Streetwise Professor

June 30, 2016

Financial Network Topology and Women of System: A Dangerous Combination

Filed under: Clearing,Derivatives,Economics,Financial crisis,Politics,Regulation — The Professor @ 7:43 pm

Here’s a nice article by Robert Henderson in the science magazine Nautilus which poses the question: “Can topology prevent the next financial crisis?” My short answer: No.  A longer answer–which I sketch out below–is that a belief that it can is positively dangerous.

The idea behind applying topology to the financial system is that financial firms are interconnected in a network, and these connections can be represented in a network graph that can be studied. At least theoretically, if you model the network formally, you can learn its properties–e.g., how stable is it? will it survive certain shocks?–and perhaps figure out how to make the network better.

Practically, however, this is an illustration of the maxim that a little bit of knowledge is a dangerous thing.

Most network modeling has focused on counterparty credit connections between financial market participants. This research has attempted to quantify these connections and graph the network, and ascertain how the network responds to certain shocks (e.g., the bankruptcy of a particular node), and how a reconfigured network would respond to these shocks.

There are many problems with this. One major problem–which I’ve been on about for years, and which I am quoted about in the Nautilus piece–is that counterparty credit exposure is only one type of many connections in the financial network: liquidity is another source of interconnection. Furthermore, these network models typically ignore the nature of the connections between nodes. In the real world, nodes can be tightly coupled or loosely coupled. The stability features of tightly and loosely connected networks can be very different even if their topologies are identical.

As a practical example, not only does mandatory clearing change the topology of a network, it also changes the tightness of the coupling through the imposition of rigid variation margining. Tighter coupling can change the probability of the failure of connections, and the circumstances under which these failures occur.

Another problem is that models frequently leave out some participants. As another practical example, network models of derivatives markets include the major derivatives counterparties, and find that netting reduces the likelihood of a cascade of defaults within that network. But netting achieves this by redistributing the losses to other parties who are not explicitly modeled. As a result, the model is incomplete, and gives an incomplete understanding of the full effects of netting.

Thus, any network model is inherently a very partial one, and is therefore likely to be a very poor guide to understanding the network in all its complexity.

The limitations of network models of financial markets remind me of the satirical novel Flatland, where the inhabitants of Pointland, Lineland, and Flatland are flummoxed by higher-dimensional objects. A square finds it impossible to conceptualize a sphere, because he only observes the circular section as it passes through his plane. But in financial markets the problem is much greater because the dimensionality is immense, the objects are not regular and unchanging (like spheres) but irregular and constantly changing on many dimensions and time scales (e.g., nodes enter and exit or combine, nodes can expand or contract, and the connections between them change minute to minute).

This means that although network graphs may help us better understand certain aspects of financial markets, they are laughably limited as a guide to policy aimed at reengineering the network.

But frighteningly, the Nautilus article starts out with a story of Janet Yellen comparing a network graph of the uncleared CDS market (analogized to a tangle of yarn) with a much simpler graph of a hypothetical cleared market. Yellen thought it was self-evident that the simple cleared market was superior:

Yellen took issue with her ball of yarn’s tangles. If the CDS network were reconfigured to a hub-and-spoke shape, Yellen said, it would be safer—and this has been, in fact, one thrust of post-crisis financial regulation. The efficiency and simplicity of Kevin Bacon and Lowe’s Hardware is being imposed on global derivative trading.


God help us.

Rather than rushing to judgment, a la Janet, I would ask: “why did the network form in this way?” I understand perfectly that there is unlikely to be an invisible hand theorem for networks, whereby the independent and self-interested actions of actors results in a Pareto optimal configuration. There are feedbacks and spillovers and non-linearities. As a result, the concavity that drives the welfare theorems is notably absent. An Olympian economist is sure to identify “market failure,” and be mightily displeased.

But still, there is optimizing behavior going on, and connections are formed and nodes enter and exit and grow and shrink in response to profit signals that are likely to reflect costs and benefits, albeit imperfectly. Before rushing in to change the network, I’d like to understand much better why it came to be the way it is.

We have only rudimentary understanding of how network configurations develop. Yes, models that specify simple rules of interaction between nodes can be simulated to produce networks that differ substantially from random networks. These models can generate features like the small world property. But it is a giant leap to go from that, to understanding something as huge, complex, and dynamic as a financial system. This is especially true given that there are adjustment costs that give rise to hysteresis and path-dependence, as well as shocks that give rise to changes.

Further, let’s say that the Olympian economist Yanet Jellen establishes that the existing network is inefficient according to some criterion (not that I would even be able to specify that criterion, but work with me here). What policy could she adopt that would improve the performance of the network, let alone make it optimal?

The very features–feedbacks, spillovers, non-linearities–that can create suboptimality  also make it virtually impossible to know how any intervention will affect that network, for better or worse, under the myriad possible states in which that network must operate.  Networks are complex and emergent and non-linear. Changes to one part of the network (or changes to the the way that agents who interact to create the network must behave and interact) can have impossible to predict effects throughout the entire network. Small interventions can lead to big changes, but which ones? Who knows? No one can say “if I change X, the network configuration will change to Y.” I would submit that it is impossible even to determine the probability distribution of configurations that arise in response to policy X.

In the language of the Nautilus article, it is delusional to think that simplicity can be “imposed on” a complex system like the financial market. The network has its own emergent logic, which passeth all understanding. The network will respond in a complex way to the command to simplify, and the outcome is unlikely to be the simple one desired by the policymaker.

In natural systems, there are examples where eliminating or adding a single species may have little effect on the network of interactions in the food web. Eliminating one species may just open a niche that is quickly filled by another species that does pretty much the same thing as the species that has disappeared. But eliminating a single species can also lead to a radical change in the food web, and perhaps its complete collapse, due to the very complex interactions between species.

There are similar effects in a financial system. Let’s say that Yanet decides that in the existing network there is too much credit extended between nodes by uncollateralized derivatives contracts: the credit connections could result in cascading failures if one big node goes bankrupt. So she bans such credit. But the credit was performing some function that was individually beneficial for the nodes in the network. Eliminating this one kind of credit creates a niche that other kinds of credit could fill, and profit-motivated agents have the incentive to try to create it, so a substitute fills the vacated niche. The end result: the network doesn’t change much, the amount of credit and its basic features don’t change much, and the performance of the network doesn’t change much.

But it could be that the substitute forms of credit, or the means used to eliminate the disfavored form of credit (e.g., requiring clearing of derivatives), fundamentally change the network in ways that affect its performance, or at least can do so in some states of the world. For example, it make the network more tightly coupled, and therefore more vulnerable to precipitous failure.

The simple fact is that anybody who thinks they know what is going to happen is dangerous, because they are messing with something that is very powerful that they don’t even remotely understand, or understand how it will change in response to meddling.

Hayek famously said “the curious task of economics is to demonstrate to men how little they really know about what they imagine they can design.” Tragically, too many (and arguably a large majority of) economists are the very antithesis of what Hayek says that they should be. They imagine themselves to be designers, and believe they know much more than they really do.

Janet Yellen is just one example, a particularly frightening one given that she has considerable power to implement the designs she imagines. Rather than being the Hayekian economist putting the brake on ham-fisted interventions into poorly understood symptoms, she is far closer to Adam Smith’s “Man of System”:

The man of system, on the contrary, is apt to be very wise in his own conceit; and is often so enamoured with the supposed beauty of his own ideal plan of government, that he cannot suffer the smallest deviation from any part of it. He goes on to establish it completely and in all its parts, without any regard either to the great interests, or to the strong prejudices which may oppose it. He seems to imagine that he can arrange the different members of a great society with as much ease as the hand arranges the different pieces upon a chess-board. He does not consider that the pieces upon the chess-board have no other principle of motion besides that which the hand impresses upon them; but that, in the great chess-board of human society, every single piece has a principle of motion of its own, altogether different from that which the legislature might chuse to impress upon it. If those two principles coincide and act in the same direction, the game of human society will go on easily and harmoniously, and is very likely to be happy and successful. If they are opposite or different, the game will go on miserably, and the society must be at all times in the highest degree of disorder.

