Wednesday, February 3, 2021

Regulation and stock trading

Yellen calls the regulators

(Seeking Alpha) Although the "meme stock" trade continues to unwind, discussions over market volatility continue to ensue. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen has called a meeting with the SEC, the Federal Reserve Board, the Federal Reserve Bank of New York and the Commodity Futures Trading Commission to address the recent market frenzy involving GameStop (NYSE:GME) and Robinhood. This comes after the SEC said it was investigating "manipulative trading activity," as well as actions taken to "unduly inhibit the ability to trade certain securities."

Fine print: Yellen has requested an ethics waiver to hold the meeting after receiving more than $700,000 in speaking fees from Citadel Advisors, the financial empire run by Ken Griffin. Griffin also runs a hedge fund and controls Citadel Securities, a market maker that executes trades for Robinhood.

What could happen? Likely nothing, but if the SEC were to act, it could pursue a series of rules, ranging from short interest caps to taxing short-term bets, according to BofA analyst Michael Carrier. The commission may also move to review payment for order flows (PFOF) and pursue social media oversight to ward off potential market manipulation. Jefferies analyst Daniel Fannon meanwhile thinks the SEC could explore greater investor education around derivatives and risk management or increase costs for leverage services.

This is all taking place while the SEC operates under temporary leadership. The eventual confirmation of Gary Gensler, President Biden's pick for the agency, is a virtual certainty, but it could take weeks or months for the Senate to approve him. Right now, the chamber is focusing on Biden's cabinet-level nominations, coronavirus relief and a possible impeachment trial for President Trump. 

Deeper dive into how trades are settled

A topic that has gotten lots of attention on Wall Street over the last few days is a requirement that stocks be physically deposited in an account within two days of making a transaction - a process known as "T+2." During that time, brokers have to post collateral to the Depository Trust & Clearing Corp. because equity prices can fluctuate over those 48 hours, and the lag can make sure everything turns out alright. Some buyers are also using margin and sellers can be tapping borrowed shares, so the requirement could help prevent brokers from getting burned before the transactions settle.

Backdrop: For many years, markets operated on a "T+5" settlement cycle, when security transactions were done manually. In the 1990s, the SEC shortened the settlement cycle to three business days, which reduced the amount of money that needed to be collected at any given time. It was only in 2017 that the commission moved to T+2, calling the previous standard an outdated "settlement cycle" due to improvements in technology, emerging new products and growing trading volumes.

Latest argument: Given our current lightning-fast systems, many market participants say two days is too long to settle trades. "Moving the industry closer to T+1 settlement is good for everyone because the less risk we maintain in the system, the better off everyone is," said Shane Swanson, former director of equity market structure at Citadel Securities. Some are even calling for instant settlement, like Robinhood (RBNHD) CEO Vlad Tenev, who had to put up some big funds this week to cover the trading frenzy on his platform.

"There is no reason why the greatest financial system the world has ever seen cannot settle trades in real time. Doing so would greatly mitigate the risk that such processing poses," Tenev wrote in a blog post. "Technology is the answer, not the oft-cited impediment. We believe it is important for all relevant stakeholders to convene in the near term to discuss the urgency and necessity of this issue."

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