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Featured Article: Evolution of the Credit Default Swap
Stage 1 (Perturbo mutans)
In 1999, these credit default swaps already existed, but they were a niche product. Only a fraction of banks employed them and then only on a fraction of loans. Without some knock to the system, swaps would probably have remained a relatively small player.
Stage 2 (Perturbo furtiva)
So, now you've made a loan to someone, and you're worried about it. I want to offer you a credit default swap so I can collect the fee. Trouble is, I don't have the assets to cover your loan. So how can I... hold on, credit default swaps are so unregulated that no one says I actually have to be able to deliver on my promise. Hey, over here! Have I got a swap for you, and it's a bargain.
So now the CDS is a means of moving the risk, but the risk is still as high (or higher, since the original lender might have been better able to cover the loss). In fact, credit default swaps have gone from being a risk mitigator, to a risk magnifier.
Stage 3 (Peturbo veloxicresco)
Now you can get a swap for any loan you want, and with all the competition, the cost of these swaps is lower, and lower, and lower. Here's an idea: why not go out and make more loans, riskier loans. Why not offer anyone you can collar on the street a loan, no matter whether or not they can pay it off, not because some 30 year old law makes you do it, but because your friend the credit swap makes it perfectly safe!
So many people are offering these things that you could give a loan to Saddam while the bombs are falling without a care in the world. You can always get a swap.
Stage 4 (Fatum casus)
Wait a second. Swaps are unregulated. No one says I have to have enough resources to cover the swap, and even better, no one says I have to offer the swap to the person who actually made the loan! Hey buddy, see that loan over there? You may think it's iffy, but I think it'll hold up. In fact, I'm so sure it will, I'll sell a credit default swap on it that pays off if it fails. You don't make the loan, you don't have to pay off on the loan, you don't have anything to do with the loan. You just pay me the fee. And if that guy loses his money, you collect. How sweet is that!
This mutation is enormous (see how the genera changed up there?). At this point, credit default swaps have become completely divorced from the original function. A single loan can be covered by multiple swaps. There's a complicated fiscal term for this. It's called gambling, and at this stage, that's all that remains of those little "insurance" policies. They no longer protect anyone from anything, they just offer a chance to place enormous overlapping side bets on everything.
Stage 5 (Fatum insanus)
Who owns the original loan? Don't know, don't care. Who's actually responsible for the money if that loan should fail? Ehhh, can't really say. Has anyone noticed that a single bad loan could cause a cascade of swap calls that bounce around the system like a rocket-power pinball? Shut up.
Isn't anyone worried that this is the most massive house of cards ever constructed in human history? Lookit, what part of "we took 120 billion in bonuses out of this place in the last five years" are you missing?
Stage 6 (Fatum exicelebritas)
Stage 7 (Fatum cerus)
(This is part of a post by Devilstower.)
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