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. 

Indecent Bazaars. Thought of the Day 113.0

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Peripheral markets may be defined as markets which generate only a small proportion of their financial inflows from local business and investors, but which attract the interest of ‘global’ investors. Emerging markets and markets for financial exotica such as financial derivatives are examples of such peripheral markets. Because emerging markets are largely dependent upon attracting international funds in order to generate increases in securities prices and capital gains which will attract further funds, they are particularly good examples of the principles of Ponzi finance at work in securities markets.

A common characteristic feature of peripheral markets is that they have no history of returns to financial investment on the scale on which finance is drawn to those markets in a time of capital market inflation. Such returns in the future have to be inferred on the basis of conjecture and fragmentary information. Investment decisions are therefore more dependent on sentiment, rather than reason. Any optimism is quickly justified by the rapid increase in asset prices in response to even a modest excess net inflow of money into such a market.

Emerging markets illustrate this very clearly. Such markets exist in developing and semi-industrialized countries with relatively undeveloped pensions and insurance institutions, principally because only a small proportion of households earn enough to be able to put aside long-term savings. The first fund manager comes upon such a market in the conviction that a change of government or government policy, or some temporary change in commodity prices, has opened a cornucopia of profitable opportunities and therefore warrants the dismissal of a history of economic, financial and political instability. If he or she is able with buying and enthusiasm to attract other speculators and fund managers to enter the market, they may drive up asset prices and make the largest capital gains. The second and third fund managers to buy into that market also make capital gains. The emulatory competition of trading on reputation while competing for returns makes international investment managers especially prone to this kind of ‘herd’ investment.

For a while such capital inflows into the market make everyone happy: international fund managers are able to show good returns from the funds in their care; finance theorists can reassure themselves that greater financial risks are compensated by higher returns; the government of the country in which the emerging market is located can sell its bonds and public sector enterprises to willing foreign investors and use the proceeds to balance its budget and repay its debts; the watchdogs of financial prudence in the International Monetary Fund can hail the revival of finance, the government’s commitment to private enterprise and apparent fiscal responsibility; state enterprises, hitherto stagnating because of under-investment by over-indebted governments, suddenly find themselves in the private sector commanding seemingly limitless opportunities for raising finance; the country’s currency after years of depreciation acquires a gilt-edged stability as dollars (the principal currency of international investment) flow in to be exchanged for local currency with which to buy local securities; the central bank accumulates dollars in exchange for the local currency that it issues to enable foreign investors to invest in the local markets and, with larger reserves, secures a new ease in managing its foreign liabilities; the indigenous middle and professional classes who buy financial and property (real estate) assets in time for the boom are enriched and for once cease their perennial grumbling at the sordid reality of life in a poor country. In this conjuncture the most banal shibboleths of enterprise and economic progress under capitalism appear like the very essence of worldly wisdom.

Only in such a situation of capital market inflation are the supposed benefits of foreign direct investment realized. Such investment by multinational companies is widely held to improve the ‘quality’ or productivity of local labour, management and technical know-how in less developed countries, whose technology and organization of labour lags behind that of the more industrialized countries. But only the most doltish and ignorant peasant would not have his or her productivity increased by being set to work with a machine of relatively recent vintage under the guidance of a manager familiar with that machine and the kind of work organization that it requires. It is more doubtful whether the initial increase in productivity can be realized without a corresponding increase in the export market (developing countries have relatively small home markets). It is even more doubtful if the productivity increase can be repeated without the replacement of the machinery by even newer machinery.

The favourable conjuncture in the capital markets of developing countries can be even more temporary. There are limits on the extent to which even private sector companies may take on financial liabilities and privatization is merely a system for transferring such liabilities from the government to the private sector without increasing the financial resources of the companies privatized. But to sustain capital gains in the emerging stock market, additional funds have to continue to flow in buying new liabilities of the government or the private sector, or buying out local investors. When new securities cease to attract international fund managers, the inflow stops. Sometimes this happens when the government privatization drive pauses, because the government runs out of attractive state enterprises or there are political and procedural difficulties in selling them. A fall in the proceeds from privatization may reveal the government’s underlying fiscal deficit, causing the pundits of international finance to sense the odour of financial unsoundness. More commonly rising imports and general price inflation, due to the economic boom set off by the inflow of foreign funds, arouse just such an odour in the noses of those pundits. Such financial soundness is a subjective view. Even if nothing is wrong in the country concerned, the prospective capital gain and yield in some other market need only rise above the expected inflation and yield of the country, to cause a capital outflow which will usually be justified in retrospect by an appeal to perceived, if not actual, financial disequilibrium.

