Just a few weeks after the UBS Delta One desk fiasco which resulted in an estimated trading loss to the bank of $2.3bn, Blackrock, the world’s leading provider of ETFs is supporting a move to tighten regulations designed to safeguard investors.
What is going on in the supposedly simple and cheap world of passive management and what issues should investors be aware of?
Tracker funds have experienced explosive growth since the first was launched in 1989. There are now nearly 4,000 funds with investors’ assets amounting to $1.6trn. What started as an attempt to match the return of the S&P 500 Index in a cost-effective way has turned into a highly complicated industry with multiple risks that are not necessarily understood by the participants.
The link between tracker funds and the UBS trading loss requires explanation as this issue has generated a lot of questions in recent weeks.
My colleague, Karl Williamson, who apart from being a trained economist spent four years as a derivatives market maker before joining Cheviot, explains:
Delta One may evoke images of fighter pilots but the name comes from the financial term delta, the sensitivity of the price of a derivative to a change in the underlying index where a delta of one implies a one-for-one change in relation to the underlying asset.
Delta One desks offer to provide the return of a particular index without all the hassle of buying the underlying securities. They then buy the underlying securities or various derivatives to gain the exposure required in trades that tend to be very large in size because the margins are miniscule.
The strategies, like arbitraging and lending out shares held as collateral should be relatively simple, although not risk free.
Exchange-traded instruments can be synthetic or physical where physical funds are backed by investment in real securities, although not always all the stocks in the index. At first glance this appears entirely safe, though the assets can be lent to other institutional investors.
Synthetics are backed by a swap contract with a bank. Normally they have a cost advantage and tend to track the underlying index more closely than physical funds, but involve counterparty risk. i.e. the security of the underlying bank.
Both are sold as low-cost solutions to investors. However, I doubt many understand what goes on underneath the surface, let alone the potential risks relying, as they do, on the intertwined banking system which is only as safe as the weakest link.
Delta One desks are not covered by the new proprietary trading restrictions which is attractive to banks as the returns can be exceptional. Goldman Sachs made $1.2bn this year according to a recent JPMorgan report.
The whole UBS event points towards a combination of failures:
- Firstly, complex strategies may not have been fully understood by senior executives.
- Secondly, the incentive structure may have encouraged traders to take risk without penalty.
- Finally, many Delta One trades are over-the-counter rather than listed on a stock exchange and so valuing positions on a day-by-day basis is difficult.
In the end, as is the case in many businesses, trust and integrity are a vital component. In the relatively opaque world of the Delta One desks the scope to exploit the system was there and this is what seems to have happened at UBS. Kweku Adoboli worked his way up from the bank’s back office and so would have known the internal systems inside out.
Internal controls were avoided or neutralised and it was only when another part of the UBS risk management team asked questions that the problem was discovered. They were conducting a routine check on outstanding trades with French banks, presumably because of concerns about the extent of their own counterparty risk and had nothing to do with monitoring the trading activities of the Delta One desk.
Those of us who are active managers making direct investments in a wide range of asset classes have an easier time managing risk. At least we know where our clients’ assets are. To be fair Delta One trading problems are of no concern to ETF investors because UBS can afford to lose $2.3bn, but one day it might matter which is why the regulators are circling.
The last thing the financial system needs is another subprime cascade.