The Coming Financial Meltdown

"Any losses [AIG] may realize ... under these derivatives will not be material."

-- AIG, Feb. 12, 2008

We all remember how in late 2008, staggering losses on risky derivatives nearly brought down our entire financial system.

With 43 members of the House and the Senate hammering out a final version of the financial-reform bill, one of the biggest contentions remains what to do about the mind-boggling, vast, and opaque derivatives market owned by the nation's too-big-to-fail megabanks.

The problem is getting worse. Notional amounts of derivatives held by federally insured banks have risen to more than $200 trillion.

Source: Office of the Comptroller of Currency as of Dec. 31, 2009.

The blue line you see is the huge profit center of derivatives casinos and squeezing customers. The yellow one is mostly naked credit default swaps, the same instruments for gambling on the bankruptcy of other companies that blew up AIG (NYSE: AIG  ) . Green is what banks use to actually hedge their risk.

Granted, many of these positions cancel each other out, but even assuming the "netting" works, we're still talking more than $20 trillion.

No matter how you measure it, this is a ton of risk, and it's concentrated in five hands: JPMorgan Chase (NYSE: JPM  ) , Bank of America (NYSE: BAC  ) , Goldman Sachs (NYSE: GS  ) , Citigroup (NYSE: C  ) , and Wells Fargo (NYSE: WFC  ) .

Source: Office of the Comptroller of Currency as of Dec. 31, 2009.

There are at least three problems with this picture:

1. This is crazy.
At 14 times the size of the U.S.'s gross domestic product, if even a fraction of these opaque and convoluted instruments blow up, as they did in 1998 and again in 2008, it would be bad news bears for everyone who doesn't live on roots and berries.

2. They're too big to fail.
The chief selling point of the financial-overhaul bill is that it somehow reduces the problem of too big to fail. Whether or not you believe that it does (it does not), one thing is for certain: The liquidation authority that is supposed to restore discipline and end moral hazard in financial markets is unlikely to work so long as derivatives traders continue to use American families' deposits as human shields. Derivatives collateral gets paid out before deposits, so the next time a megabank melts down, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. could be left holding the bag in liquidation.

3. We're subsidizing them.
Market-making can sometimes be socially useful, while gambling billions of dollars on interest-rate movements is probably less so, and given the dangers, may be socially detrimental. But none of these risky activities needs to be subsidized by our FDIC-insured deposits, 0% Federal Reserve liquidity guarantees, and the prospect of future bailouts. Continuing to do so will only encourage the market to grow larger and more dangerous, and siphon capital away from more legitimate activities like, say, lending money to support an economic recovery.

JPMorgan Chase, the largest dealer, borrowed at an average rate of 0.08% in the fourth quarter of 2009 thanks to the aforementioned subsidies, which it has been using to pile up derivatives with a notional value nearing 50 times that of its assets. Ever wonder what banks are doing with all that cheap capital the Federal Reserve provides them in lieu of small business lending? Look no further.

The purpose of FDIC insurance and the Fed discount window is to allow us to know that our deposits are safe, so that banks can convert those savings into loans for businesses and families -- not so they can use our savings as a cheap source of funding for derivatives casinos.

What you can do about it
One section of the financial-reform bill being debated now would end subsidies for derivatives trading.

Section 716, "Prohibition Against Federal Bailouts of Swaps Entities," is a flat ban on federal assistance to derivatives casinos. Banks could still use derivatives to hedge their own risk, but they would have to fund derivatives trading operations with their own money instead of ours.

Wall Street is furious. It apparently feels entitled to gamble with our savings.

Because Section 716 is one of the truly meaningful parts of the reform bill, everyone expected it to be defeated. But so far Congress has been too afraid to go along. It's an election year, and members of Congress are feeling pressure from the electorate to get it right this time.

As the conference committee finalizes legislation designed to prevent the next financial meltdown, we should tell the conferees to end subsidies and bailouts for the very same derivatives that led to the last one. If they don't do so, it's likely we'll get the same result.

The fate of section 716 will be decided in just days, and it could really go either way. If you want to end subsidies for derivatives casinos, click here to sign the petition or use the widget below. 

Once you're done, you can amplify your voice by calling one of the critical members of Congress listed underneath the petition.