When there are Men (or Women!) of System about, and the political system gives them free rein, analytical tools like topology can be positively dangerous. They make some (unjustifiably) wise in their own conceit, and give rise to dreams of Systems that they attempt to implement, when in fact their knowledge is shockingly superficial, and implementing their Systems is likely to create the highest degree of disorder.

September 18, 2018

He Blowed Up Real Good. And Inflicted Some Collateral Damage to Boot

I’m on my way back from my annual teaching sojourn in Geneva, plus a day in the Netherlands for a speaking engagement.  While I was taking that European non-quite-vacation, a Norwegian power trader, Einar Aas, suffered a massive loss in cleared spread trades between Nordic and German electricity.  The loss was so large that it blew through Aas’ initial margin and default fund contribution to the clearinghouse (Nasdaq), consumed Nasdaq’s €7 million capital contribution to the default fund, and €107 million of the rest of the default fund–a mere 66 percent of the fund.  The members have been ordered to contribute €100 million to top up the fund.

This was bound to happen. In a way, it was good that it happened in a relatively small market.  But it provides a sobering demonstration of what I’ve said for years: clearing doesn’t eliminate losses, but affects the distribution of losses.  Further, financial institutions that back CCPs–the members–are the ultimate backstops.  Thus, clearing does not eliminate contagion or interconnections in the financial network: it just changes the topology of the network, and the channels by which losses can hit the balance sheets of big players.

Happening in the Nordic/European power markets, this is an interesting curiosity.  If it happens in the interest rate or equity markets, it could be a disaster.

We actually know very little about what happened, beyond the broad details.  We know Aas was long Nordic power and short German power, and that the spread widened due to wet weather in Norway (which depresses the price of hydro and reduces demand) and an increase in European prices due to increases in CO2 prices.  But Nasdaq trades daily, weekly, monthly, quarterly, and annual power products: we don’t know which blew up Aas.  Daily spreads are more volatile, and exhibit more extremes (kurtosis), but since margins are scaled to risk (at least theoretically–more on this below) what matters is the market move relative to the estimated risk.  Reports indicate that the spread moved 17x the typical move, but we don’t know what measure of “typical” is used here.  Standard deviation?  Not a very good measure when there is a lot of kurtosis (or skewness).

I also haven’t seen how big Aas’ initial margins were.  The total loss he suffered was bigger than the hit taken by the default fund, because under the loser-pays model, the initial margins would have been in the first loss position.

The big question in my mind relates to Nasdaq’s margin model.  Power price distributions deviate substantially from the Gaussian, and estimating those distributions is challenging in part because they are also conditional on day of the year and hour of the day, and on fundamental supply-demand conditions: one model doesn’t fit every day, every hour, every season, or every weather enviornment.  Moreover, a spread trade has correlation risk–dependence risk would be a better word, given that correlation is a linear measure of dependence and dependencies in power prices are not linear.  How did Nasdaq model this dependence and how did that impact margins?

One possibility is that Nasdaq’s risk/margin model was good, but this was just one of those things.  Margins are set on the basis of the tails, and tail events occur with some probability.

Given the nature of the tails in power prices (and spreads) reliance on a VaR-type model would be especially dangerous here.  Setting margin based on something like expected shortfall would likely be superior here.  Which model does Nasdaq use?

I can also see the possibility that Nasdaq’s margin model was faulty, and that Aas had figured this out.  He then put on trades that he knew were undermargined because Nasdaq’s model was defective, which allowed him to take on more risk than Nasdaq intended.

In my early work on clearing I indicted that this adverse selection problem was a concern in clearing, and would lead CCPs–and those who believe that CCPs make the financial system safer–to underestimate risk and be falsely complacent.  Indeed, I argued that one reason clearing could be a bad idea is that it was more vulnerable to adverse selection problems because the need to model the distribution of gains/losses on cleared positions requires detailed knowledge, especially for more exotic products.  Traders who specialize in these products are likely to have MUCH better understanding about risks than a non-specialist CCP.

Aas cleared for himself, and this has caused some to get the vapors and conclude that Nasdaq was negligent in allowing him to do so.  Self-clearing is just an FCM with a house account, but with no client business: in some respects that’s less risky than a traditional FCM with client business as well as its own trading book.

Nasdaq required Aas to have €70 million in capital to self-clear.  Presumably Nasdaq will get some of that capital in an insolvency proceeding, and use it to repay default fund members–meaning that the €114 million loss is likely an overestimate of the ultimate cost borne by Nasdaq and the clearing members.

Further, that’s probably similar to the amount of capital that an FCM would have had to have to carry a client position as big as Aas’.   That’s not inherently more risky (to the clearinghouse and its default fund) than if Aas had cleared through another firm (or firms).  Again, the issue is whether Nasdaq is assessing risks accurately so as to allow it to set clearing member capital appropriately.

But the point is that Aas had to have skin in the game to self-clear, just as an FCM would have had to clear for him.

Holding Aas’ positions constant, whether he cleared himself or through an FCM really only affected the distribution of losses, but not the magnitude.  If Aas had cleared through someone else, that someone else’s capital would have taken the hit, and the default fund would have been at risk only if that FCM had defaulted.  But the total loss suffered by FCMs would have been exactly the same, just distributed more unevenly.

Indeed, the more even distribution that occurred due to mutualization which spread the default loss among multiple FCMs might actually be preferable to having one FCM bear the brunt.

The real issue here is incentives.  My statement was that holding Aas’ positions constant, who he cleared through or whether he cleared at all affected only the distribution of losses.  Perhaps under different structures Aas might not have been able to take on this much risk.  But that’s an open question.

If he had cleared through another FCM, that FCM would have had an incentive to limit its positions because its capital was at risk.  But Aas’ capital was at risk–he had skin in the game too, and this was necessary for him to self-clear.  It’s by no means obvious that an FCM would have arrived at a different conclusion than Aas, and decided that his position represented a reasonable risk to its capital.

Here again a key issue is information asymmetry: would the FCM know more about the risk of Aas’ position, or less?  Given Aas’ allegedly obsessive behavior, and his long-time success as a trader, I’m pretty sure that Aas knew more about the risk than any FCM would have, and that requiring him to clear through another firm would not have necessarily constrained his position.  He would have also had an incentive to put his business at the dumbest FCM.

Another incentive issue is Nasdaq’s skin in the game–an issue that has exercised FCMs generally, not just on Nasdaq.  The exchange’s/CCP’s relatively thin contribution to the default fund arguably reduces its incentive to get its margin model right.  Evaluating whether Nasdaq’s relatively minor exposure to default risk led it to undermargin requires a more thorough analysis of its margin model, which is a very complex exercise which is impossible to do given what we know about the model.

But this all brings me back to themes I flogged to the collective shrug of many–indeed almost all–of the regulatory and legislative community back in the aftermath of the Crisis, when clearing was the silver bullet for future crises.   Clearing is all about the allocation and pricing of counterparty credit risk.  Evaluation of counterparty credit risk in a derivatives context requires a detailed understanding of the price risks of the cleared products, and dependencies between these price risks and the balance sheet risks of participants in cleared markets.  Classic information problems–adverse selection and moral hazard (too little skin in the game)–make risk sharing costly, and can lead to the mispricing of risk.

