Monday, September 29, 2008

Complexity illustrated: Lehman WAS too connected to fail

This WSJ article illustrates what I discussed more abstractly in this earlier post Notional vs net: complexity is our enemy. The story claims that by allowing Lehman to fail, Treasury and the Fed triggered the final stage of the crisis that got us to where we are today. I've included my figures from the earlier post here.

...in an age where markets, banks and investors are linked through a web of complex and opaque financial relationships, the pain of letting a large institution go has proved almost overwhelming.

In hindsight, some critics say the systemic crisis that has emerged since the Lehman collapse could have been avoided if the government had stepped in.





The Fed had been pushing Wall Street firms for months to set up a new clearinghouse for credit-default swaps. The idea was to provide a more orderly settlement of trades in this opaque, diffuse market with a staggering $55 trillion in notional value, and, among other things, make the market less vulnerable if a major dealer failed. But that hadn't gotten off the ground. As a result, nobody knew exactly which firms had made trades with Lehman and for what amounts. On Monday, those trades would be stuck in limbo. In a last-ditch effort to ease the problem, New York Fed staff worked with Lehman officials and the firm's major trading partners to figure out which firms were on opposite sides of trades with Lehman and cancel them out. If, for example, two of Lehman's trading partners had made opposite bets on the debt of General Motors Corp., they could cancel their trades with Lehman and face each other directly instead.

This figure shows three trades which almost cancel. Remove one of the counterparties and you have chaos instead of hedges. In a last ditch effort, after letting Lehman fail, Treasury tried to cancel these trades out manually -- good luck! Why did we not have a central exchange in place earlier?


Oops, there goes AIG! (Big issuer of CDS insurance.)

The reaction was most evident in the massive credit-default-swap market, where the cost of insurance against bond defaults shot up Monday in its largest one-day rise ever. In the U.S., the average cost of five-year insurance on $10 million in debt rose to $194,000 from $152,000 Friday, according to the Markit CDX index.

When the cost of default insurance rises, that generates losses for sellers of insurance, such as banks, hedge funds and insurance companies. At the same time, those sellers must put up extra cash as collateral to guarantee they will be able to make good on their obligations. On Monday alone, sellers of insurance had to find some $140 billion to make such margin calls, estimates asset-management firm Bridgewater Associates. As investors scrambled to get the cash, they were forced to sell whatever they could -- a liquidation that hit financial markets around the world. ...AIG was one of the biggest sellers in the default insurance market, with contracts outstanding on more than $400 billion in bonds.

To make matters worse, actual trading in the CDS market declined to a trickle as players tried to assess how much of their money was tied up in Lehman. The bankruptcy meant that many hedge funds and banks that were on the profitable side of a trade with Lehman were now out of luck because they couldn't collect their money.

...At around 7 a.m. Tuesday in New York, the market got its first jolt of how bad the day was going to be: In London, the British Bankers' Association reported a huge rise in the London interbank offered rate, a benchmark that is supposed to reflect banks' borrowing costs. In its sharpest spike ever, overnight dollar Libor had risen to 6.44% from 3.11%. But even at those rates, banks were balking at lending to one another.

Who was next after AIG? Time for a bailout!

...Goldman, Paulson's former employer, had up to $20B of CDS exposure to AIG. The current head of Goldman was the only Wall St. executive invited to the meetings between AIG and the government. Conflict of interest for soon to be King Henry Paulson?

5 comments:

dr. nar said...

I must admit, letting Lehman fail seemed like a way to bring international markets down with us to soften the relative blow.

Born Again Democrat said...

You are the best, Hsu. Surprised you don't have a bigger following.

Avatar said...

Swaps and Derivative are rather simple to understand. Did you know that you can payoff all the sub prime loans for $536,964,808,868. If you payoff the loans of those that had been late in the last 12 months it would be $227,136,207,581. Its a ponzi scheme look at the banks Revenues and compare them with their net income the annual reports are available online. nomedals.blogspot.com

STS said...

Some good background on the "black hole" that ate AIG.

Bee said...

It is not complexity that is our enemy, but the lacking resilience of the system. True, increasing complexity typically goes along with less resilience but it's the latter that causes the breakdown. The task at hand is quite obvious: how do you make the system more resilient without hindering it's functionality. We've been living too close to the edge of chaos.

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