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  • Technorati: graph / links

    Highly respected economist calls for Shari’a law


    by guest on 17th March, 2009 at 9:48 am    

    Guest post by Riz Din.

    In a typically extensive post on his FT Maverecon blog, economist Willem Buiter looks at the derivatives market and asks the interesting question of whether the western financial system should be thinking about applying the shari’a principle of not being able to sell that which you do not own.

    At it’s peak in mid-2007, the size of the credit-default swaps (CDS) derivative market was around $60 trillion and while recent estimates put the level of outstanding contracts at half this amount, that is still $30,000,000,000,000. If you are having trouble imagining it, picture a stack of dollar bills towering a over quarter the way to the moon. That’s a trillion. Multiply it by thirty. The problem, however, is not the absolute size of the market but that it is probably only be supported by a small base of underlying bonds.

    Why is this a dangerous situation? Buiter gives the example of taking out property insurance and reminds us that the ‘insurable interest’ in the property is limited by the value of the property. If it was much higher, he says, it will create the incentive to burn down the building and claim the insurance. Even worse, Buiter says, imagine the moral hazard if you could insure the life of a stranger for a large amount.

    In the financial markets, such speculative contracts create not only moral hazard and market abuse risks but together they produce a negative externality to the financial system by creating a massive lottery system that is inherently unstable, and resources are misallocated as risk is transferred to those most willing to bear risk as opposed to going to those best able to bear it.

    Who are those best able to bear it? Willem Buiter says that it is those who have a stake in the underlying. In the CDS market, this would mean people who hold the underlying bonds on which the CDS are based, and in the case of short-selling of equities it would mean those who have some form of ownership of the equity which is being sold short. In the parlance of the financial market these positions would are described as ‘covered’ versus being ‘naked’.

    The key point here is that in these situations the derivatives contracts would then work as insurances and reduce the risk in the system, instead of acting as a risk amplifying gambling mechanisms. Buiter is not calling for an outright ban of speculative contracts but he does say such speculative trade could be reduced by changing the level of enforceability of the contracts. It’s all interesting food for thought and as Buiter says, ‘we should have a serious debate as to whether ‘naked’ derivative trading should be declared haram everywhere.’



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    41 Comments below   |   Add your own

    1. platinum786 — on 17th March, 2009 at 11:59 am  

      I’m not an expert in finance or shariah finance, but I feel there is an increasing voice asking for the stability in our market and economy that is provided by proper application of Shariah principles. short term there will be less wealth, long term there will be less poverty i think. Being a Muslim I have bias in all this of course, but I think it’s now widely recognised that the era of fast cash should come to an end and the rules of economics within Shariah law should be looked at.

      Don’t take my word for it, the freaking pope suggested it;
      http://www.todayszaman.com/tz-web/detaylar.do?load=detay&link=168915&bolum=107

    2. Refresh — on 17th March, 2009 at 1:42 pm  

      ’short term there will be less wealth, long term there will be less poverty’

      Very well put Platinum.

      There was quite a bit of research by a university in the 1990s on behalf of US christian organisations on this.

    3. Rumbold — on 17th March, 2009 at 5:15 pm  

      I wouldn’t mind a bit of Shariah law for Sir Fred Goodwin.

    4. Tim Worstall — on 17th March, 2009 at 5:31 pm  

      Jeebus, Buiter is making a fool of himself in that argument. Derivative markets are always larger than the underlying “true” market.

      It’s even more apparent in the CDS markets. OK, so I want to hedge a bond. I buy a CDS. Great.

      Then a few weeks later the price has moved and I want to close out my position. I DO NOT do this by selling what I have bought. What I do is sell one AT THE NEW PRICE, the current market price. I might well sell it back to the first person I bought it from. But we do not nett off CDS contracts.

      So, in closing out my position, I’ve actually just doubled the size of the market, from one contract to two.

      See how you might get to those 30 trillion figures?

