Alternative Reference Rates: Meeting the Challenges

Guest post by Richard Berner, Executive-in-Residence (Center for Global Economy and Business) and Adjunct Professor, NYU Stern School of Business

In response to the fragility of LIBOR and other interest-rate benchmarks, regulators globally are working with industry to identify sturdy alternatives. Despite significant progress, concerns persist that the transition to these new reference rates will be disruptive.

While these concerns are legitimate (see Eclipsing LIBOR), both U.S. and global authorities and market participants have begun to address them in ways that should go a long way to managing the risks. In this post, we review why LIBOR’s persistent fragility makes reform critical, and examine progress on some of the ongoing reforms....

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Ten Years After Bear

Ten years ago this week, the run on Bear Stearns kicked off the second of three phases of the Great Financial Crisis (GFC) of 2007-2009. In an earlier post, we argued that the crisis began in earnest on August 9, 2007, when BNP Paribas suspended redemptions from three mutual funds invested in U.S. subprime mortgage debt. In that first phase of the crisis, the financial strains reflected a scramble for liquidity combined with doubts about the capital adequacy of a widening circle of intermediaries.

In responding to the run on Bear, the Federal Reserve transformed itself into a modern version of Bagehot’s lender of last resort (LOLR) directed at managing a pure liquidity crisis (see, for example, Madigan). Consequently, in the second phase of the GFC—in the period between Bear’s March 14 rescue and the September 15 failure of Lehman—the persistence of financial strains was, in our view, primarily an emerging solvency crisis. In the third phase, following Lehman’s collapse, the focus necessarily turned to recapitalization of the financial system—far beyond the role (or authority) of any LOLR.

In this post, we trace the evolution of the Federal Reserve during the period between Paribas and Bear, as it became a Bagehot LOLR. This sets the stage for a future analysis of the solvency issues that threatened to convert the GFC into another Great Depression.

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Eclipsing LIBOR

The manipulation of the London Interbank Offered Rate (LIBOR) began more than a decade ago. Employees of leading global firms submitted false reports to the British Banking Association (BBA), first to influence the value of LIBOR-linked derivatives, and later (during the financial crisis) to conceal the deterioration of their employers’ creditworthiness. U.S. and European regulators reported many of the details in 2012 when they fined Barclays, the first of a dozen financial firms that collectively paid fines exceeding $9 billion (see here). In addition to settling claims of aggrieved clients, these firms face enduring reputational damage: in some cases, management was forced out; in others, individuals received jail terms for their wrongdoing.

You might think that in light of this costly scandal, and the resulting challenges in maintaining LIBOR, market participants and regulators would have quickly replaced LIBOR with a sustainable short-term interest rate benchmark that had little risk of manipulation. You’d be wrong: the current administrator (ICE Benchmark Administration), which replaced the BBA in 2014, estimates that this guide (now called ICE LIBOR) continues to serve as the reference interest rate for “an estimated $350 trillion of outstanding contracts in maturities ranging from overnight to more than 30 years [our emphasis].” In short, LIBOR is still the world’s leading benchmark for short-term interest rates.

Against this background, U.K. Financial Conduct Authority CEO Andrew Bailey, recently called for a transition away from LIBOR before 2022 (see here). In this post, we briefly explain LIBOR’s role, why it remains an undesirable and unsustainable interest rate benchmark, and why it will be so difficult to replace (even gradually over several years) without risking disruption.

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Looking Back: The Financial Crisis Began 10 Years Ago This Week

In his memorable review of 21 books about the 2007-09 financial crisis, Andrew Lo evoked Kurosawa’s classic film, Rashomon, to characterize the remarkable differences between these crisis accounts. Not only were the interpretations in dispute, but the facts were as well: “Even its starting date is unclear. Should we mark its beginning at the crest of the U.S. housing bubble in mid-2006, or with the liquidity crunch in the shadow banking system in late 2007, or with the bankruptcy filing of Lehman Brothers and the ‘breaking of the buck’ by the Reserve Primary Fund in September 2008?”

In our view, the crisis began in earnest 10 years ago this week. On August 9, 2007, BNP Paribas announced that, because their fund managers could not value the assets in three mutual funds, they were suspending redemptions. With a decade’s worth of hindsight, we view this as a propitious moment to review both the precursors and the start of the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression of the 1930s.

But, first things first: What is a financial crisis? In our view, the term refers to a sudden, unanticipated shift from a reasonably healthy equilibrium—characterized by highly liquid financial markets, low risk premia, easily available credit, and low asset price volatility—to a very unhealthy one with precisely the opposite features. We use the term “equilibrium” to reflect a persistent state of financial conditions and note that—as was the case for Humpty Dumpty—it is easy to shift from a good financial state to a bad one, but very difficult to shift back again....

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Rewriting the textbook: covered interest parity

For decades, textbooks on international economics and finance built a part of their scaffolding on the foundation of a relationship called covered interest parity (CIP). CIP postulates that, in a world of free capital flows, currency-hedged returns on equivalent-risk assets will equalize across countries. For example, the return to investing in a 1-year U.S. Treasury bill will equal the return to purchasing euros, investing the proceeds in a 1-year German Government liability, and purchasing a contract guaranteeing the future euro/dollar exchange rate at which the euros will be converted back to dollars a year later. In practice, the CIP relationship was such a reliable feature of international fixed-income markets that for decades one could think of banks operating a nearly costless CIP machine to perform what many viewed as a riskless arbitrage.

Then, one day, the CIP machine broke down. It first stopped working in the Great Financial Crisis (GFC) of 2007-2009, when counterparty and liquidity risks both skyrocketed, raising the possibility of defaults and losses in executing the trades necessary. That is, CIP was not a riskless arbitrage.

As a wave of recent research highlights, the conventional, pre-crisis model of the CIP machine remains impaired even as the counterparty and liquidity risks that characterized the GFC have receded....


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Opportunities in Finance

“We’re really only at 1% of what is possible, and probably even less than that. […] We should be building great things that don’t exist.”     Larry Page, Google I/O 2013 Keynote

With the summer coming to an end, professors everywhere are greeting a new group of students. So, our thoughts turn to the opportunities and challenges that those interested in finance will face over the course of their careers.

Like many important activities, finance is constantly evolving, so the “facts” that students learn in classes today will almost certainly change rapidly. With that in mind, we always strive to find a set of core principles that will endure, so that students can build a career based both on a set of specialized skills and on a broad capacity to imagine where finance and the financial system are heading...

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