Stephen J. Lubben
Harvey Washington Wiley Chair in Corporate Governance & Business Ethics, Seton Hall University School of Law.
Clearinghouses reduce risk by acting as a central hub for trades. Each party to a trade faces only the risk of the clearinghouse’s non-performance, rather than the doubtlessly greater risk that the counterparty to the trade will fail to perform.
But the concentration of derivatives trades into a very small number of clearinghouses or central counterparties (CCPs) makes the clearinghouse’s own failure a matter of systemic concern. As such, the recovery and resolution of CCPs becomes vital in the post-crisis financial system.
Given that important context, I argue in my paper—recently published in the Virginia Law & Business Review—that the lack of any obvious resolution mechanism for clearinghouses represents a major flaw in the Dodd-Frank regulatory fabric.
I explain why Dodd-Frank’s new orderly liquidation authority was probably not intended to apply to clearinghouses and would provide little help in the case of a distressed CCP in any event. The Bankruptcy Code is equally unhelpful, in that clearinghouses are forced into Chapter 7 liquidation proceedings, and the “safe harbors” for derivative contracts would make such a filing an exercise in futility.
I also argue that the CCP’s own, internal resolution mechanisms will be unworkable in times of systemic crisis. Most clearinghouse rules state that upon exhaustion of their default fund and any assessment rights they have against members, all contracts will be closed and member positions netted. Given the concentration of certain trades in one or two clearinghouses, the sudden termination of more than half of the index CDS trades—to take but one example—could not help but have systemic effects.
In the paper, I propose that the government should nationalize the clearinghouses upon failure, and that the intention to do so should be made clear ex ante. That is, the government should expressly state clearinghouses that ultimately fail will be nationalized, with specific consequences to investors, and an expectation of member participation in the recapitalization of the clearinghouse, once that becomes systemically viable. This should provide stakeholders in the clearinghouses with stronger incentives to oversee the clearinghouse’s management, and avoid such a fate.
In essence, what I propose is a system of precommitment or “structured bailouts.” Bailouts of clearinghouses seem inevitable. We must specify what would happen today, both to discourage an avoidable situation, and to facilitate an organized response in the event of an essential bailout.