Author Archives: John Parsons

Games with Risk Controls

FT Alphaville has been running a series of blog posts digging in to items raised in the investigation of the fiasco at JP Morgan’s Chief Investment Office. The series is called The Belly of the Whale.

Today’s entry is a must read for anyone who has tried to “control” traders using quantitative risk measures. It’s all about gaming government capital rules. But shouldn’t any corporate officer who has to manage teams of traders have to worry about similar games being played?

 

Dynamic Hedging or Futile Speculation?

chesapeake

Chesapeake still thinks it can time the market.

On Tuesday management held its Conference Call to update to investors and stock analysts. Steve Dixon, the acting CEO, said “We’ve also taken advantage of the recent surge in natural gas prices to lock in additional price protection in 2013, and we have begun to hedge natural gas production in 2014 at prices well above $4, a level the market has not seen for some time.”

The company has had problems in the past from its foolish attempts to time natural gas prices. Last time prices were falling and the company took off its hedges. This time prices are rising and its putting on hedges. But the mindset is the same.

Behind this dynamic hedging strategy is a common misunderstanding about mean reversion in natural gas prices. The same misunderstanding applies to other commodities as well.

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How large is the taxpayer subsidy to Too-Big-To-Fail banks?

The issue came up yesterday when Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke testified before the Senate Banking Committee. Senator Elizabeth Warren cited a Bloomberg report that put the number at $83 billion to the 10 largest U.S. banks. The Bloomberg figure is extrapolated from the finding of an IMF study that the backstop provided to banks lowers their cost of borrowing by approximately 0.8 percentage points.

Matt Levine at Dealbreaker makes the provocative claim that “The Too Big to Fail Subsidy is Negative Sixteen Billion Dollars”. This comes in the second round of Levine’s tit-for-tat with Bloomberg. His original critique started off with a reasonable and incisive drill down into the numbers.[1] Now, after an effective rejoinder by Bloomberg, he abandons the two main points from his original critique and substitutes new ones.

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Alternatives to Captives & Contagion

Last week we wrote about the financial contagion from Peugeot’s auto manufacturing business to its captive finance unit, Banque PSA Finance (PFA). The important question this raises for management is whether there are other ways to get the synergies associated with a captive finance unit without at the same time being susceptible to the contagion.

One set of alternatives keeps the unit as a captive, but tries to find financial structures that are not subject to the contagion. This includes separating funding sources and eliminating cross recourse. PFA is now considering offering deposits and making its liabilities separate from the Peugeot.

It is also possible to capture the synergies by some other means such as a strategic alliance with an otherwise independent bank. That’s what Fiat/Chrysler is doing with Banco Santander. The new venture, Chrysler Capital, will provide funds to consumers purchasing and leasing Chrysler’s cars and trucks, as well as loans to dealerships construction, real estate and working capital.

In the new venture with Santander, the automaker Chrysler will not even be listed as a shareholder. Chrysler decided against it because of its low credit rating (B1 by Moody’s and B+ by S&P), arguing that it would have damaged Chrysler Capital’s borrowing costs and ability to raise funds. Chrysler Group vice president of dealer network development and fleet operations, Peter Grady, is quoted in the Bloomberg story saying that “We were looking for a bank with some significant heft” that could “provide the financial backstop that would be needed in a downturn if another capital market disruption occurred.”

 

Hiding Risk by Netting Exposures

whistling past the graveyard

Which representation of a bank’s derivative portfolio provides a fairer picture of the risk it presents, the net or gross balances? US banks, operating under US Generally Accepted Accounting Principles (GAAP), report the balance after netting out offsetting exposures with the same counterparty together with collateral. European banks, operating under International Financial Reporting Standards (IFRS), report the balance gross.[1] Consequently, a naïve comparison of banks using total assets as reported under the two different standards gives an erroneous impression that US banks are much smaller relative to their European counterparts. Were the assets reported on a comparable basis, US banks would climb in the rankings. But which comparable basis is the right one? Should the US bank assets be adjusted upward with the netted derivative assets added back, or should the European bank assets be adjusted downward by netting out more of their derivative assets. A number of US banking regulators and experts have recently started calling for putting the gross exposure onto the balance sheet. Not surprisingly, the big US banks and derivative trade associations like the International Swaps and Derivatives Association (ISDA) argue that the net exposure is the right one.

What is at the root of the disagreement?

