Edna Purviance's bio

Currently working on Edna Purviance's family biography. Draft is done. Photo: Leading Ladies © used by ednapurviance.org

Tuesday, September 23, 2008


Charlie Chaplin bailed out of the stock market a year before the crash of 1929. He felt if average people were in it, time to get out of it. But he had a feeling things were not right.

After the 1929 crash, it took three years and more stock market falls, before the full effect was in place. It wiped out Edna's and many of her families money by 1932.

In comments I have placed an article about why it is so hard for Paulson to be straight in his answers to congress on this mess many people created, and will be saddled with, bailout or not.

It is called about CDS (Credit Default Swap). A popular derivative used to make uncontrolled money, you could say. CDS's were worth up to $62 Trillion dollars in December 2007 (Bloomberg mentioned often today).

Update: Oct. 5, 2008 - CBS 60 Minutes report about Credit Default Swap. Transcript is in comments.


October 1, 2008 - Charlie Rose with Warren Buffet about the meltdown

If you want to know what taxpayers are getting into with all this 'toxic paper' no one else wants, you need to read the 2002 report in comments, warning about it.


Edna's Place said...

I guess you could say Bush finally found his Weapons of Mass Destruction. He just looked in the wrong place.

CDS - Credit default swap, a derivative that Warren Buffet called in 2002 "financial weapons of mass destruction" was last recorded to be worth about $62 Trillion dollars in December 2007.

Read below for more about what has created the mess the markets have been falling into for years.

Warren Buffet on Derivatives

Following are edited excerpts from the Berkshire Hathaway annual report for 2002.

I view derivatives as time bombs, both for the parties that deal in them and the economic system. Basically these instruments call for money to change hands at some future date, with the amount to be determined by one or more reference items, such as interest rates, stock prices, or currency values. For example, if you are either long or short an S&P 500 futures contract, you are a party to a very simple derivatives transaction, with your gain or loss derived from movements in the index. Derivatives contracts are of varying duration, running sometimes to 20 or more years, and their value is often tied to several variables.

Unless derivatives contracts are collateralized or guaranteed, their ultimate value also depends on the creditworthiness of the counter-parties to them. But before a contract is settled, the counter-parties record profits and losses – often huge in amount – in their current earnings statements without so much as a penny changing hands. Reported earnings on derivatives are often wildly overstated. That’s because today’s earnings are in a significant way based on estimates whose inaccuracy may not be exposed for many years.

The errors usually reflect the human tendency to take an optimistic view of one’s commitments. But the parties to derivatives also have enormous incentives to cheat in accounting for them. Those who trade derivatives are usually paid, in whole or part, on “earnings” calculated by mark-to-market accounting. But often there is no real market, and “mark-to-model” is utilized. This substitution can bring on large-scale mischief. As a general rule, contracts involving multiple reference items and distant settlement dates
increase the opportunities for counter-parties to use fanciful assumptions. The two parties to the contract might well use differing models allowing both to show substantial profits for many years. In extreme cases, mark-to-model degenerates into what I would call mark-to-myth.

I can assure you that the marking errors in the derivatives business have not been symmetrical. Almost invariably, they have favored either the trader who was eyeing a multi-million dollar bonus or the CEO who wanted to report impressive “earnings” (or both). The bonuses were paid, and the CEO profited from his options. Only much later did shareholders learn that the reported earnings were a sham.

Another problem about derivatives is that they can exacerbate trouble that a corporation has run into for completely unrelated reasons. This pile-on effect occurs because many derivatives contracts require that a company suffering a credit downgrade immediately supply collateral to counter-parties. Imagine then that a company is downgraded because of general adversity and that its derivatives instantly kick in with their requirement, imposing an unexpected and enormous demand for cash collateral on the company. The need to meet this demand can then throw the company into a liquidity crisis that may, in some cases, trigger still more downgrades. It all becomes a spiral that can lead to a corporate meltdown.

Derivatives also create a daisy-chain risk that is akin to the risk run by insurers or reinsurers that lay off much of their business with others. In both cases, huge receivables from many counter-parties tend to build up over time. A participant may see himself as prudent, believing his large credit exposures to be diversified and therefore not dangerous. However under certain circumstances, an exogenous event that causes the receivable from Company A to go bad will also affect those from Companies B through Z.

