Streetwise Professor

December 22, 2022

Vova Has Issues

Filed under: History,Military,Politics,Russia,Ukraine — cpirrong @ 5:13 pm

I haven’t written much about the Ukraine war for months because not much has happened for months, since the major Ukrainian advances in August. Zelenskyy’s visit to the US nudges me to providing an update.

Since the major Ukrainian gains, the war has reverted into another stalemate, a la Korea 1951-1953 (an analogy I used before) or the Western Front 1914-1918. The culmination of the Ukrainian advances was predictable, and the logic of warfare means that the marginal cost of additional gains rises rapidly. The advancing force’s logistics become more stretched, and the defender’s more compact. Moreover, the most strategically important advance, in the south around Kherson, means that now the Ukrainians are the ones who must fight with a major river to their backs, and supply their forces over tenuous river crossings.

On the Kharkiv front, there are see-saw battles around Kreminna. Again, very Korea/Western Front-esque.

The Russians are concentrating their efforts on the taking of Bakhmut. The accounts are again redolent of the accounts of battles like Pork Chop Hill or Verdun, where massive casualties are incurred to take, and then sometimes lose, mere yards of territory. Literally yards.

Interestingly, apparently due to the wrecking of their armored and mechanized forces, Russian attacks are carried out by mass infantry attacks, a la Chinese human waves in Korea, with little or no armored support. Moreover, the attacks are evidently primarily carried out by Wagner troops, rather than regular Russian formations, and many of the Wagner “troops” are convicts who apparently decided that it was better to play the odds in Ukraine than stay in Russian prisons.

The Russians sometimes gain a few yards here and there. Reading the accounts is fascinating. It is accounted as a major victory if they take this street or that. At the cost of great slaughter.

Accounts suggest that the tactics that worked for the Russians over the summer in Luhansk are not feasible here. Specifically, the tried-and-true method of saturation bombardment followed by infantry advance is infeasible because the Russians lack sufficient munitions to execute the bombardments. So it’s modest bombardment, or no bombardment, followed by waves of Ivans advancing on entrenched positions, hoping to win by weight of numbers.

It’s all so pointless. Even if the Russians “win” in Bakhmut–so what? Lacking mechanized forces they have no hope of a breakout even if they do achieve a penetration. So the front will move a few meters or kilometers with no fundamental change in the military situation.

In this respect, they are engaged in as futile a struggle as the British and French were in 1915-1917. Even when they broke through the first couple of lines of trenches, they had no ability to exploit the gains. Same with the Russians today.

The futility has not penetrated the skulls of Putin and his slouching acolytes, though he has made some hilarious statements recently. In an oblique attempt to rationalize failure, has described the campaign in Ukraine as “complicated,” and said the Russians are facing “issues.”

What’s the over under on when he says the situation is “problematic”?

Lapsing even further into delusion, Putin and his sad sack defense minister Shoigu announced plans to expand the Russian military from 1.15 million personnel to 1.5 million.

Let me get this straight. Russia has suffered casualties numbering probably around 200,000. It is not able to replace the wastage at the front even by throwing almost completely untrained mobiliks into the meat grinder. It has lost most of its best equipment, and cannot supply even the most basic kit to its soldiers. Around 300,000 military aged men have fled the country.

But Putin is going to increase the armed forces by 40 percent. Uhm-kay! Whatever, dude!

In other news, Rogozin the Ridiculous took some Ukrainian shrapnel in the shoulder. Could be serious. If it had hit him in the head, not so much.

But Vova won’t give up. In fact, he can’t give up. It’s far better (for him!) that numberless orcs get fed into the meat grinder than for him to admit defeat–and thereby risk getting fed into the meat grinder himself.

Meaning that there is no end in sight. Not just because Putin won’t accept defeat, but because Zelenskyy won’t accept anything but total victory, and indeed Russian failure and Ukrainian success has fed Zelenskyy’s ambitions. As I said probably 9 months ago, the core is empty: there is no mutually acceptable set of terms to end the conflict, even a limited end such as a cease fire or an armistice.

That said, part of the reason that the core is empty is that the US (and Europe) are encouraging Zelenskyy. Or at least, they are afraid to put him in his place, apparently never having learned who pays the piper calls the tune.

I get that giving Putin even the simulacrum of victory presents dangers for the future. But in my mind those are outweighed by the dangers of the present, not least to Ukrainians, but to the world economy, and potentially to the world–for who knows what a desperate Putin will resort to.

Logic says he will not use nukes, or escalate dangerously in some other way. Well, as I wrote immediately before the invasion, logic said he shouldn’t invade. But here we are.