The forensics about Aas blowing up real good, and the lessons learned from that experience, should focus on those issues.  Alas, I see little recognition of that in the media coverage of the episode, and betting on form, I would wager that the same is true of regulators as well.

The Aas blow up should be a salutary lesson in how clearing really works, what it can do, and what it can’t.   Cynic that I am, I’m guessing that it won’t be.  And if I’m right, the next time could be far, far worse.

September 2, 2017

Harvey’s Danger Has Passed (For Most, Though Not All)

Filed under: Climate Change,Houston,Politics — The Professor @ 9:36 pm

The last several days in Houston have been warm and sunny. Most stores are open (with the surprising exception of a local Starbucks), traffic is getting back to normal–unfortunately (I-610 in particular is a nightmare). There are still flood waters in some locations, but most of the water has drained. I drove on US-59 (I-69, which nobody calls it) yesterday. Here’s how it looked a few days ago.


Some of the bayous are pretty much back to normal. Here is Brays (or Braes) Bayou, at Calhoun Rd. near UH, as of Friday–less than 48 hours after the rain stopped.


That doesn’t look much different than on a normal day. (This bayou has been subject to a lot of Corps of Engineers work post-Allison. The place I first lived in for a bit had been flooded up to the 1st floor ceilings during Allison. That area did not flood this time around. Whether that can be attributed to work on the bayou I can’t say.)

I only had to contend with many small lizards who took refuge on my 2d floor patio. When I sat out there after the storm, I felt like I was at a casting call for a Geico commercial.

Thank you to all who contacted me via various channels to inquire about how I was faring. I am deeply grateful, and am glad to say that unlike so many others, I was mainly inconvenienced, rather than suffering bodily or material harm. I am deeply sorry for those less fortunate than I: there but for the grace of God . . .

As I told most of those who wrote, the impacts were highly variable, and largely driven by proximity to the bayous. Or as Beldar, who returned from a long blogging hiatus to write about Harvey put it, there were highly localized but widely distributed areas of impact. In the areas that it was bad, it was horrid. But the bad areas were not as ubiquitous as viewing the news would suggest.

As some commenters have noted, and has been widely recognized, Houston and Texas have acquitted themselves very well. The contrast with the New Orleans during and post-Katrina is remarkable on every dimension. Rather than social disintegration, there has been solidarity and a spirit of mutual aid. My tennis coach’s father works with Red Cross, and says that they have more volunteers than they can handle. The lines in grocery stores that I visited once they reopened were amazing placid, with people patiently chatting while waiting their turn. Would that Christmas shopping scenes be as civil.

But of course, numerous people of ill will outside of Houston and Texas have taken this opportunity to take swipes at the city, state, and their people. Examples include a disgusting “cartoon” in Politico (a Tweet of which the gutless bastards deleted when called out on it), an even more disgusting cartoon in Charlie Hebdo, and more Tweets than I could count claiming that Harvey was divine justice for Houston’s petrol-chem industry–presumably these were Tweeted from artisanal wood and hemp smart phones by people who don’t drive, eschew all plastics, and produce all their own food using only llama dung as fertilizer. (The Unabomber was an evil bastard, but at least he lived what he believed.) These criticisms make as much sense as fundamentalists blaming earthquakes in the Bay Area as God’s retribution on sodomites (which is an illustration of how political opposites are often doppelgängers).

To which most Texans reply: we really don’t give a shit what you think. Or as one meme put it: Hold our beer–we got this.

And of course there are those who are using this to advance their political obsessions. I’ve already mentioned those who assert, obnoxiously and ad nauseum, that Harvey was the inevitable and predictable result of climate change. Among the most prominent, and certainly most execrable of these, was one-time economist Jeffrey Sachs:

Gov. Abbott, we would like to bid you a political adieu. Perhaps you can devote your time to rebuilding Houston and taking night classes in climate science. Senators Ted Cruz and John Cornyn, you will soon be asking us for money to help Texas.

My answer will be yes, if you stop spewing lies about climate dangers, agree to put US and Texas policy under the guidance of climate science, back measures to lower carbon emissions and stay in the Paris Climate Agreement. Then, of course, let’s help your constituents to rebuild.

And to ExxonMobil, Chevron, Koch Industries, ConocoPhillips, Halliburton, and other oil giants doing your business in Texas: You put up the first $25 billion in Houston disaster relief. Call it compensation for your emissions. Tell the truth about growing climate threats. Then, as citizens seeking the common good, we will match your stake.

This is the rankest opportunism, and his entire piece is written with a reckless disregard for the evidence about the link between CO2 and hurricanes generally (which is equivocal at best), and about the link between anthropogenic effects on climate and Hurricane Harvey in particular.

As I noted in my earlier post, Harvey was not an exceptionally powerful storm by historical standards, and indeed storms of its intensity were actually more common during the period prior to large increases in CO2 emissions. Harvey’s devastating effects were a result of the chance interaction of weather patterns that led Harvey to meander and linger over Houston.

At present another hurricane–Irene–is forming in the Atlantic. To illustrate the role of weather, there are two scenarios for its track. If the dominant weather pattern over the North Atlantic is a strong high pressure region, it will likely hit the US, most likely Florida. A weaker high pressure area, will result in Irene turning north and petering out in the Atlantic.

The other hobby horse being ridden with abandon is that Houston’s pro-development policies increased the damage: I’ve read that Houston’s lack of zoning bears some of the blame. Two of the most strident advocates of this view include The Economist and Bloomberg Business Week.

Well, on one level, this is Captain Obvious DUH territory: no development, no damage. More seriously, it is difficult to see how any policy change would have had an appreciable impact. The Houston Has No One to Blame But Itself litany wreaks of the correlation-causation fallacy, and post hoc ergo propter hoc arguments.

Where to begin? I guess with the fact that this was truly an exceptional storm, with record rainfall. Given Houston’s topology and geography, there would have been massive flooding even had the place been inhabited by Karankawa and the Akokisa indians living in grass huts sleeping on chickees, as it was once upon a time.

Houston is flat as a table. It is cut by numerous bayous and streams: its nickname is “The Bayou City.” Many of these streams are quite winding, which means that when they take on a lot of runoff, the water goes up and over the banks rather than rushing out to Galveston Bay, because it has nowhere else to go.

Yes, the pavement and building increases runoff. But several factors need to be kept in mind. First, Houston’s soil is sandy and its water table is very high, meaning that even absent parking lots and streets and buildings the capacity of the soil to absorb is limited. Second, contrary to the prejudices of people who write about Houston in blissful ignorance of the facts, Houston has the largest amount of green space of any city in the United States. Only about 10 percent of the area in Houston is rated as impermeable, and 90 percent is ranks less than 2 on a 5 point scale of permeability (with a lower score indicating greater permeability). Third, many of the outer lying areas that flooded were inundated by the Brazos River and connecting streams, which is another meandering stream, and which was not swollen by runoff from suburban developments, but which just couldn’t handle all the rain and the runoff from undeveloped areas.

And can anyone honestly say that any of Harris County would be that much less developed under any alternative development policies? Zoning for instance, might have affected the distribution of business and maybe some residential areas, but the total amount of the county that would be built on would almost certainly be virtually the same.

Yes, if Houston had adopted the policies of Detroit, and suffered the same economic shocks, there would be a lot more green space and Harvey would have done a lot less damage. No serious person considers that a good trade-off.

