Sunday, May 31, 2015

"Global climate on verge of multi-decadal change"

Ha, timing is everything.
On Thursday we were quoting NOAA on one effect of the reversal of the Atlantic Multidecadal Oscillation out of its warm phase in "Active Atlantic Hurricane Period That Began in 1995 May be Over: NOAA".

Being at least as sharp as a somnolent three year old it took about an hour before I realized "Hey wait, that's really important!" and dashed off "An Extremely Important Change In A Major Climate Input" about another effect the reversal will have.

Here's something that wasn't dashed off but was dated the same day. From the University of Southampton:

Global climate on verge of multi-decadal change 
28 May 2015
A new study, by scientists from the University of Southampton and National Oceanography Centre (NOC), implies that the global climate is on the verge of broad-scale change that could last for a number of decades.
The change to the new set of climatic conditions is associated with a cooling of the Atlantic, and is likely to bring drier summers in Britain and Ireland, accelerated sea-level rise along the northeast coast of the United States, and drought in the developing countries of the Sahel region. Since this new climatic phase could be half a degree cooler, it may well offer a brief reprise from the rise of global temperatures, as well as resulting in fewer hurricanes hitting the United States.

The study, published in Nature, proves that ocean circulation is the link between weather and decadal scale climatic change. It is based on observational evidence of the link between ocean circulation and the decadal variability of sea surface temperatures in the Atlantic Ocean.

Lead author Dr Gerard McCarthy, from the NOC, said: “Sea-surface temperatures in the Atlantic vary between warm and cold over time-scales of many decades. These variations have been shown to influence temperature, rainfall, drought and even the frequency of hurricanes in many regions of the world. This decadal variability, called the Atlantic Multi-decadal Oscillation (AMO), is a notable feature of the Atlantic Ocean and the climate of the regions it influences.”

These climatic phases, referred to as positive or negative AMO’s, are the result of the movement of heat northwards by a system of ocean currents. This movement of heat changes the temperature of the sea surface, which has a profound impact on climate on timescales of 20-30 years. The strength of these currents is determined by the same atmospheric conditions that control the position of the jet stream. Negative AMO’s occur when the currents are weaker and so less heat is carried northwards towards Europe from the tropics....MORE
Here's the intro to the paper at Nature:
Ocean impact on decadal Atlantic climate variability revealed by sea-level observations

So What Happens If ISIS Attacks Saudi Arabia?

We are still looking for WTI to make another trip under $50 but this could really change the equation.
From Defense One: 

ISIS Sets Its Sights on Saudi Arabia, and That’s Bad News for Washington
Two weeks. Two suicide bombings. Both targeting Shiites in a Sunni land. And both claimed by ISIS.
If this were Iraq or Syria, these attacks – sadly – wouldn’t be surprising. But it’s not. It’s Saudi Arabia, home to Islam’s most precious sites and the region’s most powerful Sunni rulers — a relatively vast territory, kept remarkably stable by the ruthless application of authoritarian rule while its neighbors teeter under the destabilizing weight of popular revolution and terrorist intervention.

And that’s just the way the U.S. government likes its friend, Saudi Arabia. Because Washington needs stability there more than it needs to feel good about how the House of Saud achieves it.

But today, in Dammam, a city on the Saudi eastern coast, a man dressed as a woman blew himself up outside a Shiite mosque and killed three others. (The attack would have been far more devastating had guards not stopped the bomber from entering the mosque, forcing him back into a parking lot.) ISIS now is bragging that their man reached his target despite heightened security after the group’s first attack in the kingdom just eight days ago. That one, on another Shia mosque in a village called al Qadeeh, killed 21.

They certainly are significant,” says Mike Singh, former senior director for Middle East affairs at the National Security Council during the George W. Bush administration. “These attacks seem designed to exacerbate sectarian divisions, precisely as ISIS has sought to do elsewhere.”

Singh’s right; ISIS wants to encourage Sunni-Shia hostility throughout the Muslim world (perhaps as much as it wants to encourage violence between Muslims and non-Muslims worldwide) because it fits its caliphatic goals.

But for the United States, there’s more significance to read into this emerging ISIS assault on Saudi Arabia. And it’s the type of significance that should be at least discouraging if not downright worrisome to Washington’s Middle East policymakers.

What these attacks say is that Riyadh doesn’t have the comforting control over its land that Americans like to believe it does. And if the royal family doesn’t have its territory as buttoned down as Washington assumed, what other weaknesses has it been masking? What other vulnerabilities are now on view?...MORE
From The Telegraph:
Opec under siege as Isil threatens world's oil lifeline
Thick black smoke rising from the Baiji oil refinery could be seen as a dirty smudge on the horizon as far away as Baghdad after fighters from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isil) set fire to the enormous processing plant just over 100 miles north of the capital last week.
The decision to torch the refinery, which once produced around a third of Iraq’s domestic fuel supplies, was made as the insurgents prepared to pull out of Baiji, which they captured last June in a victory that sent shock waves across world oil markets.
A year on from the start of the siege and a shaky alliance of the Middle East’s major Arab powers, with the limited support of the reluctant US government, has failed to contain the expansion of Isil.
The problem for the US and the rest of the industrialised world is that the Middle East controls 60pc of proven oil reserves and with it the keys to the global economy. Should Isil capture a major oil field in Iraq, or overwhelming the government, the consequences for energy markets and the financial system would be potentially catastrophic.
Many of the countries most threatened by the onslaught of the extremist group, which has grown out of the chaos of Syria but was initially dismissed as a wider threat to regional stability, will gather at the end of this week in Vienna for the meetings of the Organisation of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (Opec).
Iraq, Saudi Arabia, the Gulf states and Iraq – which together account for two thirds of the cartel’s production – are all now affected by the inexorable march of the Isil jihadists but appear powerless to prevent it due to the widening sectarian schism between the Sunni and Shia Muslims across the region in the wake of the Arab spring uprisings five years ago.

Oil ministers gathering to decide on production levels at Opec’s secretariat building in Vienna will normally stay clear of wider geopolitical issues during their deliberations in the Austrian capital. However, the threat posed by Isil and its brutal brand of Islamist extremism is likely to force politics onto the agenda. It certainly can no longer be ignored.

According to Daniel Yergin, the energy expert and vice-chairman of IHS, the business information provider, the biggest threat to oil prices is the political chaos that threatens to engulf the Middle East, combined with the West’s reluctance to intervene.

Speaking to The Sunday Telegraph, Mr Yergin argued that the price of a barrel of oil could skyrocket to levels above $100 per barrel if Isil is allowed to press deeper into Iraq, the second-largest producer in the cartel after Saudi Arabia.

“Isil presents a whole new reality for the region, which just isn’t reflected in the oil market at the moment,” said Mr Yergin. “It’s an increasingly grave situation for most of Opec and the Middle East. At some point the security issues will start to come back into the price of oil.”

