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SEF Growing Pains

| FinReg

By Kim Hunter, Markit Magazine

Originally published on TABB Forum

US swap execution facilities remain a work in progress more than a year after their introduction, as regulators and industry continue to wrestle with the details of derivatives reform. Here's an overview of the state of the SEF competitive landscape.

A survey of the regulations of the US swaps market is necessarily a patchwork of competing regulatory gripes. Change came too fast (too slow). Volume is growing (progress is slow). It’s just like the old swaps market (if you discount the liquidity rout). Anonymity (not on my watch).

But there are two areas of agreement. First, regulation had unintended, often negative, consequences, the biggest of which is the much reported fracturing of liquidity between the US and London.

Second, the Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC), under new chairman Timothy Massad, is attempting to figure out what works and what doesn’t and is willing to revisit areas that don’t. Matt Nevins, managing director and assistant general counsel at the Securities Industry and Financial Markets Association (SIFMA), said: “A good amount of the red tape has been cut through now and things are slowly improving. People like the ease and ability to go to a trading platform. It’s just taken some time to get there.”

Industry observers also understand that the CFTC had to create a set of rules out of six pages of the Dodd-Frank Act with no national or global precedent to build on. As much as they complain that the agency got the scope of its ambition and individual areas of rulemaking wrong, at least they have something in place. In the meantime, the long wait for European trading infrastructure rules to go live in 2017 is becoming a huge problem.

This leads to the area of most intense debate: liquidity. On-SEF trading has been slow to develop, but volumes have increased alongside volatility over the past couple of months, as the graph below shows. The proportion of the notional amount of US dollar interest rate swaps traded on-SEF was just over 50% for the four weeks to 14 November, according to International Swaps and Derivatives Association figures. For credit default index swaps, the picture is better still: around 70% of credit default swaps trading by volume was executed on-SEF in the four weeks to November 14th. The data shows that volume is dominated by SEF platforms controlled by ICAP, Tullett Prebon, BGC, Tradition and Bloomberg.

A recent TABB Group report also suggests a shift in protocol towards electronic request for quote (RFQ) and central limit order book (CLOB) trading. Figures from ICAP, owner of IGDL, one of the market’s few dually registered SEFs, show that around 40% of the SEF swaps trading is electronic, up from zero at the start of the year. Doug Friedman, general counsel at Tradeweb, also reported a significant increase in electronic trading on its TW SEF platform. “RFQ trading remains the most popular form of electronic execution for investors, as it provides them with the most flexibility in seeking swap liquidity. [However, while] 12 months ago, less than 10% of rates swaps traded electronically, that figure has already grown to more than 40% today,” he said.

The end users support the new regime, although they have difficulty with some of the detail. Supurna Vedbrat, BlackRock’s cohead of electronic trading and market structure, said that her firm trades all mandated products and, more broadly, “whatever the infrastructure is able to efficiently allow.” She added: “The impression that there is no trading on-SEF is not about willingness per se,” but that “SEFs’ ability to provide trading capabilities and liquidity is still underdeveloped for the way the market trades.”

Vedbrat cited the example of package trades that cross CFTC jurisdictions, i.e. transactions involving more than one swap or instrument, one leg of which is subject to the trade execution requirement. Her firm wants to be able to RFQ both legs as a single transaction to avoid taking basis risk or paying for bid-ask multiple times.

Tradeweb’s Friedman highlighted that many packages already can be priced and traded electronically, but the industry is working on the operational challenges and speed of pricing in some of the more bespoke packages.

A broad and, in many places, relatively shallow market such as the swaps market relies heavily on market making for liquidity. By creating an influx of market makers in the less risky, shorter maturity trades, open access to SEFs seems to have improved their liquidity and tightened spreads, according to Vanguard’s head of fixed income derivatives trading, Sam Priyadarshi. Conversely, he added: “Out beyond 10 years, where the smaller swap dealers are not willing to take on the risk, liquidity has deteriorated a little, though not a lot, and the bid-ask is wider.” Priyadarshi, like other end users, trades RFQ on a “handful” of SEFs that meet his firm’s requirements.

The predicted liquidity split between London and New York has also become manifest. “I liken [SEF liquidity] to a canary in a coal mine. It’s not dead yet, but it’s lying on its side,” said Dexter Senft, Morgan Stanley’s cohead of fixed income electronic markets. The fragmentation is “worrisome,” he said. Senft also fears for the market long term. He believes that the comparison between swaps and futures will inevitably arise once swaps have moved into more standardized products and CLOB trading has thus become viable. Senft has previously said that he expects 30% of the swap market volume to migrate to swap futures, but now expects that to take longer than the two years he originally predicted.

US banks, including Morgan Stanley, Bank of America, Citi, Goldman Sachs and J.P. Morgan, have de-guaranteed all or some of their London-based swaps business and boosted capitalization in the London subsidiary to enable dealing as a “non-US person” under CFTC rules. Nobody blames them, but as a senior SEF executive complained: “The exit of the US banks has shifted trading in euro, yen and sterling interest rate swaps to Europe. Given that interest rate swaps are 80% of the overall market, that’s effectively half the swap market gone at a stroke.”

