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What if We Need a Secret Banking Elite to Rule Derivatives Trading?

Monday, 13 Dec 2010 | 11:37 AM ET
Wall Street sign
Paul Giamou | Aurora | Getty Images
Wall Street sign

Is it really so bad if an elite cabal of bankers meets once a month in midtown Manhattan to conspire about the rules governing derivatives trading?

Over the weekend, Louise Story of the New York Times breathlessly told the tale of a regular meeting of the risk committee of the derivatives clearing house set up by the InterContinental Exchange, usually known as ICE.

The main issue with this committee, it seems, is that outside financial firms complain that it is a cabal of insiders set up to keep out competition.

Story reports:

Bank of New York officials say they have been thwarted by competitors who control important committees at the new clearinghouses, which were set up in the wake of the financial crisis.

Bank of New York Mellon has been trying to become a so-called clearing member since early this year. But three of the four main clearinghouses told the bank that its derivatives operation has too little capital, and thus potentially poses too much risk to the overall market.

The bank dismisses that explanation as absurd. “We are not a nobody,” said Sanjay Kannambadi, chief executive of BNY Mellon Clearing, a subsidiary created to get into the business. “But we don’t qualify. We certainly think that’s kind of crazy.”

The real reason the bank is being shut out, he said, is that rivals want to preserve their profit margins, and they are the ones who helped write the membership rules.

The most influential member of the cabal is apparently Athanassios Diplas of Deutsche Bank . Before coming to Deutsche, Diplas was a Vice President at Goldman Sachs , where he landed after pulling down an MBA from Wharton. Before that he was studying astro-physics. The other members, according to Story, are Thomas J. Benison of JPMorgan Chase; James J. Hill of Morgan Stanley; Paul Hamill of UBS; Paul Mitrokostas of Barclays; Andy Hubbard of Credit Suisse; Oliver Frankel of Goldman Sachs; Ali Balali of Bank of America; and Biswarup Chatterjee of Citigroup.

Half of Story’s piece seems built around the complaints by financial companies—such as Bank of New York Mellon and State Street—that want to become clearing dealers for derivatives. The other half is built around customers who feel the fees they pay to existing dealers are too high—thanks to the anti-competitive cabalization of the derivatives market.

The irony of all this, of course, is that the cabalization of the derivatives market was one of the goals of regulators, who demanded that market participants set up centralized derivatives clearing houses in an effort to contain counter-party risk. Central to the successful operation of any such clearing house, however, is the exclusion of would-be dealers who seem too risky.

One of the ways a centralized clearing house reduces counter-party risk—that is, the risk of someone on the other side of your trade not doing your deal—is by being the strongest and biggest counter-party that is on the other side of every trade. The idea is that even if a single seller fails—and doesn’t deliver on the sale—the derivatives clearing house has access to enough capital and liquidity that the trade itself can still be completed. You don’t have to worry, in other words, who is on the other side of your trade—it’s always the clearing house.

Importantly, however, a clearing house has to guard against the possibility of its members failing. Without proper capitalization and collateralization requirements, the clearing house could find itself unable to complete trades in a time of financial distress. It would go from being a risk-reducer to a risk-multiplyer, with all the risk concentrated in one place.

The odds of getting a clearing house that is properly capitalized are rather low on the face of it. Competition between clearing houses will result in a downward pressure on fees, collateral requirements, and dealer capitalization requirements. In short, the clearing house will be captured by its customers in a manner that undermines its financial soundness.

To make matters even worse, the natural market counter-balance to this pressure toward riskiness on the part of the clearing house is undermined by the perception—indeed, the reality—that any important clearing house is too big to fail. In a free market, the customers of a clearing house would balance out the demand for lower collateralization/capitalization/fees with a wariness about the increased risk associated with this lowering. But in reality, customers don’t worry about a major clearing house failing because the US government will intervene to bail it out.

This is, ordinarily, an argument made by proponents of government regulation. The tendency toward riskiness plus moral hazard means the clearing house cannot be self-policing. To balance out this situation, the government steps in an imposes collateralization and capitalization requirements on the clearing house. There’s even a sort of fairness argument here—the higher costs associated with the regulations are paying for the implicit guarantee.

If we could be confident in the competence of regulators, the story might end there. Unfortunately, regulators have a poor track record of regulating risk. On the one hand, they often simply lack the tools to effectively predict risk—which means they are simply guessing about the types and levels of capital and collateral that should be required. On the other hand, they are subject to political pressures that influence their view of risk. So what starts out as an educated guess winds up as a politicized guess.

If that’s too theoretical, here’s an example drawn from history. In the 1980s, global regulators were meeting to discuss bank capital requirements. One of the issues at hand was what risk weighting different assets should get. All of the countries agreed that their own highly rated sovereign debt should get zero percent risk weighting—which essentially meant that banks didn’t have to set any capital against losses. Ask the banks with Irish and Greek debt how that is working out.

The same global regulators argued about what risk weighting to give mortgages. The Federal Reserve thought mortgages should get a 100 percent risk weighting—the same assigned for highly-rated corporate debt, and requiring an 8 percent reserve against losses. The West Germans, however, wanted to gin-up interest in their residential real estate market and pushed for a 50% risk weighting. This risk weighting more or less held through the later capitalization reforms, resulting in banks over-investing in mortgage-backed securities. How’d that work out?

So we’re left with a problem from hell. Market participants cannot be trusted to govern a clearing house. The clearing house itself cannot be trusted to be self-governing. And the regulators cannot be trusted to govern properly either.

Recall what’s allegedly happening in Story’s article. Self-interested Wall Street dealers who want to exclude others from participating in the derivatives markets—in order to keep fees high—are policing entrance into the markets. In short, the invisible hand has created a regulatory system for the derivatives clearing house.

Is it likely that this self-interested regulatory system based on rent-seeking by Wall Street firms is rationally related to the risk of the clearing house? Perhaps it is not. But it’s no more likely to be wrong that a regulatory system built on the ideology of regulators either. In fact, to the extent that the cabal members have an interest in perpetuating the system—rather than letting it collapse into government control—they may well be incentivized to implement rational risk controls.

But—then again—the odds of nine representatives of elite Wall Street firms meeting once a month and doing anything that could be called “rational risk controls” seems a bit far fetched.

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Deutsche Bank

Goldman Sachs

Bank of America

Morgan Stanley

Credit Suisse

Barclays

Bank of New York Mellon

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