Streetwise Professor

November 28, 2022

I Remain DeFiant: DeFi Is Not the Answer (to Price Discovery) in Crypto

The meltdown of FTX continues to spark controversy and commentary. A recent theme in this commentary is that the FTX disaster represents a failure of centralization that decentralized finance–DeFI–could correct. Examples include contributions by the very smart and knowledgeable Campbell Harvey of Duke, and an OpEd in today’s WSJ.

I agree that the failure of FTX demonstrates that the crypto business as it is, as opposed to how it is often portrayed, is highly centralized. But the FTX implosion does not demonstrate that centralization of crypto trading per se is fundamentally flawed: FTX is an example of centralization done the worst way, without any of the institutional and regulatory safeguards employed by exchanges like CME, Eurex, and ICE.

Indeed, for reasons I have laid out going back to 2018 at the latest, the crypto market was centralized for fundamental economic reasons, and it makes sense that centralization done right will prevail in crypto going forward.

The competitor for centralization advocated by Harvey and the WSJ OpEd and many others is “DeFi”–decentralized finance. This utilizes the nature of blockchain technology and smart contracts to facilitate crypto trading without centralized intermediaries like exchanges.

One of the exemplars of the DeFi argument is “automated market making” (“AMM”) of crypto. This article provides details, but the basic contours are easily described. Market participants contribute crypto to pools consisting of pairs of assets. For example, a pool may consist of Ether (ETH) and the stablecoin Tether (USDT). The relative price of the assets in the pool is determined by a formula, e.g., XETH*XUSDT=K, where K is a constant, XETH is the amount of ETH in the pool and XUSDT is the amount of Tether. If I contribute 1 unit of ETH to the pool, I am given K units of USDT, so the relative price of ETH (in terms of Tether) is K: the price of Tether (in terms of Ether) is 1/K.

Fine. But does this mechanism provide price discovery? Not directly, and not in the same way a centralized exchange like CME does for something like corn futures. DeFi/AMM essentially relies on an arbitrage mechanism to keep prices aligned across exchanges (like, FTX once up an time and Binance now) and other DeFi AMMs. If the price of Ether on one platform is K but the price on another is say .95K, I buy ETH on the latter platform and sell Ether on the former platform. (Just like Sam and Caroline supposedly did on Almeda!) This tends to drive prices across platforms towards equality.

But where does the price discovery take place? To what price do all the platforms converge? This mechanism equalizes prices across platforms, but in traditional financial markets (TradFi, for the consagneti!) price discovery tends to be a natural monopoly, or at least has strong natural monopoly tendencies. For example, it the days prior to RegNMS, virtually all price discovery in NYSE stocks occurred on the NYSE, even though it accounted only for about 75-80 percent of volume. Satellite markets used NYSE prices to set their own prices. (In the RegNMS market, the interconnected exchanges are the locus of price discovery.)

Why is this?: the centripetal forces of trading with private information. Something that Admati-Pfleiderer analyzed 30+ years ago, and I have shown in my research. Basically, informed traders profit most by trading where most uninformed traders trade, and the uninformed mitigate their losses to the informed by trading in the same place. These factors reinforce one another, leading to a consolidation of informed trading in a single market, and the consolidation of uninformed trading on the same market except to the extent that the uninformed can segment themselves by trading on platforms with mechanisms that make it costly for the informed to exploit their information, such as trade-at-settlement, dark pools, and block trading. (What constitutes “informed” in crypto is a whole other subject for another time.)

It is likely that the same mechanism is at work in crypto. Although trading consolidation is not as pronounced there as it is in other asset classes, crypto has become very concentrated, with Binance capturing around 75-80 percent of trading even before the FTX bankruptcy.

So theory and some evidence suggests that price discovery takes place on exchanges, and that DeFi platforms are satellite markets that rely on arbitrage directly or indirectly with exchanges to determine price. (This raises the question of whether the AMM mechanism is sufficiently costly for informed traders to insure that their users are effectively noise traders.)

The implication of this is that DeFi is not a close substitute for centralized trading of crypto. (I note that DeFi trading of stocks and currencies is essentially parasitical on price discovery performed elsewhere.) So just because SBF centralized crypto trading in the worst way doesn’t mean that decentralization is the answer–or will prevail in equilibrium as anything more than an ancillary trading mechanism suited for a specific clientele, and not be the primary locus of price discovery.

The future of crypto will therefore almost certainly involve a high degree of centralization–performed by adults, operating in a rigorous legal environment, unlike SBF/FTX. That’s where price discovery will occur. In my opinion, DeFi will play an ancillary role, just as off-exchange venues do today in equities, and did prior to RegNMS.

One last remark. One thing that many in the financial markets deplore is the fragmentation of trading in equities. It is allegedly highly inefficient. Dark pools, etc., have been heavily criticized.

Fragmentation and decentralization is also a criticism leveled against OTC derivatives markets–here it has been fingered as a source of systemic risk, and this criticism resulted in things like OTC clearing mandates and swap execution facility mandates.

It’s fair to say, therefore, that in financial market conventional wisdom, decentralization=bad.

But now, a failure of a particular centralized entity is leading people to tout the virtues of decentralization. Talk about strange new respect!

All of these criticisms are largely misguided. As I’ve written extensively in the past, fragmentation in TradFi is a way of accommodating the diverse needs of diverse market participants. And just because some hopped up pervs found that running a centralized “exchange” was actually a great way to steal money from those blinded by their BS doesn’t mean that centralization is inherently unfitted for crypto because decentralized mechanisms also exist.

If crypto trading is to survive, well-operated centralized platforms will play an outsized role, supplemented by decentralized ones. Crypto is not so unique that the economic forces that have shaped market structure in stocks and derivatives will not operate there.

So don’t overgeneralize from a likely (and hopefully!) extreme case driven by the madness of woke crowds.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

November 14, 2022

Regulate This! Yeah? How?

Filed under: Cryptocurrency,Economics,Exchanges,Politics,Regulation — cpirrong @ 12:30 pm

As day follows night, the vaporization of FTX has spurred calls for regulation of crypto markets. Well, what kind of regulation, exactly? It matters.

It appears highly likely that SBF and his Merry Gang (of pervy druggies?) broke oodles of laws, in multiple jurisdictions. Class action lawsuits are definitely incoming, and the DOJ’s SDNY attorneys’ office is commencing a criminal investigation. No doubt criminal investigations will follow in other locations. So what would more laws accomplish, and what kind of laws and regulations would help?

