Sunday, January 22, 2012

The Greek Debt Crisis and the Failure of Credit Default Swaps

The Greek debt crisis, from which the entire European sovereign debt morass arises, comes down to a dispute between the Greek government and a group of private investors who hold large amounts of Greek bonds. These investors, many of whom appear to be hedge funds, are refusing to swallow as much loss as the Greek government demands. The Greek government is threatening default. The investors respond by, in essence, saying, "Go ahead. Make my day."

If the Greek government defaults, the investors will turn to credit default swaps they bought to protect against losses on Greek bonds. These CDS's are like insurance coverage against a Greek default. The government wants the investors to "voluntarily" agree to concessions, which wouldn't trigger CDS payouts. The investors have bargained hard, apparently emboldened by the knowledge that they can turn to their insurers if negotiations fail and Greece defaults.

Although usually described as insurance, the CDS's in this instance are being used for speculative purposes. The hedge funds may actually profit more by forcing the Greek government to default, than by working toward a consensual resolution. A default could have severe consequences, triggering a credit crisis in Europe that could circumnavigate the global financial system at the speed of a broadband Internet connection and plaster the world economy with a major credit crunch. Economic dislocation and recession would surely ensue.

When an "insurance" contract turns out to encourage recklessness, it has failed. Insurance is meant to protect against outsized loss, not to encourage insureds to foster or instigate losses. CDS's appear to be motivating speculators to disrupt a nation's finances. That's undesirable, no matter how you look at it.

Regulators and the financial services industry have done little to prevent derivatives, and credit default swaps in particular, from wrecking the financial system, as happened in 2008. Now, derivatives again pose a similar danger. People who don't learn from their mistakes are doomed to make them again. A sense of impending doom is growing.

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