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Systemic Market Risk is Worse Now Than in 2008

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So…you don’t live anywhere near the southern border, don’t care about the Middle East, are used to lawlessness from the current occupant of the White House, aren’t pleased with the economy but you’re doing okay or better — you’re just very happy about the stock market and that we’re six years beyond the financial markets meltdown of 2008. If that’s you, then Martin Hutchinson writing at the California Policy Center has some bad news for you (as our spoiler alert headline no doubt gave away). Here is an excerpt from Hutchinson’s article:

Since the crash of 2008, huge attention has been paid by regulators to systemic risk, the risk that some event will cause the crash of the entire banking system, not just of an individual bank. Tens of thousands of pages of financial regulations have been written, and almost as many thousands of speeches have been bloviated, about how we now understand the dangers of “too big to fail” and therefore a crash such as occurred in 2008 can never happen again.

Needless to say this is nonsense; systemic risk is worse now than it was in 2008. What’s more, the next crash will almost certainly be considerably nastier than the last one.

The main issue addressed by legislation has been “too big to fail,” the idea that some banks are so large that their failure would cause a catastrophic economic collapse and hence they must be propped up by taxpayers. It will not surprise you to learn that I don’t regard this as the central problem.

Most of the risks in the banking system today are present in a wide range of institutions, all of which are highly interconnected and getting more so. Hence a failure in a medium-sized institution, if sufficiently connected to the system as a whole, could well have systemic implications. At the same time, pretty well all banks use similar (and spurious) risk-management systems, while leverage—both open and more dangerously hidden—is high throughout the system. Foolish monetary policy is foolish for all, and if a technological disaster occurs, it is likely to affect software used by a substantial faction of the banking system as a whole. There are a number of good reasons to break up the banking behemoths, but breaking them up on its own would not solve the systemic risk problem.

Systemic risk has been exacerbated by modern finance for a number of reasons. The system’s interconnectedness is one such reason, because of the cat’s cradle of derivatives contracts totaling some $710 trillion nominal amount (per BIS figures for December 2013) that stretch between different institutions worldwide.

Some of these contracts such as the $584 trillion of interest-rate swaps are not especially risky (except to the extent that traders have been gambling egregiously on the market’s direction). However, other derivatives, such as the $21 trillion of credit-default swaps (CDS) and options thereon, have potential risk almost as great as their nominal amount. What’s more, there are $25 trillion of “unallocated” contracts. My sleep is highly troubled by the thought of 150% of U.S. Gross Domestic Product (GDP) in contracts which the regulators can’t define.

The problem is made worse by the illiquidity of many of these instruments. Any kind of exotic derivative with a long-term maturity is likely to trade very seldom indeed once the initial flush of creation has worn off. These risks have been alleviated by trading standard contracts on exchanges. But even if banks’ risk management were good, failure of a major counterparty or, heaven help us, of an exchange, would cause systemic havoc because of its interconnectedness.

If you haven’t been sufficiently cheered by this article, you can continue reading it here: California Policy Center.

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