Streetwise Professor

August 31, 2010

There Are NO Panaceas

Filed under: Clearing,Commodities,Derivatives,Economics,Exchanges,Financial crisis,Politics — The Professor @ 10:18 am

I saw the headline of this Matt Leising article, “Lehman Derivatives Records a Mess,” and reflexively thought it would be about its OTC trades (of which there were, if memory serves, over 900,000 if memory serves).

I was wrong.  It was about its exchange traded–and cleared–positions:

Barclays PLC had no idea how big Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc.’s futures-and-options trading business was when it considered taking over the defunct bank’s derivatives trades at exchanges in 2008, a Barclays executive said.

“Lehman’s books were in such a mess that I don’t think they knew where they were,” Elizabeth James, a director of Barclays’s futures business, testified today in U.S. Bankruptcy Court in Manhattan. James worked on Barclays’s purchase of Lehman’s brokerage during the 2008 financial crisis.

She said she received an e-mail from former Barclays trading executive Stephen King saying Lehman had “absolutely no idea” if it had sold $2 billion more options than it had bought, or whether it owned $4 billion more than it had sold.

. . . .

Transferring margin together with trading positions “is normal practice in the ETD business,” she told U.S. Bankruptcy Judge James Peck, referring to Lehman’s exchange-traded derivatives. “You’d be crazy if you didn’t.”

She said Lehman’s lack of records initially prevented her from performing “due diligence” to discover what Lehman’s and its customers’ positions were, where Lehman kept its bank accounts, and who its brokers were.

James said she had seen a tabulation of Lehman’s positions at the Options Clearing Corp. showing that the daily margin requirements for its trades had varied by as much as $1 billion within a few days in September 2008.

Moral of the story: moving more trading to exchanges, exchange-like systems, and clearing will not necessarily lead to greater clarity about the positions that big entities like Lehman hold.  One of the arguments for clearing has been that it will improve regulatory transparency, and help regulators figure out where the risk is and who is exposed to whom.  Even overlooking the basic fact that it is possible to have centralized trade reporting without mutualizing credit risk through clearing, the Lehman story shows that this alleged advantage has been vastly oversold.

Big complicated firms have big, complicated, and dynamic positions that are hard to keep track of, regardless of where and how they are traded.  There is a long, long, long way to go before even approaching the ideal of “mapping” risk in the financial system.  More centralized collection of information is a necessary, but by no means sufficient, condition to achieve this goal.

The Lehman story should be a cautionary tale to all those who naively believe that waving a legislative wand and casting a spell that drives trading to exchanges will magically eliminate all of the huge operational difficulties associated with measuring and managing risk.

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