Streetwise Professor

June 13, 2019

Debunking A Valiant–But Failed–Defense of Frankendodd

Filed under: Clearing,Commodities,Derivatives,Economics,Energy,Exchanges,Regulation — cpirrong @ 7:40 pm

I have known CFTC Commissioner Dan Berkovitz for almost 20 years, when he was a senior staffer on the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, and he reached out to me for guidance on market manipulation issues. I think it’s fair to say that we disagree on most important issues. He supports many regulations I strongly oppose, but despite that our relationship has been cordial and mutually respectful.

Dan’s recent speech at the FIA Commodities Symposium in Houston focuses on issues that we happen to disagree on, and needless to say, I am unpersuaded. Indeed, I think his remarks demonstrate quite clearly the fundamental intellectual failings with the regulatory measures he favors.

He focuses on two issues: competition in OTC derivatives, and speculative position limits. With respect to OTC derivatives, he says

There are now 105 swap dealers and 23 swap execution facilities registered with the Commission. Almost 89% of interest rate swaps and 96% of broad index credit default swaps are cleared through a central clearinghouse. Nearly 98% of all swap transactions involve at least one registered swap dealer. The CFTC’s swap trading rules have led to more competition, more electronic trading, better price transparency, and lower spreads for swaps traded on regulated platforms

But then he contradicts himself on competition:

Despite this progress, we have seen an increase in concentration in the trading and clearing of swaps among the bank swap dealers.  [Emphasis added.] Although we have more competition in the swaps market since the passage of Dodd-Frank, in the form of tighter bid-ask spreads and lower transaction costs, we have fewer competitors.  [Which makes me question whether the tighter spreads are the result of more competition, or other factors.] High levels of concentration present systemic risks and provide fewer choices for end-users.  [But wasn’t the point of DFA to reduce systemic risk by reducing concentration? GiGi sure said so.] One of the purposes of the Commodity Exchange Act (“Act” or “CEA”) is to promote fair competition.  The Commission therefore has an obligation to address this issue.

How concentrated are our derivative markets?  For swaps trading, five registered bank swap dealers are party to 70% of all swaps and 80% of the total notional amount traded. And for clearing services, the five largest FCMs—all affiliated with large banks—clear about 80% of cleared swaps.[  The eight largest firms clear 96% of cleared swaps.  I am concerned about what could happen if one of those providers fails.  I am also concerned about the impact on the price of derivatives for end users.

Even prior to Frankendodd, I predicted that the regulations would lead to greater concentration, precisely because regulatory burdens create fixed costs, which favor scale. The concentration among FCMs is particularly worrisome from a systemic risk perspective, and has been exacerbated by the way clearing regulations have been implemented. Not all of these are the CFTC’s fault: it has attempted to push back on the Fed’s implementation of the liquidity ratio, which creates unnecessary capital charges associated with segregated margins. Dan alludes to that issue thus: “We must find ways to increase bank capital standards without discouraging the availability of clearing and other risk-management tools available to end users.” But the basic conclusion remains: measures intended to reduce concentration in order to reduce systemic risk have not achieved that objective, and have in fact likely increased concentration.

The biggest weakness in Dan’s speech is his valiant, but tellingly and painfully strained, justification for position limits.

The CFTC has a long history with speculative position limits, and their benefits to the market are well established.  Section 3 of the Act identifies risk management and price discovery as fundamental purposes of U.S. derivatives markets. Meaningful position limits coupled with appropriate hedge exemptions are crucial to advancing those purposes.  Position limits help prevent corners, squeezes, and other forms of manipulation.  They prevent distortions in the prices of many major commodities in interstate commerce—ranging, for example, from wheat to gold to coffee to oil.  The Hunt brothers’ attempts to corner the silver market, the Ferruzzi squeeze of the soybean market, and the Amaranth hedge fund’s excessively large positions in the natural gas futures and swaps markets are clear examples of why position limits are needed to prevent the price distortions and real-world impacts that can result from excessive speculation.  Episodes such as these validate Congress’ and the CFTC’s long-held view that position limits are “necessary as a prophylactic measure” to deter sudden or unreasonable price fluctuations and preserve the integrity of price discovery and risk mitigation on U.S. derivatives markets.

