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

Counterparty Failure

More Spanish loans soured in March, fueling concern that the government’s focus on making banks clean up real estate was too narrow as the economy entered a second recession. Bad loans as a proportion of total lending jumped to 8.37 percent in March, the highest since August 1994, from 8.30 percent in February, the Bank of Spain reported today.

Counterparty failure is another risk for financial companies selling insurance on the debt of the five counties. When a swap is triggered by default, a bank could find that a client who sold the protection can’t pay. The firm still has to make good on its promise to pay whoever bought protection.

Lenders try to mitigate this risk by asking for collateral from their counterparties as the value of the CDS or other derivative changes. Dexia SA failed in October when the bank faced 47 billion euros of such margin calls on interest-rate swaps it sold. If Dexia hadn’t been bailed out by Belgium and France, it wouldn’t have been able to put up the collateral, causing losses for its unidentified counterparties.

Collateral in Hand

U.S. banks didn’t suffer losses when swaps on Greek sovereign debt were paid out in March because prices of CDS had surged and collateral was collected in advance, according to Francis Longstaff, a finance professor at the University of California Los Angeles. While collateral protects middlemen from counterparty risk, there could be unexpected losses if the price of CDS doesn’t rise to reflect an imminent default, he said.

“Sudden defaults would shock the market because then you wouldn’t have the collateral to cover the full payment,” Longstaff said.

Banks also may discover that collateral they hold might not be worth as much, said University of Houston’s Pirrong. That happened in 2008 when banks saw the value of mortgage-related securities held as collateral plummet.

“Collateral is a great way to protect yourself,” Pirrong said. “But when the financial system is in a crisis, you might end up holding an empty bag.”

Bloomberg News

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