It is interesting to note that SBF was going around DC and the media talking up regulating the industry, and winning effusive plaudits (but not from CZ!) for doing so, but his proposals didn’t come within a million miles of his alleged wrongdoing. I’m sure you’re shocked.

On CNBC, Bankman-Fried endorsed three regulatory endeavors: stablecoin auditing, “markets regulation” of spot trading, and token registration (at about the 4:30 mark):

None of which touches on the fundamental issue in the FTX fiasco, and in crypto market structure generally: the role of “exchanges” in supplying broker dealer and banking services, including liquidity, maturity, and credit transformations.

No doubt SBF was adding to his savior glow by pushing regulation that he knew was utterly irrelevant to the core of his business (and the business of all other crypto “exchanges”). And look at how many suckers fell for it.

So what would help? As I noted at the outset, FTX, Bankman-Fried, et al likely violated numerous laws. So what additional laws would reduce the likelihood and severity of such actions?

In thinking about this, remembering the distinction between ex ante and ex post regulation is important. Ex post regulation involves the imposition of sanctions on malfeasors after they have been found to have committed offense: the idea is to deter bad conduct through punishment after the fact. In contrast, ex ante regulation attempts to prevent bad acts by imposing various constraints on potential wrongdoers.

The choice between ex ante and ex post depends on a variety of factors. Two of the most important (and related) are whether the bad actor is judgment proof (i.e., will have the resources to recompense those he has harmed) and the probability of detection. (These are related because a low probability of detection requires a higher penalty to achieve deterrence, but a higher penalty increases the chances that the wrongdoer is judgment proof).

In the case of things like what has apparently happened here, the probability of detection is high (1.00 actually), but the magnitude of the harm is so great and the (negative) correlation between the harm and the wrongdoer’s ability to pay is so high (essentially -1.00) that ex post deterrence is problematic.

(Judgment proof-ness is actually a justification for criminal law and the use of incarceration as punishment. Deterrence through fines doesn’t work with broke bad guys, so non-monetary punishment is necessary–but often not sufficient!)

So there is a case for ex ante regulation here, just as there is a case for ex ante regulation of banks and intermediaries like broker dealers and FCMs. Banking examiners, regulatory audits, customer seg rules, and the like.

But these are obviously not panaceas. Bank fraud still occurs with depressing regularity, and the things that facilitate it, like valuation challenges, accounting shenanigans, and so on, occur in spades in crypto. And, even in highly regulated US markets, violation of seg rules and misuse of customer assets occurs: yeah, I’m looking at you John Corzine/MF Global.

The big problems in crypto markets are essentially agency problems, especially since the crucial agents–crypto “exchanges”–are so concentrated and so vertically integrated into both execution and various forms of financial transformations.

Ex ante regulation focused on such issues could be a boon, and could help stabilize crypto markets generally. The spillovers we are seeing from FTX’s vaporization are essentially a reputational contagion: the mini (so far) runs on other “exchanges” reflect FUD about their probity and solvency. (NB: Binance, as the biggest “exchange,” and as opaque as FTX, is a serious run risk. BlockFi and AAX may already be in the crosshairs here: glitch in the systems upgrade. Riiiiigggghhhht.)

The challenge is that the demise of financial intermediaries is well-described by a famous Hemingway quote:

“How did you go bankrupt?” Bill asked. “Two ways,” Mike said. “Gradually, then suddenly.”

An intermediary can go along swimmingly, meeting all seg requirements and the like, and a big market move or bad bet or an operational SNAFU can put it on the brink very suddenly–and encourage gambling for resurrection by using customer funds to extend and pretend. So don’t expect such regulation to be a panacea, and prevent the recurrence of FTXs. Regulation or no, this happens with intermediaries that engage in liquidity, maturity, and credit transformations that are inherently fragile. (And may be fragile by design, as Doug Diamond has pointed out.)

On the regulation issue, one fascinating sidebar is my old bête noire, Gary Gensler. You don’t need to play 6 Degrees From SBF to ensnare most of the Democratic establishment: one or two degrees will do, and Gensler definitely qualifies.

In addition to the MIT connection, Gensler apparently had other interactions with Bankman-Fried. And of course Gensler is a player in the Democratic Party (he was Hillary’s campaign’s finance chair, after all), and Bankman-Fried was a major Dem donor (second largest after Soros in the most recent cycle, and he had talked about spending up to a billion in the 2024 campaign).

Questions have been raised.

When initially questioned about FTX, Gensler was very defensive:  “Building the evidence, building the facts often takes time.”

I am reserving judgment, but I hope someone takes the time to examine the links and interactions between SBF/FTX and Gensler (and other DC creatures)–and build the evidence and facts, if it comes to that.

My guess is that Gensler will try to pull a judo move and use this fiasco as a justification for expanding the power of the SEC. Indeed, I expect him to be in high dudgeon precisely to deflect attention from his (and his party’s) links to SBF. Don’t let him get away with it.

And don’t think that these links can be exposed through a FOIA. Gensler has long been known for using his private email to conduct official business. (Which is precisely why I didn’t bother FOAI-ing him years ago regarding my suspicions of his interactions with David Kocieniewski.) So deeper digging is required, and it should commence, post haste.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

July 13, 2022

A Streetwise Professor Commodities Podcast

Filed under: Clearing,Commodities,Derivatives,Economics,Energy,Exchanges,Regulation — cpirrong @ 3:55 pm

HC Group were kind enough to include me in their HC Insider podcast. Paul Chapman and I discussed systemic risk issues in commodity markets, which is a hot topic these days given the tumult in commodities since last fall. Central banks and regulators are paying closer attention to commodities now than they ever have.

Here’s a link to the Podcast. As you can see from the categories, we covered a lot of ground. Hope you find it informative.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

June 8, 2022

Gary “Bourbon” Gensler: He’s Learned Nothing, and Forgotten Nothing

Filed under: Derivatives,Economics,Exchanges,Regulation — cpirrong @ 3:38 pm

Gary Gensler is back, as clueless as ever. Perhaps in a future post I will discuss his malign proposal on corporate climate disclosure, but today I will focus on his latest brainwave: the restructuring of US equity markets.

