Reports of the death of Libor may be exaggerated, particularly in US markets.
The UK markets regulator, the Financial Conduct Authority, has set a rough timeline for banks to prepare for a transition away from the floating interest rate benchmark that is crucial to world markets. By the end of 2021, it will no longer require banks to contribute to its calculation for rates in sterling, it said.
Yet that may not signal the passing of a number that over the last 30 years emerged as one of the pillars of global finance and, more recently, a symbol of its decay.
Libor’s administrator, the US’s Intercontinental Exchange, will still be able to publish the dollar rate after that point, and analysts and trading executives say it may still be necessary. Five years is not long enough for banks to overhaul the $350tn of outstanding derivatives, loans and mortgages tied to the key reference rate, they say.
Banks, companies, insurers, pension funds and consumers are among a multitude of participants that have swaps and debt that is regularly affected by changes in short-term interest rates in the money market. Libor for a term of one month and, more often, three months maturity are the cornerstones of the floating interest rate market for the broader economy and users of derivatives.
The question now is, how many banks will be willing to contribute to the benchmark after 2021, and for how long?
“It’s certainly possible that they’ll continue to publish the rate,” says Mark Cabana, a strategist with Bank of America Merrill Lynch. “But it’d be something banks do because they recognise how pivotal Libor is in the financial system, and not because of anything related to their bottom line.”
Libor has already created headaches for market participants. Banks and interdealer brokers racked up $9bn in penalties because their employees tried to manipulate the rate, and authorities demanded a wholesale review of Libor, passing administration from the industry to ICE, a regulated exchange.
Global regulators envisaged the rate would be based on transactions, rather than the survey structure that left it vulnerable to price fixing. But the underlying market — unsecured short-term lending between banks — is not exactly vibrant.
In the second quarter of 2017, less than half of all currencies’ Libor submissions for terms of a week or longer were based on actual transactions, according to data from ICE. That introduces some legal risk, since flawed submissions could be subject to regulator scrutiny.
Substitutes for libor are planned. In June, the Alternative Reference Rates Committee (ARRC), a dealer-led industry group backed by regulators, announced a US replacement called the Broad Treasury Financing Rate (BTFR). It is expected to be running in the first half of next year. Last week CME Group, ICE’s derivatives exchange rival, said it would develop futures and options on the new benchmark.
But the rate is not published yet and, crucially, the BTFR measures the cost of overnight repurchase agreements (repo) secured by Treasuries, whereas Libor reflects unsecured money market-based borrowing between banks.
Another issue is building out longer-term reference rates, particularly for one or three months, from the overnight rate in the event of a permanent Libor demise. Dollar Libor is quoted across a range of monthly maturities out to 12 months.
The dollar-denominated swaps market has about 65 per cent of its more than $100tn in notional outstanding value tied to Libor, according to the ARRC. A swap contract involves the exchange of fixed and floating rate cash flows over a term that can run to 30 years or longer. Such contracts generally rely on three-month dollar Libor as the benchmark floating rate.
“US dollar Libor has to live longer, because the replacement is going to take a while to roll out,” says Jason Williams, a strategist with Citi Research.
ICE’s policy is to publish Libor as long as it receives five or more submissions for a particular currency. But if enough banks decide to stop contributing to the Libor panel, others may follow. And broadly, a five-bank panel is likely not enough to sustain a rate over the long term.
The market is exploring options if ICE were to stop publishing Libor before all the relevant contracts are updated. Regulators, banks and investors could agree on a fixed spread over their region’s chosen short-term reference rate, and work out a term structure.
But as Mr Cabana notes, the option “obviously would raise some concerns around what spread to be chosen, the term structure of the fixed spread . . . but these, in our view, would be easier challenges to address than renegotiating and re-hedging existing contracts”.
ISDA, the derivatives industry’s main trade association, is also working on details of potential fallback provisions to be used if Libor is no longer published. Commercial rivals are also interested. Meanwhile, the CME eyes it as a chance to exploit futures contracts that would be tied to new reference rates.
“We are working very closely with ISDA on potential fallback,” Sean Tully, global head of financial and OTC products at CME, told investors on Tuesday.
But executives and analysts acknowledge none of these new benchmarks have as wide of a reach as Libor.
“In the end, we see the most likely scenario as involving a fractured derivatives market with multiple underlying benchmarks across different countries developing,” says Mr Cabana.