Determining if SEF Aggregation Really Matters

By | March 13, 2012

This post also published at

Regulations will have a significant impact on how SEF aggregators function and how widely these aggregators will be adopted by various market participants. Some of the most contentious rule proposals are those that will have the greatest impact on liquidity fragmentation. They include the 15-second rule, the ability to voice trade, the “block trade” definition, best execution requirements, and 15secondsthe requirement to send an RFQ to five dealers. The Smart Automated Agency Broker (SAAB), think swaps smart order router on steroids, will not only help traders execute the right product at the right price, but it will also mitigate regulatory complexities.

Much of the complexity has to do with the regulators’ goal of increasing transparency in the market. The thing we have to remember is, market participants are hypocritical when it comes to transparency: They want to get transparency, but don’t want to give it in return. While regulators work to pass rules that increase pre-trade and post-trade reporting, the market will push to ensure simultaneous regulatory compliance and trading anonymity via smart and flexible technology.

The Rules of Engagement
There are those at the CFTC who dislike voice trading on a SEF because they believe it limits the market’s ability to see all available bids and offers on the screen in real time. Because most swaps products are fraught with complexities and trade with relative infrequency, however, being able to speak to a broker directly about market pricing remains a necessity.

By way of compromising with the industry the CFTC has instituted what has come to be known as the “15-second rule.” It states that two parties may prearrange an order over the phone, but the order must then be displayed on the open market for 15 seconds. This communicates to the market the intentions of both the buyer and seller, which then creates an easy opportunity to trade ahead of the order. The 15-second rule also allows other market participants to price improve the original arrangement which, in theory, could benefit the buyer.

What does this have to do with liquidity fragmentation? The information leakage created by displaying a prearranged order to the market for 15 seconds is like a football coach giving his playbook to the opposing team a week before the big game. To prevent counterparties from being taken advantage of, large orders will need to be sliced and diced then sprayed across the relevant SEFs-something only a SAAB could do effectively. A firm having to protect its information in this way accounts for much of the swaps market’s expected increase in transaction volume. The percentage of transaction volume that the 15-second rule will impact will largely be determined by the proposed block trade rules.

Both the CFTC and SEC have proposed rules that define the size of a block trade, and allow block trades to be reported to the market after 15 minutes (rather than “as soon as technologically possible”). Treating a block trade differently than smaller orders is common in regulated markets. What’s of concern to us isn’t that block trades exist, but how they are defined.

The swaps market is a block-trade market by definition (the average interest rate swap is $129 million). The recent CFTC block trade rule defines roughly one third of the market as block trades (the details of this rule are explained well in another TabbFORUM post). Conversations with various market participants have left me to believe that the current rule is much more reasonable than the original proposal which would have seen only 5% of the market defined as a block. However, assuming that an interest rate swap block trade will be roughly $250 million or higher, a large swath of traders concerned with execution anonymity that routinely trade IRS sized between $100-200 million will quickly realize the only way to do that size without create a market stir is via a SAAB.

The 5 RFQ requirement and order interaction rules will not cause fragmented markets, but they will impact how the SAAB functions. The CFTC’s “5 RFQ” rule requires that all RFQs be sent to at least five different liquidity providers. The SEC has countered with a proposal that RFQs must be sent to “one or more” liquidity providers. TABB Group believes the CFTC will lower the number of liquidity providers that must be contacted from five to two. Still, the SAAB would need to know the relevant regulator for each product and act accordingly. This is most critical for credit traders, as index CDSs fall under the CFTC’s rules, and single-name CDSs, the SEC’s.

SEF best execution rules, more formally known as order interaction rules, will require SEFs to force interaction between their RFQs and CLOBs. Before a RFQ can be acted upon, for example, any better-priced liquidity in the order book would need to be taken out. The SEC has proposed such rules and the CFTC continues to contemplate a similar approach. TABB Group believes this rule is unnecessary. Market participants all have a fiduciary responsibility, whether to their investors, shareholders or brokerage clients, to execute in the most efficient way possible. Furthermore, whether mandated or not, SAABs will take into account all market prices when determining where to trade, regardless of market model. It’s like mandating that we drink coffee in the morning: It’s going to happen anyway, so why bother mandating it?