In a speech, Gensler outlined his incisive critique of market structure:

“Right now, there isn’t a level playing field among different parts of the market: wholesalers, dark pools, and lit exchanges,” Gensler said in remarks delivered virtually for an event hosted by Piper Sandler in New York. “It’s not clear, given the current market segmentation, concentration, and lack of a level playing field, that our current national market system is as fair and competitive as possible for investors,” adding that there was a cost being borne by retail investors.  

“Level playing field” is a favorite trope of his, and of regulators generally. But what does it even mean in this context? Seriously–I have no idea. It’s just something that sounds good to the gullible that has no analytical content whatsoever. Yes, there are a variety of different types of market participants in competition and cooperation with one another. How does the existing setup disadvantage or advantage one group of participants in an inefficient way? How do we know that the current distribution of winners and losers does not reflect fundamental economic conditions? Gensler doesn’t say–he doesn’t even define what a level playing field is. He just makes the conclusory statement that the playing field isn’t level.

Furthermore, note the mealy mouthed statement “It’s not clear . . . that our current national market system is as fair and competitive as possible.” Well, then it’s not clear that it isn’t as fair and competitive as possible. And if Gensler isn’t clear about the fairness and competitiveness of the current system, how can he justify a regulator-mandated change in that system?

For God’s sake man, at least make a case that the current system is inefficient or unfair. If your case is bullshit, I’ll let you know. But to call for a massive change in policy just because you aren’t certain the current system is perfect is completely inadequate.

The Nirvana Fallacy looks good by comparison. At least the Nirvana Fallacy is rooted in some argument that the status quo is imperfect.

Foremost in GiGi’s crosshairs is payment for order flow (“PFOF”). This practice exercises a lot of people, but as Matt Levine notes, and as I’ve noted for years, it exists for a reason. Different types of order flow have different costs to service. Retail order flow is cheaper to trade against because retail traders are unlikely to be informed, which reduces adverse selection costs. PFOF is a way of segmenting order flow and charging retail traders lower prices which reflect their lower costs, in the current environment through zero (or very low commissions). This passes some (and arguably all) of the value of retail order flow to the retail traders.

The main concern over PFOF is that retail investors won’t see the benefit. Their brokers will pocket the payments they get from the wholesalers they sell the order flow to, and won’t pass it on to investors. Well, overlooking the fact that’s a distributive and not an efficiency issue, that’s where you rely on competition in the brokerage sector. Competition will drive the prices brokers charge customers down to the cost of serving them net of any payments they receive from wholesalers. In a highly competitive market for brokerage services, retail traders will capture the lion’s share of the value in their order flow.

So if you think retail customers are not reaping 100 pct of the benefits of PFOF (which begs the question of whether that’s the appropriate standard), then the focus should be on documenting some inadequacy of competition (which has NOT been done, and which Gensler does not even discuss); and if (and only if) that analysis does demonstrate that competition is inadequate, devising policies to enhance competition in the brokerage sector.

Only if (a) it is somehow efficient (or “fair”) for retail investors to reap 100 pct (or a large fraction) of PFOF revenues, (b) brokerage competition is inadequate to achieve objective (a), and (c) policies to enhance brokerage competition are inferior to banning or restricting PFOF is such a restriction/ban sufficient.

Does Gensler do any of that? Surely you jest. He says “unlevel playing field blah blah blah crack down on PFOF QED.” It is fundamentally unserious intellectual mush.

Gensler’s approach to equity market structure is disturbingly similar–and disturbingly similarly idiotic–to his approach to swap market structure in the Frankendodd days. As I (tediously after a while) wrote repeatedly while the CFTC was working on Swap Execution Facility regulations, Gensler favored a one-size-fits-all approach that failed to recognize that market structures develop to accommodate the disparate needs and preferences of heterogeneous traders. OTC and exchange markets served different clienteles and trading protocols and market structures were adapted to serving those clienteles efficiently. He did not analyze competition in any serious way at all. He did not address the Chesterton’s Fence question–why are things they way they are–before charging full speed to change them.

History is repeating itself with equity market structure. PFOF is an institution that has evolved in response to the characteristics of a particular class of market participants, (relatively) uninformed retail investors.

Crucially, it is an institution that has evolved in a competitive environment. There is value in retail order flows. There will be competition to capture that value. Considerable competition will ensure that retail investors will capture most of the value.

Gensler has proposed requiring routing all retail order flow through an auction mechanism where wholesalers will compete to offer the best price. The idea is that the auction prices will be inside the NMS spread, giving retail customers a better execution price.

But it’s a leap of faith to assert that this improvement in execution price will exceed the loss of PFOF that is passed back to investors through lower commissions. Will the auction be more competitive than the current market for retail order flow (including both the broker-wholesale and broker-customer segments)? Who knows? Gensler hasn’t even raised the issue–which demonstrates that he really doesn’t understand the real economic issues here. (Big shock, eh?)

And again, this means that the appropriate analysis is a comparative one focusing on competition under alternative institutional arrangements/market structures.

And insofar as competition is concerned, if auctions are such a great idea, why didn’t an exchange or an ECN or some other entity create one? Barriers to entry are low, especially in the modern electronic world.

I further note the following. One potential reason to eliminate or reduce PFOF that would actually be grounded in good economics is that segmentation of order flow exacerbates adverse selection problems on lit markets (exchanges) causing wider spreads there. However, the auction proposal would not mitigate that problem at all. The exacerbation of adverse selection is due to segmentation of order flow. The auction is just another way of segmenting order flow, and executing that order flow outside the lit exchange markets.

And here’s an irony. Assume arguendo that the auction does benefit retail investors–they capture more of the value inherent in their order flow. That would tend to lead to more order flow being directed to the auction market, and less to the lit markets. This would increase adverse selection costs in lit markets, exacerbating the inefficiencies of segmentation.

Nah. GiGi hasn’t thought that through either.

