Streetwise Professor

January 15, 2014

The Clayton Rule on Manipulation Lives On

Filed under: Commodities,Derivatives,Economics,Exchanges,History,Regulation — The Professor @ 10:41 am

I have studied manipulation for going on 25 years now, and one of my pet peeves is the promiscuous and imprecise use of the term.  I often quote a cotton broker, William Clayton, who in Congressional testimony said “The word ‘manipulation’ . . . in its use is so broad as to include any operation of the cotton market that does not suit the gentleman who is speaking at the moment.”

Case in point: a story from a couple days ago about the FBI investigating the trading of interest rate swaps:

Wall Street traders may be manipulating a key derivatives market and front running Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, hurting the US-owned mortgage giants in the process, according to an FBI intelligence bulletin reviewed by Reuters.

. . . .

Disclosure of the suspected manipulation and front running came in an FBI intelligence bulletin that was distributed last week by the bureau’s field office in Charlotte, North Carolina, to security officers at financial services firms.

Front running  is not manipulation.  Manipulation distorts prices, and causes them to move away from where they should be (at least temporarily, although the effects can be highly persistent).  If anything, front running causes prices to move where they were going to go anyways, but faster.   Front-running is a source of information leakage.

Front running raises the trading costs of the entity that is front run–allegedly Fannie and Freddie in this case.  It results in a redistribution of wealth away from those who are front run to the front runner.  But these effects are notably different from real manipulations, like corners and squeezes, or banging the close/settle, or the release of false information.

In the stock and futures markets, front running by a broker or specialist is a violation of the agency relationship with the client.  In securities markets in the US it is a violation of Section 10(b) of the 1934 Securities Exchange Act.  I don’t know, and don’t have time to research at the moment, whether front running of interest rate swaps falls afoul of any law or regulation.

But it ain’t manipulation, as the term should be construed as conduct that distorts prices.  Although everything that is manipulative is bad, not everything that is bad is manipulative.  But as William Clayton noted 80 odd years ago, that distinction is almost universally overlooked.  Especially now, in media coverage of financial markets.

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