Streetwise Professor

March 22, 2020

If Policymakers are Going to Crater the World Economy, They Should At Least Make That Decision Based on Reliable Data

Filed under: China,Economics,Politics,Regulation — cpirrong @ 6:51 pm

I’ve expressed considerable skepticism about relying on test data to craft COVID-19 (AKA CCPVID-19) policy responses. This note formalizes the basis for my skepticism. Testing data would provide an accurate measure of the prevalence of severe infection if (a) the tests had low rates of false positives and false negatives, and (b) testing was random. Neither condition is remotely correct. Meaning that the test-based statistics are an extremely poor guide for policymakers, and a particularly dubious basis for driving the world economy into a depression, at the cost of trillions of dollars.

So what should we look at? If this is a particularly prevalent, virulent, and deadly respiratory disease, it will result in elevated levels of hospital admissions or physician visits for respiratory illness, and elevated levels of death from respiratory causes. That’s what we should be looking at. Or more to the point, what policymakers should be looking at. Is this a particularly deadly and widespread disease? If it is, it will have measurable effects on mortality and hospital admissions.

The CDC does collect data on influenza. Unfortunately, many of the statistics condition on a positive influenza test. For example, hospital admissions with a positive influenza test. That is not helpful, because we are focused on something other than the influenzas the CDC tracks. But the CDC does report deaths from influenza and pneumonia. That is more useful, as a deadly new respiratory illness should lead to higher pneumonia death rates.

Through last week, these data demonstrate little elevation on a national or regional basis. There was a spike in deaths above the “threshold” level early in 2020 (where the threshold basically is at the 5 percent significance level above the seasonally adjusted baseline), but subsequently it converged almost back to the baseline:

It is particularly interesting to compare 2019-20 with 2017-18. Heretofore, 2019-20 compares very favorably to that year, and even to less extreme years 2016-17 and 2018-19. Through now, in other words, 2019-20 does not look at all unusual.

The CDC also tracks data on those seeking medical treatment for flu-like symptoms: these data do not require a positive influenza test, and thus should reflect people suffering flu-like symptoms caused by something other than the flu. These data show somewhat higher levels for 2019-20 compared to previous years (except for 2017-18, which was much higher), but not extremely so. The main worrying aspect to the 2019-20 data is that they do not appear to be declining as rapidly with the approach of spring as in prior years. But the data do not exhibit a huge spike–they are just declining less rapidly than in prior years.

Yes, these data are backwards looking. I can imagine scenarios, such as the late introduction of CCPVID-19 into the US, which would mean that the wave of deaths/illness would not be manifest in the data, as it is still to come. But there are indications that the virus has been on the loose in the US at least since mid-January, and given its existence in China no later than mid-November, it could have been present in the US prior to mid-January. If it is indeed highly contagious and deadly, it should be leaving tracks in the mortality data.

It would be highly informative to have such data for other countries. I am not aware of it in as accessible a form as is provided by the CDC. If anyone can point me to it, that would be greatly appreciated.

You might argue that I am whistling past the graveyard. All I can say is that the data that alarmists point to is highly unreliable (and inherently so), and the reliable data as of yet demonstrate nothing out of the ordinary on the dimension that really matters–people dying from respiratory ailments.

What I can say with considerable confidence is that policymaking is driven by flawed data, and that there are types of data that would be more informative, and which are not infected by (deliberate choice of words) the problems inherent in the flawed data that dominates public discourse, and apparently dominates public policymaking. Produce that data. Disseminate that data. Make sure policymakers are aware of it, and are aware of the deficiencies of the data we hear about 24/7.

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March 14, 2020

Test This

Filed under: China,Politics,Regulation — cpirrong @ 3:37 pm

One of the refrains we’ve heard repeatedly during the Panicdemic (which is arguably worse than the pandemic) is: “We Need More Tests! We Need More Tests!”

There is a Chicken Little vibe to these calls for testing. A sense that people are running around like the sky is falling, and not thinking through the right testing strategy.

What are tests for? One is for diagnostic purposes in specific cases. To be frank, the value of such tests is minimal. There is no unique therapy for acute Wuhan Virus sufferers. The protocol is to treat the symptoms of acute respiratory distress the same way as one would treat such distress from other causes. So knowing that someone’s acute distress is caused by agent X as opposed to agent Y is of limited therapeutic value.

Insofar as identifying someone expressing symptoms would help identify others so exposed, a much more efficient strategy is to presume that the symptomatic individual is suffering from WV, track his/her contacts, and monitor and quarantine said individuals accordingly. Yes, there will be Type I (false positive) errors, but the cost of such errors is likely to be relatively small if an individual is suffering from an acute condition, regardless of the exact pathogen that caused it. That pathogen is obviously capable of causing severe problems, so why not isolate those exposed to it, even if you don’t know exactly what it is?

Another purpose of testing is to collect information about the prevalence, virulence, contagiousness, and fatality of the disease. Such information can be used to optimize the policy response.

Testing those who are symptomatic and/or have been exposed is exactly the wrong way to go about that. Such a testing strategy is rife with sample selection bias.

For weeks (mainly on Twitter) I advocated construction of a random panel data set. Select people at random. Test them, and test them at regular intervals–including those who tested negative. This would provide an unbiased sample that would permit more reasoned assessments and judgments about the nature of the pathogen. We could see how many people had contracted the virus, how many people they infected, the mortality rate (and how the mortality rate varied with age, health status, etc.), and the trajectory of the virus.

If that had been done, say, in January when shit started to get real in China, perhaps we could have been able to condition policy on better information. (Not to mention if the CCP had done that in, say, December, when it knew it had a problem on its hands–but decided to suppress information rather than suppress the pathogen.)

Why didn’t our Technocrats figure this out? Yeah. We should put more of our lives in their hands.

But that opportunity to get unbiased data has passed. Now we are forced to respond based on the most sketchy and biased data. Chicken Little proposals about testing will generate . . . more biased data. Which is arguably worse than useless.

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March 13, 2020

Wuhan Virus and the Markets–WTF?

What a helluva few weeks it’s been, eh boys and girls? By way of post mortem (hopefully?) rather than prediction, here’s my take.

