Prof. Jayanth R. Varma's Financial Markets Blog

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Prof. Jayanth R. Varma's Financial Markets Blog, A Blog on Financial Markets and Their Regulation

© Prof. Jayanth R. Varma
jrvarma@iima.ac.in

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Fri, 09 Dec 2016

A digital device for every Indian

It is my view that if India wants to replace cash with digital payments, it must be prepared to issue a digital device to every Indian and simply absorb the fiscal cost of doing so. The alternative is a tiered payment system with high quality payments for those with smartphones, a second tier solution for those with feature phones and a broken model for those with neither. Such a tiered payment system that makes some Indians second class citizens in their own country is fundamentally irreconcilable with our democratic values and with the constitutional guarantee of legal treatment.

Cash gives the poorest of the poor access to a retail payment system that meets the gold standard for payment systems: real time gross settlement in central bank money. It is unacceptable to give them anything less than this in a digital solution. Settlement in commercial bank money or other inferior forms of money can be a choice, it can never be a compulsion. I might voluntarily choose to adopt a paytm wallet or a bank wallet and take the credit risk that the wallet provider might fail; but I should not be forced to do so as the price for participating in digital payments. This means two things:

  1. The Reserve Bank of India should introduce electronic money on its own in the form of an official e-wallet because only an e-wallet filled with central bank money can replace cash. This would also solve the problem of interoperability between different wallets. A core function of the central bank is to be the “tender of the tender” – the issuer and maintainer of legal tender of the country. A central bank that abdicates this responsibility forfeits its raison d'être.

  2. Every Indian must be issued a digital device that allows first class access to the digital payment system. There is room for bringing the cost of this device down by careful design that pares it down to just its core functionality. I would think that a starting point for this might be something like the Raspberry Pi which is enough of a general purpose computer to run at least a bitcoin SPV client. The Raspberry Pi costs about $35, but a suitably pruned down device manufactured in truly large scale might cost only $20. Giving one such device to every Aadhar holder might cost about 1.5 trillion rupees.

In my view, this cost is affordable for a country at our stage of economic size and development, and is also quite reasonable in comparison to other big ticket fiscal expenditure (for example, large defence contracts, infrastructure projects or subsidy schemes). It is perfectly fine for you to take the opposite view that this cost is unacceptable. What you cannot do is to use that view as the justification for building a great payment system for the elite at the cost of taking away from the poor what they have today – a payment system (cash) that allows them to settle in real time in central bank money.

Posted at 11:34 on Fri, 09 Dec 2016     View/Post Comments (0)     permanent link


Tue, 29 Nov 2016

More on cash alternatives

In two recent blog posts, I argued that the post-demonetisation problems in India are not due so much to an absence of cash, but an environment that is implicitly or explicitly discouraging the emergence of cash alternatives. Free markets can solve these problems if we let them do so.

Here are three examples of cash alternatives from three continents that I came across post demonetisation:

  1. Tokens in Telengana in India (h/t Mostly Economics and Sonali Jain’s comments on my blog post)

  2. Bond notes in Zimbabwe: Though these notes are issued by a government, these count as cash substitutes because these bonds/notes are not issued by the government that issues the underlying currency.

  3. Bitcoin in Venezuela (h/t FT Alphaville): Only a year ago, I was thinking that Bitcoin had failed as a currency while succeeding enormously as a technology (the blockchain), but state failures around the world have been so great that now I think we can no longer rule out Bitcoin emerging as a major global currency.

Posted at 16:31 on Tue, 29 Nov 2016     View/Post Comments (1)     permanent link


Fri, 18 Nov 2016

Cash and credit redux

I have received a lot of push back against my blog post about cash being less important than credit. I would also freely admit that the evidence on the ground during this week does not suggest a smoothly functioning credit economy. But the reason for this unfortunate situation is not that cash is essential for a functioning economy. The true reason for the difficulties that we are seeing now is something more alarming – a partial disruption of credit expansion.

Cash substitutes are not emerging because there is a legitimate fear that the creation of such substitutes could be misconstrued as facilitating money laundering. For example, based on local and global historical experience, I am quite confident that if my Institute were to issue 500 rupee tokens or IOUs, it would circulate freely as money not only among the couple of thousand people on campus but also outside the campus (within a radius of a kilometre or so). A decade or two ago, during a period of shortage of small coins, many shops and institutions did issue coupons to substitute for the coins and these circulated quite freely. Today, however, probably no institution would want to tread that path for lack of clarity on how the government would react to such a move. Employers who have not been able to pay salaries in cash are not issuing IOUs which could ameliorate the cash shortage.

I firmly believe that the government should immediately step in with a public announcement that it would not frown upon the creation of temporary cash substitutes. In times like this, cash substitutes are essential because shortages lead to hoarding and much of the cash being paid out from the banks is not entering circulation, but is being locked away for future contingencies (cash could be even scarcer tomorrow than it is today). Almost everybody that I have talked to is today targeting a cash balance that is at least twice what they were holding two weeks ago. This has been the case historically as well as described very well in, for example, Andrew, A. Piatt. “Hoarding in the Panic of 1907.” The Quarterly Journal of Economics (1908): 290-299 (sorry that is behind a paywall).

As regards the feasibility of cash substitutes, I would once again link to the Irish experience that I linked to in my previous blog post. I would in addition describe the US experience of 1907. My source for this is unfortunately behind a paywall and I can only quote some material from there. The paper that I am referring to was published in the Quarterly Journal of Economics in 1908 shortly after the crisis of 1907 (Andrew, A. Piatt. “Substitutes for Cash in the Panic of 1907.” The Quarterly Journal of Economics 22.4 (1908): 497-516) and was based on extensive primary and secondary data collection. The author states that he wrote letters “addressed to banks in all cities of 25,000 or more inhabitants” and reports having got responses from 145 out of 147 such cities (response rates to mail surveys were much higher in those days than they are now!).

... we may safely place an estimate of the total issue of substitutes for cash above 500 millions. For two months or more these devices furnished the principal means of payment for the greater part of the country, passing almost as freely as greenbacks or bank-notes from hand to hand and from one locality to another. The San Francisco certificates, for instance, circulated, not only in California, but in Nevada and in south-eastern Oregon, some reaching as far east as Philadelphia, some as far west as the Hawaiian Islands. The banks of Pittsburg, on the other hand, reported remittances of certificates and checks, in denominations ranging from $1 up, from as scattered localities as Cleveland, Cincinnati, St. Louis, Chicago, Milwaukee, Duluth, Philadelphia, Danville, Va., and Spokane.

To put that $500 million number in perspective, the total coin and paper currency in circulation in the US was only about $2,800 million and the total gold coins was only $560 million (this data is from the Federal Reserve of St. Louis). In other words, cash substitutes were almost equal to the total gold coins in circulation and almost 20% of the entire gold and paper currency.

Andrew describes many different cash substitutes, but I would quote only one: bearer cheques “payable only through the clearing house,” (this clause meant they could not be redeemed for cash but could only be converted into other cash substitutes).

Last of all among the emergency devices were the pay checks payable to bearer drawn by bank customers upon their banks in currency denominations and used in all parts of the country in payment of wages and in settlement of other commercial obligations. These checks were generally “payable only through the clearing house,” ... they were not a liability of the clearing- house association or of the bank on which they were drawn, but of the firm or corporation for whose benefit they were issued.

The pay-check system reached its largest development in Pittsburg, where during the panic some $47,000,000 were issued, much of which was in denominations of $1 and $2.

Pay checks were also issued by railroads, mining companies, manufacturers, and store-keepers in a large number of other cities. Shops and stores and places of amusement in the neighborhood of their issue generally accepted them, and it is, indeed, surprising, considering their variety, their liability to counterfeit, and their general lack of security, how little real difficulty was experienced in getting them to circulate in lieu of cash

The last paragraph in the paper about cash substitutes in general is worth quoting in full:

Most of this currency was illegal, but no one thought of prosecuting or interfering with its issuers. Much of it was subject to a 10 per cent. tax, but no one thought of collecting the tax. As practically all of it bore the words “payable only through the clearing house,” its holders could not demand payment for it in cash. In plain language it was an inconvertible paper money issued without the sanction of law, an anachronism in our time, yet necessitated by conditions for which our banking laws did not provide. During the period of apprehension, when banks were being run upon and legal money had disappeared in hoards, in default of any legal means of relief, it worked effectively and doubtless prevented multitudes of bankruptcies which otherwise would have occurred.

Markets will find solutions to most problems if the government steps out of the way. In 1907, governments in the US were willing to do precisely that. Andrew quotes several official announcements during the panic of 1907 that allowed the creation of cash substitutes. For example, the following was a letter from the Government of Indiana of October 28, 1907:

To THE INDIANA BANKS AND TRUST COMPANIES:

Gentlemen,-Your bank being solvent, should it adopt the same rule that has been adopted by the banks of Indianapolis and refuse to pay to any depositor or holder of a check only a limited amount of money in cash and settle the balance due by issuing certified checks, or drafts on correspondents, such act, in this emergency, will not be considered an act of insolvency by this department.

The same rule will apply to trust companies.

P.S.-The question of your solvency is to be determined by yourselves upon an examination of your present condition.

The question today is whether the Indian government is willing to be bold and imaginative, and allow the market to find solutions to the current problems that are beyond the power of governments to solve.

Posted at 13:11 on Fri, 18 Nov 2016     View/Post Comments (2)     permanent link


Wed, 16 Nov 2016

Why not a helicopter drop of new rupee notes?

A helicopter drop of new currency notes might be the perfect solution to the logistic problems arising out of last week’s demonetization of most of the Indian currency. The pressing logistical problems are about getting the new notes to the remote and under banked rural areas of the country. There is also a concern about solving the problems of the poor who were more reliant on currency than the rich, and have less access to credit which can substitute for cash. The simplest solution is to simply drop currency notes from the sky across the length and breadth of the country so that every Indian receives some money to carry on their daily activities without worry.

There is a strong fiscal justification for this free gift of money to every Indian. The whole purpose of the demonetization exercise is to destroy the stock of unaccounted holdings of currency in India. If we assume that 40% of the 14 trillion rupees of the old notes represent untaxed income and will not therefore be exchanged for new notes, there is a gain of over 5 trillion rupees which amounts to about 4,000 rupees for every man, woman and child in India. A helicopter drop of this magnitude would simply be a way distributing this windfall gain equally to the people of India in a kind of negative poll tax. The alternative to this equal distribution would be a reduction in the income tax rate or the GST rate which would distribute the benefits more to the rich than to the poor. In fact, the costs of demonetization are falling equally on the rich and the poor. The poor man stands in the queue for the same few hours to get his 1,000 rupees as the rich man does to get his 24,000. There is therefore every reason to spread the benefits also equally among all.

In addition, there are huge logistic benefits from a helicopter drop. It gets money directly in the hands of those who need it most without wasting their time. Farmers can spend their time harvesting the crop instead of standing in queues in a far away branch. Urban poor do not have to forsake their daily wages to go to the bank. This also ensures minimal disruption to economic activities. In fact, demonetization could become so popular among the common people that we would be able to demonetize our currency every 5-10 years instead of doing it only once in 30-40 years.

Helicopter drops of money are a well established tool in economic theory. The Nobel laureate, Milton Friedman was perhaps the first person to discuss the idea his 1969 paper on The Optimal Quantity of Money. The greatest living exponent of helicopter drops is former Fed Chairman, Ben Bernanke who endorsed the idea in his 2002 speech on deflation and has apparently been advising Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to try it. It is quite likely that apart from solving the logistics problems of demonetization, the helicopter money drop would also stimulate the economy at a time when it is facing several headwinds. It would certainly do more to increase rural spending than rate cuts by the central bank which seem to get lost in monetary transmission.

