Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Dirty little derivatives secrets...

The first dirty little secret of the derivatives industry -- probably not so secret to those in the financial industry, but unknown to most others who still think financial markets in some approximation are fair and efficient -- is that some of the big banks control the market and expressly inhibit competition to protect their profits. I just stumbled across this still highly relevant exposition by the New York Times of efforts to place derivatives trading within properly defined clearinghouses, and the banks' countervailing efforts to gain control over those clearing houses so as to block competition.

The banks (invoking some questionable claims of economic theory) like to argue that derivatives make markets more efficient because they make them more "complete." As Eugen Fama puts it: "Theoretically, derivatives increase the range of bets people can make, and this should help to wipe out potential inefficiencies." Available information, the idea goes, should flow more readily into the market. But the truth seems to be that derivatives make banks more profitable at everyone's collective expense, and not only because they make markets more unstable (see more on this below). From the New York Times article:
Two years ago, Kenneth C. Griffin, owner of the giant hedge fund Citadel Group, which is based in Chicago, proposed open pricing for commonly traded derivatives, by quoting their prices electronically. Citadel oversees $11 billion in assets, so saving even a few percentage points in costs on each trade could add up to tens or even hundreds of millions of dollars a year.

But Mr. Griffin’s proposal for an electronic exchange quickly ran into opposition, and what happened is a window into how banks have fiercely fought competition and open pricing.

To get a transparent exchange going, Citadel offered the use of its technological prowess for a joint venture with the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, which is best-known as a trading outpost for contracts on commodities like coffee and cotton. The goal was to set up a clearinghouse as well as an electronic trading system that would display prices for credit default swaps.

Big banks that handle most derivatives trades, including Citadel’s, didn’t like Citadel’s idea. Electronic trading might connect customers directly with each other, cutting out the banks as middlemen.

The article goes on to describe a host of maneuvers that Goldman Sachs, JP Morgan and other big banks used to block this idea, or at least to make sure they'd be locked into the gears of such an electronic exchange. Eventually the whole idea fell apart to the banks' relief. Guess who's paying the price?
Mr. Griffin said last week that customers have so far paid the price for not yet having electronic trading. He puts the toll, by a rough estimate, in the tens of billions of dollars, saying that electronic trading would remove much of this “economic rent the dealers enjoy from a market that is so opaque.”

"It’s a stunning amount of money,” Mr. Griffin said. “The key players today in the derivatives market are very apprehensive about whether or not they will be winners or losers as we move towards more transparent, fairer markets, and since they’re not sure if they’ll be winners or losers, their basic instinct is to resist change.”
But there's another dirty little secret about the derivatives industry, and this goes back to the question of whether these instruments really do have benefits, by making markets more efficient, perhaps, or if instead they might make them more unstable and prone to collapse. Warren Buffet was certainly clear in his opinion, expressed in his newsletter (excerpts here) to Berkshire Hathaway shareholders back in 2002: "I view derivatives as time bombs, both for the parties that deal in them and the economic system." But the disconcerting truth about derivatives emerges in more certain terms from new, fundamental analyses of how precisely they can stir up natural market instabilities.

I'm thinking primarily of two bits of research -- one very recent and the other a few years old -- both of which should be known by anyone interested in the impact that derivatives have on markets. Derivatives can obviously let people hedge risks -- locking in affordable fuel for the winter months in advance, for example. But they're used for risk taking as much as hedging, and can easily create collective market instability. These two studies show -- from within the framework of economic theory itself -- that adding derivatives to markets in pursuit of the nirvana of market completeness should indeed make those market less stable, not more.

I'm currently working on a post (it's taking a little time) that will explore these works in more detail. I hope to get this up very shortly. Meanwhile, these two examples of science on the topic might be something to keep in mind as the banks try hard to confuse the issue and obscure what ought to be the real aim of financial reform -- to return he markets to their proper role as semi-stable systems providing funds for creative and valuable enterprise. Markets should be a public good, not a rigged casino, benefiting the few, and guaranteed by the public.