FX trading fines and regulation catch-up

Photo by Ben Rosett on Unsplash
Photo by Ben Rosett on Unsplash

In my last post I mentioned some hefty fines incurred by foreign exchange dealers for trading infractions. The amount keeps climbing.

Yesterday the Financial Times reported that Credit Suisse has just been fined $135m by New York state’s financial regulator for “unsound” conduct between 2008 and 2015. Apparently the traders shared client information with other global banks to manipulate foreign exchange (FX) prices and maximize Credit Suisse profits.

What’s more, the bank was found guilty of front-running (putting your order in just ahead of clients’ orders to take advantage of resulting price movements) between 2010 and 2013.

And (this ties in to my previous post) between 2012 and 2015, traders took advantage of the “last look” feature of their electronic trading platform, which allows dealers to back out of a trade before execution, by applying it to all client trades. To make matters worse, it lied to clients about why trades were rejected.

It’s one thing to use the system to profit your own book over your clients’. It’s quite another to lie about it.

This is one of the reasons for the increasing volume of calls to reform the last look practice. Many traders think it should be banned. Others believe that it should be allowed, but that traders should be honest and upfront with the conditions in which a previously agreed trade would be rejected.

Going back to the Credit Suisse infringements, what blows my mind is that they openly talked about frontrunning and using proprietary information in electronic chat rooms. And get this: one of chat rooms was known as “The Cartel”. It’s not the stupidity that surprises me, it’s the arrogance. If everyone’s doing it, it’s fine, right? Why even try to hide it?

The sentences are coming thick and fast. In September, HSBC was fined $175m by the Federal Reserve for “unsafe and unsound” FX trading practices. In July, the Fed ordered BNP Paribas to pay $246m for charges relating to its FX conduct between 2007 and 2013. These fines follow others of more than $5.7bn levied on a handful of major banks in 2015 by the US Department of Justice, and over $3bn handed down by the US Commodity Futures Trading Commission and the UK’s Financial Conduct Authority in 2014.

While we may be blinded by the volume of fines, we need to put them in context of the overall size of the FX market. The largest market in the world, it trades over $5tn per day. Apart from the massive profits the rogue traders earned for their banks (no doubt largely reflected in handsome bonuses), the fines also reflect the gravity of the infringements. Damage to its reputation and a loss of trust would pose a risk to global commerce and trade.

The high profile of these cases could add momentum to the move towards trading platforms that offer greater transparency to clients and to the regulators.

The FX market, already of systemic importance, is likely to expand as world trade continues to grow. Until recently, large clients didn’t have much of a choice – to get big deals done, you went to the big dealers. Now, however, newcomers with shinier platforms are nibbling away at market share. Increasing compliance adds to costs, and the advantages of largely manual, opaque and relationship-based execution are becoming less apparent. Especially with increasing scrutiny.

The embarrassment for the regulators at the revelations that this was going on for as long as 10 years before anyone noticed will surely give them a good incentive to push for better reporting and greater access to trading records.

So, distributed ledger-based trading platforms in which the regulators have a node that allows them to see in real time what’s going on? Confidentiality issues aside (because they can be solved), it is likely to happen in some form.

Regulators monitoring electronic chat rooms? That’s a different story.

FX trading and last look doubts

photo by Veri Ivanova for Unsplash
photo by Veri Ivanova for Unsplash

The murky world of foreign exchange trading could be about to get a bit more transparent.

A few days ago, the sovereign fund of Norway (NBIM) – the largest in the world, with over $1tn under management – published a report calling for improvements in the foreign exchange (FX) market. It feels that the market’s friction and opacity tilts profits unfairly towards the dealers, and that the lack of transparency is weakening trust in the system.

It points to three particular aspects of FX trading, specifically: last look, algorithms, request for quote feeds and their relationship with interdealer prices.

While each is intriguing and worthy of further digging, I want to take a closer peek at “last look”, since it exemplifies how new technologies can both improve and complicate trading, and how evolving infrastructure requires a regular re-think of established processes.

Looking back

What is “last look”? It’s a “way out” for the dealer, who can renege on an agreed trade if certain conditions are not met. It could be that the client doesn’t pass the credit check. Or it could be that the price moves against the dealer.

This last aspect gives last look the whiff of unfair advantage. Critics claim that it can be used to “cherry pick” trades, only following through on the profitable ones, which would negatively impact market confidence and liquidity. It could also lead to “front running” of trades, whereby information from client orders is used for the dealer’s own profit.

Others argue that its use as a latency buffer – protecting against price moves between order agreement and order execution – is no longer necessary given technology improvements that make that time gap almost negligible. And the lack of information – often clients are not told why their trades fell through – weakens confidence, which could impact order size and even willingness to operate in the market.