Macron beclowned himself at the World Cup. But Biden beclowns himself on a daily basis. And when choosing between clowns, Macron’s proposals for an ugly peace–or at least, an ugly cessation of hostilities–is far preferable to Biden’s (and alas, the Senate Republicans’) blank check policy.

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December 21, 2022

The Idiom Wars

Filed under: Politics — cpirrong @ 2:24 pm

One of the most prestigious universities in the United States of AMERICA (caps are foreshadowing!) has beclowned itself by releasing its most recent “Elimination of Harmful Language” document. Our better thans instruct us as follows:

The Elimination of Harmful Language Initiative (EHLI) is a multi-phase, multi-year project to address harmful language in IT at Stanford. EHLI is one of the actions prioritized in the Statement of Solidarity and Commitment to Action, which was published by the Stanford CIO Council (CIOC) and People of Color in Technology (POC-IT) affinity group in December 2020.

The goal of the Elimination of Harmful Language Initiative is to eliminate* many forms of harmful language, including racist, violent, and biased (e.g., disability bias, ethnic bias,e thnic slurs, gender bias, implicit bias, sexual bias) language in Stanford websites and code. 

Where to begin? Target rich environment! (No doubt that’s forbidden violent language–see below.). It’s not quite as long as the OED, but give them time! Pretty soon every word in the English language will be problematic at best, violently offensive at worse.

I guess the best way to summarize is that the document proves that Stanford is insane. How insane? They endeavor to “eliminate” the use of the word “insane.” Why, you ask? Well, you benighted pleb, here’s why, the word “insane” is:

Ableist language that trivializes the experiences of people living with mental health conditions.

So there.

The document lists a variety of categories of Wrongspeak, conveniently listed alphabetically. (Hey! Isn’t that Eurocentric and colonialist!?!?!). These include: Ableist, Ageism, Colonialism, Culturally Appropriative (talk about a language crime!), Gender-Based, Imprecise Language, Institutionalized Racism, Person-First (WTF?), and Additional Considerations.

I could spend a large fraction of my remaining natural life ridiculing this, but that would be futile because no doubt in the interim an expanded list would be released.

So I’ll just pick out a few of the real winners.

African-American is bad, you see, because:

Black people who were born in the United States can interpret hyphenating their identity as
“othering.” As with many of the terms we’re highlighting, some people do prefer to use/be addressed by this term, so it’s best to ask a person which term they prefer to have used when addressing them. When used to refer to a person, the “b” should always be capitalized.

I’m so old that I remember that “African-American” was mainstreamed in the American (trigger warning!) lexicon by one Jesse Jackson, whom if I recall was–and still is!–black. JJ preferred this precisely because . . . wait for it . . . “black” was “othering.”

You cannot possibly make up this shit. Unless you are a Stanford egghead.

Whoops! I used the phrase “trigger warning.” Bad, bad, SWP. That’s violent!:

The phrase can cause stress about what’s to follow. Additionally, one can never know what may or may not trigger a particular person.

SWP to the camps!

Retard:

This term is a slur against those who are neurodivergent or have a cognitive disability.

This is one of my favorites. Note that “retarded” was originally introduced as a euphemism to replace words like “idiot” and “moron”, which were at one time clinical descriptions of individuals with low intelligence. (As I recall, there were IQ ranges specific to morons and idiots.). Oh, they’re not idiots: they are just behind mentally, retarded in their development.

But of course, the euphemism was used pejoratively in normal speech to describe people who are stupid or who do stupid things, just as “idiot” and “moron” had been. “You’re retarded!” “You retard!” But you didn’t call them idiots, right?

Which illustrates a dialectic of normal speech: a word associated with a given condition will be used as an insult. If the insulting use is stigmatized, and a new euphemism is substituted to describe that condition, the new euphemism will be used as an insult.

This is human. This is emergent. This is inevitable. Trying to undermine this dialectic by “eliminating” old insults and creating new euphemisms to replace them is as futile as commanding the tides.

“Long time no see”:

This phrase was originally used to mock Indigenous peoples and Chinese who spoke pidgin English.

What the fuck ever.

By the way, idioms like this, and many others offensive to 2022 Stanford (including “retard” and “insane”), have been widely used by people of my generation, and previous generations. So doesn’t that mean that it is ageist to ban their usage? I’m offended!

“American”:

This term often refers to people from the United States only, thereby insinuating that the US is the most important country in the Americas (which is actually made up of 42 countries).

“Insinuating.” To whom? Stanford nitwits?

A few comments. First, of all of those 42 countries, only the United States of AMERICA has the word “AMERICA” in its name. Hence, we call citizens of Canada “Canadians,” citizens of Guatemala “Guatemalans”, etc.

Second, pretty much everybody in the other 41 countries calls, er, Americans “Americans.” They are evidently not as hypersensitive as Stanford nitwits.

