Bond Market Liquidity and Selection Bias

I’ve long been a fan of Matt Levine’s excellent Money Stuff newsletter. I’ve mentioned this newsletter here several times in the past, and on one such occasion, I got a link back.

One of my favourite sections in Levine’s newsletter is called “people are worried about bond market liquidity”. One reason I got interested in it was that I was writing a book on Liquidity (speaking of which, there’s a formal launch function in Bangalore on the 15th). More importantly, it was rather entertainingly written, and informative as well.

I appreciated the section so much that I ended up calling one of the sections of one of the chapters of my book “people are worried about bond market liquidity”. 

In any case, the Levine has outdone himself several times over in his latest instalment of worries about bond market liquidity. This one is from Friday’s newsletter. I strongly encourage you to read fully the section on people being worried about bond market liquidity.

To summarise, the basic idea is that while people are generally worried about bond market liquidity, a lot of studies about such liquidity by academics and regulators have concluded that bond market liquidity is just fine. This is based on the finding that the bid-ask spread (gap between prices at which a dealer is willing to buy or sell a security) still remains tight, and so liquidity is just fine.

But the problem is that, as Levine beautifully describes the idea, there is a strong case of selection bias. While the bid-ask spread has indeed narrowed, what this data point misses out is that many trades that could have otherwise happened are not happening, and so the data comes from a very biased sample.

Levine does a much better job of describing this than me, but there are two ways in which a banker can facilitate bond trading – by either taking possession of the bonds (in other words, being a “market maker” (PS: I have a chapter on this in my book) ), or by simply helping find a counterparty to the trade, thus acting like a broker (I have a chapter on brokers as well in my book).

A new paper by economists at the Federal Reserve Board confirms that the general finding that bond market liquidity is okay is affected by selection bias. The authors find that spreads are tighter (and sometimes negative) when bankers are playing the role of brokers than when they are playing the role of market makers.

In the very first chapter of my book (dealing with football transfer markets), I had mentioned that the bid-ask spread of a market is a good indicator of market liquidity. That the higher the bid-ask spread, the less liquid a market.

Later on in the book, I’d also mentioned that the money that an intermediary can make is again a function of how inherent the market is.

This story about bond market liquidity puts both these assertions into question. Bond markets see tight bid-ask spreads and bankers make little or no money (as the paper linked to above says, spreads are frequently negative). Based on my book, both of these should indicate that the market is quite liquid.

However, it turns out that both the bid-ask spread and fees made by intermediaries are biased estimates, since they don’t take into account the trades that were not done.

With bankers cutting down on market making activity (see Levine’s post or the paper for more details), there is many a time when a customer will not be able to trade at all since the bankers are unable to find them a counterparty (in the pre Volcker Rule days, bankers would’ve simply stepped in themselves and taken the other side of the trade). In such cases, the effective bid-ask spread is infinity, since the market has disappeared.

Technically this needs to be included while calculating the overall bid-ask spread. How this can actually be achieve is yet another question!

Thaler and Uber and surge pricing

I’m writing about Uber after a really long time on this blog. Basically I’d gotten tired of writing about the company and its ideas, and once I wrote a chapter about dynamic pricing in cabs in my book, there was simply nothing more to say.

Now, the Nobel Prize to Richard Thaler and his comments sometime back about Uber’s surge pricing has given me reason to revisit this topic, though I’ll keep it short.

Basically Thaler makes the point that when businesses are greedy and seen to be gouging customers in times of high demand, they might lose future demand from the same customers. In his 2015 book Misbehaving (which I borrowed from the local library a few months ago but never got down to reading), he talks specifically about Uber, and about how price gouging isn’t a great idea.

This has been reported across both mainstream and social media over the last couple of days as if Thaler is completely against the concept of surge pricing itself. For example, in this piece about Thaler, Pramit Bhattacharya of Mint introduces the concept of surge pricing and says:

Thaler was an early critic of this model. In his 2015 book Misbehaving: The Making of Behavioral Economics, Thaler argues that temporary spikes in demand, “from blizzards to rock star deaths, are an especially bad time for any business to appear greedy”. He argues that to build long-term relationships with customers, firms must be seen as “fair” and not just efficient, and that this often involves giving up on short-term profits even if customers may be willing to pay more at that point to avail themselves of its product or service.

