# Strategic Excess? Simple Math

Before digging into a model, I pondered the reserve mechanism a bit. The idea of the reserve is to provide cost containment. The legislation sets a price trigger at 60% above a 36-month moving average of allowance trade prices. When the current allowance price hits the trigger level, allowances held in the reserve are sold quarterly, subject to an upper limit of 5% to 20% of current-year allowance issuance.

To hit the +60% trigger point, the current price would have to rise above the average through some combination of volatility and an underlying trend. If there’s no volatility, the the trigger point permits a very strong trend. If the moving average were a simple exponential smooth, the basis for the trigger would follow the market price with a 36-month lag. That means the trigger would be hit when 60% = (growth rate)*(3 years), i.e. the market price would have to grow 20% per year to trigger an auction. In fact, the moving average is a simple average over a window, which follows an exponential input more closely, so the effective lag is only 1.5 years, and thus the trigger mechanism would permit 40%/year price increases. If you accept that the appropriate time trajectory of prices is more like an increase at the interest rate, it seems that the strategic reserve is fairly useless for suppressing any strong underlying exponential signal.

That leaves volatility. If we suppose that the underlying rate of increase of prices is 10%/year, then the standard deviation of the market price would have to be (60%-(10%/yr*1.5yr))/2 = 22.5% in order to trigger the reserve. That’s not out of line with the volatility of many commodities, but it seems like a heck of a lot of volatility to tolerate when there’s no reason to. Climate damages are almost invariant to whether a ton gets emitted today or next month, so any departure from a smooth price trajectory imposes needless costs (but perhaps worthwhile if cap & trade is really the only way to get a climate policy in place).

The volatility of allowance prices can be translated to a volatility of allowance demand by assuming an elasticity of allowance demand. If elasticity is -0.1 (comparable to short run gasoline estimates), then the underlying demand volatility would be 2.25%. The actual volatility of weekly petroleum consumption around a 1 quarter average is just about twice that: So, theoretically the reserve might shave some of these peaks, but one would hope that the carbon market wouldn’t be transmitting this kind of noise in the first place.

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