Third, isn’t there a much bigger problem with the word “American”??? After all, it is derived from the name of a dead white European male, Amerigo Vespucci. Shouldn’t the continent be named for a Toltec rain god or something?

The suggested substitute for American is (unintentionally, certainly) hilarious: “US Citizen.” And silly me! I though that the idea of citizenship was exclusionary, racist, etc., etc., etc.

The substitutes are generally hilarious in their own right. For example, the suggested substitute for retarded is “boring, uncool.” No. Not even close Those words do not come remotely close to capturing the connotations of “retard.”

Again, I could go on, but hopefully you get the idea, and will entertain yourself by perusing the document in all its glory. Just in time for the holidays! Think of the fun you can have with family around the Christmas tree finding your favorite example of . . . insanity!

Many of the verbotten words and phrases are turns of speech–idioms. Hence the title of the post. But the implicit reference to “Indian Wars” is no doubt offensive to the oh-so-easily offended at Stanford. Shouldn’t it be “Native American Wars?”–whoops! No! American is a bad word! So I guess it would be “Indigenous People’s Wars”–but “Wars” is violent, so I guess we have to call the whole thing off.

Along these lines, recall that Stanford’s sports teams were once called the “Indians” before an earlier generation of the easily offended decided that this homage to Indians was insulting, and the teams were renamed “Cardinal”–not for the bird, you know, because that would be speciesist, but for the color. But isn’t that speciesism once removed? Or religiously supremacist?

The point being that Stanford has long been an innovator in logically incoherent–or shall we say insane?–language games.

But these are more than games. As Orwell pointed out in 1984, to control language is to control thought. The Elimination of Harmful Language provides oodles of material for ridicule, but in reality it is deadly serious. This is the effort of malign people who want to control what you say, and therefore what you think.

So if you ridicule, follow Saul Alinsky and use ridicule as a weapon in a real war for your personal autonomy, your control over your words–and your thoughts. Fight these fuckers with every weapon at your disposal. It’s funny, but it’s deadly serious.

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December 11, 2022

Who In the US Is Objectively Racist? The Left. As the Data Show Definitively.

Filed under: Guns,Politics — cpirrong @ 3:29 pm

Joe Biden and the Democrats keep gunning for your guns. Research like this is a major part of their argument. What it shows–definitively–is that it isn’t guns. It’s a particular social pathology enabled by a social psychosis that reached epidemic proportions in 2020. The data are irrefutable.

One graphic tells the tale:

The increase in gun homicides documented in the Emory University study is attributable almost exclusively to one factor: a nearly 60 percent increase in homicide fatalities among black men. Not over a period of many years–but in a little over one year.

And what year was that? 2020. And what happened in 2020? The death of George Floyd, and the subsequent revelation that black lives especially matter.

Yes, but not in the way intended. Not by a long shot. That death and revelation brought in its train myriad consequences. Defund the police. The war on cash bail and the release of numerous criminals. The demoralization of police, who were instructed explicitly and implicitly that arresting black male offenders was a career risk, and the subsequent surrender of the streets to the thugs. And on and on. (The release of many from jail because of COVID didn’t help either.)

This is as close to a natural experiment as can exist in social science. An exogenous shock–the death of one man–leads to a tectonic shift in law enforcement, especially with regards to a particular demographic. The result?: a hyperbolic increase in homicide rates in that demographic. (I note that the previous uptick observable in the chart in 2014 corresponds to the proto-Floyd event, the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO, which was the catalyst for Black Lives Matter.)

This is as close to a definitive proof of causation as is possible in observational social science.

This is not complicated. We sowed. We reaped. There is no other plausible explanation for the data.

It is sickly ironic–and mainly sick–that so many black lives have been sacrificed on the altar of Black Lives Matter.

But it gave an opportunity for Nancy Pelosi and the like to demonstrate their superiority over us plebs by taking a knee wearing kente cloth, so it was all for the best, right?

The whole ugly spectacle makes me literally nauseous. (And yes, I literally know what it means to say “literally.”) Hell is not hot enough to torture properly all those preening better-thans who have cost more black lives in a couple of years than the KKK did in its entire, horrid, sordid history (which dates to 1866).

But you are the problem you see. You and your icky guns.

No, the real problem is the social psychosis that is modern American leftism, which obsesses over race, and in the name of helping one race is directly responsible for the deaths of thousands of that race.

So tell me: who are objectively the racists here? (See Orwell on “objectively pro-Fascist” if you don’t catch my point.)

If this does not make you incandescent with anger, some serious self-reflection is definitely in order. Unless you are a leftist, in which case that is something of which you are constitutionally incapable.