Indeed, there have been floods as extreme and even more extreme, back when Houston was far less developed than today. A good example is 1935, when Buffalo Bayou crested at 54 feet. It crested at a mere 40 feet in 2017. But downtown Houston has flooded ever since there was a downtown Houston, because downtown Houston lies hard up a flood-prone bayou. And it was put there because that bayou was the city’s economic link to the world, and which eventually made it one of the great ports in the United States.

In sum, given the prevalence of floods before the boom of the recent decades, it is difficult indeed to attribute this week’s floods to that boom. Instead, the floods are a constant, as is Houston’s geography and topology. Combine those with biblical rains, heavy even by Houston standards, and we have what we have.

Some–The Economist for example–blame permitting of houses in 100 year flood plains. The impact of this (the magazine estimates 8600 houses so located) on the total volume of flooding is certainly trivial, meaning that there are no external effects to speak of. Those who built in these locations assumed the risk, based on the same information The Economist used to make its calculations.

Yes, to the extent that such development is encouraged by subsidized flood insurance, or the prospects of post-flood government assistance, too many of such houses are built, and the private losses are socialized to US taxpayers at large. I completely agree with the principle of making people bear the full cost of insuring the risk, or the full cost of losses if they choose to build but underinsure. But again, the contribution of this to the magnitude of the flooding is probably too small to even measure: the magnitude of the flooding was due to record rain and Houston’s topography. Further, it also likely represents a small fraction of the estimated $160 billion in damage from the storm.

Jeffrey Sachs writes: “Houston has been growing rapidly without attention to flood risk.” It has been growing rapidly, but to say that this growth has occurred without attention to flood risk is a damnable lie–a libel, actually. Especially post-Allison (in 2001) there has been an effort to reduce the city’s vulnerability to flooding. Of course, as with any government endeavor, one can criticize the execution, and the priorities: as commenter and friend Tom Kirkendall notes, money squandered on sports stadiums and light rail (the lightest aspect of which is ridership) could have been better spent on infrastructure, including drainage improvements. But there has been considerable attention. There has been work on the bayous. (For example, there has been ongoing work on Brays Bayou near Calhoun for some time–and the crews were back at work on Friday.)  Moreover, as any Houstonian with a car can tell you (and that is the vast majority of Houstonians, as many outsiders often snarikly remark), every road repaving project is a long running saga because in addition repaving, the city is installing huge storm sewer lines. Shepherd has been a nightmare for years because of such a project.

If you look at the 2011-2015 Houston capital improvement plan, which sets out the various major road projects, you will see that almost all of them include “improving drainage.” There are 27 references to this in the document.

The strategy has been to try to direct runoff to the major highways, which is one reason for some of the most striking images of the flooding. Better to flood freeways than neighborhoods.

So Jeffrey Sachs, in his lofty and deliberate ignorance, can fuck right off.

The rainfall in Harvey was approximately double that of Allison, and covered a much wider area. For example, one reason that some of the major disasters Harvey caused did not occur with Allison is that the former storm overwhelmed the Addicks and Barker Reservoirs, whereas that did not happen with the latter because the heavy rain area did not extend that far.

I do not know for certain, but it is my impression that the Harvey flooding in the area that Allison also hit hard is comparable to what happened in 2001, despite the fact that Harvey’s rainfall was about double Allison’s. A comparison of 2017 and 2001 will tell a lot about how well post-Allison infrastructure changes mitigated the damage this time around.

Post-Allison, the Harris County Flood Control District put out an excellent report on the storm, and its effects. It was titled “Off the Charts” to indicate how exceptional Allison’s rains were. Since Harvey’s were about double Allison’s, off the charts doesn’t even come close to describing 2017.

No doubt HCFCD will put out a post-Harvey report, and will be challenged to come up with a appropriate title. I look forward to reading it, paying particular attention to what it has to say about the effect of post-Allison mitigation efforts.

But the basic point is that this is not primarily, or even secondarily a policy issue, regardless the attempts of opportunists to make it so. This was a historic storm–an epic storm–produced by a chance interaction of weather events. It dumped huge rains on one of the largest cities in the US–in amounts that would have no doubt overwhelmed every major city in the US. Moreover, it hit a city which nature made preternaturally vulnerable to flooding.

In sum, Harvey is a natural disaster. The economic cost is indeed due to economic development, but that is primarily an effect, rather than a cause, as Jeffrey Sachs, the Economist, Bloomberg BusinessWeek and myriad others with an axe to grind would make it.

Musical postscript. I survived Harvey’s danger, and didn’t even have to climb a flagpole.

July 6, 2017

SWP Acid Flashback, CCP Edition

Filed under: Clearing,Derivatives,Economics,Financial crisis,Regulation — The Professor @ 6:09 pm

Sometimes reading current news about clearing specifically and post-crisis regulation generally triggers acid flashbacks to old blog posts. Like this one (from 2010!):

[Gensler’s] latest gurgling appears on the oped page of today’s WSJ.  It starts with a non-sequitur, and careens downhill from there.  Gensler tells a story about his role in the LTCM situation, and then claims that to prevent a recurrence, or a repeat of AIG, it is necessary to reduce the “cancerous interconnections” (Jeremiah Recycled Bad Metaphor Alert!) in the financial system by, you guessed it, mandatory clearing.

Look.  This is very basic.  Do I have to repeat it?  CLEARING DOES NOT ELIMINATE INTERCONNECTIONS AMONG FINANCIAL INSTITUTIONS.  At most, it reconfigures the topology of the network of interconnections.  Anyone who argues otherwise is not competent to weigh in on the subject, let alone to have regulatory responsibility over a vastly expanded clearing system.  At most you can argue that the interconnections in a cleared system are better in some ways than the interconnections in the current OTC structure.  But Gensler doesn’t do that.   He just makes unsupported assertion after unsupported assertion.

Jeremiah’s latest gurgling appears on the oped page of today’s WSJ.  It starts with a non-sequitur, and careens downhill from there.  Gensler tells a story about his role in the LTCM situation, and then claims that to prevent a recurrence, or a repeat of AIG, it is necessary to reduce the “cancerous interconnections” (Jeremiah Recycled Bad Metaphor Alert!) in the financial system by, you guessed it, mandatory clearing. Look.  This is very basic.  Do I have to repeat it?  CLEARING DOES NOT ELIMINATE INTERCONNECTIONS AMONG FINANCIAL INSTITUTIONS.  At most, it reconfigures the topology of the network of interconnections.  Anyone who argues otherwise is not competent to weigh in on the subject, let alone to have regulatory responsibility over a vastly expanded clearing system.  At most you can argue that the interconnections in a cleared system are better in some ways than the interconnections in the current OTC structure.  But Gensler doesn’t do that.   He just makes unsupported assertion after unsupported assertion.

So what triggered this flashback? This recent FSB (no! not Putin!)/BIS/IOSCO report on . . . wait for it . . . interdependencies in clearing. As summarized by Reuters:

The Financial Stability Board, the Committee on Payments and Market Infrastructures, the International Organization of Securities Commissioners and the Basel Committee on Banking Supervision, also raised new concerns around the interdependency of CCPs, which have become crucial financial infrastructures as a result of post-crisis reforms that forced much of the US$483trn over-the-counter derivatives market into central clearing.

In a study of 26 CCPs across 15 jurisdictions, the committees found that many clearinghouses maintain relationships with the same financial entities.

Concentration is high with 88% of financial resources, including initial margin and default funds, sitting in just 10 CCPs. Of the 307 clearing members included in the analysis, the largest 20 accounted for 75% of financial resources provided to CCPs.

More than 80% of the CCPs surveyed were exposed to at least 10 global systemically important financial institutions, the study showed.

In an analysis of the contagion effect of clearing member defaults, the study found that more than half of surveyed CCPs would suffer a default of at least two clearing members as a result of two clearing member defaults at another CCP.

