Prof. Jayanth R. Varma’s Financial Markets Blog

A blog on financial markets and their regulation

Why Intel investors should subscribe to the Linux Kernel Mailing List or at least LWN

On January 3 and 4, 2018 (Wednesday and Thursday), the Intel stock price dropped by about 5% amidst massive trading volumes after The Register revealed a major security vulnerability in Intel chips on Tuesday evening (the Meltdown and Spectre bugs were officially disclosed shortly thereafter). But a bombshell had landed on the Linux Kernel on Saturday, and a careful reader would have been able to short the stock when the market opened on Tuesday (after the extended weekend). So, -1 for semi-strong form market efficiency.

Saturday’s post on LWN was very cryptic:

Linus has merged the kernel page-table isolation patch set into the mainline just ahead of the 4.15-rc6 release. This is a fundamental change that was added quite late in the development cycle; it seems a fair guess that 4.15 will have to go to -rc8, at least, before it’s ready for release.

The reason this was a bombshell is that rc6 (release candidate 6) is very late in the release cycle where only minor bug fixes are usually made before release as version 4.15. As little as 10 days earlier, an article on LWN stated that Kernel Page-Table Isolation (KPTI) patch would be merged only into version 4.16 and even that was regarded as rushed. The article stated that many of the core kernel developers have clearly put a lot of time into this work and concluded that:

KPTI, in other words, has all the markings of a security patch being readied under pressure from a deadline.

If merging into 4.16 looked like racing against a deadline, pushing it into 4.15 clearly indicated an emergency. The public still did not know what the bug was that KPTI was guarding against, because security researchers follow a policy of responsible disclosure where public disclosure is delayed during an embargo period which gives time to the key developers (who are informed in advance) to patch their software. But, clearly the bug must be really scary for the core developers to merge the patch into the kernel in such a tearing hurry.

One more critical piece of information had landed on LWN two days before the bombshell. On December 27, a post described a small change that had been made in the KPTI patch:

AMD processors are not subject to the types of attacks that the kernel page table isolation feature protects against. The AMD microarchitecture does not allow memory references, including speculative references, that access higher privileged data when running in a lesser privileged mode when that access would result in a page fault.

Disable page table isolation by default on AMD processors by not setting the X86_BUG_CPU_INSECURE feature, which controls whether X86_FEATURE_PTI is set.

As Linus Torvalds put it a few days later: “not all CPU’s are crap.” Since it was already known that KPTI would degrade the performance of the processor by about 5%, the implication was clear: Intel chips would slow down by 5% relative to AMD after KPTI. In fact, one post on LWN on Monday evening (Note that Jan 2, 2018 0:00 UTC (Tue) would actually be late Monday evening in New York) did mention that trade idea:

Posted Jan 2, 2018 0:00 UTC (Tue) by Felix_the_Mac (guest, #32242)
In reply to: Kernel page-table isolation merged by GhePeU
Parent article: Kernel page-table isolation merged
I guess now would be a good time to buy AMD stock

The stock price chart shows that AMD did start rising on Tuesday, though the big volumes came only on Wednesday and Thursday. The interesting question is why was the smart money not reading the Linux Kernel Mailing List or at least LWN and getting ready for the short Intel, long AMD trade? Were they still recovering from the hangover of the New Year party?

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Madness on both sides

Forbes India has an article on Bitcoin in the January 5, 2018 issue. It has the following quote from me:

Which is more crazy: That bitcoin has a market capitalisation of a couple of hundred billion dollars, or that 11 trillion dollars of bonds are trading at a negative yield, which means that people are lending money with the full knowledge that they will not even receive the full principal back let alone earn any interest? After the global financial crisis of 2008, many feel that the actions of central bankers have been reckless, and it is no wonder that these people are attracted to a currency that is not subject to the whims and fancies of central bankers. There is madness on both sides (fiat currencies of advanced countries and cryptocurrencies) and it is best to view both with equal detachment.

