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  • May 20, 2015 | FinRegAlert

    Cleared for Launch: A New Era for OTC Derivatives

    By Mike O'Hara, The Realization Group
    Originally published on TABB Forum

    Buy-side users of OTC derivatives face many uncertainties as they prepare for mandatory central clearing in Europe, and they are turning to their dealers and clearing houses for help. But the widening range of instruments available offered by trading venues in response to the central clearing mandate is drawing in new market participants. Meanwhile, for CCPs, central clearing is an opportunity to generate new relationships and revenues, but it requires adjustments to existing services and operations as well as the development of new ones.

    Buy-side users of OTC derivatives face many uncertainties as they prepare for mandatory central clearing in Europe, a requirement that finally comes into force next year, but which stems from the G20’s 2009 pledge to reduce systemic risk in the market. Initially, the European Market Infrastructure Regulation (EMIR) demands that major clearing brokers must centrally clear a select group of highly liquid interest rate derivatives. But eventually all counterparties must make arrangements to adopt central clearing if they want to carry on using any standardized OTC derivative. 

    For asset managers – many of which fall into EMIR’s ‘Category 2’ basket of market participants that must start central clearing derivatives six months after clearing brokers migrate – interest rate swaps (IRSs) are a core risk management tool for bond portfolios, also used for hedging very specific client liabilities as part of liability-driven investment solutions. Ahead of EMIR’s deadlines, asset managers have been assessing the capabilities of clearing brokers, getting to grips with the collateral implications of margin calls by central counterparties (CCPs), selecting account structures to protect clients’ assets and liaising with end-clients such as pension funds to inform them of the cost and risk aspects of the new clearing requirements. 

    On top of these complex and challenging tasks, asset managers – along with other users of OTC derivatives – must also come to terms with “frontloading,” a requirement unique to Europe’s approach to migrating from bilateral to central clearing. Because derivatives contracts expire over a variety of maturities, the migration process could lead to some instruments being centrally cleared and others bilaterally, thereby creating an uneven playing field for market participants. 

    To ensure that the European market moves swiftly to a centrally cleared environment, EMIR includes the frontloading obligation, which requires bilateral trades entered into before central clearing is introduced to be centrally cleared once the new rules are in force. The rule has proved controversial and has been subject to a series of changes and clarifications over the past 12 months or so. In short, the frontloading period has shrunk, the range of exempt counterparties has increased, and a threshold has been introduced whereby only non-clearing member financial institutions with more than a certain level of derivatives notional outstanding must comply with the requirement. 

    Nevertheless, there will be a seven-month period during which ‘Category 2’ asset managers know that any bilateral agreement to enter into an IRS is very likely to result in a central clearing obligation, if the contract has not expired by the time the EMIR clearing mandate comes into force.

    Buy-side clearing challenges

    For the vast majority of asset managers that have not previously centrally cleared OTC derivatives transactions, the initial response to the incoming EMIR clearing mandate has been to select a clearing broker and a CCP through which to clear. Some firms that already used exchange-traded derivatives turned initially to their futures clearing brokers, but the central clearing of OTC instruments is such new, unchartered territory that many asset managers have found themselves looking for brokers that could demonstrate capabilities and expertise across the OTC and exchange-traded space and across asset classes. 

    The advice of clearing brokers is critical to another of the important decisions facing asset managers – that of selecting appropriate account structures. EMIR specifies that as well as existing omnibus account structures that hold the assets of multiple clients of a clearing member, CCPs must offer individually segregated accounts. These are designed to offer maximum protection to asset managers’ clients, such as pension funds whose assets are posted as collateral, thereby funding initial and variation margin payments in support of centrally cleared OTC derivatives transactions.  

    From a frontloading perspective, one of the first tasks asset managers need to do is establish whether they trade sufficient volumes of OTC derivatives to be categorized as Category 2 or Category 3 market participants, the latter benefitting from a longer phase-in period. Although Category 2 and 3 firms have different clearing obligation timelines, the frontloading obligation only applies to Category 2 firms.

    “To define yourself as Category 2 or 3, you need to calculate your OTC derivative positions – at an individual fund level and not at a group level – over a rolling three-month period to determine if you are over the EUR8 billion notional activity that would determine the fund being regarded as Category 2,” explains Lee McCormack, Clearing Business Development Manager at Nomura. “You also need to work out who you’re trading with, whether they’re going to be classified as 2 or 3, and whether the frontloading obligation applies.” 

