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Monday, November 24, 2008


deflating the CDS bubble

chris whalen of the institutional risk analyst has written -- as previously noted here and here -- on what i find to be compelling insights onto how the credit default swap market is destroying the liquidity environment upon which the global financial system floats.

today whalen critiques the selection of tim geithner to be treasury secretary under barack obama, citing specifically the role that geithner has played as president of the new york fed in either missing the significance of the CDS problem or refusing to attack it in the forms of bear stearns and AIG, which has in nationalization become a seemingly-endless sinkhole of CDS payouts -- and analyzes the foreboding outcomes that lay before us as real commercial defaults begin to rise.

Few observers outside Wall Street understand that the hundreds of billions of dollars pumped into AIG by the Fed of NY and Treasury, funds used to keep the creditors from a default, has been used to fund the payout at face value of credit default swap contracts or "CDS," insurance written by AIG against senior traunches of collateralized debt obligations or "CDOs." The Paulson/Geithner model for dealing with troubled financial institutions such as AIG with net unfunded obligations to pay CDS contracts seems to be to simply provide the needed liquidity and hope for the best. Fed and AIG officials have even been attempting to purchase the CDOs insured by AIG in an attempt to tear up the CDS contracts. But these efforts only focus on a small part of AIG's CDS book.

The Paulson/Geithner bailout model as manifest by the AIG situation is untenable and illustrates why President-elect Obama badly needs a new face at Treasury. A face with real financial credentials, somebody like Fannie Mae CEO Herb Allison. A banker with real world transactional experience, somebody who will know precisely how to deal with the last bubble that needs to be lanced - CDS.

Last Thursday, we gave a presentation to the New York Chapter of the Risk Management Association regarding the US banking sector and the long-term issues facing same. You can read a copy of the slides by clicking here.

As part of the presentation (Page 17-21), IRA co-founder Chris Whalen argued the case made by a reader of The IRA a week before (see "New Hope for Financial Economics: Interview with Bill Janeway,") that until we rid the markets of CDS, there will be no restoring investor confidence in financial institutions. Here is how we presented the situation to about 200 finance and risk professionals in the auditorium of JPM last week. Of note, nobody in the audience argued.

  1. Start with the $50 trillion or so in extant CDS.
  2. Assume that as default rates for all types of collateral rise over next 24-36 months, 40% of the $50 trillion in CDS goes into the money. That is $20 trillion gross notional of CDS which must be funded.
  3. Now assume a 25% recovery rate against that portion of all CDS that goes into the money.
  4. That leaves you with a $15 trillion net amount that must be paid by providers of protection in CDS. And remember, a 40% in the money assumption for CDS is VERY conservative. The rise in loss rates for all type of collateral over the next 24 months could easily make the portion of CDS in the money grow to more like 60-70%. That is $40 plus trillion in notional payments vs. a recovery rate in single digits.

Q: Does anybody really believe that the global central banks and the politicians that stand behind them are going to provide the liquidity to fund $15 trillion or more in CDS payouts? Remember, only a small portion of these positions are actually hedging exposure in the form of the underlying securities. The rest are speculative, in some cases 10, 20 of 30 times the underlying basis. Yet the position taken by Treasury Secretary Paulson and implemented by Tim Geithner (and the Fed Board in Washington, to be fair) is that these leveraged wagers should be paid in full.

Our answer to this cowardly view is that AIG needs to be put into bankruptcy. As we wrote on The Big Picture over the weekend, we'll take our cue from NY State Insurance Commissioner Eric Dinalo and stipulate that we pay true hedge positions at face value, but the specs get pennies on the dollar of the face of CDS. And the specs should take the pennies gratefully and run before the crowd of angry citizens with the torches and pitchforks catch up to them.

President-elect Obama and the American people have a choice: embrace financial sanity and safety and soundness by deflating the last, biggest speculative bubble using the time-tested mechanism of insolvency. Or we can muddle along for the next decade or more, using the Paulson/Geithner model of financial rescue for the AIG CDS Ponzi scheme and embrace the Japanese model of economic stagnation.

... By embracing Geithner, President-elect Barack Obama is endorsing the ill-advised scheme to support AIG directed by Hank Paulson et al at Goldman Sachs and executed by Tim Geithner and Ben Bernanke. News reports have already documented the ties between GS and AIG, and the backroom machinations by Paulson to get the deal done. This scheme to stay AIG's resolution cannot possibly work and when it does collapse, Barak Obama and his administration will wear the blame due through their endorsement of Tim Geithner.

