...Archive for May 2008

Claims on claims, not claims on commodities

Poor, abused readers — I am making a recycling bin of your eyes!

The following is modified from a monstrosity I began and abandoned over a month ago, thinking about futures markets. Michael Masters’ allegations regarding “index speculators” and the CFTC’s investigation of price manipulation in the oil market only make sense if the arbitrage between future claims and physical stuff fails to work as advertised. The most clear example arbitrage failures have been with agricultural products, where cash market prices and prices of supposedly equivalent expiring futures contracts have simply not converged. It is to that (now ancient in blog-years) controversy that this suggestion was originally addressed, but I think it applies to the more recent hullabaloo as well. I’m sorry that the links and context are somewhat dated.

For those of you who have been in the financial equivalent of outer space (that is, for those of you with a life), commodity futures markets have been misbehaving recently. I don’t want to get into it, but see here and here and here and here and here and here. The problem is that textbook arbitrage constraints are coming loose, the prices of things are wriggling free from one another in incoherent ways, and smashing up farmers in their confusion. Arbitrage is to finance what gravity is to physics. The movement of the spheres makes no sense, has no meaning, if rational relationships between prices aren’t maintained.

The universe is blessed with diligent quantum smurfs who ensure the constancy of gravity for us. But arbitrage is left in the frail hands of humans, and frequently our institutions are not up to the task. Fortunately, institutions are fixable. The trouble with commodity futures is that, although all the world can see that, say, spot and future corn seem inconsistently priced, relatively few actors — those with ready access to good, wholesale corn and the means and expertise to store and deliver it — can actually make the trade that would force prices and cosmic spheres to realign themselves. There are limits to arbitrage.

So, a suggestion: As an alternative to delivering actual corn to one of various warehouses in Illinois, permit those short a futures contract deliver a note issued by a kind of “corn bank”, entitling the bearer to a quantity of that very same corn on demand from the bank’s warehouses. Futures exchanges would regulate and certify competitive commodity banks, delivery of whose notes would constitute contract fulfilment [1]. At the same time, exchanges would host accessible cash markets in these zero-maturity notes (against which there would be negative accruals to cover storage costs, but lets put this technical detail aside for now).

At first glance, this proposal is a kind of nonsolution: Sure, convergence failures in futures markets would trivially disappear, as financial investors would purchase and hold underpriced spot claims and short overpriced futures (or vice versa) if the futures and spot prices were misaligned. But today’s convergence failures would just reappear in the form of overpriced deliverable notes relative to the cash price of the commodities they represent. Why would that help?

Financial markets are fundamentally information processing devices. Their purpose is to help investors place capital (or risk) where it can do the most good (or least harm). Thus, it matters very much whether the structure of a market reveals or obscures relevant details about an economic problem. This was a fatal flaw of the late securitization boom — there’s nothing wrong with securitization per se, it’s a great idea actually, to get previously obscure investments priced by broad and deep capital markets. But capital markets aren’t magic. If the securities hawked are complicated bundles of mathematical formulas of incompletely described uncertain securities, “market prices”, while they last, may not prove reliable. (OT: See this great post by Going Private about the CDO securitization process).

Trading claims on deliverables rather than direct obligations to deliver would open the arbitrage process to all financial investors, rather than relying on small groups of potentially collusive firms. Mysterious convergence failures would disappear. Rather than going “WTF?” and convening at the CFTC, we’d observe commodity banks eager but unable to sell simple IOUs for commodities at prices well above their cost because they lack storage or shipping capacity. A phenomenon of high finance would unmask itself as an easy to remedy operational problem, with a clear business case attached. Of course, people in commodity industries already understand the bottlenecks they face, and eventually they’ll find the financing to do whatever needs to be done. But clarity matters. A couple of months ago, farmers and grain elevators faced a “liquidity crisis” — their traditional funding sources, banks, were skittish due to the credit crunch, and other capital sources don’t understand their business well enough to jump in with quick money. With a more transparent informational architecture, capital would cure bottlenecks faster. Time is always of the essence, both from a broad economic perspective, and to farmers who are struggling to meet margin calls on volatile futures contracts when all they want to do is lock-in a price for corn.

This scheme would also render market manipulation more visible, by eliminating complexity at the interface between opaque, dispersed cash markets and liquid, transparent futures markets. If futures prices spike somehow, spot note price would rise, which ought to cause banks to compete for cheap access to the physical commodity. If prices seem “too high”, regulators could focus on spot market conditions (are commodity banks competitive? are producers withholding output? are precautionary inventories rising at banks? is there unusual non-bank-intermediated demand, either by current users or speculators?). Arbitrage relationships hold quite well among predictable, liquid paper assets. With a simple market for spot claims, regulators could focus on the present, and let the future take care of itself.

[1] Exchanges would insist upon these notes being non-fractional claims against actual inventory, as the exchange’s clearinghouse would ultimately guarantee the notes. These would be depreciating, negative carry notes (due to storage costs), so investors without use of the commodity would shed notes quickly, keeping inventories minimal, unless they wish to finance storage for precautionary or speculative purposes (which inventories would be transparent and measurable). Banks would compete both on the price (reflecting their quality of access to the dispersed cash market) and storage fees (reflecting operational efficiencies).

If you think it’s the “index speculators”…

Michael Masters’ testimony regarding the role of speculation in commodity prices has drawn a lot of comment since last week. [See, for example, Cassandra, James Hamilton, Tim Iacono, John Mauldin, Michael Shedlock, Yves Smith.] According to Masters’, portfolio investors’ increasing participation in commodities via futures markets has been driving a speculative price boom, over a period of years.

I have to say, I am very skeptical of Masters’ view. Perhaps I have drunk too deep of the Kool-Aid of orthodox finance, but, as the saying goes, “for every long there’s a short”, and Masters does very little to explain who is taking the other side of what he presents as a one-way bet, a virtual cornering of the commodity markets. We’ll come back to this, because the shorts are the most interesting characters in our story. But before we go much further, we might as well opine a bit on the debate du jour, is “speculation” driving commodity (and especially oil) prices?

