How Greece Could Take Down Wall Street
by Ellen Brown Global Research, February 21, 2012
Web of Debt
In an article titled “Still No End to ‘Too Big to Fail,’” William Greider wrote in The Nation on February 15th: Financial market cynics have assumed all along that Dodd-Frank did not end "too big to fail" but instead created a charmed circle of protected banks labeled "systemically important" that will not be allowed to fail, no matter how badly they behave.
That may be, but there is one bit of bad behavior that Uncle Sam himself does not have the funds to underwrite: the $32 trillion market in credit default swaps (CDS). Thirty-two trillion dollars is more than twice the U.S. GDP and more than twice the national debt.
CDS are a form of derivative taken out by investors as insurance against default. According to the Comptroller of the Currency, nearly 95% of the banking industry’s total exposure to derivatives contracts is held by the nation’s five largest banks: JPMorgan Chase, Citigroup, Bank of America, HSBC, and Goldman Sachs. The CDS market is unregulated, and there is no requirement that the “insurer” actually have the funds to pay up. CDS are more like bets, and a massive loss at the casino could bring the house down.
It could, at least, unless the casino is rigged. Whether a “credit event” is a “default” triggering a payout is determined by the International Swaps and Derivatives Association (ISDA), and it seems that the ISDA is owned by the world’s largest banks and hedge funds. That means the house determines whether the house has to pay.
The Houses of Morgan, Goldman and the other Big Five are justifiably worried right now, because an “event of default” declared on European sovereign debt could jeopardize their $32 trillion derivatives scheme. According to Rudy Aviziusin an article on The Market Oracle (UK) on February 15th, that explains what happened at MF Global, and why the 50% Greek bond write-down was not declared an event of default.
If you paid only 50% of your mortgage every month, these same banks would quickly declare you in default. But the rules are quite different when the banks are the insurers underwriting the deal.
MF Global: Canary in the Coal Mine?
MF Global was a major global financial derivatives broker until it met its unseemly demise on October 30, 2011, when it filed the eighth-largest U.S. bankruptcy after reporting a “material shortfall” of hundreds of millions of dollars in segregated customer funds. The brokerage used a large number of complex and controversial repurchase agreements, or "repos," for funding and for leveraging profit. Among its losing bets was something described as a wrong-way $6.3 billion trade the brokerage made on its own behalf on bonds of some of Europe’s most indebted nations.
[A]n agreement was reached in Europe that investors would have to take a write-down of 50% on Greek Bond debt. Now MF Global was leveraged anywhere from 40 to 1, to 80 to 1 depending on whose figures you believe. Let’s assume that MF Global was leveraged 40 to 1, this means that they could not even absorb a small 3% loss, so when the “haircut” of 50% was agreed to, MF Global was finished. It tried to stem its losses by criminally dipping into segregated client accounts, and we all know how that ended with clients losing their money...
However, MF Global thought that they had risk-free speculation because they had bought these CDS from these big banks to protect themselves in case their bets on European Debt went bad. MF Global should have been protected by its CDS, but since the ISDA would not declare the Greek “credit event” to be a default, MF Global could not cover its losses, causing its collapse.
The house won because it was able to define what “ winning” was. But what happens when Greece or another country simply walks away and refuses to pay? That is hardly a “haircut.” It is a decapitation. The asset is in rigor mortis. By no dictionary definition could it not qualify as a “default.”Myron Scholes won the Riksbank Prize ("Nobel" prize for economics) for this silliness. He was one of the big geniuses behind Long Term Capital Management. He is associated with both the University of Chicago AND Stanford so this guy is considered an economic A-lister. The fact that his great formula was an unmitigated disaster has not been widely reported. I do especially love that fact that Ian Stewart is still convinced in this article that there is nothing especially wrong with the basic Black-Scholes formula itself—because to do that would call into question all his cheerleading for neoliberalism over the past three decades.
That sort of definitive Greek default is thought by some analysts to be quite likely, and to be coming soon. Dr. Irwin Stelzer, a senior fellow and director of Hudson Institute’s economic policy studies group, was quoted in Saturday’s Yorkshire Post (UK) as saying:
It’s only a matter of time before they go bankrupt. They are bankrupt now, it’s only a question of how you recognise it and what you call it.
Certainly they will default . . . maybe as early as March. If I were them I’d get out [of the euro].
The Midas Touch Gone Bad
In an article in The Observer (UK) on February 11th titled “The Mathematical Equation That Caused the Banks to Crash,” (see below) Ian Stewart wrote of the Black-Scholes equation that opened up the world of derivatives:
The financial sector called it the Midas Formula and saw it as a recipe for making everything turn to gold. But the markets forgot how the story of King Midas ended.
As Aristotle told this ancient Greek tale, Midas died of hunger as a result of his vain prayer for the golden touch. Today, the Greek people are going hungry to protect a rigged $32 trillion Wall Street casino. Avizius writes:
The money made by selling these derivatives is directly responsible for the huge profits and bonuses we now see on Wall Street. The money masters have reaped obscene profits from this scheme, but now they live in fear that it will all unravel and the gravy train will end. What these banks have done is to leverage the system to such an extreme, that the entire house of cards is threatened by a small country of only 11 million people. Greece could bring the entire world economy down. If a default was declared, the resulting payouts would start a chain reaction that would cause widespread worldwide bank failures, making the Lehman collapse look small by comparison.
