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Derivatives May be Ungovernable

The recent loss of 2Billion dollars by JPMorgan confirms what is now a blindingly obvious governance reality. Board of directors do not understand derivatives and cannot control management’s use of them. The same may be said for regulators.

One job of a board is to identify risks and ensure a proper system of risk management. If you cannot do this, you should not be on a board. This means that a director needs to assess the adequacy of the design and effectiveness of internal controls to mitigate the risks. Of the over 300 interviews I have undertaken in my research, including directors of large banks, only one director claimed to understand complex derivatives. How can directors assess internal controls when they do not understand the very instrument itself?

Other than Jamie Dimon, CEO of JPMorgan, not a single director of the board has any experience in banking. See the roster of directors here. Even if some directors were from the sector, it is debatable whether they would still understand the complexities of these products. For a basic explanation of what derivatives are, see here. U of T Rotman professor John Hull, a derivatives expert, has stated in an email to me “There is no question in my mind that a large financial institution should have on its board people (perhaps 2 or 3) who understand derivatives and other complex financial products.” Unless bank boards that oversee derivatives are prepared to have subject matter experts on their board who can effectively question management and insist on proper risk controls, other governance or oversight structures are needed.

Not only are boards incapable of controlling derivatives, but regulators may not be any better. Warren Buffett has said “Central banks and governments have so far found no effective way to control, or even monitor, the risks posed by these contracts. In my view, derivatives are financial weapons of mass destruction, carrying dangers that, while now latent, are potentially lethal.” See Warren Buffett on Derivatives.

The question is what have we learned from 2008? Banks are bigger than ever, with most American mortgages concentrated in only a handful of banks, yet the risky bets and use of complex derivatives continue. Harvard law professor Elizabeth Warren yesterday called for a new version of the Glass Steagall Act. Yet independent Senator Bernie Saunders pronounced that Wall Street “runs” the Senate, implying that any attempt at further regulation would be forestalled. Mitt Romney has vowed to unwind Dodd-Frank on his first day as President. Look at the long list of political donations made by JPMorgan in 2011, here. And this is just one bank.

If derivatives are going to continue, regulatory conflicts of interest need to be addressed and boards need to have the directors with the expertise to oversee them.

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