Streetwise Professor

July 6, 2015

Greece Quick Hits

Filed under: Economics,Financial Crisis II — The Professor @ 6:00 pm

Hit Number 1. One of Krugman’s stock arguments to defend deficit spending and the accumulation of massive amounts of debt is “don’t worry!: we owe it to ourselves.” (I will pass over in silence at the Ricardian implications of that statement, which undermine Krugman’s argument that deficits are expansionary.) Krugman is also cheerleading for a Grexit.

It is therefore beyond ironic that a major reason that Greece faces Armageddon is the debt Greeks owe to themselves. The immediate source of Greece’s peril is the impending collapse of its banking system. The banks hold about €11 billion in Greek government bonds and about €14 billion in Greek Treasury Bills, money, per Krugman’s formulation, that Greeks owe to themselves. Greek banks are scraping by only because the ECB has agreed to fund these bonds. If Greece defaults, this funding goes away, and the banks will collapse. And it’s not just sovereign debt. The remainder of the nearly €400 billion on Greek bank balance sheets is loans to Greeks, i.e., money Greeks “owe themselves.” Many of those loans are underwater too.

In other words, money Greeks owe themselves will almost certainly bring down the banking system, and with it the Greek economy, once the ECB safety net goes away. But I’m sure Krugman will find a way to say that’s a good thing. Or that the problem was that they didn’t borrow enough from themselves. Or something.

Hit Number 2. The game theorist likely behind the let’s-play-crazy referendum and negotiating strategy, Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis, has resigned. But don’t get excited. His replacement is a hardcore Marxist. But no worries. The FT assures us that he’s a pragmatist.  As if it really makes a difference whether a Menshevik or Bolshevik is in charge of economic policy.

Forget the debt issue. That will be resolved, for worse or for worser. The real reason that Greece is well and truly screwed is its statist, leftist, and frequently Marxist political culture. Greece needs to grow. Replacing one Marxist with another Marxist ensures that it won’t.

But look at the bright side. Now Venezuela has company.

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July 5, 2015

1. Referendum. 2. ???? 3. Prosperity!

Filed under: Economics,Financial Crisis II,Politics — The Professor @ 8:38 pm

The Greeks voted a resounding No! in today’s referendum, thereby rejecting a deal that had been taken off the table.

Figuring out the Syrzia plan is something of a puzzle. It reminds me of the old South Park Underwear Gnomes bit, hence the  title of this post. One can see the desired objective (a more prosperous future liberated from a crushing debt burden) and one can see the initial move (referendum), but the middle steps are a complete mystery.

At first blush-and second, and third-it appears that what the Greek government is doing is crazy and self-destructive. This suggests two alternatives:

  1. The Greek government is crazy and self-destructive.
  2. The Greek government is pretending to be crazy and self-destructive for tactical reasons.

I say crazy because the Greeks are claiming that they are willing to accept economic Armageddon instead of making far less costly concessions to the Europeans. But if there is even a small probability that people are of this type (i.e., they much prefer to die on their feet than live on their knees), pretending to be this way and getting a reputation for being this way can be an effective way of extracting concessions from an adversary. It is often rational to defer to craziness.

This gambit works best if a repeat player is matched against a series of one-shot players: the repeat player benefits from creating a reputation, the one-shot players don’t. That’s not the case here, though. The solvent Euros (e.g., the Germans and Dutch) also have an incentive to build a reputation for being tough in negotiations, because they are repeat players. They reason that if they concede to the Greeks, the Southern Euros (Spain, Portugal, Italy in particular) will try to extract concessions as well. So they have an incentive to play tough with the Greeks even though if this was a one-off situation it would make sense to make more concessions.

Which all means that I have no idea how this will play out.

Furthermore, this is primarily a game about redistribution rather than creating wealth. This maximizes the potential for conflict, and increases the incentives for rent seeking and rent dissipation. The exact outcome is difficult to predict, but the basic contours of this outcome are pretty predictable: everybody ends up poorer and miserable.

It is hard to have sympathy for either side. The Greeks have a corrupt and bloated state, and its people have a socialist, welfare/entitlement state mindset, and they borrowed lavishly to achieve a lifestyle that their productivity could not support. The Europeans gladly lent more to a corrupt and bloated state, and a people with a socialist-tinged, welfare/entitlement state mindset than they could afford to repay. They jointly made their bed, and now they have to lie in it. So be it.

The least likely outcome is that Greece makes fundamental changes and conjures up a growth miracle, like postwar Japan or Germany, or Taiwan or Korea. The socialist/statist/welfarist impulses are too deeply rooted, and its interlocutors-the Euros-are also too statist to compel or persuade the Greeks to change their ways.

A couple of years ago I said that Europe had a choice between amputation and gangrene in dealing with Greece. They chose not to amputate. They now have to live with the consequences.

