Streetwise Professor

April 30, 2013

Gary Dunn of HSBC Meets Wrongway Peachfuzz

HSBC’s Gary Dunn said something at the ISDA AGM that I think is very important:

Dunn pointed out the risk characteristics of a CCP are very similar to that of collateralised debt obligations, the tranched credit products that were prevalent in the run-up to the 2008 financial crisis.

In the CCPs default waterfall, the initial margin payments from clients and default fund contributions from clearing members are comparable to the equity or first loss and mezzanine tranches of a CDO. In other words, these are the first sources of funds that get eaten into to cover any losses.

According to Dunn, the super senior tranche (which in the case of CDOs tended to attract Triple A ratings, but often subsequently sustained losses during the credit crisis) is the additional steps the clearing house might take when all other funds are exhausted, whether it is haircutting, asking for more capitalisation from clearing members of possibly even a government bailout.

“If you start modelling the risks of a CCP as a CDO, you realise the correlation risks in a CCP aren’t at the moment fully appreciated, very much like they weren’t when we had CDOs and CDO squareds,” said Dunn.

“The probability of a CCP failing is still relatively low, but there is a reasonable probability that people or banks lose money even if a CCP doesn’t fail,” he added.

I can hear you saying: “Where have I read that before?”  Or: “When have you said that before?”  In January, 2011, now that you ask 😛

Let’s see how this relates to CCPs, and in particular to the default funds of CCPs that are the ultimate backstop of cleared contracts.  Default funds are analogous to protection written on supersenior tranches.  The collateral (margin) that firms must post to CCPs when they hold derivatives positions absorbs most of the losses due to movements in market prices.  Indeed, margins are usually set to absorb 95-99 percent of market moves.  Beyond margin, CCPs often have their own financial resources to cover the losses associated with the default of any member firm not covered by margin.  If the margin and CCP-resource elements of the CCP “waterfall” (note the similarity of terminology used to describe tranched structures and CCPs) are breached, then the members must absorb the remaining default losses, up to some pre-established commitment level.

This means that CCP members must cover defaults only in extreme circumstances, just like writers of protection on supersenior tranches must cover defaults only under extreme circumstances.  Indeed, the oft-touted features of CCPs, such as collateralization create the seniority/out-of-the-moneyness that gives rise to wrong way risk if the pre-requisite dependencies also exist.

So it seems that CCPs are potentially vulnerable to wrong way risk.  They are effectively financial structures of a type that can, given the right (or wrong, depending on your perspective) dependence, give rise to a serious wrong way risk problem.  Which raises the question: are the dangerous dependencies likely to be present?  That is, are the contributors to a CCP default fund likely to be in bad financial straits just when their contributions are needed to absorb default losses? Are those that are insuring default losses (through mutualization) likely to be in dodgy condition precisely when they are most likely to have to pay off on that insurance?

This is a big deal. Wrong way risk is particularly poisonous, and a source of systemic risk in systemically important institutions like big CCPs. Policymakers have been largely oblivious to this very important problem.  I’ve been on about it for over two years, but we see how that matters.  Maybe if people like Gary Dunn start raising the alarm this issue will get the attention it deserves.

But, of course, Anat Admati, etc., will dismiss this as self-interested scaremongering by banks, and will criticize me as being some sort of tool (which she has, by the way).

I understand perfectly that such self-interested scaremongering occurs.  But I also understand that sometimes there is a wolf.  This is one of those times.

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