IM getting serious

Click to open ISDA’s new Initial Margin For Non-Centrally Cleared Swaps Analysis

A key recommendation of the G20 2009 Pittsburgh Communique was to enhance systemic resiliency by reducing bilateral counterparty risk and mandating central clearing of “standardized” OTC derivatives. ISDA and market participants are fully supportive of the G20’s clearing initiatives. Today, more than half the market is cleared and more clearing is on the way.

However, most industry estimates expect that 20 percent or more of the notional value of OTC derivatives cannot be and will not be clearable. Such swaps play an important economic role for the global economy, ranging from housing to corporate financing. Policymakers are hoping to eliminate counterparty risk of these unclearable trades by proposing margin requirements – both initial (IM) and variation margin (VM) – for them.

We fully support mandatory exchange of VM among covered entities. Experience (good and bad) has demonstrated that the practice of frequently exchanging the unrealized mark-to-value fluctuations between two parties is beneficial in reducing counterparty risk. It avoids the build-up of large unrealized positions that could become destabilizing in periods of market stress. This is a widely adopted practice in the OTC derivatives marketplace. And, had this practice been followed – which was NOT the case with AIG and certain monolines in the US – counterparty risk would not be the issue it has become today for the OTC derivatives industry. So, the requirement for VM exchange alone would be more than enough to address counterparty risk concerns.

However, while we support the use of VM, the same can not be said for imposing mandatory IM on counterparties. A rudimentary risk/benefit exercise reveals that the approach is flawed. We see minimal benefits in terms of incremental risk reduction – above and in excess of what is already provided by capital requirements.

Instead, we see huge risks in the making. The outright quantum of margin required under these proposals, even in “normal” market conditions, is significant.

Take, for example, the data that is coming out of the QIS study that the BCBS/IOSCO is conducting. The numbers are revealing. Even if we take the most optimistic scenario (where ALL market participants use some form of internal model to maximize netting benefits), we still estimate incremental margin requirements of approximately $800 billion. This is an amount of incremental collateral which, even under normal circumstances, is challenging to raise.

What’s worse: we know that IM requirements in stressed conditions could go up by at least three times, raising potential requirements at a time when liquidity will be most needed. This is a clear recipe for disaster, only exacerbating systemic risk. And as to the proposed use of thresholds to alleviate the IM impact, at times of crisis, they just make the problem worse. It’s a message we plan to share with supervisors and regulators around the world. (ISDA’s recent analysis of data regarding IM estimates and their impact is here.)

In short, ISDA believes that mandatory, risk sensitive IM will not achieve its purported goals. We instead advocate a three pillar framework for ensuring systemic resiliency: a robust variation margin framework, mandatory clearing for liquid, standardized products and appropriate capital standards.