Streetwise Professor

October 19, 2009

Attaboys Terminated With Extreme Prejudice

Filed under: Commodities,Derivatives,Economics,Exchanges,Financial crisis,Politics — The Professor @ 2:51 pm

So, here I lie, flat on my back, having taken a full-speed run at the derivatives regulation football, only to have Barney Frank snatch it back at the last minute during markup.  In contrast to the proposed OTC derivatives bill I praised a couple of weeks ago, the bill as passed by Frank’s committee includes both a clearing mandate, and an exchange trading mandate:

The committee, headed by Representative  Barney Frank, a Massachusetts Democrat, is set to complete action today on the legislation, which would require many derivatives transactions to go through central clearinghouses. The administration wants to subject broker dealers such as  JPMorgan Chase & Co.and derivatives users such as  American International Group to new margin, collateral and disclosure requirements.

. . . .

Frank plans to offer today an amendment that would mandate trading on exchanges or swap execution facilities for standard contracts between dealers and their biggest customers. Barr called that provision “essential.”

As I’ve written repeatedly, here and elsewhere, I believe that both of these provisions are deeply misguided.  I won’t belabor the argument, which the interested reader (or those suffering from insomnia) can find by searching the site or clicking the derivatives category link.   I will just say again that Frank is reinventing the wheel, as an exchange trading mandate was the magic bullet of derivatives reform in 1922.  It eventually proved unworkable, and will do so again–only much, much faster.

Raising the cost of managing risk will lead to greater risks.  It’s not that complicated.

Economics of Contempt (a lawyer and former Dem legislative aide) says that Frank sandbagged the dealers:

Frank really sandbagged the dealers with his exchange-trading amendment. The dealers support a central clearing requirement for standardized swaps, but not an exchange-trading requirement (with at least some justification). Frank’s discussion draft had only required central clearing, and then he surprised everyone on Wednesday with his amendment requiring exchange-trading. It was a politically savvy move if Frank was planning to require exchange-trading all along—don’t give the dealers time build up opposition to the amendment and it’s much more likely to pass. My sense is that Frank simply changed his mind at the last minute, for whatever reason.

“Changed his mind at the last minute, for whatever reason.”  A 180 degree turn at the last minute!  With no substantive reason given!  That’s the way to determine the fate of the world’s largest financial markets!  I feel so much better now.

Barney–I take back every nice thing I said about you.  Indeed, I’ve upped my grandfather’s exchange rate of attaboys taken away per attaboys given from 10 to 100.  Or 1000.

Many clearing/exchange trading developments in the news.  Unlike Barney and Geithner and Gensler and the clearinghouse mandate herd in the US, the Europeans are getting nervous about forcing things:

anks should be “incentivised” but not forced to shift privately-negotiated derivatives contracts onto exchanges to cut risk, the European Union’s executive will say next week, according to people familiar with the situation.

The European Commission is expected to publish a policy discussion paper on regulating the $450 trillion over-the-counter (OTC) derivatives markets on Oct. 20.

“I think they want to keep it a reasonably high level so they have room for manoeuvre. Expectations for October 20 were for more detail but the industry will be disappointed,” a source with knowledge of the paper said on Tuesday.

The largely unregulated market includes credit default swaps (CDS), which are used to bet on whether a company will default on its bonds and have been blamed for amplifying last year’s severe financial crisis that hammered economies worldwide.

The Commission published a preliminary paper in July which focused on the need for standardisation and central clearing of CDS contracts, saying the case has yet to be made on mandatory exchange trading.

“It hints at exchange trading by using the word incentivising transition to try to get more use of standardised products,” the source said of next week’s paper.

The July paper was more open on the issue of exchange trading, only saying it needed further study.

Incentives would likely comprise heavier capital charges on banks which trade OTC contracts that are not standardised or centrally cleared, the source added. Cleared contracts already have a zero weighting for capital requirements.

The latest paper is also expected to push for greater transparency and for a central data repository. It reflects global efforts to regulate derivatives and other lightly supervised parts of the system.

I critiqued the EU’s July report when it came out.  If this report is to be credited, the Europeans seem to have adopted the basic approach I have been advocating–more reporting, no clearing mandate.  But then, I said that about Barney Frank too, so I’m not holding my breath.  In any event, I will read the EU report that comes out tomorrow with interest.

The “incentivizing” approach has some problems too, though.  “Holding more collateral”  is a very general concept.  The key thing is choosing just how much, and how much that varies across products, and crucially–since collateral is all about counterparty risk–how much that varies across counterparties.  Choosing the wrong levels, and choosing the wrong relative collateral levels across deals and counterparties can make things worse rather than better.

The collateral rules will induce gaming and strategic product design to mitigate collateral impacts.  Moreover, as demonstrated in the case of “AAA” CDOs, incorrect choices of capital haircuts can lead financial institutions to take highly correlated positions (i.e., hold essentially the same instruments because their capital charges are too low) that actually exacerbate systemic risk.  Moreover, it is important that relative collateral charges be appropriate across cleared and non-cleared products.  If non-cleared products are charged too much, it could increase the risks that clearinghouses face, and if they don’t price their risks properly, this can also contribute to systemic risk.

