Saturday, November 22, 2008

More about credit default swaps

This is a follow-up to the previous post on CDS. This Fortune magazine article on credit default swaps was entertaining but not too illuminating. The charts are from the article.

... by ostensibly providing "insurance" on risky mortgage bonds, they encouraged and enabled reckless behavior during the housing bubble.

"If CDS had been taken out of play, companies would've said, 'I can't get this [risk] off my books,'" says Michael Greenberger, a University of Maryland law professor and former director of trading and markets at the Commodity Futures Trading Commission. "If they couldn't keep passing the risk down the line, those guys would've been stopped in their tracks. The ultimate assurance for issuing all this stuff was, 'It's insured.'"

THERE'S ANOTHER BIG difference between trading CDS and casino gambling. When you put $10 on black 22, you're pretty sure the casino will pay off if you win. The CDS market offers no such assurance. One reason the market grew so quickly was that hedge funds poured in, sensing easy money. And not just big, well-established hedge funds but a lot of upstarts. So in some cases, giant financial institutions were counting on collecting money from institutions only slightly more solvent than your average minimart. The danger, of course, is that if a hedge fund suddenly has to pay off on a lot of CDS, it will simply go out of business. "People have been insuring risks that they can't insure," says Peter Schiff, the president of Euro Pacific Capital and author of Crash Proof, which predicted doom for Fannie and Freddie, among other things. "Let's say you're writing fire insurance policies, and every time you get the [premium], you spend it. You just assume that no houses are going to burn down. And all of a sudden there's a huge fire and they all burn down. What do you do? You just close up shop."

... Because they're contracts rather than securities or insurance, CDS are easy to create: Often deals are done in a one-minute phone conversation or an instant message. Many technical aspects of CDS, such as the typical five-year term, have been standardized by the International Swaps and Derivatives Association (ISDA). That only accelerates the process. You strike your deal, fill out some forms, and you've got yourself a $5 million - or a $100 million - contract.

... You can guess how Wall Street cowboys responded to the opportunity to make deals that (1) can be struck in a minute, (2) require little or no cash upfront, and (3) can cover anything. Yee-haw!

... ONE REASON THE MARKET TOOK OFF is that you don't have to own a bond to buy a CDS on it - anyone can place a bet on whether a bond will fail. Indeed the majority of CDS now consists of bets on other people's debt. That's why it's possible for the market to be so big: The $54.6 trillion in CDS contracts completely dwarfs total corporate debt, which the Securities Industry and Financial Markets Association puts at $6.2 trillion, and the $10 trillion it counts in all forms of asset-backed debt.

"It's sort of like I think you're a bad driver and you're going to crash your car," says Greenberger, formerly of the CFTC. "So I go to an insurance company and get collision insurance on your car because I think it'll crash and I'll collect on it." That's precisely what the biggest winners in the subprime debacle did. Hedge fund star John Paulson of Paulson & Co., for example, made $15 billion in 2007, largely by using CDS to bet that other investors' subprime mortgage bonds would default.

So what started out as a vehicle for hedging ended up giving investors a cheap, easy way to wager on almost any event in the credit markets. In effect, credit default swaps became the world's largest casino. As Christopher Whalen, a managing director of Institutional Risk Analytics, observes, "To be generous, you could call it an unregulated, uncapitalized insurance market. But really, you would call it a gaming contract."

There is at least one key difference between casino gambling and CDS trading: Gambling has strict government regulation.

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