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What is an 'Over-The-Counter Market'

A decentralized market, without a central physical location, where market participants trade with one another through various communication modes such as the telephone, email, and proprietary electronic trading systems. An over-the-counter (OTC) market and an exchange market are the two basic ways of organizing financial markets. In an OTC market, dealers act as market-makers by quoting prices at which they will buy and sell a security, currency, or other financial products. A trade can be executed between two participants in an OTC market without others being aware of the price at which the transaction was completed. In general, OTC markets are typically less transparent than exchanges and are also subject to fewer regulations.

BREAKING DOWN 'Over-The-Counter Market'

OTC markets are primarily used to trade bonds, currencies, derivatives, and structured products. They can also be used to trade equities, with examples such as the OTCQX, OTCQB, and OTC Pink marketplaces (previously the OTC Bulletin Board and Pink Sheets) in the U.S. Broker-dealers that operate in the U.S. OTC markets are regulated by the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA).

OTC markets are typically bifurcated into the customer market – where dealers trade with their clients such as corporations and institutions – and the interdealer market, where dealers trade with each other. The price a dealer quotes to a client may very well differ from the price quoted to another dealer, and the bid-ask spread may also be wider in the case of the former than in the latter.

Risks of Over-The-Counter Markets

While OTC markets function well during normal times, there is an additional risk, called a counter-party risk, that one party in the transaction will default prior to the completion of the trade and/or will not make the current and future payments required of them by the contract. Lack of transparency can also cause a vicious cycle to develop during times of financial stress, as was the case during the 2007-08 global credit crisis.

Mortgage-backed securities and other derivatives such as CDOs and CMOs, which were traded solely in the OTC markets, could not be priced reliably as liquidity totally dried up in the absence of buyers. This resulted in an increasing number of dealers withdrawing from their market-making functions, exacerbating the liquidity problem and causing a worldwide credit crunch. Among the regulatory initiatives undertaken in the aftermath of the crisis to resolve this issue was the use of clearinghouses for post-trade processing of OTC trades.

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