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November 30, 2022

Franklin Redux

Filed under: Civil War,History,Military — cpirrong @ 3:48 pm

Today is the 158th anniversary of the Battle of Franklin, one of the most brutal in the entire Civil War–which is saying something. It is hard to overstate the intensity of the fighting between two veteran armies, which resulted in an extended exchange of fire at point-blank range over earthworks lasting well into the night. The only thing comparable is the Bloody Angle at Spottsylvania on 12 May 1864.

Here’s my post from the sesquicentenary of the battle.

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November 28, 2022

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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November 27, 2022

An American Anabasis in a Different Direction

Filed under: China,History,Military — cpirrong @ 4:01 pm

While working for an FCM in 1987 my main job was to assist S&L and mortgage banker clients manage their interest rate risk. Along with several colleagues I attended a banker’s conference in San Francisco where the firm had a booth and hosted a reception. One of the reception attendees was an S&L president, who happened to be a big bear of a man. During the cocktail chitchat somehow military backgrounds came up, and the S&L guy mentioned he had been a Marine in the Korean War. I asked him: “Were you at Chosin?” His eyes grew wide, and he threw his arms around me in an almost suffocating hug: he was surprised, and deeply grateful, that there was anyone my age who knew of that battle. For even then Korea was known as “the Forgotten War” (indeed Clay Blair’s book by that title came out in that very year).

He then started to talk about his experience. It was sobering listening. But it was evidently cathartic for him.

I write about this today because the epic Battle of the Chosin Reservoir began on 27 November 1950. On that day, the First Marine Division, along with a combat team of the 31st Infantry (US Army), were attacked by swarms of Chinese infantry who had infiltrated south of the Yalu River in the previous weeks. The Americans had moved far north into North Korea after the smashing US victory over the Norks at Inchon, and the subsequent routing of the North Korean Army. The US commander, Douglas MacArthur, had “victory disease”: he believed that the war was all but over, and promised his troops that they would be home by Christmas.

Giddy with success, MacArthur dismissed numerous intelligence reports of Chinese troops massing north of the Yalu, and infiltrating to the south of it. His soldiers and Marines around the Chosin Reservoir paid a huge price for his arrogant indifference when hordes of Chinese attacked in the dark on the night of the 27th, blowing horns and whistles, and beating gongs. The fighting was often at close range, and very often hand to hand.

The UN forces to the west were routed by the Chinese. Their “bugout” was probably the most humiliating experience in American military history. But the troops at Chosin grimly hung on.

The Marines and soldiers straddling the Chosin Reservoir in the east of NK barely withstood the assaults, outnumbered as they were by about 6-to-1. During the day the Chinese would melt into the forests to avoid US airpower, but at night, and for many nights, they resumed their attacks. For the Americans, it was a close run thing.

The Chinese had effectively surrounded the 1st Marines and 31st RCT, and attacked the division headquarters around Hagaru-ri. In the tradition of “every Marine a rifleman,” division commander O.P. Smith armed engineers, cooks, and clerks (“titless WACs,” in the slang of the time) and sent them to the hills overlooking Hagaru-ri to beat off the Chinese attacks. It was a close run thing, but they did.

American airpower was probably the difference. Navy and Marine F4U Corsairs and AD1 Skyraiders provided close air support, napalming, strafing, and rocketing the Chinese whenever the weather allowed.

Smith realized he could not hold out forever, and had to withdraw to the coast. Hence began an anabasis in a different direction, with the Marines and the few soldiers who survived beginning an epic march from the reservoir to Hangnam. An “anabasis” is a march from the coast to the interior, and the Americans did the reverse. Apropos this, when asked about how he felt about retreating, Smith said: “Retreat hell. We’re just attacking in a different direction.”

And indeed they were. Surrounded, they had to fight their way out against a Chinese enemy bent on their utter destruction. Every mile was contested, although as a result of exhaustion and casualties the Chinese resistance ebbed as the Americans trudged south.

But the Chinese were not the American’s only enemy: the weather was too. It was bitter cold, allegedly reaching -50F when the Americans consolidated for a few days around Kot’o-ri. Even when it wasn’t that cold, it was damned cold, with periodic blizzard conditions. So cold that wounds typically froze, which sometimes saved lives.

Even though enemy resistance had devolved mainly to sniping and ambushing, rather than screaming human wave assaults, the survival of the retreating Americans remained in doubt because the Chinese had blown a bridge at Funchilin Pass. Miraculously, Air Force C-119 “Flying Boxcar” transport aircraft dropped pieces of an M-2 “Treadway” mobile bridge which the Marine and Army engineers painstakingly assembled in the brutal weather to permit the breakout to continue. It took two days for the entire column to pass the chokepoint, but they all did.

