Streetwise Professor

February 25, 2010

From the Department of Irony

Filed under: Commodities,Derivatives,Economics,Exchanges,Financial crisis,Politics — The Professor @ 6:17 pm

Matt Leising and Shannon Harrington have been on a roll lately.  Today, they report that big buy side firms are resisting Fed calls to clear a targeted percentage of their deals:

The biggest credit-default swaps investors oppose targets for clearing trades as regulators attempt to curb risk in the $25 trillion market.

Pacific Investment Management Co., BlueMountain Capital Management LLC and AllianceBernstein LP are among asset managers and hedge funds that won’t agree to specific goals before the Federal Reserve Bank of New York’s March 1 deadline requiring them to outline the industry’s next steps to move swaps through clearinghouses, according to people familiar with the matter who declined to be identified because the talks are private.

. . . .

The asset managers, while backing efforts to broaden the use of clearinghouses, want assurances that cleared trades would be protected under bankruptcy laws, the people said. They’re also concerned they may be saddled with collateral costs that are double or triple what they’re paying now because they could lose benefits now granted by prime brokers that give credit for offsetting trades, the people said.

For example, hedge funds and other asset managers often will perform trades that seek to profit from price dislocations between index contracts and swaps on companies included in the index. Prime brokers typically will demand collateral on the net amount at risk from offsetting trades.

Tying Up Cash

If one leg of the trade were required to be cleared, while the other contracts aren’t eligible, fund managers may be forced to increase the amount they have to post, tying up cash, the people said.

This is ironic because the best economic case for clearing is that reduces counterparty risk for end-users.  For instance, the classical futures clearinghouse reduces customer default losses (but doesn’t necessarily eliminate them) that could result from the failure of a brokerage firm by shifting the liability to the clearinghouse, and thus, to the other brokerage firms that are members of the clearinghouse.  Note that the Chicago Board of Trade has always argued that no CUSTOMER has lost money as the result of a default; the CME now makes a similar claim.  Thus, if anybody should be clamoring for clearing, it is customers.

But, as the article notes, this doesn’t come for free.  In particular, the article notes that clearing, especially through single-instrument clearinghouses, can eliminate scope economies (achieved, for instance, through netting and cross margining), thereby inflating costs.

So it can be reasonable for customer firms to resist clearing even though if it benefits anybody, it is most likely to benefit them.

Dealer firms have agreed to clear a large fraction of some inter-dealer trades (e.g., CDS trades).  In other markets (e.g., interest rate swaps) banks have elected to clear a decent proportion (around 50 percent) of inter-dealer trades.  But in many respects, inter-dealer clearing offers fewer potential risk sharing advantages than customer clearing (that shifts risks from customers to the dealer-members collectively).

In bilateral markets, there is extensive inter-dealer trading; this creates performance risk between dealers.  Clearing basically does the same thing.  It can reduce some exposure, through multi-lateral netting, but as Duffie and Zhao have shown, and as I have shown, this gain is reduced, and at times non-existent, because clearing can reduce bilateral netting opportunities across a portfolio of instruments.  Thus, the exposure reductions may be limited, especially if the clearinghouse handles only a narrow range of the instruments that dealers trade.  But even if there is some exposure reduction, a lot of what inter-dealer clearing does is to share the same risk among the same players.

The way this risk is allocated can differ somewhat; in particular, it is possible that risk exposures through clearing are less concentrated than the bilateral inter-dealer exposures in non-cleared markets.  But dealers have incentives to limit concentration on their own, and do so through exposure limits and credit limits with each counterparty.  Moreover, dealers have the ability to use their own information to choose these limits in bilateral dealings, whereas the clearinghouse cannot rely on this information.  Thus, clearinghouse members may have exposures that are less concentrated than their bilateral exposures, but they still may be worse off because they take more exposure with some counterparties via the clearinghouse than they would voluntarily take in a bilateral market.  That is, concentrations in bilateral markets are endogenous, and high concentrations can be sensible, based on counterparty risk evaluations.

The resistance of some sophisticated buy side firms to clearing should be another hint to regulators and legislators that mandated clearing is not necessarily a good thing.  If those who, if anyone, would be the biggest beneficiaries of clearing, decide it’s not worth the candle, that strongly suggests that the total benefits are illusory.

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1 Comment »

  1. But clients also currently benefit from an implicit, unpriced government guarantee of their too-big-to-fail counterparty banks.. why would they want to pay for this insurance through having to post collateral?

    Comment by Tobias Boverlander — February 27, 2010 @ 7:01 am

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