This is not the first time that I have stated the view that virtual currencies are a response to bad things happening in the real world (see for example, this blog post from October 2017).

Why do banks use Credit Default Swaps (CDS)?

Inaki Aldasoro and Andreas Barth have a paper “Syndicated loans and CDS positioning” (BIS Working Papers No 679) that tries to answer this question in the context of syndicated loans. Unfortunately, they frame the problem in terms of hedging and risk reduction; I think this is not a useful way of looking at the usage of CDS by banks, though it makes perfect sense in other contexts. For example, if business is worried about the creditworthiness of a large customer, it might want to buy CDS protection. It is effectively paying an insurance premium to eliminate the credit risk, while earning the profits from selling to this customer. This works because credit risk is incidental to the business transaction.

For the bank, however, credit risk is the core of the business relationship. The natural response to concerns about the creditworthiness of a (potential) customer is to limit the lending to this customer. Granting a loan and then buying CDS protection is just a roundabout way of buying a risk free bond (or perhaps a very low risk bond). It is much simpler to just buy a government bond or something similar.

When we see a bank grant a loan and simultaneously buy CDS on the loan, we are not seeing a risk reduction strategy. Rather the bank has determined that this roundabout strategy is somehow superior to simply buying a government bond. We should be evaluating different scenarios that could cause this to happen:

  1. As in the earlier example of a non financial business, the bank is looking at the profits from the totality of the customer relationship that could be at risk if it did not grant the loan.

  2. The CDS is mispriced, and the bank is able to earn a higher yield than a government bond for the same level of risk. Effectively, the bank is arbitraging the bond-CDS basis. A hedge fund that is expecting an improvement in the credit profile of a company could either go long the bond or sell CDS protection on the bond. The former would require financing the investment at the relatively high funding cost of the hedge fund. In imperfect markets, it can be better for a well capitalized bank to buy the bond (financing the purchase at its low funding cost) and buy CDS protection from the hedge fund. Particularly, after the global financial crisis, this scenario has been quite common.

Aldasoro and Barth find that weaker banks are less likely than strong banks to buy CDS protection on their loans. They argue that weak banks have lower franchise value and have less incentive to hedge their risks. Bond-CDS arbitrage provides a simpler explanation; stronger banks have a competitive advantage in executing this arbitrage, and are likely to do it more than weaker banks.

Similarly Aldasoro and Barth find that lead arrangers are more likely to hedge their credit risk exposures than other syndicate members. This fits nicely with the total customer profitability explanation: the hedged loan may be similar to a government bond, but the syndication fees may make this a worthwhile strategy.

Bitcoin and bitcoin futures

After bitcoin futures started trading a week ago, there has been a lot of discussion about how the futures market might affect the spot price of bitcoin. Almost a decade ago, Paul Krugman discussed this question in the context of a different asset – crude oil – and gave a simple answer:

“Well, a futures contract is a bet about the future price. It has no, zero, nada direct effect on the spot price.”

Krugman explained this with a direct example:

Imagine that Joe Shmoe and Harriet Who, neither of whom has any direct involvement in the production of oil, make a bet: Joe says oil is going to $150, Harriet says it won’t. What direct effect does this have on the spot price of oil – the actual price people pay to have a barrel of black gunk delivered?

The answer, surely, is none. Who cares what bets people not involved in buying or selling the stuff make? And if there are 10 million Joe Shmoes, it still doesn’t make any difference.

Back then, I argued in my blog post that Krugman’s analysis is quite valid for most assets, but needed to be taken with a pinch of salt in the case of assets like crude oil, where the market for physical crude oil is so fragmented and hard to access that:

Most price discovery actually happens in the futures market and the physical markets trade on this basis. In an important sense, the crude futures price is the price of crude.

Is bitcoin like crude oil or is it an asset with a well functioning spot market where the Krugman analysis is right, and the futures speculation is largely irrelevant? The cash market for bitcoin has some difficulties – the bitcoin exchanges are not too reliable, and many investors find it hard to keep their wallets and their private keys safe. Are these difficulties as great as the difficulty of buying a barrel of crude, or selling it?

