Streetwise Professor

October 16, 2023

Alfred E. Goldman

Filed under: Clearing,Derivatives,Economics,Exchanges,Financial crisis,Regulation — cpirrong @ 12:52 pm

In March, 2020 the Federal Reserve injected massive amounts of liquidity into the markets in response to a blow-up in Treasury basis trades. I wrote about it here.

In recent weeks, the Fed, the BIS, and the BoE have raised red flags about the renaissance of this trade and the resulting potential for systemic risk a la 2020. Not all are convinced. Goldman Sachs in particular is in Alfred E. Neuman mode: What? Me worry?

FT Alphaville quotes Goldman’s rates strategy team as follows:

We do not think the trade poses a major risk to Treasury markets in the near term . . . Leverage in the system is materially lower than it was in 2019/20 as a result of a series of [initial margin] increases (and price declines). The large increases in IM, which were in theory calibrated to the extremely elevated levels of Treasury market volatility of the past few years, should mean additional large increases may not be necessary — at least in the near term, we expect to migrate to a less volatile rate regime.

This assessment is based on a fundamental error that I went on about ad nauseam in the post-Great Financial Crisis clearing debate, specifically, concluding that if leverage goes down in one part of the system it goes down systemically. Wrong. Wrong. Wrong.

Yes, the ostensible purpose of higher margins is to reduce leverage in the margined trades. But especially for the hedge funds and other sophisticated entities who engage in the Treasury basis trade at scale, they can substitute one form of leverage for another.

As a first approximation, a fund has a leverage target or a level of debt capacity, it can fund the higher margin in the less leveraged futures trade by increasing leverage elsewhere. The funds will typically evaluate leverage holistically, not on a trade-by-trade basis.

It is therefore fundamentally logically flawed to conclude that “leverage in the system” (which is in fact source of systemic risk) has declined because it has gone down in one piece of it.

If there are constraints on funds’ ability to offset mandated leverage reductions in one type of trade by increasing leverage elsewhere, that would increase the cost of engaging in that type of trade and would impact the scale of that trade. But what has alarmed the central bankers is exactly that the scale of the trade has increased and now exceeds its 2020 level:

Note that leveraged funds’ Treasury futures shorts are currently substantially larger now than in 2020. Thus, despite higher margins, the scale of the trade is subsantially larger–and it is the scale–and the concentration–of the trade that poses systemic risks.

This bigger scale could be because raising margins doesn’t really constrain the ability of funds to lever up to engage in basis trades. Or it could be that even though the higher margins raise the cost of the trade, the spread has widened sufficiently to offset, or more than offset the higher cost. For example, constraints on dealer balance sheets that impair liquidity in the cash market could depress cash prices relative to futures prices.

Goldman’s errors don’t end there. One thing that could spark a margin spiral is an increase in initial margins that induces mass liquidations that lead to changes in the basis that lead to large variation margin obligations–something that Goldman doesn’t mention.

Alfred E. chimes in again here: “The large increases in IM, which were in theory calibrated to the extremely elevated levels of Treasury market volatility of the past few years, should mean additional large increases may not be necessary — at least in the near term, we expect to migrate to a less volatile rate regime.” That is, Goldman’s conclusion is essentially based on a very benign view on Treasury volatility.

There are myriad reasons to take a different view. The US’s acute fiscal situation and the accompanying periodic debt limit dramas. The constrained balance sheets of dealers that limit their ability to supply liquidity to the Treasury market. The prospect for an extremely chaotic election year. And geopolitics, with now two major disturbances ongoing (Ukraine and Israel/Gaza) with one continually on the boil in the background (China/Taiwan). And highly unsettled geopolitics with a feckless and befuddled administration at the tiller.

That is, it isn’t the level of margins that really matters. It is the possibility that margins may increase due to higher volatility. Goldman/Neuman isn’t worried. I think that’s unduly optimistic. Furthermore, an assessment of systemic risk must be based on the likelihood that Goldman’s don’t-worry-be-happy opinion is wrong.

And remind me: did Goldman predict the increase in Treasury volatility in 2019 or 2020? Stuff happens. Unknowns and unknowns and all that.

Furthermore, higher volatility->higher IM->liquidation of basis positions->margin spiral isn’t the only potential source of systemic risk. Other economic shocks can cause leveraged funds to slash positions and leverage, leading to liquidations of basis positions and the triggering of a margin cascade. That is, there is the possibility of fire sales.

These shocks can be systematic–a broad decline in stock or bond markets–or concentrated at a few funds, or even one, due to bad trades in other markets.

The 30 25 year anniversary last month of the LTCM collapse brings the latter to mind. Bad bets on convergence trades forced LTCM to liquidate and delever. Understandably, it attempted to unload its most liquid positions–including short Treasury futures. Treasuries had a massive rally on LTCM day that was not matched by a similar rally in the underlying, less risky Treasuries.

A squeeze–not unheard of in government debt futures markets–can also impose losses on basis trades, leading to liquidations that can exacerbate the price impact. Or a Treasury flash crash (in yields, and hence a flash spike in prices) like on 15 October 2014.

In sum, size does matter. Basis trades have become big again, and the factors that lead Goldman to parrot Alfred E. Neuman are hardly persuasive. From a systemic risk perspective, basis trades represent dry tinder that can explode into flame. Can does not mean will. But the possibility is there, and the effect if the right spark hits the tinder depends on the size of trade. The big scale and concentration of this trade thereby justify far more concern than Goldman expresses.

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April 24, 2023

Redistribution in the Worst Way–By Messing With Prices

Filed under: Economics,Financial crisis,Politics,Regulation — cpirrong @ 5:53 pm

“Equity” is one of the three legs of the iniquitous DIE gallows. It is a driving force behind a variety of policy proposals, two of which have surfaced in recent weeks. They illustrate the fundamental depravity of such “equitable” policies generally.

