Credit default swaps (CDS) are the most widely traded form of credit derivative. CDS are bets between two parties on whether or not a company will default on its bonds. In a typical default swap, the "protection buyer" gets a large payoff from the "protection seller" if the company defaults within a certain period of time, while the "protection seller" collects periodic payments from the "protection buyer" for assuming the risk of default. CDS thus resemble insurance policies, but there is no requirement to actually hold any asset or suffer any loss, so CDS are widely used just to increase profits by gambling on market changes. In one blogger's example, a hedge fund could sit back and collect $320,000 a year in premiums just for selling "protection" on a risky BBB junk bond. The premiums are "free" money – free until the bond actually goes into default, when the hedge fund could be on the hook for $100 million in claims.
And there's the catch: what if the hedge fund doesn't have the $100 million? The fund's corporate shell or limited partnership is put into bankruptcy; but both parties are claiming the derivative as an asset on their books, which they now have to write down. Players who have "hedged their bets" by betting both ways cannot collect on their winning bets; and that means they cannot afford to pay their losing bets, causing other players to also default on their bets.
The dominos go down in a cascade of cross-defaults that infects the whole banking industry and jeopardizes the global pyramid scheme. The potential for this sort of nuclear reaction was what prompted billionaire investor Warren Buffett to call derivatives "weapons of financial mass destruction." It is also why the banking system cannot let a major derivatives player go down, and it is the banking system that calls the shots. The Federal Reserve is literally owned by a conglomerate of banks; and Hank Paulson, who heads the U.S. Treasury, entered that position through the revolving door of investment bank Goldman Sachs, where he was formerly CEO.
The Best Game in Town
In an article on FinancialSense.com on September 9, Daniel Amerman maintains that the government's takeover of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac was not actually a bailout of the mortgage giants. It was a bailout of the financial derivatives industry, which was faced with a $1.4 trillion "event of default" that could have bankrupted Wall Street and much of the rest of the financial world. To explain the enormous risk involved, Amerman posits a scenario in which the mortgage giants are not bailed out by the government. When they default on the $5 trillion in bonds and mortgage-backed securities they own or guarantee, settlements are immediately triggered on $1.4 trillion in credit default swaps entered into by major financial firms, which have promised to make good on Fannie/Freddie defaulted bonds in return for very lucrative fee income and multi-million dollar bonuses. The value of the vulnerable bonds plummets by 70%, causing $1 trillion (70% of $1.4 trillion) to be due to the "protection buyers." This is more money, however, than the already-strapped financial institutions have to spare. The CDS sellers are highly leveraged themselves, which means they depend on huge day-to-day lines of credit just to stay afloat. When their creditors see the trillion dollar hit coming, they pull their financing, leaving the strapped institutions with massive portfolios of illiquid assets. The dreaded cascade of cross-defaults begins, until nearly every major investment bank and commercial bank is unable to meet its obligations. This triggers another massive round of CDS events, going to $10 trillion, then $20 trillion. The financial centers become insolvent, the markets have to be shut down, and when they open months later, the stock market has been crushed. The federal government and the financiers pulling its strings naturally feel compelled to step in to prevent such a disaster, even though this rewards the profligate speculators at the expense of the Fannie/Freddie shareholders who will get wiped out. Amerman concludes:
"[I]t's the best game in town. Take a huge amount of risk, be paid exceedingly well for it and if you screw up -- you have absolute proof that the government will come in and bail you out at the expense of the rest of the population (who did not share in your profits in the first place)."4
Desperate Measures for Desperate Times
It was the best game in town until September 14, when Treasury Secretary Paulson, Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke, and New York Fed Head Tim Geithner closed the bailout window to Lehman Brothers, a 158-year-old Wall Street investment firm and major derivatives player. Why? "There is no political will for a federal bailout," said Geithner. Bailing out Fannie and Freddie had created a furor of protest, and the taxpayers could not afford to underwrite the whole quadrillion dollar derivatives bubble. The line had to be drawn somewhere, and this was apparently it.
Or was the Fed just saving its ammunition for AIG? Recent downgrades in AIG's ratings meant that the counterparties to its massive derivatives contracts could force it to come up with $10.5 billion in additional capital reserves immediately or file for bankruptcy. Treasury Secretary Paulson resisted advancing taxpayer money; but on Monday, September 15, stock trading was ugly, with the S & P 500 registering the largest one-day percent drop since September 11, 2001. Alan Kohler wrote in the Australian Business Spectator:
"[I]t's unlikely to be a slow-motion train wreck this time. With Lehman in liquidation, and Washington Mutual and AIG on the brink, the credit market would likely shut down entirely and interbank lending would cease."5
Kohler quoted the September 14 newsletter of Professor Nouriel Roubini, who has a popular website called Global EconoMonitor. Roubini warned:
"What we are facing now is the beginning of the unravelling and collapse of the entire shadow financial system, a system of institutions (broker dealers, hedge funds, private equity funds, SIVs, conduits, etc.) that look like banks (as they borrow short, are highly leveraged and lend and invest long and in illiquid ways) and thus are highly vulnerable to bank-like runs; but unlike banks they are not properly regulated and supervised, they don't have access to deposit insurance and don't have access to the lender of last resort support of the central bank."
The risk posed to the system was evidently too great. On September 16, while Barclay's Bank was offering to buy the banking divisions of Lehman Brothers, the Federal Reserve agreed to bail out AIG in return for 80% of its stock. Why the Federal Reserve instead of the U.S. Treasury? Perhaps because the Treasury would take too much heat for putting yet more taxpayer money on the line. The Federal Reserve could do it quietly through its "Open Market Operations," the ruse by which it "monetizes" government debt, turning Treasury bills (government I.O.U.s) into dollars. The taxpayers would still have to pick up the tab, but the Federal Reserve would not have to get approval from Congress first.
Time for a 21st Century New Deal?
Another hole has been plugged in a very leaky boat, keeping it afloat another day; but how long can these stopgap measures be sustained? Professor Roubini maintains:
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