Wednesday, September 16, 2009

China’s Coming Derivatives Default

In case you have not heard the news, China has announced that it will be instructing its state-owned enterprises to potentially default on their derivatives contracts. As I have written extensively in the past, the derivatives market is a massive time bomb just waiting to go off. China’s latest move may be the match that lights the fuse.

All told, US Commercial banks own $202 trillion in derivatives in notional value. To put that number into perspective, it’s roughly four times the global GDP. And 96% of this exposure sits on five banks’ balance sheets. I’ve shown the below chart before, but it’s worth re-visiting (chart is denominated in TRILLIONS).

Of course, not ALL of the $202 trillion these guys own is “at risk.” As their name implies, derivatives are “derived” from underlying assets (homes, debt, etc). The actual “at risk” money can be far FAR smaller than the “notional” value of derivatives outstanding.

However, when you’re talking about $200+ trillion, even a marginal amount of “at risk” money can mean ENORMOUS losses. Consider, if 1% of that $200 trillion were at risk, you’re talking about $2 trillion in capital. Now, if even 10% of those bets go bad, you’re talking about $200 billion in losses.

China’s Coming Derivatives Default