It is ironic that the execution facilities the regulation was designed to create should be starved of volume at a time when they have the extra costs of ringing the changes the regulator has asked them to bear. As one SEF board member put it: “I can tell you it’s not very appetizing.” Another executive at a large SEF said: “Some of those with volume are not making a profit; the rest must be wondering how they can keep the lights on.” They’re hoping for change, he said, but he couldn’t see where it will come from.

Consolidation seems inevitable, although to what extent is not yet clear. One observer suggested that 15 or more SEFs may close, the only ones with a price tag being those with a “nice” bit of technology (a compression tool, for example) and then only at cents on the dollar.

Other than outright closure, other possible routes to consolidation may make SEFs more like exchanges, or involve the exchanges themselves. Tradeweb’s Friedman noted that designated contract markets would be able to steal a march on the competition if they are allowed to leverage the vertical nature of their expertise, i.e., their relationships with their clearing entities.

So far, the exchanges proper seem more interested in clearing than execution. CME’s $655 million counter bid for GFI following an initial bid by BGC Partners would seem to back that up. It would involve selling off the wholesale brokerage and clearing business to a management led consortium.

Get Ahead, Get a MAT

One change that does seem likely is to the mandatory listing made-available-to trade (MAT) process, and that is likely to make start-up SEFs’ positions worse, although it will please the CFTC’s other critics. The initial broad set of MAT applications was scaled back to the benchmarks before the first mandates in February, but not before the breadth of initial applications highlighted that it is in any struggling SEF’s interest to work on the infrastructure of a particular swap and capture volume while others catch scramble to offer it. SEFs at this year’s WMBA sponsored SEFCon confirmed that it is in their DNA to “list everything,” but neither the CFTC nor end users consider that outcome acceptable.

Vanguard’s principal and senior derivatives counsel, William Thum, told Markit: “We are very concerned that it is left to the good faith of the SEF to get the proposals correct.” Thum would prefer a more evolutionary path to SEF trading altogether, but is particularly concerned that imposed mandates, especially in the case of package trades and non-deliverable forwards (NDFs), both the cause of considerable controversy, should be applied with a “critical eye” to operational ability and overall liquidity. Vanguard and SIFMA worry in particular about front running if they are forced to request three quotes (as they are at present) in less-liquid contracts.

Yet another complex phase-in of package trades was announced in November, which effectively gives relief in the most problematic areas until February 2016. CFTC’s Massad gave a speech at SEFCon in November in which he said, in the context of NDFs, that the agency wants to think about the relationship between clearing mandates and trading. According to sources familiar with CFTC thinking, a non-public consultation has been launched.

CFTC commissioner Mark Wetjen told Markit that the issues raised often have more to do with mandating products for trading than with SEF trading per se. It is therefore “more than appropriate” that the CFTC should reconsider how they impose them, he said, adding: “Having the CFTC impose trading mandates rather than the SEF would probably lend itself to a more orderly and predictable process.”

Given Massad’s apparent sympathy for changing the MAT process, it seems possible that he would be prepared to issue interim relief in the meantime, or schedule in the introduction of any swap whose immediate mandatory trading is likely to have a negative effect on the market.

Competitive Edge

Competition between and within entities was part of what has been dubbed the “aspirational” nature of CFTC regulation. Former chairman Gary Gensler envisaged creating open market access to up to 100 or more SEFs, improving pricing and liquidity as he went. However, few think these extra-Congressional aims were laudable or have been achieved.

One competitive issue relates to the CME’s rule on trading invoice spreads, combined swap and futures positions, which states that the futures leg can be traded only on-exchange. “I don’t know as a technical matter yet whether it would violate any CFTC rule,” said Wetjen. “But it doesn’t feel right that you could hoard all the market activity for an invoice spread package, and it doesn’t seem consistent with some of the overarching policy goals of SEFs more generally.”

Neither has regulation broken the oligopoly of the big five interdealer-brokers, or slowed data terminal giant Bloomberg’s ascent to dominance. “The complexity of the new regime favors the present incumbents across all sections of the market,” explained Morgan Stanley’s Senft, while one SEF executive complained: “The new players are the same five plus Bloomberg. And how can you compete with Bloomberg when its $10 trading fee is below cost?” Bloomberg declined to be interviewed for this article.

The sheer effort it takes to get through the day in this complex new situation is a major reason for trading in a known way on a known entity. For end users, that largely means via RFQ. Vanguard, for instance, might describe its ideal platform as an all-to-all market with hybrid protocols, RFQ (including voice assisted) and request-for-stream as well as an active order book, but so far the firm has been conservative in trading RFQ only at a handful of platforms with the greatest liquidity, the greatest number of liquidity providers and the best infrastructure for efficient trading. “If there is more adoption of CLOBs by liquidity takers and liquidity providers, we will take advantage of that,” Vanguard’s Priyadarshi said.

