Fifth in a nine-part series

Since the financial crisis, global regulators have been pushing to have as many over-the-counter derivative products as possible cleared with central counterparties, to improve transparency and minimize operational and credit risks.

As a result, volumes and revenues have significantly increased at these clearing houses. The regulators' intentions are good, but in my experience, anytime business surges at any institution, risk managers and supervisors should be paying much more attention to the firm's increased operational risk.

CCPs, especially, have a lot of operational risk exposure – that is, potential problems arising due to people, processes, technology, and external threats – throughout the organization. A significant risk comes from the possibility of a member defaulting on the trades cleared by the CCP, and the potential insufficiency of the deadbeat's prefunded contribution to the default fund to cover this default. We do not want to end up in a situation where financial regulations give us the next Too Big to Fail monster.

Fortunately, the Basel Committee recognizes this danger. In a recent consultative document, the committee is signaling to banks that even if there are higher safeguards and default funds maintained by qualified central clearing parties, banks are not absolved from adequately calculating capital for those counterparties. Before Basel III, transactions with a QCCP did not require a capital allocation. These counterparties are also known as Derivative Clearing Organizations. Most of the exchanges, such as the Chicago Mercantile Exchange and Chicago Board of Trade, have one. There are a little more than a dozen of them in the U.S.

The new guidelines also encourage QCCPs to improve their default funds and their risk management. Together with recent guidelines on noninternal models to calculate derivative counterparties' risk, these recommendations are an important step in requiring banks, especially large international interconnected ones, to better identify, measure, control, and monitor their over-the-counter and exchange traded derivatives counterparties' credit quality. If bank regulators and market participants insist on higher standards for QCCPs, regulators could end up with an approach where capital charges for banks on exposures decline if QCCP default funds increase and safeguards around them are robust. QCCPs should be encouraged not only by regulators, but also by potential clients who want to minimize their capital charges.

In July 2012, the Basel committee had released interim rules on capital treatment for CCPs. To its credit, upon further study and cooperation with the Bank for International Settlements' Committee on Payment and Settlement Systems and the International Organization of Securities Commissions, the Basel committee admitted that it found that in some cases the interim rules were leading to instances of very little capital being held against exposures to some CCPs. In some cases, the capital levels were actually too high. Additionally, at times, the interim rules were also creating disincentives for QCCPs to maintain generous default funds.

In recognition of these findings, the new July 2013 guidelines focus on three areas related to transactions with QCCPs.

Two guidelines are for banks. First, the Basel committee proposes a new methodology to calculating a bank's capital for its trade exposures to a QCCP. Previously, the committee had recommended a mere 2% of the relevant risk-weighted assets. If the new guidelines were accepted, the risk weight applied to trade exposures would depend on the level of prefunded default resources available to the QCCP. If QCCPs want to attract banks as customers, they will have to really focus on their default resources; otherwise banks will have to allocate more in capital. With the new methodology, banks are likely to have to allocate 5% to 20% of RWAs depending on the QCCP's resources. While banks will not like the new guidelines, it should make them think more carefully about the amount and type of hedging or speculative derivatives transactions that they want to put on and will make them look for the QCCPs with the best safeguards.

Secondly, the new guidelines focus on new calculations for QCCP bank clearing members to use for prefunded default fund contributions. In my view and that of many financial derivatives markets reform advocates, the contributions required by the interim rules were not robust enough to absorb losses during market stress. The proposed method for QCCPs to calculate the default fund would better position the default funds to absorb losses, so that high credit quality members do not get hurt by a drawdown of the funds.

Thirdly, not only are banks required to improve their methodologies to calculate capital for transactions with QCCPs, but the guidelines also encourage QCCPs to have robust default funds. The Basel guidelines can be very useful if bank regulators use them to provide an incentive for, or at least not discourage, contributions to default funds to be prefunded, rather than commitments to pay after the fact. The creation of a default fund should not create new risk for the financial system in the form of hidden liabilities that surface when a trading partner falters. Rather, a default fund should serve to mutualize and distribute a risk that would otherwise fall on creditworthy members' trade exposure claims on the CCP.

Importantly, the proposed guidelines demonstrate the Basel Committee is aware that just insisting on additional capital is not enough. The Basel Committee is emphasizing that it wants improved risk management practices by banks and CCPs. For the QCCPs, there are established CPSS-IOSCO Principles for Financial Market Infrastructures so that they minimize their probability of disruptions or outright failures.

While the proposed guidelines can be very useful in improving banks capital against QCCPs, as I have written in these columns previously, it is imperative that banks disclose the inputs for their risk-weighted assets in calculating capital for positions with QCCPs.  Moreover the QCCPs will need to be more transparent about the level of their default funds and about how they are running simulations on how they would solve for multiple parties defaulting on trades simultaneously.  The more transparent banks and QCCPs are, the more likely it is that the transition of derivatives from OTC to clearing parties will provide safer financial derivatives markets and better capitalized banks.

Next: Capital requirements for banks' equity investments in funds.

Mayra Rodríguez Valladares is managing principal at MRV Associates, a New York-based capital markets and financial regulatory consulting and training firm. She is also a faculty member at the New York Institute of Finance