Petitions by|Start a Petition »


Thanks! Now, do you have a minute to call one or two of these numbers? Just tell the person who answers the phone that you're calling to comment on the financial reform bill, and that you need the representative or senator to oppose attempts to weaken Section 716 of the Senate derivatives chapter that ends subsidies and bailouts for derivatives casinos.

Rep. Barney Frank                                                          (202) 225-5931

Sen. Chris Dodd                                                               (202) 224-2823

Rep. Paul Kanjorski                                                         (202) 225-6511

Sen. Jack Reed                                                                 (202) 224-4642

Sen. Blanche Lincoln (tell her to stand strong)             (202) 224-4843

Fool editor Ilan Moscovitz doesn't own shares of any company mentioned. The Motley Fool is investors writing for investors.

Read/Post Comments (42) | Recommend This Article (146)

Comments from our Foolish Readers

Help us keep this a respectfully Foolish area! This is a place for our readers to discuss, debate, and learn more about the Foolish investing topic you read about above. Help us keep it clean and safe. If you believe a comment is abusive or otherwise violates our Fool's Rules, please report it via the Report this Comment Report this Comment icon found on every comment.

  • Report this Comment On June 15, 2010, at 2:57 PM, ron153 wrote:

    Wells Fargo does use derivatives to manage interest rate risk, not to trade, as the author of this article inaccurately claims.

    The kind of fear-mongering this article contains is not at all constructive.

  • Report this Comment On June 15, 2010, at 3:02 PM, TMFDiogenes wrote:

    Hey ron,

    Thanks for the comment.

    WFC has $4.2 trillion, which puts them in the top 5. It's possible that's all risk hedging, but their 10k doesn't say that:

    We use derivatives to manage exposure to market risk, interest rate risk, credit risk and foreign currency risk, to generate profits from proprietary trading and to assist customers with their risk management objectives.


  • Report this Comment On June 15, 2010, at 3:52 PM, BMFPitt wrote:

    While I would prefer an outright ban on all proprietary trading by anyone with access to the FDIC or Federal Reserve funding, I'll take a weak half-measure over nothing. I also still like the idea of instituting the death penalty for suggesting a bailout to Congress, but that only works if you expect the law to be enforced.

  • Report this Comment On June 15, 2010, at 4:20 PM, singalls11747 wrote:

    It's important to note that some very well informed individuals including Paul Volker are not in favor of this element of the legislation. I would hope that before you sign the petition, you make sure that you know what you are signing.

    After doing some research, I can't agree with the author nor sign this petition.

  • Report this Comment On June 15, 2010, at 5:07 PM, TMFDiogenes wrote:


    Thanks for the comment. Volcker originally didn't support it because he thought it would force banks to spin off their swaps desks, rather than put them into separately capitalized subsidiaries. Since then, it's been clarified that it would not force banks to spin off the desks, and he's since changed his mind. They're probably going to clarify in the legislation that it would only force banks to set up subsidiaries in order to make that crystal clear.

  • Report this Comment On June 15, 2010, at 5:37 PM, BiloSelhi101 wrote:

    I need those Fools David and Tom to weigh in on this article... Dave! Tom! Why did you publish this and who are you trying to scare?

  • Report this Comment On June 15, 2010, at 5:50 PM, lawyer4sail wrote:

    I felt the same as previous posters, but then over my screen came the statement that chairman Lincoln clarified that the "push out" of derivative departments could go to an affiliate of the holding company, which would address all of the concerns expressed. So if that happens, I'm satisfied.

  • Report this Comment On June 15, 2010, at 5:53 PM, lawyer4sail wrote:

    Can you say "ambulance chasing"? I knew that you could.

  • Report this Comment On June 15, 2010, at 5:59 PM, jonpete69 wrote:

    For every loser in derivatives, there is a winner. It's a zero sum game.

  • Report this Comment On June 15, 2010, at 6:00 PM, TMFDiogenes wrote:


    I don't think I ever said that these banks are on the verge of blowing up. The point is just that if we continue to subsidize high risk-taking whose enormous scale is of questionable value to society, and at the same time allow banks to use banking deposits as the capital safety net, we're asking for trouble. The risk/reward trade-off when you privatize gains and subsidize losses in such a ways says to take more and more risk. Jamie Dimon says we can expect banking crises every 7-10 years. Given this kind of business model, that time frame sounds plausible unless we change it.



