Even though I worked at the Securities and Exchange Commission for a number of years, trying to explain things like derivatives was never my strong suit. I got the whole concept of futures trading when I took my Agricultural Law class in law school (my farmer dad was VERY proud when I aced that puppy!), so I had an inkling about what they were, but, fortunately, I was never called on to actually explain the intricacies of how they work.
But one thing I knew was this -- there is a certain amount of financial mumbo-jumbo (that's a technical term, don't ya' know) involved when you have to derive something from another thing. Things get murky when you're not talking about simply buying or selling something like a stock or a commodity.
There is an amazing chronological tutorial in the Washington Post today about how we got in the mess we're in now that everyone should read. In case you're strapped for time, here's the PunditMom synopsis:
1. In the late 1990s, Former Commodity Futures Trading Commission Chief Brooksley Born (the "girl") tried to convince the male heads of the SEC, the Federal Reserve and the Treasury Department that it was essential that the government keep strict oversight on derivatives trading.
2. Born was a career attorney with lots of expertise in this area of the law. Former SEC chair Arthur Levitt was the former chair of the American Stock Exchange. Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan has served in many large corporate boards, including J.P. Morgan. Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin was formerly with Goldman Sachs.
3. The "boys" kept pushing for what they called voluntary regulation and compliance over derivatives trading (which would eventually lead to lax regulation on mortgage-backed securities) while Born advocated for actively enforcing the regulations on the books, especially for financial instruments that were a little out of the ordinary.
4. Born lost.
5. Some existing regulations were taken apart to benefit the derivatives indutry. The Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act was passed, taking down the walls separating commercial and investment banking.
6. Levitt and others now think they might have been wrong and that their actions may have contributed to the current fiscal crisis.
So, the moral of the story? Next time, listen to "the girl."
Joanne Bamberger usually writes about politics at her place, PunditMom, but is focusing more on the economy these days. She is also a Contributing Editor for Politics & News at BlogHer. Her political analysis and commentary have appeared this political season on CNN, Fox News, ABC.com, XM Radio POTUS '08, and others.