Derivatives are commonly defined as some variation of the following: financial instruments whose value is derived from the performance of a secondary source such as an underlying bond, commodity, or index. This definition is both over-inclusive and under-inclusive. Thus, not surprisingly, even many policy makers, regulators, and legal analysts misunderstand them. It is important for interested parties such as policy makers to understand derivatives because the types and uses of derivatives have exploded in the last few decades and because these financial instruments can provide both social benefits and cause social harms. This Article presents a framework for understanding modern derivatives by identifying the characteristicst hat all derivatives share.

All derivatives are contracts between two counterparties in which the payoffs to and from each counterparty depend on the outcome of one or more extrinsic, future, uncertain event or metric and in which each counterparty expects (or takes) such outcome to be opposite to that expected (or taken) by the other counterparty. The framework presented in this Article will facilitate the development of more rational and comprehensive derivatives regulations, including (i) those required under the recently enacted Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act of 2010 (the "Dodd-Frank Act') and (ii) those addressing the particular risks associated with "purely speculative derivatives" (those in which neither party is hedging a pre-existing risk).

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