Friday, 16 January 2009

CDS Central Clearing – will it really help?

by Duncan Lindo

Credit Swap Clearing House to be running by year end” claim the headlines. But is the current lack of CDS central clearing really the cause of our multi trillion dollar financial crisis? If central clearing had been in place between 2001 and 2007 would it have averted the crisis? The only reasonable answer is no.

The authorities are reacting to the failure of markets by simply trying to implement markets twice as hard. Moreover we are witnessing a scramble between regulators to talk tough, act decisively and win the mandate for post-2008 regulation with little thought about what needs regulating and how.

Two of the largest alleged benefits are reductions in credit and operational risk but the advantages over the OTC market are slight and the impact on the causes of the crisis minimal. Prevention of a systemic chain of derivative counterparty defaults is a noble aim – but collateral agreements meant even Lehman’s default did not trigger such an event – 200mUSD of losses per bank is estimated not 20-40bnUSD per bank. A central clearer or an exchange should improve discipline and reduce operational risk – but the OTC market has shown it can clear up its act (e.g. tear ups, compression, clearing up confirms etc) and there’s nothing to suggest operational risk in the CDS market is systemic.

On these issues you might argue central clearing is marginally better than not but it’s hard to argue they are really fundamental to trillion dollar losses.

Transparency and prices are other areas mentioned. Apparently “buyers and sellers will know what they buying and selling” on an exchange (what an extraordinary thing that they collectively invested trillions of dollars without knowing that before!). In fact might not the reassurance of a clearing house further discourage active investigation and analysis by investors?
The same goes for prices. A clearing house will determine prices for every contract every day but very few of the outstanding contracts trade every day. The exchange will have to invent (“model”) the missing prices. It seems very likely that a clearing house publishing prices will only reduce the incentive for participants to use their own analysis and judgement. Isn’t this exactly the opposite of what is required?

Credit Risk Transfer started as bespoke, private and negotiated deals between those bearing credit risk (e.g. bank loan desks) and investors. Deals took time, details were analysed. Over time, and with the help of the dealers, the contract has become more standardised, information more social, markets more liquid; easier to trade in fact. In the moments before the crisis break there were many buyers and sellers, many transactions, much information about underlying corporate credits: few would have argued (in particular for standard corporate credit) that the market was not efficient. Yet the price was simply wrong. Risk premium was far too low.

The reaction to this market failure is to try even harder for the market. A clearing house is yet another step in the march of standardisation, liquidity and faster, easier trading. Is that really going to improve the quality of prices?

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