Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Liquidity standards - The FSA is on the war path

It seems that the UK financial services regulator, the Financial Services Authority (FSA) much maligned by the media and the public in the wake of banking failures under its watch, is eager to restore its credibility by wielding the heavy hand of regulation in the form of its onerous requirements for strengthening standards around liquidity risk.

The FSA is the first regulator to issue a consultation paper (CP 08/22) on strengthening liquidity standards and has set the rather ambitious deadline of October this year for banks, investment banks and building societies to comply with its new liquidity risk standards, which does not leave firms much time for planning, selecting solutions, building interfaces, testing and firm-wide education, says Selwyn Blair-Ford, senior domain expert, UK & Ireland, Financial Reporting Services, FRS Global, particularly given that the FSA is not expected to finalize the new rules until April.

Reading between the lines of the Consultation Paper (CP 08/22), one can see that the FSA is eager to come down hard on those banks with business models characterised by unsustainable lending practices and a reliance on wholesale funding or funding from foreign subsidiaries rather than retail deposits.

One of the key tenets under the new liquidity risk standards is that banks will need to maintain "adequate" liquidity at all times without relying on other parts of the group. Blair-Ford says this requirement will "break up" the centralised treasury management model that most banks operate under and will require liquidity to be held locally, which is an expensive undertaking. This appears to be specifically aimed at preventing what happened in the case of Lehman Brothers, where the illiquid US operation reportedly "sucked" all the liquidity out of its European offices.
As a result of the FSA's new requirements around managing liquidity risk the FSA anticipates that "...many institutions will need to significantly reshape their business model over the next few years as a result. Current agreements and practices will have to be reviewed and the status quo may no longer be acceptable. In line with our objectives, our regime will continue to put the responsibility of adopting a sound approach to liquidity risk management on firms and their senior management".
"There is an arms race to see who is the toughest [regulator]," says Blair-Ford of FRS Global. He anticipates that the cost of complying with the new liquidity risk standards will make banking less profitable, not exactly what the beleaguered banking sector wants to hear, but then it seems the FSA wants to change the face of banking, at least when it comes to stemming the systemic implications of liquidity risk, and if it has to claim a few scalps along the way or force further bank consolidation then so be it.

In its consultation paper, the FSA estimates that IT, reporting and training costs for the new liquidity risk standards will cost firms between £150 million to £200 million, however industry feedback suggests that the FSA has underestimated the "true" costs to the industry.

Regardless, the FSA makes no apologies for its ambitious implementation time frame or what it terms "tough prudential standards", and while it may be tempting to think that the regulator will at worst fine firms for non-compliance with the new liquidity risk standards, according to FRS Global, the penalties are likely to be more severe and could take the form of bank directors (bank chairmen, executive and non-executive board members) being "disbarred".

It appears that the FSA is on the war path eager to make amends for the unwanted media and public attention it has received for falling asleep at the wheel and it will be interesting to see which firm or firms are first in the firing line. Could it be a US bank? After all, many think this is largely a US banking problem that spread to other markets, and it seems the FSA is keen to extend its regulatory tentacles beyond UK shores.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Strengthening or weakening liquidity standards?

The UK financial services regulator, the Financial Services Authority (FSA) has been consulting with banks and financial market participants on its response to the so-called liquidity crisis.

Boasting the memorable title of CP08/22:Strengthening Liquidity Standards, the FSA consultation paper talks about "high-level" requirements for banks to maintain "adequate" liquidity at all times without relying on other parts of the group.

The consultation paper also mentions the need for adequate systems and controls for liquidity management; quantitative standards for liquidity; standards around quality and quantity of liquid assets and the requirement for a liquidity buffer of "high quality unencumbered assets"; as well as data pertaining to a "firm-specific" and "market-wide view" of liquidity risk.

It sounds reminiscent of Basel II in that the consultation paper talks about qualitative and quantitative standards. I would not be surprised if the FSA's consultation paper gives rise to a cottage industry of conferences, vendor solutions and consultants, all eager to plug their FSA- friendly liquidity risk management expertise.