Some observers question whether a Greek default would be that bad. According to a comment on Forbes on October 10, 2011:
[T]he gross notional value of Greek CDS contracts as of last week was €54.34 billion, according to the latest report from data repository Depository Trust & Clearing Corporation (DTCC). DTCC is able to undertake internal netting analysis due to having data on essentially all of the CDS market. And it reported that the net losses would be an order of magnitude lower, with the maximum amount of funds that would move from one bank to another in connection with the settlement of CDS claims in a default being just €2.68 billion, total. If DTCC’s analysis is correct, the CDS market for Greek debt would not much magnify the consequences of a Greek default—unless it stimulated contagion that affected other European countries.
It is the “contagion,” however, that seems to be the concern. Players who have hedged their bets by betting both ways cannot collect on their winning bets; and that means they cannot afford to pay their losing bets, causing other players to also default on their bets. The dominos go down in a cascade of cross-defaults that infects the whole banking industry and jeopardizes the global pyramid scheme. The potential for this sort of nuclear reaction was what prompted billionaire investor Warren Buffett to call derivatives “weapons of financial mass destruction.” It is also why the banking system cannot let a major derivatives player—such as Bear Stearns or Lehman Brothers—go down. What is in jeopardy is the derivatives scheme itself. more
The mathematical equation that caused the banks to crash
The Black-Scholes equation was the mathematical justification for the trading that plunged the world's banks into catastrophe
Ian Stewart 11 February 2012
In the Black-Scholes equation, the symbols represent these variables: σ = volatility of returns of the underlying asset/commodity; S = its spot (current) price; δ = rate of change; V = price of financial derivative; r = risk-free interest rate; t = time. Photograph: Asif Hassan/AFP/Getty Images
It was the holy grail of investors. The Black-Scholes equation, brainchild of economists Fischer Black and Myron Scholes, provided a rational way to price a financial contract when it still had time to run. It was like buying or selling a bet on a horse, halfway through the race. It opened up a new world of ever more complex investments, blossoming into a gigantic global industry. But when the sub-prime mortgage market turned sour, the darling of the financial markets became the Black Hole equation, sucking money out of the universe in an unending stream.
Anyone who has followed the crisis will understand that the real economy of businesses and commodities is being upstaged by complicated financial instruments known as derivatives. These are not money or goods. They are investments in investments, bets about bets. Derivatives created a booming global economy, but they also led to turbulent markets, the credit crunch, the near collapse of the banking system and the economic slump. And it was the Black-Scholes equation that opened up the world of derivatives.
The equation itself wasn't the real problem. It was useful, it was precise, and its limitations were clearly stated. It provided an industry-standard method to assess the likely value of a financial derivative. So derivatives could be traded before they matured. The formula was fine if you used it sensibly and abandoned it when market conditions weren't appropriate. The trouble was its potential for abuse. It allowed derivatives to become commodities that could be traded in their own right. The financial sector called it the Midas Formula and saw it as a recipe for making everything turn to gold. But the markets forgot how the story of King Midas ended.
Black-Scholes underpinned massive economic growth. By 2007, the international financial system was trading derivatives valued at one quadrillion dollars per year. This is 10 times the total worth, adjusted for inflation, of all products made by the world's manufacturing industries over the last century. The downside was the invention of ever-more complex financial instruments whose value and risk were increasingly opaque. So companies hired mathematically talented analysts to develop similar formulas, telling them how much those new instruments were worth and how risky they were. Then, disastrously, they forgot to ask how reliable the answers would be if market conditions changed.
Black and Scholes invented their equation in 1973; Robert Merton supplied extra justification soon after. It applies to the simplest and oldest derivatives: options. There are two main kinds. A put option gives its buyer the right to sell a commodity at a specified time for an agreed price. A call option is similar, but it confers the right to buy instead of sell. The equation provides a systematic way to calculate the value of an option before it matures. Then the option can be sold at any time. The equation was so effective that it won Merton and Scholes the 1997 Nobel prize in economics. (Black had died by then, so he was ineligible.)
If everyone knows the correct value of a derivative and they all agree, how can anyone make money? The formula requires the user to estimate several numerical quantities. But the main way to make money on derivatives is to win your bet – to buy a derivative that can later be sold at a higher price, or matures with a higher value than predicted. The winners get their profit from the losers. In any given year, between 75% and 90% of all options traders lose money. The world's banks lost hundreds of billions when the sub-prime mortgage bubble burst. In the ensuing panic, taxpayers were forced to pick up the bill, but that was politics, not mathematical economics.
The Black-Scholes equation relates the recommended price of the option to four other quantities. Three can be measured directly: time, the price of the asset upon which the option is secured and the risk-free interest rate. This is the theoretical interest that could be earned by an investment with zero risk, such as government bonds. The fourth quantity is the volatility of the asset. This is a measure of how erratically its market value changes. The equation assumes that the asset's volatility remains the same for the lifetime of the option, which need not be correct. Volatility can be estimated by statistical analysis of price movements but it can't be measured in a precise, foolproof way, and estimates may not match reality. more