      Further, you might, for example, use a CDS to hedge a convertible bond issue (this is something which could actually be sharia compliant, as long as no interest is being paid and tha value of the option in the convertibility is thought of as the possible profit). You don’t own the bonds on which the CDS is based but you do own something which will move in a similar manner. It’s just that the general bonds will be a much more liquid market than the convertibles, thus easier to use as a hedge.

      It’s worth remembering that Buiter is a “monetary economist”, not a spcialist in financial markets.

    5. Refresh — on 17th March, 2009 at 5:51 pm  

      To be honest Tim, I don’t understand the technical stuff you talk about in your post.

      I am of the old school,if you don’t understand it don’t buy it. And if you don’t own it, don’t sell it.

      There is something reassuring about not trusting ANYONE who tries to sell you a financial product. I suspect if they really want to add value to the product, they would call it an ‘instrument’, with fees to boot.

    6. Refresh — on 17th March, 2009 at 5:56 pm  

      Rumbold,

      ‘I wouldn’t mind a bit of Shariah law for Sir Fred Goodwin.’

      I like the idea of Sharia starting at the top! Beats The Common Humanist’s barbaric proposition of putting bankers heads on spikes along the Thames don’t you think?

    7. Riz — on 17th March, 2009 at 6:28 pm  

      I’ve no idea about technicalities of the CDS mkt, but the broad idea of keeping a check on the size of speculative activity versus the size of enterprise holds some appeal - it fits in with Keynes’ idea that when the ratio gets out whack something is seriously wrong with the economy.

      I’m normally extremely pro free market but Buiter’s idea about applying differently levels of enforceability depending on the nature of contract, could be a part way solution to the AIG problem. The bankrupt insurer has already paid out around £60bn of taxpayer funds to various banks who bought it’s underpriced insurance. Now, if the banks had assets that have plummeted in value and they relied on this insurance as a hedge, surely that is different to if the rocket scientists at the banks spotted dirt cheap insurance that was close to a one-way bet and piled in, knowing AIG would be brought to it’s knees. In the latter case, there is no counter asset being hedged but it’s just a massive speculative trade. It’s important to honour contracts, yes, but the contracts were never with the taxpayer and the banks who placed the bets, they were with AIG and the banks, and AIG fell down. In one (weak) sense, the profits on some of these deals are illusory because they came from an artificial mispricing, but the taxpayer is making them real. Perhaps its impossible to get true clarity on what portion was hedging vs speculative activity, but I haven’t heard anyone even trying to find this information.

    8. The Dude — on 17th March, 2009 at 6:44 pm  

      We will all have to take Tim’s word for it because quite frankly I didn’t understand a single word he said, alas neither did the professional motherfuckers who ran (and ruined) the markets in the first place. What I do know is that 15 years of rampant unregulated free market capitalism fucked up beyond all recognition of toxic debt. What I want now is for a can of Shariah law to be opened up upon the asses of Goodwin, Madoff, Stamford etc and those money grabbing asreholes at AIG.

    9. dave bones — on 17th March, 2009 at 6:57 pm  

      damn straight

    10. Refresh — on 17th March, 2009 at 7:19 pm  

      I have just come off the phone, it was a call from a dear friend.

      We are both agreed that this crash, recession or whatever its called is the best thing for at least the last 20 years. It is a corrective factor that was inevitable.

      What we hope for is that those at the top are laid so low they never get up again. And that we will finally see morality coming back into business, and into the economy. And from it will flow the morality that was been pushed aside to make way for moneymaking.

      The disgrace of it is, that the government still haven’t got the message. Its disgusting that it thinks putting bankers and ex-bankers in charge of our children’s education is the way ahead. Yes that was the proposal floated last week.

      I say we bring up our children to look down on these people, and parents should reject them for they have not demonstrated any morality worth putting on display.

      Let them all do charitable work for the next 30 years before we reconsider their standing.

      Strike that! I don’t think we want them infesting our charities either. They’d probably end up organising some ponzi scheme for the homeless.

    11. comrade — on 17th March, 2009 at 7:21 pm  
    12. Refresh — on 17th March, 2009 at 8:00 pm  

      Comrade, post #18 is not far off the mark.

