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14 October 2008

The Derivatives Game, By Ralph Nader

The derivatives markets of today have become a high stakes casino of unimaginable magnitude. Wall Street's bets have gone bad, and now the whole financial system is in peril. In a best-case scenario, it appears, the taxpayers will be required to rescue the system from itself. This is why Warren Buffett labeled derivatives "weapons of financial mass destruction."

Amazingly, there seems to be some lingering sense that current-day derivatives properly perform an insurance function.

Case in point: Alan Greenspan, the former Federal Reserve Chairman. Greenspan says the world is facing “the type of wrenching financial crisis that comes along only once in a century,” but, reports the New York Times, "his faith in derivatives remains unshaken." Greenspan believes that the problem is not with derivatives, but that the people using them got greedy, according to the Times.

This is quite a view. Is it a surprise to Alan Greenspan that the people on Wall Street -- said to be ruled only by the opposing instincts of greed and fear -- "got greedy?"

This might be taken as just a bizarre comment, except that, of course, Alan Greenspan had some considerable influence in driving us to the current financial meltdown through his opposition to regulation of derivatives.

A series of deregulatory moves, blessed by Alan Greenspan, helped immunize Wall Street derivatives traders from proper oversight.

In 1995, Congress enacted the Private Securities Litigation Reform Act (PSLRA) of 1995, which imposed onerous restrictions on plaintiffs suing wrongdoers in the stock market. The law was enacted in the wake of Orange County, California's government bankruptcy caused by abuses in derivatives trading. An amendment offered by Rep. Ed Markey would have exempted derivatives trading abuse lawsuits from the PSLRA restrictions. In defeating the amendment, then-Representative and now-SEC Chairman Chris Cox quoted Alan Greenspan, saying “it would be a grave error to demonize derivatives;” and, “It would be a serious mistake to respond to these developments [in Orange County, California] by singling out derivative instruments for special regulatory treatment.”

The New York Times reports how the Commodity Futures Trading Commission aimed for some modest regulatory authority over derivatives in the late 1990s. Strident opposition from Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin and Alan Greenspan spelled doom for that effort.

Senator Phil Gramm helped drive the process along with the Commodities Futures Modernization Act of 2000, which deregulated the derivatives market.

Defenders of deregulation argued that sophisticated players were involved in the derivatives markets, and they could handle themselves.

It's now apparent that not only could these sophisticated players not handle themselves, but that their reckless gambling has placed the entire world's financial system at risk.

It seems to be then a remarkably modest proposal for derivatives to be brought under regulatory control.

Warren Buffett cut to the heart of the problem in 2003: "Another problem about derivatives is that they can exacerbate trouble that a corporation has run into for completely unrelated reasons," he wrote in his annual letter to shareholders. "This pile-on effect occurs because many derivatives contracts require that a company suffering a credit downgrade immediately supply collateral to counterparties. Imagine, then, that a company is downgraded because of general adversity and that its derivatives instantly kick in with their requirement, imposing an unexpected and enormous demand for cash collateral on the company. The need to meet this demand can then throw the company into a liquidity crisis that may, in some cases, trigger still more downgrades. It all becomes a spiral that can lead to a corporate meltdown."

That is to say, our current problems were foreseeable, and foreseen. There is no excuse for those who suggest that present circumstances --what many are calling a once-in-a-hundred-years event -- were unimaginable during earlier debates about regulation.

Some ideologues continue to defend derivatives from very strict government control. As Congress moves to adopt new financial regulations next year, hopefully the proponents of casino capitalism will be given no more credence than those insisting that the sun revolves around the earth.

Ralph Nader is running for president as an independent.

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