Risky is as Risky Does – European Edition

Recently I wrote about the debate in the US over risk management programs at CCPs, and how “skin in the game” was not a very comforting approach. A recent report by the European Commission on the use of CCPs by pension funds brings another aspect of this to light.

First the report points out that, Under EMIR, OTC derivatives that are standardised (i.e. that have met predefined eligibility criteria), including a high level of liquidity, will be subject to a mandatory central clearing obligation and must be cleared through central counterparties (CCPs).” Then it says that, “Pension Scheme Arrangements (PSAs) in many Member States are active participants in the OTC derivatives markets. However, PSAs generally minimise their cash positions, instead holding higher yielding investments such as securities in order to ensure strong returns for their beneficiaries – retirees. The inability of CCPs to accept non-cash assets as collateral to meet [variation margin] VM calls means PSAs would need to generate cash on a short term basis either by borrowing cash or selling other assets in order to meet the CCP margin calls.

After observing that PSAs can post non-cash margin in the bilateral world, the report notes that a transition period was, explicitly provided for under EMIR in order to provide further time for CCPs to develop technical solutions for the transfer of non-cash collateral to meet VM calls.” The solution envisioned was for PSAs to repo securities owned free and clear to generate the cash needed for VM. On its face, this would be a workable solution, since there is an active market for repos in Europe, with several clearinghouses, like LCH RepoClear, providing those services. If the derivatives were cleared at LCH, for example, it doesn’t seem to be too much of a stretch to imagine a linkage between RepoClear and SwapClear, where VM requirements would trigger a repo of securities held at LCH, and excess VM would trigger an unwind and return of the securities. Sounds like a good business model to me.

However, the report points out an immediate concern. The baseline study indicates that the aggregate VM call for a 100 basis point move would be €204–255 billion for EU PSAs. Of this, €98–123 billion (£82–103 billion) would relate to UK PSAs, and predominantly be linked to sterling assets, and €106–130 billion would relate to euro (and perhaps other currency) assets. Even if PSAs were the only active participants in these markets, the total VM requirement for such a move would exceed the apparent daily capacity of the UK gilt repo markets and would likely exceed the relevant parts of the EU Government bond repo market — i.e. primarily that in German Government bonds (bunds).

In other words, as I pointed out last July, the swaps markets are so large that a 100 bp move in short rates would create an enormous VM requirement. Given that risk, the report says that, The Commission therefore intends to propose an extension of the three-year period referred to in Article 89(1) of EMIR by two years through means of a Delegated Act. The Commission shall continue to monitor the situation with regards to technical solutions for PSAs to post non-cash assets to meet CCP VM calls in order to assess whether this period should be extended by a further one year.”

So, on the one hand, the VM requirement for European pension funds in the event of an upward move in rates is so large that the repo market couldn’t handle it. On the other hand we’re all comfortable that the risk could be handled in the bilateral market. Really? Well, if all the PSAs are doing with swaps is hedging the risk of owning fixed rate debt, then we would expect them to be paying fixed and earning floating. Then, if rates rise, they will be receiving VM, not posting it. If, on the other hand, they own floating debt, why would they be hedging against a rate rise?

As it turns out, the management of this risk, as with all investment risks, doesn’t depend on whether the positions are carried in a CCP or not. It depends on whether the swaps positions are hedges and, if so, what risk they are hedging. If the PSAs are using swaps as a hedge, then the VM requirements would not be insurmountable, since the size of the positions would be commensurate with the size of the bond holdings. Thus the repo problem would solve itself. If they are not hedges, then someone should be asking what they are used for. A good reporting system would help us assess this risk, but, as we all know, swaps reporting has been a disaster around the world. Thus we have very little chance of knowing how big the risk is, how well it has been managed, and when it will re-emerge. Instead, we’re focused on whether PSAs are required to clear their positions. Isn’t this another case of looking at second while the ball is going to first?