Fair Game – Trying to Pierce a Wall Street Fog, By Gretchen Morgenson
“Back in 2009, the Justice Department said it was investigating the large Wall Street banks for possible collusion in the huge and opaque credit default swaps market. The question was whether the big financial institutions had worked to keep transactions in these insurance-like instruments closed to competitors and more profitable for themselves.
..Investigators for European regulators are hot on the trail and a handful of pension funds have recently filed two suits against the big banks dominating the swaps arena. These investors contend that they overpaid when they bought and sold the instruments — to the tune of billions each year — because of the banks’ control of the market. On July 1, the antitrust division of the European Commission announced that its investigators had come to a “preliminary conclusion” that the banks and two entities controlled by them had infringed European antitrust rules. These entities colluded, the commission said, “to prevent exchanges from entering the credit derivatives business between 2006 and 2009.”
Credit default swaps were at the center of the financial crisis. These instruments allow holders of bonds or other debt to hedge their risks in those positions. But the swaps also let speculators bet on a debt issuer’s default. The swaps almost felled the American International Group, the insurance giant, and were embedded in some of the stinkiest mortgage securities ever wrought. The 13 banks under the microscope on credit default swaps include Bank of America Merrill Lynch, Goldman Sachs, JPMorgan Chase, Morgan Stanley and UBS. Two associated entities controlled by the big banks are also being scrutinized — the International Swaps and Derivatives Association, a lobbying organization, and Markit, a data service provider. A spokeswoman for the European Commission declined to comment beyond the July 1 announcement of its preliminary conclusions. Now the banks can make their arguments to the commission. If the officials are not persuaded and find enough evidence of antitrust infringements by any of the entities, the commission said, it can impose a fine of up to 10 percent of a bank’s revenue. The commission began its investigation in April 2011, two years after the Justice Department’s. The European inquiry focused on activities from 2006 to 2009 when two exchanges, the Deutsche Börse and the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, were trying to enter the credit derivatives business.”