Streetwise Professor

April 10, 2019

Trump’s Energy Infrastructure Executive Order: A Constructive Use of Federal Power, Consonant With the Purpose of the Constitution

Filed under: Climate Change,Economics,Energy,Politics,Regulation — cpirrong @ 7:31 pm

Trump just departed from Ellington Joint Reserve Base here in Houston, ending a quick trip to Texas which included a rally in Houston. The focus of Trump’s visit was the US energy sector (In Texas? Go figure!). As part of that, he announced and signed an executive order limiting the power of states to block or obstruct the construction of interstate oil and gas pipelines.

Overall, I’m not a fan of executive orders, as they tend to be used to override or circumvent normal Constitutional procedures and purposes. There is a strong argument, however, that this order is an exception.

The very genesis of the Constitution traces to commercial disputes between states under the Articles of Confederation. Contention between Virginia and Maryland over navigation of the Potomac and the Chesapeake resulted in the calling of the Annapolis Convention (formally The Meeting of Commissioners to Remedy Defects of the Federal Government) in 1786. Although the Convention itself was something of a damp squid, it did result in the calling of the Philadelphia Convention of 1787, which wrote the Constitution that continues to be the law of the land to this day, 232 years later.

Of course, one part of that document is the Commerce Clause (Article I, Section 8, Clause 3) which grants to the Federal government the power to regulate commerce between the states. This was not an accident, comrades. Preventing protectionism by the states against each other was one of the main reasons for creating a more powerful central government.

State governments always have the temptation and incentive to favor their own constituents at the expense of people in other states. Letting that impulse operate freely would result in a Balkanized country with myriad wasteful restrictions, taxes, tolls, and regulations that would sap wealth. (Consider pre-Revolutionary France, with its oppressive system of local tolls on the movement of goods.) Anticipating that, the Founders expressly sought to limit the protectionist powers of states.

In Gibbons v. Ogden (1824) the Marshall court forcefully exerted the Commerce Clause. Things have likely gone too far since: for example, the Commerce Clause’s delegation of authority over navigable waters to the US government has been pushed to the extreme by using it to impose Federal environmental regulation on an intermittent wet spot on your back 40.

But what Trump is ordering is clearly within the four corners of the Clause as originally conceived. Oil and gas are produced in some states, and consumed in others. Interstate movement is necessary to connect producers and consumers. Further, for myriad motives many states have attempted to obstruct that movement. That is not, and has not been since the formation of the Republic, their prerogative.

The case can be made that the Commerce Clause has proved a Trojan Horse that has facilitated an expansion of Federal power beyond that what the Founders envisioned. But what Trump is ordering is squarely within the intent of the Clause, as drafted and intended.

The dramatic growth in US energy production is being hampered by infrastructure constraints. For many, that is a feature, not a bug: the hostility towards fossil fuel energy in particular by many in the US, especially on the left, makes such infrastructure a schwerpunkt for environmentalists. Knock out the transit links between producers and consumers, and energy will be neither produced nor consumed. They often find it easier to focus their efforts on state and local governments because (a) they are often more biddable, and (b) since you only need to prevail in one or two to delay or derail altogether a pipeline moving across many, the odds of success are higher. (If there are N jurisdictions crossed by a pipeline, and the probability of getting a jurisdiction to block it is P, the probability that it will go through is (1-P)^N, which decreases with N.)

Yes, local communities do have concerns. The question is what is the appropriate remedy for them. A properly applied Takings Clause (with payment of true value for taken property) is one: it prevents subsidization through expropriation. Insofar as environmental issues are concerned, the question is whether ex ante restrictions (i.e., imposing high standards to permit construction) are better than ex post penalties for damage imposed (which provide an incentive for infrastructure operators to take precautions against damage).

Since infrastructure operators are well-capitalized, and unlikely to be judgment proof, and since there are armies of class action attorneys waiting in the wings salivating at the opportunity to sue for damages, ex post penalties are likely to be more efficient than ex ante restrictions, especially ex ante restrictions imposed by state and local governments who internalize the benefits they obtain for their constituents, but who do not internalize the costs that they impose on producers upstream or consumers downstream.

And this is not to say that the Federal government is inevitably predisposed to efficient outcomes. Look no further than the previous administration, which largely embraced the environmentalist hostility to domestic energy development, and which as a consequence used its powers to thwart some important infrastructure developments (e.g., Keystone, which would have proven especially valuable in light of the loss of heavy crude production in Venezuela and to a lesser degree Mexico). So Federal power can be exercised for good or ill when it comes to energy infrastructure. Trump’s order is an example of it being exercised for the good of energy consumers and producers.

