Opinion

The Great Debate

Massad: Taking the reins on derivative reforms

The Senate Agriculture Committee met Tuesday to approve the nomination of Tim Massad as chairman of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, even as the agency fumbles over the definition of a “swap.”

When Massad testified at Senate hearings last month, he stated flatly that speculation can affect prices. Then, he hedged. “There are many, many factors that affect prices,” Massad added, “and sometimes it’s difficult to measure what the impact is of any particular factor.”

While he pledged to pass limits on the number of contracts that commodities speculators can hold, this hazy testimony reflects how little is really known about how the new CFTC chairman, if confirmed, will shape the derivatives market.

Massad’s hedging also reveals how difficult it is to pass reform. Of course, any official following in former Chairman Gary Gensler’s footsteps would seem restrained and even-keeled. Gensler seemed to delight in ramming through rules that made bankers cringe.

When compared to Gensler, Massad seems even more tepid. As a partner in the corporate finance group of Cravath, Swaine and Moore, Massad’s appointment has also raised questions about his ability to impose tough regulations. Other revolving-door public servants have also been suspected of continued private-sector loyalty.

The middle class’s missing $1.6 trillion

The United States was the world’s first middle-class nation, which was a big factor in its rapid growth.  Mid-19th-century British travelers marveled at American workers’ “ductility of mind and the readiness…for a new thing” and admired how hard and willingly they labored. Abraham Lincoln attributed it the knowledge that “humblest man [had] an equal chance to get rich with everyone else.”

Most Americans still think of themselves as middle class.  But the marketing experts at the big consumer goods companies are giving their bosses the unsentimental advice that the middle class is an endangered species. Restaurants, appliance makers, grocery chains, hotels are learning that they either have to go completely up-scale, or focus on bargains for the struggling and budget-conscious.

Current income surveys, for statistical reasons, usually segment families by broad categories, which obscure the recent radical shift of income to a thin stratum of the super-rich. Well-to-do people may buy $100 coffee pots, but the lion’s share of the income growth has been going to folks with five houses and staff to make the coffee.

Derivative rules: Global problem needs global solution

The 2008 financial crisis demonstrated how interconnected the global financial system is. What began as a real estate bubble fueled by subprime mortgages in many states ballooned into a global financial panic of unprecedented magnitude. Bundles of poorly underwritten mortgages generated toxic derivatives bet on in a global market. When the dust settled, there was broad agreement that not only did we need a new financial regulatory regime, it had to be globally coordinated.

The United States, the European Union, Britain, Japan and other nations should come up with a regulatory regime that works across all borders. This does not have to be the exact same set of rules and regulations, but rather compatible systems, based on a common set of definitions and structures.

The need for international coordination in swaps is particularly important, for many of them involve parties in different countries. One common derivative, for example, an exchange-rate swap, allows parties in the United States to get payments in dollars while those in Europe are paid in euros. Any variation is the exchange rate between the two currencies is covered by the swap — for a fee.

from David Cay Johnston:

Closing Wall Street’s casino

The author is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.

A superb example of a sound rule in law and economics that needs reviving, because it can halt the rampant speculation in derivatives, is the ancient legal principle that gambling debts are not enforceable through court action.

Not so long ago -- before casinos, currency and commodities speculation, and credit default swaps became big business -- U.S. courts would not enforce gambling debts.

Restoring this principle offers a simple way to shrink the rampant speculation in derivatives that was central to the 2008 meltdown on Wall Street.

Bank CEOs and the infinite pile of cash

By Roger Martin
The views expressed are his own.

The three-week old, 60’s-style Occupy Wall Street protest raises once again the question that won’t go away: What on earth were those bankers doing in the period leading up to the 2008 financial meltdown? This street-level insurgency combines with last month’s smackdown-from-on-high administered by the U.S. Federal Housing Finance Authority’s (FHFA), which sued 17 leading global financial institutions for $196 billion, charging that they knowingly peddled shoddy mortgage-backed security products to unsuspecting customers. With the European financial system continuing to teeter on the brink due to the massive bank losses and bailouts, the U.S. economy stagnating and its equity markets close to free-fall, the answer of Chuck Prince, former Citigroup chair, that “we danced until the music stopped” has not mollified either Occupy Wall Street or the FHFA, or anybody else for that matter.

It is obvious that they did keep dancing.  But it leaves unanswered the question: Why did it make sense to them to keep dancing?  And also: When the music did finally stop, how did we manage to have asset-backed derivatives contracts outstanding with an estimated value of three times the size of global GDP?

The answer was that thanks to the structure of their compensation, major bank CEOs were obsessed with their stock price and trying to keep beating expectations until the music stopped.  And the asset-based derivatives market was their clever device for beating expectations for much longer than could have happened before – because it was the world’s first market of infinite size. And it worked for them.  When the music stopped and expectations came crashing down, they were by and large wildly rich.

Industry defeated on U.S. derivatives reform

Senate Democrats have beaten back an ambitious, industry-supported amendment to the derivatives portion of financial reform legislation.

If passed it would have significantly weakened the administration’s efforts to tighten regulation of over the counter derivatives markets.

Yesterday’s vote went largely along party the lines (39-59). But Senate Democrats attracted support from moderate Republicans Olympia Snowe (Maine) and Charles Grassley (Iowa), making that part of the bill effectively filibuster proof.

Lessons from the credit crisis debacle

- Steven Miller is managing director of Standard & Poor’s LCD, a unit not part of Standard & Poor’s ratings business. The opinions are his own and not those of S&P.-

As the worst credit crisis since the 1930s recedes, investors are starting to boil down the lessons of the past two and a half years.

With time, we’ll get smarter about how to interpret the recent upheaval but for now, it comes down to these: (1) financial covenants, which test the financial health of a borrower each quarter, can be used to reset loan spreads when times are tough, (2) collateral is indeed resilient, (3) bubbles work in both directions, (4) models are better at predicting the past than the future and (5) “black swans” –- those big unexpected events and their consequences — take many forms.

from Commentaries:

Banking? Keep it simple stupid

In 1873, Walter Bagehot wrote that "the business of banking ought to be simple; if it is hard it is wrong." He would have struggled to recognize today's banking system.

It is not just ever more ornate derivatives that bend the mind. Financial firms themselves have become fabulously complicated. Citigroup lists 2,061 subsidiaries and affiliates while the institutional chart of JPMorgan Chase is 267 pages long.

Complexity -- as Bagehot predicted -- has become a curse. If nobody can understand financial firms, they will become ever more accident prone.

from Commentaries:

Wall Street’s $4 trillion kitty

matthewgoldstein.jpgThe Obama administration's plan for reining in derivatives leaves unchecked one of Wall Street's dirty little secrets: the ability of a derivatives dealer to redeploy cash collateral that gets posted by one of its trading partners.

On Wall Street, this practice of taking collateral and reusing it is called rehypothecation. In essence, it's a form of free money for derivatives dealers to use as they please -- even to repost it as collateral to finance their parent company's own borrowings.

And we're talking big bucks. The International Swaps and Derivatives Association recently reported that derivatives dealers have taken in $4 trillion in collateral from their trading partners. That's an 86 percent increase over the $2.1 trillion in cash collateral those same dealers reported having on their books in early 2008.

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