The first is the Federal Housing Finance Agency’s policy to reduce rates and fees for homebuyers with low credit scores who put down relatively little on a house, and to raise them for those with higher scores, especially those who make a downpayment of between 15 and 20 percent of value. In other words, good credits are being forced to subsidize bad credits. In the words of the FHFA director, this is intended to “increase pricing support for purchase borrowers limited by income or by wealth.”

In other words, it is a purely redistributive policy. And excuse me, but where have I seen this movie before? Oh, that’s right. During the last financial crisis, which was in large part the consequence of policies designed to, well, “increase pricing support for purchase borrowers limited by income or by wealth.”

It isn’t rocket science to figure out where this will go. More low credit quality households will buy houses they can’t afford. A loss of a job, or a downturn in the real estate market, or one of myriad of other things means that they won’t be able to repay the loan, resulting in default, foreclosure, and a credit loss to the lender. Most likely followed by class action law suits alleging predatory lending.

Wealth redistribution via housing policy and housing finance policy has always been a bad idea plagued by unintended–but totally predictable–consequences. But it’s like a bad drug, and one that the United States government just can’t quit for long.

The other policy, smaller in scale but similar in design comes from California. There the three major state regulated utilities have proposed implement two part tariffs, consisting of a fixed monthly fee and a per unit usage charge. The fixed fee will be based on income, with low income households paying $15/month and higher income households paying as much as seven times that amount. Further, the utilities will reduce the rate per kwh.

Now you can make an economic case for a two part pricing structure in an industry (like electricity) with high fixed costs, but that doesn’t appear to be the motive here: instead, it is an attempt to use electricity tariffs to redistribute income and wealth. It is also somewhat ironic that California, which faces chronic electricity shortages and constantly strives to reduce consumption because climate change is introducing a policy that encourages consumption. I am sure that will work out swell.

If you believe in redistribution, there are better and worse ways to achieve that objective. The better ways are through lump sum transfers or something like the negative income tax. The worse ways are through messing with prices. It’s fair to say that the worst ways are through messing with prices.

And that’s exactly what these two policies will do. The FHFA policy messes with the price of credit. The California electricity policy messes with the price of power.

Messing with prices distorts decisions on a variety of margins.

For example, distorting the price of credit (i.e., charging borrowers rates and fees that do not reflect default costs) encourages overborrowing by those with poor credit and underborrowing by those with better credit. As we saw in 2006-8, such policies can have systemic consequences. Even absent systemic consequences, they will lead to greater financial distress costs, deadweight bankruptcy costs, reduction in housing values due to the effects of foreclosure, etc.

Both policies also increase effective marginal tax rates, which distort labor supply decisions. In California’s case, the redistributive policies represent one more straw on the camel’s back of those debating where to locate, and due both to the direct effects and the signal sent regarding the extractive nature of California policies will add to the exodus of the middle class from the state.

The means by which these redistributive policies are being imposed is also pernicious. This is redistribution via regulatory fiat. The administrative state is already too large and too unaccountable. Giving it a license to redistribute income and wealth–or to engage in more such redistributive schemes–in the name of “equity” will result in a proliferation of such ghastly schemes, and the deadweight costs they entail due to their distortions of prices. Make elected politicians make the case for and take responsibility for redistributive schemes rather than delegating them to the unelected and the unaccountable. Especially those who can only implement redistributive policies through destructive distortions in the prices of the goods and services they regulate.

The United States desperately needs pro-growth policies, not redistributive ones–not least because growth is essential to prevent a debt crisis. These redistributive policies are decidedly anti-growth.

They are also divisive, and are being implemented at a time where social divisions are already acute.

I wish I could say that these two policies were outliers. They are not. They are representative of today’s strongest policy current: the Biden administration’s “whole of government” plan for “environmental justice” is another. Such policies are a recipe for stagnation, and taken collectively and together with lavish government spending bear the seeds of future economic crises. And not far into the future either.

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March 19, 2023

SVB’s Execs Were Rats, But They Were Just Navigating the Regulatory Maze to the Government Cheese

Filed under: Economics,Financial crisis,Politics,Regulation — cpirrong @ 8:02 pm

A brief follow-up on SVB (which kinds of sounds like a venereal disease, which is kind of apropos I guess).

During the GFC I wrote about how bank capital requirements were like price controls. A regulator can never set the “right” prices–in this case, the shadow costs of assets with different risks. It will underprice some risks, and overprice others. Banks will hold too many of the assets where risk is underpriced, and too little of the assets where the risk is overpriced.

Bank capital requirements focus primarily on credit risk, rather than interest rate risk. SVB incurred very little if any capital charge to hold Treasuries and agency debt, because they are viewed as “safe” from a credit risk perspective. But they did allow SVB (and other banks) to take on interest rate risk.

Very low or zero capital charges on Treasuries fall into the there-are-no-coincidences-comrade category. The government wants to encourage holding of Treasuries and agencies. Big deficits to finance, after all. As Niall Ferguson, Charlie Calomiris, and others have pointed out, governments regulate and structure banking systems first and foremost to facilitate government finance, not private capital markets.

Related to this is the issue of stress tests. The relaxation of regulation passed in 2018 meant that banks of SVB’s size no longer had to undergo stress tests. But the recent government stress tests would not have really stressed SVB: they only tested for a 200 basis point increase in interest rates, not the 400+ increase we have experienced. So SVB would have passed anyways.