    13. Don — on 17th March, 2009 at 8:38 pm  

      #10

      As a teacher I naturally got all grumpy at the idea that teaching is such a doddle that after a quick training course a sacked banker would be an asset to the job. Yeah, right. I’ll be stuck holding the bugger’s hand while he slums it until the upturn allows his mates to slip him back on to the gravy train.

      But the guys who screwed the economy don’t need a new career. We’re talking local IT and counter staff. Shed jobs rather than Golden Parachutes (although, given the laws of physics one is tempted to interpret that literally). It was a dumb, insulting idea. If they wanted to be teachers the option was open. If they didn’t and are going in as a second best option because times are hard, they’ll be eaten alive and will last two years at best.

      Stand by for compo claims for emotional distress.

    14. Refresh — on 17th March, 2009 at 9:08 pm  

      ‘Stand by for compo claims for emotional distress.’

      Don squeeze them until the pips squeek (as Denis Healey would have liked to have said). And watch us roll about on the floor laughing our heads off at their claims.

      RAOTFLMHO

      ‘I’ll be stuck holding the bugger’s hand while he slums it until the upturn allows his mates to slip him back on to the gravy train.’

      Absolutely correct there, HIS MATES!

      Its Loadsamoney exponentiated.

    15. Rumbold — on 17th March, 2009 at 9:16 pm  

      Refresh:

      My solution would be to abolish the FSA and all other regulatory bodies. Then tell the banks that if they behave like they have done, all their senior employees and non-executive directors will be lined up, and one in ten shot. With a 10% of certain death, I am sure that this will concentrate the minds. Anyone who flees the country will be tracked down and shot, and won’t be counted in the tally.

    16. comrade — on 17th March, 2009 at 9:37 pm  

      Rumfold 15

      You remind me of Comrade Stalin.

      By the way I Prefer the guillotine.

    17. persephone — on 17th March, 2009 at 9:37 pm  

      “My solution would be to abolish the FSA and all other regulatory bodies”

      We have an example of what happened to another global insurer who were self regulating (the FSA had not been created) and hit major problems similar to AIG.

      In the late 80’s, Lloyd’s of London had similar problems in that they could not cover major claims losses. In the mid 90’s the DTI ‘bailed’ them out through allowing a special corporate structure being formed to separately house the losses to avoid collapse of the trading company.

      So within a short span of time, another insurer is in the same predicament even in a more regulated market.

      I think corporates such as AIG & RBS become so large that they become ungovernable.

    18. Refresh — on 17th March, 2009 at 9:46 pm  

      Comrade,

      ‘You remind me of Comrade Stalin.’

      The difference between Stalin and Rumbold is that Rumbold would ask them to form a line, politely. Stalin being a man of action (as well as steel) wouldn’t even bother with a line. He’d probably dispense with the 10% rule too.

    19. Rumbold — on 17th March, 2009 at 9:54 pm  

      Comrade- Coming from you that is quite a compliment.

      Thank you Refresh. I always think good manners are important. And if people cannot form orderly lines, then they should be ashamed to be British.

      (For everyone else, I would just like to remind people that #15 is tongue in cheek).

    20. Refresh — on 17th March, 2009 at 10:07 pm  

      ‘(For everyone else, I would just like to remind people that #15 is tongue in cheek).’

      Stalin, sensing the opportunity, to Rumbold:

      “Come now Rumbold, your time has come. Do not deny us, your Citizens await.”

    21. comrade — on 17th March, 2009 at 10:07 pm  

      Rumfold
      (For everyone else, I would just like to remind people that #15 is tongue in cheek).

      Tring tellig that to the M15. they’re on your arse now, as far as I am concerned, they have been my friends since the Miners Strike of 84. good night

    22. Refresh — on 17th March, 2009 at 10:13 pm  

      Rumbold

      ‘And if people cannot form orderly lines, then they should be ashamed to be British.’

      That’s all those old biddies waiting for No. 43 damned then.