Soon afterwards, the Americans descended into the plain near the coast where they took off their coats to bask in the 32F warmth. They arrived to the safety of UN lines around Hangnam exactly 2 weeks after their ordeal had begun.

About 30,000 Americans, British, and South Koreans were involved in the battle. 18,000 were casualties, including around 2,500 dead, 5,000 wounded, 5,000 missing (disproportionately among the 31st RCT) and 7,400 non-battle casualties, mainly from frostbite. Chinese losses are unknown, but are widely estimated to number around 60,000–including Mao’s eldest son. Several Chinese corps were effectively destroyed.

The Americans brought off most of their wounded (although many wounded from the 31st RCT became POWs), and many of their dead, following the tradition of the United States Marines.

The survivors of the attack in the other direction were evacuated by sea–along with more than 10,000 North Korean refugees. Thus ended one of the most amazing feats in American military history, a true seizing of a sort of victory from the jaws of devastating defeat.

Those who survived were known as the Chosin Few. Almost all are gone now–the youngest would be around 90. I was fortunate to have met, albeit briefly, one of them. He was gratified by my remembering what he and what his comrades suffered, and what they achieved, and I write this to do what I can to keep that memory alive even though almost all of them have passed.

Semper Fi.

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November 25, 2022

The Apotheosis of My Family’s Civil War Service

Filed under: Civil War,History,Military — cpirrong @ 11:27 am

25 November 1863 was the high point of my distaff side’s Civil War service.* Three of my ancestral relatives fought on that day at the Battle of Missionary Ridge at Chattanooga, Tennessee.

My grandmother’s grandfather George Immel fought in the 92nd Ohio Volunteer Infantry. This regiment was part of Turchin’s Brigade, Baird’s Division, XIV Army Corps (commanded by John M. Palmer), Army of the Cumberland. It was one of the regiments that made what at the time seemed to be the insane attack up the precipitous ridge, but which resulted in the routing of the Rebels: when seeing the Cumberlanders commencing their scaling of the ridge without orders, Ulysses S. Grant bit down on his omnipresent cigar and muttered that someone would pay if the attack became a bloody shambles, as he expected. But it didn’t end that way. To the amazement of all, the Confederates fled before the charging Unionists.

Immel had enlisted at 18 years of age over the vehement protests of his parents: they could not understand why he would do so because they had emigrated from Hesse precisely to protect their sons from military conscription. He said I am a free American now and enlisted of his own free will. He served through the war, supposedly (according to family lore) serving at one point as General Ivan Basilovich Turchin’s courier, though I have not been able to document that. (Turchin–his name anglicized to John Basil Turchin–is one of the war’s remarkable characters, as was his wife. Since his wife traveled with the general, if George was Turchin’s courier he would have known her.)

The war memories he passed down were of the Battle of Chickamauga, of which he related that his main memory was of the continuous roar of gunfire for two days. Turchin’s brigade distinguished itself in the battle, repelling several Confederate assaults, and at the end of the day mounting a wild charge that opened the way for the rest of the beleaguered XIV Corps to escape.

This is a Don Troiani print of Cleburne’s Confederate division fighting at Chickamauga. In the print, Cleburne is passing out ammunition to shoot at my GGGF, because Cleburne’s division was attacking the 92nd’s position:

The other memory passed down is that of Sherman’s march through the Carolinas, when he picked up lots of booty, including a Confederate sword, but it got too damn heavy to carry so he disposed of it. Meaning that the only thing that he brought back from the war was a case of rheumatism which plagued him the rest of his life.

My grandmother remembered him well. He was a stern Teutonic figure (you can take the boy out of Germany but can’t take the Germany out of the boy, apparently) who whipped his grandchildren every Christmas eve to punish them for their sins of the prior year. He married a woman of English heritage, and according to my grandmother they fought constantly. Her grandmother said: “Well, the Germans and the English always fight.” They did more than fight apparently, because they had 8 children: or maybe that was the result of the fighting, if you know what I mean.

Ironically, the attack that the Army of the Cumberland mounted up Missionary Ridge was initially planned as a limited operation to relieve pressure on Union forces fighting about a mile up the ridge which included my grandfather’s uncles, members of the 46th Ohio Volunteer Infantry. The 46th was in Corse’s Brigade, Ewing’s Division, XV Corps, operating under the command of William T. Sherman (who is, by the way, a distant relative via a shared ancestor who settled in Connecticut in 1635–my GGGM’s name was Lois Sherman, and her father was Eli Sherman).

On the 24th, Grant assigned Sherman the limited objective of establishing a position at the north end of Missionary Ridge and digging in. Due to a misunderstanding of the ground (that was not directly visible from where Grant and Sherman stood when concocting the plan), Sherman’s forces dug in on a hill (Billy Goat Hill) that was separated from the north end of Missionary by a wide swale. The next morning, Grant revised Sherman’s orders and commanded an attack up the ridge. Sherman assigned Corse’s brigade for the task.