Under “normal” circumstances, two factors drive asset valuations: expectations of cash flows, and the rate at which investors discount those cash flows. COVID-19–Wuhan Virus, to call it by its proper name–has has profound influence on both.

WV has caused a major aggregate supply shock, and an aggregate demand shock, and these amplify one another. The aggregate supply shock stems from shutdown of productive capacity due to social distancing. And people who aren’t working aren’t earning and aren’t spending, hence the aggregate demand shock.

These developments obviously reduce the income streams from assets (e.g., corporate profits). That’s a negative for stocks.

As an aside, these factors defy traditional policy prescriptions. Monetary and fiscal policy are focused on addressing aggregate demand deficiencies, i.e., trying to move demand-deficient economies (where demand deficiencies arise from price rigidity and nominal shocks) back to the production possibilities frontier. Supply shocks shrink the PPF. Pushing the PPF back to its normal state in current circumstances is a function of public health policy, and even that is likely to be problematic given the huge uncertainties (that I discuss below) and the dubious competence of government authorities (which I discussed last week).

The pandemic nature of WV also makes it the systematic shock par excellence. It hits everyone and every asset class, and cannot be diversified away. A big increase in systematic risk results in a big increase in risk premia, meaning that the already depressed expected cash flows on risky assets get discounted at a higher rate, leading to lower valuations.

A lot higher rate, evidently. Why? Most likely because of the extreme uncertainty about the virus. Data on how infectious it is, how many people have been infected, the fatality rate, how it will be affected by warmer weather, etc., are extremely unreliable. In other words, we know almost nothing about the salient considerations.

This is in part due to lack of testing, and to inherent defects in the testing: those who get tested are disproportionately likely to be symptomatic, exposed, or hypochondriacal, leading to extreme sample selection biases. The tests are apparently unreliable, with high rates of false positives and false negatives. The RNA tests cannot detect past infections. It is in part due to the novelty of the virus. Is it like influenza, and will hence burn out when temperatures warm? Or not?

Another major source of uncertainty is due to the fact that the initial outbreak in China was covered up by the evil CCP regime. (Which now, in an Orwellian twistedness that only totalitarian regimes can muster, is boasting that it will save the world. And which is blaming the United States for its own abject failures. Which is why I insist on calling it the Wuhan Virus–so go ahead, call me a racist. IDGAF.) Thus, data from Ground Zero is lacking, or wildly unreliable. (Ground One–Iran–is equally duplicitous, and equally malign.)

This huge uncertainty regarding a major systematic factor leads to even greater discount rates–and hence to lower stock prices.

And then there is the truly disturbing factor. These textbook causal channels (lower expected cash flows, higher discount rates) have in turn caused changes in asset prices that force portfolio adjustments that move us into the realm of positive feedback mechanisms (which usually have negative effects!) and non-linearities. This represents a shift from “normal” times to decidedly abnormal ones.

When some investors engage in leveraged trading strategies, big price moves can force them to unwind/liquidate these strategies because they can no longer fund their large losses. These unwinds move asset prices yet more (as those who placed a lower valuation on these assets must absorb them from the levered, high-value owners who are forced to sell them). Which can force further unwinds, in perhaps completely unrelated assets.

Not knowing the extent or nature of these trading strategies, or the degree of leverage, it is virtually impossible to understand how these effects may cascade through the markets.

The most evident indicators of these stresses are in the funding markets. And we are seeing such stresses. The FRA-OIS spread (known in a previous incarnation–e.g., 2008–as the LIBOR-OIS spread) has blown out. Dollar swap rates are blowing out. The most vanilla of spreads–the basis net of carry between Treasury futures and the cheapest-to-deliver Treasury–have blown out. Further, the Fed has pumped in huge amounts liquidity into the system, and these alarming spread movements have not reversed. (One shudders to think they would have been worse absent such intervention.)

One thing to keep an eye on is derivatives clearing. As I warned repeatedly during the drive to mandate clearing, the true test of this mechanism is during periods of market disruption when large price moves trigger large margin calls.

Heretofore the clearing system seems to have operated without disruption. I note, however, that the strains in the funding markets likely reflect in part the need for liquidity to make margin calls. Big margin calls that must be met in near real-time contribute to stresses in the funding markets. Clearinghouses themselves may survive, but at the cost of imposing huge costs elsewhere in the financial system. (In my earlier writing on the systemic impacts of clearing mandates, I referred to this as the Levee Effect.)

The totally unnecessary side-show in the oil markets, where Putin and Mohammed bin Salman are waging an insane grudge match, is only contributing to these margin call-related strains. (Noticing a theme here? Authoritarian governments obsessed with control and “stability” have a preternatural disposition to creating chaos.)

Perhaps the only saving grace now, as opposed to 2008, is that the shock did not arise originally from the credit and liquidity supply sector, i.e., banks and shadow banks. But the credit/liquidity supply sector is clearly under strain, and if parts of it break under that strain yet another round of extremely disruptive knock-on effects will occur. Fortunately, this is one area where central banks can palliate, if not eliminate, the strains. (I say can, because being run by humans, there is no guarantee they will.)

Viruses operate according to their own imperatives, and the imperatives of one virus can differ dramatically from those of others. Pandemic shocks are inherently systematic risks, and the nature of the current risk is only dimly understood because we do not understand the imperatives of this particular virus. Indeed, it might be fair to put it in the category of Knightian Uncertainty, rather than risk. The shock is big enough to trigger non-linear feedbacks, which are themselves virtually impossible to predict.

In other words. We’ve been on a helluva ride. We’re in for a helluva right. Strap it tight, folks.

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March 1, 2020

Paul Romer Projects

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

In a reply to the Paul Romer post, ex-colleague and friend Scott points out the richness of Romer calling for a “new humility” among economists. But not all economists, mind you, just those who value freedom and express skepticism about regulation:

Among these pretend economists, the ones who prized supposed freedom (especially freedom from regulation) over all other concerns proved most useful—not to society at large but to companies that wanted the leeway to generate a profit even if they did pervasive harm in the process. 

This brings to mind Hanna Arendt’s observation: “One of the greatest advantages of the totalitarian elites of the twenties and thirties was to turn any statement of fact into a question of motive.” This is exactly what Romer does. He ascribes venal motives to those who dare disagree with his eminence. He has precious few facts in his article, but casts many aspersions on motives of those with whom he disagrees.

