Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Newsweek: How Credit Default Swaps Became a Timebomb

Very informative piece from Newsweek that helps explain how we got ourselves into this financial mess:

They're called "Off-Site Weekends"—rituals of the high-finance world in which teams of bankers gather someplace sunny to blow off steam and celebrate their successes as Masters of the Universe. Think yacht parties, bikini models, $1,000 bottles of Cristal. One 1994 trip by a group of JPMorgan bankers to the tony Boca Raton Resort & Club in Florida has become the stuff of Wall Street legend—though not for the raucous partying (although there was plenty of that, too). Holed up for most of the weekend in a conference room at the pink, Spanish-style resort, the JPMorgan bankers were trying to get their heads around a question as old as banking itself: how do you mitigate your risk when you loan money to someone? By the mid-'90s, JPMorgan's books were loaded with tens of billions of dollars in loans to corporations and foreign governments, and by federal law it had to keep huge amounts of capital in reserve in case any of them went bad. But what if JPMorgan could create a device that would protect it if those loans defaulted, and free up that capital?

What the bankers hit on was a sort of insurance policy: a third party would assume the risk of the debt going sour, and in exchange would receive regular payments from the bank, similar to insurance premiums. JPMorgan would then get to remove the risk from its books and free up the reserves. The scheme was called a "credit default swap," and it was a twist on something bankers had been doing for a while to hedge against fluctuations in interest rates and commodity prices. While the concept had been floating around the markets for a couple of years, JPMorgan was the first bank to make a big bet on credit default swaps. It built up a "swaps" desk in the mid-'90s and hired young math and science grads from schools like MIT and Cambridge to create a market for the complex instruments. Within a few years, the credit default swap (CDS) became the hot financial instrument, the safest way to parse out risk while maintaining a steady return. "I've known people who worked on the Manhattan Project," says Mark Brickell, who at the time was a 40-year-old managing director at JPMorgan. "And for those of us on that trip, there was the same kind of feeling of being present at the creation of something incredibly important."

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