Saturday, July 19, 2008

Oil and Speculation - Again

OK, more on speculation and oil prices. I have followed Paul Krugman’s reasoning for a while on the oil price/speculation issue. His reasoning is very solid and at first blush seemed unassailable to me. His basic model on spot and future prices can be found here and I think is really worth a read. To give a brief summary, the logic is that if excessive speculation in the futures market was driving prices in the spot market there would be a couple of signatures we could observe. The first signature would be future prices that exceed spot prices (a condition called contango) providing the incentive for producers to withhold product from the market. Why deliver it today for $120/barrel when I can deliver it tomorrow for $125/barrel? Sell it tomorrow at a higher price rather than today at the lower price. (Note that holding current supply from the market would cause spot prices to increase and the aforementioned inventory build.) The other signature is that there should be a build in inventory as oil is held off of the market for delivery in the future. Neither of these signatures is evident in today’s market, however, so the conclusion is that speculation in the futures market is not impacting oil prices. To see this on his graph I have reproduced a modified version here.

The blue lines represent the original graphs (as drawn by me using crude tools). Expected appreciation is the curve on the left graph, and if future prices are expected to exceed spot then expected appreciation is positive (contango). If spot prices exceed future prices we get negative expected appreciation (backwardation). Equilibrium that determines the spot price is the intersection of expected appreciation and carrying costs. Looking at the blue lines, the typical argument that future prices are driving up current prices suggests there is excess supply (the supply being held off of the market). This would be the other signature – inventory build.

This model assumes, however, that supply is fixed. If I want to deliver less oil today, I must store the excess. What if instead producers are making output decisions that are influenced by future prices. Strong future prices at lower volumes of output would suggest less elastic demand, which in turn would suggest lower output for profit maximization. I illustrate this using the red lines. If the supply curve shifts to the left because of distortions caused by strong future demand, current output equals current demand and we are in backwardation at the same time spot prices are impacted by future prices. If strong future demand is impacting the output models of oil producers this model could explain why the signatures we would expect to see are absent. I have no particular experience with the oil industry and don’t know whether they set production based on models or based on maximum capacity. If they use supply and demand models, as I would suspect they do, then strong speculative demand for future delivery, particularly in the physical delivery market, could have a meaningful impact on spot prices through output model distortions. (I note that if in fact producers are setting output at lower levels than they otherwise would the lower level of supply could appear as a peak oil issue.)

All input welcome. I am not an expert on this topic and want to learn!

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Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Oil and Speculators – Anecdotal Evidence

There has been a lot of debate going on about whether or not speculation is driving up oil prices. I haven’t taken a position one way or the other. I am not an expert in the commodity markets and I have been impressed with the evidence on both sides of the argument. Paul Krugman has done some interesting analysis (see this post and follow-up posts throughout the month of June) on this issue ultimately arguing that speculation is not driving oil prices. He points to the lack of inventory build that would be present in a traditional speculative driven market resulting from owners holding product off the spot market to sell at higher future prices. On the other hand, some very smart investors and former regulators have been arguing that speculation has caused somewhere in the neighborhood of $50/barrel of the price increase in crude. Finally, there is the common sense issue. Financial markets fall apart, stocks and bonds become less attractive investments, the housing bubble bursts, and suddenly there is a sharp increase in the price of a commodity that just happens to be in a market that was partially deregulated several years ago. This last part sounds too familiar to me to be ignored.

Today, I was watching the testimony of Ben Bernanke before Congress when the subject of speculation in the energy markets was raised. It was clear that Congress is serious about passing some regulations to address margin requirements and possibly other issues in this market. Suddenly oil dropped $9.00 a barrel from around $145 to $136. That’s a 6% decline within minutes. Now, whether this price drop was caused by the congressional testimony or not is something I cannot determine. The CNBC commentators are saying the cause of the price drop is banks liquidating their energy positions to meet capital requirements. Isn’t that speculation? And look at this coincidence: the investment banks decided it was a good time to unwind their energy position right at the moment it became clear Congress is going to act on the issue of speculation in the oil markets. Do you believe in coincidences like these?

