Keeping Wall Street’s hands off the collateral

August 27, 2009

The idea of prohibiting derivatives dealers from reusing and redeploying the trillions of dollars in collateral they’ve taken in from trading parnters is gathering steam.

Earlier this week, I advocated an outright ban on this Wall Street practice called rehypothecation. I noted that one of the flaws with the Obama administration’s plan for regulating derivatives is that it’s silent on the issue of whether derivatives dealers can continue to reuse the collateral they get as guarantees on trades anyway they see fit. 

In the Lehman Brother bankruptcy, one of the big unresolved issues is tracking down collateral Lehman took in as guarantees on derivatives trades and then used as collateral for its own transactions.

Last week, Gary Gensler, chairman of the Commodities Futures Trading Commission, sent a letter to a number of congressmen urging changes in Obama administration’s derivatives plan. One thing Gensler advocated was a measure that would require derivatives dealers to segregate customer collateral in seperate accounts just the way futures dealers must do. Gensler says doing so would make it easier to deal with the failure of a derivatives dealer.

And now Americans for Financial Reform, an umbrella group of nonprofits, municipalities and union, has sent a letter to Sen. Chris Dodd, chairman of the Senate Banking Committee, endorsing much of what Gensler has called for including the segregating of customer collateral. The group’s letter refers to both Gensler and my column in noting:

The rehypothecation of a customer’s collateral makes the unwinding and returning of these “escrowed” funds to traders in bankruptcy proceedings almost impossible, thereby adding fuel to the fire that instititutions involved in complex financial transactions are “too big to fail.”

Now, I should point that a recent IMF report notes that since the Lehman Brothers bankruptcy more customers have requested that their collateral be segregated.  (A hat tip to for pointing this out to me). But memories are short and in time this change in behavior could revert back to form.

I still think it’s a better policy to simply prohibit rehypothecation and make derivatives dealers conform to the practice in the futures market.

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