Markets hold breath as $360bn Lehman swaps unwind

The $54trillion credit derivatives market faces a delicate test as $360bn worth of contracts on now-defaulted derivatives on Lehman Brothers are due to be settled on Tuesday.

Lehman Brothers' complex network of derivatives will be settled on Tuesday October 22
Lehman Brothers’ complex network of derivatives will be settled on Tuesday October 22

Due to the opacity of the market, which is one of the most complex, least regulated and least understood in the global financial system, it is still not clear how many contracts have to be settled or which institutions will take the ultimate hits once the billions of dollars worth of contracts have been unravelled.

The collapse of Lehman Brothers, is expected to trigger credit default swap (CDS) protection pay-outs of about $400bn but because the contracts were sold many times through different counterparties it is not yet known who will be liable.

One commentator said: “This will be the greatest illustration of the follies of Wall Street and how unnecessarily complicated the wild off-track betting became in the past few years.”

Five years ago Warren Buffett, the iconic American investor, warned that the chaotic profusion of derivatives used by companies and hedge funds to fund financial growth were “financial weapons of mass destruction.”

Bankers in the City and on Wall Street are bracing for yet another round of turbulence as the contracts are unwound.

The Bank of England and the Federal Reserve in America have said they will keep their special liquidity windows open late on Tuesday night to allow the contracts to settle.

“We’re in unchartered waters here and it may all prove an anti-climax,” said a senior City banker on Friday, “but everyone will be watching the situation and wondering what’s going to happen.”

An earlier auction of Lehman-related derivatives on October 10 prompted early fears that banks and investors could lose $400 billion. In the event, the discounts on the Lehman-related paper that day realised losses of only $6 billion.

At the core of Tuesday’s cash exchange between banks stands a quasi-insurance product, the credit default swaps. Investors buy CDS’s to protect themselves against the possibility of default on securities issues by firms such as Lehman. During the boom years, banks’ insurers and hedge funds created and sold CDS’s to raise what appeared to be risk-free cash in the form of premium payments.

On September 16, Lehman filed for bankruptcy, leaving them obliged to payout on CDS’s written to protect investors against the possibility of a default on Lehman paper.

City bankers say that Lehman also holds a portfolio of CDS’s written to protect against other institutions defaulting and these, too, could get caught up in Tuesday’s action.

“This will arguably be the biggest cash-exchange day and somebody will fail,” one analyst warned last week.

By Louise Armitstead and Peter Koenig
Last Updated: 7:47PM BST 18 Oct 2008

Source: The Telegraph

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