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Secretive elite rules derivatives trading

business Updated: Dec 12, 2010 21:37 IST
The New York Times
The New York Times
Hindustan Times
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On the third Wednesday of every month, the nine members of an elite Wall Street society gather in Midtown Manhattan.

The men share a common goal: to protect the interests of big banks in the vast market for derivatives, one of the most profitable - and controversial - fields in finance. They also share a common secret: The details of their meetings, even their identities, have been strictly confidential.

Drawn from giants such as JPMorgan Chase, Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley, the bankers form a powerful committee that helps oversee trading in derivatives, instruments which, like insurance, are used to hedge risk.

The banks in this group, which is affiliated with a new derivatives clearinghouse, have fought to block other banks from entering the market, and they are also trying to thwart efforts to make full information on prices and fees freely available.

Banks' influence over this market, and over clearinghouses like the one this select group advises, has costly implications for businesses like Dan Singer's home heating-oil company in the north of New York City.

This fall, many of Singer's customers purchased fixed-rate plans to lock in winter heating oil at around $3 a gallon. While that price was above the prevailing $2.8 a gallon then, the contracts will protect homeowners in case of price rises.

Robison Oil - Singer's firm - uses derivatives such as swaps and options to create his fixed plans. But he has no idea how much lower his prices could be, because banks don't disclose fees associated with derivatives.

The size and reach of this market has grown rapidly over the past two decades. Pension funds today use derivatives to hedge investments. Airlines use them to secure steady fuel prices.

The marketplace "adds up to higher costs to all Americans," said Gary Gensler, chairman, Commodity Futures Trading Commission, which regulates most derivatives. More oversight of the banks in this market is needed, he said.

But big banks influence the rules governing derivatives through a variety of industry groups. The banks' latest point of influence are clearinghouses like ICE Trust, which holds the monthly meetings with the nine bankers in New York.

The Department of Justice is looking into derivatives, too. The department's antitrust unit is actively investigating "the possibility of anticompetitive practices in the credit derivatives clearing."