Will Derivatives Ruin Cap-and-Trade?

| Mon Jun. 8, 2009 12:07 PM EDT

Rachel Morris has on online piece today suggesting that the same Wall Street rocket scientists who destroyed the global economy via derivatives trading may be getting ready to do the same thing with carbon permits from a cap-and-trade system.  After all, if they can slice and dice subprime mortgages, why can't they do the same for packages of carbon permits?

I've got a few problems with this, though.  First, there's this:

Cap and trade would create what Commodity Futures Trading commissioner Bart Chilton anticipates as a $2 trillion market, "the biggest of any [commodities] derivatives product in the next five years."

I'm not entirely sure what this means, but my best guess is that Chilton is forecasting a market with a notional value of $400 billion per year.  This is not as large as it sounds.  The notional value of the CDS market in 2007, for example, was over $50 trillion.  Chilton's estimate for the carbon market is less than 1% that size.  Likewise, the underlying value of the actual carbon permits is likely to be on the order of $50-100 billion a year, which is less than 1% of the underlying value of, say, the U.S. stock market.  Even if Wall Street went nuts with this stuff, it couldn't do too much damage.

Then there's this:

In addition to trading the allowances and offsets themselves, participants in carbon markets can also deal in their derivatives — such as futures contracts to deliver a certain number of allowances at an agreed price and time.

This is true, but carbon permits are essentially commodities, and the kinds of derivatives traded on commodity exchanges are generally forwards, futures, and options.  But while these may be derivatives, they're mostly not the rocket science kind.  They've been around forever, they're well understood, and they weren't responsible for any of the problems that caused our current meltdown.

Beyond that, these kinds of derivatives can actually be pretty helpful.  They're generally used for two purposes: (a) managing volatility and (b) speculation.  The first is an unalloyed good thing, since one of the main complaints about a cap-and-trade system is that it doesn't provide investors with a fixed carbon price they can plan around.  Futures contracts help with that.  And speculation, though it often gets a bad rap (sometimes deservedly), can be helpful too if it provides a price signal today for possible permit scarcity tomorrow.  Driving up the price sooner rather than later can actually motivate higher levels of investment in green technology.  (The downside: if Congress bollixes the law and speculators decide that there are going to be loads of permits in the future, they'll drive the price down.  But if Congress screws up that badly, the whole system isn't going to work worth a damn anyway.)

Finally, there's this:

Perhaps the biggest uncertainty hinges on how offset derivatives—such as a contract to buy offset credits at a future date for a determined price — will be monitored. This too would be left to the White House task force to figure out. It will be a tough task because the quality of offset projects is notoriously difficult to verify. Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) has described them as "fraught with opportunity for game playing, which will be fully exploited, I'm sure."

Offsets are a big problem, but their problems have nothing to do with derivatives.  They're a problem because it's really, really hard to insure that an offset (say, planting a million acres of trees in Brazil in order to make up for emitting a million tons of carbon) is real, that it's something that wouldn't have been done anyway, and that it's effectively monitored to make sure it's permanent.  Those are genuinely big issues, but they're issues that are inherent in the whole concept of offsets.  Making derivatives out of them doesn't change things much.

With all that said, the piece is worth a read.  I have my doubts that derivatives are really that big a problem in the carbon market, and in any case I'd just as soon see them regulated by the same mechanisms we come up with to regulate all the other derivative markets, rather than being treated as a one-off special.  Still, it's worth knowing about this stuff, and worth taking some time to address in the Waxman-Markey markup process.  For example, Bart Stupak's provisions for making sure carbon derivatives are exchange traded, which Rachel mentions in her article, are well worth trying to protect through the end of the legislative process.  After all, if Wall Street objects, it almost has to be a good thing, doesn't it?