    23. The Dude — on 17th March, 2009 at 11:16 pm  

      Now Fred the Shred gets 3 million in cash! Chopping off his hands goes nowhere to redress the balance. He is so rich all he’d have to do is buy another one, this time bionic. I’m watching Newsnight as I type and it doesn’t make for happy viewing. Could someone, anyone please tell me why trucks and lorries are not burning in the street?

    24. Riz — on 17th March, 2009 at 11:47 pm  

      Dude, the trucks and lorries are not burning because we know we own them already.

      The cash flows from the trucks and lorries have been used to create securitised cash flow bonds and the vehicles themselves have been pledged as collateral assets supporting various structured loans which have been packaged up in to various risk buckets, then had all their credit ratings artificially improved to AAA by AIG, and then been sold on to unwitting investors. Buyers include banks, who are using your deposits for said investments, and pension funds, who are seeking higher yield in fancy new asset classes and like what is being offered. Again, your money. Folks who are unsure about how to value the cash flows from the trucks and lorries to accurately price these securities buy insurance against default, which has been sold too cheaply by AIG, and AIG will soon need your tax payer money to fulfil on their promise when you burn the trucks and lorries. For those without insurance, when the trucks and lorries burn, they will send ripples through the balance sheets of the system as assets get marked down, and your taxes will again be required to shore them up.

      So, you see, it would be like burning your car and going out the next day to buy a new one. Of course, with no income and no job, you are going to need a loan. Fortunately the government is forcing banks to lend again, so that shouldn’t be too hard. Hold on, just where the hell have we ended up?

    25. Refresh — on 18th March, 2009 at 12:03 am  

      For an extremely pro free marketeer, I do like your openness.

      Your #24 reminded me that we should be working out a strategy with regards the missing trillions.

      Dude, its not his hands, its his tangibles. Not sure bionic tangibles are available just yet.

      No seriously, we need to take everything he’s stashed away; and that of all the others. We should work with other nations and extradite all the non-doms for tax-evasion or whatever else they did for a living.

      I am going to see if I can still pick up a Class War t-shirt. I wonder who’s got the rights to the original artwork. Got to be really worth something now.

    26. fug — on 18th March, 2009 at 2:29 am  

      Removing the hands of thieves (virtually, temporarily, metaphorically..), not starving people, but rich greedy people robbing the future, the present and the past would be a proper way to address crime. Rather than applying strictness to the poor and multiply vulnerable, targeting the high of status is a good idea.

      Then again, bankers now have the status of thinktankers and media people in the symbolic field. scum of the earth.

    27. Tim Worstall — on 18th March, 2009 at 8:04 am  

      OK, perhaps I was a little complex. The guy to read on this is Felix Salmon over at portfolio.com.

      But here, in a nutshell, is what went wrong at AIG.

      Their CDS sales team screwed up, big time. They simply could not comprehend that the entire mortgage market could sink, all at the same time. Their models did not allow for a general fall in US house prices and thus a rise from historic levels of default.

      In a capitalist system the flip side of peoplemaking money when they get things right is that they lose it when they get it wrong.

      Why was AIG bailed out? Because of their counterparties, the people who had bought these CDS contracts. All financial bailouts are bailouts of counterparties. And they are done because we don’t want the entire banking system collapsing. Having a banking system that works is really rather useful.

      How AIG collapsed so quickly depends upon a technical detail. When you write a CDS contract and then the price changes then you have to post collateral. On a daily basis. Say you insure $1 million of bonds. The price falls 1%. You then have to send, the next day, $10,000 to the person who bought the CDS. If it falls 2%, then $20,000 and so on.

      This part of the market has been working just fine. In fact, the CDS market has been the only credit market that has been open and liquid throughout recent months. Because people can see their losses (and profits) on a daily basis and do something about them.

      However, if you, the CDS issuer, have an AAA credit rating, then you do not have to post collateral daily. It is just assumed that you have the resources to pay your bills.