 

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April 18, 2015

A Greek Gas Farce

Filed under: Commodities,Energy,Financial Crisis II,History,Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 11:44 am

Der Spiegel reported that Greek officials claim that the country is on the verge of signing a deal with Russia that would give the Greeks €5 billion upfront, to be repaid from transit fees on a yet-to-be-built Turkish Stream pipeline: the Russians deny any deal. The quoted (but anonymous) Greek official said that this would “turn the tide” for Greece.

Really?

Some thoughts off the top.

First, Greece owes €320 billion, including payments of €30 billion in 2015 alone. It is “scraping the bottom of the barrel” by borrowing from various state entities (e.g., the public transport system) to meet April payroll. It has a budget deficit of €23 billion. Deposits at Greek banks fell by about €20 billion last week. This creates a liability for the Bank of Greece to Target2 (i.e., to the members of the ECB). A measly €5 billion will buy it a few weeks time, at best.

Second, it’s not as if creditors (e.g., the EU and the IMF and Target2 members) are going to give Greece discretion over how to spend this money. And they have many levers to pull. So it would set the stage for more arguments between the creditors and the debtor.

Third, the Russians are likely to write terms that secure the debt and give it priority over other creditors (at least with respect to any future transit fees). (Just remember how tightly the Russians crafted the Yanuk Bonds.) The Euros will flip out over any such terms. This would set up an epic The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly three-way standoff.

Fourth, this initiative would be directly contrary to European energy policy, which is finally attempting to reduce dependence on Russia and limit vulnerability to Russian gasmail and the use of energy as a wedge to create divisions within the EU.

Fifth, what are the odds that the pipeline will get built? The Europeans are against it. It requires the Greeks and the Turks to play well together, and we know how that usually works out. It requires additional investment in infrastructure in Turkey, which is problematic. Further, the Russian track record on these sorts of projects leaves much to be desired.

So what happens if the pipeline isn’t built, or is delayed significantly. No doubt the Russians will anticipate this contingency in the debt agreement, and write things in such a way that they have security or priority, which will just spark another battle with Greece’s European creditors.

In sum, such a deal would hardly be a solution to Greece’s problems. Indeed, it only escalates conflicts between Greece and the EU.

Which may be Putin’s purpose, exactly. Exacerbating Greek-EU conflict over a matter involving Russia directly at a time when Greece could scupper the extension of sanctions against Russia suits Putin perfectly. The fact that the pipeline is as much pipe dream as realistic project doesn’t matter a whit. This is all about stirring trouble. And that’s Putin’s speciality.

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October 13, 2014

You Might Have Read This Somewhere Before. Like Here.

The FT has a long article by John Dizard raising alarms about the systemic risks posed by CCPs. The solution, in other words, might be the problem.

Where have I read that before?

The article focuses on a couple of regulatory reports that have also raised the alarm:

No, I am referring to reports filed by the wiring and plumbing inspectors of the CCPs. For example, the International Organization for Securities Commissions (a name that could only be made duller by inserting the word “Canada”) issued a report this month on the “Securities Markets Risk Outlook 2014-2015”. I am not going to attempt to achieve the poetic effect of the volume read as a whole, so I will skip ahead to page 85 to the section on margin calls.

Talking (again) about the last crisis, the authors recount: “When the crisis materialised in 2008, deleveraging occurred, leading to a pro-cyclical margin spiral (see figure 99). Margin requirements also have the potential to cause pro-cyclical effects in the cleared markets.” The next page shows figure 99, an intriguing cartoon of a margin spiral, with haircuts leading to more haircuts leading to “liquidate position”, “further downward pressure” and “loss on open positions”. In short, do not read it to the children before bedtime.

This margin issue is exactly what I’ve been on about for six years now. Good that regulators are finally waking up to it, though it’s a little late in the day, isn’t it?

I chuckle at the children before bedtime line. I often say that I should give my presentations on the systemic risk of CCPs while sitting by a campfire holding a flashlight under my chin.

I don’t chuckle at the fact that other regulators seem rather oblivious to the dangers inherent in what they’ve created:

While supervisory institutions such as the Financial Stability Oversight Council are trying to fit boring old life insurers into their “systemic” regulatory frameworks, they seem to be ignoring the degree to which the much-expanded clearing houses are a threat, not a solution. Much attention has been paid, publicly, to how banks that become insolvent in the future will have their shareholders and creditors bailed in to the losses, their managements dismissed and their corporate forms put into liquidation. But what about the clearing houses? What happens to them when one or more of their participants fail?

I call myself the Clearing Cassandra precisely because I have been prophesying so for years, but the FSOC and others have largely ignored such concerns.

Dizard starts out his piece quoting Dallas Fed President Richard Fisher comparing macroprudential regulation to the Maginot Line. Dizard notes that others have made similar Maginot Line comparisons post-crisis, and says that this is unfair to the Maginot Line because it was never breached: the Germans went around it.

I am one person who has made this comparison specifically in the context of CCPs, most recently at Camp Alphaville in July. But my point was exactly that the creation of impregnable CCPs would result in the diversion of stresses to other parts of the financial system, just like the Maginot line diverted the Germans into the Ardennes, where French defenses were far more brittle. In particular, CCPs are intended to eliminate credit risk, but they do so by creating tremendous demands for liquidity, especially during crisis times. Since liquidity risk is, in my view, far more dangerous than credit risk, this is not obviously a good trade off. The main question becomes: During the next crisis, where will be the financial Sedan?

