Eugene Linden
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Matt Taibbi, a journalist whose writing I admire, has joined the throng decrying the hypocrisy of pundits who write on the pages of the Washington Post (owned by a billionaire) that if billionaire Elon Musk buys Twitter it will be a threat to democracy. This is too glib. The problem isn’t b...



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Affluence and Discontent
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Apes, Men, & Language
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Monday September 17, 2012

On a recent conference call, the strategist of a major international bank (it was an off-the-record call for clients only) laid out the bare bones of what he called the world’s “giant experiment” in debt and interest rates. Never before have so many countries maintained such low base rates for so long; never before in peacetime have so many countries had such huge deficits and debt burdens; never before in U.S.  history had long term rates been so low; never before has the U.S. gone so many decades without deflation following inflation. Because we live in these unprecedented times, it’s easy to lose sight just our strange they are… and how dangerous.
Consider just one small piece of this brave new world: What happens when the huge preponderance of the global financial market under prices risk?  To add to the list offered by the strategist: Never before has so much debt been referenced to benchmarks that price debt too low for their inherent risks. The distortions of this unique situation have been well-documented – underfunded pensions and impoverished retirees for instance -- but reversion to the fair pricing of risk would almost certainly crater the global financial system and governments around the world.
This leaves us in an exquisitely cruel predicament. An underpinning of any sustainable financial system is the proper pricing of risk. If I am going to loan you money, the interest rate I charge will reflect what kind of return I can fairly demand (assuming that the borrower can turn to someone else if I charge too much) given all the different factors that might prevent me from being repaid in full.  For any given financial instrument, these factors might include the quality of collateral, inflation expectations, the character of the borrower, and a host of other factors including the political stability of the borrower’s home country. To the degree that I charge too low an interest rate I am subsidizing the borrower, assuming a portion of risk that the borrower is not paying for, and increasing the likelihood that I will not be repaid in full.
That’s where we are right now, with every lender, depositor and investor in the developed world (which includes most of us when we consider pension funds and insurers) blithely assuming much more risk than we are being compensated for. This has allowed, actually encouraged, the entire developed world to pile on debt at levels without precedent. When events force a settling of this world-wide mispricing, we risk the mother of all financial crises. Will it be hyperinflation as governments try to devalue debt burdens, a deflationary spiral and credit freeze as floating rates soar to try and catch up, or all of the above?
Naturally, all of this has been done by design. On the one hand, central banks around the world have for years been pursuing policy rates at or near zero (nicknamed ZIRP or Zero Interest Rate Policy) since 2008 (and long before in the case of Japan), ostensibly to encourage profitable lending in order to restore vigor to economies. Through programs such as Operation Twist in the U.S. and the LTRO (Long Term Refinancing Operation) in Europe, central banks have also sought to supply liquidity and bring down long-term rates. Thus the vast universe of both high yield and investment grade bonds, priced more to their spread from treasuries than for nominal yield, underprices risk to the degree that fed actions underprice the risk in U.S. sovereign debt.
Then, as we discovered this year, LIBOR, an unofficial rate inaugurated in 1986 to reflect the price that the biggest banks pay to borrow from each other, also has been manipulated to understate the risks bank see in lending to their peers. LIBOR is the benchmark for many trillions of dollars in debt and financial instruments (estimates range up to $800 trillion, a truly ridiculous number that underscores what a monster LIBOR has become). Central bankers in the U.K. and the U.S. have known for at least five years that LIBOR was being manipulated to understate what might constitute a true interbank rate. Mervyn King, a governor of the Bank of England, witheringly described LIBOR in 2008 “as the rate at which banks don’t lend to each other.”
The authorities tolerated this manipulation because they feared then, and still do today, that the real interest rate at which banks would actually lend to each other would be so high as to cause a global panic given the impossibly huge amount to debt benchmarked to LIBOR.Between them, ZIRP and LIBOR affect financial instruments that cover most of the credit waterfront. To paraphrase Jim Grant, much of the developed world lives in a world of return free risk.
All this de facto philanthropy by investors has been a windfall some governments – including the U.S. and Japan -- allowing them to pile on debt without having to commensurately increase the amount they budget for interest. For banks ZIRP has been a mixed blessing. On the one hand, big banks have access to extremely cheap money, but, on the other, the risks of lending in a debt-burdened and bruised economy often don’t justify the meager nominal returns that can be achieved. Also, the tiny margins at the zero bound mean that the short-term collateralized lending that supports money market funds and much of the shadow banking system can become unprofitable in the blink of an eye. Thus, ultralow rates, historically associated with the risk of inflation, can actually withdraw liquidity from the market, and produce a deflationary spiral.
This is just one of the paradoxes of this strange new world. Another is that even as rates suggest that risk has been banished in the 21stcentury, the number of governments and corporations deemed risk free by the rating agencies continues to shrink. According to the New York TIMES, the number of AAA rated corporations in the U.S. has dropped from in the 60s in the 1980s to just four today. The number of Triple A-Rated sovereigns shrinks apace. One reason for the parsimony in handing out AAA ratings today comes from barn-door closing by the rating agencies after the heady days of the housing bubble when any loan had a bright future as part of a AAA-rated financial instrument thanks to the alchemy of securitization. The continuing global hangover from this historic mispricing (and miss-rating) underscores the misery that follows the misunderstanding of risk.
Why then do financial authorities persist in underpricing risk so soon after that near-death experience? Simply put, we can’t do otherwise. ZIRP and a low low LIBOR push the day of reckoning off into the future, and allow governments and investors to retain the faint hope that some yet to be identified engine of growth will save the day. If, however, interest rates were to rise to discount actual risk, debt service would soar to consume tax revenues for the U.S., Japan, and other profligate governments, a flood of insolvencies would ensue, what little mortgage lending that remains would shrink further (pushing home prices down and further impoverishing households that have seen their net worth plummet since 2008), and economic activity would shrivel throughout the developed world.
Central bankers do have one lucky break that gives them breathing room in this ultimately unsustainable situation: inflation remains far over the horizon. All the money printed around the world really isn’t going anywhere (except to buy up the too-cheap debt issued by governments and agencies). It certainly isn’t going to wages – outsourcing has killed that legacy of the bell-bottom era – and there is plenty of slack capacity that needs to be filled before any developed world economy overheats. Nor is it going into consumption -- most households are still drowning in debt, which limits their desire to spend, even if people could qualify for additional credit. 
So, the Federal Reserve continues to push out the date, currently 2015 and counting, at which they say they will wean the economy from ZIRP, and LIBOR remains surreally below a level at which banks might actually lend to each other. Given the alternative, however, who can blame the financial authorities? The only choice seems to be to hold our breath, and hope that no event or mistake causes the ping pong ball to fall on to the table full of mouse traps that now constitutes the global financial system: 

