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Gayle in MD
12-13-2010, 08:13 AM
http://www.nytimes.com/2010/12/12/business/12advantage.html


<div class="ubbcode-block"><div class="ubbcode-header">Quote:</div><div class="ubbcode-body">A Secretive Banking Elite Rules Trading in Derivatives
By LOUISE STORY

On the third Wednesday of every month, the nine members of an elite Wall Street society gather in Midtown Manhattan.



The men share a common goal: to protect the interests of big banks in the vast market for derivatives, one of the most profitable — and controversial — fields in finance. They also share a common secret: The details of their meetings, even their identities, have been strictly confidential.

Drawn from giants like JPMorgan Chase, Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley, the bankers form a powerful committee that helps oversee trading in derivatives, instruments which, like insurance, are used to hedge risk.

In theory, this group exists to safeguard the integrity of the multitrillion-dollar market. In practice, it also defends the dominance of the big banks.

The banks in this group, which is affiliated with a new derivatives clearinghouse, have fought to block other banks from entering the market, and they are also trying to thwart efforts to make full information on prices and fees freely available.

Banks’ influence over this market, and over clearinghouses like the one this select group advises, has costly implications for businesses large and small, like Dan Singer’s home heating-oil company in Westchester County, north of New York City.

This fall, many of Mr. Singer’s customers purchased fixed-rate plans to lock in winter heating oil at around $3 a gallon. While that price was above the prevailing $2.80 a gallon then, the contracts will protect homeowners if bitterly cold weather pushes the price higher.

But Mr. Singer wonders if his company, Robison Oil, should be getting a better deal. He uses derivatives like swaps and options to create his fixed plans. But he has no idea how much lower his prices — and his customers’ prices — could be, he says, because banks don’t disclose fees associated with the derivatives.

“At the end of the day, I don’t know if I got a fair price, or what they’re charging me,” Mr. Singer said.



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<div class="ubbcode-block"><div class="ubbcode-header">Quote:</div><div class="ubbcode-body">Derivatives shift risk from one party to another, and they offer many benefits, like enabling Mr. Singer to sell his fixed plans without having to bear all the risk that oil prices could suddenly rise. Derivatives are also big business on Wall Street. Banks collect many billions of dollars annually in undisclosed fees associated with these instruments — an amount that almost certainly would be lower if there were more competition and transparent prices.
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Just how much derivatives trading costs ordinary Americans is uncertain. The size and reach of this market has grown rapidly over the past two decades. Pension funds today use derivatives to hedge investments. States and cities use them to try to hold down borrowing costs. Airlines use them to secure steady fuel prices. Food companies use them to lock in prices of commodities like wheat or beef. </span>The marketplace as it functions now “adds up to higher costs to all Americans,” said Gary Gensler, the chairman of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, which regulates most derivatives. More oversight of the banks in this market is needed, he said.

But big banks influence the rules governing derivatives through a variety of industry groups. The banks’ latest point of influence are clearinghouses like ICE Trust, which holds the monthly meetings with the nine bankers in New York.

Under the Dodd-Frank financial overhaul, many derivatives will be traded via such clearinghouses. Mr. Gensler wants to lessen banks’ control over these new institutions. But Republican lawmakers, many of whom received large campaign contributions from bankers who want to influence how the derivatives rules are written, say they plan to push back against much of the coming reform. On Thursday, the commission canceled a vote over a proposal to make prices more transparent, raising speculation that Mr. Gensler did not have enough support from his fellow commissioners.

The Department of Justice is looking into derivatives, too. The department’s antitrust unit is actively investigating “the possibility of anticompetitive practices in the credit derivatives clearing, trading and information services industries,” according to a department spokeswoman.

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Only the Insiders Know

How did big banks come to have such influence that they can decide who can compete with them?

Ironically, this development grew in part out of worries during the height of the financial crisis in 2008. A major concern during the meltdown was that no one — not even government regulators — fully understood the size and interconnections of the derivatives market, especially the market in credit default swaps, which insure against defaults of companies or mortgages bonds. The panic led to the need to bail out the American International Group, for instance, which had C.D.S. contracts with many large banks. 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.


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One former regulator warned against deferring to the banks. Theo Lubke, who until this fall oversaw the derivatives reforms at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, said banks do not always think of the market as a whole as they help write rules.

“Fundamentally, the banks are not good at self-regulation,” Mr. Lubke said in a panel last March at Columbia University. “That’s not their expertise, that’s not their primary interest.”

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