A Simple Explanation of How The Use of Derivatives Created The Great Recession

by cactus

A Simple Explanation of How The Use of Derivatives Created The Great Recession

In comments to a post by fellow Angry Bear Robert Waldman, reader Cantab writes:

Nobody here has come up with a believable story on how derivatives hurt the economy or were the cause of the recession. All we really get is a claim that they happened together and the further assertion that derivates [sic] caused the recession rather than the more likely story that derivatives were the victim of the recession.

I’m pretty sure Cantab is wrong but I don’t have the time to find the various posts that described the issue. But I can summarize:

1. Derivatives are about magnifying bets. A $2 bet on a derivative can be the same thing as a $100 bet on the asset that underlies the security. Thus, if the asset doubles in value, instead of taking home an extra $2 on your bet, you take home an extra $100. But if the price of the asset falls in half, instead of losing $2 on your bet, you lose $100.
2. On Wall Street, everyone leveraged up. After all, the worst that can happen when you gamble with monster leverage is that you go bankrupt. But if you win your bets, you make humongous profits.
3. Inevitably, when everyone is leveraged up, at least some of those who are leveraged must sooner or later make some bad bets. But the losses associated with these leveraged up bad bets was much bigger than in the past. Instead of losing $2 on their $2 bets as would have happened in the past, they lost $100. In the past, the losers’ assets would simply have been liquidated, and those assets would have been enough to cover a substantial part of the losses. With derivatives, liquidation covers an insignificant piece of what is owed.
4. Result: massive, and I mean massive, losses to the firm’s creditors. Perhaps big enough to drive their creditors out of business too. And those creditors have creditors too…
5. As a result of 4, a firm could win all its bets and still be driven out of business, simply by virtue of being stupid enough to bet against another firm who realized point 2. (And every firm on Wall Street, apparently, realized point 2.) In fact, a firm could be driven out of business despite winning its bets if one of its counterparties was stupid enough to bet against another firm who realized point 2. Being twice or three times removed from a loser might not be enough to keep a firm from being pulled under.
6. Derivatives are also opaque. There’s no way of knowing who took out which bets with who until someone declares bankruptcy.
7. Very quickly, it became apparent that any of the firms on Wall Street might already be on the inevitable path toward bankruptcy, but there was no way at all to tell the difference between those that were on that path and those that weren’t, or even if there were any firms that weren’t headed toward bankruptcy.
8. All deals ceased. The real world, that had gotten used to unlimited amounts of cheap money sloshing around, abruptly and without warning found itself cut off from its fix. Expansions plans, hiring, etc. were put on hold. And companies that were teetering on the edge that earlier would have found some savior on Wall Street found themselves having to shut down or scale back instead.

I have to admit, its taken me a while to come to terms to how big the derivative market was. I had no idea, no inkling of its size back in March of 2008 when I began asking what was different about the current recession. As a result, though I noted the possibility of a “major downturn”, I was surprised by exactly how big the downturn would really be. What scares me is that that I’m not seeing anything, anything at all that prevents or even makes the 8 steps I described above any less likely to occur. The bail-outs were madness. Those who knowingly go out of their way to play with dynamite should be allowed to blow themselves up, and the job of government should be to prevent the rest of us from having to deal with the consequences.

Which brings me back to something else I wrote in 2008. We need a public option… in the financial system. Let the public bank at the Fed the way the banks bank at the Fed. If given a choice between keeping my money at B of A or the Fed, I know which I’ll pick.