      AIG had an AAA rating and thus was not posting collateral. Then, the ratings agencies had a look at how much AIG owed on the CDS contracts they had written. And they downgraded the AIG rating.

      Oooops! All that collateral that AIG did not have to post suddenly became due. That very day. Tens and tens of billions.

      That’s the bailout. While all this money might turn into losses, they’re not actually losses yet. They’re the collateral that has to be posted. If the bonds rise in price (as some actually have) then that collateral gets paid back to AIG (as some small amounts have been).

      AIG is, at least so far, a liquidity crisis. They needed those many billions to ship them out the door. They haven’t yet lost all that money, meaning it’s not a solvency crisis. I emphasise that it isn’t a sovency crisis yet….although it almost certainly will be, because of the original error made up top.

      It’s considered quite normal to bail out financial sector firms with liquidity problems. If those turn out to be insolvency problems then we go ahead and close down the firm. But we do it in an orderly manner, not just straight bankruptcy, because we don’t want to sink all of the counterparties….for that just spreads the liquidity crisis further.

      That help?

    28. douglas clark — on 18th March, 2009 at 9:46 am  

      Tim,

      There is something wrong in the neighbourhood, and I don’t really understand what you are saying, even in your clarification.

      Your original post suggested to me that traders were, are (?), able to gear a market on the basis of transactions that they, and they alone have control over.

      My understanding of banking is that they are allowed to lend substantially above their receipts. So, if a bank had a tenners worth of assets, they could lend say a hundred quid. But no more. In other words there is a regulatory element to the degree of gearing they are allowed. Is that correct?

      What you appear to be saying, is that traders in instruments such as CDS and derivatives are under no such control. They can ‘grow’ the market, simply by some sort of alchemical process of duplication of assets.

      Without any sort of regulation.

      Is that right?

      You could end up geared to near infinity under a system like that, I’d have thought.

      Perhaps we should all be doing it?

      Though it sounds a bit Ponzi to me, I’ll stand corrected.

      I do have difficulty with a trillion, I only ever wanted a few million.

    29. Rumbold — on 18th March, 2009 at 10:21 am  

      Heh Refresh (and, surprising, comrade).

    30. platinum786 — on 18th March, 2009 at 10:25 am  

      So are we chopping the hands of bankers of what?

      *grinds hand chopping axe*

    31. Riz — on 18th March, 2009 at 10:35 am  

      Douglas, you’ve touched on issue that is quite interesting and relates back to AIG, bringing it to the heart of the whole crisis.

      To add another point to Tim’s analysis, a major aspect of the AIG debacle is ‘regulatory arbitrage’. It is true that bank lending is constrained by regulatory capital ratios which take into account the riskiness of the assets of their balance sheet. As you say if you lend a bank a tenner of assets they have to put x% aside for regulatory purposes and can lend y. Of course, a tenner in cash on their balance sheet is different to a tenner’s worth of highly volatile junk bonds, and banks have to adjust their capital requirements to take this into account. For example, if a bank’s balance sheet is stuffed with very risky assets such as crappy mortgage debt, they have to put more aside for a rainy day.

      Now what AIG offered with its CDS products was a way to transfer it’s AAA credit rating to the products it insured. The banks quickly cottoned on to the fact that they could hold crap on their balance sheet, insure it with AIG’s CDS and turn it into gold. By gaming the system like this they could expand their balance sheets to no end, giving the illusion of safety. The European banks in particular loved this alchemy. Alas, it turned out they just had gold covered crap because AIG had mispriced its CDS (underestimated the risks) and sold super cheap insurance. To emphasise, the system was gamed. Some people knew, some didn’t.

      In addition to Felix Salmon, Google AIG and Joe Nocera. He writes for the NYT and wrote a superb article about this a few weeks ago.

      ps - the London office of AIG behind the whole CDS debacle is being investigated by the Serious Fraud Office for criminal behaviour.

    32. Rumbold — on 18th March, 2009 at 10:39 am  

      I understand now Tim. Thank you.

