Streetwise Professor

February 20, 2019

Is Ivan Glasenberg Playing B’rer Rabbit?

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

In the folk tale about B’rer Rabbit and the Tar Baby, the trapped trickster bunny is at the mercy of B’rer Fox. The Fox debates ways to dispose of the Rabbit–hanging, drowning, burning–and the Rabbit pleads to do any of those things–just don’t throw him into the briar patch. Falling for the reverse psychology, B’rer Fox hurls B’rer Rabbit into the supposedly dreaded briars, after which B’rer Rabbit says: “Born and bred in the briar patch. Born and bred!”

Yesterday mining behemoth Glencore announced that it would cap coal output at 150 million tons per year, claiming that the cap was an acknowledgement of the threat of global warming. Various activists claimed vindication and victory.

Might I offer a more cynical explanation? Getting thrown into the output limitation briar patch is exactly what B’rer Glasenberg wants. A firm exercises market power by limiting output to raise price: global warming gives Glencore an elite-blessed excuse to limit output, i.e., exercise market power. It will be especially beneficial for Glencore if other coal producers are stampeded into cutting output too.

Indeed, you know how this will play out. The activists will now descend on the other producers, holding up Glencore as a shining progressive example. Some, perhaps most, and maybe even all, will capitulate, further increasing prices.

And Glencore/B’rer Glasenberg will laugh all the way to the bank.

As an aside, this is an interesting illustration of the theory of the second best. In a world without any distortions, an exercise of market power is a bad thing–it reduces welfare. But in a world with other distortions, an exercise of market power can enhance efficiency.

If due to an externality, coal output in a competitive industry is too large, the exercise of market power mitigates the effect of the externality.

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February 19, 2019

Whoops, They Did It Again

Filed under: Economics,Politics,Russia — cpirrong @ 7:27 pm

An American investor, Michael Calvey of Baring Vostok, has been arrested for fraud in Russia. It has been some time since something like this has happened, a fact that has been attributed to Putin’s direction that business disputes should not result in the imprisonment of any of the disputants. But when it comes to westerners, it just may be the case that there aren’t many of them around to be arrested.

The FT article reports a stunning statistic that speaks to this point. Foreign direct investment, which totaled $79 billion before Putin’s glorious triumph in Crimea, had fallen to $27 billion by 2017 . . . and a pathetic $1.9 billion in 2018. Less FDI, fewer foreign direct investors–and hence fewer to arrest.

Between sanctions, and the stultified (and risky–financially and personally) economic environment in Russia, foreigners have finally wised up. Once upon a time, the returns looked very appealing, and many were willing to take the plunge. Well, the returns were high for a reason–they were compensation for risk of expropriation, sometimes facilitated by, er “legal” means. And evidently, most have decided that the rewards don’t justify the risk.

I have some sympathy for Calvey, but not a great deal. He assumed a known risk, presumably thinking he would be able to manage it–or perhaps foolisly assuming that Putin really cared about trying to create a more hospitable investment environment. Further, no doubt that anyone who swam in those waters for as long as he did had more than a little shark in him.

The FT article is titled “Calvey’s arrest sends chills through Russia’s foreign investors.” To which I say: what foreign investors? The article includes this quote:


A person close to the Vostochny dispute said: “This is transformative. This kills FDI stone dead forever . . . This sends the message, can you use the security services against your business rivals over a few million dollars? Yes, you can.”

But (see above) FDI is already as dead as Monty Python’s parrot, and there was virtually no prospect for resurrection. As for sending a message: uhm, if you hadn’t gotten this message by now, you are a little slow on the uptake. A decade plus slow.

And that’s likely why Putin has said and done nothing about this. Kudrin may think this is “an emergency for the economy,” but Putin almost certainly recognizes that Kudrin is living in the past, and that the parrot is indeed dead.

Moreover, the last thing he would do now is take any action that would give the impression that he is kowtowing to the West. His political persona is now heavily invested in the image of a strong Russian leader standing up against a West–and an America in particular–that desires to subjugate Russia. He’s particularly unlikely to abase himself (in his eyes) before the US/West when he realizes that the payoff for doing so is negligible.

Michael Calvey was a fool who rushed in where angels fear to tread, and his arrest is more of an echo of the past, than a harbinger of the future. Certainly as long as Putin is around Russia will be largely isolated from the West, and will stagnate accordingly.

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February 13, 2019

Brave Green World

Filed under: Climate Change,Economics,Politics,Regulation — cpirrong @ 11:21 am

I was considering not commenting on the Green New Deal, given the largely negative–and often incredulous and scathing–response that its release evoked. Including from mainstream Democratic politicians, notably Nancy Pelosi. But most of the cast of thousands currently seeking the Democratic presidential nomination have embraced it to some degree or another, and the criticism has spurred a counterattack from many media precincts. The plan will therefore not be consigned immediately to oblivion, so I will weigh in.