Up to this point, oil markets have shrugged off the risk of a major supply disruption caused by the worsening security situation. Traders have remained focused on the market fundamentals that almost 2m barrels per day (bpd) of excess oil capacity will be more than enough to absorb any supply-driven shock. A rally in the price of Brent crude – a global benchmark – which began in January and saw prices push close to $70 per barrel has lost momentum amid signs that higher prices could revive drilling in the US. Just over six months ago when Opec’s 12 oil ministers last met in Vienna the cartel decided to continue pumping oil at a level of around 30m bpd, which effectively fired the first shots in an oil price war against shale drillers in North America, and Russia....MORE
Completely unrelated:
Saudi Billionaire to Buy $95 Mil. NYC Penthouse

"Elon Musk's growing empire is fueled by $4.9 billion in government subsidies"

There was a reason for our choice of the first inductee into the Climateer Hall of Fame. From a post on biofuels, March '07:
Finally for investors in rent-seeking organizations there is the real risk that the politicians will change the rules. Heed the words of Sen. Simon Cameron (R&D!-Pa.):
Our Hero
Simon Cameron
"The honest politician is one who when he is bought, 
will stay bought."
From the Los Angeles Times:
Los Angeles entrepreneur Elon Musk has built a multibillion-dollar fortune running companies that make electric cars, sell solar panels and launch rockets into space.

And he's built those companies with the help of billions in government subsidies.

Tesla Motors Inc., SolarCity Corp. and Space Exploration Technologies Corp., known as SpaceX, together have benefited from an estimated $4.9 billion in government support, according to data compiled by The Times. The figure underscores a common theme running through his emerging empire: a public-private financing model underpinning long-shot start-ups.

"He definitely goes where there is government money," said Dan Dolev, an analyst at Jefferies Equity Research. "That's a great strategy, but the government will cut you off one day."

The figure compiled by The Times comprises a variety of government incentives, including grants, tax breaks, factory construction, discounted loans and environmental credits that Tesla can sell. It also includes tax credits and rebates to buyers of solar panels and electric cars.

A looming question is whether the companies are moving toward self-sufficiency — as Dolev believes — and whether they can slash development costs before the public largesse ends.

Tesla and SolarCity continue to report net losses after a decade in business, but the stocks of both companies have soared on their potential; Musk's stake in the firms alone is worth about $10 billion. (SpaceX, a private company, does not publicly report financial performance.)

Musk and his companies' investors enjoy most of the financial upside of the government support, while taxpayers shoulder the cost.

The payoff for the public would come in the form of major pollution reductions, but only if solar panels and electric cars break through as viable mass-market products. For now, both remain niche products for mostly well-heeled customers.

Musk declined repeated requests for an interview through Tesla spokespeople, and officials at all three companies declined to comment.

The subsidies have generally been disclosed in public records and company filings. But the full scope of the public assistance hasn't been tallied because it has been granted over time from different levels of government.

New York state is spending $750 million to build a solar panel factory in Buffalo for SolarCity. The San Mateo, Calif.-based company will lease the plant for $1 a year. It will not pay property taxes for a decade, which would otherwise total an estimated $260 million.

 The federal government also provides grants or tax credits to cover 30% of the cost of solar installations. SolarCity reported receiving $497.5 million in direct grants from the Treasury Department.

That figure, however, doesn't capture the full value of the government's support....MUCH MORE

'The Rise of the Private Art “Museum”'

From The New Yorker:
In the heart of Berlin stands a windowless concrete bunker so awesomely ugly that, when you see it, you instinctively avert your gaze. It is heavy, gray, and shrapnel-pocked, and has no signage to explain its protean history. Designed by the Nazi architect Karl Bonatz, under the direction of Albert Speer, the bunker was built in 1942 as an air-raid shelter for German citizens. In 1945, it became a Red Army P.O.W. camp. Later, its cool, sunless chambers served as an East German warehouse for fruit imported from Cuba, which is how it picked up an early nickname: the banana bunker. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, the building was appropriated for use first as an avant-garde performance space, and later as a techno club whose low ceilings, dark rooms, and frequent fetish parties led to its designation as “the hardest club in the world.”

In 2003, a few years after authorities shuttered the night club, Christian and Karen Boros bought the building to display a portion of their sizable collection of contemporary art. They reconfigured its hundred and twenty cramped rooms into eighty larger ones, and added an astonishing window-lined penthouse, where the couple lives with their ten-year-old son. Between 2008 and 2012, more than a hundred and twenty thousand visitors navigated through the bunker’s intricate passageways to see the début exhibition, which focussed on the theme of light. The bunker’s current show, consisting of work from the early nineteen-nineties alongside recent acquisitions, opened in 2012; the couple plans to mount an entirely new show every four years, drawn from their still-growing collection of around seven hundred pieces by eighty artists. “A private collection is not a better model than a museum, but it’s an important add-on,” Christian, who is a publisher and a founder of an ad agency, told me. “You need a museum for historical purposes—to show the best art of the decade, for example. Then you have private collections, with their mistakes, their subjective tastes.”

I visited Christian and Karen in their penthouse, where we sat at a dining table near a large painting by Elizabeth Peyton, surrounded by views of the city. “This building isn’t meant for art,” Christian said. He was wearing gold cufflinks and smoking a Lucky Strike. “How the art fights against the ugly building is very interesting to me.” Karen, who works in V.I.P. relations for Art Basel, guessed that perhaps half of their visitors were more interested in the bunker itself than the art. “We have a lot of artists who people don’t really talk about,” she said. “They may not become part of art history, but they are important to us.”

The bunker is emphatically not a museum. In February, I’d signed up for a ninety-minute group tour on the Web site, which is the only way for a member of the public to gain admittance. I entered the building through a discouragingly heavy, unmarked metal door. During the tour, I marvelled at the diversity of the art on display, from Tomás Saraceno’s delicate floating architectures to an impressive hunk of “We the People,” Danh Vo’s sectile replica of the Statue of Liberty. The modified bunker is perfectly sized to accommodate the large-scale works favored by many contemporary artists—the largest piece, a driftwood sculpture by Ai Weiwei called “Tree,” just barely fits inside the tallest room—and the private tours provide a more intimate experience than what is possible in a museum’s crowded contemporary wing. The quiet setting has also made the collection popular among celebrities. My tour guide confided that when Tom Hanks visited in January, he’d been granted the opportunity to jump into a pile of stale popcorn that is part of an installation. “He is allowed, we are not,” she said.

In part, what makes the Boros Collection so much fun is that it is tailored to the personal and sometimes whimsical aesthetic of its owners. Some of my favorite pieces on display would have been unlikely to survive a museum’s acquisitions committee. The couple has a clear affinity for kinetic sculptures that self-destruct—for example, a slowly disintegrating spinning rubber tire by Michael Sailstorfer. Many of the pieces live outside the realm of art-historical importance or market drama. (“We would never sell a work of art,” Christian told me.) To visit the collection is therefore to invest in a private fantasy of fabulous wealth and confident tastes. At no point can you forget that the patrons who own this building and everything in it are walking around in their penthouse, just above your head.

