Streetwise Professor

September 20, 2018

The Smoke is Starting to Clear from the Aas/Nasdaq Blowup

Filed under: Clearing,Commodities,Derivatives,Economics,Energy,Exchanges,Regulation — cpirrong @ 11:08 am

Amir Khwaja of Clarus has a very informative post about the Nasdaq electricity blow-up.

The most important point: Nasdaq uses SPAN to calculate IM.  SPAN was a major innovation back in the day, but it is VERY long in the tooth now (2018 is its 30th birthday!).  Moreover, the most problematic part of SPAN is the ad hoc way it handles dependence risk:

  • Intra-commodity spreading parameters – rates and rules for evaluating risk among portfolios of closely related products, for example products with particular patterns of calendar spreads
  • Inter-commodity spreading parameters – rates and rules for evaluating risk offsets between related product


CME SPAN Methodology Combined Commodity Evaluations

The CME SPAN methodology divides the instruments in each portfolio into groupings called combined commodities. Each combined commodity represents all instruments on the same ultimate underlying – for example, all futures and all options ultimately related to the S&P 500 index.

For each combined commodity in the portfolio, the CME SPAN methodology evaluates the risk factors described above, and then takes the sum of the scan risk, the intra-commodity spread charge, and the delivery risk, before subtracting the inter-commodity spread credit. The CME SPAN methodology next compares the resulting value with the short option minimum; whichever value is larger is called the CME SPAN methodology risk requirement. The resulting values across the portfolio are then converted to a common currency and summed to yield the total risk for the portfolio.

I would not be surprised if the handling of Nordic-German spread risk was woefully inadequate to capture the true risk exposure.  Electricity spreads are strange beasts, and “rules for evaluating risk offsets” are unlikely to capture this strangeness correctly especially given the fact that electricity markets have idiosyncrasies that one-size-fits all rules are unlikely to capture.  I also conjecture that Aas knew this, and loaded the boat with this spread trade because he knew that the risk was grossly underpriced.

There are reports that the Nasdaq margin breach at the time of default (based on mark-to-market prices) was not nearly as large as the €140 million hit to the default fund.  In these accounts, the bulk of the hit was due to the fact that the price at which Aas’ portfolio was auctioned off included a substantial haircut to prevailing market prices.

Back in the day, I argued that one of the real advantages to central clearing was a more orderly handling of defaulted portfolios than the devil-take-the-hindmost process in OTC bilateral markets (cf., the outcome of the LTCM disaster almost exactly 20 years ago–with the Fed midwifed deal being completed on 23 September, 1998). (Ironically spread trades were the cause of LTCM’s demise too.)

But the devil is in the details of the auction, and in market conditions at the time of the default–which are almost certainly unsettled, hence the default.  The CME was criticized for its auction of the defaulted Lehman positions: the bankruptcy trustee argued that the price CME obtained was too low, thereby harming the creditors.   The sell-off of the Amaranth NG positions in September, 2006 (what is it about September?!?) to JP Morgan and Citadel (if memory serves) was also at a huge discount.

Nasdaq has been criticized for allowing only 4 firms to bid: narrow participation was also the criticism leveled at CME and NYMEX clearing in the Lehman and Amaranth episodes, respectively.  Nasdaq argues that telling the world could have sparked panic.

But this episode, like Lehman and Amaranth before it, demonstrate the challenges to auctioning big positions.  Only a small number of market participants are likely to have the capital, or the risk appetite, to take on a big defaulted position in its entirety.  Thus, limited participation is almost inevitable, and even if Nasdaq had invited more bidders, there is room to doubt whether the fifth or sixth or seventh bidder would have been able to compete seriously with the four who actually participated.  Those who have the capital and risk appetite to bid seriously for big positions will almost certainly demand a big discount to  compensate for the risk of holding the position until they can work it off.  Moreover, limited participation limits competition, which should exacerbate the underpricing problem.

Thus, even with a structured auction process, disposing of a big defaulted portfolio is almost inevitably something of a fire sale.  This is a risk borne by the participants in the default fund.  Although the exposure via the default fund is sometimes argued to be an incentive for the default fund participants to bid aggressively, this is unlikely because there are externalities: the aggressive bidder bears all the risks and costs, and provides benefits to the rest of the other members.  Free riding is a big problem.