In the immediate aftermath of the GFC I expressed skepticism about stress tests. I called the Tinker Bell Economics–“We believe! We believe!” That is, they are intended to assure everyone about the safety of the banking system, rather than to actually test the safety of the banking system.

The unstressful interest rate stress scenarios also plays into the idea that the Fed and Treasury don’t want to do anything to dampen banks’ appetite for government bonds.

One last comment. Many historical banking system crises are the result of yield chasing in low interest rate environments. Low yields (a) allows banks to borrow cheap, and (b) induces banks to chase yield by taking on more risk.

We obviously operated for years in a low rate environment, courtesy of the Fed. Yield chasing was an inevitable. SVB chased yield.

In sum, yes, SVB’s execs were rats. But the government designed the maze (capital requirements, low interest rates) and baited it with cheese. So when the government says that they are going to fix the problem, don’t believe them. But believe this: especially given the United States’ huge debt and deficits, any “fixes” will be rigged to protect the Treasury market, and the devil take the hindmost. Which would be you.

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October 17, 2022

Clearing Is Not A Harmless Bunny: I Told You That I Told You That I Told You [ad infinitum] That I Told You So

Filed under: Clearing,Derivatives,Economics,Financial crisis,Regulation — cpirrong @ 10:54 am

I have long called myself “the Clearing Cassandra” for my repeated and unheeded warnings about the dangers of letting the Trojan Horse of clearing (and the margining of uncleared trades) into the financial citadel. Specifically, clearing/margining can create financial shocks (and indeed financial crises) rather than preventing them (which is the supposed justification for mandating them).

We have seen several examples of this in the past several years, including the COVID (lockdown) shock of March 2020 (a subject of a JACF article of mine) and the recent energy market tremors. The most recent example, and in many ways the most telling one, is the recent instability in the UK that led the Bank of England to intervene to prevent a full-on crisis. The tumult fed a spike in UK government yields and contributed to a plunge in the Pound.

The instability was centered on UK pension funds engaged in a strategy called Liability Directed Investment (LDI)–which should now be renamed Liquidity Danger Investment. In a nutshell, in LDI defined benefit pension funds hedge the interest rate risk in their liabilities through interest rate swaps that are cleared or otherwise margined daily on a mark-to-market basis, rather than investing in fixed income securities that generate cash flows that match the liabilities. The funds hold non-fixed income assets (sometimes referred to as “growth assets”) in lieu of fixed income. (I discuss the whys of that portfolio strategy below.)

On a MTM basis, the funds are hedged: a rise in interest rates causes a decline in the present value of the liabilities, which matches a decline in the value of the swaps. Even if there is a duration match, however, there is not a liquidity match. A rise in interest rates generates no cash inflow on the liabilities (even though they have declined in value), but the clearing/margining of the swaps leads to a variation margin outflow: the funds have to stump up cash to meet VM obligations.

And this has happened in a big way due to interest rate increases driven by central bank tightening and the deteriorating fiscal situation in the UK (which has been exacerbated substantially by the energy situation, and the British government’s commitment to absorb a large fraction of energy costs). This led to big margin calls . . . which the funds did not have cash to cover. So, cue a fire sale: the funds dumped their most liquid assets–UK government gilts–which overwhelmed the risk bearing capacity/liquidity of that market, leading to a further spurt in interest rates . . . which led to more VM obligations. Etc., etc., etc.

In other words, a classic liquidity spiral.

The BofE intervened by buying gilts in massive amounts. This helped stem the spiral, though the problem was so acute that the BofE had to extend its purchases beyond the period it initially announced.

So yet again, central bank intervention was necessary to provide liquidity to put out fires created by margining.

FFS. When will people who should know better figure this out? How many times is it necessary to hit the mule upside the head with a 2×4?

I just returned from France, and while walking by the Banque de France I thought of a conference held there in the fall of 2013 at which I spoke: the conference was co-sponsored by the BdF, BofE, and ECB. It was intended to be a celebration of the passage and implementation of various post-Crisis regulations, clearing mandates most prominent among them.

I did my buzz kill Clearing Cassandra routine, in which I warned very specifically of the liquidity spiral dangers inherent in clearing as a source of financial instability. I got pretty much the same response as the Trojan Cassandra–a blow off, in other words. Indeed, I quite evidently got under some skins. The next speaker was Benoît Cœuré, a member of the ECB governing council. The first half of his talk was a very intemperate–and futile–attempt at rebuttal. Which I took as a compliment.

Alas, events have repeatedly rebutted Cœuré and Gensler and all the other myriad clearing cheerleaders.

The LDI episode has validated other arguments that I made starting in late-2008. Most notably, clearing was touted as a “no credit” system because the clearinghouse does not extend any credit to counterparties: variation margin/mark-to-market is the mechanism that limits CCP credit exposure. Since one (faulty) narrative of the Crisis was that it was the result of credit extended to derivatives counterparties, clearing was repeatedly touted as a way of reducing systemic risk.

Not so fast! I said. Such a view is profoundly unsystemic because it neglects the fact that market participants can substitute other forms of credit for the credit they no longer get via derivatives trades. And indeed, in the recent LDI episode exemplifies a very specific warning I made over a decade ago: those subject to clearing or margining mandates would borrow on the repo market to fund margin obligations, including both initial margin and variation margin.

And indeed the UK funds did exactly that. This actually increased the connectedness of the financial system (contrary to the triumphant assertions of Gensler and others), and this connectedness via the repo channel was another factor that drove the BofE to intervene.

My beard is not quite this long (though it’s getting there) but this is pretty much spot on:

Clearing is Not a Harmless Bunny

Again: Clearing converts credit risk into liquidity risk. And all financial crises are liquidity crises.

Maybe someday people will figure this out. Hopefully before I snuff it.

