The world knows BP is a disaster, a monster of a disaster. BP's disaster makes Hurricane Katrina look like a rain shower.
Every time a TV news station shows oil gushing from a broken pipe - one mile below the ocean's surface - the world gets sick. Scenes of oil-soaked pelicans struggling for life both angers and saddens us. The financial losses endured by small businesses and fishermen cannot be imagined, let alone conveyed by the media interviews. BP is a disaster with a scope beyond comprehension.
I was in England when President Barack Obama blamed and criticized BP for this tragedy. His criticism sparked the anger of the British. Politicians wanted him to tone it down, to be more careful in his choice of words. British Prime Minister David Cameron told Obama not to "go after BP for the sake of it." Virgin's Richard Branson said he was "kicking a company while it was on its knees." Their concern was not for the environment or those suffering the ravages of this disaster. Their concern was for the pensioners who are counting on BP for a secure retirement.
On June 17, London's Daily Mail ran a headline screaming, "Obama Bullies BP into £13.5bn Fund for Oil Spill Victims... but British Pensioners will Pick Up the Bill." The British are angry with Obama for pressuring BP to suspend dividend payments and set aside $20 billion for the cleanup. Obama's strong-arm position has not only affected British pensioners, who own 40% of BP, but American pension funds, who own 39%, as well. In other words, the economic damage of the BP disaster goes far beyond the Gulf. The damage is spreading to pensions, pensioners, and portfolios all around the world.
An Atmosphere Changed
While in London, I decided to go to dinner at Canary Wharf, ground zero for the next BP. Only a few years ago, Canary Wharf was one of the centers of the financial universe. Condo prices were sky high, offices were packed, and high-paid bankers filled Canary Wharf with wealth and excitement. Today, Canary Wharf seems to be dying. It has lost its vibrancy. Many restaurants and offices were nearly empty and there were few lights to be seen in those once-high-priced condos.
And Canary Wharf's 'BP' stands for Bomb Production. Canary Wharf is much like AIG, a factory for exotic financial products known as derivatives. The problem is that most people do not know what these murky and mysterious products are - and that includes the people who make them or buy them. It's why Warren Buffett has called derivatives "financial weapons of mass destruction." That is how powerful they are. During World War II, a ship exploded while loading bombs for transport at Port Chicago, California. The explosion flattened everything for miles. It is said that the ship's anchor, which weighed tons, was found more than six miles away. Derivatives - financial bombs - have the same power if they accidently detonate inside a bank's balance sheet.
The subprime disaster was a result of financial bombs - derivatives - exploding in financial institutions such as AIG and Lehman Brothers, as well as banks and financial institutions throughout the world. After the bombs AIG manufactured exploded, AIG received $181 billion in taxpayer funding and immediately sent $11.9 billion to France's Société Générale, $11.8 billion to Deutsche Bank, and $8.5 billion to Barclays Bank of Britain. U.S. taxpayer money was going to bailout banks around the world. During the last three months of 2008, AIG was losing more than $27 million an hour. That is how powerful these derivatives can be. The problem I see is this: There are many more such bombs still sitting in balance sheets all over the world.
Financial Bombs All Over the World
Military bombs are classified by weight: 500-, 750-, and 1,000-pound bombs. Financial bombs have interesting labels such as CDO (collateralized debt obligations), ABS (asset backed securities), and CDS (credit default swaps). While they sound exotic and sophisticated, when put in everyday language, a CDO is simply debt sold as an asset. And CDS, or swaps, are simply a form of insurance.
Since the insurance industry is strictly regulated, and the bomb factories producing CDS did not want to comply with insurance industry regulations, they simply called them 'swaps,' rather than insurance.
To make matters worse, rating agencies such as Moody's and S&P (and even Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan) blessed these financial bombs as safe, sound, and good for you. It was almost as good as the pope blessing these products. In 2007, the subprime boom busted, and we know what happened from there.
The problem is that approximately $700 trillion of these financial time bombs are still in the system. While people watch the BP disaster in the Gulf, few people are aware of the other BP, the financial bomb production that is still going on. If this derivative market begins to collapse, we will see another BP disaster.
Can't Clean Up the Next Disaster
Most of us know there is not enough money in the world to clean up the Gulf. The same is true with the $700 trillion derivatives market. If just 1% of the $700 trillion derivatives market goes bust, that is a $7 trillion disaster. The entire U.S. economy is only $14 trillion annually. A 10% failure, equating to $70 trillion, would probably bring down the world economy. As with the BP Gulf disaster, there is not enough money in the world to clean up the next BP disaster.
Could such a financial disaster happen? The answer is "Yes." In fact, just as President Obama pressured BP into doing the "right thing," he is also pressuring the financial markets to do the right thing. The president and our congressional leaders are pushing through financial reform legislation. My concern is that, if not handled delicately, it is this financial reform that will set off the derivative time bomb... the next BP.
Currently, derivatives are traded over-the-counter, also known as off-exchange trading. This means derivatives are uncontrolled, unregulated, and unsupervised. The proposed financial reform legislation is pushing to have derivatives traded through an exchange. This will bring greater transparency and control. My concern is, when this happens, the reform will reveal fraud and failures we do not yet know about today. It will be like turning on the light and watching the cockroaches (bankers) run for cover.
While it is commendable that President Obama holds the rich and powerful accountable, I wonder what the price will be.
How many BPs can we afford?