Monthly Archives: December 2012

Congressional Intent & Futurization

The Capital Markets subcommittee of the House Financial Services Committee held a hearing yesterday on the derivatives portion of the Dodd-Frank Act — Title VII. The question of the futurization of swaps captured a good bit of attention.

House Hearing

Representative Bachus, who chairs the full Committee, said (at 14:04 in the video),

If all derivatives were supposed to be traded on an exchange, then they would all be futures. [Swaps] are differeent from exchange listed products, and imposing the listed futures or equity market model on [swaps] is not the mandate of Title VII.

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Reading the Term Structure

Natural gas prices have been rising recently. But I always like to look at the whole term structure of futures prices to get a better sense of what is really going on. My colleagues at CRA, Billy Muttiah and James Dunning, prepared this chart which overlays snapshots of the term structure at the start of the last several months. It tells a simple story.

Natural Gas Futures Prices - 12-05-2012

What’s going on is mostly a story about the long-run. Only a small amount of recent spot price changes are due to short-run factors and changes in the spot vs. futures price. Prices at all maturities have been going up. And the shifts are roughly parallel throughout the term structure.

A quick look like this doesn’t clarify whether it is long-run demand shocks, long-run supply shocks or any number of other combination of factors. But it does focus attention in the right place.

How Futures Can Steal Market Share from Customized Swaps

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Many people underestimate the threat that futures markets pose for the OTC swaps industry because they have been suckered into thinking of swaps as carefully custom tailored instruments. It’s true that a small fraction of the OTC swaps market cannot be replicated in the futures marketplace. And it is good that the Dodd-Frank Act preserved a space for customized swaps. But the vast majority of swaps are not custom tailored, or the custom tailoring is so inconsequential that it will be an easy matter for the futures market to serve the same purpose.

Even when the swap does contain some important element of customization, that is usually not the whole story. Many customized swaps can be broken up into 2 pieces: (i) a basic, plain vanilla swap, plus (ii) a small bit of customization that adapts the plain vanilla swap around the edges. The futures market can substitute for the plain vanilla swap, and then the OTC swap market can provide the customization around the edges.

It’s like buying a suit ready-to-wear, but having the tailor adjust the hems or waistline a little bit. So long as the adjustments are small, its an economic alternative to true customization.

An illustration of how a custom swap can be broken up into two pieces appears in an article by Sean Owen, Director of Fixed Income Research and Consulting at Woodbine Associates, published in a recent special issue of the Review of Futures Markets. He breaks up an irregularly amortizing 10-year interest rate swap into (i) a 7-year bullet interest rate swap, and (ii) a customized swap that produces the irregular amortization relative to the 7-year bullet. (H/T to CFTC Commissioner Scott O’Malia for highlighting the article)

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Futurization advances in interest rate products

The NYSE Liffe is moving to adapt their futures products to grab more business away from the OTC swaps market. It announced changes yesterday to enable large block trading in 3 of its products–three month Euribor futures, three month sterling futures and long gilt futures. The block trades will be handled on its Bclear system. The service is scheduled to be available starting December 10.

The FT’s coverage is here. It will be interesting to see how the new service does and how it affects the overall flow of trade in those futures contracts.

This looks to me like another example of the futures marketplace easily being expanded to offer a service in standardized derivatives formerly performed OTC. There was never any special economic rationale for this business in standardized derivatives being handled OTC. This move exposes, once again, the fallacy that the OTC swaps market was dominated by customized products that are ill-suited to standardized markets like futures exchanges.

Futurization #4 — an agenda item for the CFTC hearing

In a speech this past Friday, CFTC Commissioner Scott O’Malia once again voiced his concern that burdensome swap dealer registration rules and disadvantageous margin requirements for swaps may be driving the futurization of derivatives trading. He proposed that the Commission host a hearing on the futurization question in order to inform development of the right rules for the swaps market.

In order for a hearing to be informative, it is essential to put the right questions on the agenda. I suggest the Commission squarely ask what swap markets are for?

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