Streetwise Professor

April 13, 2010

Hey, Rocky: Watch Me Pull This Rabbit Out of My Hat!

Filed under: Commodities,Derivatives,Economics,Energy,Exchanges,Financial crisis,Politics — The Professor @ 12:46 pm

As derivatives legislation wends its way through the Senate, with the Dodd bill and another being written in the Senate Ag committee, the battlelines are pretty well drawn.  The administration in particular is still on the clearing bandwagon, and is overtly hostile to any proposals to exempt end users from the clearing requirement.  The most strident rhetoric on this issue emanates from Gary Gensler (go figure), but also from Treasury.  Deputy Treasury Secretary Neal Wolin said: “we will oppose all attempts to create loopholes or carve-outs.”

By “carve outs,” he is referring to end user exemptions, primarily.  Which is all so ironic.  If you think through how clearing works in futures markets, it is primarily a mechanism to shift default risks from end user customers (the buy side) to the clearinghouse members.  That is, it is a customer protection institution.  But here many customers are adamantly opposed.  Thus, there must be some costs that offset–and indeed, more than offset–the benefits associated with this customer protection.

But instead of an effort to step back, and ask “why” and consider in an intellectually serious way what are the costs and benefits of clearing, the administration and many on Capitol Hill plunge ahead.  When they attempt to explain end user opposition at all, they stoop to asinine conspiracy theories.  Gensler, for instance, attributes the end user opposition to their being waterboys for the dealer banks.

Yeah, Caterpillar, etc., are just creatures of the banks.  Whatever, Gary.

But this is all so odd.  Gensler argues that the dealer banks routinely rape their customers, by exploiting the purported lack of transparency in the OTC market to extract supercompetitive spreads.

So, why would the rape victims (in one of Gensler’s narratives) be the willing supplicants of the banks (in another)?  Stockholm Syndrome?  Battered Spouse Syndrome?

Can we please have a serious discussion, with some serious analysis of trade-offs, rather than these dueling, and facially inconsistent, morality tales?

Yeah, I know.

But I will say that in Europe they are being far more serious and adult.  (And it kills me to have to say that.)  For instance, Jeremy Grant reports that European regulators recognize the legitimacy of end user concerns:

Industrial companies have won recognition from European regulators that they should be granted exemptions from sweeping regulation of the over-the-counter derivatives markets.

It marks a partial victory amid fears that a crackdown on off-exchange derivatives markets, blamed by some for exacerbating the financial crisis, could unfairly penalise corporate users of such instruments.

. . . .

In a “discussion paper” from the European Commission’s directorate general for internal markets, regulators say that “in principle, non-financial institutions could be exempt from the clearing obligation”.

It says the main mechanism for transferring risk to the real economy during the crisis was through the financial sector. “This suggests that the appropriate boundary for a clearing obligation is between the financial sector and the non-financial sector.”

Richard Raeburn, chairman of the European Association of Corporate Treasurers, said: “This suggests that [the Commission] supports the need for an exemption for non-financial users. It is certainly the first time that we’ve seen such a clear statement.”

Eact in January sent a letter to Brussels, signed by 160 companies, warning that without exemptions there could be “a reduction in the amount of funds allocated to productive investment in the [European] economy”.

Just how to structure the exemption is still under discussion.  But at least there is a recognition that there are serious issues that deserve serious discussion.

Could somebody in Europe pick up the clue phone and give Gensler and Wolin and Dodd a call?

Grant also reports that the Europeans recognize that clearing is not the deus ex machina that will descend from the heavens and solve all the systemic risk problems.  Indeed, they understand that clearinghouses can create systemic risks, and hence it is advisable to proceed carefully in ordering a new market structure by fiat:

Watchdogs are concerned about the possibility that proposed linkages between clearing houses could pose fresh dangers to the financial system.

They fear two-way or three-way linkages between clearers could trigger a domino effect if one clearer was to default.

What?  You mean that clearing doesn’t eliminate interconnections in the financial system?  Who knew?  (I know who doesn’t know, sad to say.)

In fact, contrary to the bologna constantly ground out by Timmy! and Gensler et al, clearing creates a particular interconnection among financial institutions–the same financial institutions (by and large) that are too interconnected today in the OTC market.  Multiple clearinghouses creates another set of linkages.  These can by systemically problematic.

The Europeans haven’t sorted through all these issues yet.  But at least they recognize them.  We, alas, are governed by know nothings masquerading as know it alls.

Which suggests a new administration spokesman on derivatives market regulation.

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  1. I too am puzzled as to how an end-user can be distinguished from a “financial”.

    To take one obvious example, how would you treat a bank that takes over the fuel procurement – including hedging – of an airline, that cannot do this itself because it is in Chapter 11?

    What if the bank and an oil company were competing to win this business; how would their respective “financial” versus “non-financial” status play out, in terms of their respective competitive positions?

    Is the business model of Marubeni, a merchant trader from Japan, really all that different from J Aron?

    Let’s hope whoever has been / gets hired to think through all this isn’t from the same school of rectiloquists that gave the UK the tripartite regulatory system.

    Comment by Martin — April 14, 2010 @ 6:40 am

  2. […] My friend, The Streetwise Professor blogged about this as well. Here is a link to his blog. He speaks eloquently about the derivatives issue.  For further info, look at this […]

    Pingback by Bank Bill Working Its Way Through Ag Committees « Points and Figures — April 15, 2010 @ 9:29 pm

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