Thursday, December 16, 2010

The Committee to Rule the World...And Then Destroy the World

Here are some excerpts from a story about derivatives trading in the New York Times, which is part of a series. It will surely be worth reading. This part of the series is entitled, "A Secretive Banking Elite Rules Trading in Derivatives," and offers some perplexing insights into the collusion banks engage in to control and profit from derivatives trading. Capitalism at its best. These are the free markets Republicans keep telling us are the backbone of our nation. If that is true, then we are in deep trouble. But we already know that right?

Anyway, here are some pithy excerpts. Read the whole article when time permits, though. (And click on a NY Times banner ad -- that paper deserves your support ;)

Bankers do not like to share...
In the midst of the turmoil, regulators ordered banks to speed up plans — long in the making — to set up a clearinghouse to handle derivatives trading. The intent was to reduce risk and increase stability in the market.
Two established exchanges that trade commodities and futures, the InterContinentalExchange, or ICE, and the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, set up clearinghouses, and, so did Nasdaq.
Each of these new clearinghouses had to persuade big banks to join their efforts, and they doled out membership on their risk committees, which is where trading rules are written, as an incentive.
None of the three clearinghouses would divulge the members of their risk committees when asked by a reporter. But two people with direct knowledge of ICE’s committee said the bank members are: Thomas J. Benison of JPMorgan Chase & Company; James J. Hill of Morgan Stanley; Athanassios Diplas of Deutsche Bank; Paul Hamill of UBS; Paul Mitrokostas of Barclays; Andy Hubbard of Credit Suisse; Oliver Frankel of Goldman Sachs; Ali Balali of Bank of America; and Biswarup Chatterjee of Citigroup.
Through representatives, these bankers declined to discuss the committee or the derivatives market. Some of the spokesmen noted that the bankers have expertise that helps the clearinghouse.
Many of these same people hold influential positions at other clearinghouses, or on committees at the powerful International Swaps and Derivatives Association, which helps govern the market.
Critics have called these banks the “derivatives dealers club,” and they warn that the club is unlikely to give up ground easily.
“The revenue these dealers make on derivatives is very large and so the incentive they have to protect those revenues is extremely large,” said Darrell Duffie, a professor at the Graduate School of Business at Stanford University, who studied the derivatives market earlier this year with Federal Reserve researchers. “It will be hard for the dealers to keep their market share if everybody who can prove their creditworthiness is allowed into the clearinghouses. So they are making arguments that others shouldn’t be allowed in.
No transparency? Not a free market...
For many (derivatives), there is no central exchange, like the New York Stock Exchange or Nasdaq, where the prices of derivatives are listed. Instead, when a company or an investor wants to buy a derivative contract for, say, oil or wheat or securitized mortgages, an order is placed with a trader at a bank. The trader matches that order with someone selling the same type of derivative.
Banks explain that many derivatives trades have to work this way because they are often customized, unlike shares of stock. One share of Google is the same as any other. But the terms of an oil derivatives contract can vary greatly.
And the profits on most derivatives are masked. In most cases, buyers are told only what they have to pay for the derivative contract, say $25 million. That amount is more than the seller gets, but how much more — $5,000, $25,000 or $50,000 more — is unknown. That’s because the seller also is told only the amount he will receive. The difference between the two is the bank’s fee and profit. So, the bigger the difference, the better for the bank — and the worse for the customers.
It would be like a real estate agent selling a house, but the buyer knowing only what he paid and the seller knowing only what he received. The agent would pocket the difference as his fee, rather than disclose it. Moreover, only the real estate agent — and neither buyer nor seller — would have easy access to the prices paid recently for other homes on the same block.
 A solution is offered...
Two years ago, Kenneth C. Griffin, owner of the giant hedge fund Citadel Group, which is based in Chicago, proposed open pricing for commonly traded derivatives, by quoting their prices electronically. Citadel oversees $11 billion in assets, so saving even a few percentage points in costs on each trade could add up to tens or even hundreds of millions of dollars a year.
But Mr. Griffin’s proposal for an electronic exchange quickly ran into opposition, and what happened is a window into how banks have fiercely fought competition and open pricing. To get a transparent exchange going, Citadel offered the use of its technological prowess for a joint venture with the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, which is best-known as a trading outpost for contracts on commodities like coffee and cotton. The goal was to set up a clearinghouse as well as an electronic trading system that would display prices for credit default swaps.
Big banks that handle most derivatives trades, including Citadel’s, didn’t like Citadel’s idea. Electronic trading might connect customers directly with each other, cutting out the banks as middlemen.
So the banks responded in the fall of 2008 by pairing with ICE, one of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange’s rivals, which was setting up its own clearinghouse. The banks attached a number of conditions on that partnership, which came in the form of a merger between ICE’s clearinghouse and a nascent clearinghouse that the banks were establishing. These conditions gave the banks significant power at ICE’s clearinghouse, according to two people with knowledge of the deal. For instance, the banks insisted that ICE install the chief executive of their effort as the head of the joint effort. That executive, Dirk Pruis, left after about a year and now works at Goldman Sachs. Through a spokesman, he declined to comment.
The banks also refused to allow the deal with ICE to close until the clearinghouse’s rulebook was established, with provisions in the banks’ favor. Key among those were the membership rules, which required members to hold large amounts of capital in derivatives units, a condition that was prohibitive even for some large banks like the Bank of New York.
The banks also required ICE to provide market data exclusively to Markit, a little-known company that plays a pivotal role in derivatives. Backed by Goldman, JPMorgan and several other banks, Markit provides crucial information about derivatives, like prices.
Kevin Gould, who is the president of Markit and was involved in the clearinghouse merger, said the banks were simply being prudent and wanted rules that protected the market and themselves.

“The one thing I know the banks are concerned about is their risk capital,” he said. “You really are going to get some comfort that the way the entity operates isn’t going to put you at undue risk.”
Even though the banks were working with ICE, Citadel and the C.M.E. continued to move forward with their exchange. They, too, needed to work with Markit, because it owns the rights to certain derivatives indexes. But Markit put them in a tough spot by basically insisting that every trade involve at least one bank, since the banks are the main parties that have licenses with Markit.

This demand from Markit effectively secured a permanent role for the big derivatives banks since Citadel and the C.M.E. could not move forward without Markit’s agreement. And so, essentially boxed in, they agreed to the terms, according to the two people with knowledge of the matter. (A spokesman for C.M.E. said last week that the exchange did not cave to Markit’s terms.)

Still, even after that deal was complete, the Chicago Mercantile Exchange soon had second thoughts about working with Citadel and about introducing electronic screens at all. The C.M.E. backed out of the deal in mid-2009, ending Mr. Griffin’s dream of a new, electronic trading system.
With Citadel out of the picture, the banks agreed to join the Chicago Mercantile Exchange’s clearinghouse effort. The exchange set up a risk committee that, like ICE’s committee, was mainly populated by bankers.
It remains unclear why the C.M.E. ended its electronic trading initiative. Two people with knowledge of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange’s clearinghouse said the banks refused to get involved unless the exchange dropped Citadel and the entire plan for electronic trading.
Kim Taylor, the president of Chicago Mercantile Exchange’s clearing division, said “the market” simply wasn’t interested in Mr. Griffin’s idea.

Read the whole article. (And click on a NY Times banner ad -- that paper deserves your support ;)

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