“Cowboy Company”

Bart Chilton is a Commissioner at the U.S. Commodity Futures Trading Commission. This post is based on Commissioner Chilton’s remarks to the Amcot 2013 Business Conference in Lake Tahoe, California, available here.

When people think of Tahoe, they may ponder “Tahoe, oh—skiing, the Lake, maybe golf or gambling. Heck, let’s go.” But today, well, let’s switch it up and talk about the Old West and Tahoe aglow, back in the day. This is a fitting place to do just that. The Ponderosa Ranch, from Bonanza, was just over yonder, on the Nevada side of the Lake. Remember the Cartwright’s? There was Ben who survived three wives, but begets a son from each one: Adam, Hoss, and Little Joe. And just a few miles from here, they hold the Genoa Cowboy Festival at the site of the first ranch in Nevada. (Not the Mustang Ranch—that’s 15 minutes east of Reno. Hey, you at the door, where ya going?) The first ranch in Nevada was Trimmer Ranch No. 1. Let’s assume there were others. The oldest saloon in Nevada is also in Genoa. A portion of the original bar from the 1800’s is still in use. And, the local phone book lists at least 25 places to “get your boots on” and get a pair.

Right about now, some of you might be thinking, “Whoa, hold your horses there, long hair.” Isn’t this supposed to be about financial regulation or commodity markets or something?” Yeah, Sundance, it is. We’re just going to kick up the dust a bit as we “tumble along with the tumbling tumbleweeds” and have our cordial conversationalizing. After all, like George Strait sings, “I ain’t here for a long time. I’m here for a good time.” So, let’s get to it and talk some about the Old West and our financial markets today.

Has anybody seen the new Lone Ranger movie? Ooh, not too many, eh? It received some rough reviews, although I found a few good ones. It tanked on opening weekend. As of a few days ago, the film had made $85 million in the U.S., and $164 million worldwide. The production budget was $215 million. So, not good, Kemosabe. The whole thing has the good folks at Disney cogitating some on that one. But, I’ll come clean: I’m partial to it. In fact, I really liked it! Yessiree, Bob. (Jarral asked me to refer to Bob Norris as “sir.” Yessiree, Bob. Was that okay, Jarral?) In fact my wife and I saw The Lone Ranger twice. Heck, he’s an American legend. Plus, I’m a patsy for Westerns and the William Tell Overture. Can’tcha just hear that tune? Hi-Yo Silver, away! It really gets you going. You can envision Silver rearing up then taking off like wildfire and galloping along. Lots and lots of action—ooh, ooh yeah!

Well, there’s a lot of action in financial markets too. How smooth was that? But it’s true. The William Tell Overture might as well be the theme music for our work, sun-up to sun-down these days.

Blue Jean Baby & Prospectors

So, let’s travel back those golden days of yesteryear, to the mid-1800’s. The Gold Rush was going strong here in California. Prospectors came to make their fortunes. Some did. Some didn’t. In addition to those gold prospectors, some folks that assisted them also found their fortunes. Think Levi Strauss, who switched very early on from canvas to twilled cotton cloth to make his now-famous pants. He later co-patented, with a Reno tailor, the pants with rivets to make them stronger. It was the birth of blue jeans. “Blue jean baby … L.A. lady, seamstress for the band” (sorry). But, it was the birth of blue jeans, if you will. There was also Henry Wells and William Fargo of stagecoach and now banking renown. One of the prospectors, Charles Bowles, had a side job. He robbed Wells Fargo stagecoaches of their strongboxes ‘round these parts. He committed 28 such robberies in Northern California in eight years and became better known as Black Bart. Gotta love the name.

At the same time, a group of market prospectors in Chicago started what would become the Chicago Board of Trade. Commodity prices were in disarray with extreme volatility that didn’t do anyone any good. These market prospectors sought to fix that. Cotton wasn’t one of the original products traded, but soon, it would be.

