Overall, the biggest U.S. banks collectively have more than 247 trillion dollars of exposure to derivatives contracts. That is an amount of money that is more than 13 times the size of the U.S. national debt, and it is a ticking time bomb that could set off financial Armageddon at any moment.
Globally, the notional value of all outstanding derivatives contracts is a staggering 552.9 trillion dollars according to the Bank for International Settlements. The bankers assure us that these financial instruments are far less risky than they sound, and that they have spread the risk around enough so that there is no way they could bring the entire system down.
But that is the thing about risk – you can try to spread it around as many ways as you can, but you can never eliminate it. And when this derivatives bubble finally implodes, there won’t be enough money on the entire planet to fix it.
A lot of readers may be tempted to quit reading right now, because “derivatives” is a term that sounds quite complicated. And yes, the details of these arrangements can be immensely complicated, but the concept is quite simple. Here is a good definition of “derivatives” that comes from Investopedia…
A derivative is a security with a price that is dependent upon or derived from one or more underlying assets. The derivative itself is a contract between two or more parties based upon the asset or assets. Its value is determined by fluctuations in the underlying asset. The most common underlying assets include stocks, bonds, commodities, currencies, interest rates and market indexes.
I like to refer to the derivatives marketplace as a form of “legalized gambling”. Those that are engaged in derivatives trading are simply betting that something either will or will not happen in the future. Derivatives played a critical role in the financial crisis of 2008, and I am fully convinced that they will take on a starring role in this new financial crisis.
And I am certainly not the only one that is concerned about the potentially destructive nature of these financial instruments. In a letter that he once wrote to shareholders of Berkshire Hathaway, Warren Buffett referred to derivatives as “financial weapons of mass destruction”…
The derivatives genie is now well out of the bottle, and these instruments will almost certainly multiply in variety and number until some event makes their toxicity clear. Central banks and governments have so far found no effective way to control, or even monitor, the risks posed by these contracts. In my view, derivatives are financial weapons of mass destruction, carrying dangers that, while now latent, are potentially lethal.
Since the last financial crisis, the big banks in this country have become even more reckless. And that is a huge problem, because our economy is even more dependent on them than we were the last time around. At this point, the four largest banks in the U.S. are approximately 40 percent larger than they were back in 2008. The five largest banks account for approximately 42 percent of all loans in this country, and the six largest banks account for approximately 67 percent of all assets in our financial system.
So the problem of “too big to fail” is now bigger than ever.
If those banks go under, we are all in for a world of hurt.
Yesterday, I wrote about how the Federal Reserve has implemented new rules that would limit the ability of the Fed to loan money to these big banks during the next crisis. So if the survival of these big banks is threatened by a derivatives crisis, the money to bail them out would probably have to come from somewhere else.
In such a scenario, could we see European-style “bail-ins” in this country?