Blockchain and capital markets: interest rate swaps

by Alex Jodoin on Unsplash
by Alex Jodoin on Unsplash

And now on to the next riveting stage of our exploration of the impact of blockchain technology in capital markets. Welcome to interest rate swaps (IRSs), one of the most powerful risk-management tools in the market.

They’re not as complicated as they sound. There are several different types of swaps, but the basic “vanilla” variety works like this: if I am paying a fixed interest rate on my debt and I’d rather pay a variable rate, and if you have the opposite situation, then we swap. Not the actual debt, because that would be either complicated or downright impossible (cross-border regulations, collateral requirements, etc.). What we swap is the payment – I’ll send you the equivalent of your variable interest payments, and you send me your fixed payments. I’ll then use what you send me to keep my lender happy (he wants fixed payments – I pay him with your money), but my actual payout is to you at a variable rate. With that, I have converted a fixed obligation into a variable one.

Why would I want a different interest structure than the one I contracted with my lender? Well, maybe I have a fixed rate, but I think rates are going to come down so I want to switch (and, of course, you think they’re going to go up and so would rather lock in a fixed rate). Or maybe I want a fixed rate but my bank will only offer me a floating structure, and you have the opposite problem.

While mainly used by banks and other financial institutions to hedge their interest rate exposure, IRSs can also be used as a tool for portfolio management, taking positions on interest rates at various points in time. (It’s also possible to do this by going long or short Treasury bills, but interest rate swaps require much less capital outlay.)

Big stuff

The market is huge, trading almost $1.9bn a day, which makes interest rate swaps one of the most actively traded instruments in the over-the-counter (OTC) market.

Interest rate swaps have traditionally traded OTC (directly between two parties) rather than via a regulated exchange – most contracts are drawn up to satisfy particular conditions, and are not standardised enough to list on exchanges. As with credit default swaps, the Dodd-Frank Act of 2010 radically transformed the market in the US, mandating that a wide range of IRS contracts (but not all) be traded on “swap execution facilities” (SEFs), rather than by phone. These newly-created trading venues aggregate order books (increasing market transparency), and allow participants to ask for quotes from several dealers simultaneously – they are similar to exchanges in function, but have a more limited scope and fewer listing requirements.

Also, all swaps traded on SEFs have to be cleared via a central counterparty (CCP). Once a trade is confirmed, the CCP acts as buyer and seller, taking on the settlement risk. This lowers the collateral required of the parties to the trade, but increases the trading costs.

And, all swaps trades have to be reported to swap data repositories (SDRs), providing volume and pricing information to the market. SDRs also enable regulators to gauge participants’ risk exposures.

In Europe, the changes are similar to those in the US. The European Market Infrastructure Regulation (EMIR) – passed in 2012 – mandates that certain classes of interest rate swaps clear through CCPs. Those that are not required to do so still have to comply with tighter risk compliance rules. EMIR also tightened the reporting requirements.

In the US, interest rate swaps fall under the jurisdiction of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC), and in Europe under the European Securities and Markets Authority (ESMA).

Connected data

The Chairman of the CFTC, J. Christopher Giancarlo, has often said in public that blockchain technology could have a big impact on how swaps are handled, helping to smooth the complexities brought about by Dodd-Frank (not that the market was straightforward before). However, the blockchain activity going on in this sector is relatively modest, compared to other types of derivatives, which is strange given its size and the potential impact on execution efficiencies.

While the pooling of risk aspect of central clearing would be a complicated area to automate (given the necessary level of flexibility), the redundant processes and documentation requirements could be streamlined via a distributed ledger. And the chaos of data reporting, especially given its systemic importance, points to this area as one likely to attract the attention of blockchain executives and developers.

Also, the actual agreements recorded on a blockchain could be largely automated using smart contracts. For instance, they could pull the interest rates for floating swaps from an established oracle and automatically calculate the relevant payment.

And, the current lack of transparency in the market due to the legacy of OTC trading could be alleviated by putting all swaps on a blockchain platform, and giving the relevant parties (as well as the regulators) access via their own node.