At first sight, it is puzzling that an economist would be against the principle of dynamic pricing, since it helps the marketplace allocate resources more effectively and more importantly, use price as an information mechanism to massively improve liquidity in the system. But Thaler’s views on the topic are more nuanced. To continue to quote from Pramit’s piece:

“I love Uber as a service,” writes Thaler. “But if I were their consultant, or a shareholder, I would suggest that they simply cap surges to something like a multiple of three times the usual fare. You might wonder where the number three came from. That is my vague impression of the range of prices that one normally sees for products such as hotel rooms and plane tickets that have prices dependent on supply and demand. Furthermore, these services sell out at the most popular times, meaning that the owners are intentionally setting the prices too low during the peak season.

Thaler is NOT suggesting that Uber not use dynamic pricing – the information and liquidity effects of that are too massive to compensate for occasionally pissing off passengers. What he suggests, however, is that the surge be CAPPED, perhaps at a multiple of three.

There is a point after which dynamic pricing ceases to serve any value in terms of information and liquidity, and its sole purpose is to ensure efficient allocation of resources at that particular instant in time. At such levels, though, the cost of pissing off customers is also rather high. And Thaler suggests that 3 is the multiple at which the benefits of allocation start getting weighed down by the costs of pissing off passengers.

This is exactly what I’ve been proposing in terms of cab regulation for a couple of years now, though I don’t think I’ve put it down in writing anywhere. That rather than banning these services from not using dynamic pricing at all, a second best solution for a regulator who wants to prevent “price gouging” is to have a fare cap, and to set the cap high enough that there is enough room for the marketplaces to manoeuvre and use price as a mechanism to exchange information and boost liquidity.

Also, the price cap should be set in a way that marketplaces have flexibility in how they will arrive at the final price as long as it is within the cap – regulators might say that the total fare may not exceed a certain multiple of the distance and time or whatever, but they should not dictate how the marketplace precisely arrives at the price – since calculation of transaction cost in taxi pricing has historically been a hard problem and one of the main ways in which marketplaces such as Uber bring efficiency is in solving this problem in an innovative manner using technology.

For more on this topic, listen to my podcast with Amit Varma about how taxi marketplaces such as Uber use surge pricing to improve liquidity.

For even more on the topic, read my book Between the buyer and the seller which has a long chapter dedicated to the topic,

The nature of the professional services firm

This is yet another rejected section from my soon-t0-be-published book Between the buyer and the seller


In 2006, having just graduated from business school, I started my career working for a leading management consulting firm. This firm had been one of the most sought after employers for students at my school, and the salary they offered to pay me was among the highest offers for India-based jobs in my school in my year of graduation.

The elation of being paid better than my peers didn’t last too long, though. In what was my second or third week at the firm, I was asked to help a partner prepare a “pitch deck” – a document trying to convince a potential client to hire my firm for a piece of work. A standard feature in any pitch deck is costing, and the cost sheet of the document I was working on told me that the rate my firm was planning to bill its client for my services was a healthy multiple of what I was being paid.

While I left the job a few months later (for reasons that had nothing to do with my pay), I would return to the management consulting industry in 2012. This time, however, I didn’t join a firm – I chose to freelance instead. Once again I had to prepare pitch decks to win businesses, and quote a professional fee as part of it. This time, though, the entire billing went straight to my personal top line, barring some odd administrative expenses.

The idea that firms exist in order to take advantage of saving in transaction costs was first proposed by Ronald Coase in what has come to be a seminal paper in 1937. In “The Nature of the Firm”, Coase writes:?

The main reason why it is profitable to establish a firm would seem to be that there is a cost of using the price mechanism. The most obvious cost of ‘organising’ production through the price mechanism is that of discovering what the relevant prices are.

In other words, if an employer and employee or two divisions of a firm were to negotiate each time the price of goods or services being exchanged, the cost of such negotiations (the transaction cost) would far outstrip the benefit of using the price mechanism in such a case. Coase’s paper goes on to develop a framework to explain why firms aren’t larger than they were. He says,

Naturally, a point must be reached where the costs of organising an extra transaction within the firm are equal to the costs involved in carrying out the transaction in the open market.

While Coase’s theories have since been widely studied and quoted, and apply to all kinds of firms, it is still worth asking the question as to why professional services firms such as the management consulting firm I used to work for are as ubiquitous as they are. It is also worth asking why such firms manage to charge from their clients fees that are far in excess of what they pay their own employees, thus making a fat spread.

