Thursday, October 09, 2008

Fifty billion here, fifty billion there, and pretty soon you’re talking serious money. Except that you aren’t anymore. Fifty billion has become a trivial sum in the new post-bubble world. If it doesn’t have at least eleven noughts at the end of it, people’s eyes glaze over in boredom.

John Paulson the US Treasury Secretary started it with his epic $700 billion Troubled Asset Relief Programme. Chancellor Alistair Darling couldn’t let that pass, so he launched last week’s one trillion dollar bank bail out - that’s 500 billion of your English pounds. The biggest gamble in history. Proportionately, UK’s help for troubled assets is four times as high as the American one. So there.

But this is only the start. This latest phase of the credit crisis has involved the implosion of the $62 trillion dollar - that’s $62,000,000,000,000 - market in credit default swaps. These are insurance policies on bond default, and have been described as being like betting on your neighbour’s house burning down. Only multiplied so that hundreds of thousands of investors are waiting for your neighbours house to burn down.

Trouble with CDS’s is that no one actually knows what happens if the house actually does burn down, because no one knows who is to pay the losses on all those contracts if there is what is called a “credit event”. This is basically what happened after the huge Wall St bank Lehman’s Brothers - a big player in this market burned down leaving a $400bn or so charred hole. No one wants to know who takes the losses for this and banks won’t lend to each other in case they find out.

You might wonder how a 62 trillion dollar derivative market could grow to this size in only seven years when no one knows whether the contracts can be honoured. It’s like betting with a bookmaker who doesn’t have any money to pay you when you win. But no doubt the good old taxpayer will stump up to finance all these derivative losses. It’s what we do. As we speak Mr Paulson is putting the finishing touches to his 62 trillion dollar Derivative Assets Finance Trust (DAFT) which he says will finally get the system going again.

Only that wouldn’t be nearly enough. The bank of international settlement in Basel estimated last year that the global derivatives market has grown to $500 trillion. Now, at half a quadrillion, that really is serious money: $500,000,000,000,000 A nice round sum equivalent to ten times the value of all the shares on all the world’s stock markets.

Soon the trillion will be a pathetic joke uttered only by villains Austin Powers films. If you’re not in the quadrillion game now you ain’t even at the races. Next time Alistair Darling has a curry he’ll have to add three noughts if he wants to catch our attention. .

Now someone might ask where all this money comes from, and it is a good question There isn’t enough real money in the world to settle all those swaps, futures, puts, options and other bizarre contracts - if they all had to be monetized. So what actually are they? The answer is that no one really knows. Somehow bankers have managed to create a kind of virtual world of synthetic finance, a derivative Second Life, where they have been trading all sorts of exotic financial instruments without actually having to put money up front.

But you can be sure they have been making real money out of this virtual machine otherwise they wouldn’t have done it. But that has all gone into property and retirement yachts. So it’s down to the bank of you and me to pay for the next collapse through our taxes and inflated prices. They’ve got a name for this state we’re in - it’s called Zimbabwe.

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