Sunday, November 11, 2007

Empire of Debt

You cannot properly anticipate the coming wealth destruction unless you understand that the entire model rests on financial instruments (derivatives) which mask and distort risk. Thanks to readers Cheryl A. and U. Doran, I read the best description of how derivatives are written and sold--and how they blow up: Fiasco: The Inside Story of a Wall Street Trader.

Here is an analogy. Let's say you are offered a chance to play roulette, a very risky game of chance, but with an option for insurance which guarantees you will suffer no more than a tiny loss.

Let's say you place a $10 bet, in the hopes of winning $100. Your "insurance"--what we call a hedge, as in "hedging your bets"--costs only $1. Thus you can gamble $10, with a chance of winning as much as $100, and your loss is limited to a mere $1--the cost of your hedge. If you lose the $10, the other side of the hedge trade--whoever took your $1--will give you $10. Life is good, n'est pas?

Note what this hedge does: it makes you believe a high-risk game can be played at almost no risk. But alas, the game is inherently risky, and the reduction of risk is ultimately illusory: you can't change roulette into a low-risk gamble.

Since this is such a low-risk bet, you are soon gambling, say $100 billion. And why not? The hedges are so cheap! Abd everything goes swimmingly until the day you lose the $100 billion. Ah, bad luck, Mate; but no worries, you turn to the other side of your hedge and politely request your $100 billion.

Oops--that guy just lost his bets, too, and can't pay you. Now the risk of the underlying game is fully revealed; the entire hedge which made it all so "safe" is revealed as a house of cards which depends on all the other players being able to pay off their bets. Once they can't, well, as the saying goes, all bets are off.

To hide your immense losses, you continue to claim your bet is still worth $100 billion. Since you aren't required to "mark to market," i.e. reveal the market value of your bet, you stash the $100 billion loss in "Level 3" of your assets--a dark place where you can temporarily hide your worthless bets.

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