Romer again refers to economists plural, but provides a single illustration–Alan Greenspan. To make him the Representative Agent for an entire swath of the economics profession is utterly ridiculous. He was the head of an economics consulting firm for decades before ascending to the Fed. He never held an academic appointment. He did not publish in peer-reviewed journals. He is an eminently bad person to serve as the epitome of regulation-skeptical economists.

Further, Romer has things exactly upside down. It was–and is–the pro-regulatory/pro-state/pro-government contingent of the economics profession (which has always represented a majority) that could have used, and could use, a dose of humility. Always dismissive of the knowledge problem, they believed that they could design regulatory and legislative schemes that would achieve superior outcomes, only to find out that unintended consequences are a bitch, and regulatory capture undermines the most well-intended schemes.

Indeed, in financial regulation in particular, major financial institutions play B’rer Rabbit, begging not to be thrown in the regulation briar patch, only to profit quite well from it.

In fact, it has long been government/regulation-skeptical economists who have counseled against hubris. In a book tellingly titled “The Fatal Conceit,” Hayek famously wrote: “The curious task of economics is to demonstrate to men how little they really know about what they imagine they can design.”

The main issue I’ve always had with this quote is that it clearly expresses what Hayek thought economics should do, but did not accurately express the views of the profession at large. Those who view economies and markets as complex systems, as emergent orders, are very dubious of their ability–or the ability of anyone–to impose their designs. But they are, and always have been, a minority.

Another example of a great economist who was humble about attempts to control such complex systems via government was Adam Smith, who famously said:

The man of system, on the contrary, is apt to be very wise in his own conceit [there’s that word again]; and is often so enamoured with the supposed beauty of his own ideal plan of government, that he cannot suffer the smallest deviation from any part of it. He goes on to establish it completely and in all its parts, without any regard either to the great interests, or to the strong prejudices which may oppose it.

He seems to imagine that he can arrange the different members of a great society with as much ease as the hand arranges the different pieces upon a chess-board. He does not consider that the pieces upon the chess-board have no other principle of motion besides that which the hand impresses upon them; but that, in the great chess-board of human society, every single piece has a principle of motion of its own, altogether different from that which the legislature might chuse to impress upon it. If those two principles coincide and act in the same direction, the game of human society will go on easily and harmoniously, and is very likely to be happy and successful. If they are opposite or different, the game will go on miserably, and the society must be at all times in the highest degree of disorder.

In sum, Paul Romer is projecting. As Smith recognized centuries ago, and Hayek echoed many years later, it is the statists who need humility, and those who advocate a reliance on freedom often do so out of a humble conviction of the difficulty in even understanding the operation of complex systems, let alone controlling or regulating them.

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February 28, 2020

If Only Economists Were So Powerful

Filed under: Economics,Financial crisis,Politics,Regulation — cpirrong @ 7:38 pm

Eminent economist Paul Romer has assumed the role of professional scold. A few years ago he excoriated other eminent economists (notably Robert Lucas) for “mathiness.” Now he is chastising the profession for enabling deregulation that has wreaked havoc across the land.

I have to say his essay is unpersuasive, not to say incoherent. One way of framing the issue is to contrast the view of Keynes:

Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist. Madmen in authority, who hear voices in the air, are distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler of a few years back. I am sure that the power of vested interests is vastly exaggerated compared with the gradual encroachment of ideas.

with that of Stigler (speaking of the passage of the Corn Laws):

economists exert a minor and scarcely detectable influence on the societies in which they live . . . if Cobden had spoken only Yiddish, and with a stammer, and Peel had been a narrow, stupid man, England would have moved toward free trade in grain as its agricultural classes declined and its manufacturing and commercial classes grew.

Romer is clearly in league with Keynes, rather than Stigler.

But he fails to make the case. This is true for many reasons. For one, he argues by anecdote, and hence his style is journalistic rather than rigorously scholarly. A few cherry-picked anecdotes–and Romer uses only three–are clearly insufficient to support Romer’s broader claim that the deregulation favored by many economists (not all) was on the whole baleful. There are entire areas of deregulation (e.g., transportation, telecommunications, restrictions on advertising) that he says nothing about, but which were the subject of massive scholarship in the 1970s and 1980s which demonstrated the inefficiency of the existing regulatory structure: the experience in these industries post-deregulation strongly supported the scholarship that criticized existing regulations.

One interesting example is pharmaceutical regulation, something that exercises Romer quite greatly. Sam Peltzman showed in the 1970s that efficacy regulation under the 1962 Drug Act amendments did not result in a reduction in the amount of inefficacious drugs introduced, but did reduce the rate of introduction of new, valuable therapies. All pain, no gain.

Romer has nothing to say about this.

With respect to pharma regulation, Romer blames the opioid crisis on “pliant pretend economist[s]” who “assume[d] the role of the philosopher-king—someone willing to protect the firm’s reckless behavior from government interference and to do so with a veneer of objectivity and scientific expertise.”

He doesn’t quote any economist, pretend, real or otherwise, playing the role of philosopher-king/academic scribbler whose frenzy regulators or legislators distilled into opioids. Instead, he says:

By the 1990s, such arguments were out of bounds, because the language and elaborate concepts of economists left no opening for more practically minded people to express their values plainly. And when the Drug Enforcement Administration finally tried to limit the distribution of these painkillers, pharmaceutical companies launched a massive lobbying effort in favor of a bill in Congress that would strip the DEA of the power to freeze suspicious narcotics shipments by drug companies. It is a safe bet that these lobbyists made their arguments to Congress in the language of growth, incentives, and the danger of innovation-killing regulations. The push succeeded, and the DEA lost one of its most powerful tools for saving lives.

Of course, during earlier eras, regulators allowed many industries to profit massively from products known to be harmful; Big Tobacco is the most obvious example. But until the 1980s, the overarching trend was toward restrictions that reined in these abuses. Progress was painfully slow, but it was progress nonetheless, and life expectancy increased. The difference today is that the United States is going backward, and in many cases, economists—even those acting in good faith—have provided the intellectual cover for this retreat.