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April 8, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ISDA has again stepped in, and implemented some changes:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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April 7, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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March 26, 2019

The NYT Figures Out That Putin Is Not An Omnipotent Dr. Evil. Well, I Guess 12 Years Late Is Better Than Never.

Filed under: Economics,History,Politics,Russia — cpirrong @ 6:35 pm

The image of Vladimir Putin as an all-powerful mastermind was central to the Russia Collusion Hoax. In this telling, the omnipotent and omnipresent Vova, secure in his lair in Moscow, could manipulate at will the electoral process in the most powerful country in history. His power, devious intelligence, and malign purpose made it especially reprehensible and dangerous for Trump to collude with him, and the image of the Putin evil mastermind made collusion with him a grave threat to the republic, in a way totally different from, say, assorted Chinese boodlers boosting Bill Clinton.

The entire Russian Collusion Hoax was farcical to me from the beginning, and this grotesque exaggeration of Putin’s power and influence was the most farcical part of the charade. It was particularly annoying to hear about it from idiots who hadn’t paid the slightest bit of attention to Russia since, well, ever, and who when they did weigh in on Russia it was to slam Mitt Romney for calling it a threat, and to chortle at Obama’s snarky response to Romney’s alarums.

Put simply, most of these people who have been running around with their hair on fire about Russia since, come to think of it, the minute that Hillary conceded defeat and needed an excuse, couldn’t find the place on a map, despite the fact it is the biggest country on earth. But all of a sudden they were experts on all things Putin and all things Russia.

Perhaps in a signal to the hysterics that they should back off, the NYT ran an oped titled “How Powerful is Putin Really?” The answer: pretty much the same one I gave 12 plus years ago, and repeatedly–not very. Because Russia is not that powerful, and because Putin’s main role is to be an intermediary in wars between completing clans in the security forces and business, rather than to be a grandmaster moving inanimate chess pieces around the board.

This is comic gold:

The gulf between what Mr. Putin says and what happens in Russia raises a fundamental question about the nature of his rule after more than 18 years at the pinnacle of an authoritarian system: Is Mr. Putin really the omnipotent leader whom his critics attack and his own propagandists promote? Or does he sit atop a state that is, in fact, shockingly ramshackle, a system driven more by the capricious and often venal calculations of competing bureaucracies and interest groups than by Kremlin diktats?

I won’t keep you in suspense as to the answer. Hell, if you have been reading here anytime since around 2007, you know the answer. But then again, if you read me you probably haven’t been drinking the NYT Kool-aid, and won’t need them to tell you the answer 12 years too late.

If you read the rest of the article, you will see a description that echoes exactly the one I first applied to Russia in April, 2007: “a natural state.” As I quoted North, Weingast, and Wallis:

natural state is a specific way of structuring political and economic systems so that the economic rents created by limited entry are available to secure credible commitments among politically powerful groups. Potential rivals in a natural state stop fighting (or fight less when the economic rents they enjoy depend on continued existence of the sate and of social order. Natural states limit economic entry to create rents and then use those rents to credibly commit powerful groups to support the state. In other words, natural states use the economic system as a tool to solidify the stability of the ruling coalition.

I also quoted Celeste Wallander:

Patrimonial authoritarianism is a political system based on holding power in order to create, access, and distribute rents. It is well known that Russia is deeply corrupt, but corruption in the Russian system of patrimonial authoritarianism is not merely a feature of the system; it is essential to the very functioning of political power. The political system is based on the political control of economic resources in order to enrich those within patron-client clans. The patron remains in power by rewarding clients, and the clients are rewarded by supporting their patron. The patron requires support from his clients, and he must access and distribute rents for that support. Without the creation and control of rents, political power disappears. At the top of the political system, Putin manages relations among competing patron-client clans headed by top government and business figures, such as Development and Trade Minister German Gref, Deputy Prime Minister and Gazprom chairman Dmitry Medvedev, Gazprom president Alexei Miller, and Igor Sechin, deputy head of the presidential administration and chairman of Rosneft. Each of these individuals in turn has his own set of clients, who are in turn patrons of their own clans, and so on, creating a complex web of relationships that sustain political power and distribute patronage rents.

