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?

Crossing the Line

What do the EC Commissioner for Internal Market and Services, finance ministers in Brazil, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Russia, South Africa, Switzerland and the UK, and regulators and central bankers in Australia, Hong Kong and Singapore have in common?

They have all written to the US CFTC to express their concerns about cross-border derivatives regulations.

Why are they concerned?  As the finance ministers recently wrote:

“We are already starting to see evidence of fragmentation in this vitally important financial market, as a result of lack of regulatory coordination. We are concerned that, without clear direction from global policymakers and regulators, derivatives markets will recede into localised and less efficient structures, impairing the ability of business across the globe to manage risk. This will in turn dampen liquidity, investment and growth.”

To anyone who has watched this issue unfold over the past two or three years, such concerns are no surprise.  It is, though, a bit of surprise to see how The New York Times describes the situation.  Witness this page one headline from the Wednesday, May 1 paper: “Banks Resist Strict Controls of Foreign Bets”

There are (at least) three things wrong with these seven words:

1)      There’s nary a mention of the concerns of some of the world’s leading policymakers in the headline.

2)      No one is resisting strict controls.  The issue, as the finance ministers point out, is that “We share a common commitment with respect to OTC derivatives reform, and are implementing rules across very different markets with different characteristics and different risk profiles, to support this global initiative… An approach in which jurisdictions require that their own domestic regulatory rules be applied to their firms’ derivatives transactions taking place in broadly equivalent regulatory regimes abroad is not sustainable. Market places where firms from all our respective jurisdictions can come together and do business will not be able to function under such burdensome regulatory conditions.”

3)      Bets?  Even better, foreign bets?  How and why are derivatives transactions characterized as bets?  Is capping your interest rate exposure a bet?  Is hedging your currency exposure a bet?  Is protecting your credit exposure a bet?

We’re an international organization, and especially sensitive to these sorts of things, but even so, doesn’t this seem a touch xenophobic?  If the letter mentioned above had been co-signed by a US Treasury Secretary and sent to his EC counterpart, would it have been described in the same way?

But wait, there’s more.

Further down in the article, there’s this description of the “bitter international campaign” being waged by Wall Street and the world’s top finance ministers (as if they are working in concert):

“The effort…is just one front in the battle still being waged nearly three years after Congress passed the Dodd-Frank law, which revamped financial regulations in the United States in hopes of curtailing risky trading practices blamed for the global financial crisis in 2008.”

We’re the first to admit that the financial system needed strengthening (and we have made good progress doing so), but let’s not forget what the financial crisis was all about.  It was, first and foremost, about bad real estate decisions and bad mortgages. That was true in the US just as it was true in the UK, Ireland, Portugal, Spain and other hard-hit nations.

Unfortunately, The Times’ treatment of the important issue of cross-border derivatives regulation really crosses the line.

Not So Fast, Let’s Stop and Think

Today’s New York Times contains an interesting story — “Strong and Fast Markets, But No Time to Think” — that reflects on the trading glitches that roiled equities markets on Wednesday.

The article discusses the evolution in securities trading over the past quarter century. It states that this change has largely been positive, but also points out potential pitfalls.

Chief among them: “…the improved markets also are more prone to disaster.” Why? Partly because “Market makers have been largely replaced by high-frequency traders who use computers that can react to orders in nanoseconds.”

As evidenced by yesterday’s problems, or those related to the “flash crash” in May 2010, no trading system is perfect.

There is an interesting parallel here to the OTC derivatives markets. Current policy proposals might significantly change their structure and the role that market makers play in them. These proposals could transform OTC derivatives from an institutional market with low trading volumes and large notional amounts per trade to a quasi-retail market with vastly higher trading volumes and small notional amounts per trade.

We’re not sure what purpose this would serve. Given the price competition and the extremely tight spreads in the most liquid part of the OTC derivatives markets, the impact on trading costs would appear to be minimal.

It is true that smaller end-users might benefit from lower costs, but any benefit here is likely to be more than offset by the higher costs that larger end-users might incur.

Simply stated, there is very little evidence to support the idea that the proposed changes in the structure of OTC derivatives trading would benefit market participants.

As a result, we do not think these market structure changes were the intent of the G-20 Communique issued in Pittsburgh in 2009 that formed the basis of the legislative proposals that have since advanced in key jurisdictions.

To the contrary, we believe that the overriding goal of post-crisis public policy initiatives is to build a stronger financial system and reduce systemic risk.

Efforts to increase central clearing of trades and to improve regulatory transparency do just that, which is why we and market participants are on board with and helping to drive progress in these areas.

Efforts to change how one market works should clearly be backed up by substantial evidence that those changes will bring improvement. For OTC derivatives, that evidence has been a slow train coming.

No Evidence? No Problem

“To the market’s credit, there is no evidence that the process has become corrupted by big banks.”

That’s what an article in The New York Times Dealbook says about how credit events are determined in the CDS market.

The comment, unfortunately, is buried deep within the article. It’s easy to miss.

