(Bloomberg Opinion) -- The end of Libor as a benchmark for interest rates on everything from mortgages to credit cards is just two years away, leaving the market in search of a viable substitute. More than $370 trillion of existing financial contracts are pegged to Libor worldwide; of those, roughly $200 trillion are denominated in U.S. dollars and need to be addressed immediately — a monumental task in such a short period.
Fortunately, significant progress has been made in moving toward an alternative called the Secured Overnight Financing Rate, or SOFR, which is based on an average daily volume of more than $1 trillion of actual transactions in the U.S. Treasury repo market. I am chair of the Alternative Reference Rates Committee, a public-private committee convened and sponsored by the Federal Reserve to facilitate the transition in the U.S. It recommends institutions stop using Libor as quickly as possible and move to SOFR. As we all know, the best way to get out of a hole is to stop digging.
There are misconceptions that SOFR’s daily variability makes it undesirable as a Libor successor. Given the importance of the transition, I am eager to address those concerns, which fundamentally misunderstand how SOFR is truly used in financial contracts. They also vastly oversimplify what SOFR’s variability represents. It’s especially important to understand these complexities as the end of the year approaches, which typically brings wider movements in money market rates.
Repo market prices respond to changes in supply and demand. SOFR, which is based on actual transactions, reflects variability in actual market pricing. Unlike Libor, which has become increasingly based on estimates, SOFR accurately measures the market it was created to represent. This is a critical reason the ARRC selected it as its recommended alternative.
The ARRC picked SOFR fully aware that market-based rates are inherently variable. Given that SOFR is averaged when used in financial instruments, variability should not be an issue. And as might be expected, those averages have been quite stable.
For example, consider the period of money market pressure in September. Although SOFR rose sharply over a few days, a three-month average rose only 2 basis points compared with the weeks before those fluctuations. Over that same period, three-month U.S. dollar Libor rose 4 basis points. In fact, this SOFR average has been less volatile than three-month U.S. dollar Libor over a wide range of market conditions.
Although market participants can calculate averages on their own, and some are already doing so, many are understandably uncomfortable with taking on that responsibility. They worry about the consistency of calculation relative to their peers and consumer transparency. That is why we need accessible SOFR averages.
In November, the Federal Reserve Bank of New York outlined plans to produce SOFR averages along with a SOFR index. By publishing these averages on its website, which is expected to begin in the first half of 2020, the New York Fed will provide consistently calculated SOFR averages across various terms and an index to facilitate the calculation of averages over custom periods. Because they will be endorsed by the official sector, these averages should give all market participants the peace of mind that they can use the same reliable source.
Once publication begins, more market participants will be able to directly reference SOFR averages. So instead of adding to existing Libor risks, market participants can start constructing new SOFR-based contracts, especially with the clock ticking to the expiration of Libor.
To help ease the transition, if institutions must enter new Libor-referencing contracts, they can use fallback language the ARRC has released, which will help market participants safeguard their contracts should Libor no longer be available. They can also consult the ARRC’s practical implementation checklist, which outlines steps to consider during the transition.
While many milestones have been reached, two years is a short period to close out the remaining tasks. The strength of institutions individually, and the architecture of the financial system broadly, relies on everyone doing their part to ensure a smooth transition to SOFR.
Tom Wipf is the chair of the Alternative Reference Rates Committee and vice chairman of institutional securities at Morgan Stanley.
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