When cash markets are not functioning well, cash and carry arbitrage (and its reverse) futures markets may make the underlying asset accessible to more people. It is possible that A is bullish on bitcoin, but does not wish to go through the hassles of creating a wallet and storing it safely. At the same time, B might be comfortable with bitcoin wallets, but might be unwilling to take bitcoin price risk. Then B can buy bitcoin spot and sell cash settled bitcoin futures to A; the result is that A obtains exposure to bitcoin without creating a bitcoin wallet, while B obtains a risk free investment (a synthetic T-bill). Similarly, suppose C wishes to bet against bitcoin, but does not have the ability to short it; while D has no views on bitcoin, but has sufficient access to the cash market to be able to short bitcoin. Then D can take a risk free position by shorting bitcoin in the cash market and buying bitcoin futures from C who obtains a previously unavailable short position.

When there are many pairs of people like A/B and many pairs like C/D; the creation of the futures market allows A’s demand and B’s supply to be reflected in the cash market. If there are more A/B pairs than C/D pairs, the introduction of bitcoin future would push up the spot price of bitcoin. The reverse would be the case if the C/D pairs outweigh the A/B pairs. If there are roughly equal number of A’s and C’s, then they can simply trade with each other (Krugman’s side bets) with no impact on the cash market.

It appears to me that the introduction of futures has been bullish for bitcoin because there are quite many A/B pairs. There are significantly fewer C/D pairs for two reasons:

  1. There are not too many C’s though there are plenty of people who think that bitcoin is a bubble. Smart investors rarely short a bubble: there is too high a risk of the bubble inflating even further before collapsing completely. As Keynes famously wrote, the market can remain irrational longer than you can remain solvent. The most sensible thing to do for those who see a bubble is to simply stay clear of the asset.

  2. There are not too many D’s because it is not easy to borrow bitcoin for shorting it. A large fraction of the bitcoin supply is in the hands of early investors who are ideologically committed to bitcoins, and have little interest in parting with it. (In fact, bitcoin is so volatile that the most sensible strategy for those who believe in the bitcoin dream is to invest only what they can afford to lose, and then adopt a buy and hold strategy). Moreover, lending bitcoin requires reposing faith in mainstream finance (even if the borrower is willing to deposit 200% or 300% margins), and that trust is in short supply among those who were early investors in bitcoins.

The situation could change over a period of time if the futures market succeeds in moving a large part of the bitcoin supply into the hands of mainstream investors (the A’s) who have no commitment to the bitcoin ideology.

SEC Regulatory Overreach

I have repeatedly worried about regulatory overreach (here, here and here); while most of the examples in those posts came from India, I was always clear that the phenomenon is global in nature. In a blog post (at CLS Blue Sky Blog) Johnson and Barry carry out an analysis of the US Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) which documents the overreach of that regulator.

The Dodd Frank Act of 2010 greatly expanded the ability of the SEC to initiate proceedings in its own administrative courts before an Administrative Law Judge appointed by the commission instead of filing the case in a federal court. Since around 2013, the SEC has relied more on these proceedings which give substantial advantages to the SEC – less comprehensive discovery rules, no juries, and relaxed evidentiary requirements. A study by the Wall Street Journal showed that the SEC wins cases before its in-house judges much more frequently than before independent courts.

Johnson and Barry show that even this “home field” advantage is not enough – the SEC seems to be overreaching or overcharging its cases to such an extent that it is losing a number of high-profile administrative cases. They conclude:

When it began to shift away from filing cases in district court, it likely believed it would see more success in administrative proceedings, but that has not consistently been the case. Although the SEC is still winning many of its administrative cases, its recent losses reflect a failure to evaluate the strength of its proof, particularly in cases where scienter evidence is thin, or overall evidence of alternative theories consistent with innocence is equally strong.

