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.

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.

The real reason for spikes in food prices

Spikes in grain prices are regularly blamed on oil shocks, droughts and emerging markets’ hunger for meat. The real culprit in the three bubbles-and-busts of the last five years, however, isn’t the weather. It’s financial speculation.

The Midwest drought this summer, the worst in a half-century, produced a bumper crop of profits for derivatives traders like Chris Mahoney, the director of agricultural products for Glencore, the world’s largest commodities trading firm. Mahoney noted during one August conference call that tight grain supplies and the resulting arbitrage opportunities “should be good for Glencore.”

They’ve been a disaster, however, for the world’s poor.

More than 40 percent of grain futures can now be traced to financial institutions, which nearly doubled their commodity bets over the last five years — from $65 billion to $126 billion.

from Rolfe Winkler:

Go for it Gary

Gary Gensler -- regulator and, yes, Goldman alum -- has distinguished himself in Washington. As CFTC Chairman, he's fought to impose stricter rules on OTC derivatives and recently proposed rules that would cut the leverage currency traders are allowed to deploy from 100:1 to 10:1. Lest we all forget how dangerous leverage can be when traders misuse it, there's LTCM to serve as exhibit A. In a clear sign that Gensler is fighting the good fight, traders are screaming about the proposed rule. Fantastic.

From Carolyn Cui and Sarah Lynch at WSJ: Foes take on leverage curbs from CFTC

An attempt by regulators to protect investors from volatile global currency markets has triggered an uproar among lawmakers, currency dealers and thousands of small traders.

The Commodity Futures Trading Commission has proposed rules that would reduce the amount of borrowed funds that retail investors can use when investing in the U.S. foreign-exchange market to as much as 10-to-1, from the existing 100-to-1 for major currencies.

Senators press tough line on commodity rules


Prominent senators have put Gary Gensler’s nomination to head the Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC) on “hold” in a bid to force the administration to take a tougher line on commodity regulation.

Gensler’s nomination was approved by the Senate Agriculture Committee on March 16, but almost immediately put on ice before it could reach a vote on the Senate floor by Senator Bernie Sanders (Independent, Vermont) and one other unidentified senator.

Holding a nomination is a relatively common procedure allowing any senator to request a delay before it moves to a vote on the Senate floor, ostensibly to seek more information or testimony from the nominee.