Derivatives protect people from a change in prices of an underlying asset. They began, generally speaking, as a hedge against changes in commodities prices. So, if you are a corn farmer and want to be able to plan on how much you will receive for your crop, you can agree on the price with a miller. The farmer is in a sense betting that the price will be higher or at least the same as the rest of the market at harvest time, and the miller is betting that the price will be lower or at least the same – and the miller is ensured of a supply of corn. The result is stability for both parties. The agreement is derived from the underlying asset of corn. That is the essence of a derivative.
Derivatives also hedge against price changes in other financial instruments and can become far more complicated or “exotic.” An institution can buy a credit default swap (CDS), for example. Institution No. 1 would pay institution No. 2 to ensure that the value of an asset does not fall under a certain level. If the value does drop, then No. 2 would pay No. 1. When the value of real estate plummeted in 2007 and 2008, many No. 1 institutions were banging on No. 2 institutions’ doors to get paid. This was one of the factors leading to the economic collapse, when the overall value of the CDS market dropped from $62.2 trillion at the end of 2007 to $38.6 trillion at the end of 2008, according to the International Swaps and Derivatives Association.
Another factor was collateralized debt obligations (CDOs). These are packages of debts such as bonds or mortgage-backed securities. The idea is to reduce risk by spreading it around. But some in finance, such as Warren Buffett, said that they instead spread risky investments to more institutions. So when the underlying, or derived, asset plummeted, the rug was pulled out from under everyone.
Although some, like Buffett, had sounded the alarm on derivatives, many people were surprised by the enormous impact the instruments had on the financial sector in the collapse of September 2008. Regulators were also surprised, because derivatives are often unregulated because they are essentially an agreement exchanged between parties but amount to a $400 trillion market traded over the counter (OTC).
Financial reformers want to shed more light on the market, but on April 21, a Senate committee went even further than that and approved tough standards that would force banks to get rid of their swaps trading operations. That rule might not make it to the final financial reform package, but it is certain that the eventual law will clamp down on derivatives in some way.