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Wednesday, March 2, 2011

The Influence of Wall Street on the Hill: A Case Study of the Proposal to Distinguish Financial and Commerical Derivatives

In the process whereby financial reform legislation made its way through Congress after the financial crisis of 2008, the U.S. House and Senate had different approaches concerning who would be required to go through a clearing house to buy or sell deriviative securities. According to Michael Masters, "The clearing house would stand in the middle of the transaction and guarantee both sides of the trade. If one counterparty to the transaction fails, then the central counterparty absorbs those losses, protecting the system as a whole from collapse."  Masters claims that "Wall Street firms hate this idea because their prodigious profits will dwindle when derivatives are traded in the light of day, letting their counterparties see the true costs. So Wall Street is pushing hard to exempt as many transactions as possible."  Given the culpability of Wall Street in the financial crisis, they were in no position to "push hard." That they did nonetheless is a telling sign of the underlying character, or lack thereof, "on the street."  Furthermore, that the representatives and senators were listening to them ought to cause the voters some concern.  Yet because of the reality of the banks' muscle on the hill, the power of the banks to exploit any loopholes in the final legislation should have been salient as the legislation made its way through Congress. This can be seen in whether to favor the House or Senate version.

According to Masters, "The Senate version of the clearing house requirement, which is currently the base text for the bill, includes a narrow, well-defined exemption that allows commercial end-users a complete exemption from clearing, while denying this exemption to financial players. The House language, however, would exempt anyone hedging "balance sheet risk." Since every financial player has a balance sheet, it is estimated that more than 50% of the outstanding derivatives would go uncleared under the House plan, compared to just 10% under the Senate version."  One might say: Ah, 50% is a pretty wide door--better go with the Senate version (assuming it could resist threats and favors from the banking lobby).

Masters explains the rationale for the Senate's version. There "is a critical policy distinction that must be made between commercial end-users like airlines, and financial entities like hedge funds. For a commercial end-user, risk arises naturally out of the ordinary conduct of business. For a financial entity, pricing and managing risk is their core business. As an example, an airline cannot fly without incurring the risk of wildly gyrating jet fuel prices. Allowing them to hedge their jet fuel exposure without a clearing requirement would provide stability for the airline, confidence for airline investors and ensure that the broad U.S. economy benefits from reliable airline service. A hedge fund, however, starts with no inherent risk. Its mission is to evaluate investment options, balancing risk and reward. If a hedge fund enters into a jet fuel derivatives contract on a bet that prices will increase, then it's nonsense to say that they are "hedging" when they subsequently enter into an offsetting deal to reduce the risk they voluntarily took on in the first place. These semantic charades can easily be carried to such extremes that every transaction a hedge fund enters is "hedging" something. An exemption for hedge funds serves no social purpose and, in fact, it puts our entire financial system at risk."  In other words, there are good business reasons for non-financial companies to be able to use derivatives to hedge for risk related to price volitility even if the companies cannot meet the clearing requirements. Of course, it could be asked what proportion of commercial use should but would not occur were such use subject to the clearing house requirements.  I don't know the answer to this question. I contend, however, that even if it is significant, the danger that the loophole would be exploited such that the financial system would once again be at risk outweighs any such inconvenience.  In other words, in reaching too far for perfect efficiency, we could unwittingly be inviting the irrational exuberance of the market to destroy the market mechanism itself.  We ought not fly too close to the sun or we might get burnt and fall to the ground. Masters concludes that the Senate language is "superior to the House's simply because it forces far more derivatives into the open." This may be so, but what would prevent a financial player from using a commercial user as a front to bypass the clearing requirements? Furthermore, there might be legislative language in the exemption that allows financial firms to obviate the clearing houses without even needing such a front.

In short, I contend that having any loopholes, or exeptions, is an unwise practice when we know (as Sen. Dick Durbin said) that the banking lobby owns Congress. We also know that managers and their lawyers are oriented to exploiting loopholes.  To expect otherwise is to tell a shark that it should not be a feeding machine.  That is, we must accept the nature of business for what it is, and not do what can reasonably be assumed to be taken advantage of.  It is like saying to sharks: those of you who do not eat any swimmers can go through the hole in the net and into the shore area.  It is just too dangerous to have a hole in the first place, even if there are some benefits to having it.

Source: http://money.cnn.com/2010/06/23/news/economy/congress_derivatives/index.htm