Why banks shouldn’t play in CDS markets

By Felix Salmon
May 29, 2012

There are a few different ways to look at the seemingly-unstoppable rise of the amount of “excess deposits” that JP Morgan ended up handing to its Chief Investment Office, rather than lending out to individuals and businesses needing loans. Maybe big corporations are flocking to deposit their billions at Chase because they know it’s too big to fail. Maybe Chase just can’t find anybody who both wants to borrow money and is likely to pay it back. Maybe — and more likely — Jamie Dimon funneled increasing sums to the CIO just because the CIO could generate a higher internal rate of return than his plain-vanilla lenders could.

But as Roger Lowenstein explains today, a large part of what we’re seeing here is the way in which lending has morphed into investing. All of us intuitively understand that there’s a difference between lending someone money, on the one hand, and buying a bond, on the other. The former is a bilateral contractual relationship which lasts until the loan is repaid; the latter is an anonymous purchase of securities which can be flipped for a profit (or sold at a loss) after weeks or days or even minutes.

The CIO, playing in the bond and derivatives markets, is very much in the latter camp rather than the former, as you can guess by looking at its name. It makes investments, rather than disbursing loans. But the danger here is not just that $400 billion of JP Morgan’s assets are being put to work gambling in the markets rather than extending loans to clients. The danger is that as the CIO gets bigger, it effectively turns the JP Morgan Chase loan portfolio into an investment, too.

It’s worth quoting Lowenstein at some length, here:

The new Jamie, and the people working for him, don’t have to worry quite so much. They know that if they become uncomfortable with the loans they can always hedge them in the derivatives market…

When JPMorgan hedges, it doesn’t get rid of the risk. That only happens when the customer repays the loan or, say, improves its balance sheet. JPMorgan’s hedges didn’t make the risk disappear; they merely transferred it to someone else.

Jamie had an escape hatch, but hedging doesn’t offer an escape for markets as a whole…

JPMorgan still issues loans but with half an eye on their “hedging” potential, that is, on the willingness of traders who may be halfway around the globe to assume the risk. These traders are less well-placed to evaluate the risk. They don’t know the customer and, of course, they haven’t the faintest concern for character. By habit and preference, their involvement is apt to be brief.

They assume risk by writing a swap contract in the full knowledge that they can unwind it via another swap days or even hours later. Someone may get stuck with the bad coin but, each trader is certain, it won’t be him or her. So the approach of these traders is inherently short-term — too short to invest the time and effort to evaluate the risk. Too short, we might say, to really care.

The plasticity of modern finance — the ease with which institutions can transfer risk — is a major cause of the heightened frequency of meltdowns and increased volatility.

To put this another way: liquidity is dangerous, because it breeds complacency. All you need to do is set a stop-loss, and you’ve protected yourself from large losses. Until, of course, the markets seize up and bids simply disappear from the market altogether. Or until your elaborate and complex hedging operations turn out to have been badly constructed, and you wake up in the morning with a loss pegged at $2 billion and growing.

Alan Greenspan famously said in 2003 that “what we have found over the years in the marketplace is that derivatives have been an extraordinarily useful vehicle to transfer risk from those who shouldn’t be taking it to those who are willing to and are capable of doing so.” In practice, if you look at the actions of the CIO, derivatives were used to transfer risk from those who should have been taking it — big lenders — to hedge funds who make money only when JP Morgan turns out to have fundamentally miscalculated its risk basis.

Entities who want to really take on credit risk are called banks, and they do so by lending. People who sell credit protection in the markets, by contrast, are traders and speculators who trust in the liquidity of the CDS market and who are sure that they will be able to get out quickly if things turn against them. And thus is the CDS market used shunt risks off, unseen, into the tails.

Liquidity isn’t just dangerous in the loan market. Look at houses, which used to be highly-illiquid investments characterized by a long-term relationship between a homeowner and a lender. When did things fall apart? When that relationship was replaced by a frenzy of securitization and refinancings, with even 30-year mortgages lasting for just a year or two before they were paid off by someone flipping their house or deciding they needed a cash-out refinance. The more liquid housing became — the closer it came to being piggy bank, to be tapped for cash at any time — the more dangerous it became, as well.

Lowenstein’s proposed solution — banning credit default swaps entirely — is not going to happen. But it’s a useful lens through which regulators should be looking at the banks they regulate.

Activity in the CDS market, on this view, is a sign of weakness, not strength: it’s a sign that the bank doesn’t have much faith in its own relationships and underwriting standards, and is reduced to having to buy protection from speculators in order to feel comfortable with the risks that it’s taking. Since those speculators, by definition, don’t have remotely as much information about the bank’s borrowers as the bank does, and since they certainly can’t put covenants into loans protecting them from profligacy at the borrower, such trades make very little economic sense in theory.

Regulators should remember this the next time a bank starts boasting about its sophisticated, state-of-the-art risk management systems. Most of the time, those systems involve complex bets in a zero-sum-game derivatives market, where the bank’s counterparties charge a premium for the fact that they’re on the wrong side of an information asymmetry. At best, in such cases, the bank is merely abdicating responsibility for its risks, rather than properly managing them. And at worst, it thinks that it has gotten the credit risk off its books, when in fact it’s just pushed that risk into the tails, where it’s bigger than ever.

Either way, regulators should have precious little time for such antics. They should force banks to go back to basics, instead, and manage their risks the old-fashioned way, by building strong relationships with their borrowers. Lending those borrowers money right now, when such lending is sorely needed, would be a good start.

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