In theory, equitizing the risk might improve outcomes.  By selling shares in the defaulted portfolio, no single or two bidders would have to absorb the entire position and risk could be spread more efficiently: this could reduce the risk discount in the price.  But who would manage the portfolio?  What are the mechanics of contributing to IM and VM?  Would it be like a bad bank, existing as a zombie until the positions rolled off?

Another follow-up from my previous post relates to the issue of self-clearing.  On Twitter and elsewhere, some have suggested that clearing through a 3d party would have been an additional check.  Surely an FCM would be less likely to fall in love with a position than the trader who puts it on, but the effectiveness of the FCM as a check depends on its evaluation of risk, and it may be no smarter than the CCP that sets margins.   Furthermore, there are examples of FCMs having the same trade in their house account as one of their big customers–perhaps because they think the client is really smart and they want to free ride off his genius.  As a historical example, Griffin Trading had a big trade in the same instrument and direction as its biggest client.  The trade went pear-shaped, the client defaulted, and Griffin did too.

I also need to look to see whether Nasdaq Commodities uses the US futures clearing model, which does not segregate positions.  If it does, and if Aas had cleared through an FCM, it is possible that the FCM’s clients could have lost money as a result of his default.  This model has fellow-customer risk: by clearing for himself, Aas did not create such a risk.

I also note that the desire to expand clearing post-Crisis has made it difficult and more costly for firms to find FCMs.  This problem has been exacerbated by the Supplementary Leverage Ratio.  Perhaps the cost of clearing through an FCM appeared excessive to Aas, relative to the alternative of self-clearing.  Thus, if regulators blanch at the thought of self-clearing (not saying that they should), they should get serious about addressing the FCM cost issue, and regulations that inflate these costs but generate little offsetting benefit.

Again, this episode should spark (no pun intended!) a more thorough reconsideration of clearing generally.  The inherent limitations of margin models, especially for more complex products or markets.  The adverse selection problems that crude risk models can create.  The challenges of auctioning defaulted portfolios, and the likelihood that the auctions will become fire sales.  The FCM capacity issue.

The supersizing of clearing in the post-Crisis world has also supersized all of these concerns.  The Aas blowup demonstrates all of them.  Will CCPs and regulators take heed? Or will some future September bring us the mother of all blowups?

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August 25, 2018

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Methinks Musk’s situation is similar.

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

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

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

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

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

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August 13, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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





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August 7, 2018

Always Remember–Elon Rhymes With Con

Filed under: Economics,Energy — cpirrong @ 6:26 pm

Today on Twitter Elon Musk floated the possibility of taking Tesla private.  Perhaps coincidentally, it was revealed that the Saudis have accumulated a stake in Tesla worth a couple of billion.  Adding two and two, many have leaped to the conclusion that the Saudis will be in essence the private equity firm behind the deal, perhaps as part of some futuristic hedge against the end of oil.

As with all things Elon, look for the con.  Case in point.  He hyped the Tesla takeover of Solar City as the creation of a visionary vertically integrated clean energy company.  I saw it as a way of preventing an embarrassing bankruptcy of Solar City, and of bailing out Musk relatives using Tesla shareholder money.  The wind-down of Solar City’s business pretty much has proven me correct.  And  all talk of the visionary vertical integration strategy has ceased.  Indeed, the lack of discussion of the solar business reminds me of the old expression “don’t speak ill of the dead.”

So what’s the angle here?  I conjecture as follows.  Tesla is still losing money hand over fist.  It is burning less cash–but only because it has slashed expenses and capex–which puts a crimp in its growth plans.  And “burning less” is a relative statement–it is still a world class incendiary.

In the past Elon has fed the cash machine with stock and bond sales.  But he has publicly stated repeatedly that no future capital raises will be necessary.  It is clear, however, that such promises are not credible.  He has also promised that profits are just around the corner.  But that promise is also hardly credible, especially after serial failures to deliver on past promises.

This puts Elon in a bind.  He needs money, but a capital raise would (a) hammer is already tottering reputation, and (b) more seriously, create a huge risk of shareholder lawsuits and an SEC securities fraud case.

Further, it is clear that Elon finds many aspects of running a public company distasteful.  He particularly hates analysts (stock analysts, not psychiatrists, though maybe he hates them too!) who question his judgment, his statements, and sometimes his sanity.

He also hates short sellers.

So how to escape these problems? Easy–go private! Especially if the world’s deepest pockets are behind it.  No need for a public capital raise.  No more pesky outsiders questioning his competence, strategy, or behavior.  No more short selling a-holes.

The trifecta.

