“Greed is good.” — Gordon Gekko
NEW YORK – This spring, traders and analysts working deep in the global swaps markets began picking up peculiar readings: Hundreds of billions of dollars of trades by U.S. banks had seemingly vanished.
“We saw strange things in the data,” said Chris Barnes, a former swaps trader now with ClarusFT, a London-based data firm.
The vanishing of the trades was little noted outside a circle of specialists. But the implications were big. The missing transactions reflected an effort by some of the largest U.S. banks — including Goldman Sachs, JP Morgan Chase, Citigroup, Bank of America, and Morgan Stanley — to get around new regulations on derivatives enacted in the wake of the financial crisis, say current and former financial regulators.
The trades hadn’t really disappeared. Instead, the major banks had tweaked a few key words in swaps contracts and shifted some other trades to affiliates in London, where regulations are far more lenient. Those affiliates remain largely outside the jurisdiction of U.S. regulators, thanks to a loophole in swaps rules that banks successfully won from the Commodity Futures Trading Commission in 2013.
For large investors, the products are an important tool to hedge risk. But in times of crisis, they can turn toxic. In 2008, some of these instruments helped topple major financial institutions, crashing the U.S. economy and leading to government bailouts.
After the crisis, Congress and regulators sought to rein in this risk, and the banks fought back. From 2010 to 2013, when the CFTC was drafting new rules, representatives of the five largest U.S. banks met with the regulator more than 300 times, according to CFTC records. Goldman Sachs attended at least 160 of those meetings.
Many of the CFTC employees who were lobbied in these meetings went on to work for banks. Between 2010 and 2013, there were 50 CFTC staffers who met with the top five U.S. banks 10 or more times. Of those 50 staffers, at least 25 now work for the big five or other top swaps-dealing banks, or for law firms and lobbyists representing these banks.
The lobbying blitz helped win a ruling from the CFTC that left U.S. banks’ overseas operations largely outside the jurisdiction of U.S. regulators. After that rule passed, U.S. banks simply shipped more trades overseas. By December of 2014, certain U.S. swaps markets had seen 95 percent of their trading volume disappear in less than two years.
While many swaps trades are now booked abroad, some people in the markets believe the risk remains firmly on U.S. shores. They say the big American banks are still on the hook for swaps they’re parking offshore with subsidiaries.
Still, the banks’ victory on the swaps loophole leaves a concentrated knot of risk at the heart of the financial system. The U.S. derivatives market has shrunk but remains large, with outstanding contracts worth $220 trillion at face value. And the top five top banks account for 92 percent of that.
In 2009, President Barack Obama tapped Gary Gensler, then 51 years old, to chair the CFTC. Liberals grumbled about Gensler’s résumé. The son of a cigarette and pinball-machine salesman in working class Baltimore, Gensler, at 30, had become the youngest banker ever to make partner at Goldman Sachs.
Among other jobs, he oversaw the bank’s derivatives trading in Asia. Later, as an undersecretary of the Treasury, Gensler helped push through the 2000 law that had banned regulation of derivatives markets.
Kenneth Raisler, a former Enron lobbyist representing JP Morgan, Citigroup, and Bank of America, argued in a letter that the CFTC should allow U.S. banks to do things overseas “even if those activities were not permissible for a U.S. bank domestically.”