Monthly Archives: November 2011
Credit default swaps may sound fiendishly complex, but they’re actually relatively simple instruments. Imagine a family—call it the Bonds family—moves into a beautiful new home worth $1 million recently built in your neighborhood. The local bank has given the Bondses a mortgage. Trouble is, the bank has too many loans on its books and would like to get some of them off its balance sheet. The bank approaches you and your neighbors and asks whether you would be interested in providing insurance against the chance that the Bonds family may one day default.
Of course, the bank will pay you a fee, but nothing extravagant. Mr. and Mrs. Bonds are hardworking. The economy is in solid shape. You think it’s a good bet. The bank starts paying you $10,000 a year. If Mr. and Mrs. Bonds default, you owe $1 million. But as long as Mr. and Mrs. Bonds keep paying their mortgage, everything is fine. It’s almost like free money. In essence, you’ve bought a credit default swap on Mr. and Mrs. Bonds’s house. One day you notice that Mr. Bonds didn’t drive to work in the morning. Later you find out that he’s lost his job. Suddenly you’re worried that you may be on the hook for $1 million. But wait: another neighbor, who thinks he knows the family better than you, is confident that Mr. Bonds will get his job back soon. He’s willing to take over the responsibility for that debt—for a price, of course. He wants $20,000 a year to insure the Bondses’ mortgage. That’s bad news for you, since you have to pay an extra $10,000 a year—but you think it’s worth it because you really don’t want to pay for that $1 million mortgage.
Welcome to the world of credit default swaps trading.
Many CDS traders, such as [Boaz] Weinstein, weren’t really in the game to protect themselves against a loss on a bond or mortgage. Often these investors never actually held the debt in the first place. Instead, they were gambling on the perception of whether a company would default or not.
If all of this weren’t strange enough, things became truly surreal when the world of credit default swaps met the world of securitization. [Aaron] Brown had watched, with some horror, as banks started to bundle securitized loans into a product they called a collateralized debt obligation, or CDO. CDOs were similar to the CMOs (collateralized mortgage obligations) Brown had encountered in the 1980s. But they were more diverse and could be used to package any kind of debt, from mortgages to student loans to credit card debt. Some CDOs were made up of other pieces of CDOs, a Frankenstein-like beast known as CDO-squared. (Eventually there were even CDOs of CDOs of CDOs.)
Just when things seemingly couldn’t get stranger, CDOs underwent a completely new twist when a team of J. P. Morgan quants created one of the most bizarre and ultimately destructive financial products ever designed: the “synthetic” CDO.
In the mid-1990s, a New York group of J. P. Morgan financial engineers began thinking about how to solve a problem that plagued the bank: a huge inventory of loans on the bank’s balance sheet that was earning paltry returns. Because the bank was limited in how many loans it could make due to capital reserve requirements, those loans were holding it back. What if there was a way to make the risk of the loans disappear?
Enter the credit default swap. The bank came up with the novel idea of creating a synthetic CDO using swaps. The swaps were tied to the loans that had been sitting on J. P. Morgan’s balance sheet, repackaged into a CDO. Investors, instead of buying an actual bundle of bonds—getting the yield on the bonds, but also assuming the risk of default—were instead agreeing to insure a bundle of bonds, getting paid by a premium to do so. Imagine, in other words, thousands of swaps tied to bundles of mortgages (or other kinds of loans such as corporate and credit card debt) such as those owned by Mr. and Mrs. Bonds.
By selling slices of synthetic CDOs to investors, J. P. Morgan offloaded the risk of the debt it held on its balance sheet. Since the bank was essentially insuring the loans, it didn’t need to worry anymore about the risk the loan holder would default. With that—presto change-o—the bank could use more capital to make more loans … and book more fees.
Patterson, S. (2010). The Quants: How a New Breed of Math Whizzes Conquered Wall Street and Nearly Destroyed It. New York: Crown Business, pg. 167-8
Please click the four arrows to view in fullscreen. The creators’ description can be read here.
The title of this post, so literally exemplified in the video’s example of Manhattan, is taken from a despairing Lionel Trilling as his students occupied Columbia University in 1968. Not to compare the contemporary Occupy movement(s) with May ’68, which is so tacky, but the quotation gains an intriguing new meaning now, which the above video helps to draw out. Though I’m in no state to define modernism, it can roughly be described as the belief in the capacity of science and reason to encapsulate all the variables of the universe in order to achieve a state of total control & perfection. This is to be contrasted with postmodernism, which is, quite frankly, impossible to succinctly describe. With our cliché definition of modernism out of the way, however, we can focus our attention on the much more interesting elements entailed by this weltanschauung. Case in point:
High modernist subjectivity gives an extraordinary privilege, for example, to judgement and especially to cognition. It correspondingly devalues the faculty of perception, so that vision itself is so to speak colonized by cognition. The modern predominance of reading fosters epistemologies of representation, of a visual paradigm in the sphere of art […]. High modernist subjectivity seems furthermore to privilege the cognitive and moral over the aesthetic and the libidinal, the ego over the id, the visual over touch, and discursive over figural communication. It gives primacy to culture over nature, to the individual over the community, As an ethics of responsibility, high modernist personality and Lebensfürung [life-course] it allows the individual to be somehow ‘closed’ instead of open; to be somehow obsessed with self-mastery and self-domination.
Lash, S. & Friedman, J. (Eds.). (1993). Modernity & Identity. Massachusetts: Blackwell, pg. 5
To conclude, here is Microsoft’s projection of our technological future:
For the 2009 version, see here.
In pre-modern times the gathering of honey was a difficult affair. Even if bees were housed in straw hives, harvesting the honey usually meant driving off the bees and often destroying the colony. The arrangement of brood chambers and honey cells followed complex patterns that varied from hive to hive―patterns that did not allow for neat extractions. The modern beehive, in contrast, is designed to solve the beekeeper’s problem. With a device called a ‘queen excluder’, it separates the brood chambers below from the honey supplies above, preventing the queen from laying eggs above a certain level. Furthermore, the wax calls are arranged neatly in vertical frames, nine or ten to a box, which enable the easy extraction of honey, wax, and propolis. Extraction is made possible by observing ‘bee space’―the precise distance between the frames that the bees will leave open as passages rather than bridging the frames by building intervening honeycomb. From the beekeeper’s point of view, the modern hive is an orderly, ‘legible’ hive allowing the beekeeper to inspect the condition of the colony and queen, judge its honey production (by weight), enlarge or contract the size of the hive by standard units, move it to a new location, and, above all, extract just enough honey (in temperate climates) to ensure that the colony will overwinter successfully.
I do not want to push the analogy further than it will go, but much of early modern European statecraft seemed similarly devoted to rationalizing and standardizing what was a social hieroglyph into a legible and administratively more convenient format. The social simplifications thus introduced not only permitted a finely tuned system of taxation and conscription but also greatly enhanced state capacity. They made possible quite discriminating interventions of every kind, such as public-health measures, political surveillance, and relief for the poor. […]
[Such state attempts at simplification as t]he Great Leap Forward in China, collectivization in Russia, and compulsory villagization in Tanzania, Mozambique, and Ethiopia are among the great tragedies of the twentieth century, in terms of both lives lost and lives irreparably disrupted. At a less dramatic but far more common level, the history of Third World development is littered with the debris of huge agricultural schemes and new cities (think of Brasília or Chandigarh) that have failed their residents.
~Scott, J. (1998). Seeing Like a State. New Haven: Yale University Press, pp. 2-3