Be it ever so devalued, $1 trillion is a lot of dough.
That’s roughly on a par with the Russian economy. More than double the market value of Exxon Mobil Corp. About nine times the combined wealth of Warren Buffett and Bill Gates.
Yet $1 trillion is the amount of defaults and writedowns Americans will likely witness before they emerge at the far side of the bursting credit bubble, estimates Charles R. Morris in his shrewd primer, “The Trillion Dollar Meltdown.” That calculation assumes an orderly unwinding, which he doesn’t expect.
“The sad truth,” he writes, “is that subprime is just the first big boulder in an avalanche of asset writedowns that will rattle on through much of 2008.”
Expect the landslide to cascade through high-yield bonds, commercial mortgages, leveraged loans, credit cards and — the big unknown — credit-default swaps, Morris says. The notional value for those swaps, which are meant to insure bondholders against default, covered about $45 trillion in portfolios as of mid-2007, up from some $1 trillion in 2001, he writes.
Morris can’t be dismissed as a crank. A lawyer, former banker and author of 10 other books, he knows a thing or two about the complex instruments that have spread toxic debt throughout the credit system. He once ran a company that made software for creating and analyzing securitized asset pools. Yet he writes with tight clarity and blistering pace.