Derivatives and the Legal Origin of the 2008 Credit Crisis

Harvard Business Law Review, Vol. 1, pp. 1-38, 2011

UCLA School of Law, Law-Econ Research Paper No. 11-11

38 Pages Posted: 30 Jun 2011

See all articles by Lynn A. Stout

Lynn A. Stout

Cornell Law School - Jack G. Clarke Business Law Institute (deceased)

Date Written: June, 29 2011


Experts still debate what caused the credit crisis of 2008. This Article argues that dubious honor belongs, first and foremost, to a little-known statute called the Commodities Futures Modernization Act of 2000 (CFMA). Put simply, the credit crisis was not primarily due to changes in the markets; it was due to changes in the law. In particular, the crisis was the direct and foreseeable (and in fact foreseen by the author and others) consequence of the CFMA’s sudden and wholesale removal of centuries-old legal constraints on speculative trading in over-the-counter (OTC) derivatives.

Derivative contracts are probabilistic bets on future events. They can be used to hedge, which reduces risk, but they also provide attractive vehicles for disagreement-based speculation that increases risk. Thus, as an empirical matter, the social welfare consequences of derivatives trading depend on whether the market is dominated by hedging or speculative transactions. The common law recognized the differing welfare consequences of hedging and speculation through a doctrine called “the rule against difference contracts” that treated derivative contracts that did not serve a hedging purpose as unenforceable wagers. Speculators responded by shifting their derivatives trading onto organized exchanges that provided private enforcement through clearinghouses in which exchange members guaranteed contract performance. The clearinghouses effectively cabined and limited the social cost of derivatives risk. In the twentieth century, the Commodity Exchange Act (CEA) largely replaced the common law. Like the common law, the CEA confined speculative derivatives trading to the organized (and now-regulated) exchanges. For many decades, this regulatory system also kept derivatives speculation from posing significant problems for the larger economy.

These traditional legal restraints on OTC speculation were systematically dismantled during the 1980s and 1990s, culminating in 2000 with the enactment of the CFMA. That legislation set the stage for the 2008 crises by legalizing, for the first time in U.S. history, speculative OTC trading in derivatives. The result was an exponential increase in the size of the OTC market, culminating in 2008 with the spectacular failures of several systemically important financial institutions (and the near-failures of several others) due to bad derivatives bets. In the wake of the crisis, Congress passed the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act of 2010 (Dodd-Frank Act). Title VII of the Act is devoted to turning back the regulatory clock by restoring legal limits on speculative derivatives trading outside of a clearinghouse. However, Title VII is subject to a number of possible exemptions that may limit its effectiveness, leading to continuing concern over whether we will see more derivatives-fueled institutional collapses in the future.

Keywords: Commodities Futures Modernization Act of 2000 (CFMA), speculative trading, CEA, Frank-Dodd Act

Suggested Citation

Stout, Lynn A., Derivatives and the Legal Origin of the 2008 Credit Crisis (June, 29 2011). Harvard Business Law Review, Vol. 1, pp. 1-38, 2011, UCLA School of Law, Law-Econ Research Paper No. 11-11, Available at SSRN:

Lynn A. Stout (Contact Author)

Cornell Law School - Jack G. Clarke Business Law Institute (deceased)

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