The basic point of the analysis was that of course someone like Putin is powerful within such a system, but he is not all powerful. Further, his power derives from his ability to intermediate between independent sources of power within Russia. The main purpose of the state in Russia is to organize theft, and divide the spoils. The main purpose of Putin is to keep that process from devolving into violent chaos.

Put differently, I’ve often emphasized the deinstitutionalized, highly personalized nature of the Russian state. The personalism is a bug, not a feature, and inherently limits the power of the person at the top. It is a great mistake to confuse the prominence of the public face of a shambolic state with actual power. Institutions are necessary to generate national power, either domestically or abroad. The power of deinstitutionalized state is inherently constrained.

But especially post-8 November, 2016, the left and the media and Hillary needed a figure to personify evil, and to tie him to Trump, so the reality of Russia and Putin and Putinism–which is pretty plain to see if you actually look–was deliberately ignored, and in its place our “elite” became fixated on a cartoonish Dr. Evil figure in a way that would make the most crazed 1950s Bircher blush.

These are people who fell for the scary wizard and his pyrotechnics, and paid no attention to the little man behind the curtain. Some because they were fools. Some–the worst of them, and the most powerful–because it advanced their political agenda.

So I say to the NYT: Bravo! Better 12 years late then never! But this should be a lesson: don’t pay the slightest bit of attention to those Bozos, because their news and editorial “judgments” are driven by a political and ideological bias that is impervious to readily observable realities.

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March 25, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Triple tap. Even more impressive!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Who knew?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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March 20, 2019

Leader of the Free World–Correction, Leader of the Free Loaders–Is Up to Its Old Tricks

Filed under: Economics,Military,Politics — cpirrong @ 8:18 pm

Germany announced that because its economy has the sniffles or something, not only can’t it meet its commitment to spend 2 pct of GDP on defense, it won’t meet it’s halfway house commitment of 1.5 percent. (Snicker. I said “Germany” and “commitment” in the same sentence. I’m so funny.)

This was widely reported as another German rebuke to the Bad Orange Man. Because of course expecting someone to live up to commitments made when nobody even dreamed the Bad Orange Man would be president is totally outrageous.

The US ambassador to Germany, the openly gay Richard Grenell (whut? The outrageous homophobe Trump appointed a gay guy to be ambassador?) called out Germany on defense spending, and on Nordstream II too. Which caused a meltdown in Berlin. The deputy chairman of the ostensibly conservative Free Democrats called for Grenell’s recall, harrumphing that “Any US diplomat who acts like a high commissioner of an occupying power must learn that our tolerance also knows its limits.” The caucus manager of the almost-commies (aka the SDP) chimed in: “Mr Grenell is a complete diplomatic failure.”

I say that if they are going to bitch about being occupied, let’s give them something to bitch about, and occupy the bastards for real. They obviously didn’t learn their lesson the last time.

I figure that given the abjectly pathetic state of the German military, the relatively modest US forces there (augmented by this contingent) could wrap up the job in short order. The main problem would be processing all the POWs. After all, this is a country in which 17 percent–17 percent!–of the population says that they would fight to defend their country: this is the lowest rate in Europe, except for the Dutch who weigh in at 15 percent. So resistance is likely to be light. Cheese eating surrender monkeys?–bah! Schnitzel eating surrender monkeys will put them in the shade.

Just to rub it in, I suggest that we invite the Poles to participate. Maybe the Israelis too. See how Fritz likes his own medicine from those he gave it to in years past.

As I’ve said ad nauseum, it’s beyond annoying for the Germans to squeal like stuck pigs at being criticized for failing to live up to their commitments to joint defense, given their pretensions to be leaders of not just Europe, but the free world in the era of the Bad Orange Man. So Grenell should redouble his efforts and make them squeal even more.

And what is the point of providing for the common defense of a nation whose people can’t even be bothered to defend themselves–and admit it (i.e., the 17 percent number cited above)?

Bismarck once said that the Balkans were not worth the bones of one Pomeranian grenadier. Germans now think that Germany is not worth the bones of one Pomeranian grenadier. So why should they be worth the bones of a single American grunt?

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March 11, 2019

Another Data Point on the Renewables Fairy Tale

Filed under: Climate Change,Economics,Energy,Politics,Regulation — cpirrong @ 7:39 pm

A coda to yesterday’s post. The EIA announced that in 2018 60 percent of new US electricity generating capacity was fueled by natural gas. This outstripped wind by a factor of almost 3, and solar by a factor of almost 5.

