Derivatives: greater transparency is needed

by Linda Beale

Derivatives: greater transparency is needed
crossposted with Ataxingmatter

The big banks got into considerable trouble doing derivatives trades–especially the credit default swaps where AIG was the major counterparty and the taxpayers ended up bailing out the Big Banks like Goldman Sachs.

So surely one of the results of “financial reform” in the wake of the casino banking financial crisis would be utter and complete transparency about derivatives, correct?  One would think so.  But it may not be so.

For a detailed picture of the way the Big Banks have controlled derivatives trading in order to make it a lucrative noncompetitive market for them and a costly market for derivatives endusers, read the article in the Saturday New York times:  Louise Story, A Secretive Banking Elite Rules Trading in Derivatives, New York Times, Dec. 11, 2010.

As Story notes, there is an exclusive group of bankers that has a great deal of say about derivatives trading.  The theoretical purpose is to “safeguard the integrity” of the derivatives market.  The real purposes is to “defend[] the dominance of the big banks” which the banksters do by thwarting efforts to create transparent markets where end users get real information on prices and fees and comparable trades.

The CFTC chair wants to push for more transparency about the derivatives clearinghouses, which will have more power under the Dodd-Frank bill.  But the banks don’t want transparency–in fact, the group of nine banksters that is the subject of the article meets monthly with the ICE Trust clearinghouse, and has enormous influence and power over them.

But Republicans in Congress aren’t exactly supportive of financial reform, unsurprisingly.  They’ve gotten big contributions and backing from Big Banks, and they plan to push back against banking reform.  Apparently they think another crisis like the one that hit us won’t be so bad.  After all, the banks survived this one just fine (and are making billions off the very low funding costs available to them through the Fed, while charging their depositors and customers huge fees).  As did most of the multimillionaires who own substantial financial assets.  Apparently, those who want to ease back on banking reform don’t care much for ordinary Americans who are paying through the nose for credit and getting nothing for their deposits.

Here’s an excerpt from the piece on the way the Big Banks control the derivatives market by keeping the facts about derivatives trades secret.

In the midst of the turmoil, regulators ordered banks to speed up plans — long in the making — to set up a clearinghouse to handle derivatives trading. The intent was to reduce risk and increase stability in the market.

Two established exchanges that trade commodities and futures, the InterContinentalExchange, or ICE, and the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, set up clearinghouses, and, so did Nasdaq.

Each of these new clearinghouses had to persuade big banks to join their efforts, and they doled out membership on their risk committees, which is where trading rules are written, as an incentive.

None of the three clearinghouses would divulge the members of their risk committees when asked by a reporter. But two people with direct knowledge of ICE’s committee said the bank members are: Thomas J. Benison of JPMorgan Chase & Company; James J. Hill of Morgan Stanley; Athanassios Diplas of Deutsche Bank; 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.

Through representatives, these bankers declined to discuss the committee or the derivatives market. Some of the spokesmen noted that the bankers have expertise that helps the clearinghouse.

Many of these same people hold influential positions at other clearinghouses, or on committees at the powerful International Swaps and Derivatives Association, which helps govern the market.

Critics have called these banks the “derivatives dealers club,” and they warn that the club is unlikely to give up ground easily.

*****

For many, there is no central exchange, like the New York Stock Exchange or Nasdaq, where the prices of derivatives are listed. Instead, when a company or an investor wants to buy a derivative contract for, say, oil or wheat or securitized mortgages, an order is placed with a trader at a bank. The trader matches that order with someone selling the same type of derivative.

Banks explain that many derivatives trades have to work this way because they are often customized, unlike shares of stock. One share of Google is the same as any other. But the terms of an oil derivatives contract can vary greatly.

And the profits on most derivatives are masked. In most cases, buyers are told only what they have to pay for the derivative contract, say $25 million. That amount is more than the seller gets, but how much more — $5,000, $25,000 or $50,000 more — is unknown. That’s because the seller also is told only the amount he will receive. The difference between the two is the bank’s fee and profit. So, the bigger the difference, the better for the bank — and the worse for the customers.

It would be like a real estate agent selling a house, but the buyer knowing only what he paid and the seller knowing only what he received. The agent would pocket the difference as his fee, rather than disclose it. Moreover, only the real estate agent — and neither buyer nor seller — would have easy access to the prices paid recently for other homes on the same block.

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