Economists are more willing to contemplate bold ideas, while politicians and bureaucrats tend to be cowardly in their approach. In India, today, we have the perfect constellation of factors that make a helicopter drop economically sensible and politically feasible. If a bill were to be moved in parliament to provide statutory basis for a helicopter drop, I am confident that almost all MPs who want to be reelected in 2019 will support the bill and it would be passed by an overwhelming majority.

In my dreams, the Indian government invites Ben Bernanke to advise it on the helicopter drop and also lets him ride the chopper on its first flight and drop the first wad of new notes with his own hands. It also invites Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe to witness the inauguration of this programme. Today, Japanese tourists come to India to visit the holy sites of Buddhism. Perhaps, future generations of Japanese will come to India to visit the parliament which pioneered the first helicopter drop that was emulated in Japan and eventually lifted that country out of deflation. It is all a dream, but it could well become reality if the Indian government is willing to be bold and imaginative.

Posted at 11:31 on Wed, 16 Nov 2016     View/Post Comments (7)     permanent link


Wed, 09 Nov 2016

It is not money but credit that makes the world go round

After the Indian government withdrew most of the Indian currency notes from circulation last night, there has been a fear that this would be so disruptive that the economy would just go off the cliff. I think this fear is totally misplaced. Contrary to what some economists might tell us, money does not make the world go round. We finance people know that the world actually runs on credit. Economists tend to think that credit is what you use when you run out of money. Nothing could be further from the truth. In reality, money is what you use when your credit has run out. I work for my employer on credit, my newspaper vendor sells me newspaper on credit, companies buy raw material on credit and sell their products on credit. If you find somebody having difficulty doing any of these transactions on credit, you can be sure that that somebody is a whisker away from bankruptcy.

Yes, today you will not be able to go to your neighbourhood grocery store and buy anything with the 500 rupee note in your wallet. But if you cannot buy whatever you like on credit from the same neighbourhood grocery store, then you have a very serious problem on your hand; a problem that will not go away when the banks reopen tomorrow. If you really find yourself in that position, you should be very worried and you should drop everything that you are doing, and work slowly and painstakingly on rebuilding your credit. For in a capitalist society, if you have lost your credit, you have lost everything.

So, yes, the Indian economy will be fine even though it is denuded of most of its currency for the next few days. Apart from the few people who are travelling (other than your credit card, you have no credit amidst strangers), it will not even be too inconvenient for the vast majority of people. I have no first hand knowledge of the black economy and would be reluctant to comment on that, but I suspect that this too runs more on credit than on cash. It might be premature to conclude that the economy would suffer from a fall in demand due to disruption of the black economy.

If you want historical evidence on how the world copes with disruptions to money supply, I would recommend an excellent article early this year by the Bank of England on how Ireland coped with a six month long bank strike in the 1970s. Or you could look at the experience from 19th century US in the wake of frequent bank failures and how cities and towns rebuilt their economy on alternative credit networks. Or you could read Niklas Blanchard on complementary currencies.

Posted at 11:24 on Wed, 09 Nov 2016     View/Post Comments (4)     permanent link


Sun, 30 Oct 2016

How to make the banks paranoid about security?

All online businesses are highly vulnerable to hacking, but the business response to this threat ranges from paranoia to complacency. Banks are among those that are most complacent, and there is a lot that regulators can and should do to change that.

Let me start with an example of a paranoid online business – online pornography. A few days ago a distributed denial of service attack on a large DNS server took down several major websites including Twitter, Spotify, Reddit, Etsy, Wired, and PayPal. While these giants tottered, adult entertainment sites like pornhub.com withstood the attack. The secret was DNS redundancy; to bring pornhub.com down, you would have to take down several DNS servers, not just one. Or consider another example: Wikileaks whose total security budget might be a rounding error for many large banks. Wikileaks has angered some of the most powerful nation states in the world, but the only disruption that Wikileaks has suffered is Ecuador cutting off the internet lines to its founder Julian Assange who is holed up in the Ecuadorian embassy for several years now. Wikileaks claims to have activated contingency plans and its twitter feed has continued to be very active.

Compared to these organizations that run their websites as a serious activity, banks come across as utterly complacent and casual about computer security. Let me give a few examples:

  1. My internet banking passwords are among my weaker passwords not because I am careless, but because most banks do not allow me to use high quality passwords. To combat Moore’s law, I have been increasing my default password length every year or so, and now this default length exceeds the maximum allowed by most banking sites in India. Most banks also disallow various special characters that my random password generator produces by default.

  2. A few days ago it was reported that over three million Indian debit cards had been compromised but the breach was not detected for several weeks. Many banks have tried to turn this into a business opportunity by discouraging their customers from using ATMs of other banks. If some banks are running vulnerable ATMs, they must be publicly identified and their ATMs must be shut down promptly and ruthlessly. A general discouragement of other bank ATMs only helps each bank to save on interconnect charges.

  3. Anecdotal evidence suggests that banks are extremely reluctant to disclose or correct vulnerabilities detected by their own security audits due to fear that it might hurt their business. They find it cheaper to compensate the few customers who do complain loudly enough. Most customers are neither knowledgeable enough to complain, or vociferous enough to succeed.

In banking regulation, there has been a progressive shift towards considering systemic (also called macro-prudential) risks rather than the idiosyncratic risk of failure of a single bank. This lesson has to be applied to cyber risks as well. A breach in any bank opens up a threat surface for the entire interconnected financial system. The regulatory response to the breach must not be based on the loss to the bank in question; it must consider the risks posed to the entire system.

This means that failure to disclose breaches must be punished a lot more severely than the actual breach itself. Undisclosed breaches pose huge systemic risks because of the difficulty of defending against the unknown enemy. For India, I would think that an appropriate calibration of the penalty would require that the fine for unreasonable delay in disclosing a breach affecting a million customers should amount to approximately one year’s cyclically adjusted profits of the entire banking system.

A couple of such large fines would shake the banks out of their complacency and induce a healthy dose of paranoia in the banks. It would also shift the cost benefit analysis towards investing more in security. Perhaps they will hire some personnel from organizations like pornhub.com who are demonstrably better at running an online business. As Andy Gove wrote in Only the Paranoid Survive:

You need to plan the way a fire department plans: It cannot anticipate where the next fire will be, so it has to shape an energetic and efficient team that is capable of responding to the unanticipated as well as to any ordinary event.

Posted at 17:46 on Sun, 30 Oct 2016     View/Post Comments (1)     permanent link


Fri, 28 Oct 2016

Could China fork Bitcoin?

Ever since Ethereum forked into two competing cryptocurrencies, I have been thinking about China orchestrating a fork of the leading cryptocurrency Bitcoin. Izabella’s post at FT Alphaville on Bitcoin as a Chinese capital outflow proxy has finally pushed me to write up my wild speculation on this possibility. I do not have as much practice as Lewis Carroll’s Red Queen who claimed to have “believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”, but I am willing to indulge myself with some wild speculation once a quarter. (And, it is more than three months since I posted my wild speculation on the 1000 Swiss franc note.)

The starting point of all my speculation is that China is experiencing significant capital flight and Bitcoin is a sufficiently important medium of this flight for the Bitcoin price to serve as a proxy for this capital flight as explained in Izabella’s post. The Chinese financial system is also experiencing severe stress and if this stress goes beyond the tipping point towards a rapid erosion of confidence in the renminbi, it is not inconceivable that Bitcoin becomes a significant parallel currency in China. Instead of getting dollarized, China could get Bitcoinized.

In such a scenario, the Chinese government would of course want to gain control over Bitcoin. There are three factors that make it possible for the Chinese government to succeed:

  1. Chinese miners control a large part of the hashing power of the Bitcoin network. A Chinese fork of Bitcoin will have no shortage of mining capacity.

  2. The Great Firewall of China would allow China to isolate Chinese Bitcoin from Classic Bitcoin, making it impossible for Chinese nodes to connect to any nodes outside China.

  3. The government could prod the Chinese internet trinity (Alibaba, Baidu and Tencent) to accept Chinese Bitcoin, thereby making it the de facto currency of China.

The translucence of the Bitcoin blockchain would allow the Chinese government to monitor Bitcoin transactions to a far greater extent than it can monitor cash transactions. It could thus become another instrumentality of government control. A process that starts out as a form of rebellion against the government could thus end up strengthening its grip on the society.

What would this do to Bitcoin itself? Chinese Bitcoin could probably reach a market capitalization of several hundred billion dollars (may be even a trillion dollars) very quickly. Through a rub on effect, Classic Bitcoin itself could reach a hundred billion dollars of valuation compared to its current value of ten billion dollars. But that would also provide the motive for powerful nation states to attack Bitcoin. The US would be tempted to use its entire cyber war capabilities to disrupt Chinese Bitcoin, and China would probably throw everything it has to try and destroy Classic Bitcoin. Given Bitcoin’s vulnerability to the 51% attack, it is quite likely that neither of the two Bitcoins would survive such a concerted attack. But if one or both do survive, cryptocurrencies would probably go mainstream very quickly.

Posted at 10:38 on Fri, 28 Oct 2016     View/Post Comments (0)     permanent link


Wed, 26 Oct 2016

Global banking glut, original sin, shadow banking and the cross currency basis

This is a wonkish post that links together four concepts that are somewhat slippery even in isolation. So let me begin with a quick primer on each of them:

  1. Global banking glut refers to the idea that there is an excess lending capacity on the balance sheets primarily of European banks. Not finding enough outlets in their home markets, this money chases assets elsewhere in Europe and then in the United States. (More details can be found in Hyun Song Shin’s article and paper). I would extend this notion to other institutions – for example Japanese insurance companies chasing US assets.

  2. Original sin is the idea that most lenders are willing to lend only in their own currencies and not in the borrower's currency. Large advanced countries like the US are not subject to this constraint. By holding their foreign exchange reserves in US dollars (invested in US treasury bonds), central banks around the world lend to the US government in the borrower's currency. But a weakened form of this constraint still exists. Banks will lend in a foreign currency only to the extent to which they themselves can borrow in that currency or can otherwise hedge the exchange rate risk. A European bank will have dollar liabilities roughly equal to its dollar assets net of hedges so that it does not bear any exchange rate risk.

  3. Shadow banking refers to non bank vehicles for maturity transformation and credit intermediation. The vehicles most relevant to this post are money market mutual funds (MMMFs) in the United States which invested in short term instruments exposed to some (though small) degree of credit risk, but whose units were regarded as completely safe, cash equivalent instruments. Because of their ability to issue and redeem units at par, MMMFs could hide fluctuations in the value of their investments from their investors.

  4. In the good old days before the crisis, a bank that could borrow euros at the inter bank euro lending rate (EURIBOR), was able to swap these into dollars to get funding at the dollar inter bank rate (LIBOR). Not any longer. A large cross currency basis has emerged making dollar funding through this route significantly more expensive. The BIS paper by Borio and others has details about this phenomenon. I must add though that while Borio and other economists regard the cross currency basis as a market inefficiency or failure of arbitrage, the post-crisis finance literature, no longer regards the cross currency basis as a market imperfection. Since EURIBOR and LIBOR are no longer seen as risk free, the cross currency basis is just another input to calibrate a multi-curve discounting model (See for example, Masaaki Fujii).

Now I turn to the linkages between these diverse phenomena.

For much of the last decade, the supply of credit from the banking glut in Europe was matched by the demand for dollar credit emanating from US and emerging market companies. Some US companies were levering up to fund stock buybacks; some were funding their investment (or losses) in oil fracking and other businesses. Emerging market companies sought to borrow in dollars because they could not borrow in their home currencies (original sin).

