter deal, or a Euro deal, or a Venezuelan crypto bolivar deal with a sanctioned Iranian company, and the Treasury will still hammer you.  So, if you want to do all your biz in cryptobolivars–knock yourself out! But if you want to do any business with the USD at all, think twice about dealing with a sanctioned entity by an SPV or any other way.  And pretty much every European company has decided that one thought is sufficient.

M. Le Maire seems to be getting a glimmer of a clue that the EU is a geopolitical lightweight:

“I’m not sure the Hanseatic League would be in a position to face the competition with China and the US”, he said. “If we are creating closed clubs, alliances within the EU then we run the risk of losing time and weakening our common project.”

Bruno. Dude: the EU is not in a position to face competition with China and the US.  This is proven daily.

So under German-French “leadership” the EU is likely to lurch along like it has been for years.  Compensating for their inability to achieve their vaulting global ambitions by beating up on the EU’s smaller members.  Annoying.  But in the end, risible and pathetic.

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November 18, 2018

File Under “Duh”

Filed under: Climate Change,Economics,Energy,Politics,Regulation — cpirrong @ 7:25 pm

The IEA points out the obvious:

Driving electric cars and scrapping your natural gas-fired boiler won’t make a dent in global carbon emissions, and may even increase pollution levels.

Higher electrification may lead to oil demand peaking by 2030, but any reduction in emissions from the likes of electric vehicles will be offset by the increased use of power plants to charge them, according to the International Energy Agency’s annual World Energy Outlook, which plots different scenarios of future energy use.

Substitution electrical motors for internal combustion engines involves a substitution of one fossil fuel for another?  Who knew?  WHY WASN’T I TOLD????

Further, especially when it comes to countries outside the EU, Canada, and the US, this will result in a substitution towards coal, electrification will involve a substitution of higher-CO2 intensive fuel (coal) for lower CO2-intensive fuel.

But, but, but . . . renewables! Right?

Of course, Bloomberg feels obliged to quote a green fantasist:

“Electrification is a necessary part of deep decarbonization because it is relatively easy to decarbonize the power sector,” said Lauri Myllyvirta, a senior analyst at Greenpeace’s air pollution unit. “But electrification only helps if the power sector moves rapidly towards zero emissions.”

Zero emissions power sector.  “Relatively easy to decarbonize.”  Apparently, Greenpeace does not require drug tests.  Or perhaps, they do, but if you test negative you’re fired.

What is the cost of zero emissions power sector? (Anything is “easy” if cost is no object.)  Even far smaller renewable penetration (Denmark, Germany, California) results in substantially higher electricity costs.  Costs which fall extremely regressively, especially if implemented no a global basis, but upper middle class types who populate Greenpeace and Green Parties etc. couldn’t be bothered thinking about that.

Furthermore, there is no proof that renewables scale, and indeed,  basic considerations and basic economics strongly suggest they will not and cannot.  Renewables are diffuse and intermittent, and as a result maintaining reliability is costly, and this cost increases at an increasing rate the larger the share of renewables in the generation mix.

But, but, but . . . . batteries!

Batteries have been the subject of intense research for decades, and costs are falling, but again there are serious doubts that they can scale sufficiently to make zero emissions power even remotely attainable.  Indeed, batteries perhaps can handle diurnal variations in renewable power production, but handling the massive seasonal fluctuations in power demand is another matter altogether.

Further, from a lifecycle perspective, it is by no means clear that electric vehicles reduce CO2 emissions.  What’s more, the monomaniacal focus on CO2 ignores the other environmental and economic consequences of renewables generation, including profligate use of land, blended birds, the pollution created by extraction of minerals used in batteries and motors, and the pollution caused by the disposal thereof.

These issues always bring to mind James Scott’s Seeing Like a State, which shows that “high modernist” projects envisioned by alleged elites invariably result in catastrophe because they inevitably impose simplistic, low-dimension measures on complex, high-dimension systems.  Unintended consequences usually strike with a vengeance, and even the intended consequences fail to materialize.

