Today, the Commission continues its work to ensure the resiliency of clearinghouses and protect customers in our markets. To provide the necessary context for these efforts, it is useful to look back at recent history.
Most participants in our markets will recall what happened at the beginning of the financial crisis in September 2008, when the Reserve Fund – a money market fund – “broke the buck” following the bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers. Redemptions were suspended and investors were not able to make withdrawals. As a result, many futures commission merchants (FCMs) were not able to access customer funds invested in the Reserve Fund. Absent relief by the CFTC, many would have been undercapitalized, potentially ending up in bankruptcy. In addition, clearinghouses could not liquidate investments in the Reserve Fund. And there could have easily been a widespread run on money market funds, but for the emergency actions taken by the U.S. government.
As a result of the crisis, as well as the collapse of MF Global, the CFTC and our self-regulatory organizations took a number of actions to better protect customer funds. We required customer funds to be strictly segregated and limited the ways they can be invested. We enhanced accounting and auditing procedures at FCMs, including by requiring daily verification from depositories of the amounts deposited by FCMs.
Today, CFTC rules require that customer funds be invested in highly liquid assets and be convertible into cash within one business day without a material discount in value. Our rules also require that clearinghouses invest initial margin deposits in a manner that allows them to promptly liquidate any such investment.
Over the last few years, the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) has also taken action in response to the lessons of the financial crisis, by adopting a number of measures to address the potential vulnerabilities of money market funds. One such recent reform, which takes effect in October of this year, sets forth the circumstances where prime money market funds are permitted, or in some circumstances required, to suspend redemptions in order to prevent the risk of investor runs.
While we recognize the benefit of the SEC’s new rule in preventing investor runs, a suspension of redemptions by a money market fund would mean investments in such funds are not accessible and cannot be promptly liquidated. Such an event could result in customers, FCMs, and clearinghouses being unable to access the funds necessary to satisfy margin obligations.
Therefore, CFTC staff is today providing guidance making clear that Commission rules prohibit a clearing member from investing customer funds, or a clearinghouse from investing amounts deposited as initial margin, in such money market funds.
Some industry participants have suggested we should interpret or revise our rules to permit investments of at least some customer monies in such money market funds unless and until redemptions are suspended. We have declined to do so, as it would be too late to protect customers at that point. Moreover, there are alternatives to prime funds, including certain government money markets funds or Treasury securities. In fact, investments in prime money market funds represent a relatively small portion of the total customer funds on deposit and the total initial margin deposits at clearinghouses. Some of our clearinghouses and FCMs do not have any investments in prime funds.
Staff has been careful not to be overly restrictive, and therefore has issued no-action relief to allow FCMs to invest certain “excess” proprietary funds held in customer accounts in these money market funds. That is, our existing rules require FCMs to deposit their own funds (i.e., targeted residual interest) into customer accounts to make sure that there are sufficient funds in the segregated customer accounts to cover all obligations due to customers. FCMs frequently deposit an amount of their own funds that is in excess of the targeted residual interest amount required under our rules, and that excess amount can be withdrawn at any time. Indeed, if an FCM should default, customers—and the system as a whole—are better off if excess funds are on deposit, and we do not wish to incentivize FCMs to withdraw such excess funds from the segregated account. Therefore, the no action relief makes clear that FCMs can continue to invest their own funds in excess of their targeted residual interest in such money market funds, even though they cannot invest the customer funds – or any proprietary funds they are required to deposit – in this manner.
Finally, the Commission is taking action today that will further ensure the safety of customer funds. We are issuing an order that will help make it possible for systemically important clearinghouses to deposit customer funds at Federal Reserve Banks. Our order makes clear that a Federal Reserve Bank that opens such an account would be subject to the same standards of liability that generally apply to it as a depository, rather than any potentially conflicting standard under the commodity laws.
Although Federal Reserve accounts for customer funds held by systemically important clearinghouses do not exist today, they are allowed under the Dodd-Frank Act, and we have been working with the Board of Governors to facilitate them. The two clearinghouses designated as systemically important in our markets have been approved to open Federal Reserve Bank accounts for their proprietary funds. We hope that with today’s action, accounts for customer funds can be opened soon. Doing so will help protect customer funds and enhance the resiliency of clearinghouses.
I thank the dedicated CFTC staff and my fellow Commissioners for their work on these matters.