Of course, maybe Elon is just attempting to goose the stock price and inflict some pain on the shorts.  But if this is the case, he is digging his securities fraud hole deeper.

As for the Saudi angle.  A big bet on Tesla would be a rather foolhardy way to hedge against the end of oil.  It is a hedge rife with idiosyncratic risks–Tesla’s mercurial CEO being just one of them.  A more diversified strategy–investing in battery technology, and cobalt mines, and the like–would make more sense.

It will be entertaining to watch this spectacle unfold.  The one thing I can be sure of is that the story that Elon tells will not be the true story.  So look for the angle, and watch for the con.  My conjecture is plausible, but it is not the only possible scenario.  But whatever scenario plays out, it is likely to be as crooked as a dog’s leg.

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July 24, 2018

Who Knew Igor Was a Deadhead?: Sechin Plays Shakedown Street

Filed under: Economics,Energy,Politics,Russia — cpirrong @ 6:14 pm

The Sechin business model is clearly not to generate profit through canny investment, careful stewardship of capital, and containing cost.  Rather, it could be called The Rent Seeking Variations.

One of Sechin’s favorite variations is to pump up a flagging bottom line by shaking down his erstwhile partners.  The classic in this genre is the takeover of Bashneft at a knockdown price extracted by putting its owner Sistema under extreme legal pressure, which Sechin followed by suing Sistema for alleged misappropriations, which were only vaguely pleaded, and which if anything suggested that Rosneft was delinquent in its due diligence.

Sechin is now replaying this gambit, this time with its partners is Sakhalin I–which include ExxonMobile.  Again, the allegation is lacking in specifics.  Rosneft accuses the partners of “unjust enrichment” in 2015 and 2016.  In a world-class, epic act of projection, Rosneft accuses Exxon Neftgaz and the others of “interest gained by using other people’s money.”

The case was filed on Sechin’s home court–the arbitrage court on Sakhalin.  I seriously doubt that Exxon would have put itself into a situation where it was at the mercy of a Russian kangaroo court, so no doubt the first battle will be jurisdictional.

Sechin succeeded against Bashneft and Sistema in large part because Russia put its main shareholder Vladimir Yevtushenkov in jail at one point, and clearly was in a position to do it again.  ExxonMobil and the others in the partnership are less vulnerable, and Exxon in particular is used to these sorts of bruising battles.  So Igor has his work cut out for him.

For a while–during the Tillerson years–Exxon and Rosneft were chummy.  Sanctions put a kaibosh on the relationship, and this is clearly a signal that they are sooooo over.  Which just leaves Rosneft even more isolated than before, and unlikely to attract technology, expertise, and money from a major foreign power anytime soon absent some exchange of hostages that will curb Sechin’s predatory instincts.

The fallout for Russia more broadly is also clearly negative.  This is just another indication of its opportunistic and predatory approach to foreign investment, which just will raise further barriers to such investment in the future.

Operating on Shakedown Street can be lucrative in the short run, but pretty soon you run out of suckers to shake down.

Perhaps counterintuitively to some, this is an indication of why freaking out over Russia is so overdone.  Its internal dysfunction has hampered, hampers, and will hamper in the future its economic performance, and hence its potential to build capability to challenge the US in a serious way.   Yes, it can be a pain, but the very aspects of its system that make it so objectionable also serve to undermine its ability to pose a serious threat to any major power.

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July 16, 2018

Oil Spreads Go Non-Linear (Due to Infrastructure Constraints), To the Chagrin of Many Traders: The Pirrong Commodity Catechism in Action

Filed under: Commodities,Economics,Energy,Exchanges — cpirrong @ 3:59 pm

When I wrote about the demise of GEM Trading a few weeks ago, I hypothesized that sharp movements in various spreads had been its undoing.  A story in Reuters says that GEM was not the only firm rocked by these changes.  Big boys–including BP, Vitol, Trafigura, and Gunvor–have also suffered, and the losses have caused traders their jobs at Gunvor and BP:

The world’s biggest oil traders are counting hefty losses after a surprise doubling in the price discount of U.S. light crude to benchmark Brent WTCLc1-LCOc1 in just a month, as surging U.S production upends the market.

Trading desks of oil major BP and merchants Vitol , Gunvor and Trafigura have recorded losses in the tens of millions of dollars each as a result of the “whipsaw” move when the spread reached more than $11.50 a barrel in June, insiders familiar with their performance told Reuters.

