There is much debate whether when it comes to the total notional size of outstanding derivatives, it is the gross notional that matters (roughly $600 trillion), or the amount which takes out biletaral netting and other offsetting positions (much lower). We explained previously how gross is irrelevant… until it is, i.e. until there is a breach in the counterparty chain and suddenly all net becomes gross (as in the case of the Lehman bankruptcy), such as during a financial crisis, i.e., the only time when gross derivative exposure becomes material (er, by definition). But a bigger question is what is the actual collateral backing this gargantuan market which is about 10 times greater than the world’s combined GDP, because as the “derivative” name implies all this exposure is backed on some dedicated, real assets, somewhere. Luckily, the IMF recently released a discussion note titled “Shadow Banking: Economics and Policy” where quietly hidden in one of the appendices it answers precisely this critical question. The bottom line: $600 trillion in gross notional derivatives backed by a tiny $600 billion in real assets: a whopping 0.1% margin requirement! Surely nothing can possibly go wrong with this amount of unprecedented 1000x systemic leverage.
From the IMF:
Over-the-counter (OTC) derivatives markets straddle regulated systemically important financial institutions and the shadow banking world. Recent regulatory efforts focus on moving OTC derivatives contracts to central counterparties (CCPs). A CCP will be collecting collateral and netting bilateral positions. While CCPs do not have explicit taxpayer backing, they may be supported in times of stress. For example, the U.S. Dodd-Frank Act allows the Federal Reserve to lend to key financial market infrastructures during times of crises. Incentives to move OTC contracts could come from increasing bank capital charges on OTC positions that are not moved to CCP (BCBS, 2012).
The notional value of OTC contracts is about $600 trillion, but while much cited, that number overstates the still very sizable risks. A better estimate may be based on adding “in-the-money” (or gross positive value) and “out-of-the money” (or gross negative value) derivative positions (to obtain total exposures), further reduced by the “netting” of related positions. Once these are taken into account, the resulting exposures are currently about $3 trillion, down from $5 trillion (see table below; see also BIS, 2012, and Singh, 2010).
Another important metric is the under-collateralization of the OTC market. The Bank for International Settlements estimates that the volume of collateral supporting the OTC market is about $1.8 trillion, thus roughly only half of exposures. Assuming a collateral reuse rate between 2.5-3.0, the dedicated collateral is some $600 – $700 billion. Some counterparties (e.g., sovereigns, quasi-sovereigns, large pension funds and insurers, and AAA corporations) are often not required to post collateral. The remaining exposures will have to be collateralized when moved to CCP to avoid creating puts to the safety net. As such, there is likely to an increased demand for collateral worldwide.
And there it is: a world in which increasingly more sovereigns are insolvent, it is precisely these sovereigns (and other “AAA-rated” institutions) who are assumed to be so safe, they don’t have to post any collateral to the virtually unlimited derivatives they are allowed to create out of thin air.
Is it any wonder why, then, in a world in which even the IMF says there is an increased demand for collateral, that banks are making a total mockery out of such preemptive attempts to safeguard the system, such as the Basel III proposal, whose deleveraging policies have been delayed from 2013 to 2014, and which will be delayed again and again, until, hopefully, everyone forgets all about them, and no financial crises ever again occur.
Because if and when they do, the entire world, which has now become one defacto AIG Financial Products subsidiary, and is spewing derivatives left and right, may have to scramble just a bit to procure some of this $599 trillion in actual collateral, once collateral chains start breaking, once “AAA-rated” counterparties (such as AIG had been days before its bailout) start falling, and once the question arises: just what is the true value of hard assets in a world in which the only value created by financial innovation is layering of derivatives upon derivatives, serving merely to prod banker bonuses to all time highs.