The defining feature of professional services firms is that they are mostly formed by the coming together of a large number of employees all of whom do similar work for an external client. While sometimes some of these employees might work in teams, there is seldom any service in such firms (barring administrative tasks) that are delivered to someone within the firm – most services are delivered to an external client. Examples of such firms include law firms, accounting firms and management consulting firms such as the one I used to work for (it is tempting to include information technology services firms under this banner but they tend to work in larger teams implying a higher contribution from teamwork).

One of my main challenges as a freelance consultant is to manage my so-called “pipeline”. Given that I’m a lone consultant, there is a limit on the amount of work I can take on at any point in time, affecting my marketing. I have had to, on multiple occasions, respectfully decline assignments because I was already tied up delivering another assignment at the same point in time. On the other hand, there have been times (sometimes lasting months together) where I’ve had little billable work, resulting in low revenues for those times.

If I were to form a partnership or join a larger professional services firm (with other professionals similar to me), both my work and my cash flows would be structured quite differently. Given that the firm would have a reasonable number of professionals working together, it would be easier to manage the pipeline – the chances of all professionals being occupied at any point in time is low, and the incoming work could be assigned to one of the free professionals. The same process would also mean that gaps in workflow would be low – if my marketing is going bad, marketing of one of my busy colleagues might result in work I might end up doing.

What is more interesting is the way in which cash flows would change. I would no longer have to wait for the periods when I was doing billable work in order to get paid – my firm would instead pay me a regular salary. On the other hand, when I did win business and get paid, the proceeds would entirely go to my firm. The fees that my firm would charge its clients would be significantly higher than what the firm paid me, like it happened with my employer in 2006.

There would be multiple reasons for this discrepancy in fees, the most straightforward being administrative costs (though that is unlikely to account for too much of the fee gap). There would be a further discount on account of the firm paying me a regular salary while I only worked intermittently. That, too, would be insufficient to explain the difference. Most of the difference would be explained by the economic value that the firm would add by means of its structure.

The problem with being a freelance professional is that times when potential clients might demand your services need not coincide with the times when you are willing to provide such services. Looking at it another way, the amount of services you supply at any point in time might not match the amount of services demanded at that point in time, with deviations going either way (sometimes you might be willing to supply much more than what is demanded, and vice versa).

Freelance professionals have another problem finding clients – as individual professionals, it is hard for them to advertise and let all possible potential clients know about their existence and the kind of services they may provide. Potential clients have the same problem too – when they want a piece of work done by a freelance professional, it is hard for them to identify and contact all possible professionals who might be able and willing to carry out that piece of work. In other words, the market for services of freelance professionals is highly illiquid.

Professional services firms help solve this illiquidity problem through a series of measures. Firstly, they acquire the time of professionals by promising to pay them a regular income. Secondly, as a firm, they are able to advertise and market the services of these professionals to potential clients. When these potential clients respond in the affirmative, the professional services firms sell them the time of professionals that they had earlier acquired.

These activities suggest that professional services firms can be considered to be market makers in the market for professional services. Firstly, they satisfy the conditions for market making – they actually buy and take on to their books the time of the professionals they hire, giving them a virtual “inventory” which they try to sign on. Secondly, they match demand and supply that might occur at different points in time – recruitment of employees occurs asynchronously with the sale of business to clients. In other words, they take both sides of the market – buying employees’ time from employees and selling this employees’ time to clients! Apart from this, firms also use their marketing and promotional activities that their size affords them to attract both employees and clients, thus improving liquidity in the market.

And like good market makers, firms make their money on the spread between what clients pay them and what they pay their employees. Earlier on in this chapter, we had mentioned that market making is risky business thanks to its inventory led model. It is clear to see that professional services firms are also risky operations, given that it is possible that they may either not be able to find professionals to execute on contracts won from clients, or not be able to find enough clients to provide sufficient work for all their employees.

In other words, when a professional joins a professional services firm, the spread they are letting go of (between what clients of their firms pay the firms, and what professionals draw as salaries) can be largely explained in terms of market making fees. It is the same case for a client who has pays a firm much more than what could have been paid had the professional been engaged directly – the extra fees is for the market making services that the firm is providing.

From the point of view of a professional, joining a firm might result in lower average long-term income compared to being freelance, but that more than compensates for the non-monetary volatility of not being able to find business in an otherwise illiquid market. For a potential client of such services also, the premium paid to the firm is a monetisation of the risk of being unable to find a professional in an illiquid market.