As a side note, technology can and will help market participants deal with these differences between SEC and CFTC rules; technology might also provide opportunities for those looking to benefit from the rule differences. But this begs the question: If the industry will simply work around the rule differences anyway, wouldn’t it be easier on everyone if there were no rule differences?

Don’t Tell Anyone I’m Here
Buy-side traders will also look to minimize the market impact of their trading in other ways. Sponsored access, as it is known in equity markets, is when a broker allows a client to trade directly on an exchange using the broker’s exchange membership. The broker is still responsible for the orders that go down to the exchange, and so must have pre-trade risk procedures in place, but the client can self-direct trades without any manual interaction from the broker.

CFTC rules allow direct access to SEFs without any broker involvement, but this direct access is only part of the allure of sponsored access in equities markets. Sponsored access also allows the client to trade under cover of the broker’s name, which leaves the market unaware of who is actually doing the trade. This “service,” if it is offered for swaps trading, could be a boon for dealers because it would encourage even large hedge funds to trade through a broker rather than accessing the market directly. The success of swaps sponsored access is inversely proportional to the success of SEFs that offer anonymous trading, because the latter would severely limit the need for the former.

Even if sponsored access becomes common, brokers would still not be able to execute a trade on a SEF and then move that position to their clients’ accounts (commonly referred to as the Principal-Principal model). “Moving” the original trade would be a trade in and of itself. This second trade would then fall under trading mandates, which means that the trade would have to be exposed to the SEF (via the 15-second rule) before it could be executed. That, of course, would generate additional risk and cost to both the client and dealer, making the approach less than desirable.

Direct market access for clients also provides further support for the agency model, and its use of the SAAB. Since brokers cannot profit by taking principal risk, they will instead charge fees for use of their trading tools and physical market access. TABB Group believes the market will ultimately adopt this model. This also brings us to the single dealer portal (SDP).

Under proposed regulations, dealers will not be able to fully own and operate SEFs. This means that SDPs, those that now act as primary sources of liquidity for the buy side, cannot register as SEFs unless owning dealers were to sell off most of their businesses. exhibit1Therefore, many SDPs are in the process of converting their swap-trading screens to SEF aggregators and SAABs (see Exhibit 1). These conversions are most prevalent among fixed-income platforms focused on CDS and interest rate swaps trading. TABB Group has also seen evidence that platforms that are currently focused on other areas, such as spot FX or US Treasuries, plan to build SEF aggregators to build up rather than dismantle their SDPs. By providing their clients with these new liquidity-seeking tools, dealers can try to maintain the screen real estate and relationships they have spent years establishing, even though those clients will be able to trade directly on SEFs themselves.

This all sounds like a win-win, doesn’t it? Clients get trading tools to reduce the complexity of execution at virtually no extra cost, and dealers can still utilize the SDPs in which they have invested so much. Unfortunately, it might not be that easy. A number of questions still linger as to the regulatory requirements and mechanics of dealers offering such a toolset.

Regulators are working to determine if they should require SEF aggregators to comply with the same kinds of rules with which SEFs must comply. If SEF aggregators provide clients with pre-trade price transparency-one of the core goals of Dodd-Frank-ensuring they do that fairly and consistently is critically important. Based on TABB Group’s conversations with regulators, this additional regulatory burden seems unlikely because nearly everything SEFs do will already be heavily regulated. Besides, several other markets, including equities, futures, options and FX have liquidity aggregators and, to date, regulators haven’t put further oversight in place on any of them.

This post was taken in large part from my research report “Swaps Liquidity Aggregation: Best Execution to Product Selection”

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