It is hard to overstate the importance of this report by Hal Scott and the Committee on Capital Markets Regulation, titled “Interconnectedness and Contagion.” It evaluates the issue of systemic risk through the lens of the Lehman Brothers failure (and to a lesser degree, the AIG failure).
One way to summarize the report is “everything you knew about Lehman was wrong.” Certainly, everything Gensler and Timmy! and Frank and Dodd and legislators and regulators around the world knew was wrong.
That conventional narrative is that Lehman’s failure brought the world financial system to its knees because it was so interconnected to the rest of the financial system. That losses on exposures to Lehman-an most notably through derivatives exposures-threatened to propagate through an interconnected set of large financial institutions. That the crisis was the result of a “daisy chain” or “domino” effect via what Scott refers to as “asset interconnectedness” (e.g., derivatives exposures) or “liability interconnectedness” (e.g., a big supplier of credit/liquidity fails, thereby forcing those dependent on it for credit or liquidity to fail).
Scott thoroughly debunks the interconnectedness narrative. Instead, he shows persuasively that a contagion caused the crisis. The Lehman shock dramatically shifted beliefs about whether large financial institutions would be bailed out, and also conveyed information about the severity of losses on real estate assets that were held not just by Lehman, but by a wide array of financial institutions. This raised doubts about the solvency of all financial institutions, resulting in a run on their liabilities and a refusal to roll over these liabilities. Given the dependence on short term credit, this run caused a major crisis.
In other words, it’s all about the funding mechanism. It’s about liquidity. It’s about runs.
Scott notes that the configuration of the financial network does affect its vulnerability to contagion, but that attempting to mitigate systemic risk through policies intended to affect the degree of interconnection is unlikely to reduce substantially the risk arising from contagion.
This is incredibly important because Frankendodd and EMIR and all of it is largely predicated on the belief that interconnection is the source of systemic risk. But the diagnosis is wrong, meaning that the prescription is almost certainly wrong too.
Scott looks at CCP mandates in particular, and gives them 1.5 cheers. I think that’s one or 1.5 too many, but it is gratifying to see that he does forthrightly downplay the potential benefits of CCPs as a means of preventing future crises.
The reason that I think he is not negative enough on this point is that he only looks at the first order impacts of CCPs, through their effect on derivatives netting, for instance. He does devote some attention to the effects of CCP mandates on funding and liquidity, but more focused attention on the indirect effects of clearing and collateral mandates would, in my view, raise more serious concerns, especially in light of the primacy of funding/liquidity contagion channel in creating systemic risk.
Scott, citing Duffie’s work, claims that CCPs may reduce the incentive to run on big financial institutions. I can see that in some scenarios, but I can also envision others in which a rigorous, highly-time sensitive, no-credit system like that will result from CCP and collateral mandates can lead to runs, either on the CCP, or on firms connected to the CCP. That’s my take on what happened on Black Monday, 1987.
Clearing and collateral mandates will lead to a whole series of changes to the demand for liquidity, and the mechanisms for supplying it. A cleared system is more tightly coupled; increases the likelihood in big shocks to liquidity demand; potentially ties up liquidity (especially under rigorous segregation regimes); and on and on. Given the nature of cleared systems (and the imposition of rigorous daily variation margin based on mark-to-market for non-cleared derivatives), market users will make arrangements to secure contingent liquidity. As a result, the entire financial network topology will change. How it will change, and how these changes will affect systemic risk, are impossible to divine at present. But it is certain that these changes will be profound and it is not difficult to imagine scenarios in which the new topology is as fragile in the face of large shocks as the old one. Indeed, it’s not hard to imagine scenarios in which the new topology is more fragile than the old.
Clearing and collateral mandates should also be viewed as regulations of capital structures. (“No credit extended through derivatives transactions” and “derivatives are at the top of the priority queue.”) Capital structures will respond to this regulation, again in unpredictable ways, and in ways that affect the vulnerability of the system to contagion.
I am giving a talk on Monday at a joint Bundesbank-University of Frankfort conference about central banking. My talk is about systemic risk and CCPs, and I will explore all of these themes. The overarching theme is that you cannot view an intervention into the structure of financial markets, like a CCP mandate, in isolation. You have to consider the endogenous responses throughout the system. The entire structure of financial contracts will change as the result of such a big intervention, and this structure will have its own special vulnerabilities.
When evaluating these vulnerabilities, one should pay special attention to liquidity issues, and liquidity contagion. This was a theme of my JACF article “Clearing and Collateral Mandates? The New Liquidity Trap?” Scott’s report adds special force to this contention that liquidity and contagion, rather than interconnection, should be the focus of any regulatory and legislative efforts.
It also suggests that much, and arguably virtually all, of the regulatory response to the 2008 Crisis was misdirected, and hence will either not reduce systemic risk, and may increase it. Given the costs that these regulations impose, this is a sobering conclusion.
It finally suggests that it all comes down to central banks, as lenders of last resort. If it is a liquidity problem (and in this Scott is closely aligned with Gary Gorton), the institutional means for supplying liquidity in times of crisis-which now means central banks-is of paramount importance.