As Gillian Tett points out in the Financial Times today, clearing derivatives centrally has come to be viewed in policy circles as a magical solution. As a result, it has not gotten the scrutiny it deserves.
The reason for the enthusiasm is that, in theory, a clearinghouse would make sure all agreements were adequately backstopped, so that if customer defaulted, it would not produce cascading counterparty defaults. The clearinghouse would have enough margin and capital to absorb the loss. And observers take great comfort from the fact that no significant exchange (which also has central clearing) has failed in a very long time.
But that view is based on precedents that have limited relevance for credit default swaps, which is the product that is the biggest source of risk. First, the CDS market is dominated by a comparatively small number of very large counterparties. So the failure of any one would be a vastly more serious blow than any modern exchange has suffered.
Second, the cheery view of the safety of exchanges is based on the airbrushing out of a near failure. In the 1987 stockmarket crash, a large counterparty of the Chicago Merc had failed to make a large payment by settlement date, leaving the exchange $400 million short. Its president, Leo Melamed, called its bank, Continental Illinois, to plead for the bank to guarantee the balance, which was well in excess of its credit lines. The officer in charge said no,. It was only because the chairman walked in and authorized the backstop only three minutes before the exchange was due to open that the Merc kept going.
Melamed has said repeatedly that if the Merc did not open that morning, it would not have opened again, and the head of the NYSE has said if the Merc did not open that morning, the NYSE would not have either, and it might never have repoened either.
Remember that. One decision with three minutes to spare kept the two biggest exchanges in the US from collapsing in the 1987 crash. See Donald MacKenzie’s An Engine Not A Camera for details.
Third, a clearinghouse for credit default swaps is certain to be undercapitalized. That means it is an AIG, a concentrated point of failure. The reason is that the contracts will be undermargined. CDS are not true derivatives, but are the economic equivalent of credit insurance. When a “reference entity” has a “credit event” meaning a bankruptcy or default, CDS prices jump to default. That means they shoot up massively because a payout on the CDS is certain, the only item in question is the precise amount.
A large enough initial margin to allow for jump to default risk will make CDS uneconomic (that’s an outcome I welcome, but that is contrary to the motives for the clearinghouse). So dealers and counterparties will fight for a lower margin, meaning the exchange will be undercapitalized relative to the risks it faces.
Tett has some overlapping concerns:
And yet, as so often in the current regulatory debate, there is a crucial catch: most notably, that a clearing house can only offer that all-important sense of reassurance to investors, if it is always perceived to be absolutely rock solid – no matter what. And what is notable about the reform debate so far this year, is that there has been remarkably little public discussion among politicians – or even among regulators – about how to guarantee that any future clearing house will indeed be strong enough to withstand any future shocks….
I suspect the silence may also reflect delicate political sensibilities. If politicians were to demand that a clearing house should be so utterly rock solid that it could withstand even financial Armageddon, the future members of any clearing platform would have to make massive financial commitments. That would necessarily limit membership, to a small cabal of ultra-powerful banks – not something that most politicians wish to encourage.
However, if a clearing house is made more accessible to a wider pool of members, then it will only carry real credibility if it is ultimately backstopped by the government itself, to ensure that trades are always settled, no matter what. And most politicians are not keen to highlight that option either, given the wider sense of public anger about the degree to which the government is bailing out the financial world.
Nevertheless, a few lone voices are now trying to stir up more debate, Gerry Corrigan, the former governor of the New York Fed, for example, recently declared that any future clearing house be placed under the supervision of central banks. More controversially, he also demanded that any clearing house for credit derivatives should have enough resources to withstand the failure of two large members on the same day and still keep trading. “I believe that the operational and financial integrity of such counterparty clearing facilities must be virtually failsafe,” he sternly declared*.
These strike me as sensible suggestions. And behind the scenes, some policy makers strongly support what Corrigan has demanded. Yet, thus far, it is still unclear whether such tough standards will be imposed – even though some clearing houses are now emerging. And that is precisely why men such as Corrigan are growing uneasy.
After all, one lesson that financial history shows is that the issues which blow up the financial system are not usually those which caused the last crisis. Instead, the biggest threats tend to come from the areas swathed in a lazy consensus, or where there is a strong political impetus to clutch at easy solutions. That might yet apply to the clearing houses. In theory, I still believe that clearing houses could – and should – make the derivatives world safer. In practice, though, they could also end up creating new dangers if they are not put on a sound footing, particularly if the fact that no clearing house has ever failed before creates a false sense of complacency
Clearinghouses are the wrong remedy for CDS, but that horse has left the barn and is already in the next county. And I must confess, they sound deceptively appealing (I was a proponent early on) until you dig further into how they would work for CDS. They need to be regulated intrusively, with the intent of shrinking the market considerably over time, and like insurance, with tough capital requirements and frequent examinations of the capital adequacy and claims-paying ability of the sponsor. But the real need is to cut off the air supply to CDS to reduce the size of the market so the product itself no longer represents a systemic threat.