The ridge was so narrow that the entire brigade could not deploy in line, but assaulted in column of regiments against . . . the same Patrick Cleburne who had attacked George Immel two months prior. Cleburne beat back Corse’s attack, and the attack of other brigades that Sherman sent against him.

Walking over the terrain you can see that it was a futile effort. But everyone thought that the Army of the Cumberland’s charge would be futile too.

My grandfather never knew his uncles. One, Eli Hatfield (named after his maternal grandfather), was apparently something of a sad sack. He was captured at Shiloh, spent a few months in a Rebel prison camp (Cahaba in Alabama) before being paroled. He complained that prison had ruined his health, and his file contains several doctor’s notes claiming he was unfit for service. This worked for about a year, but eventually his appeals were unavailing and he was ordered to rejoin the regiment shortly before the Battle of Chattanooga. After the battle, he was assigned as a teamster (something that company commanders sometimes did to get rid of screwups), and was fined $20 for losing his accoutrements (cartridge box and belt).

Far less comically, on 27 May 1864 Eli was shot at the Battle of Dallas (Georgia). The bullet struck him in the left arm right below the shoulder joint. Minie balls were large, low velocity projectiles that shattered bone, and hence Eli’s arm was pulverized. The wound was too close to the shoulder for amputation, so all of the bone between the shoulder and the elbow was resected. My great grandmother told my grandfather about his “Uncle Eli with the dead arm from the war,” and how when he would sit down at a table he would grab his (useless) left hand with his right, and then put his left forearm on the table. He lived until around the turn of the century.

(The details about his wound are from a report that the surgeon who operated on him filed, and which is retained in his service record at the National Archives. The letter is a full page in length. I’ve often wondered about how tiresome and dreary a task it would have been to write such letters, especially considering the exhaustion that the surgeon surely suffered in the midst of a long and bloody campaign.)

The other uncle, John Hatfield, returned to Athens County, Ohio after serving the remainder of the war. He fought at Shiloh, Vicksburg, Chattanooga, the Atlanta Campaign (including the Battle of Resaca, The Battle of Dallas, the assault at Kennesaw Mountain, the Battle of Atlanta, the Battle of Ezra Church, and the Battle of Jonesboro), the March to the Sea (including the Battle of Griswoldsville, the largest of the campaign), and the March Through the Carolinas, never receiving a scratch. Unlike his brother’s, his service record is dull: just appearances on the regular muster rolls, with nary an absence noted. He eventually made it to the exalted rank of corporal.

Farming or coal mining in Ohio (his father was a coal miner, as his younger brothers became) apparently didn’t appeal to him, so not long after the war he set off for Kansas. His sister never saw him again.

To round out the story, after seizing the top of the ridge, along with the rest of Baird’s division the 92nd pivoted left, moved north, and drove Cleburne’s division from the ridge where it had held off the 46th. So as darkness fell on an overcast and gloomy 25 November 1863, unbeknownst to them, my ancestors were looking at one another across the field of one of the Union’s most spectacular triumphs of the Civil War.**

*Well, that means that the acme of my entire family’s Civil War service occurred 159 years ago today, because all of my father’s ancestors arrived after the Civil War, the earliest in 1867.

**The Hatfield and Immel families intersected about 62 years after a few of their members were looking at each other through the smoke and haze on Missionary Ridge: my grandparents married on 2 January 1925.

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November 16, 2022

Biden’s Latest Energy Brainwave: Engrossing Diesel!

Filed under: Commodities,Derivatives,Economics,Energy,Politics — cpirrong @ 7:38 pm

The latest Biden energy brain wave is a possible requirement that fuel suppliers hold a minimum level of diesel inventory:

US President Joe Biden is considering forcing the nation’s fuel suppliers to keep a minimum level of inventory in tanks this winter as a means of preventing heating oil shortages and keeping prices affordable. It may actually do the opposite. 

Well actually actually, there’s no “may” about it. It will, if the administration indeed forces away.

As I’ve written previously, there are times when economic conditions make it optimal to hold low (and perhaps no) inventories. When the supply/demand balance is expected to improve in the future, holding inventories moves a commodity from when it is relatively scarce, to when it is relatively abundant. It is better to do the opposite. But since you cannot transport future production to meet present consumption, the best thing to do is to draw down inventories–perhaps to zero.

There is no reason to believe that the market has “failed” to respond efficiently to fundamental conditions. There is absolutely no reason to believe that Joe Biden or anyone who works for him has solved the Knowledge Problem and knows how to allocate scarce diesel over time better than the markets do. Do you really think Joe et al know that the supply/demand balance in diesel is actually going to get worse, when the market judgment is the opposite? If you do, seek help.

