Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Credit Derivatives and the Modern Financial System

University of Chicago Economist and Nobel Laureate Gary Becker on the state of the economy:

U.S. unemployment 1931-1941: 25 percent
U.S. unemployment September 2008: 6.1 percent

The main problem with the modern financial system based on widespread use of derivatives and securitization is that while financial specialists understand how individual assets function, even they have little understanding of how the whole incredibly complex financial system operates when exposed to various types of stress.

William Engdahl on Credit Default Swaps (CDS), (June 6, 2008):

Like many exotic financial products which are extremely complex and profitable in times of easy credit, when markets reverse, as has been the case since August 2007, in addition to spreading risk, credit derivatives, in this case, also amplify risk considerably.

Now the other shoe is about to drop in the $62 trillion CDS market due to rising junk bond defaults by US corporations as the recession deepens. That market has long been a disaster in the making. An estimated $1,2 trillion could be at risk of the nominal $62 trillion in CDOs outstanding, making it far larger than the sub-prime market.

No regulation

A chain reaction of failures in the CDS market could trigger the next global financial crisis. The market is entirely unregulated, and there are no public records showing whether sellers have the assets to pay out if a bond defaults. This so-called counterparty risk is a ticking time bomb. The US Federal Reserve under the ultra-permissive chairman, Alan Greenspan and the US Government’s financial regulators allowed the CDS market to develop entirely without any supervision. Greenspan repeatedly testified to skeptical Congressmen that banks are better risk regulators than government bureaucrats.

Alan Greenspan, former Chairman of the Federal Reserve, on the use of credit derivatives (e.g., CDOs) to transfer risk outside the banking system (May 5, 2005):

Use of Credit Derivatives to Transfer Risk outside the Banking System
Perhaps the most significant development in financial markets over the past ten years has been the rapid development of credit derivatives. Although the first credit derivatives transactions occurred in the early 1990s, a liquid market did not emerge until the International Swaps and Derivatives Association succeeded in standardizing documentation of these transactions in 1999. According to the BIS, the notional value of credit derivatives outstanding increased sixfold between 2001 and 2004, reaching $4.5 trillion in June of last year. Moreover, this growth has been accompanied by significant product innovation, notably the development of synthetic collateralized debt obligations (CDOs), which allow the credit risk of a portfolio of underlying exposures to be divided or "tranched" into different segments, each with different risk and return characteristics. Recent growth of credit derivatives has been concentrated in these more-complex structured products.

As is generally acknowledged, the development of credit derivatives has contributed to the stability of the banking system by allowing banks, especially the largest, systemically important banks, to measure and manage their credit risks more effectively. In particular, the largest banks have found single-name credit default swaps a highly attractive mechanism for reducing exposure concentrations in their loan books while allowing them to meet the needs of their largest corporate customers. But some observers argue that what is good for the banking system may not be good for the financial system as a whole. They are concerned that banks' efforts to lay off risk using credit derivatives may be creating concentrations of risk outside the banking system that could prove a threat to financial stability. A particular concern has been that, as credit spreads widen appreciably at some point from the extraordinarily low levels that have prevailed in recent years, losses to nonbank risk-takers could force them to liquidate their positions in credit markets and thereby magnify and accelerate the widening of credit spreads.2

A definitive evaluation of these concerns about nonbank risk-takers would require information on the extent of credit risk transfer outside the banking system and on the identities and risk-management capabilities of the entities to which the risk has been transferred. Unfortunately, available data do not provide this information.

Credit Default Swaps (CDS) Growth 2001-2007
Notional Amount in Trillions of Dollars

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