Proponents claim that the practice allows dealers to quote better prices – with less risk in a trade, the spread can be narrower, which implies a better deal for the clients.

What’s more, the option of backing out of a trade enables dealers to post their price on several exchanges at once. Without that option, the dealers run a higher risk that the market will move against them. With posts on several exchanges, changing all of them takes time (seconds, but that’s a long time in FX). So, last look encourages a wider spread of trading venues, which in theory enhances liquidity.

Wait a second

Norway’s sovereign fund is not alone in its concerns about the practice, which has been coming under increasing scrutiny.

Vanguard (the world’s largest mutual fund manager), Citadel (one of the world’s largest alternative asset managers) and others have called for its elimination. Several exchanges have echoed that sentiment. XTX Markets Limited, one of the world’s biggest spot currency traders, officially stepped back from the practice in August. The Bank of England has been publicly questioning the practice since 2015.

Global regulators are also taking a closer look. In 2015, Barclays was fined $150m for what was deemed abuse of the practice – not only did the bank filter all trades in which the market moved against it (as opposed to using last look as a sporadic protective measure), but it denied doing so. (2015 was a ripe year for FX manipulation – Barclays was fined a further $2.3bn for other FX infractions, and penalties levied on Citigroup, JP Morgan, UBS, Bank of America and the Royal Bank of Scotland brought the total to almost $6bn.)

However, removing the practice will leave end users vulnerable to predatory manoeuvres, especially given the prevalence of high-speed trading. It could also constrict liquidity as dealers protect themselves against risk.

Rules, please

Why can’t the regulators step in and establish certain rules? Because the FX market is notoriously difficult to regulate, largely due to its cross-border nature. Which jurisdiction would apply?

In an enlightening example of self-regulation, the Global Foreign Exchange Committee (GFXC) was created in May 2017 as a forum for FX market participants (including central banks). Its first act was to issue an updated FX Global Code, a set of “best practices” for the foreign exchange community.

It does not rule out last look, but does ask practitioners to disclose the criteria, in order to allow end clients to make the appropriate adjustments. The GFXC simultaneously issued a request for feedback on the practice, demonstrating a willingness to contemplate adjustments.

So why are the Norwegian sovereign fund and others protesting now? Just two years ago, NBIM publicly came to the practice’s defense, citing its potential to improve available liquidity for investors.

It turns out that their positions are not inconsistent. Even now, it is not advocating the removal of last look. What it wants is more transparency.

Furthermore, it is no doubt aware of the deteriorating levels of trust in FX trading. The previously mentioned scandals and fines are probably the tip of the iceberg when it comes to abuse, especially since the rules have been vague and the FX market is opaque to begin with.

And, the protests could be influenced by fund managers’ need to increase revenue and lower costs through narrower spreads and more transparent pricing. Quoted in the Financial Times, the co-author of the report said:

“We want to be more explicit about the risk sharing between us and the dealer. The client is providing optionality for the dealer. We would like to be rewarded for this option.”

Large market participants no doubt understand that the system is changing, and so are expectations. Calls for market reform are both timely and self-serving, contributing to a cleaner image and hopefully a more robust system.

Looking forward

So, what would a solution look like?

While blockchain technology is by no means the solution to all things financial, it could offer a useful tool for a platform that allows transparency, immutability and decentralized (but permissioned) participation. A major drawback would be the latency – it’s not the fastest way to share data, and the FX market is used to split-second speed.

It is clear that enhanced disclosure is a stop-gap remedy. Once the goal posts start moving, it’s impossible to see where they will stop. What’s more, temporary solutions are not conducive to a lasting realignment of trust. And with self-interest up against community fairness, and a huge economic sector in play, a more durable solution is urgent.

Will blockchain technology end up playing a part? It’s possible, perhaps even probable, especially as new features emerge and work-arounds gain strength. It’s unlikely to be the only solution, though, as database technology and communications infrastructure also continue to evolve. And as long as speed remains a competitive advantage, decentralized resilience and transparency are unlikely to be the main priority.

What’s more, the FX sector is unlikely to see a sweeping change in the near future – it’s just too big and important for that. However, the processes that keep the system running need revision and updating, to continuously improve efficiency and trust.

And eventually, the patchwork of solutions to specific problems will point to a deeper evolution, one that favours interoperability over universality, reliability over speed and trust over profit.

Blockchain and capital markets: foreign exchange trading

FX market

For something so little talked about, the foreign exchange (FX) market is a big deal.

The world’s largest and most liquid financial market, over $5tn a day changes hands in FX cash and derivative transactions. That’s more than the entire annual GDP of some countries.