And the idiocy of this is especially great with respect to the UK pension funds because they posed relatively little credit risk in the first place. So there was not a substitution of one risk (liquidity risk) for another (credit risk). There was an addition of a new risk with little if any reduction of any other risk.

The LDI strategies were right way risks. Interest rate movements that cause swaps to lose value also increase the value of the funds (by reducing the PV of their liabilities). The funds were not–and are not-leveraged plays on interest rate risk. So the prospects of defaults on derivatives that could be mitigated by clearing were minimal.

Here I have to part ways with someone I usually agree with, John Cochrane, who characterizes the episode as another example of the dangers of leverage. He cites to a BofE document about the LDI episode that indeed mentions leverage, but the story it tells is not the classic lever-up-and-lose-more-when-the-market-moves-against-you one that John suggests. Instead, in figure in the BofE piece that John includes in one of his posts, the increase in interest rates actually makes the pension fund better off in present value terms–even including its LDI-related positions–because its assets go down less in value than its liabilities do. In that sense, the LDI positions are an interest rate hedge. But there is a mismatch in the liquidity impacts.*. It is this liquidity mismatch that causes the problem.

The BofE piece also suggests that the underlying issue here is pension fund underfunding. In essence, the pension funds needed to jack up returns to close their funding gap. So instead of investing in fixed income assets with cash flows that mirrored those of its pension liabilities, the funds invested in higher returning assets like equities. Just investing in fixed income would have locked in the funding gap: investing in equities increased the odds of becoming fully funded. But just investing in equities alone would have subjected the funds to substantial interest rate risk. So the LDI strategies were intended to immunize them against this risk.

Thus, the original sin was the underfunding. LDI was/is not a way of adding interest rate risk through leverage to raise expected returns to close the gap (gambling on interest rate risk for resurrection). Instead it was a way of managing interest rate risk to permit raising returns to close the gap by changing portfolio composition. (No doubt regulators were cool with this because it reduced the probability that pension fund bailouts would be needed, or at least kicked that can down the road, a la US S&L regulators in the 1980s.)

No, the real story here is not the oft-told tale of highly leveraged intermediaries coming to grief when their speculations turn out wrong. Instead, it is a story of how mechanisms intended to limit leverage directly lead to indirect increases in debt and more importantly to increases in liquidity risks. In that way, margining increases systemic risk, rather than reducing it as advertised.

*The BofE document describes an LDI mechanism that is somewhat different than using swaps to manage interest rate risk. Instead, it describes a mechanism whereby positions in gilts are partially funded by repo borrowing. The borrowing is necessary to create a position large enough to create enough duration to match the duration of a fund’s liabilities. But a swap is economically equivalent to a position in the underlying funded by borrowing, so the difference is more apparent than real. Moreover, the liquidity implications of the interest rate hedging mechanism in the BofE document are quite similar to those of a swap.

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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.

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July 29, 2021

Timmy!’s Back!

Former Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner–better known as Timmy! to loooooongtime readers of this blog–is back, this time as Chair of the Group of 30 Working Group on Treasury Market Liquidity. The Working Group was tasked with addressing periodic seizures in the Treasury securities market, most notoriously during the onset of the Covid crisis in March 2020–something I wrote about here.

This is a tale of two reports: the diagnosis is spot on, the prescription pathetic.

The report recognizes that

the root cause of the increasing frequency of episodes of Treasury market dysfunction under stress is that the
aggregate amount of capital allocated to market-making by bank-affiliated dealers has not kept pace with the very rapid growth of marketable Treasury debt outstanding

In other words, supply of bank market making services has declined, and demand for market making services has gone up. What could go wrong, right?

Moreover, the report recognizes the supply side root cause of the root cause: post-Financial Crisis regulations, and in particular the Supplemental Leverage Ratio, or SLR:

Post-global financial crisis reforms have ensured that banks have adequate capital, even under stress, but certain provisions may be discouraging market-making in U.S. Treasury securities and Treasury repos, both in normal times and especially under stress. The most significant of those provisions is the Basel III leverage ratio, which in theUnited States is called the Supplementary Leverage Ratio (SLR) because all banks in the United States (not just internationally active banks) are subject to an additional “Tier 1”leverage ratio.

Obviously fiscal diarrhea has caused a flood of Treasury issuance that from time to time clogs the Treasury market plumbing, but that’s not something the plumber can fix. The plumber can put in bigger pipes, so of course the report recommends wholesale changes in the constraints on market making, the SLR in particular, right? Right?

Not really. Recommendation 6–SIX, mind you–is “think about doing something about SLR sometime”:

Banking regulators should review how market intermediation is treated in existing regulation, with a view to identifying provisions that could be modified to avoid disincentivizing market intermediation, without weakening overall resilience of the banking system. In particular, U.S. banking regulators should take steps to ensure that risk-insensitive leverage ratios function as backstops to risk-based capital requirements rather than constraints that bind frequently.

Wow. That’s sure a stirring call to action! Review with a view to. Like Scarlett O’Hara.

Rather than addressing either of what itself acknowledges are the two primary problems, the report recommends . . . wait for it . . . more central clearing of the Treasury market. Timothy Geithner, man with a hammer, looking for nails.

Clearing cash Treasuries will almost certainly have a trivial effect on market making capacity. The settlement cycle in Treasuries is already one day–something that is aspirational (don’t ask me why) in the stock market. That already limits significantly the counterparty credit risk in the market (and it’s not clear that counterparty credit risk is a serious impediment on market making, especially since it existed before the recent dislocations in the Treasury market, and therefore is unlikely to have been a major contributor to them).

