Saturday, 7 November 2009

Must Read of the Day: Kill Credit Default Swaps

At first, my leading "must read" candidate was Roger Ehrenberg's Barking up the Wrong Tree. Roger identifies an ongoing problem with Washington's attempt to knuckle down on the financial industry: legislators get distracted by pander-ready sideshows. Example: dark pools and high-frequency trading in the stock market (note: I'm not saying either is necessarily harmless, but I agree that they're not doing the harm of the big elephants in the room -- unregulated derivatives trading and corrupted credit-rating agencies). Why is this? As Ehrenberg observes, plenty of little investors are in the stock market, so Congress takes on related issues with a lusty sense of outrage. But derivatives and credit raters are willfully ignored because the subjects aren't as sexy and grandma doesn't spend any time checking out, say, how Moody's grades "SocGen CMBS Non-Conforming Pool XII."

Still, that blog entry dropped to second place on my "must read" list after I found this, over at naked capitalism: First, Let's Kill all the Credit Default Swaps. Yves Smith, who has gotten pretty smart about CDS products while researching and writing her soon-to-be-released book related to the financial crisis, says:
Credit default swaps have no redeeming social value. They are a fee machine for Wall Street and their supposed value is considerably overstated (the world pre credit default swaps functioned perfectly well) and their costs, which are considerable, are not given the attention they warrant.
She lists their sins, including their "anti-social" nature. A credit default swap, remember, is basically insurance in case bad stuff happens to a company and renders its bonds worthless or impaired. When you buy this protection though, the only way to cash in is for the bad stuff (a so-called "credit event") to occur. So, like cash-strapped homeowners who have a tendency to play with flames around heavily insured items, a holder of say an IBM credit default swap might prefer that the computer maker declare bankruptcy (a triggering credit event) rather than restructure its debt -- even if restructuring the debt is a smarter move for the company that in the end does more economic good.

Yves also notes that simply moving credit default swaps onto an exchange may simply create a "too big to fail" exchange -- and not extricate us from this mess at all. It's a good point and indicates that the CDS may be too neutron-bomblike to allow in the financial arsenal of weapons.

A casual observer might wonder about this. After all, a CDS is basically insurance, and we have well-capitalized insurers that do just fine. Well, first the insurance industry is well-regulated, unlike the CDS market, but even if the swaps were highly regulated they differ from standard insurance in two big, troubling ways:

1. Unlike with, say, home insurance, you can buy a CDS repeatedly for the same bond. This would be the equivalent of being able to insure someone's house, say, 50 times over -- or even more. Further, you don't have to have any underlying ownership interest whatsoever in the insured bond. So this is a perfect tool for highly leveraged, out-of-control speculation.

2. You can set aside a stockpile of reserves for insurance more effectively, because correlations are weaker. A national insurer may suffer losses from a hurricane in Florida, but chances are good that its claims elsewhere in the country will run at about the same pace as usual (the probabilities of damage events occurring at separate locations, over a wide enough area, are uncorrelated). That makes it easier to absorb the loss from the hurricane. Unfortunately, when the economy tanks, bankruptcies rise in all sectors. It's like a hurricane that sweeps the length and breadth of the U.S. What's worse, with a credit default swap, the hurricane can strengthen off its own destruction, like some evil black hole that becomes more powerful as it draws in more matter. Namely: as we saw in this last crisis, collateral requirements against credit default swaps start to suck liquidity out of the system as the credit markets spiral downward, which in turn exacerbates the plunge.

I don't think our lawmakers are brave enough to try to get rid of credit default swaps, but I find it interesting that a fair number of smart people who know how these products work, in an intricate way, are suggesting such a thing.