Though the banking glut was in euros and the credit demand was in dollars, the US shadow banking system (particularly, the MMMFs) stepped in to solve the currency mismatch. US MMMFs lent to the European banks in dollars and these banks then lent the funds to dollar borrowers. In this solution, the funding was in some sense coming from the US itself, but the credit risk appetite and the capital required to support this risk came from the European banks. With the implementation this year of the post crisis reforms of the US MMMF industry (abolition of stable value accounting for MMMFs), this route to matching euro banking glut and dollar credit demand is coming to an end.

But there was a second solution to the currency mismatch and that was through the derivative market, especially, the cross currency swap. The European banks had abundant access to euros, and they swapped this into dollars to fund credit in dollars. In the good old days before the crisis, a large European bank borrowed euros at EURIBOR, and swapped these into dollars to get funding at dollar LIBOR. The large and rising cross currency basis has made this solution less attractive.

In the long run, this will probably lead to a repricing of credit risk with dollar credit becoming more expensive and euro credit cheaper. The latter process is being accelerated by the ECB’s corporate bond buying programme. Borrowers accustomed to borrowing in dollars will at some stage have to accept the currency risk of euro denominated borrowing. The large reverse yankee bond issuance (US companies borrowing at zero or near zero rates in euros) is the early stage of this process. So far, however, most reverse yankee issuances have been swapped into dollars. Rising cross currency basis will force at least some of them to leave the borrowing unhedged thereby taking on euro exchange rate risk, and the US corporate sector will for the first time get a taste of what original sin looks like. For many emerging market companies, who almost instinctively borrow in US dollars, this is an opportunity to rethink their liability management strategy. The other rather remote (but frightening) scenario is that an implosion of the European banking system eliminates the banking glut in that continent.

Posted at 13:14 on Wed, 26 Oct 2016     View/Post Comments (0)     permanent link


Fri, 14 Oct 2016

Could SWIFT and CLS Bank become obsolete?

SWIFT (Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication) is nearly half a century old and was originally built to replace the antiquated telex machine. Telecommunication technology has changed drastically since then and it is unlikely that banks would want to build a bespoke telecommunication network if they were designing the system from scratch today. Cryptographic tools like SSL/TLS/HTTPS allow secure communications over ordinary telecommunication links. Of course, SWIFT is not just a telecommunication company: it also pioneered the standardisation of financial messaging formats like the famous MT 105. However, over time, this role too has gradually been taken over by the global standard setting bodies (for example, ISO 20022).

All this means that if SWIFT did not already exist, nobody would bother to create it today. But SWIFT does in fact exist, and until recently, there was no serious reason not to just let it be. If SWIFT were delivering security and piece of mind, why would anyone disturb it? The problem is that in recent months, the Bangladesh Bank SWIFT hacking and other breaches of SWIFT security in Ecuador, Vietnam and India have shattered the illusion that SWIFT provides unquestionable security. Suddenly, SWIFT is being viewed as a source of risk – a single point of failure. For example, last month, the Bank of England put out a Consultation Paper about the design of the next generation of the large value payment system -- the UK RTGS. Two of the proposals are:

  1. “[I]ntroduce additional functionality to mitigate the impact of an outage in the core SWIFT infrastructure, should it ever occur ... to remove the current single point of failure.”

  2. Use ISO 20022 messaging standards in the new RTGS infrastructure instead of the current SWIFT MT messaging standards. This is designed to increase interoperability, eliminate single points of failure, and enable richer payment data.

Then there is the blockchain, which has helped popularize the hitherto esoteric notion that critical systems must be designed for Byzantine fault tolerance. In other words, the system must function correctly even if a few participants are completely evil (and not just selfish). In a world where even the largest banks could get hacked by rogue nation states or terrorist organizations, it is reasonable to assume that at any point of time, some participants in the global financial network are evil. Even if the blockchain turns out to be a passing fad, the need for Byzantine fault tolerance is not going away anytime soon.

Where does all this leave SWIFT? It is by no means self evident that its half-centenary coming up in a few years’ time will be an occasion for much celebration.

CLS Bank is a much newer organization – less than 15 years old. Yet, it belongs to a different era in which the big global banks constituting the foreign exchange markets confronted national high value payment systems (Real Time Gross Settlement Systems or RTGS) designed to serve their respective domestic markets. The RTGS in each country tended to be open for a few hours each day corresponding to the trading hours in that country and the idea that an RTGS in one country could be interconnected with the RTGS of other countries did not occur to anybody at all. So CLS Bank emerged as a private sector solution that interconnected all the major RTGS by participating in each of them. During the short window of time during early morning in Europe when all the major RTGS are open, CLS Bank achieves a payment versus payment (PvP) settlement – European Mega Bank can pay euros to American Giga Bank and receive dollars in return, with CLS Bank ensuring that both payments happen simultaneously. There is no risk that the euros will flow out, but the dollars will be stuck or vice versa; the so called Herstatt risk is solved.

Over the last decade, payment systems have evolved and in some large countries like the US, the RTGS now closes for only a few hours. In the UK RTGS Consultation Paper, the only question that they are debating is whether the new RTGS should be open for 23 ½ hours a day or for 24 hours. Moreover, national RTGS are becoming more open to the idea of interfacing with another RTGS in a different country. Again the UK Consultation Paper proposes to create a synchronization functionality which “allows each RTGS system to confirm that the funds are earmarked in the system in which the linked transaction will take place, the two systems then simultaneously release the two transactions”.

Inter-RTGS synchronization would provide a settlement system with much lower risk than the CLS Bank solution. I remember in 2008, the principal Indian fixed income CCP (Central Counter Party) was accessing CLS Bank through a European settlement bank that needed a bailout from its home country governments. For a significant period of time, Indian entities settling through CLS Bank via this TBTF (Too Big To Fail) settlement bank actually faced a greater risk than bilateral settlement with Herstatt risk. Even in normal times, the CLS solution is too demanding in terms of timelines and liquidity needs to really solve Herstatt risk. The system functions only with the liberal use of so called In/Out Swaps that reintroduce Herstatt risk.

In fact, I think this is an area where the IMF has a legitimate role to play. Articles III and VIII give the IMF access to every currency in the world and it is also the issuer of its own quasi-currency, the SDR. It is possible for the IMF to run a global multi-currency RTGS allowing simultaneous exchange of any currency for any other currency on its own books virtually round the clock. Participants could move the money from IMF books to the respective central bank books at any time when the respective central bank’s RTGS is open. Alternatively, if it is desired to run all settlement only in central bank money, the IMF could run an SDR RTGS that allows synchronization with each national RTGS. European Mega Bank can then exchange euros for SDRs through a linked transfer between the IMF RTGS and the European TARGET2 RTGS. American Giga Bank can then exchange these SDRs for dollars through a linked transfer between the IMF RTGS and the US Fedwire RTGS. (Since the IMF is the issuer of SDRs, it is clear that SDR balances at the IMF count as central bank money).

The point is that CLS Bank was a second best solution to Herstatt risk that made sense at a time when the world was struggling with third best and fourth best solutions. Indeed CLS Bank is a solution by TBTF banks, for TBTF banks, and of TBTF banks: it makes little sense in today’s post crisis world. Advances in technology and changes in mindsets have made a first best solution feasible. I think that CLS Bank is now living on borrowed time, but the lobbying power of the TBTF banks cannot be underestimated.

Posted at 15:55 on Fri, 14 Oct 2016     View/Post Comments (0)     permanent link


Mon, 10 Oct 2016

SEBI's Social-Media Regulatory Overreach

More than three years ago, as a member of the Financial Sector Legislative Reforms Commission (FSLRC), I wrote a note of dissent in the FSLRC Report which argued that an expansive definition of financial services “creates the risk of regulatory overreach” and “creates scope for needless harassment of innocent people without providing any worthwhile benefits”. I also wrote that “regulatory self restraint ... is often a scarce commodity”. At that time, most people thought that I was paranoid and that regulators can generally be trusted to behave sensibly.

Last week, the Securities and Exchange Board of India put out a “Consultation Paper on Amendments/Clarifications to the SEBI (Investment Advisers) Regulations, 2013” which shows that my fears were not at all misplaced. The document proposes that:

  1. No person shall be allowed to provide trading tips, stock specific recommendations to the general public through short message services (SMSs), email, telephonic calls, etc. unless such persons obtain registration as an Investment Adviser or are specifically exempted from obtaining registration.
  1. No person shall be allowed to provide trading tips, stock specific recommendations to the general public through any other social networking media such as WhatsApp, ChatOn, WeChat, Twitter, Facebook, etc. unless such persons obtain registration as an Investment Adviser or are specifically exempted from obtaining registration.

If everybody needs a license from SEBI to post any stock specific thing on any social media, SEBI would quickly become one of the richest regulators in the world with a market capitalization rivalling that of Facebook.

Let me deliberately give a non Indian example of the kind of thing that SEBI now wants to censor. Last week, Aswath Damodaran wrote a post on his widely respected blog, Musings on Markets, arguing that Deutsche Bank was now undervalued. He stated that he had bought it himself and also wrote: “I have set up my valuation spreadsheet to allow for you to replace my assumptions with yours. If you are so inclined, please do enter your numbers into the shared Google spreadsheet that I have created for this purpose and let’s get a crowd valuation going!” This is social media is at its best trying to disintermediate the analysts who are licensed by the regulator. The blog post was also posted on Twitter (with more than a hundred retweets), on Facebook (with more than a hundred likes) and on Youtube (with more than 3,000 views). This is the kind of carefully reasoned analysis that SEBI now wants to shut down. Thankfully, Aswath Damodaran, teaches at NYU, Stern, safely out of reach of SEBI's censorship.

Everybody wants to become a censor because censorship is the most powerful weapon in a democracy. It is so in India and it was so in ancient Rome where the Censor was one of the most powerful and feared officials (More than two millennia after his death, we still refer to the great Roman writer, Cato, as “Cato the Censor” and not by the numerous other military and civilian offices that he held).

It is therefore extremely important in a democracy to thwart the desires of regulators to become censors. A financial regulator is there to defend the right to property and any day, anywhere the right to free speech overrides the right to property. If there is a conflict between the right to life and the right to free speech, we can have a debate about what reasonable restrictions can be placed on free speech. But the right to property can never be a ground for stifling free speech.

Posted at 13:06 on Mon, 10 Oct 2016     View/Post Comments (3)     permanent link


Tue, 27 Sep 2016

Run on repo in 1998

Gary Gorton’s work describing the Global Financial Crisis as a “Run on Repo” became highly influential with people like Bernanke recommending it highly. While reading Daniela Gabor’s recent paper “The (impossible) repo trinity: the political economy of repo markets”, I noted some references that she made to work done by the CGFS (Committee on the Global Financial System) of BIS (Bank for International Settlements) on the LTCM crisis of 1998.

So, I went back and read those reports and found that the entire dynamics of the “Run on Repo” was succintly described in the CGFS report entitled “A Review of Financial Market Events in Autumn 1998”. On page 40, there is a nice diagram which is elucidated over the next couple of pages. On page 14, the CGFS refers to the repo market dynamics as one of the “market mechanisms that fostered contagion and amplified price dynamics [that] were more fundamental to the structure of market institutions.” It therefore warned that “As a result, they may pose risks going forward.”

The BIS is often described as the central bankers’ central bank and it is surprising that the leading central banks in the world had to be relearn this CGFS analysis a decade later.

