Monday, May 26, 2008

Futures, I mean insurance, I mean futures...

The Sunday NY Times business section had two stories which had an interesting overlap.

First, Gretchen Morgenson, in reporting on how Fairfax Financial Holdings profited from credit derivatives, described those financial instruments as "insurance contracts that allow investors to bet for or against a corporation's bonds." (Good luck getting anyone in the financial industry to give you an opinion in writing calling a derivative "insurance.").

The second piece, by Nelson Schwartz, reported on Congressional efforts to control energy prices. Of note, Rep. John B. Larson proposed legislation that would ban unregulated (over the counter) trading in energy futures where the parties would not take delivery of the commodity, i.e. the positions would be settled in dollars. This proposal is fascinating in its own right, but where it gets very interesting, and how it really relates to the first article is in this quote from John Damguard, the president of the Futures Industry Association.
"The over-the-counter markets are a very important part of the way industry and institutions manage risk."
Well, he certainly makes over the counter deals sound a lot like insurance. Of course, most of the trades entered are not for true hedging purposes, e.g. futures purchased by airlines, but are instead large, heavily leveraged bets sold by traders and investment banks to investors seeking above market returns. And of course, if these deals were actually "insurance" as opposed to speculation, they (and the dealers who package and sell them) would fall under an entire class of regulation.

So, if we shouldn't regulate over the counter deals because they fill a important need of managing risk, then why aren't they regulated as insurance? It seems like the insurance industry should get on this one, and use a favorable bill to steal part of an industry away from Wall Street.

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