By John Lawrence / San Diego Free Press / June 30, 2012
As a young twenty something ingenue at JP Morgan Chase, Blythe Masters was the inventor of the Credit Default Swap (CDS), the financial instrument responsible for almost destroying the global financial system in 2008. Warren Buffett called CDSs “financial weapons of mass destruction.” But exactly what are CDSs and how did they function to almost bring down the entire global banking system?
CDSs came about from JP Morgan Chase, Goldman Sachs and other large banks’ desire to offload risk and thereby strengthen their balance sheets. They would then be in a position to do more deals due to the fact that they would not have to keep so much collateral on their books to back up their deals. If a loan or bet went south, someone else would be responsible for paying off on the insurance policy, not them.
Thus they could increase their profits by doing more and more trades without having to worry about paying off on any of them if anything went awry. That would be some other institution’s responsibility. A CDS was an insurance policy. Furthermore, you wouldn’t even have to be directly involved as a party or counterparty. You could purchase a “naked” CDS. This is like betting on a horse that you don’t own and have no financial stake in or responsibility for.
When the big banks entered the subprime loan market, their problem was “how do we get the rating agencies such as Moody’s and Standard and Poor’s to rate these securities as anything other than trash and make them more attractive to investors?” First, the subprime loans were bundled together and securitized creating Collateralized Debt Obligations (CDOs). Then they were sold off in tranches (slices) to investors. Blythe Masters’ invention circa 1996 enabled them to be rated AAA. How they did it was this. The rating agencies might want to have rated the CDOs BBB or CCC, but the banks said to them “How about if we throw in some insurance that these mortgages won’t default? Will that raise the credit rating of this worthless junk?” Sure enough the rating agencies said. So part of the package became a CDS which effectively guaranteed the CDO and got it rated AAA. Investors ate up the product never bothering to look at the underlying worthless mortgages.
A AAA rating was good enough for them. After all how could they go wrong with a AAA rated investment product? Then as soon as the deal was done, JP Morgan Chase traded off the CDS to someone else like AIG, for instance. No regulator or anyone else ever bothered to ask if AIG had the assets to back up the risk it had taken on and JP Morgan was free to go on and make other trades and deals since the need to back up any of these deals had just been transferred to some other institution. Without a lot of risk weighing down their balance sheets the big banks were free to make more deals, more trades and higher profits.
Insurance companies are the most highly regulated companies on the planet since it is important to know that an insurance company has the assets to back up the policies it writes. However, no one bothered to check if CDSs, which are essentially insurance products, were backed up by anything and this is what in a nutshell caused the financial deluge of 2008. And the regulatory atmosphere during the Bush administration was that no regulation was good regulation.
When subprime mortgages went belly up, the investors tried to redeem their CDSs only to find out that the institutions who had pledged to make them whole didn’t have the assets to do so. This is what caused Bear Stearns to throw itself at Tim Geithner’s and Ben Bernanke’s feet in March of 2008 and beg for mercy. They engineered a takeover of Bear by JP Morgan Chase and to sweeten the deal they gave JP Morgan $30 billion. So they said in effect ‘here take $30 billion and Bear Stearns and problem solved’. But the problem was not solved.
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John Lawrence edits Will Blog for Food