Regulatory biodiversity trading (or biodiversity “offsets”) is increasingly promoted as a way to enable both conservation and development while achieving “no net loss” or even “net gain” in biodiversity, but to date has facilitated development while perpetuating biodiversity loss. Ecologists seeking improved biodiversity outcomes are developing better assessment tools and recommending more rigorous restrictions and enforcement. We explain why such recommendations overlook and cannot correct key causes of failure to protect biodiversity. Viable trading requires simple, measurable, and interchangeable commodities, but the currencies, restrictions, and oversight needed to protect complex, difficult-to-measure, and noninterchangeable resources like biodiversity are costly and intractable. These safeguards compromise trading viability and benefit neither traders nor regulatory officials. Political theory predicts that (1) biodiversity protection interests will fail to counter motivations for officials to resist and relax safeguards to facilitate exchanges and resource development at cost to biodiversity, and (2) trading is more vulnerable than pure administrative mechanisms to institutional dynamics that undermine environmental protection. Delivery of no net loss or net gain through biodiversity trading is thus administratively improbable and technically unrealistic. Their proliferation without credible solutions suggests biodiversity offset programs are successful “symbolic policies,” potentially obscuring biodiversity loss and dissipating impetus for action.