Satyajit Das: Derivatives Regulation Dance

By Satyajit Das, the author of “Traders, Guns & Money: Knowns and Unknowns in the Dazzling World of Derivatives.” Cross posted from Wilmott

A question of values …

Derivative contracts are valued on a mark-to-market (“MtM”) basis. This requires valuation of the contracts based on the current market price.

OTC derivatives trade privately. Market prices for specific transactions are not directly available. This means current valuations rely on pricing models.

There are significant differences in the complexity of the models and the ability to verify and calibrate inputs. More complex products used sophisticated financial models, often derived from science or statistical methodology. There are frequently differences in choice, exact factorisation and even numerical implementation of the models. Different dealers may use different models.

Some required inputs for the models are available from markets sources. The nature of the OTC market and the limited trading in certain instruments mean that key input parameters must frequently be “estimated” or “bootstrapped” from available data. In certain products, the limited number of active dealers means that “market” prices are sometimes no more than the dealer’s own quote being fed back after being collated and “scrubbed” by an external data provider. This is referred to prosaically as “mark-to-myself”.

Model variations and small differences in input can frequently result in large changes in values for some products.

The models make numerous assumptions including the ability to borrow at market rates for (theoretically) infinite amounts, unrestricted ability to enter into transactions and abundant trading liquidity. These assumptions are difficult to satisfy in practice.

For example, a key assumption of derivative valuation is that a transaction can be hedged with a counterparty or through other means at all times. In late 2008, in the aftermath of the collapse of Lehman Brothers and problems at AIG, market liquidity dried up and made it impossible to source market prices or transact in many instruments.

The model-based valuations are used to determine earnings and ultimately bonus payments for dealer staff. In Warren Buffet’s inimitable words this allows the dealer to see “… where the arrow of performance lands and then [paint] the bull’s eye around it”.

The accuracy and tractability of derivative valuation, especially for complex products, is questionable.

MtM prices may be also prone to manipulation. Recent disclosures about events leading up the government bailout of AIG highlight potential problems.

There is limited internal or external (auditors and regulators) oversight of the models. This reflects, in part, the complexity of the models and the scarcity of experienced professionals capable of undertaking such reviews.

Widespread reliance on models and MtM methodology is perhaps surprisingly an unquestioned article of faith in financial markets. It allows immediate recognition of gains and losses that will accrue over many years immediately. After his purchase of Gen Re and discovery of the problems surrounding its derivatives operations, Buffett remarked: “I can assure you that the marking errors in the derivatives business have not been symmetrical. Almost invariably they have favoured the trader who was eyeing a multi-million dollar bonus … Only much later did shareholders learn that the reported earning were a sham.”

Current regulatory proposals do not attempt to deal with the pricing, valuation and model issues. As Daniel C. Gelman observed: “Where secrecy reigns, carelessness and ignorance delight to hide.”

Stand by Me …

In derivative contracts, each party takes the credit risk of the other side in terms of performing their obligations. This is known as counterparty risk. The failure of Lehman Brothers and a number of banks during the Global Financial Crisis (“GFC”) highlighted the problems of counterparty risk in derivatives.

Counterparty risk is complex because the payment obligations between the parties are contingent. The quantum and the direction of payments depend on market price movements. The potential counterparty risk is not known in advance and is apparent only when actual price movements occur. In practice, this requires parties to estimate the potential exposure using mathematical models based on the expected evolution of the relevant market prices.

Over the last two decades, the derivatives market has becoming more democratic. Entities with lower credit ratings have become active users of derivatives. This includes highly leveraged investors, such as hedge funds and private equity funds. Participation of these riskier entities has entailed reliance on credit enhancement techniques.

The primary form of credit enhancement is the use of bilateral collateral. This entails counterparties posting collateral in the form of cash or high quality securities to secure the current value of the contract. The collateral acts as surety against non-performance under the contract. Collateral arrangements are highly customised. For example, AIG’s collateral arrangements required the firm to post collateral only where the exposure under the contracts increased above an agreed level or AIG’s credit rating was reduced below a specified quality.

Counterparty risk and credit enhancement techniques are predicated on the same models used for pricing and valuation. Use of bilateral collateral relies on the accuracy of valuations and risk models. It also relies on certain and enforceable legal rights in respect of collateral and proper management of the cash and security lodged.

The GFC, especially the bankruptcy filing of Lehman Brothers, provided a test of counterparty risk in derivatives. The quantification and management of such risk proved problematic. The quantum of credit risk from derivatives was higher than model based estimates as market volatility increased and correlations between risk factors moved erratically. Legal enforceability, control and management of collateral also experienced problems.