Surveillance by countervailing power

I have long argued that it is a mistake to think of surveillance as being done solely by disinterested regulators who have no axe to grind. As I wrote in a blog post a decade ago, “complaints by rivals and other interested parties are the best leads that a regulator can get.”

But these rivals and other interested parties can go beyond complaining to the regulator; they can take matters into their own hands. This can often be the best and most effective form of surveillance. A recent order by the US Commodities and Futures Trading Commission (CFTC) against Statoil illustrates this very well.

According to the CFTC, Statoil traders bought physical propane in the Far East with a view to push up the Argus Far East Index (FEI) which was the reference price for Statoil’s derivative contracts on NYMEX. However, Statoil’s plan to profit by creating an artificial settlement price for the Argus FEI did not materialize as hoped. The CFTC quotes one of the Statoil traders:

Also, quite a few of the players in the market have a vested interested in holding the [Argus] FEI down and they have been willing to sell cargoes . . . at discounted prices . . . Statoil have bought 5 cargoes over the last week but this has not been enough to keep the [price] up.

So one group of players are trying to rig the price down, while another set is trying to do the opposite. Their efforts neutralize each other, and the market basically policed itself. The regulator can of course watch the fun and impose a penalty on one (or even both parties), but its actions are largely irrelevant.

Incidentally, the episode also shows that market manipulation is not the exclusive preserve of evil private sector speculators: Statoil is the Norwegian government oil company.

In the sister blog and on Twitter during August-November 2017

There were no posts on the sister blog (on Computing) during August-November 2017 other than cross posts from this blog.

Tweets during August-November 2017 (other than blog post tweets):

Large asset auctions: Russian versus East Asian models

In the context of the large asset auctions that are expected to happen in India as part of the new bankruptcy code for delinquent borrowers, I think it would be instructive to look at the lessons that can be learned from how such auctions were organized elsewhere in the world. Two episodes that come to my mind are:

  1. The large privatizations that happened in Russia after the collapse of the Soviet Union

  2. The massive sale of assets that happened in East Asia particularly Korea and Thailand after the Asian crisis.

Both of these were large operations carried out fairly quickly in a quite challenging environment. There was a huge amount of uncertainty about the true value of the assets, but that is unavoidable in situations like this. But the two episodes differed in many critical respects. All in all, most people would agree that the Russian auctions were a disaster. First they allow a bunch of oligarchs to acquire businesses very cheap because of inadequate competition. Second, the privatizations (at least ex post) have very little perceived legitimacy, and this vitiates Russian democracy even today. The East Asians (partly because of IMF pressure) were much more transparent about the process, and also opened up the sales to foreign bidders in a big way (amending the laws in some cases). This was not politically very pleasant, but was probably the only way to generate enough competitive bidding in an environment where most domestic players were liquidity constrained, and the banking system was ill equipped to support leveraged bidders.

The Indian retail credit boom

In the last 3-4 years, in the face of collapsing corporate credit demand and rising defaults in corporate loans (dating back to the days of a booming economy), the Indian banking system has been focused on growing the retail loan portfolio. Non bank finance companies have also been doing the same. For public sector bankers worried about investigations into suspected corrupt lending, retail lending has another big advantage from a career point of view. Since retail credit decisions are based on computer algorithms, there is much less risk of corruption allegations against individual staff members (and computers cannot be sent to jail).

Two questions arise at this point:

  1. Has this retail credit boom progressed beyond the point of prudent lending? Anecdotal evidence suggests that at least for some lenders, the answer is yes. Since nobody wants to admit that they are lending imprudently, I prefer to ask market participants what CIBIL score cutoffs their competitors are using. During the last couple of years, I have heard this number fall from 650-700 to 600 and recently to 550.

  2. How much of an impact would job losses in telecom and software services have on delinquencies in retail loans? It is too early to say, but clearly the impact would be non trivial.

I would think that the ongoing public sector bank recapitalization needs to keep this in mind. And perhaps at least some private sector lenders might want to think of a pre-emptive recapitalization.