I take some grim satisfaction that arguments that I have made for years are becoming conventional wisdom, or at least widespread among those who haven’t imbibed the Clearing Kool Aid. Would that have happened before legislators and regulators around the world embarked on the vastest re-engineering of world financial markets ever attempted, and did so with their eyes wide shut.

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September 29, 2014

McNamara on Pirrong & Clearing: Serious, Fair, But Ultimately Unpersuasive

Stephen Lubben passed along this paper on central clearing mandates to me. It would only be a modest overstatement to say that it is primarily a rebuttal to me. At the very least, I am the representative agent of the anti-clearing mandate crowd (and a very small crowd it is!) in Steven McNamara’s critique of opposition to clearing mandates.

McNamara’s arguments are fair, and respectfully presented. He criticizes my work, but in an oddly complimentary way.

I consider it something of a victory that he feels that it’s necessary to go outside of economics, and to appeal to Rawlsian Political Theory and Rawls’s Theory of Justice to counter my criticisms of clearing mandates.

There are actually some points of commonality between McNamara and me, which he fairly acknowledges. Specifically, we both emphasize the incredible complexity of the financial markets generally, and the derivatives markets in particular. Despite this commonality, we reach diametrically opposed conclusions.

Where I think McNamara is off-base is that he thinks I don’t pay adequate attention to the costs of financial crises and systemic risk. I firmly disagree. I definitely am very cognizant of these costs, and support measures to control them. My position is that CCPs do not necessarily reduce systemic risk, and may increase it. I’ve written several papers on that very issue. The fact that I believe that freely chosen clearing arrangements are more efficient than mandated ones in “peacetime” (i.e., normal, non-crisis periods) (something McNamara focuses on) only strengthens my doubts about the prudence of mandates.

McNamara addresses some of the arguments I make about systemic risk  in his paper, but it does not cite my most recent article that sets them out in a more comprehensive way.  (Here’s an ungated working paper version: the final version is only slightly different.) Consequently, he does not address some of my arguments, and gets some wrong: at least, in my opinion, he doesn’t come close to rebutting them.

Consider, for instance, my argument about multilateral netting. Netting gives derivatives priority in bankruptcy. This means that derivatives counterparties are less likely to run and thereby bring down a major financial institution. McNamara emphasizes this, and claims that this is actually a point in favor of mandating clearing (and the consequent multilateral netting). My take is far more equivocal: the reordering of priorities makes other claimants more likely to run, and on balance, it’s not clear whether multilateral netting  reduces systemic risk. I point to the example of money market funds that invested in Lehman corporate paper. There were runs on MMFs when they broke the buck. Multilateral netting of derivatives would make such runs more likely by reducing the value of this corporate paper (due to its lower position in the bankruptcy queue). Not at all clear how this cuts.

McNamara mentions my concerns about collateral transformation services, and gives them some credence, but not quite enough in my view.

He views mutualization of risk as a good thing, and doesn’t address my mutualization is like CDO trenching point (which means that default funds load up on systemic/systematic risk). Given his emphasis on the risks associated with interconnections, I don’t think he pays sufficient concern to the fact that default funds are a source of interconnection, especially during times of crisis.

Most importantly, although he does discuss some of my analysis of margins, he doesn’t address my biggest systemic risk concern: the tight coupling and liquidity strains that variation margining creates during crises. This is also an important source of interconnection in financial markets.

I have long acknowledged-and McNamara acknowledges my acknowledgement-that we can’t have any great certainty about how whether clearing mandates will increase or reduce systemic risk. I have argued that the arguments that it will reduce it are unpersuasive, and often flatly wrong, but are made confidently nonetheless: hence the “bill of goods” title of my clearing and systemic risk paper (which the editor of JFMI found provocative/tendentious, but which I insisted on retaining).

From this “radical” uncertainty, arguing in a Rawlsian vein, McNamara argues that regulation is the right approach, given the huge costs of a systemic crisis, and especially their devastating impact on the least among us. But this presumes that the clearing mandate will have its intended effect of reducing this risk. My point is that this presumption is wholly unfounded, and that on balance, systemic risks are likely to increase as the result of a mandate, especially (and perhaps paradoxically) given the widespread confidence among regulators that clearing will reduce it.

McNamara identifies me has a hard core utilitarian, but that’s not quite right. Yes, I think I have decent formal economics chops, but I bring a Hayekian eye to this problem. Specifically, I believe that in a complex, emergent system like the financial markets (and derivatives are just a piece of that complex emergent system), top down, engineered, one-size-fits-all solutions are the true sources of system risk. (In fairness, I have made this argument most frequently here on the blog, rather than my more formal writings, so I understand if McNamara isn’t aware of it.) Attempts to design such systems usually result in major unintended consequences, many of them quite nasty. In some of my first remarks on clearing mandates at a public forum (a Columbia Law School event in 2009), I quoted Hayek: “The curious task of economics is to demonstrate to men how little they really know about what they imagine they can design.”

