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LIBOR Replacement – The loss of market-based credit premium and the quagmire for cash market participants

It has been widely reported that the Federal Reserve (via a group of public & private organizations, ARRC) has identified SOFR (Secured Overnight Financing Rate) to replace LIBOR. SOFR, however, is a risk-free (or nearly risk-free) rate and does not include risk premia such as the credit risk premium. Therefore, SOFR cannot fully replace LIBOR for many stakeholders, particularly those in the cash markets.

Need for a rate with credit risk

In 2014, the FSB (Financial Stability Board) issued a report titled “Reforming Major Interest Rate Benchmarks”. (Available here.) In the report, the FSB pointed out that LIBOR, which is based on unsecured interbank markets, included two main components, a “risk-free or nearly risk-free rate” and a group of other “risk premia, including a term premium, a liquidity premium, a credit risk premium as well as potentially a premium for obtaining term funding”. The FSB report observed that it might be feasible for many derivative transactions to replace LIBOR with a risk-free rate, such as SOFR. However, the FSB report also pointed out that there would be continued need for a “reference rate with bank credit risk”, such as in the markets for bank loans, and other “bank-provided credit products”. In general, there is a greater need for such types of risk premium in the cash markets, such as bank loans, FRN bonds & securities, mortgages, structured products, capital market products, etc.

Nonexistence of a market-based rate with credit risk

Unfortunately, the need for a market-based rate with bank credit risk to replace LIBOR cannot be readily and satisfactorily met in any existing markets. In a speech presented on 7/12/2018, Andrew Baily, the head of the British financial regulator, put it bluntly: “It is difficult […] to see how the term credit premium that LIBOR seeks to measure […] can be obtained from other sources. We have not seen a compelling answer to how one-month, three-month, six-month and twelve-month term bank credit spread can be reliably measured on a dynamic and daily basis.” (See here.)

The quagmire for cash market participants

In 2014, the FSB envisioned a post-LIBOR new world, where multiple rates would provide the flexibility to meet the needs of multiple market sectors. A few years later, the reality has sunken in that the existing market liquidity can only support a risk-free rate, SOFR, but not a rate with credit risk. Therefore, for cash market participants, the new post-LIBOR reality is not a world of multiple rates to choose from, but one in which no single existing rate is satisfactory for their needs.

No satisfactory options

Given such a quagmire, cash market participants face enormous difficulties in planning for the anticipated changes in LIBOR. No options currently available paint a clear path.

  • Continue to use LIBOR: And face the liability and legal risks that LIBOR may be held inadequate or even illegal, particularly with the prospect of new bench mark regulations such as the EU Benchmark Regulations.
  • Adopt SOFR plus a fixed spread: And face the risks of mismatch between assets and liability due to large fluctuations in the credit spread (in addition to the lack of term structure and other deficiencies of SOFR).
  • Use other rates having a credit component, such as PRIME, FHLB rates (eg, 11th District Cost of Fund), commercial paper rates, CD rates, AMERIBOR (here), ICE Bank Yield Index (here), new auction-based rates (here), Investment Grade SOFR (here), etc: And face the reality that all these markets have low liquidity and other deficiencies such as data transparency & sufficiency, and may not be acceptable as a benchmark rate.

The risks

For cash market participants who are regulated, such as banks or insurance companies, the question is how the regulators will approach this quagmire. Will they establish a safe harbor or other rules? Or will they leave it to the regulated entities to establish their own safety and soundness policies & procedures? Considering the costs and uncertainties, it is most likely these regulated entities will not make any major decisions and take major actions until the regulators provide a clear guidance. The risk is high, however, that those decisions & actions may be too late.

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