You might wonder, then, as to why I continue to be a freelance professional rather than taking a discount for my risks and joining a firm. For the answer, we have to turn back to Coase – I consider the costs of transacting in the open market, including the risk and uncertainty of transactions, far lower than the cost of entering into a long-term transaction with a firm!

People are worried about investment banker liquidity 

This was told to me by an investment banker I met a few days back, who obviously doesn’t want to be named. But like Matt Levine writes about people being worried about bond market liquidity, there is also a similar worry about the liquidity of the market for investment bankers as well. 

And once again it has to do with regulations introduced in the aftermath of the 2008 global financial crisis. It has to do with the European requirement that bankers’ bonuses are not all paid immediately, and that they be deferred and amortised over a few years. 

While good in spirit what the regulation has led to is that bankers don’t look to move banks any more. This is because each successful (and thus well paid) banker has a stock of deferred compensation that will be lost in case of a job change. 

This means that any bank looking to hire one such banker will have to compensate for all the deferred compensation in terms of a really fat joining bonus. And banks are seldom willing to pay such a high price. 

And so the rather vibrant and liquid market for investment bankers in Europe has suddenly gone quiet. Interbank moves are few and far in between – with the deferred compensation meaning that banks look to hire internally instead. 

And lesser bankers moving out has had an effect on the number of openings for banker jobs. Which has led to even fewer bankers looking to move. Basically it’s a vicious cycle of falling liquidity! 

Which is not good news for someone like me who’s just moved into London and looking for a banking job!

PS: speaking of liquidity I have a book on market design and liquidity coming out next month or next next month. It’s in the publication process right now. More on that soon! 

Dealing with loss of cash

Ever since Rs. 500 and Rs. 1000 notes ceased to be legal tender on Tuesday night, the internet has been full of “human stories” of people for whom tragedy has struck because they are not able to transact.

This is a valid concern – for there is a significant portion of the population without access to banking (numbers in a Mint piece I’ve sent but they’re yet to publish), and access to banking is necessary to do any transaction of reasonable size (there’s only so much you can pay with 100 buck notes).

One fallacy, though, is that people in rural areas, where access to banks and ATMs is lower compared to urban areas, are going to have it harder till the cash gets adequately replaced. While these places may be out of the way, what will help them tide it over is that everyone pretty much knows everyone else.

In Money: The Unauthorised Biography, Felix Martin argues that money is neither a store of value nor a medium of exchange. Instead, it is simply a method to keep track of debts, with the elegance being offered by the fact that money is “negotiable”. If I have a 100 rupee note, all it says is I’m owed 100 rupees. Who owes me those 100 rupees doesn’t matter. “I promise to pay the bearer the sum of one hundred rupees”, the front of the note declares. It just doesn’t matter who the “I” in question is.

In order to illustrate his theory of money, Martin gives the example of Ireland around 1970, when a six-month banking strike left the country’s financial system in tatters. Life didn’t come to a standstill, though, as people figured out ways of maintaining their credits and transferring them.

Initially, people wrote each other cheques. Despite the inherent credit risk, and the fact that they couldn’t be encashed in near future, people accepted them from people they knew. Then the cheques became negotiable, after “reputed community people” such as barmen started vouching for people’s creditworthiness. And so the economy moved along.

Debts were finally settled many months later when the banking system reopened, and people could cash in the cheques they held. A similar story played out in Argentina in the early 2000s when rampant inflation had rendered the currency useless – cities managed to invent their own currencies and life went on.

In a similar fashion, in small towns, and other communities where most people tend to know one another, people are unlikely to face that much trouble because of the cash crunch. Credit is already fairly common in such places, except that it will have to be extended for a longer period of time until the cash supply returns. It is similar in other remote unbanked areas, and perhaps even among tightly-knit communities of businessmen. Systems will spontaneously come up to extend and exchange credit, and life will go on.

The concern, however, is for the urban poor, since they tend to do a large number of transactions with people they don’t know well. In such situations, extension of credit is impossible, and people might find it hard.

Help me name my book!

The more perceptive of you here would’ve known by now that I’ve finished the manuscript of a book on Liquidity. Having finished the draft, and one basic round of editing, I’m now sending it around to publishers, hoping to strike a deal.

One of these publishers wrote to me saying that while she loves the chapters I’ve sent her (a small sample), she doesn’t like the name of the book. “Liquidity”, she says, is too bland and doesn’t reflect the contents of the book, and has asked me to come up with a better name.

And I’m at a loss, in terms of coming up with a name. I don’t even know what kind of name I should pick for the book. So I need you to help out!