I’ve used the analogy of the Sorcerer’s Apprentice to make this point before, and I think it is apt. Those intending to “fix” something can unleash forces they don’t understand, with devastating consequences.

At the end of his piece, McNamara makes another Rawlsian argument, a political one. Derivatives dealer banks are too big, to politically influential, corrupt the regulatory process, and exacerbate income inequality. Anything that reduces their size and influence is therefore beneficial. As McNamara puts it: clearing mandates are “therefore a roundabout way to achieve a reduction in their status as ‘Too Big to Fail,’ and also their economic and political influence.”

But as I’ve written often on the blog, this hope is chimerical. Regulation tends to create large fixed costs, which tends to increase scale economies and therefore lead to greater concentration. That clearly appears to be the case with clearing members, and post-Frankendodd there’s little evidence that the regulations have reduced the dominance of big banks and TBTF. Moreover, more expansive regulation actually increases the incentive to exercise political influence, so color me skeptical that Dodd-Frank will contribute anything to the cleaning of the Augean Stables of the American political system. I would bet the exact opposite, actually.

So to sum up, I am flattered but unpersuaded by Steven McNamara’s serious, evenhanded, and thorough effort to rebut my arguments against clearing mandates, and to justify them on the merits. Whether it is on “utilitarian” (i.e., economic) or Rawlsian grounds, I continue to believe that arguments and evidence weigh heavily against clearing mandates as prudent policy.  But I am game to continue the debate, and Steve McNamara has proved himself to be a worthy opponent, and a gentleman to boot.

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September 8, 2014

Cleaning Up After the Dodd, Frank & Gensler Circus

A lot of CFTC news lately. Much of it involves the agency, under new chairman Timothy Massad, dealing with the consequences of Frankendodd and the overzealous efforts of his predecessor Gary Gensler to implement it.

One of Massad’s priorities relates to clearinghouses (CCPs):

CFTC Chairman Timothy Massad said in a Sept. 5 interview that his agency will bolster examinations of clearinghouses, which process trillions of dollars in transactions and are potentially vulnerable to market shocks or cyber attacks. The agency is working with the Federal Reserve on the effort, he said.

New rules requiring banks and other firms to use clearinghouses owned by LCH.Clearnet Group Ltd., CME Group Inc. (CME) and Intercontinental Exchange Inc. (ICE) have been “a great thing” and have helped regulators “monitor and mitigate risks, but it doesn’t eliminate risk,” according to Massad.

“We’ve got to be very focused on the health of clearinghouses,” he said.

It’s nice to see that the CFTC, as well as prudential regulators, recognize that CCPs are of vital systemic importance. But as I’ve said many times, on four continents: In a complex, interconnected financial system, making CCPs less likely to default  does not necessarily increase the safety of the financial system. Making one part of the system safer does not make the system safer. It can prevent one Armageddon scenario, but increase the likelihood of others.

Gensler babbled repeatedly about the clearing mandate reducing the interconnectedness of the financial system. In fact, it just reconfigures the interconnections. The very measures that are intended to ensure CCPs get paid what they are owed even in periods of crisis can redirect crushing stresses to other vulnerable parts of the financial system. CCPs may end up standing, surrounded by the rubble of the rest of the financial system.

CCPs are deeply enmeshed in a complex web of credit and payment relationships. Mechanisms intended to reduce CCP credit exposure-multilateral netting, high initial margins, rigorous variation margining-feed back into other parts of that web.

There are so many interconnected parts. Today Risk ran an article about how LCH relies heavily on two settlement banks, JPM and Citi. Although LCH will not confirm it, it appears that these two banks process  about 85 percent of the payments between clearing members and LCH. This process involves the extension of intraday credit. This creates exposures for these two big SIFIs, and makes the LCH’s viability dependent on the health of these two banks: if one of them went down, this could cause extreme difficulties for LCH and for the clearing members. That is, OTC derivatives clearing adds a new way in which the financial system’s health and stability depend on the health of big banks, and creates new risks that can jeopardize the health of the big banks.

So much for eliminating interconnectedness, Gary. It’s just been moved around, and not necessarily in a good way.

Again, mitigating systemic risk requires taking a systemic perspective. The fallacy of composition is a major danger, and a very alluring one. The idea that the system gets safer when you make a major part of it safer is just plain wrong. The system is more than just the sum of its parts. Moreover, it can actually be the case that making one part of the system stronger, but more rigid, as clearing arguably does, makes the system more vulnerable to catastrophic failure. Or at least creates new ways that it can fail.

Another issue on Massad’s plate is addressing the conflict between his agency and Europe on giving regulatory approval to each other’s CCPs. It looks like this issue will not get resolved by the drop dead date in December. This will result in substantially higher costs (primarily in the form of higher capital requirements and higher margins), the fragmentation of OTC derivatives markets, and greater counterparty concentration (as US firms avoid European CCPs and vice versa).

