“Parasitic Derivatives - One Quadrillion Dollars: Too Big to Understand”
By David Hague
“I recently returned from two weeks of ‘high level’ meetings with a group of Bankers [this is code for two weeks of subsidized debauchery with bankers] in Rome. As I sat at my desk, I was hoping to motivate myself to pursue a more chaste and pure existence. Unfortunately the Polar Vortex experienced by North America drained me of my good intentions. The bone chilling cold once again had me reaching for my trusty bottle of Jack Daniels for warmth and inspiration. My time in Rome had not been completely ‘wasted’, so to speak. I had secured a contract from the European Central Bank [ECB] to research the topic of Derivatives. I was to present my findings at the upcoming World Economic Forum in Davos later that month.
One Quadrillion Dollars: Too Big to Understand: Dear Reader, please resist your natural instinct to click away from this commentary at the mere mention of the word ‘Derivatives’. I am acutely aware of the boredom and befuddlement that this word instills in you. At this point I would simply remind you that the derivatives market is estimated to exceed one quadrillion dollars. [This stupidly large number is actually an accurate estimate of the size of the derivatives marketplace]. Despite the fact the derivatives market eclipses the market capitalization of the NYSE by an exponential factor, it is not discussed, reported or tracked because it is simply too complicated and opaque. Warren Buffet’s, comment about ‘weapons of mass financial destruction’ seem to be the beginning and end of any discussion on the topic.
Derivatives are a parasitic financial instrument: For those of you who are unschooled on the topic of derivatives, allow me to explain. Derivatives are abstract financial instruments, which, like parasites, can attach themselves to all manner of stocks, bonds, mortgages, commodity, debt obligations, currency exchange, interest rate fluctuations…in short, anything. Derivatives exist in the ‘twilight zone’ of the banking industry. Like black holes, their presence and massive influence are acknowledged yet the true influence on the global economy of this quadrillion dollar ‘event horizon’ is only theoretical. The near catastrophic disasters at Barings, JP Morgan and AIG are small examples of their destructive powers. However I will offer you Investorpedia’s more clinical definition. “A security whose price is dependent upon or derived from one or more underlying assets. The derivative itself is merely a contract between two or more parties.”
You got to know when to hold ‘em, know when to fold ‘em, (Kenny Rogers): One might think of derivatives as a random game of online poker, you don’t know who your opponents are [your counterparty], you do not know if you will be paid [counterparty risk], you do not know if the game is legitimate, [lack of regulation], and your opponents are probably able to see what cards you are holding, [market domination by large banks]. As well, you are making bets that in many instances neither you nor your opponents fully grasp [complexity of the market]. With each wager you are potentially risking not only your current assets, but your future assets as well. [Leverage]. In some cases you do not know how much you are betting. Imagine as well, that you play this game every day with trillions of dollars that you do not have. This is the global derivatives market.
It is all Greek to me: Alternately, as derivatives are often created as a form of insurance, think of them as an insurance policy in which you:
- Do not know the name, address or any contact information relating to your insurer.
- Do not know if your insurer has the resources to pay a claim.
- Do not understand the insurance contract as it is written in Greek.
- Must rely on a shadowy third party [ISDA] to decide what constitutes a claim. [Credit event]
- Do not know whether your insurer is itself vulnerable to the particular risk you have contracted with it to insure.
His moral lassitude allowed him to excel: Dear Reader, I digress, let me return to my narrative. The aforementioned lucrative contract was secured by two key factors. The first factor was my friendship with Gustavo Laframboise-Pierre, the European Central Bank’s [ECB] Global Director of Statistical Creation. My relationship with such an esteemed member of the ECB traced its roots back to Gustavo’s days as a bookie for Wall Street’s elite. I referred so much business to him we became very good friends. His station in life took a remarkable turn when a senior member of the ECB, while in New York on a ‘fact finding mission’ [this is code for visiting his favorite escort] made an outrageously large and incorrect wager on the outcome of the 2010 World Cup. (Perhaps unsurprisingly, the term ‘derivative’ is commonly used in sports betting!) The only way the debt could be settled was for the banker to offer Gustavo a highly paid sinecure at the ECB. Gustavo became the Global Director of Statistical Creation with the responsibility of making up statistics to support whatever fantastical and deranged policies Central Banks around the world were initiating. Remarkably Gustavo’s aptitude for numbers, coupled with his moral lassitude allowed him to excel at his job. It was Gustavo who invented the term ‘Quantitative Easing’ as a benign euphemism for runaway money printing.