This question annoys me, because people rarely define what they mean by “speculation”. Are you concerned about…

  1. Traditional speculators, making active predictions about future supply and demand, and determining that commodity are underpriced relative to other goods and services.

  2. Nervous hedgers, who respond to recent price volatility by taking larger-than-usual precautionary positions in order to manage operational risk.

  3. Portfolio diversifiers, who allocate some fraction of their portfolios to commodities in a price-insensitive way, as it becomes ever more convenient to do so, and the investment profession comes to view commodities as an attractively uncorrelated “asset class”.

  4. Momentum investors, chasing recent price rises into a classic speculative bubble.

  5. Inflation hedgers and monetary skeptics, who view the purchasing power of financial assets as increasingly volatile, or who expect a decline in the purchasing power of financial assets, but who do not view commodities as undervalued relative to other goods and services.

  6. Corporatist governments, who seek to shed market risk by obtaining non-market access to commodities (vertical integration), or whose policies amount to speculation on future market conditions. Examples include countries that restrict food or commodity exports in response to high prices; China, whose state-affiliated firms purchase stakes in suppliers of essential commodities; Saudi Arabia whose purchase of GE Plastics looks to capitalize on preferred access to petrochemicals; oil producers generally, when they produce below capacity; and the United States with its strategic petroleum reserve. All of these practices have the potential to reduce supply to unaffiliated commodity users who rely on public markets.

It takes all kinds to make a market, and I think that we’ve got the whole menagerie. Also, we shouldn’t forget this story, from Jeff Matthews (ht WSJ):

…the fact that a) world oil demand is up 12 million barrels a day since 2000, and non-OPEC oil supply is up only 4 million barrels a day since 2000, and b) America decided to convert food into ethanol at the very moment that c) China’s demand exploded.

See James Hamilton for a fuller exposition of the case that oil price fundamentals are driving prices.

Masters fingers as the villain “index speculators”, a Frankenstein combination of Types 3 and 4 above. There outta be a law agin’ them, he suggests to Congress. Pension funds should be barred from commodity investing, loopholes that have undermined speculator position limits should be closed, and the increasingly meaningless distinction between commercial and noncommercial traders should be resurrected in CFTC reports. Okay.

But what if the price-setting speculators are not momentum-driven index funds, but “traditional speculators”, correctly predicting that prices are below long-term fundamentals? Then limiting commodity speculation would prolong the mispricing, and cause us to waste resources that are kept artificially cheap. Alternatively, what if (as I suggested in the previous post) commodity prices are being driven by monetary fears? Then banning pension funds from commodities would amount to barring the exits, forcing workers to watch helplessly as their retirements are devalued away. If “fundamentals” are driving prices, or a flight by official actors from market to non-market means of resource allocation, limiting speculation would do no good, but would obscure the news by interfering with price transparency. The only circumstance under which limiting “speculation” might be a good idea is if the dominant tale is a momentum-driven speculative bubble. Which could, of course, be the case. Or not.

Which brings us back to the shorts. “Irrational exuberance” isn’t enough to cause a speculative bubble. There needs to be something else that discourages rational traders from taking irrational traders’ money when they buy overpriced assets, “limits to arbitrage” in the lingo.

Now, this is an old conversation in academic finance, especially with respect to the stock market. Heck, go chat with Brad DeLong and Robert Waldmann about noise traders, they’re right here in the blogosphere. We’ll dispense with the details here, and recite the pithy Keynes quote…

The market can stay irrational longer than you can stay solvent.

If a stock is overvalued, to correct the mispricing, you must sell it short. Even if you are right that it is overpriced, if the speculative mania continues, red ink on your short position might drive you out of the market and into poverty long before your foresight is vindicated. On the stock market, unleveraged “longs” can safely buy and hold, but “shorts” are forever at the mercy of the lunatics, hoping and praying that starry-eyed optimists don’t go even more batshit insane. Sane people sit on the sidelines, allowing enthusiasm to run unchecked, for a while.

But there’s a problem with applying this story to commodities. At least in theory, shorts in commodity futures needn’t face the same risks as stock short-sellers. Commodity futures are time-bound and perfectly hedgeable. If you are a commodity producer, and know that futures prices are way too high, you can sell your own product forward into the market. If prices move irrationally against you, your only cost is the foregone opportunity of a speculative gain. If cash prices are out of sync with inflated futures markets, then anyone (in theory) should be able to get into the act, purchasing physical commodities and storing them for future delivery, thereby locking in a certain gain, a perfect arbitrage. If you think that the commodity boom is a speculative bubble, then you have to explain not only who is buying, but why all that speculative interest doesn’t attract knowledgeable sellers who hold the price to “fundamentals”.

A while back, Yves Smith pointed out the possibility that…

the volume of futures contracts is so large relative to the actual deliverable commodity that arbitrage (via taking physical delivery) won’t force convergence of futures prices to cash prices at contract maturity.

In other words, in this messy real world, speculative interest could overwhelm the arbitrage mechanism designed to tether futures prices to fundamentals, for a while. But that begs another question. If you buy Masters’ story, then we are in the midst of a speculative bubble that has been building over a period of years, not a sudden spike. So why haven’t arbitrageurs increased their capacity to store and deliver goods, as speculative demand has slowly ramped up? The opportunity to profit is tremendous, especially if there are hordes of paper speculators who have no choice but to liquidate or roll their positions every few months. People with access to the physical commodity could profit from more than the ordinary arbitrage. At every roll, they have the entire community of “index speculators” over a barrel. Shorts are under no obligation to let speculators close out their positions at inflated “market prices”, or even estimated “fundamental values”. They can force longs to accept prices that overshoot downward, exacting a price for release from obligations that paper speculators are incapable of fulfilling, the obligation to accept delivery. If you think Masters is right, you have to explain why, year after year, those taking the short side have been willing close their positions at a loss rather than forcing more deliveries. Why haven’t shorts entered the market who are capable of calling index speculators’ bluff?