Insofar as prevention of market power manipulations (squeezes and corners) are concerned, this can be achieved through spot month limits and does not require restrictions on the positions held prior to the delivery month, and across all months, as the Commission’s previous proposals would impose. Meaning that the proposed regulations are over-inclusive and an unduly restrictive means of achieving their stated objective.

Further, insofar as the examples are concerned, they provide no support for the types of expansive limits that have been proposed. None.

As I’ve said repeatedly about the Hunt episode (the CFTC’s favorite go-to example): when do we get to the Trojan War? That episode is ancient history, and is more the exception that proves the rule than a warning of a clear and present danger. I have said this repeatedly only because the CFTC brings up the example repeatedly. If they stop, I will!

Ferruzzi is interesting, because Ferruzzi cornered a market with position limits, from which the company had an exemption. Indeed, it was the CFTC’s and CBOT’s revocation of Ferruzzi’s hedge exemption during the spot month that broke the company’s corner (and launched my academic career in commodities!–thanks to all!) I can think of other examples in which long hedgers with exemptions executed market power manipulations, and indeed, long hedgers with exemptions are the most dangerous manipulators. Meaning that position limits on speculators are beside the point when it comes to addressing market power manipulation.

With regards to Amaranth, Dan states

The Amaranth episode provides another clear example of how large speculative positions can distort market prices.  At one point, Amaranth held 100,000 natural gas contracts, or approximately 5% of all natural gas used in the U.S. in a year. “Amaranth accumulated such large positions and traded such large volumes of natural gas futures that it distorted market prices, widened the spreads, and increased price volatility.”

The quotations are to a Senate Permanent Subcommittee report (which Dan was an author) . I can say definitively that the analysis underlying those conclusions is completely unpersuasive, and would fail to pass muster in any manipulation litigation. The analysis lacks statistical rigor, and demonstrates neither “artificial” prices or that Amaranth caused these artificial prices (intentionally or otherwise).

Indeed, the CFTC did not pursue Amaranth for distorting natural gas prices through its immense OTC derivatives positions (the 100,000 contracts Dan refers to) outside the delivery month. Instead, it (and FERC) went after the fund and its head trader Brian Hunter for three “bang the close” manipulations in 2006. (Full disclosure: I was an expert for plaintiffs on those manipulations in a private lawsuit.) Position limit regulations would not have prevented those manipulations.

Indeed, other manipulation cases the CFTC has pursued, including bang the settle type cases against Optiver and Parnon and Moore Capital (which I was also an expert in in related private litigation) also would not have been impacted by position limits. That is, limits would not have prevented them. In another recent CFTC case (just settled, and again, I am an expert in related private litigation), the party accused by the CFTC (Kraft) was a long hedger with a hedge exemption.

In brief, neither Dan nor anyone else has presented an example of a post-Trojan War alleged manipulation that position limits would have prevented.

So what’s the point? Can position limits reduce the risk of distortion arising from something non-manipulative?

Dan has an answer, and the answer is “no!” (though he says “record before us demonstrates that the answer is ‘yes.'”)

What speculative position limits are intended to do is to prevent a single market participant from moving markets away from fundamentals of supply and demand through the accumulation of large speculative positions.  [Emphasis added.] In this regard, it’s important to note that speculative position limits focus on the positions held by a single trader or trading entity, not on the overall level of speculation in a market.  The Commission’s task in setting speculative position limits is not to determine how the collective level of speculation in a market might affect prices.  [Emphasis added.] Nor is it to try to determine the “correct” level of speculation that should be permitted in a market.  Instead, the Commission must focus on the single speculator and the impact of large speculative positions on the market.

But this demolishes the argument for limits that was made with increasing intensity around 2006, and peaking (along with oil prices) in mid-2008. Those advocating position limits then could point to no single large trader that was distorting prices. Instead, they blamed (to use Dan’s phrase) “the collective level of speculation” to justify limits–which is exactly what Dan (rightly) says the limits won’t and can’t constrain. Meaning that the CFTC’s proposed limits represent a bait-and-switch: by a limit supporting CFTC commissioner’s own admission, the proposed limits won’t address the supposed ill that led Congress to legislate them in the first place.