The Boros Collection is one of three significant, privately owned collections of contemporary art open to the public in Berlin, along with the Haubrok and Hoffman Collections. (There are also private corporate collections, such as the Daimler Collection and the Kunsthalle Deutsche Bank.) Private collections have long existed in the public sphere—the Frick Collection, once a family affair, is a world-famous New York institution—but, in recent years, such collections have increased in size, influence, and renown, particularly in markets, such as China’s, that have a dearth of institutional art spaces and a surfeit of would-be Medicis....MORE

Friday, May 29, 2015

Handy Hints: How To get Your Car Unstuck

From The Art Of Manliness:

How to Get Your Car Unstuck From…Anything: An Illustrated Guide
 get your car out of the ditch

Previously from The Art Of Manliness:

"How to Enter a Room Like a Boss"
The Week Ahead--"How to Gird Up Your Loins: An Illustrated Guide"
For Our Friends in New York: "Watch Out for that Snowbank! How to Recover from 5 Types of Skids"
How to Make a Cooler/Table From A Whiskey Barrel
Drink a barrel of whiskey.
Follow instructions as best as you can.... 

Natural Gas: EIA Weekly Supply/Demand Report

Supply wins.
Following yesterday's big drop the front futures are down another 6.1 cents at $2.645.
From the Energy Information Administration:

(For the Week Ending Wednesday, May 20, 2015)
  • The prices of natural gas at most market locations fell over the report week (Wednesday, May 20 — Wednesday, May 27). The Henry Hub spot price began the week at $2.99 per million British thermal units (MMBtu) last Wednesday, fell through the week, and ended at $2.82/MMBtu.
  • At the New York Mercantile Exchange (Nymex), the June contract, which expired yesterday as the near-month contract, fell from $2.915/MMBtu last Wednesday to settle at expiration at $2.815/MMBtu yesterday.
  • Working natural gas in storage increased to 2,101 Bcf as of Friday, May 22, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) Weekly Natural Gas Storage Report (WNGSR). A net injection into storage of 112 Bcf for the week resulted in storage 54.0% above a year ago and 0.8% below the five-year average for this week.
  • The total oil and natural gas rig count fell by 3 units to 885 for the week ending Friday, May 22, according to data from Baker Hughes Inc. The oil rig count fell 1 unit to 659 rigs, and the natural gas rig count fell by 1 unit to 222. Miscellaneous rigs also fell by 1.
  • The natural gas plant liquids composite price fell by 26¢ per MMBtu to $5.16/MMBtu for the week ending May 22. With the exception of ethane, which rose 0.3%, all of the other Mont Belvieu, Texas, liquids prices fell this week. Natural gasoline, propane, butane, and isobutane fell by 1.5%, 7.6%, 8.3%, and 7.7%, respectively....
Net storage injection is larger than the five-year average build but lower than last year. The net injection reported for the week ending May 22 was 112 Bcf, up from 92 Bcf the previous week. This compares with the five-year average net increase of 95 Bcf for that week and last year's net increase of 113 Bcf. Working gas inventories for the storage week totaled 2,101 Bcf, 737 Bcf (54.0%) higher than last year at this time and 18 Bcf (0.8%) lower than the five-year (2010-14) average.
Storage injections are larger than market expectations. Market expectations, on average, called for a build of 99 Bcf. When the EIA storage report was released at 10:30 a.m. on May 28, the price for the July natural gas futures contract, on its first day of trading as the prompt month, decreased 5¢ to $2.74/MMBtu in trading on the Nymex. In the next hour, prices oscillated between $2.71 and $2.74.
From the week ending April 3 (the beginning of the injection season) through the week ending May 22, net storage injections totaled 640 Bcf, or 21% more than the 531 Bcf injected during the same eight weeks in 2014....

Harvard Business School: "Humblebragging: A Distinct-and Ineffective-Self-Presentation Strategy"

From HBS' Working Knowledge blog:
Executive Summary — To humblebrag is to make a boast sound like a complaint, as in the example, "It annoys me when people mistake me for a celebrity."

There's Something Different About The Financial Times Recently

Not sure I can put a finger on what it is:
"UK data warehouse business Telecity Group has dumped Dutch sweetheart Interxion at the altar and is eloping with hunky US beau Equinix instead."

Still the "Friend of The Honest Financier and the Respectable Broker" though.

RBC Explains Their Downgrade of First Solar (FSLR)

Following up on Tuesday's "First Solar shares down 6% after downgrade".
$50.75 at the close, off another 6 cents premarket.
From CNBC May 27, 2014:

This may be the ultimate battleground stock
Shares of volatile First Solar plunged 7 percent after a downgrade and price target cut from RBC. The extent of the downgrade, and Wall Street's outsized reaction, are the latest evidence of just what a battleground the solar energy company's shares have become.

RBC's Mahesh Sanganeria cut his rating from sector perform to underperform and slashed his price target to $34 from $54, which had been in line with Friday's closing price. After Tuesday's plunge, the stock closed at $51.06.

In an interview with CNBC's "Trading Nation," the analyst explained that he's projecting that both revenues and gross margins fall.

"If you put those things together, we get an earnings estimate which is $1.37, whereas the consensus numbers are a big range from $2 to $5," Sanganeria said.

The analyst added that "the big range in consensus tells you there is a misunderstanding on the company's earnings power, and that's what we are trying to point at, that there may be a disappointment in terms of earnings in 2016."....MORE

Chartology: Oil Stocks Are At A Very Interesting Price Level (XLE; XOP)

The XLE is the ETF for the behemoth integrated oil companies (XOM et al) in the S&P 500. The XOP is the ETF for the smaller Exploration & Production companies.
First up the XLE, $78.48 at yesterday's close, indicating up 6 cents in premarket trade:
Still a ways away from the support line drawn from the December and January lows but below all three moving averages.

And now the XOP, $49.22 at the close:
We've been thinking the folks who jumped into the oil stocks in March were early and now it looks as if we are about to test the hypothesis.
More to come.

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Ford Follows Tesla By Opening Electric Vehicle Patents To Rivals (F; TSLA)

From Investors Business Daily:
Ford Motor (NYSE:F)is offering its electric vehicle patents to competing automakers amid slumping gas prices that have made EVs less attractive to many consumers.

Its move is similar to what Tesla Motors (NASDAQ:TSLA) did in June 2014 when it made its portfolio of EV patents, estimated in the hundreds, openly available to rivals. Tesla founder and CEO Elon Musk said in a blog post at the time that "all our patents belong to you."
Ford Motor (NYSE:F)is offering its electric vehicle patents to competing automakers amid slumping gas prices that have made EVs less attractive to many consumers.