BlackRock’s Vedbrat added that average price allocation is one area in which CLOBs have not caught up with the way asset managers trade. She thinks that the SEFs will develop solutions in the next few months. “Preferably at the CCPs,” she adds.

Tradeweb’s Friedman agrees. “CLOB trading will likely evolve over time, after the buy side demands greater trade velocity for certain standardized liquid swaps,” he said.

Business as usual for the dealer-to-dealer platform means on-SEF trading on a name give-up basis. However, a source close to the regulator said that anonymity is high on the CFTC’s agenda. Wetjen said that he and others at the CFTC have been asking market participants what, if anything, about the platforms with only dealer-to-dealer activity discourages customers from joining and actively trading. The answer? “Name give-up seems to be one issue. So-called dealer-to-dealer platforms that use or employ introducing brokers but keep them outside the SEF legal entity could be another,” he said.

Anonymity is one area in which no dealer-to-dealer SEF (i.e., an ICAP, Tradition, GFI or BGC) wants to go first. “The first one that goes anonymous is sending a signal that the buy side is becoming part of its platform. You’ll get wider spreads or even dealers withdrawing from that platform,” said one observer. The other side of the coin for dealer-to-dealer platforms is concern about bigger asset managers or hedge funds playing the markets. “If they’re able to enter the market anonymously, they could hit you three times instantaneously – through direct trading on block trades, via an anonymous order book and via Sef RFQ,” he said.

BlackRock’s Vedbrat suggested a compromise: fair and equal disclosure rights. “In a systematic way that would enable every participant to decide whether to give limited information to another participant,” she explained. For example, the SEF should default to non-disclosure and ask each participant to identify which participant they are willing to disclose. In all cases, execution takes place anonymously so there is no price differential.

Anonymity is just one of the questions on which the 24 temporarily registered SEFs need clarity to finalize their rule books as they head toward full registration. “We’re happy to create a straight-through anonymous market,” said one SEF executive. “But it stands in contrast to the permission to people to do disclosed RFQs. The CFTC needs to give clarity on what business models work.”

Another thorny issue is position limits, a statutory requirement that nevertheless needs revisiting for a market that, unlike physical commodities, has potentially infinite liquidity across multiple competing venues. It has been suggested that the CFTC conduct an in-depth study of trading across the whole market, on- and off-SEF, to put the rule into context.

Yet another is the “15 second” rule, the crossing delay that requires a customer order to be displayed for at least 15 seconds before it is filled. The delay at some venues is much lower than that and still problematic. “It’s one reason the interdealer-brokers have moved their brokers inside the SEF. Otherwise, prearranged trades submitted to the SEF would get ‘picked off’ in the majority of cases owing to the aggressive nature of those order book liquidity pools,” said one market participant.

More broadly still is the question whether you can have an affiliated broker-dealer when you’re running a SEF.

There also are questions about how platforms raise fees, including whether they can be capped based on trading in products traded off-SEF with the same company. CFTC rules appear to suggest that you can’t, given the requirement to treat all customers equally. But there are complaints that these rules have not been applied consistently.

One area that has given SEFs genuine relief is the recent no-action letter clarifying that a block trade can trade on-SEF, a position adopted to aid compliance with CFTC regulations covering pre-execution screening and prompt clearing. “The intention was about the delay, not where they’re traded. That’s one rule that should be changed,” said one market observer.

Back to the Future

Certainty will not come to the US swaps market until European market infrastructure rules come on stream in 2017. The nature of that certainty is a matter of interpretation. Morgan Stanley’s Senft told Markit: “Some people think the issue will be resolved in 2017 when Mifid II comes in and the two regimes become similar, that given a chance of frying pan or fire the large players will register in both jurisdictions. But that seems like a stretch to me, especially when people prefer one method of trading.”

Wetjen focused on the cross-border process itself. “[It’s] certainly not broken,” he said. But, referring to the equivalency determinations made so far, he added, it’s a matter of “building on work that’s already been done.”

Back on domestic soil, SEC rules will also go live and SEC registrations will be made, perhaps solving some inter-jurisdictional issues, perhaps creating domestic fragmentation. One market participant suggested that the SEC might be planning to make all players a SEF at the same time in a simple registration process, giving two years’ no action relief on the rules and then phasing them in gradually.

Pity the CFTC, which had to blaze that trail and is now faced with revisiting its own process as registrations become permanent. Wetjen confessed to still being “torn” on the appropriate time to make some of the changes he thinks might be necessary, but feels he has enough clarity on registration to think that adjustments should be made sooner rather than later. “We need to be pragmatic in what’s expected,” he said, without giving further detail.

One market participant, who stressed that he has every sympathy for the CFTC’s task and appreciation of its efforts, nonetheless said that it may have an ulterior motive for the changes: to give it powers that it doesn’t have under existing rules. “At the moment, since they don’t have the ability to mandate these things directly, they have to tie it to something else, like non-discriminatory access,” he said.

This same observer, despite thinking that the original CFTC rules overreached the regualtor’s mandate, would rather the rules were tougher than unclear. “Just don’t leave us in limbo,” he said.