Friday, March 5, 2010

AIG Greece, and Who Next

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As Greece has tottered on the brink of fiscal chaos, threatening to drag much of Europe down with it, Wall Street’s role in the fiasco has drawn well-deserved scorn.

First came the news that Greece had entered into derivatives transactions with Goldman Sachs and other banks to hide its public debt. Then came reports that some of those same banks and various hedge funds were using credit default swaps — the type of derivative that kneecapped the American International Group — to bet on the likelihood of a Greek default and using derivatives to wager on a drop in the euro.

European leaders have called for an inquiry into the Greek crisis. Ben Bernanke, the Federal Reserve chairman, has told Congress that the Fed is “looking into” Wall Street’s deals with Greece, and the Justice Department is investigating the euro bets. That is better than turning a blind eye, but it is not nearly enough.

The bigger problem is in America, where markets are supposed to be fair and transparent. These particular — and particularly complicated — instruments are traded privately among banks, their clients and other investors with virtually no regulation or oversight.

The Obama administration and Congress have been talking for a year about fixing the derivatives market. Big banks have been lobbying to block change. And the longer it takes, the weaker the proposed new rules become.

Here are some of the problems that must be fixed:

NO TRANSPARENCY Derivatives are supposed to reduce and spread risk. In a credit default swap, for instance, a bond investor pays a fee to a counterparty, usually a bank, that agrees to pay the investor if the bond defaults. But because the markets in which they trade are largely unregulated, derivatives can too easily become tools for dangerous risk-taking, vast speculation and dodgy accounting.

A big part of the problem is that derivatives are traded as private one-on-one contracts. That means big profits for banks since clients can’t compare offerings. Private markets also lack the rules that prevail in regulated markets — like capital requirements, record keeping and disclosure — that are essential for regulators and investors to monitor and control risk.

That is why it is so essential to move derivative trades onto fully transparent exchanges. The administration originally embraced that idea, with exceptions only for occasional, unique contracts. But when the Treasury proposed legislation in August, it included huge loopholes, and a derivative reform bill that passed the House in December has many of the same problems. (The Senate has yet to introduce a reform bill.)

Both the administration and the House would exclude from exchange trading the estimated $50 trillion market in foreign exchange swaps — similar to the derivatives Greece used to hide its debt. The rationale for the exclusion never has been clearly explained.

The Treasury proposal and House bill also would exclude transactions that occur between big banks and many of their corporate clients from the exchange trading requirement, ostensibly because those deals are only for minimizing business risks, not for speculation or for window-dressing the books. That’s debatable. But even if true, other derivatives users would almost inevitably find ways to exploit such a broad exemption.

What is clear about the exemptions is that they would help to preserve banks’ profits. What is also clear is that they would defeat the goals of reform: to lower risk, increase transparency and foster efficiency.

LIMITED POWER TO STOP ABUSES When the House put out a draft of new rules in October, it sensibly gave regulators the power to ban abusive derivatives — ones that are not necessarily fraudulent, but potentially damaging to the system. Derivatives investors who stand to make huge profits if a company or country defaults, for example, might try to provoke default — a situation that regulators should be able to prevent. In the final House bill, however, the ban was replaced with a requirement that regulators simply report to Congress if they believe abuses are occurring.

NO STATE REGULATION, EITHER Current law also exempts unregulated derivatives from state antigambling laws. That means that states have no power to police their use for excessive speculation. Treasury and House reform proposals have called for maintaining the federal pre-emption of state antigambling laws. Pre-emption could be tolerable if derivatives were traded on fully regulated exchanges. But as long as many derivative products and transactions are exempted from fully regulated exchange trading, pre-emption of state antigambling laws is a license for, well, gambling.

The big banks claim that derivatives are used to hedge risk, not for excessive speculation. The best way to monitor that claim is to execute the transactions on fully regulated exchanges, pass rules and laws to ensure stability, and appoint and empower regulators with independence and good judgment to enforce compliance.

Without effective reform, the derivative-driven financial crisis in the United States that exploded in 2008, and the Greek debt crisis, circa 2010, will be mere way stations on the road to greater calamities.

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