Massive Fail

I have written a comment letter about the CFTC’s proposed rule on position limits, which I will submit tomorrow.  A draft is here.  It’s fairly long, so I’ll summarize it here.

I have said repeatedly that it is imperative for the Commission to identify the specific problems that it believes position limits will mitigate, and how they will do so.  Creditably, in its NOPR, the Commission does set out specific ways in which large, concentrated positions can inefficiently destabilize markets.  It is best described as a Hunt Brothers scenario, in which a levered player takes a large concentrated position in a market.  Such a leveraged player may be forced to liquidate, and the liquidation of such a large position can cause extreme price moves, and perhaps, pose a systemic risk.

Fair enough.  I’ve written about the Hunts in the past, and have made similar points. So that is a danger.  But crucially, the CFTC does not identify any other ways in which large positions can cause “unwarranted” price fluctuations, which is the basis for its position limit mandate.  Therefore, per the CFTC’s own analysis, its position  limits should focus on addressing a reprise of the Hunt situation.

But the major problem with the CFTC proposal is that it will constrain the trading of many market participants who in no way pose the dangers that neo-Hunts would.  That is, the proposed limits are over-inclusive.

In particular, they will constrain trading by exchange traded funds (ETFs) which are (for the most part) unleveraged.  Indeed most ETFs are completely collateralized.  Moreover, even if an ETF is big, it is different than a single trading entity like the Hunts because ETF trades are driven by the decisions of thousands of ETF investors.

In other words, ETFs are nothing like the kind of speculator–and the only kind of speculator–the CFTC has identified as a danger, but they will suffer collateral damage as a result of the CFTC’s limits.

They will not be the only innocent casualty.  Many other “massive passives”–such as pension funds–will also be affected, even though they do not pose the risks that the Commission uses to justify the imposition of limits.

The problems with the proposal don’t end here.  In particular, although “crowding out” is not explicitly in the new proposal (in contrast to the Commission’s proposal of January 2010), the new proposal has a feature that is just as pernicious, and just as inane: the “within-class” limit.

Due to the powers granted by Frank-n-Dodd, the CFTC now has the power to regulate positions in both OTC swaps and futures, whereas before it only had authority over the latter.  The Commission proposes to create two classes of positions: the futures class and the OTC class.  It proposes several limits imposed on the classes collectively and individually.  For one of the limits, the two classes will be netted against one another, and any speculator must have a net position for all months and a single month that are less than or equal to the speculative limit.  But in addition, each speculator’s OTC position must be smaller than the spec limit, and its futures position must also be smaller than the spec limit.

Here’s the problem.  Assume for simplicity that the limit is 100.   Consider a swap dealer who is short 150 swaps to customers, and hedges this using 150 futures.  This complies with the across-class limit, because it nets out to zero.  But it violates the futures class and the OTC class limits.

This feature therefore limits the ability of intermediaries–swap dealers–to hedge risks.  It is effectively a tax on swap dealers, and will reduce liquidity in the swap market.

There are reasonable grounds to suspect, based on the past statements of some Commissioners, that this is a feature rather than a bug from their perspective.  In my opinion, however, it is flat wrong.  OTC market making is a legitimate activity, and OTC deals (hedged by exchange transactions) are often the most economical way for some market participants to take on the investment or speculative positions they desire.  There is no reason to penalize this activity the way the proposed rule does.

Indeed, by limiting liquidity the rule threatens to exacerbate large price moves in response to shocks.  Prices have to move more in less liquid, less flexible markets in order to accommodate big shocks.  Stifling liquidity through the within-class rules is therefore counterproductive.

I would also note that the Commission provides no economic justification for this restriction.  In particular, it doesn’t even try to show how this restriction addresses the Hunt Problem that is the sole substantive justification for the limits in the first place.

The Commission also fails to justify the size of the limits it proposes, which approach 2.5 percent of open interest for large markets.  To put things in perspective, the Hunts’ position was over 25 percent of the market at times.  So maybe 25 percent held by a single leveraged trader poses a risk: how does that justify a  2.5 percent limit on everybody, including non-leveraged traders who are in fact agents for myriad individuals making independent trading decisions (e.g., ETFs)?

The Commission also fails to recognize that its limits could drive business into the physical markets, thereby distorting prices producers receive and consumers pay.  This is perverse, given that the ostensible purpose of the limits is to prevent and diminish such distortions.

In sum, the non-spot month limit proposal is fundamentally defective.  It identifies a problem, and then identifies a blunderbuss-like “solution” that will hit a lot of trading activity that does not and cannot cause this problem.

The spot-month limits are flawed too, because they are logically inconsistent.  The proposal limits caps spot-month delivery-settled derivatives positions at 25 percent of deliverable supply, but does not explicitly place a cap on the amount of deliverable supply a speculator can hold.  The proposal caps cash-settled positions at 5 times the delivery settled limit, i.e., 125 percent of deliverable supply, and also permits the holder of cash-settled positions to hold 25 percent of deliverable supply.

Spot month limits can be justified as a means of preventing corners.  Well, corners can be carried out by holders of cash-settled positions as well as delivery-settled ones.  Indeed, that happened a lot in the Brent market in the 90s and early-00s, and may in fact be happening right now.  Somebody can manipulate a cash-settled contract by buying excessive quantities in the cash market, driving up prices, and thereby artificially inflating the settlement price of the derivative.

If the objective of the limits is to prevent market power manipulations in both cash-settled and delivery-settled markets, the limits are logically inconsistent.  The delivery-settled limit implicitly assumes that it is possible to distort prices by accumulating less than 25 percent of deliverable supply.  Well, you can do that with the cash-settled contract, and then get a profit on a position that is five times larger.

In sum, the position limit proposal is a good example of bad regulation.  It inflicts harm on “massive passives” (perhaps intentionally) even though this type of trader does not pose the only threat that the Commission has identified: this is a massive fail.

I should also note that the proposed rule provides not a word of justification of the widespread view that speculation caused the price spikes of the 2007-2008 period, or is causing the current runup in commodity prices.  It certainly provides no evidence.  But such price spikes are routinely evoked in Congress, the press, and even in statements by Commissioners, as evidence of the need for such limits.  Since the Commission apparently does not have the confidence in such a belief to include it as a justification for limits in the formal proposed rule, this should play no role in deliberations over the rule going forward.  To do so would be to play bait-and-switch.

Instead, the rule should be evaluated solely on the basis of its efficacy and efficiency in addressing the specific problems with speculation that the Commission has identified.  When this is done, it is clear that the rule is grossly excessive because it impedes legitimate conduct that poses none of the risks that the Commission believes warrant regulation.  The rule should therefore be rejected, and if replaced at all, replaced with something that is targeted at the specific ill that the Commission has diagnosed.

About Craig Pirrong 223 Articles

Affiliation: University of Houston

Dr Pirrong is Professor of Finance, and Energy Markets Director for the Global Energy Management Institute at the Bauer College of Business of the University of Houston. He was previously Watson Family Professor of Commodity and Financial Risk Management at Oklahoma State University, and a faculty member at the University of Michigan, the University of Chicago, and Washington University.

Professor Pirrong's research focuses on the organization of financial exchanges, derivatives clearing, competition between exchanges, commodity markets, derivatives market manipulation, the relation between market fundamentals and commodity price dynamics, and the implications of this relation for the pricing of commodity derivatives. He has published 30 articles in professional publications, is the author of three books, and has consulted widely, primarily on commodity and market manipulation-related issues.

He holds a Ph.D. in business economics from the University of Chicago.

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