Its move is similar to what Tesla Motors (NASDAQ:TSLA) did in June 2014 when it made its portfolio of EV patents, estimated in the hundreds, openly available to rivals. Tesla founder and CEO Elon Musk said in a blog post at the time that "all our patents belong to you."...MORE
Ford has some history with electrics going back to the reign of Henry I and his buddy Tom Edison and more recently the '67 Comuta.
"...Within a year, I hope, we shall begin the manufacture of an electric automobile. I don’t like to talk about things which are a year ahead, but I am willing to tell you something of my plans...."
-Henry Ford
The New York Times 
 January 11, 1914

Via "Ford, Edison and the Cheap EV That Almost Was"
See also:
Ford Says Electric Cars “Commercially Feasible” By 1977
"Ford warns electric cars may be only for the rich" (AONE; TSLA)
The End Of Mass Car Ownership Is Coming Mr. Ford
Unconfirmed Rumors that Ford Motor Co. will acquire Tesla Motors, Inc. at $55.00 a share (TSLA; F) 
Let's see, we've got the acquirer, the acquiree and the price. All we need is the date and time.
I'll go with The 12th.

Izabella Kaminska On Gold and Stuff

For folks who aren't familiar with her thinking, Ms. Kaminska puts gold in a category similar to that which Beanie Babies once occupied.

She doesn't include it in the stuff called "investments" which generate cash flow, hopefully at a profit.

She doesn't include shiny in the group of commodities that are consumable, such as corn or oil. Or even with platinum or palladium which as catalysts are not consumed but are nonetheless useful.

No, Izabella seems to think of gold as something you can buy with money, whose price goes up and down based on other people's perceptions, which in turn are colored by their fear and greed.

Like the Beanie Babies market, it's something to trade.

And I agree.

From Dizzynomics:

The perpetual gold debate
A quick note to share a few new thoughts on gold following a Bulls vs Bears debate I just participated in.

– The Bulls’ argument is now so illogical, one has to suspect they — being mostly vested interests — are just going through the motions on account of perpetuating the emperor has clothes illusion. They basically can’t afford to admit their is no logic to their arguments because they are too invested.

– I  keep hearing about how gold is a fantastic form of insurance, but isn’t one of the basic principles of insurance that risk has to be pooled and offset– i.e. spread around? Isn’t the basic thing about insurance that it doesn’t work if everyone claims it at the same time? Gold’s value, however, by definition depends on herding effects. Thus gold only insures you in the event your crisis isn’t the same as everyone else’s crisis. I thus suspect it’s a terrible form of insurance to guard against a system collapse. Furthermore I don’t remember failed states like Zimbabwe turning to gold in an inflationary crisis, but rather to the currencies of more stable countries which can guarantee imports for the holders. Gold’s value in a crisis is thus dependent on its broader international acceptability against imports.

Just think about it, if the dollar failed and lost total purchasing power all holders of gold would attempt to liquidate gold in exchange for valuable assets/goods (probably from abroad) at the same time depreciating the value of that gold just as much as the dollar. All the gold would flow to producer states. Okay, they may in the initial crisis point get something whilst others get nothing, but more than likely if and when the dollar collapsed the inflationary effects would stalk gold as much as the dollar. Gold emanating from a failed state would depreciate in terms of the currency of the exporter providing goods, because you’d first have to exchange it for that country’s currency. The only insurance role gold really serves is on a portfolio diversification basis. But even then chances are the dollar would do even better as a safe haven asset.

3) 2008 proves I think that in a crunch people want liquid assets that are guaranteed by powerful and organized authorities. Indeed, when Lehman went bust gold’s value fell because holding arbitrary bubble value became less of a priority than holding true value. People flocked to the dollar. I would therefore speculate that the only reason we got the gold bubble at all is because the central bank backstopped what would otherwise have been vaporized capital. It’s only once this capital value was guaranteed by government that it could be transferred on a marginal level from failing securities into perceived safe haven assets amongst them gold. Basically this capital had two choices, stay in the failed securities and run the risk of being written down/haircutted or flee and go somewhere else. Government, by providing a synthetically inflated cash-out value, allowed capital to be transferred at a synthetically inflated rate into alternative assets, amongst them gold, sparing the system overt capital destruction....MORE
Just so you know, after Barrick bought Homestake I was probably the last person to look at HM's records from the 1930's, I was there as the archivists were boxing the stuff up.
Here are a couple things that may help make gentle reader think about this area:

The Best Book on Gold
How the Beanie Baby craze was concocted — then crashed

Or ask Izabella about scarcity and abundance.

Grant’s Interest Rate Observer Takes On Risk Parity, Ray Dalio, And Cliff Asness

From ValueWalk:
The hedge fund industry has become increasingly concentrated in just a handful of funds, with Bridgewater Associates and AQR Capital Management leading the pack. But the latest issue of Grant’s Interest Rate Observer argues that while the risk parity portfolio championed by Ray Dalio and Cliff Asness has done well in recent years it is now past its prime and can’t continue to perform indefinitely.

“Dalio and Asness are, of course, formidable Wall Street thinkers and doers. Formidable, too, are the critics, who include Paul Singer maître d’hotel of Elliott Management and Ben Inker, co-head of GMO’s asset allocation department. We stand with the critics,” Grant writes.

Using leverage to achieve risk parity, then get aggressive
The basic idea is that equities provide the majority of returns for a typical 60/40 portfolio, but they also make up as much as 90% of the portfolio’s risk (in the sense of volatility). Risk parity, as the name implies, allocates risk equally between stocks and bonds (possibly adding other asset classes to the mix), using leverage to even things out. Once the base portfolio is put together, you can lever the entire thing to the level of risk you’re comfortable with and get a better Sharpe ratio than the 60/40 portfolio would have given you. As a practical matter, that means you’re going to end up buying a lot of bonds on leverage.

But leverage makes portfolios riskier in a way that isn’t well captured by volatility. When the market sours on some stock, or industry, or asset class (like nearly every credit instrument in 2008), an unlevered investor can choose to ride out the low and wait for his position to recover. It might not, and getting out is often the right decision, but a leveraged investor can be forced to sell and realize losses even when he expects the assets to rebound in a few years. Asness has said that investors should have a plan to shed leverage as losses pile up and then take leverage back on at the market bottom, but market timing is by no means easy to do and investors’ plans to protect themselves don’t always work out.
Screenshot_109 (1)
Negative skew to asset returns exacerbates the path dependence problem. If you lever up to buy corporate credit, for example, then your gains will come gradually in the form of interest payments, but your losses can come swiftly in the form of defaults. Even if the long-term average would put you ahead, the loss of principle caused by a levered position collapsing can prevent you from taking part in the long-term....MORE
Possibly also of interest:

Warren Buffet: The King of Leveraged Low Beta (BRK.B)
The article doesn't link to the papers, here's what a quick search turns up. Via the NYU Stern School:
 Betting Against Beta
And from Yale:
Buffett's Alpha  
The Last Word On Asness' Alpha, Buffet's Beta and The Failure of Commodity Quants (and how to turn hyperlinks into footnotes)
Buffett's Alpha Redux (BRK.b)

"The tanker market is sending a big warning to oil bulls"

July WTI $56.74 down 77 cents.
We are still looking for another drop into the $40's.
From Bloomberg via the Houston Chronicle's FuelFix:
Four months into oil’s rebound from a six-year low, the tanker market is sending a clear signal that the rally is under threat.

