A question from the classics:
“What can be added to the happiness of a man who is in health, out of debt, and has a clear conscience?” asked Adam Smith. It was a rhetorical question in the eighteenth century.
And we have a real answer. Or rather, an unreal one.
Twenty years ago, the total notional sum of derivatives in the entire world was close to zero. At least that is the impression you get from looking at a chart showing the growth of derivatives in the years since. From nothing, the global supply of derivatives has risen faster than the NASDAQ…faster than oil…faster even than prices of Mayfair apartments. Other market bubbles were soap bubbles compared to the Hindenburg of derivatives, which the latest estimates judge to be worth some $236 Trillion — or about eight times the GDP of the entire planet. In other words, derivatives make up a bubble larger than the old globe itself.
What a jolly time to be alive. There in front of us is the fattest, juiciest bubble that has ever existed. If only we had a long sharp pin in our hand!
But what are these derivatives, readers might want to know.
They are debt. Packages of debt. Bundles of debt. Piles of debt. Rocky Mountains of debt.
Debt that is stuffed into hedge fund portfolios as an investment. Debt that is laid away at insurance companies and pension funds…as an asset. Debt that is traded, extended, extruded, pressed, bolted, wrung out and wadded up. It is debt for all seasons…all people… all times and place…it is Urbi and Orbi Debt…
There. We have given you the technical description of it. What follows is an answer to the question: what do all these bubbled up derivatives really mean?
Derivative contracts are sometimes so difficult to understand that it takes teams of dusty mathematicians to keep an eye on them. That gives financial institutions comfort, but it shouldn’t. Long Term Capital Management of Greenwich, Connecticut had two Nobel Prize winners among its quants when it managed to blow itself up after placing a few bad bets.
Why? Because behind the arcane complexity of derivative contracts are the simple-minded human beings who are at any moment in only one of two positions: long or short. Every contract is a bet. And every bet can go either way.
You might think that this means the whole shebang is a zero-sum proposition. Let them blow up, you might say; the longs and the shorts will offset each other. For every winner there will be a loser…and for every half dozen fools separated from his money there will be a new billionaire with peculiar art in a monstrous mansion in Greenwich.
Alas, that is not the whole story. Derivatives are not a zero-sum game…but a game in which the actual odds themselves follow long patterns of boom and bust. There are, for example, trillions of dollars worth of securities whose value is derived from the housing market. Fast-talking lenders write adjustable-rate, payment-optional mortgages for slow-witted homeowners. Then, they sell the contracts on…whence they are packaged with thousands of others into a mortgage-backed security (MBS). The mortgage-backed security is backed by a mortgage. But who backs the mortgage? That would be those sad sacks you read about in the papers, who stretched too far to buy too much house with an ARM far too long and too complicated for them to grasp.
Most of the time, and especially during the long bull market in housing — roughly equal to the bull market in credit derivatives — the payers are ready and able to pay. Sometimes they are not. When they are not…the security of mortgage-backed securities disappears.
America’s average mortgage payer has not had a real wage increase in 34 years. Instead, he has become upwardly mobile by proxy… piggy-backing on the shiny surfaces of bubbles…in credit…in debt…in housing. But there must come a day when the bubbles take a bath…when the poor homeowner must find another money-tree or miss his mortgage payment. And when he misses, what a hit he will take. And that will be the day all the bubbles blow up at once — including the mother of them all, the bubble in derivatives.
u2022 As empires age, all their institutions get hollowed out. The old institutions are still there, but they serve new masters — the parasites who have taken control of them. Today, we look briefly at America’s defense institutions. Of course, we still have a Department of Defense, but its major activity is no longer defending the nation. Instead, it has been taken over by its suppliers and the world-improvers. That is why we have a war in Iraq. No one can know the future, but even we cannot stretch our imaginations far enough to see how Iraq ever presented any military threat to the United States of America.
Why does the War on Terror go on? It has been five years since a tiny band of fanatics brought down the World Trade towers. Since then, hundreds of billions have been spent to protect the homeland — but we wonder, from what? Since 2001, terrorists have caused fewer deaths in America than allergic reactions to peanut butter. We are awaiting a War on Peanuts….
But the spending…the searches…the bullying…the scare-mongering continue. Why? Because it pleases the parasites.
Since 9/11, reports The Observer in London, “a highly lucrative industry” has arisen in the United States of America — protecting the homeland from terrorists. Not since Lucky Luciano teamed up with Meyer Lanksy has there been such a protection racket in the United States. In the entire fifty states, there may not be enough terrorists to fill a small county jail, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t any money in homeland security. In fact, since the dawn of the 21st century, almost half of all new jobs have come, directly or indirectly, from two booming industries — housing and homeland protection — one a delusion, the other a diddle.
“Seven years ago, there were nine firms with federal homeland security contracts. Now there are 33,890. Since 2000, $130 billion of government contracts have been dished out.”
“There is a powerful economic incentive,” continues the report, “to exploit the terror threat — even government officials are leaving office to join the gold rush. John Ashcroft, former Attorney General, controversially extended state surveillance powers before leaving to set up the Ashcroft Group, which lobbies on behalf of technology firms aiming to capitalize on the new powers.”
The Observer wonders whether the money was well spent. It mentions one contract, for example, to provide bullet-proof vests for dogs in Ohio. Is that a worthwhile expenditure? We don’t know. But we will take a wild guess: from now until Hell freezes over, not a single American Homelander will be saved from terrorists by a dog from Ohio wearing a bullet proof vest.
Bill Bonner [send him mail] is the author, with Addison Wiggin, of Financial Reckoning Day: Surviving the Soft Depression of The 21st Century and Empire of Debt: The Rise Of An Epic Financial Crisis.