The bank panic of 1907 is remembered for J.P. Morgan forcing all the bankers to stay in a room until they agreed to contribute to fixing the crisis. What has been forgotten is one major cause of the crisis – unregulated speculation on the prices of securities by people who did not own them. These betting parlours, or fake exchanges, were called bucket shops because the bets were literally placed in buckets.
The states responded in 1908 by passing anti-bucket shop and gambling laws, outlawing the activity that helped to ruin that economy.
What has that got to do with today’s crisis? Credit default swaps are the rocket fuel that turned the subprime mortgage fire into a conflagration....AIG Financial Products, the unit that sold almost $500bn (€379bn, £353bn) of them, may therefore be viewed as the biggest bucket shop in history.
Credit default swaps started out as essentially an insurance policy. If you owned a bond in a company and were concerned it might default, you bought the swap to protect yourself....Banks bought them to reduce the amount of capital they were required to hold against investments – in other words, to avoid regulation. Because they owned the swap, banks claimed they no longer had the risk of a default of the bond. Others bought swaps without owning the bond to place a bet on a company’s future.
But there was serious concern that swaps violated the old bucket shop laws. Thus, the Commodity Futures Modernisation Act of 2000 exempted credit default swaps from these laws. The act also exempted them from regulation by the Commodities and Futures Trading Commission and the Securities and Exchange Commission. Unregulated, the market grew enormously.
Thus, one of the major causes of the financial crisis was not how lax our regulation, or how hard we enforced, but what we chose not to regulate.
Indeed, what we decided was old fashioned and in need of modernisation was, in fact, an effective check on an activity that for 100 years had been illegal, for good reason. As a result, we modernised ourselves into this ice age.
The fear in 2000 was that if we regulated credit default swaps and required holding sufficient capital, the market would go where unregulated sellers could make more money. We forgot that the biggest competitive advantage of the US financial system has always been safety, security and transparency. If we destroy that perception, the long-term cost to our society is incalculable.