A sudden surge in demand for supertankers drove benchmark charter rates 57 percent higher in the two weeks through May 20. OPEC will have almost half a billion barrels of oil in transit to buyers at the start of June, the most this year, while analysts say about 20 million barrels is being stored on ships in another indication the glut has yet to dissipate.

The Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries is pumping the most oil in more than two years, determined to defend market share rather than prices. A record cut to the number of active U.S. drilling rigs and billions of dollars of spending reductions by companies since last year’s price plunge has yet to translate into a slump in barrels produced. The world is pumping about 1.9 million barrels a day more crude than it needs, according to Goldman Sachs Group Inc.

“Supply of oil continues to build,” said Paddy Rodgers, the chief executive officer of Antwerp, Belgium-based Euronav NV, whose supertanker fleet can haul 56 million barrels of crude. “All of this oil needs to go somewhere,” he wrote in an e-mail May 19.

Daily rates for supertankers on the industry’s benchmark route reached $83,412 on May 20, from $52,987 on May 6, according to the Baltic Exchange in London. While rates since retreated to $65,784, they’re still the highest for this time of year since at least 2008.

Brent crude futures advanced 38 percent from this year’s low on Jan. 13, and traded at $62.30 a barrel on the London-based ICE Futures Europe exchange at 10:53 a.m. local time Thursday.

Increasing Exports
OPEC’s 12 members will have 485 million barrels of oil in transit to buyers in the four weeks to June 6, the most since November, Roy Mason, founder of Oil Movements, a Halifax, England-based company monitoring the flows, said by e-mail Wednesday.

Iraq, the group’s second-largest producer, plans to boost exports to a record 3.75 million barrels a day next month, according to shipping programs....MORE
Here's the daily chart for the last year from FinViz:

An Extremely Important Change In A Major Climate Input

Following up on the post immediately below, "Active Atlantic Hurricane Period That Began in 1995 May be Over: NOAA".
The flip of the Atlantic Multidecadal Oscillation back to the cool phase after 20 years in the warm phase is a very, very big deal.

First up, the current Sea Surface Temperature anomaly map from Unisys:
Current Sea Surface Temperature Anomaly Plot
The area off the west coast bulge of Africa is the hurricane Main Development Region (MDR), home to the Cape Verde-type hurricanes, typically the largest and most intense because of their long run before encountering land. If the SST's are warm. Big 'if'.

The warm area off South America's bulge at the equator is the El Niño region, extending back to Papua New Guinea.

The area of warm water off the west coast of North America, technically known as 'the blob' (seriously) is part of the measurement area of the Pacific Decadal Oscillation.

What the blob and the El Niño regions are doing right now is giving up heat to the air above and warming the atmosphere.

Next up,  NOAA's 2015 Atlantic Hurricane Season Outlook  issued: 27 May 2015
...3. Multi-decadal fluctuations in Atlantic hurricane activity
Atlantic hurricane seasons exhibit extended periods lasting 25-40 years of generally above-normal or below-normal activity. For example, a high-activity era for Atlantic hurricanes began in 1995. Seasons during 1995-2014 averaged about 14.7 named storms, 7.6 hurricanes, and 3.5 major hurricanes, with an ACE index of 142% of the median. NOAA classifies 12 of the 20 seasons since 1995 as above normal, with eight being very active (i.e., hyperactive defined by ACE > 165% of median). Only three seasons since 1995 were below normal (1997, 2009, and 2013). 

In contrast, the preceding low-activity era of 1971-1994 (Goldenberg et al. 2001) averaged 8.5 named storms, 5 hurricanes, and 1.5 major hurricanes, with an ACE index of only 74% of the median. One-half of the seasons during this period were below normal, only two were above normal (1980, 1989), and none were hyperactive. 

These multi-decadal fluctuations in hurricane activity result almost entirely from differences in the number of hurricanes and major hurricanes forming from tropical storms that first develop in the MDR. The AMO, and its associated changes in the strength of the west African monsoon system, is the climate pattern responsible for this multi-decadal variability. 

The high-activity era for Atlantic hurricanes that began in 1995 reflected a transition to the warm phase of the AMO and to an enhanced west African monsoon system as shown (Bell and Chelliah 2006). This climate pattern produces stronger hurricane seasons by creating conducive atmospheric conditions in the MDR, including 1) reduced vertical wind shear, 2) weaker easterly trade winds, 3) a more conducive configuration of the African easterly jet (i.e. increased cyclonic shear), 4) warm, moist, unstable air, and 5) reduced sinking motion. 

However, the atmospheric conditions expected during ASO 2015 (i.e. stronger vertical wind shear, enhanced sinking motion, increased atmospheric stability) contrast with these active-era patterns. Following two relatively quiet hurricane seasons (2013 and 2014 (Bell et al. 2014, 2015), along with the current projection of Atlantic SST anomalies onto the cold phase of the AMO, debate has surfaced as to whether we are still in this high-activity era.
Finally, from our May 2014 post "A Very Good Drought Prediction":
...The AMO is currently showing negative readings. This is probably a precursor to a full scale flip of the warm phase that began in 1995 but may not take hold for a year or two.
The PDO is currently showing positive readings but in this case it doesn't mean much. A look at the values from the early 2000's also shows the sign flipping from positive to negative and back.
We'll take a deeper look at the anomalous anomalies when the coming El Nino becomes established.

Historic and current AMO readings
Historic and current PDO readings
AMO January-April  2015  0.012  0.016  -0.109  -0.051
PDO January April   2015  2.45    2.30     2.00      1.44

For what this all means, besides hurricanes, take drought in North America as just one area of study. It's going to get wetter:

North American drought frequency

Current conditions +PDO/-AMO.
Much more to come.

"Active Atlantic Hurricane Period That Began in 1995 May be Over: NOAA"

From Weather Underground's Wunderblog:
It should be another quiet Atlantic hurricane season in 2015, and the active hurricane pattern that began in 1995 may now be over, said NOAA in their May 27 seasonal hurricane forecast. They give a 70% chance of a below-normal season, a 20% chance of a near-normal season, and only a 10% chance of an above-normal season. They predict a 70% chance that there will be 6 - 11 named storms, 3 - 6 hurricanes, and 0 - 2 major hurricanes, with an Accumulated Cyclone Energy (ACE) 40% - 85% of the median. If we take the midpoint of these numbers, NOAA is calling for 8.5 named storms, 4.5 hurricanes, 1 major hurricane, and an ACE index 62.5% of normal. This is well below the 1981 - 2010 average of 12 named storms, 6 hurricanes, and 3 major hurricanes. Hurricane seasons during the active hurricane period 1995 - 2014 averaged 14.7 named storms, 7.6 hurricanes, and 3.5 major hurricanes, with an ACE index 142% of the median. Only three seasons since 1995 have been classified by NOAA as being below normal--including two El Niño years (1997 and 2009), and the neutral 2013 season.
The forecasters cited the following main factors that will influence the coming season:

1) The current borderline weak/moderate El Niño event is expected to persist or intensify during the 2015 hurricane season. El Niño events tend to suppress Atlantic hurricane activity in three ways:

- By creating high levels of wind shear over the tropical Atlantic, which tends to tear storms apart.
- By increasing sinking motion and high pressure over the tropical Atlantic.
- By making the air more stable over the tropical Atlantic.

