FRB Governor Powell Examines Liquidity Risks in Central Clearing

At the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago Symposium on Central Clearing, Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System (“FRB”) Governor Jerome H. Powell detailed the risks faced by central counterparties (“CCPs”) and their members.

Because they advocated for central clearing, Mr. Powell noted, global authorities (i) have a responsibility to make sure that CCPs do not become a point of failure in the system and (ii) must ensure that bank capital rules do not discourage central clearing.

Regarding bank capital, Mr. Powell argued that the supplementary leverage ratio for U.S. global systemically important banks fails to account for the relatively low risk of central clearing, as compared to riskier activities, and could discourage central clearing. He explained that the Basel Committee on Banking Supervision is considering a “risk-sensitive” approach to evaluating counterparty credit risk for certain centrally cleared derivatives, which could help to encourage central clearing. He also noted that the FRB is considering implementing a “settlement-to-market” approach for some cleared derivatives that would treat daily variation margin as a settlement payment, which means that banks would not have to hold capital against it.

On the subject of liquidity, Mr. Powell outlined the risks associated with central clearing. He noted the challenges that CCPs face with regard to outgoing and incoming payment flows. In the event of a member default, for instance, CCPs would need to be able to convert large amounts of non-cash collateral into cash in order to make payments to non-defaulting parties. For that reason, they must have lines of credit and ready access to the repurchase market. Mr. Powell’s example of a payment flow challenge led him to consider where CCPs should store their available cash. He mentioned central bank deposits as a safe and flexible option.

Mr. Powell also described the risks associated with incoming payment flows. Market volatility can trigger events that lead to an abnormal number of margin calls, which, in the first instance, requires liquidity on the part of clearing members to meet the margin call. It also requires a series of payments to be made simultaneously, so that the CCPs can obtain funds from the settlement bank quickly to meet margin requirements for its members. (In most instances, clearing members have an hour to meet intraday margin calls.) By way of example, Mr. Powell noted that data from the CFTC suggests that the top five CCPs requested $27 billion in additional margin over the two days following the Brexit referendum, which is about five times the average amount. Fortunately, members and CCPs were prepared in that instance, and were able to make the necessary payments.

In order to manage liquidity risk, Mr. Powell suggested, regulators should conduct expanded stress tests for CCPs:

“Conducting supervisory stress tests on CCPs that take liquidity risks into account would help authorities better assess the resilience of the financial system. A stress test focused on cross-CCP liquidity risks could help to identify assumptions that are not mutually consistent; for example, if each CCP’s plans involve liquidating Treasuries, is it realistic to believe that every CCP could do so simultaneously?”

He also urged regulators to (i) facilitate innovations that help to reduce liquidity risks, such as exploring the utilization of distributed ledger technology, (ii) make Federal Reserve bank accounts available to major CCPs, and (iii) take global market implications into account when developing solutions for managing liquidity risk for CCPs.

Lofchie Comment: The CFTC and the banking industry have long argued that the Basel III capital rules that require banks to reserve against collateral posted to a central clearing agency are mistaken. Governor Powell is coming around belatedly to that view. The existence of central clearing parties does not decentralize risk; it concentrates it. Yet a further risk of clearing emphasized in Governor Powell’s remarks is the power that the clearing agencies have to suck tremendous amounts of liquidity out of the market: $27 billion of additional margin in the two days following Brexit. (What this means is that, in demanding more margin to protect their own liquidity in a financial crisis, clearing agencies may bring down everyone else.)

It is certainly time for a full review of the benefits and risks of central clearing. Many of the concerns raised by clearing skeptics are being proved valid.

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