Benchmark Transition Plans will be Critical

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.

Last week saw the US Alternative Reference Rates Committee (ARRC) – a US public-private sector working group led by the Federal Reserve – select its choice for a risk-free rate that could be used as an alternative to US dollar LIBOR for certain derivatives and other contracts in the future. The next step is to think about how to encourage its use and to transition to the new rate – and that’s the really tricky part. Certainty will be critical: market participants will need a clear plan.

The ARRC isn’t the only public-private sector group to be going through this process. Similar initiatives to identify and transition to alternative risk-free rates are progressing in the UK and Japan – part of a broader project to enhance financial benchmarks, which also includes work by benchmark administrators to strengthen the methodology for existing IBOR rates and an initiative led by ISDA to identify robust fallbacks that would apply to IBOR-linked derivatives contracts should an IBOR rate permanently stop being published.

Together, the transition to risk-free rates and the development of IBOR fallbacks will affect trillions of dollars in notional in interest rate derivatives trades. So it’s important that people understand what these developments are and what they mean. It’s also vital that market participants can implement the changes in a way that creates most certainty and least disruption – both now and down the line.

The transition to risk-free rates is particularly challenging, because each case is unique – there’s unlikely to be a one-size-fits-all transition plan that suits all rates and all jurisdictions. Despite this, we think there are some high-level principles that can guide market adoption.

First, it’s critical that the alternative rate is sufficiently liquid to support its role as a key market benchmark. If not, the priority should be to encourage trading in the underlying rate first, before any benchmark transition occurs.

A liquid basis market to enable the hedging of basis risk between the existing interbank rate and the selected rate is also a necessary prerequisite before any transition occurs. As a third principle, formal public-private cooperation should continue (or begin in jurisdictions other than the US, UK and Japan) to ensure the transition is implemented as smoothly as possible. These transitions should allow sufficient time for market participants to make the necessary changes to systems, processes and documents.

It’s also important that authorities and industry participants try to anticipate the future shape of the market. There needs to be a clear understanding of what end users want to achieve and the risks they want to hedge to determine whether there will be a continuing demand for the old benchmark rates. End-user outreach will therefore be vital.

Finally, serious consideration must be given to whether the transitions should apply to legacy trades. Switching the reference rate for existing transactions would likely result in shifts in valuations, which could be disruptive to the market. As a result, we expect the public-private sector transition plans will target new trades only.

Last year, the ARRC proposed a paced transition plan that is largely consistent with these principles. It emphasizes the building of liquidity in the new rate before encouraging market participants to use it for trading. It also highlights the importance of building a market for hedging basis risk between the existing and new rate. Critically, it only refers to transitioning new contracts to the alternative rate, rather than forcing the transition of legacy contracts.

Another question is, what happens to existing and future IBOR contracts should the IBOR rate be permanently discontinued? That’s the focus of a separate ISDA-led working group. Together with the Financial Stability Board, the working group is looking to identify robust fallbacks for key IBORs that can be written into derivatives documents – likely to be the relevant risk-free rates chosen by the respective public-private sector working groups.

Unlike the work to transition to risk-free rates, which will likely focus on new contracts only, we think there’s a logic to identifying a robust fallback for all key IBOR contracts, both new and legacy. That’s because if a tail event occurs and an IBOR rate stops being published, it makes sense for everyone to be using the same, published fallback rate. Certainty regarding which rate to reference would be just as important for legacy contracts.

If that is indeed the case, then ISDA could publish a protocol to help firms alter their legacy contracts to incorporate the fallbacks in an efficient way. This would only work if everyone changes their contracts, though. If only part of the market makes the change to their legacy contracts, firms would face significant basis risk. As all ISDA protocols are voluntary, there would likely need to be regulatory action to ensure everyone makes the change.

This is just part of ISDA’s broader work on benchmarks. Along with being an observer on three public-sector risk-free rate working groups and leading the initiative to develop IBOR fallbacks, we’re also working with the industry to help prepare for compliance with the EU Benchmarks Regulation from the start of next year.

We’ll continue to focus on this area and will inform members and industry about forthcoming changes and implications. As part of that, we’ll shortly be holding a benchmark symposium in New York on July 12. We hope to see you there!

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