So apparently, by highjacking the language economists prevented rational debate, thereby rendering legislators and regulators defenseless against predatory corporations.

Or something.

That is, not only does Romer fail to show that deregulation was on the whole detrimental, he also fails to show that economists had anything much to do with making it happen. He asserts the Keynesian line, but does not come close to proving it.

Indeed, the reverse is true. Romer’s argument actually supports Stigler’s claim, which can be “distilled” thus: money talks. Or to use Keynes’ term: vested interests talk. What economists said or didn’t say or how they said it or what language they said it in (English, Yiddish, Aramaic) was nothing, compared to the lobbying might of the pharma industry. So not only does Romer fail to identify any actual economist who advocated the policy that infuriates him, he fails to show that what any economist said meant squat for the outcome.

Indeed, this is precisely why a certain species of economists (Stigler, and well, yours truly) was/is so skeptical about regulation: it tends to favor the interests of the regulated. It always has, and it always will. Economic efficiency is a secondary consideration, and what economists have to say on the matter has little (if any) bearing on the outcome. If anything, Romer’s piece is a case for Public Choice economics. But that has implications that Romer would no doubt find inimical.

Romer’s other big anecdote is from the financial industry, namely the infamous Goldman Abacus transaction in which Goldman served as the middleman between John Paulson (who wanted to short US real estate) and a hapless German bank.

The stand in for all economists in this anecdote is one sorta economist: Alan Greenspan. Apparently, Greenspan was the Representative Agent for the economics profession. This is beyond simplistic. Insultingly so.

Another bogeyman in Romer’s telling is Michael Jensen:

Michael Jensen, an economist who helped reshape the U.S. financial sector in the late twentieth century. Jensen rightly worried about several problems that bedeviled the market, including how to keep corporate executives from promoting their own interests at the expense of shareholders. His proposed solutions—hostile takeovers, debt, and executive bonuses that tracked the share price of a firm, among other changes—were widely adopted.

Corporate shareholders saw their earnings skyrocket, but the main effect of the changes was to empower the financial sector, which Greenspan, for his part, worked doggedly to unfetter. As Lemann writes, Jensen’s ideas also helped chip away at the power of the traditional Corporate Man—the sort of executive whose pursuit of profit was tempered somewhat by a commitment to noneconomic norms, among them a belief in the need to foster trust and build long-term relationships across company lines. Taking his place was Transaction Man, who focused on little more than driving up share prices by any means necessary.

There is so much wild generalization here that I am at a loss of where to begin. For one thing, Jensen’s heyday was the 1980s LBO and hostile takeover boom, which had been largely stymied by regulation by the early-1990s, long before the Financial Crisis. (So much for the power of Jensen’s advocacy! Jensen’s hero, Michael Milken, was in jail, FFS.)

I am at a real loss to trace the connection between Jensen’s advocacy of measures to control managerial agency costs and, say, the real estate securitization boom of the mid-2000s. Romer certainly doesn’t lay out the road map. Here merely cites Jensen’s views and asserts some connection with those of Greenspan, and proclaims QED! The South Park Underwear Gnomes’ argumentation was tighter.

And again, what economists said was almost certainly irrelevant here. There were powerful forces–political as well as economic forces–behind the real estate boom and crash. Homeownership became a totem for politicians of both parties in the 1990s and 2000s. Wall Street was on board, because it realized this could be an engine for profit. Main Street financial institutions were on board for the same reason.

So what if Alan Greenspan was cool with this? If he hadn’t been, he wouldn’t have been around long. Economic and political interests found a convenient mouthpiece: the mouthpiece didn’t create the economic and political forces. At the end of the day, economists would not have mattered, and the financial sector would have gotten the mouthpiece it wanted.

This part made me roll my eyes:

the traditional Corporate Man—the sort of executive whose pursuit of profit was tempered somewhat by a commitment to noneconomic norms, among them a belief in the need to foster trust and build long-term relationships across company lines. Taking his place was Transaction Man, who focused on little more than driving up share prices by any means necessary.

Evidence for this “commitment to noneconomic norms, among them a belief in the need to foster trust and build long-term relationships across company lines” among 1960s-1970s corporate executives? None whatsoever. This is an ex cathedra pronouncement that bears no relationship to the reality of self-serving corporate management during this era–management that a 1970s Romer probably would have inveighed against as venal and self-serving (as many criticisms of managerial capitalism did).

No, the issue here is not Corporate Man vs. Transaction Man. It is Straw Man (Romer’s, specifically) vs. Reality.

Romer gives economists both too much credit, and too little. By painting all economists who criticized regulation (based on empirical evidence and theory) as stooges, he gives them too little credit. By blaming them for massive public policy failures, he gives them too much. If only we had such influence.

Does economics matter? Yes. Do economists matter? Not really. And the reason for these answers is the same. Economic considerations–distributive considerations in particular, as they operate through the political and regulatory system–drive political and regulatory outcomes. Economists can comment on this, analyze it, and even advocate particular outcomes. But their participation has as much effect on the outcome as a sportscaster’s does on who wins the Super Bowl.

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Commodity Indexation and Financialization: The Debate Goes On Because the Literature is Flawed

Filed under: Commodities,Derivatives,Economics,Energy,Regulation — cpirrong @ 3:41 pm

A recent RFS paper by Brogaard, Riggenberg, and Sovich purports to show that the rise of commodity index investing has had adverse effects on the real economy. Like most of the papers that analyze index investing, this one is seriously flawed and does not support the broad conclusions it asserts.

Like virtually all of the papers in this literature, it relies on crude before-after comparisons based on some magic year (2004? 2005? 2006?) during which commodity index investing became important. Even assuming that the rise in index investing was a sort of exogenous shock, this crude method of attributing causation has problems. After all, a lot of other stuff happened after, say, 2004. The rise of China as the predominate force in commodity markets, for instance.

Perhaps this problem would be less troublesome were commodities assigned randomly to “treatment” (part of an index) and “non-treatment” (non-index) groups. But this is definitely not the case. There are systematic differences between index and non-index commodities, so it is difficult to know whether the effects documented in Brogaard et al are due to a correlation between these systematic differences and the performance measures they utilize.

