Bernanke Speech on Clearinghouses, OTC Derivatives, Financial Reform (4/4/2011)

Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke ("The Bernank") gave a speech at the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta's Financial Markets Conference yesterday. It involved clearinghouses, OTC derivatives and financial reform. "Tonight I would like to discuss post-crisis reform as it relates to a prominent part of our financial market infrastructure--namely, clearinghouses for payments, securities, and derivatives transactions." In case you didn't already know, bank balance sheets leveraged with worthless subprime debt securities (built on fraud), OTC credit derivatives, "uncertain counterparty credit risk" (debt insurers) and failures made by credit rating agencies and bank regulators, all caused the financial system to collapse in 2008. Listen to John Paulson's interview with the FCIC for the full run down.

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"Clearinghouses and Financial Reform
Broadly speaking, the recent financial reform legislation bears on the future structure and role of clearinghouses in two different ways. First, it aims to increase the resilience of these critical institutions against severe financial shocks, the issue that I have emphasized thus far. Second, it also encourages the greater development and use of clearinghouses to address weaknesses identified in other parts of the financial system. Of course, increased reliance on clearinghouses to address problems in other parts of the system increases further the need to ensure the safety of clearinghouses themselves. As Mark Twain's character Pudd'nhead Wilson once opined, if you put all your eggs in one basket, you better watch that basket.

The theme of expanded use of clearinghouses as a tool to address other problems in the system is perhaps best illustrated by the derivatives provisions of the Dodd-Frank Act. Prior to the crisis, some of the same economic forces that had led to the development of clearinghouses for other instruments were already pushing industry participants toward greater use of clearinghouses for OTC derivatives transactions. For example, as one response to the growth of the market for interest rate swaps in the early 1990s, a clearinghouse was created in London in 1999 that, by the onset of the financial crisis, was handling a major portion of interdealer activity in those swaps. Also, in the years leading up to the crisis, the Federal Reserve Bank of New York initiated joint efforts with other regulators and market participants to improve clearing arrangements for credit default swaps. However, for several reasons, the willingness of market participants to move all derivatives transactions to clearinghouses was limited. Notably, many believed that the standardization of derivatives contracts that is needed for multilateral clearing imposed too high a cost on end users with needs for customized arrangements. Market participants also were concerned that the establishment of clearinghouse guarantees might require implicit subsidies from clearinghouse members with stronger credit to those with weaker credit.

These calculations, however, were substantially changed by the galvanizing events of 2008, notably the development of large and uncertain counterparty credit risks in many bilateral derivatives agreements. On the heels of the crisis, the Group of Twenty countries endorsed a policy of mandatory central clearing for standardized OTC derivatives. The aim was to reduce systemic risk in the financial system more broadly as well as to improve the transparency of the OTC derivatives markets. In the United States, title 7 of the Dodd-Frank Act incorporated a mandatory clearing policy for standardized derivatives. Other major countries are following suit. In the spirit of keeping a close eye on the basket, as dependence on clearinghouses grows, private-sector participants and regulators will need to review risk-management and member-default procedures for financial market utilities to ensure that they meet high standards of safety."