Current regulatory proposals focus heavily on counterparty risk issues. The central legislative reform proposed is a central clearinghouse – the central counterparty (“CCP”). The BIS also proposed changes in capital requirements against counterparty risk in the light of recent experience.

Under the CCP arrangements, “standardised” derivative transactions must be transferred to an entity that will guarantee performance.

The CCP implements risk management systems to manage its exposure under derivative contracts. The CCP will be reliant on risk models and the ability to value contracts. As noted above, there are significant issues in pricing and valuing contracts and, for some products, reliance on complex models.

The CCP proposal relies heavily on “self-confidence”, which as Samuel Johnson observed is “the first requisite to great undertakings.” In relation to the CCP, legislators and regulators are basing their approach on Lillian Hellman’s helpful advise: “It is best to act with confidence, no matter how little right you have to it.”

One (Not Very Nice) World…

The GFC, in line with previous derivative crises including the collapse of Long Term Capital Management (“LTCM”), revealed deep fault lines in financial markets.

Derivative markets entail complex chains of risk that link market participants. This is similar to the re-insurance chains that proved problematic in the case of Lloyd’s Insurance market problems. In both markets, the risks are both potentially significant and “long tail”, that is, they do not emerge immediately and may take some time to be fully quantified.

Current regulatory proposals have not focused on the issue on inter-connected trading and concentration risk other than as a by-product of the CCP proposal. It is widely believed that the CCP will improve the market structure.

In reality, the CCP becomes a node of concentration. The CCP may also increase concentration risk. The heavy investment required to establish the infrastructure to clear contracts through the CCP will mean that a few large derivative dealers will quickly dominate the business. In addition, to the extent that products are not routed or counterparties are not obligated to trade through the CCP, the problems remain and may increase.

A central problem of the current derivative markets is potential liquidity (cash or funding) risks. Ironically, the problems derive, in substantial part, from the desire to reduce counterparty risk through credit enhancement procedures, such as bilateral collateral.

Where derivative contracts are marked-to-market daily and any gain or loss covered by collateral to minimise performance risk, movements in market rates can trigger large cash requirements. These requirements may be unanticipated. If there is a failure to meet a margin call then the position must be closed out and the collateral applied against the loss. This may leave the parties unhedged against underlying risks or on offsetting positions creating the risk of additional losses.

AIG’s CDS contracts were subject to the provision that if the firm was downgraded below AA- then the firm would have to post collateral. In October 2008, when AIG was downgraded below the nominated threshold, this triggered a collateral call rumoured to be around US$14 billion. AIG did not have the cash to meet this call and ultimately required government support.

Current regulatory proposals do not address liquidity risks in derivative markets. Interestingly, the CCP may inadvertently increase liquidity risk as more participants may be subject to margining and unexpected demands on cash resources.

Failed Plumbing…

The GFC has exposed long standing and significant problems with the infrastructure of derivatives markets.

In 2006, Alan Greenspan expressed shock and horror at the state of settlements in the credit derivative market. He expressed surprise that banks trading CDS seemed to document trades on scraps of paper. The ex-Chairman, perhaps unfamiliar with the reality of financial markets, had difficulty reconciling a technologically advanced business with this “appalling” operational environment.

Derivative systems and trade processing are generally inadequate, with infrastructure lagging well behind innovation. Delays in documenting contracts forced regulators to step in requiring banks to confirm trades more promptly. The accuracy of the mark-to-market values of contracts, particularly of less liquid and infrequently traded reference entities, is not unimpeachable. Where collateral is used, as noted above, monitoring and management of collateral poses significant risks.

Current regulatory proposals seek welcome improvements processes and systems for derivative trading.

Derivative contracts are documented under the International Swap and Derivatives Association (“ISDA”) Master Agreement. The ISDA Agreement has been remarkably successful in standardising documentation of trading.

The contract has not been tested under stressful conditions such as those of the GFC. A number of issues have emerged.

The bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers and resulting unwinding of complex derivative arrangements has exposed problems of derivative and bankruptcy law, especially in cross-border, multi-jurisdictional transactions. The GFC also exposed issues relating to the documentation of specific derivative contracts, such as CDS contracts, and the impact on bankruptcy and resolution of financial distressed firms.

Current regulatory proposals do not address any of these documentary issues.

Bank regulatory capital has long distinguished between banking (loans or hold-to-maturity assets) and trading books (trading or available-for-sale assets). Differing capital rules between the banking and trading books encouraged regulatory arbitrage, generally using derivative structures to reduce the required level of capital. The BIS has addressed some regulatory anomalies, increasing the capital required against derivative positions.

Regulatory initiatives continue to emphasise improved disclosure of derivative contract. There is already significant disclosure, although much of it is incomprehensible and lacks utility. Additional disclosure will not significantly reduce systemic risks of derivatives.