The bulk of transactions are for FX derivatives, and few appreciate how integral these are to the functioning of the world economy. In terms of value, FX swaps are the most traded instrument in the world, exchanging an average of $2.4tn per day. When a central bank, commercial bank, corporation or fund manager needs a foreign currency for a purchase, an investment or a hedge, they generally resort to FX swaps – basically, they lend their domestic currency to foreign institutions, and simultaneously borrow from them the currency they need. This works out to be much cheaper and faster than directly borrowing the money in another country. In principle, the collateral for each side is the payment (or series of payments) they commit to making to the other.

As with most derivative markets, the system is clunky and relatively expensive, operating on dispersed, decentralized exchanges with duplicate processes, a lack of standardisation, an emphasis on direct relationships and increasing capital requirements. Although the infrastructure has radically improved over the past few years with the introduction of new trading venues, greater liquidity, algorithmic execution and improved data aggregation, the industry still regards settlement risk as one of its greatest threats.

New technologies and processes are making a difference, and are becoming even more essential in light changing regulation and increasing costs. Clearing houses are becoming even more important, for example, and traditionally opaque over-the-counter markets are being given a welcome (but expensive) wash of sunlight as post-crisis financial regulation demands greater transparency and less risk.

Given the decreasing profitability of swap market making (due to greater capital requirements and a recent slump in volume due to macroeconomic conditions), many prime brokers are either pulling out of the sector or closing out smaller clients, leading to lower liquidity and increased risk. This encourages even more prime brokers to pull out. Non-bank dealers and infrastructure innovations are picking up some of the slack.

Several capital markets businesses – both startups and incumbents – are looking at how blockchain technology can help reduce operating costs.

One of the most prominent is Cobalt, a startup working on a blockchain platform for FX post-trade settlement which it claims can reduce risk and cut costs by 80% (according to the FT, banks currently spend about $500m a year on technology for currency trading). In May, it announced that two of the world’s largest FX traders – Citadel Securities and XTX Markets – will use its service. They join 22 other banks and traders, including Deutsche Bank, UBS, BNP Paribas and Bank of America Merrill Lynch, in testing the platform ahead of a launch expected later this year.

While Cobalt is currently building on a blockchain platform designed by UK-based startup SETL, it aims to be ledger agnostic. The startup cites Tradepoint (a foreign exchange trading technology provider), First Derivatives (a database technology developer, which will apparently feed the data) and Kx (focused on high-speed data processing) as tech partners, and counts CitiGroup (which has the lion’s share of the global FX market) and DCG among its investors.

From startup to industry incumbent… NEX Group (formerly ICAP) has been working on a distributed ledger for FX trades – called Nex Infinity – built with technology from New York-based startup Axoni. The company recently began allowing clients to test the platform.

This makeover is a key part of the company’s strategy as it moves away from its history as one of the market’s leading interdealer brokers and into trading infrastructure. Its subsidiary Traiana will most likely end up playing an important role in the rollout of NEX Infinity, as it is one of the market’s leading post-trade and risk specialists. (As an aside, the founder and CEO of Cobalt – Andy Coyne – used to be CEO of Traiana.)

And, moving up the ladder, CLS Group – the world’s largest FX settlement service (handling over 50% of global FX transactions) – is working on CLS Netting, a blockchain-based settlement system for trades in currencies outside the standard service. The platform won’t be used in the core settlement system, but rather to improve liquidity in other currencies with more challenging legal frameworks that are currently settled on a bilateral basis, such as the renminbi and the rouble.

CLS is a founding member of blockchain consortium Hyperledger, and the platform is being built on Hyperledger Fabric. Several banks – including Bank of America, Goldman Sachs, Citi, JPMorgan Chase, Morgan Stanley, HSBC, Bank of China (Hong Kong), Bank of Tokyo-Mitsubishi UFJ, FirstRand and Intesa Sanpaolo – have expressed an interest in participating. Not bad for a fledgling project. Development is expected to near completion in early 2018.

The FX market is not an easy one to disrupt, even though the opportunity is obvious. First, scale matters – small startups, unless they have influential backers, are at a disadvantage in a sector in which most participants know each other, and trust is an important factor. What’s more, the incumbents increasingly seem to be aware of the potential of blockchain technology, as well as the need to innovate.

Second, the spectre of tightening regulation and the impact of macroeconomic trends add risk to the outlook for any foreign exchange project, for both startups and incumbents. FX volumes have been declining for a couple of years, although the slump has been concentrated in the spot market – derivatives are growing nicely, for now.

The next 12 months should see some key announcements in the nexus between blockchain technology and FX trading, as projects mature and more proofs-of-concept emerge. As regulations change, economic trends realign and even newer technologies develop, the market will continue to evolve towards a more efficient, transparent and trustworthy financial service. We are witnessing what will be looked back on as a fundamental shift in capital markets.