Ah. The performance measures. That raises yet more issues. The paper claims that firms with exposure to index commodities experienced lower returns on assets (i.e., operational income/assets) post-indexation than their non-index-exposed counterparts.

So what is the implicit model of the market in which these firms operate? If the presumption is that the markets are relatively competitive, why would you expect profit margins to change over a period of several years? Even assuming that indexation increased costs via the channels posited by the authors, in equilibrium this would lead to (a) an initial decline in profits, (b) exit (meaning fewer assets and lower output), and (c) a return of profits to the competitive level. Meaning that actually looking at assets or output would be a better measure of how indexation affects cost than profit margins.

If, conversely, the presumption is that these markets were imperfectly competitive prior to the indexation shock, the fall in profit rates could be a good thing, rather than a bad thing. It could indicate that indexation resulted in more intense competition/lower market power.

This is particularly interesting, given that this was a period in which measured profit rates were rising generally in the economy, a phenomenon which some (not I, but some) attribute to declining competition. Now, there are big problems with that literature (problems that the late great Harold Demsetz identified in the 1970s, but which modern scholars have forgotten), but take it at face value. Declining profits/margins could be interpreted as a signal of increased competitiveness and efficiency. A feature, not a bug.

And via a channel exactly contrary to that posited by Brogaard et al. They posit that indexation reduced the informational efficiency of commodity prices. But an increase in informational efficiency would tend to reduce market power–and reduce margins/profits. Note that many firms HATE the introduction of futures, or increased trading of futures, of their main inputs or outputs. Precisely because futures trading increases the informational content of prices which undermines an information asymmetry that generates profits for major producers and consumers.

Which brings me to that information channel. Brogaard et al measure informativeness using the autocorrelation in commodity returns.


They basically find that autocorrelations went up, which they interpret to mean that commodity futures markets became weak form inefficient (or further from weak form efficiency).

Again: really?

Taking their argument literally, it means that speculators were able to eliminate predictable movements in prices prior to indexation, but weren’t able to do so afterwards. This stretches credulity to its limits. After all, “financialization” of commodities also saw the entry of banks and hedge funds into commodity trading. We’re supposed to believe they left easy money on the table?

This purported reduction in price efficiency raises another issue. When I read about return autocorrelations I think time-varying expected returns. So the Brogaard et al result suggests that index commodity returns became more time-varying after indexation became a thing.

Arguably the primary impact of indexation was to integrate more closely commodity prices and stock and bond prices, and in particular, ensure that systematic risk was priced more consistently across commodities and financials. We know that equities and bonds have time varying returns. It is plausible that the documented increase in time variation in expected commodity returns reflects this integration, and is yet another feature rather than a bug.

If so, commodity prices that more accurately reflect the pricing of risk should lead to better investment decisions, not worse decisions. Further, these better investment decisions need not be associated, over several years, the operational performance measures they employ.

Indeed, along the lines of a paper that I wrote a few years back, indexation improves the allocation of risk and reduces the cost of commodity price risk to firms. In equilibrium, this would lead to lower rates of return. Which is exactly what Brogaard et al find.

Pursuing this further, I note that the authors do not use sensitivity to commodity prices as a means of determining whether firms are exposed to commodity prices, on the basis that hedging can reduce price exposure. Yes, but consider the following. Hedging is costly. Hedgers frequently pay a risk premium to speculators. This leads them to hedge less, which leads to high exposure. If indexation reduces hedging cost (as my paper implies), at the margin, firms will hedge more, and bear less risk. This reduces expected profits (which incorporate compensation for risk).

This has at least two implications. First, the average profit rate of firms exposed to hedgeable commodity prices (which are precisely the commodities that are included in indices) should decline post-indexation: this is consistent with the Brogaard et al finding. Second, firms should hedge more–leading to lower exposure to commodity prices. Brogaard et al do not test this latter implication. (Admittedly, this raises complications. Firms may limit commodity exposure in ways other than hedging, and a lower cost of hedging can lead to a substitution of hedging for these other means, leading to offsetting effects which reduce the commodity exposure impact of cheaper hedging.)

The upshot of all this is that the conclusions that the authors advance–namely, that indexation resulted in poorer real outcomes in terms of performance and investment–are not supported by their empirical findings. That is, there are alternative hypotheses that are consistent with the empirical findings that are diametrically opposed to their hypothesis.

This paper is well done within the analytical confines that its authors select. But that’s exactly the problem with this literature. The analytical confines exclude important channels of cause and effect. Most importantly, these confines make implicit assumptions about the degree and nature of competition that either make their results problematic, or mean that their results have diametrically opposed implications to those of the chosen analytical framework.

Meaning that the debate on the effects of indexation are still very much open, and that finance and economics scholars have largely failed to devise reliable tests to distinguish indexation-is-bad hypotheses from indexation-is-good hypotheses. Which is precisely why the debate is still open.

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February 2, 2020

Position Limits: What a Long, Strange Trip It’s Been

Filed under: Commodities,Derivatives,Economics,Music,Politics,Regulation — cpirrong @ 12:43 pm

On Thursday, the CFTC voted along party lines to approve a proposal on position limits. The party line vote reveals a salient fact: the proposal represents a virtual abandonment of the Commission’s earlier proposals (2011, 2013, 2016). Indeed, virtually all of the features that I criticized in the earlier proposals are gone, and the current proposal largely mirrors the recommendations of the Energy and Environmental Markets Advisory Committee that I served on (before being uninvited by current EEMAC chair Dan Berkovitz). (More on EEMAC below.)

Most importantly, limits outside the “spot month” (which is actually just a few days for some commodities) for energy and metals commodities are gone. Good riddance. They remain for nine legacy ag futures contracts (corn, cotton, and the like), but the any-and-all limits have been expanded substantially.

The rule expands hedging exemptions beyond the prior proposals, and in doing so meets the objections of companies like Vitol. Interestingly, the proposal tidies up the definition of a “bona fide hedge” and makes explicit, rather than implicit, the principle that bona fide hedges are solely for the reduction of price risk.