To summarize: Position limits outside the spot month are unnecessary to prevent market power manipulations (and other deterrent measures can enhance spot month limits); position limits won’t prevent other kinds of manipulation (e.g., bang the settlement); there are no examples in decades of distortions that position limits of the type proposed might have mitigated; the examples that have been proposed are wrong; the most likely market power manipulators (long hedgers) would be exempted from limits; limits would not have prevented the specific manipulations the CFTC has alleged in recent years; and the limits the CFTC has proposed would not touch the kinds of allegedly multi-trader “collective” excess speculation that caused Congress to mandate position limits in the first place.

Other than that, the case for position limits is rock solid!

Dan Berkovitz manfully attempts justify limits but achieves just the opposite. The arguments and evidence he brings to bear demonstrate how bankrupt the case for limits truly is.

Given that limits will involve substantial compliance costs, and bring no benefits, the song remains the same: position limits are all pain, no gain.

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April 8, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ISDA has again stepped in, and implemented some changes:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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April 7, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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December 27, 2018

The Market Is Down! Round Up the Usual Suspects!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Again, a hypothesis–and a virtually untestable one.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is called “not an equilibrium.”

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

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

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December 5, 2018

Judge Sullivan Channels SWP, and Vindicates Don Wilson and DRW

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

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

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

Here was my take in September, 2013:

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

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

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

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

Seriously.

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

Here’s Judge Sullivan’s analysis:

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

Pretty much the same, but without the snark.

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

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

I also wrote:

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

. . . .

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

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

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

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

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

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

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November 24, 2018

This Is What Happens When You Slip Picking Up Nickels In Front of a Steamroller

Filed under: Commodities,Derivatives,Energy,Exchanges — cpirrong @ 7:14 pm
There are times when going viral is good.  There are times it ain’t.  This is one of those ain’t times.  Being the hedgie equivalent of Jimmy Swaggert, delivering a tearful apology, is not a good look.

James Cordier ran a hedge fund that blowed up real good.   The fund’s strategy was to sell options, collect the premium, and keep fingers crossed that the markets would not move bigly.  Well, OptionSellers.com sold NG and crude options in front of major price moves, and poof! Customer money went up the spout.

Cordier refers to these price moves as “rogue waves.”  Well, as I said in my widowmaker post from last week, the natural gas market was primed for a violent move: low inventories going into the heating season made the market vulnerable to a cold snap, which duly materialized, and sent the market hurtling upwards.   The low pressure system was clearly visible on the map, and the risk of big waves was clear: a rogue wave out of the blue this wasn’t.

As for crude, the geopolitical, demand, and output (particularly Permian) risks have also been crystalizing all autumn.  Again, this was not a rogue wave.

I’m guessing that Cordier was short natural gas calls, and short crude oil puts, or straddles/strangles on these commodities.  Oopsie.

Selling options as an investment strategy is like picking up nickels in front of a steamroller.  You can make some money if you don’t slip.  If you slip, you get crushed.  Cordier slipped.

Selling options as a strategy can be appealing.  It’s not unusual to pick up quite a few nickels, and think: “Hey.  This is easy money!” Then you get complacent.  Then you get crushed.

Selling options is effectively selling insurance against large price moves.  You are rewarded with a risk premium, but that isn’t free money.  It is the reward for suffering large losses periodically.

It’s not just neophytes that get taken in.  In the months before Black Monday, floor traders on CBOE and CME thought shorting out-of-the-money, short-dated options on the S&Ps was like an annuity.  Collect the premium, watch them expire out-of-the-money, and do it again.   Then the Crash of ’87 happened, and all of the modest gains that had accumulated disappeared in a day.

Ask Mr. Cordier–and his “family”–about that.

 

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October 18, 2018

Ticked Off About Spoofing? Consider This

Filed under: Commodities,Derivatives,Economics,Exchanges,Politics,Regulation — cpirrong @ 6:51 pm
An email from a legal academic in response to yesterday’s post spurred a few additional thoughts re spoofing.

