2008-09-12the-great-retirement-experiment.com

From some perspectives, this near catastrophe which could have so easily taken down all of Wall Street (had the federal government not intervened), was not a catastrophe at all. It was instead a highly successful experiment. For the many firms which purportedly took on the risk in creating $1.4 trillion of credit-default swaps for Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac did not do so for the fun of it or out of the goodness of their hearts. They did so because they got paid enormous sums of money for purportedly taking on all those risks. With much of that money quite directly passing through to the already wealthy individuals involved.

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What the experiment proved was that as long as the risk that you take is big enough, then the federal government and your former coworkers down at the Treasury Department can be absolutely relied upon to bail you out. Now, Wall Street felt this was likely already the case. It was kind of a shame to lose a firm like Bear Stearns, but the good part about it was it proved that a major derivatives market failure wouldn't be allowed to occur.

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The subprime mortgage derivates experiment failed spectacularly. The firms that were creating these derivative securities and the rating firms who were rating them were making numerous and obvious mistakes. Yet once the fundamentally flawed business model was disproven - the world did not move away from derivative securities. Oh, they stopped creating new subprime mortgage derivatives, but when we look at the arguably much riskier credit derivatives market (this greater risk is explored in my article “Credit Derivatives Dangers In 2008 & Beyond – A Primer”), the market grew from $35 trillion in outstanding credit derivatives in July 2007 -- the same time it was becoming clear that something was going very badly wrong in the subprime mortgage derivatives market -- to a current level of about $62 trillion. In other words the market reacted to the real world proof that these things don't actually work, by almost doubling the amount in existence in one year. Indeed, the amount of credit derivatives outstanding grew at an annual rate that was about twice the size of the entire United States economy.


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