Rational economic arguments aside, the anecdotal evidence suggests that “speculation” is having a meaningful impact on oil prices.

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Sunday, July 13, 2008

What Caused The Credit Crisis?

I have been following and writing about the credit crises for some time. Watching the stock prices of the financial companies plummet over the past few months has been painful if you own any of them. As I wrote in March I have been expecting this decline, but its acceleration in recent weeks has been breathtaking.

I have been reading a lot of commentary about what caused the credit crisis. Most recently I read the first section of “The First Global Financial Crisis of the 21st Century” published by This is a collection of articles written by renowned economists addressing the credit crisis, and part one deals with the causes. Unless otherwise noted my references in this article to other writers refers to their article in this collection. There is a rather long list of suspects, but in my opinion the cause of the credit crisis was a failure of the regulators of the financial system to adequately protect it from systemic risks that they should have seen at the time. Determining why they failed under such circumstances should be the primary path of inquiry. This involves uncovering the reasons why, in the face of compelling evidence of a major financial storm in the making, financial regulators did nothing. The same can be said for Congress.

I believe there is plenty of blame to go around and there were many bad actors involved in generating loans that should never have been made. In one of my early articles I pointed the finger at many of these actors. But it is the job of regulators to monitor the financial system and prevent excessive, systemic credit problems and they failed to do so. When banks are lending people 100% of the value of a home, waiving income verification, and basing the borrowers ability to pay on a loan payment that is based on a temporary teaser rate there is abject foolishness in the market. This condition existed for at least two years while bank regulators and Congress looked on and did nothing. As if this wasn’t enough, at the same time there was obvious chicanery in the credit markets relating to housing we experienced a housing bubble of massive proportions. Regulators and Congress still did nothing, except that Congress and the President began to brag about home ownership rates.

Some commentators (see Tito Boeri and Luigi Guiso, pg 37) (see also Theodore Forstmann, “The Credit Crisis Is Going To Get Worse”, The Wall Street Journal Online Edition, July 5 2008) argue it was classic supply-push in the credit markets caused by excessive monetary easing from 2001 – 2004 that caused the stupidity that led to this crisis. I tend to agree that monetary policy has been too accommodative and is one of the root causes of the current crisis. However, we have always known that monetary policy easing increases risk taking so to blame this as the cause of the crisis misses the point.

Some argue that new innovations, such as CDOs, where not fully understood (see Guido Tabellini, pg 45). I find humor in this though I am not happy with the result. If we take a lot of crappy assets and put them together, will the resulting “diversified” pool of crappy assets have less risk? Well, when all the assets are correlated to the housing market and are the most sensitive to any price changes (subprime) then obviously all you have done is made a bigger pool of crap. Add to this the fact that history exists in the subprime lending world and it is not good. Where the assumptions came from underlying the ratings on CDOs is a mystery to anyone who has seen subprime lenders crash and burn. To say this was a failure of the statistical models is a nice way of saying the assumptions were wrong and upon further inspection this should have been obvious. Statistical complexity aside, what happened to common sense? Isn’t this where the regulators are supposed to come in? When the market is doing things that are clearly high risk and in large magnitude? Where were they?

Some argue it was the rating agency conflicts that enabled this debacle to occur. I agree this was a contributing factor, but Congress and the regulators knew this problem existed since, at the latest, 2002 when it was presented to Congress in testimony relating to the Enron bankruptcy by Frank Partnoy (see part II. D). There were very clear and explicit warnings that this type of crisis was waiting to happen yet Congress and the regulators turned a blind eye.

Some argue that it is the over reliance on statistical modeling that led to this crisis (see Jon Danielsson pg. 13). The lack of backtesting data for those once in 100 years events meant that the science was flawed. In addition, the correlations are all wrong when everyone acts the same way at the same time (the heard). I buy this argument, but what I don’t buy is the argument that the regulators were fooled by all of this. This was clearly a movement to allow financial institutions to self regulate using their own internally developed models. Whether this was politically driven or truly a belief among regulators that this was a better way I do not know, but it takes a lot of the burden off regulators to monitor and regulate! Now regulators are calling for additional powers. I ask, where were they when this crisis developed?