Posted at 21:12 on Tue, 27 Sep 2016     View/Post Comments (0)     permanent link


Sat, 10 Sep 2016

Shanghai to Hangzhou: Does G20 run monetary policy?

After the G20 Summit in Shanghai in February 2016, there was a widespread belief that the G20 secretly instituted a “Plaza Accord” agreement to stem the rise of the U.S. dollar primarily by using monetary policy. We do not know whether there was such an accord or not, but we do know that post Shanghai, the ECB and the BOJ signalled a reduction in monetary easing and the US took a break from monetary tightening causing the Trade Weighted Dollar to drop by over 5%. A Google search for “G20 Shanghai Plaza Accord” returns nearly 10,000 results.

The aftermath of the G20 summit in Hangzhou earlier this month adds to the suspicion that monetary coordination happens at G20 summits. The markets now fear that we are on the verge of a coordinated tightening – the ECB disappointed expectations on continuation of QE, the BOJ started having doubts about negative interest rates, and the US Fed is sounding more hawkish than it has in recent months.

I am reminded of the Chicago saying from the Goldfinger film in the James Bond series: “Once is happenstance. Twice is coincidence. The third time it’s enemy action.”

We are still at the coincidence stage of this progression and it will take another G20 summit for us to start wondering whether the omnipotent “independent” central banks are just pawns in the hands of the G20 leaders.

Posted at 13:18 on Sat, 10 Sep 2016     View/Post Comments (0)     permanent link


Fri, 09 Sep 2016

Changing geographic market share of rupee trading

The data from the Triennial Central Bank Survey of Foreign Exchange Markets in 2016 published by the Bank for International Settlements shows some interesting shifts in the geographic share of trading in the rupee.

Changing Market Share
Source: Computed from Table 6.2 of BIS Triennial Surveys of 2013 and 2016

The plot shows that India and Hong Kong have gained market share at the expense of Singapore and London. Across all currencies, Hong Kong has grown much faster than Singapore and so some shift in rupee market share in that direction is understandable, but the scale of the shift is a little surprising. More puzzling is the the gain in Indian share of trading at a time when the exchange traded rupee futures market is shifting out of India (to Dubai). The last survey was in April 2013 and the taper tantrum began only in May and so it is hard to argue that the larger share of offshore trading at that time was due to greater market stress.

Posted at 14:03 on Fri, 09 Sep 2016     View/Post Comments (0)     permanent link


Sun, 04 Sep 2016

In the sister blog and on Twitter during July and August 2016

Posting was light in last two months.

The following post appeared on the sister blog (on Computing).

Tweets during July and August (other than blog post tweets):

Posted at 15:51 on Sun, 04 Sep 2016     View/Post Comments (0)     permanent link


Fri, 12 Aug 2016

Are bonds the new equities, and equities the new bonds?

A year and a half ago, I wrote a blog post about loss aversion and negative interest rates. That post argued that if prospect theory is true, then the most loss averse investors who traditionally invest in bonds would now become risk seeking when confronted with certain loss of principal induced by negative interest rates. I also raised the possibility that the most loss averse investors would switch to equities and the less loss averse investors would stay in bonds. As we look around at investor behaviour under negative rates, we can see evidence of loss aversion at work though perhaps not quite in the way that I hypothesized earlier.

The most loss averse investors have become risk seeking by taking on duration risk rather than equity risk. If you buy a bond maturing beyond your investment horizon, then there is a possibility of a capital appreciation if interest rates become even more negative in the meantime. For example, suppose your investment horizon is 4 years and you put your money in a 10-year zero coupon bond yielding -0.1%. You would have to pay 100 × 0.999-10 = 101.0055 for such a bond with a face value of 100. At the end of 4 years, when you sell your bond, suppose the 6-year yield is -0.17%. the price of the bond would be 100 × 0.9983-6 = 101.0261, and you would have sold the bond at a profit! (You would break even if the 6-year yield is -0.1666%). You may think that there is a good chance that the 6-year yield will be more negative than -0.1666% for two reasons. First, since the yield curve is usually upward sloping, the yield is likely to drop as the residual maturity shortens from 10 years today to 6 years at the time of sale. Second, you may hope that central banks would become more aggressive with ultra loose monetary policy and push the entire yield curve deeper into negative territory.

In some sense, this is similar to the flight to equity markets that I postulated in my 2015 blog post. Equity investors traditionally tended to chase capital gains and tended to be relatively unconcerned about yields. Now it is bond market investors who are behaving in this way. There is no coupon anymore and they are hoping for redemption through capital gains by selling the bond before maturity. That is the best explanation that I can think of for bond yields turning negative at very long maturities – for example, the Swiss 50 year bond has been trading at negative yields.

On the other hand, there is a sizeable group of equity market investors who are today enamoured of the high dividend yield on some “safe” value stocks. Some of them are actually crossover investors from the bond market who see these dividends as the replacement for the coupons that they used to get on their bonds. These investors are buying equities for their yield rather than their capital appreciation.

In this sense, my original blog post may have got things upside down – bonds are the new equities (home to risk seeking investors hoping for capital appreciation) and at least some equities are the new bonds (home to risk averse investors hoping for a steady yield). If this is so, prospect theory is critical for understanding the effectiveness of unconventional monetary policy.

Posted at 17:15 on Fri, 12 Aug 2016     View/Post Comments (2)     permanent link


Wed, 27 Jul 2016

200 pages on why they let Lehman fail

When I first saw Laurence Ball’s 218 page NBER paper “The Fed and Lehman Brothers”, my first reaction was that this was too long to read. During the crisis, I had waded through 2200 pages (not counting appendices totalling close to 2000 pages) of the report of bankruptcy examiner Anton Valukas. But so many years after the crisis, Lehman fatigue sets in even for persistent readers like me. I am glad however that I overcame my initial reluctance and read this paper. Incidentally, NBER found the paper too long and so they relegated it to a “supplemental file” and posted an 18 page summary as the main paper. I think this is stupid – if you wish to read it at all, I would suggest you read the full paper (the 18 page summary is a waste of time). If you do not have access to NBER, you can read the full paper at the author’s website.

Ball puts together evidence scattered over many different sources to demolish the claim by the Fed that they lacked legal authority to rescue Lehman. The legal requirement was only that any loan should be secured by adequate collateral. Since Lehman had a large amount of unsecured long term debt, its assets (even at very pessimistic valuations) exceeded its short term debt by a wide margin. Therefore Lehman could have provided adequate collateral to the Fed to support a loan large enough to replace its entire short term debt. Lehman would then have been able to remain open for several weeks or months (until the long term debt fell due). This could have enabled Barclays to buy Lehman – the stumbling block to that deal was that Barclays needed a shareholder vote to complete the transaction and without a Fed loan, Lehman could not have survived that long. Even if that deal did not happen, an orderly liquidation of Lehman would have been possible. Ball’s point about long term debt is a valuable contribution to the Lehman literature. In credit risk modelling, it is well known that long term debt is less problematic than short term debt. In the famous KMV model, default risk measurement uses the sum of short term debt and half long term debt. But I have not previously seen this insight applied to Lehman.

Ball is also able to establish that the decision not to lend to Lehman was taken by Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson, though legally Paulson had no role in this decision which was the exclusive province of the Fed. This is of course evidence that the powers to lend to distressed institutions should be moved out of the central bank to a separate resolution corporation in order to safeguard the independence of the central bank.

Let me add that I am firmly of the view that the decision to let Lehman fail was the correct one. If today the US seems to be the only country to have put the crisis behind it and to be on the recovery path, much of the credit should go to the bold decision to let Lehman fail. Countries which spent years in denial and tried to muddle along have fared much worse. It is unfortunate that those who took this correct decision have not had the courage to admit this, but have chosen to hide behind the fig leaf of a non existent legal barrier. Ball’s paper set the record straight on this and ensures that future historians will know the truth.

Posted at 21:13 on Wed, 27 Jul 2016     View/Post Comments (1)     permanent link


Mon, 18 Jul 2016

Finally, a more responsible 2-hour recovery mandate

Nearly two years ago, I wrote a blog post in which I strongly criticized the insistence of the Basel Committee on Payments and Market Infrastructures (CPMI, previously known as CPSS) that payment and settlement systems should be able to resume operations within 2 hours from a cyber attack and should be able to complete the settlement by end of day. I described this demand as reckless and irresponsible because it ignored Principle 16 which requires an FMI to “safeguard its participants’ assets and minimise the risk of loss on and delay in access to these assets.” I argued that in a cyber attack, the primary focus should be on protecting participants’ assets by mitigating the risk of data loss and fraudulent transfer of assets. In the case of a serious cyber attack, this principle would argue for a more cautious approach which would resume operations only after ensuring that the risk of loss of participants’ assets has been dealt with. Shortly thereafter, I was glad to find the Reserve Bank of India echoing these sentiments (in less colourful language) in its Financial Stability Report.

Almost two years later, the Basel Committee (CPMI) has issued new guidance that reflects a much more responsible approach to 2-hour recovery. The Guidance on cyber resilience for financial market infrastructures published late last month states:

An FMI should design and test its systems and processes to enable the safe resumption of critical operations within two hours of a disruption and to enable itself to complete settlement by the end of the day of the disruption, even in the case of extreme but plausible scenarios. Notwithstanding this capability to resume critical operations within two hours, when dealing with a disruption FMIs should exercise judgment in effecting resumption so that risks to itself or its ecosystem do not thereby escalate, whilst taking into account that completion of settlement by the end of day is crucial. FMIs should also plan for scenarios in which the resumption objective is not achieved.

This is a welcome sign that regulators are more pragmatic and are not allowing market participants to form unrealistic expectations. As Regulation Asia wrote about last week’s outage at the Singapore Exchange (SGX):

Trying to lead the public to think a resumption is possible, without knowing if it is really possible only degrades credibility with each successive retraction and announcement.

Posted at 11:23 on Mon, 18 Jul 2016     View/Post Comments (0)     permanent link


Sat, 02 Jul 2016

Is US Treasury becoming a hot money playground?

During the Great Moderation, the US Treasury market came to be dominated by official investors – Asian central banks and the reserve funds of oil producing countries. During the last couple of years, these flows have gone into reverse. With oil around $50 a barrel, most oil producers are liquidating their reserves rather than adding to them. In Asia too, reserve accumulation has slowed down if not reversed with China in particular depleting its reserves as it deals with capital flight.

The massive selling by official investors has been more than balanced by large scale buying by private investors. Some of this is clearly visible in the official data (see for example, slide 10 in Torsten Slok’s presentation at the Brookings event last month on “Negative interest rates: Lessons learned...so far”). I suspect that the official figures understate the true extent of this shift because at least a part of the official selling would be from offshore vehicles that are not clearly identifiable as official holdings.

If this trend continues, I believe this could have serious implications for the volatility in US Treasury yields. As long as the net buying was dominated by price insensitive reserve managers whose mandates restrict them to very safe assets anyway, the volatility of yields would have been quite muted. But the private buyers are much more unconstrained in their portfolio choices and are also much more sensitive to risk-return opportunities in the market. For example, a large part of Chinese capital flight amounts to Chinese external assets moving from the government (PBoC/SAFE) to private investors. Unlike the PBoC or even SAFE, private investors can invest in corporate bonds, equities and real assets anywhere in the world, and have no special preference for US Treasury.

In today’s environment of flight to safety, US Treasury is well bid on the basis of risk-return expectations. But that could easily change and then long term UST yields might have to move a lot to equilibriate supply and demand. At that point, we will see the true consequences of UST becoming a playground of hot money instead of a long term store of value.

Posted at 19:39 on Sat, 02 Jul 2016     View/Post Comments (1)     permanent link


In the sister blog and on Twitter during February-June 2016

The following posts appeared on the sister blog (on Computing) during the last few months.

