Commentaries

Now raising intellectual capital

Frank shines some light on G.E.

The price of reduced political risk? For General Electric, it’s worth some $6 billion of added market value this morning.

G.E..’s finance arm, GE Capital, had a investor presentation on Tuesday that was impressive on many fronts but not entirely convincing on the regulatory outlook. Obama’s proposed financial overhaul, as outlined in the June white paper, would force the company to spin off its giant finance arm, resulting in higher taxes and increased costs

But Representative Barney Frank, the powerful chairman of the House Financial Services Committee, told Bloomberg News late Wednesday that the Obama administration’s planned financial overhaul did not necessarily mean that industrial companies like General Electric or Harley-Davidson would need to spin off their finance problems.

“This particular arrangement is not part of the problem,” Frank told Bloomberg, echoing the arguments that GE Capital executives made on an investor call on Tuesday.

Back into the mists of time with the CFTC

  This is not the first time that the CFTC has considered the issue of “excessive speculation” and position limits. 
   In the wake of the Hunt Brothers silver scandal, Congress directed the Commission to submit a report on the events in the silver market (see timeline below, reproduced from the CFTC website). 
   The CFTC also considered the broader question of whether “unchecked speculation” could pose a danger to markets.  On that occassion the Commission concluded: 
 
“It appears that the capacity of any contract market to absorb the establishment and liquidation of large speculative positions in an orderly manner is related to the relative size of such positions, i.e., the capacity of the market is not unlimited. Recent events in the silver market would support a finding that the capacity of a liquid futures market to absorb large speculative positions is not unlimited, notwithstanding mitigating characteristics of the underlying cash market.” 

“Establishment of Speculative Position Limits,” 46 Fed Reg. 50938, 509040 (October 16, 1981).
 
  So the Commission has considered these questions before.  Last time, it concluded that position limits were necessary to safeguard the effective functioning and price discovery mechanism of the market. 
  What seems to have happened since then is that the Commission was (gradually) persuaded to change its view as part of the broad thrust away from government regulation and towards “self-regulation” that dominated policymaking in the 1980s and 1990s.  Seeing little point in the position limits themselves, the CFTC was comfortable granting an increasing number of exemptions to them. 
  Now the pendulum is swinging back.  For a full discussion of the issues now before the Commission, most people could do worse than go find the relevant entries in the Federal Register for 1980-81. 
  History most definitely rhymes, even if it does not quite repeat exactly. 

G.E. waits for Washington to drop the ball

Gridlock in Washington is not always welcome, but General Electric appears to have placed much of its hopes for GE Capital on it.

The fear hovering over GE Capital has been that Obama’s proposed financial overhaul, as outlined in the June white paper, would mean that the company will be forced over five years to spin off its giant finance arm, resulting in higher taxes and increased costs. During an investor conference webcast today, GE Capital went into great detail to address concerns about losses and capital needs, but offered little more than wishful thinking when it came to the regulatory outlook.

from Margaret Doyle:

Insurers love the FSA

Britain's Financial Services Authority has taken a lot of brickbats. its failure to anticipate the crisis is one of the main reasons that George Osborne, the Conservative finance spokesman, now plans to abolish it, transfer most of its supervisory powers (including for insurance) to the Bank of England leaving a rump responsible for consumer protection.

The FSA is in a weak position to defend itself. Even its newish chairman, Lord (Adair) Turner has admitted that it did not foresee the looming problems at Northern Rock, since nationalised. Worse, the regulator was completely ill-equipped to understand the bigger, systemic problems that were looming. Like most other people in and around the markets, it was lulled into a false sense of security.

from Margaret Doyle:

