March 01, 2010

If you can pay out on a credit default swap you are not naked.

Sir Wolfgang Münchau opines that it is “Time to outlaw naked credit default swaps” arguing that “the case for banning them is as strong as that for banning bank robberies”, March1. I must say that the simile provided is quite unfortunate not only because it is not more bank-robbery than the robbery that can be carried out by the bankers inside a bank but also because though bank robberies have always been banned that has not prevented them from happening.

The real risk with naked credit default swaps is that it permits someone to collect upfront the insurance premiums without necessarily having to capacity to pay up when the incident occurs, in other words the counter-party risk. If all those who are now selling a five years CDS contract covering Greek Bonds for €394.000 per year could immediately pay out the €10m they had obliged themselves to do then nothing would have happened except for a redistribution of moneys… and of course there would be no robbery involved.

In this respect we should not outlaw the CDS but instead assure these CDS are traded through clearing houses that apply rules which really guarantee the payouts, and make sure that our banks are required to have so large capital requirements against their CDS positions so as to remain banks instead of becoming bookies. AIG went wrong not because of its bets but because of the unlimited credit that because of the AAA-ratings it received as a bookie.

Sincerely, what could be more naked that the fact that our banks can hold zero capital when lending to sovereigns rated AAA to AA-? That has helped to cause the huge public debt overhangs much more than any consequential CDS trading has done and so, if something real is to be done about it, let us go for the jugular.