Joe Nocera has said his peace with respect to Obama's proposed overhaul of the financial system. And in doing so, he expressed disappointment with several aspects of the proposal. In particular, he is displeased that the proposal "doesn't attempt to diminish the use of ... bespoke derivatives." That certainly sounds ominous. But it's also not true.
The proposal calls for increased capital charges on bespoke trades, which is a strong incentive away from them. But frankly, I'm sick of writing about the proposal. So rather than regurgitate and parse the administration's plans for financial regulation, I'd like to take a moment to get familiar with some of the key concepts at play in the proposal, so that you can read it and come to your own conclusions. The two core areas I focus on here are derivatives and regulatory capital. With an understanding of these two areas, you should be able to get a grasp on what the administration is thinking and what effects the proposal will have in practice.
I write about OTC derivatives pretty often, so rather than reinvent the wheel, I'll shamelessly reuse a piece of introductory text I have handy:
A derivative is a contract that derives its value by reference to "something else." That something else can be pretty much anything that can be objectively observed and measured. That said, when people talk about derivatives, the "something else" is usually an index, rate, or security. For example, an option to purchase common stock is a fairly well-known and ubiquitous derivative. So are futures for commodities such as pork belly and oil. However, these are not the kind of derivatives that [the proposal] is talking about. [The proposal] is talking about OTC derivatives, or "over the counter" derivatives. This category of derivatives includes the much maligned "credit default swap" market, as well as other larger but apparently less notorious markets, such as the interest rate and foreign exchange derivatives markets. The key defining characteristic of an OTC derivative is that it is entered into directly between the parties. This is in contrast to exchange-traded derivatives, such as options to purchase common stock. Highly bespoke OTC derivatives are often negotiated at length between the parties and involve a great deal of collaboration between bankers, lawyers, and other consultants. For other, more standardized OTC contracts, commonly referred to as "plain vanilla trades", contracts can be entered into on a much more rapid and informal basis, e.g., via email.
For the limited purpose of wrapping your head around the world of derivatives, think of all derivatives as being in one of three broad categories: (1) exchange-traded derivatives (e.g., options on common stock and futures on pork belly); (2) standardized OTC contracts (e.g., your basic credit default swap); and (3) bespoke OTC contracts (transaction specific, often more complex instruments).
In fairness to Nocera, he's not the only one weary of the third category of bespoke derivatives. But that doesn't make his fears justified. So why do firms use custom made derivatives instead of just settling for an exchange traded derivative or a standardized swap? Despite uninformed opinions to the contrary, there are a lot of legitimate reasons for using custom derivatives. The most basic reason is what's known as basis risk. The term refers to the risk that the difference between two rates will change. In the context of OTC derivatives, it usually refers to the risk that a hedge is imperfect. For example, a commodity user, like an airline, would like to lock in the price of jet fuel delivered to a terminal near an airport in northern California. However, the only exchange traded futures contracts available track the price of delivery to the Gulf Coast. While we would expect these two rates - the price of delivery to CA and the price of delivery to the Gulf Coast - to be correlated, there are all kinds of events, e.g., supply disruptions, that can affect one price without affecting the other. As such, using an exchange traded future would expose the airline to basis risk. By using a customized product, the airline can more perfectly hedge its exposure to the price of local fuel.