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Transparent Obfuscation
A Rescue Plan With the Clarity of a Credit Default Swap

By Michael Kinsley
Friday, March 27, 2009

"The parties may elect in respect of two or more Transactions that a net amount will be determined in respect of all amounts payable on the same date in the same currency in respect of such Transactions, regardless of whether such amounts are payable in respect of the same Transaction."

Got that? It's a sentence, chosen more or less at random, from the most recent (2002) Master Agreement of the International Swap and Derivatives Association. These are the people who brought you the "credit default swap," the mysterious financial transaction that almost destroyed the world, and might yet do so if the Obama administration's rescue plan doesn't work. The Master Agreement is used for credit default swaps the way a standard real estate broker's lease is used for renting a one-bedroom apartment.

Except that we all know what a one-bedroom apartment is. How many of us know what a credit-default swap is? The media do their best to explain it, often using attractive drawings with arrows showing money going hither and thither. Or sometimes they throw up their hands, as I'm doing, and simply describe them as "exotic financial instruments," and leave it at that. Part of the hostility that banks and Wall Street now enjoy comes from a popular suspicion that the mystery and complexity are part of the point -- that these things are made impossible to explain on purpose, as a way of avoiding scrutiny. "Don't criticize what you can't understand," as the financier Bob Dylan once put it in another context.

One problem with the Obama financial rescue plan is that it is almost as complicated and obscure as the problem it is designed to solve. Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner, testifying yesterday on Capitol Hill, called for greater simplicity in financial regulation. Good luck with that. Here is a sample passage from one of the explanatory documents released by Treasury this week. "Private investors may be given voluntary withdrawal rights at the level of a Private Vehicle, subject to limitations to be agreed with Treasury including that no private investor may have the right to voluntarily withdraw from a Private Vehicle prior to the third anniversary of the first investment by such Private Vehicle." All this talk of getting into and out of private vehicles may be a sly reference to the car and driver that did in Tom Daschle. Otherwise, who knows?

The government's most urgent goal is to cleanse the financial system of "toxic assets." These used to be known as "bad debts" until somebody decided that a more hysterical term was needed to reflect the gravity of the situation. Nobody gives a hoot about bad debts anymore. The government could have just swallowed hard and bought up these toxic assets itself. Then it could have buried them at Yucca Mountain in Nevada, where it has almost completed a $13.5 billion nuclear waste dump, just in time to promise never to use it, at least not for nuclear waste. Unlike nuclear waste, credit default swaps are unlikely to leach into the groundwater. And even if they do, there is no detectable difference between trading in derivatives such as credit default swaps and Nevada's principal industry anyway. Except that the amounts involved in Nevada-style recreational gambling are much smaller. Oh, and the government doesn't bail out petty gamblers. Yet.

But the administration decided that it would be more exciting to let private financiers in on the fun. This is an odd echo of what created the mess in the first place. Government-chartered entities such as Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac operated with an implicit government guarantee, whereas firms we all thought were private, like AIG and Citicorp, were deemed "too big to fail." One way or another, the government got sucked in against its will. It felt it had no choice. The private firms now pondering whether to join the party do have a choice, so they will have to be subsidized.

The plan is very, very clever. Maybe too clever. It depends on convincing smart financiers that there is a killing to be made investing, with government help, in toxic assets. Inevitably, when the dust settles, it will turn out that some private firms and individuals actually have made a killing, which will cause another eruption of populist resentment like the one over the AIG bonuses. Fear of such an eruption, and any retrospective mischief coming out of Congress as a result, is going to make private money harder to entice, which means the subsidies will have to be larger, which means the killings will even be greater.

It's good, in most ways, to have populist resentment back where it belongs, aimed at financial targets rather than frittering its energy on absurd culture wars over issues such as flag burning. Most people, I suspect, would happily sacrifice a few flags for an equal number of percentage points subtracted from the unemployment rate. But if that resentment boils over into protectionism, for example, it won't be so good.

The cure for everything these days, especially in the business world and also in the government, is thought to be "transparency": no secrets. Let people know everything, and abuses will self-correct. But transparency requires more than just supplying the information. What good is putting it all out there if it's too complicated to understand?

kinsleym@washpost.com

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