Prof. Jayanth R. Varma’s Financial Markets Blog

A blog on financial markets and their regulation

Shanghai to Hangzhou: Does G20 run monetary policy?

After the G20 Summit in Shanghai in February 2016, there was a widespread belief that the G20 secretly instituted a “Plaza Accord” agreement to stem the rise of the U.S. dollar primarily by using monetary policy. We do not know whether there was such an accord or not, but we do know that post Shanghai, the ECB and the BOJ signalled a reduction in monetary easing and the US took a break from monetary tightening causing the Trade Weighted Dollar to drop by over 5%. A Google search for “G20 Shanghai Plaza Accord” returns nearly 10,000 results.

The aftermath of the G20 summit in Hangzhou earlier this month adds to the suspicion that monetary coordination happens at G20 summits. The markets now fear that we are on the verge of a coordinated tightening – the ECB disappointed expectations on continuation of QE, the BOJ started having doubts about negative interest rates, and the US Fed is sounding more hawkish than it has in recent months.

I am reminded of the Chicago saying from the Goldfinger film in the James Bond series: “Once is happenstance. Twice is coincidence. The third time it’s enemy action.”

We are still at the coincidence stage of this progression and it will take another G20 summit for us to start wondering whether the omnipotent “independent” central banks are just pawns in the hands of the G20 leaders.

Changing geographic market share of rupee trading

The data from the Triennial Central Bank Survey of Foreign Exchange Markets in 2016 published by the Bank for International Settlements shows some interesting shifts in the geographic share of trading in the rupee.

The plot shows that India and Hong Kong have gained market share at the expense of Singapore and London. Across all currencies, Hong Kong has grown much faster than Singapore and so some shift in rupee market share in that direction is understandable, but the scale of the shift is a little surprising. More puzzling is the the gain in Indian share of trading at a time when the exchange traded rupee futures market is shifting out of India (to Dubai). The last survey was in April 2013 and the taper tantrum began only in May and so it is hard to argue that the larger share of offshore trading at that time was due to greater market stress.

In the sister blog and on Twitter during July and August 2016

Posting was light in last two months.

The following post appeared on the sister blog (on Computing).

Tweets during July and August (other than blog post tweets):

Are bonds the new equities, and equities the new bonds?

A year and a half ago, I wrote a blog post about loss aversion and negative interest rates. That post argued that if prospect theory is true, then the most loss averse investors who traditionally invest in bonds would now become risk seeking when confronted with certain loss of principal induced by negative interest rates. I also raised the possibility that the most loss averse investors would switch to equities and the less loss averse investors would stay in bonds. As we look around at investor behaviour under negative rates, we can see evidence of loss aversion at work though perhaps not quite in the way that I hypothesized earlier.

The most loss averse investors have become risk seeking by taking on duration risk rather than equity risk. If you buy a bond maturing beyond your investment horizon, then there is a possibility of a capital appreciation if interest rates become even more negative in the meantime. For example, suppose your investment horizon is 4 years and you put your money in a 10-year zero coupon bond yielding -0.1%. You would have to pay 100 × 0.999-10 = 101.0055 for such a bond with a face value of 100. At the end of 4 years, when you sell your bond, suppose the 6-year yield is -0.17%. the price of the bond would be 100 × 0.9983-6 = 101.0261, and you would have sold the bond at a profit! (You would break even if the 6-year yield is -0.1666%). You may think that there is a good chance that the 6-year yield will be more negative than -0.1666% for two reasons. First, since the yield curve is usually upward sloping, the yield is likely to drop as the residual maturity shortens from 10 years today to 6 years at the time of sale. Second, you may hope that central banks would become more aggressive with ultra loose monetary policy and push the entire yield curve deeper into negative territory.

In some sense, this is similar to the flight to equity markets that I postulated in my 2015 blog post. Equity investors traditionally tended to chase capital gains and tended to be relatively unconcerned about yields. Now it is bond market investors who are behaving in this way. There is no coupon anymore and they are hoping for redemption through capital gains by selling the bond before maturity. That is the best explanation that I can think of for bond yields turning negative at very long maturities – for example, the Swiss 50 year bond has been trading at negative yields.