Bitcoin as a way to short bad things

Many people are perplexed that there is no asset underlying Bitcoin. One answer is that there is nothing underlying fiat money either. But, it is more interesting to think about Bitcoin not as being long something good but as being short something bad. Bitcoin is short untrustworthy/incompetent banks/politicians.

Bitcoin has soared in value as trust in G7/G10/G20 politicians has eroded. Capital flight from untrustworthy peripheral countries has historically been to core country safe havens like the US dollar. But when trust in the core is eroded, where does one go? Traditionally, money poured into gold, and to some extent it still does, but today’s technology utopians see gold as Luddite and medieval. Bitcoin has many of the key attributes of gold (most importantly, it is beyond the control of politicians), but it is modern and futuristic.

So one way to think about Bitcoin as an investment is to ask yourself whether you are optimistic about today’s G7/G10/G20 politicians in terms of trustworthiness and competence. If your answer is yes, you should probably forget about Bitcoin, but if your answer is negative, Bitcoin deserves some serious consideration. In the latter case, you would think of Bitcoin (and Ethereum and the rest) as the way to reinvent capitalism so as to make it less dependent on bad/stupid politicians and their crony capitalists.

In this vein, I have been thinking about two episodes separated by a quarter century. In September 1992, the UK government was battling the Hungarian, and in order to defend the British pound, the Bank of England raised interest rates an unprecedented second time on the same day (the first hike at 11:00 am was from 10% to 12%, while the second hike at 2:15 pm was from 12% to 15%). For the first few minutes, the London stock market fell sharply in response to this shock and awe strategy. At that time, the stock market was essentially short the politicians: if the politicians won, the UK economy would suffer from an overvalued currency and the high interest rates required to sustain it: stocks would fare badly. If the politicians lost, then lower interest rates and a weaker currency would propel the economy and the stock market higher. So the initial response of the market was one of dejection: the politicians seemed to be winning at the cost of inflicting even more damage to the economy.

But within minutes, the London stock market began to rally furiously as it realized that the second rate hike in the day was a sign not of strength but of despair. The market was now convinced that the politicians would lose, and so it turned out. The pound crashed out of the ERM and the second rate hike was canceled before it came into force. Jeremy Siegel tells the whole story quite nicely in his book Stocks for the Long Run (in the section on Stocks and the Breakdown of the European Exchange-Rate Mechanism).

Twenty five years later, in September 2017, a few weeks before the five-yearly Congress of the Communist Party of China, the Chinese government launched a crack down on crypto currencies including Bitcoin. Clearly, the thought of people investing in an asset beyond the control of the state and the party was anathema to the Chinese rulers. Again the initial response of the market was that the politicians would win this fight and Bitcoin dropped about 30% very quickly. It took a couple of weeks for the market to realize that (like the Bank of England’s second rate hike), the Chinese crackdown on Bitcoin too was the outcome not of strength but of despair. The ban would only reduce the influence of China in the growing global Bitcoin ecosystem. Bitcoin began to rebound and the centre of Bitcoin trading shifted out of China to elsewhere in the world. When the party Congress began in mid October, Bitcoin was trading at record highs well above the pre ban levels.

It is possible that the Chinese crackdown would come back to haunt them. China’s geopolitical rivals (US, Japan, India and others) are surely reflecting on this episode and wondering whether Bitcoin could be the Achilles’ heel of the Chinese state’s control over their economy. At the same time, Russia and China are probably wondering whether Bitcoin is the Achilles’ heel of the US control of the global payment system.

So if you believe that the world is run by somewhat honest and tolerably competent politicians, you could bet that Bitcoin is just a passing fad that we would all be laughing at in a few years’ time. If you want to short this rosy view, Bitcoin beckons: it is now too big and strong to be shut down by
untrustworthy/incompetent politicians.

PS: I have recently started referring to the man who broke the Bank of England simply as the Hungarian because of the current Hungarian government’s extreme hostility to him.