Category Archives: Dodd-Frank

Prop-Flow stands convicted, too.

The trial of UBS trader Kweku Adoboli ended yesterday with his conviction on two counts of fraud and the dismissal of the accounting allegations. Some news accounts have noted that testimony at the trial also exposed embarrassingly shoddy risk management at UBS. Prop-flow also stands convicted.

Prop-flow is one of those wonderful neologisms of the investment banking world. UBS’s Delta One desk, where Kweku Adoboli was employed, is a classic example of the prop-flow trading model. Ostensibly, a Delta One desk is serving customers, manufacturing risk exposures that the clients want, and earning revenue for providing that service. But the testimony at Adoboli’s trial leaves no doubt that his assignment was proprietary trading, pure and simple. He wasn’t convicted because he did prop trading, but because of how he did his prop trading. The testimony leaves no doubt that his UBS managers always expected him to be placing proprietary trading bets. The only dispute was about how those bets were managed and recorded, and the scale of the bets along the way.

How much tolerance bank Boards of Directors and bank regulators have for neologisms like prop-flow will be an important question in the coming years as the Volcker Rule and similar prohibitions come into force.

Futurization #2 – why?

Why Futurize Swaps?

Futurization is the movement of derivative trades out of the OTC swaps marketplace and into the futures marketplace. There are different ways in which this shift may take place. Economically, they all have one thing in common: a recognition that there is in fact nothing special about swaps as a financial instrument. In general, any package of risk that can be structured via a swap can also be structured using futures and options contracts that can be traded in the futures marketplace.

The essential distinction between the OTC swaps marketplace and the futures marketplace is the regulatory rules, not the product designs that can be offered. Of course, a difference in regulatory rules can be economically significant, too. But it is important to keep straight the real source of any economic impact.

Prior to the Dodd-Frank Act, the OTC swaps marketplace lacked regulatory oversight, transparency and clearing, and the vast majority of derivative trades were executed in this marketplace as a result. After the Dodd-Frank Act, all OTC swaps trades are subject to regulatory oversight, and the vast majority must be traded transparently and cleared. There are exceptions that allow the OTC swaps market to continue offering swaps that are custom designed, and therefore ill-suited to exchange trading and clearing. However, for the vast majority of swaps, the Dodd-Frank Act removed the main advantage of the OTC swaps marketplace. With the mandates of oversight, transparency and clearing, the main raison d’être is gone.

Consequently, all players in the industry are now reassessing the choice of venue for derivatives trades: the OTC swaps market or the futures market. When the new calculus leads them out of swaps and into futures, that is the essence of the futurization of swaps.

How is the futurization of swaps to take place? I group the different ways into two main categories.

First, in many cases, plain vanilla futures and option contracts can easily substitute for swaps.

This is exemplified by the recent decision by the ICE to simply switch its cleared energy swaps into futures contracts. There was more to it than simply changing the package label, but not much more. ICE’s cleared energy swaps may be a special case for the ease with which such a transition can be executed, but from an economic standpoint it is much more representative than is yet widely recognized.

The vast majority of interest rate and foreign exchange swap transaction could be readily supplanted by plain vanilla futures and option contracts, as can other commodity swaps. For example, the CME’s IMM has long offered interest rate and currency futures which serve the same risk packaging function as interest rate and currency swaps. But these products were overshadowed by the OTC swaps marketplace because that marketplace had the advantage of not being regulated. Now that the Dodd-Frank Act has imposed comparable regulatory rules which remove the advantage of the OTC marketplace, these products may once again come out from under the shadow of the OTC and steal back the business. That hasn’t happened yet. But be patient.

A second, more contorted category involves attempts to somehow trade swaps, but to do it under the futures regulatory rules. These are the so-called “swap futures”. One example comes from the CME, which, in September, announced plans to launch its interest rate swap futures product. This is a futures contract where the underlying product is a traditional interest rate futures contract. So long as the customer owns the futures contract, the margining and other regulatory rules of the futures exchange apply. But, if the contract is held to delivery, then the customer finds itself holding an OTC swap, and the margining and regulatory rules of the OTC swaps marketplace then apply. Another example comes from the upstart Eris Exchange, which launched its interest rate swap futures product back in 2010. Instead of making the underlying product an actual swap, Eris cash settles its futures product to mimic those on an OTC swap.