Step forward

UK bank Barclays – together with blockchain consortium R3 and the International Swaps and Derivatives Association (ISDA), a trade standards body that has played a significant role in the standardisation of swaps – have trialled a similar solution. They developed a distributed ledger prototype based on Corda (which is not technically a blockchain, but that’s a different story) with the aim of recreating derivatives agreements using smart contracts.

The scheme envisions ISDA acting as a central repository for smart contract-enabled documents. Swaps dealers could use these to create new agreements, with all counterparties collaborating. The hash (compressed representation) would be uploaded to the distributed ledger, eliminating the need for all parties to store their own set of documents.

While the platform could ostensibly be used for a range of financial instruments, the first example tested was an interest rate swap.

Media giant Thomson Reuters also had interest rate swaps in mind when it designed a data stream (called BlockOne IQ) specifically to interact with smart contracts. The streams of both variable and fixed interest payments could be made much simpler with automatic calculations and adjustments linked to uploaded agreements.

While the firm’s more traditional APIs are available to market participants, a dedicated oracle would open up access to a growing range of decentralized applications. It is expected to reach a decision by the end of the year on whether or not to monetize the experiment.

It’s not just the incumbents that are taking a look at this segment. Synswap, set up by two ex-traders, hopes to challenge current post-trade processes by disintermediating central counterparties from the clearing process. Its initial focus is ostensibly on interest rate and credit default swaps, and a prototype currently in development will perform key post-trade functions such as matching, confirmation, collateral management and settlement.

In plain sight

I am surprised that there isn’t more IRS-focused blockchain activity going on, given its characteristics and needs:

  • They are easily automated
  • The market has a relatively limited number of participants
  • The data collection is complicated (and can be simplified)
  • The accounting is complicated (and can be simplified)
  • There is little overlap with other instruments (which means that dedicated solutions – which are easier to implement – could work)
  • The market is still relatively opaque, in spite of a push for greater transparency
  • Data collection is complicated (and can be simplified), and slow – the latest figures given by the Bank of International Settlements are from April 2016
  • The instrument is systemically important (which implies increased attention from the regulators)

Of course there are complexities that would be hard to integrate into a blockchain, such as the mutualisation of losses and the management of margin levels.

But the potential is significant, and worthy of investigation. It will be fascinating to see what other projects emerge in this space, especially given its importance to capital markets, and the lessons it could impart to the rest of the sector.

Blockchain and credit default swaps, Part 2 – the application

by Snufkin via StockSnap
by Snufkin via StockSnap

As we saw in the previous entry in this series, credit default swaps are ideal for blockchain testing because:

  • they’re complex yet with a “programmable” structure;
  • they’re increasingly standardised following recent changes in regulation; and
  • they operate in a self-contained market – although they reference other securities, they don’t actually link to them, and can operate solely on straightforward data inputs.

The largest project currently underway – not only in credit derivatives but also in the financial industry as a whole – is that of the Depositary Trust and Clearing Corporation (DTCC) in the US, which is working on rebuilding its credit default swaps processing platform with blockchain technology.

To appreciate how huge the launch could be, let’s take a closer look at the structure of the DTCC and what it does.

Too big to fail

Set up in 1999 to combine the Depository Trust Company (established in 1973 to hold security titles) and the National Securities Clearing Corporation (founded in 1976 to handle clearing and netted settlement), the DTCC is currently the largest securities processor in the world. It settles transactions of almost $1.7qn a year (that’s quadrillion, with 15 zeroes). There’s no point in trying to get your head around that large a number.

Since then it has acquired or created further subsidiaries to extend its services to include pan-European equities clearing, fixed income transaction processing, information management for trading institutions among other functions.

In 2006, the DTCC launched the Trade Information Warehouse (TIW) service, to centralize the storage of information regarding trades of over-the-counter (OTC) derivatives. One of its main functions is to maintain the “golden copy” − the unique, reliable and actionable record of transactions. It also manages post-trade processing such as payments and adjustments over the life of each contract (which, in the case of OTC derivatives, can be as long as 10 years). It currently handles the event processing services for 98% of the world’s outstanding CDSs.