So yes, if carried out, this action would increase spot prices because the only way to increase inventories is to reduce current consumption, and the only way to increase current consumption is through higher spot prices. Further, this action would tend to depress deferred prices because it will increase future consumption.

So if he does this, it would be totally correct to put one of those “I did that” stickers on a diesel pump.

It’s ironic to note that mandatory government stockholding programs, sometimes seen in agricultural markets, are intended to increase prices (to help farmers, for instance). It’s also ironic that Biden is floating this after months of drawing down on government inventories of crude in the SPR–in order to reduce prices.

What Biden is proposing could be seen as a government run corner: the antitrust case of U.S. v. Patten (1913) identifies one of the salient features of a corner as “withholding [a commodity] from sale for a limited time” with the purpose of “artificially enhancing the price.” Biden is proposing “withholding” diesel from the market.

Or, using more archaic language, it is government run “engrossing” or “forestalling,” something that speculators are often (wrongly) accused of, as Adam Smith wrote about in The Wealth of Nations.

The only good news to report here is apparently market participants think this idea is so stupid that not even this administration will implement it. Diesel flat prices and calendar spreads haven’t moved much after Biden’s announcement.

But it would be much better if the administration actually had some good ideas rather than a stream of bad ones, some of which are so obviously bad that they will never come to fruition.

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November 14, 2022

Regulate This! Yeah? How?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Questions have been raised.

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

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

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

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

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November 10, 2022

Another Blizzard in Crypto Winter, or, Tinker Bell Economics: To Call Crypto a “Trustless” System is a Joke

Filed under: Blockchain,Clearing,Cryptocurrency,Regulation — cpirrong @ 11:42 am

Another blizzard hit the winter-bound crypto industry, with the evisceration of crypto wonder boy Sam Bankman-Fried’s (SBF to crypto kiddies) FTX and its associated hedge fund Alameda Capital. (Which should be renamed Alameda No Capital.) The coup coup de grâce was delivered by SBF’s former frenemy (now full fledged enemy), Binance’s Changpeng Zhao (CZ, ditto). But it is now evident that FTX was a Rube Goldberg monstrosity and all CZ did was remove–call into question, really–one piece of the contraption which led to its failure.

The events bring out in sharp detail many crucial aspects of the crypto landscape. (I won’t say “ecosystem”–a nauseating word.).

One is crypto market structure. FTX (and Binance for that matter) are commonly referred to as “exchanges,” giving rise to thoughts of the CME or NYSE. But they are much more than that. FTX (and other crypto “exchanges”) are in fact highly integrated financial institutions that combine the functions of trade execution platform (an exchange qua exchange), a broker dealer/FCM, clearinghouse, and custodian. And in FTX’s case, it also was affiliated with a massive crypto-focused hedge fund, the aforementioned Alameda.

Crucially, as part of its broker dealer/FCM operation, FTX engaged in margin lending to customers. Indeed, it permitted very high leverage:

FTX offers high leverage products and tokens. The exchange currently offers 20x maximum leverage, down from its previous 101x leverage products. This is still one of the highest maximum leverage a crypto exchange offers when compared to FTX’s other competitors. Leveraged long and short tokens for BTC, ETH, MATIC, and others are also offered by the exchange; for example, the ETHBULL token allows investors to trade a 3x long position in Ethereum.

FTX also engaged in the equivalent of securities lending: it lent out the BTC, etc., that customers held in their accounts there.

These are traditional broker dealer functions, and historically they are functions that have led to the collapse of such firms–more on that below.

FTX supersized the risks of these activities through one of its funding mechanisms, the FTT token. Ostensibly the benefits of owning FTT were reduced trading fees on the exchange, “airdrops” (a distribution of “free” tokens to those holding sufficient quantities on account with FTX, a promise to return a certain fraction of trading revenues to token holders by repurchasing (“burning”), and some limited governance/voting rights. The burning also served the function of limiting supply. (I plan to write a separate post on the economics of valuation of these tokens, though I do touch on some issues below.)

So FTT is (or should I say “was”?) stock-not-stock. Not a listed security, but an instrument that paid dividends in various forms.

FTT was in some ways the snowman here. For one thing, FTX allowed customers to post margin in FTT.

Huh, whut?

Risky collateral is always problematic. (Look at the reluctance of counterparties to accept anything but cash as collateral even from pension funds as in the UK.) Allowing posting of your own liability as collateral is more than problematic–it is insane. Very Enron-y!

Why? A subject I’ve written on a lot in the past: wrong way risk.

If for any reason FTT goes down, the value of collateral posted by customers goes down. Which means that your assets (loans to customers) go down in value.

