In June 2003, Greenspan again defended derivatives. In another letter to members of the Senate, Greenspan—this time bolstered by Treasury Secretary John Snow and Securities and Exchange Commission Chairman William Donaldson as well as Newsome—declared:
Businesses, financial institutions, a nd investors throughout the economy rely upon derivatives to protect themselves from market volatility triggered by unexpected economic events. This ability to manage risks makes the economy more resilient, and its importance cannot be underestimated. In our judgment, the ability of private counterparty surveillance to effectively regulate these markets can be undermined by inappropriate extensions of government regulation.
Back in 2002, in Pipe Dreams, my book on the Enron disaster, I wrote that reforms were needed to deal with derivatives. I quoted one financial analyst who called derivatives "Wall Street's dirty secret." I recommended that "derivatives dealers should be required to post agreed-upon amounts of capital to collateralize their trading positions" and that "the derivatives marketplace must be made more uniform, with policing by regulators who can establish price limits, listing requirements, and other trading parameters."
I don't repeat that to brag about any foresight on my part. Many other people were arguing for the same types of reforms. The point is that the warning signs left by the Enron mess could not have been more clear. The derivatives mess created by Bear Stearns, Lehman Brothers, and the others occurred because of a regulatory vacuum where none of the players were required to post collateral to back up their positions or to disclose to investors the size of their huge derivatives positions. That lack of oversight has spawned a financial crisis that will reverberate through the global economy for years to come.
Thousands of people are losing their homes. Thousands more are losing their jobs. Taxpayer money is being used to bail out private companies that were headed by corporate bosses who routinely helped themselves to multimillion-dollar pay packages. And all of it is happening because the Bush administration and Congress refused to heed the lessons of Enron.
Robert Bryce's latest book is Gusher of Lies: The Dangerous Delusions of "Energy Independence."