Sunday, October 15, 2017

Can We have an ETF Meltdown?

What is the magic that allows us to have intraday liquidity through an ETF on a market that itself trades more or less by appointment?  Case in point: the high yield bond market.  Or emerging markets. Or just about any bond market short of sovereigns and maybe agencies.

Suppose there is a sudden rush for the exits in the high yield bond market. Those in the cash bonds know the drill. They will put in orders with the bank/dealer market makers. For a while those high yield bond trading desks will buy the bonds and hold them in inventory. But it won't take long for the trading desks to reach their capacity. After that point, they won't be buyers. They will act as agent -- also knows as riskless principal -- and look for someone on the other side of the trade. In the meantime the seller has to bide its time. The point is that on the cash bond side, it is not an intraday sort of a transaction. It can take days to find the other side for the trade. And anyone who is active in the high yield bond market knows that, so they structure their leverage and liquidity accordingly.

However, those in the ETFs by and large have no inkling that this is the way the market for high yield bonds works. As far as they can tell, the ETFs trade like an S&P 500 stock. You put in an order to sell, and you are done in minutes.

The reason there is typically high liquidity in the ETFs is that there is typically good two-way flow. And beyond the buyers and sellers are what are called authorized participants. The authorized participants keep the ETFs linked to the underlying cash bonds. They can create ETFs by buying up and bundling the underlying bonds, and they can take in the ETFs and unbundle them and sell the underlying bonds. In a functioning, two-way market, this all works the way arbitrage does for equities indexes. If the ETFs are at too high a price relative to the cash bonds, they grab the cash bonds to create and sell ETFs. If the ETFs are at too low a price relative to the cash bonds, they buy the ETFs and take the bonds to sell in the bank/dealer market.

It sounds simple, but it can't really be foolproof. You know there must be something that can go wrong when you have an instrument -- the high yield bond ETF -- that is as liquid as water even though the bonds it contains are almost the definition of an illiquid security. There is something akin to trying to cheat the law of conservation of momentum. And we all know that anytime something depends on some notion of arbitrage, things can go off the rails. I was in the middle of the portfolio insurance problems that led to the market crash in October, 1987. I knew all about option theory, but when the market was in free fall and the bid-offer spread for the S&P 500 futures was over a dollar, no one was in the mood to try to keep prices in line by doing delta hedging. Options traded in their own world. Implied volatilities were 80% and higher. The option market went into rotation -- trading one stock at a time throughout the day.

For the ETFs, things can go off the rails if the authorized participants can't do their job. If there is not a two-way market, and if the authorized participants' inventory is filled up with ETFs, and if they see that it will take days to get the bonds off of their hands, at the very time that prices are going crazy, they will be stepping away. At that point there is nothing tethering the ETFs to the cash market. The ETF market and the high yield bond market will each trade as their own thing, based on who needs to sell and who is there to buy. At that point it might as well be one market for Martian gravel and another for Enceladian ice cones.

Sure, that is taking it a little too far. There will be some real money investors who will finally step in and keep things from moving into a totally imaginary world. But for the time being the ETF market will, for all practical purposes, shut down. And, getting to the next chapter in this story, it is the "for all practical purposes" that matters.

A clear-thinking, experienced investor in, say, an ETF on an equity market index or gold or currency will not be bothered much by the failure of the high yield bond ETFs. They will get the point that the high yield ETF was creating a fiction of liquidity when there wasn't any, whereas in these equity and currency and commodity markets the underlying markets trade with pretty much the same liquidity as the ETF. But for many investors, all they will hear is that ETFs are in trouble. In the face of the major market dislocation in which the high yield bond problems are likely to be embroiled, people are already going to be in risk-off mode, and if they smell some sort of structural risk with these "newfangled ETFs" they will sell them, period. And there will be plenty of sources out there ready to spread the view that something is amiss.

And, getting to Soros's theory of reflexivity, the changing expectations that come from people in the market buying into this view means that those clear-thinking experienced investors will get out of these more liquid ETFs themselves. And if the authorized participants are still up for doing their job in those markets, that selling will feed back to drop the underlying markets in equities, currencies, and commodities.




Sunday, October 1, 2017

Out-there Scenarios I: ISIS is Funded by a Major Asset Management Firm

I break risk management into three levels, Versions 1.0, 2.0, and 3.0.

