QUESTION:Dear Martin:

Do you have any concerns for the equity markets from the upcoming conversion from Libor to SOFR (the secured overnight financing rate). A recent article from Business Insider highlighted the following:

“Libor, linked to about $350 trillion worth of financial products, will be replaced by an alternate pricing benchmark for everything from mortgages to credit cards.”
“Replacing Libor will be lengthy and problematic, and is one of the key themes to look out for in 2019 as financial services and asset managers start transferring to new systems.”
“Thousands of existing contracts will need to be renegotiated causing a huge operational and financial burden that will consume legal teams for months.”
“Market structure experts cite the need to amend existing contracts to include “fallback” clauses which which specify what happens when Libor disappears. This is comparatively easy for loans, but for derivatives, swaps, and options, amending existing contracts could potentially lead to legal battles.”
This conversion seems like it could get awful messy.



ANSWER: Ever since the London Interbank Offered Rate (LIBOR) scandal, there has been one faction that has sought to eliminate the powers of banks to manipulate the LIBOR rate. This is similar to ending floor tradings in financial markets. Yes, LIBOR has been used to price trillions of dollars’ worth of loans, derivatives, and a lot more. The Federal Reserve moved to actually intervene and prevent a handful of banks to fix the interest rates. The Fed created a group in response, known as the Alternative Rate Reference Committee (ARRC), which has created a new benchmark dollar interest rate. This new rate is known as the Secured Overnight Financing Rate (SOFR). Actually, since April 2018, SOFR has been used for a growing number of bond offerings by large institutions including the World Bank, MetLife, and Fannie Mae. Europe is also moving to create a new benchmark rate that includes the Bank of England, Central banks in Europe with the ECB, Japan, and even Switzerland. This new group is also constructing new benchmark rates. However, there is another reason the Eurozone is taking this giant step. This is a major effort to take the dominance of trading away from Britain in light of BREXIT.

Now as for a crisis, no, that is about as likely as Y2K Millennium bug. Borrowing will take place under SOFR without a problem. The issue will be more with past contracts. That will tend to be a court issue if rates rise under SOFR or old contracts are converted involuntarily. The real issue will be concerning the manipulation of SOFR by governments as they have done with Quantitative Easing. The banks were never able to manipulate LIBOR to the extent of changing the trend. Front-running to elect stops etc. were the “manipulation” tactics. With governments involved, then we can see false trends and real manipulation. The banks could never manipulate LIBOR, suppress the rate, or increase it out of competition.


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