The horizon is not so far as we can see, but as far as we can imagine

Tag: Credit Default Swaps

Did AIG Never Intend to Pay Off Most Collateralized Debt Swaps?

There’s an interesting article going around which notes the widespread use of side-letters in the insurance industry. Side letters were used to say “even though you’ve said that you’ll take on X amount of risk on this insurance policy, we won’t hold you to that.”  The letters were generally buried off to one side, only to come to light if things did go wrong.  Insurance companies did this because if they bought say 1 million of reinsurance for $100,000, they freed up $900,000 of regulatory capital which they could continue to use for further insuring or lending and so on.

Think of this as essentially the same as fractional lending.  Insurers have to have enough assets on book to cover their liabilities—policies they may have to pay off on.  If somene else is going to pay off on that risk because you bought reinsurance from them, you don’t need that capital.  So buying reinsurance frees up capital.  As for the seller of reinsurance, they get money in exchange for no risk, if there’s a side letter.  Win, win.

The article goes on to suggest that many Credit Default Swaps (CDSs) AIG sold may have had similiar side letters, which since AIG was never seized, may have been destroyed.  I don’t know if such side letters existed, but my take is that neither side, in many cases, expected to every have to collect on CDSs, or pay on them.

But when everything went to hell, they certainly tried to.  The key fishy problem with AIG wasn’t the bonuses, it was that counterparties were getting paid 100% of the value of CDSs with government money, something they had no right to expect from what amounts to a bankrupt company.  In such a case, either as AIG or the counterparty, why would you bring up the side letters, if they exist?  The counterparties are getting money and AIG is paying out with money that isn’t theirs anyway.

As for the government, the reason all that money was given to AIG was specifically so they could pay off counterparties—it was a way of getting money to various damaged financial firms, including overseas ones, who needed the money, without it being obvious that the government was giving that money away, especially to foreign firms, which would have caused a firestorm

So, I don’t know if these side letters existed, and it’s worth finding out because if they did, that makes all the transactions fraudulent and we can insist on all the money back and prosecute.  But the bottom line is that the government, AIG and the counterparties all wanted the money to be paid out, whether there was a legal obligation or not.  So don’t expect anyone to look too hard, unless Congress really gets the bit between its teeth.

How To Reform Credit Default Swaps

Geithner was asked today if he believed in naked credit default swaps.  Apparently he does, but it was both the wrong question and answer.  Reform of credit default swaps needs to be thorough, and though through from basic principles.  Here’s how to fix credit default swaps.

The first step is a name change.  Call them insurance, because that’s what they are.  The insure against the possibility that you won’t get paid money someone owes you.  Once they’re called insurance, regulate them like insurance.

  1. Require an insurable interest.  That is, if Joe owes Fred money, Emma can’t buy insurance on Joe not paying Fred.  This is a fundamental rule in most insurance, you can’t insure someone else’s house against fire, because then you have a reason to want that house to wind up on fire, and no reason not to want it to burn down.
  2. Don’t allow over-insurance.  No debt can be insured for more than it’s worth.  If Joe owes Fred $100, then Fred can’t buy more than $100 worth of insurance.  In fact, better, he can’t buy more than $90 worth of insurance.  Again, we don’t want anyone better off if the debtor defaults than if they make the payments.  In life insurance there are many studies which show that people who are worth more dead than alive tend to die a lot more than people who aren’t over insured.  Imagine that.
  3. The mathematical models and actuarial tables used to figure out how much must be paid for insurance, the premiums, are set by government actuaries, just like they are in most other insurance businesses.  Current credit default models tended to assume things like “this housing bubble will last forever” and “there will never be another recession” and “defaults don’t cluster”.  Those assumptions were so wrong that building them into models amounted to fraud.
  4. No product which insures against credit default can be put on the market without actuaries from government regulatory bodies reviewing it.
  5. Proper reserves.  The party issuing the credit default swaps must have enough money to back them up, based on the governments actuarial charts and reserve requirements.  Life insurers and property insurers have to, so should credit insurers.  These reserves cannot be the debts the insurer is insuring.

There are other methods one could use to regulate and fix the default market, like having open exchange traded contracts, which could be made to work as well, but this is the simplest model and one that has worked well in the rest of the insurance industry.

The larger rule is simpler: no unregulated financial markets or entities without sufficient capital to cover their bets, so the taxpayer winds up stuck with the bill.  If you want to gamble, go to Las Vegas.  If you want to sell insurance, be a nice old fashioned stody insurance company who pays your executives low six figure salaries.

Does the Geithner Plan Reduce Credit Default Swap Risk Too?

Credit default swaps (CDSs) are still a big issue. Estimates of how much of the market is at risk vary, but the lowest I’ve seen is about $15 trillion.  If that goes bad, we’re probably talking another $3 or $4 trillion of damage.

While I agree that CDSs are an issue, I also think that taking bad assets off firm’s hands makes defaults on CDSs more unlikely, and thus reduces exposure to them.

Of course, this really depends on whether the fundamental problem lies with the economy or the financial market—or both.  If the economy keeps going south, then bailout after bailout will be needed, defaults will happen anyway, and CDSs will be called.  If the combination of fixing the financial sector plus the stimulus bill and military spending is enough to stop the economy’s downward spiral, on the other hand, then Geithner’s plan may well do the trick (once a couple more trillion are spent). We’ll see.

(Aside: Interest rate and currency swaps are about a 7 times larger market than CDSs.  The real risk is a currency meltdown by a major economy.)

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