Initial Thoughts on Initial Margin

A recent speech by the Federal Reserve Board’s Vice Chairman appeared to get the New Year off to an inauspicious start for OTC derivatives markets. Initial reports of the speech indicated that it called for tougher regulation and treatment of derivatives, including a requirement for initial margin.

Bah, humbug.

But then we actually read the transcript, and felt a little better. There are some key aspects to the speech that we agree with.

First, there’s recognition about the benefits of a robust variation margin (VM) framework and its role in achieving an important public policy goal:

“The [VM requirement] codifies current best market practice, since the largest derivatives dealers already exchange variation margin daily. However, and importantly, the framework extends this prudent risk-management practice to other derivatives counterparties. Requiring timely payment of variation margin will go a long way toward ensuring that an AIG-like event will not happen again [emphasis ours], since current exposures will not be allowed to build over time to unmanageable levels.”

Second, there’s acknowledgement of the impact that initial margin (IM) requirements will have on liquidity and on the cost and availability of OTC derivatives to end-users: “higher initial margin requirements will make it more costly for market participants to use derivatives to hedge risk.”

Another key point: the speech notes that “requiring less-liquid and highly customized derivatives to be cleared would likely increase systemic risk …” But that’s because the risk management practices of CCPs are not well-suited to manage such risks – and not because the risk of such instruments is unmanageable (for more on this, see our December letter to BCBS-IOSCO on Margin Requirements For Non-Centrally-Cleared Derivatives).

There are, to be sure, some points that we disagree with. And there are some that we really disagree with.

We don’t, for example, believe that IM will reduce systemic risk. If done improperly, it could actually be highly pro-cyclical and increase systemic risk.

And we also don’t see how margin requirements can “diminish the incentive to tinker with contract language as a way to evade clearing requirements.” This notion ‒ that IM is needed to enforce or incentivize clearing ‒ has taken hold in some circles to justify the imposition of IM, but we don’t think it lines up with the facts. Clearing has happened, is happening and will continue to happen because it is a cost-effective means of managing risk through standardized products.

As we stated in the letter to BCBS-IOSCO mentioned earlier: “If a transaction is not clearable, then no amount of IM can cause it to be cleared. If it is clearable, then legal mandates – and not punitive IM – should drive clearing. If a high level of IM is the tool used to try to incentivize clearing, not only would such a strategy fail, but there would be…. potential adverse ramifications.”

2013 looks like a year in which we will be talking a lot about margin requirements. We’re not sure if this will keep us merry and bright over the next 12 months, but it should keep us busy.