Banks in US sold more Europe-debt insurance as risks rose

Matched Protection

Not all protection sold by banks is matched exactly by protection bought. CDS purchased and sold on Spanish sovereign debt can have different expiration dates. Banks also can net a swap on a Spanish bank with one on another lender. Even if those two firms are in a similar condition at the time of the trades, one could deteriorate faster, increasing the cost of CDS.

Some of the swaps sold by U.S. banks were bought by European lenders trying to reduce exposure to the five so-called peripheral countries. Since it’s considered insurance, a German bank can subtract the value of the contracts it purchased on Spanish debt from the total value of its holdings, with the understanding that if Spain doesn’t make good on its payment, the CDS underwriter will pay instead.

British, German and French banks’ loans to the five countries were reduced by 5 percent in the fourth quarter to $1.33 trillion, according to the BIS data. That was a $73 million decrease compared with the $53 million increase in U.S. banks’ CDS exposure to the periphery.

Spanish Debt

The cost of insuring Spanish sovereign debt increased to a record 552 basis points yesterday, meaning it would cost 552,000 euros ($700,000) to insure 10 million euros of debt from default for five years, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. Contracts on Italy’s bonds climbed to a four-month high of 515 basis points. Swaps pay the buyer face value in exchange for the underlying securities or the cash equivalent should a borrower fail to adhere to its debt agreements.

“As the JPMorgan example showed, these are all relative-value trades, and the legs might go in different directions,” said Paul Rowady, a New York-based senior analyst at Tabb Group LLC, a financial-markets research and advisory firm. “It’s not surprising that these relations are being tested today because of the dislocation in credit markets.”

JPMorgan and other banks rely on proprietary models to gauge the risks of such correlations in their derivatives positions. Dimon said last week that some of those models had proven wrong.

Bank Losses

More than half of the CDS related to Spain, Italy and Portugal were to protect defaults by companies in those countries, not the government, according to data compiled by the Depository Trust and Clearing Corp., which runs a central registry for over-the-counter derivatives. About a quarter of the total in each country was protection on bank debt.

As lenders in the five countries face mounting losses and funding strains, it’s impossible to model accurately how the risk on different institutions will change, Rowady said. Government and central bank interventions in markets can also upset correlations in those models, he said.

Last week, Spain’s government took control of Bankia SA, the country’s third-largest lender, and asked banks to increase provisions for souring real estate loans. Losses of Spanish banks could top 380 billion euros, according to the Centre for European Policy Studies. Moody’s Investors Service downgraded the credit ratings of 16 Spanish banks yesterday and 26 Italian lenders earlier this week.

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