In a nutshell (emphasis on the “nut”), the proposal aims at making the US “carbon neutral” in a mere decade by eliminating the internal combustion engine, retrofitting every existing building in the US, largely eliminating air travel and replacing it with high speed rail, and reducing, er, flatulence from cows by sharply reducing our consumption of meat. No biggie, right?

I find it somewhat ironic that hard on the heels of the announcement of the basics of the GND, the hard left governor of California, Gavin Newsome, said it was necessary to “get real” and recognize that the state’s high speed rail project was a disaster, and to eliminate most of the route.

But “getting real” is not on the GND agenda.

If implemented, the GND would effectively destroy a vast amount of the existing US capital stock, or require its replacement with less productive capital. This will make Americans poorer, in terms of consumption of goods and services.

The proponents of the GND commit the fundamental economic fallacy of arguing that this destruction of productive resources will bolster the economy because of all the jobs that will be created to build a fossil-fuel free power system, electric autos, massive rail systems, etc. The reality (sorry, but I can’t help dealing in reality) is that jobs are a cost, as is the decline in consumption required to make massive investments in new capital to replace existing capital.

The point of producing–including through the use of labor which entails the cost of foregone leisure–is to consume. The GND will unambiguously reduce consumption of goods and services, and make us poorer. GND is crypto-Keynesianism at its worst.

Then there is the detail of paying for this. Here advocates of GND invoke MMT–Magical Monetary Theory. Sorry, MMT actually stands for “Modern Monetary Theory” but my description is far more accurate. MMT is free lunch economics writ large, mistakes accounting identities for economic substance, and commits errors that would be embarrassing for someone in their first session of Econ 101 at one of your more backward community colleges.

The Magical Monetary Theorists argue that an endeavor as massive as the GND can be paid for by printing money.

Really. Don’t believe me? Consider this (rather conclusory) tweet by a major MMT advocate, Stephanie Kelton:


Q: Can we afford a #
GreenNewDeal
? A: Yes. The federal government can afford to buy whatever is for sale in its own currency.

What follows (as is usually the case with MMT arguments) is a verbal discussion of a game of financial Three Card Monte.

Read that again: ” The federal government can afford to buy whatever is for sale in its own currency.” But at what price, dear? At what price? Venezuela has been operating on this principle, and is on pace to achieve record inflation of more than a million percent per year.

All of which obscures the economic essence. Investment today requires people to reduce consumption of goods and services. They only do so in anticipation of consuming more in the future–the “more” is the interest/return on capital from the investment. In private capital markets, the interest rate/return on capital adjusts so that the additional consumption people demand to fund investment is just paid for by the additional production flowing from the assets invested in.

In GND, as noted above, the massive investment will not result in a greater flow of goods and services in the future that will make people willingly reduce their consumption today. Indeed, future consumption in goods and services will decline. The private rate of return will be negative.

And indeed, GND implicitly acknowledges this. Its entire rationale is to reduce carbon emissions, under the theory that these are a “bad.” That is, the payoff from the massive investment (the sacrifice of private consumption) is a lower level of bad carbon emissions.

But to the extent that the reduction of this particular bad is a good, it is a public good. Everyone benefits from a decline in this putative pollutant, regardless of their contribution in paying for the reduction. Meaning that it cannot be financed voluntarily via private capital market transactions, but must be compelled, and paid for through massive taxation.

Printing money only changes the form and/or the timing of the taxation. Inflation is a tax. Moreover, if you borrow/print to pay for investment today, the investment cost not covered by the inflation tax must be paid for by higher taxes in the future. Like the old oil filter commercial: you can pay me now, or you can pay me later. But you must pay.

This is not hard. But reality is not magical.

Furthermore, given that it will be the most massive government program in history, it will entail all of the rent seeking and waste inherent in such programs.

I should also note that it will entail massive redistribution, most notably from rural, exurban, and suburban areas to urban ones as it will dramatically raise the costs of transportation and mobility which are borne disproportionately by those living outside cities. If a few Euro cents/liter fuel tax in France sparked massive protest in non-metropolitan France, just think of what would be in store in the far more sprawling US in response to taxes orders of magnitude larger than those imposed by Manny Macron.

These costs could be justified if the cost of carbon is sufficiently high, in which case the social rate of return could be substantially higher than the private rate of return, and the cost of capital. But even if one believes the most alarmist estimates of the cost of carbon, the adoption of GND by the US would have a modest–and arguably trivial–impact on emissions and temperatures, given the level and growth of emissions elsewhere, especially in China and India. Thus, the social rate of return is almost certainly far below the cost of capital.