In banking, the recognition of a “linkage” problem was one of the reasons for the formation of the Federal Reserve System. Before the Fed was established, the failure of weak banks would sometimes put sudden and unanticipated liquidity demands on previously-strong banks, causing them to fail in turn. The Fed now insulates the strong from the troubles of the weak. But there is no central bank assigned to the job of preventing the dominoes toppling in insurance or derivatives. In these industries, firms that are fundamentally solid can become troubled simply because of the travails of other firms further down the chain.

Many people argue that derivatives reduce systemic problems, in that participants who can’t bear certain risks are able to transfer them to stronger hands. These people believe that derivatives act to stabilize the economy, facilitate trade, and eliminate bumps for individual participants.

On a micro level, what they say is often true. I believe, however, that the macro picture is dangerous and getting more so. Large amounts of risk, particularly credit risk, have become concentrated in the hands of relatively few derivatives dealers, who in addition trade extensively with one other. The troubles of one could quickly infect the others.

On top of that, these dealers are owed huge amounts by non-dealer counter-parties. Some of these counter-parties, are linked in ways that could cause them to run into a problem because of a single event, such as the implosion of the telecom industry. Linkage, when it suddenly surfaces, can trigger serious systemic problems.

Indeed, in 1998, the leveraged and derivatives-heavy activities of a single hedge fund, Long-Term Capital Management, caused the Federal Reserve anxieties so severe that it hastily orchestrated a rescue effort. In later Congressional testimony, Fed officials acknowledged that, had they not intervened, the outstanding trades of LTCM – a firm unknown to the general public and employing only a few hundred people – could well have posed a serious threat to the stability of American markets. In other words, the Fed acted because its leaders were fearful of what might have happened to other financial institutions had the LTCM domino toppled. And this affair, though it paralyzed many parts of the fixed-income market for weeks, was far from a worst-case scenario.

One of the derivatives instruments that LTCM used was total-return swaps, contracts that facilitate 100% leverage in various markets, including stocks. For example, Party A to a contract, usually a bank, puts up all of the money for the purchase of a stock while Party B, without putting up any capital, agrees that at a future date it will receive any gain or pay any loss that the bank realizes.

Total-return swaps of this type make a joke of margin requirements. Beyond that, other types of derivatives severely curtail the ability of regulators to curb leverage and generally get their arms around the risk profiles of banks, insurers and other financial institutions. Similarly, even experienced investors and analysts encounter major problems in analyzing the financial condition of firms that are heavily involved with derivatives contracts.

The derivatives genie is now well out of the bottle, and these instruments will almost certainly multiply in variety and number until some event makes their toxicity clear. Central banks and governments have so far found no effective way to control, or even monitor, the risks posed by these contracts. In my view, derivatives are financial weapons of mass destruction, carrying dangers that, while now latent, are potentially lethal.

Edna's Place said...

Transcript of the CBS report:

A Look At Wall Street's Shadow Market

Oct. 5, 2008

(CBS) On Friday Congress finally passed - and President Bush signed into law - a financial rescue package in which the taxpayers will buy up Wall Street's bad investments.

The numbers are staggering, but they don't begin to explain the greed and incompetence that created this mess.

It began with a terrible bet that was magnified by reckless borrowing, complex securities, and a vast, unregulated shadow market worth nearly $60 trillion that hid the risks until it was too late to do anything about them.

And as correspondent Steve Kroft reports, it's far from being over.

It started out 16 months ago as a mortgage crisis, and then slowly evolved into a credit crisis. Now it's something entirely different and much more serious.

What kind of crisis it is today?

"This is a full-blown financial storm and one that comes around perhaps once every 50 or 100 years. This is the real thing," says Jim Grant, the editor of "Grant's Interest Rate Observer."

Grant is one of the country’s foremost experts on credit markets. He says it didn't have to happen, that this disaster was created entirely by Wall Street itself, during a time of relative prosperity. And they did it by placing a trillion dollar bet, with mostly borrowed money, that the riskiest mortgages in the country could be turned into gold-plated investments.

"If you look at how this started with the subprime crisis, it doesn't seem to be a good bet to put your money behind the idea that people with the lowest income and the poorest credit ratings are gonna be able to pay off their mortgages," Kroft points out.

