The FX market currently looks like the ultimate mismatch. Front office processes have been transformed to accommodate the realities of electronic trading – operations and credit haven’t. This is acting as a drag on FX liquidity, as well as imposing an enormous cost burden: ~£20bn per year for the top global investment banks and buy-side institutions. Fortunately, as Anoushka Rayner, Global Head of Sales and Business Development at Cobalt explains, there is a simple and readily achievable remedy: centralised standardisation.
The FX market has a proven track record for acting on its own initiative to ensure that trading is always orderly and unnecessary risks are curtailed, with the creation of CLS an obvious example. There is now a pressing need for it to act in similar fashion to address the issues of post-trade processing and credit management.
The FX front office has evolved to accommodate the shift from a voice brokered market – resulting in transparency, efficiency, liquidity and consistency – by bringing counterparties together so they can interact more effectively. In doing so, all participants have benefited from lower frictional costs and greater transparency.
Sadly, the same cannot be said of FX post-trade processing, which still uses much of the same basic infrastructure it used to support voice broking. In two decades, it has remained essentially unchanged, resulting in legacy processes/practices that are wholly unsuited to supporting electronic trading as conducted in today’s FX front offices. These processes/practices are also excessively costly, to the extent that post-trade costs can now even exceed the potential profit from the execution of a trade.
At the core of the problem are the fragmentation, replication and complexity of internal processes. This is hardly surprising given that at least 23 services are usually involved in managing current FX post-trade activities, which inflates both costs and operational risks. Multiple vendors are needed, as are multiple copies of the same trade (20+ is not untypical). At the same time, existing legacy processing technology cannot keep up with market evolution and so requires additional outlay to pay for the manual processes needed to cover its shortcomings.
In some cases, extremely costly processes persist. These could be dispensed with altogether in a more efficient processing environment. A case in point are confirmations, the costs of which at some top tier FX banks – just for their EB and PB businesses alone – run to nearly USD5mn per year.
Attempts to respond to changes in the front office by changing post-trade methods have also made the situation worse, as new substandard processes are layered on top of an already fragile and inefficient process stack. Each new process added therefore effectively exacerbates an already suboptimal process flow, in terms of both cost and risk.
These issues apply across all FX-related instruments, which when one considers that volume in uncleared FX derivatives (a market approximately twice the size of spot) totaled ~USD88trn at 2018-year end, illustrates the sheer magnitude of the problem. In fact, for FX derivatives, the risks and costs of these operational limitations are even more acute, as the processes involved are more complex than for spot.
These issues are collectively hampering the FX market’s overall efficiency and growth. This applies across bank to client, bank to bank and prime brokerage segments. In some cases, it is already causing market distortion, such as driving participants to review their position in FX prime brokerage. Given the FX market’s established reputation for resolving structural issues of this nature, it should be possible to find a solution internally, rather than directly involving external bodies, such as regulators.
A related area that is also creating unnecessary cost and risk – as well as damping liquidity growth – is credit management. Given the large trading volumes now conducted via API and at high frequency, FX is probably the market least tolerant of latency. Yet despite this, antiquated and fragmented credit management processes still persist, causing significant practical problems. Workaround remedies have emerged in an attempt to address these but create different problems instead. Credit kill switches are a case in point, because they can create disputes when clients find themselves having to reduce positions at unfavourable prices and also requiring a manual unwinding process, exposing both clients and banks to further issues.
Credit-related risks, such as over-commitment, still remain stubbornly high, while workaround remedies actually reduce credit efficiency, such as over-allocating to accommodate localised management of credit within venues. Costs are also an issue in credit management, with top tier banks spending considerable amounts unnecessarily on redundant/inefficient credit processes and technology.
The good news is that a solution is already entirely achievable at technical level. The obvious remedy is a single centralised shared ledger platform using standardised data that can handle all the necessary post-trade activities (plus credit) in one solution. It would mean that compliance with many of the principles in the GFXC’s FX Global Code of Conduct could become an achievable and immediate reality rather than merely being aspirational. A case in point is the principle relating to real time monitoring of trading permissions and credit provision
A centralised industry shared ledger platform would deliver multiple practical benefits across the market place. The most obvious would be to eliminate duplication and cost saving. Instead of running multiple versions of inadequate processes, participants could handle trades using a single set of consistent industry-standard processes. In the long term this could deliver cost savings of up to 80%, with ~50% possible in the medium term.
An additional benefit is cost transparency. In the current environment, with the accumulation of multiple layers of legacy operations and credit technology/processes, it is often extremely difficult to determine the post-trade cost of a transaction. A central standardised process would by contrast make the measurement and monitoring of post-trade costs straightforward and potentially deliver the same degree of transparency as already available for FX execution costs.
This shared ledger approach would also deliver various credit management benefits. For instance, the availability of near real time credit data would enable more efficient credit processes, such as:
- Preventing erroneous credit cut-offs (thus improving client relations)
- Making more efficient use of available lines
- Avoiding over-commitment risks
- Alleviating balance sheet pressure
Centralising credit management using a shared ledger enables more dynamic control across all types of trading relationship (bilateral, tri party and quadri party). This will dispense with the need for over-allocation and rebalancing in order to accommodate localised management of credit within venues. Those issuing credit will also be taking control of it (as is the case in equity markets) and will therefore be able to recycle it back into the market in the most efficient manner (a key consideration for non-CLS currencies and non-CLS members). Ultimately this will result in venues receiving business because they offer the best price, not because there is residual credit left at them.
In operational terms, workloads will also reduce when using this sort of solution, as less remediation will be required. Efficient credit management and automated processing will drive a reduction in failed trades, thereby also reducing the need for manual intervention and repair.
Liquidity and Regulation
The cost and efficiency benefits delivered by a centralised industry shared ledger platform have important implications for liquidity and market participation. Trading volumes in G7 pairs have been declining in recent years for a variety of reasons, but operational/credit inefficiencies are clearly playing some part if they are cutting trade margins to near zero.
If individual ticket processing costs decline significantly, then logically this will boost existing participants’ willingness to trade, both in general, but also potentially in smaller transaction sizes. By the same token, new participants may be encouraged to join the market once they can see that the processing cost burden and operational risks have been alleviated.
Finally, there are also prospective regulatory advantages to the FX market adopting a centralised shared ledger solution. Some regulators are already clearly aware of the issues, as shown by the FCA and BoE’s convening of a ‘Technology Working Group’ to reform post-trade processing so as to reduce complexity, encourage innovation, and improve systemic resilience. A shared ledger platform could support this initiative in various ways, but one of the most obvious is with regulatory filings.
At present, participants (often using manually intensive processes) incur substantial costs collecting trade data and submitting it to regulators. Market-wide adoption of a shared ledger solution would instead make it possible for participants to submit regulatory filings far more easily, plus do so in a consistent format. This would enable better monitoring of any potential systemic risks, plus delivering lower regulatory costs for all concerned (including regulators). Central banks could send a strong message here by adopting a shared ledger solution for their own trading activities, which would also serve as a clear signal to the organisations they regulate.
Adopting a single centralised utility for FX post-trade functions based on a common data standard ticks numerous boxes for all market participants. These include considerable cost savings, reduced credit/operational risks and better use of balance sheet, which in turn also facilitate greater trading activity and more diverse participation, as well as enhanced price discovery and lower regulatory overheads. Finally, it will also reinforce the FX industry’s existing reputation for innovating in the common interests of all market participants.