Stephen Foley: Regulator needs help to tame financial Wild West

At Goldman Gensler was lobbying for precisely the lack of oversight he now seeks to enforce

US Outlook "There are more swaps people in this room than there are people in the entire CFTC," Gary Gensler told the 950-strong audience at the International Swaps and Derivatives Association meeting this week. "Go figure."

Mr Gensler, the chairman of the Commodities Futures Trading Commission, the derivatives regulator, was making a none-too-subtle plea for money from the dealing firms through an annual levy on top of his budget from Congress. The plea shouldn't fall on deaf ears.

The CFTC is hopelessly overburdened by the task of writing the detailed rules envisioned by Congress in its Wall Street reform law of 2010, a law that left so many gaps to fill that hundreds of new rules are still to be fleshed out and numerous deadlines have come and gone.

Some of the new regulations will come into force years behind schedule.

The CFTC is not alone with this challenge, but as the agency in charge of taming what was previously an unregulated Wild West of credit derivatives, its new burdens are most acute.

Of course it would be easy to deride the CFTC chairman for empire building. Which regulator doesn't want more staff, more power, more reason to be? The ambitious Mr Gensler might have been a shoo-in to take over from Tim Geithner as Treasury Secretary, were it not for the disqualificatory fact that he worked for 18 years at Goldman Sachs. His role as derivatives regulator is probably his best shot at a lasting legacy.

And there is no love loss between the regulator and the regulated here, precisely because at Goldman Mr Gensler was involved in lobbying for precisely the lack of oversight he now seeks to enforce.

Yet his case for a levy to boost the CFTC's annual budget by 50 per cent to $308m is strong. An underfunded regulator hurts the regulated. Speaker after speaker at the ISDA conference complained that uncertainty over new regulation had put them off going after new business and was hitting trading volumes. And Mr Gensler argued that hiring more staff would mean quicker responses from the CFTC to applications for trading permits and clarification of or waivers from specific regulations. These are the pro-industry things that would be cut first if the CFTC has to go into penny-pinching mode.

Having lost the battle to block new regulations, Republicans in Congress are on a perverse crusade to cut the CFTC's budget in the hope of preventing their implementation – but that would only sow more confusion and cost the industry more in lost business. Go figure.

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