  • Report this Comment On June 15, 2010, at 6:33 PM, kv1000 wrote:

    Honestly, all these large numbers are irrelevent to most of us. All I know is that CBOE went IPO and is probably doing fine.

    I would not have bailed the banks in 2008 election, but there was no choice. It would be the same, unless we figure out how to untangle our economy from the stranglehold of financiers. My recommendation would be to tax the gains and bonuses at 70% rate and I think these charlatans will disappear for a while!

  • Report this Comment On June 15, 2010, at 6:44 PM, kyledotson wrote:

    No, you didn't say the banks are on the "verge of blowing up", the title of article is "the Coming Financial Meltdown". I for one am getting tired of being suckered into looking at articles on the Fool by their very effective "headline writer" and then finding that the story does not reflect the grandiose-ness of the headline. In this case, the story author obviously doesn't agree with the headline. If the headlines don't start to match the story a bit closer, I for one will be voting by directing future emails to my junkmail folder.

  • Report this Comment On June 15, 2010, at 7:14 PM, TMFDiogenes wrote:


    I think a "coming meltdown" doesn't have to be coming tomorrow. This was a thoroughly researched piece, and I think the numbers do back up the grandiose headline claim. I'm pointing out conditions that I believe are setting the stage for another major meltdown that could very easily come within the next 5-7 years, if not sooner (it's already been almost three since the last one).


  • Report this Comment On June 15, 2010, at 8:26 PM, iambemused wrote:

    Thank you for an interesting piece.

    It will be interesting to see whether the legislation is passed. From over here in Australia, it appears that every piece of logical legislation in the US regarding the financial world ends up being watered down or blunted by oblique criticism that avoids the key issue.

    Side issues may be important but the US taxpayer is currently funding just about every piece of speculative arbitrage going on in the planet today, one way or another, and at some stage the risk should end up with the people taking the risks, not society as a whole.

    No wonder it's a jobless recovery in the US. The funding and support has been left up to markets to direct to useful activities, and when you can borrow at close to nil interest and make serious money on trading (derivatives or otherwise), why bother investing into productive areas?

    There may or may not be a coming meltdown from these derivatives but we have seen that the counterparty risks between banks result in a seizing up of the system when attempts are made to "zero sum" those risks, and at such times it is only the confidence that government backing can bring that will bring order back to the chaos. On that logic alone, the legislation should be seen as an important step to ensure that the risk/return equation is better aligned with those making the decisions, and does not use the taxpayer as the lender of last resort.

  • Report this Comment On June 15, 2010, at 8:27 PM, bookbird wrote:

    Hmm. And there is a link right to Interesting.

  • Report this Comment On June 15, 2010, at 9:01 PM, nonidiomatic wrote:

    After some research, I've concluded I cannot agree with the author of this blog and I will not sign any petition that supports Section 716 of the Bill being considered. The more meddling by government into banking will only create more disasters later on.

  • Report this Comment On June 15, 2010, at 9:03 PM, keddie1 wrote:

    “For every loser in derivatives, there is a winner. It's a zero sum game.” - really?

    Perhaps. But it sure feels more like, “For every winner, there are tens if not hundreds of thousands of losers” The proceeds from derivatives end up in relatively few hands. Is it also not the case that in part the value many derivatives depends on perception. Collateralized Debt Obligations for example depend a great deal on what the buyer believes the value of the bundled debt to be. Or Mortgaged backed Securities, same-same. When these things lose value they just lose value. Where is the winner? The Winner was the organization that sold the instrument in the first place perhaps months prior. That winning entity is long gone and out of here nowhere around to be found and help with any recovery. The winners and losers are separated in time, so the “zero sum game” is not easy to perceive. There is also the problem that many organization draw funds off of both the winning side and the losing side. They skim significant funds off of the funds transfer. In the 2008 meltdown it appears the winning side consist of no more than 20 people and/or organizations. Everyone else lost. One more point, since the thought was “for every loser there is a winner, a zero sum game” then by that statement, derivatives do not contribute to the creating of wealth. They simply redistribute it – perhaps to relatively few.

    There are good uses for derivatives – futures trading for example.

