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Derivatives, pg. 2

By Nicholas Varchaver, senior editor and Katie Benner, writer-reporter
September 30, 2008: 5:38 AM ET

This is not an academic concern. Wachovia (WB, Fortune 500) and Citigroup (C, Fortune 500) are wrangling in court with a $50 million hedge fund located in the Channel Islands. The reason: A dispute over two $10 million credit default swaps covering some CDOs. The specifics of the spat aren't important. What's most revealing is that these massive banks put their faith in a Lilliputian fund (in an inaccessible jurisdiction) that was risking 40% of its capital for just two CDS. Can anyone imagine that Citi would, say, insure its headquarters building with a thinly capitalized, unregulated, offshore entity?

That's one element of what's known as "counterparty risk." Here's another: In many cases, you don't even know who has the other side of your bet. Parties to the contract can, and do, transfer their side of the contract to third parties. Investment firms assert that transfers are well documented (a claim that, like most in the world of CDS, is impossible to verify). But even if that's true, you're still left with the fact that a given company's risks are being dispersed in ways that they may not know about and can't control.

It doesn't help that CDS trading is a haphazard process. Most contracts are bought and sold over the phone or by instant message and settled manually. Settlement has been sloppy, confirms Jamie Cawley of IDX Capital, a firm that brokers trades between big banks. Pushed by New York Fed president Timothy Geithner, the players have been improving the process. But even as recently as a year ago, Cawley says, so many trades were sitting around unfulfilled that "there were $1 trillion worth of swaps that were unsettled among counterparties."

Trade settlement is not the only anachronistic aspect of CDS trading. Consider what will happen with CDS contracts relating to Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. The two were placed in conservatorship on Sept. 7. But the value of many contracts won't be determined till Oct. 6, when an auction will set a cash price for Fannie and Freddie bonds. We'll spare you the technical reasons, but suffice it to ask: Can you imagine any other major market that would need a month to resolve something like this?

***

WITH WASHINGTON SUDDENLY in a frenzy of outrage over the financial markets, debating everything from the shape and extent of the mortgage plan to what should be done about short-selling, the future for CDS is very blurry. "The market is here to stay," asserts Cawley. The question is simply: What sorts of changes are in store? As this article was going to press, SEC chairman Christopher Cox asked the Senate to allow his agency to begin regulating CDS - mostly, it should be said, to rein in short-selling. And the SEC separately announced that it was expanding its investigation of market manipulation, which initially targeted the short-sellers, to CDS investors.

Under other circumstances, Cox's request might have been met with polite silence. But the convulsions over the mortgage bailout are so dramatic that they are reminiscent of the moment, soon after the Enron scandal, when Congress drafted the Sarbanes-Oxley legislation. The desire to blame short-sellers may actually result in powers for Cox that, until very recently, he showed no signs of wanting. Should legislators wade into this issue, the measures most widely seen as necessary are straightforward: some form of centralized trading or clearing and some form of capital or reserve requirements. Meanwhile, New York State's insurance commissioner, Eric Dinallo, announced new regulations that would essentially treat sellers of some (but not all) CDS as insurance entities, thereby forcing them to set aside reserves and otherwise follow state insurance law - requirements that would probably drive many participants from the market. Whether CDS players will find a way to challenge the rules remains to be seen. (ISDA, the industry's trade group, has already gone on record in opposition to Cox's proposal.) If nothing else, the New York law may provide additional impetus for the feds to take action.

For now, the biggest impact could come from the Financial Accounting Standards Board. It is implementing a new rule in November that will require sellers of CDS and other credit derivatives to report detailed information, including their maximum payouts and reasons for entering the contracts, as well as assets that might allow them to offset any payouts. Anybody who has tried to parse CEO compensation in recent years knows that more disclosure doesn't guarantee clarity, but any increase in information in the CDS realm will be a benefit. Perhaps that would limit the baleful effect of CDS on (must we consider it?) the next disaster - or even help us prevent it.  To top of page

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