Time for an upgrade

This is the platform that the DTCC wants to replace with blockchain technology. One of the main attractions is the possibility of making the “golden copy” accessible to all participants. Another is being able to automate the processing of lifecycle events via smart contracts (currently a largely manual process). Also, on the current infrastructure, settlement can take as long as a week to close, whereas on the new platform it could be almost instantaneous.

To this end, the DTCC started work on the redesign of TIW at the beginning of 2017, following a successful proof-of-concept executed in 2016. IBM is acting as project lead, blockchain startup Axoni will provide the technology, and R3 is acting as advisor. The platform is expected to go live in early 2018, at which time the underlying protocol will be submitted to opn-source blockchain consortium Hyperledger (of which the DTCC is a founding member) for others to also work on.

Given the systemic importance of efficient derivatives settlement, initially the new platform will launch in “shadow” mode and run alongside the current system. Participation will be optional, and participants will adapt their internal processes gradually, with large firms implementing their own nodes on the ledger while smaller ones hook in via the DTCC’s node.

To start with, the platform would only handle information and reconciliation. Payments would continue to move on traditional rails.

Thinking ahead

An interesting question is why the DTCC would do this. Are they not potentially writing themselves out of the picture?

What they are in effect doing is “disrupting” their own processes. As the largest CDS post-trade processor, they do have a choke-hold on the market. But the DTCC is a not-for-profit organization, owned by the industry. As such, its obligation is to the market participants, and includes future-proofing its service. What’s more, a reduction in reconciliation costs could boost transactions and liquidity, possibly helping to offset the post-crash decline in trading volumes.

Furthermore, its systemically important role gives it a clear view of how fast financial services can shift. By upgrading the principal post-trade platform and making it easier for derivates to be centrally cleared, the DTCC could be getting ahead of regulatory changes. With a node on the distributed ledger, regulators would have a complete and real-time view of the state of the market.

Big impact

When the platform goes live (expected to be early next year), it will be the largest project to date to enter production. Its effects will not be visible to the mainstream market, but the financial sector will be watching this closely, not only to see if the technology works, but also to gauge the impact of the cautious implementation strategy.

Blockchain technology is not the answer to all of the problems, structural and otherwise, that currently plague financial markets. But its potential is intriguing, especially the opportunity to affect how information is handled. That in itself could fundamentally change how the markets work.

With many more projects in the pipeline – from the DTCC as well as other significant players in the field – the launch of the CDS blockchain platform could well be the tipping point that triggers a host of implementations. With that, we will finally be able to say that the next era of financial infrastructure has begun.

Blockchain and capital markets: equity swaps

by Jan Vasek, via StockSnap
by Jan Vasek, via StockSnap

The world of capital markets is littered with terms that sound simple on the surface, but thoroughly confusing once you start poking at them.

Take, for instance, “equity swaps”. Easy, you swap equities with someone else, right?

It turns out that you don’t swap equities. You swap the returns that the other party’s equities give. That way you can diversify your portfolio without having to actually sell underlying holdings. Selling large holdings incurs costs and can move the market, which you probably want to avoid. Or, maybe your fund’s bylaws prohibit you from doing so. Or, maybe you would rather avoid capital gains tax. Other possible advantages include retention of voting rights (you want to retain your holding in a company but would rather have a fixed dividend than a variable one), access to illiquid markets, or being able to legally go around holding restrictions (eg. limitations on foreign funds).

So, let’s imagine you have a holding that pays you a fixed rate, the same payment every year. But you would rather a variable one. Rather than sell your fixed rate security, you enter into a swap with another party that has a holding that pays (for example) the return on the S&P 500 stock index. They are tired of so much volatility and want something more stable (or maybe they have fixed payments coming up and need to lock in those receipts).

So the two of you enter into a swap – you get the other party’s payments from their security, they get yours.

Now, just imagine the complicated and duplicated paperwork that backs up this operation.

Digitisation helps, obviously. Traiana, founded in 2000 to provide pre-trade risk assessment and post-trade solutions, is the market leader in electronic processing of over-the-counter (OTC) swap trades. It connects derivatives exchanges, institutional investors, interdealer brokers and swap execution platforms, channelling trades to clearing houses and providing analytics.

