In all the uproar over AIG, the most important lesson has been ignored. AIG failed because it sold large amounts of credit default swaps (CDS) without properly offsetting or covering their positions. What we must take away from this is that CDS are toxic instruments whose use ought to be strictly regulated: Only those who own the underlying bonds ought to be allowed to buy them. Instituting this rule would tame a destructive force and cut the price of the swaps. It would also save the U.S. Treasury a lot of money by reducing the loss on AIG’s outstanding positions without abrogating any contracts.
CDS came into existence as a way of providing insurance on bonds against default. Since they are tradable instruments, they became bear-market warrants for speculating on deteriorating conditions in a company or country. What makes them toxic is that such speculation can be self-validating.
Up until the crash of 2008, the prevailing view — called the efficient market hypothesis — was that the prices of financial instruments accurately reflect all the available information (i.e. the underlying reality). But this is not true. Financial markets don’t deal with the current reality, but with the future — a matter of anticipation, not knowledge. Thus, we must understand financial markets through a new paradigm which recognizes that they always provide a biased view of the future, and that the distortion of prices in financial markets may affect the underlying reality that those prices are supposed to reflect.