Tweets during the last few months (other than blog post tweets):

Posted at 18:58 on Sat, 02 Jul 2016     View/Post Comments (0)     permanent link


Mon, 27 Jun 2016

The 3 Cs of Clearing

After the global financial crisis, clearing corporations or Central Counter Parties (CCPs) have become the focal point of systemic risk. I think that globally banks have become stronger as a result of Basel 3, but clearing corporations have become weaker as they have started clearing OTC contracts where there is poor liquidity and price transparency. Competition among CCPs has led to a race to the bottom where the CCP with the worst risk management grabs market share in the newly opened up markets.

Regulators have been slow in addressing the problems of CCP regulation. Much of the discussion has focused on margins and capital, but this is too narrow a view of what a CCP needs to manage defaults without creating systemic risk. This is where I keep coming back to what I call the 3 Cs – cash, capital and (operational) capability.

  1. Cash: A CCP first of all needs cash to meet its settlement obligations to the non defaulting side when it faces a default by a large counter party. Given the rigid times lines of the clearing process, this liquidity is needed at very short notice. In my view, the only credible provider of liquidity in that time frame is the central bank. I have argued for years (probably decades) that a CCP needs discount window access at the central bank, but this solution presumes that the CCP has an abundance of discount window eligible collateral.

  2. Capital: The moment a CCP takes over a defaulted position, it is exposed to market risk on the position until it is able to unwind the position and restore a matched book position. In periods of market stress, orderly liquidation would happen over time frame of several days if not weeks. I recall the long liquidation period involved when LCH unwound the interest rate positions of Lehman after the latter’s bankruptcy or Singapore liquidated the Barings Bank position after the Nick Leson episode. During this period, the CCP needs capital to absorb the market risk and to credibly continue its business as a CCP.

  3. Capability: In my view, many CCPs and their regulators underestimate the importance of operational capability to liquidate positions. It requires access to talented traders with the skill required to trade large positions at times of market stress. It could require access to related markets to lay on proxy hedges; depending on the contract involved, access may be required to index futures, currency futures, foreign derivative markets, spot commodity markets, OTC derivative markets and so on. All this would require pre-existing brokerage relationships and ISDA documentations (in case of OTC derivatives). LCH solves the problem by imposing a legal requirement on its members to provide highly capable traders on secondment to manage a default. During the Lehman default, CME dealt with the problem by conducting an auction of defaulted positions, but this may not always be possible. In my experience, many large CCPs have not even conducted mock drills of managing very large defaults. They tend to believe that their success in managing small defaults proves their operational readiness. I think this is a mistake.

It is my belief that regulators have not taken an integrated view of the 3 Cs and have focused excessively on margins and CCP resolution as the solution. The problem with this approach is that it creates the risk that the CCP would take steps that create massive systemic risk in its efforts to protect itself. A CCP with inadequate cash, capital or capability gets so scared of a potential default that it takes recourse to pre-emptive margin calls or market distorting regulatory measures to ward off a threat to its own solvency. At a time of market stress, these actions are destabilizing and can become a source of systemic risk.

Posted at 13:35 on Mon, 27 Jun 2016     View/Post Comments (0)     permanent link


Wed, 15 Jun 2016

Would the Swiss someday demonitize the 1000 franc note?

I wonder whether someday the Swiss would be tempted to simply demonitize the 1000 franc note and earn a windfall gain. After falling for decades, Swiss currency in circulation started rising after the global financial crisis and is now higher than at any time in the last 35 years. Notes in circulation are now well above 10% of GDP and the 1000 franc note accounts for 62% of this or over 6% of GDP. The Swiss central bank publishes a nice set of tables and graphs about all this. Even the US whose currency circulates so widely all over the world (half of all US currency is estimated to circulate outside the US) has a currency to GDP ratio of only about 8% (currency data from the FED and GDP data from the BEA).

As Swiss interest rates remain in highly negative territory (-0.75% at the short end and negative all the way to 30 years), the extremely high denomination 1000 franc note has become very attractive to investors. It is conceivable that if this environment persists Swiss currency might approach 15% of GDP and the 1000 franc note might by itself edge close to 10% of GDP. In a regime of negative interest rates, currency is not a source of seigniorage, but is a costly form of borrowing. At some point, the Swiss may well start thinking about just extinguishing this liability and earning a windfall gain of more than 5% of GDP.

I am not talking about an outright default. The Swiss could start by citing the decision of the European Central Bank (ECB) last month to “permanently stop producing the €500 banknote ... taking into account concerns that this banknote could facilitate illicit activities”. They could say that in accordance with global best practices, they too are abolishing the 1000 franc note. Unlike the ECB which retained the existing notes as legal tender, the Swiss could require holders of the 1000 franc note to exchange them for lower denomination notes or bank deposits. The sting in the tail would be a statement that the exchange would be carried out in accordance with the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) recommendations that require member states to seize and confiscate proceeds of money laundering and property involved in financing of terrorism. Therefore, holders of 1000 franc notes would be required to establish their identity as well as the source of the funds.

It is a fair assumption that a significant fraction of the 1000 franc notes will not be tendered for exchange under these conditions, and the Swiss would have made a profit of several percentage points of GDP. The question to my mind is how large that number would need to be for the Swiss to be tempted.

Posted at 15:47 on Wed, 15 Jun 2016     View/Post Comments (2)     permanent link


Fri, 10 Jun 2016

Funding Value Adjustments

The global financial crisis led to a lot of turmoil in derivative markets and large players introduced a number of changes in their valuation models. Acronyms like CVA (Credit Value Adjustment), DVA (Debit Value Adjustment) and FVA (Funding Value Adjustment) became quite commonplace. Of these, CVA and DVA have strong theoretical foundations and have gained wide ranging acceptance. But FVA remains controversial as it contradicts long standing financial theories. Hull and White wrote an incisive article The FVA Debate explaining why it is a mistake to use FVA either for valuing derivative positions on the balance sheet or for trading decisions. But four years later, FVA shows no signs of just going away.

Three months back, Andersen, Duffie and Song wrote a more nuanced piece on Funding Value Adjustments arguing that FVA will influence traded prices, but not balance sheet valuations. I have written a simplified note explaining the Andersen-Duffie-Song model, but at bottom it is a capital structure (debt overhang) issue than a derivative valuation issue.

Consider therefore a very simple capital structure problem of borrowing a small amount (say 1 unit) to invest in the risk free asset. The qualifier “small” is used to ensure that this borrowing itself does not change the company’s (risk neutral) Probability of Default (PD), Loss Given Default (LGD) or credit spread (s). From standard finance theory we get s=DL/(1-DL) where the expected Default Loss (DL) is given by DL=PD×LGD. For simplicity, we assume that the interest rate is zero (which is probably not too far from the median interest rate in the world today).

The transaction does not change the value of the firm, but there would be a transfer of wealth from shareholders to pre-existing creditors. Somebody who owns a vertical slice of the company (say 10% of the equity and 10% of the pre-existing debt) would be quite happy to buy the risk free asset at its fair value of 1, but if the shareholders are running the company, they would refuse to do so. (This is of course the standard corporate finance result that a debt overhang causes the firm to reject low-risk low-return positive NPV projects because they transfer wealth to creditors). The shareholders would be ready to buy the risk free asset only if it is available at a price of 1/(1+s). At this price, the shareholders are indifferent, the pre-existing creditors gain a benefit and the counterparty (seller of the risk free asset) suffers a loss equal to s/(1+s). The price of 1/(1+s) includes a FVA because it is obtained by discounting the cash flows of the risk free asset not at the risk free rate of 0, but at the company’s funding cost of s.

Now consider a derivative dealer doing a trade with a risk free counterparty in which it has to make an upfront payment (for example, a prepaid forward contract or an off-market forward contract at a price lower than the market forward price). If the derivative is fairly valued, the counterparty would be expected to make a payment to the dealer at maturity. From the perspective of the dealer, the situation is very much like investing in a risk free asset (note that we assume that the counterparty is risk free). The shareholders of the derivative dealer would not agree to this deal unless there were a funding value adjustment so that the expected payment from the counterparty were discounted at s instead of 0.

Now consider the opposite scenario where the dealer receives an upfront payment and is expected to have to make payments to the counterparty at maturity. This is very much like the dealer taking a new loan to repay existing borrowing (Andersen-Duffie-Song assume that the dealer uses all cash inflows to retire existing debt and finances all outflows with fresh borrowings). There is no transfer of wealth between shareholders and creditors and no funding value adjustment.

The result is the standard FVA model: all expected future inflows from the derivative are discounted at the funding cost and all expected outflows are discounted at the risk free rate. This is because the future inflows require an upfront payment by the dealer (which requires FVA) and future outflows require upfront receipts by the dealer (which do not require FVA).

Andersen, Duffie and Song correctly argue that (unlike CVA and DVA) the FVA is purely a transfer of wealth from shareholders to pre-existing creditors and is not an adjustment that should be made to the carrying value of the derivative in the books of the firm. This part of their paper therefore agrees with Hull and White. However, Andersen, Duffie and Song argue that in the real world where shareholders are running the company, the FVA would be reflected in traded prices. Dealers would buy only at fair value less FVA. They argue that this is quite similar to a bid-ask spread in market making. The market maker buys assets only below their fair value (bid price is usually below fair value). Just as for liquidity or other reasons, counterparties are willing to pay the bid ask spread, they would be willing to pay the FVA also as a transaction cost for doing the trade.

I wonder whether this provides an alternative explanation for the declining liquidity in many markets post crisis. Much of this has been attributed to enhanced regulatory costs (Basel 3, Dodd-Frank, Volcker Rule and so on). Perhaps some of it is due to (a) the higher post crisis credit spread s and (b) greater adoption of FVA. The increasing market share of HFT and other alternative liquidity providers may also be due to their lower leverage and therefore lower debt overhang costs.

Posted at 15:36 on Fri, 10 Jun 2016     View/Post Comments (0)     permanent link


Thu, 09 Jun 2016

SWIFT hacking threatens to erode confidence in financial sector

I had a short blog post on the Bangladesh-Bank SWIFT hacking shortly before I went on a two month long vacation. Since then, the story has become more and more frightening. It is no longer about Bangladesh Bank and its cheap routers: the hacking now appears to be global in scope and sophisticated in approach:

The tools are highly configurable and given the correct access could feasibly be used for similar attacks in the future.

...

The wider lesson learned here may be that criminals are conducting more and more sophisticated attacks against victim organisations, particularly in the area of network intrusions (which has traditionally been the domain of the ‘APT’ actor).

Neither bank reported the theft to SWIFT, which said it first learned about the cyber attack from a Reuters inquiry.

The picture that emerges out of this is that on the one side there are well organized criminals who are building sophisticated tools to attack the banks. They may or may not be linked to each other, but they are certainly borrowing and building on each others’ tools. Their arsenal is gradually beginning to rival that of the APT (Advanced Persistent Threat) actors (who are traditionally focused on espionage or strategic benefits rather than financial gains). Very soon global finance could be attacked by criminals wielding Stuxnet-like APT tools re-purposed for stealing money.

On the other side is a banking industry that is unable to get its act together. Instead of hiring computer security professionals to shore up their defences, they are busy hiring lawyers to try and deflect the losses on to each other. It is evident that the banks are not sharing information with each other. Worse, my experience is that information is not even being shared within the banks. I have heard horror stories in India of security firms who have detected vulnerabilities in the IT systems of banks being told by the IT departments not to mention these to the top management. These IT people think that everything is fine so long as top management does not know about the problems. The top management in turn thinks that things are fine so long as the regulator does not know that there is a problem. I hear reports of banks quietly reimbursing a customer’s losses without either fixing the problem or reporting it to the regulators or other authorities. Most of the stories that I hear are from India, but the evidence suggests that the situation is not any different elsewhere in the world.

