Streetwise Professor

October 18, 2011

No Surprises: The CFTC Votes Out Stupid Rules

The CFTC voted out two rules today, one on position limits, the other on clearing.  I’ve beaten both issues to a bloody pulp over the last couple of years, so I don’t have too much to add.  Just a couple of high level comments.

Bottom line: Both rules are highly ill-advised.

Regarding position limits, some of the most inane provisions of the original proposal are gone, notably the “class” limits that constrained netting across the futures and OTC swaps.  This was a hidden constraint on market making by dealers, and made no economic sense.  Fortunately it is gone.  Also gone–for the most part–is the conditional spot month limit that treated cash-settled and delivery-settled contracts differently.  This made zero economic sense too, and it is also gone.  The one exception is that there are different limits for cash- and delivery-settled contracts for Henry Hub nat gas.  This makes zero economic sense too, and is a blatant political compromise by the Commission intended to throw a bone to ICE that lost on the conditional limit issue generally.  Laws, sausages–and CFTC rules.

My comment letter on position limits criticized both stricken provisions.  But other provisions I inveighed against, particularly those that constrain ETFs like USO and US Nat Gas funds, remain.

The partisan rancor on this issue came through loud and clear at the meeting, as this piece by Jeremy Grant makes clearJill Sommers and Scott O’Malia were very outspoken:

“We went beyond the statute” by doing things like narrowing the bona fide hedge exemption, Sommers told Reuters. “Those are the things that people can use for a legal challenge.

O’Malia said: “over-reached in interpreting its statutory mandate to set position limits.”  O’Malia also emphasized the lack of empirical evidence of a need for limits, echoing my “No Theory? No Evidence? No Problem!” refrain.

As I was quoted saying in the Reuters piece, this statutory overreaching will be the basis for a legal challenge.  Not just on the hedge exemption issue, but on the more fundamental issue of whether it is necessary for the Commission to find that “excessive speculation” has indeed caused “unwarranted” fluctuations in prices, i.e., the “no evidence” point.  I would not be surprised if the cost-benefit analysis, such as it is, is not challenged as well.

The disappointing guy was Dunn, who blasted the idea of position limits, but voted for them anyways.  Not exactly a profile in courage or conviction by a retiring commissioner.

The other rule would require CCPs to admit firms with a minimum of $50 million in capital.  I think this is a terrible idea.  I understand that CCPs could potentially use excessively onerous admission requirements to reduce competition: hell, I’ve been making that point for well over a decade.  But I also understand that undercapitalized members, and members who cannot contribute constructively to the auctioning of a defaulter’s position, can undermine the effectiveness and even the safety of the clearinghouse.

There is a tension between encouraging competition, and making CCPs secure: Gensler and the majority focused on competition, and I think that is a major mistake, particularly given the fact that the clearing mandate in Dodd-Frank is intended to reduce systemic risk. Micromanaging CCP operations is a horrible, horrible idea.

Grounds for challenge?  Maybe.

No surprises here, really. Gensler is hell-bent on ramrodding through his agenda.  And that’s probably the best way to phrase it: the agenda is pretty bent, and will create some regulatory hell.

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1 Comment »

  1. My initial thought is that this puts clearing houses more at risk, and increases risk to the entire financial system.

    If MF and New Edge begin clearing OTC derivatives, and accept collateral that is non standard-won’t they hedge their risk in the ICE or CME clearinghouse? What happens when someone fails? The domino effect could be severe.

    After reading the FT article on this I got the sense that we were going backward, and creating good to the last drop clearing-something we tried to end in 2000.

    Comment by Jeff — October 19, 2011 @ 4:21 am

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