Given the technology at hand, why don’t the equity markets move to a T+0 settlement cycle?

This blog pointed earlier to how US is moving to a T+2 settlement in equity markets whereas India had it more than a decade ago.

JP Koning asks why don’t we move to a T+0 settlement cycle given we have the technology now? He says there is a reason why these systems are slower. The idea is to settle and net transactions at the end of the day rather than immediate to avoid repitition:

Don’t be beguiled by settlement speed. Slow isn’t necessarily a bug—it’s often a feature. Imagine the following scenario. You and your friends play poker every day at a cafe. To buy into the game, cash or bitcoins are required. And at the end of each game, cash or bitcoin is paid out to the winners. The problem with this system is that each day all players have to lug a transactions medium to the cafe and back from it—and this involves a sacrifice. Banknotes and coins take up lots of space and can be easily stolen. Like bitcoin, they don’t yield interest—so a stream of interest income is being foregone to play poker.   

Once the game is done, the laborious process of counting out cash and banknotes occurs. In the case of bitcoin, the payouts are costly since each one involves incurring a fee to send bitcoins from one wallet to another. 

Financial participants have adopted a time-tested strategy to avoid all the work involved in repetitive use of transactions media like cash: substitute them with IOUs and only settle them periodically. Returning to the poker example, rather than stumping up cash each game players can buy-in using IOUs denominated in cash or bitcoin. These IOUs are recorded in a ledger. Rather than cashing out at the end of the game each player’s balance is held over to the next day, only to be updated subject to that day’s results. These ledger balances continue to be updated at the close of each game until after (say) the tenth game, everyone finally decides to settle the account, upon which all debtors, or losers, bring cash and/or bitcoin to the cafe to pay off winners, or creditors. The system has settled—not in real-time—but T+10. 

The advantage of delayed settlement is that quid pro quo is achieved with one set of transactions conducted at the end of the 10-game cycle rather than a set of transaction for each game. No more tedious counting out coins each day, or daily bitcoin fees. Because the obligation to carry around cash is kept to a minimum, interest income needn’t be sacrificed by players. Nor are there any nuisances of storing cash. 

He points how US has moved from T+1 to in 1930s to T+5 in 1970s and now back to T+2:

The lengthening of the cycle to T+2 in 1933, which corresponded with an increase in stock trading volumes, was implemented to “ease the work” of brokerage clerks. Back then all securities were recorded in physical form, so settlement required the transportation by hand of certificates from one office to another by an army of runners. In the face of growing trade volumes, the only way to maintain T+1 settlement would have been to do much more work, which meant hiring more clerks and runners—costs that would be offloaded onto clients. Slowing down the system to T+2 from T+1 presumably would have kept things cheap. 

The 1968 switch to T+5 settlement was an effort to cope with the famous “back office crisis.” Investors who were too young to remember the Great Depression had begun to arrive in droves to equity markets in the early-60s. Back office clerks could not keep up with amount of work required to settle trades. At one point the NYSE even closed on Wednesdays to help deal with the backlog.

The recent move back to T+2 means that cash will appear in investors’ accounts 24 hours earlier, making it easier for them to meet subsequent payments deadlines. Credit risk is reduced too. Brokers conduct trades with other brokers on behalf of their clients, building up credit and debits over the settlement cycle. The shorter the cycle, the quicker these debts will be unwound by transfers of stock and cash, the resulting savings hopefully flowing through to customers. 

Why not go straight to real-time, or T+0? The move from T+3 to T+2 means one less day over which brokers can ‘net out’ their respective debits and credits so as to conserve on transactions costs. T+0 means no netting-out window whatsoever—and that would impose a terrific amount of work on the system. Like I say, it’s a trade-off. Real-time settlement is no panacea.

Superb as always from Koning…

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