Ponzi financial structures are characterized by ephemeral liquidity. At the time when money is coming into the markets they appear to be just the neo-classical ideal of market perfection, with lots of buyers and sellers scrambling for bargains and arbitrage profits. At the moment when disinvestment takes hold the true nature of peripheral markets and their ephemeral liquidity is revealed as trades which previously sped through in the frantic paper chase for profits are now frustrated. This too is particularly apparent in emerging markets. In order to sell, a buyer is necessary. If the majority of investors in a market also wish to sell, then sales cannot be executed for want of a buyer and the apparently perfect market liquidity dries up. The crash of the emerging stock market is followed by the fall in the exchange value of the local currency. Those international investors that succeeded in selling now have local currency which has to be converted into dollars if the proceeds of the sale are to be repatriated, or invested elsewhere. Exchange through the local banking system may now be frustrated if it has inadequate dollar reserves: a strong possibility if the central bank has been using dollars to service foreign debts. In spite of all the reassurance that this time it will be different because capital inflows are secured on financial instruments issued by the private sector, international investors are at this point as much at the mercy of the central bank and the government of an emerging market as international banks were at the height of the sovereign debt crisis. Moreover, the greater the success of the peripheral market in attracting funds, and hence the greater the boom in prices in that market, the greater is the desired outflow when it comes. With the fall in liquidity of financial markets in developing countries comes a fall in the liquidity of foreign direct investment, making it difficult to secure appropriate local financial support or repatriate profits.

Another factor which contributes to the fragility of peripheral markets is the opaqueness of financial accounting in them, in the sense that however precise and discriminating may be the financial accounting conventions, rules and reporting, they do not provide accurate indicators of the financial prospects of particular investments. In emerging markets this is commonly supposed to be because they lack the accounting regulations and expertise which supports the sophisticated integrated financial markets of the industrialized countries. In those industrialized countries, where accounting procedures are supposed to be much more transparent, peripheral markets such as venture capital and financial futures still suffer from accounting inadequacies because financial innovation introduces liabilities that have no history and which are not included in conventional accounts (notably the so-called ‘off-balance sheet’ liabilities). More important than these gaps in financial reporting is the volatility of profits from financial investment in such peripheral markets, and the absence of any stable relationship between profits from trading in their instruments and the previous history of those instruments or the financial performance of the company issuing them. Thus, even where financial records are comprehensive, accurate and revealed, they are a poor indicator of prospective returns from investments in the securities of peripheral markets.

With more than usually unreliable financial data, trading in those markets is much more based on reputation than on any systematic financial analysis: the second and third investor in such a market is attracted by the reputation of the first and subsequently the second investor. Because of the direct connection between financial inflows and values in securities markets, the more trading takes place on the basis of reputation the less of a guide to prospective returns is afforded by financial analysis. Peripheral markets are therefore much more prone to ‘ramping’ than other markets.

Why would such a crisis of withdrawal not occur, at least not on such a scale, in the more locally integrated capital markets of the advanced industrialised countries? First of all, integrated capital markets such as those of the UK, and the US are the domestic base for international investors. In periods of financial turbulence, they are more likely to have funds repatriated to them than to have funds taken out of them. Second, institutional investors tend to be more responsive to pressure to be ‘responsible investors’ in their home countries. In large measure this is because home securities make up the vast majority of investment fund portfolios. Ultimately, investment institutions will use their liquidity to protect the markets in which most of their portfolio is based. Finally, the locally integrated markets of the advanced industrialized countries have investing institutions with far greater wealth than the developing or semi-industrialized countries. Those markets are home for the pension funds which dominate the world markets. Among their wealth are deposits and other liquid assets which may be easily converted to support a stock market by buying securities. The poorer countries of the world have even poorer pension funds, which could not support their markets against an outflow due to portfolio switches by international investors.

Thus integrated markets are more ‘secure’ in that they are less prone to collapse than emerging or, more generally, peripheral markets. But precisely because of the large amount of trade already concentrated in the integrated markets, prices in them are much less likely to respond to investment fund inflows from abroad. Pension and insurance fund practice is to extrapolate those capital gains into the future for the purposes of determining the solvency of those funds. However, those gains were obtained because of a combination of inflation, the increased scope of funded pensions and the flight of funds from peripheral markets.