This suggests a high degree of interconnectedness among the central clearing system’s largest and most significant clearing members,” the committees said in their analysis.

To reiterate: as I said in 2010 (and the blog post echoed remarks that I made at ISDA’s General Meeting in San Fransisco shortly before I wrote the post), clearing just reconfigures the topology of the network. It does not eliminate “cancerous interconnections”. It merely re-jiggers the connections.

Look at some of the network charts in the FSB/BIS/IOSCO report. They are pretty much indistinguishable from the sccaaarrry charts of interdependencies in OTC derivatives that were bruited about to scare the chillin into supporting clearing and collateral mandates.

The concentration of clearing members is particularly concerning. The report does not mention it, but this concentration creates other major headaches, such as the difficulties of porting positions if a big clearing member (or two) defaults. And the difficulties this concentration would produce in trying to auction off or hedge the positions of the big clearing firms.

Further, the report understates the degree of interconnections, and in fact ignores some of the most dangerous ones. It looks only at direct connections, but the indirect connections are probably more . . . what’s the word I’m looking for? . . . cancerous–yeahthat’s it. CCPs are deeply embedded in the liquidity supply and credit network, which connects all major (and most minor) players in the market. Market shocks that cause big price changes in turn cause big variation margin calls that reverberate throughout the entire financial system. Given the tight coupling of the liquidity system generally, and the particularly tight coupling of the margining mechanism specifically, this form of interconnection–not considered in the report–is most laden with systemic ramifications. As I’ve said ad nauseum: the connections that are intended to prevent CCPs from failing are exactly the ones that pose the greatest threat to the entire system.

To flash back to another of my past writings: this recent report, when compared to what Gensler said in 2010 (and others, notably Timmy!, were singing from the same hymnal), shows that clearing and collateral mandates were a bill of goods. These mandates were sold on the basis of lies large and small. And the biggest lie–and I said so at the time–was that clearing would reduce the interconnectivity of the financial system. So the FSB/BIS/IOSCO have called bullshit on Gary Gensler. Unfortunately, seven years too late.


November 22, 2013

All Pain, No Gain: The CFTC’s Rule on CCP Qualifying Liquid Resources

Matt Leising had a nice article a few days back about the CFTC’s rule that does not treat US Treasury securities as “qualifying” liquid resources for CCPs.  Instead, under new regulation 33-33 they must obtain “prearranged and highly reliable funding.” Based on Fed rules, this means that a CCP must get  committed line of credit from banks.   This imposes a substantial cost on CCPs, because under new Basel III rules, committed lines impose a large capital charge on the issuing banks.  For purposes of calculating capital, the banks have to assume that the lines are fully drawn.  This capital cost will be passed onto CCPs.

It is ironic that outgoing (resisting the great urge to snark) Chairman Gary Gensler repeatedly argued that one of the main benefits of the Frankendodd clearing mandate is that it would reduce the interconnectedness of the financial markets, especially interconnectedness through derivatives contracts.  Now he has pushed through a regulation that mandates an interconnection among major financial institutions via a derivatives channel: the lines connect derivatives CCPs to major banks.   I have long pointed out that Gensler’s claim that clearing would reduce interconnectedness was grossly exaggerated, and arguably deceptive.  Instead, I pointed out that the mandate would reconfigure-and is reconfiguring-the topology of the network of connections between financial firms.  What the CFTC has done is dictate what that form of interconnection will be.  This particular dictate is extremely problematic.

A CCP needs access to liquidity in the event of a default of a clearing member.  The CCP needs to pay obligations to the winning side of the market, in cash, in a very tight time window.  Failing to make these variation margin payments could impose financial distress on those expecting the cash inflow, and more disturbingly, call into question the solvency of the clearinghouse.  This could spark a run in which parties try to close positions in order to reduce exposure to the CCP.  Given that this is likely to occur in highly unsettled market conditions, such fire sales (and purchases) will inevitably inject substantial additional volatility into price that can exacerbate pressures on the clearing mechanism.

A CCP holding Treasuries posted as IM by the defaulting CM can sell them to raise the cash.  Alternatively, it could repo them out.  During most periods of financial turbulence-and financial crisis-which is likely to be either the cause or effect of the default of one or more large CMs, there is a “flight to quality” and Treasury security prices rise and there is a rush to buy them by investors seeking a safe haven.  Moreover, under such circumstances the Fed will perform its lender of last resort function, and readily accept Treasuries as collateral: even if CCPs could not access the Fed directly*, they could access it indirectly.   Thus, in “normal” crises, Treasuries should be highly liquid, and a ready source of cash that can be used to meet variation margin obligations.

Put differently, from a liquidity perspective, Treasuries are a negative beta asset: they become more liquid when overall market liquidity declines-or verges on collapse.  This is a highly desirable attribute.  Another way to characterize it is that from a liquidity perspective, Treasuries have right way risk.

Bank lines are very different.  Banks become stressed during crisis situations, and face a higher risk of being unable to perform on credit lines under these circumstances.  (Indeed, what if the defaulter is one of the suppliers of a committed line?) Banks fighting for survival but which can perform might try to evade this performance during stressed market conditions, which in a tightly coupled system (and clearing is a source of tight coupling) can be extremely disruptive: a few minutes delay in performing could cause a huge problem.  And if the banks do perform, doing so poses the substantial risk of increasing their risk of financial distress.  That is, committed lines are positive beta from a liquidity perspective: that is, they pose wrong way risks.   If drawn upon, these lines can be an interconnection that is a source of contagion from a derivatives default to systemically important banks, precisely at the time that they are least able to withstand the shock.

In the event, a CCP that does collect Treasuries as IM can likely use these right way assets to raise the cash need to meet its obligations, and can avoid drawing down on its committed line.  But that would mean that the committed line is superfluous, and imposes unnecessary costs on the CCP, and hence on the users of the clearing system.

I also conjecture that having met its liquidity requirements with a committed line, pursuant to the CFTC reg, CCPs would  have a weaker incentive to take Treasuries as collateral, and a stronger incentive to permit the posting of lower quality assets (or incentivizing such posting by reducing haircuts assessed to such collateral) for IM. This would mitigate the cost impact to users that results from the CCP having to secure the committed line, and pay for it (the cost being passed onto the users), thereby reducing the loss of trading/clearing volume and the associated revenues.  This would increase the odds that the line will be drawn on (because the lower quality assets pose a substantial risk of becoming illiquid during a crisis situation-they embed wrong way risk too).  I’ll have to think this through more, because the situation is somewhat complex: it depends on the pricing of the line, which will depend on the likelihood it will be drawn against, and the market conditions at the time it is.  This will depend in part on the quality of collateral that the CCP collects.  I’m not sure of what the equilibrium outcome will be, but I suspect that mandating the obtaining of lines will undermine incentives to demand the posting of high quality collateral.  If it does, this is a bad outcome that increases wrong way and systemic risks.  If it doesn’t, then the cost of the lines is superfluous and a burden on clearing and derivatives trading.

There is one scenario in which Treasuries would not be good collateral: if the financial crisis (and default of a CM or CMs) was the result of a fiscal crisis in the US, or a default (real or technical)  of the kind feared during the last (but the last, most likely) debt ceiling standoff.  But that’s an Armageddon scenario in which banks are likely to be highly stressed and unable to perform, or in which they would incur exceptional and arguably existential costs if they did.  Put differently, there’s likely no good source of liquidity in this scenario, and the CFTC rule will hardly make a difference.