The CFTC is also trying to fix its fundamentally flawed position limit proposal, and particularly the defective, overly restrictive, and at times clueless hedging exemptions. Mencken defined Puritanism as “The haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.” The CFTC’s hedging exemption, as currently constituted, reflects a sort of financial Puritanism: “The haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be speculating.” To avoid this dread possibility, the exemptions are so narrow that they eliminate some very reasonable risk management strategies, such as using gas forwards to hedge electricity price exposures.

This has caused an uproar among end users, including firms like Cargill that have been hedging since the end of the freaking Civil War. Perhaps their survival suggests they might know something about the subject.

In the “be careful what you ask for” category, the CFTC is wrestling with a very predictable consequence of one of its decisions. In an attempt to wall off the US from major shocks originating overseas, the Gensler CFTC adopted rules that would have subjected foreign firms dealing with foreign affiliates of US banks to US regulations if the parents provided guarantees for those affiliates. Foreign firms definitely didn’t want to be subjected to the tender mercies of the CFTC and Frankendodd regs. So to maintain this business, the parents stripped away the guarantees.

Problem solved, right? The elimination of the guarantee would eliminate a major potential channel of contagion between the dodgy furriners and the US financial system, right? That was the point, right?

Apparently not. The CFTC has major agida over this:

Timothy Massad, the new CFTC chairman, said in an interview he is concerned aboutrecent moves by several large Wall Street firms to sidestep CFTC oversight by changing the terms of some swap agreements made by foreign affiliates.

“The concern has always been that activity that takes place abroad can result in the importation of risk into the U.S.,” Mr. Massad said. He said there is a concern that a U.S. bank’s foreign losses would ultimately find their way to U.S. shores, infecting the parent company in possibly destabilizing ways.

. . . .

The moves mean any liability for those swaps lies solely with the offshore operation, which the banks have said will protect the U.S. parent from contagion. Yet without that tie to the U.S. parent, the contracts won’t fall under U.S. jurisdiction and so won’t be subject to strict rules set by the 2010 Dodd-Frank financial-overhaul law, including requirements that contracts historically traded over the telephone be traded publicly on U.S. electronic platforms [i.e., the SEF mandate].

By de-guaranteeing, the US banks have eliminated the most direct channel of contagion from over there to over here. But apparently the CFTC is worried that unless its regulations are followed overseas, there will be other, albeit more indirect, backdoors into the US.

In essence, then, the CFTC believes its regulations are by far superior to those in Europe and elsewhere, and that unless its regulations are implemented everywhere, the US is at risk.

Not too arrogant, eh?

A few observations should make you question this arrogance, and in a  big way.

First, note that the most likely effect of the CFTC getting its way of exporting its regulations into any transaction and any entity involving any affiliate of a US financial institution is that foreign entities will just avoid dealing with any such affiliate. This will balkanize the global derivatives market: ‘mericans will deal with ‘mericans, and Euros with Euros, and never the twain shall meet. This will likely result in greater counterparty concentration. Such developments would create systemic vulnerabilities, and even though the direct counterparty credit channel could not bring that risk back to US banks, the myriad other connections between foreign banks and American ones would.

Second, note the last sentence of the quoted paragraph: “including requirements that contracts historically traded over the telephone be traded publicly on U.S. electronic platforms.” So apparently attempts to avoid the SEF mandate infuriate the CFTC. But the SEF mandate has nothing to do with systemic risk. For this reason, and others, I named this mandate “The Worst of Frankendodd.” But so intent is the CFTC on pursuing this systemically irrelevant unicorn that it is questioning moves by US banks that actually reduce their exposure to problems in foreign markets.

Timothy Massad has the unwelcome task of cleaning up after the elephant parade at the Dodd, Frank & Gensler Circus. Clearing mandates, coordinating with overseas regulators, position limits, and the elimination of affiliate guarantees are only some of the things that he has to clean up. I hope he’s got a big shovel and a lot of patience.

 

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March 29, 2014

Margin Sharing: Dealer Legerdermain, or, That’s Capital, Not Collateral.

Concerns about the burdens of posting margins on OTC derivatives, especially posting by clients who tend to have directional positions, have led banks to propose “margin sharing.”  This is actually something of a scam.  I can understand the belief that margin requirements resulting from Frankendodd and Emir are burdensome, and need to be palliated, but margin sharing is being touted in an intellectually dishonest way.

The basic idea is that under DFA and Emir, both parties have to post margin.  Let’s say A and B trade, and both have to post $50mm in initial margins.  The level of margins is chosen so that the “defaulter (or loser) pays”: that is, under almost all circumstances, the losses on a defaulted position will be less than $50mm, and the defaulter’s collateral is sufficient to cover the loss.  Since either party may default, each needs to post the $50mm margin to cover losses in the event it turns out to be the loser.

But the advocates of margin sharing say this is wasteful, because only one party will default.  So the $50mm posted by the firm that doesn’t end up defaulting is superfluous.  Instead, just have the parties post $25mm each, leaving $50mm in total, which according to the advocates of margin sharing, is what is needed to cover the cost of default.  Problem solved!

