The Doomsday Machine Returns: Citibank Has Sold Protection on $858 Billion of Credit Default Swaps

Margot Robbie in The Big Short
Margot Robbie in the Movie, “The Big Short,” Which Focused on How Derivatives Blew Up Wall Street in 2008

By Pam Martens and Russ Martens of Wall Street on Parade.

Lily Tomlin is credited with the quote: “No matter how cynical you get, it is impossible to keep up.” Wall Street regularly brings that message home.

According to the latest derivatives report from the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency (OCC), Citibank, the federally-insured, taxpayer-backstopped bank owned by Citigroup, has sold protection to other banks, hedge funds, insurance companies or corporations on a staggering $858 billion of Credit Default Swaps. When a federally-insured bank sells protection to others on Credit Default Swaps, it is effectively taking on the risk of a default event. At a time of unprecedented levels of debt in the system and growing warnings about leveraged loans, that seems like a very unwise move by Citigroup.

The OCC notes that Citibank has bought protection via a larger amount of Credit Default Swaps – a total of $898.8 billion. (See Table 12 in the Appendix of the report.) There is no guarantee, however, that these bets are properly aligned and will not, once again, blow up this bank along with a chunk of Wall Street firms or insurance companies that may be its counterparties.

Credit Default Swaps played a central role in the 2008 financial collapse on Wall Street, as did Citigroup. It is an indictment of every federal banking regulator in the United States, as well as Congress, that Citigroup has been allowed to return as a major player in this market while using its federally-insured Citibank once again as a pawn in this game.

Adding to the outrage, it was Citigroup that was responsible for overturning the portion of the Dodd-Frank financial reform legislation of 2010 that would have pushed these derivatives out of federally-insured banks.

It may also help to explain why the New York Fed continues to fling hundreds of billions of dollars each week at the trading houses on Wall Street while the Federal Reserve Chairman, Jerome Powell, insists that everything is just fine on Wall Street.

The official report from the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission, following an in-depth investigation of the 2008 collapse, wrote this about Credit Default Swaps:

“OTC derivatives contributed to the crisis in three significant ways. First, one type of derivative—credit default swaps (CDS)—fueled the mortgage securitization pipeline. CDS were sold to investors to protect against the default or decline in value of mortgage-related securities backed by risky loans…

“Second, CDS were essential to the creation of synthetic CDOs. These synthetic CDOs were merely bets on the performance of real mortgage-related securities. They amplified the losses from the collapse of the housing bubble by allowing multiple bets on the same securities and helped spread them throughout the financial system…

“Finally, when the housing bubble popped and crisis followed, derivatives were in the center of the storm. AIG, which had not been required to put aside capital reserves as a cushion for the protection it was selling, was bailed out when it could not meet its obligations. The government ultimately committed more than $180 billion because of concerns that AIG’s collapse would trigger cascading losses throughout the global financial system. In addition, the existence of millions of derivatives contracts of all types between systemically important financial institutions—unseen and unknown in this unregulated market—added to uncertainty and escalated panic, helping to precipitate government assistance to those institutions.”

“Unseen and unknown” are the operative words in the above paragraph. The Credit Default Swaps were, both then and now, mostly over-the-counter private contracts between a bank and a counterparty. The major Wall Street banks had no idea which of their banking peers had major exposure to bets that were collapsing in value, so the banks simply stopped lending to one another. That sounds a lot like what is happening today and why the New York Fed has become the lender of last resort as well as liquidity supplier of last resort

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