Deregulation – an expert’s view.

Once again, not everything is as it seems!

Focus warning!  This is a longer piece that usual but also a more important piece than usual.  Please find the time to read it and explore the links.  Thank you.

Many, many years ago I lived in Tamarama Bay, just East of Sydney,

Bronte Beach, Australia

Australia.  It was a very short walk to Bronte Beach which was much better experience than the famous Bondi Beach about half a mile North of where we lived.

Thus when I saw the name Bronte Capital it caught my eye because of old resonances from the word “Bronte”.

OK, to the point!

John Hempton is a principle at Bronte Capital, an Australian fund manager.  John is no slouch having been in his past a Chief Analyst for the New Zealand Treasury and Executive Assistant to the CEO of ANZ Bank in New Zealand.  John’s CV is here.

Bronte Capital have a Blog – well who doesn’t – and it was a link to that Blog from Naked Capitalism that caused me to read a recent article from John about deregulation.

Despite me not understanding many of the technical aspects, it struck me with some force, so much so that I wanted to reproduce chunks of it on Learning from Dogs.  John was gracious enough to give me written permission to so do!  Thanks John.

The article is called A Deregulation Conundrum.

John opens by writing:

I have just read Daniel Amman’s excellent biography of Marc Rich – the oil trader notoriously pardoned by Bill Clinton.  I don’t want to get into the politics and ethics of the pardon other than to note that few things in it are black-and-white when you finished reading the book.

and a couple of paragraphs later explains that Marc Rich has a rather appropriate surname – well this is how John writes:

Marc Rich exploited price fixing/import/export controls to make simply unbelievable profits trading oil.  Marc Rich & Co (the Swiss vehicle) was started with just over $1 million in capital and a couple of years later was making in excess of $200 million in profit.  This level of profitability exceeds – by far – any other trading operation I have ever seen – and was probably the most profitable trading operation in history.  Marc Rich & Co (since renamed Glencore) is possibly the most valuable business in Switzerland within the lifetime of its founder.

Just stop here for a moment.

This man, Rich, goes from one million dollars in capital to two hundred million dollars in profits in 2 years, give or take!  Read on:

A typical Marc Rich & Co trade involved Iran (under the Shah), Israel, Communist Albania and Fascist Spain.  The Shah needed a path to export oil probably produced in excess of OPEC quotas and one which was unaudited and hence could be skimmed to support the Shah’s personal fortune.  Israel – a pariah state in the Middle East – wanted oil.  Spain had rising oil demand and limited foreign currency but was happy to buy oil (slightly) on the cheap.  Spain however did not recognise Israel and hence would not buy oil from Israel – so it needed to be washed through a third country.  Albania openly traded with both Israel and Spain.  Oh, and there is an old oil pipeline which goes from Iran through Israel to the sea.

So what is the deal?  The Shah sells his non-quota oil down the pipeline through Israel and skims his take of the proceeds.  Israel skim their take of the oil.  Someone doing lading and unlading in Albania gets their take and hence make it – from the Spanish perspective – Albanian, not Israeli oil.  The Spanish ask few questions.  The margins are mouth-watering – and they all come from giving people what they really want rather than what they say they want.  We know what the Shah wanted (folding stuff).  We know what Israel wanted (oil).  We know what Spain wanted (cheap oil).  Who cares that Spain was publicly spouting anti-Israel rhetoric.  [Similar trades allowed South Africa to break the anti-Apartheid trade embargoes.]

John explains:

It also helped that Marc Rich & Co was a (highly) multilingual firm.  Rich is fluent in Spanish (it is the language he talks to his children in).  He speaks English, German, Yiddish and presumably Hebrew.  His business partner (Pincus Green – pardoned the same day as Rich) speaks Farsi amongst many other languages.  They could do this deal because they could negotiate it and – deep in their heart they hold the Ayn Rand view that trade is a moral virtue and hence they do not need to be concerned with other morality. [The only line that matters is the law – and then it might not be the law of his adopted country – Switzerland – rather than the United States where he was resident.]

My italics, by the way.  Just stay with me for a short while longer to ‘get’ John’s important message.  Here’s John again:

The regulatory regime for domestic American oil was also perverse.  Old oil (meaning wells drilled before the first oil crisis) received one price.  New oil (wells drilled after the crisis) received a higher price.  Squeeze oil (oil that was extracted from wells that ran less than 10 barrels per day) received a higher price still.  The oil could be chemically identical and the price difference over $20 per barrel.  Obviously a trader with a method (any method) of changing the oil source could make a fortune.  Again I am not commenting on legality or morality.  That was just plain fact.  Ayn Rand applies – you give a value and you receive a value.