On the other hand, there is a sizeable group of equity market investors who are today enamoured of the high dividend yield on some “safe” value stocks. Some of them are actually crossover investors from the bond market who see these dividends as the replacement for the coupons that they used to get on their bonds. These investors are buying equities for their yield rather than their capital appreciation.

In this sense, my original blog post may have got things upside down – bonds are the new equities (home to risk seeking investors hoping for capital appreciation) and at least some equities are the new bonds (home to risk averse investors hoping for a steady yield). If this is so, prospect theory is critical for understanding the effectiveness of unconventional monetary policy.

200 pages on why they let Lehman fail

When I first saw Laurence Ball’s 218 page NBER paper “The Fed and Lehman Brothers”, my first reaction was that this was too long to read. During the crisis, I had waded through 2200 pages (not counting appendices totalling close to 2000 pages) of the report of bankruptcy examiner Anton Valukas. But so many years after the crisis, Lehman fatigue sets in even for persistent readers like me. I am glad however that I overcame my initial reluctance and read this paper. Incidentally, NBER found the paper too long and so they relegated it to a “supplemental file” and posted an 18 page summary as the main paper. I think this is stupid – if you wish to read it at all, I would suggest you read the full paper (the 18 page summary is a waste of time). If you do not have access to NBER, you can read the full paper at the author’s website.

Ball puts together evidence scattered over many different sources to demolish the claim by the Fed that they lacked legal authority to rescue Lehman. The legal requirement was only that any loan should be secured by adequate collateral. Since Lehman had a large amount of unsecured long term debt, its assets (even at very pessimistic valuations) exceeded its short term debt by a wide margin. Therefore Lehman could have provided adequate collateral to the Fed to support a loan large enough to replace its entire short term debt. Lehman would then have been able to remain open for several weeks or months (until the long term debt fell due). This could have enabled Barclays to buy Lehman – the stumbling block to that deal was that Barclays needed a shareholder vote to complete the transaction and without a Fed loan, Lehman could not have survived that long. Even if that deal did not happen, an orderly liquidation of Lehman would have been possible. Ball’s point about long term debt is a valuable contribution to the Lehman literature. In credit risk modelling, it is well known that long term debt is less problematic than short term debt. In the famous KMV model, default risk measurement uses the sum of short term debt and half long term debt. But I have not previously seen this insight applied to Lehman.

Ball is also able to establish that the decision not to lend to Lehman was taken by Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson, though legally Paulson had no role in this decision which was the exclusive province of the Fed. This is of course evidence that the powers to lend to distressed institutions should be moved out of the central bank to a separate resolution corporation in order to safeguard the independence of the central bank.

Let me add that I am firmly of the view that the decision to let Lehman fail was the correct one. If today the US seems to be the only country to have put the crisis behind it and to be on the recovery path, much of the credit should go to the bold decision to let Lehman fail. Countries which spent years in denial and tried to muddle along have fared much worse. It is unfortunate that those who took this correct decision have not had the courage to admit this, but have chosen to hide behind the fig leaf of a non existent legal barrier. Ball’s paper set the record straight on this and ensures that future historians will know the truth.

Finally, a more responsible 2-hour recovery mandate

Nearly two years ago, I wrote a blog post in which I strongly criticized the insistence of the Basel Committee on Payments and Market Infrastructures (CPMI, previously known as CPSS) that payment and settlement systems should be able to resume operations within 2 hours from a cyber attack and should be able to complete the settlement by end of day. I described this demand as reckless and irresponsible because it ignored Principle 16 which requires an FMI to “safeguard its participants’ assets and minimise the risk of loss on and delay in access to these assets.” I argued that in a cyber attack, the primary focus should be on protecting participants’ assets by mitigating the risk of data loss and fraudulent transfer of assets. In the case of a serious cyber attack, this principle would argue for a more cautious approach which would resume operations only after ensuring that the risk of loss of participants’ assets has been dealt with. Shortly thereafter, I was glad to find the Reserve Bank of India echoing these sentiments (in less colourful language) in its Financial Stability Report.

