How to Make Money for Nothing Like Wall Street

Credit default swaps might not be financial WMDs anymore, but Wall Street can still game them to make guaranteed profits.

Remember credit default swaps? The derivatives that some hedge funds (and banks) used to make not-so-small fortunes betting against the housing market. The derivatives that, in the process, multiplied subprime losses, and made it impossible to know just where they'd turn up. The derivatives that sunk AIG.

Yeah, those derivatives. 

These "financial weapons of mass destruction," as Warren Buffett called them, turn out to be pretty simple, in theory. Credit default swaps (CDS) are just insurance on a loan. So when you buy a CDS, you're betting against a loan. And it doesn't have to be a loan you made. You can bet against a loan someone else made too. It'd be as if you could take out car insurance on someone you think is a bad driver. So if the loan defaults, you stand to make money. And if there's no default, you just wind up coughing up premium after premium, paying for car insurance on your good driver who never gets in an accident.

What could go wrong here? Plenty. For one, CDS have been traded one-on-one, not over exchanges, so it's been hard to know just who owes what. This opacity was a big part why banks stopped lending to each other during the financial crisis — they didn't know who'd been stuck holding the subprime bag (or if it was them). For another, you could sell more CDS protection than you could ever afford to pay out if everything went bad. (This was AIG's $180 billion mistake). But there are some pretty simple fixes here, and the industry has adopted some of them. CDS trades are now publicly reported, and go through clearinghouses that require collateral. So CDS are more transparent, and it's harder to sell them if you can't afford to pay them.

But even with these financial shock absorbers, there are still lots of clever-and-probably-legal-but-ethically-dubious ways to game CDS. Here are the two most devious.

1. Buy CDS on a bond, and then bribe the borrower to temporarily default. This is like taking out insurance on your neighbor's car and bribing him to get in an accident. You get the insurance, and then you kick some money back to him to upgrade his car.

Sound far-fetched? It's not. It's essentially what a unit of the Blackstone Group did with the Spanish gaming operator, Codere SA. First, Blackstone bought insurance on Codere’s bonds, so it stood to make a nice bit of money if Codere missed an interest payment. But how do you make a company miss an interest payment? Well, Blackstone took over one of Codere's revolving loans, as a hostage, and told the gaming company: "We'll force you to pay back this entire revolving loan unless you kindly miss the next interest payment on your bonds." It was a clever ransom. And guess what? The clever ransom worked. The interest payment came late. Blackstone made $15.6 million from its CDS. And as for Codere, they turned out fine, too. Blackstone agreed to restructure its bonds, and reward the company for good behavior with another $48 million loan.

2. Sell so many CDS on a bond that you can pay to keep it from defaulting. This is like selling insurance to as many people as possible on a car that was obviously falling apart — and then paying to fix it before it could get in an accident.

Presented by

Matthew O'Brien

Matthew O'Brien is a former senior associate editor at The Atlantic.

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