2) Near-average sea surface temperatures (SSTs) are in place over the hurricane Main Development Region (MDR), from the Caribbean to the coast of Africa between between 10°N and 20°N. These SSTs are expected to be near or below average during the peak August - October portion of hurricane season, and are expected to be cooler than SSTs in the remainder of the global tropics (SSTs in the remainder of the global tropics were 0.31°C warmer than SSTs in the MDR in May.) This configuration of SSTs is often quite hostile to Atlantic tropical cyclone development.

3) The active period of hurricane activity that began in 1995 due to a natural decades-long cycle in hurricane activity called the Atlantic Multi-decadal Oscillation (AMO) may now be over. The SST pattern associated with that cycle is absent this year, and NOAA said: "There have been two seasons in a row, 2013 and 2014, with below-normal and near-normal activity respectively and neither had an El Niño event responsible for the reduced activity. The current configuration of SSTs in the Atlantic Ocean, both in the MDR and the entire North Atlantic, are suggestive that the AMO may no longer be in the warm phase."...MORE

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Pressure Groups: "JPMorgan Chase & Co Launches Think Tank: The JPMorgan Chase Institute"

From the International Business Times:
JPMorgan Chase & Co. would like the world to know it’s not just in the business of making loans, taking deposits and navigating the waters of high finance. With the launch Thursday of the JPMorgan Chase Institute, the bank adds a new facet to its brand: think tank. 

The institute aims to use real-time big-data analytics for the benefit of policymakers, businesses and the wider public. JPMorgan CEO Jamie Dimon has said the think tank is out to “educate the world.”

As its inaugural report’s conclusions show, perhaps unsurprisingly, the greater good might just be served through Chase’s own banking products.

The institute isn't your typical corporate stab at social responsibility. It has access to a uniquely vast trove of customer data: Chase’s checking and savings accounts. Moored to the largest American bank by assets, the think tank says it can put "the broad spectrum of data within the firm to use for the public good.”
...the recommendations outlined at the end of the report might sound familiar to Chase employees, some of whom contributed to the research.
According to the authors, solutions could include “new savings, insurance and credit products,” as well as more technical banking tools -- many of which Chase already offers. 
The institute's opening comes as major financial institutions try to burnish public reputations still damaged from the fallout of the financial crisis and subsequent scandals. Just a day before the JPMorgan Chase Institute announced itself to the world, the bank pleaded guilty, with several other firms, to criminal antitrust violations related to foreign exchange rigging....MORE

It's Like Uber For Alphaville

From the unknown, electron-stained wretches posting anonymously as FT Alphaville:

" yes, there will be a specially-built Great Camp Alphaville Quiz app"

Vaclav Smil On Energy: "Revolution? More like a crawl"

But you probably already knew that.
From Politico's The Agenda:
The energy visionary Vaclav Smil — Bill Gates's favorite author — says that when our leaders promise quick energy transformations, they're getting it very wrong.

America in 2015 finds itself almost in a new energy reality. It recently became the world’s second-largest extractor of crude oil, and since 2010 has been the leading producer of natural gas, whose abundant and inexpensive supply has been accelerating the retreat from coal as a national source of electric power. 
Some see this as the beginning of an even bigger transition, one in which America’s dominant status as a producer of hydrocarbons ends its allies’ dependence on Russian gas and makes OPEC terminally irrelevant, while its entrepreneurial drive helps it quickly advance to harness renewables and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

All of this sounds too good to be true — and it is. Indefensible claims of imminent transformative breakthroughs are an unfortunately chronic ingredient of American energy debates.

When American leaders talk about energy transitions, they tend to sell them as something that can be accomplished in a matter of years. Al Gore, perhaps the country’s most prominent climate activist,proposed to “re-power” America, making its electricity carbon-free, within 10 years, calling the goal “achievable, affordable and transformative.” That was in 2008, when fossil fuels produced 71 percent of American electricity; last year 67 percent still came from burning fossil fuels.

President Barack Obama, who has a strong rhetorical dislike of oil — although kerosene distilled from it fuels the 747 that carries him to play golf in Hawaii — promised in his 2011 State of the Union message that the country would have 1 million electric cars by 2015. That goal was abandoned by the Department of Energy just two years later.

For years, even decades, we have been on the verge of mass deployment of (take your pick) fast breeder reactors, of coal-fired electricity generating plants that capture and sequester all of their CO2, of fuel cell-powered cars running on hydrogen, if not a complete hydrogen economy. We’ve been promised electric cars that will not only cost nothing to run but will also power houses while sitting in garages; or microorganisms genetically engineered to ooze gasoline.

The reality of energy transitions is very different. Too many modern observers have become misled by the example of electronics, in which advances have followed Moore’s law — the now 50-year-old prediction that the number of components on a microchip will double every 18 months. This has allowed exceptionally rapid progress. But the fundamental physical realities that determine progress of energy systems do not behave that way: they are improving steadily, but far more slowly. Moore’s law implies an exponential growth rate of 46 percent a year. The analogues in energy are not even close: Since 1900, the efficiency of electricity generation in large power plants has been rising by less than 2 percent a year, advances in lighting have boosted its efficiency by less than 3 percent a year, and the energy cost of steel, our civilization’s most essential metal, has been falling by less than 2 percent a year.

Moore’s Law means performance doubles in a year and a half. Change at the rate of energy systems means doubling efficiencies, or halving the costs, in 35 years — a vastly longer timespan.

These things might sound technical. They are not. Accepting this reality is essential in order to chart a path for lasting progress: sensible policies cannot be built on mistaken beliefs or on wishful thinking. In the conversation about America’s — and the world’s — energy future, reality demands we keep a few important principles in mind....MUCH MORE  
If one is to have any hope of getting this stuff right over the long run I suggest David J.C. MacKay:
From our April 27, 2014 post "If It's April It Must Be Time to Visit Professor MacKay and His Map of the World":
...If you want to know more about what's going on with the map, do visit his map page.
MacKay used to hang his hat at Cambridge's Cavendish Laboratory.
I don't really know what they do at the lab, I think it's where the Nobel Prize in Physics is made.

Mackay left the lab in 2013 to be the University's first Regius Professor of Engineering.
He has a bunch of letters after his name....MORE
Here's MacKay's webpage.
And his Sustainable Energy - Without the Hot Air is free online. 
When people want to talk energy with me I usually ask if they have read his book.