Here we are, all these years later, and like the Western gold prospectors who changed the way they looked for gold over the years, the market prospectors—in particular the speculators—have also changed, or morphed. The question I ask as a regulator, and I know some of you ask as well, is this: Are markets still performing the purposes envisioned by those folks back in the day? There are a couple of areas, actually some new types of traders and activities, which make me wha wha wha wonder.

The Massive Passive Gang

First, we have seen a “financialization” of commodity markets by a band of traders called Massive Passives—the Massive Passive Gang (they are a “gang” for today). Investors looking to diversify their present-day strongbox portfolios sought out the derivatives world and dumped roughly $200 billion into U.S. regulated futures markets as they were “coming round the mountain” between 2005 and 2008.

Say a pension fund wanted to diversify into commodities—there’s nothing wrong with that from my perspective. They aren’t Desperados. Nevertheless, the type of trading activity they undertake is different from what speculators have typically done. Instead of getting in and out of markets, maybe based upon a drought or other natural disaster, this gang of very large funds, pension funds, some hedge funds, exchange traded funds (ETFs), and the like buy and hold their market positions. They bury them, only to come back a few years later. They are both massive in size, and fairly passive in their trading strategy—the Massive Passive Gang.

Here’s the worrisome part, pardners: too much concentration in markets by too many of the Massive Passive Gang can influence and contribute to price abnormalities. Heck, just one large massive passive can impact price if they are large enough.

Take 2008, when crude went from right around $99 at the beginning of the year to more than $145 in July, then all the way back to $31 in December. All of that took place without much change in supply or demand. Convince me the Massive Passive Gang had no role in that market distortion and I’ll wear chaps and a fringe coat to your next meeting.

On cotton futures markets, absent a few exceptions (uh hum, 2008, pardon me…frog in my throat) since their inception more than 120 years ago, things have been comparatively stable. There are lots of commercial traders, like many of you and other end-user-related traders. Of course, we still have the market speculators. We need the speculators, want ‘em, gotta have ‘em, or we have no markets.

One thing that has changed is the length of the trading day. The markets run nearly 24-7-365. That’s actually caused some problems in cotton, by the way. Also back in 2008, we saw 14 days in about a six week period where markets went lock-limit, 11 of which were before sun-up in New York—ya know, back in the Old States. There was sparse liquidity, and traders in China in the markets, and what would normally not be huge trades pushed prices to the limits. Heck, the markets were locked before folks here had their eggs and bacon.

In response to what was going on in 2008 with the Massive Passive Gang, Congress and President Obama instructed us (as part of the Dodd-Frank financial reform law in 2010) to put in place speculative position limits. Those limits would ensure that regulators have the firepower to run excessive speculation outta these markets. To date, the limits aren’t in place. There’s fierce opposition out there, but we’re fix’n to pony up and fix that soon. In September I expect we’ll get back in the saddle again and put out a proposal on position limits. And, I believe the final limits rule will be in place come January of 2014. This rule, I assure you, won’t be able to be shot down (in a blaze of glory or otherwise).

So, that’s the Massive Passive Gang. Let’s go, daylights burning and we’ve got ground to cover.

The Fastest Gunslingers

There is a lot of debate about who actually was the fastest gun in the West. Some say Doc Holliday or Johnny Ringo deserve the designation. Others suggest Bat Masterson (born Bartholomew, by the way—what’s it about those dandy Western names?). How about Billy the Kid? The Kid thought he was the one, “I’m Billy the Kid,” he said, “…the fastest draw. It’s not arrogance. It’s the truth.” Maybe Wyatt Earp? Nah, he held that, “Fast is fine, but accuracy is everything.” Annie Oakley and Calamity Jane, the renowned sharpshooters, would agree with Sherriff Earp. Some suggest the fastest gun was John Wesley Hardin, also known as “Little Arkansaw.” He claimed to have killed 42 men.

