Prof. Jayanth R. Varma’s Financial Markets Blog

A blog on financial markets and their regulation

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Can radical blockchain transparency decrease banking frauds?

During the last week, the Indian financial sector has been gripped by the $1.8 billion fraud at Punjab National Bank (PNB). Fingers have been pointed at bank management, at the auditors and at the regulators, but finger pointing and angry denunciations do not solve problems. We did not solve the problem of unfriendly bank tellers by shouting at them; we solved it using technology (Paul Volcker once remarked that the most important financial innovation that he had seen was the ATM). That is probably the route we must take again: we cannot change human nature, but we can change the technology.

The blockchain technology that underpins cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin has the potential to reduce large banking frauds drastically because it enables radical transparency. Every transaction on Bitcoin is public and you do not even need a Bitcoin wallet to see these transactions. Many websites like,,,, and allow anybody with a web browser anywhere in the world to see every single transaction as it happens. We can use the same technology to allow the whole world to see every large financing or guarantee transaction (above some threshold like a billion rupees).

The shibboleth of bank secrecy can be discarded for large financing transactions because many of them become public anyway:

  • Borrowers disclose a lot of information in their financial statements.
  • Many lenders (mutual funds for example) disclose large bond holdings as part of their portfolio disclosures.
  • All secured lending is entered in a public register of charges under company law.

We could extend this into a uniform requirement to make large loans public:

  • Any large lending (say above a billion rupees) by a financial intermediary.
  • Any lending (regardless of size) to a large borrower (say, with aggregate liabilities to the financial sector of over 10 billion rupees).

The natural medium for such a disclosure is the blockchain. The alternative idea of using a credit registry has been an unmitigated disaster (just think of Equifax), and these agencies create more opaqueness than transparency.

If the PNB fraud pushes us to use the blockchain to make finance more transparent and therefore safer, $1.8 billion may end up being a price well worth paying.


Are banks too opaque to manage?

Fabrizio Spargoli and Christian Upper have a BIS Working Paper with a different title: “Are Banks Opaque? Evidence from Insider Trading” with the following findings:

Our results do not support the conventional wisdom that banks are more opaque than other firms. Yes, purchases by bank insiders are followed by positive stock returns, indicating that banks are opaque. But banks are not special as we find the same effect for other firms. Where banks are special is when bad news arrive. We find that sales by bank insiders are not followed by negative stock returns. This suggests that bank insiders do not receive bad news earlier than outsiders. By contrast, insider sales at non-banks tend to be followed by a decline in stock prices.

My interpretation of the result is quite the opposite: banks are so opaque that even insiders cannot see through the opacity when bad things happen. Sometimes, as in the case of the London Whale, a market participant outside the bank has greater visibility to what is going on.

It appears to me that the findings of Spargoli and Upper are evidence that banks are too opaque to manage. Even a very competent chief executive can be clueless about some activities in a corner of the bank that have the potential to bring down the bank or at least cause severe losses. That would be an additional argument for moving from bank-dominated to market-dominated financial systems.

In the sister blog and on Twitter during December 2017 and January 2018

The following posts appeared on the sister blog (on Computing) during December 2017 and January 2018:

Tweets during December 2017 and January 2018 (other than blog post tweets):

Regulation as Pigouvian stealth taxation

“Regulation is stealth taxation,” said US President Donald Trump at Davos yesterday. Can this taxation be Pigouvian, and can this stealth taxation be a good idea? That is the claim in Turk’s thought provoking paper “Securitization Reform after the Crisis: Regulation by Rulemaking or Regulation by Settlement?”

Turk argues that:

  • The enforcement actions (and multi-billion dollar settlements) against large financial institutions relating to their securitization activities

can been seen as imposing a Pigouvian tax on the specific market externality associated with securitization, and therefore come surprisingly close to a first-best policy intervention.

  • The statutory rulemaking process established under the Dodd-Frank Act

missed the mark because it was premised on a flawed theory of the role that securitization played the crisis, which emphasized traditional notions of fraud rather than poor risk-management.

  • However, the more informal Regulation by Settlement was much more effective.

It appears to me that there is no convincing evidence that securitization imposes large negative externalities requiring a Pigouvian tax. On the other hand, there is somewhat more evidence that banking creates large negative externalities, and Basel 3 is a kind of Pigouvian tax on banking. This Pigouvian taxation has also happened by stealth in the name of risk reduction.

We should worry about the knowledge deficit and the governance deficit in these exercises in stealth taxation. Regulators probably think that they have calibrated the Pigouvian tax correctly; but this is more likely to reflect conceit than genuine expertise in this field. Even if the expertise is granted for the sake of argument, the governance issue remains: can taxation be delegated to unelected regulators?

Financial Crisis and Response History

About a month ago, the US Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) published a 278 page document entitled “Crisis and Response: An FDIC History, 2008–2013.” It is a quite sanitized history compared to the excellent accounts of the crisis that came out many years ago (especially the books by Hank Paulson and Andrew Sorkin). Yet, I found that there was much of value in the FDIC book. There is of course a wealth of official and authoritative data, but there are also many interesting insights from the perspective of the regulators dealing with it in real time.

I wish Indian regulators could publish something similar about the various crises in Indian financial markets covering say 1990 to 2010 – the Harshad Mehta scam of 1992, the vanishing companies of 1995, the Ketan Parikh episode (especially the fate of the Calcutta Stock Exchange), the UTI Unit 64 bailout, Global Trust Bank, and Satyam. If the report of the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission (FCIC) in the US did not affect the ability of the FDIC to publish their history, there is no reason why the reports of the Joint Parliamentary Committees (JPCs) should be an obstacle for the Indian authorities (RBI/SEBI/MOF/MCA) to publish their accounts of these episodes.

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?

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.