The sources did not give precise figures for the losses, but they said they were enough for Gunvor and BP to fire at least one trader each.

The story goes on to say that binding infrastructure constraints are to blame, which is certainly the case.  But implicit in the article is a theme that I have emphasized for literally years (I recall incorporating this into my class lectures in about 2004).  Specifically, bottlenecks imply that marginal transformation costs (e.g., marginal costs of transporting oil between Cushing and the GOM) tend to rise very steeply when capacity constraints are reached.  That is, when you are operating at say 90 percent of capacity, variations in utilization have little impact on marginal transformation costs, but going from 95 to 96 can cause costs to explode, and basically go vertical as capacity is reached.

This has an implication for spreads.  Another part of the Pirrong Commodities Catechism is that spreads equal marginal transformation costs, and are essentially the shadow prices on constraints.  The behavior of marginal transformation costs therefore has implications for spreads: in particular, spreads can be very stable despite variations in the utilization of transformation assets, but as utilization nears capacity, the spreads become much more volatile.  Moreover, and relatedly, small changes in fundamentals can lead to big moves in spreads when constraints start to bind.  The relationship between fundamentals and spreads is non-linear as capacity constraints become binding, and well, here spreads have gone non-linear, to the chagrin of many traders.

Put differently, spread trades aren’t always “widowmakers” (as the article calls them)–sometimes they are quite safe and boring.  But when bottlenecks begin to bind, they can become deadly.

There is one odd statement in the article:

“As the exporter of U.S. crude, traders are naturally long WTI and hedge their bets by shorting Brent. When the spreads widen so wildly, you lose money,” said a top executive with one of the four trading firms.

Well, why would you hedge WTI risk with Brent?  You could hedge your WTI inventory by selling . . . WTI futures.  The choice to “hedge” WTI by selling Brent is effectively a choice to speculate on the spread.  That brings to mind the old Holbrook Working adage that hedging is speculation on the basis.  The difference here is that most, say, country grain elevators about which Working was mainly writing had no choice in hedging instrument (at least not in liquid ones), and perforce had to live with basis risk if they wanted to eliminate flat price risk.  Here, BP and Gunvor and the rest had the choice between two liquid instruments, and if the “top executive’s” statement is correct, deliberately chose the one that exposed them to greater spread (basis) risk.

So this isn’t an example of “sometimes stuff happens when you hedge.”  The firms chose to expose themselves to a particular risk.  They took a punt on the spread, which was effectively a punt that infrastructure constraints would ease.  They lost.

In my 2014 white paper on commodity trading firms (sponsored by Trafigura, ironically) I noted that to the extent that they speculate, commodity trading firms tend to speculate on the spreads, rather than flat prices, because that’s where they have something of an information advantage.  But as this episode shows, that advantage does not immunize them against risk.

This also makes me wonder about the risk models that the firms use, which in turn affect the sizes of positions traders can put on, and where they put them on.  I, er, speculate that these risk models don’t take into account the non-linearity of spread risk.  If that’s true, traders would have been able to put on bigger positions than they would have been had the risk models accurately reflected those risks, and further, that they were incentivized to do these trades because the risk was underpriced.

All in all, an interesting casebook study of commodity trading–what can go wrong, and why.

Correction: Andrew Gowers, head of corporate affairs at Trafigura says in the comments that (a) Trafigura did not suffer a loss, and (b) the company had told this to Reuters prior to the publication of the article.  I have contacted the editor of the story for an explanation.

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July 6, 2018

Chinese Oil Futures: Performing As Predicted

Filed under: China,Commodities,Derivatives,Economics,Energy — cpirrong @ 6:27 pm

The recent introduction of Shanghai oil futures has resulted in a lot of churn in the front month, and very little activity in even the 1st and 2nd nearby:

China’s new oil futures are a hit with investors but they’re facing commitment issues.

While daily volume in the yuan-denominated contract has increased five-fold since its debut in late-March amid steady growth in open interest, almost all trading is focused in front-month, September futures.

. . . .

It suggests that, for now, traders are using the futures principally to speculate on short-term price fluctuations, as opposed to hedge long-term consumption or production, according to Jia Zheng, a portfolio manager at Shanghai Minghong Investment Co.

Which is pretty much what I predicted on the day of the launch:

Will it succeed?  Well, that depends on how you measure success.  No doubt it will generate heavy volume.  Speculative enthusiasm runs deep in China, and retail traders trade a lot.  They would probably make a guano futures contract a success, if it were launched: they will no doubt be attracted to crude.