Most of the 800-word piece focuses on how the credit event process has the potential to be flawed. Its basic premise is that the ISDA Determinations Committees (DC) and credit event process appear to operate in a cartel-like fashion.

We stress “potential” and “appear to” for two reasons. First, the article doesn’t actually allege any wrongdoing. As noted above, it acknowledges that there is no evidence to this effect. Rather, the article merely posits that because of the way it operates, there is the possibility that problems might occur.

We’re not sure exactly how the DC process is or can be cartel-like. There are effective mechanisms built into it to ensure it isn’t and can’t be. Most notably, each DC is composed of 10 sell-side and 5 buy-side firms, and an 80% supermajority vote of the 15 members is required to make a credit event determination. Neither the sell-side nor the buy-side alone can force a decision its way; a broad market consensus is necessary.

What other flaws does the article cite?

One has to do with the claims that the DC “operates as a quasi-Star Chamber.” It would be great if we could cast Michael Douglas or Hal Holbrook (the stars of the 1983 movie of that name) in the lead DC roles. But we’re not sure the DC process would qualify as a theme for a remake of the movie. Virtually every part of the process is public: the rules governing the DC; the composition of the DCs; the determination requests made by market participants; the aggregate DC votes; the individual votes of DC members; the auction process and prices; adjustment amounts paid by firms as part of the auctions, and so on.

Another potential problem cited by the article isn’t a problem at all: it’s a source of strength. It has to do with the fact that DCs can be asked to consider and vote on a credit event multiple times as the facts of a situation change.

For example, in the recent situation involving Greece, the ISDA EMEA DC was asked to determine whether a credit event had occurred prior to the execution of the bond exchange. It determined at that time that it had not. Shortly thereafter, the deal was officially executed and the DC was again queried. It then ruled that a credit event had occurred.

This is hardly an example of “details shifting.” It is, rather, a prime example about how specific facts about specific situations involving specific Reference Entities can and do change. Prior to the use of the collective actions clauses (CACs) by Greece, there was no credit event. Following their use, there was.

In other words, facts matter. That’s why it is hard to say that one DC decision is precedent-setting for another.

The article opines that the DCs make decisions without having to publish their reasoning. It fails to note that most decisions are unanimous or close to it, obviating the need for explanations given that the consensus is so widespread. It does, though, note that ISDA and the DCs are currently discussing enhanced disclosures.

The “biggest concern” cited by the article is about potential conflicts of interest. These concerns stem from the fact that DC member firms may have an economic interest in the cases they are asked to rule on.

Two important points need to be made here. The first is that the DC rules incorporate the idea that market expertise – as evidenced by trading volumes – is a good thing to have on the DCs. So it’s no surprise that the DCs will be asked to make determinations on Reference Entities in which they have exposures. The second point is that regulatory disclosures and regulatory transparency provide an important check on any potential conflicts. Regulators have the ability to see a DC member’s exposures and benchmark it against its DC voting. This ability is enhanced under Dodd-Frank, which requires firms to report their OTC derivatives trades to trade repositories. This important check on the integrity of the process is cavalierly dismissed in the article.

At the end of the day, the article says that although there’s no evidence of wrong-doing, “trusting it to remain that way doesn’t seem like a good plan.”

The truth is, the DC process has always been built on the concept of “trust, but verify.” It was built with structural safeguards – checks and balances — to protect its integrity. Those safeguards are working. That’s why “there’s no evidence” of any problems with the process.

That, at least, is something we can all agree on.

Any Given Sunday….

Another Sunday, another New York Times column on “you guessed it – derivatives.” This one purports to show how derivatives are costing mass transit riders higher fares and lower services. The story goes like this:

“Bankers have embedded interest-rate swaps in many long-term municipal bonds. Back when, they persuaded states and others to issue bonds and simultaneously enter into swaps. In these arrangements, the banks agreed to make variable-rate payments to the issuers – and the issuers, in turn, agreed to make fixed-rate payments to bond holders.”

At which point we need to stop to point out that the example is actually wrong.  We think what the column meant to say was that “the issuers, in turn, agreed to make fixed-rate payments to the bank.” This would be a classic example of an issuer doing a floating rate bond issuance and then swapping into a fixed rate to lock in its exposure. But we digress:

“These swaps were supposed to save the public some money. And, for a while, they did.”

Oh, maybe this won’t turn out so badly?  But then:

“Then the financial crisis hit – and rates went south and stayed there. Now issuers are paying bond holders above-market rates as high as 6 percent. In return, they are collecting a pittance from banks – typically 0.5 percent to 1 percent.”

To recap: the swaps saved issuers money. They effectively lowered the issuers’ interest payments. This remains true today. But now apparently those savings are not enough. Given the level of interest rates today, the column posits that muni issuers could be saving even more.

Well, if that’s the case, why don’t the states and municipalities refinance their debt and issue new bonds with lower interest rates? The problem, according to the column, is that:

“Well, if you think it’s costly to refinance a home mortgage, try refinancing a derivatives-laced muni.  The price, in the form of a termination fee, can be enormous.”

