One year ago, this article appeared in the New York Times. The corporations listed in the article are the very ones in today’s headlines.
No one knows how troubled the credit swaps market is, because, like the now-distressed market for subprime mortgage securities, it is unregulated. But because swaps have proliferated so rapidly, experts say that a hiccup in this market could set off a chain reaction of losses at financial institutions, making it even harder for borrowers to get loans that grease economic activity.
Both factors have resulted in a market of credit swaps that now far exceeds the face value of corporate bonds underlying it. Commercial banks are among the biggest participants — at the end of the third quarter of 2007, the top 25 banks held credit default swaps, both as insurers and insured, worth $14 trillion, the currency office said, up $2 trillion from the previous quarter.
But many speculators, particularly hedge funds, have flocked to these instruments to bet on a company failure easily. Before the insurance was developed, such a bet would require selling short a corporation’s bond and going into the market to borrow it to supply to the buyer.
The market’s popularity raises the possibility that undercapitalized participants could have trouble paying their obligations.
“The theme had been that derivatives are an instrument that helps diversify risk and stabilize risk-taking,” said Henry Kaufman, the economist at Henry Kaufman & Company in New York and an authority on the ways of Wall Street. “My own view of that has always been highly questionable — those instruments also encourage significant risk-taking and looking at risk modestly rather than incisively.”
Officials at the International Swaps and Derivatives Association, a trade group, say they are confident that the market will stand up, even under stress.
“During the volatility we have seen in the last eight months, credit default swaps continue to trade, unlike other parts of the credit market that have shut down,” said Robert G. Pickel, chief executive of the association. “Even if we have a series of credit events at the same time, we have the processes in place to enable the market to deliver.”
As with other securities that trade privately and by appointment, assigning values to credit default swaps is highly subjective. So some on Wall Street wonder how much of the paper gains generated in these instruments by firms and hedge funds last year will turn out to be illusory when they try to cash them in.
Smoke and Mirrors
There is no exchange where these insurance contracts trade, and their prices are not reported to the public. Because of this, institutions typically value them based on computer models rather than prices set by the market.
Neither are the participants overseen by regulators verifying that the parties to the transactions can meet their obligations.
The potential for problems in sizing up the financial health of buyers of these securities leads to questions about how these insurance contracts are being valued on banks’ books. A bank that has bought protection to cover its corporate bond exposure thinks it is hedged and therefore does not write off paper losses it may incur on those bond holdings. If the party who sold the insurance cannot pay on its claim in the event of a default, however, the bank’s losses would have to be reflected on its books.