A Wall Street analyst thumbed his nose at recent efforts by regulators to make banks disclose to investors how they use derivatives.
"Show me an analyst that has taken the disclosures that you currently have on derivatives and made any meaningful use out of those disclosures," said Ethan M. Heisler, a bank bond analyst at Salomon Brothers. "I challenge you to find one instance. I have never seen it."
Mr. Heisler speaks from two levels of experience. Before joining Salomon Brothers in April 1994, he served with the bank supervision group of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York.
"The efforts to improve disclosure for derivatives are well intentioned, but it would be better to focus on disclosing more information about credit card and loan risk than derivative exposures," he said at a conference sponsored by the International Swaps and Derivatives Association.
Mr. Heisler's remarks came as the Financial Accounting Standards Board and the Securities and Exchange Commission are awaiting comments on several controversial new disclosure proposals.
These proposals are being vigorously opposed by many derivatives users who do not want to reveal how they use the complicated financial instruments, which have a tarnished reputation.
Derivatives are contracts whose value is tied to those of other assets, such as commodities, stocks, or financial indexes.
Many banks use derivatives to hedge against fluctuations in interest rates.
The rules proposed by the accounting standards board "go too far for many items," said David Morris, director of the accounting policies division at Chase Manhattan Bank, one of banking's largest derivatives users and dealers.
The FASB draft envisions banks classifying derivatives as assets or liabilities and including them on their balance sheets. This requirement could help investors and analysts better determine how derivatives affect a company's overall financial performance, said Timothy Lucas, FASB's director of research and technical activities.
Users now carry derivatives "off balance sheet" and can mask whatever benefits or obligations they may be incurring from changes in their value. "We are seeking 'transparency,'" Mr. Lucas said.
But Salomon Brothers' Mr. Heisler said regulators are asking banks to provide information that he, as an analyst, doesn't need.
He also said the proposed disclosure rules could discourage some banks from using derivatives to hedge against interest rate changes, which he considers a legitimate use of the instruments.
Derivatives, Mr. Heisler said, "scare investors who don't really understand what banks are doing."
He pointed out that many investors still associate derivatives with the Orange County, Calif., disaster, and they get suspicious when they hear their bank is using them.
Though some at the conference suggested that the accounting board draft separate disclosure rules for banks and other sorts of businesses, Mr. Lucas said that is impossible - because a look at their balance sheets show that General Electric and Ford are the biggest banks in the country. "From an accountant's view, there's no difference between Ford and Chase Manhattan," he said.
The proposed SEC regulations would require derivatives users to disclose how the securities affect other financial information directly or indirectly.
The commission also seeks disclosures quantifying market risk.
Derivatives users said complying with the SEC proposals would be expensive and would force companies to reveal proprietary information.
Mark Brickell, managing director at J.P. Morgan & Co. and a director of the swaps trade group, said he thought it would be better to have banks voluntarily disclose information to meet investor demand. The trade group has created a voluntary set of disclosure policies, and dealers like Morgan have implemented them.
"Before making a uniform rule for everyone, it's important to calculate cost benefits to make sure the information's worth getting," Mr. Brickell said.
He added that in a September 1994 report, the Federal Reserve Bank and the central banks of nine other countries recommended derivatives users improve public disclosure of how they assess and manage risk. But the banks shied away from imposing uniform disclosure requirements.
"They wanted to give banks and shareholders more time to innovate," Mr. Brickell said.