The same Wall Street players that upended the economy are clamoring to open up a massive market to swap, chop, and bundle carbon derivatives
Could Cap and Trade Cause Another Market Meltdown?
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Excerpt: Are carbon default swaps and subprime offsets next? […] Already, the industry has achieved its main objective: The Waxman-Markey bill would create a big, convoluted market for carbon derivatives. […]“Even in the presence of a tough regulatory system…that is working hard to get things right…lots of counterfeit carbon currency is making it into the system.” Michelle Chan, the investment program manager for Friends of the Earth, believes that if offset derivatives aren’t properly regulated, they could become “subprime carbon”—futures contracts that promise emissions reductions but fail to deliver and then collapse in value. Already, she points out, some banks are bundling credits from multiple offset projects and splitting them into tranches to sell to investors.
The same Wall Street players that upended the economy are clamoring to open up a massive market to swap, chop, and bundle carbon derivatives Sound familiar?
You’ve heard of credit default swaps and subprime mortgages. Are carbon default swaps and subprime offsets next? If the Waxman-Markey climate bill is signed into law, it will generate, almost as an afterthought, a new market for carbon derivatives. That market will be vast, complicated, and dauntingly difficult to monitor. And if Washington doesn’t get the rules r ight, it will be vulnerable to speculation and manipulation by the very same players who brought us the financial meltdown.
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.” That derivatives market will be based on two main instruments. First, there are the carbon allowance permits that form the nuts and bolts of any cap-and-trade scheme. Under cap and trade, the government would issue permits that allow companies to emit a certain amount of greenhouse gases. Companies that emit too much can buy allowances from companies that produce less than their limit. Then there are carbon offsets, which allow companies to emit greenhouse gases in excess of a federally mandated cap if they invest in a project that cuts emissions somewhere else—usually in developing countries. Polluters can pay Brazilian villagers to not cut down trees, for instance, or Filipino farmers to trap methane in pig manure.
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. These instruments will be traded not only by polluters that need to buy credits to comply with environmental regulations, but also by financial services firms. In fact, a study (PDF) by Duke University’s Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions anticipates that if the United States passes a cap-and-trade law, the derivatives trade will probably exceed the market for the allowances themselves. “We are on the verge of creating a new trillion-dollar market in financial assets that will be securitized, derivatized, and speculated by Wall Street like the mortgage-backed securities market,” says Robert Shapiro, a former undersecretary of commerce in the Clinton administration and a cofounder of the US Climate Task Force.