Apr 21, yesterday, is Texas A&M Aggie Muster. Aggies everywhere gather to say “here” for Aggies lost in the past year, a roll call. It’s more poignant this time for my Aggie, Karen, and the many friends and family hailing from College Station. Gig’em, Aggies.
Speaking of Texas, let’s talk oil. We’ve been saying for years that volatility during the next crisis, whenever it came, would be exacerbated by Exchange Traded Funds (ETFs) and lead to large failures. It’s now happened in oil, which freakishly settled Monday at $37 below zero.
Oil prices are predicated in the USA on futures contracts for West Texas Intermediate (WTI). Overflowing storage facilities mean few parties want to take delivery of oil. That pressures prices.
But oil isn’t worth nothing. It’s not worth less than nothing. That futures went south of zero is a product of the supply/demand distortions ETFs introduce.
Futures are themselves derivatives that obligate one to action only if held to settlement. ETF investors are not buying barrels of oil. They’re buying the PRICE of oil.
But they’re really buying derivatives that represent derivatives that represent the price of oil. The massive oil ETF, USO (always among the most active stocks, it yesterday traded a billion shares, one of every twelve, leading the market), currently claims assets of $3 billion comprised heavily of June and July WTI contracts. It’s down 80% in a year.
We’ve explained before that ETFs work similarly to, say, buying poker chips. You pay cash to the house and receive chips of equal value. The chips represent the cash. The difference with ETFs is there’s an intermediary between you and the house.
So the intermediary, the broker, pays the house for the chips and sells them to you. Suppose the intermediary, the broker, gave energy futures as payment for the chips, rather than cash.
Then the value of the futures plunged. ETFs compound the damage. The broker is out the value of it collateral, futures, and you’re out the value of your chips, which also collapse.
The broker may stop transacting in the ETF because it’s out a lot of money. Now you can’t find a buyer – and you suffer even more damage.
This happened. Interactive Brokers said it lost $88 million, its portion of the excess losses by its customers, some of whom lost everything in their accounts. The firm’s CEO said in a CNBC interview yesterday it had exposure to about 15% of the May WTI futures contracts behind the damage, meaning some $500 million more exists.
And the damage yesterday to the June WTI contract, the next in the series, was as impactful. Massive Singapore futures broker Hin Leong, which moves physical commodities, filed for bankruptcy. It had been in business since 1963.
Banks most exposed to Hin Leong’s billions in obligations: HSBC and ABN Amro. We’ve long said we thought HSBC was a counterparty at risk in a financial crisis, on exposure to derivatives. ABN Amro lost big already, on Ronin Capital’s March failure.
The biggest derivatives counterparties though are all names you know: JP Morgan, Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley, BofA, Citi (which has vastly more derivatives exposure via swaps than anyone). They may be fine – but the world relies on these firms to make every meaningful market, from helping the Fed, to trading ETFs.
We’re leaving out a key piece of the story. The big way ETFs cause trouble is by distorting the market’s perception of supply and demand. In 2008, securitized mortgage derivatives bloated the appearance of demand for real estate.
USO owned some 25% of the subject oil futures contract. Yes, we’ve got too much oil (remember peak oil? Cough, cough.) because travel died. Sure, we know supply exceeds demand.
Demand from derivatives of derivatives is extended reach to an asset class – which inflates its price. I submit: WTI May futures traded to -$37 Apr 20 because ETFs grossly inflated the price despite its apparent weakness. When books were squared and inflationary “financial” demand from ETFs removed, oil was worth 200% less than zero.
Said another way, when money in ETFs not wanting to take delivery of oil didn’t even want its price, we discovered that demand implied in futures misrepresented reality.
Thank you, ETFs.
Barclays shuttered two oil instruments. A dozen more are at risk. USO is at risk. The roll call of the threatened is lengthening.
Where else are ETFs inflating prices relative to underlying demand? Well, the greatest instance of asset-class extension is in US equities. Especially the FAANGs – FB, AAPL, AMZN, NFLX, GOOG (and the pluses are MSFT, AMD, TSLA, a handful of others).
These bellwethers have weathered better than the rest in a global shutdown. But they all depend on consumer-discretionary income. People have to be working to pay for subscriptions, and businesses must be operating to spend advertising dollars.
The drums are drumming. I expect we’ll see some even more surprising ETF failures before the roll call is done. The sooner we’re back to work, the quicker the drumbeat ends.