. . . .

If you are looking for a metric of success as a commercial tool (rather than of its success as a money making venture for the exchange) look at open interest, not volume.  And look in particular in open interest in the back months.  This will take some time to build, and in the meantime I imagine that there will be a lot of awed commentary about trading volume.  But that’s not the main indicator of the utility of a contract as a commercial risk management and price discovery tool.


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June 28, 2018

A Tarnished GEM: A Casualty of Regulation, Spread Explosions, or Both?

Filed under: Clearing,Commodities,Derivatives,Economics,Energy,Exchanges,Regulation — The Professor @ 6:28 pm

Geneva Energy Markets LLC, a large independent oil market maker, has been shuttered.  Bloomberg and the FT have stories on GEM’s demise.  The Bloomberg piece primarily communicates the firm’s official explanation: the imposition of the Basel III leverage ratio on GEM’s clearer raised the FCM’s capital requirement, and it responded by forcing GEM to reduce its positions sharply.  The FT story contains the same explanation, but adds this: “Geneva Energy Markets, which traded between 50m and 100m barrels a day of oil, has sold its trading book after taking ‘significant losses’ in oil futures and options, a person close to the company said.”

These stories are of course not mutually exclusive, and the timing of the announcement that the firm is shutting down months after it had already been ordered to reduce positions suggests a way of reconciling them. Specifically, the firm had suffered loss that made it impossible to support even its shrunken positions.

The timing is consistent with this.  GEM is primarily a spread trader, and oil spreads have gone crazy lately.  In particular, spread position short nearby WTI has been killed in recent days due to the closure of Canadian oil sands production and the relentless exports of US oil.  The fall in supply and continued strong demand have led to a rapid fall in oil stocks, especially at Cushing.  This has been accompanied (as theory says it should be!) by a spike in the WTI backwardation, and a rise in the WTI-Brent differential (and other quality spreads with a WTI leg).  If GEM was short the calendar spread, or had a position in quality spreads that went pear-shaped with the explosion in WTI, it could have taken a big hit.  Or at least a big enough hit to make it unviable to continue to operate at a profitable scale.

Here’s a cautionary tale.  Stop me if you’ve heard it before:

“The notional value of our book was in excess of $50 billion,” Vonderheide said. “However, the actual risk of the book was always relatively low, with at value-at-risk at around $2 million at any given time.”

If I had a dollar for every time that I’ve heard/read “No worries! Our VaR is really low!” only to have the firm fold (or survive a big loss) I would be livin’ large.  VaR works.  Until it doesn’t.  At best, it tells you the minimum loss you can suffer with a certain probability: it doesn’t tell you how much worse than that it can get.  This is why VaR is being replaced or supplemented with other measures that give a better measure of downside risk (e.g., expected shortfall).

I would agree, however, with GEM managing partner Mark Vonderheide (whom I know slightly):

“The new regulation is seriously damaging the liquidity in the energy market,” Vonderheide said. “If the regulation was intending to create a safer and more efficient market, it has done completely the opposite.”

It makes it costlier to make markets, which erodes market liquidity, thereby making it costlier for firms to hedge, and more difficult to enter and exit positions.  Liquidity reductions resulting from this type of regulation tend to be most acute during periods of high volatility–which can exacerbate the volatility, perversely.  Moreover, like much of Frankendodd and its foreign fellow monsters, it tends to hit small to medium sized firms worse than bigger ones, and thereby contributes to greater concentration in the markets–exactly the opposite of the stated purpose.

As Reagan said: “The most terrifying words in the English language are: I’m from the government and I’m here to help.” Just ask GEM about that.

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May 24, 2018

Gazprom and Its Connected Contractors: The Credit Mobilier Scheme, With Russian Variations

Filed under: Commodities,Economics,Energy,History,Russia — The Professor @ 6:05 pm

A couple of SWP friends were kind enough to send me a copy of the swan song of one Alex Fak, an erstwhile senior analyst at Sberbank.  Alex lost his job because he committed a mortal sin: telling the truth, in this instance about the monstrosity that I have savaged for years–Gazprom.

Alex said that the oft-heard question “why does Gazprom do such stupid things?” is off base because it presumes that the company is run in the interest of shareholders: if it were, its unmatched record of value destruction would indeed be stupid.  However, Mr. Fax opined that the company’s actions over the decades are definitely not stupid if you evaluate them from the perspective of its contractors, who make massive amounts of money building obscenely negative NPV projects.

