Sunday, May 8, 2011

Sewers, Swaps and Bachus -
... Jefferson County, Alabama's, ... congressman is Spencer Bachus, the Republican ... [who] chairs the House Financial Services Committee.

... Back when too many people viewed derivatives as glittering innovations with magical powers to hedge against risk — Jefferson County was ordered by the Environmental Protection Agency to upgrade its sewer system. To finance the new sewers, it issued bonds totaling nearly $3.2 billion.

After the sewer system was completed, the county moved all that debt from fixed rates to variable rates. It did so because some investment bankers at JPMorgan persuaded the county to purchase derivative contracts, in the form of interest rate swaps, that would supposedly allow it to avoid paying higher interest if rates went up. ...

At first, this arrangement worked well enough. Though the cost of the sewers was bloated beyond belief — they were originally supposed to cost $1 billion — the county made its bond payments. The bank reaped handsome fees from its swaps contracts.

But the financial crisis caused those clever hedges to go blooey. Indeed, the swaps not only failed to protect the county from losses — they actually exacerbated the losses. In addition, two of its bond insurers had their credit rating lowered because they had also insured lots of toxic subprime derivatives. The downgrade triggered huge hikes in interest and principal for Jefferson County.*

Today, the county is broke; according to The Birmingham News, it may run out of cash by July. It is toying with a bankruptcy filing — which, if it happened, would be the largest municipal bankruptcy in history.

Though the county no longer has to pay fees to JPMorgan — the bank agreed to void the swaps as part of a settlement with the Securities and Exchange Commission — its bond debt for the sewers now totals almost $4 billion. The Birmingham News described Jefferson County as a “poster child” for all that can go wrong when municipalities start playing with unregulated derivatives peddled by Wall Street sharpies.

Has Spencer Bachus, as the local congressman, decried this debacle? Of course ... In a letter last year to Mary Schapiro, the chairwoman of the S.E.C., he said that the county’s financing schemes “magnified the inherent risks of the municipal finance market.” (He also blamed, among other things, “serious corruption,” of which there was plenty, including secret payments by JPMorgan to people who could influence the county commissioners.)

... As chairman of the Financial Services Committee, he is uniquely positioned to help make sure that similar disasters never happen again....

Among its many provisions related to derivatives — all designed to lessen their systemic risk — is a series of rules that would make it close to impossible for the likes of JPMorgan to pawn risky derivatives off on municipalities. Dodd-Frank requires sellers of derivatives to take a near-fiduciary interest in the well-being of a municipality.

You would think Bachus would want these regulations in place as quickly as possible, given the pain his constituents are suffering. Yet, last week, along with a handful of other House Republican bigwigs, he introduced legislation that would do just the opposite: It would delay derivative regulation until January 2013.
For two more years ... the industry will add trillions of dollars worth of “financial weapons of mass destruction” (to use Warren Buffett’s famous description) to the $466.8 trillion of unregulated derivatives already in existence. How can this possibly be good?
The New York Times
Op-Ed dated April 22, 2011

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