Maybe Mom’s job is cool after all

Derivatives get a bad rap, but they help keep hamburgers affordable

A fast-food store relies on derivatives, regulated by the CFTC, to manage uncertainty in its input costs so that you can continue to pay the same price for your hamburger, Stump writes. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
A fast-food store relies on derivatives, regulated by the CFTC, to manage uncertainty in its input costs so that you can continue to pay the same price for your hamburger, Stump writes. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted March 8, 2021 at 6:00am

Explaining what I do for a living to their teachers, classmates and friends is a struggle for my kids. If I was a YouTube star or a TikTok influencer, they could impress their friends. But alas, I am a commissioner at a regulatory agency with a really long (and confusing) name — the Commodity Futures Trading Commission. To my kids, my job is unrelatable, which loosely translates to “boring.”

That was until recently, when social media feeds focused on stock trading of a familiar retail name, GameStop. My kids know GameStop. They often spend their allowance at GameStop or, when low on funds, just browse hundreds of video game titles. Suddenly, my job was more interesting. Even their friends were curious. “I bet your Mom is busy with that trading thing she works on,” remarked one during a virtual video gaming session.

I had to break it to them. The CFTC does not oversee the stock market they were hearing about in the news (insert audible sigh). But wait! If GameStop was part of a large index of stocks with a futures contract on that index, then the CFTC would absolutely be involved.

Having their attention again, I enthusiastically launched into how CFTC-regulated markets exist for a different reason than the stock market does, expertly drawing a distinction between the price discovery/risk management functions of the derivatives markets and capital formation/shareholder investing in the stock market. As they scrambled for their ear buds, it was apparent they were thinking, “Why does she talk like that — index, price discovery, capital formation — it’s so embarrassing.”

Clearly, they were only interested in video games or, like most nights, what we are having for dinner. Was I cooking something involving vegetables? Can’t we just get takeout? The perfect segue into my next approach to grab their attention. Let’s say you go to a fast-food store to buy a hamburger that cost $5 last week, but for some reason it is $20 this week. Before, your allowance would buy the hamburger, the french fries and the soda too. This week, you cannot afford the burger, let alone the sides — a terrible predicament, right?

But how does the fast-food store sell you that hamburger at the same price, week after week, when the cost of the ingredients in that burger changes from day to day? And what about the price of gas to keep the stovetops hot and of electricity to power the soda machines? All these expenses are constantly changing, yet the company keeps selling that hamburger for $5. How?

Well, the fast-food store relies upon derivatives, regulated by the CFTC, to manage uncertainty in its input costs so that you can continue to buy the full meal with your allowance (assuming you haven’t exhausted it at GameStop).

Often poorly described as complex financial products that supposedly contributed to the financial crisis, derivatives are actually important risk mitigation tools. This brings us back to Mom’s job. The CFTC works to ensure that derivatives markets continue serving this risk management function for those who provide us with goods and services, including the farmer feeding the world, the pension manager overseeing teacher retirement funds, airlines with fluctuating fuel demands during a pandemic and mortgage providers offering long-term interest rates for home buyers.

Recent media attention to retail investing presents an opportunity to remind the public that the derivatives markets are unique, and distinct from the stock market. Risk is inherent to business, and these CFTC-regulated markets offer tools for managing that risk across our economy, helping to ensure that the hamburger we order is only $5 because the fast-food store can affordably access the ground beef for the burger, the sugar to sweeten the soda and the cheese in case you prefer a cheeseburger.

Admittedly, this isn’t as exciting as video games, but understanding the real-world utility of derivatives, even if “boring,” should inform the motivation of anyone interested in trading, or influencing others to trade, in these markets.

Dawn D. Stump serves as a commissioner on the Commodity Futures Trading Commission. The views here are her own and do not necessarily reflect the views of the CFTC or her fellow commissioners.