45 trillion credit swap market…how big is that?

The ABX.HE index, which is based on credit default swaps on different tranches of subprime mortgage-backed securities. (Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland)

Hat tip to Jim Satterfield for this link to Marketplace public radio. Bob Moon is the Senior Business Correspondent.

MOON: OK, I’m about to unload some numbers on you here, so I’ll speak slowly so you can follow this.

The value of the entire U.S. Treasuries market: $4.5 trillion.

The value of the entire mortgage market: $7 trillion.

The size of the U.S. stock market: $22 trillion.

OK, you ready?

The size of the credit default swap market last year: $45 trillion.

RYSSDAL: OK, I’m with you, but let me ask you this. We just had the secretary of the Treasury yesterday with a big policy announcement. If these things are so bad, what’s being done about it?

MOON: The irony here is that the former Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan, a couple of years ago he called credit default swaps “probably the most important instrument in finance,” because they were supposed to spread risk around and stabilize the market. Well, critics now say that they’ve had exactly the opposite effect. One of the leading critics of these things is Christopher Whalen. He’s an expert on financial risk at Institutional Risk Analytics. And he told me that this is nothing more than government-guaranteed gambling:

CHRISTOPHER WHALEN: They are the most hideous kind of speculation. To have a federally insured bank like JPMorgan as the largest dealer in this market, to me says we don’t know what we’re doing anymore, and we don’t understand the difference between real work — real economic activity — and something that’s essentially wasting.

MOON: And Whalen points out that Bear Stearns had more than $2.5 trillion in credit default swaps. He suspects that that’s why JPMorgan came to the rescue, so it didn’t get pulled down.

Update: Do you know what notational means? Comments are a must read.

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