The advocates of GND argue that the US needs a grandiose mission. The analogies that they draw are to NASA’s moon landings, or–get this–World War II and the defeat of the Nazis.

But neither Apollo nor even WWII envisioned the radical transformation of society–which is an explicit goal of GND. Apollo was a focused, and by comparison with GND, a relatively moderate expenditure financed in the ordinary course of government business and intended primarily as a campaign in the Cold War, undertaken at a time when the Johnson administration waged another Cold War campaign–Vietnam–with the specific objective of minimizing disruption to US society and the economy. World War II definitely altered every aspect of American life, but these disruptions were also viewed as temporary sacrifices necessary to win the war, to be reversed at its conclusion. Which happened in the event: the US demobilized rapidly, and most wartime expedients (e.g., rationing, the massive employment of women in manufacturing) were scrapped precipitously at its conclusion. As happened in WWI as well: Harding’s 1920 campaign slogan was “return to normalcy” after the extraordinary measures adopted during the war. But GND proposes to be the new normalcy, deliberately destroying the old normalcy.

The original New Deal as implemented was also not intended to be as transformative as its latter day green version (though the more Bolshi elements of the Roosevelt administration did harbor such ambitions).

What are the politics here? This is being pushed by the urban progressive left, epitomized by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-Brooklyn. (Sorry, Tatyana!) The ubiquitous AOC is the face and voice of the movement, though frankly I doubt it would get the same attention if her face looked like, say, Debbie Wasserman-Schultz, and I wonder whether her Munchkin voice will eventually grate on even her fellow travelers, not to mention the rest of us.

But the main political effect here is to cause deep fissures in the Democratic party. Mainstream elements are in a state of near panic, which they are attempting to conceal, with little success.

And this will redound to the benefit of Donald Trump. Opposition insanity is the greatest gift an incumbent can receive. And methinks this is a gift that will keep on giving, through November 2020.

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January 29, 2019

Bo Knows Hedging. Not!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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January 22, 2019

Regulating Carbon Emissions: Efficiency vs. Redistribution

Filed under: Climate Change,Economics,Energy,Politics,Regulation — cpirrong @ 8:01 pm

Bloomberg reports that New York state’s plan to eliminate its few remaining coal power plants has caused power prices for delivery in 2020, 2021, and 2022 to increase. Eyeballing the chart, the impact of the proposed regulation is on the order of $7/MWh, or about 25 percent of the 2019 price.

Coal represents a dwindling fraction of New York’s generation. The EIA reports 0 electricity from coal in October, 2018. As of 2014, the last full year for which I could find data on the EIA website, coal accounted for 4.6 million MWh, out of a total of 137 MWh of generation.

The efficiency impact of this depends on (a) the estimated social cost of carbon, (b) the kind of generation that will replace the shuttered coal plants, and (c) the non-energy costs that this replacement generation creates.

If you believe that the cost of carbon is $40/ton, if coal is replaced by zero emissions generation, the move is efficiency enhancing. A coal plant with a heat rate of a little more than 10 implies a carbon cost per MWh of $40. This is well above the price increase of around $7.

If coal is replaced by natural gas, with a carbon cost of about $20/MWh, the call is closer, but still comfortably in favor of eliminating coal.

Lower social costs of carbon of course affect the math. The other thing to keep in mind, though, is that the price is for energy only. Changing the generation mix also affects the need for ancillary services to maintain grid stability. In particular, substituting diffuse and intermittent renewables for coal increases the non-energy costs of supplying electricity. These costs can be appreciable, though again it’s difficult to see them being so large as to overcome the approximate $160 million in carbon cost savings from eliminating coal, based on a $40/MWh CO2 cost, ~4 MWh of coal fired generation, and replacement of coal by zero carbon emissions generation sources.

What’s truly startling about the numbers, though, is the redistributive impact. Price is driven by marginal cost, and the price impact suggests that the cost of the marginal megawatt hour from coal replacement generation is about $7/MWh above that of the eliminated coal units. Note: that $7/MWh price increase benefits every single MWh generated by inframarginal units (e.g., combined cycle NG). Coal represents (as noted before) ~3 pct of NY generation, but the remaining 97 percent will see a big increase in margins.

This is a crude calculation, but roughly speaking the regulation will result in a transfer of about $1 billion/year from consumers to owners of generation (~140 million MWh x $7/MWh). The vast bulk of this $1 billion will be a quasi rent for inframarginal generating assets. (About $28 million–4 mm MWh/year x $7/MWh–will cover the cost of the more expensive generation that replaces coal plants.)

As is often the case with regulation, the wealth transfers swamp the efficiency effects (which total at most $130 million=~4 MM MWh x $33/MWh in social cost savings). (Since coal generation has probably dropped from the 4 million in 2014, and the price impact reflects the elimination of the remaining coal generation, the total efficiency effects now are probably substantially smaller than $130 million.)

