Streetwise Professor

June 13, 2019

Debunking A Valiant–But Failed–Defense of Frankendodd

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

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

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

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

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

But then he contradicts himself on competition:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

With regards to Amaranth, Dan states

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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  1. Prof, O/T I know, but would be grateful for your thoughts on Iran, the Gulf, the tankers, the Japanese PM, and the US 5th fleet.

    Comment by Global Super-Regulator on Lunch Break — June 14, 2019 @ 2:16 am

  2. Delivery limits make sense. You can squeeze a market by using its liquidity to buy more than all of the available supply, or to force delivery to you at more than its maximum rate. A delivery limit prevents you from doing that because everyone knows the longs will have to sell.

    Otherwise, pointless.

    Comment by Green as Grass — June 14, 2019 @ 8:36 am

  3. @Global–I was hoping to do a post on that. I will wait until the situation clarifies a little bit.

    Comment by cpirrong — June 14, 2019 @ 9:17 am

  4. How can anyone be surprised that mandatory clearing increases concentration? Apart from the enormous overhead in compliance costs, there’s default fund contributions, counterparty risk to your clearing firm or clearing house and capitalization. The nature of margining is that it is on a portfolio basis, so there’s a massive incentive to centralize, both at a clearing member and clearing house level.

    One major problem is post a default of a clearing firm, customer accounts have to be ported elsewhere. This could be achieved if firms had a back up clearing arrangement, but the costs are prohibitive. This means that in practice if a large bank went bang, customer porting is practically impossible. What happens then? The clearing house will cancel your positions. Hilarity ensues.

    Comment by Bob — June 14, 2019 @ 11:36 am

  5. @Bob–you’d be surprised at how many people are surprised. One of the reasons that Gary Gensler (AKA GiGi) banned me from the CFTC building (as I have been told by an authoritative source) was that I mocked his claims that clearing would lead to less concentration and lower interconnectivity in the financial markets. He was not alone in pushing this BS. But as you say (and as I formalized in a variety of papers) the centripetal forces are very strong, and regulation/mandatory clearing actually enhanced those forces.

    And you are definitely right that porting is a major, major risk, and the consolidation in the FCM sector only makes things worse.

    Comment by cpirrong — June 14, 2019 @ 12:08 pm

  6. @Global–One thing I am interested in learning is the results of forensics that they do on the tankers. One is apparently under tow and has been secured by the USN. The other, not. That will tell a lot.

    Comment by cpirrong — June 14, 2019 @ 12:09 pm

  7. Maybe I would be, I think the banks themselves are getting more aware of these issues though, hence the CHs can’t get any traction for clearing other non mandatory OTC. Nobody wants to make default fund contributions for multiple asset classes, and then lose half of their trading floor if a default happens.

    Porting is even worse in Europe if I recall correctly, because you face the clearing firm, not the clearing house. So the positions are margined on a portfolio basis, impossible to migrate anywhere else.

    Comment by Bob — June 14, 2019 @ 1:39 pm

  8. Thanks Prof. I look forward to reading what you come up with.

    Forensics on the tankers, yes. I would have thought also that the navy would have traced and tracked everything on land, sea and air in the vicinity, if only for the safety of its own ships (and those of its allies – we usually have a few ships in the Gulf patrolling alongside the US).

    Whoever is responsible, they either want to send a strong message, or really, really want to escalate current tensions.

    Or just solve some domestic fiscal problems by raising the price of oil …

    Comment by Global Super-Regulator on Lunch Break — June 17, 2019 @ 2:06 am

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