Fireworks!

Around the world, fireworks traditionally mark special holidays and events, and people in the US will see their fair share this weekend as the nation celebrates the 4th of July.

The New York Times must also be in a celebratory mood as it has launched its fireworks a day early. Have a look at today’s editorial. It breathlessly states:

“The aim of the Dodd-Frank law is to prevent gambling in derivatives, financial contracts that are supposed to manage risk, but that have long been misused for catastrophically excessive speculation.”

Ka-boom!

We have heard many explanations about what Dodd-Frank is supposed to be about, but none as breathless as this one. Have a look at this document from the Senate Banking Committee: Nothing about preventing gambling.

With regard to “long been misused for catastrophically excessive speculation,” we would ask a simple question: what does this mean? If it refers to derivatives-related losses that brought a firm down, which ones does the editorial have in mind? Barings? Orange County? MF Global? They were all about exchange-traded products or securities. Lehman? Countrywide? Washington Mutual? Fannie and Freddie? These were real-estate related, in the form of either mortgages or mortgage securities. None of these situations stemmed from OTC derivatives.

And then there’s AIG, which certainly did involve OTC derivatives. But whatever AIG was, it wasn’t speculation that led to its bailout. Inadequate risk management and margining practices were at the core of the problem.

Now we know the editorial represents the conventional wisdom in many circles. We are clearly swimming upstream. The actual facts are, in some sense, nothing more than an annoyance to this story line. Positing them creates a risk of being tarred and feathered as anti-regulation or anti-Dodd-Frank. But this too would be inaccurate.

One more important item we should point out: the statement quoted above is not the main point of the paper’s editorial, which is about derivatives trading outside the US by certain foreign affiliates of US banks. But the thinking behind it shapes and informs the views expressed on the main issue, which is why it invites (nay, demands) comment. And we are happy to oblige.


As for the main issue: it is clear today that a growing number of non-US companies and firms are looking to ensure that they operate within the regulatory frameworks of their home jurisdictions (e.g., firms trading in the European Union regulated by EU rules and rule-makers).

They do not want to trigger US regulatory requirements because it would add another layer to their compliance efforts without any countervailing benefit. Their view is that this additional layer is unnecessary because the regulatory frameworks in each major jurisdiction are basically equivalent (albeit there are differences in timing). It’s a view shared by US firms who operate under US rules and who do not want to face duplicative rules elsewhere.

Policymakers around the world are currently trying to hash out how to make a global system of equivalency work for a product set — OTC derivatives — that is truly global.

None of this is mentioned in the editorial.

Happy 4th of July!

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?

Mondays always get me down

A decent weekend. Not much going on…

And then, on Monday morning, bam! Breaking news from The Wall Street Journal: “Big U.S. Banks Make Swaps A Foreign Affair”. The story basically posits that US banks are using their overseas affiliates to write some swaps with non-US counterparties without a parent company guarantee. This means that the transactions would not fall under the purview of US regulators.

Sounds troubling.

But as the infomercials say: Wait! There’s more!

A lot more.

First, the transactions would in fact fall under the purview of regulators in the jurisdictions in which they are done.

Second, on the major systemic risk issues (clearing, trade reporting, margining), there is likely to be little to no substantive difference between major jurisdictions.

So this clearly is not a case of regulatory arbitrage. It’s really about the fact that some customers do not want or have the capacity to understand and comply with regulations in two different jurisdictions. These non-US customers prefer doing business with non-US firms. They don’t want to trade on SEFs. So the US firms are structuring their businesses to meet this demand.

Most people know all of this, as the Journal article acknowledges.

So what’s really the issue? Apparently, it’s the fact there are some differences between jurisdictions in the timing and substance of trade execution rules. So some see the shift to trading overseas as a way for firms to avoid trading on SEFs, which they view as a bad thing, because:

“For US regulators, the new rules aim to bring swaps trading into the open and protect the US financial system from firms amassing huge derivatives positions in non-US markets.”

But that’s not the role of SEFs – that’s what clearing and trade reporting are all about. And as we noted, on these issues there’s not much if any difference between jurisdictions.

One final thought: the article begins with a chart that purports to show concentration in the derivatives markets. The data in question, however, is for the US only and includes only US banks. As we have written, the derivatives markets are truly global, and a look at our report here shows a more accurate picture.

Misperceptions like this… that’s why we’re hangin’ around, with nothing to do but frown….

Beware Blaming Bad Bond Bets!