The report recognizes this: “Counterparty credit risks on trades in U.S. Treasury securities are not as large as those in other U.S. financial markets, because the contractual settlement cycle for U.S. Treasury securities is shorter (usually one day) and Treasury security prices generally are less volatile than other securities prices.” Geithner (and most of the rest of the policymaking establishment) were wrong about clearing being a panacea in the swap markets: it’s far less likely to make a material difference in the market for cash Treasuries.

The failure to learn over the past decade plus is clear (no pun intended!) from the report’s list of supposed benefits of clearing, which include

reduction of counterparty credit and liquidity risks through netting of counterparty exposures and application of margin requirements and other risk mitigants, the creation of additional market-making capacity at all dealers as a result of recognition of the reduction of exposures achieved though multilateral netting

As I wrote extensively in 2008 and the years following, netting does not reduce counterparty credit risk or exposures: it reallocates them. Moreover, as I’ve also been on about for more than a fifth of my adult life (and I’m not young!), “margin requirements” create their own problems. In particular, as the report notes, as is the case in most crises the March 2020 Treasury crisis sparked a liquidity crisis–liquidity not in terms of the depth of Treasury markets (though that was an issue) but liquidity in terms of a large increase in the demand for cash. Margin requirements would likely exacerbate that, although the incremental effect is hard to determine given that existing bilateral exposures may be margined (something the report does not discuss). As seen in the GameStop fiasco, a big increase in margins in part driven by the central counterparty (ironically the DTCC, the parent of the FICC which the report wants to be the clearinghouse for its expanded clearing of Treasuries) was a major cause of disruptions. For the report to ignore altogether this issue is inexcusable.

Relatedly, the report touches only briefly on the role of basis trades in the events of March 2020. As I showed in the article linked above, these were a major contributor to the dislocations. And why? Precisely because of margin calls on futures.

Thus, the report fails to analyze completely its main recommendation, and in fact its recommendation is based on not just an incomplete but a faulty understanding of the implications of clearing (notably its mistaken beliefs about the benefits of netting). That is, just like in the aftermath of 2008, supposed solutions to systemic risk are based on decidedly non-systemic analyses.

Instead, shrinking from the core issue, the report focuses on a peripheral issue, and does not analyze that properly. Clearing! Yeah, that’s the ticket! Good for whatever ails ya!

In sum, meet the new Timmy! Same as the old Timmy!

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June 23, 2021

I Never Did Acid in the 70s, But I’m Experiencing Flashbacks Anyways

Filed under: Commodities,Economics,Financial crisis,Politics,Regulation — cpirrong @ 7:18 pm

I grew up in the 70s. I never did acid then (or ever!), but man am I experiencing flashbacks. Feckless progressive Democrat presidents. (Though Carter, while an idiot, was at least compos mentis, which is more than can be said of Señor Senile Joe Biden.) Crime. (I’m betting on a comeback of the Charles Bronson revenge and Clint Eastwood Dirty Harry genres.) All in all, the 70s sucked, and I am not nostalgically hoping for a reprise–I’m dreading it actually.

One of the things that sucked worst was inflation. The 1970s were the inflation decade (although it peaked in 1980-1981). In recent months, the price level measured by the CPI, PPI, and GDP deflator has been up substantially. CPI, for example, is up about 4.5 percent on a year-on-year basis. This has raised concerns about a return of 70s-style inflation. Are these concerns justified?

The jury is out, but there is reason for concern.

First, it is important to distinguish between one time changes in the price level and inflation. Inflation is a long term upward trend in the price level, rather than a single stair-step jump in the price level.

The impact of the pandemic (or, more accurately, the draconian policy response to the pandemic) has created the conditions for a one-time step up in the price level. The economic recovery from the pandemic is a positive aggregate demand shock. Moreover, it has occurred against the backdrop of constrained supply conditions that resulted from the pandemic. Upward shifts in supply and demand lead to a higher price level, ceteris paribus.

One would think that these are effectively one-time shocks–hopefully the pandemic is a one-time thing, and therefore the recovery from it is too. Furthermore, supply conditions should ease. (We are already seeing that in some sectors, such as lumber, though not in others, such as semiconductors. Policy, namely paying people not to work in some states, may impede the easing of supply conditions). Thus, one would expect that this is one time, and at least partially transitory, jump in the price level rather than inflation qua inflation.

That said, there are reasons for concern. Most notably, the fiscal diarrhea in the US, and the willingness of the Fed to finance (i.e., monetize) that spending is freighted with inflationary potential.

In the post-Financial Crisis era, the Fed mitigated the inflationary impact of QE and other expansive monetary policies by paying interest on reserves. So the inflationary threat that I worried about in 2009 (and asked Ben Bernanke about) never materialized. But that’s no reason for complacency. We dodged a bullet once, but that doesn’t mean we will always do so. Massive deficit spending accommodated by the monetary authority is highly likely to result in inflation, sooner or later. (I am inclined to favor Thomas Sargent’s fiscal theory of the price level.).

Part of the reason that inflation didn’t occur post-2008 was that money velocity plunged. Part of this was due to the Fed paying interest on reserves, which led banks to hold them (lend them to the Fed in effect) rather than lend them to private individuals and firms. But expectations, and the self-fulfilling nature thereof with respect to inflation, likely played a role too. In the gloomy aftermath of 2008 people expected low inflation (or even deflation), which made them more willing to hold rather than spend money balances–which results in low inflation, thereby validating the expectations and perpetuating the equilibrium.

But expectations are fickle things, and as a result there can be multiple equilibria. Fed board members have strenuously argued that the recent spurt in prices is a one-time stair step phenomenon, not the harbinger of inflation. But if the spurt results in an upward shift in inflationary expectations by the hoi polloi, people will be less willing to hold money balances at the existing price level, so they will try to reduce (i.e., spend) them, which leads to inflation–thereby validating the expectations.

