SEC reviews proposal regulating derivatives called ‘swaps’

October 12, 2011

At first blush, a proposal the Securities and Exchange Commission took up Wednesday appeared to be one of the more mundane chores the agency faces as it carries out a congressionally mandated overhaul of Wall Street rules.

An SEC commissioner apologized for the boredom factor, saying, “I know this sounds dry . . . ”

But even the seemingly eye-glazing plan for “Registration of Security-Based Swap Dealers and Major Swap Participants” showed how much can be riding on the fine print — and how much room there is for contention — as the SEC tackles its epic task.

The proposal raised questions about the way the SEC will execute its mission. Would the agency be relying on what is basically an honor system in policing a sensitive and treacherous area of the financial markets? And would it leave executives vulnerable to unfair gotcha tactics by the officials who enforce the rules?

The rule in question involves financial instruments known as swaps, a form of derivative. Derivatives helped fuel the meltdown of 2008; in response, Congress and President Obama ordered the government to regulate them.

As part of the new regulatory system, major players in the swaps market, including so-called “security-based swap dealers,” must register with the SEC.

Under the plan it proposed Wednesday, the SEC would rely heavily on assurances by those firms. The agency would require senior officers of the firms to certify that they have the needed operational, financial and compliance capabilities.

In a statement, Commissioner Elisse B. Walter said the SEC needs to know whether the firms can function without putting investors or markets at risk.

“In an ideal world, our registration program would include a comprehensive evaluation of each potential registrant immediately after it files an application,” Walter said. “But we do not live in an ideal world,” she added, noting SEC funding constraints.

“I do not believe that we can perform all the functions I would like to see us perform when an entity applies for registration,” Walter said.

The SEC’s proposed solution “leverages potential registrants’ own resources” to “craft what I hope will be a temporary — but nonetheless sufficient — registration program,” she said.

In contrast, when stock brokerage firms register with the SEC, they are vetted by FINRA, a self-regulatory organization for the industry.

Commissioner Troy A. Paredes raised a different concern. The requirement is so vague that senior officers might not know what they are certifying, he said.

The proposal creates “an unacceptable risk of after-the-fact second-guessing by the Commission,” Paredes said in a statement.

The SEC will accept public comments on the proposal for 60 days before deciding whether to adopt it.

In other action Wednesday, the SEC joined other federal regulators in advancing a proposal to limit the short-term trading that federally insured banks can do for their own profit.

That proposal, known as the “Volcker Rule” after former Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volck­er, is one of the more far-reaching pieces of the Wall Street overhaul and is meant to insulate the financial system from risky trading.

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