Previously on Smil:
"Happy Birthday to Moore’s Law" (plus party pooper Vaclav Smil)
Vaclav Smil Takes on Jeremy Grantham Over Peak Fertilizer
Bill Gates on The Most Astounding Statistic In Vaclav Smil's New Book

Bill Gates Summer Reading List (Vaclav Smil has two entries)
Energy--'Vaclav Smil is Correct: Never Forecast'
Energy: "The man who’s tutoring Bill Gates … "
Vaclav Smil: "In energy matters, what goes around, comes around—but perhaps should go away"
Vaclav Smil: "The Manufacturing of Decline"
Serious Thinking on Energy: An Interview With Dr. Vaclav Smil
A Major Piece: "Why the tech revolution isn’t a template for an energy revolution"
Bill Gates Reviews Vaclav Smil's "Prime Movers of Globalization: The History and Impact of Diesel Engines and Gas Turbines"

Three Queens In Liverpool: Cunard's Big Gals Dancing On The Mersey

I know the first part of the headline sounds like a RuPaul event but it's actually the Queen Mary 2, Queen Victoria and the Queen Elizabeth getting together in Cunard's former headquarters city over the Bank Holiday weekend.

From the "You don't see that every day" file:

The Liverpool Echo had wall-to-wall coverage with dozens of pics.

Three Queens Liverpool 2015 live: Mersey bids farewell to Cunard spectacular

Three Queens Liverpool 2015: Overheard at the Three Queens

Three Queens Liverpool 2015: Overheard at the Three Queens 04

Queen Victoria ends Three Queens celebration with spectacular spinning surprise


May 2014
Signposts: Royal Caribbean Orders Fourth Oasis-Class Cruise Ship, World’s Biggest
...They are very big boats.  Still, it's tough to compete with this:
...“This is the first time all three Queens of the Cunard fleet have been seen together anywhere outside Southampton or New York, and the first time these magnificent ships have been seen together at sea,” Cunard Director Angus Struthers said....

On the retirement cruise of the QE2
Feb. 2008
Queens Meet in Sydney 
Photos: The QE2 marked her last visit to Sydney with a spectacular passing with younger sister, the Queen Victoria.

Finally the bridge webcam of the Queen Mary 2, currently docked at Southampton

U.S. Farmland Sees 18th Monthly Price Decline As Rural Economy Shows Slight Uptick

From Creighton University:

Mainstreet Economy

Rural Mainstreet Economy Slows:
Some Bankers Reported Negative Impacts from Bird Flu

May Survey Results at a Glance:

• The Rural Mainstreet Index improved, but remained below growth neutral for May signaling slight pullbacks in economic activity.      
• Farmland prices declined for the 18th straight month, but with wide variations across the region
• Almost one in five bankers reported negative fallout from the avian flu outbreak.
• Agriculture equipment-sales index dropped to a record low level. 
• Bankers identified rising regulatory costs as the top economic challenge to bank profitability for the next five years.
For Immediate Release:  May 21, 2015
OMAHA, Neb. – The Creighton University Rural Mainstreet Index for May rose slightly from April’s weak reading, according to the monthly survey of bank CEOs in rural areas of a 10-state region dependent on agriculture and/or energy.   
Overall: The Rural Mainstreet Index (RMI), which ranges between 0 and 100, climbed to 49.0 from 46.0 in April. 

“The stronger U.S. dollar continues to be a drag on the Rural Mainstreet economy. The strong U.S. dollar has made U.S. goods, especially agriculture and energy products, less competitively priced abroad. This has dampened farm income and the Rural Mainstreet economy," said Ernie Goss, Jack A. MacAllister Chair in Regional Economics at Creighton University's Heider College of Business.

Farming and ranching: The farmland and ranchland-price index for May climbed to 39.7 from April’s 33.4. “However, this is the 18th straight month the index has moved below growth neutral. But according to banker comments, there is great deal of variation across the region with many areas continuing to experience strong demand for farmland with little deterioration in farmland prices,” said Goss....MUCH MORE

Questions America Is Asking: What Is Donald Trump's Hair Worth?

From Hopes & Fears:

Mozart's locks are going up for auction at Sotheby's, which makes us wonder which factors make celebrity hair a worthy investment. As a barometer, we asked the experts to appraise Donald Trump's.
We had Donald Trump's hair appraised — Business на Hopes&Fears
Breaking news in famous hair! Today we learned that a lock of Mozart’s hair will be going up for auction for an estimated £12,000 ($18,500). Given the $115,000 precedent already set by Elvis, we wondered where this number comes from. What are the relevant factors when it comes to evaluating the price of follicles? Does hair notoriety alone increase value, or should hair represent a significant contribution to culture? What about authenticity, volume, and aesthetic? As a barometer, we asked auction experts and critics to appraise Donald Trump's infamous head ornament.

Tim Luke

BAS, MPPA, Master personal property appraiser for Treasure Quest Group, Inc.
Auction estimate:
One of the things that we do as auctioneers and appraisers is look for comparables in the marketplace. Elvis Presley holds the record for follicles at auction for $115,000. John Lennon, Justin Bieber… all of these entertainers have been seeing skyrocketing values. Even politicians. I'm sure you saw Lincoln, Washington, JFK, even Neil Armstrong's hair has sold at auction. It comes down to desirability, iconic recognition of the individual and being sure that you can verify that this is the person's hair because the provenance and the background are the most important thing.

Donald Trump is part of the popular culture, but his signatures only bring between $100-$250 at auction. His best-selling books at auction recently went unsold. I would think his hair would do a little better, but looking at those factors, I don't think those follicles are going to be in the running with Elvis or Mozart… I think people would like it, but it's more of a novelty.

I don't think it would bring more than $1000 at auction. It might be different if it were for a charity, though. He's very philanthropic. 
Paddy Johnson
Art critic, Founder and Editor of Art F City
Auction estimate:
To establish hair value you must first consider how much of it came from the same place. For example, if it comes from the shower or a brush it's disgusting and worthless, if it's a lock plucked from a full head of hair it's magical and priceless. Next you must determine whether the hair is virginesque. Has it been dyed, straightened or permed before? If so, that knocks down the price considerably.

Now, think about this valuation criteria together, and ask yourself how much of Donald Trump's hair can be collected as a lock and whether any of it is real in the first place. You're probably buying strands of used hair. I'd appraise the value of that at nothing....MUCH MORE
We prefer the 2012 TheDonald:

UPDATING, CORRECTING: "Trump intends to endorse Romney"
Correcting, amplifying and updating this morning's "Report: Trump to Endorse Gingrich, Self".

The tie, there's something odd about the tie.

Possibly also of interest:
"Donald Trump Says Trump Casinos Tarnish the Trump Name"
Trump on Trump: Testimony Offers Glimpse of How He Values His Empire
Worth Rises, Falls 'With Markets and Attitudes And With Feelings, Even My Own Feeling'  
Let's Hope the Drapes Match: "Persian rug from 1600s fetches record $33.7M at auction"
"Donald Trump: Gloria Allred Would Be Impressed By My Penis"
Tipping Point: Now Donald Trump Is an Environmentalist
"Reactions Vary to Bin Laden's Death": Trump, Chomsky et Cie.
Republican presidential hopeful Donald Trump: “I'm very happy to hear these reports of Mr. Laden's supposed 'death.' But I don't think the American people are going to be satisfied with rumors, second-hand reports, and some hasty, secret burial at sea. This so-called 'deather' issue won't be put to bed until President Obama does the right thing...

