In the course of the two-year long debate on how best to reform the derivatives markets, much attention has been given to the concerns of so-called "end-users," or businesses that use derivatives to hedge against various forms of risk, including not only airlines, utilities and manufacturers, but also small business farmers, gasoline stations and home heating companies.
However, end-users have had growing concerns about the state of the derivatives markets that predate the 2008 financial collapse. Many have argued that these concerns are addressed, not exacerbated, by proposed reforms included in Wall Street reform package.
For more than a century, derivatives have been used by producers, processors, transporters and marketers of commodities - such as gasoline, home heating oil, wheat and livestock - to insulate their businesses and consumers from price risk. And for much of their history, they were a stable, reliable and transparent means of doing so.
However, if you speak to anyone who has used derivatives products for more than a decade, they will tell you that everything changed in 2000. The financial industry successfully secured blanket exemptions from Congress and federal regulators that led to a transformation of derivatives markets from simple commodity exchanges to the opaque and unregulated, multi-trillion dollar markets we know today.
To remain competitive, regulated exchanges weakened their own prohibitions on speculation, and allowed traders in the U.S. to access new subsidiaries in countries with weaker oversight. Over-the-counter and foreign derivative trading markets boomed, to the detriment of the traditionally stable domestic environments.
These changes lead to a "Wild West"-like environment. Excess volatility became the norm. Price spikes in commodities, most especially those experienced in 2007-2008, seemed to be dislocated from supply and demand fundamentals. Speculators were diving head-long into derivatives, and by 2008, came to dominate commercial hedgers four-to-one.
As commodity speculation swelled, retail gasoline and home heating oil prices surged beyond $4 per gallon. Trade associations attributed as much as $1 or more of these prices to speculation, despite the more than adequate inventories and a decline in demand. Global food prices were similarly rocked and the UN estimates that an additional 130 million people were driven to hunger as a result.
Derivatives reform will address many of these issues. Mandatory reporting, clearing and capital requirements for all derivatives would create transparency and much needed confidence in these markets, while a hedge exemption for bona-fide end-users would protect commercial businesses. It would also require that foreign exchanges doing business in the U.S. register with our regulators and encourage new cooperation with overseas agencies.
The bill also contains new tools that will help the Commodity Futures Trading Commission or CFTC, the principal regulator of derivatives, police against fraud and manipulation. It would also protect end-users from excessive speculation by expanding a 1936 statute requiring the CFTC to limit positions that speculators can take in a commodity, include over-the-counter markets in these limits and, importantly, establish aggregate limits across all markets.
Still, news coverage and op-eds have suggested that end-users are unified in opposition to reform due to fears that it will result in new government regulation and capital requirements, despite the well articulated hedge exemption and support for the legislation from airline, trucking, gasoline, home heating, and various agricultural industry groups.
If the "Wild West" was tamed by law and order, then the derivatives markets will be tamed by increased transparency, stability and confidence that legislative reform will bring. An important and reliable tool that hedgers have relied on for years will be returned to them and for this reason, end-users will benefit - not be burdened by - long overdue and comprehensive reform.
The only derivatives users that need worry about this reform are those that have exploited the status quo recklessly and irresponsibly, driving up costs for all Americans and threatening our nation's economic stability and competitiveness. They fear it, and rightly so.
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