Speculatively Accelerated Capital

High-Frequency-Trading

Is high frequency trading good or bad? A reasonable answer must differentiate. Various strategies can be classified as high frequency; each needs to be considered separately before issuing a general verdict.

First, one should distinguish passive and active high frequency strategies. Passive strategies engage in non-designated market making by submitting resting orders. Profits come from earning the bid-ask spread and liquidity rebates offered by exchanges. Active strategies involve the submission of marketable orders. Their profit often directly translates into somebody else’s loss. Consequently, they have raised more (and eloquent) suspicion (including FLASH BOYS by Michael Lewis). Active strategies typically exploit short-term predictability of asset prices. This is particularly evident in order anticipation strategies, which

ascertain the existence of large buyers or sellers in the marketplace and then trade ahead of these buyers or sellers in anticipation that their large orders will move market prices (Securities and Exchange Commission, 2014, p. 8).

Hirschey demonstrates that high frequency traders indeed anticipate large orders with the help of complex algorithms. Large orders are submitted by institutional investors for various reasons. New information (or misinformation) on the fundamental asset value is one of them. Others include inventory management, margin calls, or the activation of stop-loss limits.

Even in the absence of order anticipation strategies, large orders are subject to execution shortfall, i.e. the liquidation value falls short of the mark-to-market value. Execution shortfall is explained in the literature as a consequence of information asymmetry (Glosten and Milgrom) and risk aversion among market makers (Ho and Stoll).

Institutional investors seek to achieve optimal execution (i.e. minimize execution shortfall and trading costs) with the help of execution algorithms. These algorithms, e.g. the popular VWAP (volume weighted average price), are typically based on the observation that price impact depends on the relative volume of an order: Price impact is lower when markets are busy. When high frequency traders detect such an execution algorithm, they obtain information on future trades and can earn significant profits with an order anticipation strategy.

That such order anticipation strategies have been described as aggressive, predatory  and “algo-sniffing” (MacKenzie) suggests that the Securities and Exchange Commission is not alone in suspecting that they “may present serious problems in today’s market structure”. But which problems exactly? There is little doubt that order anticipation strategies increase the execution shortfall of large orders. This is bad news for institutional investors. But, to put it bluntly, “the money isn’t gone, it’s just somewhere else”. The important question is whether order anticipation strategies decrease market quality.

Papers on the relationship between high frequency trading and market quality have identified two issues where the influence of high frequency trading remains inconclusive:

• How do high frequency traders influence market efficiency under normal market conditions?

An important determinant of market efficiency is volatility. Zhang and Riordan finds that high frequency traders increase volatility, Hasbrouck and Saar finds the opposite. Benos and Sagade point out that intraday volatility is “good” when it is the result of price discovery, but “excessive” noise otherwise. They study high frequency trading in four British stocks, finding that high frequency traders participate in 27% of all trading volume and that active high frequency traders in particular “can significantly amplify both price discovery and noise”, but “have higher ratios of information-to-noise contribution than all other traders”.

• Do high frequency traders increase the risk of financial breakdowns? Bershova and Rakhlin echo concerns that liquidity provided by (passive) high frequency traders could be

fictitious; although such liquidity is plentiful during ‘normal’ market conditions, it disappears at the first sign of trouble

and that high frequency trading

has increasingly shifted market liquidity toward a smaller subset of the investable universe […]. Ultimately, this […] contributes to higher short-term correlations across the entire market.

Thus, high frequency trading may be beneficial most of the time, but dangerous when markets are under pressure. The sociologist Donald MacKenzie agrees, arguing that high frequency trading leaves no time to react appropriately when something goes wrong. This became apparent during the 2010 Flash Crash. When high frequency traders trade ahead of large orders in their model of price impact, they cause price overshooting. This can lead to a domino effect by activating stop-loss limits of other traders, resulting in new large orders that cause even greater price overshooting, etc. Empirically, however, the frequency of market breakdowns was significantly lower during 2007-2013 than during 1993-2006, when high frequency trading was less prevalent.

Even with high-quality data, empirical studies cannot fully entangle different strategies employed by high frequency traders, but what is required instead is an integration of high frequency trading into a mathematical model of optimal execution. It features transient price impact, heterogeneous transaction costs and strategic interaction between an arbitrary number of traders. High frequency traders may decrease the price deviation caused by a large order, and thus reduce the risk of domino effects in the wake of large institutional trades….

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