CDS Demonization

| Thu Nov. 6, 2008 12:19 PM EST

CDS DEMONIZATION....Are credit default swaps a major villain in the global banking meltdown? Felix Salmon, responding to a piece by Nathaniel Baker, says no:

How do we know this? Well, just look at the magnitude of the exposures that Baker is talking about. Back in January, Bernstein Research analysts totted them up, and came to the conclusion that Lehman's unsecured exposure to triple-A counterparties in general — not just the monolines — was $4 billion: large, but certainly not large enough to bring down a bank with a balance sheet of over $600 billion. Bear Stearns's exposure was smaller still, just $330 million. What fraction of that exposure eventually turned up on the banks' income statements as a mark-to-market loss? That I don't know, but it's not necessarily very large: remember that AIG's troubles only really snowballed after Lehman and Bear had gone under — and AIG was by far the largest triple-A writer of CDS.

Salmon thinks the "CDS demonization meme" is dangerous, but I'm a little confused on this score. It's a little hard to get a handle on an exact figure, but within the U.S. banking system total losses on subprime mortgages themselves probably total around half a trillion dollars. That's a helluva lot of money, but it's nowhere near enough to crash the system. That can only happen if the losses are magnified several times over via derivative losses.

Now, Salmon's point is that the CDS market is only a small portion of the total OTC derivative market. And that's a fair point. But in a previous piece, Salmon wrote this:

I had lunch yesterday with Shane Akeroyd of Markit, and he had a more sophisticated take on what we're seeing. The problem isn't CDS specifically or even derivatives in general, he said: the problem is that the world had an enormous amount of leverage, and all that leverage is now being unwound at once. Do CDS make it easier to firms to lever up? Yes — but if CDS hadn't been around, some other instrument would have been found which had the same effect.

Well — OK. Maybe bankers would have found some other way to lever up. But in the event, Akeroyd is saying, they used CDS. So why then is it unfair to say that CDS exposure was a huge driver of the financial meltdown?

Salmon's larger crusade is to defend derivatives in general, and CDS in particular, as useful devices when they aren't abused, but it's not clear to me that this is especially controversial. The question is, how should they be regulated in the future to ensure that they aren't abused? I agree that leverage itself should be the primary target of regulatory reform, but surely, under the circumstances, some reasonably strict trading rules on derivatives of all kinds will end up being part of that. Leverage is a hard thing to get at directly, after all, and we're going to need to attack it from a variety of directions. A bit of CDS demonization might not be a bad place to start from.

UPDATE: More here, including a response from Salmon.