Over The Counter Arguments
July 2, 2009
George Soros has waded back into the current saga concerning OTC derivatives in his article last week in the FT. The main part of the article focusses on financial markets reform, but ends with a vehement attack on derivatives, building upon some of his earlier ideas (see post) and seemingly going much further:
"Finally, I have strong views on the regulation of derivatives. The prevailing opinion is that they ought to be traded on regulated exchanges. That is not enough. The issuance and trading of derivatives ought to be as strictly regulated as stocks. Regulators ought to insist that derivatives be homogenous, standardised and transparent."
He ends by saying that "CDS are instruments of destruction that ought to be outlawed.". To the extent that Mr Soros attracts press/political attention is probably something the OTC markets should worry about, although it would seem his views are already consistent with many involved in influencing the US financial markets policy - take for instance the submission by Christopher Whalen to the US Senate on OTC Derivatives:
"Simply stated, the supra-normal returns paid to the dealers in the closed OTC derivatives market are effectively a tax on other market participants, especially investors who trade on open, public exchanges and markets."
Fortunately however there are also some more balanced views around - I found the following post on the "(in)efficient frontiers" blog, which references the earlier Senate submission by Richard Bookstaber on OTCs. Mr Bookstaber starts by saying that derivatives can improve financial markets, allowing investors to shape returns, exactly meet contingencies and package risk. Mr Bookstaber also puts forward a very clear summary how participants have also over recent years use derivatives to game the system to achieve tax avoidance, investment mandate avoidance, speculation and to hide risk-taking.
So back to the Soros article, there was a letter in response a few days later from a partner at the legal firm Ashurst's, saying that unfortunately risk does not confirm to a standard. In this I agree, standardising contracts can lead to increased complexity – there was a recent example given by a swaps dealer at JPMorgan who said that a corporate with particular cashflows to be hedged does want to be dealing with the basis risk and admin of using standardised contracts - the corporate treasurer wants something that matches the exposure they have and takes it away, end of story. Again this is an example of derivatives "risk" not being just about the product type, but also about which institution is holding the contract and what they are using it for (see earlier post).
Not sure however how much the Ashurst's partner who wrote the response letter is worried about lucrative legal fees for OTC derivative contracts dying off if Soros-like standardisation occurs - it is a world of vested interests at the moment, never more vested than in a crisis…