Let’s talk about some other fast guns—market gunslingers. They’re a rough bunch of young guns, and a Wild West breed all their own. Not a horse, like the Lone Ranger’s “Silver,” or a cow, coyote or rattlesnake, but a cheetah. That’s right, a cheetah. Not a card cheater who sits in the gunfighter’s chair in the corner saloon, but a cheetah as in the fastest land animal. Those cats are the fastest trading guns. Sometimes you just gotta mix it up.

Now, I’m asking you to envision a cheetah with a hat (let’s say a ten-gallon hat, just for the hell of it), tooled boots with silver spurs, and a low-slung gun belt on those slim cheetah hips. That cheetah gunslinger is eyeballing us from 40 paces. Will we be fast enough to take him? In truth, nah, probably not. They usually win, those cheetahs, with their fancy spurs. Who do they think they are?

The thing is, those cheetahs gunslingers are always so hell-bent for leather when they trade that they are impacting the ability of you guys, and other end-users, to do what you need to do, to hedge. I mean, pardon you guys to pieces for simply trying to hedge your legitimate business risks. For crying out loud, you aren’t looking for a gunfight. You just wanna do what those original prospectors set in motion all those years ago. Yet, here you are, staring down the barrel of a gun. And…that gun is held by a damn cat, with a hat…at that!

How Fast is Fast?

How fast are these cheetah gunslingers? Well, it’s about a thousand miles from New York to Chicago. A recent article in the Financial Times pointed out that communications cables laid between the two cities meant that a message could be delivered in 14.5 milliseconds—70 round trips per second. Now that’s fast—cheetah gunslinger fast. But not fast enough for some who use those cables to trade commodities. It’s been reported that at least one company has cut that time down to 13.1 milliseconds and that microwave capability could get it under 10 milliseconds. Holy smokes!

Let me give you some of our own data: over the last year, we analyzed 20 million trading seconds. Of those 20 million, we pinpointed 189,000 seconds, primarily around the open and close of markets. In those 189,000 seconds we found something astounding: cheetahs traded at rates of 100-500 trades per second in a major commodity market! Trading 100 to 500 times per second, as a gang, in one commodity contract? That’s pretty hard to wrap your head around. Heck, it’s easier to imagine our cheetah friends in their gunfighter get-up.

Why this need for speed? It’s not the need to stay alive like an Old West gunfighter, of course not. It’s about the dinero, the loot. A study late last year, which was conducted in conjunction with the CFTC, said in essence that cheetah trading imposes quantifiable costs. Aggressive cheetahs make a lot of money, and they make their biggest paydays when they trade with small, traditional traders. A cheetah trading with a fundamental trader—like a lot of you—makes $1.92 on a $50,000 trade, but if that same trade is made with a small trader, the number goes up to $3.49. This could end up pushing smaller, slow-shooters out of markets and it doesn’t help the fundamental traders either.

But that’s not the only issue with the cheetahs, no sirree.

Ghost Town Liquidity

The name “Tahoe” actually came from the name “Washoe,” which is the name of the Native Americas that inhabited this area for something like 6,000 years. In fact, Washoe City is located just south of Reno. In the 1860’s it was booming with a sawmill for lumber used in Virginia City (ya know, where the Cartwright clan went when they went to town—da ta da da da, da da da, ta da da, da da da daa). Washoe City was even the county seat of Washoe County (it’s now Reno). But today, you can’t even visit Washoe City. It’s all fenced off. Washoe City is an Old West ghost town.

That brings us to another problem area with the cheetah gang. I told you it was like the William Tell Overture—lots going on. In fact, this ghost town thing is sort of a dirty little secret. It involves “wash” trading, where cheetahs (and sometimes others) trade with themselves. They make a bid or offer and they hit it themselves. Putting a price out and hitting it yourself, you take no risk, yet create the impression that a legitimate trade has occurred. That entices others—easy prey—to get into markets. But the liquidity isn’t real. It’s ghost town liquidity. If this was only for a few trades, it wouldn’t make much difference. However, there is a lot of ghost town liquidity. I mean a whole lot. “Voluminous” is the word I’ve used. And if this ghost town trading amounts to wash trading, it’s not only wrong, but based upon the facts and circumstances, it is illegal. That’s because wash trading is clearly unfair to other traders, and it can impact price discovery which is unfair to consumers.