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3 points on the futurization of swaps

Today, the CFTC is hosting a Roundtable on the “Futurization of Swaps.” More than 30 people from various parts of the industry are speaking. I’m on the first panel. Here are 3 points I’ll be making:

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Tax Reform & Derivatives

Representative Dave Camp, Republican Chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, has released a discussion draft on new rules for the taxation of derivatives. The press release is here. Detail material is found here.

In the draft, derivatives used for hedging are excluded. The criteria proposed here for determining whether a derivative is used for hedging in tax accounting are similar to the criteria already applied in financial accounting. However, a large fraction of derivatives held by non-financial companies are not accounted for using hedge accounting. So, it seems to me that this proposal would probably affect the tax treatment of those holdings.

It will be interesting to see how this discussion unfolds.

Crude oil basis risk is receding… for now.

Companies that hedge oil prices have been forced to reevaluate their strategies over the last couple of years. Many companies have used the NYMEX WTI contract, one of the oldest energy futures contracts and still one of the most liquid. The WTI contract is for oil delivered into Cushing, Oklahoma, but since crude oil is a global commodity and transportation links have historically been good, fluctuations in the WTI price have been a reasonable benchmark for global supply and demand.

However, in the last few years, the differential between WTI and Brent, the other leading global benchmark, have exploded and been very volatile. Suddenly, geography made a great deal of difference. Technology has opened up new production in North America, first from the Canadian oil sands and more recently from US tight oil fields. A bottleneck in the capacity of pipelines for shipping production out of Oklahoma down to the US Gulf Coast meant that the central US experienced a glut of supply, disconnecting the regional price from the global one.

Historical Spreads 2

This has meant that fluctuations in NYMEX’s WTI futures price reflected local variations in demand and supply that did not necessarily track variations in global supply and demand and global crude price. Hedgers not located in the central US faced increasing basis risk in using the WTI contract. Some switched to using the ICE Brent contract instead. Others adjusted their hedge ratios. These events have been a key feature of the recent marketing duels between NYMEX and ICE over which contract is best.

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Prop Trading at JP Morgan

JPMorgan’s management released its Task Force Report (Report) on the trading losses at its Chief Investment Office (CIO). It’s very clearly written tick-tock and provides a good account of how various controls broke down. Taking for granted the task assigned to the traders running the CIO’s Synthetic Credit Portfolio, the report outlines where things went wrong.

As an accident of timing, the losses were first disclosed in the midst of a public debate about the Volcker Rule’s prohibition on proprietary trading at banks. So, for the public, the case became a test of whether the proposed regulations implementing the Volcker Rule had any teeth: would they prohibit the trades being done at JPMorgan’s CIO once they came into force? Management has always contended that the Synthetic Credit Portfolio was run to hedge the bank’s natural long position in credit risk, and that it was not proprietary trading and would not be prohibited under the Volcker Rule. That contention is repeated summarily in the Report when it gives an introductory overview of the Portfolio’s origin and operation. But, the contention is never actually substantiated: indeed, the Report does not purport to address the prop trading question directly.

There is much in the Report that would lead a reader to doubt management’s contention and to conclude instead that the Synthetic Credit Portfolio was a classic example of prop trading.

A key forensic test for distinguishing prop trading from hedging is the compensation criteria. A hedger’s success is not measured by his or her own profit and loss on the hedge trades. Instead, a hedger’s success is measured by how well his or her own profits and losses track and set off the losses and profits on the assets being hedged. The metrics for performance on hedging should incentivize minimizing net risk. The metrics should measure net risk reduction. When the desk reports big profits — after netting out the matched positions — that’s a bad sign, not a good one. The JPMorgan Report strongly suggests that the traders on the Synthetic Credit Portfolio expected to be rewarded on their own profit and loss, not on how successfully they hedged the bank’s natural long position. That compensation system fits prop trading, not hedging.

The Report does briefly consider the wisdom of the compensation scheme, but not from the perspective of the Volcker Rule and identifying prohibited activities. Instead, the Task Force was just concerned with the question of whether the profit and loss criterion was overvalued to the exclusion of other criteria management imposed on the unit.

So, it looks as if JPMorgan’s CIO, and its Synthetic Credit Portfolio provide a useful test case for the Volcker Rule going forward. The original regulations proposed for implementing the Rule did include an assessment of compensation criteria. Whether that will continue in a final rule is yet to be seen. And then comes the question of enforcement.

 

 

Futurization wheat and chaff

classroom

Finally, a journalist has located a real cost of futurization, as opposed to the many imagined ones.