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The storm is just starting to blow

Gordon Brown is being feted as the “master of the universe”. Stock markets yesterday were delirious with joy, making record-breaking, stratospheric leaps as governments around the world bailed out the banks. Right-wing Tory newspapers joined in unalloyed praise for the bankers’ government.

Is the financial storm over then? Er, no actually.

So far, sums approaching £2,000 billion (= £2 trillion) of taxpayers’ money have been committed by the governments of America, the UK and Europe to the bankers’ bail-out. Central banks are pouring “unlimited” amounts of US dollars into the global financial system in what will prove yet another failed attempt to prevent the mother of all meltdowns.

How can we be so sure?

Yes, £2 trillion sounds a lot, but the collecting bucket is effectively bottomless. This unimaginably large sum of money is dwarfed by a series of other giant hot-air balloons of fantasy finance queuing to burst in the background whilst Brown’s Punch to the bankers’ Judy struts temporarily in the foreground.

Among the balloons is the market in credit default swaps (CDS), a way of trading in risk. It began life in the mid-1990s and, largely because it has always been unregulated, and appeared to offer the possibility of reducing, or at least sharing risk, it attracted a great deal of interest.

The simple version of the story goes that a swap enables an organisation making a loan to a customer to insure against the customer defaulting on payments by establishing a private contract with a third party, paying a kind of insurance premium. It can’t be called “insurance” because that would make it liable to regulation. You wouldn’t want to call it “protection” either. People might think you’re a gangster.

The market grew very fast. Most major organisations are now caught up with each other in a lacework of interconnected contracts. Ok, so how much are we talking about? It’s difficult to be precise, because all the trading is in unregulated contracts hidden from public view. Nobody really knows. Data from the International Swaps and Derivatives Association (!) show that at the end of June, the CDS market had a notional value of $54 trillion. That's the same as the planet's 2007 GDP and nearly four times the value of all shares traded on the New York Stock Exchange. Other estimates puts the figure nearer $65 trillion. So what is the chance of this particular balloon bursting? It already did. On Friday, Moneyweek put it like this:

When one side of a trade defaults, it starts a chain reaction that raises the risk of others losing money. That's called 'counterparty risk', and is partly what has spooked investors into selling off assets and lenders into curbing credit. The collapse of Lehman Brothers has had a particularly big impact. Lehman wrote more than $700bn-worth of CDS. Now it's gone bust, investors who had taken out these CDS have been left without the insurance, so they're having to buy more, even though prices are now rising because of the general turmoil.

Initial results of the auction to determine the value of CDS on Lehman Brothers showed banks, hedge funds and other sellers of protection facing losses in the area of 90.25% of the insurance they sold.

The CDS market is only 10% of the global derivatives market, which covers all contracts taken out to minimise risk. This is the mysterious, unregulated world of futures, forwards, options and swaps. According to the Bank for International Settlements, the notional amounts outstanding at the end of 2007 totalled about $550 trillion on contracts privately traded between parties. As the global recession deepens, the number of parties unable to fulfil contracts will grow rapidly.

Is the storm over? It’s only just beginning to blow!

Gerry Gold
Economics editor
14 October 2008

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