Risk and Regulation in Derivatives (or Why Derivatives Are a Blessing, Not a Curse)

In this article, first published in 1994, the authors aimed to defuse the widespread hysteria about derivatives fueled by media accounts (like Fortune magazine’s cover story in the same year) by offering a systematic analysis of the risks to companies, investors, and the entire financial system associated with the operation of the relatively new derivatives markets. Such analysis ended up providing assurances like the following:

As long as most companies are using derivatives mainly to limit their financial exposures and not to enlarge them in efforts to pad their operating profits, reported losses on derivatives should not be a matter for concern. “Complaining about losses on a swap used to hedge a firm’s exposure,” as the authors note, “is like objecting to the costs of a fire insurance policy if the building doesn’t burn down.”

To the extent that companies are using derivatives to hedge—and what evidence we have suggests that most are—the default risk of derivatives has been greatly exaggerated. An interest rate swap used by a B-rated company to hedge a large exposure to interest rates will generally have significantly less default risk than a AAA-rated corporate bond issue.

Thanks to the corporate use of derivatives, much of the impact of economic shocks such as spikes in interest rates or oil prices is being transferred away from the hedging companies to investors and other companies better able to absorb them. And in this fashion, defaults in the economy as a whole, and hence systemic risk, are effectively being reduced, not increased, through the operation of the derivatives markets.

Moreover, the authors warn in closing that the likely effect of then proposed derivatives regulation would be to restrict access to and increase the costs to companies of using derivatives markets. As one example, the excessive capital requirements associated with derivatives facing bank dealers—based on gross rather than net measures of exposure—and which regulators have since proposed extending to nonbank dealers—were expected to have the unintended effect of encouraging dealers to sell precisely the kinds of riskier, leveraged derivatives that Bankers Trust sold Procter & Gamble, and that functioned as Exhibit A in the Fortune article.