The massive re-engineering of society required to de-carbonize is in many ways the zenith of high modernism, and is destined to produce a nadir of consequences, even compared to some of the other disasters that Scott examines.

The IEA’s caution should be heeded.  But it will not be.  Those Who Know Better will plunge ahead, until it becomes clear that they in fact know very little about what they imagine to design.  Alas, they will not bear the costs of their conceit.  The Lesser Thans will, and the lesser you are, the greater the costs will be.


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November 17, 2018

Read Financial Journalism For the Facts, Not the Analysis

Filed under: Commodities,Derivatives,Economics,Energy — cpirrong @ 7:19 pm

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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November 14, 2018

Return of the Widowmaker–The Theory of Storage in Action

Filed under: Commodities,Derivatives,Economics,Energy — cpirrong @ 7:37 pm

I’m old enough to remember when natural gas futures–and the March-April spread in particular–were known as the widowmakers.  The volatility in the flat price and especially the spread could crush you in an instant if you were caught on the wrong side of one of the big movements.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There will be a test.  Math will be involved.

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October 18, 2018

Ticked Off About Spoofing? Consider This

Filed under: Commodities,Derivatives,Economics,Exchanges,Politics,Regulation — cpirrong @ 6:51 pm

An email from a legal academic in response to yesterday’s post spurred a few additional thoughts re spoofing.

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

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

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

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

This has a variety of implications.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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October 17, 2018

The Harm of a Spoof: $60 Million? More Like $10 Thousand

Filed under: Commodities,Derivatives,Economics,Exchanges,Regulation — cpirrong @ 4:08 pm

My eyes popped out when I read this statement regarding the DOJ’s recent criminal indictment (which resulted in some guilty pleas) for spoofing in the S&P 500 futures market:

Market participants that traded futures contracts in these three markets while the spoof orders distorted market prices incurred market losses of over $60 million.

$60 million in market losses–big number! For spoofing! How did they come up with that?

The answer is embarrassing, and actually rather disgusting.

The DOJ simply calculated the notional value of the contracts that were traded pursuant to the alleged spoofing scheme.  They took the S&P 500 futures price (e.g., 1804.50), multiplied that by the dollar value of a price point ($50), and multiplied that by the “approximate number of fraudulent orders placed” (e.g., 400).

So the defendants traded futures contracts with a notional value of approximately $60+ million.  For the DOJ to say that anyone “incurred market losses of over $60 million” based on this calculation is complete and utter bollocks.  Indeed, if someone touted that their trading system earned market profits of $60 million based on such a calculation in order to get business from the gullible, I daresay the DOJ and SEC would prosecute them for fraud.

This exaggeration is of a piece with the Sarao indictment, which claimed that his spoofing caused the Flash Crash.

And of course the financial press credulously regurgitated the number the DOJ put out.

I know why DOJ does this–it makes the crime look big and important, and likely matters in sentencing.  But quite frankly, it is a lie to claim that this number accurately represents in any way, shape, or form the economic harm caused by spoofing.

This gets to the entire issue of who is damaged by spoofing, and how.  Does spoofing induce someone to cross the spread and incur the bid/ask, who would otherwise not have entered an aggressive order?  Does it cause someone to cancel a limit order, and therefore lose the opportunity to trade against an aggressive order and thereby earn the spread (the realized spread, not the quoted spread, in order to account for losses to better-informed traders)?

Those are realistic theories of harm, and they imply that the economic harm per contract is on the order of a tick in a liquid market like the ES.  That is, per contract executed as a result of the spoof, the damage is .25 (the tick size) times $50 (the value of an S&P point).  That is, a whopping $12.50.  So, pace the DOJ, the ~800 “fraudulent orders placed caused economic harm of about 10,000 bucks, not 60 mil.  Maybe $20,000, under the theory that in a particular spoof, someone lost from crossing the spread, and someone else lost out on the opportunity to earn the spread.  (Though interestingly, from a social perspective, that is a transfer not a true loss.)

But $10,000 or $20,000 looks rather pathetic, compared to say $60 million, doesn’t it?  What’s three orders of magnitude between friends, eh?