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Short Take

HOW THE OPTIONS TAIL HAS COME TO WAG THE MARKET DOG: A Simple English Language Explanation of How Structural Changes in the Stock Markets Contribute to Whipsaw Movements in Prices.

Lately a string of violent price movements and reversals in the equity markets make it look like the markets are having a nervous breakdown. The last day of trading in April 2022 saw a 939 point drop in the Dow. The day before that, the Dow rose about 625 points, and two days before that it fell over 800 points. The very next week, after two quiet days, the Dow rose over 900 points after the Fed announced its biggest rate hike in 22 years (ordinarily a big negative for the markets), and then, the next day, fell over 1000 points (more on this later).  There have been plenty of headlines – about the Ukraine Invasion, inflation, the threat of a Fed caused recession, supply chain disruptions – to justify increased uncertainty, but the amplitude of the moves (and the sudden reversals) suggest something more may be at work. Here follows an effort to explain in simple language the significant changes in the market that have contributed to this volatility.


“This time it’s different” is perhaps the most dangerous phrase in finance as usually it’s uttered by market cheerleaders just before a bubble bursts. That said, markets do change, and those changes have their impacts. One change in the markets has been the shift from intermediaries (such as brokers) to direct electronic trading, a shift that has made the markets somewhat frictionless, and allowed computer driven funds to do high speed trading. This shift began a couple of decades ago. Today’s markets can move faster than a human can react.


Another shift has been the degree to which passive investing through index funds and algorithmic trading through various quant funds have come to eclipse retail investing and dominate trading. A consequence of this is that to some degree it has mooted individual stock picking because when investors move in or out of index funds, the managers have to buy or sell the stocks held on a pro rata basis and not on individual merit. This change too has been developing over recent decades.


