Protection Racket

How many times have you read a story in a newspaper or magazine and thought, “The headline is pretty negative, but the story is OK”?

We thought (and hoped) that might be the case when we came across this New York Times Dealbook piece – authored by an outside contributor – that has this alarming headline: Derivatives Markets Growing Again, with Few New Protections.

We were wrong. Here’s why…

The piece cites statistics from the recently released BIS semiannual survey and notes that the notional value of over-the-counter (OTC) derivatives at year-end 2013 is 20% larger than year-end 2007.

That’s true.

But left unsaid is one of the primary drivers of that growth: an increase in central clearing of OTC derivatives. As the BIS survey states, clearing doubles the notional outstanding related to a transaction, as, for example, one $10 million trade that’s bilaterally negotiated becomes two $10 million cleared trades between each of the counterparties and a clearinghouse.

If you eliminate the effect of double-counting of cleared OTC interest rate derivatives, then (all else being equal) the size of the overall OTC derivatives market actually declined by a bit more than 10% from year-end 2007 to year-end 2013.

Here’s where another key trend – portfolio compression – comes into play. Compression has eliminated some $170 trillion (on a net basis) of OTC derivatives over the past five years. In other words (again assuming all else remains equal), the global OTC derivatives market would be larger by that amount if compression had not occurred.

Clearing and compression have been going on for some time, but it’s safe to say that there’s an additional sense of urgency to them amidst global regulatory reform. In fact, clearing mandates in major jurisdictions will ensure this is the case (although the reality is that the actual amounts cleared are well ahead of those mandated for clearing).

So it’s pretty evident that regulatory and market reforms are behind big changes in the OTC derivatives markets. This cuts against the first of the author’s main concerns, namely the market’s growth.

But it also speaks to the other concern – the claim that there are “few new protections.” After Dodd-Frank, EMIR and MIFID, after all of the new rules and regulations being implemented in the US and Europe and around the world, how can anyone say this?

Which brings us to our last point. The article reasons that management of OTC derivatives can be complex and opaque. It then uses two well-known scandals to show how large the losses can be from poor management. In both examples, though, those losses stemmed from illicit trading of listed, exchange-traded derivatives — not the OTC derivatives the author is so worried about.

So here’s a question: How do you protect against this type of logic?