A Liborious task ahead

Yesterday the CEO of the FCA, Andrew Bailey, gave a speech in which he supported ending the publication of LIBOR (London Inter-Bank Offer Rate), the key risk-free reference rate used by the financial system in the UK. In general the comments were nothing new – this has been a project in progress by the Bank of England for many years – so why did the market pay so much attention to the comments? Well, the intent implied in Bailey’s speech was more than the market expected, as well as there being a specific time frame mentioned: 2021.

What is the problem with LIBOR?

There are two main issues with using LIBOR as a reference for risk-free interest rates. Firstly, the most common LIBOR rate used is the 6-month LIBOR (the rate at which banks will lend cash on an unsecured basis in the interbank market for a term of 6 months). The fact that this rate is for a 6-month loan implies that it is not actually a risk-free rate – it carries a 6-month term premium. The second main issue is the way that the LIBOR rate is set, as it relies on banks to submit an estimate of where they think they can lend money. As it is not based on actual traded transactions, it is subject to gaming – as was seen in the well-publicised LIBOR scandal. To solve these issues, the Bank of England working group on sterling risk-free rates proposed in April that SONIA should replace LIBOR and be administered by the Bank of England.

What is SONIA?

The Sterling OverNight Index Average (SONIA) is a reference rate that is based on actual transactions in the overnight unsecured loan and deposit market. Reformed SONIA will actually replace SONIA shortly; reformed SONIA includes other market participants outside the interbank broker market and therefore has a much higher transactional volume than current SONIA.

What would the change mean for the derivatives market?

Currently LIBOR is used as the reference rate for the majority of interest rate derivatives held by end users and used to hedge a variety of liabilities, bonds, loans and other financial instruments. As a result the LIBOR swap market is the most liquid and cost effective hedge, as well as being a match for existing legacy LIBOR derivative positions held by end users. There is also a liquid market in SONIA swaps, however liquidity falls once the maturity of the trade becomes longer than 5 years.

The SONIA swap market has existed for around 10 years, so why have market participants not voluntarily migrated to SONIA? This is a legacy issue. The market agrees that if we were to design the market again from scratch, LIBOR would not be the main reference rate. But with so much of the market already using the fix, it’s not easy to wean off it! The market needs a regulatory push, the FCA and BOE do not see LIBOR as a desirable reference rate, and the comments yesterday are the next step in this process.

Much of the current derivatives trading is facilitated by the large and liquid pool of short sterling futures contracts. For the market to adopt a new reference rate such as SONIA, there needs to be a successful SONIA futures market established, something which is currently being consulted on by the Bank of England working group. Another issue that needs to be resolved is the ability to centrally clear SONIA swaps with maturity longer than 30 years, which is the current maximum – again a focus for the working group.

Clearly the FCA and BOE are intent on moving the market away from LIBOR over the long term. The working group has the (big) job of consulting on this transition and are seeking input from all market participants. There are undoubtedly challenges ahead – but change can be a good thing. This is a global theme with similar projects happening in the US and elsewhere, with the collective ambition of benefiting all market participants.

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