Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Wall St., Credit Default Swaps, Glass-Steagall, The Subprime Crisis . . . & Black Tuesday

"September 30 is the day when positions unwind and this is when the pain on Main Street will really start."

That dire prediction comes from Dinah Lord. Ms. Lord is a blogging friend who spent her formative years as a trader on Wall St. She has been kind enough to do a post explaining the role of deregulation of the finanicial industry with the repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act in 1998 as well as the credit default swaps that are at the crux of the subprime crisis. It fills in an informational gap that I have not seen anywhere else. This is mandatory reading for all taxpayers.

This from Ms. Lord:

. . . Starting back in 1995, the masters of the bond and credit market universe got too cute by half and structured a new and exciting financial instrument, the credit default swap and it's these credit default swaps that are the crux of the problem. The magnitude of the fallout from this hairy piece of "financial engineering" is staggering. Believe me, when I tell you that these things are so wrapped around the axle I don't think anyone knows who's got what.

Under a CDS, a bank originates loan to a company. A second bank (or other financial institution) can agree to cover the credit risk for the loan, by agreeing to make payment to originating bank if the company defaults on the original loan. The originating bank pays a small insurance premium to the second bank for assuming the risk of the loan.

Typically, payments under a CDS would only be triggered by the company’s failure to pay interest or principal on its debts due to bankruptcy or some other severe liquidity issue. But there are a host of intermediate or special cases that will doubtless provoke lawsuits when something goes wrong (CDS being a new market, it is by no means "recession-proof").

Credit default swaps were sold to the world as hedging transactions. Investors were told that they were simply transfers of risk, so that banks that made loans could transfer credit risks to insurance companies, which did not make loans directly, or to foreign banks that could not easily make loans in the U.S. market.

But they didn't work out that way...the real estate bubble burst and the mortgage market melted down, factors of life their models didn't take into account. Which brings us to another Gods of the Copybook Heading meets Gordon Gecko Greed is Good moment...the moment when "Wall Street" took over and expanded the volume far beyond what was required for hedging risk. The traders at commercial banks and insurance companies, freed from the constraints of Glass-Steagall by Bill Clinton era deregulation, jumped in with both feet.

After all, bonuses depend on the volume of business. Therefore, bank traders sold the credit risk of a loan not just once, but as many as 10 times. And they sold it not to solid banks and insurance companies, but to three solid banks, one solid insurance company, three dodgy brokers and three hedge funds. Then the traders went out and sold other CDS products that were not even related to actual loans on the books, but to imaginary indices of credit quality in the "widget" industry.

The credit risk of the system was hugely multiplied.

Instead of one $10 million credit risk loan, there are now ten $10 million credit risks on just one loan.

See what I mean about being wrapped around the axle?

Because of this axle, banks around the world are under tremendous pressure. They've even stopped loaning to each other which tells you how bad it is. Bond traders have been standing around with their hands in their pockets - no one is making trades. LIBOR is quaking under the weight of the stress and the short term paper market has pretty much seized up. Commercial paper is how companies finance their day to day operations and make payroll. September 30 is the day when positions unwind and this is where the pain on Main Street will really start. A flood of redemptions is preparing to swamp Hedge Funds. The US Mint has stopped production of gold coins due to soaring demand. Tonight's Asian market open will indeed be interesting. . . .

This isn't over by a long shot. Unless this can get things moving quickly (and have you ever known anything to happen quickly when the US govt is involved?) havoc will continue to wreak the credit markets, the relief rally in the stock market will be brief. Will smart money continue to stay on the sidelines? Will there be any smart money left? At heart, financial markets are about confidence in the system and confidence has been gravely shaken.

In other words, the jig is up.

How bad it will be is anybody's guess. . . . I believe we will all muddle through somehow.

I'm also a free market trader and believe that the market has to work this out. These type of bailout programs just tend to delay the pain and there is going to be some pain, my friends. I oppose the structure of this bailout on principle, so watching these government types preening and posturing in front of the cameras this weekend was like watching a train wreck in slow motion. They are beyond clueless. And infuriating. For Nancy Pelosi to call the House Republicans for not attending negotiations that they weren't invited to attend is an outrage. To see these Democrats stand up in front of the cameras and outright lie their a$$e$ off just shows you what we're dealing with.

. . . If you are interested in learning more, this piece . . . is a good place to start and this will provide you a window into what's been going on with the banking side of the equation. If you want to laugh and learn as you get up to speed on these magillas go here and check out this horse race analogy.) . . . Some of Dinah's other Wall Street [blog posts] can be found here.

And please be reminded that the fasten seat belt sign is still illuminated. It's gonna be a bumpy one.

The full post contains much more in the way of musings, and I highly recommend her blog to all readers.


suek said...

" For Nancy Pelosi to call the House Republicans for not attending negotiations that they weren't invited to attend is an outrage."

I've heard this several times...how do we know it? (I'm not questioning it, but it would be nice to have a link to plant where appropriate)

Dinah Lord said...

SueK - sorry hon, the link got lost in translation. Here you go.



Dinah Lord said...

And thanks for the quality linkage, Mr. GW.