    Moreover, buy-side firms need to consider the operational and valuation implications of having OTC derivative transactions on their books that fall under the frontloading obligation. Trading a swap on the understanding that it will eventually go for central clearing may have an impact on credit support annexes (CSAs) and discount valuations, with implications for pricing too. 

    For Luke Hickmore, Senior Investment Manager at Aberdeen Asset Management, uncertainty about clearing costs is the primary but not the only concern over frontloading. “There will be a period during which we’re holding the contract but we won’t know what the clearing costs are going to be at the end of that period. How that affects the value of your contract is going to be really important and needs addressing as soon as possible. Buy-side firms and their end-clients will have to look closely at the existing CSAs they have in place with their counterparties as well as the documentation provided by clearing houses. For us, it’s about taking a project management approach to getting over these complications,” he says.

    The number of parties potentially involved and the complexity of the issues raised by frontloading means prompt action is required by asset managers, regardless of the scope for further slippage of regulators’ timelines. “Buy-side firms should be working with their clearing members now to get their trading limits and initial margin limits in place so that they have a lot more certainty that when they trade that product, they will be able to put it into clearing simply,” recommends McCormack.  

    The earlier the issue is addressed, the better chance asset managers give themselves of working through all of the implications, from the front to the back office. “Buy-side firms need to be in a position to track, monitor and report transactions that will need to be frontloaded and ensure that those positions are then factored in as far as central clearing is concerned. It is not necessarily that difficult, but there is a great deal of operational work to adapt systems for adequate tracking and reporting, as well as the work required in terms of interfacing with CCPs in preparation for central clearing of IRS and other OTC derivatives,” says Hirander Misra, CEO of GMEX Group. 

    From an operational perspective, Aberdeen’s Hickmore cites regulatory uncertainty as causing problems for the buy side at a time when resources are stretched by a need to deal with a wide range of reforms and rule changes in parallel. Europe’s central clearing rules have been consulted on, re-drafted and delayed on several occasions, and it is highly likely that asset managers will not now have to start clearing interest rate swaps until Q3 2016. That might give extra time to prepare, but the stop-start nature of implementation projects is far from ideal. 

    “A lot of it has been done, but has now been put on ice. We saw our project stop at the end of last year when the time to clearing was getting longer. Since then, we’ve revisited the project to ensure our cost assumptions and concerns over operational complications are still valid. That’s not easy and it requires resources,” says Hickmore.  

    Alternative approaches

    As noted earlier, a key objective of the emerging post-crisis regulatory environment is to reduce systemic risk in the OTC derivatives market. In part, this means incentivizing market participants to choose the most highly regulated and operationally robust instruments. For example, the margin requirements for non-standardized OTC derivatives are based on a 10-day value at risk (VaR) treatment, while margins for plain vanilla, centrally cleared OTC derivatives are calculated on a five-day VaR basis, and listed derivatives attract a two-day VaR treatment, making the latter potentially the cheapest to fund over time, provided it offers the same level of protection. 

    Aberdeen’s Hickmore views higher margin requirements for centrally cleared OTC derivatives compared with the historical cost of bilateral trades as a potential performance drag on his portfolio. “It’s not about transaction or usage charges; it’s about the long-term performance brake that placing collateral with a CCP for initial and variation margin can put on the portfolio. It’s hard to quantify, but asset managers are going to have to get on top of it,” he observes. 

    The rising cost of swaps and other OTC derivatives instruments, not to mention the multiple uncertainties over future clearing costs, as exemplified by frontloading obligations, has sparked a number of innovations from venue operators that have caught the eye of buy-side firms. 

    “The overall weight of the regulations and the costs of clearing trades centrally versus bilateral transactions mean that our clients are looking at exchange-traded alternatives with keen interest,” says McCormack.

    In the US, swap futures listed by the CME Group and Eris Exchange have gained a foothold, while in Europe new exchange-based products are also being introduced ahead of EMIR’s central clearing mandate. One of these is GMEX’s Constant Maturity Future, the value of which is based on an underlying proprietary index to replicate the economic effect of traditional IRS, in an exchange-traded environment. 

    “Buy-side users of OTC IRS are facing a capital shortfall as these instruments are forced into central clearing, and are looking for cheaper alternatives. With a Constant Maturity Future, you get the effect of an IRS, but a lower cost of margin and the cost of funding due to the two-day rather than five-day VaR treatment,” explains GMEX’s Misra. 