The book is about liquidity, in the context of different markets. Apart from the handful of obligatory chapters (my chapters are mostly tiny, and there are 21 of them) on financial markets, I have stories on markets in taxis, dating, footballers, real estate, agriculture, job hunting, food, etc.

Here is part of an introduction to the book I’ve written, which might help you help me!

Why do people with specialised skills find it hard to switch jobs? Why do transfer fees for footballers always seem either too high or too low? Why are real estate brokers still in business despite the large number of online portals that have sought to replace them?

 

[….]

… we analyse why the market for romantic relationships, both matrimonial and dating, is mostly broken, and none of the new platforms are doing anything to fix it. We take a look at how taxi regulation is inherently inefficient thanks to liquidity issues, and how Uber’s much- maligned surge pricing algorithm helps create liquidity by means of superior information exchange. We will also see how liquidity helped build up the credit derivatives market, and then ultimately led to the global financial crisis.

So if you have any cool ideas on what to name the book, or at least a framework I need to follow to name it, please do let me know in the comments here! It might help you to know that the “acknowledgements” part of the book hasn’t been written yet!

Liquidity and the Trump Trade

The United States Treasury department has floated a new idea to improve liquidity in the market for treasury bonds, which has been a concern ever since the Volcker Rule came into place.

The basic problem with liquidity in the bond market is that there are a large number of similar instruments trading, which leads to a fragmented market. This is a consequence of the issuer (the US Treasury in this case) issuing a new bond every time they wish to borrow more money, and with durations being long, many bonds are in the market at the same time.

The proposed solution, which commentators have dubbed the “Trump Trade” (thanks to the Republican Presidential candidate’s penchant for restructuring debt of his companies), involves the treasury buying back bonds before they have run their full course. These bonds bought back will be paid for by newly issued 10-year bonds.

The idea here is that periodic retirement of old illiquid bonds and their replacement by a new “consolidated” bond can help aggregate the market and boost liquidity. This is not all. As the FT ($) reports,

The US Treasury would then buy older, less liquid and therefore cheaper debt across the market, which could in theory then be reissued at a lower yield. In recent months, yields on older issues have risen more than those for recently sold debt, suggesting a deterioration in liquidity.

This implies that because these “off the run” treasuries are less liquid, they are necessarily cheaper, and this “Trump Trade” is thus a win. This, however, is not necessarily the case. Illiquidity need not always imply lower price – it is more likely that it leads to wider spreads.

Trading an illiquid instrument implies that you need to pay a higher transaction cost. The “illiquidity discount” that many bonds see is because people are loathe to holding them (given the transaction cost), and thus less people are willing to buy them.

When the treasury wants to buy back such instruments, however, it is suddenly a seller’s market – since a large number of bonds need to be bought back to take it off the market, sellers can command a higher spread over the “mid price”.

Matt Levine of Bloomberg View has a nice take on the “IPO pop” which I’ve written about on this blog several times (here, here, here and here). He sees it as the “market impact cost” of trying to sell a large number of securities on the market at a particular instant.

Instead the typical trade of selling, say, $1 million of a bond with $1 billion outstanding, and paying around 0.3 percent ($3,000) for liquidity, you want to sell, say, $1 billion worth of a bond with zero bonds outstanding. That is: You want to issue a brand-new bond, and sell all of it in one day. What sort of bid-ask spread should you pay? First principles would tell you that if selling a few bonds from a large bond issue costs 0.3 percent, then selling 100 or 1,000 times as many bonds — especially brand-new bonds — should cost … I mean, not 100 or maybe even 10 times as much, but more, anyway. No?

Taking an off-the-run bond off the market is reverse of this trade – instead of selling, you are buying a large number of bonds at the same time. And that results in a market impact cost, and you need to pay a significant bid-ask spread. So rather than buying the illiquid bond for cheap, the US Treasury will actually have to pay a premium to retire such bonds.

In other words, the Trump Trade is unlikely to really work out too well – the transaction costs of the scheme are going to defeat it. Instead, I second John Cochrane’s idea of issuing perpetual bonds and then buying them back periodically.

These securities pay $1 coupon forever. Buy these back, not on a regular schedule, but when (!) the day of surpluses comes that the government wants to pay down the debt. Then there is one issue, with market depth in the trillions, and the whole on the run vs. off the run phenomenon disappears.

People don’t worry enough about liquidity when they are trying to solve other liquidity worries, it seems!