This state of denial and discord in the banking industry provides the hackers the perfect opportunity to learn the vulnerabilities of the banks, improve their hacking tools, and increase the scale and scope of their attacks. At some point, of course, the losses to the banking system would become too big to sweep under the carpet. That is when the confidence in the financial sector would begin to erode.

Another problem for the banks is that in their lawsuits against the paying banker, the victim bank is raising the issue of “red flags” and “suspicious transactions” to argue that the paying banker should have halted the payment. With large amounts of money at stake, this argument would be made by skilled lawyers and may even be successful in court. If that happens, it would set up a dangerous precedent against the banks themselves. So far, banks have taken the stand that their customers are responsible for the transactions so long as the valid authentication was provided. Bank customers typically do not have the resources and inside knowledge to challenge this stand. The inter-bank litigation is very different and has the potential to overturn the established distribution of liability.

I have not so far talked about nation state actors getting into the attack. Any nation state would love to hack the banks of an enemy country. Some rogue states that are excluded from global finance might even want to try and disrupt the global financial system. India is one of the countries at serious risk of an attack from a resourceful nation state, but as I look around, I see only complacency and no sense of concern let alone paranoia.

Posted at 15:55 on Thu, 09 Jun 2016     View/Post Comments (0)     permanent link


Mon, 28 Mar 2016

Regulatory priority: punish, deter or protect?

When a serious breach of market integrity is suspected, what should the regulators’ priorities be: should it try to punish the guilty, or should it seek to deter other wrong doers or should it focus on protecting the victims? Both bureaucratic and political incentives may be tilted towards the first and perhaps the second, but in fact it is the last that is most important. I have been thinking about these issues in the context of the order of the Securities and Exchange Board of India in the matter of Sharepro Services, a Registrar and Share Transfer Agent regulated by SEBI. The order which is based on six months of investigation and runs into 98 pages finds that:

If one assumes that these findings are correct, then the key regulatory priority must be to take operational control of Sharepro and thereby protect the interests of investors who might have been harmed. A Registrar and Share Transfer Agent is a critical intermediary whose honest functioning is essential to ensure market integrity and maintain the faith of investors in the capital markets. I think that SEBI’s powers under section 11B of the SEBI Act would be adequate to achieve this objective, but in case of need, resort could also be had to section 242 of the Companies Act 2013.

The SEBI order does take some steps to punish the top management of Sharepro but does too little to protect the investors who appear to have lost money. It does not even cancel or suspend the registration of Sharepro as a Registrar and Share Transfer Agent, but merely advises companies who are clients of Sharepro switchover to another Registrar and Share Transfer Agent or to carry out these activities in-house. The only investor protection step in the order is the direction to companies who are clients of Sharepro to audit the records and systems of Sharepro. But if the records have been falsified, then only a regulator or other agency with statutory powers can carry out a meaningful audit by obtaining third party records.

A decade ago, when the Satyam fraud occurred, I was among the earliest to write that the government should simply take control of the company. I would argue the same in the case of Sharepro as well assuming that the SEBI findings are correct.

Posted at 19:01 on Mon, 28 Mar 2016     View/Post Comments (5)     permanent link


Sun, 20 Mar 2016

Why would a manufacturer finance a bank's capital expenditure?

Usually a manufacturing company goes to a bank to finance its capital expenditure. But last month witnessed a deal where the US manufacturing giant GE stepped forward to finance the capital expenditure of one of the largest banks in the world – JPMorgan Chase – when the latter decided to buy 1.4 million LED bulbs to replace the lighting across 5,000 branches in the world’s largest single-order LED installation to date.

As a finance person, the first explanation that I looked at was the credit rating. GE lost its much vaunted AAA rating during the Global Financial crisis, but based on S&P long term unsecured ratings, GE’s AA+ rating is full five notches above JPMorgan Chase’ A- rating. Based on Moodys ratings, the gap is only two notches. Averaging the two and taking into account S&P’s negative outlook on GE, we could say that GE enjoys a rating that is a full letter grade (three notches) above JPMorgan. So perhaps, it makes sense for the manufacturer to finance the bank.

Another possible explanation is that trade credit has a set of advantages that are not fully understood. Some of the alleged advantages of trade credit (like the idea that a business relationship leads to superior information on credit worthiness) strain credulity when the recipient of the credit is one of the largest banks in the world with hundreds of publicly traded bonds outstanding. Similarly, the idea that vendor financing is a superior form of performance guarantee is hard to believe when the vendor is a manufacturing giant with such a high reputation and credit rating.

In a Slate story, Daniel Gross explained the logic in terms of the inefficiency and inertia of corporate bureaucracies:

The second barrier – “the capital barrier,” as Irick call it – is more difficult to surmount. The economics of buying and installing them can be a challenge to corporate bureaucrats. Companies often produce multiyear budgets well in advance. Going LED means spending a lot of money in a single year to buy and install them, make sure they work, and dispose of the old ones. And it is difficult even for a company like Chase to make a decision quickly to write a check to buy 1.4 million new light bulbs and pay for their installation. GE, of course, has a long track record of helping to finance customers’ purchases of its capital goods, structuring payments over a period of years rather than upfront.

That perhaps makes more sense than any of the finance theory arguments.

Posted at 16:44 on Sun, 20 Mar 2016     View/Post Comments (0)     permanent link


Fri, 18 Mar 2016

Random Justice

Voltaire wrote that “His Sacred Majesty Chance Decides Everything”. Neustadter comes to a similar conclusion in a fascinating paper entitled “Randomly Distributed Trial Court Justice: A Case Study and Siren from the Consumer Bankruptcy World” (h/t Credit Slips):

Between February 24, 2010 and April 23, 2012, Heritage Pacific Financial, L.L.C. (‘Heritage’), a debt buyer, mass produced and filed 218 essentially identical adversary proceedings in California bankruptcy courts against makers of promissory notes who had filed Chapter 7 or Chapter 13 bankruptcy petitions. Each complaint alleged Heritage’s acquisition of the notes in the secondary market and alleged the outstanding obligations on the notes to be nondischargeable under the Bankruptcy Code’s fraud exception to the bankruptcy discharge. ...

Because the proceedings were essentially identical, they offer a rare laboratory for testing the extent to which our entry-level justice system measures up to our aspirations for ‘Equal Justice Under Law.’ ...

The results in the Heritage adversary proceedings evidence a stunning and unacceptable level of randomly distributed justice at the trial court level, generated as much by the idiosyncratic behaviors of judges, lawyers, and parties as by even handed application of law ...

Neustadter summarizes the outcome of these proceedings as follows (Table 1, page 20):

Recovery by Heritage Filed Settlement Agreements Heritage Requests Dismissal Dismissal for Other Reasons Default Judgments Summary Judgments Trials
Zero 49 26 12 N/A 4 3
Positive 103 ($1m) N/A N/A 10 ($0.9m) 1 ($0.06m) 2 ($0.2m)

I remember reading Max Weber’s Economy and Society decades ago and being fascinated by his argument that legal rights only increase the probability of certain outcomes (incidentally, Weber obtained a doctorate in law before becoming an economist and sociologist). Weber believed that the function of law in a modern economy was to make things more predictable, but by this also he only meant that probabilities could be attached to outcomes. I resisted Weber’s argument at that time, but over the course of time, I have come around to accepting them. In fact, I now think that it is only the conceit of false knowledge that leads to a belief that certainty is possible.

A greater degree of acceptance of randomness would make litigation a lot more efficient. In my view of things, a judge should be required to set a time limit for the amount of time to be devoted to a particular dispute (depending on the importance of the dispute). When that time has been spent, the judge should be able to say that he thinks there is say a 40% probability that the plaintiff is right and a 60% chance that the defendant is right. He should then draw a random number between 0 and 1; if the number that is drawn is less than 0.4, he should rule for the plaintiff, otherwise for the defendant. All litigation could be resolved in a time bound manner by this method. Even greater efficiency is possible by the use of the concepts of Expected Value of Perfect Information and Expected Value of Sample Information to decide when to terminate the hearings and proceed to drawing the random numbers. If an appeal process is desired, then of course the draw of the random number could be postponed until the appeal process is exhausted and the final value of the probability determined. In a blog post a couple of months ago, I have discussed cryptographic techniques to draw the random number in a completely transparent and non manipulable manner.

In my experience, there is enormous resistance to deciding anything by a draw of lots or other randomization technique though I believe that it is the most rational way of decision making. Instead society creates very complex mechanisms that lead effectively to a process of randomization based on which judge gets to hear the matter and what procedural or substantive legal provisions the judge or the lawyer is aware of. In fact, one way of making sense of the bewildering complexity of modern law is that it is just a very costly way of achieving randomization – if the law is too complex to be remembered by any individual, then what provision is remembered and applied is a matter of chance. That is how I interpret Neustadter’s findings.

In case you are wondering why I am discussing all this in a finance blog, let me remind you that the litigation in question was about recovery of defaulted debt and that is definitely a finance topic.

Posted at 14:50 on Fri, 18 Mar 2016     View/Post Comments (1)     permanent link


Sat, 12 Mar 2016

Bangladesh Bank hacking is yet another wake up call

A year ago, I blogged about the Carbanak hacking and thought that it was a wake up call for financial organizations to improve their internal systems and processes to protect themselves from patient hackers. The alleged patient hacking reported this week at the central bank of Bangladesh shows that the lessons have not been learned. There is too much of silo thinking in large organizations – cyber security is still thought to be the responsibility of some computer professionals. The reality is that security has to be designed into all systems and processes in the entire organization. Institutions like central banks that control vast amounts of money need to defend in depth at all levels of the organization. Physical security, hardware security, software security and robust internal systems and processes all contribute to a culture of security in the whole organization. In my experience, even senior management at large banking and financial organizations have a highly complacent attitude towards security that makes the organization highly vulnerable to a patient and determined hacker.

For example, there is no reason not to have a dedicated terminal for large (say $100 million) SWIFT transactions. Cues like dedicated hardware tends to make humans more alert to security considerations. In the paper world, we went to great lengths to institutionalize such cues. For example, the law on cheques permits cheques to be written on plain paper (the law only says “instrument in writing”), but in practice it was always written on special security paper. The importance of keeping blank security paper under lock and key was drilled into every person who worked in a bank from the chairman to the messenger boy. I have yet to see any similar attempt to inculcate a culture of computer security in any bank.

Posted at 22:03 on Sat, 12 Mar 2016     View/Post Comments (0)     permanent link


Sun, 06 Mar 2016

Investment Banks and IPO Pricing Power

Krigman and Wendy have an interesting paper on how issuers pay for their investment banks’ past mistakes. Their conclusions are based on the IPOs that came to market after the the botched Facebook IPO of 2012 in which the stock fell below the IPO price and the investment banks had to buy shares in the market to stabilize the price. IPOs after this event were underpriced by an average of 20% compared to only 11% prior to the Facebook IPO. More interestingly:

We show that the entire increase in underpricing is concentrated in the IPOs of the Facebook lead underwriters. We find no statistical difference in underpricing pre and post-Facebook for non-Facebook underwriters. We argue that investment bank loyalty to their institutional investor client based propelled the Facebook underwriters to increase underpricing to compensate for the perceived losses on Facebook.

