Finance

Michael P. Regan is a Bloomberg Gadfly columnist covering equities and financial services. He has covered stocks for Bloomberg News as a columnist and editor since 2007. He previously worked for the Associated Press.

The Wall Street Journal published an article with the words "Meat Casino" in the headline this week, so at first I just naturally assumed it was a profile of one of Chipotle's suppliers.

But it's really about price volatility in the live-cattle futures market. As far as literary criticism, the only gripe I have with this piece on the Meat Casino is that the phrase "high-steaks bets" is nowhere to be found. It makes one wonder if they left their brains in their other cargo shorts over at the Journal. 

Anyway, as you can see below, volatility in futures markets makes the Meat Casino as wild as it was during the financial crisis: 

Riding Herd
Price swings in the cattle futures market have some calling it the Meat Casino
Source: Bloomberg
Note: Historical volatility shows annualized standard deviation of price changes for the 20 and 100 most recent trading days.

Compared, for example, with a stock market, where the current volatility makes the action look less like a casino and more like bingo night at the retirement home: 

Too Quiet?
Suppressed volatility in the S&P 500 has some worried of a calm before the storm
Source: Bloomberg
Note: Historical volatility shows annualized standard deviation of price changes for the 20 and 100 most recent trading days.

And a spike in prices over recent years should catch the attention of beef eaters everywhere:

Beef Bubble
Front-month live cattle futures are almost 36 percent below their peak two years ago
Source: Bloomberg

If you've read anything about markets in the past few years, you probably already know where people who have a beef with these price swings are pointing fingers: those flashy boys in the electronic trading world.

The Meat Casino is entirely an electronic affair now. CME Group closed all the remaining pits last year, severely limiting the available opportunities for traders to wear cool cowhide print sportcoats.  

But the machines had taken over almost all the trading long before that. In addition to all the big banks, the list of the electronic casino's blackjack dealers is dotted with the legends of the electronic pits, from Jump Trading to Dorman to KCG to Timber Hill.

Yet it's hard to picture the Chicago pits as some sort of victim of the shift to electronic trading because they were also some of the main spawning grounds of the new breed of data-center outcriers, as chronicled in this great Matt Leising obit of the pits from last year. In fact, Jump was named in honor of the jumping around that traders did in the open outcry pits.

Anyway, if there's one thing I love, it's a story about "the pits," even if they are now just a bunch of stacks of computer servers in a data center, not the mosh pits of capitalism made famous in movies like "Trading Places."

Mainly, for some reason, I like stories about trading in commodities I can eat. (Another recent such article was Whitney McFerron's scoop that the U.S. was sitting on a "mountain of cheese." Maybe it's just the suburban Philadelphian in me, but I can't help but think that if we moved the Meat Casino next to Cheese Mountain, we'd only be some Amoroso's rolls and fried onions away from the Promised Land.)

So with price swings this meaty, the Trade of the Week obviously is doubling down on the steak at the heart of capitalism in the Meat Casino. 

The runner-up award goes to Eve Plum, aka Jan Brady, who USA Today tells us sold the $55,000 Malibu dream house she bought during the great Brady Bunch bubble of 1969 for a cool $3.9 million. On the back of my envelope, that gives her a compounded annual growth rate of about 9.5 percent, and that's just the sort of middle-sister index-like return that's trendy these days.

If you're in the market for something else to read by the pool this weekend, check out some of these pieces from the past week: First, don't miss this long, strange trip into the pits of the personal-loan casino that is LendingClub by Max Chafkin and Noah Buhayar. And don't worry if you've never wondered whether Yale's famous Skull and Bones is connected to the skull-and-bones icon that warns of scams on OTC Markets, because I've done it for you. But you should go ahead and check out this excellent piece on Neuromama, which sounds like a mid-90s Lilith Fair act but really is just a $35 billion OTC Jolly Roger. 

To wrap up a week's worth of alternative asset-management gossip, Steve Cohen got caught up in a Six Degrees of Separation with a mob-linked floor trader. We were introduced to an entertaining new character in the serial adventure of hedge-fund Och-Ziff Management's African bribery safari. Endowments are joining the crowds headed for the exits. A trader at scandal-ridden hedge fund Visium blew the whistle harder than Flo Rida's baby. And here's a great read on how the buy side is finally doing its own research and isn't half bad at it.

Finally, if you haven't read it yet, make sure to check out Shannon Pettypiece's not-at-all-petty piece about the crime in Walmart parking lots, including a meth lab found hidden in a drainage pipe.

It does make one wonder if they've checked all the drainage pipes to see if there's any hedge funds hiding down there.  

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Michael P. Regan in New York at mregan12@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Daniel Niemi at dniemi1@bloomberg.net