"The idea that you could lend money to someone who couldn't pay it back is not an inherently attractive idea to the layman, right. However, it seemed to fly with people who were making $10 million a year," Grant says.

With its clients clamoring for safe investments with above average return, the big Wall Street investment houses bought up millions of the least dependable mortgages, chopped them up into tiny bits and pieces, and repackaged them as exotic investment securities that hardly anyone could understand.

60 Minutes looked at one of the selling documents of such a security with Frank Partnoy, a former derivatives broker and corporate securities attorney, who now teaches law at the University of San Diego.

"It's hundreds and hundreds of pages of very small print, a lot of detail here," Partnoy explains.

Asked if he thinks anyone ever reads all this fine-print, Partnoy says, "I doubt many people read it."

These complex financial instruments were actually designed by mathematicians and physicists, who used algorithms and computer models to reconstitute the unreliable loans in a way that was supposed to eliminate most of the risk.

"Obviously they turned out to be wrong," Partnoy says.

Asked why, he says, "Because you can't model human behavior with math."

"How much of this catastrophe had to do with the instruments that Wall Street created and chose to buy…and sell?" Kroft asks Jim Grant.

"The instruments themselves are at the heart of this mess," Grant says. "They are complex, in effect, mortgage science projects devised by these Nobel-tracked physicists who came to work on Wall Street for the very purpose of creating complex instruments with all manner of detailed protocols, and who gets paid when and how much. And the complexity of the structures is at the very center of the crisis of credit today."

"People don't know what they're made up of, how they're gonna behave," Kroft remarks.

"Right," Grant replies.

But it didn't stop ratings agencies, like Standard & Poor's and Moody's, from certifying the dodgy securities investment grade, and it didn't stop Wall Street from making billions of dollars selling them to banks, pension funds, and other institutional investors all over the world. But that was just the beginning of the crisis.

What most people outside of Wall Street and Washington don't know is that a lot of people who bought these risky mortgage securities also went out and bought even more arcane investments that Wall Street was peddling called "credit default swaps." And they have turned out to be a much bigger problem.

They are private and largely undisclosed contracts that mortgage investors entered into to protect themselves against losses if the investments went bad. And they are part of a huge unregulated market that has already helped bring down three of the largest firms on Wall Street, and still threaten the ones that are left.

Before your eyes glaze over, Michael Greenberger, a law professor at the University of Maryland and a former director of trading and markets for the Commodities Futures Trading Commission, says they are much simpler than they sound. "A credit default swap is a contract between two people, one of whom is giving insurance to the other that he will be paid in the event that a financial institution, or a financial instrument, fails," he explains.

"It is an insurance contract, but they've been very careful not to call it that because if it were insurance, it would be regulated. So they use a magic substitute word called a 'swap,' which by virtue of federal law is deregulated," Greenberger adds.

"So anybody who was nervous about buying these mortgage-backed securities, these CDOs, they would be sold a credit default swap as sort of an insurance policy?" Kroft asks.

"A credit default swap was available to them, marketed to them as a risk-saving device for buying a risky financial instrument," Greenberger says.

But he says there was a big problem. "The problem was that if it were insurance, or called what it really is, the person who sold the policy would have to have capital reserves to be able to pay in the case the insurance was called upon or triggered. But because it was a swap, and not insurance, there was no requirement that adequate capital reserves be put to the side."

"Now, who was selling these credit default swaps?" Kroft asks.

"Bear Sterns was selling them, Lehman Brothers was selling them, AIG was selling them. You know, the names we hear that are in trouble, Citigroup was selling them," Greenberger says.

"These investment banks were not only selling the securities that turned out to be terrible investments, they were selling insurance on them?" Kroft asks.

"Well, it made it easier to sell the terrible investments if you could convince the buyer that not only were they gonna get the investment, but insurance," Greenberger explains.

But when homeowners began defaulting on their mortgages, and Wall Street's high-risk mortgage backed securities also began to fail, the big investment houses and insurance companies who sold the credit default swaps hadn't set aside the money they needed to pay off their obligations.