Talleyrand said of the Bourbons: they have learned nothing, and they have forgotten nothing. That’s Gary Gensler in a nutshell. He hasn’t learned any real economics, especially the economics of market structure and competition. But he hasn’t forgotten that he knows best, and he hasn’t forgotten the things that he knew that just aren’t true. That is a poisonous combination that damaged the derivatives markets when he was CFTC chair. But Gensler figures his work isn’t done. He has to damage the equity markets too based on his capricious understanding of how markets work–which is really no understanding at all.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

May 28, 2022

A Timely Object Lesson on the Dangers of Tight Coupling in Financial Markets, and Hence the Lunacy of Fetishizing Algorithms

FTAlphaville had a fascinating piece this week in which it described a discussion at a CFTC roundtable debating the FTX proposal that is generating so much tumult in DerivativesWorld. In a nutshell, Chris Edmonds of ICE revealed that due to a “technical issue” during the market chaos of March 2020 (which I wrote about in a Journal of Applied Corporate Finance piece) a large market participant was arguably in default to the ICE clearinghouse, but ICE (after consulting with the CEO, i.e., Jeff Sprecher) did not pull the trigger and call a default. Instead, it gave some time for the incipient defaulter to resolve the issue.

This raises an issue that I have written about for going on 15 years–the “tight coupling” of the clearing mechanism, and the acute destabilizing potential thereof. Tightly coupled systems are subject to”normal accidents” (also known as systemic collapses–shitshows): in a tightly coupled system, everything must operate in a tight sequence, and the failure of one piece of the system can cause the collapse of the entire system.

If ICE had acted in a mechanical fashion, and declared a default, the default of a large member could have caused the failure of ICE clearing, which would have had serious consequences for the entire financial system, especially in its COVID-induced febrile state. But ICE had people in the loop, which loosened the coupling and prevented a “normal accident” (i.e., the failure of ICE clearing and perhaps the financial system).

I have a sneaking suspicion that the exact same thing happened with LME during the nickel cluster almost exactly two years after the ICE situation. It is evident that LME uncoupled the entire system–by shutting down trading altogether, apparently suspending some margin calls, and even tearing up trades.

Put differently, it’s a good thing that important elements of the financial system have ways of loosening the coupling when by-the-book (or by-the algorithm) operation would lead to its destruction.

The ICE event was apparently a “technical issue.” Well that’s exactly the point–failures of technology can lead to the collapse of tightly coupled systems. And these failures are ubiquitous: remember the failures of FedWire on 19 October, 1987, which caused huge problems. (Well, you’re probably not old enough to remember. That’s why you need me.)

This issue came up during the FTX roundtable precisely because FTX (and its fanboyz) tout its algorithmic, no-man-in-the-loop operation as its innovation, and its virtue. But that gets it exactly backwards: it is its greatest vulnerability, and its greatest threat to the financial markets more generally. We should be thankful ICE had adults, not algos, in charge.

As I pointed out in my post on FTX in March:

The mechanical means of addressing margin shortfalls on a real time frequency increases the tight coupling on the exchange, and is tailor made to create destabilizing positive feedback loops: prices move a lot leading to margin shortfalls in real time that trigger real time trades that accentuate the price movement. It is like seeding the market with huge numbers of stop orders, which are inherently destabilizing. Further, they can create incentives to manipulate. Anyone who can get some idea of where the stops are can “gun the stops” and trigger big price moves.

It’s particularly remarkable that FTX still is the subject of widespread adulation in light of Terra’s spiraling into the terra firma. As I said in my Luna post, it is lunatic to algorithmize positive feedback (i.e., doom) loops. (You might guess I don’t have a Luna tattoo. Not getting an FTX tattoo either!*)

FTX’s Sam Bankman-Fried is backtracking somewhat:

In the face of the agricultural industry complaints, Bankman-Fried gave ground. While maintaining his position that automated liquidations could prevent bad situations from growing worse, he said the FTX approach was better suited to “digitally settled” contracts — such as those for crypto — than to trades where physical collateral such as wheat or corn is used

Sorry, Sam, but digital settlement vs. physical settlement matters fuck all. (And “physical collateral”? Wut?) And you are deluded if you believe that “automated liquidations” generally prevent bad situations from growing worse. If you think that, you don’t get it, and are a positive threat to the financial markets.

*FTX bought the naming rights for a stadium in Miami. I say only slightly in jest that this is another indication of the dangers posed by FTX and its messianic founder. FFS, you’d think after the 2000 tech meltdown people would recognize that buying naming rights is often a great short selling signal, and a harbinger of future collapse. To say that those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it is too strong, but those who follow in the footsteps of failures that took place before their time betray an an arrogance (or an ignorance) that greatly raises the odds of repeating failure.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

March 16, 2022

The Current Volatility Is A Risk to Commodity Trading Firms, But They are Not Too Big to Fail

The tumult in the commodity markets has led to suggestions that major commodity trading firms, e.g., Glencore, Trafigura, Gunvor, Cargill, may be “Too Big to Fail.”

I addressed this specific issue in two of my Trafigura white papers, and in particular in this one. The title (“Not Too Big to Fail”) pretty much gives away the answer. I see no reason to change that opinion in light of current events.

First, it is important to distinguish between “can fail” and “too big to fail.” There is no doubt that commodity trading firms can fail, and have failed in the past. That does not mean that they are too big to fail, in the sense that the the failure of one would or could trigger a broader disruption in the financial markets and banking system, a la Lehman Brothers in September 2018.

As I noted in the white paper, even the big commodity trading firms are not that big, as compared to major financial institutions. For example, Trafigura’s total assets are around $90 billion at present, in comparison to Lehman’s ~$640 billion in 2008. (Markets today are substantially larger than 14 years ago as well.). If you compare asset values, even the biggest commodity traders rank around banks you’ve never heard of.

Trafigura is heavily indebted (with equity of around $10 billion), but most of this is short term debt that is collateralized by relatively liquid short term assets such as inventory and trade receivables: this is the case with many other traders as well. Further, much of the debt (e.g., the credit facilities) are syndicated with broad participation, meaning that no single financial institution would be compromised by a commodity trader default. Moreover, trading firm balance sheets are different than banks’, as they do not engage in the maturity or liquidity transformation that makes banks’ balance sheets fragile (and which therefore pose run risk).

Commodity traders are indeed facing funding risks, which is one of the risks that I highlighted in the white paper:

The extraordinary price movements across the entire commodity space have resulted in a large spike in funding needs, both to meet margin calls (which at least in oil should have been reversed with the price decline in recent days–nickel remains to be seen given the fakakta price limits the LME imposed) and higher initial and maintenance margins (which exchanges have hiked–in a totally predictable procyclical fashion). As a result existing lines are exhausted, and firms are either scrambling to raise additional cash, cutting positions, or both. As an example of the former, Trafigura has supposedly held talks with Blackstone and other private equity firms to raise $3 billion in capital. As an example of the latter, open interest in oil futures (WTI and Brent) has dropped off as prices spiked.