In sum, it is highly unlikely that bank lines are a better source of liquidity, especially under crisis situations, than Treasuries.  Indeed, they are plausibly worse, and actually create an interconnection that can transmit a shock to the derivatives market (and the CCP that clears it) to systemically important banks: this is the exact opposite of what clearing was supposed to achieve. The cost of the lines, which is likely to be substantial, particularly given their necessary size, is a deadweight burden on the markets: all pain, no gain.

Other than that, the rule is great.  And a fitting parting shot from Gensler.

* Frankendodd makes it difficult for US CCPs to obtain Fed liquidity support.  This is a serious mistake that could come back to haunt us in some future crisis.  To work effectively, the LOLR must be able to direct liquidity to where it’s needed,  quickly and efficiently.  CCPs could be a major source of liquidity demand in future crises, which makes isolating them from the Fed highly dangerous, and the invitation to an ad hoc response in some future crisis.

April 25, 2013

Fools Rush In: CCP Mandate Edition

I was invited to participate in a panel on clearing at ISDA’s Annual General Meeting in Singapore, but unfortunately I had to decline on account of my teaching obligations.  I therefore have to nod (vigorously0 in agreement from afar, because much of the discussion there has focused on the unintended consequences of the clearing and collateral mandates.  Consequences that I have been warning about for over four years.

One of the things that infuriated me about the advocacy for clearing (and yeah, I’m looking at you GiGi) was the claim that clearing would reduce the interconnectedness of the financial system.  I said this was patently false.  Clearing mandates would reconfigure the topology of the network of connections among financial institutions, but they would remain interconnected.  I noted that: CCPs would be vital interconnecting nodes in this new network: failure of these nodes would be catastrophic: and perhaps most importantly, CCPs could be vectors of contagion precisely during periods of financial stress.  I pointed out very early on that CCPs were repositories of wrong way risk because losses would hit default funds precisely during periods of extreme financial stress, and via that channel would bring that stress right back to the balance sheets of the banks with exposure to the default funds.  You know, when they were least able to stand the shock.  The CCP circuit connecting banks would be closed precisely when they were least able to stand the shock.

In retrospect, I seem like a Pollyanna.  Compared to people like HSBC’s Gary Dunn, anyways (Risk link-requires a subscription).  Gary went all Jeremiah at the AGM, warning of an apocalypse emanating from the clearing system.  Actually, his word was “Armageddon”:

Mandatory clearing of over-the-counter derivatives could jeopardise policy-makers’ hopes of a no-bailout financial system, according to Gary Dunn, senior manager for regulatory and risk analytics at HSBC.

Speaking at the annual general meeting of the International Swaps and Derivatives Association in Singapore today, Dunn sketched out an “Armageddon scenario” resulting from the fact that the same group of international banks are all members of the majority of central counterparties (CCPs) – so, a big bank default would simultaneously hit all CCPs of which it is a member.

“What happens when one bank defaults across six CCPs? The remaining members will have to pick up the bill. Given that they are almost certainly members of the other CCPs, this will result in a default contribution bill so large it could potentially lead to their failure also,” he said.

Given the key role CCPs will play in the future financial system, Dunn argued this would ultimately result in a taxpayer bailout amounting to trillions of dollars. In his Armageddon scenario, that bailout would be preceded by the complete liquidation of CCP initial margin stocks – much of which would likely be held in the form of government debt.

The wrong-way risk in the current CCP system is so large it could potentially lead to a sovereign default,” he said. [Emphasis added.]

Interconnections between SIFIs via clearinghouses, with the fragility of these connections perhaps exacerbated by the fragmentation of CCPs (due to fragmentation along jurisdictional lines, perhaps).  Where have you seen that before?  Hint: Not in a Gensler speech.

The clearing panel also fretted abou the possibility that in its attempt to eliminate TBTF, the G-20 has just created new TBTF institutions.  Too big, and too interconnected:

Central counterparty clearers stand to be the next “too-big-to-fail” institutions and could pose an acute threat to the financial system if regulators stall on plans to manage the potential failure of a clearing entity.

At the annual general meeting of the International Swaps and Derivatives Association in Singapore today, a group of panelists highlighted the lack of clarity over resolution for failed CCPs as a significant concern for the G20 objectives of eliminating systemic risk.

“There are still no resolution plans for CCPs and it is murkier now that clearing houses have moved away from the utility model,” said Athanassios Diplas, senior adviser to the ISDA board, speaking at the event earlier today.

The G20 objectives agreed in 2009 deem that no financial institution should be considered too big to fail and that taxpayers should not bear the costs of resolution for any institution that does fail

While regulators have been busy penning rules to deal with the problem of too-big-to-fail banks, concerns are shifting to clearing houses, and the increased concentration of risk held in them as the Dodd-Frank Act in the US and the European Market Infrastructure Regulation push an increasing number of standardised over-the-counter swaps through central counterparties.

“We’re getting very close to solving too big to fail globally for banks, but I worry that this risk could move to CCPs. I’m not convinced that we have made CCPs deeply resolvable yet – we have to do that to address systemic risk issue in a thorough way,” Wilson Ervin, vice-chairman of the group executive office at Credit Suisse told IFR.

All of which was perfectly foreseeable in 2009 when the G-20 blessed clearing as the silver bullet solution.  Foreseeable-and foreseen by some.

And the late start on addressing this issue before CCP mandates went into effect has left the world financial system in highly exposed:

While the Financial Stability Board addressed basic principals for clearing house resolution in June 2012, the issue remains on the back burner with many regulators as they continue to get to grips with a workable bank resolution regime

CCPs are the solution.  So in their wisdom governments decided to load risk onto them.  But dealing with the failure of these government-mandated SIFIs “remains on the back burner.”

Great.  That will turn out well.

Fools rush in where angels fear to tread.  Governments have rushed into prescribing the Clearinghouse Cure, but have relegated addressing the very dangerous potential side-effect of that cure “to the back burner.”

But we’re not done!  The panel also fretted about the potentially destabilizing effects of increasing collateral and margins-both initial and variation margin (can’t find a link to this Mary Childs story: I think it is only available on Bloomberg terminals):

The numbers are large enough to be very worrisome,” Athanassios Diplas, principal at Diplas Advisors LLC and a senior adviser to the ISDA board, said on the panel. “I don’t

think anyone has trillions lying around the couch cushions.” Regulators should be careful in setting the collateral requirements given that margin calls contributed to the escalation of the financial crisis in 2008, according to Kim Taylor, president of CME Group Inc.’s clearinghouse.

Spiraling Losses

“Margin calls triggered liquidation of assets for positions, which triggered mark to market losses for other parties. It contributed to the spiral, and I think there’s the  potential for threshold-based margin” to help avoid a repeat, she said on the panel.

Margin calls exacerbating a crisis.  Whoever heard of such a thing?  Only anyone who has studied past financial panics and market crashes.  But Gensler and Timmy! and so many others assured us that collateral is only good: the more collateral the better.  Just another item on the bill of goods they sold the world-and for which we may have to pay dearly later.

Scary addendum.  At a recent Chicago Fed conference, I told someone from a major central bank that although the initial margin issue was important, it worried me that central banks and regulators seemed to be ignoring how variation margin could destabilize the system, especially with an expansion of clearing, which creates a very tightly coupled system of margin payments that must operate on a very tight and rigid time schedule.  He told me that there wasn’t as much concern about variation margin because it netted out to zero.

Seriously.  I kid you not.   It’s as stupid as the Krugman “we owe national debt to ourselves” mantra.  The payers have to find the liquidity to make the payment to the receivers.  In stress situations, they have to find a lot of liquidity precisely when liquidity dries up.  In response, they do things that impose additional stress on the system, and can break it.  Money is not transferred instantaneously and frictionlessly between those who owe and those who receive.  Those frictions-and just the timing required to recycle the payments-can cause the system to freeze up during periods of stress.

