Sunday, March 23, 2008

"The Derivatives Market is Unwinding!"

A couple of months ago, a financial analyst who sells derivatives told me that fears about a meltdown in the derivatives market were unfounded.

Yesterday, he told me with a very worried look "the derivatives market is unwinding!"

What does this mean?

Well, it turns out that the reason that Bear Stearns was about to go belly-up before JP Morgan bought it is that it had trillions of dollars in derivatives exposure, which were about to go south. (The reason that JP Morgan was so eager to buy Bear Stearns is that it was on the other side of these derivative deals -- if Bear Stearns had gone under, JP Morgan would have taken a huge hit. But the way the derivative contracts were drafted, a purchase by JP Morgan canceled the derivative contracts, so that JP Morgan didn't experience huge losses on the swaps. That is probably why the Fed was so eager to broker the shotgun marriage).

Indeed, the subprime prime loan crisis is related to the unwinding of the derivatives market. Specifically, loans were repackaged into derivatives called collateralized debt obligations (or "CDO's") and sold to big and regional banks and investment companies worldwide. The CDO's were highly-leveraged -- many times the amount of the actual loans. When the subprime loan crisis hit, the high leverage magnified the fallout, and huge sums of CDO derivatives became essentially worthless.

Do you remember when wealthy Orange County, California, went bankrupt in 1994? Yup, that was because it had invested in bad derivatives (and see this).

And, according to one of the world's top derivative insiders, the market for credit default swap ("CDS") derivatives is also unraveling.

And reported just today, Lehman Brothers is now on the edge, due to exposure to derivatives.

Derivatives are the Elephant in the Living Room

Forget about the subprime mortgage crisis. Forget about high oil and food prices. Those are both horrible, and very harmful to the economy. But -- according to top insiders -- derivatives are the elephant in the room as the single largest threat to the U.S. and world economy.

One reason is that, according to Paul Volcker, the former chairman of the Federal Reserve, the entire modern financial system is based upon derivatives, and the financial system today is entirely different from the traditional American or global financial system because derivatives now underly the entire fabric of the financial system. The current system is a house of cards based upon derivatives.

And yet banks and financial houses have hidden their derivatives exposure off the balance sheets. No wonder almost no one understands derivatives:
"Not only [world's richest man] Warren Buffett, but Bond King Bill Gross, our Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke, the Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson and the rest of America's leaders can't 'figure out'" the derivatives market.
Indeed, the government may have actively helped to hide the the derivatives mess since at least 2006. According to Business Week:
"President George W. Bush has bestowed on his intelligence czar, John Negroponte, broad authority, in the name of national security, to excuse publicly traded companies from their usual accounting and securities-disclosure obligations."
Former fed chairman Alan Greenspan has been a huge booster for and defender of derivatives for many years. Did you know that the same guy that pushed subprime loans also aggressively pushed derivatives?

And the other regulatory agencies and Congress have taken a totally hands-off approach towards derivatives.

How Big a Problem?

How big is the derivatives market? Worldwide, it is $516 trillion dollar. The derivatives market dwarfs the real market for goods and services, and acts likes an unregulated black market.

As one writer put it:
"It’s all smoke and mirrors. The financial system has decoupled from the productive elements of the economy and is now beginning to show disturbing signs of instability."
And its not just the U.S. Derivatives salesmen have sold these babies all over the world. Because banks, financial institutions and governments world-wide have bought significant derivatives, the fall out will not be limited solely to the U.S. See this and this.

If the derivatives market is truly unwinding, as my investment advisor friend and some of the top industry insiders say, we could be in for a very bumpy ride.

For further information on derivatives, see these articles:


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