To the extent margin calls were on hedging positions, there would have been non-cash gains to offset the losses on futures and other derivatives that gave rise to the margin calls. This provides additional collateral value that can support additional loans, though no doubt banks’ and other lenders terms will be more onerous now, given the volatility of the value of that collateral. All in all, these conditions will almost certainly result in a scaling back in trading firms’ activities and a widening of gross margins (i.e., the spread between traders’ sale and purchase prices). But the margin calls per se should not be a threat to the solvency of the traders.

What could threaten solvency? Basis risk for one. For examples, firms that had bought (and have yet to sell) Russian oil or refined products or had contracts to buy Russian oil/refined products at pre-established differentials, and had hedged those deals with Brent or WTI have suffered a loss on the blowout in the basis (spread) on Russian oil. Firms are also likely to handle substantially lower volumes of Russian oil, which of course hits profitability.

Another is asset exposure in Russia. Gunvor, for example, sold of most of its interest in the Ust Luga terminal, but retains a 26 percent stake. Trafigura took a 10 percent stake in the Rosneft-run Vostok oil project, paying €7 billion: Trafigura equity in the stake represented about 20 percent of the total. A Vitol-led consortium had bought a 5 percent stake. Trafigura is involved in a refinery JV in India with Rosneft. (It announced its intention to exist the deal last autumn, but I haven’t seen confirmation that it has.). If it still holds the stake, I doubt it will find a lot of firms willing to step up and pay to participate in a JV with Rosneft.

It is these types of asset exposures that likely explain the selloff in Trafigura and Gunvor debt (with the Gunvor fall being particularly pronounced.). Losses on Russian assets are a totally different animal than timing mismatches between cash flows on hedging instruments and the goods being hedged caused by big price moves.

But even crystalization of these solvency risks would likely not lead to a broader fallout in the financial system. It would suck for the owners of a failed company (e.g., Torben Tornqvuist, who owns ~85 percent of Gunvor) but that’s the downside of the private ownership structure (something also discussed in the white papers); Ferrarri and Bulgari sales would fall in Geneva; banks would take a hit, but the losses would be fairly widely distributed. But in the end, the companies would be restructured, and during the restructuring process the firms would continue to operate (although at a lower scale), some of their business would move to the survivors (it’s an ill wind that blows no one any good), and commodities would continue to move. Gross margins would widen in the industry, but this would not make a huge difference either upstream or downstream.

I should also note that the Lehman episode is likely not an example of a domino effect in the sense that losses on exposures to Lehman put other banks into insolvency which harmed their creditors, etc. Instead, it was more likely an informational cascade in which its failure sent a negative signal about (a) the value of assets held widely by other banks, and (b) what central banks could or would do to support a failing financial institution. I don’t think those forces are at work in commodities at prsent.

The European Federation of Energy Traders has called upon European state bodies like European Investment Bank or the ECB to provide additional liquidity to the market. There is a case to be made here. Even though funding disruptions, or even the failure of commodity trading firms, are unlikely to create true systemic risks, they may impede the flow of commodities. Acting under the Bagehot principle, loans against good collateral at a penalty rate, is reasonable here.

The reason for concern about the commodity shock is not that it will destabilize commodity trading firms, and that this will spill over to the broader financial system. Instead, it is that the price shock–particularly in energy–will result in a large, worldwide recession that could have financial stability implications. Relatedly, the food price shocks in particular will likely result in massive civil disturbances in low income countries. A reprise of the Arab Spring is a serious possibility.

If you worry about the systemic effects of a commodity price shock, those are the things you should worry about. Not whether say Gunvor goes bust.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

March 11, 2022

Direct Clearing at FTX: A Corner Solution, and Likely a Dead End With Destabilizing Potential

In a weird counterpoint to the LME nickel story, another big clearing-related story that is causing a lot of consternation in derivatives circles is FTX exchange’s proposal to move to a direct clearing model that would dispense with FCMs as intermediaries. Instead of having an FCM interposed between a customer and the clearinghouse, the customer interfaces directly with the FTX Derivatives Clearing Organization (DCO).

What is crucial here is how this is supposed to work: FTX will utilize near real time mark-to-market and variation margin payments. Moreover, the exchange will automate the liquidation of undermargined positions, again basically in real time.

The mechanics are described here.

FTX describes this as being the next big thing in the derivatives markets, and a way of addressing systemic risks. Basically the pitch is simple: “real time margining allows us to operate a pure no credit/loser pays system.”

FTX touts this as a feature, but as the nickel experience demonstrates (and other previous episodes demonstrate) it is not. Margining generally can be destabilizing, especially during stressed market conditions, and the model FTX is advancing exacerbates the destabilizing potential of margining.

The mechanical means of addressing margin shortfalls on a real time frequency increases the tight coupling on the exchange, and is tailor made to create destabilizing positive feedback loops: prices move a lot leading to margin shortfalls in real time that trigger real time trades that accentuate the price movement. It is like seeding the market with huge numbers of stop orders, which are inherently destabilizing. Further, they can create incentives to manipulate. Anyone who can get some idea of where the stops are can “gun the stops” and trigger big price moves.

This instability potential can be exacerbated by the ability of traders to hold collateral in the form of the “underlying” (i.e., crypto, at present). Well, the collateral value can fluctuate, and that can contribute to margin shortfalls which again trigger stops.

Market participants can mitigate getting stopped out by substantially over-margining, i.e., holding a lot of excess margin in their FTX account. But this is a cash inefficient way of trading.

It’s not clear to me whether FTX will pay interest on collateral. It seems not. Hmmm. Implementing a model that incentivizes holding a lot of extra cash at FTX and not paying interest. Cynic that I am, that seems to be a great way to bet on higher interest rates! Maybe that’s FTX’s real game here.

I would also note that the “no leverage” story here reflects a decidedly non-systemic view (something that I pointed out years ago in my critiques of clearing mandates). Yes, real time margining plus holding of substantial excess margin reduces to a small level the amount of leverage extended by the CCP/DCO. But that is different than reducing the amount of margin in the system as a whole. People who have borrowing capacity and optimal total leverage targets can fund their deposits at FTX with leverage from other sources. They can offset the leverage they normally obtain from FCMs by taking more leverage from other sources.