Wash Blockers—20-Mule Team Borax!

One might think the exchanges would put in place what are called “wash blockers.” That sounds like a commercial: “Wash blockers—for cleaner markets!” Remember Death Valley Days? “Brought to you by 20-Mule Team Borax.” The show was Ronald Reagan’s last acting gig before he went into politics.

Wash blocker technology is available and exchanges are starting to put more of an emphasis on it. In my view, traders shouldn’t be able to just opt-in to the technology requirements if they want to. It needs to be mandatory that they utilize wash blocker technology. Otherwise, we’ll still have ghost town liquidity and markets that aren’t necessarily fair and effective.

So, that’s the cheetah gang and we did the Massive Passive Gang. Let’s head down the trail to our last topics.

Bank Ownership

When we think about how the West was won, it had a lot to do with the railroads. As the Iron Horses moved from east to west, towns along the line grew. But towns could never ever have amounted to much without banks. The banks helped build the towns. They made loans to individuals and businesses. They helped fuel economic development. They built communities. Some refer to the Winchester rifle as “The gun that won the West.” But I’ll tell ya, a good case could be made that banks won the West.

However, just like markets have morphed with the Massive Passive Gang, with non-stop trading, with our cheetah gunslingers and their “gee whiz” technology, so too have the banks changed. And it seems some have lost sight of those noble endeavors for which they are known as the country moved west.

A decade ago, in the shifting climate to allow banks more freedom, several policy changes took place. One such change was approved by the Federal Reserve. It allowed the ownership of totally unrelated businesses. The idea was that it was a good thing for the banks to be diversified. It was okay to get away from their sweet spot—ya know…banking. Like folks do when they see an opening, the banks got into all sorts of other businesses—businesses which include physical commodities like agriculture, energy or metals. It also includes owing the storage or warehousing facilities of commodities, and/or the delivery mechanisms of commodities—like pipelines, shipping, rail or other transportation interests.

Bank Ownership: The Data

You might wonder, “What it is they actually do own?” Well, let me tell you a story. A couple of weeks ago we rounded up a posse to look and see what actually is owned by the banks. I’m a financial regulator; you’d think it would be a piece of pie to find a list of what they own, right? I mean, it would be understandable if there were certain business reasons why a few particulars of the ownership information might not be available to the public. Nevertheless, you’d think I could get it. After all, banks own commercial interests that can impact prices, and at the same time their trading desks are all over the very same markets. There are obvious conflicts of interest. I’m not saying there have been any violations of the law, but how would we even know?

Our little posse did find that Morgan Stanley has ownership stakes in oil tankers and a fuel distributor. And, of course, they also trade crude oil and other energy contracts. Parts of Citigroup, Goldman Sachs and Bank of America own or have owned power plants. They also trade energy contracts. And, everybody’s been talking about Goldman Sachs holding onto aluminum at warehouses they own. Some say that’s consequently driving the up the price of beer and soda, while the bank collects storage fees. And, they trade aluminum. JP Morgan also owns similar warehouses, although they said last week they may get out of commodities. We’ll see. Oh, and by the way, Barclays and JP Morgan are putting out hundreds of millions of dollars in restitution for getting caught rigging electricity prices. There is that.

But, getting other information on ownership of the banks has been super difficult, at best. Maybe we need a “WANTED” poster:


Information leading to the apprehension of ownership data related to large investment banks, including but not limited to businesses related to commodities, the storage and warehousing of commodities, and/or the delivery mechanisms of commodities.