I am deeply, deeply skeptical that regulators have the information and knowledge necessary to set these charges.  This is a price fixing exercise.  When have governments EVER demonstrated that they have the information, knowledge, and incentive to set the levels of prices properly, or to set relative prices properly?  “Hold more collateral” sounds great in theory, but is a real source of potential systemic risk when one remembers that you have to specify exactly the amounts of capital every market participant must hold against every instrument, and when one remembers further that setting them wrong can be worse than not setting them at all.

Looking backwards to fix the causes of earlier crises frequently results in a failure to comprehend how the supposed “fixes” lays the groundwork for the next crisis.  Regulation of collateral levels could well do just that, in the same way as Basel capital requirements were a major contributor to the last crisis.

In one last piece of clearing news, the Frank bill also attempts to micromanage the organization, ownership, and governance of clearinghouses:

Derivatives legislation approved by a U.S. House panel yesterday would prohibit swaps dealers such as  Goldman Sachs Group andJPMorgan Chase & Co. from collectively owning more than 20 percent of a clearinghouse.

“An inherent conflict exists between broker dealers and clearinghouses and exchanges,” Representative  Stephen Lynch said when he introduced his provision on Oct. 14. “Brokers and dealers should not be able to capture trading and clearing intermediaries.”

. . . .

The amendment on clearinghouses would restrict swap dealers, “major swap participants,” and any “person associated with a swap dealer or major swap participant” from collectively controlling more than 20 percent of the voting rights in a facility used to clear derivatives contracts. It also would limit membership on boards of the clearinghouses and establish other rules aimed at limiting conflicts of interest.

This restriction on ownership and governance could have serious unintended consequences.  Remember what clearinghouses are.  They are mechanisms to share risk–default risk, in fact. It is well understood that there is typically a close relationship between control rights and cash flow rights/risk exposure (e.g., the ubiquity of 1 share-1 vote).  This makes good economic sense (as Grossman and Hart demonstrated years ago).  A mismatch between risk exposure and control rights means that those with the control don’t bear the full costs of their decisions: the risk is borne by others.  That is a recipe for excessive risk taking and other distorted decisions.

The traditional clearinghouse involves big intermediaries sharing counterparty risk, and since they bear the risk, they control the entity.  This suggests that there will likely be an equilibrium response to the proposed restriction on control rights; firms whose control rights are limited will likely similarly limit the risk exposure they are willing to take.  So, if the big dealers and major trading firms (e.g., hedge funds) that are deemed major swap participants are limited in the control they can exert, they will almost certainly similarly reduce the risk that they will absorb.

If these big dealer firms don’t absorb the risk, who will?  What alternative risk sharing model does the committee have in mind?  I am highly skeptical that the traditional clearinghouse mutualized risk sharing model will work with this governance model.  So what risk sharing model will be used instead?  Will public shareholders bear the risk (through their equity investments)?  That is, will clearinghouses become more like stock insurance companies, rather than mutuals?  Is this wise, given the survival value that the mutual model has demonstrated in clearing over the years?  (If sharing of default risk through the equity markets was the wise thing to do, why hasn’t this been utilized more in the past?)

And the big question: Is there the slightest reason to believe that those who proposed and voted for this restriction have thought even superficially about its consequences?  (I amuse myself sometimes.)

Here we have the spectacle of people who probably hadn’t even heard of clearing a year ago presuming to impose by legislative fiat the most detailed rules specifying what must be cleared, how it must be traded, and how the clearinghouses are organized to do their business.  These decisions will have huge consequences, almost certainly all of them unanticipated and unintended.  And many of these unintended consequences will almost certainly be adverse, perhaps extremely so.

Again, the metaphor of the Sorcerer’s Apprentice comes to mind.  These people think that they are in control, but they are not: they are in fact unleashing forces beyond their control, and the effects are not likely to be good.

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1 Comment »

  1. SWP, in case you missed it, Frontline just ran a program on the CFTC, Brooksley Born, former head of the CFTC, and how the 3 stooges, GGreedspan, Robert Rob’em Rubin, and Larry Smother Somers, torpedoed any attempt to regulate the $27 trillion “dark market” derivatives market.

    It deals with Banker’s “Trust” taking Procter and Gamble TO THE CLEANERS, and the lawsuit that first brought to light how the derivatives market works – er, doesn’t work. It then traces the first warning, Long Term Capital Management, the hedge fund that panicked even Robert Rob’em Rubin when he was Clinton’s man in the Treasury, and how 14 Wall Street Banks stepped in at $400 million a piece to squelch the panic at that time – no taxpayer bailout. And, of course, the last 2 years of the Clinton administration, during which Congress put the absolute kabosh on the CFTC attempting to even think about regulating derivatives.

    Rubin is now at Citi – and, of course, the “taxpayers” (I wasn’t asked) have put up several hundred million dollars to save his ass.

    Somers is now in the Barak Obuma adminstration – he read the riot act to Brooksley Born at one point, such that she turned pale.

    Greenspud is gone.

    Pretty interesting. You can watch the whole program online. This is one of the few times where I agree with Frontline.

    3 sick stooges, complete with a “President’s Working Group,” catering to their friends on Wall Street, who were making billions betting on bets on bets on top of which bets would go bad, all with mathematical models.

    Oh, yeah – when Roosha had its crisis, the math models did not work. The math models predicted that the LMTC, the hedge fund, would lose $35 million at most, per day. Someone missed a zero.

    Comment by elmer — October 20, 2009 @ 9:23 pm

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