04 October 2012

Financial Fukushima: US Big Bank Derivative Bets Double in Six Years To $236 Trillion

Well, the derivatives market is like Fukushima Daiichi before it failed and melted down, when the utility company and the Japanese government were blithely assuring themselves and everyone else that nothing could go wrong. Just as Greenspan and other very important people said nothing could go wrong with the US housing market and the wholesale collateralization of debt. Nothing to see here, move along.

I was working on my own update, between the usual distractions, of the Sept 2012 BIS information, when Peter Miller sent this nice summary of the situation my way. A relatively small number of very large banks represent enormous counterparty risk to the world financial system because of the almost geometric growth of the largely unregulated and historically unprecedented derivatives market.

The distortions caused by such massive leverage ripple through the financial system, with both intended and unintended consequences, including the distortion of real markets and the transfer to and concentration of wealth in the money manipulation sector. And the marriage that the financial sector has made with politics is particularly dangerous to the average person.

This affects every country through the transmission power of the US Dollar and its pre-eminent role in decision making in our financialized world economy.

Big Bank Derivative Bets Nearly Double In Six Years
By Peter G. Miller
October 4th, 2012

America’s major banks now hold derivatives with a notational worth of $225 trillion – about a third of the world total. No kidding. Trillion.

And that’s up from a mere $120 trillion six years ago. Rather than being weened off derivatives, America’s big banks are more deeply entrenched then ever.

Hopefully Wall Street has it figured out just right and there won’t be any major losses, say a few billion here or there. After all, when has Wall Street ever been wrong about financial instruments?

“Derivatives are dangerous,” says Warren Buffett. “They have dramatically increased the leverage and risks in our financial system. They have made it almost impossible for investors to understand and analyze our largest commercial banks and investment banks.”

While many in Washington would like to limit derivatives trading, make such trades open to public scrutiny or both, Wall Street is vehemently against regulation.

In fact, there’s a simple way to resolve derivative worries. Allow unlimited derivatives trading — but only by individuals and partnerships willing to personally take the risk of profits and losses...

According to the Bank for International Settlements (BIS), the notational value of derivatives at the end of 2011 was $648 trillion.

The gross credit exposure from these securities was believed to be $3.912 trillion according to the BIS — that’s up from $3.5 trillion at the end of 2009.

But what if the estimates are wrong? For instance, let’s say losses are just one tenth of one percent bigger than expected. Not a big deal, except in the context of international derivative levels that’s more than $640 billion.

Do taxpayers have exposure? You bet. According to the FDIC, at the end of June 2012 all depository institutions held derivatives with a notational value of $224,998 trillion. However, such bets are not spread across the entire banking system. Banks with at least $10 billion in assets hold virtually all derivatives, securities with a notational value of $224.803 trillion. While the FDIC insures deposits in some 7,200 banks and savings associations, only 59 FDIC-insured institutions have deposits of more than $10 billion. Your little community bank, savings association or credit union likely has no derivatives department.

Derivatives are simply bets. They finance no factories, no research, no colleges, no homes and no cars. Any jobs they produce are incidental and inconsequential relative to the potential risk they represent, the risk that credit exposure has been incorrectly figured by hundreds of billions of dollars if not more. Since big banks hold virtually all derivatives, and since taxpayers can face massive costs if big banks fail, it follows that something should be done to limit taxpayer risk....

Read the entire story with an explanation of derivatives here.

Here is a glossary of terms which you might wish to keep.