    Don't know if I'll sign or not. Leaning towards at least calling my senators and congressman.

  • Report this Comment On June 15, 2010, at 9:13 PM, plange01 wrote:

    we already had the financial meltdown think of something else!!

  • Report this Comment On June 15, 2010, at 9:14 PM, DBrown7 wrote:


    So why should we sign the petitiion if the coming financial meltdown is already a foregone conclusion as the headline suggests? The headline wasn't an interrogative. It was a statement.

  • Report this Comment On June 15, 2010, at 9:15 PM, xetn wrote:

    I think the best financial reform would be to end the Fed and the FDIC. Without these to creators of moral hazard, there would be no bailouts, no too-big-to-fail. There would be real risk of loss by the banks. Also, ending fractional-reserve banking would stop the creation of credit inflation of the money supply (although under current conditions that is not a problem, since banks are not lending).

  • Report this Comment On June 15, 2010, at 9:38 PM, TMFDiogenes wrote:


    "The Coming Financial Meltdown Unless We Do Something to Stop It" would have been too verbose.

    Kidding aside, that's a fantastic question. Here's how I see it. The financial crisis we just had was not a random, one-off event. It had real causes and many, many contributing factors, some of which were a very risky financial system, a warped incentive structure, and regulatory failure. So long as those conditions remain the same or escalate, I would say that another meltdown is likely. 716 strikes at all three.

    I've spent a lot of my life over the past year studying the financial reform bill that's currently in conference and have picked out which things in the bill are up for grabs that I believe would really help to change the course we're on. 716 is really one of the biggies for the reasons I described in the article. Like everyone here, I just lived through the last financial/economic crisis, and as fascinating as it was to write about, it's tough seeing friends who can't get a job, people whose retirements are wrecked, a 40% spike in national debt, and I really don't want us to have to go through this again every few years.



  • Report this Comment On June 15, 2010, at 9:40 PM, xetn wrote:

    More on the stupidity of FDIC and their assault on the taxpayers, check this video:

    If that doesn't make you angry, nothing will.

    I will say it again: END THE FED AND THE FDIC!

    Being an advocate of a real free market, I would also end most of the ABC bureaucracies, including the IRS, DHS, FDA, ICC and the department of miseducation. Just wishful thinking.

  • Report this Comment On June 15, 2010, at 9:55 PM, ipfmanager wrote:

    Banks proprietary trading as markets makers is necessary to an orderly market. Its actually scarier to NOT hedge with available assets.

    e.g. Think about every one in the world buying stock is Berkshire Hathaway all at once. The banks would be stuck making the market and they would fail because they couldn't hedge the massive lop sided position.

    The crisis in 08 was from banks taking actual positions *not hedges* creating stupidly high leverage ratios. That and the fact that their were no real assets that backed these credit default swaps.

    Correct me if I'm wrong but that is not the bill you support.

  • Report this Comment On June 15, 2010, at 10:01 PM, ollie0 wrote:

    FDIC is an insurance company. Insurance companys regularly place exclusions on their policies that prevent payout for all types of careless, negligent acts, like suicide, risky behavior, {lending your car to your blind druck brother-in-law. I see nothing wrong with them telling the banks that this kind of trading activity is not insured and done at your own risk.

    The truth of the matter is that the fix is in. These companies make lobying inside payoffs a major part of their business. They pay themselves big fat bonuses for this kind of activity and congress loaned the money when they screwed up without even thinking about having these money grubbers sign an amendment to their contracts that would have stopped bonus payments of salary increases until all loans and interest was paid back. This was no accident. Hurry give them the money the sky is falling. If this passes it surely will be watered down and looped holed up.

    J. Sirman, Covington, GA

  • Report this Comment On June 15, 2010, at 10:04 PM, AirForceFool wrote:

    If the banks want to use credit defalut swaps and tons of derivatives I'm fine with that... I'm a strong opponent of true capitalism... let them at it. I do have a problem for "To big to fail". We're Americans for crying out loud... not some third rate country that doesn't have the ingenuity to fight it's way out of a paper bag. Never mind that some companies have paid back in full with interest... no one allows me to roll up to the bank and borrow $40K when I have a few options trades go bad... whatever risk they can afford I say... and anyone that signs up for buying some "ultra safe" debt instruments that is paying 7-10% is simply a fool... increased rewards invariably come at increased risks... just my humble opinion. Chris

  • Report this Comment On June 16, 2010, at 12:57 AM, Jaye33 wrote:

    I don't necessarily agree with it, but I hope MF continues to put out articles like this (although I could do with less sensationalism as people have mentioned). As long as one's argument is well researched and thought out, it opens the door to intelligent debate, which is always useful. Thanks, Ilan.

