Clearinghouses and the Swaps Market: A Decade On
- Yesha YadavYesha YadavLaw School, Vanderbilt University
In the wake of the 2008 financial collapse, clearinghouses have emerged as critical players in the implementation of the post-crisis regulatory reform agenda. Recognizing serious shortcomings in the design of the over-the-counter derivatives market for swaps, regulators are now relying on clearinghouses to cure these deficiencies by taking on a central role in mitigating the risks of these instruments. Rather than leave trading firms to manage the risks of transacting in swaps privately, as was largely the case prior to 2008, post-crisis regulation requires that clearinghouses assume responsibility for ensuring that trades are properly settled, reported to authorities, and supported by strong cushions of protective collateral. With clearinghouses effectively guaranteeing that the terms of a trade will be honored—even if one of the trading parties cannot perform—the market can operate with reduced levels of counterparty risk, opacity, and the threat of systemic collapse brought on by recklessness and over-complexity.
But despite their obvious benefit for regulators, clearinghouses also pose risks of their own. First, given their deepening significance for market stability, ensuring that clearinghouses themselves operate safely represents a matter of the highest policy priority. Yet overseeing clearinghouses is far from easy and understanding what works best to undergird their safe operation can be a contentious and uncertain matter. U.S. and EU authorities, for example, have diverged in important ways on what rules should apply to the workings of international clearinghouses. Secondly, clearinghouse oversight is critical because these institutions now warehouse enormous levels of counterparty risk. By promising counterparties across the market that their trades will settle as agreed, even if one or the other firm goes bust, clearinghouses assume almost inconceivably large and complicated risks within their institutions. For swaps in particular—whose obligations can last for months, or even years—the scale of these risks can be far more extensive than that entailed in a one-off sale or a stock or bond. In this way, commentators note that by becoming the go-to bulwark against risk-taking and its spread in the financial system, clearinghouses have themselves become the too-big-to-fail institution par excellence.