Yes, maybe the DOJ just included a few episodes in the indictment, because that is sufficient for a criminal prosecution and conviction.  But even a lot more of such episodes does not add up to a lot of money.

This is precisely why I find the expenditure of substantial resources to prosecute spoofing to be so dubious.  There is other financial market wrongdoing that is far more harmful, which often escapes prosecution.  Furthermore, efficient punishment should be sized to the harm.  People pay huge fines, and go to jail–for years–for spoofing.  That punishment is hugely disproportionate to the loss, under the theory of harm that I advance here.  So spoofing is over-deterred.

Perhaps there are other theories of harm that justify the severe punishments for spoofing.  If so, I’d like to hear them–I haven’t yet.

These spoofing prosecutions appear to be a case of the drunk looking for his wallet (or a scalp) under the lamppost, because the light is better there.  In the electronic trading era, spoofing is possible–and relatively cheap to detect ex post.  So just trawl through the trading data for evidence of spoofing, and voila!–a criminal prosecution is likely to appear.  A lot easier than prosecuting market power manipulations that can cause nine and ten figure market losses.  (For an example of the DOJ’s haplessness in a prosecution of that kind of case, see US v. Radley.)

Spoofing is the kind of activity that is well within the competence of exchanges to detect and punish using their ordinary disciplinary procedures.  There’s no need to make a federal case out of it–literally.

The time should fit the crime.  The Department of Justice wildly exaggerates the crime of spoofing in order to rationalize the time.  This is inefficient, and well, just plain unjust.

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October 6, 2018

Net Neutrality: (More) Supercilious Twaddle From the FT

Filed under: Economics,Politics,Regulation — cpirrong @ 5:59 pm

This piece by John Thornhill on net neutrality epitomizes why I despise pretty much any opinion piece in the FT: it oozes pompous stupidity:

In a world that corresponds to economists’ assumptions of perfect competition and rational actors, we would not need net neutrality rules. But until that happy day arrives and goodwill, peace, and free chocolate ice-cream descend upon the earth, then we should defend this necessary principle.

And a bit later:

It is better to enforce equal access with some exemptions, as in India, than to allow a handful of ISPs to discriminate between users in far-from-perfect markets. [Emphasis added.]

There’s a name for this particular foolishness–“the Nirvana fallacy”–coined by the great Harold Demsetz almost 50 years ago:

The view that now pervades much public policy economics implicitly presents the relevant choice as between an ideal norm and an existing “imperfect” institutional arrangement. This nirvana approach differs considerably from a comparative institution approach in which the relevant choice is between alternative real institutional arrangements.

Perhaps there was an excuse for falling for the fallacy in 1969.  But decades post-Demsetz, it is embarrassing to see someone proudly flaunting the fallacy on the pink pages of the FT.

Perfection is not an option in this fallen world.  One has to make choices between flawed alternatives–that’s what Harold meant by “a comparative institution approach.”  What is particular bizarre is that in the paragraph just preceding what I quoted, Thornhill seems to understand this:

In truth, the arguments over net neutrality involve complex trade-offs and are a matter of broader societal choice. But that public debate is often based on partial information, corrupted by corporate lobbying, and mangled by dysfunctional political systems.

But never mind that! This particular regulation–which is certainly based on “based on partial information, corrupted by corporate lobbying [e.g., by those paragons of virtue Facebook, Google, Twitter, Netflix] and mangled by dysfunctional political systems”–is preferred to alternatives, because the alternatives are imperfect.  To call this a non sequitur hardly does it justice.

It is also amusing to see India–which has a dismal history of regulatory failure–held up as some paragon.  Absent some assertion that this is the exception that proves the rule, India’s adoption of net neutrality should be taken as more of a warning than an exemplar.

This is all twaddle.  And supercilious twaddle at that.

And that, my friends, is the FT in a nutshell.


