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Geithner Turns Halfway Around on Derivatives Regulation

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Via Bloomberg, it looks like the Treasury Secretary has backed off on his previous stance that the derivatives market (which got us into this mess) does not need to be regulated. Today he says:

Geithner said the over-the-counter derivatives market should be subject to “substantial supervision and regulation,” while omitting support for the provision that would force banks like JPMorgan Chase & Co. and Bank of America Corp. to wall off trading operations from their commercial banks.

The Obama administration requires that all over-the- counter derivatives dealers and “major market participants” be subject to “conservative capital requirements, conservative margin requirements and strong business conduct standards,” Geithner said.

There is some very tricky parsing of words here that will probably escape most peoples’ attention.

One of the major factors in the credit freeze of 2008 was the widespread proliferation of so-called “over-the-counter” derivatives, which are debt obligations that were traded secretly between banks. Unlike the mortgage industry or the credit card industry, derivatives were largely unregulated and are not traded on an exchange. Thus, banks can package and sell derivatives to one another “over the counter” – that is, without any public record of the transaction having taken place. This became a serious concern in 2008 when Lehman Bros. failed; because the derivatives market was undisclosed, no bank knew how many assets the other banks had, or if the assets they did have were worthless. As such, lending between banks froze overnight – no one knew who was solvent and who was underwater.

Many have taken this as evidence that OTC derivatives are inherently dangerous and should be banned. This could be done by outlawing all asset-backed derivatives (like the mortgage securities that got us into this mess to begin with), or by simply mandating that derivatives be traded on an open, transparent exchange. Thus, they would cease to be “over the counter”. Geithner’s recent comments, while they sound impressive, make a derivatives exchange highly unlikely, and actually point to an extension of the policies that caused the 2008 crisis.

“Substantial supervision and regulation” can fail. While the OTC derivatives had been the subject of a massive push for deregulation, the problem was that even if there were regulators to look at the books, the instruments had become too complex for them to decipher. Simply adding another layer of regulation won’t change the underlying problem, which is that these instruments are basically impervious to regulation unless traded on a transparent exchange, something Mr. Geithner apparently does not support.

Similarly, the “provision that would force banks to wall off trading operations from their commercial banks” refers to the infamous Glass-Stegall Act of 1934, the repeal of which in 1999  Nobel Laureate Joseph Stiglitz gives an “especial role” in causing the 2008 crisis. I’ve written on Glass-Stegall in the past, and I don’t wish to repeat myself, but I should stress that so long as Lawrence Summers, the architect of the bill that repealed Glass-Stegall (and thus, a major architect of the crisis) stays in place, there is little hope of reducing the size of our Too-Big-To-Fails. Needless to say, Mr. Geithner is not even considering reinstating Glass-Stegall.

So basically, Timothy Geithner’s big plan to rein-in derivatives trading gives only a minor face-lift to the status quo. He’ll slap on a few regulatory outfits and say he’s done the job. Meanwhile, our Too-Big-To-Fail banks are getting even bigger, over-the-counter derivatives are still legal, and there won’t be any meaningful punitive action towards the banks that caused this crisis. The severe risks to the system remain.

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Written by pavanvan

April 16, 2010 at 8:03 pm

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