Thus, it’s not so much what the Fed believe that matters. It’s about what you and me and other individuals and firms believe. Combine a negative fiscal picture with a surge in prices and it’s quite possible that inflation expectations soon will no longer be “anchored” at low levels, but will surge to higher levels, which would result in inflation no longer being anchored at low levels.

So although I think that the recent surge in the price level is of the one-time variety, that doesn’t mean everyone will think the same way. And if everyone doesn’t think the same way we may see a 70s rerun. The dire fiscal picture contributes to such worries.

When the subject of inflation comes up, as Dr. Commodities I’m often asked whether commodities are a good hedge. Intuitively it makes sense that they should be, but historically, they have not been. Commodity prices are much more volatile than the price level, and not that highly correlated. That is, relative prices move around a lot even when the price level trends upwards.

I think that availability bias is a big reason why people focus on commodity prices–they are readily observable, on a second-by-second basis, because they are actively traded on liquid markets. Other goods and services, not so much. But just because we can see them easily doesn’t mean that they are reliable beacons for the price level overall, or changes therein.

This brings to mind why we should really fear a return of 70s-style inflation (or worse, heaven forfend).

When sitting in (the great) Sherwin Rosen’s Econ 302 course at Chicago on a cold morning in February, 1982, I was startled when Sherwin’s normal rather droning delivery was interrupted by him shouting and pounding his right fist into his left palm: “And that’s the problem with inflation. IT FUCKS UP RELATIVE PRICES!!!!”

Some prices are stickier than others, meaning that inflation pressures can impact some goods and services more and sooner than others–thereby causing changes in relative prices.

This is a bad thing–and why Sherwin dropped the F-bomb about it–because relative prices guide resource allocation. If you fuck up relative prices, as inflation does, you interfere with resource allocation, leading to lower incomes and growth. Inflation has adverse real consequences.

So we should definitely fear an acid flashback to 70s inflation. And although I do not believe the recent surge in prices is a harbinger thereof, I think that there is a material risk that we may all experience such a flashback–even if you didn’t grow up in the 70s.

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June 10, 2021

Bad Day At BlackRock?

Filed under: Economics,Financial crisis,Politics,Regulation — cpirrong @ 6:16 pm

There has been something of a kerfuffle recently over the large scale purchases of single family homes by the likes of BlackRock and other institutional investors like pension funds. The criticism is somewhat redolent of the Occupy days, because it unites many on the left with some on the populist right, like J.D. Vance:

Understanding should come before judgment. So let’s try to figure out what is going on here. I don’t have a definitive answer, but my strong sense is that this phenomenon is ultimately a consequence of the 2008-2009 Financial Crisis, and the various policy responses to it.

One thing is clear is that the initial foray of institutional investors was a response to the Crisis. And no wonder. Massive amounts of single family homes were in foreclosure, and the biggest fire sale in American real estate history was underway. And in fire sales, those with “dry powder”–cash rich investors relatively undamaged by the crisis that sparks the sales–go bargain hunting. In 2009-2010, the bargains were in residential real estate, especially single family houses. And the “real money” investors like BlackRock and pension funds were best positioned to grab those bargains.

Here it is almost certain that the activities of BlackRock et al did elevate real estate prices. And a good thing, too, for the problem at the time was not that housing prices were too high, but too low. Without bargain hunters (or vultures, if you wish) housing prices would have been even lower, more homeowners would have been underwater, more of them would have been foreclosed, etc. Of course BlackRock et al were not doing this out of charity, but to make a buck. But they were responding to price signals and their actions almost certainly mitigated a horrible situation.

But as the WSJ article linked above notes, institutional investment in the housing sector has persisted after the fire sales ended–especially in places like Houston, Atlanta, and Nashville. This is characterized as a reach for yield strategy on the part of the institutional investors. The yield on rental property is apparently attractive relative to alternative investments. And no surprise: have you looked at bond yields recently? Like in the last 12 years? Is it any wonder that investors like pension funds (especially government funds that are hugely under water) are desperate for assets that generate a stream of cash flows at attractive rates?

But high yield suggests that prices are low in some sense, rather than high. (Price is in the denominator of the return calculation.) “Bubble” real estate markets are characterized by extremely low rental yields, not high ones.

Look at this another way. People are choosing to pay rent, rather than buy and make mortgage payments and forego income on the investment of a down payment amount. Why? Why are they paying rents that generate a high return for the housing owner, rather than buying homes and capturing that return themselves?

My answers will be somewhat speculative, but now the question is the important thing. Many individuals are choosing not to buy, and to pay rent instead. The rents that they are willing to pay are driven by the stream of benefits that they get from living in a single family home. Why don’t they outbid BlackRock or some state pension fund and pay a price that capitalizes that stream of benefits?

Note that there are clear advantages to occupiers owning. The Atlantic article linked earlier discusses the frictions associated with renting. Well, renter-landlord relations have been fraught always and everywhere. Rental contracts are not “complete”–they leave a lot of grey areas that give rise to conflict between owner and renter, and to opportunism by both. Those wasteful activities can be eliminated by having those who live in a home own it. That in and of itself should give individuals a bidding advantage over institutions when buying homes. Cut out the middleman and you cut out the transaction costs inherent in the landlord-tenant relationship.

So then what gives? Now for the speculation, which again revolves around the fallout from the Financial Crisis.

