By Jane D’Arista
This guest post is contributed by Jane D’Arista, a research associate at the Political Economy Research Institute at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and co-coordinator of its Economists’ Committee for Stable, Accountable, Fair, and Efficient Financial Reform (SAFER). She has taught in graduate economics programs at several universities and served on committee staffs of the U.S. House of Representatives.
Dominated by the world’s largest banks, the over-the-counter (OTC) derivatives market has been expanding since the break-down of the Bretton Woods Agreement in the early 1970s privatized the international monetary system by shifting the payments process from central banks to commercial banks. The proliferation of foreign exchange forwards and swaps that followed set in motion an ever-expanding menu of exotic instruments that reached a nominal value of over $600 trillion by the middle of the current decade. Central banks and financial regulators ignored the implications of the growth of this market and ignored warnings from the Bank for International Settlements (BIS) and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) from 2002 forward that OTC derivatives were at the center of what had become a global casino in which the largest international institutions were the biggest speculators.
The large, international institutions that created the OTC market for foreign exchange forwards and swaps were commercial banks. Following established banking practice, they conducted their derivatives business like portfolio lenders rather than broker/dealers, buying and selling forwards and swaps outside of established markets. But OTC derivatives contracts can’t be classified as assets or liabilities until they are settled and can’t be held on banks’ balance sheets the way loans and deposits are held. Instead, they were booked off balance sheet as contingent liabilities. The market structure that emerged in what came to be the largest market in the global economy was one in which non-tradable contracts were bought by and sold to customers without real time information on volume or pricing or the aggregate positions of the dealers themselves. Moreover, the fact that the contracts were illiquid required constant hedging by dealers that expanded their positions and inflated the size of the market relative to all other national and international financial markets. Meanwhile, the commercial bank dealers’ derivatives business was operating with all the implicit guarantees and subsidies that governments put in place to protect this core financial sector. In 2008, those guarantees became explicit and were exercised.