Prof. Jayanth R. Varma’s Financial Markets Blog

A blog on financial markets and their regulation

Could SWIFT and CLS Bank become obsolete?

SWIFT (Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication) is nearly half a century old and was originally built to replace the antiquated telex machine. Telecommunication technology has changed drastically since then and it is unlikely that banks would want to build a bespoke telecommunication network if they were designing the system from scratch today. Cryptographic tools like SSL/TLS/HTTPS allow secure communications over ordinary telecommunication links. Of course, SWIFT is not just a telecommunication company: it also pioneered the standardisation of financial messaging formats like the famous MT 105. However, over time, this role too has gradually been taken over by the global standard setting bodies (for example, ISO 20022).

All this means that if SWIFT did not already exist, nobody would bother to create it today. But SWIFT does in fact exist, and until recently, there was no serious reason not to just let it be. If SWIFT were delivering security and piece of mind, why would anyone disturb it? The problem is that in recent months, the Bangladesh Bank SWIFT hacking and other breaches of SWIFT security in Ecuador, Vietnam and India have shattered the illusion that SWIFT provides unquestionable security. Suddenly, SWIFT is being viewed as a source of risk – a single point of failure. For example, last month, the Bank of England put out a Consultation Paper about the design of the next generation of the large value payment system — the UK RTGS. Two of the proposals are:

  1. “[I]ntroduce additional functionality to mitigate the impact of an outage in the core SWIFT infrastructure, should it ever occur … to remove the current single point of failure.”

  2. Use ISO 20022 messaging standards in the new RTGS infrastructure instead of the current SWIFT MT messaging standards. This is designed to increase interoperability, eliminate single points of failure, and enable richer payment data.

Then there is the blockchain, which has helped popularize the hitherto esoteric notion that critical systems must be designed for Byzantine fault tolerance. In other words, the system must function correctly even if a few participants are completely evil (and not just selfish). In a world where even the largest banks could get hacked by rogue nation states or terrorist organizations, it is reasonable to assume that at any point of time, some participants in the global financial network are evil. Even if the blockchain turns out to be a passing fad, the need for Byzantine fault tolerance is not going away anytime soon.

Where does all this leave SWIFT? It is by no means self evident that its half-centenary coming up in a few years’ time will be an occasion for much celebration.

CLS Bank is a much newer organization – less than 15 years old. Yet, it belongs to a different era in which the big global banks constituting the foreign exchange markets confronted national high value payment systems (Real Time Gross Settlement Systems or RTGS) designed to serve their respective domestic markets. The RTGS in each country tended to be open for a few hours each day corresponding to the trading hours in that country and the idea that an RTGS in one country could be interconnected with the RTGS of other countries did not occur to anybody at all. So CLS Bank emerged as a private sector solution that interconnected all the major RTGS by participating in each of them. During the short window of time during early morning in Europe when all the major RTGS are open, CLS Bank achieves a payment versus payment (PvP) settlement – European Mega Bank can pay euros to American Giga Bank and receive dollars in return, with CLS Bank ensuring that both payments happen simultaneously. There is no risk that the euros will flow out, but the dollars will be stuck or vice versa; the so called Herstatt risk is solved.

Over the last decade, payment systems have evolved and in some large countries like the US, the RTGS now closes for only a few hours. In the UK RTGS Consultation Paper, the only question that they are debating is whether the new RTGS should be open for 23 ½ hours a day or for 24 hours. Moreover, national RTGS are becoming more open to the idea of interfacing with another RTGS in a different country. Again the UK Consultation Paper proposes to create a synchronization functionality which “allows each RTGS system to confirm that the funds are earmarked in the system in which the linked transaction will take place, the two systems then simultaneously release the two transactions”.

Inter-RTGS synchronization would provide a settlement system with much lower risk than the CLS Bank solution. I remember in 2008, the principal Indian fixed income CCP (Central Counter Party) was accessing CLS Bank through a European settlement bank that needed a bailout from its home country governments. For a significant period of time, Indian entities settling through CLS Bank via this TBTF (Too Big To Fail) settlement bank actually faced a greater risk than bilateral settlement with Herstatt risk. Even in normal times, the CLS solution is too demanding in terms of timelines and liquidity needs to really solve Herstatt risk. The system functions only with the liberal use of so called In/Out Swaps that reintroduce Herstatt risk.

In fact, I think this is an area where the IMF has a legitimate role to play. Articles III and VIII give the IMF access to every currency in the world and it is also the issuer of its own quasi-currency, the SDR. It is possible for the IMF to run a global multi-currency RTGS allowing simultaneous exchange of any currency for any other currency on its own books virtually round the clock. Participants could move the money from IMF books to the respective central bank books at any time when the respective central bank’s RTGS is open. Alternatively, if it is desired to run all settlement only in central bank money, the IMF could run an SDR RTGS that allows synchronization with each national RTGS. European Mega Bank can then exchange euros for SDRs through a linked transfer between the IMF RTGS and the European TARGET2 RTGS. American Giga Bank can then exchange these SDRs for dollars through a linked transfer between the IMF RTGS and the US Fedwire RTGS. (Since the IMF is the issuer of SDRs, it is clear that SDR balances at the IMF count as central bank money).

