Revisiting Financing Blue Economy

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Blue Economy has suffered a definitional crisis ever since it started doing the rounds almost around the turn of the century. So much has it been plagued by this crisis, that even a working definition is acceptable only contextually, and is liable to paradigmatic shifts both littorally and political-economically. 

The United Nations defines Blue Economy as: 

A range of economic sectors and related policies that together determine whether the use of oceanic resources is sustainable. The “Blue Economy” concept seeks to promote economic growth, social inclusion, and the preservation or improvement of livelihoods while at the same time ensuring environmental sustainability of the oceans and coastal areas. 

This definition is subscribed to by even the World Bank, and is commonly accepted as a standardized one since 2017. However, in 2014, United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) had called Blue Economy as

The improvement of human well-being and social equity, while significantly reducing environmental risks and ecological scarcities…the concept of an oceans economy also embodies economic and trade activities that integrate the conservation and sustainable use and management of biodiversity including marine ecosystems, and genetic resources.

Preceding this by three years, the Pacific Small Islands Developing States (Pacific SIDS) referred to Blue Economy as the 

Sustainable management of ocean resources to support livelihoods, more equitable benefit-sharing, and ecosystem resilience in the face of climate change, destructive fishing practices, and pressures from sources external to the fisheries sector. 

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As is noteworthy, these definitions across almost a decade have congruences and cohesion towards promoting economic growth, social inclusion and the preservation or improvement of livelihoods while ensuring environmental sustainability of oceanic and coastal areas, though are markedly mitigated in domains, albeit, only definitionally, for the concept since 2011 till it has been standardized in 2017 doesn’t really knock out any of the diverse components, but rather adds on. Marine biotechnology and bioprospecting, seabed mining and extraction, aquaculture, and offshore renewable energy supplement the established traditional oceanic industries like fisheries, tourism, and maritime transportation into a giant financial and economic appropriation of resources the concept endorses and encompasses. But, a term that threads through the above definitions is sustainability, which unfortunately happens to be another definitional dead-end. But, mapping the contours of sustainability in a theoretical fashion would at least contextualize the working definition of Blue Economy, to which initiatives of financial investments, legal frameworks, ecological deflections, economic zones and trading lines, fisheries, biotechnology and bioprospecting could be approvingly applied to. Though, as a caveat, such applications would be far from being exhaustive, they, at least potentially cohere onto underlying economic directions, and opening up a spectra of critiques. 

If one were to follow global multinational institutions like the UN and the World Bank, prefixing sustainable to Blue Economy brings into perspective coastal economy that balances itself with long-term capacity of assets, goods and services and marine ecosystems towards a global driver of economic, social and environmental prosperity accruing direct and indirect benefits to communities, both regionally and globally. Assuming this to be true, what guarantees financial investments as healthy, and thus proving no risks to oceanic health and rolling back such growth-led development into peril? This is the question that draws paramount importance, and is a hotbed for constructive critique of the whole venture. The question of finance, or financial viability for Blue Economy, or the viability thereof. What is seemingly the underlying principle of Blue Economy is the financialization of natural resources, which is nothing short of replacing environmental regulations with market-driven regulations. This commodification of the ocean is then packaged and traded on the markets often amounting to transferring the stewardship of commons for financial interests. Marine ecology as a natural resource isn’t immune to commodification, and an array of financial agents are making it their indispensable destination, thrashing out new alliances converging around specific ideas about how maritime and coastal resources should be organized, and to whose benefit, under which terms and to what end? A systemic increase in financial speculation on commodities mainly driven by deregulation of derivative markets, increasing involvement of investment banks, hedge funds and other institutional investors in commodity speculation and the emergence of new instruments such as index funds and exchange-traded funds. Financial deregulation has successfully transformed commodities into financial assets, and has matured its penetration into commodity markets and their functioning. This maturity can be gauged from the fact that speculative capital is structurally intertwined with productive capital, which in the case of Blue Economy are commodities and natural resources, most generically. 

But despite these fissures existing, the international organizations are relentlessly following up on attracting finances, and in a manner that could at best be said to follow principles of transparency, accountability, compliance and right to disclosure. The European Commission (EC) is partnering with World Wildlife Fund (WWF) in bringing together public and private financing institutions to develop a set of Principles of Sustainable Investment within a Blue Economy Development Framework. But, the question remains: how stringently are these institutions tied to adhering to these Principles? 

Investors and policymakers are increasingly turning to the ocean for new opportunities and resources. According to OECD projections, by 2030 the “blue economy” could outperform the growth of the global economy as a whole, both in terms of value added and employment. But to get there, there will need to be a framework for ocean-related investment that is supported by policy incentives along the most sustainable pathways. Now, this might sound a bit rhetorical, and thus calls for unraveling. the international community has time and again reaffirmed its strong commitment to conserve and sustainably use the ocean and its resources, for which the formations like G7 and G20 acknowledge scaling up finance and ensuring sustainability of such investments as fundamental to meeting their needs. Investment capital, both public and private is therefore fundamental to unlocking Blue Economy. Even if there is a growing recognition that following “business s usual” trajectory neglects impacts on marine ecosystems entailing risks, these global bodies are of the view that investment decisions that incorporate sustainability elements ensure environmentally, economically and socially sustainable outcomes securing long-term health and integrity of the oceans furthering shared social, ecological and economic functions that are dependent on it. That financial institutions and markets can play this pivotal role only complicates the rhetorics further. Even if financial markets and institutions expressly intend to implement Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), in particular Goal 14 which deals with conservation and sustainable use of the oceans, such intentions to be compliant with IFC performance Standards and EIB Environmental and Social Principles and Standards. 

So far, what is being seen is small ticket size deals, but there is a potential that it will shift on its axis. With mainstream banking getting engaged, capital flows will follow the projects, and thus the real challenge lies in building the pipeline. But, here is a catch: there might be private capital in plentiful seeking impact solutions and a financing needs by projects on the ground, but private capital is seeking private returns, and the majority of ocean-related projects are not private but public goods. For public finance, there is an opportunity to allocate more proceeds to sustainable ocean initiatives through a bond route, such as sovereign and municipal bonds in order to finance coastal resilience projects. but such a route could also encounter a dead-end, in that many a countries that are ripe for coastal infrastructure are emerging economies and would thus incur a high cost of funding. A de-risking is possible, if institutions like the World Bank, or the Overseas Private Investment Corporation undertake credit enhancements, a high probability considering these institutions have been engineering Blue Economy on a priority basis. Global banks are contenders for financing the Blue Economy because of their geographic scope, but then are also likely to be exposed to a new playing field. The largest economies by Exclusive Economic Zones, which are sea zones determined by the UN don’t always stand out as world’s largest economies, a fact that is liable to drawing in domestic banks to collaborate based on incentives offered  to be part of the solution. A significant challenge for private sector will be to find enough cash-flow generating projects to bundle them in a liquid, at-scale investment vehicle. One way of resolving this challenge is through creating a specialized financial institution, like an Ocean Sustainability Bank, which can be modeled on lines of European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD). The plus envisaged by such a creation is arriving at scales rather quickly. An example of this is by offering a larger institutional-sized approach by considering a coastal area as a single investment zone, thus bringing in integrated infrastructure-based financing approach. With such an approach, insurance companies would get attracted by looking at innovative financing for coastal resiliency, which is a part and parcel of climate change concerns, food security, health, poverty reduction and livelihoods. Projects having high social impact but low/no Internal Rate of Return (IRR) may be provided funding, in convergence with Governmental schemes. IRR is a metric used in capital budgeting to estimate the profitability of potential investments. It is a discount rate that makes the net present value (NPV) of all cash flows from a particular project equal to zero. NPV is the difference between the present value of cash inflows and present value of cash outflows over a period of time. IRR is sometimes referred to as “economic rate of return” or “discounted cash flow rate of return.” The use of “internal” refers to the omission of external factors, such as the cost of capital or inflation, from the calculation. The biggest concern, however appears in the form of immaturity of financial markets in emerging economies, which are purported to be major beneficiaries of Blue Economy. 

The question then is, how far viable or sustainable are these financial interventions? Financialization produces effects which can create long-term trends (such as those on functional income distribution) but can also change across different periods of economic growth, slowdown and recession. Interpreting the implications of financialization for sustainability, therefore, requires a methodological diverse and empirical dual-track approach which combines different methods of investigations. Even times of prosperity, despite their fragile and vulnerable nature, can endure for several years before collapsing due to high levels of indebtedness, which in turn amplify the real effects of a financial crisis and hinder the economic growth. Things begin to get a bit more complicated when financialization interferes with environment and natural resources, for then the losses are not just merely on a financial platform alone. Financialization has played a significant role in the recent price shocks in food and energy markets, while the wave of speculative investment in natural resources has and is likely to produce perverse environmental and social impact. Moreover, the so-called financialization of environmental conservation tends to enhance the financial value of environmental resources but it is selective: not all stakeholders have the same opportunities and not all uses and values of natural resources and services are accounted for. 

Statistical Arbitrage. Thought of the Day 123.0

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In the perfect market paradigm, assets can be bought and sold instantaneously with no transaction costs. For many financial markets, such as listed stocks and futures contracts, the reality of the market comes close to this ideal – at least most of the time. The commission for most stock transactions by an institutional trader is just a few cents a share, and the bid/offer spread is between one and five cents. Also implicit in the perfect market paradigm is a level of liquidity where the act of buying or selling does not affect the price. The market is composed of participants who are so small relative to the market that they can execute their trades, extracting liquidity from the market as they demand, without moving the price.

That’s where the perfect market vision starts to break down. Not only does the demand for liquidity move prices, but it also is the primary driver of the day-by-day movement in prices – and the primary driver of crashes and price bubbles as well. The relationship between liquidity and the prices of related stocks also became the primary driver of one of the most powerful trading models in the past 20 years – statistical arbitrage.

If you spend any time at all on a trading floor, it becomes obvious that something more than information moves prices. Throughout the day, the 10-year bond trader gets orders from the derivatives desk to hedge a swap position, from the mortgage desk to hedge mortgage exposure, from insurance clients who need to sell bonds to meet liabilities, and from bond mutual funds that need to invest the proceeds of new accounts. None of these orders has anything to do with information; each one has everything to do with a need for liquidity. The resulting price changes give the market no signal concerning information; the price changes are only the result of the need for liquidity. And the party on the other side of the trade who provides this liquidity will on average make money for doing so. For the liquidity demander, time is more important than price; he is willing to make a price concession to get his need fulfilled.

