Happy Frank-n-Dodd-iversary, Everybody!

Yes, today marks the one year anniversary of the day when The Monster slouched off of Capitol Hill (aka Frank-n-Dodd Castle) to begin its rampage of error and terror in the countryside.

Believe it or not, I’m not grateful, despite the never-ending source of material that it has provided in the past 12 months.

It is hard to pick the Worst of Frank-n-Dodd.  There is much to choose from, and the competition is intense.  There is one element, though, that is particularly indefensible, and which happens to be in the news now, so it will get special billing in this Special Anniversary Post: The Swaps Execution Facility (SEF) mandate.

It is indefensible for a variety of reasons.  For one thing, the ostensible purpose of Frank-n-Dodd is to reduce systemic risk, and it is very difficult to make a case that requiring trading of swaps on exchange-like platforms has anything to do with systemic risk.  It is particularly interesting to note that the Europeans, who are on board with the Dodd-Frank stuff that at least is related to systemic risk (like clearing and margining of derivatives) are deeply skeptical, not to say contemptuous, of the SEF requirement.  They show no signs of adopting anything even like it.

Moreover, the SEF requirement seems to reflect some extremely childish understanding of markets.  Exchanges– transparent and good.  OTC markets–dark and scary.

This cartoonish view of markets completely fails to recognize the tremendous diversity of transactors and instruments in the market place.  It is sensible that this diversity has given rise to a diversity of trading mechanisms adapted to the traders and instruments.  Shoving everything into a one-size-fits-all framework with intense pre-trade and post-trade transparency–and transactor anonymity–presumes that all traders and all traded instruments are effectively alike.

Wrong.  Gary Gensler regales everyone with tales of how the improved transparency is going to reduce transactions costs for the buy side and end-users, and these benefits will more than offset the other, uhm, inconveniences arising from Frank-n-Dodd.  Which is kind of weird, because the buy side and end-users have been largely critical of the SEF mandate, and comfortable with the current way of doing business.  As I’ve said before, Gensler’s Fairy Tale presumes that the supposed beneficiaries of the SEF mandate are suffering from some sort of battered spouse syndrome, and love and protect their bankers despite the abuse that the latter allegedly dish out on a daily basis.

It’s also weird because the OTC markets grew absolutely and relative to exchanges–by a large margin–pre-crisis.  Given the choice, the buy side and end-users more often than not chose to trade OTC. Absent mass ignorance of self-interest, this very strongly suggests that it was cheaper for the buy side and end users to trade on these markets.

Has Gensler, or any of the other SEF evangelists, provided a convincing explanation of these facts?

No,they haven’t.  They haven’t even tried.

A non-cartoonish analysis of transactions and transactors makes it perfectly clear why the OTC markets have flourished.  A big part of that is the very basic fact that for many traders exchanges with pre- and post-trade transparency but trader anonymity are more costly places to trade.  Uninformed traders (e.g., big hedgers or pension funds) trading in size typically trade more cheaply in face-to-face markets with negotiated prices, rather than in anonymous auction markets where their orders get lumped with the trades of the informed, and hence get filled at worse prices.  This is why dark markets, block markets, etc., have always been with us, and why OTC markets are frequently the venue of choice for big buy side and commercial traders.

The SEF mandate is bad enough, but as hard as it is to believe, the CFTC proposals are even worse.  Gensler and Chilton in particular clearly want to make OTC markets as exchange-like as possible, and are pushing SEF rules that would sharply constrain the diversity of execution platforms.  The CFTC is taking an even more extreme approach to this than is the SEC.

Which is why it is encouraging to see that this is one part of Frank-n-Dodd that is the target of a legislative effort for overhaul.  Representative Scott Garrett (R-NJ) has sponsored a bill that would sharply limit the kinds of requirements the CFTC or the SEC could impose on SEFS:

H.R. 2586 prohibits the CFTC and the SEC from interpreting the SEF definition to: 1.) require a minimum number of participants to receive or respond to quote requests, 2.) require a SEF to display or delay quotes for any specific period of time, 3.) limit the means of interstate commerce that market participants can use to execute swap transactions, or 4.) require one trading system (i.e. RFQ) to interact with another trading system (i.e. Limit Order Book) on the same SEF.  These prohibitions are necessary to preserve investor choice of execution, promote transparent price discovery for market participants, and decrease the costs of hedging for American businesses, farmers, and retirement plans, all of which contribute to economic growth and job creation.

I’d prefer no SEF requirement at all, but at least this bill would give market participants a lot more lee-way to develop systems that accommodate the diversity of trades and traders.

As to its prospects–I have no idea.  But hopefully this is a harbinger of efforts to chain The Monster and bring some relief from its depredations.  That would be a good thing–despite anything Timmy! says.

About Craig Pirrong 223 Articles

Affiliation: University of Houston

Dr Pirrong is Professor of Finance, and Energy Markets Director for the Global Energy Management Institute at the Bauer College of Business of the University of Houston. He was previously Watson Family Professor of Commodity and Financial Risk Management at Oklahoma State University, and a faculty member at the University of Michigan, the University of Chicago, and Washington University.

Professor Pirrong's research focuses on the organization of financial exchanges, derivatives clearing, competition between exchanges, commodity markets, derivatives market manipulation, the relation between market fundamentals and commodity price dynamics, and the implications of this relation for the pricing of commodity derivatives. He has published 30 articles in professional publications, is the author of three books, and has consulted widely, primarily on commodity and market manipulation-related issues.

He holds a Ph.D. in business economics from the University of Chicago.

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