A doom machine, in other words.

The integrated structure of FTX exacerbated this risk, and bigly. If customers start to get nervous about its viability, they start to pull the assets (BTC, ETH, etc.) they have on account there. Which is a problem if you’ve lent them out! (Recall that AIG’s biggest problem wasn’t CDS, but securities lending.)

And this has happened, with customers attempting to pull billions from the firm, and FTX therefore being forced to stop withdrawals.

And things can get even worse. The travails of a big broker dealer can impact prices, not just of its liabilities like FTT but of assets generally (stocks and bonds in a traditional market, crypto here) and given the posting of risky assets of collateral that can make the collateral shortfalls even worse. Fire sale effects are one reason for these price movements. In the case of crypto, the failure of a major crypto firm calls into question the viability of the asset class generally, with some of them being affected particularly acutely.

The integrated structure of crypto firms is also a problem. Customer assets are held in omnibus accounts, not segregated ones. Yeah yeah crypto firms say your assets on account are yours, but that’s true in a bookkeeping sense only. They are held in a pool. This structure incentivizes customers to run when the firm looks shaky. Which can turn looks into reality. That’s what has happened to FTX.

The connection with a hedge fund trading crypto is also a big problem. (The blow up of hedge funds operated by big banks was a harbinger of the GFC in August, 2008, recall.). And it is increasingly apparent that this was a major issue with FTX that interacted with the factors mentioned above. FTX evidently lent large amounts–$16 billion!–of customer assets to Alameda Research. Apparently to prop it up after huge losses in the first blizzards of Crypto Winter. (In retrospect, SBF’s buying binge earlier this year looks like gambling for resurrection.)

SBF described this as “a poor judgment call.”

You don’t say! I hear that’s what Napoleon said while trudging back from Russia in November 1812. Probably Custer’s last words, but we’ll never know!

Also probably an illegal judgment call.

But it gets better! Alameda held large quantities of FTT, also apparently emergency funding provided by FTX. And it used billions of FTT as collateral for its trades and borrowing.

And this was the string that CZ pulled that caused the whole thing to unravel. When he announced that he had learned of Alameda’s large FTT position, and that as a result he was selling FTT the doom machine kicked into operation, and at hyper speed: doom occurred within days.

Looking at this in the immediate aftermath, my thought was that FTX was basically MF Global with an exchange operation. A financially fragile broker dealer combined with an exchange.

And the analogy was even closer than I knew: FTX’s using customer assets to “fund risky bets” revealed this morning is also exactly what MF Global did. Except that Corzine was a piker by comparison. He filched almost exactly only 1/10th of what FTX did ($1.6 billion vs. $16 billion). (Maybe SBF should take comfort from the fact that Corzine walks free–though I don’t recommend that he walk free at LaSalle and Jackson or Wacker and Adams). (I further note that SBF is a huge Democrat donor. Like Corzine, his political connections may save him from the pokey, though by all appearances he should spend a very long stretch there.)

In sum, FTX’s implosion is just a crypto-flavored example of the collapse of an intermediary the likes of which has been seen multiple times over the (literally) centuries. As I’ve written before, there is nothing new under the financial sun.

The episode also throws a harsh light on the supposed novelty of crypto. Remember, the crypto narrative is that crypto is decentralized, and does not rely on trusted institutions: it is trustless in other words.

Wrong! As I’ve written before, economic forces lead to centralization and intermediation in crypto markets, just as in traditional financial markets. Market participants utilize the services of firms like FTX and Binance, and have to trust that those firms are acting prudently. If that trust is lost, disaster ensues.

In brief, crypto trading could be decentralized, but it isn’t. For reasons I wrote about years ago. (Also see here.)

Indeed, the issue is arguably even more acute in crypto markets, for a reason that SBF himself laid out in now infamous interview with Matt Levine on Odd Lots. Specifically, that token valuation relies on magic–belief, actually.

That is, tokens are valuable if people believe they are valuable–that is, if they have trust in their value. Furthermore, there is a sort of information cascade logic that can create market value: if people see that a token sells at a positive price–especially if it sells at a very large positive price–and they observe that supposedly smart people hold it, they conclude it must have some intrinsic value. So they pile in, increasing the value, validating beliefs, and extending the information cascade.

But this is Tinker Bell economics. If people stop believing, Tinker Bell dies.

And when someone very influential like CZ says “I don’t believe” death is rapid: the information cascade stops, then reverses. Especially given how FTT was the keystone of the FTX arch.

In brief, crypto theory is completely different than crypto reality. Crypto markets share all major features with the demonized traditional “trust-based” financial system. To the extent they differ, they are even more based on trust, given the ubiquity of Token Tinker Bell Economics.

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