It is owned mainly by the Nex Group (formerly ICAP Ltd.), which at one stage was the world’s largest interdealer broker for OTC trading with daily transaction volume of over $2.3tn. After a tumultuous few years (which included whopping fines from the Commodities Futures Trading Commission in the US and the UK’s Financial Conduct Authority), that division was sold at the end of 2016, and Nex now focuses on market infrastructure.

Traiana counts among its investors such blue-chip firms as Bank of America Merrill Lynch, Barclays, Citigroup, Deutsche Bank, JP Morgan, Nomura, and the Royal Bank of Scotland.

Yet in spite of the presence of a clear market leader, the sector does not have a common infrastructure, leading to costly data reconciliation.

Could equity swaps benefit from blockchain technology? That’s what New York-based startup Axoni is hoping to determine.

Last year it completed a trial involving nine market firms, including Barclays, Credit Suisse, IHS Markit and Capco (a capital markets consultancy owned by FIS), as well as shareholders Citigroup and Thomson Reuters. The project established a blockchain processing network for equity swap trades using Axoni’s proprietary distributed ledger software.

One interesting aspect is the involvement of Traiana competitor IHS Markit in the trial. One of Axoni’s investors is Euclid Opportunities, the investment arm of Traiana’s parent Nex, and the two firms also both have Citigroup and JP Morgan as investors.

Although it worked with IHS Markit in this trial, Axoni has collaborated with Traiana on other projects in the past, such as a securities post-trade prototype in early 2016 and a foreign exchange one currently under development.

Could there perhaps be industry consolidation further down the line?

While equity swaps are a small part of the global OTC derivatives market, they could be considered the “low hanging fruit” of the sector for capital markets blockchain integration. The processes are complex, and the market is distributed and fragmented. What’s more, changing regulation calls for increased transparency and reporting. Coherence and coordination will benefit all participants, adding liquidity while reducing costs.

A blockchain-based platform would have the additional advantage of scalability, perhaps also including other types of swaps and offering even further efficiencies to market participants.

While blockchain exploration is ongoing in other areas of capital markets, Axoni’s equity swaps test is an interesting snapshot of a concrete use case. Furthermore, it points to how the sector will be restructured: carefully, one application at a time.

(This is the first in a series on the potential impact of blockchain technology on capital markets. Up next: FX.)

Bitcoin futures contracts – reading the tea leaves

Let’s talk about bitcoin derivatives. I’m not an expert, and need to do more research on the actual figures, but my main worry has been this:

PoW supporters talk about the consensus working because “breaking” the bitcoin network would make participants’ holdings worthless. Miners won’t collude because they would lose not only the value of their bitcoin holdings but also the investment in the mining equipment (which is considerable). So, bitcoin is safe.

But what about short positions? A big enough short position could produce enough of a profit to make colluding to “break” bitcoin worthwhile.

My worry has been that bitcoin derivatives weaken the consensus incentives.

Now, I need to check into the volumes required, and the mechanism (can you even short that much, or are there limits?). So this is the beginning of a thought exercise rather than the sounding of an alarm.

My concern has (so far) been largely offset by a fascination for what bitcoin derivatives can tell us about sentiment. I thought that open positions could point to where the price was heading. Until I read this, that is, from Christopher Langner’s article on Bloomberg Gladfly, “Is Bitcoin Growing Up?”:

“The quarterly contract sold at Bitmex entered backwardation — the future price fell below the spot price — in January, shortly after the PBOC started cracking down on the exchanges. In a market with limited supply, the fact that most of the big traders are betting prices will go down must be bad news. So it proved, but this time hedging may have limited the downside.”

Let’s go beyond downside limitation. What if derivative positions were mainly used as a hedge, rather than as speculation in their own right? Backwardation could simply be an offsetting hedge on a large long position. The bearish signal would be false.

In other words, the derivatives traders are not necessarily betting that prices will go down – they could have a big long position (which means they think prices will go up), and the futures contract is a way to protect their downside if it turns out they’re wrong.

A smart trading strategy (assuming the premiums are not too steep – I need to look into that part some more). It does, however, make reading the tea leaves of futures contracts not much more than an entertaining pastime.