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September 26, 2018

We’re From the International Maritime Organization, and We’re Here to Help You: The Perverse Economics of New Maritime Fuel Standards

Filed under: Climate Change,Commodities,Economics,Energy,Politics,Regulation — cpirrong @ 6:26 pm

This Bloomberg piece from last month claims that the International Maritime Organization’s looming 2020 caps on sulfur emissions from ships “could lift crude prices by $4 a barrel when the measures come into effect in 2020.”

Not so fast.  It depends on what you mean by “crude.”  According to the International Oil Handbook, there are 195 different streams of crude oil.  Crucially, the sulfur content of these crudes varies from basically zero to 5.9 percent.  There is no such thing the price of “crude,” in other words.

The IMO regulation will have different impacts on different crudes.  It will no doubt cause the spread between sweet and sour crudes to widen.  This happened in 2008, when European regulation mandating low sulfur diesel kicked in: this regulation contributed to the spike in benchmark Brent and WTI prices, and wide spreads in crude prices.  During this time, (if memory serves) 10 VLCCs full of Iranian crude were swinging at anchor while WTI and Brent prices were screaming higher and sweet crude inventories were plunging precisely due to the fact that the regulation increased the demand for sweet crude and depressed demand for heavier, more sour varieties.

The IMO regulation will definitely reduce the demand for crude oil overall.   The demand for crude is derived from the demand for fuels, notably transportation fuels.  The regulation increases the cost of some transportation fuels, which decreases the (derived) demand for crude.  This change will not be distributed evenly, with demand for light, sweet crudes actually increasing, but demand for sour crudes falling, with the fall being bigger, the more sour the crude.

The regulation will hit ship operators hard, and they will pass on the higher cost to shippers.  In the short run, carriers will eat some of the cost–perhaps the bulk of it.  But the long run supply elasticity of shipping is large (arguably close to perfectly elastic), meaning after fleet size adjusts shippers will bear the brunt.

The burden will fall heaviest on commodities, for which shipping cost is large relative to value.  Therefore, farmers and miners will receive lower prices, and consumers will pay higher prices for commodity-intensive goods.  Further, this regulatory tax will be highly regressive, falling on relatively low income individuals, who pay a higher share of their income on such goods.

This seems to be a case of almost all pain, little gain.  The ostensible purpose of the regulation is to reduce pollution from sulfur emissions.  Yes, ships will produce less such emissions, but due to the joint product nature of refined petroleum, overall sulfur emissions will fall far less.

Many ships currently use “bottom of the barrel” fuel oil that tend to be higher in sulfur.  Many will achieve compliance by shifting to middle distillates.  But the bottom of the barrel won’t go away.  Over the medium to longer term, refineries will make investments that allow them to squeeze more middle distillates out of a barrel of crude, or to remove some sulfur, but inevitably refineries will produce some low-quality, high sulfur products: the sulfur has to go somewhere.  This is inherent in the joint nature of fuel production.

And yes, there will be some adjustments on the crude supply side, with the differential between sweet and sour crude favoring production of the former over the latter.   But sour crudes will be produced, and new discoveries of sour crude will be developed.

Meaning that although consumption of high sulfur fuels by ships will go down, since (a) in equilibrium consumption equals production, and (b) due to the joint nature of production the output of high sulfur fuels will go down less than its consumption by ships does, someone will consume most of the fuel oil that ships no longer used.  And since someone is consuming it, they will emit the sulfur.

The most likely (near term) use of fuel oil is for power generation.  The Saudis are planning to ramp up the use of 3.5 percent sulfur fuel oil to generate power for AC and desalinization.  Other relatively poor countries (e.g., Bangladesh, Pakistan) are also likely to have an appetite for cheap high sulfur fuel oil to generate electricity.

The ultimate result will be a regulation that basically shifts who produces the sulfur emissions, with a far smaller impact on the total amount of emissions.

This represents a tragic–and classic–example of a regulation imposed on a segment of a larger market.  The pernicious effects of such a narrow regulation are particularly acute in oil, due to the joint nature of production.

Given the efficiency and distributive effects of the IMO, it is almost certainly not a second best policy.  Indeed, it is more likely to be a second worst policy.  Or maybe a first worst policy: doing nothing at all is arguably better.


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