Derivatives: No special deals for Wall Street

By Michael Masters, CNNMoney guest columnist


As Congress debates the final language for reforming Wall Street, a behind-the-scenes battle is raging over the arcane details of derivatives regulation.

Currently, derivatives trade in an opaque, completely unregulated $600 trillion "dark market." The risk that this presents to the U.S. economy is incalculable, and the new legislation rightly seeks to create transparency by forcing most derivatives transactions to clear through a central counterparty, or clearing house.

The clearing house would stand in the middle of the transaction and guarantee both sides of the trade. If one counterparty to the transaction fails, then the central counterparty absorbs those losses, protecting the system as a whole from collapse. A similar system has worked very well for over 100 years in the exchange- traded futures markets.

Wall Street firms hate this idea because their prodigious profits will dwindle when derivatives are traded in the light of day, letting their counterparties see the true costs.

So Wall Street is pushing hard to exempt as many transactions as possible.

The Senate version of the clearing house requirement, which is currently the base text for the bill, includes a narrow, well-defined exemption that allows commercial end-users a complete exemption from clearing, while denying this exemption to financial players.

The House language, however, would exempt anyone hedging "balance sheet risk." Since every financial player has a balance sheet, it is estimated that more than 50% of the outstanding derivatives would go uncleared under the House plan, compared to just 10% under the Senate version.

The Senate language is superior to the House's simply because it forces far more derivatives into the open.

But there also is a critical policy distinction that must be made between commercial end-users like airlines, and financial entities like hedge funds. For a commercial end-user, risk arises naturally out of the ordinary conduct of business. For a financial entity, pricing and managing risk is their core business.

As an example, an airline cannot fly without incurring the risk of wildly gyrating jet fuel prices. Allowing them to hedge their jet fuel exposure without a clearing requirement would provide stability for the airline, confidence for airline investors and ensure that the broad U.S. economy benefits from reliable airline service.

A hedge fund, however, starts with no inherent risk. Its mission is to evaluate investment options, balancing risk and reward. If a hedge fund enters into a jet fuel derivatives contract on a bet that prices will increase, then it's nonsense to say that they are "hedging" when they subsequently enter into an offsetting deal to reduce the risk they voluntarily took on in the first place.

These semantic charades can easily be carried to such extremes that every transaction a hedge fund enters is "hedging" something. An exemption for hedge funds serves no social purpose and, in fact, it puts our entire financial system at risk.

Congress should reject the efforts by Wall Street to craft any exemption that includes financial entities. Allowing exemptions for commercial end-users is a practical proposition. Congress must adopt the Senate language on mandatory clearing requirements for all derivatives. If it allows exemptions for financial entities, it will have failed to protect the American people from the next financial crisis, which will be sure to follow.

Michael Masters is an equity hedge fund manager. He has been a vocal proponent of strong financial regulatory reform and has testified in front of the U.S. House, Senate and Commodities Futures Trading Commission more than eight times on the topic of derivatives reform.  To top of page

Frontline troops push for solar energy
The U.S. Marines are testing renewable energy technologies like solar to reduce costs and casualties associated with fossil fuels. Play
25 Best Places to find rich singles
Looking for Mr. or Ms. Moneybags? Hunt down the perfect mate in these wealthy cities, which are brimming with unattached professionals. More
Fun festivals: Twins to mustard to pirates!
You'll see double in Twinsburg, Ohio, and Ketchup lovers should beware in Middleton, WI. Here's some of the best and strangest town festivals. Play
Index Last Change % Change
Dow 16,804.71 -238.19 -1.40%
Nasdaq 4,422.09 -71.30 -1.59%
S&P 500 1,946.16 -26.13 -1.32%
Treasuries 2.40 -0.10 -4.19%
Data as of 7:54pm ET
Company Price Change % Change
Bank of America Corp... 16.82 -0.23 -1.35%
Ford Motor Co 14.59 -0.20 -1.34%
Facebook Inc 76.55 -2.49 -3.15%
Apple Inc 99.18 -1.57 -1.56%
Cisco Systems Inc 25.03 -0.18 -0.72%
Data as of 4:03pm ET

Sections

In the last five years, pumpkin sales have risen 34% as people demand pumpkin in everything from beer to beef jerky. More

Facebook's chief product officer issued an apology to Sister Roma and the drag community on Wednesday for its flawed 'real name' policy. More

New York City launches a comprehensive site for all things related to its digital tech scene, Digital.NYC. More

For these seniors, the best retirement is not to retire. From a 102-year-old Wal-Mart worker to an activist park ranger, these workers have stayed on the job well into their golden years. More

Market indexes are shown in real time, except for the DJIA, which is delayed by two minutes. All times are ET. Disclaimer Morningstar: © 2014 Morningstar, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Disclaimer The Dow Jones IndexesSM are proprietary to and distributed by Dow Jones & Company, Inc. and have been licensed for use. All content of the Dow Jones IndexesSM © 2014 is proprietary to Dow Jones & Company, Inc. Chicago Mercantile Association. The market data is the property of Chicago Mercantile Exchange Inc. and its licensors. All rights reserved. FactSet Research Systems Inc. 2014. All rights reserved. Most stock quote data provided by BATS.