Hmm. Let’s turn once again to Smith:

Remember, you can arbitrage futures to physical only if you are permitted to do so (only certain traders, known to have access to the storage and transport, are allowed to take or make physical delivery) and can actually obtain the relevant commodity.

So, there are potentially barriers to entry for bluff-callers. Who are these “certain traders” permitted to make delivery? I don’t know, but one would imagine that commodity producers would be prominent among them. So, for the conspiracy-minded among you, here’s a theory: Producers’ core asset is not the stock of goods they have for sale today, but their potential to produce and sell a stream of commodity out into the indefinite future. It might be worth it for producers to bear an opportunity cost by not exploiting futures trades aggressively — that is by letting specs close positions at artificially bid-up prices — in order to inflate the apparent value of their enterprises, especially when producers intend to borrow funds, sell equity, or make stock-based acquisitions. Managers whose compensation is equity-linked might be particularly enthusiastic. Depending on how numerous and competitive the community of enterprises capable of physical delivery on prominent contracts, there might be a tacit cartel on the producer side, accommodating speculative futures prices, while managing spot supply so that cash market prices (which are less consistent and transparent than futures prices) are not outrageously out of line with futures market benchmarks.

Is this really going on? I have no idea. As I said initially, I can see all kinds of reasons why commodity prices might be rising, besides “irrational speculative bubble”. But I do know this. If it is the “index speculators”, if it is a speculative bubble, then those who blame workaday money managers asset-allocating into commodities are buying the con and blaming the patsies. If there’s a speculative bubble, the mystery — and the target of any reasonable policy interventions — lies on the short side. Sooner or later, the lemmings going long will take care of themselves.

Update History:
  • 29-May-2008, 3:30 p.m. EDT: Eliminated a superfluous “so” (only one of many).

A run on central banks?

When I see what commodity prices are doing, I don’t think “low interest rates” or “skyrocketing demand”. I think about a loss of confidence.

There is that old saw about gold, that it is the only money that is no one’s liability. Wheat is no one’s liability, and neither is corn. Oil is no one’s liability.

It is common to invest in commodities as an “inflation hedge”. If the central bank prints too much money, you need wheelbarrows to buy bread. If you have a sack of wheat, you will have your bread whatever the central bank does. But if everyone buys wheat, the price of grains will rise, even if the central bank does nothing at all.

Just as the fear of a bank’s insolvency can precipitate a run that drives a bank to ruin, loss of confidence in a central bank can provoke a great inflation. The Federal Reserve, much I might criticize it, has not gone on a printing spree. It has lowered interest rates, and altered the composition of bank assets by replacing less liquid with more liquid securities. But the most these measures should do is bring us back, monetarily speaking, to the status quo ante, back to a year ago when asset-backed securities were liquid. The Fed’s actions are best described as antideflationary, not inflationary.

But confidence is a funny thing. Central bankers are supposed to be dour and dependable. The current crop is not. Rather than “taking away the punchbowl“, central bankers have become the life of the party. Japan’s central bankers hand out Yen like free acid. China’s guy will give you a microwave oven and a DVD player if you draw him a picture (and sign Henry Paulson’s name to it). Our man Ben is an Amadeus-cum-Macguyver, he’s brilliant, unpredictable, he’ll improvise a Delaware company from paper clips and vacuum up your derivative book with a toenail clipper. Even the ECB’s Trichet, who at first comes off like a sourpuss, turns out to be alright, when you’ve got some Spanish mortgages to pawn.

Some of us think that something’s wrong, and these guys we’re drinking with aren’t serious enough to fix it. We know that trillions of dollars in presumed housing wealth have disappeared, but we don’t know who’s ultimately going to bear the loss. Americans know that as a nation, we cannot afford our clothes, furniture, or gas, unless the people who are selling it to us lend us our money back. Economists fret about “imbalance” and “adjustment”, but we’ve yet to see a serious plan, other than let’s-keep-this-party-going.

So, we lose faith. When we lost faith in Northern Rock, Bear Stearns, Citigroup, or Lehman, the central bankers stepped into the fray, and stood behind them. So, we ask, who stands behind the central bankers? We take a peek, and all we see is our own money. Which we quickly start exchanging for something else.

Although commodity prices have been increasing for years, you’ll notice that the very sharp run-up began last summer, at roughly the same time as the credit crisis. Commodities soared when interest rates were still high, but predicted to fall. Commodities are soaring today, even though US interest rates are now predicted to rise. Commodities have soared in euro terms, despite the ECB’s refusal to drop interest rates.

I can’t tell you where the inventories are, except to wonder why anyone would put them where they would be counted. Hoarders tend to get nervous, and not advertise their hoards. (But this is pretty obvious.) Perhaps producers of storable commodities who lose faith in paper quietly hold back production. Interestingly, people who no longer trust the very core of the financial system remain comfortable with collateralized, centrally-cleared futures exchanges. These are well designed to manage credit risk, but they can default, have defaulted, and will default in extremis. I heartily endorse Cassandra’s suggestion that they step up their margin requirements, ASAP.

None of this is any good at all. Capital devoted to precautionary storage would be better employed building new enterprises, laying a foundation for tomorrow’s prosperity. But claims on future money are only promises, easily broken or devalued. A run on central banks, a flight from financial assets to stored goods, sacrifices the hope of future abundance for certain present scarcity. Governments can shut futures exchanges, confiscate gold, ban “hoarding, profiteering, and price-gouging”. People will hoard anyway if they don’t believe in the paper. People are losing faith in financial assets for good reason. Rather than organizing productive economies, the machinery of finance has recently functioned as an anesthetic, masking the pain while resources were mismanaged and stolen. We need a solid financial system, but confidence cannot be imposed or legislated. It will have to be earned. There has to be a plan. Earnest promises to do better soon won’t suffice. Nor will yet another drink from the punch bowl.

