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?

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?

It’s what you didn’t say….

A number of stories last week – like this one – chronicled the fact that regulations stemming from Dodd-Frank on the OTC derivatives markets have begun to take effect.

These stories quite frankly come as a bit of surprise.  But it’s not because of what they say.  It’s because of what they don’t say.

Let us explain.

Over the past two years we have seen and heard countless times statements along these lines:

“Representative Barney Frank, who was the co-author of the Dodd-Frank Act, says the law will help prevent a repeat of the financial crisis.”  (New York Times)

“The Dodd-Frank financial reform overhaul last year aimed to curb the excessive Wall Street risk-taking that nearly leveled the financial system.”  (Reuters)

These statements reflect that financial regulatory reform globally, and Dodd-Frank in the US, was intended to be fundamentally about reducing systemic risk: making the financial system safer and more robust, ensuring financial institutions took risk and capitalized against it appropriately and ending bailouts of too-big-to fail institutions.

In the OTC derivatives markets, this mostly meant increasing the use of central clearing, ensuring appropriate margins for uncleared swaps and improving regulatory transparency.

Significant progress has been made in all of these areas.  More than half of the interest rates swaps market is now cleared. Regulators have transparency into market-wide and individual firm risk exposures. The vast majority of OTC derivatives positions are collateralized.

This has all been done in advance of the imposition of the new rules. As a result, the system is much safer and stronger than two or three years ago. Further progress is on the way, and it will be safer and stronger still.

Most of this remains unsaid. Much of the focus last week was instead on non-systemic issues that are not central to the fundamental goals of regulatory reform.