First, the leading diagnosis of the cause of the Financial Crisis was that it was too easy to get a mortgage. In response to this, post-Crisis legislation and regulation tightened up the home financing market. A lot. You can argue that the tightening was justified. You can argue that it went too far. But regardless, restrictions on the ability of individuals to finance a home purchase, or regulations that made it more expensive to do this, shifted the balance away from purchasing towards renting.

Indeed, if the likes of Elizabeth Warren were intellectually consistent (yeah I’m a comedian, I know), they should see the increased presence of Wall Street on Elm Street as a good thing, because it means that their endeavors to prevent another housing “bubble” have worked.

Second, the Financial Crisis took a severe toll on the balance sheets and creditworthiness of many individuals. Although these problems have dissipated, they haven’t disappeared. Combined with the more restrictive access to credit, these creditworthiness/balance sheet effects impede the ability of individuals to capture the high returns of home ownership, and they cannot compete on price with institutional investors who do not face such impediments.

Third–and this is perhaps the most speculative point of all–the Financial Crisis and the follow on Foreclosure Crisis arguably had an impact on the preferences of individuals, especially Millennials and Gen-Zs. Post-Crisis home ownership seemed less like a dream–it had a potential dark side. So many in those cohorts prefer to pay rent and give a high return to institutional investors and deal with the hassles of a landlord rather than buy and face the risk of financial ruin.

Fed policy may also play a role. It clearly has depressed returns on conventional fixed income investments–and has done so by design. That has made institutional investors look at non-traditional investments. But Fed policy alone can’t explain why yields on housing investments apparently haven’t fallen to the level of the low yields on bonds. There must be some other factor impeding the rise of housing prices to reduce the yields that the institutional investors are apparently capturing by buying and renting out single family homes. That brings us back to a search for factors (like those just discussed) that prevent individuals from outbidding institutional investors to capture the stream of returns from housing ownership (and to eliminate the costs that arise when the home occupier is not the owner).

In turn, this means that inquiry into this issue should focus on whether post-Crisis, there are excessive restrictions and costs imposed on individuals looking to finance home purchases. That is, are the post-2008 laws and regulations designed to prevent a recurrence of the housing boom too restrictive?

I don’t have an answer to that question, but again, posing the right question is where you have to start.

My provisional conclusion now is that institutional investors are doing what they do: responding to price signals in order to maximize risk adjusted returns. They are responding to incentives. To evaluate what is going on, it is necessary to evaluate whether those incentives have been distorted by ill-conceived policies.

Of course, these policies were not created in a vacuum. They are the result of a political process that includes lobbying and rent seeking by institutional investors, among others. They have an incentive to harm potential competitors in the housing market. So any inquiry should also focus on whether these institutional investors have helped rig the game against individuals by pressing for the imposition of unwarranted restrictions on home financing. If so, censorious judgment would be warranted.

So is burgeoning institutional ownership of single family housing a 2020s version of Bad Day at Black Rock? A 2020s film noir? I don’t know. But I have the questions and some provisional answers.

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March 31, 2021

Margin Call: From Movie to Reality Show

Filed under: Economics,Financial crisis — cpirrong @ 2:10 pm

The film Margin Call is an entertaining portrayal of big bank culture and behavior during the Financial Crisis. The basic plot involves a Wall Street bank that realizes that it holds a lot of toxic real estate/mortgage securities, and wants to unload them before everyone else figures out that their price is going to collapse. It succeeds, and saves itself from the fate of Lehman or Bear. I had to look past the basic plot vehicle: the ability of the bank to execute such massive sales without causing the price decline that it predicted is rather doubtful, at best. That said, the plot does provide an excellent backdrop for the personal dramas and interpersonal dynamics and characters that are Wall Street (and the City).

The Archegos implosion is a reality show version of Margin Call–right down to the title. The massive “private office” run by former Tiger Management wunderkind Bill Hwang put on massive positions (some long, some short) in a relatively small set of stocks. At least some of those positions were in the form of total return swaps, rather than purchases of the underlying stocks. Swaps embed leverage. A TRS is equivalent to a position in the stock financed with borrowing. It’s not clear from the reporting, but some may also have been old fashioned leveraged bets, with purchases of stocks on margin.

When prices went against the positions, Hwang faced huged margin calls that he did not meet. The prime brokers with whom he dealt then needed to liquidate large positions in the losing securities. Some of these stock holdings might have been the collateral that Hwang had posted, which the prime brokers seized when he defaulted. Some of them were almost certainly shares that the banks had bought as hedges of the total return swaps. Once Hwang defaulted, the banks’ short positions in the TRS went away, and they no longer needed the hedges.

Here’s where the Margin Call analogy really kicks in. Apparently Hwang’s major prime brokers, including Credit Suisse, Nomura, Morgan Stanley, and Goldman, discussed a coordinated liquidation of the stock positions in order to mitigate a panicked . Goldman (and maybe MS) listened politely, then pipped the others to the post and sold the stocks in big blocks before the others did. As a result, Credit Suisse and Nomura lost billions, and apparently Goldman and Morgan Stanley didn’t.

Goldman’s behavior is redolent of what they did in the Long Term Capital Management (LTCM) situation. One would have thought that CS and Nomura would have taken that into consideration, and hadn’t made themselves into the hindmost for the Devil’s taking.

Interestingly, although the block “fire sales” impacted the prices of the stocks Hwang traded, there doesn’t appear to have been a wider market fallout. Billions ain’t what they used to be. Even tens of billions ain’t what they used to be.

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January 29, 2021

GameStop-ped Up Robinhood’s Plumbing

The vertigo inducing story of GameStop ramped it up to 11 yesterday, with a furore over Robinhood’s restriction of trading in GME to liquidation only, and the news that it had sold out of its customers’ positions without the customers’ permission. These actions are widely perceived as an anti-populist capitulation to Big Finance.