Risk Management 1.0 is the standard risk management of VaR and the like, where history is used as a guide, and thus where things work if the future is drawn from the same distribution as the past. Any approach that is looking at risks historically, whether using past prices or variance-covariance relationships or leverage numbers or credit ratings; whether using a normal distribution or a t distribution or a gamma distribution or a part of a distribution like semi-variance, is part of this.  If the future looks like the past in some specific ways, it works; if the futures deviates from the past it might not work.

Risk Management 2.0 is a reaction to the fact that the 1.0 methods failed during the 2008 crisis.  This failure is not surprising or unexpected by most of those working in risk management, because we understand the assumptions behind Version 1.0.  But sometimes this was not articulated well when the numbers were passed up the chain.  In any case, after 2008 risk management started to depend more visibly on stress testing. I say "more visibly" because anyone doing risk management over the past decades has done stress testing in one form or another. Certainly when there are non-linear risk-return tradeoffs, like with option exposures, it is a standard method.  But after 2008 it became de rigor in the analysis of bank risk, for example using CCAR.

And there is Risk Management 3.0, which I won't get into here.  It recognizes that a static stress will miss important dynamics that lead to feedback, contagion, and cascades.  And it is not something that can be readily addressed with the standard economics. You can check out my book, The End of Theory, or some of my papers while I was at the Office of Financial Research to get more on this.

Here I am focused on what we need to do before we can get to these dynamics: We need to know what is triggering a market dislocation. And we are particularly interested in triggers that are large in either magnitude or in the number of agents that are affected.  So even before worrying about the methods for dealing with crisis dynamics, the question to ask is: What can go wrong in a really big way.

I sometimes get at this by starting with something really extreme, and then dialing it back until it can be considered as a reasonable scenario. Reasonable does not mean it is likely to happen, but it also is not "what if an asteroid hits New York" either. Anyway, I want to run through some of the extreme scenarios that I have been thinking about. I'll put one out here and see if anyone responds, either with comments on it in particular, or with others that they are cooking up in a similar vein.

So, Out-there Scenario I: A large asset manager is rumored to be funding ISIS.

Suppose a rumor goes viral that a very large asset management firm is actually owned by, or at least is funding ISIS. This hits all the usual fake news outlets, and is then, of course, bounces into the real news if only as a "there is a rumor, unsubstantiated, making the rounds that...." The result will be large scale redemptions in that asset manager. This will start a downdraft in the markets. It will also lead to questions about other asset managers, and redemptions there as well. The resulting cascade could spread across the markets, erode confidence, and become a major market event.

Now, of course (at least I hope it is obvious) I am not saying specifically that this rumor is likely. But start with this and, as I suggested above, dial it down a bit. The point is, we can come up with scenarios where there can be massive redemptions in some particular major asset manager, and they can be exogenous to anything in the market, and on the face of it might be unreasonable.

One argument against this path to major redemptions hitting the market is that people can redeem by moving their holdings to another asset manager. If they do that there will be no actual selling of assets, and no market impact. This is the way investors will redeem if they continue to want to hold the assets and if they operate with professional aplomb. But the sort of people who would buy into a rumor like this are also likely to simply say, "give me my money", and then figure out what to do after that.

A little footnote: A few years ago the Office of Financial Research did a research study of the asset management community, with the key question being whether the largest asset should be SIFIs (systemically important financial institutions). The report was castigated, especially by the SEC, mostly, I think, because the SEC was honed for inter-agency rivalry. But in any case, no one threw the ISIS scenario into the report.


Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Risk Management in the Long Term

I work in a pension fund. And pension funds, as well as sovereign wealth funds -- which are like pension funds for an entire country -- need to take the long view. The liabilities can stretch out for twenty or thirty years. And a lot can happen in between. But some of this is not too hard to divine. In fact, ironically, the issues that extend to the long term are in some ways more predictable than those of the shorter term. Things like demographics, changes in demand due to the adoption of new technology, fixed income of retirement, and, unfortunately, climate change.

The thing about demographics is that you get plenty of warning. If the driving issue for risk is what twenty year-olds are up to, you get to know how many twenty year-olds you will be dealing with twenty years ahead of time. (Excluding immigration.) And, similarly, you have a pretty good head start in knowing what lies ahead as people retire, like, that they will live longer, and that there is a sizable group that does not have enough between savings (which is close to zero) and social security and pensions (which averages under $20K a year) to make a go of it.

Demographics is a slow motion tidal wave that washes over society. Look at how our institutions have changed as the baby boomers moved into school age (remember split sessions as elementary schools became overcrowded ) and then college age, and then became home buyers. And now they are moving into retirement, an age of dissaving, of heading off to Florida, and of consuming more and more health care resources. Will we soon see in reverse the housing boom that occurred when the baby boomers reached house-buying age. Will the cash strapped Millennials be able to pick up the inventory? In a time when dining rooms and living rooms are the housing equivalent of an appendix, will there be demand for what will be coming onto the market?