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

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

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

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

This has a variety of implications.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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October 17, 2018

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

Filed under: Commodities,Derivatives,Economics,Exchanges,Regulation — cpirrong @ 4:08 pm
My eyes popped out when I read this statement regarding the DOJ’s recent criminal indictment (which resulted in some guilty pleas) for spoofing in the S&P 500 futures market:

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

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

The answer is embarrassing, and actually rather disgusting.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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September 24, 2018

The SEC Commissioner’s Just So Story That Just Ain’t So

Filed under: Derivatives,Economics,Exchanges,Regulation — cpirrong @ 7:06 pm
SEC Commissioner Robert J. Jackson is getting a lot of attention for a policy speech he gave at George Mason University last week.  Alas, Commissioner Jackson betrays only a dim understanding of current stock markets and stock market history.  Indeed, perhaps the best summary of his speech would be the Artemis Ward quip: “It ain’t so much the things we don’t know that get us into trouble, it’s the things we do know that just ain’t so.”

Mr. Jackson has a just-so story that, well, just ain’t so.  In his story, once upon a time US stock markets were faithful guardians of the public interest.  Then, the SEC let them become for-profit firms, and it all went wrong:

Given power and a profit motive, even the most storied institutions will do what they must to maximize their wealth. And nowhere has this been more true than in our stock markets.

For over a century, exchanges were collectively owned not-for-profits, overseeing and organizing trading in America’s best-known companies. But about a decade ago, exchanges became private corporations, designed—perhaps even obligated—to maximize profits. Yet we at the SEC have far too often continued to treat the exchanges with the same kid gloves we applied to their not-for-profit ancestors. The result is that, even while one our fundamental mandates is to encourage competition, the SEC has stood on the sidelines while enormous market power has become concentrated in just a few players. That’s a key reason why among our 13 public stock exchanges, 12 are owned by just three corporations. And that’s how the stock exchanges that are a symbol of American capitalism have developed puzzling practices that look nothing like the competitive marketplaces investors deserve.

. . .

First, one might wonder how our stock markets got here. The answer is that stock exchanges have been better at extracting rents than regulators have been at stopping them. As you all know, in 1934, the Nation struck a bargain with our stock exchanges: the Commission was created to oversee the markets, and in turn the exchanges were given wide latitude in organizing their affairs. For generations, this system served investors well. But then the world changed, and the SEC allowed exchanges to become for-profit corporations with both regulatory and profit-seeking mandates.

At the time, the Commission didn’t sufficiently contemplate the effects that decision might have; we simply said that we saw no reason to think that exchanges couldn’t play the role of regulator and pursue profit at the same time. Maybe we were wrong. Whatever one thinks about the benefits or drawbacks of those events, we should all agree that for-profit companies can be counted on to do one thing: pursue profit. And in for-profit hands, SEC oversight designed for not-for-profit exchanges can be dangerous.

Where to begin?

Well, I guess I should begin by saying for probably the billionth time (here’s one of them) that stock markets were not non-profits out of some charitable motive, or to ensure that they acted in the public interest by self-regulating markets free of conflict of interest and mercenary motive.  In fact, stock exchanges (and derivatives exchanges) adopted the not-for-profit form to protect the rents of their members.  Furthermore, the exchanges self-regulated in ways that maximized the profits of their members: it is beyond a joke to say that exchanges are better at extracting rents today than during the halcyon non-profit years.  Non-profit exchanges just extracted rents in different ways, and the rents did not flow through the exchange coffers.  These different ways included naked collusion–which the SEC tolerated for years, kid gloves indeed!–as well as entry restrictions (the number of members remaining fixed since the 19th century) and various rules advantaging intermediaries (especially specialists, but also brokers).

As for conflicts of interest–they were rife in Commissioner Jackson’s good old days.  The exchanges, as agents for their intermediary member-owners, had structural conflicts with the investing public.

Mr. Jackson argues that “modern exchanges tax ordinary investors.”  The implicit claim is that old time exchanges didn’t.  Ha! They just did it in different ways, and arguably levied far greater taxes then than now.

Why were the taxes arguably greater then?  The answer relates to another fundamental error in Jackson’s just so story: “enormous market power has become concentrated in just a few players. That’s a key reason why among our 13 public stock exchanges, 12 are owned by just three corporations.”  Er, prior to RegNMS, a little over a decade ago, and for the entire life of the SEC prior to that time, and prior to the formation of the SEC, the NYSE had a far more dominant position than any exchange does today.  Due to network effects, it basically had a lock on order flow for its listings.  Its market share was routinely above 85 percent, and that other 15 percent was basically cream skimming competition that the SEC only grudgingly accepted.

