Few Americans have heard of credit default swaps, arcane financial instruments invented by Wall Street about a decade ago. But if the economy keeps slowing, credit default swaps, like subprime mortgages, may become a household term.
Credit default swaps form a large but obscure market that will be put to its first big test as a looming economic downturn strains companies’ finances. Like a homeowner’s policy that insures against a flood or fire, these instruments are intended to cover losses to banks and bondholders when companies fail to pay their debts.
The market for these securities is enormous. Since 2000, it has ballooned from $900 billion to more than $45.5 trillion — roughly twice the size of the entire United States stock market.
No one knows how troubled the credit swaps market is, because, like the now-distressed market for subprime mortgage securities, it is unregulated. But because swaps have proliferated so rapidly, experts say that a hiccup in this market could set off a chain reaction of losses at financial institutions, making it even harder for borrowers to get loans that grease economic activity.
It is entirely possible that this market can withstand a big jump in corporate defaults, if it comes. But an inkling of trouble emerged in a recent report from the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, a federal banking regulator. It warned that a significant increase in trading in swaps during the third quarter of last year “put a strain on processing systems” used by banks to handle these trades and make sure they match up.
And last week, the American International Group said that it had incorrectly valued some of the swaps it had written and that sharp declines in some of these instruments had translated to $3.6 billion more in losses than the company had previously estimated. Its stock dropped 12 percent on the news but edged up in the days after.
A.I.G. says it expects to file its year-end financial statements on time by the end of this month with appropriate valuations.
Placing accurate values on these contracts is just one of the uncertainties facing the big banks, insurance companies and hedge funds that create and trade these instruments.
In a credit default swap, two parties enter a private contract in which the buyer of protection agrees to pay the seller premiums over a set period of time; the seller pays only if a particular credit crisis occurs, like a default. These instruments can be sold, on either end of the contract, by the insurer or the insured.