Even Yet More on Credit Default Swaps

| Wed Nov. 12, 2008 7:09 PM EST

EVEN YET MORE ON CREDIT DEFAULT SWAPS....Admit it: you can't get enough of credit default swaps, can you? Well, after yesterday's post on the subject, a bunch of people insisted that I needed to read Michael Lewis's latest piece in Portfolio right away, and since I'm a big Michael Lewis fan I got right on it. As usual, it's great, so do yourself a favor and drink in the whole thing sometime soon.

For now, though, let's focus just on the CDS part of Lewis's piece. Here's the backstory: a hedge fund manager named Steve Eisman, who believed the entire subprime house of cards was due to implode, wanted a way to bet against the market. So he shorted the stocks of subprime originators like New Century and Indy Mac and then looked around for even more targeted ways to make money on the coming collapse. The Holy Grail came from Greg Lippman, a mortgage-bond trader at Deutsche Bank:

The smart trade, Lippman argued, was to sell short not New Century's stock but its bonds that were backed by the subprime loans it had made. Eisman hadn't known this was even possible — because until recently, it hadn't been. But Lippman, along with traders at other Wall Street investment banks, had created a way to short the subprime bond market with precision....Instead of shorting the actual BBB bond, you could now enter into an agreement for a credit-default swap with Deutsche Bank or Goldman Sachs. It cost money to make this side bet, but nothing like what it cost to short the stocks, and the upside was far greater.

But why was a bond trader recommending that Eisman short bonds in his own market? The answer came after Eisman had a conversation at an industry dinner:

His dinner companion in Las Vegas ran a fund of about $15 billion and managed C.D.O.'s backed by the BBB tranche of a mortgage bond, or as Eisman puts it, "the equivalent of three levels of dog shit lower than the original bonds."....[But] not only did he not mind that Eisman took a dim view of his C.D.O.'s; he saw it as a basis for friendship. "Then he said something that blew my mind," Eisman tells me. "He says, 'I love guys like you who short my market. Without you, I don't have anything to buy.' "

That's when Eisman finally got it. Here he'd been making these side bets with Goldman Sachs and Deutsche Bank on the fate of the BBB tranche without fully understanding why those firms were so eager to make the bets. Now he saw. There weren't enough Americans with shitty credit taking out loans to satisfy investors' appetite for the end product. The firms used Eisman's bet to synthesize more of them....The only assets backing the bonds were the side bets Eisman and others made with firms like Goldman Sachs. Eisman, in effect, was paying to Goldman the interest on a subprime mortgage. In fact, there was no mortgage at all. "They weren't satisfied getting lots of unqualified borrowers to borrow money to buy a house they couldn't afford," Eisman says. "They were creating them out of whole cloth. One hundred times over! That's why the losses are so much greater than the loans. But that's when I realized they needed us to keep the machine running. I was like, This is allowed?"

I still won't pretend that I fully understand this. In fact, every time I read a story like this, it seems to get right up to the good stuff — "They were creating them out of whole cloth. One hundred times over!" — and then suddenly moves on. But I want more! I want an entire 10,000 word piece on how the combination of CDOs and CDS allowed Wall Street to magnify their underlying subprime losses so catastrophically. Instead, I just get a teaser and then the story meanders off in a more colorful direction.

Better than nothing, I suppose. And you should read Lewis's entire piece regardless. But I still wish someone could explain in layman's terms what this all means.

UPDATE: Further explanation here on what Eisman was doing and how the swaps he bought "synthesized" subprime mortgages. It doesn't explain exactly how big CDS losses are or which sectors of the financial industry lost most of the money from them, but it does explain the mechanics a bit better.

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