I actually know part of the answer to my last question. One thing the regulators were working on was providing the financial system with large amounts of leverage that would ultimately be at the root of the liquidity part of this crisis. In 2004 regulators codified banks’ use of off balance sheet entities, those SIVs and asset-backed commercial paper conduits that leapt onto the front pages last Fall, with minimal regulatory capital requirements. At the same time there were regulatory changes for the investment banks that have been referred to as the “Bear Stearns Future Insolvency Act of 2004”. With respect to the banks, the result is easily discernible from the graph above. Asset-backed commercial paper outstanding skyrocketed as banks utilized their newly codified leverage structure to take on the CDOs and other securities where the true risk of all this absurd lending was being hidden. Especially notable here is the absence of the SEC. These securities that were being rated and issued were, apparently, not understood by anyone. By extension, they were not understood by the SEC – isn’t that part of its job? Unfortunately, when investors discovered that there was excessive risk in these vehicles they stopped purchasing the commercial paper that funded them. The result was a severe liquidity crisis as the banks had to honor lines of credit they provided to these entities securing the repayment of commercial paper under just these circumstances. The Federal Reserve has received great admiration for its creative tonics when this crisis broke out, but I believe that is like honoring a firefighter for extinguishing a very dangerous fire that the firefighter ignited in the first place. I can’t finish this part of my rant without pointing out a couple of issues here. First, a crisis in the commercial paper market would certainly present a systemic risk to the financial system if all the banks had credit lines backing their $1.2 trillion in asset-backed commercial paper. Given this fact, together with the knowledge from Enron that off balance sheet treatment does not eliminate risk but increases risk taking, how did the bank regulators determine that is was 10 times safer to fund assets this way than the traditional method of holding them on a bank’s balance sheet? This seems like an extraordinary conclusion, extraordinarily wrong headed.

Of course the current crisis is well beyond a mere liquidity event. The off balance sheet leverage combined with excessive monetary easing provided much too much liquidity to the markets, and the resulting stupidity in the credit world will ultimately cost institutions their solvency. As of this writing Bear Stearns no longer exists (although the taxpayers now own $29 billion (and falling) of mortgage-backed securities that Chase didn’t want while the shareholders walked with cash) and the FDIC has seized IndyMac, a large bank with extensive mortgage operations. I don’t believe this will be the last, and taxpayers will be paying for this debacle for years to come.

So what caused this crisis? Those responsible for ensuring a sound financial system failed, plain and simple. Regulators and Congress are to blame as they were well aware of the risks of rating agency conflicts, off balance sheet financing and excessive leverage yet they turned a blind eye when it came to the financial sector. The fact that rating agency conflicts and other abuses by Wall Street and others played a role does not change the fact that those responsible for regulating these activities failed. In fact, these issues should have made the regulators even more watchful in light of the fact that they were warned of rating agency conflicts that go to the heart of the regulatory system they set up.

In hindsight all of this looks obvious, and what is obvious in hindsight is not always so clear at the time. Perhaps it was not so obvious to regulators or Congress at the time. But why didn’t they figure it out? These are the best and brightest in the field and it is their job to figure this out and monitor and protect the financial system. What forces were at play such that this set of events could be set in motion and play out without any reaction from the Fed or Congress? Perhaps there is something structurally wrong with having the Fed involved in bank regulation at the same time it is responsible for monetary policy. Perhaps there is an issue with the appointment of regulators such that a given administration’s policies become too pervasive. Perhaps too many key people in the regulatory authorities come from the very institutions they are there to regulate or get jobs at those institutions when they leave. Perhaps the financial industry has too much influence in Congress and it is the broken political system where money buys influence that caused the credit crisis. In my opinion these are the fundamental issues raised by the credit crisis and I believe they should get more attention than they are getting now. I also believe that these very same regulators should not be setting the agenda for the new regulatory regime that will follow this crisis, but as of now they are.

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