This Time Next Year They'll Be Millionaires

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Review of 'Infectious Greed' by Frank Partnoy, Profile £9.99

Derivatives are composed of futures and options. Instead of trading a commodity, what is traded is the right or the obligation to buy or sell a commodity at a future point. These can then be yoked together in exotic combinations, rather like accumulator bets. As they are only tenuously connected to the 'real' world of the production of actually useful things, they are prey to wild speculation. This gives rise to a vast game of hot potato where the aim is to make a quick buck by passing them on before the day of reckoning when the music eventually stops.

Futures trading, and its associated crashes down to earth, has been around since the Dutch tulip-related boom and bust of the 1630s (yes, tulips). But, argues financial analyst and law professor Frank Partnoy, something new and altogether more frightening became possible and widespread in the 1990s - its most high-profile casualties being Enron, WorldCom and Barings Bank. He chronicles the emergence of a new breed of whizzkid investment banker who, for a premium, could concoct tailor-made 'off balance sheet' interest rate swaps for clients who wished to conceal less than spectacular profit figures from shareholders and regulators. Impenetrable formulae allowed businesses to gamble on largely unregulated derivatives markets, touted by smooth-talking salesmen with the attitude, and he quotes, to 'Lure people into that calm and then just totally fuck 'em.' Even fine upstanding companies like Procter & Gamble got burned in this way, you'll be distressed to learn.

These new financial instruments appealed to investors because they allow firms to use 'creative' refinancing methods to evade tax, up their credit ratings or escape tight legal restrictions on the use of funds - performing seeming miracles by, as Partnoy puts it, 'driving trucks through small exceptions'. Which is why citizens of California were mystified to wake up one morning in 1994 and discover that, because interest rates had been raised by a mere 0.25 percent, clairvoyant-consulting chump Robert Citron had managed overnight to bankrupt Orange County of over $1 billion of taxpayers' money while technically remaining within the county's strict regulations governing the use of public funds.

Amid a mass of narrative detail about shady dealings by thoroughly obnoxious grandmother-sellers that will be only so much corroboratory ammunition for Socialist Review readers, Partnoy maintains a lucid and lively style. But his central metaphor of greed and corruption as infectious diseases merely labels what it purports to explain. Increasingly desperate speculation greatly aggravated, but did not act as the initial cause of, the maladies of most of the businesses in question.

Those who lost their job or savings thanks to the nefarious activities of Barings et al will take cold comfort from Partnoy's proposed remedies, which amount to moral condemnation and punitive legislation. The greater vigilance he advocates over those who have voluntarily changed their middle name to 'greed' will be some challenge for those of us for whom derivatives trading might as well be rocket science. As for the likelihood of tighter regulation being introduced, we shouldn't be suckered into that bet when investment companies contribute more to the Republican and Democratic party coffers than even the energy corporations. And as long as the Federal Reserve can helpfully facilitate the bailing out of ailing hedge funds like Long Term Capital Management, it's obvious that a different definition of 'risk' is being used to the one you or I understand.

Partnoy's game theory is enough to tell him that, yes, when John Meriwether of Salomon Brothers can get a $10 million yearly bonus but be fined only $50,000 for financial impropriety, the incentives veer towards accounts book haute cuisine. It ought also to remind him that a more regulated US market would merely encourage benefit-tourist speculative flows to migrate to a new home where the asking of fewer questions is a selling point. Thus are we all held to ransom.

Don't let that discourage you: despite the wholly-expected anticlimax of the tickle round the edge reforms proposed, Partnoy has written the definitive book on the insanity of derivatives. The explanations of obfuscatory jargon such as 'put-call parity', 'structured notes', 'regulatory arbitrage' and 'toxic waste' (actually, that last one's quite descriptive) are the clearest I've come across. And it has a picture of a big fat cat smoking a cigar on the front.