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Wednesday, November 28, 2012

'Death of a Prediction Market'

Rajiv Sethi on the "death of a prediction market":

Death of a Prediction Market: A couple of days ago Intrade announced that it was closing its doors to US residents in response to "legal and regulatory pressures." American traders are required to close out their positions by December 23rd, and withdraw all remaining funds by the 31st. Liquidity has dried up and spreads have widened considerably since the announcement. There have even been sharp price movements in some markets with no significant news, reflecting a skewed geographic distribution of beliefs regarding the likelihood of certain events.

The company will survive, maybe even thrive, as it adds new contracts on sporting events to cater to it's customers in Europe and elsewhere. But the contracts that made it famous - the US election markets - will dwindle and perhaps even disappear. Even a cursory glance at the Intrade forum reveals the importance of its US customers to these markets. Individuals from all corners of the country with views spanning the ideological spectrum, and detailed knowledge of their own political subcultures, will no longer be able to participate. There will be a rebirth at some point, perhaps launched by a new entrant with regulatory approval, but for the moment there is a vacuum in a once vibrant corner of the political landscape.

The closure was precipitated by a CFTC suit alleging that the company "solicited and permitted" US persons to buy and sell commodity options without being a registered exchange, in violation of US law. But it appears that hostility to prediction markets among regulators runs deeper than that, since an attempt by Nadex to register and offer binary options contracts on political events was previously denied on the grounds that "the contracts involve gaming and are contrary to the public interest."

The CFTC did not specify why exactly such markets are contrary to the public interest, and it's worth asking what the basis for such a position might be.

I can think of two reasons, neither of which are particularly compelling in this context. First, all traders have to post margin equal to their worst-case loss, even though in the aggregate the payouts from all bets will net to zero. This means that cash is tied up as collateral to support speculative bets, when it could be put to more productive uses such as the financing of investment. This is a capital diversion effect. Second, even though the exchange claims to keep this margin in segregated accounts, separate from company funds, there is always the possibility that its deposits are not fully insured and could be lost if the Irish banking system were to collapse. These losses would ultimately be incurred by traders, who would then have very limited legal recourse.

These arguments are not without merit. But if one really wanted to restrain the diversion of capital to support speculative positions, Intrade is hardly the place to start. Vastly greater amounts of collateral are tied up in support of speculation using interest rate and currency swaps, credit derivatives, options, and futures contracts. It is true that such contracts can also be used to reduce risk exposures, but so can prediction markets. Furthermore, the volume of derivatives trading has far exceeded levels needed to accommodate hedging demands for at least a decade. Sheila Bair recently described synthetic CDOs and naked CDSs as "a game of fantasy football" with unbounded stakes. In comparison with the scale of betting in licensed exchanges and over-the-counter swaps, Intrade's capital diversion effect is truly negligible.

The second argument, concerning the segregation and safety of funds, is more relevant. Even if the exchange maintains a strict separation of company funds from posted margin despite the absence of regulatory oversight, there's always the possibility that it's deposits in the Irish banking system are not fully secure. Sophisticated traders are well aware of this risk, which could be substantially mitigated (though clearly not eliminated entirely) by licensing and regulation.

In judging the wisdom of the CFTC action, it's also worth considering the benefits that prediction markets provide. Attempts at manipulation notwithstanding, it's hard to imagine a major election in the US without the prognostications of pundits and pollsters being measured against the markets. They have become part of the fabric of social interaction and conversation around political events.

But from my perspective, the primary benefit of prediction markets has been pedagogical. I've used them frequently in my financial economics course to illustrate basic concepts such as expected return, risk, skewness, margin, short sales, trading algorithms, and arbitrage. Intrade has been generous with its data, allowing public access to order books, charts and spreadsheets, and this information has found its way over the years into slides, problem sets, and exams. All of this could have been done using other sources and methods, but the canonical prediction market contract - a binary option on a visible and familiar public event - is particularly well suited for these purposes.

The first time I wrote about prediction markets on this blog was back in August 2003. Intrade didn't exist at the time but its precursor, Tradesports, was up and running, and the Iowa Electronic Markets had already been active for over a decade. Over the nine years since that early post, I've used data from prediction markets to discuss arbitrageoverreactionmanipulationself-fulfilling propheciesalgorithmic trading, and the interpretation of prices and order books. Many of these posts have been about broader issues that also arise in more economically significant markets, but can be seen with great clarity in the Intrade laboratory.

It seems to me that the energies of regulators would be better directed elsewhere, at real and significant threats to financial stability, instead of being targeted at a small scale exchange which has become culturally significant and serves an educational purpose. The CFTC action just reinforces the perception that financial sector enforcement in the United States is a random, arbitrary process and that regulators keep on missing the wood for the trees.

    Posted by on Wednesday, November 28, 2012 at 09:30 AM in Economics, Regulation | Permalink  Comments (8)

          


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