It is a full week after bankers gathered in New York to start sorting out the derivatives mess left by the bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers. We still do not know who is on the hook for some $360bn of default insurance, or how much they will have to pay.
By Ambrose Evans-Pritchard Last Updated: 12:18AM BST 17 Oct 2008
Lehman Brothers former chief executive Dick Fuld has faced heavy criticism
Ominous talk of big names and big sums continues to haunt global markets, thwarting efforts by the US and European authorities to unlock inter-bank lending. Traders have noted with acute interest that insurer AIG - now nationalised - says it will need another $38bn from the US government, on top of the $85bn bail-out it has already received. AIG is the world's biggest underwriter of credit protection.
Those on the wrong side of these Lehman debt contracts - known as credit default swaps (CDS) - must come up with the money by Tuesday, the next D-Day in the ever-fraught calendar of the credit markets. There has been a deafening silence so far.
There is no easy way of finding out who they are, so every bank and insurer is suspect. The $55,000bn CDS market is "completely lacking in transparency and completely unregulated" in the words of Chris Cox, the chairman of the US Securities and Exchange Commission.
The settlement auction on Lehman CDS contracts last week was in itself a bombshell. Creditors retrieved just nine cents on the dollar from the Lehman wreckage. As Naked Capitalism put it, the bank had "vaporised". The biggest players at the auction were Goldman Sachs and Deutsche Bank but they were almost certainly transacting for clients.
The insurers of the debt -- a third are hedge funds -- will have to pay 91pc of the $400bn in contracts.
The Depository Trust and Clearing Corporation says the risks have been exaggerated in headline scare stories, insisting that the total sum to be paid will be closer to $6bn. It says most positions are "netted out".
"That's not credible," says Andrea Cicione, credit chief at BNP Paribas.
"They keep coming up with these number by 'netting' but we think the amount is going to anywhere from $220bn to $270bn. The chain broke in the CDS market when Lehman Brothers went down. We may now see other counter-parties defaulting," he said.
With hindsight, it is now clear the decision to let Lehman Brothers go bankrupt set off a melt-down of the world financial system, forcing North America, Britain, Europe, Australia, and now parts of Asia to rescue their banks. "A dramatic error," said Christine Lagarde, France's finance minister.
US Federal Reserve chair Ben Bernanke said this week that Washington lacked the legal power to take on the vast liabilties stemming from a Lehman rescue.
"A public-sector solution for Lehman proved infeasible, as the firm could not post sufficient collateral to provide reasonable assurance that a loan from the Federal Reserve would be repaid, and the Treasury did not have the authority to absorb billions of dollars of expected losses to facilitate Lehman's acquisition by another firm. Consequently, little could be done," he said. The new legislation passed by Congress "will give us better choices."
In truth, both Congress and the US public wanted a scalp. Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson had to bide his time until it was clear to almost everybody that a domino collapse of the US banking system would lead to catastrophe. The Lehman collapse did the trick.
The list of companies admitting to losses on Lehman investments reveals the global extent of the damage. Dexia held €500m of bonds, which may have caused its own need for a Franco-Belgian rescue days later.
Among the others with declared exposure: Swedbank $1.2bn; Freddie Mac $1.2bn; State Street $1bn; Allianz €400m; BNP Paribas €400m; AXA €300m; Intesa Sanpaolo €260m; Raffeissen Bank €252m; Unicredit €120m; ING €100m; Danske Bank $100m; Aviva £270m; Australia and New Zealand Bank $120m; Mistubishi $235m; China Citic Bank $76m; China Construction Bank $191m, Industrial Commercial Bank of China $152m and Bank of China $76m. Ultimately, some money may be recovered.
These losses are out in the open, but the CDS shoe has yet to drop. Perversely the insured volume is greater than the $150bn total of Lehman debt. Some $400bn of CDS contracts were sold. Many were used by hedge funds to take "short" bets on the fate of the bank. The contracts nevertheless have to be honoured.
Chris Whalen, head of Institutional Risk Analytics, says this creates a huge moral dilemna. Why should taxpayers now responsible for AIG foot the bill for huge windfall transfers to hedge funds?
"We need to shut this whole thing down. The people who don't own the underlying collateral and were just betting should be flushed away. It would be grotesque if the US authorities were now to subsidize speculators. The US political class is waking up to this," he said.
If so, the winners may have more trouble than they realize collecting their prize