The Commission did eliminate the “risk management” hedging exemption for swaps dealers, based on an interpretation of Congressional intent and a reading of statute that limits hedging to the management of risk of physical commodity positions. On principled grounds, I object to this. A swap dealer buying an oil swap from an E&P firm facilitates the hedging of a physical position, and hedging that swap via the futures markets serves a classical risk transfer function. A dealer selling an index swap to a pension fund isn’t hedging a physical risk, but it is still serving a risk transfer function and the distinction between physical commodity hedges and non-physical hedges is rather Talmudic.

The practical effect is unknown. In terms of index swaps, most swap dealers are out of the nearby contract when an index (e.g., GSCI) rolls, which is well before the spot month for energy and metals that make up the bulk of most indices. Hedges of the ag portion of these swaps could be affected by the any-and-all limits and the elimination of the risk management exemption, but the dramatic increase in the size of these limits may well greatly reduce any impact. A dealer hedging a swap with payments based on final settlement prices of say NYMEX crude or natural gas could be impacted by the elimination of the exemption, but the spot month limits may be large enough to cushion the impact here as well.

The most interesting feature of the proposal is its rather tortured attempt to address the “necessity” issue that derailed previous proposals in court.

The most important aspect of this is that it appears that the Commission has essentially conceded that a necessity finding is, well, necessary. That raises the issue of the criteria for establishing necessity.

One criterion could be that a limit is necessary only if the risk of speculation causing unwarranted price fluctuations is sufficiently great.

An alternative criterion is that a limit is necessary as long as the risk of unwarranted price fluctuations exists at all, if the contract is important enough.

The Commission took the latter approach, and limited its limits to commodities it deemed were sufficiently important (measured by volume and open interest) so that any unwarranted price fluctuation could lead to impairment of price discovery and risk transfer on a large scale. The closest that the Commission came to taking likelihood of disruption into account is its restriction of the limits to physical delivery contracts that could be cornered or squeezed. This is a logical problem (cash-settled contracts give rise to manipulation too) but this is of secondary importance. But it could be read to limit the Commission’s interpretation as to the source of unwarranted fluctuations to market power manipulation, which would be a good limitation indeed.

A sufficient statistic to infer that the Commission conceded much in its necessity finding is Dan Berkovitz’s freak out on the issue in his dissent.

As a manipulation-related aside, I will note that the spot month limits are justified by the notion that a position in excess of deliverable supply is necessary to execute a market power manipulation (i.e., a corner or squeeze). I have some recent research (which I’ll post and write about soon) showing that this may be a sufficient condition, but not a necessary one. Meaning that the limits will not be sufficient to eliminate market power manipulation.

The recent proposal, assuming it is finally approved as a rule in something resembling its current form, represents the end of a saga that has had a major influence on my life. I began writing about the speculation issue when it became a source of renewed political controversy in 2006. I wrote my first major post in response to a Senate Permanent Subcommittee Report (large authored by Dan Berkovitz) on oil speculation in August 2006.

As oil prices spiraled upwards in 2007 and 2008, I wrote more about the issue, and gained more notoriety. This resulted in my testifying before the House Ag Committee in July 2008 (a day or two before oil prices reached their all time high) and led to a WSJ oped.

Then the Financial Crisis happened, and I focused more on clearing issues, with periodic forays into the speculation debate. But Frankendodd included a provision on speculative position limits in commodities, and the CFTC rolled out a proposal in 2011.

I wrote a comment letter on the proposal. That letter (and others I wrote subsequently) were sufficiently important that in the final rulemaking and in later proposals it or other things I’ve written were cited dozens of times (my name gets 50 hits in the 2016 proposal).

But the impact of the letter on my life went beyond that. Gene Scalia–son of Justice Antonin Scalia, and now Secretary of Labor–retained me to write a declaration criticizing the inadequate cost-benefit analysis in the proposal (it being something required under the law.)

Perhaps most importantly, Blythe Masters at J. P. Morgan liked it, and called to tell me so. She then proposed that I write an analysis of the systemic risk of commodity trading firms for SIFMA. I did–and came up with the wrong answer. So SIFMA spiked the report. But word leaked out, which prompted Trafigura to retain me to write a study (with a subsequent follow-on study) of the economics of commodity trading firms.

I don’t think I’m exaggerating to say that this study proved to be very influential, perhaps because of the lack of competition: writing on the sector was, and remains, very sparse. I have traveled, lectured, and taught around the world based on people wanting to hear what I wrote about in that piece.

The study was also the hook for the New York Times hit piece on me in December, 2013. See! I took money from evil speculators while writing in opposition to limits on speculation! Never mind that I had been consistently opposed to limits years before, and never mind that Trafigura (and other oil traders) are not speculators and use the futures markets mainly for hedging.

(As an aside, I am convinced, but cannot prove, that Gary Gensler was the moving force behind the piece. After all, why else would the NYT devote front page space to an obscure academic? And under the theory of there-are-no-coincidences-comrade, comments on the 2013 revised proposal were due in January, 2014. So December 2013 was the perfect time to kneecap a gadfly. By the way, Gary, how’s that gig as Treasury Secretary working out. Oh. Right. Well maybe you can chair Hillary’s legal defense fund.)

Asides aside, other than frightening my aged parents this article actually was all for the good. It validated me as an influential voice. It also got many very reputable people to rush to my defense, including Thomas Sowell, one of my long-time heroes.

The article raised its head a few years later when I was serving on EEMAC, and was asked to write the (Frankendodd-mandated) report on the committee’s deliberations. I was the dutiful scribe, and honestly recorded the committee’s adamant opposition to the then-outstanding proposal (which included all the bad features jettisoned in the new proposal).

This caused Elizabeth Warren to lose her [insert vulgar metaphor of your choosing here]. This article in particular cracked me up (and still cracks me up): Why Elizabeth Warren Is On the Warpath This Week.

Well, why was she on “the warpath”? Well–me, now that you ask:

The committee, which was established by Dodd-Frank, has nine members. Though it is supposed to express a “wide diversity of opinion” and “a broad spectrum of interests,” eight of the nine members represent companies or industries with a financial interest in killing the position limits rule, or have a personal financial interest themselves. 

. . . .

The recent inclusion of Craig Pirrong on the committee is perhaps the most flagrant example. Pirrong, who co-wrote the first draft of the report with James Allison, is a professor of finance at the University of Houston, who has been paid by several industry participants and trade groups for his research into commodity speculation. He was also a paid research consultant for the International Swaps and Derivatives Association, the very group that got the initial rule overturned by the courts.

