Saturday 23 June 2012

Credit Default Swaps explained

Following financial sector deregulation in the US,
the CDS market grew exponentially
Credit Default Swaps are complex financial derivatives.
Although forms of Credit Default Swap had been in existence from at least the early 1990s, the financial giant JP Morgan is widely credited with creating the first modern Credit Default Swap in 1994.

In 2000, neoliberal financial sector deregulations in the United States meant that the Credit Default Swap market was exempted from virtually all regulation.

The Commodity Futures Modernization Act of 2000, (which was also responsible for the Enron loophole) specifically stated that CDSs are neither futures nor securities and so are outside the remit of the SEC and CFTC.  After these deregulations, the Credit Default Swap market grew exponentially. In 2000, the market was worth $0.9 trillion. By the time the global financial sector insolvency crisis occurred in 2008, the CDS market was worth more than $30 trillion (more than 15x the size of the entire UK economy at the time).

The easiest way to imagine a CDS is to think of it as a kind of financial sector insurance. The similarity between a traditional insurance policy and a CDS is that the buyer pays a premium and in the case that one of the specified events occurs (a company goes bankrupt, a currency loses value, a state defaults) the buyer receives a payment from the issuer of the contract.

The main difference between an insurance policy and a CDS is that the buyer of a CDS does not necessarily have to own the financial product they are "insuring", in fact the buyer does not need to have even suffered any financial loss at all in order to claim their payout. This creates a situation where Credit Default Swaps can be used to speculatively bet against troubled entities. In the last days before the American bank Bear Stearns went bankrupt, a large number of Credit Default Swaps were purchased on their stock, and during the Greek economic crisis a huge market for Credit Default Swaps on Greek government bonds developed.

These kinds of speculative CDS contracts, where the buyer is not interested in taking out insurance against the failure of one of their investments, but simply making a profit out of someone else's misfortune are often called Naked Credit Default Swaps. It has been estimated that Naked Credit Default Swaps account for over 80% of the global CDS trade.

To put Naked Credit Default Swaps into a simple context, lets use the analogy that they are like strangers buying insurance on your house because they think that there is a strong possibility that it will be robbed or attacked by arsonists. Since there is no need for the owners of the Naked Credit Default Swaps to have any financial interest in your house, lets say 200 speculators buy this kind of insurance on your house. The first and most obvious problem with this situation is that in the case that the house is attacked by an arsonist, the issuer of all of the Naked Credit Default Swaps is going to face an insurance payout 200 times the size of the actual economic damage of your house fire, because they must pay out over and again on the same event. This kind of multiplication effect contributed to the collapse and subsequent taxpayer bailout of the American insurance giant AIG, which issued hundreds of billions of dollars worth of CDS contracts without bothering to hedge against the possibility that the reference entities might lose value, meaning that when the 2008 financial sector meltdown hit, they faced CDS payouts in excess of $100 billion on the collapse of Lehmann Brothers bank alone.

The AIG collapse and taxpayer funded bailout illustrates another fundamental difference between CDS policies and ordinary insurance policies. In order to sell home/car/travel/contents/life/health insurance, the insurer must comply with strict insurance industry regulations and demonstrate that they actually have the capital reserves to pay out on the policies they have been issuing. There are no such constraints on issuers of CDS policies, meaning that AIG issued billions of dollars worth of CDS contracts with no obligation to actually maintain the credit reserves necessary to pay out on them. After the financial sector meltdown AIG received a $182 billion bailout from the government, At least $90 billion of which went towards payouts on AIG's unhedged Credit Default Swap policies. Most of this taxpayer funded cash mountain went to pay out on Naked Credit Default Swaps owned by large American and European banks, including Goldman Sachs which received a $12.9 billion taxpayer funded windfall.

The second problem with Naked Credit Default Swaps is that they actually provide a financial incentive for the buyers to then do whatever they can to increase the probability that the troubled assets that they are betting against will fail. In our analogy, the 200 strangers who have bought insurance policies on your house now have a financial incentive to increase the chances that your house burns down, since they have nothing to lose in financial terms from a house fire on a property that they don't own, and a lot to gain. They don't necessarily have to turn to arson and burn it down themselves, however they could easily ensure that all the local arsonists and vandals have your address and a good supply of petrol and matches.

there are two particularly egregious examples of financial institutions using Naked Credit Default Swaps to profit from the misfortune of their own clients. In 2001 the American financial giant Goldman Sachs received a $300 million payment from Greece for helping the country to hide the true extent of their debts from the European regulators. This deal shows that staff at Goldman knew that the Greek economic situation was far worse than the official figures stated. At the same time as they were helping Greece to cook their books they were also buying up Naked Credit Default Swaps on Greek assets, meaning that they would make large profits if the true extent of the debts they were helping Greece to hide became public. To return to the analogy, Goldman Sachs knew the Greek house was likely to burn down, as they had helped them to hide the fact that it was full of financial dynamite from the European safety inspectors, using this insider knowledge they bought a load of CDS insurance policies and waited for the financial bomb to explode and the cash to start rolling in.

Another example of firms betting against their own clients can be seen in the sub-prime mortgage crisis. Many American banks packaged up their worst mortgages into financial instruments called Collateralised Debt Obligations, paid the Credit Ratings Agencies to stamp them with AAA, top grade ratings then sold them on to their customers as valuable assets, rather than the toxic sub-prime junk that they knew they actually were. Packaging toxic junk as valuable assets and selling it to your unsuspecting customers is bad enough, but many banks went even further by taking out Naked Credit Default Swaps on the dodgy assets they had just sold. Returning to the house insurance analogy once again, this is as if an estate agent had made a hefty profit selling you a dangerously constructed house that they knew would be certain to burn down within a couple of years, then taken out insurance policy to make sure they made another profit when the fire actually happened.

There are currently debates in the United States and Europe about whether speculative uses of credit default swaps should be banned, however there is vociferous opposition from the financial sector players who have been allowed to use these products to make huge profits on other people's misery. Financial misery that in many cases they actively helped to create. The case for the regulation of the CDS market is an undeniably strong one, especially given that the American business magnate Warren Buffet (who is hardly some kind of socialist free market critic) described derivatives bought speculatively as "financial weapons of mass destruction".

The huge obstacle to sensible regulation of the CDS market is that the financial interests of those who would lose out under a properly regulated system have enormous influence over western political systems. The UK is run by a political party that is majority funded by the financial sector, meaning that the Tory party happily kicked UK financial sector reform into the long grass and spend hundreds of thousands of taxpayers' money on actively opposing virtually all new financial regulations proposed by the EU.

In America Barack Obama has surrounded himself with the very same bankers and economists who were at the epicentre of the global economic meltdown. People who were instrumental in the creation of the highly unstable derehulated financial sector in the first place. Any effort to regulate the CDS market in the US would be seen as a huge political u-turn and an admission of responsibility for the global economic crisis for whichever party did it, since both the Democrats and the Republicans introduced ideologically driven measures designed to remove regulation from the CDS market.

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