Capabilities, constraints, and confidence

Mark Thoma offers a very thoughtful rejoinder to my post on whether the Fed should be given authority to pay interest on deposits. Mark’s comments range from specific, technical points to broad questions about governance. What follows is a quick response to some of the issues he raises. Do read his piece, The Fed Already Has a Blank Check.

My bottom line remains the same. Although the central bank does have the capability to unilaterally expand its balance sheet, it is subject to a variety of constraints that restrain it in practice. I am opposed to relieving the Fed of those constraints unless hard limits are placed upon the scale of its direct investment in the financial system, both to protect taxpayers from absorbing losses, and to support the long-term ability of financial markets to allocate real economic capital well.

I address some of Mark’s points specifically below.

  • Mark suggests that “the Fed already has a blank check”, because it could increase reserve requirements, rather than borrow funds, to sterilize the inflationary effect of printing cash. This is true in theory, but I think it would be very difficult in practice for the US central bank. The Fed has not used reserve requirements as an active instrument of monetary policy for a long time, and has allowed (encouraged) them to atrophy, with an eye towards eliminating them entirely. (See here and here.) Reserve requirements could be reinvigorated, of course, but not easily or quickly. They would have to be restored over time and in careful consultation with banks, whose enthusiasm for the project would be less than overwhelming.

  • You’ll hear no argument from me when Mark suggests that the Fed already has the power to do great harm. Poor monetary policy can lead to unnecessary recessions, or to credit and mis-investment booms that leave the economy structurally crippled. That an institution already has great and terrible power is no argument for handing it yet another means of mischief-making.

  • While central banking has always entailed risk, customary and statutory constraints usually reduce the likelihood of harm. Any asset can lose value, but restricting Fed purchases to short maturity Treasury securities limits the risk of capital losses, and importantly, distributes gains from seignorage to all taxpayers. Purchasing or lending against more speculative assets provides a subsidy to particular sectors and institutions (undermining legitimacy), puts taxpayer funds at risk, and privatizes the gains of seignorage in the event of nonperformance. (Central bank cash that otherwise would have retired public debt are instead distributed to private parties and never returned.) Fair allocation of seignorage gains is one of the prime virtues of fiat money central banking. Lending against questionable collateral imperils that advance.

  • Mark correctly points out that the potential upside of the Fed’s bank investments is not merely, as I suggested, “about what [taxpayers] would have earned investing in safe government bonds”. The purpose of the central bank’s activism is to prevent harms to the public that might result from turmoil in the financial sector, and these foregone harms should be included in our calculus. But if we include nonfinancial benefits, we must also consider nonfinacial costs, such as the long-term effects of the “moral hazard”, a loss of information in asset prices (assets must be valued as complex bundles of economic claims and options on potential government support), and impaired political legitimacy of the central bank and the financial system as a whole. We must weigh these costs and benefits against alternative policies, not only a straw-man scenario under which all government agencies stand completely aside and watch helplessly as the world falls apart. Of course, in “real time”, the Fed did not have the luxury of reflection. But we do have it now. Mark and I would come to very different judgments about the nonfinancial costs and benefits of Fed policies. I assure you that, in general, Mark’s judgment is much better than mine. Nevertheless, cranks like me will aver that the long-term costs due to moral-hazard and information loss are inestimably large, that questions of legitimacy and favoritism will haunt financial capitalism for a generation, and that it would be possible (even now!) to adopt uniform procedures for managing the collapse and reorganization of institutions that could not survive without life support from the Fed. Who should be empowered to decide these issues? Ben Bernanke? Hank Paulson? I vote for the people that I voted for, warts and all.

I want to make clear that I don’t actually disagree with Mark on the technical question of whether an interest rate corridor is a good idea. So long as the Fed restricts itself to traditional monetary policy — that is, so long as it buys only Treasury debt with borrowed funds — I would support this change (mostly because an interest rate corridor is easier for non-experts to understand than open market operations).

Unfortunately, not only has the Fed resorted to unorthodox tools during an acute emergency, but all indications are that the central bank plans to expand its innovative practices and continue them indefinitely. The “unusual and exigent circumstances” under which the Fed’s extraordinary actions have been justified specifies duration about as precisely as the “global war on terror”. Mark has great confidence in the Federal Reserve, and sees little hazard in granting it more freedom to maneuver. I view the central bank as prone to catastrophic error, and wish to see its capabilities clipped, not enlarged. I think the consequences of centralizing private sector risk on public sector balance sheets will turn out be grave, and must oppose any tool that would make it easier for the Fed to continue to do so.

Finally, Mark writes regarding the occasional need for fast action in a crisis:

This is an old problem — how much authority should be centralized thereby allowing quick and immediate response during a crisis, and how much should be retained in slower, deliberative bodies like the House and Senate? The War Powers Act reflects this compromise — we want the ability to respond quickly to an attack or other military developments, but we worry about the concentration of power in the hands of a single individual. Centralization has the benefit of allowing a quick response to a crisis, but it risks being out of step with the democratic process. In the case of financial market emergencies, however, I have more faith in the Fed than in congress to act quickly and correctly. That’s partly because I have little faith in the ability of congress to quickly comprehend what the problem is and attack it directly and effectively — many of them admit to not having a clue about economics, and more worrisome are the ones who think they have a clue but don’t — but congress should not give up its oversight role.

I have little faith in Congress, and even less faith in the Fed. (That’s not, by the way, a reflection of the individuals running the place. Ben Bernanke is quite brilliant. But culture and ideology saddle the Fed with both blind spots and hubris.) I like Mark’s idea, though. I’d support a financial “War Powers Act” that would authorize emergency extensions of secured credit by the Fed to private actors deemed systemically important. But here’s my deal-breaker: That support would have to be withdrawn within 180 days, and would not be renewable. Six months is long enough for solvent institutions to counter a “liquidity panic” with full disclosure, for modestly troubled institutions to secure new capital, and for regulators to arrange an orderly unwinding of firms that cannot be made solvent and liquid within the statutory timeframe. Whaddaya say?