This second category has all the buzz, currently. But perhaps not for long. The push for this second category is predicated on the idea that it is possible to have the best of both worlds—the current regulatory arbitrage benefits of the futures marketplace along with the economic advantages of swaps. But there never were any special economic advantages of swaps, so the underlying rationale for swap futures is faulty. After the buzz dies down, and the players recognize the problem, the action may turn back to the first category. On that, we are still waiting. Be patient.

Fear of the Future-ization of Swaps #1

The reform of the derivatives market, like other parts of financial reform, has been a very slow moving process. As when a giant ocean tanker is being slowly turned around, progress is so slow that it can be hard for the naked eye to confirm that the event is actually happening until the great ship’s silhouette overtakes a distinctive landmark on the horizon. And derivatives market reform, too, is happening. Each time the reform slowly approaches a new landmark on the horizon, the fact of reform is confirmed once again to proponents and opponents alike. And each time this happens, there are new howls from opponents that the ship’s current course will surely lead to disaster.

The current occasion for complaints goes under the heading “futurization of swaps.” Pre-reform, derivatives could either be traded in regulated marketplaces, generally called futures markets, or in the un-regulated marketplaces, generally called the OTC swaps market. The Dodd-Frank Act brought regulation to the OTC swaps market. Those regulations are only now beginning to take effect, or the deadlines are approaching. As that happens, companies on all sides of the derivatives markets are beginning to rethink where they should do their derivatives business. Should they continue to trade swaps, or can they get the same result using futures? Should they continue to market swaps, or should they now market futures? The swaps marketplace used to have the advantage of being unregulated, but as that advantage appears to be disappearing, where is the rationale for swaps? Derivative consumers and producers alike are giving the futures markets a fresh look. Some swap products have been relabeled and moved over to futures markets. Other, new futures products are being developed as substitutes for old swap products.

Obviously a major shift of business from the swaps market to futures markets threatens major business interests. Throughout the legislative battles leading up to Dodd-Frank, and the rulemaking and legislative battles surrounding implementation, the big banks that controlled and profited from the OTC swaps market hoped to preserve their monopoly. So far, they have mostly failed. The current debate about the ‘futurization of swaps’ is a major milestone in the process, and it is no surprise that it is raising new howls. These interests are complaining that the legislation is killing the swaps market, ruining a valuable financial innovation.

In the coming days, I will look at various arguments being made against the futurization of swaps. None of them hold up.

You say ‘futures’ like it’s a bad thing.

Early last month, the Intercontinental Exchange (ICE) announced that it was transitioning its cleared energy swaps products into futures products. That move precipitated a chain of commentary warning that other swaps business might soon transition to the futures markets. The blame is placed on various alleged problems with the CFTC’s rulemaking for swaps. CFTC Commissioner Scott O’Malia is a prominent voice making this argument recently.

What if this switch is a feature and not a bug?

Once upon a time, all derivatives trading was regulated, with transactions taking place on an exchange and with positions cleared and margins posted. Then along came the OTC swaps market, which grew enormously, far surpassing the futures markets.

Why?

Many champions of the swaps industry point to flexibility as a major advantage of swaps—the terms of a swap can be tailored to each customer’s needs. Futures, because they must be standardized, are too inflexible.

There is a grain of truth in this, around which is spun a giant ball of misrepresentation.

Continue reading

Moody’s correction

Moody’s issued a correction today.[1] It had previously tagged as ‘credit negative’ for energy companies, the decision by ICE to move many of its cleared energy OTC swap contracts over to its futures exchange platform. Now Moody’s recognizes that as ‘credit neutral.’ Platt’s coverage is here. Continue reading

Moody’s Slips on ICE

As reported by Platts, Moody’s recently issued an analysis of the decision by ICE, the Intercontinental Exchange, that starting January 2013 its cleared OTC energy swap products would switchover and be traded as futures products. Moody’s called that “credit negative for power producers.”[1]

There are many things wrong with the Moody’s analysis. Continue reading

Exelon’s On- and Off-Balance Sheet Collateral Costs

In covering the Intercontinental Exchange’s decision to move its energy swap trades onto its futures exchange, the Wall Street Journal’s Jacob Bunge and Katy Burne cited data on the power company Exelon in order to highlight how this move might impact end-user costs:

One company worried about costs, Exelon Corp., said in a regulatory filing on May 10 that “even if the new regulations do not apply directly to us, [its power plant subsidiary Exelon Generation] estimates that a substantial shift from over-the-counter sales to exchange cleared sales may require up to $1 billion of additional collateral.”

