Banks in Europe and the US face a new wave of losses linked to contracts issued to insure against companies going bust and defaulting on their loans, City analysts have warned.
After the billions lost over the US subprime market and leveraged loans, investment banks such as Morgan Stanley, Deutsche Bank, Barclays, UBS and RBS face losses on credit default swaps (CDS) – contracts that allow an investor to be repaid if a company loan or a bond defaults.
CDS contracts became a favourite tool of speculators, mostly hedge funds, which bought the contracts without having any link to the original lending. They bought the contract to trade or in the expectation the company would in fact default, meaning they could claim back the full value of a loan they never made.
The CDS market exploded to be worth as much as $50 TRILLION, many times the size of the underlying assets. Each loan could have thousands of protection contracts, even if there were only a few lenders. Hedge funds accounted for about 60% of CDS trading, according to ratings agency Fitch.
But now that a rising number of companies are going bust, the issuers of the contracts could face significant losses, analysts say. US carmaker General Motors, which is seeking government aid, was the company that had most protection bought and sold on it by the end of 2006, according to Fitch.
Investment banks were attracted by the method as they didn’t have to report any issuance data to any regulator and could issue as many contracts as they wanted.
At present, nobody knows which banks have issued which contracts. The uncertainty and the deepening recession have sent the cost of insurance protection to record highs this week. The itraxx index, which tracks the senior debt of 25 European financial institutions, closed at 165 basis points today, near its record yesterday of 166 points, according to financial information provider Markit.
CDS contracts have also gained on growing uncertainty over eastern European banks and after Citigroup asked the US government for aid.
The banks say they are protected as they have daily updates on the collateral needed for their CDS contracts.
Tuesday 24 February 2009 19.46 GMT
Source: The Guardian