By the way, we’ll have our six-month anniversary of the first $40B in TAF financing in June.

Let’s not write the Fed a blank check

Last week, the Fed decided to ask Congress for the right to pay interest on bank reserves. (Hat tip Barry Ritholtz, see also William Polley, Mark Thoma, Brad DeLong) This is a very big deal.

Don’t be misled into thinking that the Fed’s proposal is just some arcane, technocratic change. The Federal Reserve is asking taxpayers for a big pile of signed, blank checks. That’s far too much power to put in the hands of a quasipublic organization with little democratic accountability. This authority should not be granted without some strong strings attached.

First, some background. There is a trend among central banks to move from old-fashioned, fractional-reserve banking to a system whereby interest rates are managed via a “channel” or “corridor”, and under which fixed reserve requirements might be dispensed with entirely. The basic idea is simple. The Fed currently manages interest rates indirectly, by manipulating the supply and demand for cash in the banking system. But the Fed could adopt a more direct approach. It could choose two interest rates, a “floor rate” at which the Fed would stand ready to borrow funds, and a “ceiling rate” at which the Fed would stand ready to lend. As long as there is no stigma attached to transacting with the Fed, banks would never lend for less than the floor rate or borrow for more than the ceiling rate. The interbank interest rate would necessarily lie within a “corridor” defined by these two interest rates. The Fed would continue to adjust the money supply to keep interest rates somewhere inside the desired range. But the corridor would serve as a fail-safe. When banks have more cash than would be consistent with the policy interest rate, they would lend the excess money back to the Fed, causing it to disappear in a poof of green smoke. When banks have too little cash, they would borrow more into existence, until the quantity on hand becomes consistent with the Fed’s desired interest rate. The level of borrowing from or lending to the Fed would provide feedback, telling central bankers whether they need to add or remove cash from the banking system to achieve their targetted interest rate, usually at the center of corridor.

A corridor system would represent a meaty change to how central banking is done in the US, but the approach seems to work okay in other countries. Advantages for central banks include more robust control of short-term rates, and the ability to fine-tune monetary policy by altering the “spread” between the central bank borrowing and lending rates without changing the core interest rate. A disadvantage, from taxpayers’ perspective, is that the loss of zero-interest reserves amounts to a stealth tax cut for banks. On the back of my napkin, the cost to taxpayers would be between $190M to $530M per year if the level of reserves is unchanged. (I’m assuming “floor rates” between 1.75% and 4.75% against reserves of $11B). The Wall Street Journal reports estimates of $150M and $280M per year. If one assumes that corridor interest rates will roughly match the Treasury’s average cost of financing over time, and that the Fed invests reserves in Treasuries, then the total cost of the program in NPV terms would be the value of the current (interest-free) reserves. This amounts to a one time cost of about $11 billion. A more serious drawback is that a channel system paves the way for the getting rid of reserve requirements entirely, which seems a perverse thing to do in a credit crisis caused by too much leverage. But reserve requirements have already been eviscerated, and nothing prevents regulators from maintaining or strengthening reserve requirements in a channel system.

So far, so good, then. As long as the Fed is conducting ordinary monetary policy, switching to a channel system offers modest benefits at a modest cost to taxpayers. But the Fed’s monetary policy has not been ordinary at all lately. In fact, it’s been quite extraordinary. It is in the context of this extraordinary policy that the Fed has asked Congress to accelerate its authority to implement a channel system, and it is in the context of this extraordinary policy that we must consider the change.

The core of the Fed’s new exuberance is a willingness to enter into asset swaps with banks. The Fed lends safe Treasury securities to banks, and accepts as collateral assets that private markets consider dodgy or difficult to value. (This is the direct effect of the Fed’s TSLF program, and the net effect of TAF and other lending arrangements that the Fed sterilizes in order to hold its interest rate target.) In doing so, the Fed puts taxpayer funds at risk. If a bank that has borrowed from the Fed runs into trouble, the Fed would face an unappetizing choice: Orchestrate a bail-out, or permit a failure and accept collateral of questionable value instead of repayment. Either way, taxpayers are left holding the bag.

In December, the Fed had $775 worth of Treasury securities. That stock will soon have dwindled to $300B, give or take. The difference, about $475B, represents an investment by the central bank in risky assets of the US financial sector.

$475B is an extraordinary sum of money. It is as if the Fed borrowed more than $1500 from every man, woman, and child in the United States, and invested that money on our behalf in Wall Street banks that private financiers were afraid to touch. For bearing all this risk, if things work out well, taxpayers will earn about what they would have earned investing in safe government bonds. If things don’t work out well, the scale of the losses is hard to predict. The Fed will claim to have done “due diligence” on its loans, to have valued collateral conservatively, and will point to strength of bank guarantees and the enormous diversity of collateral assets to convince us that its actions are safe and prudent. But rating agencies made the same claims about AAA CDO tranches, and turned out to have been mistaken. Correlations often tend towards one when asset values fall sharply. Central bankers struggling to manage day-to-day crises in financial markets might cut corners when trying to value complex securities. They might find it convenient to err on the side of optimism, as the ratings agencies did, albeit for very different reasons. And even if the Fed is cautious and sober-minded, are we sure that central bankers can value these assets more accurately than private investors?

If the Fed were to blow through the rest of its current stock of Treasuries, it would have invested more than $2500 for every man, woman, and child in America. Public investment in the financial sector would have exceeded the direct costs to date of the Iraq War by a wide margin. Would that that be enough? If not, how much more? Just how large a risk should taxpayers endure on behalf of companies that arguably deserve to fail, to prevent “collateral damage”? Have we considered other approaches to containing damage, approaches that shift costs and risks towards those who benefited from bad practices, rather onto the shoulders of taxpayers and nominal-dollar wage earners? Does this sort of policy choice belong within the purview of an independent central bank?