Walker puts politics into banking

LONDON, July 16 (Reuters) – As befits a former senior civil servant, David Walker has produced a review of governance of British financial institutions that is acutely tuned to political sensitivities. His proposals would make banks more bureaucratic and more regulated, while bankers’ pay will be more open. In short, they will be treated more like the arms of the state that they have become.
Bankers will groan at the 39 draft recommendations for improving their performance, but they have received, one way and another, 1.3 trillion pounds of taxpayer support, or over 20,000 pounds for every man, woman and child in the land.
This alone justifies Walker’s proposals of a more intrusive and prescriptive approach to pay, even though he admits that pay was the least of the many causes of the financial crisis.
Less emotive, but more important, are his proposals on boards and shareholders, whom he clearly feels are the unspoken villains of the piece. Chairmen would become serious figures in financial institutions, responsible for holding dominant chief executives to account. With the enhanced scope of this role, it is unlikely they could do much else, even to chair another (non bank) company.
Non-executives, too, should expect the job to become part-time employment, with training, support and external advice. This would mean the end of the politically-correct drive towards diversity. Conveniently for him, Walker says he has no interest in such agendas. He prefers to push for proper risk committees, taking a view on the macroeconomic environment as described, for example, in Bank of England reports,.
Walker is scathing about shareholders, whom he views as complicit at best and responsible, at worst, for the excesses of the boom- as he asks, who demanded all those share buybacks? He wants fund managers to commit to “principles of stewardship”, with a requirement to “engage” with managers at the companies they own.
He’d also like to see a change in board culture, whatever that may mean. This, like his other proposals, sounds sensible, but is mostly wishful thinking. That there is something rotten in the way we do banking in the early 21st century is beyond doubt, but this report, however well-meaning, doesn’t take us any nearer to curing the disease.

File this under “what took so long?”

Looks like at least one heavyweight pension fund, Calpers, is taking the much maligned ratings firms Moody’s Investors Service, Standard & Poor’s and Fitch to court for their role in making investors feel warm and fuzzy about complex financial instruments that it turns out no one really understood.

New York Times reports that Calpers is blaming about $1 billion in losses on “wildly inaccurate” ratings applied to securities that included those backed by subprime mortgages.

What’s the Justice Department’s angle on derivatives?

Lots of posts and articles are circulating about the Department of Justice’s investigation into the derivatives market and specifically the dealers that own Markit – the administrator of popular credit default swaps indexes and aggregator of CDS prices.

Yet, I must say I’m not sure what the investigation hopes to turn up. Instead, it looks more like the Obama Administration flexing its muscle to let banks know that it’s serious about derivatives regulation just in case they didn’t get the point when the government released its white paper on regulatory overhaul last month.

CIT is a warning sign

Photo

agnes1If it’s not a risk to the financial system, let it fail.

That’s the message from the government’s reluctance to swoop in and bail out one of the nation’s biggest commercial lenders, CIT Group Inc, as it struggles to stay afloat. But even though CIT doesn’t have the firepower to take down the global financial system, its failure would certainly be felt by some of the struggling small businesses that rely on its financing.

CIT is negotiating with its regulators to find a solution to its near-term liquidity problems, but speculation that it will file for bankruptcy has intensified after the Wall Street Journal reported that it was preparing for a possible filing.

Geithner comes up empty

Tim Geithner took center stage on Capitol Hill today and once again he disappointed.

Geithner went before Congress to sing the praises of the Obama administration’s plan for regulating derivatives–something that’s much needed. But once again, Geithner failed to explain the criteria that will be used to distinguish standard derivatives from so-called customized derivatives.

CFTC review leaves everything to play for

– John Kemp is a Reuters columnist. The views expressed are his own –
   
   By John Kemp
   LONDON, July 8 (Reuters) – The U.S. Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC)’s review of position limits and proposed enhancement of the weekly commitment of traders (COT) reporting system has generated a lot of comment about moves to tighten commodity regulation, but it is not year clear whether the proposals will amount to much.
   At this stage, all the commission is promising is a slightly more detailed breakdown of the categories in the weekly COT report, which will disaggregate positions held by swap dealers, index funds and managed accounts (hedge funds) rather than the current simple dichotomy between commercial and non-commercial traders.
   CFTC Chairman Gary Gensler has also promised to hold public hearings later this month and in August on whether the commission should extend the existing position limits it applies to agricultural contracts to all commodities in finite supply (such as oil, heating oil and natural gas); and whether the current rules for granting bona fide hedging exemptions should be tightened.
   Holding hearings does not commit the CFTC to take substantial action, and it will come under intense pressure from futures brokers and investment banks not to make substantial changes to the current regulatory regime.
   There are three key issues at stake in the review process:
   
