This Is the End


Markets, Risk and Human Interaction

June 16, 2010

Derivatives and the New Financial Legislation

A member of Congress asked me to provide my personal thoughts on the OTC derivatives portion of the Senate bill, S. 3217. Here are portions of my letter. The views here are my own, and do not necessarily reflect those of the SEC, its commissioners or staff.

Now that S. 3217 has passed the Senate, I am writing this letter in response to your request. I will focus primarily on the potential for that legislation to allow regulatory arbitrage and reduce transparency to the regulators.

The bill divides the regulation of OTC derivatives between the SEC and the CFTC, assigning the SEC regulatory authority over some securities-related derivatives and the CFTC authority for others, such as indexes of those securities. In a world where financial engineering can create an asset in any number of ways, this is an approach that is just asking to be gamed.

Let me illustrate this with a simple example. When I ran a long-short equity hedge fund a few years ago, I traded in the U.K. equity market. However, I never bought or sold a U.K. stock. I only traded total return swaps on U.K. equities. The reason I took this circuitous route is that by using a total return swap, I avoided the tax that the U.K. puts on stock transactions. My broker bought the stock I wanted and kept it on its books (apparently the transaction tax did not apply to the broker) and then the broker executed a swap with me. The swap gave me a payment equal to the return from the stock in exchange for a payment from me to the broker. Of course, this payment to my broker was identical to the cost of funding the stock.

As far as I was concerned, I owned the stock: I treated the swap transaction in my trading and risk management systems as if I held the stock, and my portfolio return was the same as if I held the stock.

If regulation allows equity index swaps to be under the CFTC’s regime and the stocks to be under the SEC regime, there will be the same potential for regulatory arbitrage. I can already envision a thriving new market developing for what might be called Index Spread Total Return Swaps. A fund that wants to hold a long equity position in IBM and P&G, but wants to do it under the CFTC regime, will have a broker give them a total return swap that pays the difference between a position in an index that holds the S&P 500 and another index that holds all the stocks in the S&P 500 except for IBM and P&G. This is a swap on indexes, and so will be under the aegis of the CFTC. Whatever equity positions the fund wants to hold, a swap can be created to fulfill its needs. With the push of a button, voila, the fund is effectively trading stocks – securities – under the CFTC rather than SEC umbrella.

This is a simple example of a broader point: a financial engineer could just as easily construct a position drawn from the equity market that behaves like a commodity, or create a currency swap that looks like a bond. In other words, under the proposed OTC derivatives regime, traders will be permitted to choose their regulators. In my view, these provisions should seek to eliminate regulatory arbitrage, not create it.

Another weakness of the bill is what it affords regulators in terms of transparency. As I stated in my 2007 testimony before your subcommittee, I believe that regulators should know the positions, leverage and web of counterparty connections across firms. I do not think regulators can fulfill their mission of protecting investors, the market or the economy at large without this information. The bill enhances the transparency of OTC derivatives both by improving price discovery and by pushing for greater simplicity and standardization, a critical step. However, the division of OTC derivatives oversight between the SEC and the CFTC moves us away from this objective. There is no ready mechanism envisioned within the bill to allow unfettered sharing of these data. This not only will create routes to hide abuse, but also, because what is essentially the same asset will end up in different buckets based on how it is constructed, neither agency will be able to readily amass this position and exposure information.

One last thought, based on my experience in risk management. Risk managers have the unfortunate tendency of fighting last year’s war, of developing tools and reports to prevent the crises that just occurred from happening again. Of course, the next crisis almost always comes from a different direction. To some extent, the financial legislation has a similar tendency. For example, much thought has been given to credit default swaps. It is likely, however, that the next major issue will spring from a new financial innovation. The nature of the markets is to exploit weaknesses and to find ways to work around regulation and other constraints. Because legislation can only address what has happened in the past and what is currently expected to occur in the future, the legislation must give the regulators the flexibility to address the unanticipated.