Revisiting Central Clearing for Derivatives

The Dodd-Frank requirement that over-the-counter derivatives be centrally cleared is one of the (slightly) less controversial provisions of the Act, at least in spirit if perhaps not always in substance. But for a time, a few observers have worried - myself included - that concentrating derivatives clearing activities in one or two single-purpose entities may increase, rather than reduce, the risk to the broader economy posed by the default of a counterparty.

As it turns out, we skeptics are not alone. In yesterday’s Wall Street Journal, the good folks at BlackRock are cited as having raised concerns in a recent study about the lack of clarity regarding where the risk ultimately falls in the event of default by a large counterparty. Banks and investors want the clearinghouses themselves to backstop some of this risk. The BlackRock study notes that “post-crisis rules have forced a large swath of risky trades… and this risk needs to be addressed.”

It is perhaps, therefore, a good time to hark back to Craig Pirrong’s Cato Policy Analysis from 2010, released on the day the Act was signed into law. In it, Mr. Pirrong argues that central clearing leads to better and more efficient risk pricing ONLY if the clearinghouse has perfect information. He notes the risk sharing that occurs through the clearinghouse mechanism encourages excessive risk taking, which creates moral hazard. Pirrong also highlights that “if the clearinghouse has imprecise information, the margin levels it chooses will sometimes overly constrain the trading of its members and sometimes constrain them too little…all of these factors mean that it is costly for the clearinghouse to control moral hazard.” As Pirrong notes, a clearing mandate reduces market efficiency and poses “its own systemic risks in a world where information is costly.”

One of the major criticisms of the previous or “bilateral” approach to derivatives clearing was that banks and investors could not adequately monitor their own risk exposure to counterparties (with some side complaints about banks mispricing risk etc.). However, as the BlackRock study notes, it is not clear that the central clearing approach addresses this concern, especially since the rules governing outcomes in the event of a major default have yet to be finalized. In particular, if a major counterparty defaults and the clearinghouse is not holding sufficient collateral to cover that counterparty’s trades, who loses out? Is it the members? The Federal Reserve? (Remember, one of the Board’s first actions under Dodd-Frank was to allow clearinghouses to borrow at the discount window in the same way that commercial banks do). Will the clearinghouse perhaps declare bankruptcy (and, if so, what impact will the failure of a major utility have on operational stability)?

More importantly, just when counterparties have realized these products must be treated with caution, the system is incentivizing the market participants with the best information (the members) to pool and therefore increase the riskiness of their activities. Derivatives are an important economic tool and vital to most companies’ (financial or otherwise) risk management. But we should not assume that the framework created by Dodd-Frank will eliminate risk in the derivatives trade, real or perceived.