The Meaning of Swap

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.

Musings about “the meaning of life” cross philosophies, cultures and centuries. Among the philosophical strands cited by Wikipedia that have contemplated this most basic of questions are utilitarianism and pragmatism together with stoicism.

More recently, the derivatives world has been contemplating the meaning of swap, a question that is central to existence in the post Dodd-Frank world. The CFTC and the SEC have now produced their treatise on this question* and it is one that we will all be studying in great detail over the coming days and weeks to see what answers it holds. And as with the meaning of life, we might be well served by looking at this final rule in a utilitarian and pragmatic way, while remaining stoic as we contemplate its implications.

The most immediate impact of the publication of the definition of swap is that the clock starts ticking on many rules that, by their terms, were not slated to become effective until the definition of swap was final. Reporting requirements will commence 60 days after the rule becomes effective (the date of publication in the Federal Register). Various timetables relating to clearing, including mandates for the clearing of certain trades, will now commence. There will be many clocks ticking over the coming months.

Congress left the agencies with the task of filling out the definition of these terms and it has been a long process to get to these final definitions. There is a case to be made that this definitional rule should have been one of the first rules finalized, and not one of the last. And, if Dodd-Frank had allowed the agencies to proceed on a more logical timetable, they might have adopted that approach. But the fire hose of rulemaking required by the law made it difficult for the agencies to take that more logical approach.

The swap definition is also one where the CFTC and the SEC had to come to agreement given the divided oversight of the OTC derivatives business mandated by the law. The market will benefit from consistency of their approach to this issue, so the additional time it took to get to the final, joint approach to the definition will hopefully prove time well spent. Still, the translation of the jurisdictional divide between the securities and futures world into the OTC derivatives creates challenges. One need only consider the experience with single stock futures over the past decade to get a sense of the regulatory challenges that can be created by something like a “mixed swap.”

One issue that remains open is the treatment of guarantees of swaps. Both agencies take the view that the guarantee would be considered part of the swap and, therefore, subject to its jurisdiction. But for now we must await further guidance on how they will treat the guarantee. Given the central role of the definition, how they address the guarantee issue may have implications for other parts of the agencies’ rulemaking, such as reporting and even registration.

There are many details in the final rule that will require a close reading of the rule and the possible need to approach the agencies for interpretive guidance. ISDA will be working with our members, both to assist them in understanding the rule and, where necessary, seeking that guidance. The meaning of swap, like the meaning of life, is best contemplated together with others who share the journey.

* The CFTC defined the term “swap” and related terms; the SEC defined the term “security-based swap” and related terms.

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