Lessons Learned

ISDA Chief Executive Officer Scott O'Malia offers informal comments on important OTC derivatives issues in derivatiViews, reflecting ISDA's long-held commitment to making the market safer and more efficient.

A week has passed since the auction for Greek CDS. Perhaps it’s now time to reflect on the credit event process. Toward that end we wanted to share our thoughts in a combined derivatiViews and media.comment post, and we also encourage our readers to offer their views.

In our minds, the most striking thing about the entire situation was the wholesale shift in sentiment regarding the potential risks of a credit event. In the space of a few months, it went from being a big issue to a non-issue (though it really should not have been an issue at all). We – and anyone who looked at the DTCC’s trade repository website – knew all along that the level of Greek CDS exposure was relatively small. In addition, while it was published in aggregate on the DTCC’s site, it was known on an individual firm level to regulators. The credit event truly was a non-event.

One of the major reasons why it was a non-event is because of the significant amount of work that ISDA and the Determinations Committees have put into ensuring that the credit event process is fair and robust. This process has been tested many times since it was introduced a few years ago and continues to work well for all market participants.

Our biggest disappointment throughout the process was the lack of understanding by some of two important points about the credit event process. The first point relates to the structure, composition and workings of the Determinations Committees. Apparently, the fact that the names of the individual firm representatives serving on the DCs are not disclosed makes them “secretive” to some. This is despite the fact that the names of the firms serving on the DCs are public, their votes are public, and the rules governing how the DCs function are public. It’s important to note that the individual firm representatives can and do change from credit event to credit event; there is no “list” per se.

The second point relates to the nature and definition of a credit event. As we said repeatedly, particularly here, a contract is a contract. One can speculate about what might be or what should be – and many did. But we repeatedly urged people to read and understand the contract as written. If they had, then there would have been little surprise that the DC could really not act until the collective action clauses (CACs) were invoked by the Greek government. This important step meant that the Greek restructuring was binding on ALL holders, which is a condition required for a credit event to occur under the restructuring clause. In addition, until the Greek government acted – and posted their action in the official government gazette – the CACs were not officially invoked. This too is required before a credit event can be declared. That’s because the DCs do not vote prospectively on credit events.

The Greek credit event also demonstrates to ISDA that we have more work to do. Some market participants legitimately raised the question of whether the package of obligations issued in exchange for old Greek bonds should be considered in the Greek credit event auction, arguing that this was the “right” economic result. Yet among those obligations were certificates issued by the European Financial Stability Facility, not the Greek government, so the package was not considered in the auction.

The fact that the package was not included in the auction was picked up in the blogosphere as evidence that CDS are somehow fundamentally flawed. We beg to differ with that broad characterization.

We believe that it is important to adhere to the terms of contracts as written and agreed between parties as to do otherwise would adversely impact the market. Also, we knew there would be good deliverables for the auction. But we at ISDA also have a long track record of learning from and adapting to market experiences, particularly ones as significant as this.

We are also committed to considering changes going forward, not just for new contracts, but where there is market consensus for a change, for existing contracts as well. One need only look at the 2009 Big Bang Protocol for evidence, when the structure for CDS for both new and existing CDS was agreed broadly by market participants.

Whether, when and how to change the contract to address this recent experience is already being debated by market participants. As we have on many occasions before – for CDS and for the whole range of OTC derivatives – ISDA will play a central role in facilitating the evolution of products that we believe are an essential part of the fabric of the credit markets and of the financial system as a whole.

Stay tuned!

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