Alarm Bells Sounded on Wall Street’s Derivatives

Steps are a afoot to rekindle the wild west era of derivatives trading on Wall Street.

By Pam Martens and Russ Martens of Wall Street on Parade

On February 14, the week after the Dow Jones Industrial Average experienced two separate days of more than 1,000-point losses, the House Financial Services’ Subcommittee on Capital Markets, Securities and Investment convened a hearing to discuss various legislative proposals to return to the wild west era of derivatives trading on Wall Street. (Many, including Wall Street On Parade, believe that we’ve never left that era – the risks have simply been hidden behind a dark curtain. See related articles below.)

One lonely voice for sanity on the witness panel, which was stacked with industry trade groups, was Andy Green, Managing Director at the Economic Policy Center for American Progress. Green’s written testimony stated that the legislative proposals “slice, dice, or otherwise poke holes – sometimes large holes – in the firewalls placed in the derivatives markets by post 2008 reforms….”

Green also reminded the Congressional members present that the “unregulated OTC derivatives market was at the heart of the 2007-2008 financial crisis, which cost 8.7 million Americans their jobs, 10 million families their homes, and eliminated 49 percent of the average middle-class family’s wealth compared with 2001 levels.”

Green provided a litany of the derivative horrors that led to panic and financial contagion during the financial crisis. The collapse of the giant insurer AIG from credit default swap derivatives and its role as counterparty to some of Wall Street’s largest banks. (In response to the AIG collapse, the U.S. government bailed out the company to the tune of $185 billion. Half of the bailout money effectively went in the front door of AIG and then out the backdoor to the big Wall Street banks and hedge funds that had used AIG as their counterparty to guarantee their bets on Credit Default Swaps.)

Also noted by Green was Lehman Brothers’ “disorderly failure” which “was exacerbated due to the company’s extensive OTC derivatives portfolio.” Green reminded attendees that Lehman “had around 930,000 OTC derivatives contracts at the time of its failure”

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