The following is an excerpt from John Mauldin’s weekly letter. He touches on the controversial CDS event in Europe and how the Greek haircut isn’t technically a default that triggers the CDS. He makes some of the most succinct and excellent comments on the subject I have yet seen. Like Mr. Mauldin, I believe there are unintended consequences to changing the rules and essentially manipulating the markets as has clearly been done here. In this case, the biggest risk might just be a buyers revolt in Italian bonds as buyers realize that they can’t effectively hedge a high risk bet via the CDS markets. Could this actually exacerbate the Euro crisis and lead to higher Italian bond yields and a more difficult fiscal outlook? I certainly think so. Anyhow, here’s Mauldin on the CDS event:
“I’ve always had a soft spot for Bunker Hunt. Yes, I know, he was a voracious manipulator who tried (and did) corner the silver market back in 1980, but boys will be boys. Maybe it’s a fellow-Texan thing. He went bankrupt because they changed the rules on him. Lesson for all of us: Never assumes the rules are what you think they are just because they are written down, if someone else can change them. You can only push so far and then the peasants revolt.
And that is the final thing that happened at the summit. The banks “voluntarily” took a 50% haircut. Voluntary in that Merkel, Sarkozy, et al. told them that the alternative was a 100% haircut. “That’s the offer, guys. Take it or leave it.” Cue the theme from The Godfather.
And because the write-off was voluntary, there would be no triggering of credit default swaps clauses. Because if it’s voluntary it’s not a default capiche?
And that smooth move, dear reader, triggered a rather significant unintended consequence, which resulted in the market “melt-up.” Let me see if I can walk you through this rather bizarre world of derivative exposure without exposing too much of my own ignorance.
Let’s say you bought credit default swaps on a certain bank’s debt (let’s use JPMorgan, but it could be any bank) because you think that Morgan is exposed to too much credit default swap risk. Just in case. Now, if (say) Goldman sold you the CDS, they could and would in turn hedge their risk by shorting some quantity of Morgan stock, or perhaps if the risk was sizeable enough, the S&P as a whole. It would depend on what their risk models suggested.
But as of yesterday, the risk evaporated: there would be no CDS event. So why buy CDS? Time to cover. And then the shorts get covered.
Further, the risk to financials was cut by a large, somewhat murky amount. But it was definitely cut, so buy some risk assets. Which puts any long/short hedge fund in a squeeze, especially those with an anti-financial-sector bias. But because of the nature of the hedge, the whole market moves. It involves rather arcane concepts that traders call delta and gamma. (Remember that the recent rogue traders had been at delta trading desks?) Guys at those desks can calculate that risk in a nanosecond. You and I take a day just to wrap our head around the concepts.
And it just cascades. The high-frequency-trading algo computers notice the movement and jump in, followed quickly by momentum traders, and the market melts up. Because a significant risk was removed. But not without cost.
Let’s go back to where I noted that Italian interest rates are rising even as the ECB is supposedly buying. What gives? It is clearly the lack of private buyers, and a lot of selling. Because now you can’t hedge your sovereign debt. If you ever need that insurance, they will just change the rules on you, so why take the risk?
Destroying the credit default swap market will make it harder to sell sovereign debt, not easier. Those “shorts” were not the cause of Greek financial problems; the Greeks did it all to themselves. As did the Portuguese, and on and on. Now admittedly, rising CDS spreads called attention to the problem, much as rising rates did in eras long past. And that did annoy politicians. And clearly, banks that had exposure to that market got the “fix” in to make their problems go away.
(OK, this is just my conjecture; but I have speculated before with reason that a major writer of sovereign CDS were German Landesbanks. Think Merkel didn’t have that report? As did Sarkozy, on French exposure? It was a very high-stakes poker game they were playing this week. But one side of the table could rewrite the rules.)
Now, I know I am greatly oversimplifying the CDS situation. Even so, a great deal of the volatility of recent times can be laid at the feet of the CDS market, because it is so opaque. There is no way to prove or disprove my speculations, because there is no source that can really plumb the true depths of the situation. And that is the problem.
I am not against CDS. We need more of them. But they should all be moved to a very transparent exchange. If I buy an S&P derivative (or gold or oil or orange juice), I know that my counterparty risk is the exchange. I don’t have to hedge counterparty risk. The exchange tells whoever is on the other side of the trade that they need to put up more money, as the trade warrants. Or tells me if the trade goes against me.
The banks lobbied to keep CDS “over the counter.” The commissions are huge that way. If they are on an exchange the commissions are small. This was a huge failure of Dodd-Frank. And we all pay for it in ways that no one really sees. As the Bastiat quote at the beginning said, there is what you see and what you don’t see.
Equity markets are supposed to help companies raise capital for business purposes, not be casinos. Investors want to and should be able to buy and sell stocks with a long view to the future. And increasingly there is the feeling that this is not the case. When I talk to institutional investors and managers, it is clear that they are very frustrated.
I am not arguing against hedge funds here. There is a need for short sellers in a true market. But that selling should be transparent. In a regulated exchange, you can see the amount of short interest. Everyone knows the rules. But without an exchange, things happen for reasons that are not apparent. An event like the Eurozone summit changes an obscure rule with some vague clauses about triggering a credit event and the market reacts. This time it was a melt-up. Next time it could be a meltdown, as it was in 2008.
CDS markets should be moved to an open regulated exchange. And while we are at it, high-frequency trading should be stemmed. This could be done easily by requiring all bids or offers to last for at least one second, instead of a few microseconds. You make the offer, you have to honor it for a whole second. What a concept. That would not hurt liquidity, but it would cut into the profits of the exchanges (especially the NYSE) but I thought these were public markets and not the playground of the privileged few.
If it weren’t so cold here in New York, I might just wander down and join Occupy Wall Street and see if I could enlighten a few minds. If those kids only knew what they really should be protesting.”
Mr. Roche is the Founder and Chief Investment Officer of Discipline Funds.Discipline Funds is a low fee financial advisory firm with a focus on helping people be more disciplined with their finances.
He is also the author of Pragmatic Capitalism: What Every Investor Needs to Understand About Money and Finance, Understanding the Modern Monetary System and Understanding Modern Portfolio Construction.