Has Derivatives Deleveraging Fueled the Stock Rally?   (February 7, 2012)

A mad scramble to avoid insolvency as Greek default becomes likely may be driving the rally in equities.

Deleveraging typically means selling assets to raise cash to meet margin calls or pay debts coming due. But there may be another twist to deleveraging that has fueled the manic market rally since late December. I am indebted to Peter C. of M3 Financial Sense for explaining this dynamic.

To understand this non-intuitive dynamic, let's start with a simple example of how options work. If this is new to you, please stay with me, your head will not explode.... at least for awhile.

An option is a financial instrument which grants you the right to buy X number of shares of a company at Y price (the strike price). One option controls 100 shares. An option is either a put (a bet the price will decline in the future) or a call (a bet the price will rise in the future).

An option is "in the money" when the stock price is above the call strike price or below the put strike price. For example, if you own one call option on Netflix (NFLX) at a strike price of $100, then your option is worth $2,900 ($29 per share) as of today because Netflix is trading for $129 per share. (There is also a time value in options, but let's leave that aside in this example.)

So if you bought 10,000 options on Netflix (NFLX), whomever sold you the options is obligated to deliver 1,000,000 shares of Netflix to you (at the strike price of the option) upon expiration of the option.

If your option is "in the money" as in the above example, the specialist who sold you the options will hedge his position so he can meet the obligation. If your options are just barely in the money, he might buy 250,000 shares of Netflix to cover his future obligation.

As your option becomes ever more valuable, i.e. becomes deeper in the money, the specialist has to increase his hedge up to the full 1,000,000 shares that he is obligated to deliver to you upon expiration.

That purchase of 750,000 shares to cover his bet will drive the price of Netflix up.

Here is an important point about options and derivatives. In theory, the number of options should equal the number of outstanding shares. If there are 1,000,000 shares of a stock outstanding, then there shouldn't be more than 10,000 options contracts written and sold.

In the parlance of options, these puts and calls are "covered," meaning there are enough shares available to "cover" the options, i.e. when the option expires, there are enough shares to meet the delivery obligations of actual shares.

If a specialist sells options without holding the requisite number of actual shares to cover the options, then he will have to buy those shares as the delivery date looms. If the number of option contracts exceeds the number of available shares, then the rush to acquire those shares for delivery will spark a massive rally.

This is somewhat akin to the infamous "short-covering rallies" triggered when those who sold shares short have to buy shares to close their short positions.

Options and futures contracts are all marked to market at the close of every trading day. The price is thus transparent for all to see.

Derivatives are not marked to market. That sort of requirement is evil, evil, evil and anti-capitalist--or so we are told by the financial cartels who profit from selling derivatives.

Derivatives can be sold in whatever quantity can be fobbed off to credulous buyers. This is how the world ends up with 700 gazillion dollars in notional derivatives.

Consider the debt of a sovereign state--for example, Greece. Just to keep things simple, let's say there are $100 billion of outstanding Greek bonds. Back in the good old days around 2009, the risk of Geece defaulting on that debt was considered low. Nonetheless, prudent owners of the debt bought insurance against default. The insurance is a derivative called a credit default swap (CDS).

The contract works somewhat like an option, in the sense that if a default occurs, the seller of the CDS must cover their contract by delivering the value promised in the CDS to its owner. If no default ever occurs, the financial institution that originated and sold the CDS gets to keep the hefty premium.

Nice. Since there are no limits on how many CDs I can write on Greek debt, why not sell more CDS? In fact, why not sell more CDS than there are Greek bonds?

As in our options example, in the normal course of things the number of CDS equals the outstanding bonds. In other words, the owners of the $100 billion in bonds would buy $100 billion in notional CDS insurance against default.

If Greece defaulted and the value of the bonds fell in half to $50 billion, the sellers of the CDS would owe the owners of the CDS $50 billion. (This is simplified, but you get the picture.) That was, after all, the bet: in exchange for this hefty premium, if Greece defaults then we will make good your horrendous losses.

But a funny thing happened on the way to the derivatives market: wise guys realized they weren't limited to selling CDS to the owners of Greek bonds--anyone could buy a CDS on Greek debt. So why not sell $1 trillion in CDS against Greek bonds? That's ten times the premium.

Some issuers hedged their bet by buying CDS issued by other institutions. These other institutions are the "counterparty", that is, the party who pays off the CDS I bought from them so I can pay off the owner of my CDS. Thus the derivatives market for Greek debt is a daisy-chain of counterparties, all planning to use the proceeds from the CDS they own to pay off the CDS they sold.

It was a license to print money--until Greece defaults. Yikes, now what? Just as in the classic film The Producers, where 100% of the proceeds of the Broadway play were promised to ten different investors, the CDS schemers reckoned the odds of a Greek default were effectively zero--"the E.U. will never let a member state default."

Ahem. Until they do. In The Producers, the schemers devised a play so odious, so bad and so repellent that they felt extremely confident it would close after one night for a tremendous loss--and they would get to keep the 10X oversubscribed investors' money.

This was the same bet made by sellers of CDS on Greek debt--and on Italian, Portuguese, Spanish, Irish et al. debt as well.

Now that leaves the canny financiers in a pickle, as they owe various parties $1 trillion when $100 billion in Greek debt goes up in smoke.

Now we get to the deleveraging part. As I understand it, some of these CDS are written against various swaps or stock indices, meaning that the asset to be delivered upon default is ultimately a claim against stock indices, currencies, etc.

That means that those holding the CDS obligations have to acquire these assets so they can pay off their obligation when Greece defaults.

There is one more wrinkle. Many sellers of CDS protected themselves against any potential loss by buying a CDS originated by someone else. As noted in When Greece Defaults, the Credit Default Swap Dominoes Fall (February 4, 2012), this "can be likened to a pool of $100 bets leveraged off $5 in cash. If every bet is covered perfectly, then it's somewhat like $95 in bets being paid by passing $5 around--much like the famous email that depicts all debts in a small town being paid by the same $5."

But some players have issued more CDS than they bought as insurance, meaning that they will be unable to meet all their obligations. Everyone is depending on a host of counterparties to deliver, and now there is a growing fear that some counterparties will be unable to make good on their obligations.

That's how the dominoes topple. Prudent institutions aren't waiting around until the dominoes fall--they're buying the underlying assets so they can meet their CDS obligations. That's the only way not to topple into insolvency when the default causes CDS to be recognized as due and payable.

In this light, it's no wonder stocks have been rising. If even a modest percentage of CDS are tied to stock indices, then those deleveraging their derivatives positions must acquire the underlying assets. They can no longer count on all counterparties paying off as promised, and so they are raising cash and buying the underlying assets needed to make good their obligations.

The whole thing is a farce, just like The Producers. The moment the default is recognized, then all the CDS become due and payable, and it will only take handful of failed counterparties to bring the entire system down.

No wonder the Eurocrats and central bankers are twisting everyone's arms to accept a 70% loss--the alternative is a Greek default and the collapse of the banking cartel's profitable scheme. It is beyond absurd--what is a 70% loss but default? When banana republics default, their bondholders don't necessarily absorb a 70% loss. yet now, to "save" the despicably parastic shadow banking system and the "too big to fail" financial institutions, a default cannot be called a default: it is a "voluntary haircut."

Greece, please do the world a favor and openly default--right now, today. Declare a default and pay nothing. Force the shadow banking system to recognize a default and bring down the entire rotten heap of worm-eaten corruption.

At that point, there will be no reason to buy equities.

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