The Derivatives Debate: Banks Advocate a Return to Business as Usual

The New York Times goes over the debate on derivatives regulation and how banks, after accepting billions of dollars in federal bailout money, want to go back to business as usual.

NYT Excerpts: Today, just as the bankers anticipated, a battle over derivatives has been joined, in what promises to be a replay of a confrontation in Washington that Wall Street won a decade ago. Since then, derivatives trading has become one of the most profitable businesses for the nation’s big banks.

The looming fight over regulation is the beginning of a broader debate over the future of the financial industry. At the center of the argument: What is the right amount of regulation?

Those who favor more regulation say it would offer early warning signals when companies take on too much risk and would help avert catastrophic surprises like the huge derivatives losses at the giant insurer the American International Group, which has so far received more than $170 billion in taxpayer commitments. The banks say too much regulation will stifle financial innovation and economic growth.

The debate about where derivatives will trade speaks to core concerns about the products: transparency and disclosure.

There are two distinct camps in this argument. One camp, which includes legislative leaders, is pushing for trading on an open exchange — much like stocks — where value and structure are visible and easily determined. Another camp, led by the banks, prefers that some of the products be traded in privately managed clearinghouses, with less disclosure.

The Obama administration agrees that more regulation is needed. A proposal unveiled recently by Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner won plaudits for trying to make derivatives trading less freewheeling and more accountable — a plan that hinges in part on using clearinghouses for the trades.

Critics in both the financial world and Congress say relying on clearinghouses would be problematic. They also say Mr. Geithner’s plan contains a major loophole, because little disclosure would be required for more complicated derivatives, like the type of customized, credit-default swaps that helped bring down A.I.G. A.I.G. sold insurance related to mortgage securities, essentially making a big bet that those mortgages would not default.

[B]ank lobbyists have pushed on Capitol Hill to keep so-called customized swaps from being traded more openly. These are contracts written for the specific needs of a customer, whose one-of-a-kind nature makes them very hard to value or trade. [They have] also argued that dealers should be able to trade through venues closely affiliated with banks rather than through more independent platforms like exchanges.

“The banks want to go back to business as usual — and then some. And they have a lot of audacity now that everyone has bailed them out,” said Yra Harris, an independent commodities trader who was involved in an effort to regulate derivatives nine years ago.

The derivatives market, which now represents transactions with a face value of $600 trillion, up from nearly $90 trillion a decade ago, helped take the economy to the brink of disaster. Yet, only a few q’s later, the lobbyists in Capitol Hill and Wall Street’s financiers are seeking to fend off regulation and eliminate oversight of the very products and practices that directly contributed to the worst economic crisis since the 1930s while advocating a return to business as usual. This is embarrassing.

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