In sum, FTX is arguing that its mechanism of direct clearing and real time margining creates a far more effective “no credit” clearing system than the existing FCM-intermediated structure. That’s likely true. But as I’ve banged on about for years, that’s not necessarily a good thing. The features that FTX touts as advantages have very serious downsides–especially in stressed market conditions where they tend to accelerate price moves rather than dampen them.

Insofar as this being a threat to the existing intermediated system, which many in the industry appear to fear, I am skeptical. In particular, the cash inefficiency of this mechanism will make it unattractive to many market participants. Not to be Panglossian, but the existing intermediated system evolved as it did for good economic reasons. It trades off credit risk and liquidity risk. It does so in a somewhat discriminating way because it takes into account the creditworthiness of market participants (something that FTX brags is unnecessary in its system). FTX is something of a corner solution that the market has not adopted despite the opportunity to do so. As a result, I don’t think that corner solution will have widespread appeal going forward.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

November 7, 2021

You Can’t Spell “Cryptocurrency” Without “Crypt”

Filed under: Cryptocurrency,Exchanges,Politics,Regulation — cpirrong @ 7:25 pm

The libertarian/anarchist roots of cryptocurrency, especially Bitcoin, are well known. The supposed allure is that crypto would allow individuals to transact without requiring on state issued fiat currencies (which are subject to various government controls and monitoring) or state-sanctioned financial institutions. Crypto is in theory anonymous, decentralized, and peer-to-peer, outside of the purview or control of the state. A way to Go Galt, virtually.

In the early days of crypto, which of course are not that long ago, I expressed extreme skepticism about that vision. It could be realized only if crypto remained unimportant and utilized by few: if it were ever to become close to realizing the vision on a broad scale, it would be a threat to governments and they would intervene to control it, neuter it, co-opt it, or destroy it.

There’s an irony here. If you believe the ideological argument for crypto–that it is justified as a means of escaping a tyrannical government-sanctioned and controlled financial system–you also have to understand that governments would not permit crypto to survive as the true believers desire it to.

And we are at that point. Crypto has flourished in the last several years. Not surprisingly, governments are moving to crack down on it.

China–again not surprisingly–was the first to attack crypto in a systematic way, implementing a blanket ban on crypto transactions. But other governments are not far behind, including the US.

Indeed, perhaps you didn’t know this, but the marvelous “infrastructure” bill just passed by the House includes a provision mandating reporting of crypto transactions. The language is unsurprisingly murky, but the intent is quite clear: to bring crypto into the view of the federal government’s Panopticon, especially its tax Panopticon.

In both China and the US the regulatory/legal attack is focused on intermediaries (e.g., exchanges, brokers) that facilitate transactions. In theory, true peer-to-peer transactions (e.g., transactions between anonymous wallets) can be used to circumvent this, but the very fact that intermediation has proved so integral to the operation of the crypto market (which is in itself a refutation of the anarchist vision, as I pointed out in a post about Ethereum creator Vitalik Buterin) demonstrates that the regulations will seriously compromise the ability of crypto to achieve that vision. Moreover, this is just a first step, but one which strongly indicates intent: if non-intermediated transactions flourish, governments will devise means to bring them to heel too.

There’s also something else to keep an eye on: central bank digital currency. It is no coincidence, comrades, that the first country to crack down on non-government crypto–China–is also in the lead in implementing–mandating, actually–a government digital currency.

Private crypto is a competitor to government digital money. Governments don’t like competition. So they do their best to destroy it. Furthermore, the Chinese government truly desires to create an actual Panopticon that permits monitoring, rewarding, and punishing all aspects of individual behavior. Government digital currency greatly advances that objective, and private digital currency impedes it. So to advance the former China destroys the latter.

Governments world wide have cognitive dissonance when it comes to cash. On the one hand, it provides a source of revenue–seigniorage. On the other hand, it provides a way to circumvent the tax system as a way of generating revenue–and of monitoring and controlling behavior. Government digital currency allows states to resolve that dilemma. They can have their revenue cake and eat your privacy too.

China is open and unapologetic about its social credit system and its view that government digital currency will allow it to extend and deepen the operation of that system. Other governments are not so blatant, but there have been discussions in the US and Europe and elsewhere about not just the adoption of central bank digital currency, but how that system could be used to compel desired behavior.

A retired Swiss banker friend once held up a 100 CHF note to me and said: “when I hold this, I feel free.” Well, that’s a feature to him, but a bug to governments. When you “hold” government digital currency, you will not be free. Its use can be monitored. It can be wiped out at the speed of light if you use it in a way that offends governments–or if you do other things that offend governments. Think that social credit can’t come to the US? If so, you are a trusting fool. Especially since government digital currency incredibly leverages the power of a social credit system.

In other words, government digital currency is a major step to the implementation of a dystopian Panopticon. Destroying, or at least severely hobbling, non-government digital currency is a crucial first step to the successful introduction of government digital currency. So this provision buried in the “infrastructure” bill, along with other strong signals from the Treasury, OCC, SEC, CFTC, and Congress of an intent to throttle private crypto should be viewed with alarm, and not just if you are a believer in the crypto dream.

There’s another thought that comes to mind, more speculative, but one that cannot be dismissed out of hand. Namely, that what we are seeing is a huge bait-and-switch. Bitcoin’s origins are incredibly murky. Its creation myth is an anarchist one–which makes it very appealing to those who value freedom and independence, and bridle at government coercion and control. What better way to identify and ensnare such people–who are an anathema to control-obsessed governments–than creating cryptocurrency with an anarchist creation story?

And even if governments did not create the bait, they are certainly not above exploiting an emergent phenomenon (if that’s what crypto really is) to advance their anti-liberty agenda. Crypto has gained a cachet in large part because of its anti-authoritarian aura. Once attracted to crypto by this aura, people are much more vulnerable to being seduced into the use of government crypto, with the loss of freedom that implies.

The poem The Spider and the Fly comes to mind.

But although these speculations would have important implications if proven true, in many ways they are beside the point. The point is that governments are turning the screws on anarcho-crypto and moving to create fiat-crypto. These actions are complementary, and bring closer the day in which fiat-crypto will supplant the fiat currency you can hold in your hand. And when that day comes, freedom will be on its death bed, if not dead already.

