Streetwise Professor

July 19, 2011

A Push at Best, a Big Cost at Worst–and For What?

Filed under: Clearing,Commodities,Derivatives,Economics,Financial crisis,Politics,Regulation — The Professor @ 11:24 am

Betting the Business (i.e., John Parsons and Antonio Mello) notes that the Coalition of Derivatives End Users has backed off its more extreme claims about the effects of clearing and margin mandates.  John and Antonio have been correct to point out that Frank-n-Dodd requirements may just result in the credit implicitly bundled in derivatives deals being unbundled, by the extension of a loan or a credit line.  (This is something that I also pointed out in my Cato piece last year).  But they have not explicitly addressed an implication that I pointed out, and specifically asked them to analyze.  Specifically, if margin requirements merely result in making implicit credit explicit, how do these requirements affect the aggregate amount of credit in the system?   This is the crucial question because the amount of leverage in the system is the first-order driver of systemic risk.

The End User Coalition’s letter makes this point:

Margin lending facilities offered by banks (and especially if offered by [Swap Dealers] or [Major Swap Participants] [as will almost surely be the case], would merely re-allocate and re-label risk, but not materially reduce it.  What was formerly a derivatives exposure risk would be converted to a lending facility risk.  A counterparty default from a derivatives obligation would have the same impact on a bank as a default on a margin lending facility obligation.  In other words, changing the form of the risk does not eliminate the risk (p. 10).  [Emphasis in original.]

. . . .

Some have suggested that end-users that traditionally pledge non-cash collateral cold continue their operations by using a secured financing facility.  Like the margin lending facility discussed earlier in Section II.B.3., a secured financing facility does little or nothing to remove risks from the system.  Instead, it simply changes the name of the risk from derivatives exposure to financing facility exposure (pp. 11-12).

Exactly.  And exactly as I’ve pointed out for well over a year.

Revealed preference suggests that implicit and explicit credit are not perfect substitutes.  Indeed, the End User Coalition letter points out (on p. 12) why a secured lending facility may be an imperfect substitute for using non-cash collateral in a derivatives deal.   Thus, the imposition of the constraint will be costly for firms, and will lead to less hedging.

But the Parsons-Mello main point–and the important implication–remains unchanged: substitutions of one form of credit for another will limit, and perhaps sharply so, the effects of margin and clearing and capital mandates on the amount of leverage in the system.  Since leverage is the source of systemic risk–what’s the point?

I also think that P-M are too dismissive of contentions that the regulations as written will result in deadweight losses.  This is because the amount of margin required can be so large as to require firms to alter drastically their capital structures, and such alterations are costly and can result in some of the inefficiencies the Coalition laments.  As the Coalition letter points out, for non-cleared swaps, the margin requirement is quite onerous: the margin must be sufficient to cover 99 percent of 10 day price moves.  That’s a lot.  This will likely require firms to (a) hold far larger amounts of their assets in liquid instruments, and hence less in more productive assets, (b) reduce their derivatives usage, or (c) most likely, both.

Margins and liquidity are costly.  That’s why firms strive to manage liquidity tightly, and are quite sensitive to margin: the amount of collateral and the form in which it must be held are definitely not matters of indifference to them.  A big margin requirement, and a requirement that the margin be posted in liquid assets, will definitely be a binding constraint, and its shadow price will be non-trivial. I don’t know what it is, but I know it’s not zero–primarily because firms optimize with respect to margin costs.

All this means that, at best, the margin requirement and capital requirement rules on end users will merely lead to a relabeling of credit and will not alter the economic substance of end user’s balance sheets.  (Similar arguments hold for financial institutions too.)  At worst, the constraints will result in costly changes to these balance sheets: excessive holding of liquid assets (can you say financial repression?), deficient investments in higher returning illiquid assets (i.e., the productive assets that enhance productivity), and too little hedging.  I read M-P to mean that the margin requirements on end users will merely lead to a relabeling, and that the requirements will not alter balance sheets.  I think that is far too sanguine.

And for what, exactly?  Under the best circumstances (i.e., no change in the economic substance of balance sheets), systemic risk doesn’t change a whit.  Under the worst circumstances, capital is misallocted, risks are misallocated, and there is no reduction in systemic risk (because end users do not contribute to it in a material way).  So, in the best of outcomes: no gain and no pain; in the worse ones, all pain and no gain.

Such a deal.

One final quibble with Betting the Business.  They state:

But of course an implicit credit line embedded in the bid-ask spread has great advantages to dealer banks. It is hidden, bundled with the derivative contract sold and therefore difficult to figure out by client end-users, who never really know how much they are paying for the amount of credit extended. Welcome to the opaque world of OTC markets.

Who cares how the cost components of a derivatives deal break out?  The end user cares only about the all-in cost, and the bid or offer is sufficient for end users to figure that out.  They can solicit quotes from multiple dealers and choose the most favorable one.  They can compare the quotes to the prices of related, exchange traded instruments to evaluate the reasonableness of the prices they are quoted.

Do you really care how the cost of a gallon of gasoline breaks down between the price of the crude, refining margins, transportation, retailing margin, etc?  No: you care about what it costs you to fill up.  If one station quotes $4.60 and another $4.65 for gasoline of equivalent quality, do you care why?  Or, to use the famous example of a pencil: do you really care about what each step of the process of putting a pencil in your hands cost?  No: you care about the price of the pencil.

That’s the information economizing role of prices at work.  It works in OTC markets as it does in pencils and gasoline.

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