If this had been a mere subprime crisis, it would now be over. But it is not, and nor will it be over soon. The reason is that several other pockets of the credit market are also vulnerable. Credit cards are one such segment, similar in size to the subprime market. Another is credit default swaps, relatively modern financial instruments that allow bondholders to insure against default. Those who such sell such protection receive a quarterly premium, based on a percentage of the amount insured.
The CDS market is worth about $45,000bn (â‚¬30,500bn, Â£23,000bn). This is not an easy figure to imagine. It is more than three times the annual gross domestic product of the US. Economically, credit default swaps are insurance. But legally, they are not, which is why this market is largely unregulated.
Technically, they are swaps: two parties swap payments streams ”“ one pays a regular premium for protection, the other pays up in case of default. At a time of low insolvency rates, many investors used to consider the selling of protection as a fairly risk-free way of generating a steady stream of income. But as insolvency rates go up, so will be the payment obligations under the CDS contracts. If insolvencies reach a certain level, one would expect some protection sellers to default on their obligations.
So the general health of this market crucially depends on the rate of insolvencies. This in turn depends on the economy. The US and Europe are the two largest CDS markets in the world. It is now widely recognised, including by the Federal Reserve, that the US economy is heading for a sharp downturn, possibly a recession. The eurozone, too, is heading for a downturn, but possibly not quite as sharp.
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