What all this regulation did was that it allowed people to make simply grotesque profits by thwarting regulation.  The regulation thus worked less well and it was socially unfair.  Pincus Green was good at negotiating in Farsi.  He was astoundingly brave going to Iran immediately after the Shah fell.  He was good at organising shipping.  He worked really hard – but he did not invent something that changed the world and he wound up a billionaire.   Traders make money by intermediating real business solutions – but these were real business solutions to problems made by legislation.  Bad regulation, moral indignation about “trading with the enemy” or “trading with Israel” or with racists in South Africa made people with Ayn Rand morals exceedingly wealthy because you could arbitrage your way around any of these regulations.

OK, you are probably getting the drift of this important article from John.  If any of this ruffles your hair, then read it all – it’s a very important message.  This is what John is saying:

As a plea then I want a debate about the right form of regulation – a regulation that controls agency problems but does not allow arbitrage opportunities to people with “Ayn Rand morals”.

We are not going to get that from the current Tea Party Republicans.  They simply argue that regulation (they say but do not mean all regulation) impinges on “freedom” (something that is clearly a good but hard to define).  However many of the same people want planning regulations to ban a mosque in downtown New York because it is an insult to the victims of 9/11 (and banning mosques is not a restriction on “freedom”).

If that is the level of debate we are not going to get good re-regulation – we are just going to get pandering to whichever lobby group manages to garner most support.  And that is a real risk because we will leave agency problems in place (they benefit the rich and powerful) and we will introduce the same sort of (dumb) regulation that made Marc Rich and Pincus Green astoundingly wealthy.  That sort of regulation also benefits the rich and powerful – especially those with “Ayn Rand morals”.  [The rich and powerful – if you have not noticed – are good lobbyists.  Unless we are careful many amongst them will get their way.]

You didn’t rush those last three paragraphs, did you?

John concludes thus:

I don’t know how to do this well – but I thought I would state the obvious.  The most obvious things that need regulation are things with a government guarantee (implicit or explicit).  If you have an implicit guarantee (as we now know almost all large financial institutions have) then regulation really matters.  If there are large agency problems (small shareholders, large management) then regulation should be deliberately biased to put power in the hands of shareholders not managers (eg banning staggered board elections).

Likewise other agency problems should be strongly policed and the regulation should be of the form that allows that policing.  When Elliot Spitzer found that Marsh – a large insurance broker – was participating in bid rigging against schools buying insurance that was shocking – and is precisely the sort of thing in financial markets that should be policed strongly.  But it took Elliot considerable effort to find and prove his case.  The rules should be established so that sort of behaviour is really difficult to hide.

And I do not think that I need to explain to anyone how much mortgage brokers contributed to the crisis by (a) deliberately misleading borrowers about conditions on their mortgage and (b) participating in the faking of borrowers income/assets/education level when they on-sold the loans to Wall Street.  Agency problems were at the core of the crisis.

On the other side if there is no agency problem then deregulation should remain the order of the day.  Trade restrictions create arbitrageurs – and the arbitrageurs ensure the trade restrictions don’t work anyway.

There are obviously going to be extensions to this rough rule – and this post is really to garner discussion.  But for a start I expect agents who benefit from their agency (and the abuse of their agency) to join the Tea Party.

It is difficult to get policy right.  And when and if the policy is got right we are in for a very long fight to implement it.

I take my hat off to Mr John Hempton. He’s in the ‘finance’ industry, probably doing well, and yet he has the courage to hold a mirror up to the desperately immoral happenings going on around him.

It’s a real pleasure and honour to publish this Post.

Let me close with a short piece from the Sydney Morning Herald of the 2nd January, 2010.

John Hempton ... blog locally, act globally. Photo: Domino Postiglione

WHEN John Hempton started a blog as he recovered from pneumonia, he did not expect to send shockwaves through the finance industry.

But that is exactly what the 42-year-old fund manager did through his Bronte Capital blog. His exposé of an unrelated US hedge fund would eventually lead to $426 million in investments being frozen and authorities seizing control of the Albury fund manager Trio Capital shortly before Christmas.

Fabulous! I salute you, Sir.

By Paul Handover

2 thoughts on “Deregulation – an expert’s view.

  1. “The most obvious things that need regulation are things with a government guarantee (implicit or explicit).”

    What is most often forgotten when giving a guarantee or when regulating, is being transparent and crystal clear on why the guarantee is issued and what is the purpose of the regulations.

    Look at banking. You issue a government guarantee to a depositor that he will get some of his money back if the bank runs into trouble because first you need and want to provide depositors with some safety and second because you need the banks to be banks and help all those who cannot yet go to the capital markets to satisfy their financial needs… And then you go out and write regulations, capital requirements, which stop a bank from taking the kind of risks that you wanted it to take and end up guaranteeing what you never had to guarantee? Seems quite daft to me!

    There is not one single word in all the regulations that have come out from that global regulatory body the Basel Committee on Banking Supervision about the purpose of the banks. The only thing they seem to have in mind is to avoid any bank to fail. If that´s all you want from your banks…safety valves for storing all the mattresses with cash seem a better way.


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