We don't know what lies ahead for technological innovation, but we do know the longer-term trend as the technology that we already have is improved and adopted. Jobs in transportation will shrink. Jobs generally will shrink. The oil, insurance, and auto industries will face huge disruption. The wonders of innovation will meet the realities of political will. The winner-takes-all business models, Amazon being the dominant case, will find increasing headwinds from the regulators and lawmakers.

What is true for the path of demographics is also true for climate change. We have a pretty good read on the direction, if not the magnitude, of climate change. There has been so much energy expended in fighting the pushback on whether climate change is real that we haven't had the energy to contemplate the full implications of its course. If you want to get a scary version of what can happen, read the New York Magazine article The Uninhabitable Earth. The author spoke to climate scientists about their views of the future, views that they generally do not share publicly because it is hard enough to put the simple, non-dire view out there without dodging tomatoes. The dire-view list includes, section by section in the article: heat death, the end of food, climate plagues, unbreathable air, perpetual war, permanent economic collapse, and poisoned oceans.

Where does all this lead? To something that is more concerning (well, not as concerning as heat death, the end of food, and the rest) than the trends themselves: social revolt. The ushering in of the industrial age had its Karl Marx and its hundred years of revolution rolling across the globe. What will we see rolling across the globe when the broadly predictable demographic, retirement, employment, and climate trends take their course during the next decades? (And I haven't even discussed the implications of all of this for rising inequality and marginalization.) When we have a younger generation trying to support an older one that outnumbers it by some multiple; when it is doing so without being able to find meaningful (or just about any) jobs; where the retirees do not have the wherewithal for self support; all with the backdrop of a climate that is making the earth uninhabitable in multiple ways?

Has the UFC Jumped the Shark?

Now, in the middle of hurricanes, Trump, and a (possibly) overheated stock market, here's a blog about something different and somewhat inconsequential: The mixed martial arts world, which pretty much means the UFC.

I have been interested in martial arts for a long time -- I have been training in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu for over twenty years -- and have enjoyed the increasing interest in mixed martial arts. But about a year ago the dominant organization for mixed martial arts was purchased by a consortium of WME and IMG for a staggering $4 billion. These are organizations that are not focused on sports, but on entertainment, and the UFC has followed the lead to increasingly become an entertainment enterprise. 

In its first incarnation, the UFC was a little better than a refereed bar fight. Such as it was, these fights are what got me interested in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, because Royce Gracie, a member of the famous Gracie clan that brought BJJ to the U.S., defeated opponent after opponent regardless of the size differential using these ground-based techniques. I train at his nephew Renzo Gracie's academy in New York (I'm bottom right, Renzo is two to the left of me).

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Then in 2001 the UFC was bought by the Fertittas brothers, and it was rebuilt as a serious sports enterprise. Over time it attracted top athletes, first men, and then women, most famously Ronda Rousey, that fought in weight classes built on a professional structure. 

But if you want to recoup that sort of investment, you have to reach for a broader audience. You have to create buzz and spectacle. The poster child for this, of course, is the fight between Floyd Mayweather and Connor McGregor. This fight pitted two men who were undefeated in the boxing ring.  One with a 49-0 record, the other undefeated for the same reason that I remain undefeated as a professional boxer. He had never been in the ring. 

This fight looked more interesting than it fundamentally was. Mayweather promised to give the spectators a show, and the match lasted for ten rounds of boxing action. In part because Mayweather didn't bother to throw punches for the first rounds, and then let the exhausted Connor gamely trudge on until he leveled him with a barrage. The slow start could be chalked up to caution on Mayweather's part, making sure he understood an opponent that he had never seen in the ring before. Or it could be that he didn't want fans who spent hundreds of million of dollars to watch the fight head home after a few minutes. 

This fight will mark the turning point, when the sport, at least in its most popular venue, will have jumped the shark. Former UFC champion Benson Henderson put it succinctly, "It's a very slippery slope when you have a world champion boxer fighting an MMA guy for the sake of money, and he can't knock him out in the first round," Henderson said. "He has to make sure he carries him a little bit. For me, that's too close to skirting the edge [of a fixed fight].

Now Paulie Malignaggi, a sparring partner for McGregor and world champion in two weight divisions before retiring earlier this year, has been trying to get into the circus by fueling demand for a grudge match with McGregor based on a falling out after a video appeared that showed Malignaggi hitting the canvas during a sparring session. He argued it was a push, McGregor's camp called it a knock down. 