Thus, although this regulation is sold as one benefitting the environment, I strongly suspect that the political coalition that has given it birth is strongly supported by incumbent generation operators selling into the New York market. That is, it smacks of the typical special interest regulation that benefits a small concentrated group at the expense of a large diffuse one (i.e., the consumers in New York), all dressed up in pretty green (environmental green camouflaging Benjamins green, as it were).

Yes, in this instance perhaps–depending on one’s assumptions about the cost of carbon and the incremental uplift costs created by the regulation–this bargain has produced an efficient outcome. But the redistributive nature of this regulation, and those like it, creates a great risk that such regulations will be introduced even when they are inefficient.

Those harmed include ordinary New Yorkers lighting their homes, and commercial and especially manufacturing firms (and their employees) who pay higher power costs. (Employees will pay in lost employment and lower wages, due to a decline in derived demand for labor driven by higher costs of other inputs.) In France, a seemingly small imposition on a similar group sparked widespread social unrest. It hasn’t happened in the US yet (or in places like Germany, where consumers and employers are paying steeply higher electricity costs due to anti-carbon regulations), but US states should be aware that such policies could trigger resistance here as well–especially if and when the hoi polloi realize that the biggest winner from these policies is not the environment, but companies that are pretty unpopular to begin with.

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January 12, 2019

A Great Passes: Harold Demsetz

Filed under: Economics,Regulation — cpirrong @ 1:40 pm

Last week, the great economist Harold Demsetz passed away at age 88. Harold (whom I knew slightly) was truly a giant, who made seminal contributions to industrial organization, property rights economics, transactions cost economics (especially his early recognition of the bid-ask spread as a cost of transacting, well before it became a focus of research in finance), information economics, and the theory of the firm.

He also coined the memorable phrase “nirvana economics,” which skewered the then-prevalent (and alas, too often currently prevalent) tendency to compare imperfect market outcomes with perfect ones, soon followed by a prescription for regulation to correct the “market failure.” He noted–and this can not be emphasized enough–that the true “relevant choice is between alternative real institutional arrangements.” That is, there are government failures too, and it is necessary to evaluate those in order to make policy choices. Nirvana is not a choice.

Like many great economists of his era (e.g., Coase), Demsetz’s work was literary rather than formal, but that definitely does not mean it lacked rigor. Demsetz wrote well, and could present tightly reasoned and impeccably logical theoretical arguments without resorting to a single equation. His article on entry barriers is a great example of this. There was a great deal more economic logic and insight in a typical Demsetz paper than in the typical modern densely mathematical work.

Demsetz’s biggest contribution to my economic education was his work that confronted, and largely demolished, the prevailing structure-conduct-performance paradigm in industrial organization, and the related empirical work on the relationship between industrial concentration and profits, which concluded that a positive correlation was the result of market power. End of story.

Demsetz demonstrated (as Sam Peltzman formalized shortly afterwards) that cost-concentration correlations could give rise to profit-concentration correlations even in the absence of market power. A simple story that illustrates the point is that a firm that experiences a favorable cost shock when its competitors do not will expand at their expense, and earn a profit commensurate with its greater efficiency. This tends to increase industry profitability and concentration.

Demsetz also showed in a famous paper (“Why Regulate Utilities?” that structural monopoly (e.g., a “natural monopoly” due to extensive scale economies) does not necessarily convey market power. Further, in
“Industry Structure, Market Rivalry, and Public Policy” he argued that competition for the market could be quite intense, and even thought it might result in a firm obtaining a large market share, (a) the firm’s ability to exercise market power might be limited, and (b) competition for the market could be an engine for progress, including notably product and process innovation.

In this work, and that of his contemporaries primarily at Chicago and UCLA, Demsetz undermined the prevailing paradigm in industrial organization, with its simplistic equation of market structure and market power. This resulted in a revolution in economic science, but also public policy, and in particular antitrust policy.

Alas, there is a counter-revolution afoot, and quite depressingly Chicago is one of the leaders in this. In particular, Luigi Zingales and the Stigler Center (!), and the Center’s Promarket blog, are among the leaders in resuscitating the notion that concentration is per se objectionable, and creates market power. In my perusal of this literature, and the voluminous writings about public policy it has spawned, I find no real intellectual advance, and indeed, perceive severe retrogression. In particular I find little effort to confront the Demsetz critiques (and the critiques of others that followed).

It is very sad that Harold Demsetz passed, although after a long and very productive life. It is sadder still that many of his most perceptive insights predeceased him.