Now I don’t actually mean to be too harsh. Putting aside the years of preventable foolishness that got us here, in the new day that began last summer, a crisis emerged that had to be managed and the Fed was the only organization capable of stepping up to the plate. I don’t love the decisions that were made, but decisions did have to be made, and there weren’t very good options. But now we have a moment to reflect. If the credit crisis flares hot and bright again, how much more citizen wealth should be put at risk before other policy options are considered? That’s not a rhetorical question: We need to choose a number, a figure in dollars. My answer would be something north of zero, but not more than the roughly $300B stock of Treasuries that remains on the Fed’s balance sheet. But this is a decision that Congress needs to make.

And what does all this have to do with the question that will soon be put before the Congress, whether the Fed should be permitted to pay interest on deposits? Everything, as it turns out. Suppose the Fed decides it wants to swap more than the $300B in Treasury securities it currently has available in order to support the financial system. Given its current tools and practices, the Fed would have to print money in order to buy more Treasuries to swap. But if it did that, the extra cash would drive interest rates below the Fed’s target level, quite likely provoking inflation. The Fed cannot simultaneously swap away more than its existing stock of Treasuries and satisfy its legal mandate to promote price stability, unless it resorts to something weird.

But suppose Congress gives the Fed the authority to pay interest on reserves. Suddenly the Fed can print cash to buy all the Treasuries it wants to swap for troubled assets. When banks find they have more cash than they need, they lend the money back to the Fed, collecting the “floor” interest rate and removing the currency from circulation. Since interest rates can be held to any level by adjusting the “corridor”, the Fed would retain the flexibility to respond to inflation. At the same time, it would be able print cash in any amount that it pleases — “to infinity and beyond!” — in order to fund asset swaps (or outright purchases) at taxpayers’ risk. This strikes me as a delegation of Congressional authority that would not only be undesirable, but arguably unconstitutional.

So, should we simply refuse the Fed’s request? Probably not. Brad DeLong makes an excellent point:

The Fed may also want to raise the general level of interest rates in order to fight inflation–which requires that it sell its Treasuries for safe bank reserves rather than temporarily swap them for risky MBSs.

The Fed is already rubbing pretty close to its “balance sheet constraint”. If, after exposure to gamma radiation from televised images of food riots, Ben Bernanke were suddenly transformed into The Incredible Volcker, he might lack the tools he’d need to jack rates up into the muscular high teens, unless he’s given this new authority. So what should we do? James Hamilton has an answer:

Congress has a quite proper role in determining the magnitude of the fiscal risk that the Fed opts to assume… [A] statutory limit on the non-Treasury assets that the Fed is allowed to hold might make sense. Perhaps the outcome of a public debate on this issue would be a decision that the Fed needs the power to lend to private borrowers even more than the $800 billion or so limit that it would run into from completely swapping out its entire portfolio… Or perhaps after deliberations, Congress would decide that the business of swapping Treasury debt for private sector loans is one that is better run by the Treasury rather than the Federal Reserve.

I agree. I think that Congress should grant the Fed’s request, but it should simultaneously impose constraints on the composition of the Fed’s balance sheet that cannot be violated without express legislative consent. This will be a complicated exercise, unfortunately. Besides government debt, central banks quite ordinarily hold precious metals and foreign exchange, and limitations on non-Treasury assets will have to take this into account. Plus, restrictions would have to be written carefully to apply to off-balance sheet arrangements such as TSLF, and contingent liabilities like the insidious reverse MBS swap proposal. Finally, Congress must consider restrictions on the Fed’s ability to enter into derivative positions, whether directly or indirectly via special purpose entities, including how the bank’s existing derivative book should be managed and whether the bank should or should not guarantee the liabilities of current Fed-affiliated SPEs.

Congress might also limit the quantity of reserves on which the Fed will be permitted to pay interest.

The Fed can retain full independence for the purpose of conducting ordinary monetary policy, exchanging government debt for cash and vice-versa. But if the central bank wants to put ever greater quantities of public money at risk, it will have to accept a lot more public supervision. If the prospect of intrusive oversight is too much for the Fed, then, as James Hamilton hints, perhaps the roles of central bank and macroeconomic superhero should be moved to separate boxes on the organizational chart. If we are not careful, the next bank requiring a taxpayer bailout may be the Federal Reserve system itself.

Update History:
  • 12-May-2008, 2:20 a.m. EDT: Changed a “fine” to “okay” to avoid having “fine” too close to “fine-tune”.

Stock of Treasury securities at the Fed

The graph below plots the US Federal Reserve’s stock of “uncommitted Treasury securities”, defined as Treasury securities held outright less securities lent to dealers. The graph starts in December 2007, just prior to the announcement of the TAF program.

As of April 30, the Fed’s uncommitted stock of Treasuries was $382B, just under half of its December 5 stock. The Fed recently announced a $50B expansion of the TAF program, and a widening of acceptable collateral for its TSLF program. Assuming the Fed sterilizes the extra TAF funding (very likely) and that the $200B pledged to TSLF is now fully exploited (likely), the Fed’s stock of uncommitted Treasuries will soon be $275.5B. Just over 64% of the Fed’s stock of Treasury’s will have been exhausted since the Fed began its unconventional lending programs in December.

Data are taken from H.41 Factors Affecting Reserve Balances. I’ve assumed that all securities lent to dealers are Treasuries.

See also FED: Running Out of T-Bills at Alea.

Spreads and paradoxical liquidity

In my previous post, I suggested that “depth-weighted spreads” ought to serve as a measure of the uncertainty surrounding a asset’s future cash-flows. Felix Salmon quite correctly points out that quoted bid-ask spreads don’t in fact correlate very well at all with cash-flow uncertainty. Felix notes that the popular stocks often trade with one-penny bid/ask spreads, while you’d see much wider quotations on the more predictable bonds of the very same enterprises. So, what’s going on?

I’ll tell the story in pictures. Don’t be fooled though. Despite the presence of graphs, there is nothing scientific about this exercise. I’m trying to illustrate stylized facts as I understand them, not provide new evidence in support. If you think I’m wrong, let me know.

