Remarks of CFTC Chairman Gary Gensler
Closing Keynote Address, Georgetown University Conference
“Financial Institutions in the New Regulatory Environment: Opportunities, Constraints and Global Challenges”
Thursday, September 22, 2011
Good afternoon. I would like to thank Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business and PricewaterhouseCoopers for inviting me to speak today. Professor Walker, I appreciate that kind introduction. I hope all of you have enjoyed the conference and can make it through just one last speaker.
Three years ago this month, our economy fell into a downward spiral when one large financial institution after another teetered on the brink of failure, threatening our financial system and the well-being of the American public.
We’re still feeling the aftershocks of this financial crisis. More than 8 million jobs were lost and the unemployment rate remains stubbornly high. Millions of Americans lost their homes or are now in homes worth less than their mortgages. And millions of Americans continue struggling each day to make ends meet.
While the crisis had many causes, it is evident that unregulated derivatives, called swaps, heightened risk on Wall Street and played a central role in the financial crisis. Developed in the 1980s, swaps, along with the regulated futures market, help producers, merchants, and other companies to lower their risk by locking in the price of a commodity or an interest rate, currency or other financial index. The public buys gasoline and groceries from companies that rely upon futures and swaps to hedge their commodity price risks. The public keeps their savings with banks and pension funds that use swaps to manage their interest rate risks. Our nation’s economy relies on a well-functioning derivatives market – an essential piece of a healthy American financial system.
Over the last thirty years, however, the swaps market had remained unregulated and grew in size and complexity that far outstrips the futures market; it is now seven times the size. Swaps added leverage to the financial system – with more risk backed by less capital.
Swaps contributed significantly to the interconnectedness between banks, investment banks, and hedge funds, among other financial entities. Large financial institutions, were regarded not only as too big to fail, but also too interconnected to fail. When AIG, Bear Stearns and others collapsed, taxpayers were made to pick up the bill to prevent the economy from diving deeper into a depression. The financial system failed. Moreover, the regulatory system that was put in place to protect the public failed as well.
Just over a year ago, Congress and the President came together and passed an historic law: the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act. For the first time, the Commodity Futures Trading Commission and Securities and Exchange Commission will have oversight of the swaps and security-based swaps markets.
Dodd-Frank includes many important provisions, but includes two overarching goals of reform: bringing transparency to the swaps market and lowering the risks of this market to the overall economy. Both of these reforms will better protect taxpayers from again bearing the brunt of a financial crisis and will cut costs for businesses and their customers.
The first overarching goal of reform brings critical transparency to the derivatives marketplace. The more transparent a marketplace is the more liquid it is and the more competitive it is. In short, when markets are open and transparent, costs are lower for companies and the people who buy their products. They are safer and more sound.
The Dodd-Frank Act promotes both pre-trade and post-trade transparency. It moves certain standardized swaps transactions to exchanges or swap execution facilities. This will allow buyers and sellers to meet in an open marketplace where prices are publicly available, rather than in the shadows of the financial system. The Dodd-Frank Act also requires the real-time reporting of the price and volume of transactions. Furthermore, it requires that once a swap transaction is arranged, its valuation must be shared on a daily basis with the counterparty. These measures of transparency and openness reduce some of the information advantages that dealers currently have over Main Street.
The second overarching goal of reform is equally as important. The law lowers risk to the overall economy by directly regulating dealers for their swaps activities as well as moving standardized swaps into central clearing. Clearinghouses mitigate the risks that arise from the interconnectedness in the financial system by standing between counterparties and guaranteeing the obligations of the parties in case of default. They have lowered risk for the public in the futures markets since the late-19th Century – through world wars, the Great Depression, and financial crises. It’s time that we modernize the swaps market and provide the same protections for taxpayers.
This spring, the CFTC largely completed the proposal phase of its rule-writing process. This summer, the agency turned an important corner, as we began finalizing rules to make the swaps marketplace more open and transparent for participants and safer for taxpayers.
Among the regulations we’ve completed is a rule giving the Commission new authority to effectively prosecute wrongdoers who recklessly manipulate the markets. Also, we’ll soon begin rewarding whistleblowers for their help in catching fraud, manipulation or other misconduct in the financial markets.
We also finished rules that, for the first time, will give regulators and the public specific information on the derivatives market’s scale and risk. These rules require dealers, clearing members and clearinghouses to give the CFTC data about their swaps activities and establish swap data repositories that will receive information on all swaps transactions. By contrast, in the fall of 2008, there was no required reporting about swaps trading: no one knew how big a problem this market posed to the economy because so much of the trading happened in the dark.
Next in our queue of final rules will be the consideration are critical regulations related to speculative position limits as well as risk management for clearinghouses.
While U.S. regulators work to implement the Dodd-Frank Act here at home, we also are actively consulting and coordinating with international regulators to promote robust and consistent standards in swaps oversight. We also anticipate seeking public input on the application of Section 722(d), which says that the law doesn’t apply to activities outside the United States unless those activities have a direct and significant connection with or effect on U.S. commerce.
Twenty-first century finance, though, knows no true geographic borders as money and risk can move around the globe with a touch of a button. Sober evidence of this can be seen through AIG’s swaps affiliate, AIG Financial Products, which had its major operations in London. When it failed, the U.S. economy, and taxpayers shouldered the greatest burden.
A year after the Dodd-Frank reforms became law, there are those who might like to roll them back and put us back in the regulatory environment that led to the crisis three years ago. But economists have agreed for decades that transparency in markets actually reduces costs and makes markets more efficient. Furthermore, the U.S. financial system remains interconnected through the swaps market here, in Europe and in Asia. Thus, the current debt crisis in Europe is but a stark reminder of why completing financial reform is so necessary for the U.S. economy and to protect taxpayers. Dodd-Frank is about transparency and ensuring the public doesn’t bear the risks of the financial system.
In 2008, if Dodd-Frank had been in place, greater transparency would have allowed regulators to see the simmering problems at large financial institutions, such as AIG. In 2008, our nation had a difficult decision: rescue institutions or risk a depression. At its core, Dodd-Frank lowers the risk that the American people will ever be put in that position again.
At the CFTC, commissioners and staff are working day and night to put up the necessary street lamps to bring the swaps market out of the shadows and the traffic signals to protect the public from another financial crash. Until we complete these reforms, however, the public remains at risk.
The agency is taking on a significantly expanded scope and mission. So far, staff and commissioners have held more than 1,000 meetings with the public, and we have received over 25,000 comments on our proposed rules. As we continue to finalize rules, market participants will increasingly seek guidance from the CFTC. Without sufficient funding, though, we will not have the resources to be as responsive to the public as we should be.
The agency must be adequately resourced to ensure the new swaps market rules will be strictly enforced – rules that promote transparent markets, lower costs for consumers and protect taxpayers. Without sufficient funding, we will not have the resources to put enough cops on the beat for the public’s protection.
Thank you, and I’ll be happy to take some questions.
Last Updated: September 22, 2011