Where ignorance is bliss, ‘tis folly to be wise’: The second factor that secured the contract for me was a chance remark I made as Gustavo and I enjoyed a ‘working lunch’, with several senior executives who represented many of the world’s largest banks. The working lunch was held at Rome’s exclusive Blue Moon Gentleman’s Club. As the featured dancer left the stage I happened to mention to the assorted luminaries that I had read an article on the subject of derivatives. The bankers looked at me with something akin to awe and reverence. Gustavo whispered to me that the topic of derivatives had been discussed in a recent conference call by the world’s bankers. The conclusion reached at that time was that derivatives were too boring and too complicated for bankers to grasp. Despite JP Morgan’s very public, expensive and monumentally stupid 5 billon dollar derivatives trading loss bankers still choose to remain cocooned in a ‘Cloak of Ignorance’ as it relates to derivatives. Thomas Gray’s lament that where ignorance is bliss, ’tis folly to be wise could easily be the mission statement of the global banking industry.
I had read a complete article, I was a ‘de facto expert’: Dear reader, I am not being rude and offensive in my remarks about JP Morgan. Surely you would agree with me that any large bank that loses $5 billion in derivatives trading is ignorant of the properties and risks of derivatives? The fact that I had actually read a complete article on the subject made me a de facto expert on the topic. Gustavo, in an act of kindness, seized the opportunity on my behalf and pressed his colleagues to retain me to research the topic and make a presentation at the upcoming World Economic Forum in Davos. Thus I found myself preparing to dazzle the world’s financial elite with my insights into the risks and opportunities presented by the global derivatives market. In a rush to complete the deal before the next dancer took the stage it was agreed that I would receive the standard banker’s honorarium of $5,000/hour up to a maximum of ‘whatever it takes’.
At $5,000/hr., you would surely not expect me to be brief: I sat at my desk, sipping ‘Gentleman Jack‘ while I looked out at the bleak weather that made Brooklyn so depressing in the winter. My TV was tuned to CNBC, as I waited for Wall Street to open. I put my crack pipe in its case. Dear reader like many of you [especially those of you who work in the banking industry], I have learned all too well, the dangers of mixing crack cocaine with whiskey on an empty stomach. [Have we not all indulged, to our regret, that particular venial sin at least once?] I collected my thoughts and began to write my lengthy tome on the derivatives market. Dear reader at $5,000/hr., you would surely not expect me to be brief.
Lions and Tigers and Bears [and derivatives] Oh My!: I do not want to frighten you. However I will share with you some facts about derivatives that will have you reacting as nervously as Dorothy did in the Wizard of OZ when confronted with the thought of Lions and Tigers and Bears. ‘Derivatives, Oh My’, will I suspect be the words that escape your lips.
Size of the derivatives market: 1 Quadrillion dollars
Size of Global Stock and bond markets: 175 trillion dollars
Who regulates the Derivatives market? LOL, Regulation is a ‘work in progress’ dominated by the big banks.
How dangerous are derivatives? They almost destroyed the world’s largest insurance company, AIG, as well as the global economy. Seriously, you don’t remember? Just Google the words AIG and collapse. Alternately you might call Jamie Dimon at JP Morgan and ask him if Derivatives are dangerous. Have recent regulatory changes made the world economy less likely to implode from a derivative fuelled explosion? Actually as one might expect, thanks to regulatory enhancements that had to run the gauntlet of bank lobbyists prior to their approval, the world’s economy is in more danger than ever from a derivatives inspired meltdown.
‘Duck Dynasty’ and ‘Real Housewives’ to the rescue: How much attention does the Main Street pay to the world’s largest and riskiest casino? [AKA: the Derivatives market]. If one were to Google the word derivatives, one will get 34 million ‘hits’. Alternately, if one does a similar search for the words stocks bonds and markets one will get 400 million ‘hits’. The 34 million ‘hits’ generated by a Google search of the word derivatives compares unfavorably with the 37 million ‘hits’ generated by a search of the term ‘Real Housewives of Atlanta’, the 209 million ‘hits’ generated by a search of the term ‘Duck Dynasty’ or the 713 million ‘hits’ generated by searching the word ‘Sex’. One must conclude that only when derivatives are discussed by one of the ‘Real Housewives of Atlanta’ posing nude in bed with one of the cast members of ‘Duck Dynasty’ will derivatives receive the attention they deserve.
