The numbers that are thrown around are so mind-boggling that they are mind-numbing. The total amount of Credit Default Swap (CDS) obligations outstanding, according to the Bank of International Settlement, was 57 trillion US$ in December 2007 (pdf).
That is roughly Four Times the size of the US GDP.
These are the things that Warren Buffet called a “time bomb”.
What are they? Well, suppose that we are watching a little old lady crossing a street, and want to take out a life insurance policy that pays if she gets clobbered by traffic. Unless she is close family, or she is a business partner, we can’t do that … we have no insurable interest.
But if we were watching a company, and wanted to buy a contract that pays off if the company can’t pay on its bonds, we could. We’d buy a CDS.