Banks do charge fees for terminating swaps, based on the market value (or replacement cost) of those transactions. Lower rates could and probably did increase the value of those contracts.

But how is this different from what issuers would face if they had just issued fixed-rate debt in the first place (with no swap)? They would have garnered none of the interest expense savings. And they would have to compensate bondholders in the form of a premium if they now wished to refinance higher–rate debt with lower-rate debt. (That’s why there’s generally a premium paid by issuers who issue callable debt.)

The article then goes on to say:

“Corporations rarely do deals like these, because they generally avoid making long-term bets on interest rates. But bankers sold the idea to public borrowers.”

It’s not clear what exactly is meant by “deals like these,” but here are a few facts. All of the top companies – and thousands of large, mid-sized and smaller firms – in the US and around the world use interest rate swaps. This suggests that corporations frequently seek to lock in their financing costs.

So now we get to the crux of the column:

 “…the banks are taking advantage of our generosity by gouging us on these toxic deals.”

What, exactly, is toxic about helping municipalities manage their interest rate risk and save money?

Speculating on Position Limits

Amidst the clamor over high gas prices in the US, the editorial pages of The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times both weighed in today on the issue of those prices and whether they are being influenced by speculation.

The Journal’s editorial commented on a briefing held by the Administration in Washington on Tuesday and stated:

“Nowhere in his remarks did the President claim that speculation is doing any harm. He did not cite any negative impact on the oil market. He did not say that speculators are manipulating oil prices, nor did he describe in even the vaguest terms the individuals or institutions that might be involved. He didn’t cite any research. Mr. Obama didn’t even, well, speculate about whether oil prices would be higher or lower if not for unnamed actors who may or may not be affecting the markets.”

The Times, not surprisingly, had a different take. It stated that: “Research…indicate[s] that …excessive speculation, mainly by Wall Street index-fund traders, is needlessly driving up prices…”

What is “excessive” speculation? And what exactly does the Times have a problem with: your garden-variety speculation or excessive speculation?

No matter. The Times editorial goes on to say:

 “…it is important that the administration’s working group on oil and gas price fraud — formed a year ago by Attorney General Eric Holder Jr. — finally weighs in on the question of how, and how much, manipulators and speculators are pushing up prices. The group’s silence raises questions about how serious the White House really is about addressing this issue.”

We all agree that illegal market manipulation is wrong and needs to be policed and prevented. But could it be that the reason for the delay is that there is insufficient evidence to support the idea that speculation is distorting commodity markets?

The editorials go on to discuss the lawsuit that ISDA (along with SIFMA) filed against the CFTC’s position limits rule. (The lawsuit is currently pending in the US District Court for the District of Columbia.) These rules are intended to curb speculation.

The Journal writes that: “…the commission now must defend in court a rule it enacted last fall to curb speculation… the regulator has to find a way to carry the argument without the evidence to support it.”

It notes then-Commissioner Michael Dunn’s statements when the position limits rule was passed:

“ ‘No one has proven that the looming specter of excessive speculation in the futures markets we regulate even exists,’ said then-Commissioner Michael Dunn before the CFTC voted on the new rule last October… Mr. Dunn, a Democrat, provided the swing vote in favor of new limits on the size of trading positions only because he believed the Dodd-Frank law left him no choice.

“But even though he voted for the rule, Mr. Dunn said that ‘position limits may actually lead to higher prices for the commodities we consume on a daily basis.’ Less liquidity makes it more difficult for market participants to hedge their risks, which could raise costs for everyone.”

The Times says this:

“The Dodd-Frank financial reform law directs the Commodity Futures Trading Commission to implement new ‘position limit’ rules, which would curb speculation by limiting the share of the market that traders can control at any given time. Unfortunately, the rules recently proposed by the C.F.T.C. are weak, watered down by disagreements between the Democratic and Republican appointees on the commission. The new rules have already been challenged in court by industry groups that represent banks and derivatives dealers.”

Just to be clear, the basis of our lawsuit was two-fold. First, we believe the position limits rule may be harmful to commodities markets, and to end-users, by reducing liquidity and increasing price volatility. As we stated then: “The evidence is overwhelming that position limits are, at best, unnecessary and may, at worst, negatively impact commodity markets and users. Numerous studies have been conducted by government agencies and others into commodity price volatility and little, if any, support exists for the idea that speculation causes that volatility or that position limits curb speculation.”

We also believe the CFTC’s decision-making process in enacting the rule was procedurally flawed. The rule was adopted without making findings as to the necessity and appropriateness of the position limits, as required by statute. Furthermore, the CFTC failed to conduct any meaningful cost-benefit analysis and lacked a reasoned basis for its rule.

To summarize, there are several questions here: Does speculation distort commodity prices? Will position limits help curb speculation? Did the CFTC properly follow the law in enacting its position limits rule? We believe the answer to each question is no, and that the prevailing evidence supports our position.