The debate about speculation vs. investment has gone on at least since the Sumerians traded wine forwards five or six millennia ago. More recently − five or six decades ago −  one of our most famous value investors put it this way:

ben graham


“The speculator’s primary interest lies in anticipating and profiting from market fluctuations. The investor’s primary interest lies in acquiring and holding suitable securities at suitable prices.”

- Benjamin Graham
The Intelligent Investor

Graham’s words of wisdom come to mind after reading this piece from CNBC.com. It keys off a “study” by the Services Employees International Union about derivatives usage by municipalities.

The central premise: if a municipality (and by extension, a corporation, asset manager, pension fund, sovereign or other entity) decided to lock in rates a few years ago with an interest rate swap, it made a “bad bond bet.” That’s because rates stayed low, meaning there was no need to hedge and so the premiums spent on the hedge could have been spent elsewhere.

The logic (?) of this position is: it’s better to stay exposed to market fluctuations than to manage the risk of those fluctuations.

But isn’t that betting (or speculating)?

Well, yes, actually, it is.

But wait…what about the fact that terminating that hedge can mean big payments from a hedger to its counterparty? Isn’t that another sign that it’s just a bad bet?

Well, no, actually, it is not. Here’s why:

Assume a hedger issues floating rate debt and then does a swap to lock in a fixed rate (by paying fixed and receiving floating).

Rates then go lower, which means the cost of the floating rate debt declines. The hedger pays less in interest income on the debt.

At the same time, the hedger continues to make the same fixed rate payments on the swap (and continues to receive floating rate payments from its counterparty). The market value of the swap has changed, because the hedger’s fixed rate payments are more valuable now that rates have gone down.

So if the hedger wants to terminate the swap, its counterparty wants a larger termination payment to compensate for the loss of those fixed rate payments.

Keep in mind that the hedger is under no obligation to terminate the swap. Its decision to do so is voluntary.

So why would a hedger voluntarily pay a large termination fee to exit a swap?

The most likely reason: It has determined that it could save money by issuing new debt — and by calling in its existing debt and terminating its existing swaps.

So, to summarize: a hedge enables a hedger to optimize its financings while protecting against changes in rates. The effectiveness of the hedge is a function not just of its cost but also of the cost of the hedger’s debt. Termination payments reflect changes in value of the swap hedge and are made voluntarily when the hedger has determined that there’s financial value in calling old debt, terminating swaps related to that debt and issuing new bonds.

See How They Run

Are financial regulators still flying blind when it comes to derivatives exposures?

It depends on who you ask.

On the one hand, there’s the Financial Stability Board’s paper – OTC Derivatives Market Reform: Sixth Progress Report on Implementation. It states (on page 29) that the Depository Trust & Clearing Corporation’s (DTCC) trade repository has captured 99% of all interest rate derivatives contracts outstanding and 100% of credit default swaps outstanding, when compared to the Bank for International Settlements’ semiannual survey.

That’s pretty good – and it shows the tremendous improvement in regulatory transparency since the global financial crisis.

To see for yourself, have a look at ISDA’s new website – ISDA SwapsInfo.org – which takes all of the public information reported by DTCC and transforms it into user-friendly charts and graphs. You can view activity and notional outstanding by currency, product type and maturity. This includes, by the way, market risk activity for the range of credit derivatives products.

IRD 300dpi

It’s worth noting that the information available to the public on this site and through the DTCC warehouse is only part of the data available to regulators.

So that’s the good news. There is, however, “the other hand” to consider. And it includes a collection of stories like this one from Bloomberg View. These articles claim transparency is still not where it should be and much more work remains to be done.

And you know what? In some cases, they are spot on. There is, for example, an increased threat of fragmentation in trade reporting because of competing trade repositories in different jurisdictions. As the Bloomberg article notes, this could impede the goal of greater regulatory transparency.

It’s also true that data alone is insufficient to give regulators the information and knowledge they need and require. In fact, in some cases, data alone might do more harm than good by providing a false sense of security without providing a true level of understanding.

So what’s the bottom line here?

Improvements – real improvements – have been made in ensuring data regarding activity levels and risk exposures are appropriately reported. We have come a long way since 2008.

But now, derivatives industry market participants and regulators need to work together on an important goal. It’s to ensure the information being requested is on point, addresses key public policy and risk management needs, and is timely.

Otherwise, we won’t be flying blind…but we will be running around in circles.

15 X GDP = 0

What is a logical reaction to the following statement?

“In the last quarter of 2012 US bank and savings institutions held $223 trillion of derivatives – fifteen times our GDP.” (Emphasis is in the original.)