Regulatory initiatives do little to address the quality of regulators and the acuity of oversight. The absence of suitably expert and experienced regulators will undermine regulatory and legislative initiatives. Given the shortage of talent in derivatives generally and the pay grades of regulators, it will be difficult for regulatory agencies to properly supervise dealers and derivative activity. In terms of an old Spanish proverb “Laws, like the spider’s web, catch the fly and let the hawk go free.”

Regulatory Tango…

Debate over regulation of financial services has taken on a frenzied tone.

Regulatory agencies are jockeying for position, sometimes forming unlikely coalitions to preserve or expand territory. The Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC), under Chairman Gary Gensler, has been a staunch champion of regulation, including the CCP. The CFTC, which would share oversight of derivatives trading with the SEC, will require 119 new employees and a $45 million budget increase to $261 million. Interestingly, its hiring focus is on rule-making attorneys with a minimum five years’ legal experience for “drafting especially lengthy and difficult rules and regulations implementing new legislation.” With a starting salary of $145,000, it will be interesting to see if the CFTC attracts candidates with the requisite skills. More interestingly, the CFTC clearly feels that what regulation needs is more lawyers and more rules.

Consultation with industry participants is unlikely to result in progress. As Wolfgang Schäuble, the German finance minister, told the Financial Times: “If you want to drain a swamp, you don’t ask the frogs for an objective assessment of the situation.”

Banks and their lobbyists do not believe that there is a case for regulation. In William Davenant’s words: “Had laws not been, we never had been blam’d; For not to know we sinn’d is innocence.”

Groucho Marx observed that “[government] is the art of looking for trouble, finding it, misdiagnosing it and then misapplying the wrong remedies.” Legislators and regulators are likely to discover the truth of that proposition in their attempts to regulate the derivative market.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email


  1. shayre

    When will financial advisors who manage the life savings of middle-class investors get this? And when will they explain these risks to their clients?!?

  2. jpe

    n reality, the CCP becomes a node of concentration.

    That’s a feature, not a bug. Stronger, concentrating risk in the CCP is the whole point: it mutualizes risk and forces market participants to pay attention to credit risk.

    1. liberal

      Except for the wee little fact demonstrated by the last crisis that the people making the trades aren’t incentivized to pay attention to true credit risk.

    2. vlade

      Err, except that the problem is liquidity, not credit risk.
      Unless the exchange is fraudulent (i.e. steal the margin payments), the main risk is from a large cpty (or cpties) failing to settle (be it margin call or cash settle on maturity), which causes a chain reaction of failed settlements. Incidentally, this is why maturity transformation can be a very good thing – it can break the shockwave propagation in this type of chain reaction.

      Monotoring liquidity risk for counterparties is nigh impossible until it happens (and then it’s a bit late).

  3. Pete D

    Sorry, but I think this is directly false. Under Basle III you will have to hold 100% of any collateral due under a 2 notch downgrade in liquid assets. That means that for AIG when they were AA they would have had to find that $14bio and put it into liquid top quality assets. Maybe they still would have got into trouble, but the problem would have had more visibility.

  4. Hugh

    Do most derivatives serve any useful function? The answer is no. In theory, they are supposed to spread risk, but in practice, they multiply it. If you have securities that inherently can’t be properly or realistically valued, then what you have is essentially a fraud. All the mathematical razzle-dazzle in the world does not change that.

    1. Pete D

      Derivatives are (still) most commonly used to manage risk, whether it be price risk, interest rate risk, weather risk, whatever. There aren’t any inherent reasons why they can’t work just fine, and to say they serve no useful function is inane and effectively renders any argument you have irrelevant. Go back to ZeroHedge.

  5. engineer27

    Das does not mention that a precipitating factor in the GFC was that posted collateral ended up being worthless. This led directly to the collapse of Bear Stearns.

    Presumably, the CCP would be responsible for assessing the stability of offered collateral. Perhaps they would do a better job at this than the NRSROs, because they have a material interest and no conflicting incentives to overestimate the quality of the paper. Or, perhaps not.

  6. Justicia

    “derived from science or statistical methodology”

    Science? Ha! Pseudo-science is more like it. The entire edifice of theoclassical economics is built on demonstrably false hypotheses. Once you assume away reality and empirical evidence, mathematics floats in an ether of pure speculation.

    Don’t mistake mathematical elegance for scientific rigor.

  7. marc weiner

    The U.S. dollar is the basis for all collateral. The game ends when some foreign entity decides to demand commodities in delivery for its exports of national resources. I think it is important to note this change in exchange. This would be and interesting derivative to trade. marc

Comments are closed.