Ali’s blog

Mostly quant stuff with occasional digressions

CDS for novices

Posted by alifinmath on April 11, 2008

An instructive explanation:

Insurance companies are regulated by the government, with reserve requirements, statutory limits, and examiners routinely showing up to check the books to make sure the money is there to cover potential claims. CDS are private bets, and the Federal Reserve from the time of Alan Greenspan has insisted that regulators keep hands off. The sacrosanct free market would supposedly regulate itself. The problem with that approach is that regulations are just rules. If there are no rules, the players can cheat; and cheat they have, with a gambler’s addiction.

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 speculate on market changes. In one blogger’s example, a hedge fund wanting to increase its profits 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 that hardly helps the “protection buyers” who thought they were covered.

To the extent that CDS are being sold as “insurance,” they are looking more like insurance fraud; and that fact has particularly hit home with the ratings downgrades of the “monoline” insurers and the recent collapse of Bear Stearns, a leading Wall Street investment brokerage.

The $681 trillion derivatives trade is the last supersized bubble in a 300-year Ponzi scheme, one that has now taken over the entire monetary system. The nation’s wealth has been drained into private vaults, leaving scarcity in its wake. It is a corrupt system, and change is long overdue.

When the banks ran out of creditworthy borrowers, they had to turn to uncreditworthy “subprime” borrowers; and to avoid losses from default, they moved these risky mortgages off their books by bundling them into “securities” and selling them to investors. To induce investors to buy, these securities were then “insured” with credit default swaps. But the housing bubble itself was another Ponzi scheme, and eventually there were no more borrowers to be sucked in at the bottom who could afford the ever-inflating home prices. When the subprime borrowers quit paying, the investors quit buying mortgage-backed securities. The banks were then left holding their own suspect paper; and without triple-A ratings, there is little chance that buyers for this “junk” will be found.

Now that some highly leveraged banks and hedge funds have had to lay their cards on the table and expose their worthless hands, these avid free marketers are crying out for government intervention to save them from monumental losses, while preserving the monumental gains raked in when their bluff was still good. In response to their pleas, the men behind the curtain have scrambled to devise various bailout schemes; but the schemes have been bandaids at best. To bail out a $681 trillion derivative scheme with taxpayer money is obviously impossible. As Michael Panzer observed on SeekingAlpha.com:

As the slow-motion train wreck in our financial system continues to unfold, there are going to be plenty of ill-conceived rescue attempts and dubious turnaround plans, as well as propagandizing, dissembling and scheming by banks, regulators and politicians. This is all happening in an effort to try and buy time or to figure out how the losses can be dumped onto the lap of some patsy (e.g., the taxpayer).

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