But those ratios understate matters, given that capacity factors for natural gas are about double those for renewables. Thus, in terms of actual real generation, natural gas added about four times as much effective capacity in 2018 as renewables. Not to mention that combined cycle plants are available pretty much on demand, rain or shine, day or night. Unlike the wind and the sun.

This despite the continued subsidization of renewables.

So tell me again how renewables will permit the fossil fuel-free electrification of the economy. I like fairy tales.

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March 10, 2019

Died of a Theory: Green Edition

Filed under: Climate Change,Economics,Energy,Politics — cpirrong @ 6:19 pm

Natural gas has a lot going for it, especially as a fuel for electricity generation and home heating. It is low-carbon, as compared to coal and petroleum. It is also clean burning, producing less particulates than competitor fuels. It does not require extensive (and polluting) refining, like oil. It is increasingly abundant, and hence becoming cheaper, due to technological innovations like fracking. Liquefaction makes intercontinental trade feasible, breaking the previous barrier between production and consumption regions, and allowing more people to realize the benefits of gas. What’s not to like?

Short answer, according to environmentalists: it is a fossil fuel, and therefore it must die.

It is bad enough that there are concerted efforts underway to replace it with renewables for the generation of electricity. There is also a push to eliminate it as a home heating fuel, and replacing it with . . . electricity, generated by yet more renewables. That is, simultaneously to replace NG in electricity generation with renewables, and to increase the demand for electricity . . . to be produced with even more renewables. (Not to mention the desire to eliminate the internal combustion engine, and rely on electric automobiles and trucks.) All without any apparent thought to whether renewables actually scale (putting aside that they are already more costly than conventional fuels at their current scale).

The defects of wind and solar as power sources, especially for reliable baseload power, are manifest. They are diffuse and intermittent. Not a good combination where demand is geographically concentrated, and highly regular. Someday battery storage might mitigate this problem, but that day is a long, long way away Throw in the complexity of the electricity grid, i.e., the need for supply to match demand exactly at all times, and intermittency becomes eve more of a nightmare.

Further, the factors that drive electricity demand (temperature extremes) are often negatively correlated with renewables production. Supply negatively correlated with demand–Not a good thing! Using electricity for home heating will only exacerbate this problem: the wind often does not blow when it is extremely cold, which is when you might want to have the heat in your home working.

Renewables do not scale well–diminishing returns are inherent to renewables production. The footprint of wind and solar operations is huge, and increasing output by X percent requires more than X percent more land because developers locate facilities in the most favorable places first, and can only expand into progressively less windy/sunny locations. Moreover, pesky physical laws, like the First Law of Thermodynamics, lead to decreasing returns to scale. Downwind expansion is less efficient because existing upwind operations reduce the available energy in the wind. Renewables sprawl is not yet a thing, but if some people’s wishes come true, it will be.

Where the wind blows and sun shines does not match where power demand is. So substituting renewables for conventional or nuclear generation requires more transmission–which, perversely, environmentalists can be counted on to oppose.

It is not an accident, then, that the greater the reliance on renewables, the higher the cost of electricity. The diminishing returns inherent in renewables production mean that green dreams to reduce conventionally-fueled electricity supply while increasing electricity demand (not just in home heating, but in transportation) will make it even more expensive still (as these push us further up a likely very steep average cost curve).

Renewables have only penetrated to the extent that they have due to extensive subsidization. Which just means that the costs get shoved elsewhere.

It is perversely ironic that many of those who push the green agenda also claim to be deeply concerned about the poor–and yeah, I’m looking at you AOC, and the rest of the Green New Deal advocates. With friends like you, the poor don’t need enemies. They consume a far higher fraction of their income in the form of energy (both directly, and indirectly through goods like food) than the better-thans who claim to be their champions, and hence will suffer disproportionately from higher energy costs. And the poorer the person, the more they will suffer. This is not complicated.

When you get down to it, not only is the watermelon crowd completely unhinged from basic physical and economic reality, it is profoundly anti-human. Achieving their utopia requires that there be fewer humans, and that those humans whom they deign to let live be much poorer.

I wouldn’t mind so much if they did they put their beliefs that there are too many humans consuming too much stuff into action by offing themselves. Be a good example! Take one for the team! But no. They’d much rather volunteer you–or more accurately, the poorest among us–for death and poverty.

