The End-of-the-World Trade

In the LRB, Donald MacKenzie on the building economic crisis:

Indices and other tranches quickly became a huge-volume, liquid market. They facilitated the creation not just of standard CDOs but of bespoke products such as CDO-like structures that consist only of mezzanine tranches…All this activity explains the attractiveness of the end-of-the-world trade. The trade is the buying and selling of protection on the safest, super-senior tranches of the investment-grade indices. No one buys protection on these tranches because they are looking for a big pay-out if capitalism crumbles: if nothing else, they have no reason to expect that the institution that sold them protection would survive the carnage and be able to make the pay-out. Instead, they are looking to hedge their exposure to movements in the credit market, especially in correlation. Traders need to demonstrate they’ve done this before they’re allowed to book the profits on their deals, so from their viewpoint it’s worth buying protection, for example from ‘monolines’ (bond insurers), even if the latter would almost certainly be insolvent well before any pay-out on the protection was due.

With problems such as the non-observability of correlation apparently adequately solved by the development of indices, the credit-derivatives market, which emerged little more than a decade ago, had grown by June 2007 to an aggregate total of outstanding contracts of $51 trillion, the equivalent of $7,700 for every person on the planet. It is perhaps the most sophisticated sector of the global financial markets, and a fertile source of employment for mathematicians, whose skills are needed to develop models better than the single-factor Gaussian copula.