Liquidity needs will be manifest in the bond traders’ own activities. If their inventory grows too large and they feel overexposed, they will aggressively hedge or liquidate a portion of the position. And they will do so in a way that respects the liquidity constraints of the market. A trader who needs to sell 2,000 bond futures to reduce exposure does not say, “The market is efficient and competitive, and my actions are not based on any information about prices, so I will just put those contracts in the market and everybody will pay the fair price for them.” If the trader dumps 2,000 contracts into the market, that offer obviously will affect the price even though the trader does not have any new information. Indeed, the trade would affect the market price even if the market knew the selling was not based on an informational edge.

So the principal reason for intraday price movement is the demand for liquidity. This view of the market – a liquidity view rather than an informational view – replaces the conventional academic perspective of the role of the market, in which the market is efficient and exists solely for conveying information. Why the change in roles? For one thing, it’s harder to get an information advantage, what with the globalization of markets and the widespread dissemination of real-time information. At the same time, the growth in the number of market participants means there are more incidents of liquidity demand. They want it, and they want it now.

Investors or traders who are uncomfortable with their level of exposure will be willing to pay up to get someone to take the position. The more uncomfortable the traders are, the more they will pay. And well they should, because someone else is getting saddled with the risk of the position, someone who most likely did not want to take on that position at the existing market price. Thus the demand for liquidity not only is the source of most price movement; it is at the root of most trading strategies. It is this liquidity-oriented, tectonic market shift that has made statistical arbitrage so powerful.

Statistical arbitrage originated in the 1980s from the hedging demand of Morgan Stanley’s equity block-trading desk, which at the time was the center of risk taking on the equity trading floor. Like other broker-dealers, Morgan Stanley continually faced the problem of how to execute large block trades efficiently without suffering a price penalty. Often, major institutions discover they can clear a large block trade only at a large discount to the posted price. The reason is simple: Other traders will not know if there is more stock to follow, and the large size will leave them uncertain about the reason for the trade. It could be that someone knows something they don’t and they will end up on the wrong side of the trade once the news hits the street. The institution can break the block into a number of smaller trades and put them into the market one at a time. Though that’s a step in the right direction, after a while it will become clear that there is persistent demand on one side of the market, and other traders, uncertain who it is and how long it will continue, will hesitate.

The solution to this problem is to execute the trade through a broker-dealer’s block-trading desk. The block-trading desk gives the institution a price for the entire trade, and then acts as an intermediary in executing the trade on the exchange floor. Because the block traders know the client, they have a pretty good idea if the trade is a stand-alone trade or the first trickle of a larger flow. For example, if the institution is a pension fund, it is likely it does not have any special information, but it simply needs to sell the stock to meet some liability or to buy stock to invest a new inflow of funds. The desk adjusts the spread it demands to execute the block accordingly. The block desk has many transactions from many clients, so it is in a good position to mask the trade within its normal business flow. And it also might have clients who would be interested in taking the other side of the transaction.

The block desk could end up having to sit on the stock because there is simply no demand and because throwing the entire position onto the floor will cause prices to run against it. Or some news could suddenly break, causing the market to move against the position held by the desk. Or, in yet a third scenario, another big position could hit the exchange floor that moves prices away from the desk’s position and completely fills existing demand. A strategy evolved at some block desks to reduce this risk by hedging the block with a position in another stock. For example, if the desk received an order to buy 100,000 shares of General Motors, it might immediately go out and buy 10,000 or 20,000 shares of Ford Motor Company against that position. If news moved the stock price prior to the GM block being acquired, Ford would also likely be similarly affected. So if GM rose, making it more expensive to fill the customer’s order, a position in Ford would also likely rise, partially offsetting this increase in cost.

This was the case at Morgan Stanley, where there were maintained a list of pairs of stocks – stocks that were closely related, especially in the short term, with other stocks – in order to have at the ready a solution for partially hedging positions. By reducing risk, the pairs trade also gave the desk more time to work out of the trade. This helped to lessen the liquidity-related movement of a stock price during a big block trade. As a result, this strategy increased the profit for the desk.

The pairs increased profits. Somehow that lightbulb didn’t go on in the world of equity trading, which was largely devoid of principal transactions and systematic risk taking. Instead, the block traders epitomized the image of cigar-chewing gamblers, playing market poker with millions of dollars of capital at a clip while working the phones from one deal to the next, riding in a cloud of trading mayhem. They were too busy to exploit the fact, or it never occurred to them, that the pairs hedging they routinely used held the secret to a revolutionary trading strategy that would dwarf their desk’s operations and make a fortune for a generation of less flamboyant, more analytical traders. Used on a different scale and applied for profit making rather than hedging, their pairwise hedges became the genesis of statistical arbitrage trading. The pairwise stock trades that form the elements of statistical arbitrage trading in the equity market are just one more flavor of spread trades. On an individual basis, they’re not very good spread trades. It is the diversification that comes from holding many pairs that makes this strategy a success. But even then, although its name suggests otherwise, statistical arbitrage is a spread trade, not a true arbitrage trade.

Bear Stearns. Note Quote.

Like many of its competitors, Bear Stearns saw the rise of the hedge fund industry during the 1990s and began managing its own funds with outside investor capital under the name Bear Stearns Asset Management (BSAM). Unlike its competitors, Bear hired all of its fund managers internally, with each manager specializing in a particular security or asset class. Objections by some Bear executives, such as co-president Alan Schwartz, that such concentration of risk could raise volatility were ignored, and the impressive returns posted by internal funds such as Ralph Cioffi’s High-Grade Structured Credit Strategies Fund quieted any concerns.

Cioffi’s fund was invested in sophisticated credit derivatives backed by mortgage securities. When the housing bubble burst, he redoubled his bets, raising a new Enhanced Leverage High-Grade Structured Credit Strategies Fund that would use 100 leverage (as compared to the 35 leverage employed by the original fund). The market continued to turn disastrously against the fund, which was soon stuck with billions of dollars worth of illiquid, unprofitable mortgages. In an attempt to salvage the situation and cut his losses, Cioffi launched a vehicle named Everquest Financial and sold its shares to the public. But when journalists at the Wall Street Journal revealed that Everquest’s primary assets were the “toxic waste” of money-losing mortgage securities, Bear had no choice but to cancel the public offering. With spectacular losses mounting daily, investors attempted to withdraw their remaining holdings. In order to free up cash for such redemptions, the fund had to liquidate assets at a loss, selling that only put additional downward pressure on its already underwater positions. Lenders to the fund began making margin calls and threatening to seize its $1.2 billion in collateral.

In a less turbulent market it might have worked, but the subprime crisis had spent weeks on the front page of financial newspapers around the globe, and every bank on Wall Street was desperate to reduce its own exposure. Insulted and furious that Bear had refused to inject any of its own capital to save the funds, Steve Black, J.P. Morgan Chase head of investment banking, called Schwartz and said, “We’re defaulting you.”

The default and subsequent seizure of $400 million in collateral by Merrill Lynch proved highly damaging to Bear Stearns’s reputation across Wall Street. In a desperate attempt to save face under the scrutiny of the SEC, James Cayne made the unprecedented move of using $1.6 billion of Bear’s own capital to prop up the hedge funds. By late July 2007 even Bear’s continued support could no longer prop up Cioffi’s two beleaguered funds, which paid back just $300 million of the credit its parent had extended. With their holdings virtually worthless, the funds had no choice but to file for bankruptcy protection.

On November 14, just two weeks after the Journal story questioning Cayne’s commitment and leadership, Bear Stearns reported that it would write down $1.2 billion in mortgage- related losses. (The figure would later grow to $1.9 billion.) CFO Molinaro suggested that the worst had passed, and to outsiders, at least, the firm appeared to have narrowly escaped disaster.

Behind the scenes, however, Bear management had already begun searching for a white knight, hiring Gary Parr at Lazard to examine its options for a cash injection. Privately, Schwartz and Parr spoke with Kohlberg Kravis Roberts & Co. founder Henry Kravis, who had first learned the leveraged buyout market while a partner at Bear Stearns in the 1960s. Kravis sought entry into the profitable brokerage business at depressed prices, while Bear sought an injection of more than $2 billion in equity capital (for a reported 20% of the company) and the calming effect that a strong, respected personality like Kravis would have upon shareholders. Ultimately the deal fell apart, largely due to management’s fear that KKR’s significant equity stake and the presence of Kravis on the board would alienate the firm’s other private equity clientele, who often competed with KKR for deals. Throughout the fall Bear continued to search for potential acquirers. With the market watching intently to see if Bear shored up its financing, Cayne managed to close only a $1 billion cross-investment with CITIC, the state-owned investment company of the People’s Republic of China.

Bear’s $0.89 profit per share in the first quarter of 2008 did little to quiet the growing whispers of its financial instability. It seemed that every day another major investment bank reported mortgage-related losses, and for whatever reason Bear’s name kept cropping up in discussions of the by-then infamous subprime crisis. Exacerbating Bear’s public relations problem, the SEC had launched an investigation into the collapse of the two BSAM hedge funds, and rumors of massive losses at three major hedge funds further rattled an already uneasy market. Nonetheless, Bear executives felt that the storm had passed, reasoning that its almost $21 billion in cash reserves had convinced the market of its long-term viability.

Instead, on Monday, March 10, 2008, Moody’s downgraded 163 tranches of mortgage- backed bonds issued by Bear across fifteen transactions. The credit rating agency had drawn sharp criticism for its role in the subprime meltdown from analysts who felt the company had overestimated the creditworthiness of mortgage-backed securities and failed to alert the market of the danger as the housing market turned. As a result, Moody’s was in the process of downgrading nearly all of its ratings, but as the afternoon wore on, Bear’s stock price seemed to be reacting far more negatively than those of competitor firms.

