Settlement Risk: All You Need to Know

Explore the concept of settlement risk in terms of foreign exchange. Know the complete nuances of settlement risk, types, and implications explained.
August 28, 2023
min read

Content overview :

1. Introduction

2. What is Settlement Risk

3. Types of Settlement Risk

4. Historical Context - The Case of Herstatt Bank

5. Mitigating Settlement Risk

6. Implications of Settlement Risk

7. FAQs related to Settlement Risk


Settlement Risk, often referred to as "Herstatt Risk" (named after the German bank whose failure led to its recognition), is the risk that one party in a transaction will deliver its side of the deal (either the payment or the security or other financial instrument being traded) but the counterparty will not. This can result in the party that has made the delivery being exposed to a loss. Settlement risk is most commonly associated with foreign exchange trades but can apply to other types of financial transactions as well.

What is Settlement Risk

In the vast world of financial transactions, the process doesn't end once two parties agree on a trade. The finalisation or "settlement" of the trade, where the assets are delivered, is a crucial step. However, the time gap between the agreement and the settlement can introduce a risk: What if one party, after fulfilling its obligation, finds that the other party defaults? This is the essence of settlement risk.

Types of Settlement Risk

  • Temporal Risk: This arises due to time-zone differences. For instance, in forex markets, one party may release funds during its working hours, but the counterparty, located in a different time zone, may default by the time it's their working hours.

  • Systemic Risk: If a major institution defaults, it can create a chain reaction, affecting other institutions as well.

  • Operational Risk: This is associated with procedural errors, system failures, or other operational issues that can prevent the successful settlement of a transaction.

  • Liquidity Risk: If one party defaults, the other might face a liquidity crunch, unable to access the funds or assets they were expecting.

Historical Context - The Case of Herstatt Bank

The term "Herstatt Risk" comes from a real-world example that shook the financial world in the 1970s. On June 26, 1974, Herstatt Bank, a German bank, was ordered to cease operations by German regulatory authorities. The bank had already received payments in Deutsche Marks from its counterparties but had not made the corresponding dollar payments. This left the counterparties in a lurch, having paid out without receiving anything in return. The incident highlighted the vulnerabilities in the settlement process, especially in the realm of foreign exchange transactions.

Mitigating Settlement Risk

  • Real-Time Gross Settlement Systems (RTGS): These systems allow for the continuous settlement of funds or securities transfers individually on an order-by-order basis.

  • Delivery Versus Payment (DvP): This mechanism ensures that the delivery of securities occurs only if a payment occurs.

  • Use of Central Counterparties (CCPs): CCPs act as intermediaries between transaction parties, ensuring that the obligations of the parties are fulfilled.

  • Netting: This involves offsetting the value of multiple positions or payments due to be exchanged between two or more parties.

Examples of Settlement Risk

  • Forex Transactions: Consider a company in the US buying goods from Japan. They've agreed to pay in Yen, and the Japanese company has agreed to deliver the goods upon receiving the payment. The US company transfers the Yen in the morning (US time), but due to a banking crisis in Japan, the Japanese bank fails to transfer the goods in the evening (Japan time). The US company is now exposed to settlement risk.

  • Stock Market Trades: Alice agrees to buy 100 shares of Company X from Bob. Alice transfers the money to Bob, expecting to receive the shares in return. However, due to an operational glitch, Bob's broker fails to transfer the shares to Alice. Alice has now paid money but hasn't received the shares, exposing her to settlement risk.

Implications of Settlement Risk

The implications of settlement risk can be vast, especially in trades involving large sums of money. Financial institutions can face significant losses, which can erode investor and market confidence. Moreover, a default by one major player can have a cascading effect, leading to a systemic crisis in the financial system.

Settlement risk, while often overlooked in the excitement of making a trade, is a critical consideration in the financial world. The failure of one party to uphold its end of the bargain after the other party has already delivered can lead to significant losses. As financial markets become more interconnected and global, the importance of understanding and mitigating settlement risk cannot be overstated. Institutions and regulators alike must be vigilant in their efforts to minimise this risk, ensuring the smooth functioning of financial markets.

FAQs related to Settlement Risk

Q1. What is Settlement Risk?

Settlement Risk is the possibility that one party in a financial transaction will fulfill its obligations (like making a payment) while the other party will not. This can result in financial loss for the party that has already delivered its side of the transaction.

Q2. Why is it also called "Herstatt Risk"?

The term "Herstatt Risk" originates from the collapse of the German bank, Herstatt, in 1974. The bank had received payments in Deutsche Marks but failed to make the corresponding dollar payments, leaving its counterparties without their due funds.

Q3. In which types of transactions is Settlement Risk most commonly found?

While Settlement Risk can be found in various financial transactions, it's most commonly associated with foreign exchange trades due to the time-zone differences and the time gap between trade agreement and actual settlement.

Q4. How can Settlement Risk be mitigated?

There are several methods to mitigate Settlement Risk, including using Real-Time Gross Settlement Systems (RTGS), Delivery Versus Payment (DvP) mechanisms, employing Central Counterparties (CCPs), and netting offsetting transactions.

Q5. What is Real-Time Gross Settlement Systems (RTGS)?

RTGS is a system that allows for the continuous settlement of funds or securities transfers on an individual, order-by-order basis, without netting.

Q6. How does Delivery Versus Payment (DvP) help in reducing Settlement Risk?

DvP ensures that the delivery of securities or assets only occurs if a corresponding payment is made. This simultaneous exchange reduces the risk of one party defaulting after the other has fulfilled its obligations.

Q7. What role do Central Counterparties (CCPs) play in managing Settlement Risk?

CCPs act as intermediaries between parties in a transaction. They ensure that if one party defaults, the CCP will fulfill the defaulting party's obligations, thereby reducing the risk for the non-defaulting party.

Q8. Can Settlement Risk lead to a systemic crisis in the financial system?

Yes, a default by a major financial institution, especially in a system where obligations are interconnected, can lead to a chain reaction affecting other institutions, potentially leading to a systemic crisis.

Q9. Are there any historical incidents where Settlement Risk led to significant financial losses?

Yes, the most notable is the case of Herstatt Bank in 1974. Its failure to make dollar payments after receiving Deutsche Marks led to significant losses for its counterparties and highlighted the vulnerabilities in the settlement process.

Q10. Why is it essential for financial institutions to manage Settlement Risk effectively?

Effective management of Settlement Risk is crucial to maintain investor and market confidence. A significant loss due to Settlement Risk can erode trust, impact liquidity, and even lead to a broader financial crisis if not managed properly.

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