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Clear Signs That The Great Derivatives Crisis Has Now Begun

October 7th, 2015

market correction bearWarren Buffett once referred to derivatives as “financial weapons of mass destruction“, and it was inevitable that they would begin to wreak havoc on our financial system at some point. 

While things may seem somewhat calm on Wall Street at the moment, the truth is that a great deal of trouble is bubbling just under the surface.

As you will see below, something happened in mid-September that required an unprecedented 405 billion dollar surge of Treasury collateral into the repo market.

I know – that sounds very complicated, so I will try to break it down more simply for you.

It appears that some very large institutions have started to get into a significant amount of trouble because of all the reckless betting that they have been doing.

This is something that I have warned would happen over and over again.

In fact, I have written about it so much that my regular readers are probably sick of hearing about it.

But this is what is going to cause the meltdown of our financial system.

Global Financial Meltdown - Public Domain

Many out there get upset when I compare derivatives trading to gambling, and perhaps it would be more accurate to describe most derivatives as a form of insurance.  The big financial institutions assure us that they have passed off most of the risk on these contracts to others and so there is no reason to worry according to them.

Well, personally I don’t buy their explanations, and a lot of others don’t either.  On a very basic, primitive level, derivatives trading is gambling.  This is a point that Jeff Nielson made very eloquently in a piece that he recently published

No one “understands” derivatives. How many times have readers heard that thought expressed (please round-off to the nearest thousand)? Why does no one understand derivatives? For many; the answer to that question is that they have simply been thinking too hard. For others; the answer is that they don’t “think” at all.

Derivatives are bets. This is not a metaphor, or analogy, or generalization. Derivatives are bets. Period. That’s all they ever were. That’s all they ever can be.

One very large financial institution that appears to be in serious trouble with these financial weapons of mass destruction is Glencore.  At one time Glencore was considered to be the 10th largest company on the entire planet, but now it appears to be coming apart at the seams, and a great deal of their trouble seems to be tied to derivatives.  The following comes from Zero Hedge

Of particular concern, they said, was Glencore’s use of financial instruments such as derivatives to hedge its trading of physical goods against price swings. The company had $9.8 billion in gross derivatives in June 2015, down from $19 billion in such positions at the end of 2014, causing investors to query the company about the swing.

Glencore told investors the number went down so drastically because of changes in market volatility this year, according to people briefed by Glencore. When prices vary significantly, it can increase the value of hedging positions.

Last year, there were extreme price moves, particularly in the crude-oil market, which slid from about $114 a barrel in June to less than $60 a barrel by the end of December.

That response wasn’t satisfying, said Michael Leithead, a bond fund portfolio manager at EFG Asset Management, which managed $12 billion as of the end of March and has invested in Glencore’s debt.

According to Bank of America, the global financial system has about 100 billion dollars of exposure overall to Glencore.  So if Glencore goes bankrupt that is going to be a major event.  At this point, Glencore is probably the most likely candidate to be “the next Lehman Brothers”.

And it isn’t just Glencore that is in trouble.  Other financial giants such as Trafigura are in deep distress as well.  Collectively, the global financial system has approximately half a trillion dollars of exposure to these firms…

Worse, since it is not just Glencore that the banks are exposed to but very likely the rest of the commodity trading space, their gross exposure blows up to a simply stunning number:

For the banks, of course, Glencore may not be their only exposure in the commodity trading space. We consider that other vehicles such as Trafigura, Vitol and Gunvor may feature on bank balance sheets as well ($100 bn x 4?)

Call it half a trillion dollars in very highly levered exposure to commodities: an asset class that has been crushed in the past year.

The mainstream media is not talking much about any of this yet, and that is probably a good thing.  But behind the scenes, unprecedented moves are already taking place.

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