Friday, August 31, 2007

Bwana, me no understand that swap thingy

The World Bank has a problem. Its list of clients is rapidly diminishing as many middle-income emerging economies have put their financial house back in order and, in any case, prefer no-strings-attached financing from the capital markets to heavily-conditioned loans form the World Bank.

Under new president Robert Zoellick, the Bank is looking to for a new line of business: getting emerging nations to use more extensively risk-management tools, such as insurance, futures, swaps, etc. Examples cited are risk pooling among Caribbean nations for hurricane damage and currency swaps.

Pretty tame and sensible stuff, much along the lines of what Robert Schiller, he of bubble-busting fame, has promoted for helping individuals hedge macro risks like, say, falling real estate markets (see here).

But that's not how Andrew Leonard of Salon sees it. He links these products, stangely, to the current subprime meltdown. This makes no sense, as derivatives haven't really played much of a role in it, as it has been a case of bad lending practices, misjudgin risk and excessive leverage. With a very, very patronizing attitude --quite unbecoming in a liberal, I must say-- he questions the capacity of emerging nation governments to understand and properly use these financial products. (One would hope the World Bank can provide adequate advice on this, in an case).

Talk about throwing out the baby along with the bathwater. But it does remind one of the seemingly innate suspicion that even smart lefty types (such as Leonard, whose work I admire most of the time) have regarding financial markets. Sure, derivatives can be abused and misused, but they haven't been around for hundreds of years for nothing.

That said, it doesn't help the World Bank's case at all to have a treasurer named Kenneth Lay (any relation to Enron's disgraced founder?).