Remember, you can’t spell “cryptocurrency” without “crypt.”

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

June 9, 2021

GiGi’s Back!: plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose

Filed under: Clearing,Economics,Exchanges,HFT,Regulation — cpirrong @ 2:45 pm

One of the few compensations I get from a Biden administration is that I have an opportunity to kick around Gary Gensler–“GiGi” to those in the know–again. Apparently feeling his way in his first few months as Chairman of the SEC, Gensler has been relatively quiet, but today he unburdened himself with deep thoughts about stock market structure. If you didn’t notice, “deep” was sarcasm. His opinions are actually trite and shallow, and betray a failure to ask penetrating questions. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

Not that he doesn’t have questions. About payment for order flow (“PFOF”) for instance:

Payment for order flow raises a number of important questions. Do broker-dealers have inherent conflicts of interest? If so, are customers getting best execution in the context of that conflict? Are broker-dealers incentivized to encourage customers to trade more frequently than is in those customers’ best interest?

But he misses the big question: why is payment for order flow such a big deal in the first place?

Relatedly, Gensler expresses concern about what traders do in the dark:

First, as evidenced in January, nearly half of the trading interest in the equity market either is in dark pools or is internalized by wholesalers. Dark pools and wholesalers are not reflected in the NBBO. Moreover, the NBBO is also only as good as the market itself. Thus, under the segmentation of the current market, nearly half of trading along with a significant portion of retail market orders happens away from the lit markets. I believe this may affect the width of the bid-ask spread.

Which begs the question: why is “nearly half of the trading interest in the equity market either is in dark pools or is internalized by wholesalers”?

Until you answer these big questions, studying the ancillary ones like his regarding PFOF an NBBO is a waste of time.

The economics are actually very straightforward. In competitive markets, customers who impose different costs on suppliers will pay different prices. This is “price discrimination” of a sort, but not price discrimination based on an exploitation of market power and differences in customer demand elasticities: it is price differentiation based on differences is cost.

Retail order flow is cheaper to intermediate than institutional order flow. Some institutional order flow is cheaper to intermediate than other such flows. Competitive pressures will find ways to ensure flows that are cheaper to intermediate pay lower prices. PFOF, dark pools, etc., are all means of segmenting order flow based on cost.

Trying to restrict cost-based price differences by banning or restricting certain practices will lead clever intermediaries to find other ways to differentiate based on cost. This has always been so, since time immemorial.

In essence, Gensler and many other critics of US market structure want to impose uniform pricing that doesn’t reflect cost differences. This would be, in essence, a massive scheme of cross subsidies. Ironically, the retail traders for whom Gensler exhibits such touching concern would actually be the losers here.

Cross subsidy schemes are inherently unstable. There are tremendous competitive pressures to circumvent them. As the history of virtually every regulated sector (e.g., transportation, communications) has demonstrated for decades, and even centuries.

From a positive political economy perspective, the appeal of such cross subsidy schemes to regulators is great. As Sam Peltzman pointed out in his amazing 1976 JLE piece “Toward a More General Theory of Regulation,” regulators systematically attempt to suppress cost-based price differences in order to redistribute rents to gain political support. The main impetus for deregulation is innovation that exploits gains from trade from circumventing cross subsidy schemes–deregulation in banking (Regulation Q) and telecoms are great examples of this.

So who would the beneficiaries of this cross-subsidization scheme be? Two major SEC constituencies–exchanges, and large institutional traders.

In other words, all this chin pulling about PFOF and dark markets is politics as usual. Furthermore, it is politics as usual in the cynical sense that the supposed beneficiaries of regulatory concern (retail traders) are the ones who will be shtupped.

Gensler also expressed dismay at the concentration in the PFOF market: yeah, he’s looking at you, Kenneth. Getting the frequency?

Although Gensler’s systemic risk concern might have some justification, he still fails to ask the foundational question: why is it concentrated? He doesn’t ask, so he doesn’t answer, instead saying: “Market concentration can deter healthy competition and limit innovation.”

Well, concentration can also be the result of healthy competition and innovation (h/t the great Harold Demsetz). Until we understand the existing concentration we can’t understand whether it’s a bug or feature, and hence what the appropriate policy response is.

Gensler implicitly analogizes say Citadel to Facebook or Google, which harvest customer data and can exploit network effects which drives concentration. The analogy seems very strained here. Retail order flow is cheap to service because it is uninformed. Citadel (or other purchasers of order flow) isn’t learning something about consumers that it can use to target ads at them or the like. The main thing it is learning is what sources of order flow are uninformed, and which are informed–so it can avoid paying to service the latter.

Again, before plunging ahead, it’s best to understand what are the potential agglomeration economies of servicing order flow.

Gensler returns to one of his favorite subjects–clearing–at the end of his talk. He advocates reducing settlement time from T+2: “I believe shortening the standard settlement cycle could reduce costs and risks in our markets.”

This is a conventional–and superficial–view that suggests that when it comes to clearing, Gensler is like the Bourbons: he’s learned nothing, and forgotten nothing.

As I wrote at the peak of the GameStop frenzy (which may repeat with AMC or some other meme stock), shortening the settlement cycle involves serious trade-offs. Moreover, it is by no means clear that it would reduce costs or reduce risks. The main impact would be to shift costs, and transform risks in ways that are not necessarily beneficial. Again, shortening the settlement cycle involves a substitution of liquidity risk for credit risk–just as central clearing does generally, a point which Gensler was clueless about in 2010 and is evidently equally clueless about a decade later.

So GiGi hasn’t really changed. He is sill offering nostrums based on superficial diagnoses. He fails to ask the most fundamental questions–the Chesterton’s Fence questions. That is, understand why things are they way they are before proposing to change them.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

March 15, 2021

Deliver Me From Evil: Platts’ Brent Travails

Filed under: Commodities,Derivatives,Economics,Exchanges,Politics,Regulation — cpirrong @ 6:41 pm

In its decision to change speedily the Dated “Brent” crude oil assessment to include US crude and to a CIF basis, Platts hit a hornets’ nest with a stick and now is running away from the angry hive.

Platts’ attempt to change the contract makes sense. Dated “Brent” is an increasingly, well, dated benchmark due to the inexorable decline in North Sea production volumes, something I’ve written about periodically for the last 10 years or so. At present, only about one cargo per day is eligible, and this is insufficient to prevent squeezes (some of which have apparently occurred in recent months). The only real solution is to add more supply. But what supply?