But notice the sleight of hand here.  Under the loser pays model, all the $50mm comes out of the defaulter’s margin: the defaulter pays,  the non-defaulter receives all that it is owed, and makes no contribution from its own funds.  Under the margin sharing model, the defaulter may pay only a fraction of the loss, and the non-defaulter may use some of its $25mm contribution to make up the difference.   Both defaulter and non-defaulter pay.

This is fundamentally different from the loser pays model.  In essence, the shared margin is a combination of collateral and capital.  Collateral is meant to cover a defaulter’s market losses.  Capital permits the non-defaulter to absorb a counterparty credit loss.  Margin sharing essentially results in the holding of segregated capital dedicated to a particular counterparty.

I am not a fan of defaulter pays.  Or to put it more exactly, I am not a fan of mandated defaulter pays.  But it is better to confront the problems with the defaulter pays model head on, rather than try to circumvent it with financial doubletalk.

Counterparty credit issues are all about the mix between defaulter pays and non-defaulter pays.  Between collateral and capital.  DFA and Emir mandate a corner solution: defaulter pays.  It is highly debatable (but lamentably under-debated) whether this corner solution is best.  But it is better to have an open discussion of this issue, with a detailed comparison of the costs and benefits of the alternatives.  The margin sharing proposal blurs the distinctions, and therefore obfuscates rather than clarifies.

Call a spade a spade. Argue that there is a better mix of collateral and capital.  Argue that segregated counterparty-specific capital is appropriate.  Or not: the counterparty-specific, segregated nature of the capital in margin sharing seems for all the world to be a backhanded, sneaky way to undermine defaulter pays and move away from the corner solution.  Maybe counterparty-specific, segregated capital isn’t best: but maybe just a requirement based on a  firm’s aggregate counterparty exposures, and which doesn’t silo capital for each counterparty, is better.

Even if the end mix of capital and collateral that would result from collateral sharing  is better than the mandated solution, such ends achieved by sneaky means lead to trouble down the road.  It opens the door for further sneaky, ad hoc, and hence poorly understood, adjustments to the system down the line.  This increases the potential for rent seeking, and for the abuse of regulator discretion, because there is less accountability when policies are changed by stealth.  (Obamacare, anyone?)  Moreover, a series of ad hoc fixes to individual problems tends to lead to an incoherent system that needs reform down the road-and which creates its own systemic risks.  (Again: Obamacare, anyone?)  Furthermore, the information produced in an honest debate is a public good that can improve future policy.

In other words, a rethink on capital vs. collateral is a capital idea.  Let’s have that rethink openly and honestly, rather than pretending that things like margin sharing are consistent with the laws and regulations that mandate margins, when in fact they are fundamentally different.

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March 11, 2014

CCP Insurance for Armageddon Time

Matt Leising has an interesting story in Bloomberg about a consortium of insurance companies that will offer an insurance policy to clearinghouses that will address one of the most troublesome issues CCPs face: what to do when the waterfall runs dry.  That is, who bears any remaining losses after the defaulters’ margins, defaulters’ default fund contributions, CCP capital, and non-defaulters’ default fund contributions (including any top-up obligation) are all exhausted.

Proposals include variation margin haircuts, and initial margin haircuts.  Variation margin haircuts would essentially reduce the amount that those owed money on defaulted contracts would receive, thereby mutualizing default losses among “winners.”  Initial margin haircuts would share the losses among both winners and losers.

Given that the “winners” include many hedgers who would have suffered losses on other positions, I’ve always found variation margin haircutting problematic: it would reduce payoffs precisely in those states of the world in which the marginal utility of those payoffs is particularly high.  But that has been the industry’s preferred approach to this problem, though it has definitely not been universally popular, to say the least.  Distributive battles are never popularity contests.

This is where the insurance concept steps in.  The insurers will cover up to $6 to $10 billion in losses (across multiple CCPs) once all other elements of the default waterfall-including non-defaulters’ default fund contributions and CCP equity-are exhausted.  This will sharply limit, and eliminate in all but the most horrific scenarios, the necessity of mutualizing losses among non-clearing members via variation or initial margin haircutting.

Of course this sounds great in concept.  But one thing not discussed in the article is price.  How expensive will the coverage be?  Will CCPs find it sufficiently affordable to buy, or will they decide to haircut margins in some way instead because that is cheaper?

As I say in Matt’s article, although this proposal addresses one big headache regarding CCPs in extremis, it does not address another major concern: the wrong way risk inherent in CCPs.  Losses are likely to hit the default fund in crisis scenarios, which is precisely when the CCP member firms (banks mainly) are least able to take the hit.

It would have been truly interesting if insurers would have been willing to share losses with CCP members.  That would have mitigated the wrong way risk problem.  But the insurers were evidently not willing to do that.   This is likely because they are concerned about the moral hazard problems.  Members would have less incentive to mitigate risk if some of that risk is offloaded onto insurers who don’t influence CCP risk management and margining the way member firms do.