This might be a little amusing if it weren’t such a serious thing that the information isn’t readily available. In fact, its sorta deja-oohish in that it’s reminiscent of that period of time, just before the financial crisis, when folks were asking questions about the valuation of credit default swaps (CDSs). Nobody could turn up much of anything. We all know how that troubled tale of tragedy ended…in tragedy and economic catastrophe. So, this is a big deal.

Tracking down this information should be an immediate responsibility of regulators. It’s gonna require more bodies and more horses, and maybe that “WANTED” poster, but we need to find out specifically—and comprehensively—what banks own relating to physical commodities. Furthermore, the basic ownership information should be transparent, certainly to regulators. And public information should be easily accessible on the Federal Reserve’s website or someplace where people can view it without needing a bloodhound to track it down.

Bank Ownership: The Work-Around (Volcker & Limits)

There is also a related issue with ownership of commodities by banks. If the banks own the physical commodities, warehousing or delivery mechanisms, they may then contend that their “legitimate business interests” should allow them to hedge those risks, in addition to hedging their financial proprietary risks.

This approach could amount to yet another work-around the Volcker Rule. Recall the Volcker Rule? It’s a provision of Dodd–Frank that requires that banks no longer be able to conduct speculative trading. They may only hedge their legitimate business risk. But, if they own the physical, then it muddies up what is their business risk.

I’ve written to Chairman Bernanke about this issue (and am discussing it for the first time today). In the letter, I urge that the final Volcker Rule be written in a precise and surefooted fashion that allows only for appropriate hedging of banks proprietary risks, but firmly prohibits speculation. I even provided rule text language for his consideration. I won’t vote for a final Volcker Rule unless this language, or something substantially similar, is included in the final text.

Incidentally, owning the physical could also be used as a way around speculative position limits. (I’m working on that one.) We’d be fools to think the bank lawyers aren’t thinking about these work-around end runs.

Bank Ownership: Reverse the Policy!

One easy way to stop the work-around is to simply have the Federal Reserve’s ownership policy reversed. Why can’t the banks, just can’t get back to banking? That’s my preferred policy. I don’t want a bank owning an electric service, or cotton, corn or feedlots. I don’t want banks owning warehouses, whether they have aluminum, gold, silver, or anything else in them. Get back (Jo Jo) to making loans to individuals and businesses to help get our economy on track. We don’t want Cowboy Companies out there. We don’t want a Wild West anymore when it comes to our economy. Do what you did when the West was won, when you helped to build the frontier. That is such an honorable, worthy, noble and essential endeavor. Plus, you were so very good at accomplishing so much!

I hope the Federal Reserve, which announced last week that the policy was being reviewed, actually reverses it. They can and should reverse it. Sure, if they have to grandfather some of the bank ownership in for a time-certain, I get that. The banks shouldn’t be required to take a loss due to the policy change. But the policy should, in fact, change, and soon. And, if the Fed doesn’t do so, I expect there will be efforts in Congress, and I hope there are, to prohibit such ownership by changing the law.

Cowboy Ethics

Our trail has come to an end. However, I’d like to leave you with this: there’s a book out by a gentleman named James P. Owen who’s a cowboy and western lover and who also happens to be a 40-year veteran of Wall Street. The book’s called Cowboy Ethics. It is sort of a coffee table book with a message—great photography, too. Owen opines that businesses today, especially the behemoth banks on Wall Street, need to live less by the “greed is good” mantra and more like the Code of the West. “When you make a promise, keep it.” “Remember that some things aren’t for sale.” “Know where to draw the line.” Do those sound like mantras for Wall Street? Unfortunately—not so much. You folks can recall the horrific headlines of malfeasance as well as anyone. A recent study queried 250 financial service industry insiders and 23 percent said they had “observed or had firsthand knowledge of wrongdoing in the workplace.”

For a while now, I’ve been saying that there needs to be a culture shift in the financial sector. How about the responsibility to customers, to society and the economy? Maybe the Code of the West is just the thing.

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