In any case, there is more showmanship where this is coming from. With Mayweather versus McGregor we had boxer versus MMA fighter.  But before that, we had the WWE star CM Punk come into the UFC octagon to get destroyed (surprise) by a UFC professional of no particular note. We are having a fight of 38 year-old Michael Bisping, who last fought a year ago, versus 36 year-old George St-Pierre, who retired five years ago. And we have another MMA versus pro wrestling bout being bandied about between Jon Jones and Brock Lesner. There is a huge weight discrepancy between them, so maybe it will be billed as David versus Goliath. It also could be billed along some lines related to the fact that both fighters have been banned from legitimate fights for failing drug tests. 

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Megalomaniac

Many of us wonder what drives President Trump.  Or more uncharitably, what is the nature of his mental instability. The natural place to turn is the psychiatric community, but they have walled themselves off from the discussion because of the American Psychiatric Associations's Goldwater Rule, which prohibits them from diagnosing anyone they have not personally examined. Now a few people are peeking out from that wall.

In an Op-Ed piece yesterday in the New York Times, under the cover of a broad discussion of how decisions should be made on whether someone, say Trump, is unfit to govern, the authors, two psychiatrists, (one by the way a Democrat and the other a Republican), wrote this:

"Today, diagnosis is often linked to observable traits, making evaluation at a distance plausible. Even if Mr. Trump refused to cooperate, diagnosis might be the easy part — perhaps too easy. Whether or not they can say so, many experts believe that Mr. Trump has a narcissistic personality disorder." 

Starting with this opening, we have a comment from a reader, a professor emeritus of psychology, featured as one of the NYT picks, who wrote that "Donald Trump, in words and behavior, has every single symptom needed for an unequivocal diagnosis of Narcissistic Personality Disorder according to the latest diagnostic manual (DSM-V) of the American Psychiatric Association." 

I have heard people casually being described as narcissists, so I checked out what Narcissistic Personality Disorder really is. In the Wikipedia entry, the first thing I saw is a synonym: Megalomania. This does not bode well -- it is one thing call someone a narcissist, or to go further and have a serious clinical discussion a personality disorder.  It is another to be saying, in different words, that your country is run by a megalomaniac. 

Then I skipped down to the symptoms:

  1. Grandiosity with expectations of superior treatment from others
  2. Fixated on fantasies of power, success, intelligence, attractiveness, etc.
  3. Self-perception of being unique, superior and associated with high-status people and institutions
  4. Needing constant admiration from others
  5. Sense of entitlement to special treatment and to obedience from others
  6. Exploitative of others to achieve personal gain
  7. Unwilling to empathize with others' feelings, wishes, or needs
  8. Intensely envious of others and the belief that others are equally envious of them
  9. Pompous and arrogant demeanor

Reflecting on these symptoms, I would submit that there is more clarity for a diagnosis of President Trump based on his observed behavior over the course of his presidency than there would be by having a personal examination by a psychiatrist. Trump is mentally ill, the diagnosis is clear, and it is time for those in the psychiatric community to come forward. Literally, our country is being run by a megalomaniac. 

Friday, August 4, 2017

I'm going to start blogging again

I stopped doing posts on this blog in 2014. I found it too time consuming, and I had painted myself into a corner by the narrow topics, the tone, and the article-like discourse.  So I'm going to do a reset. I will just throw things out there that are on my mind, crafted to be one step better than stream of conciousness.  It will be more like Tweets without the character constraint.  At least that is my plan.

For now, as those of you who have found their way to this post might know, I came out with a new book a few months ago called The End of Theory. (I hate linking to Amazon, but that is where people will end up going.)

When I started it, my objective was to explain the use of agent-based modeling to deal with financial crises. I had been working on this at the Office of Financial Research. But in order to motivate the use of this new method, I felt I should explain why economics could not do the job. That took on a life of its own, and by the time I was done my "how-to" book on agent-based modeling had expanded to be a critique of neoclassical economics with the agent-based model proposed as a replacement -- a new paradigm.

I wish I had taken notes as I went along so I could figure out how the book morphed from my original intent. But in any case, I am proud of the end result, and I hope you will find it thought-provoking.

To get a sense of the ideas behind the book, here is a recent interview I gave for The Institute for New Economic Thinking which gets to the key themes.

And, for a more in-depth treatment, here is the webcast of a talk I gave in June at the OECD.