Well, they are in a way–but NOT the way that is being widely portrayed. What is going on is an illustration of the old adage that clearing and settlement in securities markets (like the derivatives markets) is like the plumbing–you take it for granted until the toilet backs up.

You can piece together that Robinhood was dealing with a plumbing problem from a couple of stories. Most notably, it drew down on credit lines and tapped some of its big executing firms (e.g., Citadel) for cash. Why would it need cash? Because it needs to post margin to the Depositary Trust Clearing Corporation (DTCC) on its open positions. Other firms are in similar situations, and directly or indirectly GME positions give rise to margin obligations to the DTCC.

The rise in price alone increased margin requirements because given volatility, the higher the price of a stock, the larger the dollar amount of potential loss (e.g., the VaR) that can occur prior to settlement. This alone jacks up margins. Moreover, the increase in GME volatility, and various adders to margin requirements–most notably for gap risk and portfolio concentration–ramp up margins even more. So the action in GME has led to a big increase in margin requirements, and a commensurate need for cash. Robinhood, as the primary venue for GME buyers, had/has a particularly severe position concentration/gap problem. Hence Robinhood’s scramble for liquidity.

Given these circumstances, liquidity was obviously a constraint for Robinhood. Given this constraint, it could not handle additional positions, especially in GME or other names that create particularly acute margin/liquidity demands. It was already hitting a hard constraint. The only practical way that Robinhood (and perhaps other retail brokers, like TDAmeritrade) could respond in the short run was trading for liquidation only, i.e., allow customers to sell their existing GME positions, and not add to them.

By the way, trading for liquidation is a tool in the emergency action toolbook that futures exchanges have used from time-to-time to deal with similar situation.

To extend the plumbing analogy, Robinhood couldn’t add any new houses to its development because the sewer system couldn’t handle the load.

I remember some guy saying that clearing turns credit risk into liquidity risk. (Who was that guy? Pretty observant!) For that’s exactly what we are seeing here. In times of market dislocation in particular, clearing, which is intended to mitigate credit risk, creates big increases in demand for liquidity. Those increases can cause numerous knock on effects, including dislocations in markets totally unrelated to the original source of the dislocation, and financial distress at intermediaries. We are seeing both today.

It is particularly rich to see the outrage at Robinhood and other intermediaries expressed today by those who were ardent advocates of clearing as the key to restoring and preserving financial stability in the aftermath of the Financial Crisis. Er, I hate to say I told you so, but I told you so. It’s baked into the way clearing works, and in particular the way that clearing works in stressed market conditions. It doesn’t eliminate those stresses, but transfers them elsewhere in the financial system. Surprise!

The sick irony is that clearing was advocated as a means to tame big financial institutions, the banks in particular, and reduce the risks that they can impose on the financial system. So yes, in a very real sense in the GME drama we are seeing the system operate to protect Big Finance–but it’s doing so in exactly the way many of those screaming loudest today demanded 10 years ago. Exactly.

Another illustration of one of my adages to live by: be very careful what you ask for.

Margins are almost certainly behind Robinhood’s liquidating some customer accounts. If those accounts become undermargined, Robinhood (and indeed any broker) has the right to liquidate positions. It’s not even in the fine print. It’s on the website:

If you get a margin call, you need to bring your portfolio value (minus any cryptocurrency positions) back up to your minimum margin maintenance requirement, or you risk Robinhood having to liquidate your position(s) to bring your portfolio value (minus any cryptocurrency positions) back above your margin maintenance requirement.

Another Upside Down World aspect of the outrage we are seeing is the stirring defenses of speculation (some kinds of speculation by some people, anyways) by those in politics and on opinion pages who usually decry speculation as a great evil. Those who once bewailed bubbles now cheer for them. It’s also interesting to see the demonization of short sellers–whom those with average memories will remember were lionized (e.g., “The Big Short”) for blowing the whistle on the housing boom and the bank-created and -marketed derivative products that it spawned.

There are a lot of economic issues to sort through in the midst of the GME frenzy. There will be in the aftermath. Unfortunately, and perhaps not surprisingly given the times, virtually everything in the debate has been framed in political terms. Politics is all about distributive effects–helping my friends and hurting my enemies. It’s hard, but as an economist I try to focus on the efficiency effects first, and lay out the distributive consequences of various actions that improve efficiency.

What are the costs and benefits of short selling? Should the legal and regulatory system take a totally hands off approach even when prices are manifestly distorted? What are the costs and benefits of various responses to such manifest price distortions? What are the potential unintended consequences of various policy responses (clearing being a great example)? These are hard questions to answer, and answering them is even harder in the midst of a white-hot us vs. them political debate. And I can say with metaphysical certainty that 99 percent of the opinions I have seen expressed about these issues in recent days are steeped in ignorance and fueled by emotion.

There are definitely major problems–efficiency problems–with Big Finance and the regulation thereof. Ironically, many of these efficiency problems are the result of previous attempts to “solve” perceived problems. But that does not imply that every action taken to epater les banquiers (or frapper les financiers) will result in efficiency gains, or even benefit those (often with justification) aggrieved at the bankers. I thus fear that the policy response to GameStop will make things worse, not better.

It’s not as if this is new territory. I am reminded of 19th century farmers’ discontent with banks, railroads, and futures trading. There was a lot of merit in some of these criticisms, but all too often the proposed policies were directed at chimerical wrongs, and missed altogether the real problems. The post-1929 Crash/Great Depression regulatory surge was similarly flawed.

And alas, I think that we are doomed to repeat this learning the wrong lessons in the aftermath of GameStop and the attendant plumbing problems. Virtually everything I see in the public debate today reinforces that conviction.

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