   (1) FEDERAL POSITION LIMITS
   At present all commodity futures contracts in the United States are subject to position limits. The commission itself sets limits for agricultural contracts (“federal position limits”). For other contracts, limits are set and enforced by exchange operators under the commission’s oversight (“exchange limits”). In each case, market participants can apply to the commission or the exchange, as appropriate, for permission to exceed the limits where this is needed for “bona fide” hedging purposes.
    The commission will consult on whether it should set federal limits on all contracts, bringing practice in the energy markets into line with the existing system for agricultural contracts. But this is a distinction without a difference. It is just a bit of bureaucratic tidying up.
   There is no evidence federal limits are any more binding or effective than exchange-set ones. The Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations’ recent report on excessive speculation in the wheat market blamed the influx of investment money for the rise in wheat prices, in a market that was subject to federal rather than exchange limits (http://graphics.thomsonreuters.com/ce-insight/EXCESSIVE-SPECULATION-IN-WHEAT.pdf).
   Unless the existing exchange limits are going to be reduced, or the criteria for granting exemptions are tightened, shifting from exchange to federal limits is unlikely to make a material difference.
   
   (2) UPGRADING THE COT REPORT
   The existing commitment of traders report is deeply flawed. Part of the problem is that it divides all market participants into just two categories: commercial users (producers, consumers and inventory holders) who are assumed to be using the market to hedge, and non-commercial users (such as index managers and hedge funds) who are assumed to be investing or speculating. This division is far too crude. Index managers have a much more passive impact on prices than an active hedge fund manager for example.
   So a more detailed breakdown that separated out swap dealers and index managers’ positions would be welcome. The commission already breaks out index positions for some of the smaller agricultural contracts following previous complaints about the distorting effects that large index positions were having in these relatively shallow markets.
   But the real problem with the COT reports is their focus on classifying users rather than positions. At present, the CFTC classifies each user as either commercial or non-commercial depending on the predominant nature of its business, then allocates all that user’s positions to the commercial or non-commercial category as appropriate.
   For example, an airline or an oil company would probably be classified as a commercial user and ALL that company’s trades would be allocated to the commercial category. But that simple allocation process leads to problems where some market participants (such as oil and gas companies with active trading desks) conduct a mixture of hedging and speculative transactions.
   As a result, the existing COT reports overstate the degree of hedging and understate speculation because many of the positions currently in the commercial category are actually speculative positions taken by the trading desks of oil and gas companies, or even physical trading companies that have secured commercial status.
   Unless the COT report is reformed to start classifying positions rather than trades, it is hard to see how the new categories will make it much more useful.
   
   (3) HEDGING EXEMPTION CRITERIA
   The million dollar question is whether the CFTC will tighten the criteria under which it (or the exchanges) grants exemptions to the position limits for “bona fide” hedging operations. The CFTC and NYMEX have been sharply criticised by congressional investigators for granting so many exemptions that the limits have become meaningless.
   But the position is more subtle than many commentators have suggested. Everything depends on what is meant by “hedging”. Gensler’s press statement noted that “Recently, the Commission completed a comment period on whether the bona fide hedge exemption should continue to apply to persons using the futures markets to hedge purely financial risks rather than risks arising from the actual use of a commodity”.
   Exemptions were originally granted to commercial market participants using futures contracts to hedge risks from producing, consuming or storing physical commodities. If the commission restricted exemptions to these categories it would represent a radical toughening of the rules. Exemptions for investment banks and others operating commodity index funds would have to be withdrawn and positions scaled back.
   But most banks and other index operators would argue that they too are hedging. The products they have sold to pension funds and others (usually swap contracts where the bank promises to pay the buyer a return based on the prices of commodities in an underlying basket) leave them with just as much exposure to price risks as producers and consumers of the physical commodity.
   In fact, it was precisely because the commission and the exchanges accepted this definition of hedging that most of the exemptions were granted over the last decade in the first place. Banks and other index operators will argue the commission should continue to recognise this as a legitimate form of hedging. The alternative is that products would have to be withdrawn and investors’ access to commodities as an asset class would be sharply reduced.
   As a result, banks will lobby hard to preserve the “financial hedging” exemption for commodity index operators. If the CFTC accepts this argument, nothing much will change.
   (Edited by David Evans)

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