Again, the NYSE did not capture rents from this market power by charging higher prices and passing the revenues through to owners in the form of dividends.  But through broker cartels, and after the SEC finally bestirred itself to end the broker cartels, through entry limits and rules that advantaged members, it permitted its members to earn rents by charging higher prices for their services.

Indeed, the great benefit of RegNMS is that it undermined the liquidity network effect that largely immunized the NYSE against competition, and unleashed competition for order flow unprecedented in the history of US stock markets–or stock markets anywhere, for that matter.  Three (granting arguendo that 3 rather than 13 is the right number) is a helluva lot more competitive than one.

But Commissioner Jackson cannot see the glass is at least 90 percent full: he frets over the 10 percent (or less) that is empty.  He laments “fragmentation.”

Yes.  As I have written, the “fragmentation” (aka “competition”) that has occurred post-RegNMS has its costs–some of which are the result of problematic features in RegNMS.  Others are inherent in any multi-market system.  Fragmentation creates arbitrage opportunities that some participants capture through spending real resources: this is probably socially wasteful.  Commissioner Jackson notes that these opportunities exist in part due to the lack of incentive of exchanges to invest in the public data feed: well, I’ve noted this public goods problem in the past (note the date–almost 5 years ago).  Yes, some have information advantages due now mainly to speed: well, back in the day, people on the floor had information advantages–and speed advantages–due to their proximity to where price discovery was taking place.  Take it as a law: there will always be a class of traders with information, access and speed advantages over the hoi polloi.

Some of these problems could be remedied by better regulation.  But despite the deficiencies of RegNMS, there is no doubt that it made US equity markets far more competitive, and that this has redounded to the benefit of ordinary investors–and pretty much the entire buy side, including institutions.  RegNMS dramatically reduced the “tax” that stock markets levied on investors, not increased it as Mr. Jackson apparently believes.

Commissioner Jackson questions whether the limited exposure to lawsuits that exchanges currently enjoy is justified.  That is a legitimate question, but Mr. Jackson’s motivation for asking it is completely off-base.  His fixation on for-profit again shines through: “Finally, we should take a hard look at whether it makes sense to allow for-profit exchanges to write the rules of the game for their customers and competitors while also enjoying immunity from civil liability.”  Mr. Jackson: it is equally questionable whether it makes sense “to allow non-profit exchanges to write the rules of the game for their customers and competitors while also enjoying immunity from civil liability.”

Commissioner Jackson also questions pricing practices: “Finally, SEC and FINRA rules for best execution have clearly left open opportunities for conflicts of interest that hurt investors. The reason is that exchanges offer controversial payments—they call them rebates—to brokers based on the volume of customer orders that broker sends to that exchange.”  This is a form of price competition.  Yes, there are agency issues involved here, but if anything these rebates reduce the rents that exchanges earn that exercise Commissioner Jackson so greatly.  Perhaps brokers don’t pass 100 percent of the rebates to their customers–but this is a distributive issue not an efficiency one, and competition between brokers mitigates this problem.

Perhaps in the category of “rebates” Commissioner Jackson is including maker-taker payments. But the interpretation of these payments–and the more prosaic order flow incentives Mr. Jackson describes–is greatly complicated by the fact that exchanges are multi-sided platforms.  It is well-known that the pricing policies of multi-sided platforms often involve cross-subsidies among customer groups (e.g., liquidity suppliers and liquidity demanders), and that these pricing strategies can be economically efficient.

US securities market structure could certainly be improved.  But reasonable improvements must be grounded in a reasonable understanding of the economics of exchanges.  Alas, one individual responsible for improving market structure is clearly operating from a seriously defective understanding. Commissioner Jackson’s bugbear–for-profit exchanges–have to a first approximation nothing to do with whatever ails US markets.  He pines for an era that not only never existed, but which was in reality worse on almost every dimension that he criticizes modern markets for–competition, rent seeking, and conflicts of interest.

The SEC actually performed a public service–something not to be taken for granted for a public agency!–by breaking the liquidity network effect and opening stock markets to competition through the adoption of RegNMS.  Tweak RegNMS to improve market performance, Commissioner Jackson, rather than advocating proposals based on just so stories that just ain’t–and weren’t–so.

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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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