“Loyalty to investor client” sounds very nice in a scandal dominated era where we have to come to believe that bankers have no loyalty to anybody. Yet, it must be remembered that the alleged generosity to investor clients did not come out of the bankers’ profits; it came out of the pockets of another bunch of clients – the issuers. This raises a very disturbing question: what gives them the pricing power to underprice issues relative to what their competitors were doing? The first possibility that came to my mind is that these were deals that the bankers had already won and it was difficult for the clients to change their lead banks after they had already been chosen. However, the data seem to show that the effect lasted more than a year, and moreover there was a 41 day period following Facebook during which there were no IPOs at all. The other possibility is that this is not a competitive market at all and the investment banks have a lot of market power. Chen and Ritter wrote a famous paper about this at the turn of the century (“The seven percent solution.” The Journal of Finance 55.3 (2000): 1105-1131).

Posted at 16:44 on Sun, 06 Mar 2016     View/Post Comments (0)     permanent link


Wed, 02 Mar 2016

Were most crisis era bank acquisitions failures?

JPMorgan Chairman Jamie Dimon states in a Bloomberg interview that he now regards JPMorgan’s acquisition of Bear Stearns and of Washington Mutual during the global financial crisis as “mistakes”. I used to think that these were among the better deals in the whole lot of crisis era acquisitions which include such monumental disasters as Bank of America’s acquisition of Countrywide or Lloyds’ acquisition of HBOS. But Dimon says that the Bear Stearns purchase ended up costing JPMorgan $20 billion while if I remember right the headline acquisition cost was only a little over $1 billion (and that after Dimon raised the price per share from $2 to $10). If even JPMorgan’s relatively good deals ended up being big mistakes, then I wonder whether the only sound crisis era banking acquisition might be Wells Fargo’s acquisition of Wachovia. Of course, the very best deals were Warren Buffet’s minority stakes in Goldman Sachs and GE, but these do not count as acquisitions. On a purely accounting basis, the US government did make money on many of its rescue deals, but this accounting does not include the hidden costs that contribute heavily to the $20 billion price tag that Dimon now puts on the Bear deal. What all this means is that even at the depths of the global financial crisis, it would have made a lot of sense to heed the good old advice not to try to catch a falling knife.

Posted at 13:30 on Wed, 02 Mar 2016     View/Post Comments (0)     permanent link


Tue, 02 Feb 2016

In the sister blog and on Twitter during December 2015 and January 2016

The following posts appeared on the sister blog (on Computing) during the last two months.

Tweets during the last two months (other than blog post tweets):

Posted at 11:56 on Tue, 02 Feb 2016     View/Post Comments (0)     permanent link


Sun, 31 Jan 2016

Does Regulation Crowd out Private Ordering and Reputational Capital?

The crowdfunding portal Kickstarter commissioned an investigative journalist to write a report on the failure of Zano which had raised $3.5 million on that platform, and the report has now been published on Medium. I loved reading this report for the quality of the information and the balance in the conclusions. It left me thinking why London’s AIM market never published something similar on many of the failures among the companies listed there, or why NASDAQ never commissioned something like this after the dotcom bust, or why the Indian exchanges never did anything like this about the vanishing companies of the mid 1990s.

Is it because these highly regulated exchanges are protected by a regulatory monopoly and they can safely leave this kind of thankless job to their regulators? Or are they worried that an honest investigative report might be used against them because of the regulatory burden that they face? Does regulation have the side effect of crowding out the private ordering that emerges in the absence of regulation? Does regulation weaken reputational incentives?

In the context of crowdfunding, the reputational incentives and private ordering are well described in Schwartz’ paper on “The Digital Shareholder”:

These intermediaries [funding portals] want investors to have a good experience so they will return to invest again on their website, making them sensitive to a reputation feedback system. A funding portal with lots of poorly rated companies will find it difficult to attract future users to its site. Importantly, this appears to be an effective constraint for existing reward crowdfunding sites, such as Indiegogo, which take care to avoid having their markets overrun by malfeasance.

It is true that regulation does have positive effects, but the challenge in framing regulations is to avoid weakening private ordering.

Posted at 21:48 on Sun, 31 Jan 2016     View/Post Comments (0)     permanent link


Fri, 29 Jan 2016

Whom do you bail out with your reserves?

Countries build up reserves in good times for many reasons including depressing the value of the exchange rate. The real proof of the pudding comes in bad times when the government needs to decide who should be bailed out, and who should be allowed to fail.

There have been two archetypes for this decision making. In the old Latin American model, the klepocratic elite was allowed to take its money out and everybody else was hung out to dry. The East Asian model (both in 1998 and 2008) was largely to bail out the banks (but not necessarily their owners) and to let the corporate sector go bust. Russia in 2008 followed a middle path: they bailed out the oligarchs till the reserves fell to uncomfortable levels, and then conserved the remaining reserves to protect the banking system.

The interesting question is which model is China following. The anti corruption campaign might suggest that China is following the East Asian path of forcing losses on the elite. But the scale of capital flight suggests a different interpretation: the anti corruption campaign is sending a signal to the klepocrats to take their money out of China before it is too late. Whatever the intentions might have been, China might end up in practice much closer to the Russian model. Maybe half the reserves will be used to allow the elite to unwind their carry trades and take their money out of the country. The remaining half would still be sufficient to stabilise the economy at a depreciated exchange rate.

Posted at 15:43 on Fri, 29 Jan 2016     View/Post Comments (0)     permanent link


Wed, 20 Jan 2016

CNBC Interview on Mutual Funds

I was interviewed on CNBC last week for their show The Firm on recent changes made by the Securities and Exchange Board of India (SEBI) in mutual fund regulations. SEBI tightened the norms relating to exposure of a mutual fund to a single issuer or industry. One of the issues that came up was whether the norms should be more generous for AAA rated debt. I referred to the subprime crisis where the losses came in AAA rated mortgage securities and argued that AAA debt is in some ways more dangerous because you do not even get a high coupon to compensate for the default losses. I have tweeted about this in the past quoting Asness: “the most dangerous things are those that you think protect you, but only mostly protect you”

There was also a discussion on the issue of gates and sidepockets that I have blogged about and tweeted about. I continued to maintain that fund managers have the responsibility to ensure that redemption does not take place at NAVs different from the realizable value of the underlying assets.

Posted at 11:13 on Wed, 20 Jan 2016     View/Post Comments (0)     permanent link


Wed, 13 Jan 2016

Easy to fix speculators, harder to fix problems

Looking at the turbulence in the Yuan HIBOR market, I was reminded of Thailand in 1997-98. I remember writing about the Thai episode at that time:

To speculate against the baht, a hedge fund has to sell baht, and to do so, it must directly or indirectly borrow baht. If the attack succeeds, the hedge fund would be able to buy back the baht at lower prices and repay the borrowing. The Bank of Thailand attempted to make this difficult by preventing residents from lending baht to non residents in any form including direct loans, overdrafts, currency swaps, interest rate swaps, forward rate agreements, currency options, interest rate options, outright forward transactions. It also preventing residents from selling baht to non residents against payment in foreign currencies. Simultaneously, the Bank of Thailand intervened heavily in the offshore market especially in the forward market. All this created an acute shortage of baht in the offshore market and drove up interest rates in that market to several hundred percent. In the process, several hedge funds reportedly made losses as they scrambled to buy or borrow baht to meet their obligations. When they tried to obtain baht by selling Thai stocks, the Bank of Thailand responded with a rule that the proceeds of all stock sales must be remitted in foreign currency and not in baht.

This policy was hugely successful in its immediate objective of punishing the hedge funds who had the temerity to short the Thai baht. Both the technocrats who engineered this and their political masters were immensely pleased with this result, and boasted about their success. But, all this did nothing to save the baht or fix Thailand’s economic problems back then. Unfortunately, neither the technocrats nor the politicians ever seem to learn the critical lesson that it is easy for a sovereign to fix the speculators, it is much harder to fix the underlying problems that cause the speculation in the first place.

Posted at 16:20 on Wed, 13 Jan 2016     View/Post Comments (0)     permanent link


Sun, 10 Jan 2016

Clearing Corporation Vulnerabilities

Last month, LCH published a White Paper entitled CCP Conundrums which raise a number of interesting issues, though I think that “conundrums” is a bit of a euphemism in this context. In my view, Central Counter Parties (CCPs) or Clearing Corporations globally face serious vulnerabilities arising out of a confluence of factors:

  1. After the Global Financial Crisis, regulators have pushed more and more products into clearing, even though they do not trade in liquid markets. The benefits of CCPs in exchange traded products flow as much from the price discovery in exchange trading as they do from clearing, netting and collateralization. In many of the products now being pushed into trading, price discovery is suspect because of poor liquidity or oligopolistic market structure.

  2. The opening up of several new products to clearing has created a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for the top clearing corporations to expand into potentially large market segments. There is a temptation to gain market share through lower margins and less stringent risk management.

  3. There is no regulatorily imposed minimum margin that could prevent such a race to the bottom. In fact, there is a tendency for banking regulators to turn a blind eye to this risk because they have no desire to shore up the CCPs by draining liquidity and capital from the banks.

  4. Ultra loose monetary policy in the developed world is leading to yield chasing and suppression of risk aversion. This may be the intended “portfolio balance channel” of monetary policy transmission, but it creates an environment where risks are probably being ignored.

  5. This is what LCH refers to as the risk of pro-cyclicality of risk management at the CCPs. LCH is more or less openly saying that margins need to be increased before monetary conditions tighten as it would be too late to do so after tightening has already happened.

For all these reasons, I have been worrying for quite some time now that in the coming years, the failure of a large global CCP is more a matter of when rather than whether.

Posted at 16:00 on Sun, 10 Jan 2016     View/Post Comments (1)     permanent link


Thu, 31 Dec 2015

Why waste taxpayer money to enforce stupid exchange rules?

Early this month, the US SEC passed an order against Behruz and Kenny about how they fraudulently obtained liquidity rebates from the option exchanges on which they traded. When I read this order, my first reaction was to laugh out loud at the stupidity of the alleged victims: some of the largest option exchanges in the US were running pretty silly liquidity rebate schemes. I can understand that regulators might wish to step in to protect small retail investors against their own stupidity, but if somebody like the CBOE chooses to run a scheme that is basically an open invitation to be gamed, my inclination would be to let them suffer the consequences. For the regulator to go after the alleged offender is to my mind a waste of tax payers’ money. I do take Stigler’s classic paper on the optimum enforcement of laws quite seriously.

The first charge against Behruz and Kenny is that they earned $2 million of liquidity rebates (and exchange fees avoided) from the option exchanges by misrepresenting “customer” status for their trading accounts. If you are not a broker-dealer, your orders are treated as “customer” orders unless your trading goes above the threshold of 390-order per day. To reach the 390-order threshold, you would have to enter an order every minute from market open to market close. “Customer” orders do not incur any transaction fees and receive higher liquidity rebates from the exchanges. In practice, trading activity was reviewed quarterly to determine to determine the “customer” status. If the trading was below 390-order per day during one quarter, then the trading account received “customer” status in the next quarter. To see how silly this is, note that if you did not trade at all one quarter, you would have “customer” status in the next quarter even if you were pumping thousands of orders a day in that quarter. Why somebody would think up such a stupid implementation of the rule in this day and age is beyond me.

Behruz and Kenny could have traded thousands of orders a day for six months in the year, and spent their time at the beach for the remaining six months without falling afoul of the SEC. But they were more greedy and wanted to trade with “customer” status round the year. So they created two accounts and switched between them each quarter – when they were trading thousands of orders a day in one account, they kept the other account almost dormant so that that other account would have “customer” status in the next quarter when the first account lost that status. The rules did however require that accounts with the same beneficial ownership should be aggregated for determining “customer” status, and Behruz and Kenny misrepresented the beneficial ownership to avoid this result. One way of looking at the SEC action is that they brought offenders to book, but the other way of looking at it is that the SEC is encouraging large and sophisticated players to create silly rules and implement them in silly ways, confident that the SEC will clean up after them.