The point is that CLS Bank was a second best solution to Herstatt risk that made sense at a time when the world was struggling with third best and fourth best solutions. Indeed CLS Bank is a solution by TBTF banks, for TBTF banks, and of TBTF banks: it makes little sense in today’s post crisis world. Advances in technology and changes in mindsets have made a first best solution feasible. I think that CLS Bank is now living on borrowed time, but the lobbying power of the TBTF banks cannot be underestimated.

SEBI’s Social-Media Regulatory Overreach

More than three years ago, as a member of the Financial Sector Legislative Reforms Commission (FSLRC), I wrote a note of dissent in the FSLRC Report which argued that an expansive definition of financial services “creates the risk of regulatory overreach” and “creates scope for needless harassment of innocent people without providing any worthwhile benefits”. I also wrote that “regulatory self restraint … is often a scarce commodity”. At that time, most people thought that I was paranoid and that regulators can generally be trusted to behave sensibly.

Last week, the Securities and Exchange Board of India put out a “Consultation Paper on Amendments/Clarifications to the SEBI (Investment Advisers) Regulations, 2013” which shows that my fears were not at all misplaced. The document proposes that:

a) No person shall be allowed to provide trading tips, stock specific recommendations to the general public through short message services (SMSs), email, telephonic calls, etc. unless such persons obtain registration as an Investment Adviser or are specifically exempted from obtaining registration.

b) No person shall be allowed to provide trading tips, stock specific recommendations to the general public through any other social networking media such as WhatsApp, ChatOn, WeChat, Twitter, Facebook, etc. unless such persons obtain registration as an Investment Adviser or are specifically exempted from obtaining registration.

If everybody needs a license from SEBI to post any stock specific thing on any social media, SEBI would quickly become one of the richest regulators in the world with a market capitalization rivalling that of Facebook.

Let me deliberately give a non Indian example of the kind of thing that SEBI now wants to censor. Last week, Aswath Damodaran wrote a post on his widely respected blog, Musings on Markets, arguing that Deutsche Bank was now undervalued. He stated that he had bought it himself and also wrote: “I have set up my valuation spreadsheet to allow for you to replace my assumptions with yours. If you are so inclined, please do enter your numbers into the shared Google spreadsheet that I have created for this purpose and let’s get a crowd valuation going!” This is social media is at its best trying to disintermediate the analysts who are licensed by the regulator. The blog post was also posted on Twitter (with more than a hundred retweets), on Facebook (with more than a hundred likes) and on Youtube (with more than 3,000 views). This is the kind of carefully reasoned analysis that SEBI now wants to shut down. Thankfully, Aswath Damodaran, teaches at NYU, Stern, safely out of reach of SEBI’s censorship.

Everybody wants to become a censor because censorship is the most powerful weapon in a democracy. It is so in India and it was so in ancient Rome where the Censor was one of the most powerful and feared officials (More than two millennia after his death, we still refer to the great Roman writer, Cato, as “Cato the Censor” and not by the numerous other military and civilian offices that he held).

It is therefore extremely important in a democracy to thwart the desires of regulators to become censors. A financial regulator is there to defend the right to property and any day, anywhere the right to free speech overrides the right to property. If there is a conflict between the right to life and the right to free speech, we can have a debate about what reasonable restrictions can be placed on free speech. But the right to property can never be a ground for stifling free speech.

Run on repo in 1998

Gary Gorton’s work describing the Global Financial Crisis as a “Run on Repo” became highly influential with people like Bernanke recommending it highly. While reading Daniela Gabor’s recent paper “The (impossible) repo trinity: the political economy of repo markets”, I noted some references that she made to work done by the CGFS (Committee on the Global Financial System) of BIS (Bank for International Settlements) on the LTCM crisis of 1998.

So, I went back and read those reports and found that the entire dynamics of the “Run on Repo” was succintly described in the CGFS report entitled “A Review of Financial Market Events in Autumn 1998”. On page 40, there is a nice diagram which is elucidated over the next couple of pages. On page 14, the CGFS refers to the repo market dynamics as one of the “market mechanisms that fostered contagion and amplified price dynamics [that] were more fundamental to the structure of market institutions.” It therefore warned that “As a result, they may pose risks going forward.”

The BIS is often described as the central bankers’ central bank and it is surprising that the leading central banks in the world had to be relearn this CGFS analysis a decade later.

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.