    33. douglas clark — on 18th March, 2009 at 11:03 am  

      Riz,

      Thanks for that.

      I’ll read up on it as you suggest.

    34. cjcjc — on 18th March, 2009 at 11:32 am  

      Of course the largest AIG counterparties are the investment banks.
      No wonder Goldman Sach’s stock has been soaring.
      Trebles all round.

    35. cjcjc — on 18th March, 2009 at 11:36 am  

      Of course the largest AIG counterparties are the investment banks - and hedge funds of course.
      No wonder Goldman Sachs stock has been soaring.
      Trebles all round.

      http://online.wsj.com/article/SB123734123180365061.html

    36. Riz — on 18th March, 2009 at 11:43 am  

      Here’s the link to the Joe Nocera piece on AIG:

      http://tinyurl.com/cjvt2t

    37. The Dude — on 18th March, 2009 at 11:53 am  

      Riz and Tim

      Thank you for both giving me an education as well as a headz up! Painting crap gold, didn’t they use to do that in the old pan handling days of the old west? That people could TODAY still get away with the same con trick just amazes me. Alas it’s us the taxpayer who has been taken for a ride. It seems that we were the original mark in the first place.

    38. Jai — on 18th March, 2009 at 12:05 pm  

      Rumbold,

      My solution would be to abolish the FSA and all other regulatory bodies. Then tell the banks that if they behave like they have done, all their senior employees and non-executive directors will be lined up, and one in ten shot. With a 10% of certain death, I am sure that this will concentrate the minds.

      Very Roman ;) I see you’ve been reading your Conn Iggulden then. Or watching a certain HBO series last year.

      ************************

      Douglas,

      What you appear to be saying, is that traders in instruments such as CDS and derivatives are under no such control. They can ‘grow’ the market, simply by some sort of alchemical process of duplication of assets……Without any sort of regulation.

      Just a quick postscript in addition to the superb posts by Tim and Riz, to answer your question above.

      There are two areas of the Derivatives market: “Exchange Traded Derivatives (ETDs)” and “Over The Counter Derivatives (OTC)”.

      The ETD market is heavily regulated and monitored.

      The OTC market, however, is obviously not, and financial instruments such as CDS fall into this group, as you now know. It’s the OTC part of the industry which has been causing so many of the problems.

      ************************

      The Dude,

      Could someone, anyone please tell me why trucks and lorries are not burning in the street?

      My dear boy, we’re far too civilised for that sort of nonsense, don’t you know. We just have a cup of tea instead.

      Okay, jokes aside, the answer may partially be due to something I read a couple of days ago on another comment board (may have been The Times or The Independent, I can’t remember); it was about the recent Al-Muhajiroun protest in Luton, something to do with why the British public has generally been relatively restrained when it comes to the lack of a large-scale inflammatory counter-response when faced with that kind of aggressive provocation by wannabe jihadis during the past few years — the remark was basically along the lines of “One of British society’s greatest cultural strengths essentially seems to be apathy”.

      *************************

      Refresh,

      Dude, its not his hands, its his tangibles. Not sure bionic tangibles are available just yet.

      I believe the word you’re looking for is ‘giblets’.

    39. Tim Worstall — on 18th March, 2009 at 1:34 pm  

      Re Goldmans and counterparties.

      http://economicsofcontempt.blogspot.com/2009/03/goldman-vs-nyt.html

      It’s a great deal more subtle than many, even hte New York Times, think. Read that link.

    40. Rumbold — on 18th March, 2009 at 2:51 pm  

      Heh Jai. ‘Rome’ wasn’t as bad as I would have thought. Not wonderfully historically accurate, but then I don’t think it claimed to be.

    41. Jai — on 18th March, 2009 at 6:10 pm  

      Could someone, anyone please tell me why trucks and lorries are not burning in the street?

      …..the remark was basically along the lines of “One of British society’s greatest cultural strengths essentially seems to be apathy”.

      Having said that, over in the US it appears that senior execs at AIG have been receiving death threats from members of the public due to their role in the current debacle.



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