Three months left and counting down….

European derivatives users are keenly waiting to discover what derivatives products are likely to be subject to the first clearing mandates, with the European Securities and Markets Authority (ESMA) expected to release its first consultation paper on the topic within weeks.

The process picked up steam back in March, when Swedish clearer Nasdaq OMX was authorized as a central counterparty (CCP) under the European Market Infrastructure Regulation. From the moment ESMA was notified of the approval by the Swedish regulator on March 18, the clock started ticking on a six-month window for ESMA to conduct a public consultation and submit draft regulatory technical standards to the European Commission (EC) for each authorized class of derivatives product it recommends for a clearing mandate.

Since then, four other over-the-counter derivatives clearing houses have been authorized – most recently, LCH.Clearnet Ltd on June 12 – and the current thinking is that ESMA will group together the products it thinks may be suitable for the first clearing obligations, possibly into a single consultation to begin shortly. Furthermore, while the derivatives classes so far authorized for clearing across the five CCPs include interest rate, foreign exchange, equity, credit and commodity derivatives, it is anticipated that ESMA will prioritize the most liquid interest rate and index credit derivatives classes in the first instance.

That approach would seem to make sense, given the six-month window for ESMA to hand its rules to the EC for endorsement is rapidly disappearing. Already, the time set aside for the industry to respond to the consultation is likely to be limited – the first post-consultation draft regulatory technical standards are due to be handed to the EC in less than three months. Those rules will then be reviewed by the EC before being handed to the European Parliament and Council of the European Union for approval.

The good news is that the products likely to be proposed for mandatory clearing first are those where there is already a high level of voluntary clearing and where there is an existing clearing obligation in the US – in other words, the instruments the industry is most familiar with clearing. That may help smooth the consultation process.

But there is still uncertainty about the detail of how the first mandates will be implemented in Europe, meaning every second given to the short consultation process will count.

Frontloading is one such issue where much of the detail will only be spelt out in the consultation paper. ESMA proposed a possible approach in a letter to the EC on May 8, in which the frontloading obligation – the requirement to retrospectively clear existing trades once the clearing mandates begin – would only apply for transactions that occur from the time the regulatory technical standards come into force until the end of any phase-in.

This proposed methodology removes much of the uncertainty that had previously existed, but doesn’t completely eliminate the pricing complexities for end-users during the phase-in period. The switch from non-cleared to cleared would come with an array of potential fee, capital, funding and discount-rate implications, all of which would need to be considered and understood at the inception of any trade during the frontloading period. End-users would also need to find clearing members to commit to clearing at a certain point in the future, which some may be unwilling to do. The fact the date of the switch to clearing would be known in advance under the May 8 ESMA proposal makes that calculation slightly less complicated, but there are still a number of variables that would need to be considered.

Ultimately, the minimum remaining maturity – a level to be set by ESMA that will allow contracts with a time to maturity below this threshold to avoid the frontloading requirement – will be critical in determining the impact. But this will only be fleshed out in the regulatory technical standards. The hope is that market participants will have enough time to absorb, understand and comment on the implications.

This all makes for another busy summer for ISDA and its members.

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.