Almost two years later, the Basel Committee (CPMI) has issued new guidance that reflects a much more responsible approach to 2-hour recovery. The Guidance on cyber resilience for financial market infrastructures published late last month states:

An FMI should design and test its systems and processes to enable the safe resumption of critical operations within two hours of a disruption and to enable itself to complete settlement by the end of the day of the disruption, even in the case of extreme but plausible scenarios. Notwithstanding this capability to resume critical operations within two hours, when dealing with a disruption FMIs should exercise judgment in effecting resumption so that risks to itself or its ecosystem do not thereby escalate, whilst taking into account that completion of settlement by the end of day is crucial. FMIs should also plan for scenarios in which the resumption objective is not achieved.

This is a welcome sign that regulators are more pragmatic and are not allowing market participants to form unrealistic expectations. As Regulation Asia wrote about last week’s outage at the Singapore Exchange (SGX):

Trying to lead the public to think a resumption is possible, without knowing if it is really possible only degrades credibility with each successive retraction and announcement.

Is US Treasury becoming a hot money playground?

During the Great Moderation, the US Treasury market came to be dominated by official investors – Asian central banks and the reserve funds of oil producing countries. During the last couple of years, these flows have gone into reverse. With oil around $50 a barrel, most oil producers are liquidating their reserves rather than adding to them. In Asia too, reserve accumulation has slowed down if not reversed with China in particular depleting its reserves as it deals with capital flight.

The massive selling by official investors has been more than balanced by large scale buying by private investors. Some of this is clearly visible in the official data (see for example, slide 10 in Torsten Slok’s presentation at the Brookings event last month on “Negative interest rates: Lessons learned…so far”). I suspect that the official figures understate the true extent of this shift because at least a part of the official selling would be from offshore vehicles that are not clearly identifiable as official holdings.

If this trend continues, I believe this could have serious implications for the volatility in US Treasury yields. As long as the net buying was dominated by price insensitive reserve managers whose mandates restrict them to very safe assets anyway, the volatility of yields would have been quite muted. But the private buyers are much more unconstrained in their portfolio choices and are also much more sensitive to risk-return opportunities in the market. For example, a large part of Chinese capital flight amounts to Chinese external assets moving from the government (PBoC/SAFE) to private investors. Unlike the PBoC or even SAFE, private investors can invest in corporate bonds, equities and real assets anywhere in the world, and have no special preference for US Treasury.

In today’s environment of flight to safety, US Treasury is well bid on the basis of risk-return expectations. But that could easily change and then long term UST yields might have to move a lot to equilibriate supply and demand. At that point, we will see the true consequences of UST becoming a playground of hot money instead of a long term store of value.

In the sister blog and on Twitter during February-June 2016

The following posts appeared on the sister blog (on Computing) during the last few months.

Tweets during the last few months (other than blog post tweets):

The 3 Cs of Clearing

After the global financial crisis, clearing corporations or Central Counter Parties (CCPs) have become the focal point of systemic risk. I think that globally banks have become stronger as a result of Basel 3, but clearing corporations have become weaker as they have started clearing OTC contracts where there is poor liquidity and price transparency. Competition among CCPs has led to a race to the bottom where the CCP with the worst risk management grabs market share in the newly opened up markets.

Regulators have been slow in addressing the problems of CCP regulation. Much of the discussion has focused on margins and capital, but this is too narrow a view of what a CCP needs to manage defaults without creating systemic risk. This is where I keep coming back to what I call the 3 Cs – cash, capital and (operational) capability.

  1. Cash: A CCP first of all needs cash to meet its settlement obligations to the non defaulting side when it faces a default by a large counter party. Given the rigid times lines of the clearing process, this liquidity is needed at very short notice. In my view, the only credible provider of liquidity in that time frame is the central bank. I have argued for years (probably decades) that a CCP needs discount window access at the central bank, but this solution presumes that the CCP has an abundance of discount window eligible collateral.

