Credit default swaps played a much more central role in the financial crisis than is widely understood, and they continue to get a free pass in financial reform proposals that they do not deserve. As we have discussed on this blog, and recount in more detail in the book ECONNED, central clearing and/or putting them on exchanges are inadequate remedies. Only a small subset of CDS contracts trade often enough for to be suitable for exchange trading. As for central clearing, the logic is that this would provide for consistent and sufficiently large margin to be posted (think of it as a reserve against the ultimate possible insurance payment required on the contract). But unlike real derivatives, CDS are subject to massive price moves (“jump to default’) when a reference entity (the entity on which the CDS is written) defaults or goes into bankruptcy. That large price movement, means that the margin already posted will be insufficient, and there is no guarantee that the counterparty will be able to pony up the amount now due.
But perhaps more important, the idea that CDS have legitimate uses is questionable. They are used to hedge credit risk (sometimes) yet their pricing, per Bloomberg or any of the common commercial models, price CDS based on volatility, which is not based on any assessment of the underlying credit. So the idea that the pricing reflects default risk is spurious; indeed, CDS failed abysmally in predicting financial firm default risk during the crisis (Lehman was a particularly vivid illustration). But they serve to perpetuate the erosion of proper credit analysis (why bother if you can just lay off the risk?).
In the last two days, Gretchen Morgenson of the New York Times and Wolfgang Munchau of the Finacial Times have both launched salvos at CDS. Munchau’s is even more vituperative than Morgenson’s, which given the sober sensibilities of the Financial Times, suggests that opinion on the other side of the pond may be coalescing against the product.
Morgenson points out that even Ben Bernanke has started to question the legitimacy of CDS, but peculiarly is not as hard on his remark as she should have been:
“Using these instruments in a way that intentionally destabilizes a company or a country is — is counterproductive, and I’m sure the S.E.C. will be looking into that.”
Yves here. Huh? How, pray tell, is the SEC, of all regulators, going to look into CDS? CDS are specifically exempt from SEC regulation. If anyone has (or could decide it has) jurisdiction, it’s the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, and the Fed. So saying that swaps are a problem, and saying that someone who cannot possibly look into them will handle them, is just a fancy form of regulatory three card monte.
And if anyone had any doubts that the CDS market is officially backstopped, look no further than the Bear Stearns and AIG rescues. To put not too find a point on it, the industry understands full well who is the ultimate bagholder:
United States commercial banks, those with insured deposits, held $13 trillion in notional value of credit derivatives at the end of the third quarter last year, according to the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency. The biggest players in this world are JPMorgan Chase, Citibank, Bank of America and Goldman Sachs.
All of those firms fall squarely into the category of institutions that are too politically connected to fail. Because of the implicit taxpayer backing that accompanies such lofty status, derivatives become exceedingly dangerous, said Robert Arvanitis, chief executive of Risk Finance Advisors, a corporate advisory firm specializing in insurance.
“If companies were not implicitly backed by the taxpayers, then managements would get very reluctant to go out after that next billion of notional on swaps,” he said. “They’d look over their shoulder and say, ‘This is getting dangerous.’”
Morgenson is positively tame compared to Munchau. I’m quoting him more liberally, because the tone of his remarks are remarkably pointed for him and the FT generally. Notice that he explicitly, and repeatedly, says the use of naked credit default swaps looks an awful lot like a crime:
I cannot understand why we are still allowing the trade in credit default swaps without ownership of the underlying securities. Especially in the eurozone, currently subject to a series of speculative attacks, a generalised ban on so-called naked CDSs should be a no-brainer…. Unfortunately, it is legal…
A naked CDS purchase means that you take out insurance on bonds without actually owning them. It is a purely speculative gamble. There is not one social or economic benefit. Even hardened speculators agree on this point. Especially because naked CDSs constitute a large part of all CDS transactions, the case for banning them is about as a strong as that for banning bank robberies.
Economically, CDSs are insurance for the simple reason that they insure the buyer against the default of an underlying security. A universally accepted aspect of insurance regulation is that you can only insure what you actually own. Insurance is not meant as a gamble, but an instrument to allow the buyer to reduce incalculable risks. Not even the most libertarian extremist would accept that you could take out insurance on your neighbour’s house or the life of your boss.
Technically, CDS are not classified as insurance but as swaps, because they involve an exchange of cash flows. The CDS lobby makes much of those technical characteristics in its defence of the status quo. But this is misleading. Even a traditional insurance contract can be viewed as a swap, as it involves an exchange of cash flows. But nobody in their right mind would use the swap-like characteristics of an insurance contract as an excuse not to regulate the insurance industry. The fact that, unlike insurance, CDSs are tradeable contracts does not change the fundamental economic rationale…
Yves here. The “tradeable” aspect is exaggerated. While standardization of contracts has helped, most CDS are not traded; dealers lay off their risks by entering into offsetting swaps. Back to Munchau:
Another argument I have heard from a lobbyist is that naked CDSs allow investors to hedge more effectively. This is like saying that a bank robbery brings benefits to the robber. A further stated objection to a ban is that it would be difficult to police. There is no question that a ban of a complex product, such as a CDS, involves technical complexities that commentators like myself probably underestimate. It is conceivable, for example, that the industry might quickly find a legal way round such a ban. Then again, we would not consider legalising bank robberies on the grounds that it is difficult to catch the robber.
So why are we so cautious? From conversations with regulators and law-makers, I suspect they are not always familiar with those products, to put it kindly, and that they may be afraid of regulating something they do not understand. They understand, or think they do, what a hedge fund is. Restricting hedge funds is something they can sell to their electorates. Hedge funds were not at the centre of the crisis, but they are a politically expedient target. Banning products with ugly acronyms that nobody understands seems like unnecessarily hard work…
Yves here. Hedge funds and Wall Street prop desks replicating certain structured arb strategies that relied on CDS were far more important in the crisis than is widely understood. You’ll be hearing more about that in due course. Back to Munchau:
But naked CDSs have played an important and direct role in destabilising the financial system. They still do. And banks, whose shareholders and employees have benefited from public rescue programmes, are now using CDSs to speculate against governments.
Where is the political response? The Germans want to bring it to the Group of 20, but they hesitate to do anything unilaterally. Christine Lagarde, the French finance minister, was recently quoted as saying: “What we are going to take away from this crisis is certainly a second look at the validity, solidity of sovereign [credit default swaps].”
A second look? I wonder what they saw when they looked the first time.
Yves here. The other defenses of CDS I’ve heard are equally dubious. One is they add to liquidity. Ahem, were corporate bond investors ever suffering from a lack of liquidity? That paper doesn’t trade much because most investors are buy and hold. Even when I was a kid, in the early 1980s, when there was as much appetite for corporate bond trading as are likely ever to see due to high uncertainty over interest rates. Yet no one complained about illiquidity in the corporate bond market (as in yes, it may not have been that liquid, but no one felt inconvenienced, dealer spreads were not seen as problematic). And as CDS drain liquidity in crises. As bond yields rise, intermediaries and hedge funds, both of whom are leveraged and normally serve as liquidity providers, have to tie up of their scarce cash and collateral in posting margins on CDS positions. So they suck liquidity out of markets are precisely the worst possible moment.
The more we can to to contain this product the better, but I am afraid it will take another meltdown to teach us the lesson we should have learned from the last one.