But the $1 billion figure is only half the story. The other half of the story is the contingent capital that Exelon saves. But since that contingent capital is off-balance sheet, it is commonly overlooked, leading both corporate executives and reporters to significantly exaggerate the cost of using cleared futures exchanges.[1]  In comparing the financing costs of non-margined OTC trades against the financing costs of exchange-traded derivatives, it’s important to look at both the on- and off-balance sheet capital demands.

Continue reading

Turn a Blind Eye to Credit Risk?

When a bank makes a loan to a business it assumes some risk that the loan will go bad. Regulators, when they do their job, demand that the bank estimate that risk and hold capital against it. That’s safe and sound banking.

What if a bank embeds the same loan inside a derivative it sells to the business? Should the regulators treat that credit risk the same and demand that the bank estimate that risk and hold capital against it? Six U.S. Senators say “no.” They want bank regulators to turn a blind eye to credit risk so long as that risk is packaged inside an OTC swap. So much for safe and sound banking.

Yesterday Senator Mike Johanns (R-Neb.), Mike Crapo (R-Idaho), Herb Kohl (D-Wis.), Jon Tester (D-Mont.), Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) and Kay Hagan (D-N.C.) filed a bill (S. 3480) designed to block bank regulators from recognizing the credit risk embedded in OTC derivatives sold to end-users. Naturally the Senators’ press releases wax lyrical about how their bill protects these end-users by lowering their costs of managing risk. This is a dangerous illusion.

All American businesses suffer when the U.S. financial system is made unsafe and unsound. Following on the Dodd-Frank Act, banking regulators last year proposed a sensible rule finally requiring banks to properly recognize the credit risk embedded in the derivatives they sell. That’s safe and sound banking, and if this country can find its way back to a safe and sound banking system all of America’s businesses will benefit.

The proposed bill seeks to reverse course, directing bank regulators to turn a blind eye once again to obvious risks. It’s a seductive proposition. With a stroke of a pen, the Senators believe they can save a few businesses the costs associated with this credit risk. But no act of law can actually erase the credit risk and the associated cost. The proposed bill only encourages more unsound trading and the accumulation of unaccounted for risk. For a short while, certain businesses will benefit by not having to pay full fare for the risks they add to the banking system. It’s always good while the party lasts. But, in the end, we all lose.

OTC RIP

On Monday, the Intercontinental Exchange, ICE, announced that as of January 2013 all of its cleared OTC energy swap products would switchover and be traded as futures products.

This is one of the outcomes of the Dodd-Frank Act’s reform of the OTC derivatives markets. A very large fraction of swap transactions are economically identical to futures transactions, and the only rationale for that portion of the OTC market had always been evasion of regulation. Now, with the OTC swaps market subject to a parallel set of regulations substantially comparable to the regulation of futures contracts, the rationale for trading many products as OTC swaps is gone.

The OTC swaps market will continue to provide customized products not suitable for trading and clearing on futures exchanges, and in its press release, ICE confirmed that that portion of its OTC swaps business would remain: “All uncleared swaps will continue to be listed on ICE’s OTC platform, which will register as a swap execution facility.”

During the debates over reform of the OTC swaps market, much was made of the OTC market’s ability to offer customized products. While this ability was advantageous, its relevance to the size of the OTC market was always exaggerated. ICE’s announcement for its energy products is likely to be just the first in a major switch back to futures trades for a sizable fraction of the OTC market. The exact extent and the timeline for this switch will depend on many factors, including the ongoing battles over how specific rules are implemented and the ongoing shakeout in the future business model for banking.

Show me, per Dodd-Frank

The finance lawyer who blogs at Economics of Contempt has a very nice summary of what is required for JP Morgan to claim that the trades at the CIO unit are allowed under the Volcker Rule because they were “portfolio hedging”. It is a more comprehensive and textual version of our requirement that JP Morgan “show me”.

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