Wall Street’s drive toward ever more sophisticated communications devices had created an interconnected network of traders and bankers across the world. On most days, Internet chat and mobile e-mail devices relayed gossip about compensation, major employee departures, and even sports betting lines. On the morning of March 10, however, they were carrying one message to the exclusion of all others: Bear was having liquidity problems. At noon, CNBC took the story public on Power Lunch. As Bear’s stock price fell more than 10 percent to $63, Ace Greenberg frantically placed calls to various executives, demanding that someone publicly deny any such problems. When contacted himself, Greenberg told a CNBC correspondent that the rumors were “totally ridiculous,” angering CFO Molinaro, who felt that denying the rumor would only legitimize it and trigger further panic selling, making prophecies of Bear’s illiquidity self-fulfilling. Just two hours later, however, Bear appeared to have dodged a bullet. News of New York governor Eliot Spitzer’s involvement in a high-class prostitution ring wiped any financial rumors off the front page, leading Bear executives to believe the worst was once again behind them.

Instead, the rumors exploded anew the next day, as many interpreted the Federal Reserve’s announcement of a new $200 billion lending program to help financial institutions through the credit crisis as aimed specifically toward Bear Stearns. The stock dipped as low as $55.42 before closing at $62.97. Meanwhile, Bear executives faced a new crisis in the form of an explosion of novation requests, in which a party to a risky contract tries to eliminate its risky position by selling it to a third party. Credit Suisse, Deutsche Bank, and Goldman Sachs all reported a deluge of novation requests from firms trying to reduce their exposure to Bear’s credit risk. The speed and force of this explosion of novation requests meant that before Bear could act, both Goldman Sachs and Credit Suisse issued e-mails to their traders holding up any requests relating to Bear Stearns pending approval by their credit departments. Once again, the electronically linked gossip network of trading desks around the world dealt a blow to investor confidence in Bear’s stability, as a false rumor circulated that Credit Suisse’s memo had forbidden its traders from engaging in any trades with Bear. The decrease in confidence in Bear’s liquidity could be quantified by the rise in the cost of credit default swaps on Bear’s debt. The price of such an instrument – which effectively acts as five years of insurance against a default on $10 million of Bear’s debt – spiked to more than $626,000 from less than $100,000 in October, indicating heavy betting by some firms that Bear would be unable to pay its liabilities.

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Internally, Bear debated whether to address the rumors publicly, ultimately deciding to arrange a Wednesday morning interview of Schwartz by CNBC correspondent David Faber. Not wanting to encourage rumors with a hasty departure, Schwartz did the interview live from Bear’s annual media conference in Palm Beach. Chosen because of his perceived friendliness to Bear, Faber nonetheless opened the interview with a devastating question that claimed direct knowledge of a trader whose credit department had temporarily held up a trade with Bear. Later during the interview Faber admitted that the trade had finally gone through, but he had called into question Bear’s fundamental capacity to operate as a trading firm. One veteran trader later commented,

You knew right at that moment that Bear Stearns was dead, right at the moment he asked that question. Once you raise that idea, that the firm can’t follow through on a trade, it’s over. Faber killed him. He just killed him.

Despite sentiment at Bear that Schwartz had finally put the company’s best foot forward and refuted rumors of its illiquidity, hedge funds began pulling their accounts in earnest, bringing Bear’s reserves down to $15 billion. Additionally, repo lenders – whose overnight loans to investment banks must be renewed daily – began informing Bear that they would not renew the next morning, forcing the firm to find new sources of credit. Schwartz phoned Parr at Lazard, Molinaro reviewed Bear’s plans for an emergency sale in the event of a crisis, and one of the firm’s attorneys called the president of the Federal Reserve to explain Bear’s situation and implore him to accelerate the newly announced program that would allow investment banks to use mortgage securities as collateral for emergency loans from the Fed’s discount window, normally reserved for commercial banks.

The trickle of withdrawals that had begun earlier in the week turned into an unstoppable torrent of cash flowing out the door on Thursday. Meanwhile, Bear’s stock continued its sustained nosedive, falling nearly 15% to an intraday low of $50.48 before rallying to close down 1.5%. At lunch, Schwartz assured a crowded meeting of Bear executives that the whirlwind rumors were simply market noise, only to find himself interrupted by Michael Minikes, senior managing director,

Do you have any idea what is going on? Our cash is flying out the door! Our clients are leaving us!

Hedge fund clients jumped ship in droves. Renaissance Technologies withdrew approximately $5 billion in trading accounts, and D. E. Shaw followed suit with an equal amount. That evening, Bear executives assembled in a sixth-floor conference room to survey the carnage. In less than a week, the firm had burned through all but $5.9 billion of its $18.3 billion in reserves, and was still on the hook for $2.4 billion in short-term debt to Citigroup. With a panicked market making more withdrawals the next day almost certain, Schwartz accepted the inevitable need for additional financing and had Parr revisit merger discussions with J.P. Morgan Chase CEO James Dimon that had stalled in the fall. Flabbergasted at the idea that an agreement could be reached that night, Dimon nonetheless agreed to send a team of bankers over to analyze Bear’s books.

Parr’s call interrupted Dimon’s 52nd birthday celebration at a Greek restaurant just a few blocks away from Bear headquarters, where a phalanx of attorneys had begun preparing emergency bankruptcy filings and documents necessary for a variety of cash-injecting transactions. Facing almost certain insolvency in the next 24 hours, Schwartz hastily called an emergency board meeting late that night, with most board members dialing in remotely. Bear’s nearly four hundred subsidiaries would make a bankruptcy filing impossibly complicated, so Schwartz continued to cling to the hope for an emergency cash infusion to get Bear through Friday. As J.P. Morgan’s bankers pored over Bear’s positions, they balked at the firm’s precarious position and the continued size of its mortgage holdings, insisting that the Fed get involved in a bailout they considered far too risky to take on alone.

Its role as a counterparty in trillions of dollars’ worth of derivatives contracts bore an eerie similarity to LTCM, and the Fed once again saw the potential for financial Armageddon if Bear were allowed to collapse of its own accord. An emergency liquidation of the firm’s assets would have put strong downward pressure on global securities prices, exacerbating an already chaotic market environment. Facing a hard deadline of credit markets’ open on Friday morning, the Fed and J.P. Morgan wrangled back and forth on how to save Bear. Working around the clock, they finally reached an agreement wherein J.P. Morgan would access the Fed’s discount window and in turn offer Bear a $30 billion credit line that, as dictated by a last-minute insertion by J.P. Morgan general counsel Steven Cutler, would be good for 28 days. As the press release went public, Bear executives cheered; Bear would have almost a month to seek alternative financing.

Where Bear had seen a lifeline, however, the market saw instead a last desperate gasp for help. Incredulous Bear executives could only watch in horror as the firm’s capital continued to fly out of its coffers. On Friday morning Bear burned through the last of its reserves in a matter of hours. A midday conference call in which Schwartz confidently assured investors that the credit line would allow Bear to continue “business as usual” did little to stop the bleeding, and its stock lost almost half of its already depressed value, closing at $30 per share.

All day Friday, Parr set about desperately trying to save his client, searching every corner of the financial world for potential investors or buyers of all or part of Bear. Given the severity of the situation, he could rule out nothing, from a sale of the lucrative prime brokerage operations to a merger or sale of the entire company. Ideally, he hoped to find what he termed a “validating investor,” a respected Wall Street name to join the board, adding immediate credibility and perhaps quieting the now deafening rumors of Bear’s imminent demise. Sadly, only a few such personalities with the reputation and war chest necessary to play the role of savior existed, and most of them had already passed on Bear.

Nonetheless, Schwartz left Bear headquarters on Friday evening relieved that the firm had lived to see the weekend and secured 28 days of breathing room. During the ride home to Greenwich, an unexpected phone call from New York Federal Reserve President Timothy Geithner and Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson shattered that illusion. Paulson told a stunned Schwartz that the Fed’s line of credit would expire Sunday night, giving Bear 48 hours to find a buyer or file for bankruptcy. The demise of the 28-day clause remains a mystery; the speed necessary early Friday morning and the inclusion of the clause by J.P. Morgan’s general counsel suggest that Bear executives had misinterpreted it, although others believe that Paulson and Geithner had soured both on Bear’s prospects and on market perception of an emergency loan from the Fed as Friday wore on. Either way, the Fed had made up its mind, and a Saturday morning appeal from Schwartz failed to sway Geithner.

All day Saturday prospective buyers streamed through Bear’s headquarters to pick through the rubble as Parr attempted to orchestrate Bear’s last-minute salvation. Chaos reigned, with representatives from every major bank on Wall Street, J. C. Flowers, KKR, and countless others poring over Bear’s positions in an effort to determine the value of Bear’s massive illiquid holdings and how the Fed would help in financing. Some prospective buyers wanted just a piece of the dying bank, others the whole firm, with still others proposing more complicated multiple-step transactions that would slice Bear to ribbons. One by one, they dropped out, until J. C. Flowers made an offer for 90% of Bear for a total of up to $2.6 billion, but the offer was contingent on the private equity firm raising $20 billion from a bank consortium, and $20 billion in risky credit was unlikely to appear overnight.

That left J.P. Morgan. Apparently the only bank willing to come to the rescue, J.P. Morgan had sent no fewer than 300 bankers representing 16 different product groups to Bear headquarters to value the firm. The sticking point, as with all the bidders, was Bear’s mortgage holdings. Even after a massive write-down, it was impossible to assign a value to such illiquid (and publicly maligned) securities with any degree of accuracy. Having forced the default of the BSAM hedge funds that started this mess less than a year earlier.

On its final 10Q in March, Bear listed $399 billion in assets and $387 billion in liabilities, leaving just $12 billion in equity for a 32 leverage multiple. Bear initially estimated that this included $120 billion of “risk-weighted” assets, those that might be subject to subsequent write-downs. As J.P. Morgan’s bankers worked around the clock trying to get to the bottom of Bear’s balance sheet, they came to estimate the figure at nearly $220 billion. That pessimistic outlook, combined with Sunday morning’s New York Times article reiterating Bear’s recent troubles, dulled J.P. Morgan’s appetite for jumping onto what appeared to be a sinking ship. Later, one J.P. Morgan banker shuddered, recalling the article. “That article certainly had an impact on my thinking. Just the reputational aspects of it, getting into bed with these people.”