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January 7, 2019

Lost in Space? Some Musings on the Economics of an Independent Space Force

Filed under: Economics,History,Military,Politics — cpirrong @ 8:30 pm

One of the Trump administration’s (and really, Trump is the one pushing it) more interesting ideas is the creation of an independent military “space force” as a separate service branch, co-equal with the Army, Air Force, Marines, and Navy. Given that this proposal gores many, many political oxen inside the military and without, it’s hard to get an objective viewpoint. Everyone’s opinion is colored by their vested interest.

I have no answer as to whether it’s a good idea or not. But I do have some thoughts on the appropriate framework that could contribute to a more objective evaluation. Specifically, transactions cost economics and property rights economics (and organizational economics, which has some overlap with these) address issues of how formal organizational structure, and the ownership and control of assets, can affect the allocation of resources, for better or worse. And that is the issue here: can a reorganization involving the creation of a new entity that has control rights over assets heretofore controlled by other entities improve the allocation of defense resources?

I mused on this topic long ago, but have never really pursued it in a serious way. But I’ll muse some more given the newfound topicality.

It’s useful to divide the analysis into two parts. First, how does organizational structure, and in particular the assignment of rights of control over existing assets (e.g., artillery pieces, aircraft), affect military effectiveness and combat power? Second, how does organizational structure affect the choices regarding which assets to invest in?

With respect to the first issue, over the centuries militaries have devoted considerable effort and thought to organizational charts, and the allocation of control rights over military hardware and military units. Some simple examples: should each division have its own artillery, with all guns being under division control, or should some guns be assigned to battalions subject to control at a higher level (e.g., corps, army)?; should all tanks be concentrated in armored divisions, or should infantry divisions also have organic tank units?; should submarines be employed in support of fleets, or operate independently?

As with all resource allocation decisions, there are trade-offs, and militaries have struggled with these. There has been experimentation. There has been success and failure. Changes in technology have necessitated changes in organization, because the nature of specific weapons systems may affect the trade-offs. These are arguments that never end, as the incessant reorganizations of militaries (e.g., the U.S. Army’s recent shift to a brigade-based structure) demonstrate.

A couple of transactions cost economics insights. First, most decisions regarding the use of military assets are made subject to severe temporal specificity. If I am under attack, I need fire support NOW. Moreover, it may be the case that even in a large military only a few resources are available to provide that support. Temporal specificity creates transactions costs that can impede the allocation of resources to their highest value use.

Second, trade is unlikely to be a viable option, especially given temporal specificity. “Hey. I need some artillery support on my position right now. Can you give me an offer on what that will cost me?” Yeah–that works. The prospects for spot exchange are almost non-existent, and intertemporal exchange is unlikely because (a) timelines are short (for a variety of reasons), making end game problems acute, and (b) potential parties to an exchange are unlikely to be interacting repeatedly over time with reciprocal needs.

Since voluntary exchange is out (except in very unusual circumstances) resources need to be allocated by authority. Which makes issues of organization and the allocation of authority (control rights) paramount.

With respect to space assets, the case for a space force relates to the fact that many space assets (a) offer value to air, naval, and ground forces, and (b) there are economies of scale and scope. Having each service invest in its own space assets likely sacrifices scale and scope economies, but eliminates the need for inter-service bargaining over access to these assets, and reallocation of these assets in response to shifting military needs.

Allocating space assets to one existing branch (e.g., the Air Force) would facilitate exploitation of scale and scope economies, but would require inter-service bargaining to permit the non-controlling service to get access. A specialized space force permits exploitation of scale and scope economies, but also necessitates inter-service bargaining. The key question here is whether a specialized force would have better incentives than an operational force. For example, the Air Force might favor itself over other services when deciding how to utilize space assets, whereas a separate space force would not be as parochial.

With respect to the second issue–which assets are procured–the impact of organization on the Congressional procurement process is paramount.

The services are highly politicized organizations, and certain specializations within a service may exercise disproportionate influence. For example, the “fighter mafia” in the Air Force is legendary. As another example, in the pre-WWII U.S. Navy, battleship admirals held sway. These factions within a service may warp and stifle the development of new technologies, new doctrines, or investment decisions: the stultifying effect of the dominant infantry branch within the pre-WWII U.S. Army on the development of armored forces (both hardware and doctrine) is an example.

Creation of a separate force that invests in assets provided by the other branches would tend to undermine the power that any faction in a particular branch could exercise. The branches would have to form coalitions to influence Congressional funding decisions. But the creation of a new entity with its own vested service interest and its own ability to influence Congress could prove problematic as well.

For example, in the immediate aftermath of the formation of the Air Force, beliefs that nuclear weapons made most conventional forces–including conventional air arms–obsolete, led the Air Force to try to persuade Congress to slash spending on conventional forces in order to focus on strategic forces, especially bombers. This led to the “Revolt of the Admirals.” It also led the Navy and even the Army to invest in nuclear capabilities in order to claim strategic relevance and maintain their share of the budget. These investments were almost certainly wasteful, and would not have been made but for the independent Air Force’s influence.

