In recent months, a sense has emerged that the exchange-traded currency futures market in India is more liquid than the corresponding contract traded OTC (i.e. the forward market). As an example, we examine a dataset from NSE of 28,797 observations of data - one observation per second - from 3 November 2009, for the November expiry. The effective spread for a transaction of $1 million (i.e. 1000 contracts) is calculated, in the units of paisa. This dataset has the following summary statistics:
These numbers are significantly superior to those found on the OTC forward market, where, as a thumb rule, dealers feel that a $1 million transaction typically involves a spread of 2 paisa. This suggests that the liquidity at NSE is roughly 2x superior to the OTC market. The superiority of the execution at NSE is likely to be greater than 2x when we consider the opacity and execution risk of the OTC market. To the extent that order flow has shifted away from the forward market to the futures market, there could be a dynamic story here of the futures spread getting tighter at the expense of the forward spread.
This situation is unexpected. In the international experience, the currency forward markets is more liquid than its exchange-traded counterpart. This is despite the fact that futures markets has desirable features including near-zero counterparty risk, transparency, contracts standardisation and open public participation. The key reason for the domination of the OTC market appears to be historical. The OTC market came first, had entrenched liquidity, and the network externalities of liquidity hold the users in place.
In thinking about India's currency futures market, it would be useful to compare and contrast with Brazil's experience. Brazil is an interesting peer to India for reasons of a large GDP, democracy, rule of law, institutional quality, etc. It is also the only country of the world, prior to India, where the currency futures market became more liquid than the currency forward market.
In Brazil, currency futures trading began in 1991 - a seventeen year head start when compared with India. While Brazilian macroeconomics is now remarkably healthy, Brazil has had a turbulent history with many crises, high and volatile interest rates and inflation. The futures market, with daily marking to market, and therefore lower collateral requirements, offered a cheaper way to take positions in the currency. Nevertheless, there is reason to believe that several (sometimes unrelated) regulations contributed to tipping the balance in favor of futures contracts, so much so that today there is essentially no OTC market to speak of. The dealers on the forward market now provide OTC contracts to their customers but unwind their positions in the futures market (See Note 2). The regulatory pressures which moved liquidity from the OTC market to the futures market were:
- Access to spot markets was limited for several decades as a tool to control capital flight. Both domestic and foreign residents had easier access to futures markets than to spot markets. This led to greater number of players, and more liquidity in futures markets. Access to spot markets in Brazil is still far from free, for both domestic and foreign residents. India is in the same boat, with a futures market that is accessible to citizens but a spot market which is not.
- Until 2005, banks were subject to unremunerated reserve requirements on foreign exchange exposures exceeding pre-specified limits. These reserve ratios did not apply to futures positions, thus driving trading to futures markets.
- Until December 2007, Brazil imposed a financial transactions tax, called CPMF, on all debits on bank accounts. This levy applied to profit and loss payments on exchange traded contracts, not to their notional amounts, thus pushing activity to exchanges.
- OTC derivatives contracts are not netted, whereas contracts with the exchange or clearing house are netted by the latter. This means that the tax on cash flows, PIS-COFINS (See Note 3), de-facto taxes OTC transactions at a higher rate than exchange traded derivatives.
- Brazil has reporting requirements for OTC transactions - all transactions with domestic counterparties must be reported to regulators, in order for them to be considered enforceable. This levels the playing field in terms of the reporting burden of exchange traded versus OTC transactions. India has not yet done this.
- Pension funds are required to use only standardized derivatives contracts.
- The central bank, Banco Central Do Brasil, uses the futures market for doing currency intervention. This gives liquidity to the futures market, and also ensures that the OTC community has to look very carefully at the price on the screen so as to capture current information. India has not yet done this.
Endnotes1 The author is a senior analyst at the Bank of Canada. The views expressed here are personal. No responsibility for them should be attributed to the Bank of Canada.
2 The material in this note is a summary of information provided by Brazilian economists as well as that contained in Dodd and Griffith-Jones (2007), Brazil's derivatives markets: hedging, central bank interevention and regulation, and Kolb and Overdahl (2006), Understanding futures markets, sixth edition, Blackwell Publishing.
3 The PIS and COFINS are federal taxes on revenues, charged on a monthly basis.