In sum, the insurers are taking on the risk in the extreme tail.  This of course raises the question of whether they are able to bear such risk, as it is likely to crystalize precisely during Armageddon Time. The consortium attempts to allay those concerns by pointing out that they have no derivatives positions (translation: We are not AIG!!!)  But there is still reason to ponder whether these companies will be solvent during the wrenching conditions that will exist when potentially multiple CCPs blow through their entire waterfalls.

Right now this is just a proposal and only the bare outlines have been disclosed.  It will be fascinating to see whether the concept actually sells, or whether CCPs will figure it is cheaper to offload the risk in the extreme tail on their customers rather than on insurance companies in exchange for a premium.

I’m also curious: will Buffett participate.  He’s the tail risk provider of last resort, and his (hypocritical) anti-derivatives rhetoric aside, this seems like it’s right down his alley.

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March 4, 2014

Derivatives Priorities in Bankrutpcy: A Hobson’s Choice?

And now for something completely different . . . finance.  (More Russia/Ukraine later.)

The Bank of England wants to put a stay on derivatives contracts entered into by an insolvent bank, thereby negating some of the priorities in bankruptcy accorded to derivatives counterparties:

he U.K. central bank wants lenders and the International Swaps and Derivatives Association Inc., an industry group, to agree to temporarily halt claims on banks that become insolvent and need intervention, Andrew Gracie, executive director of the BOE’s special resolution unit, said in an interview.

“The entry of a bank into resolution should not in itself be an event of default which allows counterparties to start accelerating contracts and triggering cross-defaults,” Gracie said. “You would get what you saw in Lehmans — huge amounts of uncertainty and an uncontrolled cascade of closeouts and cross defaults in the market.”

The priority status of derivatives trades is problematic at best: although it increases the fraction of the claims that derivatives counterparties receive from a bankrupt bank, this effect is primarily redistributive.  Other creditors receive less.  On the plus side, in the absence of priorities, counterparties could be locked into contracts entered into as hedges that are of uncertain value and which may not pay off for some time.  This complicates the task of replacing the hedge entered into with the bankrupt bank.   On balance, given the redistributive nature of priorities, and the fact that some of those who lose due to the fact that derivatives are privileged may be systemically important or may run, there is something to be said for this change.

But the redistributive nature of priorities makes me skeptical that this will really have that much effect on whether a bank gets into trouble in the first place.  In particular, since runs and liquidity crises are what really threatens the stability of banks, the change of priorities likely will mainly just affect who has the incentive to run on a troubled institution, without affecting all that much the overall probability of a run.

Under the current set of priorities, derivatives counterparties have an incentive to stick longer with a troubled bank, because in the event it becomes insolvent they have a priority claim.  But this makes other claimants on a failing bank more anxious to run, because they know that if the bank does fail derivatives counterparties will get a lion’s share of the remaining assets.  By reducing the advantages that the derivatives couunterparties have, they are more likely to run and pull value from the failing firm, whereas other claimants are less likely to run than under the current regime.  (Duffie’s book on the failure of an OTC derivatives dealer shows how derivatives counterparties can effectively run.)

In other words, in terms of affecting the vulnerability of a bank to a destabilizing run, the choice of priorities is something of a Hobson’s choice.  It affects mainly who has an incentive to run, rather than the likelihood of a run over all.

The BoE’s initiative seems to be symptomatic of something I’ve criticized quite a bit over the past several years: the tendency to view derivatives in isolation.  Triggering of cross-defaults and accelerating contracts is a problem because they can hasten the collapse of a shaky bank.  So fix that, and banks become more stable, right? But maybe not because it changes the behavior and decisions of others who can also bring down a financial institution. This is why I am skeptical that these sorts of changes will affect the stability of banks much one way or the other.  They might affect where a fire breaks out, but not the likelihood of a fire overall.

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January 26, 2014

Disconnected About Interconnections: Regulators Still Don’t Get the Systemic Risks in Central Clearing

A board member of the ECB, Benoît Cœuré, gave a speech that discussed “the new risks associated with central clearing.” It is evident that Cœuré is a proponent of central clearing, though it is annoying to see him identify multilateral netting as the main benefit (<holds head in hands>).  But it is good to see yet again that central bankers are aware that central clearing does create new risks, and that regulators must be proactive in addressing them.

The problem is that he overlooks the most important risks.  Reading between the lines, like most regulators, Cœuré focuses on the solvency risks of CCPs, and about policy tools that can limit the probability of CCP insolvency and mitigate the adverse impacts of such an insolvency.

But as I’ve written repeatedly in the past, it’s not the insolvency risk per se that should keep people up at night.  Indeed, the measures taken to address the solvency risk can actually exacerbate the real risk a dramatic expansion of central clearing creates for the financial system: liquidity risk.

Liquidity crises are what threaten to bring down financial systems.  For most financial institutions, there is a connection between liquidity risk and solvency: banks become illiquid because (in a world of imperfect information) people believe they might become insolvent.  Maturity mismatches plus imperfect information plus possibility of insolvency combine to create liquidity crises.

