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….

Disgusted, Tunbridge Wells

Letters to the editor are a common feature of most news publications. Often they are penned by outraged readers. Sometimes they are not. According to the BBC, staffers at the former Tunbridge Wells Advertiser wrote their own to fill space: “One [staffer] signed his simply ‘Disgusted, Tunbridge Wells’, and a legend was born.”

We note this because of a recent letter we came across in the Financial Times. It, too, appears to have been written by someone with an unusual sense of humor (though this time, no newspaper staffer or pseudonym is involved).

The FT letter is entitled “Fragmented derivatives market may cut global risk.” It’s written in response to an article about the lack of global coordination of derivatives regulations: “US rules ‘endanger’ derivatives reforms.”

So what’s the beef?

It’s this – the letter articulates the view that geographic fragmentation is a good thing:

“So, the global derivatives market could fragment along regional lines. That might be anathema for some – yet might make for a safer, less globally connected and also more constrained market… the mere decline in the extent and inter-regional connectedness of derivatives trading could make for less global risk.”

And it does so apparently because global reform is the brainchild of special interests:

“Until recently, ‘reform’ implied action in the public interest. However, the adoption and globalisation of the reform agenda by special interests merits a second glance…”

It would be great if the derivatives industry could take credit for the idea that markets are global, but we must give credit where it is due. It’s not a particularly new idea. But it is one espoused by global policymakers. As the 2009 G20 Pittsburgh Summit Communique stated:

“Continuing the revival in world trade and investment is essential to restoring global growth. It is imperative we stand together to fight against protectionism… We will keep markets open and free… We will not retreat into financial protectionism, particularly measures that constrain worldwide capital flows, especially to developing countries.”

Economic theory posits that globalization increases economic growth and reduces poverty. As a recent issue of The Economist stated:

“According to Amartya Sen, a Nobel-Prize winning economist, globalisation ‘has enriched the world scientifically and culturally, and benefited many people economically as well’. The United Nations has even predicted that the forces of globalisation may have the power to eradicate poverty in the 21st century.”

We think the benefits of global financial markets also accrue to users of derivatives. It enables counterparties who do not want a particular risk to more easily and more cheaply find someone better able to manage that risk. That could be the firm next door or the firm across the ocean.

If derivatives markets were not global, then that risk would be transferred to someone locally – or not at all.

In either case, the risk is likely to be less effectively managed. Which ultimately means that risk in the system might increase, rather than decrease, if markets are fragmented. And while that may not be a reason to be disgusted, it’s certainly a reason to be dismayed.

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.