The “what, me worry?” approach to variation margin is very worrisome indeed.

But don’t worry!  Regulators will ensure that CCPs don’t engage in a race to the bottom when setting margins:

Britain’s new regulator for market operators warned clearers of tougher policing of fees to stamp out cut-throat competition that risks undermining financial stability.

. . . .

“We are not in the business of preventing competition but what’s important is the terms of that competition,” Britain’s new clearing supervisor, Edwin Schooling Latter, told Reuters in an interview.

The Bank of England became the regulator for clearing houses this month and Schooling Latter said in his first media interview he will not tolerate “a race to the bottom” such as clearers allowing banks to post too low margins against trades.

Margins refer to traders of derivatives posting government bonds or other high quality collateral to help cover any losses and the level of margins is determined by the clearing house.

“We want a world where the clearing houses compete on the quality of their risk management and not on how low their margins are,” Schooling Latter said.

Because regulators, of course, are so skilled at pricing risks.  They did such a bang-up job of it when setting capital requirements under Basel.  And by “bang-up” I mean like a train wreck.

The Sorcerer’s Apprentice metaphor seems more apt by the day.  Regulators and legislators have cast the spell to bring massive CCPs to life, but cannot control the consequences-which can be dangerous indeed.  They intended to solve one problem, but they have created others, and are scrambling to deal with them.

November 21, 2012

It’s Contagion, Stupid-Not Interconnectedness.

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.

February 27, 2012

The Cassandra Chronicles Continue

The Economist just ran a long piece about the unintended, and largely unforeseen, consequences of collateral and clearing mandates.*  And they aren’t all good.  Anything but.

I say largely unforeseen because I’ve been jumping up and down about these consequences here on SWP, in some academic papers (including one to be published in the next issue of the  Journal of Applied Corporate Finance), and numerous presentations.  I have repeatedly emphasized that it was a fallacy that requiring more collateral would necessarily reduce the amount of leverage in the system, make the leverage in the system less fragile, or reduce interconnectedness among financial institutions. I have consistently argued that market participants would substitute alternative forms of leverage and utilize other financing techniques (e.g., collateral transformation and liquidity swaps) as fragile or more fragile than the leverage embedded in derivatives, and that these new forms of financing would just change the topology of the network of connections among firms in the financial markets, and that the new topology would be as or more complex than the pre-mandate topology.

It was always particularly maddening to see regulators and others present pictures of the OTC derivatives market with a spaghetti bowl of interconnections between market participants, and contrast it to a neat and tidy picture of a cleared market with a few neat lines connecting market participants with the CCP.  There was no consideration of how the necessity of funding collateral and making variation margin payments would lead to the creation of financing arrangements among firms that would resemble the spaghetti bowl picture.  No consideration of how the very complex financial system would adjust on the myriad margins available to it.

In some respects, I can make some allowances for the regulators and legislators who imposed this on the world.   Those allowances are mainly a function of low expectations.  I am less forgiving of the academic community.  Many people smarter than I whom I respect have bought into the neat and tidy picture, and have dismissed concerns that the various Frankendodd mandates (and their European cousins) will create a new set of problems that may be worse than the ones that were supposedly fixed.

I think that in large part, this failure to anticipate the real effects of mandates, and the blithe confidence in the efficacy of collateral in particular, reflects the standard partial equilibrium, ceteris paribus way that economists use to approach problems.  This method is very powerful, and I utilize it regularly, but it has its limits.  In particular, it blinds one to the systemic responses to big changes like Frankendodd, to the fact that market actors will respond to these shocks on many dimensions.  As I’ve said repeatedly, there has been a systematic failure to consider how the financial system as a whole would respond to massive interventions designed to reduce systemic risk.

This is a particularly hard problem to analyze mathematically and formally due to its inherent complexity.  The daunting nature of the task, and the fact that formal mathematical modeling is almost required by top tier journals, has, in my opinion, made it unattractive for academics to pursue these issues.  The constraints of the accepted toolset have led to the slighting of an extremely important and interesting issue.

But this is not to say that the problem is immune to analysis that can generate meaningful insights and falsifiable predictions.  Indeed, largely disdained non-formal (“literary”) approaches can do so-and have done so.  I started from a very simple premise, that there were fundamental economic considerations that had led market participants to choose financing arrangements and contracts with certain amounts of leverage and fragility.  Constraining the ability to use those sorts of financing arrangements would induce actors to substitute towards arrangements with similar properties.  Non-formal analysis also shed light on how these mechanisms would operate during periods of systemic stress.

Based on these non-formal approaches, I made predictions about how the markets would evolve under clearing and collateral mandates.  Those predictions can be tested by empirical observation (though again, more descriptive than formally econometric).  That’s as “scientific” (in the Friedman Methodology of Positive Economics sense) as the densest, or most elegant, mathematical model.

And as it turns out, in this instance, some of those predictions are being borne out.  In ways that make me appreciate Cassandra.

I think it is more important to focus on important problems and find the best tools for the job at hand, rather than let narrow conceptions about the appropriate tools define and the problems you work on.  The latter mindset has limited academic economists’ influence on big things like Frankendodd.

The one-eyed man is king in the land of the blind.  Non-formal methods provide sight-and insight-on issues to which formal methods are often quite blind.  Given the incentive structure in academia, however, I am skeptical that the lesson will be learned.

* Link fixed. H/T Phil R.

January 30, 2012

Unintended, But Predictable–And In Fact Predicted

I’m sure you’ve noticed that I haven’t written much about clearing lately. (And yes, I can hear the Hallelujah Chorus.)  Simple reason, really.  Most of the clearing related news warrants schadenfreud, and an “I told you so” response.  I enjoy a good Lulz as much as the next guy, but I know it gets old.

But this article hits on so many things at once I have to impose on you all.  It basically gives the lie to all the justifications for the clearing mandates in Frankendodd.

1. The advocates of mandates, notably GiGi and Timmy! asserted repeatedly that clearing would reduce the connectedness of the financial system, and in particular, would reduce the importance of big banks in those connections.  I argued in response that clearing mandates would just change the topology of the network; that it would remain densely connected; big banks would still be tightly connected; and that the new topology was not obviously less systemically risky than the old one.

From the article:

Where do you find the spare $2 trillion needed as collateral for cleared swap trades?

With new regulation in the US and Europe set to move the bulk of the over-the-counter derivatives market towards central clearing from next year, swap buyers and dealers will soon be faced with that very question. Many custody banks believe they could provide the answer.

Already heavily involved in the plumbing of the clearing market, custodians act for almost every major financial services firm without a custody arm – including most dealers and every clearing house.

Most also offer collateral management services, including securities lending and collateral improvement – the process of turning less-liquid securities into eligible collateral to post as surety in transactions.

This experience could prove invaluable with the advent of new swap clearing rules, which come in with the expected implementation of the Dodd-Frank Act in the US from early next year, increasing the demand for collateral transformation services.

David Field, managing director with banking consultancy Rule Financial, said: “The buyside simply doesn’t have enough quality collateral available to lodge for clearing.

Executing brokers are expecting to generate strong post-trade revenues from collateral transformation – but the custody banks are the ones holding the collateral.

This is a huge opportunity for custodians, and several are already investing anywhere between $50m and $100m to position themselves.”

In other words, big custodial banks will be even more tightly connected with all major participants in the derivatives trade because of their comparative advantage in providing collateral transformation, and the strong economies of scope between providing this service and providing other custodial services.