At about noon today, I took a snapshot of the limit order book for Coca-Cola stock (as presented via my brokers’ trading tool). The “quoted spread” was one penny, bid price $58.10, ask price $58.11. At the same time, I found a Coca Cola corporate bond for which a spread was quoted. The quoted spread on the bond was much larger by any measure: You could sell a bond for $1043.34, or buy one for $1058.85, for a quoted bid-ask spread of $15.42. One penny for uncertain equity vs $15 bucks for a bond whose cash flows are virtually guaranteed!

Obviously, this is not an apples to apples comparison, just given the face values of the bonds. It’s not surprising that you have to pay a market-maker more to take on $1000 of inventory risk rather than $60. (Remember, market-makers are “in the moving, not the storage business”. Their nightmare is that they buy something whose price moves against them before they can sell. You gotta pay them more to take a big risk than a small risk.) But, in per-dollar terms, the spread on one bond is still much higher than that one share of stock. You’d have to pay roughly two basis points (0.02%) in spread on every dollar invested in order to buy and resell a share of stock. To take a round trip on a bond, you’d pay almost 147 basis points! 2 basis points vs 147! So, stocks spreads are much smaller than bond spreads any way you cut it, right?

Wrong. The graphs below shows “half spreads”, the difference you’d pay from the current midpoint price to buy or sell the security according published price quotes. Here’s our view of the world so far:

But let’s broaden our horizons, shall we? What if we want to invest, say, $15,000 in Coca-Cola? Is the spread still cheaper on stock?

Probably not. Note how even very large, popular stocks are not quoted very deeply, even though the apparent spreads are very small. And note the shape of the cost curve: The cost on a per-dollar transacted basis always increases, and at an increasing rate. (Spread is a convex function of volume.) It’s obvious that if you were to extrapolate on the buy-side, you’d end up paying more for the stock than the near constant, 73 basis point bond spread that would lock in $15K worth of the bond. The quoted spreads on the stock are very narrow. But the price action is a bitch, if you want to transact quickly and in quantity. (Note the asymmetry of the curve. The obvious conjecture is that market-makers are net short, and would prefer to hedge by purchasing than to go shorter by selling. But at some point not very distant from the midpoint, the spread would take off on the bid side as well.)

Here’s an entirely fabricated, but probably more informative picture:

Which security has tighter spreads, the stock or the bond? For small volumes, the stock wins. But as volume increases, the stock’s spread increases much faster than the bond’s, reflecting the bond’s greater certainty of valuation.

Now, again, this is all terribly stylized. Limit order books are notoriously incomplete, and give little hint as to either market supply and demand or market-maker willingness to transact. Actual transactions often occur inside of spreads. Quoted spreads do correlate with various “liquidity measures”, but they are terribly noisy because they ignore depth, and the informativeness of a spread increases with depth. Also, lots of trading happens inside quoted spreads. Volume-weighted “effective” or “realized” spreads, that compare actual transaction costs to spread midpoints would be more informative.

But still. A market-maker in Coca-Cola bonds this morning had written the entire world a free option to buy $74,000 or to sell $18,000 worth of a bond at will. Stock dealers, on the other hand, put less than $5K on the line in either direction. The bond dealer’s spread reflected a less precise but far more confident estimate of the bond’s value.

The shallow, tight spreads on uncertain stock valuations are what I think of as “paradoxical liquidity”. Why do market-makers guesstimate very precise values for (some) stocks, while signaling “no confidence” by putting little money behind their guesses? Why do bond dealers offer looser estimates, but back them with a willingness to trade at high volume? Perhaps bond market-makers face higher fixed costs, limiting how tight they can pull spreads and still be profitable. Perhaps it is because stocks trade in less fragmented, more competitive markets. Competition forces market-makers to converge upon a single midpoint price (however arbitrary), and drives spreads towards zero. But as spreads approach zero, so does profit. Some stocks have penny spreads and other stocks don’t. How come market-makers stick around to drive spreads down to nothing for some equities, but not for others? Is it because low spread stocks can be more precisely valued than other stocks? Absolutely not. As Felix mentioned, even glamour tech stocks, whose prices rise and fall like soap opera divas, sometimes have one penny spreads.

Instead, it is active randomness rather than staid certainty that drives some stock spreads to be much tighter than bonds or shares of less popular firms. Market-makers derive profit from “noise traders”, from people buying or selling at market prices for their own reasons, but who have no better insight into the future value of the stock than the market-makers themselves. When dealers trade with investors who are better informed than they are, they lose money on average. To make up for this, market-makers seek out the business of “fools” (as Tyler Cowen put it, reminding us of the seminal paper by Glosten and Milgrom and inspiring Felix to coin a memorable phrase). Stocks popular with noise-traders attract multiple dealers, who compete spreads down to minimal levels, and then share slivers of profitable foolishness. In the academic model, fools and informed traders are indistinguishable to market-makers, so market-makers must keep spreads wide enough to offset their losses to insiders. But that needn’t be the case. Those making markets in stocks popular with noise-traders could instead try to separate clienteles based on order size, flow, and type. During “lulls”, dealer competition forces prices to converge to arbitrary values at minimal spreads. Dealers collect pennies on small trades as “fools” trade back and forth at market. But as soon as they catch the slightest whiff of informed trading — large order sizes, inventory build-up, rumor, whatever — market-makers ramp up spreads and shift prices until they find a new price point that is somewhere inside of more informed traders lack-of-confidence interval. They then compete spreads back down to an arbitrary price point, and return to happily collecting pennies. The particular price at which a stock trades, despite microscopic spreads, contains little information about the “true value” of the security, other than that the price is “close enough” so as not to draw the attention of informed predators.

