When I give my class on the systemic risks of clearing, I usually joke that I should give the lecture by a campfire, with a flashlight held under my chin. It is therefore appropriate that on this Halloween Risk published Peter Madigan’s take on the effects of Brexiton derivatives clearing: it is a horror story.
Since the clearing mandate was a gleam in Barney Frank’s eye (yes, a scary mental image–so it fits in the theme of the post!) I have warned that the most frightening thing about clearing and clearing mandates is that they transform credit risk into liquidity risk, and that liquidity risk is more systemically threatening than credit risk. This view was born of experience, slightly before Halloween in 1987, when I witnessed the near death experience that the CME clearinghouse, BOTCC, and OCC faced on Black Monday and the following Tuesday. The huge variation margin calls put a tremendous strain on liquidity, and operational issues (notably the shutdown of the FedWire) and the reluctance of banks to extend credit to FCMs and customers needing to meet margin calls came perilously close to causing the CCPs to fail.
The exchange CCPs were pipsqueaks by comparison to what we have today. The clearing mandates have supersized the clearing system, and commensurately increased the amount of liquidity needed to meet margin calls. The experience in the aftermath of the surprise Brexit vote illustrates just how dangerous this is.
As a result of Brexit, US Treasuries rallied by 32bp. The accompanying move in swap yields resulted in huge intra-day margin calls by multiple CCPs (LCH, CME, and Eurex). Madigan estimates that these calls totaled $25-$40 billion, and that some individual banks were asked to pony up multiple billions to meet margin calls from multiple CCPs. And to illustrate another thing I’ve been on about for years, they had to come up with the money in 60 minutes: failure to do so would have resulted in default. This provides a harrowing example of how tightly coupled the system is.
Some other crucial details. Much of the additional margin was to top up initial margin, meaning that the cash was sucked into the CCPs and kept there, rather than paid out to the net gainers, where it could have been recirculated. (Not that recirculating it would have been a panacea. Timing differences between flows of VM into and out of CCPs creates a need for liquidity. Moreover, recirculation by extension of credit is often problematic during periods of market stress, as that’s exactly when those who have liquidity are most likely to hoard it.)
Second, each CCP acted independently and called margin to protect its own interests. With multiple CCPs, there is a non-cooperative game between them. Each has an incentive to demand margin to protect itself, and to demand it before other CCPs do. The equilibrium in this game is inefficient because there is an externality between CCPs, and between CCPs and those who must meet the calls. This is ironic, because one of the alleged justifications for clearing mandates was the externalities present in the OTC derivatives markets. This is another example of how problems have been transformed, rather than truly banished.
This also illustrates another danger that I’ve pointed out for some time: building the levies high around CCPs just forces the floodwaters somewhere else.
Although there were some fraught moments for the banks who needed to stump up the cash on June 24, there were no defaults. But consider this. As I point out in the Risk article, Brexit was a known event and a known risk, and the banks had planned for it. Events like the October ’87 Crash or the September ’98 LTCM crisis are bolts from the blue. How will the system endure a surprise shock–especially one that could well be far larger than the Brexit move?
Horror stories are sometimes harmless ways to communicate real risks. Perhaps the Brexit event will be educational. Churchill once said that “Nothing in life is so exhilarating as to be shot at without result.” The market dodged a bullet on June 24. Will market participants, and crucially regulators, take heed of the lessons of Brexit and take measures to ensure that the next time it isn’t a head shot?
I have my doubts. The clearing mandate is a reality, and is almost certain to remain one. The fundamental transformation of clearing (from credit risk to liquidity risk) is an inherent part of the mechanism. It’s effects can be at most ameliorated, and perhaps the Brexit tremor will provide some guidance on how to do that. But I doubt that whatever is done will make the system able to survive The Big One.