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Like pretty much everyone else on planet Earth, I’ve been thinking about risk a lot lately.  And I suppose I’ve been thinking pretty much the same thing as everyone else.  The following excerpt, from a speech to a bunch of bond dealers, is a bit jargony, but gets the basic point across.  Take it away, Felix Salmon:

You and I and Alan Greenspan all thought that credit derivatives were wonderful things because they moved credit risk out of the hands of people who didn’t want it, like banks, and into the hands of people who did want it.

In reality, however, the appetite for risk was never nearly as great as we all thought. $10 billion of loans becomes less than $200 million of credit-risk instruments, and everybody else reassures themselves that they’ve managed to reduce their credit risk to zero, even as the people holding that $200 million in synthetic CDO tranches are reassured by their own single-A or triple-B credit ratings that theyaren’t taking a particularly large amount of risk either.

And of course you know what happens next: some bright spark invents the CDO-squared, which seems to reduce the total amount of risk even further. You take the mezzanine debt, the triple-B stuff, and you do all manner of securitization magic to it, and it turns out that you can turn most of that into triple-A paper, too!

Because it was all triple-A, no one felt much in the way of need to do any analysis of their own: it’s almost impossible to overstate the power of the laziness of the bond investor. You know this from your own work with municipal issuers: the reason for those monoline wraps is not because the issuers have a lot of credit risk, but because the investors are lazy, and don’t want to do their homework, and reckon they can get out of doing their homework so long as there’s a monoline guarantee. Essentially, they’re outsourcing their own job to the monolines. Which might be reasonable for a small retail investor, but is not a good idea if your job is to invest in fixed-income instruments which carry a higher yield than Treasury bonds.

Of course, we all know how reliable those monoline guarantees turned out to be — and that’s a related story. The monolines, just like the ratings agencies, believed far too much in the power of models.

This kind of thing isn’t new.  The basic idea is that you take, say, a BBB-rated bond (decent quality but not great) and get a monoline to insure it, and suddenly you’ve got a AAA bond.  It’s now risk free because even if the bond defaults, the monoline will pay you off.  In theory, this is great: somebody who wants less risk in their portfolio is able to buy insurance from someone who wants more risk in return for a greater potential return.  Everybody gets what they want — party A gets exactly the investment it wants and party B gets exactly the investment it wants — which makes the bond market more efficient and more liquid.

But although this is true theoretically, in the real world it turns out that risk is usually best measured by whoever is closest to it.  In the past, bond buyers were pretty careful about evaluating default risk because they were the ones who’d have to bear it.  Then they started selling off that risk, and the monolines, who were eager for business and comforted by the fact that their models had always worked, were just a little less careful.  Then credit default swaps were invented and popularized, and risk was sold off even further.  And then further.  And when you get three or four steps down the line, nobody is seriously analyzing the underlying securities themselves.  They’re just relying on increasingly on abstract models.

So a system that theoretically makes the market more efficient ends up, for all too human reasons, with no one truly evaluating the risk of all the securities underlying the rocket science.  And eventually it comes crashing down.

All of which makes me wonder: is Felix still as bullish about credit default swaps as he has been in the past?  Unlike some credit derivatives, there’s no question that CDS serves a useful purpose.  In theory.  But in practice, when their use becomes nearly universal and they start getting packaged two and three vehicles deep, they’re deadly even if there’s no conscious fraud or abuse going on.  They don’t so much allocate risk as simply encourage people to ignore it.  It’s just human nature.

As for me, I’m increasingly wondering if insurance of financial assets (as opposed to physical assets, which are a different story) is a good idea, period.  Sure, the upside is that it makes debt markets more efficient, but it’s worth asking if we even want these markets to be more efficient in the first place.  What has that gotten us aside from gigantic profits for financial firms?  And if there’s no upside to balance a potentially catastrophic downside, why allow it at all?  Maybe, human nature being what it is, there’s no substitute for forcing debt buyers to be extremely, personally, conscious of the risk they’re assuming when they make an investment.  Maybe, in the end, that’s the only thing that can keep a credit bubble from overinflating.

I’m not sure.  Pushback welcome on this score.  But it’s certainly worth thinking about the big picture here.

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Corrupt leaders the world over can (and will) try to shut down the truth, but when the truth has millions of people on its side, you can't keep it down for good. And there's no more powerful or urgent argument for your support of Mother Jones' journalism right now than that. We need to raise about $450,000 to hit our online fundraising budget in these next few months, so please read more from Monika and pitch in if you can.

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