Perhaps the most important historical example that could shed some light on the desirability of an independent space force is the creation of a separate Air Force in 1947, and the Johnson-McConnell agreement of 1966, in which the Army ceded to the Air Force control over all fixed wing aircraft.

The effects of this reorganization were probably beneficial overall, but there certainly were problematic effects. In particular, it almost certainly attenuated the Air Force’s incentives to provide ground support, and resulted in the Army investing excessively in rotary wing aircraft (i.e., attack helicopters) to provide it.

Perhaps a better idea would have been to create a separate strategic air wing (first including strategic bombers, then strategic bombers and ICBMs, as well as air superiority fighters), and permit the Army to operate tactical aircraft for ground support. This was essentially what was done in in the immediate aftermath of WWII, with the creation within the Army Air Force of a Strategic Air Command, a Tactical Air Command, and an Air Defense Command.

The Marine Corps, and to some degree the Navy, provide a model. Each operate their own fixed wing air services, specialized to provide the kinds of air power each needs. Marine air is relentlessly focused on providing close air support. The Marine operational commander has control over these assets, and does not have to haggle with another service to get them. Moreover, the Marines’ acquisition decisions (notably the division between fixed and rotary wing aircraft) are oriented towards getting the optimal mix for the specific mission.

I have only touched upon some of the relevant considerations–there are no doubt others I have missed. Moreover, I have given only superficial attention even to the issues I raise. But this should be sufficient to show just how complicated this issue is. Organizational decisions, such as the creation of a separate space force, will have profound implications for how military resources are allocated, and what resources will be invested in in the first place. Crucially, the assets in question cannot be allocated by markets or the price system, so it is not a question of organization v. market, but the form of the organization(s). Further, military assets are complex, long-lived (and becoming more so–note that B-52s may be operational for more than a century), and can be extraordinarily specialized and hence specific (in the TCE meaning of that term). Technology is incredibly dynamic, and needs shift dramatically over time as new threats emerge. This all means that organization and the allocation of control rights matter. A lot.

And perhaps most importantly, organizational choices will be made in a politicized environment, and will affect political bargaining in the future. This will inevitably distort current choices (e.g., whether a space force will be created in the first place, what assets it will control) and future choices as well. It also makes it very difficult to sort through the debate on the topic, because everybody involved is a political player with its own political interests.

That makes it all the more important to establish a relatively objective and rigorous intellectual framework in which to analyze these questions. I think that transactions costs economics and property rights economics hold out great promise as the basis for such a framework.

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January 5, 2019

Vox Populi v. Vox Domini Super Eos Electos

Filed under: Economics,History,Politics — cpirrong @ 7:27 pm

For weeks France has been wracked by the “gilets jaunes” protests directed at President Emmanuel Macron. The protests had slackened recently, but today they flared up again, perhaps due to the arrest of a gilets janues leader. (Was this just stupidity, or does Macron want to stoke the protest? Dunno.)

The French protests represent yet another battle in the global war between the hoi polloi and the elite. The catalyst for the French protests was a quintessentially elitist policy initiative: a tax on motor fuel, with the stated purpose of combating climate change.

Even on its own terms the tax is stupid. Even assuming a very high temperature sensitivity to CO2, the reduction in emissions resulting from the tax would have a vanishingly small effect on global temperature. Furthermore, like most of Europe, French gas taxes are extremely high, and almost certainly far above the level that would efficiently address externalities arising from motor fuel consumption.

The protestors may understand that the tax does not make sense as a way of addressing climate change. But their interests are far more down-to-earth. This is another tax imposed on the most heavily taxed country in the OECD. Further, it falls most heavily on the rural population, and the working population, and has little impact on the metropolitan elites. It is, in a sense, the straw that broke the camel’s back.

With consummate tone-deafness, Macron galvanized the protestors with remarks that would make the fictional Marie Antoinette (“let them eat cake”) blush. Hey, if driving costs too much, just carpool! Or take the bus! Yeah. He actually said that (unlike Marie and the bit about the cake).

After the initial shock, Macron caved, and shelved the tax. But the protests continued, with varying degrees of violence around the country (e.g., torching toll booths). This is because the tax’s significance was more symbolic, relating to the excessive taxation in France, and the sneering indifference of the elite to the fate of non-elite France, which Macron has personified all too well. So, as is often the case in coordination games, once people became aware of each others’ dissatisfaction, the protests took on a life of their own even after the initial catalyst was removed.

Today the protestors gathered in front of the Paris Bourse, demanding Macron’s resignation. Surely, he won’t, but his evident unpopularity will hamstring his ability to govern for the remainder of his term.