Reality bites: Derivatives can only be discussed as ‘Fake News’: Where can one find insights and coverage of the Derivatives Market in the mainstream media? Is Fox News or CNN my best choice? Sadly Dear reader your best choice would be The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. Despite the calamitous risk and obvious importance of this topic only Mr. Stewart and his team have dared to share information with the general public. Given the outlandish and frightening risks derivatives constitute to the Global Economy, perhaps Mr. Stewart is correct that it can only be discussed in the ‘Fake News’ format.
Derivatives: better suited for Ripley’s Believe it or not than the Wall Street Journal: How bizarre is the derivatives market? How is the concept of money for nothing propagated by the derivatives market? What is the difference between a chump and a champion in the derivatives market? I will leave it to Shah Gilani in his excellent post in Wall Street: Insights and Indictments to explain. Suffice to say that one is able to buy insurance in the derivatives market. One can then cause the insured event to occur by collaborating with a third party. All that remains is to collect the insurance proceeds. [To be clear the proceeds are usually in the tens of millions of dollars.] The derivatives market makes the Ponzi-like money printing of the Central banks look like ‘Amateur Hour’.
Who needs ‘Crack’? Dear reader, usually I needed a little help from my friend Mr. Crack to feel as paranoid and euphoric as I did at this moment. Paranoid, because it was clear to me that the derivatives market was truly a weapon of mass financial destruction. Euphoric because I knew that my research would make my ‘Derivatives’ presentation at the World Economic Forum a groundbreaking ‘tour de force’ that would vault me to the forefront of ‘talking heads’ that pass for experts on mainstream media. Fame, fortune, a book deal and perhaps that elusive Nobel Prize would surely follow. My twenty minutes of painstaking research, had made me one of the world’s foremost experts on this complex subject. [BTW Dear Reader by reaching this point in my commentary, you surely now know more about derivatives than most bankers and traders on Wall Street. You should be quite pleased.]
David, you are an imbecile: I decided to reach out to my pal Gustavo and share some of my findings. I knew that it was 3:30 in the afternoon in Paris so I would be able to catch Gustavo just as he arrived for another day of work. “Gustavo”, I intoned, breathless with excitement. “I have uncovered some startling, controversial, and frightening information about derivatives. The luminaries and leading lights who attend my presentation in Davos will be utterly gobsmacked by my revelations. The media will undoubtedly ensure that my findings go viral. The topic of derivatives will no longer exist only in the dark shadows of the banking industry. The danger that derivatives pose to the global economy will permeate the consciousness of Main Street.”. Gustavo sighed, “David, I do not know if you are stupid or naïve. Every September when you bet $1,000 that the perennially atrocious Toronto Maple Leafs will win the Stanley Cup, I assumed you were simply ingenuous. Your comments today have convinced me that you are an imbecile. Let me assure you that those will not be the findings that you present at the World Economic Forum. Rather you will inform the world that derivatives are a financial instrument that is being used by brilliant and prudent financial professionals to mitigate risk and make the world a safer place.”
The ‘Truth Will Out’: “Gustavo”, I groaned, "that would be a lie. I cannot in good conscience, sacrifice my integrity, my honor, my core beliefs and my good name simply to placate Wall Street and the Central Banks. I have a responsibility to my readers on Main Street to inform them, to warn them, to prepare them for the likely financial chaos that derivatives will cause”. “Gustavo”, I said with iron willed determination, “the Truth Will Out”. “David”, Gustavo snarled, “If you change the tenor of your presentation and indicate that derivatives are the most benign form of financial instrument, somewhat akin to Treasury bills, we will double your fee”.
Move along nothing to see here: Dear Reader, in summary let me say that derivatives are the most benign form of financial instrument, somewhat akin to treasury bills. Gustavo’s immutable logic and persuasive argument was instrumental in helping me reach the correct conclusion regarding the risks to the Global economy posed by derivatives. So Dear Reader, move along, there is nothing to see here."