Why does this persist, in the Putin era, which allegedly cracked down on oligarchic thievery? Well, one reason is that the biggest contractors happen to be owned by–wait for it–the two biggest friends of Vova: Gennady Timchenko (a hockey buddy) and Arkady Rotenberg (a judo buddy).*  Putin did not eliminate oligarchs, so much as replace them with his cronies.  Calling out such connected men by name is no doubt why Mr. Fax is an ex-Sberbank analyst.  And saying this kind of thing puts him at risk of being an ex-person.

The Gazprom MO described by Mr. Fak  represents a continuation of, and a mega-sizing of, the bizness model of the 1990s, when the “red directors” of state-owned firms tunneled out huge amounts of funds by having their firms buy supplies and services at seriously inflated prices from firms owned by their relatives.

Indeed, in the pre-Cambrian days of this blog–2006(!)–I hypothesized that Gazprom and its contractors were in effect a Russian version of Credit Mobilier, the construction firm that the Union Pacific hired to build the railroad.

The WaPo article also mentions that Gazprom’s pipeline construction costs are two to three times industry norms. To me this suggests a Credit Mobilier-Union Pacific type situation, where inflated prices for materials and equipment flow into the pockets of companies owned by Gazprom managers. Just thinkin’.

Thomas C. Durant was the president of the Union Pacific–and the major shareholder in Credit Mobilier.  The UP paid Credit Mobilier around $94 million, and Credit Mobilier incurred only about $50 million in costs to build the UP.   The Gazprom arrangement is somewhat different given that neither Timchenko nor Rotenberg are executives at the Russian gas giant, but the basic idea is very similar. (I also noted early on that Transneft, the oil pipeline monopoly, operates on the same model.)  Gazprom and its contractors operate on the Credit Mobilier model, with Russian variations.

Once upon a time Gazprom CEO Alexei Miller boasted that he would make Gazprom the world’s first trillion dollar company.  Today it’s market cap is south of $55 billion.  Hey! anybody can be off by two orders of magnitude, right?

This is not surprising, because maximizing value to shareholders is not, nor has it ever been, the objective of Gazprom.  The objective is, and always has been, to divert resources to the politically connected via wasteful capital expenditures (that happen to be the revenues of the likes of Timchenko and Rotenberg).  Alex Fak understood this, and paid the price for shouting that the emperor had no clothes.

Both Gazprom and Rosneft are world leaders in destroying value, rather than creating it.  But this is a feature, not a bug, given the natural state political economy of Russia, which prioritizes rent creation and redistribution to the elite. And this is precisely why Russia’s pretensions to great power status rest on economic quicksand.  That should be blindingly obvious, and I am sure that Putin understands this at some level.  But revealed preference suggests that he values enriching his friends more than implementing the economic changes that would make his nation economically and militarily competitive.

*The sums tunneled from Gazprom to Timchenko make me laugh when I think about the oft-repeated allegation that oil trader Gunvor (half-owned by Timchenko) was a source of massive personal wealth for Putin (via Timchenko).  There was much more money to be made much closer to home, and completely outside the scrutiny of bankers and regulators.

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May 17, 2018

Rosneft: The Farce Continues

Filed under: Commodities,Economics,Energy,Russia — The Professor @ 7:22 pm

Remember when the Russian government said it was going to privatize a piece of Rosneft? Hahahaha. That is so 2016–please try to keep up!  In its announcement of “Rosneft 2022” the company proposes to buy back about $2 billion in shares, which is just about 20 percent of the piece sold off in 2016–no, wait–2017–no, wait–2018.  Adding even more hilarity is that the buyback plan was apparently at the insistence of Qatar, the last buyer standing which agreed to buy most of the shares initially privatized, much to the relief of the banks (Intesa and unnamed Russian ones) who were wearing a big piece of the risk.

I’m guessing that this was one of the terms Qatar laid down to absorb the entire hand-me-down stake for the original 2016 price, even though in Euro terms Rosneft’s shares are substantially lower today (despite a rallying oil price!)

Quite the vote of confidence there, eh?  Well, not that that’s surprising.  The conspicuous failure of any Chinese buyer to step into the shoes of disgraced CEFC tells you just how much confidence Rosneft inspires these days.

I am hard pressed to recall such a farcical series of events involving a major company.  If this one of  Russia’s state champions, just think of the shape the palookas are in!

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