The government response has been somewhat amusing. One tack was that police resources were inadequate to deal with both the protests and terrorism. “France Doesn’t Have Enough Cops.” That is, the government of the most heavily taxed advanced economy in the world cannot perform the primary duty of the state: to secure the safety and property of its citizens. So don’t protest, because that make it impossible to combat terrorists.

But of course they should be given more money and power.

In the United States, there is also an outcry against the president, but it is the inversion of the one in France. Whereas in France it is the ordinary people taking to the streets in opposition to the governing elite, in the US the governing elite is taking to the media and the bowels of the state to oppose Trump.

There are no widespread protests on the streets of the US (Antifa freaking out in Portland doesn’t count), and especially lacking are protests by ordinary citizens against Trump. And why should there be? For most Americans, the last two years have been pretty good insofar as bread-and-butter issues are concerned (as epitomized by yesterday’s job report, both on the number of jobs and wage growth). No, the frenzy in the US has focused on issues that ordinary Americans don’t give a rat’s ass about, but which drive the governing class into paroxysms of fury–e.g., alleged (but completely unproven) allegations of “collusion” between Trump and Putin/the Russians.

These allegations are merely useful cudgels with which to beat Trump. The fury of the governing class really stems from his running roughshod over their presumptions and privileges. He’s just not one of them. He insults them. He tramples their amour-propre. He does not worship their idols. Indeed, he trashes them. Icky people like him.

So whereas the ordinary French have taken to the streets, the governing class has taken to pulling the levers of its power–the FBI (even before the election), the American star chamber (aka the Mueller Investigation), incessant and hopelessly biased media coverage, and now, threats of impeaching “the motherfucker.” (To which I say–be my guest. Look at how well that worked out in 1998-99.) There are even those who have advocated a coup.

I daresay that the governing class in the US sees what is going on in Paris and other places in France, and shudders. It shows how deeply loathed the governing class is, and how a seemingly small spark can ignite a political firestorm against them. They have certainly questioned the protests’ legitimacy, at times in their desperation succumbing to the last refuge of the idiot–blaming it on the Russians. Case in point, the pathetically hilarious Max Boot (hey, Max, can you do a pushup?) who at one time pined for an American Macron, only to be subjected to ruthless–but completely warranted–ridicule when the French protests erupted. In a nauseating attempt to rationalize the complete popular repudiation of his man crush on Macron, Max insinuated that although the Russkies may not have caused the protests, they fanned the flames through their diabolically clever exploitation of social media.

The condescension here is palpable, and reflects a pattern that I’ve pointed out going back to 2015. Rather than acknowledging that widespread popular dissatisfaction with the elites–as epitomized by Brexit, the Trump election, various European elections, and now the protests in France–were due to repeated elite failure unsullied by any success, they add insult to injury by accusing their opponents of being stupid, unwitting pawns of their current bête noire.

It is indeed amazing to see that an incessant barrage of attacks from the governing classes have not moved the needle on Trump in the slightest. If anything, they have bound him and his supporters more tightly, because the latter recognize that an attack on Trump is just as much an attack on them.

The most common divide in polities around the developed world right now is between the governing and the governed. The self-conceived and self-congratulatory elite vs. the ordinary. France is just the most recent battleground. It wasn’t the first, and it won’t be the last. The battle is becoming more intense because the objects of popular disdain refuse to acknowledge any responsibility for creating the conditions that have spurred popular discontent.

The same thing happened in France, 230 years ago. The nobility in the ancien regime stubbornly and righteously clung to their privileges, and their conviction in their own superiority. Worked out swell for them, right? But some people never learn.

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December 27, 2018

The Market Is Down! Round Up the Usual Suspects!

Filed under: Economics,Exchanges,HFT — cpirrong @ 7:38 pm

Every time there is a major market selloff–like now–there is a Casablanca-like rush to round up the usual suspects. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin blamed the Volcker Rule and HFT. This WSJ article blames algos (including HFT), but throws the kitchen sink in for good measure.

Truth be told, virtually every major market drop is unexplained at the time, and even well after, which only spurs the search for villains and scapegoats. There was no obvious spark for the Crash of ’87, and in the years since, many suspects have been named but none have been convicted. The same is true of the Crash of ’29. Perhaps the best effort–interesting, but not definitive–is George Bittlingmayer’s attribution of Black Tuesday to an unexpected shift in antitrust policy under the Hoover administration. But that came 65 years after the event!

The most recent selloff is no exception. The WSJ article lists a variety of bearish developments, but any such exercise smacks of post hoc, ergo propter hoc “reasoning.” Further, the article quotes various people who claim that the price decline is difficult to square with fundamental economic data–welcome to the club! The same is true for 1987, 1929, and other major declines. Recall Paul Samuelson’s aphorism: the stock market predicted 10 out of the last 5 recessions.