The bailout of AIG represents the last desperate rearguard action by the CDS dealers and the happy squirrels at ISDA, the keepers of the flame of Wall Street financial engineering. Hopefully somebody will pull President-elect Obama aside and give him the facts on this mess before reality bites us all in the collective arse with, say, a bankruptcy filing by GM.

You see, there are trillions of dollars in outstanding CDS contracts for the Big Three automakers, their suppliers and financing vehicles. A filing by GM is not only going to put the real economy into cardiac arrest but will also start a chain reaction meltdown in the CDS markets as other automakers, vendors and finance units like GMAC are also sucked into the quicksand of bankruptcy. You knew when the vendor insurers pulled back from GM a few weeks ago that the jig was up.

... As Bloomberg News reported in August: "A default by one of the automakers would trigger writedowns and losses in the $1.2 trillion market for collateralized debt obligations that pool derivatives linked to corporate debt… Credit-default swaps on GM and Ford were included in more than 80 percent of CDOs created before they lost their investment-grade debt rankings in 2005, according to data compiled by Standard & Poor's."

At some point, Washington is going to be forced to accept that bankruptcy and liquidation, the harsh medicine used with other financial insolvencies, are the best ways to deal with the last, greatest bubble, namely the CDS market. When the end comes, it will effect some of the largest financial institutions in the world, chief among them Citigroup (NYSE:C), JPMorganChase (NYSE:JPM), GS and MS, as well as some large Euroland banks.

The impending blowback from a CDS unwind at less than face amount is one of the reasons that the financial markets have been pummeling the equity values of the larger banks last week. Any bank with a large derivatives trading book is likely to be mortally wounded as the CDS markets finally collapse. We don't see problems with interest rate or currency contracts, by the way, only the great CDS Ponzi scheme is at issue - hopefully, if authorities around the world act with purpose on rendering extinct CDS contracts as they exist today. Call it a Christmas present to the entire world.

Indeed, as this issue of The IRA goes to press, news reports indicate that C is in talks with the Treasury for further financial support under the TARP, including a "bad bank" option to offload assets. [no bad bank, but C has been bailed -- gm.] A bad bank approach may be a good model for applying the principle of receivership to the too-big-too fail mega institutions, but the cost is government control of these banks.

Q: Does a "bad bank" bailout for C by Treasury and FDIC qualify as a default under the ISDA protocols!?

We've been predicting that Treasury will eventually be in charge of C. On the day the government formally takes control, we say that Treasury should and hire FDIC to start selling branches and assets. Thus does the liquidation continue and we get closer to the bottom of the great unwind. Stay tuned.

it rather begs the question of what will happen if speculative CDS are not torn up and geithner leads the next administration on a quest to provide liquidity enough to settle everything at face. peter schiff might have that exactly right -- in time, when the deleveraging slows, the dollar could be in for a savage collapse. further, yves smith cites the ft's wolfgang munchau on quantitative easing and the probability of "successful" central bank resolutions to deflationary economic conditions leading directly to a dollar currency crisis for a country highly dependent on foreign credit.

The US policy establishment regards this crisis principally as carrying a “one-tailed”, or one-sided, risk of a deflationary depression, to be avoided at all costs. But there are also grave risks associated with making a type-two error. A subsequent rise in US inflation could trigger a mass flight out of dollar assets and a large rise in US market interest rates, followed by a huge recession. The main difference is that the policy options would be a lot more constrained under such a scenario. In fact, a type-two error could also give rise to a depression – only later. I still think it is best to treat the crisis as an event with a “two-tailed” risk.

says smith:

... [T]he Fed seems worried solely about deflation, and not about a possible US currency crisis. This is a shocking oversight. The Fed (and many others) keep drawing analogies between the US in the Great Depression and its situation now. That is flawed and dangerous.

The US was a massive creditor before the Depression and ran a very large trade surplus, to the point where the gold accumulation by the US was destabilzing to the world financial system. Sound familiar? That is the role China plays now, not the US.

What happened to the nations that were in the US's shoes at the onset of the Great Depression, the overconsuming, indebted European customers of the US? They devalued their currencies, defaulted (or partially defaulted and forced a renegotiation) on foreign debts, and suffered milder downturns than the US did.

But the authorities are not even considering the possibility of debt default or a dollar crisis in their plans.

reading garet garrett while substituting the appropriate parties makes for some morose reading.

should the fed see its way clear to following on whalen's advice -- admitting that supporting the entire CDS construct could result in a highly counterproductive typ-two error, and thereby finally employing bankruptcy as an aid in unwinding the bubble -- this probability would diminish radically.

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