What Are Derivatives and Why Is Wall Street Rolling the Dice Again?

Wall Street seems to be tossing around the word, “derivative” a lot lately. What are derivatives and why is Wall Street so obsessed with them?
What is a Derivative?

A derivative is a financial investment that receives its value based on some event occurring. A good comparison is a sport’s gambling bet paying you if your team scores the first touchdown. Futures, forwards and swaps are all examples of financial derivatives.
Why Does Wall Street Use Derivatives?

Why do you purchase insurance or wear a seat belt? You take actions to hedge against a potential danger that may or may not occur. Actuaries can estimate the chances of an event occurring based on historical data. Derivatives are risk management.
Concrete Derivatives Example

While many homeowners might consider an adjustable rate mortgage (ARM) because it is more affordable, they also might want to hedge their bet. If interest rates increase dramatically, then their monthly payment will also.

Investors purchase Interest-Rate Swaps (IRS), which will pay them if interest rates reach a certain level. For example, if your ARM is 4% today, then you might be forced to pay $900 more each month if the rate increases to 5%. By purchasing an IRS derivative contract that pays you $1,000 if your ARM increases to 5%, you can offset the increase in your monthly mortgage payment with the money paid by the IRS contract.
Nothing was Fixed in 2008 Bailouts

The banking system has many secrets, one of which is that the 2008 bailouts did not fix any of the underlying problems with the Wall Street system. A few of the rotten apples were not removed from the barrel as one would expect, but instead merged with other barrels of apples. This has lead to healthy banks being weighed down by the same toxic derivatives that destroyed Lehman, Bear Stearns and AIG.

One bad apple spoils the bunch.

The truth is that the modern-day Wall Street bankers are not following the conservative rules of banking. When a bad bank goes under, the toxic assets should be written-off. The problem is that many of these banks hold the same toxic assets. The entire banking system is in jeopardy. They have created a house of cards built upon derivatives.
Pyramid of Derivatives

Here is an analogy to help you understand why Wall Street is rolling the dice again after the collapse in 2008. Let us say that your workplace has a refrigerator where everyone keeps their lunch. Well, one of the employees, we will call him Morgan is really lazy. Instead of buying his own lunch, he steals one of the lunches in the refrigerator and puts a paper IOU in place of it.

That is basically what the banking system did in 2008. It knew that the assets of Lehman, Bear and AIG were worthless (they used the term “toxic”); but instead of replacing those toxic assets with valuable assets, they simply wrote an IOU on the government balance sheet. Now, instead of valuable assets, the banking system is full of IOUs. So while some might wonder why Wall Street is rolling the dice again with toxic derivatives; perhaps, these IOUs are all that is left in the system.