Bear Stearns was the first to go under, selling itself to J.P. Morgan for pennies on the dollar. Then, Lehman Brothers declared bankruptcy. And when AIG, the nation's largest insurer, couldn't cover its bad debts, the government stepped in with an $85 billion rescue.

Asked what role the credit default swaps play in this financial disaster, Frank Partnoy tells Kroft, "They were the centerpiece, really. That's why the banks lost all the money. They lost all the money based on those side bets, based on the mortgages."

How big is the market for credit default swaps?

Says Partnoy, "Well, we really don't know. There's this voluntary survey that claims that the market is in the range of 50 to 60 or so trillion dollars. It's sort of alarming that, in a market that big, we don't even know how big it is to within, say, $10 trillion."

"Sixty trillion dollars. I know it seems incredible. It's four times the size of the U.S. debt. But that's the size of the market according to these voluntary reports," says Partnoy.

He says this market is almost entirely unregulated.

The result is a huge shadow market that may control our financial destiny, and yet the details of these private insurance contracts are hidden from the public, from stockholders and federal regulators. No one knows what they cover, who owns them, and whether or not they have the money to pay them off.

One of the few sources of information is the International Swaps and Derivatives Association (ISDA), a trade organization made up the largest financial institutions in the world. Many of them are the very same companies that created the vast shadow market, lobbied to keep it unregulated, and are now drowning because of unanticipated risks.

ISDA's CEO, Robert Pickel, says there is nothing wrong with credit default swaps, and that the problem was with underlying mortgage securities.

"Well, there's clearly something wrong with the system if all of these leveraged bets, hidden leveraged bets, caused a collapse in the financial system," Kroft remarks.

"It is something that we all need to look at and learn lessons from. And we all need to work together to understand that and design a structure in the future that works more effectively," Pickel says.

"My point is, the people that made these mistakes are the people you represent in your organization. And many of them sit on the board. I mean, if they didn't get it right, who would?" Kroft asks.

"These people understand the nature of these products. They understand the risks," Pickel replies.

"Well…they didn't or they wouldn't have bought them. They wouldn't have used them," Kroft says.

"These are very useful transactions. And the people do understand the nature of the risk that they're entering into…but I'm not sure that…," Pickel says.

"Useful?" Kroft interrupts. "How come they brought down the financial system?"

"Because, perhaps they didn't understand the underlying risk, and nobody really saw the effects that were going to flow through from the subprime lending situation," Pickel says.

That chapter is not over, and there is much suspense and fear on Wall Street that there are other big losses out there that have yet to be disclosed

They already dwarf what has been lost on those original risky mortgages. As bad as the mortgage crisis has been, 94 percent of all Americans are still paying off their loans. The problem is Wall Street placed its huge bets and side bets with all of those fancy securities on the 6 percent who are not.

"We wouldn't be in any of this trouble right now if we had just had underlying investments in mortgages. We wouldn't be in any trouble right now," says Partnoy.

He says it’s the side bets.

"You got Wall Street firms, Bear Stearns, Lehman Brothers. You got insurance companies like AIG. Merrill lost a ton of money on this," Kroft says. "Everybody's lost a ton of money. They're supposed to be the smartest investors in the world. And they did it themselves."

"They did it all on their own," Partnoy agrees. "That's the most incredible thing about this crisis is that they pushed the button themselves. They blew themselves up."

Asked how much of this was incompetence on the part of Wall Street and the people who ran it, Jim Grant tells Kroft, "The truth is that on Wall Street, a lot of people just weren't very good at their jobs. It's as simple as that."

"These people were being paid $50 to $100 million a year. Some of them, the guys that were running the places," Kroft remarks.

"There is no defending," Grant replies. "A trainee making 45,000 a year would have had the common sense not to bet the firm on mortgage contraptions that no one in the firm actually understood. That is not a deep point to comprehend. Somehow, through, I will call it a criminal neglect and incompetence, the people at the top of these firms chose to look away, to take more risk, to enrich themselves and to put the shareholders and, indeed, the country, itself, ultimately, the country's economy at risk. And it is truly not only a shame, it's a crime."

60 Minutes requested interviews with top executives at Bear Stearns, Lehman Brothers, Merrill Lynch , Morgan Stanley, Goldman Sachs, and AIG. They all declined.