The euro swaps surprise

As surprises come, it should have been a non-event. On March 18, Swedish clearing house Nasdaq OMX announced it had been authorised as a central counterparty (CCP) under the European Market Infrastructure Regulation (EMIR), the first in Europe to get the regulatory nod of approval. Clearers had to submit their applications by September 15 last year, and national authorities had a six-month limit to consider them once they were confirmed as complete, meaning the authorisation was well in line with the schedule outlined by the European Securities and Markets Authority (ESMA).

Nonetheless, the announcement caught the market completely unawares, and has led to a situation where European derivatives users are unsure how to price and risk-manage euro-denominated interest rate swaps, the largest segment of the interest rate derivatives market.

How did this happen?

It all boils down to the oddly named and much misunderstood frontloading requirement under EMIR. Frontloading is a bit of a misnomer – it actually refers to a requirement to backload certain derivatives transactions to a CCP, specifically those trades conducted between the point in time ESMA is told a clearing house has been authorised to clear certain derivatives classes and the start of a clearing obligation for those products.

The problem arises because it’s uncertain which trades will be captured by this requirement, and when. Once ESMA is notified of a CCP authorisation, it has six months to conduct a consultation and draw up regulatory technical standards for each class of products it thinks may be suitable for mandatory clearing. The European Commission (EC) then has up to three months to endorse the standards, before they pass to the European Parliament and Council of the European Union, which have up to two months to accept the rules if they haven’t been modified by the EC and up to six months if they have. The rules are then published in the official journal, and come into force 20 days later.

According to a time line published by ESMA last year, the earliest a clearing mandate will come into effect after a CCP is authorised is nine months; the latest is 16 months. But there could be phase-ins written into the rules that extend the start date beyond that.

This all matters because Nasdaq OMX doesn’t just clear the smaller Scandinavian currencies – it also clears euro interest rate swaps. That means the clock is now ticking, and any euro swap transacted by a European participant from March 18 onwards may need to be backloaded to a CCP at some unknown time in the future.

This creates some real risk management headaches for European derivatives users. Should individual trades now be treated as cleared, non-cleared, or a mixture of both? It’s virtually certain a clearing mandate will apply for euro interest rate swaps at some point, but it’s not clear when. The situation is even less clear for other, less liquid products – ESMA may decide after its consultation period that some instruments are not yet suitable for mandatory clearing, particularly if they are only cleared by a single CCP.

Market participants had hoped regulators would provide further clarity on frontloading before the first CCPs were authorised. Without this guidance, derivatives users can’t be sure whether any single trade will ultimately be subject to frontloading or not. That’s why the approval of Nasdaq OMX came as such a shock.

Further clarity will come at some point. But the sooner the better. Until it does, uncertainty will continue to hamper risk management in the euro swaps market, making it more difficult for end-users in Europe to implement the hedges they need.

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