2. The advocates of mandates argued that it would reduce leverage in the system.  I responded repeatedly that this was not at all obvious, and that the most likely effect would be to transform the nature of leverage.  The big move to collateral transformation makes it abundantly clear that this is in fact happening.  I go into this in much more detail in my forthcoming Journal of Applied Corporate Finance article titled “Clearing and Collateral Mandates: The New Liquidity Trap?”

Credit means credit risk.  So the clearing mandate has not eliminated credit risk from the derivatives market, or even reduced it sharply.  It has just transformed it, relocated it.  And it has definitely not eliminated derivatives-related credit risk from big banks.   Indeed, it is moving more risk to some big banks.  BNY-Mellon and JP Morgan are also the most important settlement banks, and play a vital role in the repo market.  This is already a source of systemic risk.  These banks are arguably the most important pieces of the financial infrastructure, and these developments will make them even more important, and also concentrate more risks from disparate markets (e.g., repo and derivatives) in them.

3. The advocates of mandates asserted that it would make the derivatives market less concentrated and more competitive (although nb these are NOT equivalent).  From the article:

Tech-heavy effort

Among the most ambitious to gain business in the swaps market is BNY Mellon, the world’s largest custodian with $25.8 trillion of assets under custody. The bank sees its existing footprint as a springboard towards dominance in the collateral services market for OTC derivatives.

[A director] for collateral management and clearing at BNY Mellon in London, believes it will be a tech-heavy effort. He said: “According to recent Isda Margin Survey figures, roughly 80% of collateral used in the OTC swaps market is cash, with about 15%-20% being fixed-income securities.

If even 20% of the estimated extra $2 trillion of collateral required to clear OTC swaps via central counterparties is in the form of securities, that puts a big onus on the collateral managers to offer smart, quick systems capable of handling huge draws on client collateral daily.”

Rival US custodian State Street has also been boosting its presence in the cleared derivatives markets, launching a swaps clearing operation in September. In a signal of intent, the bank has quietly begun hiring senior futures brokers from established rivals.

Charley Cooper, senior managing director at State Street Global Markets, said: “State Street’s unconflicted approach combined with the operational efficiencies gained from clearing with a custodian, gives us a significant edge in the emerging clearing marketplace.”

A senior derivatives banker said that clients are already looking at custodians as a viable counterparty.
He said: “In the past six months, we’ve seen growing migrations to the custodial clearing business.

Some have a better credit rating than almost every investment bank, and it’s unlikely they will be subject to capital ring-fencing regulations.”

He said that if a major custodian is able to convert even half of its existing custody clients into clearing clients, it could be looking at a share of anywhere between 10% and 20% of the OTC clearing market.”

The incumbents

But existing derivatives flow dealers – especially ones with large custody and treasury businesses – are unlikely to shy away from a revenue-generating opportunity.

Citibank, in particular, is hoping to combine a swaps clearing operation with its custody and treasury services in the US.

Jerome Kemp, global head of exchange-traded derivatives and OTC clearing at Citi, is in no doubt which direction the market is heading.

He said: “We’re looking at a re-dealing of the cards in the derivatives clearing space. Post-Dodd-Frank implementation, clearing will be led by the larger, well-capitalised banks.”

Citi hired aggressively to expand its futures commission merchant business last year, including the hire of Kemp, previously co-head of listed derivatives and clearing at JP Morgan, who arrived with a raft of colleagues.

Kemp thinks the next battleground for the bigger futures commission merchants, which will act as clearers for many firms on the buyside, could hinge on the bundling of services across clearing and asset servicing.

JP Morgan, meanwhile, is also looking to leverage its existing prime services footprint for its hedge fund clients for whom swaps clearing will be a new experience.

The bank has merged its listed and OTC clearing teams, and invested heavily in client roadshows and clearing masterclasses since the Dodd-Frank Act was passed in 2010.

Dale Braithwait, a member of JP Morgan’s OTC clearing team, said: “It’s to our advantage that we’re a big collateral manager too.

For a lot of asset managers, who do not feel they are able to use prime brokerage services, it’s a big benefit to have someone who can act as a custodian and a clearer.”

So there is a big fixed cost to play in this game.  The resulting scale economies tend to increase concentration.  Moreover, there is a strong scope economy across collateral management and transformation services, and other custodial services.  Meaning that the big custodian banks have a strong competitive advantage in providing the new collateral management and transformation services that will become a crucial component of the OTC derivatives markets.

It is particularly ironic that BNY-Mellon will be a major beneficiary of this.  You might recall the execrable NYT piece (written by Louise Story) about the evil derivatives dealer cabal.  One of the most memorable parts of the article was BNY’s whinging about its inability to break into the dealer space.  Read this new piece and you can just imagine BNY execs rubbing their hands together in glee, throwing their heads back, and laughing an evil laugh.  All your cabal belong to us.

So let’s summarize, shall we? Clearing mandates (and requirements to collateralize uncleared swaps) will result in the formation of new links between buyers and sellers of swaps (including dealer banks who do not offer custodial services) and a handful of major custodian banks.  These links will involve the extension of credit, and hence the existence of derivatives-related counterparty risk in which big banks still have substantial exposure.  If anything, the mandates will increase concentration in an important part of the derivatives market.  Moreover, it will arguably increase the concentration of credit risk exposure in a handful of systemically important banks.

Well played!  The actual results of Frankendodd will be the exact opposite of what was claimed by its tireless advocates (And yeah, I’m looking at you, Timmy! and GiGi.  I’m trying not to look at Barney, but that’s a whole other story.)

Unintended consequences, indeed.  Unintended, but predictable–and predicted.

October 24, 2011

Call Me Cassandra

There is an increasing drumbeat of stories warning about the systemic risks posed by CCPs.  This FTAlphaville article discusses several dangers I’ve discussed repeatedly, including the stresses put on liquidity, the concentration of risk resulting from the reconfiguration of the topology of the financial network that results from central clearing, and wrong way risks.  Several articles, including this one, report on the BOE’s Deputy Governor Paul Tucker warning about the lack of plans for resolving insolvent clearinghouses–a fear echoed by the ECB’s Peter Praet. Risk has a long article about various CCP risks; particularly interesting is the discussion of the contingent liability that clearing members face in the event of a “forced allocation” of a defaulting member’s portfolio.  The Risk article also reprises an SWP theme about the stupidity of limiting clearing member ownership and control of CCPs.

And the beat goes on.  Although not about clearing directly, this story on the downgrading of MF Global does have implications for clearing, given the CFTC’s decision to require admission of firms with as little as $50 million in capital to CCPs.  And speaking of the CFTC, its recently adopted clearinghouse rule requires CCPs to have enough capital to cover the failure of its single largest member, not the two largest: as I noted in my ISDA white paper, not only should a CCP have enough capital to cover two big defaults, it should have plan to replenish capital after even a single failure.  Although the CFTC may revisit the requirement later, pending negotiations with the Financial Stability Oversight Council, a failure of a single member–not even the largest one–of a CCP will likely require the services of Kevin Bacon do deal with the resulting run:

Needless to say, none of these stories are a surprise to me. I’ve been warning that CCPs could be Trojan Horses packed with systemic risk for a long time, to no avail. I hope that, unlike Cassandra, my warnings are mistaken. But it is becoming abundantly plain that these concerns are becoming far more widespread. It would have been better had that happened before politicians, regulators, and central bankers fallen victim to groupthink and seized on clearing as a “solution” before they had closely analyzed the problem in all its complexity. But the G-20 put its imprimatur on clearing, and the groupthinkers are not about to admit a mistake and start all over. So market participants and regulators are having to deal with the realities of a framework that poses dangers that may be different than, but just as threatening, as those clearing was intended to address.

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