International regulatory amity, bipartisan concerns and common sense be damned: The (probably) outgoing CFTC chair is going to see to it that these swaps-trading rules go into effect next month, damn the consequences. Read more »
Here’s a fun Libor lawsuit: the ghost of problematic former hedge fund FrontPoint is suing the Libor banks for (1) selling FrontPoint some interest-rate swaps and (2) manipulating Libor in a way that hosed FrontPoint on those swaps. Here is the complaint and here is Alison Frankel on the legal issues, which are interesting and which we can talk about a little below.1
Up here let’s talk about the trades that FrontPoint (and Salix Capital, which now owns these claims) is suing over. They’re interest rate swaps, of course, where FrontPoint received Libor, and where Libor was systematically manipulated lower by banks looking to enhance confidence in themselves by showing lower funding costs. But those swaps were part of a larger negative-basis package trade where (1) FrontPoint bought bonds (funded at a spread to Fed Funds), (2) FrontPoint bought CDS from a bank to hedge credit, and (3) FrontPoint entered into a swap with the bank to hedge interest rates. Schematically, when everything cancels, it looks like this:
If you asked FrontPoint what the trade was they might say “we are betting that the negative basis in these bonds will converge, making the bonds worth more relative to the CDS,” or alternately, that they would just ride the trade to maturity, getting paid that negative basis, and “earn a risk-free return by buying and selling the same credit exposure via alternative instruments in different markets.” That’s what the trade is primarily about: that orange thing in the lower-right-hand corner labeled “(Basis).” Read more »
Bloomberg has a fantastic article today about how Lehman’s decaying corpse is suing a bunch of former clients, many of them wee and sympathetic nonprofits, who hosed Lehman when they terminated swaps in September 2008. Some of these lawsuits turn on disputes over when those clients, or their consultants, should have valued the swaps for termination purposes, and I was looking forward to reading Bloomberg’s account of which of those customers used the SWPM <go> function on their terminals and on what dates, but for some reason that wasn’t mentioned.
The basic story is that clients had trades with Lehman that were in-the-money to Lehman, and when Lehman went bankrupt the clients terminated the trades and wired Lehman termination payments that Lehman now rather belatedly finds inadequate. You could understand why the clients would want to get out of these trades: for one thing, the trades had moved against the clients (thus being in-the-money to Lehman) and seemed likely to move further against them1; for another, if the trades did move back in the clients’ favor, what were the odds that a freshly bankrupted Lehman would pay the clients what they were owed?
Is Lehman right that the clients underpaid? Oh, I mean, of course. I don’t have the details of the trades but you can reason this out from first principles. Here:
- It’s September 15, 2008, and Lehman has just filed for bankruptcy.
- You owe Lehman some money.
- How much you owe them is a somewhat subjective matter that depends on what termination date you pick, what model you use, whom you ask for a quote, etc.
- You know, with some certainty, that everyone at Lehman who knows anything about your trade, and also everyone who doesn’t, has bigger things to worry about, like stealing office supplies on their way out the door.
- You can basically write them a check and enclose a note saying “here’s what we think we owe you,” and see if they write back.
- How big is the check?
I confess that I have not followed the swap-futurization thing closely but my assumption was that the politico-regulatory view was:
- Swaps are evil instruments of financial instability and fraud and should be discouraged, and
- Listed futures are mostly harmless.
You can have various objections to this preference for futures,1 but surely the most compelling is that swaps and futures are to some reasonable approximation the same thing. They’re just delta-one exposures to some underlying quantity; calling them a “swap” or “future” doesn’t matter economically.
“Bucket shop” has become a general-purpose Wall Street insult – “don’t work at Blackstone, it’s a total bucket shop” – but it’s actually a particular thing, “[a]n establishment, nominally for the transaction of a stock exchange business, or business of similar character, but really for the registration of bets, or wagers, usually for small amounts, on the rise or fall of the prices of stocks, grain, oil, etc., there being no transfer or delivery of the stock or commodities nominally dealt in.”1 The “bucket” bit comes, I think, from the notion that your long order and someone else’s short order would be thrown into a bucket together, netting them out with the shop as a bookie, rather than being forwarded to the stock exchange.
These are illegal now in all sorts of ways, and when they existed in the olden days they seem to have been pretty shady, but I’ve always thought that as a concept they get sort of a bum rap. What’s wrong with giving people synthetic exposure to equities, particularly exposure with low initial margin requirements and limited recourse?