On Saturday morning J.P. Morgan backed out and Dimon told a shell-shocked Schwartz to pursue any other option available to him. The problem was, no such alternative existed. Knowing this, and the possibility that the liquidation of Bear could throw the world’s financial markets into chaos, Fed representatives immediately phoned Dimon. As it had in the LTCM case a decade ago, the Fed relied heavily on suasion, or “jawboning,” the longtime practice of attempting to influence market participants by appeals to reason rather than a declaration by fiat. For hours, J.P. Morgan’s and the Fed’s highest-ranking officials played a game of high-stakes poker, with each side bluffing and Bear’s future hanging in the balance. The Fed wanted to avoid unprecedented government participation in the bailout of a private investment firm, while J.P. Morgan wanted to avoid taking on any of the “toxic waste” in Bear’s mortgage holdings. “They kept saying, ‘We’re not going to do it,’ and we kept saying, ‘We really think you should do it,’” recalled one Fed official. “This went on for hours . . . They kept saying, ‘We can’t do this on our own.’” With the hours ticking away until Monday’s Australian markets would open at 6:00 p.m. New York time, both sides had to compromise.

On Sunday afternoon, Schwartz stepped out of a 1:00 emergency meeting of Bear’s board of directors to take the call from Dimon. The offer would come somewhere in the range of $4 to 5 per share. Hearing the news from Schwartz, the Bear board erupted with rage. Dialing in from the bridge tournament in Detroit, Cayne exploded, ranting furiously that the firm should file for bankruptcy protection under Chapter 11 rather than accept such a humiliating offer, which would reduce his 5.66 million shares – once worth nearly $1 billion – to less than $30 million in value. In reality, however, bankruptcy was impossible. As Parr explained, changes to the federal bankruptcy code in 2005 meant that a Chapter 11 filing would be tantamount to Bear falling on its sword, because regulators would have to seize Bear’s accounts, immediately ceasing the firm’s operations and forcing its liquidation. There would be no reorganization.

Even as Cayne raged against the $4 offer, the Fed’s concern over the appearance of a $30 billion loan to a failing investment bank while American homeowners faced foreclosures compelled Treasury Secretary Paulson to pour salt in Bear’s wounds. Officially, the Fed had remained hands-off in the LTCM bailout, relying on its powers of suasion to convince other banks to step up in the name of market stability. Just 10 years later, they could find no takers. The speed of Bear’s collapse, the impossibility of conducting true due diligence in such a compressed time frame, and the incalculable risk of taking on Bear’s toxic mortgage holdings scared off every buyer and forced the Fed from an advisory role into a principal role in the bailout. Worried that a price deemed at all generous to Bear might subsequently encourage moral hazard – increased risky behavior by investment banks secure in the knowledge that in a worst-case scenario, disaster would be averted by a federal bailout – Paulson determined that the transaction, while rescuing the firm, also had to be punitive to Bear shareholders. He called Dimon, who reiterated the contemplated offer range.

“That sounds high tome,” Paulson told the J.P. Morgan chief. “I think this should be done at a very low price.” It was moments later that Braunstein called Parr. “The number’s $2.” Under Delaware law, executives must act on behalf of both shareholders and creditors when a company enters the “zone of insolvency,” and Schwartz knew that Bear had rocketed through that zone over the past few days. Faced with bankruptcy or J.P. Morgan, Bear had no choice but to accept the embarrassingly low offer that represented a 97% discount off its $32 close on Friday evening. Schwartz convinced the weary Bear board that $2 would be “better than nothing,” and by 6:30 p.m., the deal was unanimously approved.

After 85 years in the market, Bear Stearns ceased to exist.

Conjuncted: Financialization of Natural Resources – Financial Analysis of the Blue Economy: Sagarmala’s Case in Point.

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The financialization of natural resources is the process of replacing environmental regulation with markets. In order to bring nature under the control of markets, the planet’s natural resources need to be made into commodities that can be bought or sold for a profit. It is a means of transferring the stewardship of our common resources to private business interests. The financialization of nature is not about protecting the environment, rather it is about creating ways for the financial sector to continue to earn high profits. Although the sector has begun to rebound from the financial crisis, it is still below its pre-crisis levels of profit. By pushing into new areas, promoting the creation of new commodities, and exploiting the real threat of climate change for their own ends, financial companies and actors are placing the whole world at the risk of precarity.

A systemic increase in financial speculation on commodities mainly driven by deregulation of derivative markets, increasing involvement of investment banks, hedge funds and other institutional investor in commodity speculation and the emergence of new instruments such as index funds and exchange-traded funds. Financial deregulation over the last one decade has for the first time transformed commodities into financial assets. what we might call ‘financialization’, is thus penetrating all commodity markets and their functioning. Contrary to common sense and what civil society assumes, financial markets are going deeper and deeper into the real economy as a response to the financial crisis, so that speculative capital is structurally being intertwined with productive capital – in this case commodities and natural resources.

Marine ecology as a natural resource isn’t immune to commodification, and an array of financial agents are making it their indispensable destination, thrashing out new types of alliances converging around specific ideas about how maritime and coastal resources should be organized, and to whose benefit, under which terms and to what end? The commodification of marine ecology is what is referred to as Blue Economy, which is converging on the necessity of implementing policies across scales that are conducive to, what in the corridors of those promulgating it, a win-win-win situation in pursuit of ‘sustainable development’, entailing pro-poor, conservation-sensitive blue growth. What one cannot fail to notice here is that Blue Economy is close on heels to what Karl Marx called the necessary prerequisite to capitalism, primitive accumulation. If in the days of industrial revolution and at a time when Marx was writing, natural resources like lands were converted into commercial commodities, then today under the rubric of neoliberalism, the attack is on the natural resources in the form of converting them into speculative capital. But as commercial history has undergone a change, so has the notion of accumulation. Today’s accumulation is through the process of dispossession. In the green-grabbing frame, conservation initiatives have become a key force driving primitive accumulation, although, the form that primitive accumulation through conservation takes is very different from that initially described by Marx, as conservation initiatives involve taking nature out of production – as opposed to bringing them in through the initial enclosures described by Marx. Under such unfoldings, even the notional appropriation undergoes an unfolding, in that, it implies the transfer of ownership, use rights and control over resources that were once publicly or privately owned – or not even the subject of ownership – from the poor (or everyone including the poor) in to the hands of the powerful.

Moreover, for David Harvey, states under neoliberalism become increasingly oriented toward attracting foreign direct investment, i.e. specifically actors with the capital to invest whereas all others are overlooked and/or lose out. Central in all of these dimensions is the assumption in market-based neoliberal conservation that “once property rights are established and transaction costs are minimized, voluntary trade in environmental goods and bads will produce optimal, least-cost outcomes with little or no need for state involvement.”. This implies that win-win- win outcomes with benefits on all fronts spanning corporate investors, the local communities, biodiversity, national economies etc., are possible if only the right technocratic policies are put in place. By extension this also means side-stepping intrinsically political questions with reference to effective management through economic rationality informed by cutting-edge ecological science, in turn making the transition to the ‘green economy’ conflict-free as long as the “invisible hand of the market is guided by [neutral] scientific expertise”. While marine and coastal resources may have been largely overlooked in the discussions on green grabbing and neoliberal conservation, a robust, but small, critical literature has been devoted to looking specifically into the political economy of fisheries systems. Focusing on one sector in the outlined ‘blue economy’, this literature uncovers “how capitalist relations and dynamics (in their diverse and varying forms) shape and/or constitute fisheries systems.”

The question then is, how far viable or sustainable are these financial interventions? Financialization produces effects which can create long-term trends (such as those on functional income distribution) but can also change across different periods of economic growth, slowdown and recession. Interpreting the implications of financialization for sustainability, therefore, requires a methodological diverse and empirical dual-track approach which combines different methods of investigations. Even times of prosperity, despite their fragile and vulnerable nature, can endure for several years before collapsing due to high levels of indebtedness, which in turn amplify the real effects of a financial crisis and hinder the economic growth. Things begin to get a bit more complicated when financialization interferes with environment and natural resources, for then the losses are not just merely on a financial platform alone. Financialization has played a significant role in the recent price shocks in food and energy markets, while the wave of speculative investment in natural resources has and is likely to produce perverse environmental and social impact. Moreover, the so-called financialization of environmental conservation tends to enhance the financial value of environmental resources but it is selective: not all stakeholders have the same opportunities and not all uses and values of natural resources and services are accounted for. This mechanism brings new risks and challenges for environmental services and their users that are excluded by official systems of natural capital monetization and accounting. This is exactly the precarity one is staring at when dealing with Blue Economy.

(Il)liquid Hedge Lock-Ups. Thought of the Day 107.0

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Hedge funds have historically limited their participation in illiquid investments, preferring to match their investment horizon to the typical one-year lock-up periods that their investors agree to. However, many hedge funds have increasingly invested in illiquid assets in an effort to augment returns. For example, they have invested in private investments in public equity (PIPEs), acquiring large minority holdings in public companies. Their purchases of CDOs and CLOs (collateralized loan obligations) are also somewhat illiquid, since these fixed income securities are difficult to price and there is a limited secondary market during times of crisis. In addition, hedge funds have participated in loans, and invested in physical assets. Sometimes, investments that were intended to be held for less than one year have become long-term, illiquid assets when the assets depreciated and hedge funds decided to continue holding the assets until values recovered, rather than selling at a loss. It is estimated that more than 20% of total assets under management by hedge funds are illiquid, hard-to-price assets. This makes hedge fund asset valuation difficult, and has created a mismatch between hedge fund assets and liabilities, giving rise to significant problems when investors attempt to withdraw their cash at the end of lock-up periods.

Hedge funds generally focus their investment strategies on financial assets that are liquid and able to be readily priced based on reported prices in the market for those assets or by reference to comparable assets that have a discernible price. Since most of these assets can be valued and sold over a short period of time to generate cash, hedge funds permit investors to invest in or withdraw money from the fund at regular intervals and managers receive performance fees based on quarterly mark-to-market valuations. However, in order to match up maturities of assets and liabilities for each investment strategy, most hedge funds have the ability to prevent invested capital from being withdrawn during certain periods of time. They achieve this though “lock-up” and “gate” provisions that are included in investment agreements with their investors.