“Paradoxical liquidity” is why I suggested in the previous post that “depth-weighted spreads”, rather than simple bid-ask quotes, ought correlate with valuation uncertainty. As quantities in a limit order book go towards zero, Newtonian finance gives way to the quantum spookiness and game theory. In general, we should treat spreads with more money behind them as more informative than those with less, and compare the relative valuation uncertainty of different instruments using high dollar spreads, rather than best-bid-and-ask. But even scale is arbitrary, and noise trading isn’t just about little tech-stock speculators. Another word for noise trader is “liquidity trader”. People who sell at market prices because they want cash, or buy at market because they want a place to park cash for yield, but who don’t analyze the hold-to-maturity value of the assets they swap are, from market-makers’ perspective, no different than sweaty day traders. When, for whatever reason, liquidity traders go away, market-makers find they have no pennies to compete for, and spreads revert to bounds that reflecting valuation uncertainty of people actually willing to bear the risk of ownership. Paradoxical liquidity is fun while it lasts, and consoles naive traders by offering visibly tight spreads in exchange for hidden price volatility. But in the end it serves no one but the middleman. When it “dries up”, withdrawal can be a bitch.

Update: I’ve struck the last couple of sentences. It’s always fun to end stuff with a punch, but I’m not sure it’s right that paradoxical liquidity “serves no one but the middleman”. The shape of the spread curve is probably not something to get too moralistic about. There are positives and negatives associated with what I’ve called paradoxical liquidity. As always, trader beware.

Update History:
  • 7-May-2008, 11:50 a.m. EDT: Struck last couple of sentences and added update explaining why.
  • 7-May-2008, 7:10 p.m. EDT: Edited away some small embarrassments — repeated use of “points out” in first para, mispelling of dealers, plural “spreads” where singular “spread” works better…

Liquidity isn’t apple pie

Yves Smith packs a powerful insight into an unassuming sentence:

Liquidity is not a virtue in and of itself unless it produces a benefit to the real economy.

Liquidity is often said to be the great lubricant of financial markets. Let’s go with that metaphor for a moment. Yeah, baby, liquidity. It’s high performance motor oil that turns hard metal to smooth silk and keeps the engine of capitalism firing on all cylinders! Pop the hood and pour that stuff in. Rub it onto the gears and axles, so nothing ever squeals, pops, or (God forbid) grinds to a halt. Slather it all over the tires, so that no friction comes between our purring metal machine and the sweet American road.

Ummm, wait a minute… Putting lubricant on the tires might not be such a great idea after all. Friction is precisely what tires need to do their jobs. Throw a lot of oil on the tires and, well, something bad might happen.

Similarly, in financial markets, we want liquidity at some times and in some places. But there are times and places where we want, even need (gasp!) illiquidity!

Illiquidity. That word is so ugly. What might be another word for the same phenomenon? How about “commitment”? When a person invests in something that is not very liquid, they are committed. They are necessarily betting on its fundamental value. Liquid securities can be bought or sold as a trend or a trade or a play for a greater fool. But if the thing you are buying can only be sold with a big haircut, you’d better hope for a really gigantic fool if you have no confidence in its underlying value. (Clever managers did find ways around this problem, but let’s put principal/agent issues aside for the moment.) When financial markets are too liquid, everything looks like cash. Superfluous distinctions — like the economic meaning of the assets bought or sold — fall by the wayside. Sure, investors always prefer liquidity to illiquidity. An option to buy or sell quickly and cheaply is preferable to an option to buy or sell slowly and with large transaction costs. But just because investors like something doesn’t mean that it’s good. Investors like rainbows and ice cream and free money from taxpayers. But the rest of us prefer that investors make serious, informed decisions about what is and isn’t of value, and that they be paid for evaluating and actually bearing risk, rather than artfully shifting it (or whining when it cannot be shifted, because omigawd-there-is-no-liquidity!). Of course there is a balance here, commitment is one thing but a ball and chain is another, if assets become too hard to buy or sell, the costs of financing genuinely useful enterprises would increase until even good risks are not borne at all. It’s not that liquidity is a bad thing. It’s a good thing of which there can too much.

But how much? Another word that should be attached to any conversation about liquidity is “accuracy”. There is, in some sense, a “right” level of liquidity, defined by the uncertainty surrounding the present value of an assets future payoffs. We laud markets for “price discovery”, their ability to distill complex economic facts into simple prices that put a value to unknowable future events. But we need markets to communicate the uncertainty surrounding those valuations as well. The depth-weighted spreads of assets whose values are nearly certain should be much narrower than those of assets whose payoffs cannot be accurately predicted. When that is not the case, it represents a market failure. The recently wide spreads on complex structured credits are not the crisis — those spreads accurately reflect the uncertainty surrounding what the instruments are actually worth. Nobody knows, so spreads should be wide. The real crisis was two years ago, when “oceans of liquidity” meant that whatever the underlying value of a thing, you could sell it quickly for near what you bought it, so spreads grew artificially narrow. Confidence is good only when confidence is merited. We need not only accurate prices, but accurate confidence intervals, accurate spreads, accurate levels of liquidity rather than simply more, more, more.

disappearances and derelictions

This wasn’t the first time, and I can assure you it won’t be the last of my sudden disappearances. I’d like you all to think that I am occasionally called off on super-secret assignments by an unacknowledged branch of an unacknowledged government. Or perhaps I have a penchant for being abducted by aliens. (Callisto is fabulous in the springtime. I highly recommend.)

But no. Behind this curtain is a disheveled lump of a thing, a satisficer in the guilt-minimization problem that each new day presents. For correspondences lapsed and everything else unwritten or undone, the least I can do is apologize. And thank those who do somehow manage to write and rewrite the world every day. I drink words greedily even when I offer none at all. Never, ever let them tell you there’s no such thing as a free lunch.

Update: The previous post, almost a month old, attracted some extraordinary comments. I hope to have more to say on several of the themes discussed — seignorage and the credit crisis, fiat vs commodity money and full or fractional reserve banking, etc. etc. But don’t wait for me. Others have said it all already, much better than I will.

Update History:
  • 5-May-2008, 3:10 p.m. EDT: Added update re previous post comments.