A clearinghouse is a financial institution that acts as a middleman between buyers and sellers in a market, ensuring that transactions take place even if one side defaults.
If one side of a deal fails, a clearinghouse can step in to fill the gap, thus reducing the risk that a failure will ripple across financial markets. In order to do this, clearinghouses ask their members for “margin”–collateral that is held to keep them safe from their own actions and the actions of other members.
While often described as the “plumbing” behind financial transactions, clearinghouses became high profile after the 2008 financial crisis, when the collapse of Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc. exposed the need for steady intermediaries in many markets.
Regulations introduced by the Dodd-Frank Act demanded greater clearing requirements, turning the handful of clearinghouses in the country into some of the most systemically important entities in today’s financial system.
Here’s a closer look at them.
How Clearinghouses Work
Clearinghouses handle the clearing and settlement for member trades. Clearing is the handling of trades after they’re agreed upon, while settlement is the actual transfer of ownership–delivering an asset to its buyer and the funds to its seller.
Other responsibilities include recording trade data and collecting margin payments. The margin requirements are usually based on formulas that take into account factors like market volatility, the balance of buy-versus-sell orders, as well as value-at-risk, or the risk of losses from investments.
Because they handle investing risk from both parties in a trade, clearinghouses typically have a “waterfall” of potential actions in case a member defaults. Here are the layers of protection a clearinghouse has for such events:
1. Margin requirements by the member itself. If market volatility spikes or trades start to head south, clearinghouses can put in a margin call and demand more money from a member. In most cases, this response tends to cover any losses.
2. The next buffer would be the clearinghouse’s own operator capital.
3. If these aren’t enough to staunch the losses, the clearinghouse could dip into the mutual default fund made up from contributions by members. Such an action however could, in turn, cause the clearinghouse to ask members for more money, in order to replenish the collective fund.
4. Lastly, a resolution could be to try to find more capital from the clearinghouse itself again–such as from a parent company.
Are Clearinghouses Too Big to Fail?
Some industry observers have argued that regulations have made clearinghouses too systemically important, turning them into big concentrations of financial risk themselves.
These critics argue that because of their membership structure, the risk of default in a clearinghouse is spread across a group of market participants. And one weak member could be bad news for everyone, especially if a clearinghouse has to ask for additional money to refill the mutual default fund. Such a move could trigger a cascade of selling across markets as members try to meet the call.
Other critics have said the margin requirements and default funds at clearinghouses are too shallow, raising the risk that clearinghouses burn through their buffers and need to be bailed out by a government entity or go bankrupt–a series of events that could meanwhile throw financial markets into disarray.
Clearinghouses in Stock Trading
Stock investors have already probably learned the difference between a trade versus settlement date. Trades in the stock market aren’t immediate. Known as “T+2,” settlement happens two days after the trade happens, so the money and shares actually change hands two days later.
In the U.S., the Depository Trust & Clearing Corp. handles the majority of clearing and settling in equity trades. Owned by a financial consortium, the DTCC clears on average more than $1 trillion in stock trades each day.
Clearinghouses in Derivatives Trading
Clearinghouses play a much more central and pivotal role in the derivatives market, since with derivatives products are typically leveraged, so money is borrowed in order to make bigger bets. With leverage, the risk among counterparties in trading becomes magnified, increasing the need for an intermediary between buyers and sellers.
Prior to Dodd-Frank, the vast majority of derivatives were traded over the counter. The Act required that the world of derivatives needed to be made safer and required that most contracts be centrally cleared. With U.S. stock options trades, the Options Clearing Corp. is the biggest clearinghouse, while CME Clearing and ICE Clear U.S. are the two largest in other derivatives markets.
Clearinghouses are financial intermediaries that handle the mechanics behind trades, helping to back and finalize transactions by members.
But since the 2008 financial crisis, the ultimate goal of clearinghouses has been to be a stabilizing force in the marketplace. They sit in between buyers and sellers since it’s hard for one party to know exactly the risk profile and creditworthiness of the other.
For beginner investors, it can be helpful to understand this “plumbing” that allows trades to take place and helps ensure financial markets stay stable.
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