A lock-up provision provides that during an initial investment period of, typically, one to two years, an investor is not allowed to withdraw any money from the fund. Generally, the lock-up period is a function of the investment strategy that is being pursued. Sometimes, lock-up periods are modified for specific investors through the use of a side letter agreement. However, this can become problematic because of the resulting different effective lock-up periods that apply to different investors who invest at the same time in the same fund. Also, this can trigger “most favored nations” provisions in other investor agreements.

A gate is a restriction that limits the amount of withdrawals during a quarterly or semi- annual redemption period after the lock-up period expires. Typically gates are percentages of a fund’s capital that can be withdrawn on a scheduled redemption date. A gate of 10 to 20% is common. A gate provision allows the hedge fund to increase exposure to illiquid assets without facing a liquidity crisis. In addition, it offers some protection to investors that do not attempt to withdraw funds because if withdrawals are too high, assets might have to be sold by the hedge fund at disadvantageous prices, causing a potential reduction in investment returns for remaining investors. During 2008 and 2009, as many hedge fund investors attempted to withdraw money based on poor returns and concerns about the financial crisis, there was considerable frustration and some litigation directed at hedge fund gate provisions.

Hedge funds sometimes use a “side pocket” account to house comparatively illiquid or hard-to-value assets. Once an asset is designated for inclusion in a side pocket, new investors don’t participate in the returns from this asset. When existing investors withdraw money from the hedge fund, they remain as investors in the side pocket asset until it either is sold or becomes liquid through a monetization event such as an IPO. Management fees are typically charged on side pocket assets based on their cost, rather than a mark-to-market value of the asset. Incentive fees are charged based on realized proceeds when the asset is sold. Usually, there is no requirement to force the sale of side pocket investments by a specific date. Sometimes, investors accuse hedge funds of putting distressed assets that were intended to be sold during a one-year horizon into a side pocket account to avoid dragging down the returns of the overall fund. Investors are concerned about unexpected illiquidity arising from a side pocket and the potential for even greater losses if a distressed asset that has been placed there continues to decline in value. Fund managers sometimes use even more drastic options to limit withdrawals, such as suspending all redemption rights (but only in the most dire circumstances).

Delta Hedging.

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The principal investors in most convertible securities are hedge funds that engage in convertible arbitrage strategies. These investors typically purchase the convertible and simultaneously sell short a certain number of the issuer’s common shares that underlie the convertible. The number of shares they sell short as a percent of the shares underlying the convertible is approximately equal to the risk-neutral probability at that point in time (as determined by a convertible pricing model that uses binomial option pricing as its foundation) that the investor will eventually convert the security into common shares. This probability is then applied to the number of common shares the convertible security could convert into to determine the number of shares the hedge fund investor should sell short (the “hedge ratio”).

As an example, assume a company’s share price is $10 at the time of its convertible issuance. A hedge fund purchases a portion of the convertible, which gives the right to convert into 100 common shares of the issuer. If the hedge ratio is 65%, the hedge fund may sell short 65 shares of the issuer’s stock on the same date as the convertible purchase. During the life span of the convertible, the hedge fund investor may sell more shares short or buy shares, based on the changing hedge ratio. To illustrate, if one month after purchasing the convertible (and establishing a 65-share short position) the issuer’s share price decreases to $9, the hedge ratio may drop from 65 to 60%. To align the hedge ratio with the shares sold short as a percent of shares the investor has the right to convert the security into, the hedge fund investor will need to buy five shares in the open market from other shareholders and deliver those shares to the parties who had lent the shares originally. “Covering” five shares of their short position leaves the hedge fund with a new short position of 60 shares. If the issuer’s share price two months after issuance increases to $11, the hedge ratio may increase to 70%. In this case, the hedge fund investor may want to be short 70 shares. The investor achieves this position by borrowing 10 more shares and selling them short, which increases the short position from 60 to 70 shares. This process of buying low and selling high continues until the convertible either converts or matures.

The end result is that the hedge fund investor is generating trading profits throughout the life of the convertible by buying stock to reduce the short position when the issuer’s share price drops, and borrowing and selling shares short when the issuer’s share price increases. This dynamic trading process is called “delta hedging,” which is a well-known and consistently practiced strategy by hedge funds. Since hedge funds typically purchase between 60% and 80% of most convertible securities in the public markets, a significant amount of trading in the issuer’s stock takes place throughout the life of a convertible security. The purpose of all this trading in the convertible issuer’s common stock is to hedge share price risk embedded in the convertible and create trading profits that offset the opportunity cost of purchasing a convertible that has a coupon that is substantially lower than a straight bond from the same issuer with the same maturity.

In order for hedge funds to invest in convertible securities, there needs to be a substantial amount of the issuer’s common shares available for hedge funds to borrow, and adequate liquidity in the issuer’s stock for hedge funds to buy and sell shares in relation to their delta hedging activity. If there are insufficient shares available to be borrowed or inadequate trading volume in the issuer’s stock, a prospective issuer is generally discouraged from issuing a convertible security in the public markets, or is required to issue a smaller convertible, because hedge funds may not be able to participate. Alternatively, an issuer could attempt to privately place a convertible with a single non-hedge fund investor. However, it may be impossible to find such an investor, and even if found, the required pricing for the convertible is likely to be disadvantageous for the issuer.

When a new convertible security is priced in the public capital markets, it is generally the case that the terms of the security imply a theoretical value of between 102% and 105% of face value, based on a convertible pricing model. The convertible is usually sold at a price of 100% to investors, and is therefore underpriced compared to its theoretical value. This practice provides an incentive for hedge funds to purchase the security, knowing that, by delta hedging their investment, they should be able to extract trading profits at least equal to the difference between the theoretical value and “par” (100%). For a public market convertible with atypical characteristics (e.g., an oversized issuance relative to market capitalization, an issuer with limited stock trading volume, or an issuer with limited stock borrow availability), hedge fund investors normally require an even higher theoretical value (relative to par) as an inducement to invest.

Convertible pricing models incorporate binomial trees to determine the theoretical value of convertible securities. These models consider the following factors that influence the theoretical value: current common stock price; anticipated volatility of the common stock return during the life of the convertible security; risk-free interest rate; the company’s stock borrow cost and common stock dividend yield; the company’s credit risk; maturity of the convertible security; and the convertible security’s coupon or dividend rate and payment frequency, conversion premium, and length of call protection.

Data Governance, FinTech, #Blockchain and Audits (Upcoming Bangalore Talk)

This is skeletal and I am febrile, and absolutely nowhere near being punctilious. The idea is to note if this economic/financial revolution, (could it even be called that?) could politically be an overtone window? So, let this be otiose and information disseminating, for a paper is on its way forcing down greater attention to detail and vastly different from here. 

Data Governance and Audit Trail

Data Governance specifies the framework for decision rights and accountabilities encouraging desirable behavior in data usage

Main aim of Data Governance is to ensure that data asset are overseen in a cohesive and consistent enterprise-wide manner

Why is there a need for Data governance? 

Evolving regulatory mechanisms and requirements

Could integrity of data be trusted?

Centralized versus decentralized documentation as regards use, hermeneutics and meaning of data

Multiplicity of data silos with exponentially rising data

Architecture

Information Owner: approving power towards internal + external data transfers + business plans prioritizing data integrity and data governance

Data steward: create/maintain/define data access, data mapping and data aggregation rules

Application steward: maintain application inventory, validating testing of outbound data and assist master data management

Analytics steward: maintain a solutions inventory, reduce redundant solutions, define rules for use of standard definitions and report documentation guidelines, and define data release processes and guidelines

What could an audit be?

It starts as a comprehensive and effective program encompassing people, processes, policies, controls, and technology. Additionally, it involves educating key stakeholders about the benefits and risks associated with poor data quality, integrity and security.

What should be audit invested with?

Apart from IT knowledge and operational aspects of the organization, PR skills, dealing with data-related risks and managing a push-back or a cultural drift handling skills are sine qua non. As we continue to operate in one of the toughest and most uneven economic climates in modern times, the relevance of the role of auditors in the financial markets is more important than ever before. While the profession has long recognized the impact of data analysis on enhancing the quality and relevance of the audit, mainstream use of this technique has been hampered due to a lack of efficient technology solutions, problems with data capture and concerns about privacy. However, recent technology advancements in big data and analytics are providing an opportunity to rethink the way in which an audit is executed. The transformed audit will expand beyond sample-based testing to include analysis of entire populations of audit-relevant data (transaction activity and master data from key business processes), using intelligent analytics to deliver a higher quality of audit evidence and more relevant business insights. Big data and analytics are enabling auditors to better identify financial reporting, fraud and operational business risks and tailor their approach to deliver a more relevant audit. While we are making significant progress and are beginning to see the benefits of big data and analytics in the audit, this is only part of a journey. What we really want is to have intelligent audit appliances that reside within companies’ data centers and stream the results of our proprietary analytics to audit teams. But the technology to accomplish this vision is still in its infancy and, in the interim, what is transpiring is delivering audit analytics by processing large client data sets within a set and systemic environment, integrating analytics into audit approach and getting companies comfortable with the future of audit. The transition to this future won’t happen overnight. It’s a massive leap to go from traditional audit approaches to one that fully integrates big data and analytics in a seamless manner.

Three key areas the audit committee and finance leadership should be thinking about now when it comes to big data and analytics:

External audit: develop a better understanding of how analytics is being used in the audit today. Since data capture is a key barrier, determine the scope of data currently being captured, and the steps being taken by the company’s IT function and its auditor to streamline data capture.

Compliance and risk management: understand how internal audit and compliance functions are using big data and analytics today, and management’s future plans. These techniques can have a significant impact on identifying key risks and automating the monitoring processes.

Competency development: the success of any investments in big data and analytics will be determined by the human element. Focus should not be limited to developing technical competencies, but should extend to creating the analytical mindset within the finance, risk and compliance functions to consume the analytics produced effectively.

What is the India Stack?

A paperless and cashless delivery system; a paradigm that is intended to handle massive data inflows enabling entrepreneurs, citizens and government to interact with each other transparently; an open system to verify businesses, people and services.

This is an open API policy that was conceived in 2012 to build upon Aadhaar. The word open in the policy signifies that other application could access data. It is here that the affair starts getting a bit murky, as India Stack gives the data to the concerned individual and lets him/her decide who the data can be shared with.