The CFTC report relies mostly on Pirrong’s research and a presentation he made to the committee last year, which did not include the opinion of anyone who believes in the dangers of excessive commodity speculation. In fact, 10 of the 13 witnesses at EEMAC meetings came from industry, two were representatives of CFTC, and the other was Pirrong. The meetings never mentioned that there would even be a final report. [Er, it’s in the law, you knobs.]

As Public Citizen’s Tyson Slocum, the only non-industry committee member and the only one to dissent from the recommendation, points out, Pirrong was not on the committee until after he co-authored the report. Pirrong “is so new to the EEMAC,” Slocum wrote in a minority dissent, “that I only learned he was a member when he was listed as a co-author.” 

This kerfuffle warranted another mention in the NYT, and I’ve been told that Warren used it (and me) in a fundraising pitch.

I’m so proud. One’s enemies are the best comment on one’s character.

What cracks me up is that it wasn’t a right-wing snarkmeister like me that included “Warpath” in the title of an article about Liz Warren. It was the (by then) far-left New Republic. Freudian slip? Whatever, it’s hilarious.

Alas, understandably but not commendably, Commissioner and EEMAC chair Christopher Giancarlo buckled under the political pressure and withdrew the report. But this was almost certainly a non-event: the proposal was dead in the water, and was only salvaged by saving major pieces overboard. And I’ve sailed on.

What a long strange trip it’s been. The speculation debate has had a first-order impact on the arc of my life for more than a decade. Although the Commission proposal will likely put an end to one chapter of that debate, as I wrote in my first piece in 2006, speculation controversy is a hardy perennial, and will no doubt recur the next time some major commodity price spikes or craters. And maybe I’ll be around to draw more fire–and deliver some–when that happens. And until then, I’ll keep Truckin’ on whatever fits my fancy.

Nota bene: I’m not a Dead Head by any means. But if the song fits . . . Well, not the drugs part!

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December 9, 2019

The Four Horsemen of the Repo Apocalypse

Filed under: Derivatives,Economics,Financial crisis,Regulation — cpirrong @ 9:42 pm

The BIS included a box on the September USD repo spike in a chapter to its Quarterly Review titled “Easing Trade Tensions Support Risky Assets.” The piece lays out many damning dots, but does not connect them. Let me give it a try.

In a nutshell, the BIS report says that as a result of the wind down of the extraordinary post-crisis monetary policy measures there has been a dramatic change in the funding structure in US markets. In particular, the “big four [US] banks” (which the BIS delicately–or is it cravenly?–doesn’t name) have flipped from being suppliers of repo collateral (and hence cash borrowers) to being suppliers of cash (and hence collateral borrowers). Further, other US banks are not viable competitors to the big four, nor are other potential cash suppliers such as money market funds because they have hit counterparty credit limits which have constrained their lending capacity. According to the BIS, these events has made The Big Four Banks Who Shall Not Be Named the “marginal lenders” in the repo market. And mark well: prices are set at the margin.

Further, “leveraged players (eg hedge funds) were increasing their demand for Treasury repos to fund arbitrage trades between cash bonds and derivatives.”

So here are the dots. Recent structural changes have given the Big Four Banks Who Shall Not Be Named a dominant position in the repo market. Their main potential competitors as suppliers of funds are constrained by size or regulation. There has been a large increase in demand for repo funding.

Not even being willing to name the banks (as if their identities are unknown), the BIS does not even draw the blindingly obvious implication of its analysis–that the Four Repo Horsemen have market power. A lot of market power. Are we supposed to believe that (out of the goodness of their hearts, perhaps) they did not exercise it? I didn’t just fall off the turnip truck.

Even the euphemism Big Four is deceptive, for in reality this group is dominated by one bank–Morgan. And of course Morgan has been loudest in its protestations that it really wanted to lend more, but just couldn’t, dammit, because of those cursed liquidity regulations.

The BIS attempts to run cover, and provide some rather lame excuses for the failure to lend more despite the high rates:

Besides these shifts in market structure and balance sheet composition, other factors may help to explain why banks did not lend into the repo market, despite attractive profit opportunities. A reduction in money market activity is a natural by-product of central bank balance sheet expansion. If it persists for a prolonged period, it may result in hysteresis effects that hamper market functioning. For instance, the internal processes and knowledge that banks need to ensure prompt and smooth market operations may start to decay. This could take the form of staff inexperience and fewer market-makers, slowing internal processes. Moreover, for regulatory requirements – the liquidity coverage ratio – reserves and Treasuries are high-quality liquid assets (HQLA) of equivalent standing. But in practice, especially when managing internal intraday liquidity needs, banks prefer to keep reserves for their superior availability.

Hysterisis? Decaying internal processes and knowledge? Staff inexperience? Complete and utter argle bargle. We’re talking overnight secured lending here, not rocket science structured finance. It’s about as vanilla a banking transaction one could imagine. And LCR provides convenient cover.

The BIS lays out a compelling case that four major institutions have market power in repo. September events in particular are consistent with the exercise of market power, and the alternative explanations are beyond lame. Yet none dare speak its name, or even raise it as a possibility. Not the BIS. Not the Fed. Not the Treasury. Despite the systemic risks this poses.

The Financial Crisis supposedly changed everything. It apparently changed nothing.

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November 30, 2019

The Invasion of the Control Freaks

Filed under: China,Climate Change,Economics,Politics,Regulation — cpirrong @ 11:47 am

It’s impossible to turn around these days without being beset by control freaks.

Exhibit 1. Michael Bloomberg, who is running for president. Bloomberg is infamous for his desire to control everything, from what you eat to what you drive to how you defend yourself. Bloomberg thinks taxing “sugary drinks” (among other things) is a great thing, despite the regressivity of this tax, because it’s good for the poor:

And if you buy a gun do defend yourself, you’re pretty stupid–so he will take them away:

Pretty sure his security detail is heavily armed. But that’s the credo of his ilk: for me, but not for thee.

