Yesterday, in what is the worst-phrased and most misleading press release to ever come out of the CME, the exchange issued a notice that going forward all Initial margin would be equal to Maintenance margin. Our gut interpretation was that "Unless we are completely reading it incorrectly, it is nothing short of a margin call for tens if not hundreds of billions worth of product." Judging by the broad response, our initial reaction is what a prudent, logical human being would assume: after all, it is precisely the undercollateralization of customer accounts, and general underfunding at MF Global that is what brought that particular company down. Well, we wrong wrong.
The CME, it appears has taken a page right out of the European playbook, and less than a week after an exchange-cum-Primary Dealer collapsed due to excessive risk taking, the CME has followed up its vague press release from yesterday by inviting even more risk in lowering the initial margin. Why is this a cause for even greater concern? As the CME itself says, "Initial margins are set to provide an additional buffer against future losses in the account" - so going forward that buffer has been reduced by about 30%. But what is the reasoning provided by CME: "The intent and effect of these changes is to decrease the size of any margin calls resulting from the bulk transfer of MF Global customers to new clearing members, not to increase them." So basically the CME is implicitly putting all of its existing and current clients and customers at further risk by onboarding the accounts of those clients who, like lemmings, held on to their MF Global accounts until after it was too late. Because while the lower Initial margin may apply to MF accounts, it will also apply to any Tom, Dick and Harry beginning Monday, who will suddenly see a 30% reduced gating threshold to put on a position. Any position, no matter how risky.
Naturally, if enough people suddenly jump to put on risk, and the market flips and all new positions end up underwater, who will bail out CME accounts if, like MF, there is just not enough capital on the balance sheet? MF Global?
That the CME has opted for this highly disturbing path is very troubling, and just as in Europe, where three months after the financial short selling ban, financials are trading lower than they have ever been, so the unintended consequences from this action will result in even greater stress to the system, as not a single local will leave any excess money in their account, and likely will force all specs to trade within a hair of triggering maintenance margin, due to fears of what may happen at the CME itself, now that is has implicitly onboarded moral hazard from the otherwise insolvent MF Global accounts.
It also means the systemic liquidity is about to drop to even lower and more depressed levels.
And completing the symmetry with the recent action out of Europe, we learn that said Initial Margin reduction is a "short-term accommodation" which will apply until further notice. As an indication, Europe has extended its short selling ban several times and likely will keep it until the bitter end. We expect nothing less from the CME, where the new benchmark will be one of even greater initial position leverage which is what this margin reduction effectively accomplishes.
Yet what is most troubling is the complete lack of care to the wording ot the initial press release, as if it was thrown together by a 1 month intern who had heard his boss scream something at them from the conference room. That an event of this systemic importance requires not one but two releases, which still leaves many questions open (why does this apply to non-MF accounts? How long will this last and why it is open ended - after all the MF onboarding is a several day event at most? What happens to new non-MF initial trades which cover just initial and immediately see margin calls as maintenance is breached due to the lack of a 25% initial buffer) is by far the most surprising, and unfortunately leads to questions about both the CME's professionalism and competence.
Here is the CME's clarification.