I’ve used the Jefferson Davis quote about his suggested epitaph for the Confederacy–“Died of a Theory”–on many occasions. It is sickly fitting in this context too, but worse in a way. Because it won’t be those pushing the theory who perish literally or politically (as was the case with States Rights fanatics 1860-1865). It will be those whom they claim to be helping.

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March 9, 2019

The Laundromat That Reveals Just How Dirty–and Doomed–Russia Is

Filed under: Economics,Politics,Russia — cpirrong @ 7:10 pm

The Troika Laundromat–a massive money laundering operation organized by the eponymous Russian investment bank–has been much in the news of late. Most of the coverage has focused on the western banks–including several in supposedly squeaky clean Nordic countries–that were the conduits for the money. But what is far more interesting to me about the story is what it says about Russia, and in particular how it illustrates with particular force what started me writing about Russia 12+ years ago.

Specifically, as a lower middle income country, with an educated populace and abundant natural resources, Russia should be a magnet for capital. Instead, it is one of the world’s all time greatest capital repellants. They say what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas: obviously, what is made in Moscow (and elsewhere in Russia) doesn’t stay, but gets out any way that it can.

So what overwhelms the forces that would otherwise draw capital to Russia?: the state, and the culture that supports it, and which it sustains. The predatory nature of the state, the predators the state protects, and the lack of basic legal protections make money vastly safer outside of Russia than in it. Put differently, although Russia is rich in human capital and resource capital, it is tragically poor in social capital. It is a low trust society, and one in which formal institutions do not compensate for the lack of trust, but exacerbate it.

Putinism has done nothing to encourage investment in social capital–the opposite is true. Yes, it arguably tamed the greatest excesses of the 90s, but this was essentially a matter of replacing roving bandits with a stationary bandit. An improvement, but hardly a launchpad for social and economic development.

This is a major reason why I consider all of the hyperventilating about the threat posed by Putin and Russia to be vastly exaggerated. It can raise Cain in its neighborhood, but beyond that the country suffers from debilitating weaknesses which are unlikely to change anytime soon. For all Putin’s strutting domestically, and on the world stage, to say that he (and Russia) have feet of clay is an extreme understatement. This is a country that is already far behind, and is doomed to fall even further behind with every passing year.

All the laundromats in the world cannot wash away that reality. Indeed, they are symptomatic of how filthy that reality is.

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Message to Merkel: Merging Two Piles of Manure Does Not Improve the Smell

Filed under: Economics,Politics,Regulation — cpirrong @ 5:29 pm

Reuters reports that Deutsche Bank and Commerzbank have begun merger talks. The German government has been pushing for such a merger. In part, Berlin is hot for a combination because it wants to create a “national banking champion”:

And as Mr Scholz and Mr Kukies’ clandestine London meetings show, the idea is now gaining traction in Berlin. Policymakers and corporate bosses see a stable national banking champion as the backbone of their export-led industrial policy, vital if the country is to weather the next downturn that many economists warn looms large.

This is hilarious and infuriating on so many levels.

First. Hmmm. “National champion” sounds kinda, uhm, I dunno, nationalist, doesn’t it? And Frau Merkel keeps telling us only bad people are nationalists, and nationalists are bad people.

Again–German hypocrisy knows no bounds.

Second, by what financial alchemy does merging two horribly underperforming banks create anything of championship caliber, unless you mean a national champion clusterf*ck? Both banks are priced at a huge discount to book–for good reason. Both have returns on equity that are at the bottom of league tables. Merging two manure piles will not improve the smell.

Further, Deutsche Bank in particular is already a bloated monstrosity. Successive CEOs have failed to rationalize it. Every merger faces huge integration challenges, which would only complicate the task of rationalizing and downsizing DB.

Moreover, Deutsche Bank is already a huge systemic risk, given its size and dodgy balance sheet. Mashing it together with Commerzbank will only increase its systemic importance, and its complexity, and hence its systemic risk.

And this is yet more hypocrisy: the Germans are always lecturing everyone (especially the Italians and Greeks) about financial imprudence, and the risks that they impose on Germany. Speak for yourself, Fritz. DB is the poster child for financial imprudence. So why not make it bigger? What could possibly go wrong?

Maybe sanity will prevail, and the merger will not go through. But the very fact that it is being thought of, and indeed pushed by the German government, tells you everything you need to know about how hypocritical, and how clueless, the German government is.

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