The opposite party in a transaction where financial risk is present. This can be a number of parties since there are many layers involved in financial transactions.
Counterparties can be individuals, businesses, government, or financial institutions.
Every financial transaction involves two parties. In this situation, they are counterparty to each other. A seller of a financial product requires a buyer.
There are often other parties involved that serve as counterparties. The financial system is filled with intermediaries at every level of the process.
Custodians are financial institutions that are responsible for the holding of securities. They are regulated, a moved designed to endear trust. This does not mean risk is removed. When a counterparty goes insolvent, losses can be incurred.
This is something few consider, especially in the developed countries where regulations are in place and the commercial banks are required to hold a certain amount of insurance. A minimum level of deposits are covered through this insurance program. In the United States, the FDIC insures all deposits up to $250K.
What happens when that is exceeded?
It was something that happened in early 2023 with the insolvency of Silicon Valley Bank. Many businesses had accounts for things such as payroll. The balances far exceeded the insured level. In this instance, the government has to step in and back the deposits.
The same concept applies to brokerage houses and other Wall Street institutions.
Here we see another example of counterparty. FDIC was backstopped because it did not have the funds to cover all the deposits at the multiple banks that were insolvent. What happens when the insurer of the depository institutions is no longer able to make good on what is owed?
This is something that investors often seek to mitigate. There are many financial tools used to hedge risk, especially derivatives. For example, foreign exchange derivatives seek to reduce the risk associated with FOREX.
Counterparty risk is not always seen. There are many instances where settlements are handled through unknown parties. In these situations, we often see clearing firms utilized. Failure at that level could filter through the system which is why the regulators watch these institutions closely.
Due to the expansive nature this risk can take on, many involved in the financial industry seek to reduce it. Institutions, regulators, governments, and retail investors all take steps seeking to ensure counterparties do not cause damage.
One of the main focuses of Satoshi Nakamoto when he introduced Bitcoin was to design something that reduced counterparty risk. After the Great Finance Crisis (GFC) which saw a lot of counterparties go insolvent. The biggest was AIG who insured the financial instruments that were used as collateral.
The idea with blockchain is to remove the risk that came from institutions. Much of the problem comes from the fact counterparties tend to be centralized. That is the point of failure.
With blockchain, the goal is to have a ledger system that is run by unrelated servers all over the world. All are mirrored with the same data. If one of the block producers tries to do something that is in disagreement with the consensus, it is rejected.
A failure by one server (or set of servers) does not derail the system. This is the basis of cryptocurrency. It is known as distributed ledger technology (DLT). Wallets are accessible as long as the blockchain nodes are running.
Decentralization is a defense against counterparty failure. That does not mean that cryptocurrency has not seen its failure. Examples such as FTX and Celsius show how centralized exchanges, regardless of the financial instrument, are subject to fraud, misappropriation of funds, and incompetence.
We see the same issue with insolvency.