Two realistic alternatives were on offer: to add oil from Norway’s Johan Sverdrup field, or to add non-North Sea oil (such as West African or US). Each presents difficulties. The Sverdrup field’s production is in the North Sea, but it is heavier and more sour than other oil currently in the eligible basket. West African or US oil is comparable in quality to the current Brent basket, but it is far from the North Sea.

Since derivatives prices converge to the cheapest-to-deliver, just adding either Sverdrup or US oil on a free on board basis to the basket would effectively turn Dated Brent into Dated Sverdrup or Dated US: Svedrup oil would be cheaper than other Brent-eligible production because of its lower quality, and US oil would be cheaper due to its greater distance from consumption locations. So to avoid creating a US oil or Sverdrup oil contract masquerading as a Brent contract, Platts needs to establish pricing differentials to put these on an even footing with legacy North Sea grades.

In the event, Platts decided to add US oil. In order to address the price differential issue, it decided to move the pricing basis from free on board (FOB) North Sea, to a cost, insurance, and freight (CIF) Rotterdam basis. It also announced that it would continue to assess Brent FOB, but this would be done on a netback basis by subtracting shipping costs from the CIF Rotterdam price.

The proposal makes good economic sense. And I surmise that’s exactly why it is so controversial.

This cynical assessment is based on a near decade of experience (from 1989 to 1997) in redesigning legacy futures contracts. From ’89-’91, in the aftermath of the Ferruzzi soybean corner, I researched and authored a report (published here–cheap! only one left in stock!) commissioned by the CBOT that recommended adding St. Louis as a corn and soybean delivery point at a premium to Chicago; in ’95-’96, in the aftermath of a corner of canola, I advised the Winnipeg Commodity Exchange about a redesign of its contract; in ’97, I was on the Grain Delivery Task Force at the CBOT which radically redesigned the corn and beans contracts–a design that remains in use today.

What did I learn from these experiences? Well, a WCE board member put it best: “Why would I want a more efficient contract? I make lots of money exploiting the inefficiencies in the contract we have.”

In more academic terms: rent seeking generates opposition to changes that make contracts more efficient, and in particular, more resistant to market power (squeezes, corners and the like).

Some anecdotes. In the first experience, many members of the committee assigned to consider contract changes–including the chairman (I can name names, but I won’t!)–were not pleased with my proposal to expand the “economic par” delivery playground beyond Chicago. During the meeting where I presented my results, the committee chairman and I literally almost came to blows–the reps from Cargill and ADM bodily removed the chairman from the room. (True!)

The GDTF was formed only because a previous committee formed to address the continued decline of the Chicago market was deadlocked on a solution. The CBOT had followed the tried-and-true method of getting all the big players into the room, but their interests were so opposed that they could not come to agreement. Eventually the committee proposed some Frankenstein’s monster that attempted to stitch together pieces from all of the proposals of the members, which nobody liked. (It was the classic example of a giraffe being a horse designed by committee.). It was not approved by the CBOT, and when the last Chicago delivery elevator closed shortly thereafter, the CFTC ordered the exchange to change the contract design, or risk losing its contract market designation.

Faced with this dire prospect, CBOT chairman Pat Arbor (a colorful figure!) decided to form a committee that included none of the major players like Cargill or ADM. Instead, it consisted of Bill Evans from Iowa Grain, Neal Kottke of Kottke Associates (an independent FCM), independent grain trader Tom Neal, and some outsider named Craig Pirrong. (They were clearly desperate.)

In relatively short order we hashed out a proposal for delivery on the Illinois River, at price differentials reflecting transportation costs, and a shipping certificate (as opposed to warehouse receipt) delivery instrument. After a few changes demanded by the CFTC (namely extending soybean delivery all the way down the River to St. Louis, rather than stopping at Peoria–or was it Pekin?), the design was approved by the CBOT membership and went into effect in 1998.

One thing that we did that caused a lot of problems–including in Congress, where the representative from Toledo (Marcy Kaptor) raised hell–was to drop Toledo as a delivery point. This made economic sense, but it did not go over well with certain entities on the shores of Lake Erie. Again–the distributive effects raised their ugly heads.

The change in the WCE contract–which was also eminently sensible (of course, since it was largely my idea!) also generated a lot of heat within the exchange, and politically within Alberta, Manitoba, and Saskatchewan.

So what did I learn? In exchange politics, as in politics politics, efficiency takes a back seat to distributive considerations. This insight inspired and informed a couple of academic papers.

I would bet dimes to donuts that’s exactly what is going on with Platts and Brent. Platts’ proposal for a more efficient pricing mechanism gores some very powerful interests’ oxen.

Indeed, the rents at stake in Brent are far larger than those even in CBOT corn and beans, let alone tiny canola. The Brent market is vastly bigger. The players are bigger–Shell or BP or Glencore make even 1997 era Cargill look like a piker. Crucially, open interest in Brent-based instruments extends out until 2029: open interest in the ags went out only a couple of years.

My surmise is that the addition of a big new source of deliverable supply (the US) would undercut the potential for delivery games exploiting “technical factors” as they are sometimes euphemistically called in the North Sea. This would tend to reduce the rents of those who have a comparative advantage in playing these games.

Moreover, adding more deliverable supply than people had anticipated would be available when they entered into contracts last year or the year before or the year before . . . and which extend out for years would tend to cause the prices for these longer dated contracts to fall. This would transfer wealth from the longs to the shorts, and there is no compensation mechanism. There would be big winners and losers from this.

It is these things that stirred up the hornets, I am almost sure. I don’t envy Platts, because Dated Brent clearly needs to be fixed, and fast (which no doubt is why Platts acted so precipitously). But any alternative that fixes the problems will redistribute rents and stir up the hornets again.

In 1997 the CBOT got off its keister because the CFTC ordered it to do so, and had the cudgel (revoking contract designation) to back up its demand. There’s no comparable agency with respect to Brent, and in any event, any such agency would be pitted against international behemoths, making it doubtful it could prevail.

As a result, I expect this to be an extended saga. Big incumbent players lose too much from a meaningful change, so change will be slow in coming, if it comes at all.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Next Page »

Powered by WordPress