The second charge is that Behruz and Kenny used spoofing orders to earn liquidity rebates from the (Nasdaq OMX) PHLX options exchange. The typical scheme was to enter a series of large hidden All-or-None (AON) orders to buy options at a price that was a penny more than the option’s current best bid. Because they are hidden, these AON orders do not change the best bid. Behruz and Kenny then placed smaller (typically one lot), non-bona fide sell orders at the same price as the AON. These orders were too small to execute against the AON order, but (since they were not hidden) they lowered the option’s best offer by one penny. The idea was to induce genuine sellers to send sell orders at the new best offer. When enough such sell orders arrived to make up the quantity of the AON order, they all executed against the AON. The PHLX in its infinite wisdom regarded the AON orders (that nobody could see) as having provided liquidity to the market. Since the AON buy order was sitting in the order book before the sale orders arrived, the AON was deemed to have provided liquidity while the sell orders were deemed to have taken liquidity. The PHLX gave a liquidity rebate to Behruz and Kenny, and charged a liquidity take fee to the sellers. Behruz and Kenny then turned around to execute the same strategy on the opposite side to dispose of the options that they had just bought – a large hidden AON sell order and a small displayed buy order.

One can have a debate on whether liquidity rebates and the maker-taker model make sense at all. But there is no debate about the silliness of what PHLX is doing. The idea that a hidden AON buy order that did not even move the best bid offered liquidity to the market is laughable. In a rational market, exchanges that do stupid things should lose money or business or both – the survival of the smartest. The regulators should not be trying to protect the silly and impede this market dynamic.

A recent blog post by the Streetwise Professor makes an even broader but similar argument about spoofing in general. He says that sophisticated and knowledgeable players have the incentive to detect spoofing and take defensive measures that would reduce the frequency and scale of spoofing activity. Therefore regulators need not bother much about it. I tend to agree. Harris’ classic book on market microstructure for practictioners (Trading and Exchanges, OUP, 2002) has a whole chapter on “bluffers” and within that there is a section in particular on how bluffers discipline liquidity providers. We might have invented a more exotic name (spoofing) for what has been known for centuries as bluffing, but the basic principles remain the same – spoofers discipline the HFTs.

Posted at 16:21 on Thu, 31 Dec 2015     View/Post Comments (0)     permanent link


Fri, 25 Dec 2015

Operational versus financial creditors redux

A month back when I blogged about Creditor versus Creditor and Creditor versus Debtor, I talked about the potential for conflicts between operational and financial creditors, but did not have any good examples of such battles. I am able to remedy that gap now thanks to the fading fortunes of shale oil producers in the United States. A couple of days ago, Reuters carried a story about three instances where operational creditors had initiated involuntary bankruptcy proceedings against large energy producers to avoid being outmanoeuvred by financial creditors:

Involuntary bankruptcy gives vendors some say over how an energy producers’ dwindling funds are managed, and vendors can use it to try to stop a company from cutting deals that favor lenders or investors.

Such cases also allow creditors to choose the court, and all three of the recent cases have been filed outside the busy bankruptcy court in Wilmington, Delaware. Bankruptcy lawyers in Texas said that may suggest suppliers are worried the court is too eager to approve quick sales of businesses, which tend to favor secured creditors.

A lawyer for the creditors ... said the involuntary bankruptcy prevented the Gulf of Mexico producer from being stripped of all of its value in favor of the company’s owners.

If the facts stated in the story are correct, then standard theory (governance rights vest with residual rights) would imply that the operational creditors should indeed be in charge of the bankruptcy process.

Posted at 19:46 on Fri, 25 Dec 2015     View/Post Comments (1)     permanent link


Wed, 23 Dec 2015

Have Indian banks gone berserk on FATCA?

Under the US FATCA Act and the related Inter-Governmental Agreement between India and the US, banks and other financial institutions in India are required to report information about accounts held with them by US persons or entities controlled by US persons. All the documents that I have read are clear that this should not affect Indian citizens who are tax resident in India. But I find Indian banks and financial institutions send out notices demanding complex information and threatening closure of accounts to Indian citizens resident in India.

I am not a lawyer, but both Rule 114H(3) and the RBI Guidance Notes are very clear that banks should seek information from the account holder only if any of the indicia of foreign citizenship or foreign tax residence are present. The indicia include:

In the cases that I am referring to, the account is fully KYC compliant, the Indian address and identity documents are on record with the bank, and none of the other indicia are present, and still the FATCA notice is being sent. In one case, where the Indian citizen and Indian resident account holder was threatened with closure of account, I spent several minutes struggling to understand the complex form in which information was sought before realizing that the form that had been sent to an individual account holder was the form relevant for legal entities! Surely, a bank should know whether its customer is an individual or a corporate entity. But this elementary confusion had caused the bank to apply the $250,000 threshold applicable to legal entities for identifying “high value” accounts instead of the $1 million threshold applicable to individuals. It is another matter that even if it was classified as a “high value” account, the FATCA notice should not have been sent because the bank knew that none of the indicia were present.

I think tax terrorism by governments in both hemispheres of the world has become so severe that banks would rather harass their customers needlessly and go berserk with enforcing non existent compliance requirements than risk being held guilty of any shortfall in compliance. Perhaps some customers should sue the banks for sending baseless threatening letters so that banks would start doing what is required by law – neither more nor less.

Posted at 12:23 on Wed, 23 Dec 2015     View/Post Comments (0)     permanent link


Sun, 20 Dec 2015

Data access controls within banks

An order last month by the UK Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) against Barclays Bank highlights the problems faced by banks and other financial services firms in controlling the access that their employees have to customer data. I have long heard complaints about this: for example, some bank employees keep telling me that as soon as their bonus is paid to them, other employees with access to the core banking software can find out the exact quantum of this bonus.

Now we have confirmation that when one of the largest banks in the world wants to limit who can see the information about a customer, the best they can do is to go back to paper hard copies stored in a vault.

The FCA order refers to a £1.88 billion transaction that Barclays was doing for a group of ultra-high net worth Politically Exposed Persons (PEPs) who wanted a very high degree of confidentiality:

Prior to Barclays arranging the Transaction, Barclays agreed to enter into the Confidentiality Agreement which sought to keep knowledge of the Clients’ identity restricted to a very limited number of people within Barclays and its advisers. In the event that Barclays breached these confidentiality obligations, it would be required to indemnify the Clients up to £37.7 million. The terms of the Confidentiality Agreement were onerous and were considered by Barclays to be an unprecedented concession for clients who wished to preserve their confidentiality. (Para 4.11)

In view of these confidentiality requirements, Barclays determined that details of the Clients and the Transaction should not be kept on its computer systems. (Para 4.12)

Barclays decided to omit the names of the Clients from its internal electronic systems in order to comply with the terms of the Confidentiality Agreement. As a result, automated checks that would typically have been carried out against the Clients’ names were not undertaken. Such checks would have included regular overnight screenings of client names against sanctions and court order lists. If, for example, the Clients had become the subjects of law enforcement proceedings in any jurisdiction, Barclays could have been unaware of such a development. No adequate alternative manual process for carrying out such checks was established by Barclays. (Para 4.49)

Some documents relating to the Business Relationship were held by Barclays in hard copy in a safe purchased specifically for storing information relating to the Business Relationship. This was Barclays’ alternative to storing the records electronically. While there is nothing inherently wrong with keeping documents in hard copy, they must be easily identifiable and retrievable. However, few people within Barclays knew of the existence and location of the safe. (Para 4.52)

I am sure that 130,000 clients of HSBC Private Bank in Switzerland (now accused of evading taxes in their home countries) wish that their data too was kept in paper form in a vault beyond the reach of Falciani’s hacking skills.

More seriously, banks need to rethink the way they maintain customer confidentiality. With anywhere banking, far too many employees have access to the complete data of every customer. A lot of progress can be made with some very simple access control principles:

  1. Every access to customer information must be logged to provide a detailed audit trail of who, when, what and why. Ideally, the customer should have access to a suitably anonymously form of these logs.

  2. Every access must require justification in terms of a specific task falling within the accessor's job profile.

  3. Every access request should only result in the minimal information required to complete the task for which the access is requested.

For example, a customer comes to a branch (assuming such archaic things still exist) for a cash withdrawal. The cashier requests access by providing details of the requested withdrawal; and the system accepts the request because it is part of the cashier's job to process these withdrawals (Principle #2). The system responds with only a yes or a no: either the customer has sufficient balance to allow this withdrawal or not. The actual balance is not provided to the cashier (Principle #3). It should be emphasized that without Principle #1 and #2, the cashier could make repeated queries with different hypothetical withdrawal amounts and guess the true balance within a relatively small range using what computer scientists would recognize as a binary search method.

In my view, access controls are easy to implement if banks decide to prioritize (or regulators decide to enforce) customer confidentiality. However access controls have their limits and cryptographic tools are indispensable to achieve more complex objectives. Banks need to promote further research into these tools in order to make them usable for their needs:

I think the time has come for consumers and regulators to start demanding that banks pay greater attention to customer confidentiality. Actually, there is a similar problem in regulatory and self-regulatory organizations. For example, the surveillance staff in a stock exchange (and in the capital market regulator) have access to too much information and there is immense scope for abuse of this information. Mathematics (in the form of cryptography) gives us the tools required to solve many of these problems; we just need the will to use these tools.

Posted at 17:04 on Sun, 20 Dec 2015     View/Post Comments (0)     permanent link


Sat, 12 Dec 2015

HBOS: An old fashioned bank failure

Most of the bank failures of the Global Financial Crisis involved complex products or an excessive reliance on markets rather than good old banking relationships. The HBOS failure as described in last month's 400 page report by the UK regulators (PRA and FCA) is quite different. One could almost say that this was a German or Japanese style relationship bank.

The report describes the approach of the Corporate Division where most of the losses arose:

The often-quoted approach of the division was to be a relationship bank that would ‘lend through the cycle’. Elsewhere the division’s approach had been called ‘counter-cyclical’. This was described as standing by and supporting existing customers through difficult times, while continuing to lend to those good opportunities that could be found. The division claimed it had a deep knowledge of the customers and markets in which it operated, which would enable it to pursue this approach with minimal threat to the Group. It was an approach that was felt to have served BoS well in the early 1990s downturn. (Para 274)

What could go wrong with such old fashioned banking? The answer is very simple:

Taking into account renting, hotels and construction, the firm’s overall exposure to property and related assets increases to £68 billion or 56% of the portfolio. (para 285)

And in some ways, relationship banking made things worse:

The top 30 exposures included a number of individual high-profile businessmen. Many of these had been customers of the division for many years, some going back to the BoS pre-merger. True to the division’s banking philosophy, it had supported these customers as they grew and expanded their businesses. However, business growth and expansion sometimes meant a change in business model to become significant property investors; not necessarily the original core business and expertise of the borrower. In the crisis, a number of these businessmen, though not all, incurred losses on their property investments. (Para 318)

When you as a bank lend a big chunk of your balance sheet into a bubble, it does not matter whether you are a transaction bank or a relationship bank: you are well on your way to failure. (If you do not want to jump to conclusions based on one bank, a recent BIS Working Paper on US commercial banks studies all bank failures in the US during the Great Recession and comes to a very similar conclusion).

Posted at 22:04 on Sat, 12 Dec 2015     View/Post Comments (0)     permanent link