    “The GMEX Constant Maturity Future closely mimics the underlying IRS market, the difference being it’s a two-day VAR product as opposed to a five-day VAR product, so it’s substantially cheaper on the cost of margin and the cost of funding,” continues Misra. “With an IRS-type framework but exchange-traded, that is good for the buy side because they can look at moving some of their positions to contracts like this. Equally, it also ensures that they can use their capital in a much more efficient manner.” 

    Aberdeen is actively looking at use of exchange-traded alternatives to centrally cleared OTC derivatives and sees tools such as the GMEX Constant Maturity Future as having operational benefits. “For us, certainly in a credit world, it’s a good instrument, because it doesn’t have to be rolled all the time,” says Hickmore. “This means you can have a portfolio fully hedged off against your risks all the way across the yield curve on an ongoing basis. The on-exchange nature of such products also makes them operationally simpler.” 

    But further innovation is required if asset managers are to find exchange-traded alternatives to all their hedging needs. “We’ll certainly be looking to do more exchange-traded derivatives, but many of our clients need more custom-built interest rate swaps, which will have to be centrally cleared,” says Hickmore.  

    Developments in the exchange-traded market may not be sufficient just yet to replace the precision that tailored OTC derivatives can deliver to individual counterparts, but the widening range of instruments available offered by trading venues in response to the central clearing mandate is drawing in new market participants. Niche money managers that might have balked at the complexity of the OTC market are exploring the new competitive landscape with vigor says Nomura’s McCormack. 

    “Smaller clients that have never had access to the OTC markets are seeing this as a great opportunity to get into trading different types of products,” he observes.  

    Supporting roles

    Despite new innovations such as swap futures, some buy-side market participants will continue to want to use familiar hedging instruments, at least until the new regulatory and competitive landscape takes a firmer shape. As such, they are looking to their clearing brokers to provide execution services, access to clearing and expertise, with the latter perhaps being the most important factor for buy-side firms that have never previously dealt directly with a CCP. 

    “Both clearing brokers and clearing houses need to continue their efforts to raise awareness among buy-side firms of the implications of central clearing and the opportunities to maximize capital efficiencies – for example, by identifying and pursuing margin offsets across similar product sets,” says Misra. 

    Clearing houses have had to embrace an entirely new role in interfacing directly with investment management firms, having previously dealt only with clearing members. According to Byron Baldwin, Senior Vice President, Eurex Clearing, they are already working closely with the buy side, notably by simulating currently unfamiliar processes in preparation for central clearing, such as posting margin, on a daily basis.  

    “In our simulation program, we take trades from execution through to clearing and then generate the reports they would receive. It’s a matter of testing the pipes between the various platforms, testing the information flow, seeing the confirmation of trades, and understanding the margin calculation process. A lot of buy-side firms are sending us their portfolios to help them assess the margin implications of the positions within those,” he says.

    For CCPs, central clearing is an opportunity to generate new relationships and revenues, but it requires a number of tweaks and adjustments to existing services and operations as well as the development of new ones. Eurex Clearing, for example, already accepts a wide range of asset types as collateral for margin payments and offers cross-margining across listed and OTC products. 

    In 2014, Eurex introduced new services – Direct Collateral Transfer and Collateral Tagging – to help buy-side firms to tackle new challenges thrown up by central clearing of OTC derivatives, such as transit risk (i.e., the risk that collateral directed by an asset manager to an individual segregated account resides with a clearing member at the point of default and thus does not reach the CCP). “By introducing Direct Collateral Transfer, we eradicated transit risk. With Collateral Tagging, a big fund manager with 100-plus segregated accounts can achieve operational benefits by having just one fully segregated account with collateral tags on a per-fund basis,” explains Baldwin. 

    Although the services required to handle the shift to central clearing are gradually falling into place, many challenges remain. Larger buy-side firms typically have a greater capacity to absorb the implications of regulatory change than their smaller counterparts. Their obligations under reforms such as EMIR are greater too, of course, but smaller firms must also comply, often needing more input from their sell-side counterparts to do so. 

    “There is a level of clients which will have had lots of attention from their dealers and from their CCPs; but also there are a lot of smaller clients who have not had the time and attention,” notes McCormack. “It’s also important to get the message out to them, helping the clients understand their obligations and how they can prepare for them.”

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