As I blogged here weeks ago, I was appalled when working for a large investment bank, by the sheer complexity and fluidity of financial instruments known as "exotic derivatives."
Turns out I was in pretty good company:
George Soros, the prominent financier, avoids using the financial contracts known as derivatives “because we don’t really understand how they work.” Felix G. Rohatyn, the investment banker who saved New York from financial catastrophe in the 1970s, described derivatives as potential "hydrogen bombs."
And Warren E. Buffett presciently observed five years ago that derivatives were “financial weapons of mass destruction, carrying dangers that, while now latent, are potentially lethal.”
I remember thinking at the time - "how could our government allow this to go on - there is NO WAY that any kind of oversight could be going on. What kind of idiot would allow this to happen?"
Now I know. The idiot Alan Greenspan.
One prominent financial figure, however, has long thought otherwise. And his views held the greatest sway in debates about the regulation and use of derivatives — exotic contracts that promised to protect investors from losses, thereby stimulating riskier practices that led to the financial crisis. For more than a decade, the former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan has fiercely objected whenever derivatives have come under scrutiny in Congress or on Wall Street. “What we have found over the years in the marketplace is that derivatives have been an extraordinarily useful vehicle to transfer risk from those who shouldn’t be taking it to those who are willing to and are capable of doing so,” Mr. Greenspan told the Senate Banking Committee in 2003. “We think it would be a mistake” to more deeply regulate the contracts, he added.
There were some who saw the crisis coming:
In 1997, the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, a federal agency that regulates options and futures trading, began exploring derivatives regulation. The commission, then led by a lawyer named Brooksley E. Born, invited comments about how best to oversee certain derivatives.
Ms. Born was concerned that unfettered, opaque trading could "threaten our regulated markets or, indeed, our economy without any federal agency knowing about it," she said in Congressional testimony. She called for greater disclosure of trades and reserves to cushion against losses.
Ms. Born's views incited fierce opposition from Mr. Greenspan and Robert E. Rubin, the Treasury secretary then. Treasury lawyers concluded that merely discussing new rules threatened the derivatives market. Mr. Greenspan warned that too many rules would damage Wall Street, prompting traders to take their business overseas.
"Greenspan told Brooksley that she essentially didn’t know what she was doing and she’d cause a financial crisis," said Michael Greenberger, who was a senior director at the commission. "Brooksley was this woman who was not playing tennis with these guys and not having lunch with these guys. There was a little bit of the feeling that this woman was not of Wall Street."
Hmm. Some woman was getting uppity and trying to tell men how to do things. Who should the men bring in to put a woman in her place?
Of course - Lawrence Summers!
In early 1998, Mr. Rubin's deputy, Lawrence H. Summers, called Ms. Born and chastised her for taking steps he said would lead to a financial crisis, according to Mr. Greenberger. Mr. Summers said he could not recall the conversation but agreed with Mr. Greenspan and Mr. Rubin that Ms. Born's proposal was "highly problematic."
But Born was right:
Ms. Born pushed ahead. On June 5, 1998, Mr. Greenspan, Mr. Rubin and Mr. Levitt called on Congress to prevent Ms. Born from acting until more senior regulators developed their own recommendations. Mr. Levitt says he now regrets that decision. Mr. Greenspan and Mr. Rubin were “joined at the hip on this,” he said. “They were certainly very fiercely opposed to this and persuaded me that this would cause chaos.”
Ms. Born soon gained a potent example. In the fall of 1998, the hedge fund Long Term Capital Management nearly collapsed, dragged down by disastrous bets on, among other things, derivatives. More than a dozen banks pooled $3.6 billion for a private rescue to prevent the fund from slipping into bankruptcy and endangering other firms.
Despite that event, Congress froze the Commodity Futures Trading Commission’s regulatory authority for six months. The following year, Ms. Born departed.
Well why did she depart? No doubt Larry Summers would tell you (from his infamous women aren't as smart as men speech at Harvard):
So my best guess, to provoke you, of what's behind all of this [this being women's less success careers in science and engineering] is that the largest phenomenon, by far, is the general clash between people's legitimate family desires and employers' current desire for high power and high intensity, that in the special case of science and engineering, there are issues of intrinsic aptitude, and particularly of the variability of aptitude, and that those considerations are reinforced by what are in fact lesser factors involving socialization and continuing discrimination.
I'm sure Summers believed that Born just didn't have an aptitude for numbers.
And he and Greenspan got their way:
In November 1999, senior regulators — including Mr. Greenspan and Mr. Rubin — recommended that Congress permanently strip the C.F.T.C. of regulatory authority over derivatives.
Mr. Greenspan, according to lawmakers, then used his prestige to make sure Congress followed through. "Alan was held in very high regard," said Jim Leach, an Iowa Republican who led the House Banking and Financial Services Committee at the time. "You've got an area of judgment in which members of Congress have nonexistent expertise."
Because there IS NO OVERSIGHT for derivatives, you know they have been used for some major financial dirty dealings - and that is the next big financial scandal that will break.
Here's hoping Alan Greenspan will end up in jail for it.