  2. Capital: The moment a CCP takes over a defaulted position, it is exposed to market risk on the position until it is able to unwind the position and restore a matched book position. In periods of market stress, orderly liquidation would happen over time frame of several days if not weeks. I recall the long liquidation period involved when LCH unwound the interest rate positions of Lehman after the latter’s bankruptcy or Singapore liquidated the Barings Bank position after the Nick Leson episode. During this period, the CCP needs capital to absorb the market risk and to credibly continue its business as a CCP.

  3. Capability: In my view, many CCPs and their regulators underestimate the importance of operational capability to liquidate positions. It requires access to talented traders with the skill required to trade large positions at times of market stress. It could require access to related markets to lay on proxy hedges; depending on the contract involved, access may be required to index futures, currency futures, foreign derivative markets, spot commodity markets, OTC derivative markets and so on. All this would require pre-existing brokerage relationships and ISDA documentations (in case of OTC derivatives). LCH solves the problem by imposing a legal requirement on its members to provide highly capable traders on secondment to manage a default. During the Lehman default, CME dealt with the problem by conducting an auction of defaulted positions, but this may not always be possible. In my experience, many large CCPs have not even conducted mock drills of managing very large defaults. They tend to believe that their success in managing small defaults proves their operational readiness. I think this is a mistake.

It is my belief that regulators have not taken an integrated view of the 3 Cs and have focused excessively on margins and CCP resolution as the solution. The problem with this approach is that it creates the risk that the CCP would take steps that create massive systemic risk in its efforts to protect itself. A CCP with inadequate cash, capital or capability gets so scared of a potential default that it takes recourse to pre-emptive margin calls or market distorting regulatory measures to ward off a threat to its own solvency. At a time of market stress, these actions are destabilizing and can become a source of systemic risk.

Would the Swiss someday demonitize the 1000 franc note?

I wonder whether someday the Swiss would be tempted to simply demonitize the 1000 franc note and earn a windfall gain. After falling for decades, Swiss currency in circulation started rising after the global financial crisis and is now higher than at any time in the last 35 years. Notes in circulation are now well above 10% of GDP and the 1000 franc note accounts for 62% of this or over 6% of GDP. The Swiss central bank publishes a nice set of tables and graphs about all this. Even the US whose currency circulates so widely all over the world (half of all US currency is estimated to circulate outside the US) has a currency to GDP ratio of only about 8% (currency data from the FED and GDP data from the BEA).

As Swiss interest rates remain in highly negative territory (-0.75% at the short end and negative all the way to 30 years), the extremely high denomination 1000 franc note has become very attractive to investors. It is conceivable that if this environment persists Swiss currency might approach 15% of GDP and the 1000 franc note might by itself edge close to 10% of GDP. In a regime of negative interest rates, currency is not a source of seigniorage, but is a costly form of borrowing. At some point, the Swiss may well start thinking about just extinguishing this liability and earning a windfall gain of more than 5% of GDP.

I am not talking about an outright default. The Swiss could start by citing the decision of the European Central Bank (ECB) last month to “permanently stop producing the €500 banknote … taking into account concerns that this banknote could facilitate illicit activities”. They could say that in accordance with global best practices, they too are abolishing the 1000 franc note. Unlike the ECB which retained the existing notes as legal tender, the Swiss could require holders of the 1000 franc note to exchange them for lower denomination notes or bank deposits. The sting in the tail would be a statement that the exchange would be carried out in accordance with the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) recommendations that require member states to seize and confiscate proceeds of money laundering and property involved in financing of terrorism. Therefore, holders of 1000 franc notes would be required to establish their identity as well as the source of the funds.

It is a fair assumption that a significant fraction of the 1000 franc notes will not be tendered for exchange under these conditions, and the Swiss would have made a profit of several percentage points of GDP. The question to my mind is how large that number would need to be for the Swiss to be tempted.