CCPs don’t have the maturity mismatches, and they aren’t leveraged.  They cannot experience liquidity crises in the same way banks can.  The direct liquidity risk of CCPs is related to their ability to turn collateral into cash in the event of a member default.

But as I’ve said over and over, clearing affects the needs for liquidity by market participants.  Central clearing can be a source of, or accelerant of, liquidity crises.  Big price moves lead to big margin calls lead to spikes in liquidity demand. These are most likely to occur during periods of financial stress, and can greatly exacerbate that stress.  Moreover, failure of a CCP is most likely to occur due to the inability of traders to fund margin calls due to the shortage of liquidity.   This old article by Andrew Brimmer discusses two episodes I’ve analyzed on several occasions-the Hunts in silver and Black Monday-and shows how it is liquidity/credit/funding of margin calls for CCPs that can create stresses in the financial system.

This is where the systemic risk of clearing arises.  But the subject is totally absent from Cœuré’s speech.  Which is worrisome.

There is also the fallacy of composition problem.  The measures that Cœuré advocates to make CCPs stronger do NOT necessarily make the system stronger.  Strengthening CCPs can actually exacerbate the liquidity problems that clearing causes during a crisis.  The CCP may survive, due to these measures, but the stresses communicated to the rest of the system (and the stress has to go somewhere) can cause other institutions to fail.

This is what scares the bejeezus out of me.  Regulators don’t seem to get the fallacy of composition, and aren’t focused on the liquidity implications of greatly expanded central clearing.

These fears are heightened by reading this DTCC report about collateral and collateral management.

It contains this heading that should make every central banker and financial regulator soil his armor:

Margin Call activity to increase By up to 1000%

Then there’s this:

Operational Capabilities and Settlement Exceptions Management: The potential ten-fold increase in margin call volumes, and the resulting complexity due to market changes, could overwhelm the current operational processes and system infra-structures within banks, buy-side firms and their administrators. As a result, firms will need to invest in technology and also reengineer the settlement, exceptions management and dispute resolution processes in place today. According to a 2011 De- loitte paper, investments in operations required to build and sustain advanced collateral capabilities is estimated at upwards of $50 million annually for top-tier banks.

Be afraid.  Be very, very, very afraid.

The dramatic increase in the scope of clearing substantially increases the operational complexity of the system.  More importantly, it increases the system’s operational rigidity, because cash has to flow quickly, and according to a very precise schedule.  From client to FCM to CCP to FCM to client.  Any failures in that chain can bring down the entire system.

I say again.  Systemic risk in financial systems is largely due to the fact that these systems are tightly coupled.  Clearing increases tight coupling.  This almost certainly increases systemic risk.

More players have to move more money in more jurisdictions as a result of clearing mandates.  As the DTCC report makes plain, this is a new responsibility for many of these players, and they do not have the capability or experience or systems.  Greater operational complexity involving more parties, many of whom are relatively inexperienced, creates grave risks in a tightly coupled financial system.

The irony of all this is that the evangelists of clearing, including notably Timmy! and GiGi in the US, argued that central clearing would reduce the interconnectedness of the financial markets.  Wrong. Wrong. Wrong. Wrong.

It reconfigures the interconnections.  The entire collateral management system the DTCC document describes is a dense web of interconnections.  And to reiterate: under central clearing (and the mandate to margin and mark-to-market uncleared derivatives) these connections (couplings) are tighter than in the old system.  Both old and new systems are highly interconnected.  The connections in the new system are tighter, and are more vulnerable to failure as a result.

I’ll tell you what makes me have to go change my armor: the regulators seem oblivious to this.  To the extent they are focused on collateral, they are focused on initial margin. No! It is variation margin calls during periods of large market movements that will threaten the stability of the system. Now there will be more such calls–1000 pct more, according to DTCC–and more participants are involved, meaning that there are more links and nodes.  The tightly coupled nature of the system means that the breakdown of a few links can bring down the entire thing.

In other words, there seems to be a disconnect on interconnections, most specifically on how clearing has not reduced interconnections but reshaped them, and how the new system’s interconnections are much more rigid, tightly coupled, and time-sensitive.

Not to pick on Cœuré: his speech is just one example of that disconnect.  The thing is that most speeches by regulators and central bankers exhibit the same disconnect.  Target fixation on making CCPs invulnerable does not address the main systemic risk that an expansion of clearing creates.  That systemic risk involves the financial/funding and operational risks of meeting large margin calls in a stressed environment on a precise time schedule.

It’s about liquidity, liquidity, liquidity.  Clearing transforms credit/solvency risk into liquidity risk.  The operational aspects of clearing-the need to move cash and collateral around in large amounts on a tight time schedule-affects the demand for liquidity, and also create points of failure that can cause the liquidity mechanism to seize up, threatening the entire system.

This is what should be the focus, but I’m seeing precious little evidence that it is.  Someday we’ll pay the price.

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