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So, is this a Fintech? Fintech is usually applies to the segment of technology startup scene that is disrupting sectors such as mobile payments, money transfers, loans, fundraising and even asset management. And what is the guarantee that Fintech would help prevent fraud that traditional banking couldn’t? No technology can completely eradicate fraud and human deceit, but I believe technology can make operations more transparent and systems more accountable. To illustrate this point, let’s look back at the mortgage crisis of 2008.

Traditional banks make loans the old fashioned way: they take money from people at certain rates (savings deposits) and lend it out the community at a higher rate. The margin constitutes the bank’s profit. As the bank’s assets grow, so do their loans, enabling them to grow organically.

Large investment banks bundle assets into securities that they can sell on open markets all over the world. Investors trust these securities because they are rated by third party agencies such as Moody’s and Standard & Poor’s. Buyers include pension funds, hedge funds, and many other retail investment instruments.

The ratings agencies are paid by investment banks to rate them. Unfortunately, they determine these ratings not so much by the merits of the securities themselves, but according to the stipulations of the banks. If a rating fails to meet the investment banks’ expectations, they can take their business to another rating agency. If a security does not perform as per the rating, the agency has no liability! How insane is that?

Most surprisingly, investment banks can hedge against the performance of these securities (perhaps because they know that the rating is total BS?) through a complex process that I will not get into here.

Investment banks and giant insurance firms such as AIG were the major dominoes that nearly caused the whole financial system to topple in 2008. Today we face an entirely different lending industry, thanks to FinTech. What is FinTech? FinTech refers to a financial services company (not a technology company) that uses superior technology to bring newer and better financial products to consumers. Many of today’s FinTech companies call themselves technology companies or big data companies, but I respectfully disagree. To an outsider, a company is defined by its balance sheet and a FinTech company’s balance sheet will tell you that it makes money from the fees, interest, and service charges on their assets—not by selling or licensing technology. FinTech is good news not only for the investors, borrowers and banks collectively, but also for the financial services industry as a whole because it ensures greater transparency and accountability while removing risk from the entire system. In the past four to five years a number of FinTech companies have gained notoriety for their impact on the industry. I firmly believe that this trend has just begun. FinTech companies are ushering in new digital business models such as auto-decisioning. These models are sweeping through thousands of usual and not-so-usual data sources for KYC and Credit Scoring.

But already a new market of innovative financial products has entered into mainstream finance. As their market share grows these FinTech companies will gradually “de-risk” the system by mitigating the impact of large, traditional, single points of failure. And how will the future look? A small business might take its next business loan from Lending Club, OnDeck, Kabbage, or DealStruck, instead of a traditional bank. Rather than raising funds from a venture capital firm or other traditional investor, small businesses can now look to Kickstarter or CircleUp. Sales transactions can be processed with fewer headaches by Square or Stripe. You can invest your money at Betterment or Wealthfront and not have to pay advisors who have questionable track records outperforming the market. You can even replace money with bitcoin using Coinbase, Circle, or another digital-currency option. These are the by-products of the FinTech revolution. We are surrounded by a growing ecosystem of highly efficient FinTech companies that deliver next-generation financial products in a simple, hassle-free manner. Admittedly, today’s emerging FinTech companies have not had to work through a credit cycle or contend with rising interest rates. But those FinTech companies that have technology in their DNA will learn to ‘pivot’ when the time comes and figure it all out. We have just seen the tip of this iceberg. Technically speaking, the FinTech companies aren’t bringing anything revolutionary to the table. Mostly it feels like ‘an efficiency gain’ play and a case of capitalizing on the regulatory arbitrage that non-banks enjoy. Some call themselves big data companies—but any major bank can look into its data center and make the same claim. Some say that they use 1,000 data points. Banks are doing that too, albeit manually and behind closed walls, just as they have done for centuries. FinTechs simplify financial processes, reduce administrative drag, and deliver better customer service. They bring new technology to an old and complacent industry. Is there anything on the horizon that can truly revolutionize how this industry works? Answering this question brings us back to 2008 as we try to understand what really happened. What if there was a system that did not rely on Moody’s and S&P to rate the bonds, corporations, and securities. What if technology could provide this information in an accurate and transparent manner. What if Bitcoin principles were adopted widely in this industry? What if the underlying database protocol, Blockchain, could be used to track all financial transactions all over the globe to tell you the ‘real’ rating of a security.

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Blockchain can be defined as a peer-to-peer operated public digital ledger that records all transactions executed for a particular asset (…) “The Blockchain maintains this record across a network of computers, and anyone on the network can access the ledger. Blockchain is ‘decentralised’ meaning people on the network maintain the ledger, requiring no central or third party intermediary involvement.” “Users known as ‘miners’ use specialised software to look for these time stamped ‘blocks’, verify their accuracy using a special algorithm, and add the block to the chain. The chain maintains chronological order for all blocks added because of these time-stamps.” The digitalisation of financial service opens room for new opportunity such as to propose new kind of consumer’s experience as well as the use of new technologies and improve business data analysis. The ACPR, the French banking and insurance regulatory authority, has  classified the opportunities and risks linked to the Fintech such as the new services for uses, better resilience versus the difficulty to establish effective supervision, the risks of regulation dumping and regarding clients interest protection such as data misuse and security. The French Central Bank is currently studying blockchain in cooperation with two start-ups, the “Labo Blockchain” and “Blockchain France”. In that context, blockchain is a true financial service disruption, according to Piper Alderman “Blockchain can perform the intermediating function in a cheaper and more secure way, and disrupt the role of Banks.”

Hence, leading bank wants to seize that financial service opportunity. They are currently working on blockchain project with financial innovation firm, R3 CEV. The objective is that the project delivers a “more efficient and cost-effective international settlement network and possibly eliminate the need to rely on central bank”. R3 CEV has announced that 40 peer banks, including HSBC, Citigroup, and BNP Paribas, started an initiative to test new kind of transaction through blockchain. This consortium is the most important ever organized to test this new technology.

And what of security? According to the experts “the design of the blockchain means there is the possibility of malware being injected and permanently hosted with no methods currently available to wipe this data. This could affect ‘cyber hygiene’ as well as the sharing of child sexual abuse images where the blockchain could become a safe haven for hosting such data.” Further, according to the research, “it could also enable crime scenarios in the future such as the deployment of modular malware, a reshaping of the distribution of zero-day attacks, as well as the creation of illegal underground marketplaces dealing in private keys which would allow access to this data.” The issue of cyber-security for financial institutions is very strategic. Firstly, as these institutions rely on customer confidence they are particularly vulnerable to data loss and fraud. Secondly, banks represent a key sector for national security. Thirdly they are exposed to credit crisis given their role to finance economy. Lastly, data protection is a key challenge given financial security legal requirements.

As regard cyber security risks, on of the core legal challenge will be the accountability issue. As Blockchain is grounded on anonymity the question is who would be accountable for the actions pursued? Should it be the users, the Blockchain owner, or software engineer? Regulation will address the issue of blockchain governance. According to Hubert de Vauplane, “the more the Blockchain is open and public, less the Blockchain is governed”, “while in a private Blockchain, the governance is managed by the institution” as regard “access conditions, working, security and legal approval of transactions”. Where as in the public Blockchain, there is no other rules that Blockchain, or in other words “Code is Law” to quote US legal expert Lawrence Lessing. First issue: who is the block chain user? Two situations must be addressed depending if the Blockchain is private or public. Unlike public blockchain, the private blockchain – even though grounded in a public source code – is protected by intellectual property rights in favour of the organism that manages it, but still exposed to cyber security risks. Moreover, a new contractual documentation provided by financial institutions and disclosure duty could be necessary when consumers may simply not understand the information on how their data may be used through this new technology.

‘Disruption’ has turned into a Silicon Valley cliché, something not only welcomed, but often listed as a primary goal. But disruption in the private sector can have remarkably different effects than in the political system. While capital forces may allow for relatively rapid adaptation in the market, complex political institutions can be slower to react. Moreover, while disruption in an economic market can involve the loss of some jobs and the creation of others, disruption in politics can result in political instability, armed conflict, increased refugee flows and humanitarian crises. It nevertheless is the path undertaken….

COMMODITY TRADING FIRMS: MORE DARKER AND SINISTER THAN CORPORATIONS

Part 1
 
WAC or any other mutation of it sounds soap and it largely depends on TRPs, or takers/viewers. So far, so good, so what? Assuming deregulation from the governments and many of the giant corporations could be pushed down the hill, a homicide that would bring smiles to millions. Right? Yes, partly, but there is a dark trajectory, an obscured world that is omnipresent and omniscient touching everyone of us in more malignant ways than could be even remotely imagined. Where am I heading here? Maybe into oblivion as thats already designated. But, pause I will and ask this. Have you heard of Vitol, Archer Daniels, Mercuria, Noble and Wilmar? What about Glencore? Well, probably not. These are not gamers, or porno-pharmacopeia of sorts swarming the Internetwork and looking for hosts and nodes to sneak into the surveillance bazaars, or even tiers in heaviness of metal sounding junk. These are “commodity firms”, trading into commodities and fixing prices of the most basic commodities from food to energy sources to pharmaceuticals, and what have you. So, what I pay is linked with mathematical calculations wrought by often young, arrogant and brilliant number crunchers. 
Let us explore, with a view to comprehend a world of finance as dark as the world of Internetwork, the Darknet, where one could not just make hay while the sun shines, but merry when the moon phases in and out. This is particularly ugly and compels me to put forth the argument that major financiers from IFIs, NFIs, and Investment Bankers are much too benign in comparison.
Rolling Stone magazine once said this for Goldman, “a great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity.” Such a qualification could fit any of the commodity traders, and especially Glencore, who operate out of a wealthy Swiss village, and has annual revenues of $214 billion, that is 60x FB’s or 5x what Google manages to pull in. And, this is not small tributary that swells economies, but maybe, in the most extreme analogical manner an underground tributary with a shadowy existence, since outside the stocks that trade on it, a lot of what it does is not liquid and done off the balance sheets. There goes the challenge of mapping, transparency and accountability. With an IPO of $11 billion, this price fixer has the potential to spark off riots, destabilise economies, and still manage to stay stealthy, for who would take them on radars?
With a truly frightening knowledge of the flow of commodities around the world, incredible performance culture, the firm hefts a fear factor of 3x investment banking, to say the least. With a clientele that is a roll call of world’s largest corporations viz. BP, Exxon Mobil, Chevron, ArcelorMittal, Sony and the national oil companies of Iran, Mexico and Brazil, and public utilities in France, China, Japan and Spain, to name a few, the ideal philosophy they bank on is simple: make money by finding customers for raw materials and selling them at a mark-up by concocting complex hedge funds, market swings, piracy and regime change. Oh!, this is simple huh! In other words, the simplicity lies in one word: CONTROL. They want it and they get it in high-risk environments, reproducing an ugly baby with a parentage of meshed-up financial engineering and old-fashioned conservative/orthodox/traditional commodity trading. With just two designated classes of employees: “thinkers” – who massacre numbers and “soldiers” – who seal the deal/negotiations, the quiet cognitariats release a juggernaut of extreme arrogant efficiency.
The firm was started by Marc Rich, who escaped the Nazis, set shop for spot market for crude oil, evaded taxes, sold oil to Iran during the hostage crisis in the dying 70s and growing 80s, apartheid SA, assisted Mossad and the icing on the cake: engineering a deal for a secret pipeline through which Iran could pump oil to Israel during Shah’s rule. The rule of notoriety ended when he smashed hard to ground in a valiant attempt to control Zinc market by splurging $1 billion. The reins were handed over to a German metal trader, Willy Strothotte, who translated the majority stake into $600 million, making it close to $100 billion in worth today. Glencore, often referred to as an acronym of Global Energy Commodities and Resources (though, this could be some linguist’s word play exercise) often found itself implicated in controversial dealings, but never lost sight of prowling for opportunities.
 
