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Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Government Must Keep Track of Derivatives?

In a surprising Wall Street Journal op-ed, property-rights advocate Hernando de Soto writes that our current financial woes resulted from government’s failure to keep tabs on the derivatives market. De Soto has been a hero of free marketeers since publication of The Mystery of Capital, which shows that nations are poor where people lack formal, secure, and easily transferable property titles. In the current crisis, he says, trust among participants in the financial sector evaporated because the value of mortgage-backed securities, credit default swaps, and other derivatives couldn’t be verified. And that was because of what government did not do.

“Unlike all other property paper,” de Soto writes, “derivatives are not required by law to be recorded, continually tracked and tied to the assets they represent. Nobody knows precisely how many there are, where they are, and who is finally accountable for them.”

Hence: “Government’s main duty now is to bring the whole toxic environment under the rule of law where it will be subject to enforcement.”

I largely agree with de Soto’s diagnosis of the problem, but not his solution. When I worked in the financial sector in early 2007, my boss said his associates in New York were getting nervous because nobody knew how much leverage their trading partners had. It was thus pointless to run the standard “value at risk” and other calculations they teach finance grads, because no individual participant—even a large hedge fund or investment bank—could see the big picture in deals involving complex derivatives. Indeed, after everything blew up, I talked to one credit analyst at an insurance company who said, “Have you ever actually tried to read one of these credit default swap contracts? Nobody really knew what they did.”

Free Markets Don’t Mean Omniscient Entrepreneurs

I bring up these anecdotes to bolster my view that the market critics are probably (at least partially) correct to blame the financial bust on overextended firms that horribly miscalculated the risks they were assuming. I would be willing to go even further and say that innovative financial products that appeared to mitigate risk at the individual level might have paradoxically made the entire system more vulnerable.

But the market critics and de Soto go wrong in concluding that only governments can fix the problem. These advocates of increased regulation fail to realize that the case for the free market does not rely on omniscient entrepreneurs. Fans of the market should not be embarrassed to admit that sometimes even well-established companies screw up royally and lose billions of dollars.

Or at least, that’s what would happen in a true profit-and-loss system. The self-regulation of the market only works when profits and losses are allowed. When trying to make sense of why so many large firms were so careless with their investments, we can’t ignore the perverse incentives the government had created in a multitude of ways.

For example, the ratings agencies didn’t need to worry that they would be ruined if their AAA ratings on mortgage-backed securities turned out to be absurd. If any private-sector actors can be directly blamed for the financial debacle, it would be S&P, Moody’s, and Fitch. Yet these rating agencies are still in business because government regulations require banks and other institutional investors to hold bonds and other securities with a certain rating, and (of course) the regulations cartelize the rating industry. Specifically, SEC regulations require that institutions receive their (legally mandated) ratings from a “nationally recognized statistical rating organization” (NRSRO). But lo and behold, it is very difficult for any outsiders to attain this exalted NRSRO status. Since the big three agencies have a guaranteed demand for their services, is it any wonder that they were careless in granting the desired ratings to the complex securities being pushed by their big clients during the boom years? And let’s not forget the government-induced shaky mortgages at the foundation of those derivatives.

The fundamental problem with de Soto’s analysis is that he thinks politicians and bureaucrats can be trusted to improve financial transparency. This is the height of naiveté. Has de Soto flipped through the U.S. tax code recently? Doesn’t he realize that seemingly every week Treasury Secretary Geithner announces another convoluted plan to use tax dollars to encourage leveraged investment in precisely these “toxic” assets?

Markets Produce Laws

Apparently, de Soto thinks the virtue of Western governments over the centuries has been to create an orderly body of laws within which the free market can flourish. I would argue that it was the relative impotence of Western governments that allowed a market-driven law to emerge, which these governments then codified.

Economists such as Bruce Benson, David Friedman, and Edward Stringham have thoroughly documented the spontaneous development of legal customs and financial rules without any enforcement from the state. The entire body of English common law, too, was not centrally designed by legislatures, but instead emerged out of myriad individual rulings given by judges, as did the Law Merchant, the early modern global commercial law. 

Had the government minded its own business, the private financial sector would have learned from its mistakes during the housing boom. There is no reason to suppose that Geithner or anyone else employed by the government can come up with a solution that private analysts couldn’t discover. Quite the contrary. In fact, every move the government has taken during the crisis has expanded its power over the private sector and its ability to shower literally trillions of dollars on powerful beneficiaries. Doesn’t de Soto see the immense scope for corruption if the government gains more discretionary power over financial transactions?

Ironically, it is the government’s response to the initial crisis that has led to less transparency not more. Had the troubled firms been allowed to fail, bankruptcy proceedings would have ascertained which companies were holding which assets and how they should be valued. But at least since December 2007, the Federal Reserve has artificially propped up insolvent firms by accepting their “toxic” assets as collateral on short-term loans. In this environment, of course the most leveraged firms will string their investors along and carry derivatives on their books at inflated values.

Regardless of what caused the crisis, government efforts to regulate derivatives will only lock in undesirable aspects of the current market and ensure that politically connected players reap artificial gains. It is absurd to ask politicians to promote financial integrity and sound accounting. They are the worst violators of these principles on the planet.

  • Robert P. Murphy is senior economist at the Independent Energy Institute, a research assistant professor with the Free Market Institute at Texas Tech University, and a Research Fellow at the Independent Institute.