A Reuters story suggests that German government officials are taking steps to “identify speculators in Greek debt to try to prevent them from profiting unduly from any bailout.” The measures that could be taken to prevent such profits are unclear, and the article somewhat conflates investors in sovereign debt with those who invest in credit default swaps linked to sovereign debt.

If the purported goal of the investigation is to crack down on CDS speculators, new data from the Bank for International Settlements should give officials pause. In its latest quarterly banking review, published today, the organisation notes that the net exposure of investors to the sovereign CDS of beleaguered euro area economies is a tiny fraction of the actual sovereign debt of those countries. Thus, assuming CDS traders are largely to blame for pushing up the cost of countries’ refinancing is a rather heroic assumption.

Concerns about derivatives markets’ growing influence over the underlying securities upon which they are based have been around for a while. In the context of CDS, these concerns generally surface when a scarcity of corporate debt threatens the settlement of linked derivatives during credit events (defaults, restructurings and the like). But the notional amount of CDS written on sovereign issues pales in comparison to the value of the underlying debt, so attacking derivatives “speculators” on this front seems misguided.

What’s more, a recent Moody’s report suggests that banks may be buying more protection against sovereign default by Greece, Portugal and other teetering economies for reasons not directly related to growing worries about sovereign default. Derivatives linked to some corporate and sub-sovereign borrowers may not exist, so lenders choose instead to buy “protection on the sovereign on the assumption (hope?) of strong correlation between it and the entity to which they have the long credit exposure,” Moody’s writes. Of course, such correlation could be spurious, leaving banks with imperfect hedges and government officials with misguided conspiracy theories.

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