Part 2
Moving on from part 1, which painted a historical notoriety for commodity trading firms, this part deals borders on some operational aspects and a view of dashing financial moves in a stealthy manner.
Way back in 1993, I picked up from the flea market in Poona, Kerrang!, world’s largest read rock and metal magazine. I still remember the words then: From the Quaint Swamps of Milwaukee, comes a force that can be described in one word: Viogression, redefining music and speed spiced up with aggression. This was a death metal band from Wisconsin, and the advertisement was for Milwaukee Death Fest, a converging point for Death Metal fans. Obviously, the speed has been surpassed exponentially ever since. But, why this? As an analogy, Glencore comes brutalizing financial sways and swings, upsides and downsides from a quaint village of Baar in Switzerland, unleashing its ferocity on the London-stock exchange listing and a registered office in Saint Helier, Jersey. As brutal as the band could get on the Milwaukee music scene then, the commodity traders have unleashed their fury on the financial stage and continuing to accelerate its spawn. 
The contingency of operations make for a smart move, for in contingency is the scent of an opportunity rather than the stench of risk. This ain’t the twisted version, but rather a crude philosophical one for the commodity trading firms (CTFs hereafter). The opportunity is built over offtake deals, where other financial institutions fear to tread for uncertainty lying over repayment for whatever gets invested. This is as much a part of the risk investment. Such deals materialise, mostly in natural resources, when with significant capital costs involved in extraction of the resources forces the company to have a guarantee that its product will be sold, that there shall be a secure market. Such a situation is promised, and if the company were to slide into a financial quandary, a likely debt-burden gets slashed by bringing in swapping loans-for-rights/ownership issues, thus offloading the equity for uploading it to the CTFs. In financial parlance, such a move is termed prosaically: right to convert debt into equity in the tail. ‘In the Tail’ connotes tail risks, which are low probability events that have an outsized impacts on prices, more than often inordinately large. In present times, the nightmarish tail risk is the perennial China hard-landing, which, if it were to occur would exponentially rise costs of basic commodities, diverge them due to supply disruptions rather than demand overflow, thus churning faster the global economy and sickening consumption in course as a result of shrinking supply.
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When Merrill Lynch conducted a survey in the beginning of this year asking about the biggest tail risk for the global economy, fund managers answered China hard-landing/collapse in commodity prices. And yet, technically the commodity index is breaking out on the upside. Interestingly, only about 5% of fund managers really worried about inflation risks. 
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Merrill Lynch observed that a net 23% of investors are currently underweight commodities, which is only a slight improvement from net 31% underweight in December 2013. Current readings in exposure are extremely under-owned at 1.7 standard deviations below its decade long average. The situation as it stands today resembles 2008, when just about every fund manager and policy maker was pessimistic on commodities and inflation right before the prices bottomed out and rallied powerfully in coming quarters. But, if inflation was to surprise the markets to the upside, then stocks could get oblivious, since history has time and again proved that commodities have always been the best hedge against inflation. Sigh!, Huh!
Moving on, CTF’s operational key lies in flotation, listing its shares on the stock market, albeit in a split manner as was talked off in part 1. The issue of safeguards and adherence to strict guidelines is robust here, for potential investors are not to be misled. Once new shares are issued on the primary market, trading sets off in the secondary market, in that trading transactions occur between investors without any involvement of the CTF. This still is procedurally under check, but CTFs invent a twist, for they list with the clause for a permanent capital base. Rationale is simple here: In private partnerships, payouts to departing partners shrink the capital base, while public companies’ equity remains intact even if the shares change hands at dizzying speeds. Most cardinally, such a move injects reassurance in credit agencies that not only shy from keeping at bay any relegation of CTFs to junk on the one hand, but allows the CTFs enough manipulability with flexible capital structures going in for the kill, meaty acquisitions on the other. Getting back to Glencore, this example for once sets up a sneak peek into what the CTF is capable of, and how it is well-nigh difficult to locate movements in such financial transactions. Transactions that make possible coming out clean and acquit being cornered to a dock. When speculations were rife in 2010 of a possible merger between Glencore and London-listed Xstrata, shareholders of the latter opposed it, arguing that the valuation of the former be dictated by market forces and not dealt with behind closed doors. To force things to a head, Glencore set the clock ticking on a change in its set-up by issuing a convertible bond. These types of bonds not only can be converted into a predetermined amount of the company’s equity at certain times during its lifespan, but also helps facilitate the CTFs to alleviate any negative investor interpretations of its corporate actions. From investors’ point of view, the bond has a hidden stock option, and helps her with a lower rate of return in exchange for the value of the option to trade the bond into stock. The package was set thusly: convertibles pay a staid interest rate of 5% every year till their maturity in 2014, but are laden with incentives for Glencore to transform itself. In other words, the package contains this: If by December 2012, Glencore does not float or merge with another company, bondholders can sell their bonds back to Glencore at a price which would give investors an annualised return of 20%, in line with the sorts of returns one might expect from equities. By this, the CTF will not be penalised if markets turn lower and if the IPO turns to be unattractive. A smirk invades faces!!! 
CSOs can take up the archaeologist’s role, and dig they will in order to turn opacity into at least translucency, if not outright transparency, for CTFs deal with a chain that is particularly vulnerable to mismanagement, and therefore scrutiny becomes the sine qua non to bring these onto the radar screens. There is an actionaid page on Glencore’s tax dodge in Zambia here and the cover up this tax probe here by none other than European Investment Bank. These wolves make their money at the margins, and profits by working in the global margins, margins of what is legal, erecting walls of shell corporations, weaving complex webs of partners, offshoring accounts in order to obscure transactions, and working with shady intermediaries (Financial Intermediaries in the case of IFIs could be coaxed into differential calculus of presenting themselves into the developing world, but as it holds true invest far and between into repressive political regimes: safeguards and recourse mechanisms at least on paper guarantee this) to obfuscate what is legally corrupt and what is not. No wonder, titularly, the post makes sense: what does one do these? 
Part 3
I apologize for the length of this concluding part and the series thats been flooding your inboxes for the last three days. The idea behind the series emanated after a twitter discussion with a couple of friends, where we wanted to understand the dark movements of commodity trading financing and its ramifications for a political habitat where notions of post-industrial capitalism could be brought to light in at least comprehensibility, if nothing more. Thanks for the patience.
Leveraging information in times of wild commodity-economic swings is cashed on. Trading and hedging all the way, it is akin to a casino, where the ‘house’ always wins, a spot of volatility, where eagles dare, nah, where the wolves dare. In one of the most interesting euphemisms ever from Deutsche Bank on Glencore, the German Bank said, “Key drivers of growth: copper in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, coal in Colombia, and Gold in Kazakhstan. All are places with a heady, dangerous mix of extraordinary wealth and various degrees of instability, violence and strongman leaders. But, these guys need to adapt as well, and adapt they do undermining transparency. In a pretty hubristic manner, Marc Rich said, “Discretion is an important factor of success in the commodity business. They probably don’t have a choice. Transparency is requested today. It limits your activity, to be sure, but it’s just a new strategy to which they have to adapt.” (Italics/emphasis mine). 
Hedge: an investment position intended to offset losses/gains that may be incurred by a companion investment. Hedging is the practice of taking a position in one market to offset and balance agains the risk adopted by assuming a position in a contrary or opposing market or investment.
Derivatives: special contracts that derives its value from the performance of an underlying entity, which could be an asset, index, or interest rate. Derivatives as used here are used in insuring against price movements/fluctuations (hedging), increasing exposure to price movements for speculation or getting access to otherwise hard to trade assets or markets. Thanks Wiki.
Moving on backwards for a time, CTFs chiefly perform arbitrages, while facing a wide array of risks, which are often times managed by hedging, insurance and/or diversification. Probably taking a leaf from Richard Morgan, a force in himself on the science-fiction space, I’d have no second thoughts in underlining that these guys are adept in transferring risks to the financial markets using instruments of hedging in derivatives or purchasing insurance. The principal funding comes through mixing debt and debt maturities, to which we shall turn shortly. Upon emaciating my bitterness as exhibiting in parts 1 and 2, the suggestion that CTFs are potentially the sources of systematic risks like the banks, and hence be open to regulations, the faltering point comes with the fact that these are not too big to fail, and at most of the times keep themselves in check from engaging in kinds of maturity transformations that make banks highly susceptible to run. Moreover, these are not major sources of credits like the  IFIs and their ilk, and thus are not very leveraging entities, and if at all these encounter any financial distress, these simply transfer the distress to others.