Institutional Investor Interviews Blythe Masters On Her Digital Asset Holdings

Ms. Masters can spin the II guys in circles.
From Institutional Investor April 21, 2015:

Derivatives Pioneer Blythe Masters Tackles Digital Currency
"The JPMorgan Chase veteran heads start-up Digital Asset Holdings, which aims to make trade settlement faster, cheaper and safer."
Blythe Masters has seen the future before, and Wall Street followed. Will it happen again?
If the development of virtual currencies is the story of a long cultural struggle between the idealistic hackers who founded them and the incumbent powers of the financial industry, this year has already seen established money strike two major blows. In March, San Francisco Bitcoin firm 21 emerged from stealth mode to announce a $116 million round of venture funding, the largest ever by a company in the digital currency sector. But it was the announcement of Wall Street pioneer Masters, 46, as CEO of Digital Asset Holdings — a New York start-up with fewer than 20 employees that has yet to launch a single product — around the same time that really caught the attention of the investment world.

Digital currency businesses are now a serious destination for venture capital: $350 million was poured into the sector in 2014, and $230 million has already been invested this year, according to London-based data firm CoinDesk.

But while VCs have been busy pumping cash into Bitcoin, the big beasts of Wall Street have mostly stayed on the sidelines. The appointment of Masters, who spent 27 highly successful years at JPMorgan Chase & Co. before leaving the firm last year after overseeing the sale of its commodities unit, changes that.
Digital Asset was launched late last year by finance veterans Sunil Hirani and Don Wilson; funding for the venture has come from the founders’ own pockets as well as friends and family, says Masters. It’s perhaps no accident that in the weeks since her new job was made public, several big banks have announced digital currency initiatives. In early April, for instance, UBS said it was starting a new innovation lab to explore financial applications of the blockchain, the infrastructure on which Bitcoin is built.

Bitcoin, launched in 2009, is the oldest and best known piece of a thriving global network of digital currencies. Digital Asset — which, unlike other new entrants in the sector, has no designs on being a trading business or an exchange — will focus not on these currencies as currencies. Instead, Masters says the company will exploit the distributed databases that are their structural core to build a software service that will effect “quicker, cheaper, more secure” settlement of trading in mainstream and digital assets.

The youngest woman to achieve the title of managing director in JPMorgan’s history, Masters helped create the derivatives market, which came to dominate institutional trading through the 1990s and 2000s. Her status as the “inventor” of credit default swaps, the trigger instrument for the collapse of American International Group, has made her a sometimes controversial figure. But Masters, who was born and raised in the U.K. and studied economics at Cambridge University, says her experience of the financial crisis and the ensuing debate over reform has convinced her of the need for something to replace the “old-fashioned infrastructure” that Wall Street uses to settle trades.

The wave of change that the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act and Basel III rules have brought to global banking may have helped reduce counterparty and systemic risk in the clearing and execution of trading activity, but settling a trade in the U.S. still takes anywhere from two days (for Treasuries) to 27 (for syndicated corporate loans).

Masters is betting that the cost and risk to financial institutions that comes from having to keep traded assets on their balance sheets as they wait for settlement will entice them to consider a cheaper, faster, more secure alternative — especially when it comes to the slowest-settling assets such as private stocks, emerging-markets currencies and syndicated loans. The blockchain, a distributed public ledger that allows for the transfer of title to digital assets in a decentralized, real-time fashion, could be the answer, though Masters concedes that it will take a lot to convince conservative, risk-averse financial firms to abandon familiar practices for untested new technology.

“There’s been this aura that Bitcoin is bad,” she says. “It’s the cowboys. It’s not ‘real.’ It’s not ‘responsible.’” Masters spoke to Senior Writer Aaron Timms about her plans to change that, and how the shifting political and cultural landscape for the alternative currency sector is opening up opportunities for businesses such as Digital Asset.

Institutional Investor: You’ve had a long and enormously successful career at one of the world’s biggest banks. What’s the appeal of joining a place like Digital Asset?
Blythe Masters: It might be a small company, but it’s a really big opportunity. And because of my extensive background in financial services, I think I’m in a position to understand the opportunity for what it is. I’m not a technologist — fortunately this company’s got plenty of those. But what I bring to the table is essentially the ability to bridge the gap between the digital and programming world and the world of existing financial infrastructure and all its players. I think the technology itself is transformational, and the scale of the markets to which it can and should be applied is enormous. But the number of people who populate that middle ground, who are able to translate or bridge the gap, is relatively small.

Everyone talks about the enormous potential of alternative currencies and their underlying technology. But the whole world of Bitcoin and other currencies was set up to resist centralization and intermediation. It didn’t want to be part of the organized financial industry; it was openly scornful of it, and there’s still a strong libertarian, antibank strain to much of the sector today. Do you think these worlds want to be bridged?
I would say that your general characterization of some in the space is correct. But if you had a really good idea about how to build a better tire for an automobile, you would probably be really interested in talking to the auto companies because they are the people that ultimately are going to make use of your technology. You could think that maybe, because of the power of your tire, there might emerge a whole new brand of auto companies that supplant the General Motors of this world because the incumbents never really got the whole concept of what a good tire should be all about. But I’m not sure that would be a good move.

What are you hoping to achieve with Digital Asset?
We’re a wholesale-oriented technology company that is seeking to develop software and services for the application of distributed digital databases, including but not limited to the blockchain, for effecting quicker, more secure settlement of mainstream financial assets as well as digital assets. The actual front end of transactions happens at almost warp speed, and yet the process of completing transactions, according to their contractual terms and transferring title to the underlying, is slow. Slow means a higher cost associated with capital requirements, higher risk because of the possibility of something breaking in the period between transaction and completion of the transaction, which, obviously, became front of mind during the financial crisis of 2008.

The other problem with settlement today is that it’s not particularly secure: There’s a lot of electronic information about assets out there, but not all of it is encrypted. And lots of it is stored in centralized places that are very vulnerable to cyberattack or some other operational failure, which is the kind of thing that can happen when you have a centralized, single point of entry to a system. We’re seeking to provide a service that minimizes the amount of risk our users take on. Not surprisingly, the lower the risk you create to the entity in question, the lower the need for regulation in that context.

So you’re against regulation?
No! This is completely different to the notion that regulation is inherently a bad thing, which you’ve correctly identified as a theme in this community, or that the world would be better off without financial intermediaries, without central banks, without governing powers. That’s not a world that we promote or believe is realistic.
We’re actually in favor of a lot of the aspects of the existing world, including trusted parties, government oversight, the transparency needed to facilitate that. Audit trails, limits and command-and-control infrastructure, KYC [know-your-customer protocols], AML [anti-money-laundering rules], legal foundations to detect and deter illegal financial activity — all of those things are positive aspects of today’s world that should be preserved. But they’re slowed down because the existing infrastructure doesn’t have all the benefits of the best of digital technology such as the blockchain. Our idea is to blend the best bits of both....MUCH MORE
What in The World Is Blythe Masters Doing with A Bitcoin Startup?
More On Blythe Masters and Her Bitcoin Startup