  • Report this Comment On June 16, 2010, at 8:07 AM, joandrose wrote:

    Agree entirely with Jaye - emotive and sensationalist headlines are not appreciated.

    Intelligent debate over a well researched issue is what we need to assist in arriving at investment decisions

  • Report this Comment On June 16, 2010, at 8:37 AM, boobalots wrote:

    Boobalots says " Check out George Soros comment in last Sundays Barrons. The financial meltdown is well underway!

  • Report this Comment On June 16, 2010, at 9:33 AM, danapokerfish wrote:

    This petition is total crap. It puts the primary blame on Wall Street for the meltdown, rather than on the government where it belongs. The solution is to end bailouts completely, not to have one minor clause in a terrible piece of legislation that ends bailouts for one specific type of financial instrument.

  • Report this Comment On June 16, 2010, at 9:56 AM, grumpycritic wrote:

    These banks are in fact derivative casinos as stated and should be treated as such. Put these transactions under gambling regulations and tax them accordingly. Its as simple as that.

  • Report this Comment On June 16, 2010, at 10:14 AM, TMFDiogenes wrote:


    If you care about bailouts, it makes sense to consider what I wrote here:

    2. They're too big to fail.

    The chief selling point of the financial-overhaul bill is that it somehow reduces the problem of too big to fail. Whether or not you believe that it does (it does not), one thing is for certain: The liquidation authority that is supposed to restore discipline and end moral hazard in financial markets is unlikely to work so long as derivatives traders continue to use American families' deposits as human shields. Derivatives collateral gets paid out before deposits, so the next time a megabank melts down, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. could be left holding the bag in liquidation.

    The bill, in my opinion, will not end too-big-to-fail. But if you care about that issue, 716 is a major step in that direction. And it's definitely not a minor clause -- the vast majority of observers would agree it's the biggest issue being fought over right now. Also, if you're a free market guy, getting the government out of the market-distorting business of subsidizing derivatives casinos might also be something to care about.


  • Report this Comment On June 16, 2010, at 12:10 PM, mgrondin wrote:

    Wow. Most of you are living in a dream... I completely agree with the author. Bailouts are not part of a free market. This is not capitalism anymore. Corruption is ruling everywhere. There is no long term vision. If you think the pictures in Greece were shocking wait until the poor can't bare the weight of wall street abuses anymore. Guns are readily available everywhere. This is something the constitution protected. The founding fathers were wise in this. It's only a matter of time before someone with ethics who truly love what this country is about will start a call to arms. I wouldn't be surprised if it was someone from the military. When you are ready to die for your country and you see what all those fools are doing to the country... Someone will wake up. And when he will, believe me you won't want to be a big CEO or a in the banks mentioned in this article.

    My vote would go to :,_Jr.

    His IQ of 170 would help raise the mean on capitol hill. He should start a new political party.

  • Report this Comment On June 16, 2010, at 12:55 PM, LaurieLivermore wrote:

    Does anyone at MF proof read these articles?

  • Report this Comment On June 16, 2010, at 2:15 PM, NoWeareJerry wrote:

    I think the author raises important issues, particularly regarding the use of insured deposits and low-cost fed funds to back up speculative derivatives trading. The writer is way off the mark, in my opinion, with the assertion that passing Section 716 will end too-big-too-fail. Go ahead and close that derivatives door. It won't be long before the alchemists on Wall Street design a new process for making piles of money without taking commensurate risk. (In fact, I'm certain they can see the writing on the wall and are already hard at woork.) There is only one thing that will end too-big-too-fail; prevent institutions, (banks, insurance companies, car companies, any company that has been or could be bailed out), from amassaing that much consoidated economic power in the first place. Alternatively, we need to develop the social/political stomach to refuse to bail them out when something goes wrong and fully accept the economic consequences. Finally, I am shocked that MF allows our service to be used for lobbying like this. Is this an opportunity that's open to all of us? Is there a companion article for those who feel otherwise with a link to tell Congress to oppose Section 716. If not, by their silence, Dave and Tom are endorsing this crap, and I, for one, am not sure I want to continue paying for that.

