Frontloading certainty paves way for EU clearing mandate

The first clearing obligations are already in place in the US and Japan, and the European Union is now set to follow with its first mandates next year. One of the sticking points has been the fine-tuning of the frontloading requirement – a rule unique to Europe that essentially requires certain trades conducted before the clearing obligation comes into effect to be subsequently cleared.

The concept may sound simple enough, but it’s a requirement that is packed with complexity – and it has been an issue that ISDA and its members have continually flagged since the rules were first published. Recent modifications by the European Commission (EC), however, help eliminate many of the uncertainties, and pave the way for the introduction of Europe’s first clearing mandate for interest rate swaps.

The preceding iteration of the rules appeared in final draft regulatory technical standards (RTS), submitted by the European Securities and Markets Authority (ESMA) to the EC for endorsement on October 1. This version established four categories of derivatives users (an increase from the previous three) and also introduced a new threshold calculation – based on derivatives notional outstanding – to determine whether financial institutions that are not clearing members had to apply the frontloading requirements.

But the way the rules were constructed created significant legal uncertainty. For instance, non-clearing-member financial institutions would have had to determine what category they fall into based on derivatives notional outstanding figures in the three months prior to the official publication of the final rules, meaning the assessment would have been based on criteria not yet finalised, published or in force. What is more, the start and end points for the three months of data depended on an unknown date of publication of the final rules – at which point, the frontloading requirement would also have started.

Taken together, the rules would not have given any time for derivatives users to communicate their status to counterparties, meaning trading partners could have faced real uncertainty as to whether any trade conducted after the publication of final rules would be subject to frontloading.

The EC adjustments tackle these issues. Crucially, the assessment period for non-clearing-member financial institutions will now run in the three months after the RTS come into force, creating greater legal certainty for these entities. Those categories of firms subject to frontloading will also have two months to get the necessary systems, controls and procedures in place and to inform counterparties of their status. The phase-in dates for the start of the clearing obligation remain unchanged, however.

Another important change relates to treatment of cross-border intragroup trades – in other words, transactions between a European institution and a counterparty from the same corporate group based in a third country. These trades are exempted from the clearing obligation under the European Market Infrastructure Regulation (EMIR), but the exemption would only have applied if the intragroup counterparty is based in a jurisdiction with equivalent rules. Given the absence of equivalence decisions, these transactions could inadvertently have been caught by the frontloading requirement once the final RTS are published, as well as by the clearing obligation after the phase-in period. The EC modifications include a three-year exemption for these trades.

ISDA and its members have played a key role in highlighting these concerns, and have worked with regulators to develop practical responses. The end result will ensure the clearing obligation can be introduced in a safe and efficient way, and in a manner that is more consistent across jurisdictions.

Ensuring CCPs are not TBTF

Last month, ISDA issued Principles on CCP Recovery, a short paper that crystallizes and makes recommendations on the adequacy and structure of central counterparty (CCP) loss-absorbing resources and on CCP recovery and resolution.

These are, needless to say, very important issues in the global derivatives markets, particularly given the rapid increase in the volume of centrally cleared trades. The larger CCPs have become critical components of the financial markets infrastructure and are emerging as major hubs concentrating the vast majority of global OTC derivatives transaction flows and risk positions. Great care needs to be taken to ensure that CCPs are not the new ‘too big to fail’ institutions requiring public money to prevent their failure.

There are a number of important points in the paper. Chief among them: there needs to be more transparency with regards to the risk management standards and methodologies used to size CCP loss-absorbing resources. In particular, industry participants would like to see more disclosure on initial margin methodologies and the process for computing default-fund contributions (for instance, margin periods, stress scenarios used and assumptions made), and more detail on the risks faced by the CCP (for instance, the largest concentrations and exposures to clearing members). Without greater disclosure, it’s very difficult for market participants to accurately assess risks.

In addition, we believe standardised, mandatory stress tests should be introduced – again, to allow market participants to assess their risks and also to make like-for-like comparisons between CCPs. Regulatory input and action would be needed on this.

ISDA also makes an important recommendation on so-called CCP ‘skin-in-the-game’ (SITG). We believe CCP SITG plays a significant role in aligning the CCP’s behaviour with that of its clearing members by encouraging the CCP to maintain robust risk management practices. As such, ISDA recommends that SITG should be split into two tranches – one junior (to encourage good initial margin practices) and one senior to mutualised default resources (to encourage robust default fund sizing methodologies). Furthermore, for SITG to be effective, it should be material. Further quantitative analysis should be conducted to determine its optimal amount and structure within CCP loss-absorbing resources.

Crucially, there also needs to be a plan in place to address what would happen if CCP loss-absorbing resources prove to be insufficient. Regulators have suggested a variety of recovery tools, and in this respect, ISDA strongly recommends that recovery plans for each CCP are transparent and clearly defined. ISDA also strongly supports viable CCP recovery plans – a view that is consistent with regulatory objectives. Central to these plans is the notion that CCP recovery and continuity is likely to be less disruptive and less costly to the financial system than closure.

Another important ISDA recommendation is that recovery initiatives should only proceed so long as the default management process is effective. If it’s deemed to be no longer viable for any reason – for instance, the failure of an auction – then the CCP may have to consider closing the clearing service. Of course, it’s likely that resolution authorities would be evaluating which would be the most effective course of action in this situation.

ISDA’s paper joins several others that firms have written on an important topic that is of increasing interest and concern to policy-makers and market participants. It will be followed shortly by a longer, more technical paper that focuses specifically on CCP default management and recovery.

CCPs play a key role in the global derivatives markets and in the Group of 20 commitments to reform these markets. As a result, the adequacy of CCP loss-absorbing resources and the strength of CCP recovery and resolutions plans are important issues to consider and address. We hope our work in this area is a constructive step in the on-going process to build safe, efficient markets.