Part of the difficulty is that stock prices depend on expected cash flows, and expected returns, both of which can vary due to factors that are difficult to observe in public data. Asset pricing economists have a lot of theories of time varying expected returns–hinging on theories of time varying risk premia–none of which have strong empirical support. Modest changes in risk premia/expected returns can cause big valuation changes. Recent conditions (political/geopolitical risk, monetary policy changes) plausibly have affected risk premia, but our ability to map these relationships is virtually nonexistent, so at best we can formulate largely untestable hypotheses.

And untestable hypotheses are effectively speculations and opinions, and like certain body parts, everybody has one.

Given these realities, most major asset price movements are difficult to explain.

I vividly remember in the aftermath of the 1987 Crash, when I was a PhD student at Chicago. Gene Fama distributed a Mandelbrot article to all PhD students. The article presented a simple model in which long periods of price increases are followed by crashes. As I recall, the essence of the model was that if good news was received today, it was likely that there would be good news tomorrow, but if good news was not received today, the likelihood of receiving good news tomorrow was lower. In essence, it is a regime switching model, and a switch in from a good news regime to a bad news regime leads to a big valuation change, due to the transition probabilities.

Fama’s point in distributing the article was to emphasize that discontinuous changes in prices are not inconsistent with a “rational” market. Seemingly small fundamental shifts can lead to big price changes.

Again, a hypothesis–and a virtually untestable one.

What about blaming algos, a la Mnuchin and the WSJ? Well, blaming HFT–directly, anyways–makes no sense. Yes, HFT is programmed to respond to market signals, but it is negative feedback by nature. It tends to be stabilizing, not de-stabilizing.

There may be an indirect connection: HFT liquidity supply can dry up when order flow becomes toxic, and the decline in liquidity makes prices more sensitive to order flow, leading to larger price movements. The Flash Crash is a classic example of this. But that’s not unique to HFT. It is inherent to market making, and HFT basically puts what is in a market maker’s (e.g., old-time floor trader’s) synapses into code. Market makers pulling back–or shutting down altogether–occurred long before markets went electronic, and before anybody even dreamed of HFT.

If liquidity has declined–and the WSJ points to some limited evidence on this point–it is likely a response to market conditions, rather than a cause thereof. It’s something that occurs in almost every period of elevated volatility. It’s more of an effect of some common cause than an independent exogenous cause.

Further, by virtually every measure, the increasing automation in markets has led to greater liquidity. Much of the bitching–including in some quotes in the WSJ article–emanates from traditional liquidity suppliers who have lost out to more efficient competitors. Believe me, if order flow had become more toxic, these guys would have pulled back too, and probably more severely than HFT has done.

What can exacerbate market movements is positive feedback trading strategies. Portfolio insurance during the 1987 Crash is a classic example. The WSJ article points at algorithmic momentum trading strategies, and indeed these are positive feedback in nature. But they are not unique to algos: meatware implemented momentum/trend following strategies long before they were embedded in software. Momentum trading is something else that long predates the rise of the machines.

Several quotes in the WSJ article made me laugh. One was: “’Human beings tend not to react this fast and violently.’” Really? Heard of Black Monday? Black Tuesday? Silver Thursday? Black Friday? I’m sure there’s a Color Wednesday to fill in the week, but none comes to mind. Regardless, the point remains: human beings reacted rapidly and violently long before trading machines were even dreamt of.

Here’s another: “Today, when the computers start buying, everyone buys; when they sell, everyone sells.”

This is called “not an equilibrium.”

The bottom line is that the stock market sometimes decline substantially, without any obvious cause. Indeed, the cause(s) of some of the biggest, fastest drops remain elusive decades after they occurred. This is true across virtually every institutional and technological trading environment, making it less likely that any particular selloff is uniquely attributable to a change in technology. Furthermore, large market moves in the absence of any decisive event or piece of news is not inconsistent with market “rationality”, or due to some behavioral anomaly (which is inherently human, by the way).

But humans crave explanations for phenomena like big movements in the stock market, and this demand calls forth supply. That the explanations are for the most part untestable and hence not scientific only means that there is little check on this supply. Anybody can offer an explanation, which likely cannot be proven wrong. So why not? But if you understand that mechanism, you should also understand that you shouldn’t pay much attention.

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December 5, 2018

Judge Sullivan Channels SWP, and Vindicates Don Wilson and DRW

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

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

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

Here was my take in September, 2013:

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

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

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

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

Seriously.

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

Here’s Judge Sullivan’s analysis:

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

Pretty much the same, but without the snark.

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

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

I also wrote:

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

. . . .

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

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

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

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

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

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

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