If Senators Say Something “Stands to Reason” It Probably Doesn’t

A group of senators from western states, led by Diane Feinstein, have sent Gary Gensler a missive accusing the CFTC of violating the letter and spirit of Frankendodd by failing to register major energy companies (e.g., BP, Shell) as swap dealers.  Each paragraph of the letter is more risible than the one before.

They set the scene by recounting the western electricity crisis of 2000-2001.  This is utterly irrelevant to the swap dealer designation, because swaps had nothing to do with what happened then and there.  Indeed, at its core the crisis was driven by a combination of fundamentals and flawed market design, and even the suspect trading strategies involved physical market transactions rather than swaps.  For instance, none of the Enron strategies like “Fat Boy” or “Ricochet” involved swaps or OTC derivatives generally in any way, shape, or form.  (It’s also rather ironic that one of the things that wreaked havoc with California utilities was that they were precluded by law from engaging in forward transactions to hedge the short position forced upon them by the retail price caps in the restructuring legislation.)

Parts of the letter made me laugh.  Most notably, the senators attack the $8 billion de minimus exemption from the registration requirement.  Their “logic” is that since commodity swaps represent a small fraction (less than one percent) of total OTC derivatives activities, the de minimus level for energy swaps activity should be lower than for financial swaps. Not just lower: “vastly lower.”

They say this “stands to reason.”  Whenever anyone says something “stands to reason” s/he really means: “I can’t give you an actual reason, so I’ll just assert that my conclusion is obvious.”

This gets to the issue of just what the swap dealing designation is intended to achieve.  That’s always been somewhat hazy, but the most charitable interpretation is that swaps dealers are deemed potential sources of systemic risk that require extraordinary regulatory scrutiny.  The risk a particular firm poses to the financial system as a whole depends on its size relative to the entire financial system, rather than to any particular market, so even accepted the premises of Frankendodd the swap dealing designation should not vary by market.  (Indeed, from a systemic perspective, even $8 billion/year on a flow basis is ridiculously small.)

The senators also fret over the possibility that allowing the Shells and BPs of the world to escape the designation will limit the CFTC’s ability to deter manipulation and fraud.  Hardly.  Those things are still illegal, and swap dealing designation will have no impact whatsoever on the CFTC’s ability to detect and deter.  (Which may not be saying much, because all too often the CFTC wouldn’t know a manipulation if it hit the CFTC in the face with a waffle iron.)  (I consider it ironic that these Solons refer to the BP propane manipulation, which was discovered, prosecuted, and punished when the swap dealer designation was not even a twinkle in Barney Frank’s eye.  Bad mental image, I know.)

Relatedly, the senators worry about “transparency”, but all swaps trades will still be reported to central repositories.  The only way the dealer designation matters in this regard is it affects/determines who has to report.  (I shall pass over in silence the fact that the CFTC is at present utterly incapable of utilizing the data reported to the repositories, as Commissioner Scott O’Malia has repeatedly pointed out.)

But most importantly, the senators miss the elephant in the room.  No major energy firm has registered as a swaps dealer because energy firms have shifted trading from swaps to futures.  Another premise (flawed, but there  it is) behind Frankendodd is that swaps are somehow more dangerous to the system than futures.  The legislation and the rules under it imposed more onerous requirements on swaps than futures, in large part to encourage the movement of trading to futures markets.

So if these senators actually applied reason, rather than just hiding behind a stand-in for it, they should be overjoyed that no major energy firm has applied to be a swap dealer.  This should be a feature, not a bug.  It means that market activity has shifted to the venue that these very same senators and others who voted for Frankendodd considered to be the preferred model for trading derivatives: open, transparent, and subject to a rigorous regulatory regime.  Most notably, from a systemic risk perspective, futures are cleared, and one of the major requirements imposed on swap dealers is a clearing requirement.  So the specter of the swap dealing designation, with its associated burdens, has actually led firms to transfer trading activity from the satanic swaps markets to the sainted futures exchanges.  Yay!

But arriving at this understanding would require actual, you know, reasoning.  Not much, but some.

And that is a bridge too far when it comes to the World’s Greatest Deliberative Body.  Which may be a correct description: if so, God save the world.

About Craig Pirrong 236 Articles

Affiliation: University of Houston

Dr Pirrong is Professor of Finance, and Energy Markets Director for the Global Energy Management Institute at the Bauer College of Business of the University of Houston. He was previously Watson Family Professor of Commodity and Financial Risk Management at Oklahoma State University, and a faculty member at the University of Michigan, the University of Chicago, and Washington University.

Professor Pirrong's research focuses on the organization of financial exchanges, derivatives clearing, competition between exchanges, commodity markets, derivatives market manipulation, the relation between market fundamentals and commodity price dynamics, and the implications of this relation for the pricing of commodity derivatives. He has published 30 articles in professional publications, is the author of three books, and has consulted widely, primarily on commodity and market manipulation-related issues.

He holds a Ph.D. in business economics from the University of Chicago.

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