A more recent and consequential shift, however, has been the explosion in the sale of derivatives, particularly options (the right to buy or sell a stock or index at a specified price on or before a specific date). Between 2019 and the end of 2021, the volume of call options (the right to buy a stock at a specified price on or before a particular date) has roughly doubled. During times of volatility, more and more retail and institutional investors now buy calls or puts rather than the stocks. 


Today, trading in options has reached a scale that it affects market moves. A critical factor is the role of the dealers who write options and account for a significant percentage of the options issued. Dealers have been happy to accommodate the growth in option trading by selling calls or puts. This however, makes them essentially short what they have just sold. Normally, this doesn't matter as most options expire out of the money and worthless, leaving the happy dealer to book the premium. Being short options, however, does begin to matter more and more as an option both moves closer to being in the money and closer to expiration. 


This situation is more likely to occur when markets make large and fast moves, situations such as we have today given the pile of major uncertainties. Such moves force dealers to hedge their exposure. 


Here’s how it works. If, for instance, a dealer has sold puts on an index or a stock, as a put comes closer to being in the money (and closer to expiration), the dealer will hedge his short (writing the put) by selling the underlying stock. This has the combined effect of protecting the dealer -- he's hedged his potential losses – while accelerating the downward pressure on the price. In other words, this hedging is pro-cyclical, meaning that the hedging will accelerate a price move in a particular direction.


Traders look at crucial second derivatives of stock prices, referred to by the Greek letters delta and gamma to determine exposure to such squeezes. As an option moves closer to in the money it's delta -- it's price movement relative to the price movement of the underlying, and its gamma -- the rate of change of the delta relative to a one point move in the underlying, both rise. The closer to both the strike price and expiration date, the more the dealer is forced to hedge. The result is what’s called a gamma squeeze. Once the overhang of gamma exposure has been cleared, however, the selling or buying pressure abates, and gamma may flip, with new positioning and hedging done in the opposite direction. The result can be a whipsaw in the larger markets. This same phenomenon can happen with indexes and futures.


How do we know that the hedging of option positioning are contributing to violent price changes and reversals in the market? While not conclusive, perhaps the strongest evidence is that large lopsided agglomerations of options at or near the money have been coincident with surprising market moves as expiration dates approach. In fact, some market players use this data to reposition investments, in effect shifting investment strategy from individual companies to the technical structure of the markets. This is what Warren Buffett was referring to when, at his recent annual meeting, he decried the explosion of options and other Wall Street fads as reducing companies to “poker chips” in a casino.


The week of the May Fed meeting gave us a real-time example of how a market move that looks insane on the surface reflects the underlying positioning in various derivatives. To set the stage: ordinarily, given debt burdens and the threat of recession, the markets would be expected to react badly to a Fed tightening cycle that is accelerated by the biggest rate hike in 22 years. On Wednesday, however, market indices began to soar on Wednesday when Fed Chairman Powell, one half hour after the Fed announced it 50 basis point raise, suggested that the Fed was not considering larger 75 basis point hikes during this tightening cycle. Traders interpreted this as taking the most hawkish scenario off the table. Up to that point, institutions were extremely bearish in their positioning, heavily weighted to puts on indexes and stocks, and also positioned for future rises in volatility in the markets. Right after Powell made his comments, investors started hedging and unwinding this positioning, and all the pro-cyclical elements entailed in this repositioning kicked in. By the end of the day, the technical pressures producing the squeeze had largely abated, setting the stage for a renewed, procyclical push downward the next day, as the negative aspects of the tightening cycle (and other economic headwinds) came to the fore. 


What these violent moves in the market are telling us is that while in the broader sense, this time is not different --the overall sine wave of the market is still that bubbles build and burst -- how the present bubble is bursting may be following a different dynamic than previous episodes. The changes since the great financial crisis-- the rise to dominance of passive trading through indexes and algorithmic trading through various quant strategies – reduced the friction in the markets as well as the value of picking individual companies. Now, the more recent explosion of option issuance, further accelerates market moves, and leads to unpredictable reversals that have to do with option positioning rather than fundamentals such as earnings, politics, or the state of the economy. 


The tail (the options and other derivatives markets) now wags the dog (the equities markets).



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