A: Become anxious and feel scared.

B:  Sigh…and wonder how it is possible that stuff like this still gets printed.

C: Look to see who wrote it. Discover that it was by a former US Senator who helped shape the financial reform legislation, and that it appeared in the American magazine Forbes. Become anxious. Wonder how stuff like this gets printed. Channel energy and write a media.comment blog post about it.

So here goes:

A recent column in Forbes, part of a larger series on “the failed promises of the Dodd-Frank financial reform package,” looks at the state of derivatives regulation.

It warns readers early on exactly what to expect, stating: “we can discuss derivatives without knowing exactly how they work.” Really?

And then it goes on to try and prove that point.

The column, which is supposedly about OTC derivatives regulation, states: “Had hundreds of billions of dollars worth of AAA-rated CDOs not lost most of their value in a matter of days, there would have been no crisis.”

Well, that’s almost right. As the statement infers, real estate was at the heart of the financial crisis. But real estate values (and the mortgage-based securities and CDOs based upon them) had been declining for some time, and did not lose their value “in a matter of days.”

The larger issue, though, is that CDOs are not OTC derivatives. They are securities. They are not included in the “scary” number cited above. And they are certainly not covered by OTC derivatives regulations. They are also not what the Forbes column is supposed to be about.

Maybe we do need to know how something works before we talk about it…

But moving on: the column rails against the requirements imposed regarding the number of quotes a firm must get before it can execute an OTC derivatives contract. It states: “The requirement had been reduced to require dealers to obtain votes from only five banks before executing a contract. Even that was watered down after more pressure from Wall Street; the final vote required only two bids.”

Two points here, one small, one large. First: “obtain votes?” Obviously an editing mistake.

Second, while the value of setting any minimum level of quotes is debatable, it’s important to remember that market participants are always free to get as many quotes as they like. How many quotes would you get before buying a car? Two? Five? You – the customer – can and should decide. Seems like a great concept to us.

Finally, to end where we began: What is there to say about the “fifteen times our GDP” comment? How about exactly what we have been saying for almost three decades?

Notional amounts outstanding indicate activity and not risk. Credit risk is better gauged by gross market value, which is 3.9% of notional (or $24.7 trillion), and even better yet by net market value, which is 0.6% of notional (or $3.6 trillion). Collateralization further reduces credit exposure, to about 0.2% of notional (or about $1.1 trillion).

These are still big numbers, but should be looked at in context. According to data from McKinsey and the BIS, the global stock of debt and equity outstanding includes $62 trillion of non-secured lending; $50 trillion of equity; $47 trillion of government bonds and $42 trillion of financial bonds.

Notional is admittedly a big number and it’s easy to use it to create scary headlines and stories. But we imagine most informed commentators know what it really represents. Which may mean that those who do conflate its meaning may have their own purposes in mind?

More or Less?

Is the OTC derivatives market growing…or shrinking?  A recent Bloomberg BusinessWeek piece helps provide an answer.

The article reports on ISDA’s OTC Derivatives Market Analysis, Year-End 2012, which pulls together data from a variety of sources to show the impact of some key trends, like clearing, portfolio compression and netting, on the underlying market.

Over the past five years, OTC derivatives notional amount outstanding (excluding FX transactions) is up 6.7% from year-end 2007 to year-end 2012, according to the BIS.  If you eliminate the double-counting of cleared transactions (which occurs because one bilateral contract becomes two cleared contracts), it’s down 17.5%.

BUT:  if you then add back in the $214.3 trillion of notional that has been eliminated via portfolio compression over the past five years, the OTC derivatives market has increased 23%.

Shorter-term, the picture is a little different.  The total OTC derivatives market (excluding FX) declined 3.3% from year-end 2011 to year-end 2012.  After eliminating the double-counting of cleared transactions, the decrease was 10.9%.  If you take this number and add back in the impact of portfolio compression, the market was roughly flat year-over-year.

Another interesting stat from the Market Analysis has to do with the level of risk exposures in the OTC derivatives market.  At year-end 2012, gross market values (a more appropriate measure of risk than notionals outstanding) were 3.9% of notionals.

Netting significantly reduces those exposures; gross credit exposures after netting were 0.6% of notionals.  Factor in the widespread collateralization of OTC derivatives and the uncollateralized exposure after netting is about 0.2% of the notional outstanding.

We know that going through all of these numbers is a bit of a tough slog.  But it’s important to realize that sometimes there’s more to the story than what appears on the surface.

So the real answer is: more and less.