Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Obama Pushes Broad Rules for Oversight of Derivatives


By STEPHEN LABATON (New York Times)

WASHINGTON — Marking its first major effort to overhaul financial regulation, the Obama administration will seek new authority to supervise the virtually unregulated complex financial instruments, known as derivatives, that were a major cause of the market crisis, Congressional aides and others who have been briefed on the decision said Wednesday.

The administration will ask Congress to approve legislation that would impose a new government oversight structure for the instruments, which Warren Buffett once called “weapons of mass destruction.”

In a two-page letter to Congressional leaders, Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner asked for the swift approval of a measure that would require many kinds of derivative instruments, including credit default swaps, to be traded on exchanges and subject to tighter regulation. Derivatives can take many forms, but in total there are trillions of dollars’ worth exchanging hands every day around the globe.

The letter asked the lawmakers to give regulators the authority to impose new capital and business conduct requirements on the large Wall Street companies that issue the financial instruments. Capital requirements would, for example, require companies that issue derivatives to hold capital in reserve in case of a default, much the way banks must hold reserves when they make loans.

The letter leaves it to Congress to decide whether the Securities and Exchange Commission or the Commodity Futures Trading Commission would be playing the lead role in supervising the new system for trading such instruments.

People briefed on the plan said the administration had asserted four major principles guiding the legislative process. The legislation should be aimed at reducing trading practices that pose major risks to the financial system. The regulatory overhaul should promote efficiency and transparency in the markets. The legislation should discourage market manipulation and fraud. And it should protect investors.

Credit default swaps, a type of derivative instrument that acts like an insurance policy by protecting investors from defaults of mortgage backed securities, played a central role in the collapse of American International Group. The company, one of the largest issuers of such swaps, nearly collapsed as a result of issuing a huge volume of such instruments that it was unable to support.

Mr. Geithner, along with the leaders from the two agencies, was set to brief reporters about the proposal at the Treasury Department late Wednesday afternoon.

The proposal would not require that derivative instruments with unique characteristics negotiated between companies be traded on exchanges or through clearinghouses. But standardized or uniform ones would. If approved, the plan would require the development of timely reports of trades, similar to the system now used for corporate bonds.

During his confirmation hearings in January, Mr. Geithner vowed to move quickly to push for regulation of derivative instruments, and both Mary Schapiro, the new head of the Securities and Exchange Commission, and Gary Gensler, the nominee to head to the C.F.T.C., also made similar commitments.

Lawmakers in the House and Senate have already introduced legislation to regulate derivative instruments. But a number of members have pressed the administration to put out its own plan. Last Friday, at the confirmation hearing of Neal Wolin to be the next deputy Treasury secretary, Senator Maria Cantwell, Democrat of Washington, pressed the nominee to move quickly to get the administration’s views on the regulation of derivatives.