We are now well into the Brave New World of clearing and collateral mandates. The US clearing mandate is in place, and the Europeans are on the verge of implementing it. We are also on the cusp of the mandate to collateralize non-cleared swaps.
After years of congratulating themselves on how the Brave New World was going to be so much better than the Bad Old World, the smart set is now coming to grips-grudgingly, slowly-with the dawning realization that not all the financial demons have been slain: here be dragons too. From time to time I’ve written about regulators recognizing this reality. There have been several more examples recently indicating that this has become the new conventional wisdom. For instance, Bloomberg recently editorialized on CCPs becoming the New Too Big to Fail: meet the new systemic risk, not that different from the old systemic risk. The BoE is commencing a review of CCPs, focusing not just on financial risks but operational ones as well. Researchers as Citi are warning that CCPs need more skin in the game. Regulators are warning that CCPs have become a single point of aim for hackers as they have become more central to the financial system. Researchers at three central banks go Down Under back into the not-too-distant past to show how CCPs can get into trouble–and how they can wreak havoc when they try to save themselves. An economist at the Chicago Fed warns that CCPs create new risks as they address old ones. Even the BIS (which had been an unabashed clearing cheerleader) sounds warnings.
I could go on. Suffice it to say that it is now becoming widely recognized that central clearing mandates (and the mandated collateralization of non-cleared derivatives) is not the silver bullet that will slay systemic risk, as someone pointed out more than seven years ago.
This is a good thing, on the whole, but there is a danger. This danger inheres in the framing of the issue as “CCPs are too big to fail, and therefore need to be made fail-safe.” Yes, the failure of a major CCP is a frightening prospect: as the article linked above about the crisis at the New Zealand Futures and Options Exchange demonstrates, the collapse of even a non-major CCP is not a cheery prospect either.
But the measures employed to prevent failure pose their own dangers. The “loser pays” model is designed to reduce credit risk in derivatives transactions by requiring the posting of initial margins and the payment of variation margins, so that the CCP’s credit exposure is reduced. But balance sheets can be adjusted, and credit exposure through derivatives can be-and will be, to a large extent-replaced by credit exposure elsewhere, meaning that collateralization primarily redistributes credit risk, rather than reduces it.
Furthermore, the nature of the credit can change, and in bad ways. The need to meet large margin calls in the face of large price movements causes spikes in the demand for credit that are correlated with market disruptions: this liquidity risk is a wrong way risk of the worst sort, because it tends to occur at times when the supply of liquidity is constrained, and it therefore can contribute to liquidity crises/liquidity hoarding and can cause a vicious spiral. In addition, as the article on the NZFOE demonstrates other measures that are intended to save the clearinghouse (partial tearups, in that instance) redistribute default losses in unpredictable ways, and it is by no means clear that those who bear these losses are less systemically important than, or more able to withstand them than, those who would bear them in an uncleared world.
The article on the NZFOE episode points out another salient fact: dealing with a CCP crisis has huge distributive effects. This makes any CCP action the subject of intense politicking and rent seeking by the affected parties, and this inevitably draws in the regulators and the central bankers. This, in turn, will inevitably draw in the politicians. Thus, political considerations, as much or more than economic ones, will drive the response. With supersized CCPs, the political fallout from any measures adopted to save CCPs (including extending credit to permit losers to make margin calls) will be acute and long lived.
Thus, contrary to the way they were hawked in the aftermath of the crisis, CCPs and collateralization mandates are not fire-and-forget measures that reduce burdens on regulators generally, and central banks in particular. They create new burdens, as regulators and central banks will inevitably be forced to resort to extraordinary measures, and in particular extraordinary measures to supply liquidity, to respond to systemic stresses created by the clearing system.
In his academic post-mortem of the clearing during the 1987 Crash, Ben Bernanke forthrightly declared that it was appropriate for the Fed to socialize clearinghouse risks on Black Monday and the following Tuesday. In Bernanke’s view, socializing the risk prevented a more serious crisis.
When you compare the sizes of the CCPs at issue then (CME Clearing, BOTCC, and OCC) to the behemoths of a post-mandate world, you should be sobered. The amount of risk that must be socialized to protect the handful of huge CCPs that currently exist dwarfs the amount that Greenspan (implicitly) took onto the Fed balance sheet in October, 1987.
Put differently, CCPs have become single points of socialization. Anyone who thinks differently, is fooling themselves.
Addendum: The last sentence of the Bernanke article is rather remarkable: “Since it now appears that the Fed is firmly committed to respond when the financial system is threatened, it may be that changes in the clearing and settlement system can be safely restricted to improvements to the technology of clearing and settlement.” The argument in a nutshell is that the Fed’s performance of its role as “insurer of last resort” (Bernanke’s phrase to describe socializing CCP risk) during the Crash of 1987 showed that central banks could readily handle the systemic financial risks associated with clearing. Therefore, managing the financial risks of clearing can easily be delegated to central banks, and CCPs and market users should focus on addressing operational risks.
There is an Alfred E. Newman-esque feel to these remarks, and they betray remarkable hubris about the powers of central banks. I wonder if he thinks the same today. More importantly, I wonder if his successors at the Fed, and their peers around the world, share these views. Given the experience of the past decade, and the massive expansion of derivatives clearing world, I sure as hell hope not.