CDOs explained (or, “Holy crap!”)

| December 2, 2008

Alan Kohler at the Business Spectator down in Australia does his best to explain CDOs, CDSs, and SPVs, then gets down to brass tacks:

It is now getting very interesting. The three Icelandic banks have defaulted, as has Countrywide, Lehman and Bear Stearns. AIG has been taken over by the US Government, which is counted as a part-default, and Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae are in “conservatorship”, which is also a part default – a ‘part default’ does not count as a ‘full default’ in calculating the nine that would trigger the CDS liabilities.

Ambac, MBIA, PMI, General Motors, Ford and a lot of US home builders are teetering.

If the list of defaults – full and partial – gets to nine, then a mass transfer of money will take place from unsuspecting investors around the world into the banking system. How much? Nobody knows, but it’s many trillions.

It will be the most colossal rights issue in the history of the world, all at once and non-renounceable. Actually, make that mandatory.

The distress among those who lose their money will be immense. It will be a real loss, not a theoretical paper loss. Cash will be transferred from their own bank accounts into the issuing bank, via these Cayman Islands special purpose vehicles.

The repercussions on the losers and the economies in which they live, will be unpredictable but definitely huge. Councils will have to put up rates to continue operating. Charities will go to the wall and be unable to continue helping those in need. Individual investors will lose everything.

There will also be a tsunami of litigation, as dumbfounded investors try to get their money back, claiming to have been deceived by the sales people who sold them the products. In Australia, some councils are already suing the now-defunct Lehman Brothers, and litigation funder, IMF Australia, has been studying synthetic CDOs for nine months preparing for the storm.

But for the banks, it’s happy days. Suddenly, when the ninth reference entity tips over, they will be flooded with capital. It’s possible they will have so much new capital, they won’t know what to do with it.

This is entirely uncharted territory so it’s impossible to know what will happen, but it is possible that the credit crunch will come to sudden and complete end, like the passing of a tornado that has left devastation in its wake, along with an eerie silence.

Read the whole thing, a few times preferably. And for those of you keeping score as to how we got into this mess in the first place:

CDOs were invented by Michael Milken’s Drexel Burnham Lambert in the late 1980s as a way to bundle asset backed securities into tranches with the same rating, so that investors could focus simply on the rating rather than the issuer of the bond.

About a decade later, a team working within JP Morgan Chase invented credit default swaps, which are contractual bets between two parties about whether a third party will default on its debt. In 2000 these were made legal, and at the same time were prevented from being regulated, by the Commodity Futures Modernization Act, which specifies that products offered by banking institutions could not be regulated as futures contracts.

This bill, by the way, was 11,000 pages long, was never debated by Congress and was signed into law by President Clinton a week after it was passed. It lies at the root of America’s failure to regulate the debt derivatives that are now threatening the global economy.

Interesting times, folks, interesting times.  ..bruce w..

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Category: Credit Backlash, Economics, Main, Recession Watch, US Politics

About the Author ()

Webster is Principal and Founder at Bruce F. Webster & Associates, as well as an Adjunct Professor of Computer Science at Brigham Young University. He works with organizations to help them with troubled or failed information technology (IT) projects. He has also worked in several dozen legal cases as a consultant and as a testifying expert, both in the United States and Japan. He can be reached at bwebster@bfwa.com, or you can follow him on Twitter as @bfwebster.

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  1. Credit default swaps, CDOs and SPVs explained | Les Jones | December 18, 2008