What Cooked the World's Economy?

It wasn't your overdue mortgage.

As for Bloomberg, its business side, Bloomberg L.P., has been less than forthcoming. Requests to interview someone from the company-and Michael Bloomberg, who retains a controlling interest-about the derivatives trade went unanswered.

In his economic address at Cooper Union last spring, Obama argued for new regulations, which he called "the rules of the road," and for a $30 billion stimulus package, that now seems quaint. In the OTC swaps trade, the Bloomberg L.P.'s computer terminals are the road, bridges, and tunnels for "real-time" transactions. The L.P.'s promotional materials declare: "You're either in front of a Bloomberg or behind it." In terms of electronic trading of certain securities, including credit default swaps: "Access to a dealer's inventory is based upon client relationships with Bloomberg as the only conduit." In short, the L.P. looks like a dominant player-possibly, a monopoly. If it has a true competitor, I can't find it. But then, this is a very dark market.

Did Bloomberg L.P. do anything illegal? Absolutely not. We prosecute hit-and-run drivers, not roads. But there are many questions-about the size of the derivatives market, the names of the counterparties, the amount of replication of derivatives, the role of securities ratings in Bloomberg calculations (in other words, could puffing up be detected and potentially stop a swap?), and how the OTC industry should be reported and regulated in order to prevent future catastrophes. Bloomberg is a privately held company-to the chagrin of would-be investors-and quite private about its business, so this information probably won't surface without subpoenas.


Ezra Clayton Daniels

So what do we do now? In 2000, the 106th Congress as its final effort passed the Commodity Futures Modernization Act (CFMA), and, disgracefully, President Clinton signed it. It opened up the bucket-shop loophole that capsized the world's economic system. With the stroke of a presidential pen, a century of valuable protection was lost.

Even with that, the dangerous swaps still almost found themselves subjected to state oversight. In 2000, AIG asked the New York State Insurance Department to decide if it wanted to regulate them, but the department's superintendent, Neil Levin, said no. The question was not posed by AIGFP, but by the company's main office through its general counsel, a reminder that not long ago, AIG was a blue chip with a triple-A rating that touted its integrity.

We can't know why Levin rejected the chance to regulate the tricky trade. He died in the restaurant at the top of the World Trade Center on the morning of 9/11. A Pataki-appointed former Goldman Sachs vice president, Levin may have shared other Wall Streeters' love of derivatives as the last big-money sure thing as the IPO craze wound down. Or maybe he saw swaps as gambling rather than insurance, hence beyond his jurisdiction. Regardless, current Insurance Superintendent Eric Dinallo told me, "I don't agree with his answer." Maybe the economic crisis could have been averted if Levin had answered otherwise. "How close we came . . ." Dinallo mused.

Deeply occupied with keeping AIG, the parent company, afloat since the bailout, Dinallo saw the carnage that the swaps caused and, with the support of Governor Paterson, pushed anew for regulatory oversight, a position also adopted by the President's Working Group (PWG), which includes the Treasury, Fed, SEC, and CFTC.

But regulation isn't enough to stop a phenomenon called "de-supervision" that occurs when officials can't, or won't, oversee a market. For instance, the Fed under Greenspan had authority to regulate mortgage bankers and brokers, the industry's cowboys who kicked off this fiasco. Because Greenspan's libertarian sensibilities prevented him from invoking the Fed's control, the mortgage market careened corruptly until the wheels came off. Notoriously lax and understaffed, the SEC did nothing to limit investment banks that bundled, pitched, and puffed non-prime mortgages as the raters cheered. It's doubtful that any agency can be relied on to control lucrative default swaps, which should be made illegal again. The bucket-shop loophole must be closed. The evil genie should go back in the bottle.

Will Obama re-criminalize these financial weapons by pushing for repeal of the CFMA? This should be a no-brainer for Obama, who, before becoming a community organizer in Chicago, worked on Wall Street, studied derivatives, and by now undoubtedly knows their destructive power.

What about the $600 trillion in credit derivatives that are still out there, sucking vital liquidity and credit out of the system? It's the tyrannosaurus in the mall, the one that made Henry Paulson, the former Treasury Secretary who looks like Daddy Warbucks, get down on his knees and beg Nancy Pelosi for a bailout.

Even with the bailout, no one can get their arms around this monster. Obviously, the $600 trillion includes not only many unseemly replicated death bets, but also some benign derivatives that creditors bought to hedge risky loans. Instead of sorting them out, the Bush administration tried to protect them all, while keeping the counterparties happy and anonymous.

Paulson has taken flack for spending little to bring mortgages in line with falling home values. Sheila Bair, the FDIC chief who often scrapped with Paulson, said this would cost a measly $25 billion and that without it, 10 million Americans could lose their homes over the next five years. Paulson thought it would take three times as much and balked. Congress is bristling because the Emergency Economic Stabilization Act (EESA) could provide mortgage relief-and some derivatives won't detonate if homeowners don't default. Obama's nominee for Treasury Secretary, Timothy Geithner, could back such relief at his hearings.

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