Bloomberg also sucks up to the world’s leading control freaks, the Chinese Communist Party. When (amazingly) confronted about this by (amazingly) a PBS interviewer, Mikey totally flacked for them:

And behold the stunning dishonesty here–the lengths to which he goes to avoid criticizing the CCP. Bloomberg wants to control the entire energy system in order to reduce the emissions of global greenhouse gases (GHG). The Chinese are building coal plants at a frenzied pace, yet when confronted on this, Bloomberg treats the Chinese coal plants as merely an issue of local particulate pollution in places like Beijing.

As an aside on this issue: the silence of the Davos Douches (control freaks all) who sucked up to Xi on this issue, and so many others involving China, is deafening.

Exhibit 2. Elizabeth Warren, reprising her “you didn’t earn that” bullshit:

What pretzel logic. Because you might have benefited from some public goods, you are obligated to let Lizzie decide what she will take from you in order to pay for all the non-public goods that she wants.

I have a better idea: I’ll gladly pay taxes for public goods that earn a return in excess of the cost of capital, and Lizzie can STFU.

Exhibit 3. Angela Merkel. Zere vill be NO free speech for you!:

Nice hand gestures there. Wonder where she picked those up?

Such a good little Ostie, ain’t she?

Exhibit 4: “Scientists”:

The irony of this is that those so wise in the ways of science

are obviously lecturing the developed world, which in their wisdom they apparently haven’t recognized is depopulating. Population growth is overwhelmingly concentrated in very low income Africa, the Middle East, Asia, and the Subcontinent, whose peoples (a) will never hear what these scientists are demanding, and (b) would ignore it in any event.

So what are these scientists proposing? What coercive powers will they deploy against brown people in order to achieve their vision?

No doubt Bloomberg has the answer: if they don’t submit voluntarily, kill them. You know, for their own good.

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November 20, 2019

Proponents of a Fracking Ban Are Seriously Fracked Up

Filed under: Climate Change,Commodities,Economics,Energy,Politics,Regulation — cpirrong @ 6:31 pm

Elizabeth Warren, among other Democratic candidates, have promised to eliminate fracking in the US. The WSJ has a dialog between pro-ban and anti-ban advocates. It demonstrates just how unmoored from reality the fracking ban side is.

The anti-ban participant, Sam Ori, executive director of the Energy Policy Institute at the University of Chicago, points out that as a result of the fracking revolution, US production accounts for 8 percent of the world total, and eliminating this would dramatically increase prices:

One year after the implementation of a ban, shale-oil production would be down by more than a third. After two years, production would be down 55%. You’re talking about triple-digit oil prices and a possible global economic shock

To which the ban supporter, Kassie Siegel, director of the Climate Law Institute at the nonprofit Center for Biological Diversity, replied: What? Me worry? My magical thinking will save the day!

I think an oil-price prediction is largely a red herring, because I am not talking about banning fracking in a vacuum. My organization and others propose a fracking ban along with other smartly designed programs to speed the development and deployment of clean technologies, support local communities, and offset oil and gas price increases. Government policies that drive a rapid just transition to clean-energy technology can create the largest economic stimulus since World War II.

I’m talking about policies like accelerated clean car and truck standards that rapidly decrease oil consumption in the transport sector and moving the power sector to 100% renewable energy. Other policies like reinstating the crude-oil export ban would also counteract price increases from banning fracking and restricting the supply of oil and gas.

Well-designed government policy in other areas, like tobacco and asbestos, addresses both supply and demand. Climate policy must do the same. The barrier to this is opposition from the fossil-fuel industry, not any insurmountable economic or policy problem.

And don’t you think we need to be a little bit skeptical of anyone’s ability to accurately predict oil prices?

Unpacking this idiocy in its entirety would exhaust my time and my patience. So just a few comments.

“Well-designed government policy” and “smartly designed programs.” Such a comedian! Because we know government programs are always well-designed and smartly designed. Did I say “always”? Sorry. I meant “never.”

Case in point. The brilliant European strategy to reduce CO2 by forcing the replacement of gasoline engines with diesel. Whoops! Not only was it colossally expensive, it was a major mistake because (a) it barely affected emissions of CO2, and (b) greatly increased auto emissions of harmful particulates.

Further, since China is the largest emitter, and the largest growing emitter, of CO2, Ms. Siegel is relying upon the wise beneficence of the CCP to achieve her goals.

Need I say more?

“Accelerated clean car and truck standards that rapidly decrease oil consumption in the transport sector.” First, this is costly, not just directly in terms of replacing a huge stock of existing capital, but indirectly by forcing people to drive lower-quality automobiles. How do we know they are lower quality? Because people don’t buy them voluntarily: they have to be compelled.

Second, auto emissions are a drop in the CO2 bucket.

“Moving the power sector to 100% renewable energy.”

Excuse me a minute. I have to walk my unicorn.

OK. I’m back. One-hundred percent renewables is utterly unrealistic and enormously costly, including in terms of reliability and transmission–and fires started (in places by California) by transmission needed to support renewables generation. Fires which, by the way, emit massive amounts of CO2.

Look at Germany, which I wrote about a few days ago. They are running into a renewables wall well short of 100 percent, and have incurred massive costs (imposed on energy consumers) to get this far.

I note that Ms. Siegel doesn’t mention cement, or steel, or other industrial emitters (which put autos in the shade, btw).

Not to mention that fracking oil has f-all to do with power generation, and fracking gas that supplants coal reduces CO2 emissions.

“Other policies like reinstating the crude-oil export ban would also counteract price increases from banning fracking and restricting the supply of oil and gas.”

Yo. Einstein. We have oil and gas to export because of fracking. If we ban fracking, we’ll have no exports, and the export ban will have zero, zip, nada impact on prices.

Further, export bans reduce the price in the exporting country, but raise prices in the importing country. So I guess Ms. Siegel is an economic nationalist. I bet she looks stunning in her MAGA hat.

“And don’t you think we need to be a little bit skeptical of anyone’s ability to accurately predict oil prices?”

Yo. Von Neuman. This has nothing to do with predicting the level of oil prices. Demand curves slope down. You reduce production, prices go up. In fact, oil demand curves slope very steeply, so if you reduce production a little prices go up a lot.

Not rocket science. Just the law of demand.

And these are the brainiacs who are going to make sure that we have “well-designed” and “smartly designed” government policies.

God save us.

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