  • Report this Comment On June 16, 2010, at 3:28 PM, 7footmoose wrote:

    There are a whole lotta swaps and derivatives out there. A whole lot more than there is capital in the institutions which have backed them. It would not take a high percentage of those derivatives to default in order to create a meltdown in one or more of the financials which back them. This is not outside the realm of possibility.

  • Report this Comment On June 16, 2010, at 4:55 PM, TMFDiogenes wrote:


    "There is only one thing that will end too-big-too-fail; prevent institutions, (banks, insurance companies, car companies, any company that has been or could be bailed out), from amassaing that much consolidated economic power in the first place."

    "The chief selling point of the financial-overhaul bill is that it somehow reduces the problem of too big to fail. Whether or not you believe that it does (it does not)... "

    We're in agreement. 716 would not end tbtf -- that's not something I believe this bill will credibly do. It's just one of the closest things that's on the table right now. I've written about how a solution to tbtf must involve ending the concentrated economic power of the banks, a second time to let people know when that was proposed, and a third time after that measure failed, to give the names of the people who declined to end tbtf:

    So yes, 716 will not end tbtf. But it's one of the biggest steps in that direction that's currently on the table.


  • Report this Comment On June 17, 2010, at 8:41 PM, ScareCrow2 wrote:

    Good job keeping attention on the derivatives and money reform issues. It's not fear mongering, the big numbers aren't irrelevant, and ending the Fed and IRS is not wishful thinking. At we're organizing to bring comprehensive money reform about, and ending the Fed, income tax and derivatives trading is part of our agenda.

  • Report this Comment On June 18, 2010, at 1:32 PM, STORMSTOCKER wrote:

    There is only one thing we all can control, and that OUR VOTE. Let's vote for those candidates that WILL Lower ALL TAXes and FEE's by 50% Income Tax, Property Tax, Sales Tax, Gas Tax. We will, take "our chances on cut "government services". The bottom line is, we have too large State and Federal Government employment, and not enough Private Sector employment. A Strong Private Free Enterprise is safe for our Republic, while a Big Government is the roots of Socialism and that "is going down" as is "happening and coming soon to an Europeon country near you"

  • Report this Comment On June 18, 2010, at 8:05 PM, philkek wrote:

    Are WE THE PEOPLE too-big-to-fail ? I'm in favor of OUR VOTE for FREEDOM to stay alive as long as possible in AMERICA and the FREE WORLD. We don't need GREED to stand up saying I'M TOO-BIG-TO-FAIL. Next thing you know FEAR will stand up saying I'M TOO-BIG-TO-FAIL. Then the fit hits the shan. The fight is on. GREED vs FEAR. Good comments for thought. Fool on.

  • Report this Comment On June 19, 2010, at 8:14 PM, underdone wrote:

    There is a point that many of the above comments including the original article fail to consider. The economics term for the zero balance financial system does not mean it is about a zero sum game. The accounting terminology of double entry system makes far more sense. The financial system works if the system is allowed to expend i.e. increase the gross balance of savings and loans (and accordingly available capital) not reduce them.

    To that end derivatives only serve a purpose within the system as a means of hedging risk. Proprietory trading is not a necessary part of the banking model and should be seperated and allowed to fail if excessive speculation results in losses.

    But that does not mean that the FDIC and Fed are not necessary. They are an important part of the "system only works by expanding" and are essential for confidence in the system and indeed for bailing out the system so that it does not zero sum.

    If it did zero sum everything including gold would be worth nothing because there would be no money to pay for anything.

  • Report this Comment On June 19, 2010, at 8:19 PM, underdone wrote:

    P.S. That would also mean no financial guarantees or transactions between the banking arms and trading arms of any organisation.

  • Report this Comment On June 20, 2010, at 12:35 PM, TMFDiogenes wrote:

    That's an astute point. Section 608 would prevent banks from bailing out their derivatives subsidiaries. Keeping 716 and killing 608 would therefore be a brilliant last-minute loophole for lobbyists to try to pull.

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