While the FSA proposes that it will conduct a supervisory liquidity review of each firm, alarm bells start ringing when one reads that the FSA is still pursuing a "high-level" principles-based approach to regulation.

In light of recent market events, which clearly demonstrate that the banks themselves and the regulators got it so horribly wrong, one has to question whether a wholly principles-based approach to regulation works. The FSA also mentions that responsibility for liquidity risk lies with the banks themselves, not the central banks or regulators, but haven't we seen the devastating consequences of what happens when banks are left to their own devices?

Some risk management consultants I have spoken to have also expressed misgivings about the consultation paper (CP08/24) that the FSA published on stress and scenario testing back in December 2008.

The FSA proposes to introduce a "reverse-stress test" requirement for banks, building societies, investment firms and insurers, requiring firms to consider "the scenarios most likely to cause their current business model to become "unviable".

Sounds great in theory, but as one risk management consultant pointed out to me, the banking industry and the FSA are not "up to speed" on scenario planning, unlike the oil and aerospace industries which have 40 years of experience. So what chances do we have of the banks and the FSA, who are part of the problem, getting it right?

The consultant said the current risk management strategies banks use such as Value at Risk (VaR) were no good at predicting extreme events. Using the example of a plastic ruler being bent, the consultant said while mathematics could calculate how much the ruler would bend, it could not predict at which point it would snap. "[The collapse of] Lehman Brothers was like the ruler snapping," he said. Yet, standard risk models failed to predict the point at which Lehman's would snap, let alone the consequences that ensued.

While placing more emphasis on stress testing and scenario planning in terms of contemplating a myriad of "what if" scenarios may help firms better anticipate the unexpected, the consultant said that the problem with the FSA's approach is that it was taking the standard risk models (how much the ruler is bending) and applying them to something that only matters when the ruler snaps.

Thursday, February 05, 2009

Neither clear nor settled

At a much scaled down Finexpo (which is perhaps a sign of the times) in London today, those regulators and market participants that have watched on in frustration at the slow pace of consolidation and interoperability among European securities settlement and clearing providers, were told they "should be careful what they wished for".

Those were the words of Simon Wheatley, director of regulatory liaison, LCH. Clearnet, which signed a "non-binding" agreement to merge with the US-based Depository Trust & Clearing Corporation (DTCC) in October last year, only to attract another suitor, interdealer broker Icap and a consortium of investment banks who are believed to also be in discussions with LCH.Clearnet.

Referring to the European Code of Conduct for Clearing and Settlement which looks to promote certain standards in terms of price transparency, access, interoperability and service unbundling, Wheatley said that "competition" [between clearers at least] did not come free.

Asked whether a single clearer in the form of the US-style DTCC model would increase risk or reduce risk, Wheatley said that while it may take away some issues, it would introduce others, and that one size did not necessarily fit all.

Marco Strimer, CEO, SIX x-clear said that ultimately the Code of Conduct was about consolidation and that not everyone would make it to the finishing line. However, he added that consolidation of central counterparties (CCP) also meant that all market participants would need to change their systems. In other words consolidation, while seemingly desirable does have its costs, particularly for those that have to adapt to accommodate it.

On the settlement side, things seem to be moving more quickly with ICSD Euroclear consolidating settlement platforms and harmonizing market practices in three markets
as part of its Single Platform initiative, which will eventually encompass seven CSDs.

The European Central Bank is also looking to standardize settlement of euro denominated securities on its yet-to-be completed TARGET2-Securities (T2S) platform, but while the ECB received indications of intent from most of Europe's CSDs that they would use T2S once it went live, it has yet to secure legally binding commitments from them, which could take much longer than anticipated.

Ilse Peeters, director of public affairs at ICSD Euroclear said that she did not expect the ECB would receive legally binding commitments by March as there were still outstanding questions regarding the governance, pricing structure and legal aspects of T2S. John Tanner, head of equity post-trade service development at the London Stock Exchange said that questions also remained regarding the Bank of England and sterling's participation in T2S.

So it seems all is not clear nor settled by any means in Europe's fragmented clearing and settlement landscape.