Monday, January 14, 2008

CDS: the next shoe to drop

The potential dangers of a crumbling CDS (credit default swaps) market are finally coming into the limelight. Frankly, I don't know why it took so long. It has been a perennial topic among analysts of the more bearish bent, even I wrote about it last September, albeit I was mostly copying somebody else. Now it's got prime billing in this week's Economist in an article titled Stepping beyond subprime (subscription), where JPMorgan is mentioned as having serious exposure.

In addition to the article in the Economist, Bill Gross of Pimco specifically mentioned the contraction in the "shadow banking system" in the Barron's Roundtable (subscription) this week. Gross further fleshed out this idea in his most recent Investment Outlook. It was the first time I saw anyone putting a number on the potential loss from CDS:

While the exact amount of reserves supporting the Bank of Shadows is undeterminable, let’s go back to the $45 trillion BIS estimate of outstanding CDS for more insight. If total investment grade and junk bond defaults approach historical norms of 1¼% in 2008 (Moody’s and S&P forecast something close) then $500 billion of these default contracts will be triggered resulting in losses of $250 billion or more to the "protection selling" party once recoveries are inserted into the equation. To put that number in perspective, many street estimates ascribe similar losses to subprime mortgages, a derivative category substantially distinct from CDS insurance.

So the loss from CDS will be comparable to that from subprime? Talk about a second shoe to drop. And what d'ya know, it's a matching pair!

This FT article comments on the same estimates from Bill Gross. As they correctly point out, CDS is a insurance, so in theory the gain/loss should cancel out, unlike the real losses in a mortgage crisis. However, the "counter party risk" in an already liquidity-constrained system is a cause for concern.