Friday, April 16, 2010

Goldman Goes For The Jugular With Derivatives' Control

"Given that much of the financial contagion was fueled by uncertainty about counterparties' balance sheets," Goldman Chief Executive Officer Lloyd Blankfein and President Gary Cohn wrote in a letter at the beginning of the annual report, "we support measures that would require higher capital and liquidity levels, as well as the use of clearinghouses for standardized derivative transactions." Washington Examiner

I've spent countless hours taking Goldman (GS) "to the woodshed" for underhanded dealings (and I'll end this article that way) but they have always been astute traders. Their recent request for derivatives clearinghouses seems to me like a coup de grace administered to all other derivatives dealers.

When I was trading FX Options at Chase, J. Aron (owned by GS) was rightly regarded as one of the best derivatives dealers along side First Chicago (which was eventually swallowed up by UBS). They had the best models, and were religious about hedging away their risk.

I assume the past few years taught them that their biggest risk lies, not in the market, but in their counterparties. Their book might be well hedged, but if their counterparties default, they are doomed.

Thus, it seems to me, the request for clearinghouses. GS will force other dealers to use their models and risk mitigating tactics.

Let's assume they get their way. Other dealers, like JP Morgan (JPM), Bank of America (BAC) and Citibank (C), will likely find they haven't properly valued and hedged their books. The government, in its zeal to enact reform will likely be forced to pick up the cost of reducing these other banks' risk, and the banks themselves will likely find that GS is the last player standing.

Let's be cynical and assume that GS expects it will be the spring from which derivatives' regulators will be drawn.  That would be one way to avoid embarrassing fraud charges from the SEC, (the coincidence is striking) and a way to watch what other dealers are doing, in the bargain.

Death by regulation.

If I were sitting at the negotiation table I'd be willing to give GS what it wants, with one proviso, the government will pick up the tab of reducing sector wide risks in derivatives if and only if size limits on banks, and separation of commercial banking from proprietary trading activities (i.e. the Volcker rules) are part of the bargain.

It might not hurt to later impose some strict limits on the revolving door between GS and the public sector.

Without such a bargain, the creation of clearinghouses will only further concentrate pricing control of these instruments, in the hands of GS. However skilled the GS boys currently are, monopoly control of derivatives will beg abuse down the road.

One coup de grace deserves another.

Disclosure: No positions in GS, JPM, BAC, or C