In the penultimate section, let us deliberate on risk factors, before concluding with modes of financing. I’d try to keep mathematics to the bare minimum, and would circle on attempts at popularising. Risks have numerous paths of departure from the way IFIs and their ilk define, negotiate and deal with. Traditionally, CTFs deal with Flat Price Risks, where flat price is the absolute price level of the commodity to be traded. The firm transacts a commodity, and hedges the relative commodity position through derivatives transaction, by for e.g. selling future contracts to hedge inventory in transit. This is carried out with the intention of transforming the exposure to commodity’s flat price into an exposure to the basis between the price of commodity and the price of the hedging instrument. Flat Price Risks do not always materialise into distress, for hedging sees to it that an exchange of Flat Price Risk for a Basis Risk transpires, i.e. the risk of changes in the difference of the price between the commodity being hedged and the hedging instrument. Such a price differential is possible because the characteristics of the hedging instrument are seldom identical to the characteristics of the physical commodity being hedged. The differential is, moreover built on a positive feedback mechanism that creates a virtuous cycle, standardising hedging instruments for commodities and inducing market participants to trade these standardised contracts with less of a basis risk, but more of a transaction cost. In short, Basis Risk is commodity-contextual and opportunistic for the firms to accept, and pregnant with what in financial jargon is termed ‘a corner or a squeeze’, by which is meant an exercise of the market power in a derivative market, a tendency to cause distortion in the basis that can possibly inflict harm on hedgers. Certain rogue traders can cause ruptures by either spreading risks across margins between the sale and purchase prices depending on volumes of transactions, or even cause ruptures in operations. Well, it is not very difficult to realise that this is part of a contractual risk, when the other party defaults. This could be quite detrimental for the CTFs for the sellers of commodities to consumers have an incentive to default when prices rise subsequent to their contracting clause, and the CTFs are left to lurk for finding the necessary supplies. To escape the trap of such situations, CTFs devise ways to enter and exit positions to negotiate Market Liquidity Risks, where liquidity as a node of causal chain in market flip-flops can cause huge distress. But, if caught in such scenarios, funding this liquidity risk becomes the imperative. Both, funding liquidity and market liquidity are in a relationship of correlation, of interaction, in that stressed conditions in financial markets result in decline of both market liquidity and funding liquidity, compounded through large price fluctuations and movements leading to greater variation margin payments and thus increasing financing. Lastly, appreciation and depreciation of local currencies tied with political economy of the geographies and vulnerability to legal transgressions often face the CTFs in the face of legal reputation getting hit and imposition of legal sanctions looming large. At present times, when commodity manipulation is subjected to considerably intense political and regulatory attention and scrutiny, CTFs bank on difficulties in legal proceedings on the one hand, and on the other, their expertise regarding the economic frictions in transformation processes that make their activities profitable and their financial size big enough and thus almost lending them a position to do so through a term mentioned in the beginning of this sentence, manipulation.
Turning to financing now. As is well known that debt and equity issued by CTFs link them to a broad financial ecology, and therefore any capital structure envisaged by CTFs opens them up to vulnerabilities of market swings. CTFs traverse from gearing/leverage, forms of leverage these employ and rights/ownership of equities. Pure trading firms that own relatively few fixed assets tend to be more highly leveraged than firms that also engage in processing and refining transformations that require investments in fixed assets. At the same time, firms engaged in more fixed asset intensive transformations have a greater proportion of long-term liabilities. CTFs do not always engage in maturity transformations as do the banks, and when they do, it is the reverse of the borrow short-lend long transformation that makes bank balance sheets fragile, and exposes banks and financial intermediaries (FIs) to runover risks. Additionally, since CTFs’ primarily hedged inventories and trade receivables tend to be highly liquid and of high credit quality, these firms run less liquidity risks than FIs and banks. CTFs rely on bank borrowings to finance these transformation activities, by either through short-term borrowings that could also be routed through unsecured credit lines via an arrangement that is syndicated. A typical case involves bilateral credit lines, and are secured by saleable commodities in liquid markets that are marked to market and hedged, and thereby benefiting these exposures to short maturities, which in turn present less credit risks as compared to a credit secured by less liquid collateral. Other than these, non-bank financial vehicles like shadow-bank transactions are often used to securitise inventories and receivables. Glencore specialises in this format, the format that dals with FIs through the issuance of debt outside the insured banking system. The financing mechanisms get complex when tied with ownership rights, where if inefficient risk bearing is the major cost incurred in private ownership, it is the idiosyncratic risks of commodity that get diversified, thanks to shareholders when the firm is publicly listed. But, private firms have a way out inked in financial contracts whereby risks outside the gamut of management control can be transferred to others. This structure built into the contract not only incentivises benefits to the private CTFs, but also score mighty in comparison to public-listed firms, where risk bearing capability is modest at best. But, there is a catch here that swings the pendulum in favour of publicly-listed firms and was possibly one of the chief reasons for Glencore going public. In large-scale investments where equity investments can shoot the budget of private players and expose them to humungous risks, a transference of risks by means of non-equity financial contracts to others is not feasible, and thus a recourse to businesses that can be hedged in derivatives, credit and insurance markets is undertaken. In short, with increasing asset intensity and accumulation of sorts, a movement away from private ownership to going public is indispensable. The obvious question in many minds at the moment would naturally be: what about disclosure then? Who scores and who wins here? The private firms are obligated to keep accounts and records to be kept in accordance with accepted accounting principles and standards, but the laws regarding what information must be disclosed is discretionary upon jurisdiction. In the case of US, private firms have to provide information to their lenders and derivatives counterparts, and at any time with their discretion can provide their financial information in ways similar to those employed by their public counterparts. Importantly, with respect to disclosures to government regulators, CTF positions in listed derivatives are available to exchange staff and government regulators.
What about their relation with FIs? CTFs supply financial intermediation servies to their customers through trade credits, structured transactions that bundle financing, risk management and marketing services. A CTF selling a commodity to a customer has better information about the buyer than would a bank, thus giving the option to the CTF to have a better preparedness on evaluating creditworthiness as compared to a bank. As is a well known fact that cash is more fungible than a commodity, any diversion with cash input is more likely than with a commodity, and thereby more risky. One way to reduce this risk susceptibility is through an off-take agreement, where a CTF agrees to purchase a contractually specified quantity of a commodity from a producer usually at a floating price. the process starts off with refinancing involving three parties: the borrower, CTF and the bank. Borrower and the CTF enter into a prepay arrangement with the bank providing the necessary funds to the borrower. When the commodity is delivered to the CTF, the CTF pays the amount it owes under the off-take agreement to the bank to repay the loan. Wow!, the bank has no recourse to the CTF, and bears all the credit risk associated with the loan to the borrower. What, then is prepay? Two variants emanate in this regard: in the 1st, the bank provides limited recourse financing to the CTF, and the trader assigns the rights under the off-take arrangement to the bank as a security; the CTF provides funds to the producer, but the bank absorbs the credit risk on the loan (there could be instances when the CTF may keep a risk participation), in the 2nd, the bank provides full recourse financing to the CTF, which then makes a loan to the borrower. Thus in the 2nd variation, the CTF bears the risk that the borrower will not repay the prepaid amount. The CTF, in turn, can offload all or some of this credit risk by entering into an insurance policy, and depending on the terms of the financing provided by the bank to the CTF, the bank may be the loss payee on this insurance policy. A CTF can also engage in a Tolling arrangement, where the CTF supplies a commodity processor with an input and takes ownership of the processed commodity. The CTF pays a fixed fee to the processor, pays the market price to acquire the input, and receives the market price for the refined products. This type of an arrangement is common with oil as the main input. Thee structures bundle together multiple goods and services. For e.g. in a simple off-take agreement, the CTF provides marketing services and hedging. A prepay incorporates these elements and a financing component as well. The seller receives cash upfront, in exchange for a lower stream of payments in the future with the discount on the sales price being effectively the interest on the prep amount. A Tolling arrangement bundles input sourcing, output marketing, price risk management, and working capital financing. The working capital element exists because the CTF has to finance the input from the time it is purchased until it can realise revenue from the sale of the refined goods after processing is complete. The benefits of Tolling entail a need for working capital to finance the timing gap between cash outflows and inflows. But, there is an ethical dilemma here: providing financing for working capital is a traditional activity banks have hitherto engaged in. When the lender lends to an entity, it leaves the entity to acquire input and market outputs, and bear and perhaps manage the price and operational risks associated with those activities. This leaves the lender exposed to risks where any adverse movements in prices could leave the entity into a financial distress and cause default. The lender could require the borrower to hedge, and if it does not, or does not do it effectively, the lender bears the risk. This undermines the incentive of the borrower to hedge, and hedge well. The lender can monitor, but this is costly and often times imperfect. The ethical dilemma is addressed by passing the risk to the lender. A prepay or Tolling does this well. These implicitly provide the funding to bridge the outflow-inflow gap, and pass on the price risks back to the lender. The lender can manage these risks and the agency costs in this arrangement is on the lower side, and since the lender bears the price risk, there is no ethical dilemma anymore. Most crucially, it takes on the incentive to manage the risks, thus quashing any need for monitoring it. the implication is that bundling price risk management and financing can reduce the cost of funding working capital needs. Furthermore, the lender may have a comparative advantage in managing risks due to specialisation and expertise in this function: CTFs and banks have a comparative advantage in risk management. CTFs with their specialisation in logistics and marketing smoothly navigate scale and scope economies. For instance, it may be cheaper for a CTF to provide marketing and logistical services thereby eliminating any associated overheads with these activities. Less sophisticated firms, on the other hand benefit hugely by delegating marketing, logistics and risk management services to specialist firms that can exploit the scale and scope economies. Thus, bundling financing and FIs make for a complementarity.
In conclusion, CTFs are here to stay, but need serious attention of regulators, for there is a scare that traders’ ownership of infrastructure allows these firms to manipulate local prices, even if they do not have the heft to rig global markets. Mochas Kituyi, secretary-general of the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development accuses the industry of corruption and illicit flows and large-scale trade mispricing in the developing world. And this is where their potential hazardous nature surfaces. Importantly, activists need the necessary instruments to dig deep in transactions that more than likely result in CTFs ride out with profit when cornered and/or investigated. In this era of black swans, the sharpening of teeth eating into the flesh of CTFs should generally commence from the knowledge economy/ecology with no truck for the dichotomy.